Philadelphia. March 1899
It was a cruel day. A watery late winter sun had turned golden and a steel blue sky had deepened and warmed. Flower bulbs had sent out questing blades of pale green, like soldiers cautiously pushing their swords before them as they turned a corner to draw the enemy’s fire. Their caution was wise. The brief spell of spring weather was dangled in front of a winter-weary city and then snatched away when a late blizzard swept in after lunch. Nursemaids shrieked and scurried for home, pushing heavy perambulators containing squalling, lightly clad babies. Fashionable misses, promenading in new hats, clutched at airy confections of straw and lace and ran, squeaking with horror as millinery triumphs turned to sodden, frozen rags. And the homeless beggars, who had thrown aside their tattered coverings and raised bleary, blinking eyes up to the blue sky, bent their heads once more, sinking back into their nests.
From their sitting room in a quietly luxurious house on one of the best streets in the city, two sisters watched the snowflakes whirl past the window, obliterating the view of a well kept garden surrounded by high, ornate railings.
“Really, this is too tiresome,” said the youngest, her pretty face screwed up in a frown. “I feel as though this winter will never end, that we are trapped in here and will remain so forever.”
Her sister raised a slim eyebrow at this dramatic speech and smiled. “Tell me, Sophie,” she said. “Is this gloomy mood caused not by the snow but the fact that you had planned to see young Jack Carstairs in the park this afternoon?”
Sophie blushed, her ill humour forgotten, and tossed back her golden curls. “Oh, Hester! How can you say such things! I swear you seem to read my mind sometimes.”
Her sister laughed. “It takes little deductive power to work out such a simple puzzle. I have only to look at your dress, new and quite unsuitable for a walk, to know that you intended to dazzle more than my eyes. Add to this the fact that you have talked about nothing but Jack for these past two months and -”
“Since Amelia’s birthday party,” Sophie said dreamily. “Did I tell you how he asked me to dance not once but four times, Hester?”
“Possibly,” said Hester solemnly. “But I’m afraid that I stopped listening to you after the first six hours of recollecting the party as my ears had begun to pain me.”
“You have the earache!” exclaimed Sophie with mock concern, “My poor dear. Shall I call Nurse?”
Hester giggled and threw a sofa cushion at her. “Silly child,” she said affectionately. “I shouldn’t tease you, I know. Jack is a nice lad, especially now that his spots have cleared up.”
Sophie howled with outrage and advanced upon her sister menacingly, the cushion held high.
“Is this the sitting room of two young ladies or must we go back to calling it the nursery?” The voice was severe but their father had a smile on his face as he looked at their bright faces.
“Oh, Father, we had not expected you back so soon!” cried Sophie, dropping the satin cushion carelessly on the floor and hurrying to embrace him. Hester bent, picked up the cushion, returned it to its place and stood waiting. When Susan’s hugs had succeeded in making her father feel truly welcome - if breathless - she went to him, a rueful smile on her face, and kissed his cheek.
His eyes twinkled down at her, eyes the same clear grey as her own. “And how is my dear Hester?” he asked. “Not too worn out with looking after your madcap sister for a week?”
Hester shook her head. “Sophie has been a model of decorum and industry, Father.” Her eyes gleamed with laughter as Sophie looked astonished at this description. “Mostly,” she added.
Their father sank down in an armchair and looked at them both. Hester was his favourite, her quick mind so much like his own, her courage in the time since her mother’s death an inspiration to Sophie. His eyes moved to his youngest child, softening with indulgence as he looked at her youthful prettiness, refined and enhanced by sorrow and the added responsibilities that Hester had passed on to her. A fine pair of girls, on the verge of becoming fine women. He was proud of them both.
“Girls,” he began abruptly. “I did not tell you where I have been this past week.”
Sophie looked puzzled. “I had thought that you were in New York on business, Father.”
“With Mr. Duke, was it not?” added Hester, far more conversant with the intricacies of the family shipping business than her sister. “He wished to discuss the possibility of expanding our range of goods and our market, I believe.”
Her father nodded his head. His brown hair was flecked with silver but he was still a man in his prime, with powerful shoulders and square, strong hands. “Indeed he did, but as it happens, I met with another man who had a proposal for investment in something quite out of the ordinary. The man was commonplace to look at but when he spoke -” He paused, a furrow in his brow as though he could not quite recall events clearly. “Well, he was most persuasive. As you girls know, in this past year since your mother died, this has not been a happy house for any of us. The memories of her illness seem to shadow all the happier times.”
“I don’t understand, Father,” Sophie said. “Did this man want to sell you another house? Are we to move?” Her voice went high with a mixture of panic and excitement at the thought of leaving the only home she had ever known.
Hester studied her father silently. His usual incisive clarity of expression had deserted him and she wasn’t sure why. She waited for him to continue and after a slightly bewildered pat on Sophie’s fluttering hand, he did. “In a way, yes, my dear but it goes beyond a simple house removal.” He stood and went over to the fireplace, warming his hands for a few moments. Turning back to his daughters, Colin Alpert said simply, “We are moving to California to help build a town. How about that, chicks? A new beginning for us and thousands of other who wish to seek their fortune.”
The silence was broken by a shuddering gasp and Sophie collapsed against her sister, wailing in dismay. Alpert started forward, his face distressed, but Hester waved him away, jerking her head towards the door and shaping the word, ‘tea’ with her lips. He nodded and tiptoed out to order refreshments, leaving Hester to cope with her sister who was working herself up into a fine state of hysterics.
When they were alone Hester worked briskly to calm Sophie down with a combination of soothing and scolding. Finally, as the stormy sobs showed no sign of abating, she remarked on the likelihood that swollen eyes would still be puffy hours later and reminded her sister that they were invited to a dance that evening. Sophie stopped short, hiccoughing, and began to dab frantically at her tear marked features. She whisked herself off to her room to repair the damages of excessive emotion with no further reference to her father’s words.
Left alone, Hester paced the room, waiting for her father to return, as she guessed he would once Sophie was safe in her room. The door opened and she glanced towards it eagerly. It was a housemaid with a large silver tray laden with all that was needed to make tea. Hester smiled her thanks and began to pour the tea, setting aside a cup for her father as she knew that he disliked strong, hot tea. He put his head around the door a few minutes later, still looking worried and she smiled reassuringly at him.
“Sophie is in her room,” she said. “Really, Father! You startled her with your news.”
“I know,” he admitted. “I forget sometimes how easily upset she is. Ah, tea, thank you.”
He sat down and looked at Hester expectantly. She raised her eyebrows. “I promise not to swoon but I will scream if you don’t tell me more,” she promised. Her eye was caught by a ring on his right hand. She had never seen her father wearing one before. It was gold, thick and incised in an odd pattern. “Where did you get that ring, Father?” she asked abruptly.
His face smoothed out, all expression lost. “My late wife gave it to me and I wear it always,” he said in a flat voice.
Then he grinned guiltily and carried on as if his previous words had not been spoken. “It really is the most exciting proposition,” he said eagerly. “The land lies in a fertile area, with a perfect natural harbour. I can just imagine our ships sailing into it. It’s totally unspoiled and yet a mere twenty miles of railroad will link the town to the line running into the city of Los Angeles, some ninety miles to the south. A large city just a few hours away is a tremendous asset that our investors will appreciate.”
He continued to babble on and the frown between Hester’s brows deepened. Her father was planning to sever the ties to the city of his birth after a few hours conversation with a complete stranger. How could this be? And if the ring had been a gift from Mother, why had she never seen it before? Confusion swirled around her in a thick cloud and she felt dizzy for a moment. Taking a deep breath she forced herself to concentrate on her father’s words.
“There has been a town of sorts there before of course. I believe a Spanish Mission was built as far back as 1792 in an attempt to convert the native Chumash tribe. Most distressing; an earthquake in 1812 completely buried it and much of the town was destroyed. It’s time to rebuild, to set our faces towards a bright new future. Let us go away from this cold and dreary city, my dear and let us turn our faces to the sun!”
He finished speaking, out of breath, his face beaming. Hester opened her mouth and then closed it, unsure of where to begin with her reasoned counter arguments and questions. When she did speak, it might have seemed a strange question but it seemed to spill from her lips despite herself. “Father, this man you speak of - what is his name?”
Her father stood and poured himself some more tea, oblivious to the fact that it was stewed and cold. “His name is Wilkins. Mr. Richard Wilkins.”
“And the town? Does that have a name?”
“The Spanish called it something strange - rank superstition! - but that’s beside the point. It is an idyllic spot and it deserves a fitting name. I believe the plan is to name it Sunnydale.”
Hester nodded dubiously and stood. “I’ll go to Sophie,” she said quietly, feeling as if she needed to reflect a little. As she reached the door, she turned. “Father? The Spanish name? What was it exactly?”
Without looking round from his perusal of a newspaper her father said, “Boca del Infierio. Papist nonsense, if you ask me.”
Hester made her way up the wide staircase murmuring the name to herself. She had not studied Spanish in detail but it was easy enough to translate. Boca del Infierno. The Mouth of Hell.
Philadelphia. April 1899.
Hester felt as though she was standing with her feet glued to the ground, while around her chaos dismantled her world and shredded it like confetti. She watched passively as her father made the arrangements for their house to be sold and their belongings shipped thousands of miles to their new home. She soothed her sister, her mouth speaking comforting words in a voice that was not her own. She dealt with a stream of curious visitors, aghast or agog, speculating about this sudden change and Colin Alpert’s madness - or bankruptcy. The rumours grew until Hester almost began to believe them true, had it not been for the fact that she had a fair idea of her father’s financial circumstances, and knew them to be sound and prosperous.
