A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
The noise was muted, as if it were coming from several rooms away, but it was unmistakably the sound of a person screaming in fear and pain. If Fran had heard it in the middle of the city it would have been a cause for concern, but out here in a decaying house in the middle of nowhere it was the single most disturbing thing he'd ever heard.
"What the fuck?" Mulligan said what they were all thinking as he turned to look around the room.
"That's Sam! That's Sam!" Fudge shouted desperately as the noise briefly stopped, then resumed again louder and more anguished than before.
Fran couldn't be sure that his niece was correct, but whoever was making the noise was clearly in urgent need of help. "Where's it coming from?" Fran sprung to his feet and grabbed the golden eyed man by the shoulder, who seemed to be the only person in the room unaffected by the screaming.
"You mustn't disturb Master." He replied solemnly, making no attempt to remove Fran's hand.
"Come on!" Fudge rushed toward the door with Ed on her heels. Mulligan headed after them and Fran followed, realising that the magician was right, the man was a slave and he was so conditioned to his station that even the sound of a person screaming in distress was not enough make him commit an act of disloyalty to his master.
"Let me go first." Mulligan commanded, drawing his gun, while Fran tried to persuade Fudge to stay behind in the reception room.
"No bloody way!" She replied as they ran along another damp and badly lit hallway toward the source of the sound.
"Then at least keep back behind me." He said. "And you too Ed." He felt ridiculous saying this, like he was playing at being a policeman or a solider.
"It's coming from in there." Mulligan called over his shoulder as they approached a set of large double doors that Fran suspected led to some kind of grand ballroom, however like everything else in the place they were rotting and warped and looked like they were infrequently used. The screaming had now turned into long loud sobs, and while he couldn't be entirely sure there seemed to be something in their tone that suggested they could belong to Sam. Mulligan stopped at the doors, held his gun out in front of him with one hand while turning a door handle with the other. He attempted to push the door open but it didn't move.
"It's locked." Ed exclaimed, his voice unsteady.
"Not for much longer." Mulligan replied, backed up a couple of paces then kicked out with the flat of his foot at the place where the two doors met. There was a loud bang and a splintering of wood as the doors flew apart to reveal a candlelit scene of terror straight out of a nightmare.
Whatever they had given him to make him unable to move didn't deaden pain, if anything it seemed to intensify it and this, mixed with the truly horrifying sight of his own bright red blood pumping out of his slit wrist and running down his forearm to be collected in the silver cup, had pushed him to a place where he could do nothing except scream.
"Noisy one this." Grist remarked loudly over him as he squeezed Sam's arm roughly to get the blood to flow quicker.
"That's good, shows he has a strong spirit." The Master could just about be heard to say in his rustle of a voice. Sam could see the man's wet pale eyes locked onto his bleeding arm, and grotesquely the tip of a yellow furred tongue passed across his thin dry lips as if he were anticipating something tasty.
The rattling sound of someone trying a door handle came from the other side of the room and made both the Master and Grist stop and turn their heads. "Stupid fucking monkey." Grist growled. "He'd better have sent those idiot villagers..." The masked man never got to finish his sentence as there was loud banging sound and Sam struggled to turn his head to find what was the cause of this. The room was dimly lit but even so he could pick out four familiar figures in the large doorway, and his clouded mind came to the conclusion that he was seeing things that weren't there, because the people he thought that he saw couldn't possibly be real.
"Holy shit!" Fran uttered as he tried to understand what he was seeing. There was a large table laid with a white cloth that seemed to have been set up as a makeshift altar, there were two men, both of them robed in white, one wizened and sick looking sat in a carved throne like wooden chair, the other large and masked in the blank faced mask that he recognised from the auction night. The masked man was holding a silver cup up to a profusely bleeding arm that belonged to the third person in the room, a sobbing blond boy lying still on the table top, a sobbing blond boy who was unmistakably Sam.
"Get out of here!" The wizened man who Fran assumed was Pault said, pointing one bony finger at them. "You have your money, now go!" His voice was like the rustle of dead leaves, when they didn't move he turned to the large man. "Grist get them out." He ordered.
The masked man let go of Sam's arm, which had left a bright red trail across the front of his robe, passed the cup to the man in the chair and snatched an oddly curved bloodstained knife from the table as he advanced on them.
"I'd stop right there if I was you." Mulligan's deep voice was harsh. "I have a gun, and a damn good reason to use it." He glanced at Sam as he said this.
"GET OUT!" The large man shouted, slashing the knife in front of Mulligan's face in threat.
