Specks of dust floated lazily through shafts of sunlight as Mark picked at the old lock. This was his favourite part of the antiques business. The thrill of being on the verge of finding something special – a treasure long forgotten waiting years for his loving touch.
The rusty mechanism clicked, and his tool turned. He lifted the hasp and, using the tips of his roughened fingers, he eased up the dusty leather lid. Inside was lined with voluminous satin, once a deep indigo; each item neatly cosseted in its own indentation, protected by the folds and plumped by what Mark assumed to be down or hair from long deceased animals. An ethereal gloom hung over the contents; he blinked hard and looked out of the window – the air shimmered in the midday glare. Perhaps it was his imagination; a trick of the light while his eyes adjusted to the shadows. He blew out long and slow through his lips; holding his breath at special moments was an old habit.
Mark lifted his dark eyebrows as he peered in; his timeworn pessimism expecting an unremarkable assortment of artefacts, randomly thrown in over time by one or many owners. Even so, sifting through finds like this still gave him butterflies and he could not resist reading the old newspaper wrappings – these snapshots of forgotten times fascinated, and sometimes appalled, him. Usually less than half the contents could be placed on the shelves in his little showroom, perhaps one item would be valuable enough to win a place in a locked glass cabinet. But this case was in a different league. A quiver of excitement passed through him as he opened a drawer in the desk and took out a neatly folded pair of white cotton gloves; smiling as he put them on – genuine reasons to do so were rare. Sometimes he would wear them hoping to force value into an object, only to find it was a reproduction, or worse damaged – a capital crime in Mark’s estimations – how could people be so careless?
The first thing he examined was a yellowed wad of parchments, tied in a brown ribbon that was attached to the back by a wax seal. The calligraphy on the front was beautifully executed but the script was unfamiliar. He had a reasonable grasp of Latin plus a smattering of ancient Greek and others, but he would need to speak to his friend at the museum about this one. That could be dealt with later and he placed the bundle unopened on his desk. As he did so he noticed that the ink colour was burgundy – rare but not unheard of.
Next, he took out a long dagger, sheathed in an elegant leather scabbard with two pairs of straps – for tying to a leg perhaps? The grip was bound in thin hide strips, accompanied by intricately carved metalwork along the cross-guard; the blade itself appeared curiously bright and honed. Putting that next to the parchment, he picked up a vial. It contained an oily royal blue liquid; the neck sealed with blue wax. There were some other items that he carefully inspected before extracting the piece that he had been leaving until last. Straightening his back, he twiddled his fingers before extracting it.
Reflecting his face in its polished surface was a metallic cylinder, about the size of a pickle, carved in long swirling patterns interrupted by sharp angular shapes and indentations. It wasn’t a style or period that he recognised, and he cursed himself for not being better read on ancient tongues and art. Warmth permeated through the gloves; Mark imagined a faint throb emanating from it. Bringing the device closer to his brown eyes, he dismissed this as his elevated heartbeat addling his senses and reached for his eyeglass. The silver surface was unblemished; the markings had been cut precisely, forming tiny, impossibly smooth channels in the metal. The artisan who produced this must have been a renowned master; Mark had never seen such faultless work. Ever.
Towards one end was a deeper groove. Mark speculated that this might be where the artefact separated - a vessel of some kind with a lid perhaps. With much care he attempted to ease the end off. Nothing. He tried twisting. Still no movement. Turning it over in his fingers, he looked for a special button or device to release it. There was nothing, even at the bottom of the indentations.
The trill of his phone shattered his concentration. Tutting, he placed the item back in the case.
“Hello, Pete. How are you?”
“All good thanks. You?”
“Not bad.” Mark gazed at the cylinder, his right index finger making figures of eight on his desk.
“Found anything exciting lately?”
“Funny you should mention that.” Mark described the case and its contents; never quite sure whether Pete was genuinely interested or simply being a good friend.
“Hmm. That does sound interesting. I definitely would like to see that. Can you bring it in? Say tomorrow?”
“Yes, no problem.” Mark said, playing with the corner of a blank diary page. “So, how’s archaeology these days?”
“Pretty much the same as when you left it. Not that I’ll ever understand why you gave up your career to rummage around in car boot sales and old houses.”
“No need to remind me of all that-”
“Speaking of which. Want to know who’s back in the UK?” Mark’s heart was in his throat. Pete didn’t wait for an answer. “Julie. And working here at the museum!”
He was on his feet. “Oh, um, really?”
