It starts in the place it might have ended, if things had gone a little differently. Cassie could be dead now, if they had; if this midnight mission in an icy church had ended some other way than with her, outside it, whole and well in body if not in mind. But she’s very much alive, and with that comes a world of possibilities.
The cold air had seemed to freeze time itself, framing a hellish tableau of Malachi, laid out on the altar, Ella poised to plunge a blade into his heart. Her own heart had buckled beneath the horror of it, knees threatening to follow. Every instinct she possessed had urged her to do something – anything – other than looking on, and condemning him to his fate.
It’s only in the aftermath that she realises what her gut reaction had been: to rush forward, to Malachi, and try to shield him from the blow. In a million other lives, maybe that was exactly what she would have done. But in this one, she'd glanced back at Azazeal instead, and in the fraction of a second it took, everything changed. He stood there, spent from escaping his chalk-ringed prison; from the lengthy battle he'd fought, only to arrive here, again on the losing side. Tears stained his face, and all his fight seemed gone. Words were the only weapon he had left.
“I never lied to you. I told you I loved you...it was true then, and it’s true now...”
And then Cassie had remembered she had a weapon too – and the frozen moment had shattered.
Ella had cried out in horror as the dagger flew from her hands. She stood there, eyes wide as saucers, paralysed by shock, as it hovered above the altar and circled slowly, aiming at her heart. Emotion made her weak: but it granted Cassie a strength she hadn’t known she was capable of.
“Cassie!” Thelma had screamed, her voice sounding very far away. “Don’t!”
Whether she meant don’t kill Ella or don’t stop her, Cassie hadn’t known, or cared. She wonders now if she was training herself not to.
She’d scooped Malachi up in her arms, pressing a kiss to his forehead, branding him as hers. Back turned, she’d walked out of the church, footsteps echoing in space as Ella, Thelma, and even Azazeal stared mutely after her. Gradually, other sounds had crept in, forming for her ears a scene the rest of her didn’t dare witness. The dagger, clattering on stone as she allowed it to drop. Thelma, sobbing softly. Azazeal, mocking Ella with more of his words, as elegant in victory as the face of defeat.
“How little you know of life. Of her. Of me...”
But it isn’t about him. It’s about her, and a choice she made, with another one pending. She holds Malachi close, safe from the chill of the night and all that claims him, and shudders to think what could have happened if she’d obeyed that reckless urge to bolt to the altar. Maybe Ella would have stopped the killing blow in time and they’d both have survived, unscathed. Maybe she’d have escaped with just a scratch. Maybe she’d be scarred for life, outside and in...
Or maybe she’d be dead. But instead she’s alive, and so the choice she makes now she has to live with.
She feels Azazeal behind her, a shadow skittering across her senses, before she hears him. She readies herself for the triumph on his face, that smirk he wears so easily, and so well. But when she turns around he’s not smiling, and his eyes glitter in the moonlight, full of something that looks oddly like sadness. For the sacrifice she's making; for what he’s turned her into, even though it’s what he wanted her to be.
“Let’s go,” she says, both choice and commitment.
He steps forward and puts an arm around her, claiming his prize without a word. They walk away, family and united front, into the black heart of night.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” Azazeal asks, when he sees her approaching. It’s a rhetorical question: part of the routine they’ve established, and the repartee that goes with it. Cassie comes to this dungeon of a church every day now, bringing Malachi books and toys, and the love that could have got her killed, trying to save him. Azazeal encourages it, now he has proof the bond is too strong for her to allow any harm to come to her son. Whatever else Ella might be plotting, Cassie is not a threat to him: she’s just a reliable babysitter.
“Shouldn’t you be in heaven?” she retorts. “Plucking a harp with the angels?”
He lights a cigarette and settles back in a plush red chair. Velvet swallows him up like a throat as he glances at the sheaf of papers, tucked under her arm. “Have you come to serve me a writ?”
“If I did, I’d win. Courts always favour the mother.”
Azazeal mulls this over with a smirk. “Then we’re fortunate genes don’t follow their example.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He exhales a white, curling tendril, content that she’s risen to the bait. “You cling to the illusion that you’re normal, even now. You have powers, yet you rarely use them. The most you’ve ever done with them is resolve petty squabbles...attract adolescent boys. But you’re capable of so much more, Cassie. Your son is just a child, and he’s capable of more.”
