Am I alive?
Do I dream?
Or, is this the nightmare of death?
If, as it seems, that I am indeed dead, then was no pain, no feeling of transition. The one moment, I was awake, sentient.
The next, I was here.
Wherever here is. A void; formless and without color. A limbo, if such a thing could be. I have no form, no body to feel, no eyes to see. I can think, and feel emotion, but that is the extent of my existence.
Then; a memory begins to intrude. A man; huge of both mass and muscle. The image is terrifying.
Piling rapidly upon that first image, as if the figure of the man were at the forefront of my recall, other images, sounds, sensations begin to slam into me with the power of a psychic sledgehammer, and I remember.
He had waited quietly in the early evening shadows. Waited until I had locked the shop door, and turned towards the street. I never heard his approach; the first thing I knew of his presence had been his hand, as it clamped heavily over my mouth. I had been lifted, with seemingly little more effort than I would have lifted a pile of books, and bundled into the boot space of a largish car.
Terrified beyond any sort of rational thought, I had kicked and banged with my fists upon whatever surface I was able to reach. Nobody had answered me, of course, and then the sound of the car's engine firing up had reached my ears, and I was suddenly tossed around in my tiny prison cell, as the car accelerated away from Rare Encounters.
I think we traveled for a long time. I don't know how far we went, but it seemed that I was trapped in that cold, claustrophobic place for untold hours All I can recall is the dank smell of old rags and petrol, that made me gag and choke in the darkness.
I can recall the fatigue. I might have slept; it's impossible to know for sure.
Time lost all meaning in that confining space. Eventually, the sounds from outside changed subtly; I had the sense that the car was moving over a gravelled surface and that the journey might be nearing its end at last. My trepidation rose, and it was with a fresh onset of fear that I heard the engine rev slightly, before dying away. We had stopped.., where?
I tensed, cramped muscles quivering, ready to fight for my life. But nothing happened; nobody opened the car boot.
For the longest time, there was silence, broken only by an occasional sigh of wind, rustling the leaves of a bush nearby. With no warmth from the engine, the space I was trapped in began to grow colder. I had no coat with me, only a thin blouse and pants, and my flesh goose-pimpled. I shivered, and wondered irrationally whether I had been left alone to die. I felt a tear; the first since my abduction. It left a chilly trail upon my flesh, as it rolled across my cheek towards my ear. I began to whisper a single word to myself, a mantra to ward against the panic and fear.
Again and again I whispered his name into the darkness and the void, as if by the utterance of his name, Alistair himself would hear me somehow, and know where I was, and know that I needed him so much right now. But there was no rescue. Not from Alistair, or anybody. My misery, already at an all-time low, hit rock bottom.
The shivering became a constant; a way of life. I gave up whispering Alistair's name when my lips grew dry, and my throat began to constrict, blocking the egress of my voice.
I realized that I needed the toilet. My bladder was a quickly escalating discomfort that refused to be ignored or banished. For a while, I tried to think of other things to take my mind of the discomfort, but always, my thoughts turned back to my predicament, and my bladder. Misery became self-pity, and I wondered how much longer I could hold on.
The sudden upswing of the boot lid was as sudden as it was abrupt. I had heard nobody approach; I had more than half resigned myself to being in the darkness until I died. I didn't have the energy or resources to struggle, as those massive hands reached for me. I couldn't even fight back as I was hoisted across the man's broad shoulders.
It was fully dark outside the confines of the car, and I had no idea of where I might be. Any prominent landmarks or clues to my location were obscured by night. All that was within my field of view was the downward sweep of my abductor's back, and, below that, the rear of his thick legs, each alternately moving into view, before being replaced by the other.
I tried to talk to my captor; ask why he was doing this, and where he was taking me, but the man might have been a deaf mute, for all the response I received. Then the darkness grew suddenly deeper still, and I sensed that we were descending into what might be a basement area. My abductor appeared not to require light to see by; he moved at the same constant pace, as if sure of his surroundings.
A cellar; that was my first impression. But no. This place, wherever we were, was much bigger than any cellar I had ever been in. I sensed walls to either side, a narrow corridor that led to some unknown destination. A while later, but all to soon for me, I heard a door open. I sensed a sudden shift in my captors attitude, then I was falling backwards towards the floor.
A moment later, I was lying on my back upon something soft, the breath forced out of my lungs by the force of impact. A door closed, and I heard a key scraping across the tumblers of a lock. Footsteps faded into the darkness, and I was once more alone. But not quite in darkness. I realized that I was able to see, if only a little.