Finally, she stepped out of the door of the house for the last time and heard it close behind her with a bang that awoke her from her dreams. Glancing about her wildly, her eyes huge in her pale face, she said, “Father! What are we thinking of? We must not do this!”
Sophie stared at her curiously, her easy tears at parting from her friends already dried, her thoughts turning away from Jack Carstairs to the men she would meet in California. Hester had comforted her too well and she was impatient to begin her new life. Her feelings would never run deep; it would take much to disturb her for long. She could go from the depths of despair, to the giddy heights, in an hour and truly feel neither emotion.
“Why, what is the matter, Hester? Do not be so foolish. We must hurry or we will miss the train.”
Her father peered at her, already sitting in the carriage and not fully hearing her words. “Get in, get in,” he called heartily. “We must be off.”
The dream like state returned and Hester submitted, grasping her sister’s hands and allowing herself to be pulled into the carriage.
The horses trotted off and their old life fell away, receding like the light as dusk falls and night sweeps across the world.
Sunnydale, California. May 1899.
After weeks of travel, Hester felt grubby and tired still, despite a hot bath and hours of deep sleep the night before. Hotels provided baths and beds but the dust of the prairies still clung to her, she felt, and nights of sleeping in a noisy train, swaying and clanking, had left her dazed with fatigue.
Now they were here, in this small, quiet little settlement, guests of Mr. Wilkins, waiting for their mansion to be built and life begin again.
Hester pushed aside the sheets, clean enough but a far cry from the crisply laundered bedding that she had known all her life, and got out of bed. Mr. Wilkins’ home was pleasant; small of course - she had to share a room with Sophie – but his mother obviously took pride in keeping her son’s house in impeccable order.
Sophie murmured sleepily as she heard Hester get up but made no move to join her. Hester gave her a glance in which affection met exasperation and lost. Sophie had not travelled well, greeting each obstacle with a wail, each challenge with despair.
For her part, Hester had found her spirits lifting at the sight of so much that was new. She was tired now; they had journeyed at a pace that would have exhausted anyone, but she had been exhilarated and entranced by the vastness and emptiness of the land outside the cities. She realised how narrow their lives had been in Philadelphia. Luxurious yes, but there had been little to do but manage a household, and somehow, that wasn’t enough.
She had enjoyed the journey while firmly blotting out any thoughts of their destination. That did not seem real, somehow, despite the descriptions her father regaled them with, passed on from his new friend. They had arrived at night but Hester had seen a small collection of run down stores and homes in the moonlight, before the carriage swept them a mile or two further to where the Wilkins’ house stood, framed by tall trees, its back to a hill. Now she leaned out of the window, breathing in the warm spring air and looking at a valley, green and fresh, while in the distance a blue sea sparkled and glimmered in the sunlight. The icy grey city streets of Philadelphia made this verdant lushness seem almost foreign, an exotic location that belonged in a dream.
“It’s so beautiful,” Hester whispered. “I never thought it would look like this.”
Impatient suddenly, she washed and dressed quickly and almost skipped down the wide, shallow stairs leading to the ground floor. In her haste she stumbled, crying out in alarm as she fell forward. She felt time slow as she tried to catch the railing, her fingers sliding over the polished wood, unable to grip it tightly enough to halt her fall. She braced herself for the pain of landing and gasped as a blurred shape moved swiftly to catch her. Staggering backwards with his burden, her rescuer lost his footing too and they both collapsed in a heap on the wooden floor of the hall.
Hester lay still for a moment, her chest heaving, her arm throbbing. Twisting her head, she looked up into twinkling brown eyes and saw that she had been caught by her host. He returned her look solemnly and then his face broke into a delighted smile and he began to laugh. She smiled back, a little uncertainly, conscious of his arms around her and the undignified situation in which they found themselves.
Standing up, he offered her his hand and helped her to rise. “And good morning to you, Miss Hester,” he said. “Now tell me – are you hurt? Or did I provide an adequate cushion?”
Smoothing down her dress to cover her embarrassment, she gave him a shy look. “I think I am in one piece, sir. Thank you for saving me. I must apologise for such a dramatic entrance. I caught my foot – ”
He shook his head, cutting her off. “No need for apologies or thanks, my dear. I’d be a poor host if I allowed a guest in my house to get hurt in any way. I’m just glad I was there to catch you.” He took her arm and shepherded her towards the dining room. “Some breakfast will calm you after such an exciting start to the day.”
As she joined her father and Mrs. Wilkins, reassuring them that she was unhurt as they questioned her anxiously, Hester suddenly frowned. There had been no one in the hall when she began her descent so just how had Richard Wilkins reached her in time to catch her? She looked at him as he sipped at his coffee. He was of medium height, brown hair, a pleasant but unremarkable face – yet he had persuaded her father to travel thousands of miles and was responsible for turning her world upside down.
Sophie entered the room and Wilkins rose to his feet, hand outstretched in welcome, a beaming smile on his face. Hester sighed silently. Her fatigue was making her fanciful. This man was so normal, so unassuming that it was impossible to credit him with any cunning or guile.
Wilkins neatly dabbed at his mouth with a linen napkin and turned to her father. “If you feel rested,” he said, “I had hoped that today you could look around our little town. Maybe even find a spot you wish to build on.”
Her father nodded eagerly. “I’d be delighted,” he said heartily. “The sooner we get settled, the sooner we can –”
His voice faltered and Wilkins continued smoothly, “Start our venture. Yes, indeed.”
Hester could not stop herself from asking the obvious question. “What venture is this exactly? I confess, I am not entirely sure?”
She looked straight at Richard Wilkins, knowing instinctively that her father would not be able to answer. Wilkins returned her look, with another bland, toothy smile. “It will be a long-term project, Miss Hester, with almost unlimited potential.”
“Yes, I’m sure it will,” said Hester tartly, feeling that she would scream if she did not receive a simple answer. “But what is the nature of this project? How will my father be involved?”
They could have been alone in the room for all the interest that the other three were paying to the conversation. Sophie and Mrs. Wilkins were discussing fashions and her father was gazing out of the window, an abstracted frown on his face. Wilkins stood and walked over to her, holding out his hand. She allowed him to guide her to the window and looked out over the vista that had charmed her so much when she woke up.
“This place is very special to me,” he said thoughtfully. “When the earthquake destroyed much of it, some people said it was unlucky. It was abandoned, neglected. I didn’t like that. It was a waste of a beautiful spot and I’m not in favour of waste, Miss Hester. No, indeed. I’m going to build this town up again, take advantage of its advantages, you might say. Your father is the sort of person we need out here. A man of energy, imagination. He’s just perfect. His ships can travel from here to a whole new market, his empire will thrive. I want more men like him here and I know I’ll get them.” He looked out of the window again and Hester leaned in closer to catch his final words, spoken so quietly that she was not certain they were intended for her ears. “I’ve got big plans and I don’t mind waiting.”
His head whipped round and she flinched. His lips quirked and he reached out to pat her hand. “Now I can see that you’re a young lady of intelligence as well as charm. How about you come with us today? I’d value your thoughts. After all, it will be your house too; don’t want it being built in the wrong spot!” He laughed again and turned away, leaving her still wondering and still confused.
Hester and Colin Alpert went upstairs to get ready for their excursion and Wilkins watched his mother take Sophie into her private rooms to show her some family photographs. Moving silently and swiftly he picked up a lantern, lit it and walked towards the end of the hall, to a door, hidden in the shadows and always kept locked. The two indoor servants, a cook and a maid, were forbidden to enter it but in fact, if they had been asked to describe the house, it was unlikely that they would have even included it. The eye tended to pass over the small door, dismissing it as irrelevant.
Wilkins reached for the round wooden handle and gripped it firmly as though waiting for a signal. After a moment he pushed on the door and went down a short flight of stairs into a dim, windowless room. The room was underneath the hill behind the house, and a system of tunnels led out of it. Wilkins picked up a brown wicker basket, whistling to himself and went into one of the tunnels. A sleepy chorus of clucks greeted him and he grinned as he looked at the ten or so chickens caged in the small cave, holding up the lantern. “Now, who has some eggs for me today?” he asked, stepping over the wire fence that kept them from wandering off. Bending over, he searched for the eggs, tutting when only eight of the nests rewarded his efforts.
“It’s been three days since you laid an egg, Miss Molly,” he scolded. “That really isn’t good enough.” He sighed and shook his head ruefully. “I think you might have made my choice that little bit easier.”
Grabbing the chicken with a practiced hand and tucking it under his arm, he went back into the main room, setting the lantern down on a small table. Picking up a sharp knife, he moved over to a larger table, covered in oilcloth, that had a small pottery bowl on it. One slash and the chicken began to bleed into the bowl, its frantic squawks dying away slowly. When the bottom of the bowl was covered with blood, he wrung the bird’s neck with a quick twist of his strong wrists, placing the corpse in another basket.
Taking the bowl in one hand, he pulled back the oilcloth to reveal the top of the table, covered in strange markings and runes. Sprinkling the blood over them, he began to chant.
Black smoke swirled up as the blood disappeared and he smiled with satisfaction.
Now everyone had had breakfast. And a roast chicken with a souffle to follow would be a tasty evening meal. Whistling again, he picked up the two baskets and headed for the kitchen.