Fran looked at Sam, his blood was flowing freely onto the floor now, between that and the contents of the cup he must have lost a fair bit and Fran knew he had to stop the flow now before it was too late. He ran over to the table not caring about anything else, Mulligan could occupy the masked man and Pault seemed to be attempting to get to his feet and failing, Fran doubted that even if he managed to stand unaided he would be able to put up much of a fight. Over the years he'd dealt with a good many accidents in his theatre and he well knew how to stop bleeding, even if he'd never been faced with anything quite like this before.
"Stop, the boy is mine." Pault hissed at him as Fran passed him, and he realised with a gut churning nausea that the sick man was sipping at the contents of the silver cup. He pushed down his desire to knock it from his hands, Sam was all that mattered now and seconds could mean the difference between life and death. He took Sam's arm, still pumping out blood, lifted it up high in the air, pushed the edges of the wound together, wrapped his own hand around Sam's wrist palm against the cut, and gripped it as tightly as he could. Ed was close behind him and he did what Fran had wanted to, snatching the silver cup away from the seated man's lips and hurling to the other end of the room where it landed with a metallic clattering.
"Grist! Grist!" The man exclaimed, for the first time sounding scared rather than annoyed, then he succumbed to a long, rattling coughing fit, spraying blood down the front of his robe with every cough.
"Master, I'm busy." Came the reply, and Fran looked over to see that there was some kind of stand off between the masked man and Mulligan. Mulligan had his gun pointed at the man's chest, but the man seemed to be goading him with the knife, almost daring him to shoot, and even with all the chaos Fran was relived to observe that Fudge was shielded behind the magician, well out of reach of the knife.
"Is he going to die?" Ed asked, smoothing Sam's hair back from his forehead. Sam was looking up at them with wide glassy eyes, and Fran doubted that he was going to remain conscious for much longer.
"No, of course not." He said confidently, not wanting scare either of them, but knowing that it was still a possibility. The bleeding had slowed but there was still a constant trickle of red leaking out from under his hand, and he willed Sam to hang on.
A wordless roar from near the door made them both turn to look, the masked man had lunged at Mulligan with a yell, Mulligan had sidestepped him but the man's swinging knife made contact with his hand causing him to swear in pain and drop the gun. As the servant swiftly bent to retrieve it a small shaped launched itself at his back in an attempt to stop him, and Fran watched in utter terror as his niece and the man toppled to the ground in a heap.
"Fudge, no!" He heard himself shout, although it was far too late to stop her. The two of them briefly tussled on the floor, the masked man clearly having the upper hand in both size and strength even though Fudge was struggling with all her might, kicking out at him and trying to sink her teeth into his arms and shoulders. He suddenly flipped her onto her back, used one hand to push her chin up to expose the soft dark flesh of her neck, then raised the other one that was still gripping the knife as high as he could in preparation to drive it into her throat.
Time briefly stopped for Fran, the candlelight caught the blade making it look like a red echo of the new moon outside, he dropped Sam's wrist and began to run to her when a flash of lightning and a thunderclap filled the room, and instead of cutting into his niece the curved knife fell harmlessly to the floor and the masked man slumped after it, his life ended by a single bullet in the back of his head.
"Oh gods, oh gods." Fudge panted as Mulligan lowered his gun and helped her back to her feet. Fran made it the rest of the way across to Fudge and folded her trembling body into his arms, trying to ignore the bloody mess on the floor that had once been a man's head.
"You killed Grist!" Pault said pointing accusingly at Mulligan, his voice filled with outrage. "You'll pay for this." Once again he attempted to get to his feet but Mulligan crossed the room and shoved him firmly down into the chair without a word.
Fran held Fudge tight for a long time until he heard his niece say by his ear. "Is Sam all right?" He turned to look, Ed had hold of Sam's arm now and Mulligan had torn a thick strip off the bottom of Sam's white robe and was wrapping it around the boy's wrist as a bandage.
The two of them made their way over to join the others, Sam's eyes were closed and Fran reached over to take his other wrist and check for a pulse. "Is he dead?" Fudge asked, close to tears.
"No." Fran replied. "He's still with us, he's fainted I think."
"Do you reckon that the three of you can carry him back to the coach?" Mulligan asked, now finished with Sam he was inspecting the damage to his own hand.
"Yes." Fran was trying very hard to stay calm and in control and not think about how close Fudge had just come to being killed. "Fudge can hold his arm if Ed and me take him, is your hand too bad to help?"
"This?" He lifted his right hand to show Fran a slice on the back around the base of his thumb about an inch and a half long, it was bleeding but only slowly. "Just a scratch. No, I'm staying on here for a while, I'll catch you up."
"Why?" Fran asked.
"Because this isn't finished yet." Mulligan looked at the man in the chair, who had the sense to finally realise that he'd lost all control of the situation and kept quiet. Fran considered asking exactly what his lover meant, but decided that the question could wait for another time, getting Sam to safety was all that mattered now. The two of them lifted him off the table as carefully as they could, with Ed taking his shoulders and Fran his feet while Fudge kept his arm held up and put pressure on the bandage.