“Yep. She’s been working here for about six months now. Not sure why she came back but…”
Mark let Pete ramble on, but he wasn’t paying attention. So, Julie was back. Trying to remember how long it had been, he placed a hand on his stomach; his insides were already in a knot. The desk gave him support, as he took a deep calming gulp of air. It would be great to see her again.
The sun was just visible behind a thin veil of misty cloud, casting an eerie light over the landscape; the shadows elusive and shapeless. Mark leaned back from the train window and settled into his seat; his eyelids drooping as the carriage swayed. The images from last night’s restless dreams reformed; the unopened cylinder glinting as it floated just out of grasp; glimpses of an unknown old house; a flash of steel.
Mark woke as the driver announced their imminent arrival at his destination and he gathered his things. Waiting at the door, one hand gripping the old case, he noticed someone standing too close to him. Taking a quick peek as he shuffled to his left, he saw a bear-like man towering above him; two large hands holding the yellow stanchion above Mark’s head. Short black hair merged with his long stubble, giving the appearance of fur that disappeared under a worn leather jacket. Hollow depthless pupils, strangely glinting, were locked onto him. Mark dropped his head, the back of his neck tingling. A faint unwashed odour hung in the air. Snippets of all news reports, ones describing thieves and perverts on public transport, filled his thoughts; Mark hoped this man wasn’t one of those. As a precaution he switched hands - putting himself between the case and the man; his gaze fixed on the doors, willing them to open.
With a welcome beep they slid apart. Mark hurried out and glimpsed over his shoulder. Bear-man was standing in the train, still staring at him, with a relaxed, bemused expression. Quickening his pace, Mark scurried in front of the other passengers and aimed for the underground.
After an uneventful journey beneath the great bustling city, followed by a pleasant stroll to the museum, Mark climbed the stone steps, checked no-one was following him – chastising himself for his paranoia – and passed into the cavernous lobby; marvelling – as he did every time – at the intricate robustness of the architecture; excited by the array of artefacts on display and the promise of mystery and exploration in the halls beyond. As he passed the donation box he dropped in his usual offering – more than he could afford but he loved museums.
“Can I help you?”
Mark made one last wistful sweep of the scene. “I’m here to see Dr Pete Filkins please.”
“It’s great to see you again, Mark.”
Mark spun around. A middle-aged woman, wearing a loose blouse and jeans, strode towards him.
“Hi Julie. You…” His breath left him – he had forgotten just how lovely she was. “I mean, um…you look great.”
Julie waved away the remark and spread her arms; they hugged, pecking each other’s cheeks. Mark forced himself to relax as he held her, resisting the urge to squeeze her into his chest; his fingertips tingled where they touched her back, her flesh pressing back through the thin material. They parted and watched each other in silence. Heat surged under his clothing and up his neck, his collar becoming tight and itchy; but he kept his hands by his side. His mind raced; he wanted to blurt out something witty, romantic, clever – anything. But nothing came and he let his eyes drop; they refocused on her lanyard badge. Dr Radbourn-Allen. Mark’s heart sank; her marriage came as no surprise given how much time had passed, but the confirmation stung. Seeing the change in countenance, Julie followed his gaze.
“Yeah, I got married,” she said with a sigh, fingering the blue plastic case. “But that didn’t last long – he turned out to be a bit of a cheating bastard.” She mouthed the last word silently and then shrugged, an unconvincing smile on her lips. Mark sensed she was suppressing painful memories. “I just couldn’t decide on Miss or Ms, so I’m still double barrel.” Suppressing a laugh, he grinned back; it was a joke – she never was a ditherer. Perhaps she had too much published under that name. Or was it a reminder to never bother with men again. Shit, what if…
“Anyway, is that it in there?” She pointed at the case, her soft voice bringing Mark out of his reverie. He nodded.
“Ok. I think we’ll go straight to the lab and have a look. Pete has just popped out, but we can get started.”
Julie took the same amount of care and interest as Mark did when he opened the case, making insightful comments and asking intelligent questions as she examined each item. She spoke into a voice recorder as she worked, methodically recording notes and taking photographs. A warmth flowed through him as he watched her work; his attention drifting from the items to the delicate fingers holding them; to the silky brown hair tucked behind her ears; to the intense concentration on her slender face.
The writing on the parchment was not one she had seen before, but some symbols were familiar. Script was not her main field, so she promised to show it to a colleague at the university where she often gave lectures, once Pete had seen it. Mark described his findings regarding the metal object, enthusing over its unique and exquisite markings, and she nodded, pursing her lips as he spoke.
