"What a beautiful house," Beth murmured.
"Home," Jack breathed as she pulled the van to a stop. The manor's gravel outer drive made a lazy semicircle to the iron gate, which lay invitingly open. He somehow expected the manor to look different, threatening, darker. But he'd only been gone a month, and his household daemons were evidently still at work. The trees that covered the grounds were green and verdant, the brick front clean and well-kept. "At least, it was once."
Beth's hand came to cover his where it lay on the armrest. "You're sure you want to do this?"
"I have to."
"That as well. Dracan will need to be handled delicately. I need to talk to him as his brother, and as his teacher. He doesn't react well to strangers."
"He may seem so," Jack admitted quietly. "But he's still my brother. I know that man, I know what he's capable of. Cruelty, yes, but not murder. The Dracan I know couldn't kill. I trained Dracan; I won't abandon all faith in his humanity yet."
"I'll give you ten minutes with him. Then I'm coming in."
"All right," Jack agreed, not liking that idea. Dracan didn't need to meet Beth. He didn't need any more of Jack's vulnerabilities exposed--there were too many already. But Jack knew better than to tell her no. One word and she'd be in there in three minutes instead. "But stay low and take care." Beth, I should never have brought you here. Pure selfishness had prevented him from objecting too strenuously when she announced that she was following him to Scotland. If anything happened to her because of it, he'd never forgive himself.
"I love you," she blurted.
Jack smiled sadly at her, his attention turned from his study of the house. Her dark eyes were large and very earnest. "Don't say things you can't take back, Beth."
"I'm not taking anything back. I do, you know."
"I know." He sighed. "I love you, too." He leaned close, risking a lingering kiss, before pulling away. Any more of that and he wouldn't have the strength to leave her behind. "I'm ready."
Beth stepped out of the car only to unload his wheelchair from the back of the van and help him into the seat. Jack quailed at that, though he knew better than to show it--here he was, having to lean heavily on Beth just to move half a foot into his chair. Without the Art, how would he ever handle Dracan? He forced himself not to think about it.
"All right," he murmured as Beth's protective arm slid from around his shoulders. "Get into the car. Lock the doors and leave the engine running. If you see anything strange or threatening, drive into town and find somewhere safe to wait."
"Yes." That was meek enough, but he knew she wouldn't do it. "I'm giving you ten minutes."
"I know. Everything will be all right by then." Master Crowley will know what to do, if I can get to him.
"You are going to regret that when this is over, Beth," Jack noted clinically.
"You're an idiot. Be careful."
"I will," he whispered, after she kissed him again. He forced himself not to look back, or watch her return to the car, once he wheeled himself past the gate. There he paused. He may not have been able to sense the Art, but the pressure against his wheels when he stopped indicated that he was resting the chair against an invisible barrier. Questing fingers, reaching back behind him, confirmed that, once he crossed into the manor grounds, a powerful ward had sealed him inside. He could come in, but not leave.
Odder and odder. What Jack found in the mailbox wasn't encouraging, either--evidently, no one had retrieved the mail in more than two weeks. The box, normally empty, was stuffed almost full. Leafing through the junk mail, Jack found his overnight-postage letter to Crowley, unopened, with the protective amulet still inside. He cast it aside with a muttered curse. So much for his warning.
Jack took the gravel drive in his chair with practiced ease and tugged the front door open a crack, barely wide enough to wheel himself inside. The foyer was deserted, lamps and fireplace unlit even though it was more night than evening. Breathing in the silence, Jack heard nothing to announce Dracan or Crowley's presence.
"Ammanor," he whispered. "Nal'chez. Desrigala. Attend me." He couldn't reach out with his mind, but his daemons should have come when called from anywhere within the grounds. None answered. Jack's lips tightened into a grimace. He truly was alone.
He'd been a fool to bring Beth here. He should have left her safe at the airport. Except that Jack knew she'd never consent to wait behind for him. He'd be lucky if, even now, she wasn't scaling the gates. The thought of that, and the urgency behind it, spurred him to wheel into the main hall, even though he suspected a trap. Even without the Art, his intuition screamed at him; something was very wrong.