“Yet he still can’t read or write,” Cassie points out; glad Azazeal doesn’t know what else Malachi is learning from her, when he isn’t looking.
“You feel it when you’re with him, don’t you? Humbled? Amazed to know such greatness came from you? Or should I say...from me.”
“All my powers do is remind me of you,” Cassie says, and the words erupt with a heat that takes her by surprise; as if Azazeal has stolen something else from her, something she’s only just begun to acknowledge. Azazeal hears it too, and – damn him, pushing buttons she didn’t even know she had – curves his lips in a knowing smile.
“Why would I ever want to use them?”
“I’m not asking you to. I’m simply suggesting you hone them. Under my instruction, if you’d like.”
“So I can do cheap tricks like floating petals in the air? I can’t tell you how impressed I was by that...”
Before she’s even finished the sentence Azazeal has discarded the cigarette and is on his feet, moving towards her, dangling a marmalade wedge from a pewter chain. It’s the stone Malachi was so fond of as a baby; is still drawn to, even now. She'd stolen it from Ella’s room and returned it to him, recalling that it made him happier than any amount of primary coloured plastic. From the script etched inside that she can’t decipher, to the way it glows from within, she’s always suspected there was something otherworldly about it. She’s just never known what.
“Carved by the angels,” Azazeal explains. “When we grew bored of plucking our harps.”
Cassie runs her fingertips across the whorled surface, fascinated by the way the colour roils and shifts in the light. “Couldn’t you have carved something a bit more impressive? Like a statue?”
“A statue wouldn’t have been so useful.”
“Why?” She yanks her hand away, seized by a creeping unease; realising too late that Ella had hidden it away for a better reason than to deprive a child of his toys. “What is it?”
There’s the merest pause before he answers, undetectable to an eye that’s not intimately familiar with him and his ways. “It’s a tool.”
“Like me, I suppose,” Cassie says, knowing he’s lying.
Azazeal looks almost proud. “So some things I don’t need to teach you.”
“Oh, some things I’m very well aware of.”
That I come here for Malachi, not for you. That the real battle will be for his heart and mind, not mankind’s, and I plan to win it. That part of me does want to know more about my powers, and how to use them...
“I can teach you to use it. To read it. And more besides.”
Cassie swallows hard, eyes fixed on the amber signal before her. “Ella said I didn’t need to know anything like this.”
“Because she knows your potential, and she’s scared of it. She’s no better than you are, Cassie: she’s just had more time to practise. You call what I do tricks – but you can't protect our son unless you learn some of hers.”
He stares at her, unblinking, intent on pressing home his point. “The telekinesis is only a fraction of what you’re capable of. If you tapped into the rest of it...”
She lifts her chin to meet his eyes, and feels a pang, knowing how easy it would be to get lost in them. “I’d go insane. Like Rachel McBain did.”
“It’s the chance you take for greatness.” He leans towards her, so close his smoke-scented breath is warm on her lips, feeding on her temptation. “Don’t you want to be great, Cassie?”
She contemplates lying, but aware he’d see through it in an instant, hesitantly admits, “I want to learn.”
Azazeal smiles indulgently. “Then I’ll teach you.”
All the time she was alive and they shared a room, Thelma never had a girlfriend. At least not one she cared to tell Cassie about, or introduce her to. Yet now she’s dead, she’s managed to find not just one ghostly girl to date, but two.
Cassie should be glad for her. She would be: if she didn’t believe Azazeal had something to do with it (it’s not as if dead lesbians just grow on trees, waiting to be plucked), and if it didn’t make her feel so alone. She has no idea where Peggy came from, much less where she went (typical Thelma, dropping the bombshell after the fact, like she was going to be jealous), but she has all sorts of suspicions about who’s replaced her.
It’s as if Azazeal has conjured up this Maya woman just to isolate her. Make her want him, now that Thelma has stopped wanting her. It’s another of his evil plans, and she’s not going to fall for it. She’s not going to run back to him.
She walks there instead. But when she arrives at his church, she finds him snogging the face off a sharp-featured woman who later shows up at Medenham claiming to be the new school nurse. Cassie’s not sure why they need another nurse, but she knows why Azazeal keeps turning up to meet her at the gates, a warped attempt at gentlemanly valour. It’s nothing to do with this woman, the way his fling with Jo wasn’t really about Jo. It’s all for her: a show for an audience of one, watching from her window like Juliet on her balcony. It’s to hurt her: remind her that he gave her the chance to be with him and Malachi, and she chose not to take it.