"Don't wait for me." Mulligan called out as they headed for the door. "I'll either catch the coach up or see you back in the city."
As they exited through the splintered doors Fran chose not to look back, whatever Mulligan chose to do to Pault was his own business and he felt that he'd witnessed enough bloodshed in one night to last him for the rest of his life. During their slow walk through the house's gloomy hallways he feared that they might encounter some of the house's other occupants or servants, but with the single exception of a pair of golden eyes watching them from a half open doorway they saw no one.
Once they got outside the small sliver of new moon offered little in the way of light, the lantern that they had used on the way in had been left somewhere in the house and no one was going to go back for it so they were had to attempt to find the coach in almost complete darkness. If the driver hadn't left his lamps burning they might never have found it, although the darkness did have its uses, it hid the blood from the driver's curious eyes. They'd wrapped Sam in Ed's coat to keep him warm and cover the robe and they managed to get him into the coach without too much difficulty as the driver stood and watched them.
"What's up with him them?" The man asked Fran as he was about to join the others inside.
"A bit too much to drink." Fran improvised.
"He chucks in my cab you pay for the clean up." The man grumbled. "And where's the big feller, the one who's got my cloak and hat?"
At that moment there was a long loud rumbling noise from the direction of the house, and the sky briefly lit up in orange.
"Fuck me!" The coach man swore. "What in the gods name was that?"
"Uncle Fran?" Fudge stuck her head out of the door to see what was going on.
"We need to go." He said to the coach man, a new fear now building inside him.
"What about my cloak and hat?" The driver insisted stubbornly.
"I'll buy you a replacement set, hell I'll buy you ten, just go."
Inside the coach Sam was laying with his head in Ed's lap, his legs across Fudge's lap and his arm propped up against Ed's chest. Fran checked his pulse again, it was much stronger than he would have expected it to be, but then Sam was young and fit and hopefully the blood loss wouldn't effect him too much. The makeshift bandage had a flower of bright red soaked through it, but it didn't seem to be spreading much, and that was something to be thankful for.
"What was that noise?" Fudge asked as the coach began to shudder and jolt its way down the track.
"I think the house, or a bit of it, exploded." Fran replied, trying not to think about the implications of this.
"But Mulligan's in there!"
"He'll be fine sweetheart, he always lands on his feet, he's like a cat." As they drove away Fran kept a watch out of the window in the hopes that he might see Mulligan running to catch them up, but despite what he'd said to his niece deep down he feared the worst, that this time the magician had pushed his luck just a little too far.
His wrist throbbed with pain, did dead people feel pain? Something was wrapped tightly around it and he wanted to take it off because it was uncomfortable, but he found that he still couldn't move, a much nicer sensation however came from someone stroking his face, and he didn't want that to stop. The table under his body felt surprisingly warm and uneven, and he could no longer hear the Master chanting strange words in his thin voice. He gathered all of his strength, opened his eyes and found that he was staring not up at the ceiling of the large candle lit room, but instead at Ed, who was looking down at him, his freckled face worried.
"I think he's awake." He heard Ed say, what was Ed doing in the Master's house? Or was he already dead and in some kind of afterlife?
"That's a good sign." Came a reply. The voice was familiar, Fran, it was Fran's voice, and he sounded sad. Sam closed his eyes again, not being able to make any sense of all this he drifted back into blackness. Sometime that could have been anywhere between seconds and years later he woke again, a draught blowing across his body. "Cold." He muttered, turning his head so that his face was pressed against Ed's sweater, a clattering noise coming from behind him.
"You're not dead!" Fran again. He tried to say that he thought he might be, but before he could begin to form the words someone else spoke.
"Of course not Frannie." A deep voice, he knew it too, but not as well, the name wouldn't come. "Why would you think that I was?"
"Because the house exploded. Did you do that?"
"Magic." A magic man, Mulligan, he remembered now, it was Mulligan. "How's Sam?"
"The bleeding has more or less stopped, and he woke up briefly about fifteen minutes ago, I think he's going to be all right." Sam wondered what Fran meant, was he not dead?
"What did you do in there?" A girls voice from somewhere by his feet, something sweet and sticky, Fudge.
"You really don't want to know."
Sam opened his eyes, turned his head and looked around the small, dimly lit place he was now in. He recognised it as a coach and decided that maybe he was still alive after all, he couldn't imagine that the afterlife consisted of a cramped cab that smelled of wet dogs, but there was now a new question that he needed an answer to. "Where am I going?" He mumbled.
"Home." Fran replied softly. "You're going home."
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