Her main interest was the vial of dark blue liquid. This was much more up her street and, with his enthusiastic consent, she prepared to take a sample of the contents. After donning a magnifying headset, she unwrapped a fresh scalpel and attempted to slice a tiny sample from the blue wax seal. The blade simply skipped off; the wax was as hard as diamond. Removing the headset, she straightened up, regarding the vial as her right hand fiddled with a pen. In the corner of the room was a tall cabinet full of various instruments. With a determined bounce she strode over to it and, groaning a little, she heaved a tall device out. Mark ran to help, but she dismissed him with a jerk of her head.
“All in a day’s work, Mark, just make space on that bench over there please. Thanks.”
Mark felt deflated but did as she asked.
She clamped the vial to the base plate and fitted a needle-thin drill-bit into the chuck. After she had tapped some numbers into a keypad and pressed a blue button, a vacuum pump whirred into life, the of sucking air coming from a flexible pipe that Julie adjusted towards the top of the vial. With the press of a green button a high-pitched squeal filled the room – Mark’s teeth ached from terrifying memories of his childhood dentist – and the spinning spiral of metal descended towards blue surface. When it touched the wax the drill-bit appeared to bend, creating a flickering elliptical cage that grew fatter. From somewhere came a tortured screeching sound, quickly intensifying. Julie reached for the cut-off button, but she was too late – with a juddering ping and clatter, the drill-bit broke. The machine cut off as she slammed her hand down. Silence returned – broken only by the low whirr of the ac and the hiss and ringing in their ears. The unmistakable acridity of hot electrical components tickled their nostrils.
Coughing and rubbing their noses, they peered at the vial. A broken shard of metal hung from the chuck like a tiny accusing finger. The wax remained glassy and unblemished.
Julie removed the vial and offered it to him. She looked pale, shocked, confused; he wanted to hug her, but instead held out his cupped hands.
“No wait! Gloves!” He pulled his hands back as she opened hers, the blue bottle slipping from her fingers. Diving with arms grasping for the tumbling vial, they both crashed to the floor. Mark listened for the tinkle of broken glass, but his hands had already wrapped themselves around something cold and hard.
Back at the old house, he searches in the twilight. Some worn stone steps lead downwards, and he follows them into the darkness. It’s getting colder. His breath is visible, the damp air stinging his nostrils. At the bottom is an impenetrable door. He pushes but it won’t open. Something from the darkness grabs him, someone is shouting.
“Mark. Mark!” He jerked awake and saw Julie holding his wrist. An audible sigh passed her lips. “Are you ok?”
He was lying on the floor, his head propped up by something soft and uncomfortable – a jacket perhaps.
As he sat up, he realised he was gripping something far too tightly; his hand ached as he opened it, resisting his commands as if numb. He was still holding the vial. Its frigid hardness sucked at his palm; surely his body heat should have warmed it by now?
Placing a hand on the bench for support, he got to his feet; Julie holding is right elbow. He put the vial in the case.
"I think I had better go home," he said as he closed the lid, his voice shaky.
"Are you sure?" Her hands still around his arm. "Can I accompany you to the hospital? It's not far. I really think you should be checked over. You might have a concussion."
"No, no, I'm fine… thanks. I didn’t sleep well last night so I’m probably just over-tired.” He waved an arm in the direction of the drill machine. “I'm sorry...” There was so much he wanted to say. “Well, for everything."
She looked at him, her gaze flitting from one eye to the other.
"I'm sorry too," she whispered.
The journey home was easy enough, no cancellations or weirdos staring at him. He spent most of the time thinking about recent events – the strange dreams, the vial that won’t open, the metal object that also won’t open, and Julie.
Driving back from the station he decided to take a different route. Something compelled him to go right at the roundabout, leading into the old part of town; he usually turned left. The houses here were large, detached and architecturally pleasing; brick-built with decorative features, stone lintels and sills. Expensive cars sat behind heavy wrought iron gates, and mature trees threw shade over neatly manicured lawns and shrubs, surrounded by tall hedges and ornate walls.