It’s better to be alone than sacrifice everything she is to be with a fallen angel. It’s definitely better to be alone than to wish Thelma that way too, just so they can be miserable together.
But Cassie has got used to being centre stage, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. The absence of undivided attention just makes her crave it all the more. And she finds herself yearning for the things she chose not to have, and doesn’t want, just because she can no longer have them.
After one too many dreams starring her and Thelma, prompted not by ghostly intervention but her treacherous subconscious, she persuades Leon to give her Troy’s address and emails him. It’s lengthy, and friendly, and a little bitchy in parts (mainly the one about Alex, who Roxanne plucked from obscurity to make up the numbers, and promptly gave a restyle). She stops short of apologising for everything that happened between them, but she does ask after Gemma, and wishes them well, and thinks as she hits Send that she might even mean it.
He doesn’t reply, and she decides she didn’t mean it after all. But he does reply to Leon, who hovers by Cassie’s locker one morning as a result, looking awkward.
“Did Troy give you a bollocking?” she asks, suppressing a smile.
“Did he tell you why he didn’t have the courtesy to reply to me?”
“Cassie,” Leon says, as if it’s obvious, “you broke his heart.”
She shuts the locker door and turns to give him more than a fleeting glance, so surprised by the response that it calls for closer study. He’s not nearly as immature as he used to be. Losing Troy and gaining a lapdog in Tom seems to have made him more responsible, bizarrely enough. She hasn’t forgotten how he tried to feel her up, and worse, last year. But she also has vague memories of the two of them in a shower cubicle, and the feel of his lips on hers, and it’s unexpectedly enticing.
“So he went home over Christmas crying to mummy and daddy, and just never came back.”
Leon shrugs in response. His eyes scan the lobby behind Cassie’s head, searching for an escape. She leans against the locker, absent-mindedly running her fingers across her cardigan, over the graze above her heart that’s yet to fully heal.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
“It’s not like he’s dead or something,” Leon says. His eyes widen. “Oh, shit. Thelma. I forgot. I didn’t—”
“I miss her so much,” she tells him, seizing the opening. Tears spring to her eyes, but she bites her lip and blinks them back. “She was always there for me. Even when she wasn’t...”
Leon looks confused, but is too unnerved by the outburst to question it. She reminds herself that he has no idea about Thelma, or Azazeal, or the baby who’s out there growing up, on a fast track to causing chaos, because she was too stupid and sentimental to let him die.
One day he’ll be there too, when she looks out of her window. She dreads the idea and yearns for it, simultaneously.
“And now she’s off somewhere else, and Troy’s gone too, and I can’t go back to Az—” She catches herself, but the rest pours out, without restraint. “I won’t. And I’ve got no one to talk to, and everyone I talk to dies anyway, and it’s all my fault, and I just feel so—”
She trails off and looks up at Leon. His forehead is knitted in concern. He has kind eyes, and nice lips even without the aid of memory, and she feels the strangest urge to lean forward and reacquaint herself with them. It’s not as if anyone else has given her so much as the time of day lately. And what’s the harm anyway, when they’ve all gone and abandoned her—
“Don’t let him get to you,” says a voice to her right.
It's Ella. Ella, who glides into view and laces her fingers through Leon’s, looking for all the world like a real teenager, and not a killing machine that’s just pretending. Cassie glares at her, the air between them freezing up like the Arctic.
She could talk to Ella, if she chose. They have lots in common: powers, a shared cause, knowledge of the truth. But Ella is an ever-present reminder of that truth, and Cassie has gone from deferring to her, to tolerating her, and lately to resenting her very existence. Ella is a thief of lives, and hopes, and dreams. She’s a heartless freak of nature who would have murdered both Cassie and a baby unborn if she’d arrived in time to do it. The faint hope of redeeming her mistake is the only reason she’s still here, swishing around, a spectre at the feast.
“Don’t let him win,” Ella adds.
“He already has won,” says Cassie, and Ella, who is not in the habit of dispensing comforting untruths, doesn’t correct her.
Cassie stares at her bitterly, wishing for the first time that she hadn’t been so late, and it could all have been over with before it had even begun.