As soon as the chair hit the threshold, it stopped moving. Jack couldn't feel the Art anymore, but he knew the spell, and didn't bother struggling with locked wheels and seat. A Master such as Dracan could have stopped a flying airplane with the Art, held it suspended in midair. Instead, he half-turned in the chair, preparing to face his lost brother, but the words he'd prepared slipped from his lips in a tangled jumble.
"Oh, no," emerged instead, a choked denial barely louder than a whisper. "My God. Not even you could go so far, Dracan."
His fellow Master, thinner and paler than Jack remembered him a month ago, stood flanked by two men Jack sincerely wished he didn't remember. Two creatures. He'd never seen a zombie, but he was familiar with the theory and the spells. Two bodies, upright and animated, stood beside the living man.
One corpse was too fresh for the stink of death, only a day or two old, and Jack's heart tightened in grief at the sight of Marcus' pallid, frozen face and lifeless eyes. His intestines bulged from a bloodless gash that had ripped through clothing and flesh, and his eyes wept from open, red sores, as though he'd scratched and torn at the skin before death with the intention of ripping his eyeballs free from their sockets. The other zombie was almost too decayed to recognize, mostly bones wrapped in loose scraps of rotting flesh, and it filled the hall with stench. Jack, coughing despite himself, couldn't manage more than a brief glance at the half-skeletal face before looking away. Rotten or not, he recognized McClellan all too well--the sweet old man who'd seen him through his apprenticeship and decades of Masterhood, who'd been a favorite uncle and trusted friend. "Damn you."
"You don't like the new pets?" Dracan raised a languid hand to caress Marcus' limp gray hair. The zombie didn't react. "Odd. You were always so fond of the servants when they were alive."
Jack's hands fisted on the arms of his chair with the effort to remain civil. He couldn't win a fight--Dracan needed to be reasoned with. "Dracan, where is Crowley?"
Narrow-eyed, Dracan met Jack's eyes for the first time, then, measuring the other man's rumpled appearance and haggard face. "Why have you come back here, Jack? You were safe in America. You should not have come. I can't help what will happen to you now."
Jack's jaw was so tight it hurt. "I've you've harmed him, I swear--"
"What?" Dracan sneered. "What can you do to me now, Master Jack?" He laughed out loud, watching Jack stiffen at the name. "You're a cripple without even the Art to your name. What did you really expect to accomplish, coming here?"
Jack had to swallow before he could speak, but his voice did not waver. "Dracan, listen to me. You must turn back from this. It's not too late. For your soul, brother. You've killed Marcus, abused the Art and the dead, robbed me of the Art, and hurt or murdered Crowley--"
"Crowley's not dead," Dracan snapped. "Does that serve my purpose? No, it does not. I have told you that before." His gaze had turned inward, his tone almost argumentative as he scowled.
Jack nodded slowly, understanding now. "I'm not talking to Dracan, am I? You've a daemon riding you, or else something stronger than a daemon. You can fight it, Dracan. You can cast it from you. Fight it."
Dracan sneered again. "Spare me, brother. I'm not being dominated. I'm entirely in control. What I've gained from Tiamat and from the Star is power--something you'd never understand."
"Power is different from this," Jack replied quietly. "This--what you've done--is pure evil, Dracan. Fight it. Turn from it now. You're a Master of the Art, brother. You don't need crutches like this to know power. For the sake of what we share--"
A curt gesture from Dracan sent the fresher zombie lumbering forward. Jack cut himself off, flinching despite his iron control, but the zombie Marcus merely grabbed the wheelchair by both handles and shoved, tilting the chair. Caught off-guard, Jack tumbled from the chair into an undignified heap on the floor.