As he was deciding on the best route home avoiding the traffic, he noticed a building that seemed out of character. It was of similar standing and grandness to the others but appeared run down. Tiles were missing from the roof, the windows were cloudy and dull, paint peeled from the woodwork and the garden was overgrown. A jolt ran through his chest as he recognised the house from his dreams. Brakes squealing, he pulled up sharply, the tyres scratching on the road grit. He rubbed his eyes. It was uncanny, but surely it was just a dream – a coincidence? His phone gave him the location and he made a note; old dilapidated houses often contained antiques – perhaps he could find the owner and offer his services.
The streetlights flickered on as he pulled into his drive; his impromptu excursion was longer than he realised. An emptiness gnawed inside him, but he didn’t want to eat.
“There must be a way to open that thing,” he murmured.
Sitting at his office desk, a tinny buzz coming from the aged desk lamp, he opened the case. The dagger was missing; he must have left it at the museum in his haste to leave. He swore and grabbed the metal cylinder. The gloves lay forgotten in the drawer. With more force than last time, Mark pulled and twisted at the metal object, but it remained sealed.
“Come on, open!” he hissed and picked up an old scalpel. It slid into the groove, the sharp precision of the edges scraping the patina off the blade, leaving minute clumps of dirt either side. Easing the knife along the groove, applying pressure to each side rhythmically, he worked it around the circumference. The groove remained as closed as when he started. Cursing, he gripped harder, and repeated the exercise, applying more force, working faster.
Suddenly there was a ringing crack and, before he could react, the jagged end of the broken scalpel passed over his left index finger; a piece of the blade still wedged in the groove. Bright blood flowed out onto the object, oozing over the surface and into the grooves. After the initial shock, he reached for a tissue. But he didn’t use it; instead he peered closer. The blood was being pulled along the grooves, flowing up over the device as well as underneath. None was dripping onto the desk. Moments later, the surface of the object had returned to its clean and untarnished state – only the grooves and indentations contained blood. The whole thing was covered in a glistening crimson pattern like inlaid enamel. His right hand remained poised above it, still holding the tissue.
With the cylinder back on the desk, he sucked his finger; but he felt no pain when his tongue searched for the wound. Unable to find the cut, even under the lamp, he checked his other fingers – they were all fine. Twisting around in his chair, he checked the room; no one was playing a trick on him. Of course they weren’t – he was alone.
There was a click and he started, turning back to find the source. The groove in the object was now much wider. The piece of the blade now lying on the desk.
This time he donned the white gloves and carefully picked up the object. The two parts separated easily with that satisfying sensation of perfectly formed metal pieces gliding across each other. The movement felt spongy as the vacuum within resisted his pull; the tolerances would have impressed any machinist.
What he had assumed was the lid, was in fact the end of a much thinner and sharply angular length of the same material, with deep indentations along the hidden section. The remaining part of the cylinder, out of which this was drawn, was now hollow and empty – the shape of the cavity a perfect fit for the other. The cylinder appeared to be a casing to hide or protect the long thin artefact. After gazing closely at it for a while, he put it back down and pursed his lips. What on earth was it? And why was it activated by his blood? More to the point how did these seemingly inert pieces of metal do that?
Leaning back in his chair, his fingers clasped on his lap, he thought of possible mechanisms that would achieve this. Current technology would struggle to come close, let alone a few centuries ago. His eyelids felt heavy and he read the clock. It was late; perhaps this could wait until the morning. As he left the room, he glanced at the table – the gloves were still clean and white – no blood had soaked into them.
After edging down the cold dark steps, he arrives at the heavy door. It opens. But it is just fog inside, dimly lit by a chilling light. Shapes are shifting, darting, a flash of steel. In his hand is the vial; he raises it to his lips. As he drinks, he sees fire pulsing under his skin, flesh and sinew bursting with purpose.
Beings are forming in the mist, shuffling towards him, carrying weapons. Their eyes burn orange as they run towards him. The nearest raises his black sword and swings it at his head.
Mark gasped as he sat up. Beads of sweat on his forehead and upper lip reflected the red clock digits. It was 2 am.
The dream had felt so real.
Yawning as he descended the stairs, he fetched a glass of water from the kitchen before slumping into his office chair. The two pieces of the metal object lay there, the crimson patterns glinting at him in the lamp-light, fresh and glossy. Holding a tool with a fine point, he prodded at the blood; the object rocked as he did so. It was hard and unyielding. He snorted. No surprises there. After putting on the gloves, he reached for the vial.
The blue contents seemed brighter, more inviting. Saliva seeped around his tongue and he swallowed. Using the tool, he tested the wax – just as impossibly obstinate as yesterday. Rubbing his unshaven chin, he placed his elbow on the table, brushing it against the cylinder; the crimson gleamed at him, beckoning.