It’s her lowest, bleakest point, and it soon brings about a change (she must have been crazy to even consider kissing Leon, however clever he might be with his tongue). She sends Troy (poor, heartbroken Troy, who didn’t deserve any of it, least of all being pursued to the ends of the earth by Gemma) another email, asking if he’s gone for his biology refresher yet, since he saw her looking five months pregnant and assumed it was his, even though the first time they slept together was a fortnight before. This time she’s not hoping for a reply, and she’s not the least bit surprised when she doesn’t get one.
She tries to build bridges with Ella, who responds by sharing the secrets of an ancient book, and stories of her own of loss, and love, and what it is to be the latest in line, over on the other side of the coin.
She dares to ask Thelma about Maya, and rejoices in the way she giggles and blushes as they sit long into the night talking about her, vowing to be less selfish, to stop begrudging her a chance at happiness, whatever its origin, when there’s so little of it to be found.
And then, early one morning, she peeks through her window and sees Azazeal, standing alone in the shade of a tree, smoking a cigarette and staring into the distance. With no idea he has an audience, his guard is down, and something of his feelings is on display. She recognises the emotions as if she were staring at a mirror. There is yearning in his stance, frustration in his face, a wish written all across him for something he cannot have.
Cassie presses her hand flat against the glass, over the image of Azazeal. It is as cold and unyielding as reality. She made choices she can’t unmake, and now she has to deal with the consequences. She couldn’t have lived with herself if she’d allowed Ella to kill her son. If Ella had got here sooner, both of them would be dead. But she is a survivor, and she is not alone, however much she might indulge the notion in moments of weakness.
Azazeal may have won the battle, but the war has not yet begun.
And when her son does come looking for her, she’ll be ready for him.
She feels hot when she wakes, and at first she thinks it’s a fever. The beginnings of the flu, or maybe an offshoot of the mood swings she’s been battling with, ever since she came back to school.
Longing, guilt, despair: she's fought them all. And then there's anger – an anger so fierce it feels as if her blood is on fire in her veins, licking hungrily at her skin.
Emotions come and go, but the memories are constant. They torment her night and day, growing more vivid with every tick of the clock. Being used to birth the messiah of the fallen angels; having her baby stolen from her womb; watching the ritual meant to kill him, while a voice inside screamed at her to intervene, and a voice behind ensured it. Sometimes she can feel Azazeal himself, flicking through her thoughts like a storybook. Watching her from within, as if he’s set up home there.
The others blame the scar on her face, the one Thelma tries to make light of by claiming she’s destined to marry Harry Potter; the result of a senseless late-night attack that left her in hospital for weeks on end, recovering. They have no idea that it’s a cover for a botched attempt to kill her own child, at the behest of a student who vanished into nowhere, forty-eight hours later. They have no inkling at all that Ella was summoned by higher powers to account for her failings, and left with an ashen face and a tremor in her voice, insisting it was a formality and she’d soon be back, new plan in hand.
No one has seen her, let alone Plan B, ever since.
David Tyrel is worried about them both. He wanted to send Cassie to see someone, for fear she was doomed to end up like her mother, gathering dust in an asylum. Jez Heriot, a new arrival at Medenham with seemingly endless skills outside his priestly remit, convinced him he was the man for the job. Cassie can’t exactly tell him the truth, but she’s found his compassion and willingness to listen of some help, at least – though she can’t help but wonder if the tonic he insists she take at regular intervals is having any effect at all.
Nonetheless, she dutifully swallows a dose before dressing and making her way to the hall, where breakfast and Thelma are waiting.
“Listen to them,” Thelma says, face scrunched up in disgust. Cassie puts down her plate and turns to see Roxanne and her gang at the table behind, discussing Ella.
“I still think the fashion police got her,” Roxanne is saying.
“Someone attacked Cassie,” Alex says. “And you know how they found all those weapons in her room...”
Leon opens his mouth, no doubt to defend a woman he knew nothing about, but seems thoroughly taken by even in her absence. Cassie tunes him out and turns back to find her bacon halfway to Thelma’s lips. She lowers herself onto the opposite bench, less concerned about recovering it than the sweat that's boiling on her brow.
“When did they switch the heating on?”
“What heating?” Thelma looks around, taking in a sea of scarves and long sleeves. “It’s freezing. And I don’t even feel the cold...”
“Then why does my head feel like a bonfire?”
“Um... Early menopause?”