The source of the illumination was a small hole, barely the size of a single brick. It was set high, close to the ceiling, into the wall adjacent to the door. Soft light oozed through, from some unknown source beyond the wall. It was too high for me to see what lay beyond, but allowed in enough light to allow me to judge that my cell was a box about two meters square, by maybe three high. Bare brick made up the walls, broken only by the stout wooden door inset into the brick. The floor was packed earth, and my furnishings, such as they were, apart from the mattress, comprised of a metal jug, a glass, and a chamber pot.
The sight of the chamber pot was the trigger; a signal for my bladder to reassert itself. As it clamored for attention, I wondered briefly at the possibility of a hidden camera. Nothing was obvious in the dim reaches of the walls and ceiling however, and my need was urgent.
"To hell with modesty,' I thought; if there was somebody watching, then they could enjoy the show and get their cheap thrill.
I relieved myself, and moved the full pot into the corner furthest from the mattress. Then I crossed to the door. Slamming the flat of my hand against the wooden surface, I yelled at the unyielding door.
'Hey!' My voice sounded hoarse; deadened by the acoustics of the surrounding brickwork. 'Hey! Can anybody hear me? Is anybody out there?'
The answering silence only served to make me feel isolated and alone. After a few minutes of dispirited banging and calling, I gave up the task, and returned to the mattress.
The jug contained water, and I drank gratefully. It had the effect of raising my spirits, if only a little, and I spent some time examining the door and walls of my prison, checking fruitlessly for possible weaknesses.
Time passed. The passing minutes morphed into hours, and gave no clue to the speed of their passage.
I sought refuge in unconsciousness; it was a way to escape the terror of my situation. And, while I slept, neither time nor increasing hunger could lay claim upon me.
I lost count of the periods of sleep that passed, but I was awoken from a nap by the sudden clicking of shoe against stone. The harsh metallic sound came as something of a shock, after the utter silence of my cell. For a second, I wondered if it was an hallucination, brought on by lack of food, then scrambled to my feet as they sound grew in volume, before stopping suddenly outside the door. A key scraped, and the door swung open. Light flooded into my cell, and my eyes, for so long used to muted illumination, began to water, and close involuntarily. Through wavering vision, I could make out a huge silhouette framed in the opening.
'Out.' The single word was uttered in a bass monotone.
It was the first time I had heard him speak, and the first human voice I had heard since the afternoon of my abduction.
I moved to comply. My leg muscles however, were unused to movement, and I was slow; too slow for my abductor. I felt a meaty hand entwined in my hair, and I was dragged forcibly from the cell.
My mouth and throat were too dry and sore to make much more than a pitiful muling sound, as I was half walked, half dragged along the narrow corridor. Tears sprang unbidden from my eyes; the pain was excruciating.
The fear inside me faded, displaced by pain-driven anger, kindling a small measure of defiance I didn't know I possessed. I lashed out, kicking backwards; the heel of my shoe connecting solidly with skin and bone.
If he felt anything, my captor chose to ignore it. All that happened was that my arms were forced higher up behind me, increasing the pain still further and eliciting a shrill squeal from me. I was propelled roughly onwards, along the corridor.
Another door, identical to the one to my cell, barred the end of the corridor. I was jerked to a stop, and spun around, as my captor moved around me. I heard the door open and an instant later, I was thrown inside. I landed heavily upon the stone floor with enough force to knock the remaining wind from my lungs. My already damaged left shoulder took the brunt of the impact; it immediately went numb.
As I lay on my left side, gasping for breath and unable to make little more than an injured panting noise, I was vaguely aware of somebody behind me, moving around. A rich aroma assailed my nostrils, and it was a moment or so before I identified the delicious smell of coffee brewing. The footfalls came closer, and a pair of highly polished leather shoes appeared in front of me. I twisted, my eyes following the line of the sharply pressed trouser crease upwards.
'Miss Stevens.' The tone was cultured; urbane, the voice instantly recognizable. 'Good evening. May I say that I am genuinely sorry that circumstances have conspired to force us to meet this way. It is, however, unavoidable.'
The shock of recognition passed, fueling a sudden anger that flared, bright and hot.
'Sir Myles,' I struggled to keep my voice even, mild. 'What is all this? Why have I been kidnapped and treated so badly?' A sudden thought struck me. 'Where's Alistair? Has something happened?' I felt sick with dread.