“I wonder,” he said and took off the left glove. With a pin he pulled from a piece of rubber stuck to a desk tidy, he pricked his little finger and squeezed a drop onto the wax. It formed a maroon disk on the blue surface, but the wax remained unchanged. Mark sighed as he rubbed his finger on a tissue. It was worth a try.
As he picked up the vial to clean it, the colour of the blood changed. It became darker and bluer. The disk began to thin and appeared to merge with the wax. Then it was gone, and the shiny surface of the wax remained. Mark put his hand over his mouth and moved his head closer. The wax started to rotate, slowly at first and then faster, becoming translucent; a spinning vortex of blue mist that spewed out, forming a pulsating cloud. Mark jumped up, knocking his chair over. The cloud expanded and thinned as it dissipated in swirls and eddies above his desk.
The vial was open. Placing his hands on the edge of the desk, he leaned over and peered in. The blue creaminess beckoned; he ran his tongue across his lips, imagining blueberries and bubble-gum. The smell was unfamiliar, but induced growling in his stomach. He held it up; the colour was sublime. Surely one sip would be ok?
The glass felt cool on his lips; the rounded opening caressing the skin as he fought the urge to drink. It could be anything: ink, poison, ointment. But something was compelling him; a safe and comforting sensation emanated from it, as though his mother had just given him a glass of warm milk and honey.
He took a sip.
Mark is swinging a magnificent sword. There is a shriek; fire-red eyes in front of him briefly widen and then extinguish; the dark form slumps down to one side. Another glowing pair takes their place and he swings again. Wave after wave of beings grasp and swipe at him but he hacks and slices.
He’s in the ancient house again. But it’s not old. The paint is new, the wallpaper fresh, with gas-lights burning brightly. There are people there, patting him on the back and raising glasses. A woman is smiling at him. He jogs down the stone steps. The way is lit and the air dry. This time he can hear his feet echoing off the walls. There is a gas-light at the bottom, next to a strong iron strapped door.
On a desk is an old book, the pages are turning, images and symbols fleet across his vision, but it is too quick to take in. The rustling ceases and the pages settle down. He can see a picture of a soldier. A proud warrior from long ago.
When Mark came to, his head was resting on the seat of the chair. He got onto his hands and knees and looked on the floor for the vial – it was still in his hand. The wax had reformed; the contents remained intact – the level had not gone down.
First the cylinder and now the vial – none of it made much sense. Mark wanted answers and deep down he knew where he had to look.
The first hints of dawn were easing into the blackness as Mark padded up to the door, the old case in one hand and a rucksack over a shoulder. The knock echoed in the stillness; Mark checked the street. It was an ungodly hour, but he had ungodly business. Stepping back, he looked up – no lights on yet. With three hard raps, he tried again, waited, and then dug out a cloth pouch. Despite the lack of light, the lock was easy to pick - one of the advantages of being a dealer in his niche – and he closed the door behind him.
His torch beam revealed an untidy room covered in cobwebs and dust. Objects and decor in varying stages of neglect and decay surrounded him. Another time this would have been a joy to behold, but he was on a quest. Moving from room to room, he searched the downstairs, opening every door until he found the one leading to the cellar. The steps looked different to those in his dream; although old, they were not ancient, and there was no door at the bottom – just a large vaulted space full of household junk and food containers – all in a similar state of deterioration.
“I’m a bloody idiot,” he said slamming the cellar door behind him. What a complete waste of time. Chasing stupid dreams was a child’s folly; he had to get a grip. As for the artefacts, the museum would find a perfectly reasonable explanation; it was time to hand it all over to them.
Dim daylight, filtered by the dirt-occluded windows, gave the rooms a sepia quality; he switched off the torch. As he strode to the front door, he noticed a large pair of heavy curtains hanging at the opposite end of the hallway. The decorations sewn into them reminded him of the channelling on the metal vessel and he went over to them. A choking cloud of dust fell as they parted, covering his hands; he coughed as he wafted it away. Behind them was a dark opening with the now familiar stone staircase disappearing into the gloom. A wave of detachment pulsed through him; the veil between reality and dreams evaporating. Grabbing the edge of the opening for support, he waited for the dizziness to pass. This was insane.