Hester stared around at the plot of land, mentally comparing it to the other places they had seen. It was perfect. There was sufficient flat land to build a fair sized house – a mansion even – and the way the ground sloped would allow for good drainage. The view over the hills and ocean was spectacular and the town was only a few miles away.
Best of all, though she was not quite certain why this appealed to her so strongly, this plot was the furthest away from the Wilkins’ house.
Turning to the two men who were chatting away about their preferences in brandy, of all things, she called out, a note of command in her low voice. “Father! I think this spot is ideal.” Then, mindful of the need to defer in word at least, she smiled and added, “I would value your thoughts on my opinion.”
Richard Wilkins looked at her as she stood silhouetted against the setting sun, a breeze lifting stray tendrils of her dark hair and tossing them into a halo around her head. “You’ve made an excellent choice, Miss Hester,” he said soberly, “and I know your father agrees with you, don’t you, sir?”
Her father nodded heavily. “I agree with Hester,” he said.
Hester’s happy smile froze on her face as she recognised the odd timbre to his voice, the same that he had used when he spoke of the ring he wore, but she had no chance to comment. Richard rubbed his hands together gleefully and proclaimed that building would start as soon as they had drawn up the house plans. As he led the way back to the carriage the sun sank down and the field in which they stood was bathed in deep shadows.
Sunnydale. Three months later.
“So, which one will you marry?” asked Mrs. Wilkins in her thin voice. Her son gazed at her and pursed his lips reflectively. His mother looked like a frail elderly woman, worn hands folded in her lap, silver hair combed neatly and covered with a cap. He had seen those hands red to the wrists with blood – human blood – and he had heard that voice whip out like a deadly garrote, as she invoked the powers of evil. He loved and feared her in equal measure.
“In matters like this, Mother, a man has to decide for himself.” He waited for her nod of agreement and then slid down on his knees beside her chair, smiling up at her affectionately. “But you just know I’m going to want your advice before I do that.”
Her pale eyes twinkled. “Of course you are, son. Of course you are.” She hesitated and he raised an enquiring eyebrow.
Maria Wilkins looked at the pleasant face of her son. He was twenty eight now and had never been anything other than a source of deep pride to the woman who had carried him within her. It was her love and pride that had dictated all her actions since becoming a widow. The Wilkins had, by necessity, moved around and Sunnydale was a new town. No one here knew their secrets. No one knew that for centuries, no Wilkins man had lived past thirty.
It didn’t matter of course; that was plenty of time to sire a son and the line continued, unbroken. But it mattered when the man about to die was idolised and childless. And when eternal life in this world not the next, was easily purchased with a soul, well, what mother would hesitate?
Maria Wilkins had never felt a shred of regret that her soul was only enough to buy life for her son. His existence was all that she cared about. He in his turn had accepted that gift gracefully and with unbounded gratitude.
But life alone was not what he craved. Power. He wanted power and he had the patience to wait for it to fall into his hand like an apple falling from a bough. His mother came from a family that was tied to the dark arts by bonds of blood. She had in some ways been a disappointment to them, showing little native talent, but she made up for that by a will so inflexible that she could not recall ever doing anything that ran contrary to her own wishes. Richard had studied with her and with her family since he was a small child. Locked away in musty books and cracking parchment scrolls, he had read of the means by which a human could become a demon, could ascend to another reality. He wanted that, craved it with all that he was or would be.
He had built Sunnydale because of the mystical energies that were flowing from the Hellmouth. All previous attempts to create a settlement had failed because people on a Hellmouth were living targets for the demons. Without people, the demons stayed away. They had to eat after all.
Wilkins knew what he was doing when he began to build, began to attract investors. This time though, there would be a small change that would make all the difference. This time the town would thrive despite the demons, or even because of them. Evil had fringe benefits after all.
When the demons arrived in town, they would be tamed, naturally. They had to understand the rules and abide by them. Richard Wilkins was a man who believed in order, a man who liked his surroundings to be neat and tidy.
And as the evil dripped down into the Mouth, year by year, decade by decade, Hell would feed and, in all good time, it would reward the hand that fed it.
His hand. His reward.
“Sophie. The other one is too intelligent.”
Richard Wilkins blinked but his smile never wavered as his mother’s voice jerked him from his dreams. “Your blessing is all I needed, Mother. Sophie will make an excellent wife, I’m sure of it.”
His mother fumbled in her pocket and then pulled out a small box. “Here. You’ll be wanting to give her a ring.”
Richard opened the box and looked down at a gold band, inscribed with the same runes that decorated Colin Alpert’s ring. “She’ll love it,” he said heartily. “Of course,” he sniggered slightly, “she won’t really have any choice, will she?”
Hester’s busy hands continued to unpack a trunk of linen, stacking it neatly beside her as her sister’s words buzzed around her mind. Finally she spoke. “Sophie, you really cannot be serious. You hardly know Mr. Wilkins and you’re barely seventeen. Of course you won’t be marrying him next month. It’s absurd.”
Her sister sighed impatiently and flung herself into a chair, staring out at the men working on the gardens of their new house. “Hester, it’s you who do not understand. Mr. Wilkins – Richard – is the most important man in the town. Marrying him will give me a position of respect. Father is delighted. I wish you would be happy for me, too.”
Hester turned and gave her sister a disbelieving look. “You sound like a silly girl who’s been reading too many romances,” she said firmly. “From what I’ve seen, Wilkins has little money and this is a little town. He’s no catch. I still don’t know why Father brought us here but there is no reason for you to follow his example and rush into anything. We can always move again; once married, your choices disappear.”
Sophie tossed her head and smiled. “I do believe you’re jealous,” she said archly. “Never mind, Hester. I’m sure someone will come to court you. Richard has many friends and –”
Hester surged to her feet, her hand tingling with the desire to slap Sophie hard. “I am going to speak to Father,” she said quietly.
Sophie’s voice halted her. “He is with Richard discussing the wedding plans.” She stood and swept over to her sister, a triumphant smile on her face. “Have you seen my ring?”
Hester stared at the thick band of gold, ignoring Sophie’s chatter about the diamond ring that was being made for her in the city. Looking at the sister who seemed a stranger to her, she wondered just what would happen if the ring were removed from her hand.
“May I look at the ring more closely?” she said, forcing her voice to be cordial.
Sophie frowned and held it to her sister’s face. “Are your eyes bothering you?”
Hester laughed, the insincerity ringing in her ears. “Of course not! May I try it on? It is so beautiful!”
Sophie began to slide it from her finger, looking flattered, and then, as Hester watched in horror, her face smoothed out and she said flatly. “It was a gift from my husband. I never take it off.”
Hester choked, her hand flying to her mouth. Turning, she ran out of the room, out of the house, away from the people she loved most and now feared were lost to her.
Hester had been walking through the woods for what felt like hours. She had no goal in mind at first, other than the need to escape, but as she wandered, her headlong pace dropping to a walk, she realised that she was near to the sea. As the sunset began she reached the end of the woods and saw that she was a few hundred feet from the cliffs that overlooked the vastness of the Pacific.
Slowly, as though her feet were weighted, she began to walk towards the edge. The sun sank as she watched, her eyes drinking in the spectacular colours, the scent of the sea stirring her senses. When darkness fell and the sea turned black, she sighed and the emerged from the panic that had governed her actions.
As civilised people always do, she began to rationalise what she had seen, trying to convince herself that all was normal and it was her own imagination which was the true enemy. She had almost succeeded and was wondering uneasily just how to retrace her footsteps in the dark, when her carefully constructed logic was dealt a final, fatal blow. From the shadowy woods, a figure emerged and walked towards her. Hester swallowed and called out, “Hello? Can you help me? I need to get back to Sunnydale and I –”
The moon was rising and its light on the water let her see the face of what she had hoped would be her rescuer. Hester’s screams pierced the air but died away as the figure advanced purposefully, unmoved by her terror. All that was strong in Hester came to the surface at that moment, filling her with a fleeting desire to fight. Common sense diverted the energy into flight instead and she ran for the woods, heading away from the monster whose face would haunt her for as long as she lived. With a small detached part of her mind, she acknowledged that she might not be troubled with such unpleasant memories for long.
The creature let her run before moving swiftly after her. Hester’s breath caught in her throat as he – it – suddenly appeared in front of her, grasping her shoulders and pulling her close. She stared up at yellow slitted eyes and sharp fangs and knew that she was in danger of losing more than just her life. Frantically struggling, she felt him grab her hair and pull her head down, exposing her neck. As he nuzzled into her in a parody of a lover’s kiss, she felt herself grow faint and bit down hard on her lip. The pain steadied her and she continued to struggle. The creature’s head came up sharply and she rejoiced, thinking that one of her blows had injured him. Her relief was shattered when he licked her mouth, tasting the blood oozing from her bitten lip.
As her face contorted with disgust, he pulled back and growled deep in his throat. She could feel his strength and she had witnessed his speed. Hester looked at certain death and resigned herself to her fate. She was unsure if he could understand her but as he snarled and prepared to attack she tried to halt him with words. “Why are you doing this?” she gasped. “And what are you?”
He focused on her face, bestial eyes hazy. “Boss told me to.” He grinned. “You won’t feel a thing, lady.”
“What boss? What are you?”
He ignored her words and sank forward until his head rested on her shoulder. Hester gasped and glanced down. A short piece of wood was sticking through the monster’s body and digging into her ribs. In less than a second, the weight on her disappeared as her attacker exploded into dust, showering her with his remains.