"Enough," Dracan said. "Can it be Jack speaking to me of power? How would you know, brother? You've always despised me--always been jealous. You've never had power, cripple, and you have less now without the Art. Were you a real Master, I'd never have been able to take it from you." He grimaced, his tone growing in volume. "You claim kinship with me only because you have no way of defeating me. You're afraid of me, just like Crowley grew afraid of me and tried to seal us within the manor, tried to take the Star from me through this fool." Dracan aimed a kick at Marcus' backside, which the zombie ignored.
Forgive me, Marcus. I should never have asked that of you. Your death is on my hands as much as Dracan's. "I am not afraid." Sprawled on the floor, Jack still met Dracan's gaze firmly and kept his tone level, calm. "Not of you. Crowley and I trained you, Dracan. We made you a Master. I did not come to beg or trick you. I came to bring you back from the abyss because you are still my brother. Turn back before this…thing takes control of you completely."
Dracan snorted. "Here's a sight--the great all-knowing Master who has to crawl on his belly. No," he reflected, "you can't even crawl now, can you, Jack?" At his gesture, Marcus lumbered to his side, dragging the chair with him. Dracan rested a reflective hand on the wheelchair's backrest. "Now I have two things of yours--the Art, and the chair. The two things that made Jack No-Name more than a worthless invalid." He paused, then, his face assuming the careful vacuity of someone looking through the Art instead of through his eyes. A slow, thin smile spread across his face. "Or do I have three things?"
Jack routinely set wards around the manor's walls to warn him when someone entered. He'd taught Dracan to do the same long ago. Dracan had sensed him enter, and now he sensed…Oh, God. Jack hadn't abandoned dignity when dumped onto the floor in a puddle, but he abandoned in now. "Dracan, listen to me. She's not involved in this. I beg you, brother--leave her be."
Dracan grinned down at him. "Now the Master changes his tone."
Jack's sudden terror didn't allow him time to be offended. "Do whatever you will with me. You know I won't--can't--resist like this. But don't hurt her. Please."
The other man laughed out loud--a sound Jack hadn't heard in years, and one that sent chills up his spine now. "This new side of you is quite amusing, brother, but it grows repetitive. You may disguise it as begging for the little whore's life, but you're still telling me what to do. As though you have the right to still call yourself a Master." Turning away, Dracan waved a hand at the zombies. "You know what to do with him. Keep him alive for now."
"Dracan!" Jack shouted, too focused to even flinch at the feel of stiff, cold hands grabbing his arms. McClellan lifted one arm, Marcus the other, leaving him dangling between them with his knees bumping on the floorboards. "For God's sake, listen to me! Please!" Oh, damn it. Damn it all to hell, you idiot. How dare you bring her here? How dare you hand her to this madman? "She's nothing to you! You have me!"
The hands were like iron bands on his upper arms, rendering struggles useless--who knew that corpses could be so strong?--and Dracan had already strode away, ignoring the shouting at his back. As they dragged him off towards the stairs, Jack risked filling his lungs with air and shouting as loud as he could. "Beth! Beth, run! Run!"
Once she was alone in the car with her thoughts, Beth found it impossible to wait. She flipped on the radio, but her gaze never wavered from where the mansion's double doors were visible through the gates. After five minutes of foot-tapping, fidgety agony, Beth turned off the engine, unlocked the car, and stepped out into the gathering evening.
She knew better than to enter through the front door. If Jack was in trouble, she'd only make things worse. Instead, she skirted the brick wall circling the grounds, watching for uneven spots that would make the wall easier to scale.
Aided by adrenaline, she was over the wall and standing on the soft grass inside within thirty seconds. Beth took only a moment to take in her surroundings--noting the greenhouse, ritual building, and small chapel Jack had described to her in such vivid, loving detail. Her gaze went quickly to the house--and to the one obvious back door.
Beth crossed the damp grass and cobbled pathways at a dead, crouching run, expecting invisible demonic creatures to swoop down on her with every step. She was breathing hard once she reached the second-story overhang over the door, but a smile of relief crossed her face before she remembered what awaited her inside.