The sharp tap of his shoes on the stone echoed as he made his way down, the torchlight providing little comfort as the steps spiralled away – he wished he could see what was beyond the next few paces. Whiffs of old church crypts – normally a welcome, even exciting, memory – mixed with the damp cold air. At the bottom was the heavy old door. Mark pushed against the oak and iron; it did not budge.
Unlike its surroundings, the metal of the keyhole escutcheon looked bright and new; the odd shape of the orifice matching the contents of the metal cylinder he had opened with his blood. With the same impeccable action as before, the slender piece slid into the door, barely audible mechanisms clicking from within, before the door whirred and sprung ajar. Extracting the key and putting it in his pocket, he pushed it open.
Behind it was a modest room, stone in construction with a heavily vaulted ceiling; perhaps it had once supported something far heavier than the old house. Hanging on the walls were all manner of weaponry and objects; he dared not think what their purpose was. Chests of different sizes and designs sat on the floor. At the far end was a crammed bookshelf surrounding a robust bureau. On top of this, raised on a wooden reading stand, lay a hefty book. Squinting, Mark blew the dust off, revealing the soldier he had seen in one of his vision, but in much clearer detail. With hair tied back and chin slightly raised, she stood with her chest pushed out, her elegant yet robust frame clothed in expensive yet practical clothing; embroidery matching the curtains and cylinder. Upon the pommel of her sheathed sword rested her left hand; her right foot was on some dark form resembling a human.
Mark turned the pages, the thick rough paper crackling in protest. The woman appeared to be the first of many such individuals, both male and female, each adorned with progressively more modern attire and weaponry, but the same sword was always there. Beyond the last person, a woman in a WW2 uniform, the pages were blank. At the front of the book, before this succession of warriors, was text interspersed with drawings of creatures, designs of mechanisms, insignia and maps. The writing was the same unintelligible script he found in the case. Perhaps this would help Julie’s friend to translate it.
A shiver slid down his spine; he felt watched. Turning, he waved the torch beam around the room. No one was there. With quiet steps he moved towards the door and peered around, nothing. Perhaps it was guilt and stress; he was trespassing in a very strange house after all. He picked up the case and rucksack and left, closing the door behind him. It whirred and clicked; a quick push confirmed it was locked.
Squinting in the brightness he could see a couple were standing close to his car. As he approached, they turned towards him. To avoid their unnerving stare, he pretended to fumble for his keys. Perhaps they were neighbours and he had been rumbled. Racking his brains for excuses, he passed them and unlocked his car.
“Have you found it?” they growled, shuffling closer. “Give it to us.”
The engine roared as the wheels struggled for grip, their blank faces shrinking in his mirror.
For once, the train arrived on time. As he stepped into the carriage, a sudden heavy pressure from behind caused him to stumble into the carriage, nearly crashing into someone else. Reaching for the yellow grab-rail with one hand, the other holding the case, he spun around. The giant bear-man from yesterday was standing by the door. Mark met the demonic glare, his hands squeezing the bar and case.
“Give us what is ours.” The deep rumbling snarl reverberated through every bone in Mark’s body.
“What is your…” Beeping loudly, the doors slid shut, cutting him off; the train buzzed and jerked as it left the station. Relaxing his grip, he watched his scowling assailant disappear.
At the museum, Mark was disappointed when he found out Julie was unavailable. It was foolish to turn up without checking first; reception had called her office, but whoever picked it up said she had left. The weight of the book in his rucksack was digging into his shoulder and he considered leaving it there at the museum. It was too risky, and he turned to leave.
“Mark. Mark!” Pete was running towards him.
“Glad I caught you. Julie showed me the parchment – very interesting by the way – we must look at everything you found some time. Anyway, someone came and said there was an emergency regarding… well yourself. She left with him in a hurry. That’s why I came down. You’re supposed to be in hospital or something. What is going on?” Pete spread his hands.
Mark felt his heart rate increase. “I’ve no idea. Obviously, I’m fine. What did the man look like?”
“You should have seen him.” He chuckled. “Great tall hairy bloke, with weird eyes. And he looked like he had got dressed in a hurry – I assumed that was because…”
“I think she’s been abducted.”
“What?” Pete looked incredulous. “I mean… Are you sure?”
“Listen, is there anything you can tell me? Where could he have taken her?”
“Um, not that I recall. Wait, they did mention something about Blackthorn Hill, but there’s no hospital near there.”
Mark nodded. “Ok, thanks. Now call the police.”