'My word,' Emerson smiled gently down at me. 'even now, under such adverse conditions, your first thoughts are for Alistair. Your compassion, Miss Stephens, does you great credit. But, I would have expected no less, from you.' He stooped, and reached for me, gripping me under the arms.
'At this juncture however,' Emerson grunted. 'I would advise you to be far more concerned about your own circumstances.'
With a strength that belied his age and bulk, he half lifted me, and dragged me across to a leather armchair. Then, turning, he lifted the decanter, and poured himself a healthy dose of what I assumed was whiskey.
For the first time, I was able to see a little of my surroundings.
We appeared to be in a richly appointed study. The room was gloomy, but warmly lit by two small lamps, supplemented by a blazing fire in the hearth. The walls were wood paneled, between floor to ceiling shelves lined with books. Rugs were scattered randomly around the stone floor; an exceptionally thick specimen close to the fireplace, where the two leather chairs reposed next to small tables. Both tables held small reading lamps, currently turned off. The table next to the other chair also held, apart from the lamp, a crystal decanter and glass, and a flat wooden box, about thirty or forty centimeters long, and highly polished.
'Alistair, however, is perfectly fine.'Emerson's voice dragged my attention away from my surroundings. He had seated himself opposite me, and was watching me over the rim of his glass. And, going back to your first question. Yes, something has indeed happened.' Emerson replied. He placed the glass on the side table, next to the box, and raised one exquisitely tailored arm. Pulling back his sleeve, he consulted a large gold wristwatch. A small smile played around his lips.
'But, not in the way you think.' He picked up his glass and sipped at the contents. 'Actually, my dear, Alistair is on his way here as we speak. Whether or not he arrives safely however is.., well, we shall see. In the meantime, you shall be my guest, as well as insurance, should he decide to act rashly.'
'But,' I was unable to mask my surprise. 'Alistair is coming here? But he's in Glastonbury. I spoke to him this morning. Why would Alistair be coming here? And where is here?.
'My my, so many questions, Miss Stevens. And so few answers. And, unfortunately, that is how it must remain. At least for the moment.'
'Am I at least allowed to know why I was abducted and mistreated?' I asked archly.
'Why?' The small small never left his lips, but there was nothing approaching humor in his eyes. 'Because I may have some small use for you. That is why.'
I opened my mouth to ask what he meant by that, but he held up a hand to forestall the inevitable questions, and I sank back into my seat. Even though I now knew that my distrust of Emerson was valid, I still found it hard to accept that he had had me kidnapped and brought here; not to mention the way I had been isolated for however long it had been. In spite of my initial dislike of the man, I was still surprised by the radical change on his persona. The difference between the competent, self assured industrialist who had first walked through the doors of Rare Encounters, to the cool, sinister person who now sat before me was as inexplicable to me as it was frighteningly subtle.
Emerson studied me through piercingly gray eyes, as if listening in on my thoughts as I sat there. I felt naked, both physically and psychologically, beneath that raptor gaze. I might as well have been a specimen on a dissecting table, my inner being laid bare for him to inspect.
'So,' I asked, more to break the unnerving silence, than for any real desire to speak to Emerson. 'What now?' Emerson put down his glass, and lifted the flat wooden box.
'Firstly,' He placed the box in his lap, and tenderly stroked the polished surface. 'While I have you here, I wish to take the opportunity to conduct a small test.' He lifted the lid, and reached inside.
What he drew out of the box was a knife. A dagger.
It was old, burnished with the patina of extreme age. Atop the worn bone handle was set a large gemstone. It was the color of dead leaves; a jaded, somehow sickly, green. It appeared.., dead, as if whatever crystalline spark that gave most gemstones their luster was somehow absent. The knife as a whole gave off a somewhat maleficent aura, a malignity that permeated the atmosphere around it. Despite the heat from the fire, I shivered, and switched my gaze to Emerson.
He appeared to be enraptured by the weapon. He held it lovingly, studying the dull blade with an intensity that bordered on obsession. His fingers ran lovingly along the dulled metal of the blade and up the worn bone. They stopped short however, of touching the stone. After a few minutes, his piercing gaze rose to meet mine.
"This is Masucth.' Emerson said softly. "The sacrificial blade of Vermis. Actually, Masucth, is the name of the stone but, as the blade has no name then, well, the name will suffice.'
At the name of the ancient God of Albion, I froze. "V-Vermis isn't real.' I actually stuttered; I was so scared. It was an unthinking statement; a knee-jerk reaction to what was clearly a figment of Emerson's fevered imagination. His only reaction however, was a slight shrug.
