This is the end! This is finally the end! It's finished, people! Thank you all for your encouragement, reviews, comments, etc. Hope you're all happy with the ending. The sequel will be out soon, hopefully, though how soon I can't say for certain!
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX"You can't do this. After everything you've been through, it isn't right. They don't have the right to do this to you!"
Carl had expected Van Helsing to be angry and upset about his decision, but he had to make the hunter understand: if there was any chance of destroying Tallnder's evil for good, it would be immoral and selfish not to take it, even if it meant the sacrifice of his own life. Van Helsing knew this, of course – it didn't stop him from being furious.
"I don't have a choice, and neither do they," Carl told him quietly. "If necessary, you would have killed me in England, to destroy Tallander."
"Only if I was sure there was nothing left of you to save!"
"I know...I know." Wearily, Carl rubbed his eyes. He despaired of his friend giving his blessing for this...but in the end, it didn't matter. It wasn't Van Helsing's decision to make.
There was silence for a moment. Gabriel's face was more expressive than Carl had ever seen it, eyes flashing with pained anger, mouth tight, a terrible helplessness overshadowing it all. And in the face of this, Carl felt a sudden strength.
"There's a very good chance that nothing at all will happen," the friar said, in a soothing voice. "The risk isn't great. But...there is a risk, and if Tallander should return," he took a deep breath, "this may be the last conversation we have together. And I don't want to say goodbye like this."
Gabriel gazed back at him, the anger dying from his eyes, replaced with something like grief – and a kind of acceptance.
"I don't want to say goodbye at all," the hunter murmured.
A room had been prepared for the ritual that would call Tallander. A kind of séance, a necessary evil in the minds of Cardinal Jinette and his ilk. Carl would be placed in the centre, seated on a simple stool. A spiritist medium had been paid to take part; she would, presumably, be silenced afterwards in one way or another. The Vatican knew how to cover its tracks, and this could not be allowed to get into the papers.
The medium, Jinette, and the other trusted holy men who would take part in this ritual sacrifice had already taken their places in the dimly-lit room. Carl and Van Helsing stood outside, silent, waiting.
"I think they're ready to start," Carl said quietly. He was trembling very slightly, though struggling to appear outwardly calm. Van Helsing gripped the friar's shoulder so tightly it hurt, but Carl didn't care. They were both behaving as though Carl's death was a foregone conclusion – as though this was the end. As though they both knew that whatever happened in that room, it would be.
They entered the séance room together, Gabriel's hand still on Carl's shoulder. Carl took his place wordlessly in the centre of the circle, all eyes on him. Van Helsing moved equally silently to his own place in the circle itself. He had insisted on being part of this.
The medium began the ritual, the holy men following her lead. She called upon Tallander. She drew him to them. Candles flickered, and a soft wind seemed to whisper through the darkened room. The candles went out. Someone broke the circle, fumbled for a lamp, lit it – it was Jinette. All eyes turned to Carl, but the friar looked as startled as everyone else. Slowly, their gazes fell upon the medium. She was rigid in her chair, eyes rolling, fingers gripping the chair arms so tightly the knuckles were white. Slowly she relaxed...and began to speak, in a voice so terrible that some of the younger sitters covered their ears. Only Carl seemed unaffected. He had heard that voice before, many times...in his mind.
"You thought to trick me," it said, a dreadful, hissing, ragged voice. "You underestimated me, Cardinal Jinette." The medium turned a horrible smile on the old man, who stared back defiantly, though he crossed himself swiftly first.
"I am not so foolish. I'll give you a little tip, since you're all so obviously dim-witted, and know nothing of the existence which I lead. I have been forced to abandon a body before," that smile again, "it is far from impossible. You have not heard of it because my partners did not survive the experience – they were reduced to madness. Your pet friar is in that sense unique, Cardinal Jinette. But here's the tip: once I have vacated a body before the appropriate time, I never enter it again. You have my promise that your clever little friend is safe from that. For his surprising strength of will, I salute him," the medium's body rose from the chair and gave a mocking little bow, "and because he amused me, and I liked him, I have left him with a little gift. Or possibly a curse. Let him interpret it as he will.
"I take my leave of you now, gentleman...for the moment. Don't bother about destroying my churches and consecrating the ground, it won't do the least bit of good. I'll return to you when I'm good and ready – but I promise you, you will not be ready for me."
A convulsion shook the medium's body, and she slumped back in her chair. The candles flickered back to life again. A priest ran to the medium's side, checked her vital signs – and crossed himself.
"My God," he whispered, "she's dead!"
Everyone began to talk at once. Carl, sitting pale and shaken in the circle's centre, seemed to have been forgotten by everyone – except Van Helsing, who moved quickly to his side and knelt beside the stool.
"Are you all right?"
"I...I think so. Oh God, that poor woman!"
"This travesty should never have been attempted," Van Helsing growled. He pulled Carl to his feet. "Come on. I'm taking you back to your cell."
"Wait!" Cardinal Jinette was standing in front of the door, blocking their exit, but although his face was drawn and troubled, his gaze was sympathetic as it fell on Carl.
"You behaved bravely and nobly, my son," he said quietly. "But there is something you must tell me before I allow you to go and rest. Tallander spoke of a gift."
Carl shook his head. "I don't know what he meant, but doubtless I'll find out."
Jinette regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded, and stepped aside, though he did not look satisfied.
"Very well. You will inform me immediately if anything else should occur, or if Tallander contacts you in any way."
"Of course, your Eminence."
At last, Jinette smiled. "Go and rest, then." His gaze fell upon Van Helsing. "Look after him."
"I will," the hunter answered, coldly, shepherding Carl gently out of that awful room.
Carl lay curled up on his small cot, with Van Helsing seated beside him on a wooden stool, watching over his friend protectively, as though he feared the Cardinal should return to demand something more of the exhausted friar.
"Is it really over?" the hunter asked, after a long silence.
"I don't know," Carl replied, simply.
"About this 'gift'..."
"Not now," the friar murmured, half asleep. "Not now."
"You know what he was talking about, then? Why didn't you tell Jinette? What's going on, Carl?"
"There's nothing to tell," Carl answered, "I just don't want to think about it...about Tallander...about any of it. Not yet. Not for some time. I just want to be quiet and go to sleep...will you stay for a while?"
"Of course. I won't leave you."
"Then all's well." With that, Carl closed his eyes, and slept. Van Helsing watched over him through the night, studying his friend's face. It looked no different. The friar seemed no different – a little stronger perhaps, but his experience had been the cause of that. Despite everything, though, Carl was still Carl – eccentric, boisterous, comical, affectionate Carl. Nothing had really changed...
Gazing down at the innocent, sleeping face, Van Helsing wondered.