Hester screamed and flinched, her mind blank with terror and revulsion. A sudden flare of light made her close her eyes reflexively and when she dared to open them the friendly light of a lantern was bobbing in front of her. As her eyes adjusted a face swam out of the shadows.
“Miss Alpert? Are you unhurt? My name is Peter Agnew and if you are able, I feel we should leave as quickly as possible. There may be more vampires in the woods and – ”
‘’Vampires’? Are you insane?” Hester hissed.
“Then what attacked you and where is it now?” he replied in a cool voice.
“You’re English,” she said suddenly.
“Trust a woman to focus on something entirely irrelevant,” he muttered.
Anger, glorious, invigorating anger, poured into Hester and she stalked up to the man who had saved her life and slapped him hard across the face. “Never talk to me like that again!”
“Oh, bloody hell.”
“And don’t swear either!”
“Do forgive me, your ladyship. Imminent death tends to make me forget my manners. Look, when we get somewhere safe you can take another swing at me, but for the last time, will you get moving?”
Hester’s lips thinned and she glared at him. “We’re in the middle of a wood. Where do you suggest we go?”
He turned away from her and began to walk along a path of sorts. “I have a horse tethered about a mile from here. Spavined, knock-kneed beast but it should carry us both if you don’t hit it.” He took three more paces and then twisted his head round, “Oh and saving your life? Don’t mention it. Oh, that’s right. You didn’t. Silly of me.”
Hester opened her mouth, outrage boiling up inside her and then subsided. “I’m sorry,” she called out softly. “Please wait. Tell me how you killed that thing.”
He carried on walking but his voice was friendlier as he replied. “Wood kills them. A stake through the heart. There are other ways but that’s the easiest.”
“Do you have a stake I could have?”
He turned, surprised. “There’s no need for that. A lady like yourself shouldn’t – ”
The truce was over. Hester bent down and picked up a short branch. As he watched, she stripped the leaves from it and then snapped it over her knee. “Will this work?” she asked tersely, holding it up.
A flicker of admiration went over his face. “Yes, but I hope you won’t need to use it. Hurry!”
Hester looked dubiously at the door. “I really should not be entering your lodgings, Mr. Agnew. Can you not hire a carriage and take me home?”
He looked at her sardonically. “I think your reputation is the least of your worries and I would not set foot in your house for all the tea in China.”
Hester glared at him but sheer exhaustion after a two hour walk made her give in. Agnew’s horse had bolted, leaving a ragged end of rope behind and they had been forced to walk miles back to town. She stepped into the small house and found it pleasantly warm and furnished plainly but with an air of comfort. Agnew lit candles and set a kettle on the stove. He turned to look at Hester for the first time in a reasonable light and found that she was staring at him, a thoughtful look on her face. He saw a young woman whose dark hair was matted with leaves and twigs, whose delicately rounded cheek was marred by an angry scratch and whose grey eyes were shadowed but full of fire. He smiled slightly. She was a fighter, this one. Good.
Hester saw the smile and misinterpreted it as amusement at her bedraggled state. Her back stiffened and she looked formidable. In any other circumstances she would have considered Peter Agnew both handsome and interesting. He had the face of a scholar and the body of a fighter. It was an intriguing combination. However, all the blue eyes and raven dark hair in the world weren’t going to be enough to make her like him if he persisted in treating her like a child. He smiled at her for the first time and she found that she was smiling back. The man was charming her despite her best intentions.
“So, are all women in America as stubborn as you?” asked the charming man. “You’ll have to forgive me, but this is my first visit to your shores.”
Hester gave him a level, deadly look. “I am not acquainted with every woman in this country, sir, so I cannot enlighten you, but there is one girl who might fit your ideal of womanhood. My sister has been changed from a spirited, happy young girl into a mindless automaton. Forgive me if I don’t try to follow her example.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry. Tonight has not been easy for you has it?”
The unexpected kindness in his voice brought tears to her eyes, hot and stinging. He pretended not to notice and disappeared into the kitchen, returning with a cup of tea for her to drink. She sipped it gratefully and then placed the empty cup down.
Peter saw her start to speak and held up his hand. “Please. I know you have a dozen questions but if you could tell me your story first it will be helpful.” Because the less I tell you the better, he added silently. His orders were clear on this point; disclosure was to be kept to a minimum. It had seemed very logical at the time but looking at Hester’s face as she stumbled through the story of the last few months, he doubted she would be satisfied with anything less than the truth.
Hester finished her tale and looked at him with haunted eyes. “I would beg you to tell me that I am being foolish but after tonight, you cannot do that, can you?”
He shook his head. “Miss Alpert –”
“Oh, please – you may call me Hester. It seems silly to be so formal after all we have gone through.”
He smiled. “Then please call me Peter. As you noticed, I am English. I am an operative in an organisation known as the Council of Watchers. It has been in existence for well over a thousand years and is -” He hesitated, wondering how to phrase it. “We guard humanity from the demons,” he finished bluntly.
“You said that thing in the wood was a vampire? Is that what you mean by a demon?”
Peter shuddered. “Vampires are perhaps the most common threat but trust me, there are others that walk this earth that even vampires fear. The Council has a dedicated army of workers, stationed all over the globe, monitoring demonic activity.”
“And you fight these demons, you kill them?” Hester asked. “They seemed so strong, so terrifying –”
Peter shrugged. “We are all given basic training but no, in general, we watch and observe.” He paused and then shrugged inwardly. Might as well tell her all of it, having come this far. “The Council has one duty, one responsibility. We Watch the Slayer.”
“The Slayer? Who is he? A friendly demon?”
Peter grinned. “On the contrary. She is a young girl, about sixteen when she is Chosen.” His smile faded. “Slayers are picked, we don’t know how, and they become imbued with certain powers including extraordinary strength and the ability to heal quickly. There is only ever one Slayer and when she dies – which, unfortunately happens frequently, another is Chosen.”
“These young girls die?” asked Hester, horrified. “What happens to them?”
“They meet a vampire they cannot slay, a demon who is too strong even for them.”
Hester looked sick. “They must be very brave,” she said quietly.
“They have no choice,” Peter said grimly. “Once the power is in them, they must fight. We send a Watcher to train and guide them but she must face the vampires alone.”
“It seems very inefficient,” said Hester. “Surely soldiers could seek out these demons and -” Her voice trailed off. “I am being distracted,” she said slowly. “All this is very interesting but it does not explain why you are here, why you know so much about me. What is your purpose here?”
Peter stood and walked over to the window, peering out into the darkness. “The Council gathers information. We observe, yes, but sometimes we can stamp out a spark, do you see? And Sunnydale is more than a spark. It is a smouldering fire that someone is tending carefully, coaxing back to life.” He turned to her, his thin face serious. “And if they succeed, the entire town will be dragged –”
“Into the mouth of hell,” Hester whispered.
He raised an eyebrow. “Well done! Yes, this town lies on a Hellmouth. It explains everything evil that has happened here. When we heard that Wilkins was rebuilding the town, we began to suspect. When your father and others like him suddenly threw their entire fortunes into the enterprise, we were certain. And now –”
“He has my sister! What does he plan for her? Why does he want to marry her?”
Peter gave her a pitying glance. “I have no idea,” he said. “We’ve looked into him of course. His mother comes of a family well known for their magical talent but after they moved from England many decades ago, forced to run when their atrocities grew too numerous for the Council to overlook, well, we lost touch.”
Hester shook her head. “Mrs. Wilkins – a witch? Impossible!”
“They don’t all wear pointy hats and ride broomsticks, you know,” Peter said dryly.
Silence fell. Peter continued to watch from the window and Hester was lost in thought. Finally she stood, brushing down her torn and filthy dress. “I must go,” she said. “If there is anything left of Father, he will be so worried.”
“The rings are controlling them,” Peter said. “If you could remove them, it would weaken the spell, perhaps even break it, but I don’t see how you can.”
“I will try,” said Hester, her face set. “What do you plan to do? How can I help you?”
“Help me? You cannot. This isn’t a game. I think it might be best if you left the town altogether. Is there no relative you can visit?”
“Not at all,” said Hester firmly, crossing her fingers as the faces of half a dozen aunts and cousins swam in front of her looking disapproving. “I intend to stay and rescue my family from this, this _scoundrel_!”
“He’s all of that,” murmured Peter. “Well, I cannot pretend to regret that I saved you tonight but I have a feeling that you’re going to complicate my life, Hester.”
She smiled at him. “You may count on that, sir,” she said. The smile faded. “Now tell me what to do.”
Richard Wilkins looked out at the darkness into the face of a vampire. “Yes? Can I help you?” he said politely. “My maid said there was a – gentleman at the door who wouldn’t step inside.” Wilkins chuckled. “It’s more a case of ‘couldn’t’ isn’t it?”
The vampire’s face remained impassive. “The girl escaped,” he said.
Richard frowned. “I’m sorry? One young girl, three of you and she escaped? I’m sorry to have to say this so early in our relationship but I’m very disappointed in you.”
The vampire growled. “There was a man there. He helped her. He killed one in the woods and then staked the one attacking the girl.”
“And where were you when all this was happening?” Wilkins asked, his tone chiding as one would scold a child.
“I went back to wait for them, back where he’d tethered his horse. It got spooked and ran off and I –” His voice tailed off as he tried to think of a way to explain his strategic retreat.