“Stop staring at me!” Cassie snaps – so loudly heads turn to gawp, and gossip starts to hum.
“Keep your voice down,” whispers Thelma, peering at her in concern.
“I’m not talking to you,” she says, rolling her eyes. She points at her head. “I’m talking to him.”
Thelma’s mouth drops open. Cassie rubs her temples, trying to clear the image of Azazeal, ensconced behind her eyeballs. A tear tracks a path down his cheek, something orange swinging like a pendulum from his hands. The colour reminds her of fire, which reminds her of witches and what they did to them, in days gone by.
“They’re going to burn me at the stake, you know,” she says.
“Why’s that?” asks Roxanne, scuttling across. She settles a palm under her chin, eyes wide in glee as she awaits an answer.
Cassie is about to give it when a strange sensation, separate from the blaze in her head, distracts her: a magnetic pull that sweeps across her body, leaving her skin pebbled in goose flesh, every nerve straining as one. She obeys the siren call and looks up, and feels her throat constrict. Her heart crashes to her feet. A bead of sweat slides its way down her face, as though it were a tear. She can barely move; can barely even breathe.
Roxanne follows her gaze. Entering the room is Jez Heriot, a convivial grin plastered to his face. Alongside him is a tall young man with dark, corkscrew hair. His eyes sweep the room in appraisal, lips curling with a familiar smile.
“New boy. Just started,” Leon tells her, throwing a leg over the bench beside Cassie. There's a glass in his hand: refreshment for the show.
“He’s my son,” Cassie says in wonder, a rush of pride supplanting fear.
“Cassie!” Thelma hisses. “For God's sake! Shut the fuc—”
“I’m so glad we’re having this conversation,” says Roxanne, as Alex sniggers behind her. “It’s really very enlightening.”
“He was blond the last time I saw him,” Cassie recalls fondly. “Like a little angel...” She frowns at the sight of Thelma, folding her arms on the table and thumping her head upon them. “Oh, stop it, Thelma. Don’t be so dramatic.”
Leon sputters out a mouthful of juice. Cassie wipes the spray off her cuffs and turns to Roxanne.
“I recognised him instantly. A mother knows these things... And he’s still got my eyes – see?” Roxanne nods obligingly. Cassie glances back at Malachi. “But everything else...seems to be his father’s.”
“Who’s that?” asks Leon, sides shaking with mirth. “Elvis?”
Malachi’s eyes come to rest on Cassie. A chill descends her spine: an avalanche of foreboding. The truth hits her like a thunderbolt. They want Malachi to learn his trade, practise the tricks he’ll use on the rest of mankind, here at Medenham. Ella’s gone, they wouldn’t have risked sending him otherwise – but she’s still here. They’re scared she’ll interfere, work the magic of motherhood on a child meant for evil. They have to take her out of the picture, somehow...do something to her...oh, God, oh God, oh God.
She flashes back to Jez, handing her a bottle. To herself, swallowing the contents, hook, line and sinker.
“You poisoned me!” she shouts, jumping to her feet, jabbing a finger at Jez. “Didn't you? Didn't you?”
The room goes quiet, air brittle with tension. Jez's smile falters. His jaw hangs open slackly, eyes darting to Malachi. She narrows her own, trying to summon the strength to throw him into the wall, throttle him with invisible hands until there's not a breath left in his body...
But however hard she tries, none of it will happen.
The anger, coiled up and dormant, ignites inside her: at her life being hijacked so efficiently, over and over again. It roars through her veins, finally unchecked. She lets rip in time-honoured fashion, snatching up every piece of crockery in range and hurling them across the room. Leon, Roxanne and even Thelma duck for cover as they rain down, a shower of charred meat and shards of china.
“You’ve stolen my powers, haven't you? The same way you stole my son. And I suppose you killed the real Jez Heriot and stole his life... You evil, thieving bastard...” Cassie picks up a knife and twirls it in her hand, turning her attention back to Malachi. He meets her gaze evenly, without expression. “And as for you... Mummy’s very upset with you, Malachi.”
“She's totally lost it,” whispers Alex.
“Just like her mother,” adds Roxanne.
“You dyed your beautiful hair!” She thumps the hilt of the knife on the table. “Mummy loved your hair! So soft and sweet...like a silky little halo. And you put rollers in it. Rollers!”