"Think what you will Miss Stevens,' he told me. "I am neither concerned, nor care, what your opinion might be. What I do care about however, is that Masucth has finally come into my possession at a time when it is most needed.' He returned his attention to the ancient weapon.
"Events are beginning to gather pace, Miss Stevens.' His voice was low; he might have been talking to himself.
"Thanks to Alistair Denning, the time is coming when my master shall rise once more, and rule over all things.' His small smile was no longer friendly, but suddenly that of a fanatic; his planning coming to fruition.
What has Alistair to do with all this? I wondered. What has he found?
"We are living in momentous times, Miss Stevens.' Emerson continued, his words cutting across my thoughts. "The world is corrupt and flawed. Soon however, a new order will arise. Vermis will rule again, and restore the land of Albion. Together, we will make this land greater than it ever was.' Emerson's voice rose slightly, and I could, for the first time, hear the fervor and the insanity in his tone, as he warmed to his subject. "All other religions will be swept away, and all other gods will fade into history. Soon, they will be little more than curious references, in history books. All too soon, the world will be one, united under the one true god of all men.'
I shook my head. This was madness. Insanity. This man, a man I thought I knew, if only slightly, was spewing forth the most vile, evil words I had ever heard. This was the madness of Rasputin, Attila, of Hitler himself. And, it was obvious to me that Emerson believed in what he was saying. The fervor was plain to see; both in his eyes, and in the tone of his voice. In his hand, the ancient knife trembled slightly.
"The feast of Beltane is little more than a week away,' Emerson was saying. His voice had regained its customary calm tone. "and there is much do before then; many preparations must be made.'
He stood suddenly, and I shrank back, afraid for a moment, that he was going to attack me.
"Coffee?' He asked. After a moment's hesitation, I nodded. The heat of the room had made me thirsty, and it had been ages since my last small sip of water. Emerson moved away towards his desk, and returned a moment or so later with a steaming mug. I took the coffee and sipped at the hot strong brew, not caring that there was neither milk nor sugar in the coffee.
Emerson watched me silently from his own chair on the other side of the fireplace. When I finally put down the almost empty mug with a small sigh that I was unable to repress, he smiled thinly.
"Excellent.' What he meant by that, I had no idea, and he didn't elaborate. "Well, to business.' He lifted the knife. "As I have already mentioned, Miss Stevens, preparations are already underway for the imminent return of my master. Some of those preparations require certain, shall we say ceremonies to be performed. One of these ceremonies is a blood rite.' Emerson's lips twitched upwards briefly, as the sudden look of comprehension that must have dawned upon my face.
"Indeed, yes.' He continued. "Sacrifice. Please don't be alarmed. You are not to be the victim, Miss Stevens.' He raised one eyebrow. "I have something far, far better in mind for you.'
There was something in that statement, and the way he said it, that sent an involuntary shiver up and down my spine. If he saw my reaction, Emerson chose to ignore it. He sipped at his whiskey, the knife moving idly in his other hand.
"No my dear,' He said. "you are perfectly safe. If nothing else, the implied threat to you will ensure that Alistair will do exactly what I wish of him.'
"What I do require however, is some of your blood. Not too much,' he added, as I began to protest. "I would not wish to incapacitate you. I wish merely a half cupful, at the most. Now,' He rose from his seat, and approached. I shrank back, trying to vanish into the upholstery of my chair.
"We can, as they say, do this the easy way, or the hard way. I, for one, would prefer this to be as painless as possible. That is why the coffee contained a rather strong sedative.' I noticed suddenly, that his grip on the knife had changed; the relic was now clasped in a firm hand, ready to slice.
"Please, Miss Stevens, if you might be so kind as to extend your arm.'
"No. No way.' My speech was slurred, the words seeming to come from somewhere other than my lips. It felt suddenly warm in the room, uncomfortably hot, and I sensed, more than felt, sweat beading upon my brow. I stared at Emerson through suddenly blurred vision; it was a herculean task to raise a defensive arm.
Emerson moved rapidly, the knife blade a blur. I felf a hot stinging sensation, and I hissed through clenched teeth, choking back a scream as blood began to flow freely from a four inch gash that ran from the crook of my elbow towards the wrist. Emerson rasied and held the wounded arm steady, palm upwards in his free hand, easily resisting my weak attempts to pull free. Blood was flowing freely, running hotly along the length on my arm, towards the elbow.
