Chapter 9: I have supped full with horrors.
I wanted so much to turn away from the scene of carnage before me, to offer some sort - any sort of rebuttal to Challenger's accusations. I couldn't. All I could see was blood: blood pooling in hollows in the rock, dribbling down its sides in dripping skeins, the dark red startlingly bright against the greyness of stone. However often I'd seen the proof, it still surprised me how much blood a body held.
This close the smell was foul, overpowering. Blood went off quickly, very quickly in such temperatures. There was only the faintest hint of corruption in the smell now, but in no more than a few hours the air would be filled with its nauseating stench, a stench that was long familiar and long abhorred. Even now it too often dragged up memories I had hoped, prayed to forget: memories of wading through the sucking morass at the bottom of endless trenches, the harsh staccato of rain hammering on the corrugated iron roofs of foxholes and the constant far-off rumble that no one mistook for thunder. And the smell... photographs conveyed the horror, but they never conveyed the smell... that terrible cocktail of cordite, filth and death.
I clenched my eyes shut against the sight, but could do nothing against the smell. Challenger's voice faded, as if I was listening to him from far off. A distant bass rumble obscured his words. Was that thunder or...? I suddenly dreaded opening my eyes, as terrified that I would see Malone's corpse as that on looking I would, somehow, be thrown back into the closest to Hell on Earth that I had ever known.
The memories returned unbidden: screams, pain, terror, loss, and always the same flat, dull-eyed gazes peering out from the drawn, grey faces of men huddling for shelter in a muddy hole. Few of them had survived. Fewer still had survived with their minds intact. There was no blame in those faces - there never had been, though perhaps it would have been easier if there had. I'd failed them just like I'd failed so many other people: William, Mother, Father, Summerlee, Challenger, Malone... Marguerite.
Marguerite. Here I was, wallowing uselessly in guilt and self-pity like a selfish idiot while she was in danger, I lambasted myself bitterly. Taut with an anger directed at no one but myself I stepped backwards, eyes still closed, reaching to feel for the door posts that I knew were there. Moments later the sound and heat of the jungle was gone and my footfalls once more held the echo of boots on the stone of an underground room. The charnel stink was once more entwined with the heavy, disturbingly familiar sickly sweet tang of incense.
I opened my eyes to see the door swing shut in front of me, then glanced to my right. The two innocuous doors that remained sent an atavistic shiver through me that I couldn't deny. The answers I sought had to be there. I steeled myself, and key in hand moved to the sixth door.
As easily as the others, the door swung open. My eyes adjusted to the dimness beyond and I was just about able to make out the glimmer of what might have been moonlight reflected from the mirror smooth surface of a lake. The stillness and utter silence should have been oppressive but somehow wasn't. The only time I'd ever encountered an atmosphere anything like it before was years before in a centuries old monastery hidden in the mountains of Tibet.
Off to one side, not far away I could see stone ruins: some sort of fortress? I thought I could see part of a cloister, but there was too little of it left to tell for sure. Maybe it had been an abbey of some sort, then. I didn't know. Immense lichen encrusted stone slabs looking like the remnants of an ancient pavement lay embedded in the short grass as if they had always been there. Nearby I could see what might have been a mausoleum, too weathered now for me to have any chance of making out the name engraved over its sunken entrance. I inhaled deeply, trying to clear my head of the cloying incense I had been breathing for so long. The air here was fresh and clear, the ground damp, the stones washed clean. It felt like the first blush of dawn after a thunderstorm.
It felt... restful.
Now, just as when I had first arrived in that Tibetan monastery, I was uncomfortably aware that mine was the only jarring presence in such serenity. Bloodied weapons had no cause for being in a place such as this.
And while I was thinking about it, I had to wonder what a place such as this was doing here...?
That suddenly alarming thought sent an adrenaline-fuelled jolt of alarm through my weary muscles. I looked about myself, wary now as I had seldom been in the past that danger could come from the most innocuous of sources.
Despite my precautions, the touch of a hand on my shoulder caught me entirely by surprise. The instinctual punch I threw in response struck nothing but air. "What the...?" I muttered.
"John Richard Roxton. You are welcome in this place," intoned an oddly androgynous voice, sounding disconcertingly as if it came from right next to me.
I swung in its direction, heart pounding, arms raised to ward off any attack. There was nothing there. Another ghost? The lack of footprints in the damp grass seemed to suggest as much.
At the edge of the lake I could see the silhouette of a robed, hooded somewhat monastic figure, though from where it had come I had no idea. "Who the Hell are you?" I growled harshly. I had, I'd decided, had quite enough of Kekszakallu's sadistic mind games and deceptions. Whatever this particular one was, I was most decidedly not in the mood for it.
"Self-delusion is the only lie here, and that you bring here with you," chided the sepulchral voice gently. "I am no more or less than what I appear to be."
"What are you saying, then? That I brought all these nightmares upon myself?" I couldn't accept that. I didn't want to accept that. If true, what sort of man did that make me?