To her surprise, the door was unlocked. She slipped in quietly, wincing at the sound of the door closing behind her. The room inside was stuffy and too cold. It was some sort of trophy room, Beth realized, squinting around. In the half-gloom, the old mounted animal heads and stuffed parts seemed imbued with a kind of eerie life, locked into half-living snarls.
Stop it, she chided herself. This is scary enough without your imagination taking control. Find Jack and we'll get out of here. Choosing doors at random, Beth wound her way into what had to be the dining room, a huge chamber with some of the most beautiful antique furniture she'd ever seen, if she hadn't been too distracted to notice. Still on tiptoes, she was considering her choice of three doors when she heard Jack scream her name.
She would have been the first to admit her hard-headedness, but when Jack yelled at her to run in that tone, she listened. Jack, she'd learned, was a man of self-control and inner strength, the result of decades of quiet self-discipline and mastery of a life-changing disability. She'd never seen or heard him lose control or demonstrate anything resembling real fear. What she heard in his voice then was pure terror, and it wasn't fear for himself.
Beth bolted, ducking into what she assumed was a den or game room of some sort. Her fingers had barely closed on the next doorknob when the other door into the room opened and a thin stranger stepped through.
They stared at each other for a moment, with Beth too curious to be afraid. This man--she assumed it was the one gone bad, Dracan, since he didn't match Jack's reverential description of Crowley--wasn't physically intimidating. He was short, very thin, and sallow, with black hair lank around his shoulders and shabby clothing twenty years out of style that also looked as though it had been slept in for weeks. Then his eyes locked on hers and, in that burning, wholly inhuman gaze, Beth saw something to intimidate her.
She'd begun to back away, keeping Dracan in view, when the zombies stepped into the room behind him. Beth made a strangled noise in her throat, too shocked to scream, as the creatures lumbered in, dragging heavy limbs and rotting flesh and the stink of the grave. No, she argued with her eyes, this can't be what you're seeing. This isn't possible. Those men are obviously dead.
The small part of her brain that was rational realized then that, even though she loved Jack, trusted him implicitly, she really until this moment hadn't believed half of what he'd told her about the Art. She believed now.
"Bring her here," Dracan commanded, his voice breaking into the silence. His voice was warm, almost friendly, deeper and more vibrant than his bony thinness suggested. The fresher zombie's first step forward broke Beth's frozen panic, and she turned, yanking hard on the doorknob. The door that had opened to let her in thirty seconds ago now refused to budge.
"The house obeys its Masters," Dracan observed in an entirely rational and conversational tone, "not nosy trespassers. You must be Beth Klein."
Beth pressed her back against the door, edging away from the zombies. She knew she was backing herself into a corner, but she couldn't help herself. The sight of the dead, staggering things, things that couldn't by any laws of logic or nature be, scared the hell out of her. But, somehow, she summoned her voice, which barely even cracked. "You must be Dracan." She didn't even care how he knew her name. She wanted out.
He snorted, still seeming more cat-and-mouse amused than insane. "I'm not surprised Jack's mentioned me. He'd blame every injustice in the world on me, if he could."
The mention of Jack's name brought a little more of her strength back from her. The zombies were too close, but Beth forced her gaze squarely on Dracan's face. She was too frightened to breathe, but she kept her spine straight and her voice calm. "Where is Jack? What have you done with him?" Her next sound, a squeak of terror, spoiled her tone as one zombie shuffled forward and grabbed her arm, yanking her forward until she was toe-to-toe with Dracan.
Up close, the insanity in the man's eyes was clear, and repellent. "Brave," he murmured. "Are you so sure you want to take that tone with a Master of the Art?" At a lifted finger from him, the zombie's grip tightened, dead cold fingers digging in tight enough to her upper arm to hurt.
Beth gritted her teeth and focused. "I know one Master of the Art who's taken a lot worse from you."