“But, wait, I…”
But Mark had already turned and was running out of the building, leaving an open-mouthed Pete watching the doors swing behind him
Mark instinctively knew what he had to do. The chamber at the bottom of the stone steps was as he left it, but this time he went straight to the instruments on the walls. Normally he would be slow and methodical in his search; examining each item and setting it aside with care before getting the next one. But he had no time for that now. He winced as ancient items crumped and clattered on the unforgiving floor. After the walls, he tried the chests; pausing briefly to wipe his brow.
“Where are you?” he bellowed, wrenching open the lid of the nearest chest. His irreverent excavating and rummaging casting more priceless artefacts on to the flagstones. It had to be here somewhere.
Finally, he saw it. There, lying in a large chest, on an old velvet sheet, was the sword. It chimed as he drew it from its scabbard. Almost tripping under the weight, he hoisted it up, one hand on the blade, the other on the grip. It looked magnificent, polished and glinting in the torch light as though it had just been made. He gave it a few swings; it got lighter the more he practised and experimented. Thrusts and swipes, lunges and parries – it came instinctively to him – but from where? He wasn’t trained, but his movements became graceful – as if some hidden hand was guiding him. Entranced, he imagined foes as he cut and slashed with increasing confidence; but moments later his adversaries were pushed aside by the face of Julie, frightened and in pain.
Sheathing the sword, he grabbed his things and ran to the door; it was time to go.
“Julie!” He called as he trudged up the low hill, his feet crunching through the short dry grass. His sight had adjusted well to the dusk, but it seemed brighter than it should. The moon was absent; only a few stars twinkled back at him, distant and indifferent. Bringing his gaze down to the brow, he could make out some movement near a low heavy angular edifice. A sharp wind rustled nearby shrubs, tugging at his clothes as a shudder ran down his spine.
Approaching the top, the impenetrable bulk of the building just discernible against the night, he saw darting glints of fire concentrated at one end.
“Julie!” His voice strained. “Julie!”
A group of black shapes were wrestling with something as they entered the monument; Mark thought he heard a muffled cry.
Gripping his unsheathed sword with both hands, he followed them inside.
The steel rings as he swings; the sword has a life of its own, chopping left and dispatching right; figures slumping to the ground like melting dominoes. Demonic snarls of crazed beings grate at his eardrums, competing with the clashing of metal and unnatural groans of the dying. There are too many of them, but the sword knows what to do; one by one they fall to the side in writhing amorphous heaps, the pinprick glows fading away. Determination flows in his veins like lava; his weapon an extension of his body.
Something by the opposite wall distracts his attention and his anger swells. With pitiless ferocity, the blade cleaves a path towards it.
Leaning up against the wall was the unmistakable shape of a woman, her hands tied, urgent noises coming from behind the cloth stretched across her mouth; fearful brown eyes pleading at him.
“Julie!" Mark lunged forwards as she shook her head, her stifled cries intensifying.
A heavy darkness blocked his path; pain shot up into his ribcage and down to his groin as something hard was thrust into his abdomen. Reeling backwards, Mark saw bear-man from the train – more massive and menacing in the shadows; a spear in his hands, the tip glistening.
“Hello Mark. I wondered when you were going to turn up.”
With one hand on the hot wetness growing under his shirt, Mark searched for the speaker; he knew that voice. To the left of bear-man, set into the wall, was a large stone seat; on it sat his old friend.
“Pete? Wha…” He coughed, a metallic presence on his tongue. “What are you doing here?”
Pete was looking back at him, mild exasperation on his pale features.
Weakness crept up his legs and across his shoulders. Mark staggered, letting the point of the sword drop. A nauseating stab of understanding cloyed at his throat; swallowing, he straightened up, both hands back on the weapon. With an effort he raised it up, steel and brass straining at his arms.
“What the fuck is going on, Pete? Untie her.” Mark said through gritted teeth, his knuckles clicking as he tightened the grip. He glanced behind. What remained of the hoard had formed a murmuring semicircle around them, dozens of red points fixed on him. Waiting.
“Yeah, I’ve not been completely honest with you, old chap. You see I was given a simple task – to prevent you becoming the Custodian. Until recently I’ve been rather successful.” He paused; Mark’s attention was on Julie.
“Oh yeah. Sorry about you and Julie, I couldn’t do my job with her in the way, so I – how shall I put it? – manufactured a great opportunity aboard.” He waved at Julie. “Her impeccable credentials made it easy; getting you to stay here was the hard part. Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m the one to bring you back together, albeit to witness each other’s demise. How tragically sweet; Shakespeare would have been proud.”