Wilkins nodded slowly. “Probably the way you smell,” he said in a confiding voice. “Horses don’t like the smell of blood and,” he sniffed delicately, “whatever cess pit you bathed in.” With a swift movement he pulled out a small bottle and smashed it into the vampire’s face, watching as the holy water began to eat away at the dead flesh. As the vampire screamed in pain and shock, hands clawing at his bubbling face, Wilkins pulled out a stake from his other pocket and swiftly stabbed the vampire in the heart.
“Dirty and cowardly. They aren’t the kind of people I like to work with,” Wilkins murmured. “No, sir. Efficiency and a commitment to getting the job done, that’s what made this country great.”
Tucking the stake away, he shut the door and went back into the house. The maid popped out of the kitchen, her thin face worried. “Will you be wanting any refreshments for your visitor, sir? Only Cook says – ”
Wilkins smiled at her. “No, he couldn’t stop, my dear. You go and help Cook.” She turned away and he called to her, his voice still friendly but with a certain menace lurking. “Oh, and Edna Mae? Remember what I said about gossiping? I’d hate to think you tittle-tattled about anything that goes on in the house.”
Her face went pale and she shook her head frantically. “Oh, sir, I wouldn’t!”
He patted her shoulder, his hand lingering for a moment. “I’m sure you wouldn’t. Now, run along.”
Hester went into her bedroom, locked the door and sat on the edge of the bed, her hands trembling slightly. She had just tried to make her father see how impossible it was that Sophie should marry Richard Wilkins and failed utterly.
She recalled the stranger looking out at her from the familiar, beloved face and her mouth twisted with pain. As afternoon turned into dusk she remained immobile, hands locked in her lap until finally she sighed, tension flowing from her as she reached a decision.
She stood, her body protesting the long period of stillness, and went to the window. There was no anger in her, no futile defiance. She was facing an adversary with powers she could not match with an agenda of which she was ignorant. She was standing alone. Peter’s presence was a tiny comfort but she had guessed from his guarded words that his organisation was unlikely to care overmuch about one individual or two. Her family’s fate would not influence whatever action they decided to take.
Hester was prepared to fight back and she had spent several hours taking what Peter had told her and what she knew already and weaving the two threads into what she hoped would prove to be a lifeline. If it turned out to be a noose, she was not overly concerned, as long as the neck it tightened around belonged to a Wilkins.
Back in his lodgings, Peter was preparing a spell. Occult talent was not required in his work but it could be useful. It could also be dangerous but that was so much a part of his life that he had ceased to care. Members of his family had worked for the Council for several generations, some as Watchers, and some in the various training schools. He was being groomed to be a Watcher – assuming he survived that long – and it was possible that he would even be assigned to the next Slayer. That was a dubious honour of course. No Watcher could keep a Slayer alive for long but despite the fact that everyone knew that, there was a certain stigma attached. A Watcher who returned home after burying his Slayer’s ashes was gently shunted into office work, eased out to early retirement, forgotten about.
Peter was young enough to be filled with the unthinking arrogance that could not comprehend failure. That was something that happened to other people. He had killed a handful of vampires, been on a team that investigated and crushed a plot to open a portal to a demon dimension – he felt experienced and confident of his abilities. This current assignment was getting complicated though. Hester’s involvement was unexpected and Richard Wilkins was moving quickly, too quickly.
The spell he had decided to try was one that would allow him to eavesdrop on Wilkins in an attempt to discover his plans in more detail. It was risky of course. If Wilkins was warded against such intrusion, he might be able to trace the spell back and come after its caster. Peter did not relish the thought of a confrontation this early and the possibility of being controlled with a charmed ring filled him with more fear than a simple death did.
Carrying a bowl of water over to the table he completed the ritual and chanted the words that would turn the water into a window. “Guide my sight and let me see, all that is, or shall be. As the water hold the air, keep me safe in evil’s lair.”
The water shimmered and steamed, bubbling up. He held the sides of the bowl firmly, staring down into the water. It calmed down and he began to see flashes of colour, brief snatches of words. Trained to observe and remember, he let the details flow into his mind, making now attempt to analyse them. He had to be quick. Maintaining the spell was draining him and he could not risk being left defenceless. He sensed an awareness of his presence and began to withdraw. To his horror, a tentacle of magic lashed out, wrapping around his spirit, trapping him in the vision. He fought back desperately and felt questions begin to pound at him, demanding his identity and purpose. Peter ignored them, blanking his mind, tugging to free himself.
Dimly he heard the knocking on the door but his physical body was as much as prisoner as his spirit. The door was flung open and he heard footsteps. Bracing himself for an attack, his attention divided, the entity that was trying to find out who he was, gained ground. Peter felt the darkness begin to pull him down and cried out in despair.
Hester stood behind Peter, wracked with indecision. She could see that he was suffering but she had no idea of how to help him. When he screamed, instinct took over and she swept the bowl of water to the ground, breaking the spell. Peter slumped over the table, his face white, his eyes closed. The water pooled on the floor and began to gather as droplets of mercury do. Hester gasped with surprise. They formed a smooth circle and she saw eyes within the pool, searching. They looked familiar but she did not waste time on identifying them. Grabbing a cushion, she dropped it onto the magical pool and ground her foot into it.
Peter was still unconscious and she had no idea of how long he would remain that way. She reached into her purse and took out some smelling salts, left over from the journey. Sophie had suffered from travel sickness and had required much nursing. Hester took the lid off the salts and lifted Peter’s head from the table, pushing the bottle under his nose. He inhaled and began to splutter, his eyes opening, streaming with tears. Hester nodded in satisfaction and tucked the bottle away.
“What in God’s name did you do to me?” he choked.
Hester frowned. “I believe I asked you once before not to swear,” she said primly. “And I think that what I did was save you. Under that cushion is a pool of water with eyes. Please tell me they cannot hear too?”
Peter stood up quickly, his legs giving way. He grabbed the table to steady himself and then strode over to the cushion, lifting it up using the toe of his boot. The water had soaked into the cushion leaving nothing but a damp patch on the floor. “I think it’s safe,’ he said. “She managed to maintain the link for a second or two after you spilled the bowl but with nothing to look, it was a waste of power.”
“Mrs. Wilkins,” Peter said, collapsing into a chair and rubbing his head. “I was spying on them – got some useful information too, or at least I think I did - when she suddenly spotted me and lashed out.” He glanced up at Hester. “I think we can say all debts are cancelled between us. You certainly saved my sanity, if not my life.”
Hester felt a warm glow as he smiled at her but reminded herself of Peter’s irritating habit of attacking first and apologising later. “So what did you learn?” she asked. “I came to see you with a plan of my own, but perhaps it will need revising.”
Peter closed his eyes. “If I tell you, can you take notes?” he asked. “It’s important that I do this quickly before the memories fade.”
Hester nodded and went over to his writing desk. She arranged herself with pen and paper to hand and Peter began to talk.
Fifteen minutes later they both studied the sheet of paper with identical expressions of horror.
“Demonic transfiguration?” murmured Peter.
“Virgin sacrifice!” said Hester indignantly. She looked at Peter, blushing slightly. “This must be stopped.”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “If Wilkins becomes a demon, there will be more deaths than one. I beg you to look at the larger picture.”
Hester’s gaze scorched him. “Since my mother dies, I have been responsible for Sophie. I will not see her life taken in this way.” She stood up and walked to the door briskly.
Peter looked at her uneasily. “Where are you going?” he said.
Without turning she yanked the door open and stepped outside. “To kill Wilkins,” she said.
Peter froze for a second, mouth hanging open, trying to process what Hester had just said. When he succeeded, he ran after her, scooped her up in his arms and took her back inside, ignoring her pummeling fists and grinning at the inventiveness of her cursing.
“Tsk, that’s not the way a lady talks,” he said reprovingly, dropping her on the couch and standing between her and the door. Without taking his eyes off her he shut the door with a kick and said firmly, “Killing Wilkins is impossible, Hester and will only lead to your death. He’s already sent vampires after you, remember. Besides, what weapon do you have?”
Hester stood up and pulled a stake from her purse. “This should do the job, I think,” she replied. Her attitude was one of collected, icy calm, as if struggling wildly in the arms of a man was something that happened to other women, but not to her.
Peter sighed. “He’s not a vampire,” he pointed out sarcastically. Hester said nothing, pointedly, and he flushed. “Very well; it could still kill him, but you seem to forget that you are a woman, a young, not overly strong woman and he is a man. There’s a certain advantage he has over you when it comes to speed and strength. How could you get close enough to use your weapon?”
Hester’s head drooped and he heard a catch in her voice as if she were beginning to cry. “You’re right, of course, Peter. You must forgive me. It’s all been such a shock and I’m _so_ worried about Sophie –” She looked up and he saw tears glimmering in her eyes. As he began to stammer reassurances, she walked towards him slowly, her full lips trembling. Resting one slender hand on his sleeve, she looked up at him beseechingly. “Won’t you help me, Peter? Please? I need you and - I think you’re dead now.”
“What? I’m what?”
A sharp pain shot through him and he looked down to see that she had the stake pressed hard against him, her lips now set in a thin, mutinous line. “That is how I would get close enough!” she hissed, pulling the stake back.
A strained silence fell. Hester stood, tapping the stake against her open palm as she waited for him to speak. Peter sighed, raising his hand to rumple his hair, a rueful smile spreading over his face. “I can see I underestimated you, Hester.”
