A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
"No one's answering!" Fudge exclaimed anxiously.
"Give them a chance sweetheart, the place it huge." Fran tried to reassure her even though he was starting to feel very worried himself now. Mulligan's plan was a good one, but even the magician didn't know what they were going to find when they got inside, if indeed they ever did. There were still too many ifs and buts and this scared Fran, he was a man who liked certainty in his life.
"Perhaps you should try again?" Ed suggested, looking at the piece of rope that constituted the bell pull.
"Let's give them a little while longer." Mulligan replied, adjusting the borrowed driver's cloak. Fran knew that he had stashed most of the contents of his bag into its inside pockets, including a gun that Fran had had no idea up to that moment his lover owned.
"What do we do if they never answer?" Fudge asked, tapping her foot on the step.
"Then we think of something else." Fran could detect a small note of nervousness in Mulligan's deep voice, and that scared him more than anything. For all the magician's normally unshakable confidence he wasn't used to situations like this, but then who was?
For a while no one spoke and the only sound was Fudge's foot beating out a rapid tattoo, and just at the point where Mulligan was about to give in and was reaching for the bell pull again the door finally opened. As it slowly swung inwards all of them quickly took up their positions, Ed clutching his arm to his chest, Fudge clearly putting all of her weight onto one leg and Fran holding a handkerchief to his "bleeding" head. From what Bonnie had told them Fran wasn't surprised to find that the person who opened the door was the echoback slave, but he still found himself looking curiously at the small man as he'd never seen one of his kind before.
"Good evening, I'm sorry to bother you..." Mulligan started, putting on a broad Parnell accent.
"Take the money and go." The small man interrupted, holding out a handful of coins. His voice was quiet and he didn't quite meet anyone's eye.
"I think you've got us wrong." Mulligan said as the money was thrust at him. "We ain't here for money, see my cab overturned about a half mile back and these folk." He indicated Fran, Fudge and Ed. "Was travelling inside and got injured and my poor horse, the gods rest her soul, didn't make it at all. We was wondering if we could come inside and rest?"
The small man looked at them with a bewildered expression. "Are you from the village?" He asked.
"No, the city." This time Fran spoke. "Please, could we come in, I think my daughter's husband might have broken his arm, and I'm not feeling at all well." He dabbed at his head to make his point.
"You don't want the money?"
"No mate." Mulligan said softly. "Just some shelter for a few injured souls on a cold bleak night."
The man blinked his golden eyes rapidly, he seemed to be thinking. "You must be quiet, Master doesn't want to be disturbed." He said eventually, opening the door wide enough for them to come inside.
The entrance hall had clearly once been meant as a statement of the grandeur of the house with a sweeping double staircase, an inlaid marble floor and a large brass chandler high overhead to illuminate the splendour, but as with everything else they had seen it was all in bad state of disrepair. Only two bulbs were working in the greenish chandelier now and they lit up a sea of leaves and dirt that covered the floor cracking floor, Fran could detect a strong smell of mildew that seemed to be coming from all around them. The man lead them across the hallway, his feet were unshod but he didn't seem at all bothered by the mess underfoot, and they followed him into an equally damp and squalid reception room where the electric wall brackets made a fizzing sound when he switched them on.
There were a number of seats around the room, all of them covered by grimy sheets and Fran sat down carefully on the very edge of the nearest one. Mulligan did much the same next to him while Fudge perched of the edge of a high backed chair, Ed chose to remain standing.
"Excuse me, do you think we could have something to clean up with?" Mulligan asked, holding up his dirt streaked hands.
"Some water?" The small man said.
"Yeah, please, and towels if you've got some."
"I'll bring them right away Sir." He said, then left the room.
"For the gods sake don't anyone touch anything electrical." Fran said when the door was shut, the lights were buzzing like a jar full of wasps.
"That monkey man is being quite helpful." Fudge stood up from here chair to look around the room. "Perhaps if we ask him he'll tell us where Sam is."
"He's a slave." Mulligan replied, switching back to his own accent. "He's probably been working for Pault for so many years that when someone asks him to do something he does it without question, but don't mistake his demeanour for friendliness. He'll most likely be entirely loyal to his master if for no other reason than it's been beaten into him."
"Lets all just stick to the original plan." Fran agreed. "Get them to let us stay the night and then find Sam while they're sleeping." He knew that his words contained more confidence than he felt.
"This is going to work isn't it?" Ed asked, sounding like he was trying to convince himself.
"There's no guarantees son." Mulligan replied. "But it's our best shot, as far as they're concerned we're nothing more than a bunch of unfortunate strangers who need a bed for the night, it now all hinges of finding Sam and getting him out without being caught."
When the door to the room opened Fudge hurriedly sat down again as the slave brought in a jug of water and a couple of threadbare towels. He placed them all down onto a sheet covered table and Fudge limped over to it, wetted a towel and began to clean Fran's "wound".
"We were bloody lucky to have found this place." Mulligan spoke conversationally to the small man. "Didn't think we'd make it to Haverham before nightfall and didn't want to be out in the dark, the state we're in, is the master of the house around? I like to give him my thanks for letting us stay tonight." Fran knew that no one had yet mentioned staying the night, but by stating that they were it would be very hard for the man to refuse them now.
"Master's busy." Came the quiet reply, Fran watched the slave's face of of the corner of his eye as Fudge dripped water all over him, he looked like he was trying to remember exactly when he had offered up the invitation to stay the night.