Emerson had relinquished the knife, swapping it for a small metal bowl he had produced from somewhere. Still grasping my arm firmly with the one hand, he held the bowl beneath my elbow, capturing the blood that flowed and dripped from the wound. When the bowl was about half full, he released my arm and produced a cloth. Placing the bowl on the side table, he quickly and efficiently bound the cut.
"Can't have you bleeding all over the carpet now, can we?' He remarked, smiling as he worked.
I would have hit him, if I had the strength, but the sedative was now working its inexorable way through my body, and it was all I could manage to remain sitting upright. He finished his rudimentary first aid, and tied off the cloth with a small flourish.
"Much better.' He admired his handiwork for a second or so, then turned his attention to the bowl. He pulled an eyedropper from a pocket, and drew a small amount of blood into it. Then, carefully, he picked up the knife, holding it by the blade. Grasping the knife so that he blade pointed down, he raised the eyedropper above the gemstone, and gently squeezed the bulb.
The moment the first drop of blood splashed across the wan surface of the stone, the lights in the room flickered and died momentarily. At the same time, a blood-red flame ignited inside the gemstone. As the lighting in the room returned to normal, the sickly green color of the stone faded, metamorphosing as red fire bloomed within its crystal lattice. For several minutes, it seemed that the gemstone was going to change color fully, but, slowly, the burgundy faded to purple, then a pale lilac, before the stone resumed its normal unhealthy green pallor.
Emerson appeared to be as surprised by what had just happened as I was. He rose abruptly and still clasping the knife, he retreated across the room to his desk. Placing the knife down, he turned, and ran a finger across the serried rows of books behind the desk. Finding the one he wanted, he hauled it away from its fellows, and opened it, rapidy turnig pages and scanning the contents. He stopped suddenly, and he became still, his eyes fixed upon the contents of the page he had come to.
After several minutes of study, he looked across at me. By this time, my vision had cleared enough to be able to see the amazement in his features. For once, I was the first to break the silence of the room.
"I take it, that wasn't supposed to happen.' I croaked. I reached for my mug to moisten my parched mouth, but remember in time that the coffee was drugged. "Any chance I might have some water?' I asked, as politely as I could manage. "After all, you got what you wanted.'
"Indeed you may my dear.' Emerson replied. He seemed to have regained his composure. He filled a glass from a tap near the coffee pot, and crossed to me. "And yes, indeed I did. And much, much more.' He finished, as handed me the glass.
I drank thirstily, savoring the bliss as the cool liquid soothed my tongue and throat. "What do you mean?' I asked finally.
Emerson didn't reply. He took the empty glass from my hand, and returned to his own side of the fireplace. For a few moments, he gazed speculatively into the flames, his steepled fingers against his lips. I was about to ask him again what he meant, when his gazed switched abruptly to me.
"You really have no idea how special you are, do you my dear?' The question was obviously a rhetorical one, because he didn't wait for me to answer. "I'm sure that Alistair considers you to be a very special person, but I seriously doubt that even he was any inking as to just how rare a being you really are. This does change things rather.'
"So you're going to let me go?' I asked. I realized how stupid that must have sounded, even as the words left my lips.
"Good heavens, no.' Emerson laughed. "It does mean however, that I need to find somebody else for the summoning rite. You are far too valuable to waste.'
"Waste?' My anger began to rise again, and I managed to forget that I was a prisoner of this man. "waste? What the hell do you think I am? Some commodity to be used, then disposed of?'
"You, my dear, are exactly that.' Emerson told me soberly. His easy smile had gone, and his features took on a hard aspect. One hand disappeared over the side of the chair and, far away, I heard a tinny sound, like a small bell being struck. "You are an asset, to be utilized as I see fit. By the time I am finished with you, my master will have risen, and will be once more ascendant over this land. And his pleasure towards me will be all the greater, when he sees what a tasty morsel I have for him. I doubt that even Vermis has tasted a Pureblood before.'
"What? What's a-,' That was as far as I got, before I felt a sharp pain in my neck. I twisted round, to see my huge jailer. He towered above me, and I hadn't even heard him enter the room. In one massive fist, he held a hyperdermic syringe, that looked tiny in his grasp.
My head began to swell; at least, that's what it felt like, as I turned lethargically back to face Emerson. Sweat erupted, hot droplets peppering my skin as a sudden coldness blossomed within me. I saw Emerson lips moving, and realized he was talking.
"-my dear.' He was saying. The words seemed to come from the other side of the world. "I will see you once more, when my master rises, and calls me to him.' He glanced behind me, and nodded once. Hands gripped me, and I was hoisted into the air, as consciousness faded.