She relaxed and his hand swept down, slapping the stake away and coming back to lash against her face. He halted the blow, the back of his hand lying against her cheek and saw the colour drain from her face. Furious with her for provoking him and himself for responding, he took refuge in instinct, grabbing her shoulders and kissing her, his lips hard and demanding. Hester had never been kissed like this before. Hasty, fumbled caresses in secluded corners at dances, yes, but not often, and they had been as arousing as a visit to the dentist. This was different. Peter knew what he was doing and as pleasure rippled through her body, she realised, to her surprise that she did too.
The kiss ceased to be a battle and became a striving towards a mutual goal. Hester was barely aware of her surroundings. Peter’s mouth on hers, his hands, his body, were all that mattered and for a few minutes that was enough. Then, reluctantly, she remembered Sophie and that was enough to break the spell.
Peter groaned as she pulled away from him. He could not believe that he had acted so rashly and he waited, resigned, for the flash of her hand as she slapped him, or her icy voice raised in a reprimand. As ever, Hester refused to act as he expected. She gave him a shy smile and blushed slightly. Peter felt his heart tear in half and realised through the buzzing in his ears that he had fallen in love with her, not with the kiss, but with the smile.
She could not know. It was all he clung to as his eyes devoured her and he clamped down on his desire. He was not in a career that lent itself to a family life and she was the daughter of a millionaire, well above his station in life. With an effort, he kept his voice calm as he said coolly, “Perhaps we can make some sensible plans now, if you are done play acting.”
Hester gasped in shock at his tone but rallied at once. “Any plans I make will be my own. I do not recall asking you to be involved.”
Peter reached out his hand to her but let it drop. “Hester, for the love of – please listen to me.”
She looked at him, her eyes stormy, filled with the pain of betrayal. Peter took a deep breath. “I will ask you to help me. We can go to Wilkins’ house and while you occupy him, I will sneak in and try to find the place he works his magic. It’s underground; I got that much from the vision. You’ve lived in the house; can you remember enough to draw me a floor plan?”
The tension left her as she recognised his sincerity in including her, finally, in his plans. “Of course. Let me draw it for you.”
She worked for about ten minutes and Peter studied the diagrams, a frown on his face. When she had finished, he tapped his finger on a corner of the hall. “It doesn’t add up,” he said. “There should be something here, if your drawing is accurate.”
Hester’s forehead puckered up. “I see what you mean, but there’s nothing there. Honestly.”
Peter bit his lip. “Have you ever been hypnotised, Hester?”
She shook her head. “Why? Do you think that I might remember more if I were in a trance? I don’t see how.”
Peter shrugged. “It’s worth a try. He could have cloaked the door with a glamour so that you might walk past it a dozen times and never quite see it. Come over here and relax in this chair. Let me see if I can put you into a very light trance. I want you to imagine that you’re going into the house and then to tell me everything you see.”
Hester sank down in the armchair and looked at Peter expectantly. He began to talk to her in a low voice, his hand holding hers, his thumb stroking her wrist in a compelling rhythm. She was caught by his blue eyes, sinking into them, as if she were diving under water.
“Tell me what you see, Hester,” he whispered.
She closed her eyes and then said dreamily, “I’m opening the door. It’s heavy and I have to push hard. It swings open and I walk in. The door shuts behind me like a vault, sucking the air with it. The stairs are on my right, wooden and slippery. In front of me is a long corridor, carpeted in red. It ends with a door leading to the kitchen. I walk towards the kitchen. I go past a mirror on my left, with a small oak table under it. The table holds a glass dome with wax flowers inside, very ugly. Then there is a door to the parlour, also on the left. I take three steps and there is the door to the dining room, again on the left. There’s nothing on the right because that’s where the stairs are. Except – there’s a door. A small door. I banged my hip on the handle once but I forgot about it. How strange.”
Peter leaned back and said, “Wake up, Hester.”
Her eyes fluttered open and she looked at him. “It’s really there, isn’t it? Do you think you can get into it?”
He smiled grimly. “I can try.”
Hester knocked on Richard’s door with no sense of apprehension or fear. She was so full of seething hatred that there was no room for any other emotion. Peter’s behaviour had bothered her a little but she had guessed at the reason for his abruptness, in part at least, and had set that problem aside for later.
The door swung open and Hester smiled kindly at the young maid. “Hello, Edna Mae. How nice to see you again. May I come in?”
Edna Mae bobbed automatically, recognising Hester’s social standing. “Oh, yes, Miss,” she whispered, her pale blue eyes scared, her cheeks waxen.
She was quite pretty in a washed out way, Hester thought, but so timid that she seemed far younger than her years. “How old are you, Edna Mae?” she asked curiously.
The maid flinched. “Seventeen, Miss.”
“And are you walking out with someone?” Hester said, maintaining the pretence of benign, if inquisitive interest.
The young girl swayed, her hand going out to the wall. “No, Miss,” she said faintly. “Master doesn’t allow such goings on.”
Hester would have said more but a door opened and closed and Richard Wilkins appeared at the head of the stairs. “Why, Miss Hester! What a pleasant surprise! Come in and make yourself comfortable.” He ran quickly down the stairs, a wide smile on his face and shook her hand with what seemed to be genuine pleasure.
“Thank you,” said Hester, allowing him to shepherd her into the parlour. She refused his offer of refreshment and Edna Mae left them alone.
As the door closed, Richard turned to her and said solemnly, “You know, Hester, it was a little unwise of you to call at this time.”
Despite herself, Hester felt a twinge of panic at his words. “Why is that?” she asked, striving to keep her voice level.
“My mother is away at a friend’s house and you are unchaperoned, you know.”
Hester smiled with relief. “Oh, Richard, we are to be related soon!” she protested archly. She allowed her smile to fade and looked down, twisting her hands around the small purse in her lap. “In fact, it is because of that –”
Richard was sitting in a chair not far from hers. He leaned forward, a spark of interest in his eyes. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Is something troubling you, my dear?”
Hester looked at him with wide, candid eyes, allowing a suggestion of tears to tremble, unshed. She was good at summoning tears, though it had ceased to work with her father at a very early age. “Richard, you’re so perceptive that you must have noticed my lack of enthusiasm for your plans to marry Sophie.” She had surprised him, she could tell. He had not expected her to be so frank.
“Well,” he temporised. “Perhaps you haven’t been jumping up and down like most ladies do when a wedding’s afoot. Sophie did say something.”
“I just bet she did,” thought Hester. Aloud she said, “I haven’t, you’re quite right, Richard. But can you not guess why?”
He shook his head slowly, a certain wariness in his eyes.
She wondered whether to dab at her eyes with a handkerchief but decided that might be going a little too far. “Richard, this is so hard for me but I can’t bear there to be any secrets, any ill feeling between us.” She took a deep breath, wondering how well Peter was doing in his attempts to enter the house. “I did not want you to marry her because I was in love with you myself.”
Her straining ears caught faint sounds in the hall and she covered them by standing up and beginning to pace, letting her voice rise dramatically. “I cannot believe I said that! So immodest, so disloyal! I do not know what you must think of me.”
She walked over to the fireplace, as far away from the door as possible and buried her head in her hands. When Richard cautiously patted her shoulder, she raised a tear wet face to his and saw nothing but flattered confusion in his eyes. “Do you hate me, Richard?” she whispered.
“No, of course not,” he said. “I just had no idea that you entertained feelings of that nature.”
Was that suspicion in his voice? Hester played her trump card. “But you saved my life!” she cried. “Right here, the very first time we met. I fell and you were there to catch me. I felt so safe with you, so protected!”
Richard began to nod and she saw that he was convinced. “Miss Hester, what can I say? You do me a great honour, indeed you do, but the feelings I have towards your sister –”
Hester looked at him, a brave, tremulous smile on her face. “I know and I would think less of you if you had said anything else. I just had to tell you, so that you would understand, not think badly of me. I will go away after the wedding, so that it will not be too awkward.”
He patted her hand again. “Indeed you will not!” he declared. “This is just a little crush. I know young ladies get them.” Hester simpered, sternly crushing the desire to slap his face. “Once Sophie and I are married, you will feel very differently about all this, I know you will.”
“If I’m still alive,” Hester thought grimly as she nodded sweetly.
“Now, we won’t say another word about this,” he declared. “You must sit still and I’ll bring you a cup of tea.”
The last thing Hester wanted was for him to leave the room. In a soft voice she said, “Would it be terrible of me to have a tiny glass of sherry instead? I feel quite faint.”
Richard pursed his lips and shook his head reprovingly. “I’m not in favour of little ladies drinking spirituous liquors, but I suppose this has been a stressful evening.”
He walked over to the long mahogany sideboard and poured her a thimbleful of sherry and, after a moment’s reflection, a large whisky for himself.
Peter had moved as silently as a shadow to a side door and waited until he heard Hester knocking before he tried it. It was unlocked and he slid in, still moving catlike, partly because of training, partly because of a simple misdirection spell that would make any eyes slide over him. He found himself in a small room, obviously used to do laundry. From his memory of Hester’s plans, he needed to leave this room through the door directly ahead, which led to the kitchen, rather than the one on the left which led to the coach house.
He listened and heard the murmur of voices as the cook and the maid chatted quietly. Trusting to the spell, he opened the door and pushed it hard so that it banged against the wall.