She snorts down a giggle – her baby's hair is a very serious business – but it burbles back up, intent on escape. She can't keep it in: she howls with laughter, on and on until she’s bent almost double, stomach aching, scar puckering as the skin shifts around it. Her mood shifts with it; emotions rising and falling like waves. The laughter shuts off, like a tap, hysteria quenched with cold, hardened focus. She draws herself up to her fullest and brandishes the knife at Jez.
“I won’t be your pawn anymore. Do you hear me? It ends here. I won’t let you do this. I won’t—”
A vision bites off the sentence, slamming into her without warning. It’s the kind she’s had before, opening a window to Rachel McBain, and the past. But this is the future: a faceless flash of white, screaming; a symbol, oozing blood; Medenham Hall, eaten up by fire. She can smell the smoke, writhing in the sky, blotting out the stars. She can feel the flames, a searing wall of heat around her, burning...
The horror of it leaves her reeling. Her head spins, the world exploding in light before her eyes. Her knees collapse beneath her like rotten wood and she feels herself falling; a puppet whose strings have finally been cut.
She hits the floor with a thud, the knife clattering somewhere nearby, forgotten. Faces hover above her, eyeless silhouettes. The last thing she hears is a voice she’s never heard before but knows somehow is Malachi’s, asking if she’s okay, and sounding for all the world like he means it.
Maybe there’s something of me in there after all, the last lucid part of her thinks – hopes – prays.
And then everything fades blessedly to black.
It’s curiosity, not career move, that brings Cassie to Medenham Hall eleven years after she left. Jo Watkins needs an art teacher. She needs a job: but more than that, she needs to go back. Ella told her to leave, to make the most of being free. But it’s impossible to move forward when her mere existence ties her to the past. There is no freedom in glimpsing him in shadows, hearing his voice in the sigh of the wind. In wondering, despite all her best intentions, what might have been.
Medenham is full of ghosts; the memories draped like a shroud across its every nook and cranny. She’s felt like she’s being watched since the second she stepped back through the gates. So when she turns to see Azazeal, sitting on the lakeside bench beside her as she works on a sketch of the landscape, the only surprise is that he’s taken so long to appear.
“You’ve been laying a lot of flowers,” he says, without preamble, folding his hands in his lap.
She’s thought so many times about what she’d say to him, when they met again. It was only ever, after all, a matter of time. But rehearsal and reality are worlds apart, and what emerges from her mouth is not one of the brilliant speeches she’s spent sleepless nights crafting.
“Someone needs to remember.”
“I doubt anyone who met Thelma could ever forget her.”
“There were already flowers at the church. Where Malachi—”
“You think I’d forget my only son?” His voice is low, thick with loss, but he cloaks it with a laugh, glancing upwards; evidently enjoying the irony. “All this time...and we finally have something in common.”
Cassie is barely listening, breath and focus torn from her by a memory she'd prefer to forget. The past plays out before her: the last-ditch dive that ended with Malachi in ashes, Thelma gone forever, and she a patchwork echo of her former self.
“You would have given your life for his,” says Azazeal, as if he’s reading her thoughts. She pushes away the pain, sets her eyes on the page, and changes the subject.
“Sometimes, if there was a storm, or it rained hard enough – battered at the windows, like it was trying to break them down – I used to think it was a sign. That God was up there throwing the furniture around; shedding enough tears to start another flood. Because you'd finally succeeded...because the End of Days was just around the corner...”
“Were you scared?”
Azazeal nods to himself, considering.
“So,” Cassie says, keenly aware of how surreal it is, to be sitting here with him on a balmy evening, reunited, yet having the kind of casual conversation two strangers might have. They are ex-lovers, bereaved parents, hunter and prey. Partners in a twisted game of cat and mouse, catching up on old times, almost as if they'd never happened.
“No End of Days. No Nephelim. No corruption of mankind. You must be losing your touch. No, wait—” She tips her pen at him, vaguely imagining it's a sword. “Don’t tell me – you’ve converted.”
“You know me better than that.”
“I know you haven’t spent the last decade in a monastery, flogging yourself for your sins.”
“Actually, I’ve been busy. Searching for another descendant of the McBains,” he adds, needlessly, just to salt the wound.
“And how did that go?” Cassie enquires, squinting shut an eye as she sketches out the skyline, half from image, half from memory.
“You already know how it went.”