“You bastard, why didn’t you just kill me back then? Why put me through years of pain and regret? But then I guess you were never really my friend.”
Pete snorted and stood up. “You’ve got me all wrong Mark. I grant you I am a great actor, but I genuinely like you. But, no, I couldn’t kill you – at least not yet. I needed the sword to find its way to you, so I could destroy it once and for all. With the previous Custodian’s untimely demise, thanks to a Nazi bomb, we lost the trail. Although it was nice not having a Custodian for a while. But finally, the sword is back. Thank you for being so obliging. Now, pass it to me and we can get this over with. Grip first please.” Pete held out a hand.
Mark failed to absorb the last few words; all over his body muscles began twitching, the movement increasing as pulses of heat flowed outwards from his stomach. The sensation reached an agonising crescendo before dissipating, leaving his flesh hot and energised. His vision had sharpened. Slipping a hand under his shirt, he searched for the wound; sticky blood covered the skin, but the wound had gone.
Pete jabbed his arm forward. “Just give me the bloody sword.”
Mark checked his stance. “Not a chance.”
Pete withdrew his hand and nodded at bear-man, who picked up Julie by her hair and held a rough knife to her throat. Hot tears welled as Mark watched her struggling. Bear-man kneed her in the abdomen, and she became still, her muffled pain burning into Mark’s chest.
“Stop. Stop! Just let her go. She’s nothing to do with this.”
“I’m not so sure. She knows about us now, and besides, I think she may be marked too – she’s always turning up at the wrong time.”
“What, so I give you the sword and we die? Is that it?”
“Pretty much. Or I chop up Julie until you do. Either way.” Pete was examining his fingernails. He sat down and nodded again.
Raising the knife, bear-man yanked back her head, exposing her throat.
“No!” Mark coiled his body, sword above his head.
Suddenly bear-man’s grimace changed to disbelief as he let out a long gurgling rasp. Staggering, he let his arm drop, the knife clattering on the stone floor. His back thumped into the wall and he slid sideways onto the ground; two furious embers dimming to nothing.
Abandoning his leap, Mark swept the scene for comprehension.
With a point of steel between her bound hands, Julie stood tall and defiant, chest heaving, an uncertain satisfaction spreading across her features. She was holding the dagger from Mark’s case, a black ooze running towards the cross-guard before dripping off.
Pete pounced at her, reaching for her wrists. With rage burning in every cell, Mark sliced forwards and sideways, cleanly decapitating his old friend. The head hit the stones with a sickening thud, followed by the slow crumple of the body.
Mark stood blinking at the lifeless forms and then up to Julie. She returned his quizzical look with a one-sided shrug, and then swung her arms over his sword. The severed rope fell to the floor. From behind him came a rising tide of snarls and yells; he turned to face them. To his left was Julie, already slicing and jabbing at the frenzied crowd.
The moon had risen as they made their way down the hill. Their bodies were exhausted, but they felt light, almost skipping down the grassy slope. His hand found hers and she gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“Years of pain and regret?”
He stopped and lowered his head. “I’ve been such a fool, Julie.”
She pulled on his arm, bringing him closer. Mark inhaled deeply, savouring the gentle caress of her hands sliding past his waist and up his back; the scent of her hair jogging old memories.
“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” she whispered, reaching up on tiptoe. Her soft lips melted against his and he closed his eyes, letting his arms wrap around her, squeezing her to him.
The leather-bound tome was open on Mark’s desk. A weary autumn breeze teased the curtains as it lifted papers onto the floor and set various mementos and artefacts on hooks swaying. As the wind gathered strength, the corners of the book’s pages quivered and drew back before finally succumbing to its will, leaf after leaf flipping over until all the Custodians had been riffled through. With a final gust, the air became still, and the room quietened.
From a single point just above the centre fold, an intense blue aura rapidly grew, engulfing the whole volume; casting phosphorescent shadows across the walls, before rapidly shrinking and winking out.
Mark walked in, holding a box of items taken from one of his visits to the old house, and glanced across at the book.
“Hey, Julie, come and look at this!” Mark put down the carton and bent over the book. Placing an arm over his shoulders, Julie did the same.
Before them was a picture of two people standing side by side, dressed in contemporary garments. One had his left hand on the hilt of a beautiful sword and a foot on a headless body. Beside him, next to a slain bear-like beast, stood a woman with her arms folded, a sheathed dagger strapped to her leg.