The two women jumped in surprise but the cook just murmured, “Dratted wind,” and got up ponderously to close the door firmly. Peter stepped past her and took advantage of their distraction to exit through the door to the hall. He could hear Hester’s voice and grinned as he imagined her charming Richard into a state of sheer terror at the thought that his sister in law to be was enamoured of him.
He walked past the door and shook himself. It was there, he knew it was and knowing that, it could not hide from him. Closing his eyes, he ran his hands over the wall. Hester had said that there was a door handle – ah, there it was. Peter opened his eyes and studied the handle. He had brushed against it with his hand and felt a tingle run up his arm. Clearly it was warded in some way. He could still hear Hester’s voice so he decided to take a chance. Fumbling in his pocket, he brought out a small salt shaker, filled with a purple powder. Letting some fall onto the handle, he murmured, “No spell shall warn, no bell will ring, Take from me this offering, which I freely bring.”
He watched the handle glow, reflecting that spells really were utter gibberish sometimes and then smiled as the lock clicked softly. Praying that there were no other traps, he peered into the darkness below and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
He dared not risk lighting a candle until he was some distance from the door so he felt his way down the stairs in the dark. When he did kindle a flame he grimaced with distaste. The room reeked of old blood and the sickly sweetness of mystical herbs. The evil in the room seemed to crawl over his skin like invisible insects and he found himself clutching the cross he wore around his neck.
Standing still, he scanned the room, knowing that he had little time left. A pile of books on a desk looked promising and he went to examine them, hardly wanting to touch them when he saw the titles. “The man is beyond saving,” he muttered.
A piece of paper caught his eye and he picked it up. His jaw dropped. It was a neatly written, itemised list of objectives. Peter memorised it and replaced it on the table, shaking his head in disbelief. A slight breeze stirred the unwholesome air and he went to investigate. When he saw the tunnels, he hesitated. If he could explore and discover another way into the basement, that would be of great use. If he got lost, he would effectively be trapped.
The decision was made for him when he heard footsteps and a jaunty whistle. Richard Wilkins had got rid of his visitor and was coming downstairs.
When Hester could prolong her visit no longer without arousing suspicion, she allowed Richard to usher her out of the door. A casual glance at the hall showed nothing out of the ordinary. Hester was relieved but worried. Was it really possible to hide a door by magic? Had Peter managed to escape?
As the door closed behind her, she walked away, striving to seem unconcerned and certain that she was being observed. Her fingers slid into the deep pocket of her coat and closed around the stake she carried with her now. If Richard had reconsidered his decision to have her killed – and she was far from sure about that – it would still take some time for the news to get out. She did not know how many vampires infested the town but having faced one, she knew that even armed she stood little chance of surviving an attack again.
As she reached the street leading to Peter’s house, she hesitated. Going home without knowing what he had discovered would be frustrating but it was getting late. Sighing, she began to walk towards her home on Crawford Street, a home that felt more like a mausoleum filled with unhappiness and ghosts, though the house itself was newly built.
Peter was trained to react quickly but without panicking. Somehow, all the training in the world wasn’t enough when you were trapped in a basement with the living embodiment of evil coming down the stairs. He shivered as a passage from the Council’s file on Wilkins surfaced in his memory. As a child, he had summoned a demon to attack three bullies who had sent him sprawling into a muddy puddle, ruining his new suit. The bodies of the three were almost unrecognisable, torn apart and partially eaten. A cougar had been blamed for the deaths but the Council had known that the evil at the root of the Wilkins’ family tree had tainted another generation.
Peter stood in a small cave with two tunnels leading away from the main area. Deciding that the breeze came from the left hand one, he hurried down it. He had chosen well. The other led to the chicken coop and the hens would certainly have roused from their uneasy sleep if he had stumbled into their home.
He walked quickly, resisting the urge to turn around to see if he were being followed. The candle he held was dripping wax and he cursed silently as he realised that he was leaving a trail. Pulling out a handkerchief, he wrapped it around the candle and moved on. The small flame flickered warningly if he went too fast and he longed for a closed lantern.
After walking for ten minutes, the tunnel began to widen. Peter’s steps quickened despite himself and the candle flickered and died. It was his second piece of luck. He reached for matches to relight it and froze as he heard voices ahead of him and saw a dim light.
“So where is he then? He went to see that human and he never came back.”
“He could be hunting.”
“It’ll be his last meal if he is. I told him I wanted to know the score. You go, see Wilkins, and find out if he has any more orders.”
“Since when do we take orders from a human? And why do I have to go?”
Vampires. Peter’s eyes rolled. Wonderful. Wilkins behind and a nest in front. If they smelled him he seriously doubted that he would see the sun rise but habit made him continue to eavesdrop, wanting to get all the information he could. The first voice sounded dangerous, the second whiny. He wondered how many more there were and how Wilkins was controlling them.
“He’s human, yes, but he’s scarier than you,” said the first voice, laughing cruelly.
A new voice joined the conversation. “A kitten’s scarier than Jordan!”
“Hey!” Jordan protested. “I am scarier than a kitten! Lots scarier.”
“Enough!” growled the leader. “Jordan, do as I say and go to Wilkins. Use the tunnels; he should be in his room.”
Peter tensed, sliding a stake out of the holder on his belt.
“But I haven’t fed tonight. Can’t I go through the streets and hunt on the way?” Jordan complained. There was an ominous silence and Peter heard a frightened squeak followed by footsteps hurrying towards him. Obviously the leader had run out of patience.
Peter walked backwards around a slight bend and flattened himself against the wall. He reached the curve just in time. Jordan came along the tunnel and ran straight onto the stake that Peter thrust out, dusting without making a sound, his mouth round with surprise. It was the easiest kill Peter had ever made.
Peter looked into his eyes as he staked him and recognised him as the youngest son of a local farmer. So the vampires were siring fledglings. That was good in that they would be inexperienced fighters but even a new vampire could be dangerous. The weakest were still possessed of speed and strength beyond that of most humans.
He hesitated. There were at least two vampires ahead, possibly more. If he waited it was likely that they would find him. Luckily the breeze was blowing his scent away from them but if they came looking for Jordan he would be found in moments.
There are always options. Peter’s seemed to have shrunk to dying in the tunnel or dying in the cavern. He chose the latter and began to walk towards the torch lit cave, his face calm.
Peter looked into the cavern, scanning it quickly. He saw the two vampires who had been talking but they were about thirty feet away, crouched around a small fire. The cavern was larger than he had expected and he decided to try to sneak out. It meant he had to traverse fifty feet without being heard but it was worth attempting.
He managed about ten steps when he heard more vampires outside the cave. A large boulder, big enough to hide behind, was about fifteen foot away. Crouching down, Peter made for it, diving behind it just as the newcomers entered. He peered cautiously around the rock and his jaw dropped. There were two vampires holding a struggling woman.
They had captured Sophie.
Hester got home to find a note from Sophie saying that she had gone to visit Richard. She frowned, biting her lip. There was only one way into town and no carriage had passed her. Would Sophie have even considered walking in the dark? If so, where was she?
Hester called out her father’s name and after getting no response went to look for him.
Her father was asleep in his study, a brandy decanter on a table beside him. Hester stretched out a hand to wake him and then paused. This was an ideal opportunity to take the ring from his finger. Holding her breath, she reached out and took his hand. It lay limply in hers, the gold band glittering on his finger. Steeling herself, she gripped the ring and began to pull. Her father’s eyes opened and he began to scream, the sound like that of a mortally wounded rabbit, high and piercing. Hester cried out in alarm and shrank back, dropping his hand.
To her horror, as soon as she let go, his eyes closed and he fell back into his drunken slumber as if nothing had happened. Shaking with revulsion and fear, she backed away. She made up her mind to leave the house and go to see Peter. If the rings could not be removed by normal means, then there was nothing she could do, but perhaps he knew of some magic that could save her father and sister. Deep inside, she admitted that she wanted to be with Peter. He was comforting in a world that had become a living nightmare.
Feeling like a coward, she hurried to the stables and saddled a horse. As she mounted it she realised that tears were pouring down her face. Impatiently, she brushed them away. There was no time to mourn and if she acted quickly, perhaps there would be no reason to.
If it had been Hester who was about to die, Peter would have gone to her rescue without thinking. It would have been against everything the Council had taught him but he would not have been able to watch her die. A stranger, he would, regretfully, have abandoned because the information he had discovered in the basement was more valuable. With it, he could save hundreds, possibly thousands of lives.
Sophie presented a dilemma. On the one hand she was Hester’s sister. On the other, she was possessed and under Wilkins’ control. Peter chewed his lip thoughtfully before innate gallantry made him decide to rescue her. Or try at least. As he stood and prepared to rush the vampires, he realised that he was too late.
Sophie had been herded into a corner and the leader was talking to the new vampires quietly over by the fire. Unnoticed, the vampire who had complained of being hungry sidled towards Sophie. The desire to feed overcame all other considerations and he pulled her to her feet, brushed the golden ringlets from her soft neck, and bit down. Her scream ended in a liquid gurgle and Peter shuddered, sinking back behind the rock.
Sophie’s body slid to the floor and the leader turned on the vampire who had fed. “I told you not to feed until I gave the word!”
He shrugged. “It’s only a girl,” he said.
The leader shook his head, a deadly calm settling over his bestial features. “No. It wasn’t. It was the girl Wilkins planned to marry. Want to go and explain to him how he’s going to be lonely at the altar?” Horror in his eyes, the vampire shook his head frantically. “Well, fine, you don’t have to,” the leader said kindly. Bending, he pulled a branch from the fire and advanced on the terrified minion. “You can die right now instead.” Thrusting the flaming torch at him, he set the vampire alight and stepped back to watch as he howled in agony before exploding into dust.