“I was the inspiration for it.” She selects a finer pencil, its sharp point glinting in the evening sun. “I was no use to you minus the necessary parts – unfortunately for you, neither is anyone else.”
Azazeal opens his mouth to speak. She’s tired of his voice, always drowning out her own. She fires off questions to stop him, jabbing at the paper with her pencil, cutting through it like blade through skin.
“What makes us so special that you torment us from cradle to grave? Hm? And what happens when the DNA finally dies out? You'll pick another family to start renting wombs from? Hunt down distant relations of Egyptian pharaohs?”
He closes his eyes for a moment at the reference to Herath, the memory cutting deep even now. Cassie takes a vicious delight in his pain as he forces himself back to the present, solemnly considering the answers to her questions. “Rachel McBain. Your ancestor. She gave of herself to restore me.”
“The maid she murdered might disagree with that.”
Azazeal sniffs derisively. “Semantics. Her sacrifice tied me to the McBain line for all eternity.”
“So no other witch will do?”
His mouth curves with a ghost of a smile. “Think of it as the difference between champagne and fizzy water.”
“Don’t be facetious.”
“I’m trying to make it easier to understand.”
“Then help me understand this – when is it ever going to stop?”
“Soon,” Azazeal shoots at her bluntly, one little word landing with the force of a nuclear bomb. He sees her pencil slip, and softens his voice to cushion the rest. “I’m dying.” He shrugs his shoulders, a rueful smile on his lips. “Back to the abyss. It’s starting to feel like home.”
Cassie turns to face him, heart thumping, a glimmer of understanding forming: why he’s here, why he’s still, after all this time, waiting for her.
“You need another willing sacrifice. Already?..”
“Thelma was no Rachel McBain. And I’m not going to find another.”
“Nonsense,” Cassie says. She smudges out a jagged line, dimly aware her hand is shaking. “Have you looked on the internet? Tried the local devil worshippers?”
“I’m tired, Cassie.”
“I’m old. Older than a mortal mind can possibly comprehend.”
“No!” She shakes her head, furious at him. “You can’t just give up...”
“Isn’t that what you wanted all along? An end to this?” He eyes her with cold amusement. “As you so eloquently put it, the McBain DNA is finally dying out. Or rather, in a liberal twist on the concept, has been rendered inaccessible. A few more generations and the little that remains will be gone forever, and I’m running out of time to find a solution. So congratulations, Cassie. You won.”
The words sound alien, coming from his mouth. Cassie might have longed to hear them, once; longed to hear him sound so weary, and defeated. But she takes little pleasure from it now.
She set a painful example and stopped anyone who shared her cursed ancestry from having to die, stopped Ella from having to kill, stopped him – yet it’s a hollow kind of victory. She’s lost so much more than she’s gained. She’s never mastered her powers – forgot she even had them, most of the time – never stood her ground and fought, never found out who she could have been, outside of the burden she inherited the very day of conception. She was born to be a victim, and she’s lived up to the label in spectacular fashion. She’s not sure she knows how to be anything else.
She’s not sure she knows how to be anything, without him. He’s both blighted her existence and defined it, so completely nothing else can compete.
Azazeal folds his angular frame into as relaxed a position as he can, and announces, his voice deceptively casual: “It could have been so different, you know. You and I.”
“We were never going to settle down and live happily ever after.”
“And what was the alternative?” Azazeal demands. He tilts his head, weighing the options. “For you to live alone, no husband, not even a boyfriend...”
“Maybe I have a girlfriend.”
“Let’s say you don’t have anyone. You never let anyone get close to you. Why?”
“Because maybe I am scared,” Cassie says heatedly. “Not of the end of the world – of you. Everyone I’ve ever cared about, you’ve done something to hurt. Thelma, Jo, my mother...” She closes her sketchbook, fists balled around the edges. “I could have withered away and died after what you put me through. But I’ve built a life for myself. I have a job I love. I have friends...”
“You have acquaintances. As for your job? You hate it. You’re not even very good at it.”
“You know nothing about my life! About me... For the last eleven years, you haven’t even known where I was.” She stares at him, uncertain, realising that the conversation has shifted, somehow, from theory to fact. “Have you?”
Master manipulator that he is, Azazeal sidesteps the question, in favour of another. “Are you happy, Cassie?”
“So are you. As usual.” She searches his eyes, seeking the truth; that familiar, hidden agenda. “Why are you here, Azazeal?”