Dracan snorted. "Loyal to the end," he noted. "Perhaps you two could share a cell. You could bask in the power of that Master, lying broken and helpless on the floor, and the two of you could die together. Yes," he cocked his head, nodding, and Beth couldn't shake the feeling that he spoke to someone other than her now. "That is indeed an excellent idea." He jerked his head towards Beth. "Her too."
This time, Beth did scream--an involuntary sound of terror--when the zombie grabbed her, but it ended in a rasp as the thing grasped her, one hand yanking her hair, the other bruisingly tight about her throat, and half-dragged, half-propelled her towards the door.
"Sweet dreams," Dracan noted calmly. He considered his invisible companion again. "Yes, love, she will make a lovely zombie. We will make sure to kill her in a manner that leaves no marks."
Beth kicked at the zombie--which had the feel of kicking moldy cheese, and the same effect--before the grip on her throat was enough to leave her concerned with nothing but struggling to breathe. With no other options, she stumbled forward.
The prospect of their deaths--of lives that had spanned centuries coming to an end--left the two other Masters introspective. Jack had rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. He'd never thought of the cellar, with its bare stone walls and earth floors, to be good for anything but keeping cheese and vegetables before the advent of refrigerators. There were the barred cells, of course, but that had been from ages ago, before Crowley had risen to power in the Brotherhood, where Master had fought Master for control of the ancient world.
The Brotherhood had ended that, created peace and cooperation among Masters that allowed technology to flourish into what it had become today. Jack lay on his back, thinking back to how he'd done so as a teenager, lying on the grassy hill of the manor staring up at the stars and wondering about the mysteries of the Art, before he had the power to explore it himself. He'd never lost that sense of wonder, and he struggled to hold it now, as the last two Masters faced the true end of the Brotherhood.
"I thought in the same manner before we formed the Brotherhood," Crowley whispered. The old man's voice was hoarse and strained. Jack knew he was hurt, even though the old Master pretended otherwise, but Jack couldn't get into the next cell to help. He couldn't even get to the door. He wondered if Dracan had even locked his cell. "I looked up into the night sky and I wondered if our foolish pride and rivalries would rip the world apart. I was only a boy then, barely a Master, fresh from a far-off land. I decided to cast my lot with those seeking alliance over war and vowed that I would never cause such chaos again."
"You have not, Master," Jack whispered back. "You ended it. We might die, but Dracan and that thing will rot out the rest of their days here. The world is safe."
"We can but hope," Crowley sighed. "In this sort of situation, certain things must be said, mustn't they? Powerful last words, promises of affection from father to son, vows for what we might do in the next lifetime. Words fail me. I should have died years ago--centuries ago. Even I know this."
"You have never held back those words, Master." Jack struggled to keep his voice even. He didn't give into helpless emotions--had he, he would have laid down and died long before meeting Crowley. But, under the circumstances, it was difficult to hold back tears. He wondered why he did. "Father."
"Do not let them do it, my son," Crowley whispered, fainter now. "Do not let him take your soul and twist you into one of those things. You are a true Master, regardless of what happened to the Art, and you can still fight it."
Jack nodded, but kept his darkest suspicions to himself. Dracan doubtlessly knew he could make Jack do anything now that he held Beth. He might ask for his soul. He might give Jack back the Art and ask for his Star.
Could he break the ward with the Star? Jack wondered. It was possible. He sweated already, weighing the options. It was a terrible choice. Kill Beth, or possibly kill untold thousands of people. He was afraid he already knew the answer.
"Master Crowley," he said, "we do have a dilemma."
"Miss Klein is here," Crowley replied, startling Jack. From Crowley's recognition of her, Jack knew that the old Master knew much more about Jack's personal life than he'd let on. He had always been one for privacy. "I heard the commotion below." He exhaled again, low and sad. "Bear me no hatred, Jack. I banished the daemons. The Star is hidden in a place neither you or I know and sealed from the Art. Only the one who forged the ward can break it. Forgive me, Jack--I will not do it."