"That's a shame." Mulligan continued, then stared around the room. "If you don't me saying so it kind of feels like this place ain't been used in some time, are there many people living here?" He didn't stop for an answer. "Just it reminds me of my old auntie's place, when my uncle died she pretty much moved into the one room, ate in there, slept in there, did more or less everything except her business in there really. Reckoned that the house were too big for just the one person." As far as Fran knew Mulligan didn't have an elderly aunt and this was all part of his cab driver's act to get the golden eyed man to think that he was harmless and start talking. Thankfully Fudge seemed to have finished washing his head and had started patting it dry.
"There are very few of us now." Came the guarded reply.
"Don't suppose you could use a new maid could you? My daughter's looking for a position." Now Fran knew that he was spinning a tale. "She's just turned sixteen and she's a good little worker, but I must say she'd probably be happier with someone her own age around, you know what kids are like." The man gave Mulligan a blank look. "You got any youngsters working here?"
"There are no young people working here, and there are no positions open." Fran could swear that there was a slight emphasis of working, so perhaps if Sam was here he wasn't considered part of the staff.
"Never mind." Mulligan shrugged. "Don't hurt to ask." He briefly glanced at Fran. "You know, once we've cleaned up a bit perhaps you could show us to our rooms, I reckon my poor passengers have had enough of today."
Fran decided to back this up by yawning loudly, while Ed added that he was in pain and needed to lie down.
"Your rooms, yes Sir. Wait here, I will make up some beds for you."
Once the slave had left again Fran turned to Mulligan and gave him a small smile, it all seemed to working nicely and he briefly enjoyed the blossoming sensation of hope, but then the screaming started.
Time seemed to have slowed for Sam after he'd drunk the contents of the teacup, it didn't taste the same as before, this time it was bitter and it didn't make him sick, instead as it took effect he found that he could barely move or speak. The shadows from the candles now seemed to pulse with his breathing almost as if they were living things, the room itself appeared to stretch away into infinity and everything that the two men said sounded like it was being spoken from underwater. He very much suspected that it was the same drug that had been given to Bonnie to make her compliant.
Deep inside he was extremely frightened, but he couldn't seem to bring that fear to the surface, he could barely even move his fingers and it took all of his strength to turn his head to watch what the men were doing. Grist had now put on the blank faced mask that he had worn so often before, his eyes behind the eye holes reflected the candlelight as he moved around the room making him look like some kind of daemon, while the Master remained seated the whole time, occasionally directing his servant while reading aloud from the black bound book that sat open in his lap. Sam couldn't follow his words, they were in an unfamiliar tongue that had a strange, harsh quality to it, and spoken in the Master's papery voice and constantly interrupted by wet, gasping coughs the words almost became crawling, creeping living things.
"Salt...it's time to bind him with the salt." The Master said to Grist, who picked up the small bowl and tilted it until white grains began to trickle out, then he used the flow of salt to draw an outline around Sam's prone body.
In Sam's clouded mind he found himself picturing the shape the salt would make, it would be like a gingerbread man, and he felt a bubble of hysterical laughter form at the thought of a giant gingerbread Sam. He remembered his mother and sister baking batches of them in the farmhouse kitchen and suddenly his laughter turned to a great sob of loss and longing, and he felt something warm and wet leaking from his eyes and trickling down his cheeks.
"What was that?" The Master stopped reading to ask.
"He's crying for his mother." Grist replied, his voice filled with amusement.
"Ah yes, they almost all do at the end." The Master nodded, then went back to reciting from his book.
Grist lent his masked head down next to Sam's ear and spoke. "Do you want to know what we're going to do to you?" He asked quietly, Sam couldn't form a reply, all he could do was blink, his tears adding to the strange shifting shadows of the room. "When the incantation is complete you'll be cut here." He lifted Sam's arm and ran a thumb over the inside of his left wrist. "And your blood will be collected in a cup for the Master to drink, and that is the first part." Grist stepped away and Sam couldn't raise his head to see what he was doing, but when he returned it was with a knife the likes of which Sam had never seen before. It had an ornate red and black twisted handle, its blade was shining silver, shaped like a crescent and serrated, the edges winking red in the candlelight.
"This knife is for human sacrifices." He turned it over in his palms. "It's designed to go through bone as well as flesh, you see the second, and most important part of the ceremony is when the I cut your chest open." He ran the blunt side of the knife down the centre of Sam's robed chest from throat to stomach. "Break the bones back and expose your heart. Then I will cut it out, still beating, after which the Master will consume it to take your strength, and you will die for him."
"Is the new moon risen?" Sam heard the Master ask as he was trying to take the full horror of the means of his death.
Grist left his sight to step over to the window. "Yes Master, it is."
"Good, then it is time."
Sam fought to turn his head again and he too looked out of the window, the moon was hanging suspended high in the black sky, a tiny thin sharp crescent that echoed the shape of the terrible blade that would all too soon take his life. He watched as Grist came back and picked up a second object from the table, the small worked silver cup that he had seen earlier.
"Now Master?" Grist asked, showing the old man the knife and the cup.
"Yes, now." The Master's voice sounded eager, almost lustful. "Cut the boy."
Grist picked up Sam's arm and lifted it so that the white robe fell back to expose his wrist, then with his other hand he took the serrated bladed and quickly passed it back and forth, cutting deeply into the flesh. Intense pain immediately started to course through Sam's body, and this time he didn't sob, he began to scream.
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