“Why are you?”
“Because it's time I laid some ghosts to rest.” She waits for his face to move, to give her some small clue, but it remains impassive. He was always lean, verging on gaunt, but she’s uncomfortably aware for the first time of how hollow his cheeks have become. The dying part is true, then. As for the rest...
“What is it you want from me? To lay flowers in your memory too? Something suitably poisonous, maybe some nice deadly nightshade...”
The words send her hurtling back to that darkened room, where she’s cradling a dying Thelma; a blood-red flower blooming on her collar.
“To be your sacrifice – is that it?”
He stays silent. Her gut churns in mounting horror. “What, you think because I can’t have another child my life must be empty, and pointless – so I might as well be of some use?”
“Love is a sacrifice too,” Azazeal quotes softly. Cassie stares at him in disgust.
“You arrogant bastard. How dare you. How dare you. Do you really think I’m going to give my life to save you, and do it with a smile on my face—” Her voice catches in her throat, betraying her. “Just because I love you, and I always have, as stupid as that makes me after everything you’ve done to me, everything you’ve stolen—”
She fumbles for her pencils through a haze of tears, ready to leave him behind, where he belongs. He reaches out for her, pale fingers closing around her wrist.
“In a thousand years, no one has touched me the way you have.”
“You mean no one else made you work for it.”
He smiles, noting that she hasn’t moved her hand. “No one else gave me a son – my gift to the world. Your gift to me. Accept this as mine, given in return.
“Believe me, Cassie...I’m not giving up. You know I would never do that. I simply have the sense to know when I’m beaten. I didn’t want it to end like this – for Malachi, for the others...for us. I told you, many years ago, that I loved you. It was true then, and it’s true now. My only consolation is that I finally have a chance to prove it.”
“By leaving me?” she asks in a small voice, a frightened child.
He moves his hand to her cheek. “By letting you go.”
Cassie stares at him, caught in his spell as if no years have separated them, and suddenly aware that she’s never escaped it. Their faces are tantalisingly close, and for a moment she thinks he’s going to kiss her. She’s not sure her resistance – or self-control – would last very long, if he did.
Perhaps Azazeal knows it. And perhaps he’s not spinning defeat as proof of love, but simply telling the truth – for once; for the final time – because he doesn’t. He settles for taking her hand and pressing his lips against it, eyes squeezed shut in silent agony, before knitting her fingers through his own. She rests her head against his shoulder, the shape of him as familiar as the feel. Together, they stare out at the lake and the landscape beyond. The sun is sinking towards the grave of the horizon, the water hued with rusting light.
“If things had gone differently,” Cassie says dreamily, not sure if she’s talking about the here and now or a night long before, “I could be dead now.”
“You could be ruling this world at my side.”
She smiles, lips a crooked line. “And what kind of world would that be?”
His answer, when it comes, is achingly simple. “One where we’re together.”
Azazeal has always had the mouth of a poet; always known which buttons to press. Cassie hardens her heart, and tells herself what she’s told herself all along: that it’s a fantasy, one that ignores the truth of who they are. She could have chosen to stand by his side, where a part of her has always believed she belongs. But she can’t believe she would have allowed him to use their child to wreak havoc, any more than he would have given up a millennia-long quest in favour of domestic bliss.
Nothing will ever make him give up. Death is not the end for him, the way it is for her. He’ll find a way back someday, the way he always does; pick up the fight right where he left off. He’s the scorpion of the fable, and it’s his nature. He’ll get another chance, she’s sure of that...even if it has to be without her.
Wondering what might have been is an exercise in futility. It was never, ever as simple as Azazeal’s words would imply. But she’s always wished it could have been. She allows herself the pretence, feels a tear falling, and doesn’t try to fight it.
They sit on the bench, Medenham Hall towering behind them, watching as the light fades away over the water. Day turning to night, an era ending, a new chapter beckoning.
It ends in the place where it started. If things had gone a little differently, for Cassie, it might have ended long before. She thinks back to that night in the church, and wonders what could have happened as a result. A million different lives, spiralling off into a million different directions. Shaped by choices, and in some, timing: because if the knife had hit her in the place it was intended for, she would have been dispatched into darkness, never to return. She could be dead now. But she’s very much alive, and with that comes a world of possibilities.
Maybe when the morning comes, it’ll finally be time to make the most of them.