Ignoring my words, the robed figure - he actually did look somewhat monkish, I decided - crouched down at the edge of the lake. From beneath the folds of a sleeve, a slender hand appeared, alabaster pale in the dim light and reached out reverentially to touch the water. My anger and impatience slipped aside as I watched this strange ritual with all the discomfort of an intruder at an ancient and very private rite. I couldn't say how much time passed. It could have been seconds or hours. The eerie twilight lent the place an indescribable sense of timelessness. Then, eventually, the bowed hood turned in my direction, but search as I might, I could make out no features in the depths of that dark cowl. Almost imperceptibly it gave a single nod and then the same hand, still dripping water, beckoned to me.
I knew that at that moment I should have just turned and left. Whatever was in this room it wasn't a way out. There was prize or trophy, no battle to fight. I should have just left and opened that last remaining door.
Instead I walked over and knelt at the edge of the lake.
I'm not sure what I expected to see when I peered into the water. The silvery surface, limned in moonlight, offered no reflection. Cautiously I reached out and touched the oddly opaque water. Ripples from that simple contact shattered the mirror smooth surface and countless motes of silver danced across the lake. Then the water nearest to me began to change as streaks of red leeched into the silver. I tore my hand from the water and stared at it in horror. There was still blood on my hands.
Appalled, I looked towards the monk, stumblingly attempting to apologise for the unforgivable desecration I had surely done, but there was nothing left of where he had knelt except a small area where the damp grass lay flattened. Unsteadily I got to my feet. "I... I'm sorry... I didn't mean..." My words faded to silence and I looked down again at my hands. There was blood on them. There had been blood on them for too many years for it to be so easily washed off, and I had a sudden recollection of a play seen years ago, of Lady Macbeth helplessly, hopelessly trying to rinse away blood. 'What will these hands ne'er be clean?' She knew the answer well enough, though, as indeed did I. 'What's done, cannot be undone.' -However much we might sometimes wish it otherwise.
I sighed and with a last regretful look at the lake turned and left, closing the door behind me. The last door stood mute and threatening before me. I wiped my damp hand dry on my now irredeemably filthy shirt, took up the gold key and opened the final door.
The door swung open as easily as the others.
Torches flickered into light in scones around the walls revealing a large, vaulted chamber, empty apart from four biers in the centre.
Three were occupied, and for an instant I could not help but think of the stone sepulchres in churches back home with their carved images of great lords, knights and ladies, some still clinging to faded flakes of the paint with which they had once been decorated.
But no stone carver's skill had made fabric drape so naturally: no paint could have made stone look so real.
I sighed deeply of the incense-heavy air then moved forward, mounting the steps of the nearest bier. Laid out on it was a woman robed in archaic finery of velvets and brocades; jewels glittered against alabaster skin; hair the colour of pale gold dressed in ornate fashion and draped with yet more jewels.
The last time I had seen her I had thought her a ghost. Beyond her on two of the other biers were the others I'd seen, arrayed just as I had remembered seeing them. I reached out towards her, unsure whether I would actually touch flesh or whether this was another nightmare. Reality was getting harder and harder to keep track of.
My hand paused hovering, trembling, barely an inch from her cheek. There was a part of me that didn't want to try to touch her, afraid to find out if she was real or just illusion. My head was pounding mercilessly. I felt ill, though whether from stress, injury, exhaustion or the incense, I couldn't say.
"You should not be here," her voice whispered sadly.
I started. Her lips had not moved. Had I imagined it? A snort of perhaps slightly hysterical laughter escaped my lips. "I'm well aware of that," I gasped, coughing in the thick air.
"You should not be here," she repeated as if I hadn't spoken. I pulled back my hand, the idea of touching her no longer important. I seemed to be hearing things, was touch likely to be any more reliable?
I gazed at the other biers. Four biers, three... corpses? Spirits? I just didn't know anymore, but the words they had spoken to me in the jungle returned unbidden to my mind.
"A fourth long has he sought. A fourth who he found at midnight."
"Found at starry, ebonmantled midnight. Her pale face was all a-glimmer, splendid was her silken hair."
"The night shall be hers hereafter."
"Hers will be the starry mantle."
"Hers will be a crown of diamonds."
"Hers will be the wealth of all his kingdom."
At the time I had thought it sounded like it might have described Marguerite. Now I was sure, and there was no way I was going to let that twisted maniac do to Marguerite what he had done to these others.
There was no way Marguerite was going to end up on that fourth bier - not while I drew breath.
Anger lent me strength I thought I no longer possessed. "Kekszakallu? Kekszakallu! Where the Hell are you, you bastard? I've played this sick little game of yours long enough and I've survived! It's finished! Come out and face me!"
The echoes of my shouted challenge faded, and around me the torches dimmed and the room darkened.
Then from the darkness whispered the voice I had grown to hate. "Megyek!"
Echoed by a voice I had grown to love. "I am coming!"
To be concluded...