"I understand," Jack whispered, squeezing his eyes shut. He knew what had to happen just as Crowley did--this was a true demon, a thing that fed off pain, suffering, and death. The modern world would stand no chance against it if Dracan were so easily consumed. Knowing the evil inside Dracan, it was easy to predict what would come next. Jack could only hope that Dracan's impatience and fear would force him to kill them quickly.
Beth was going to die. Crowley would let her die. Jack drew a deep, shaky breath, brushing away the tears that fell now. He had no choice.
Jack heard the thump of the zombies returning, and steeled himself for the inevitable. But, instead, they walked past him, and the door to the next cell creaked open. There was a thump, and the creak of the door closing and locking, and they were gone again.
Ragged sounds came from the next cell--deep, raspy breaths alternating with the hacking cough of someone with a bruised throat. Then there was a deep breath and a murmur that sounded like "Oh, God."
Jack's heart leaped in his chest. "Beth!" he hissed.
"Jack?" He could hear Beth shift. "Is that really you? Where are you?"
"The cell on your right. Follow my voice."
"I thought you were dead," Beth rasped, "I thought he would have killed you. Oh, here's the wall."
"I'm on the other side. Move your hand to the vent on the lower right corner of the wall."
"Jack--" Her voice was still too hoarse and raspy; it sounded painful.
"Here. Shh." Jack managed to push several of his fingers through the slats of the vent. Beth jumped, emitting a startled sound, when his fingertips brushed hers, then pressed her own hand against his fingers. "It's all right. It will be all right. Just breathe. Are you hurt."
"No…no," Beth rasped. "A couple of bruises on my throat, I think. Are you hurt?"
"Just my pride." Jack sighed, closing his eyes, but did not take his hand away. "Beth, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. You should never have come here. I shouldn't have let you."
"I made my choice. You did all you could to keep me safe. It's my responsibility." Beth drew a deep, shaky breath. "God, I'm terrified. I'm trying not to show it--"
"It's all right. We're all afraid."
"Those things he had with him…"
"Zombies. Two men who used to work here. One of them Dracan killed."
"I won't let him hurt you, Beth." But he knew that was hollow, and so did Beth.
Instead, she chose another tactic. "Who's we?"
He had to backtrack through their conversation a moment to remember what she meant. "Master Crowley is in the cell on my other side. He's hurt. Can you--"
"I have to be able to touch him, Jack. Or see him at the very least."
"There is no need." Crowley's voice came wearily from the other side. "I am all right for now. Good evening, Miss Klein. I have been most eager to meet you. I apologize for the situation of this meeting."
Incredibly, Jack could hear the smile in her voice. She was so much braver than him. "Hello, Mr. Crowley."
Abruptly, the idea came to Jack. It was so simple, so unlikely yet so possible, that Jack's breath caught in his throat. He approached it in a roundabout way, too frightened by the possibility of hope to voice it yet. "Beth…did Dracan do anything to you?"
"Do anything?" she repeated, suspicious. "Well, he set that giant dead thing on me."
"Besides that." Jack spoke more quickly now, rolling onto his side to face Beth even though the light was too poor to see anything. "Take anything personal of yours, use any spells you could sense?"
"No," she said slowly. Jack heard a soft, surprised sound from Crowley as the other Master realized his gist.
"Risky," was his only, quiet comment.
"Beth…listen to me. Dracan has taken the Art from Crowley and myself, but you still have it. He probably did not even bother feeling for it in you. You can help us."
"What? Wait, Jack," Beth spluttered. "I can't do anything with the Art. I can't light a candle, for God's sake! You want me to take on that wild-eyed wizard and the zombies?"
"No." Jack shook his head. "I just want you to open the door." He rolled right over Beth's next splutter of protest. "I can walk you through it."
"I won't leave you," she snapped.
He smiled sadly in the dark. "Were that an option, I would beg you to do it. But all of us are sealed up inside the manor. Our only option is to get that thing away from Dracan."
"You have a plan?" she asked, the barest touch of hope returning to her voice.
"I may. I am not yet sure."
"All right," Beth sighed in response. "Anything is better than sitting here waiting to die."