The two vampires watching laughed and Peter smiled. Three against one was still terrible odds but if they kept this up, they would kill each other by dawn and he could just walk out.
“Hey, Boss, she’s still alive,” said a vampire whose red hair blazed in the shadowy light of the cave.
“What? I wonder if Wilkins would like her turned? Better than nothing.”
“No time to ask him,” reported the second. “She’ll be gone in a minute.”
The leader walked over, knelt beside the girl and fumbled for a knife. Cutting his arm, he waited for the blood to pool and then brought Sophie’s slack lips to the wound. She must have swallowed because he grunted with satisfaction and then let her lifeless body fall back.
“You, Red, go tell Wilkins,” he commanded. “Where’s Jordan anyway? Get him back here.”
Peter stayed very still as the vampire obediently went down the tunnel, yards away from his hiding place. His eyes were fixed on Sophie’s body and he was filled with pity. He had to try to escape now but he wished he could spare Hester the knowledge that her sister was not only dead but would wake a soulless demon.
Regretfully, Peter began to move towards the cave mouth. The two vampires were huddled over Sophie, draining her body of the last drops of blood and did not see him leave.
Hester reached Peter’s house and found it dark. He had told her where he kept a key and she let herself in and curled up on the sofa, shivering and scared. Her body eased gently into sleep as the only refuge for her overwrought mind and she slept for a while until the rattle of the door roused her.
Peter’s face was white and his eyes were filled with pain. “Hester, my dear,” he exclaimed. “Why are you here?” Going to her, he held her close, forgetting his resolve to hide his feelings from her.
Hester sighed as she felt his arms tighten protectively but allowed herself only a short moment of comfort before she pushed him away. “Sophie is missing and Father – I tried to take off his ring as he slept and oh, Peter, the sound he made! It was hellish. I was so scared. But I knew I had to find Sophie and – why, what is it?”
Peter’s eyes fell and then he looked at her and told her of Sophie’s fate, watching in helpless agony as her face grew sharp and haggard with grief.
Richard Wilkins paced the basement room glaring Red into silence every time he tried to speak. Finally he paused and whirled round to face the vampire. “So, let me just make sure I have this correct,” he said pleasantly. “A vampire set off up a straight tunnel to see me and managed to get lost on the way, another killed my fiancee and a third turned her into a vampire? Does that about cover it?”
The vampire nodded dumbly. Wilkins nodded back, a smile spreading like melted butter over his face. “Well, that’s just fine. In fact, I can see how that’s going to work out quite nicely.”
The vampire found himself relaxing in the warmth of Wilkins’ smile. “So, what do you want me to tell Boss then?” he said.
“Oh, I don’t think you’ll be able to tell him anything, will you?”
The vampire shifted uneasily. “Why not?” he demanded.
A massive shape loomed up behind him and tore off his head like a child plucking daisies from the grass. The headless body swayed slightly and dissolved into dust.
Richard sighed, shaking his head sadly. “More mess to sweep up,” he murmured. “And I try so hard to keep things shipshape down here.” He paused, cocking his head thoughtfully. “’Shipshape’. Hmm. I wonder what that means exactly? Never mind. One last little job for you before I send you back.” The demon’s mouth gaped open and he growled softly in protest. He had been under Richard’s control for many years now and it was a long time since he had even attempted serious rebellion. Wilkins had ways of punishing his employees that made instant obedience by far the more attractive option.
“I know you’re tired,” Wilkins continued, “but remember; it’s easier to push your work in front of you than to drag it behind you. Now go down the tunnel, kill the two vampires and bring me back the body of the girl. Off you go!”
Richard Wilkins watched the demon leave and pursed his lips. Mother was going to be
disappointed about this but there was still Hester after all. Unless one of the vampires had already killed her. Even then, he had one more possibility. Humming to himself, he went to prepare a resting place for Sophie. She was practically a Wilkins after all. He couldn’t let her rise again just anywhere.
Hester could not cry. She felt the tears welling up until her head was aching and swollen with their weight but nothing could release them. Her loss was so great that she could not comprehend it. Sophie was dead but in a short time her possessed body would be walking, talking – and killing. It was the ultimate obscenity, the final degradation of a young girl whose short life had known nothing but the normal amount of sorrow until Richard Wilkins had come into their world.
Sophie had been sweet, loving and shallow but she had lost any opportunity to mature, frozen in perpetual youth and condemned to darkness. Hester closed her eyes and prayed in a formless plea for mercy on her sister’s soul. A kaleidoscope of images flashed across her mind and she remembered Sophie as a child and an adult, her golden hair and blue eyes winning her less admiration than her happy giggle and lack of vanity. Sophie would never walk in the light again, never feel the warmth of a summer day and complain that she was getting a freckle on her pink and white complexion.
Peter’s halting words began to sink into her mind. They were going to have to kill the creature that was using Sophie’s body. Peter was going to drive a stake through her heart and send Sophie’s ashes flying into a pitiless hell, an eternity of emptiness.
Slowly, the tears began to trickle down her face.
Wilkins sighed patiently. His mother was not taking the news well. He reflected that she had been so used to events unfolding as planned that she had lost the ability to react swiftly to changes. He was more flexible. Within minutes of learning of Sophie’s unfortunate fate he had replaced her in his thought with Hester.
“What do you plan to do when she rises?” said Maria Wilkins in her flat, dull voice.
Richard pursed his lips. “She’ll still be subject to the ring of course – at least I think so – and it would be helpful to have a vampire with a little more loyalty than the ones I’ve been dealing with recently.”
“Let’s just hope the change gives her some brains to go along with her strength,” Maria said dryly. “I never met such an empty headed young miss.”
Richard shook his head ruefully. “She was a bit flighty but she would have been ideal for our purposes, mother. Miss Hester, now. She’s a different type altogether. Stubborn.” He glanced at his mother, wondering whether to tell her of Hester’s confession of infatuation and desire. It would shock her, he knew. Deciding to keep it to himself for now, he diverted his mother with some gossip he had heard in the hardware store, before going to the basement to check on Sophie.
Hester splashed cold water over her face, dried it and looked wearily at her reflection in the mirror. She was pale, her eyes were reddened and her hair was tousled. Normally she would have been horrified; now it did not seem to matter. She thought of how she had spent an hour flirting with Wilkins and deep down in her eyes a small flame was kindled. When she swept out into the room where Peter sat, moodily fingering a stake, she looked like an avenging angel, terrible and beautiful, implacable and merciless.
Peter turned his head to glance at her and stood up, astonished at the transformation. She almost frightened him until he saw her lips quiver slightly as she saw what he was holding.
“Give that to me,” she said quietly, extending her hand. “I will be the one to, to –” Her voice faltered and then steadied. “It is my responsibility,” she finished.
Peter shook his head. “She is not your sister, Hester and she will have absolutely no tender feelings towards you, no hesitation in killing you. She will be stronger than you can imagine and –”
She cut him off. “I thought you said it will be some time before she rises? I don’t intend to face her. I will not let that creature use my sister’s body, not for a moment. There are things we can do to make sure she does not become a vampire. We will find her body tonight and we will do what we need to.”
“But, Hester,” Peter protested. “We don’t even know where she is!”
She thought for a moment. “You said one of them went to tell Richard. He would have taken her body, I’m sure of it. We must go through the tunnel and get into the basement that way. What should we take with us?”
Peter opened his mouth and saw the futility of arguing. “Will you promise to do as I say? To follow my lead?” She nodded and he smiled ruefully. “Somehow I doubt that you mean that.”
A glimmer of amusement flickered in her eyes. “Why, Peter. I gave you my word.”
Two strides took him to her side and he pulled her into his arms, looking down into her face, marvelling at her courage. “I love you, Hester,” he whispered. “This isn’t the time but I wanted you to know that before we go.”
Her hand slipped behind his head and she pulled his face to hers, kissing him fiercely, his touch melting the ice that was sealing her away from the world. Peter sensed this and was relieved. He had seen men go into battle with expressions similar to the one Hester had worn as she came into the room. They had been invincible – but they had stopped caring what happened to them and eventually death became as welcome as victory.
The kiss could easily have led to more but Peter broke free of her and said quietly, “We need to go.”
She nodded and asked, “Are there any spells you can perform that would help us?”
He shrugged. “The one I used to get into the basement was simple but it wouldn’t fool that witch and her hellspawn. I have a feeling that cold steel will be more use than magic.”
Moving swiftly he gathered weapons and then looked at Hester. She was dressed simply but her skirts were to her ankles and she was in corsets and neat ankle boots. “I think you need to wear something more suitable for woods, caves and sneaking around in the dark,” he said. Turning, he went into his bedroom and emerged with an armful of clothing. “Take this and see what fits,” he ordered.
Hester’s jaw dropped and he raised an eyebrow in sardonic amusement as he saw her shock. “But, Peter! I cannot wear these!”
“Then you can stay home,” he said firmly. “That dress of yours will catch on every bramble, slow you down if you need to run or fight and it’s light enough that it can be seen for miles.”
Hester’s lips set firmly and she walked to him and snatched the clothes out of his hands. “I’ll try them on,” she said. “But if you dare to laugh –”
His lips twitched as she came back in but he managed to stay calm under her scorching glare. “Much better,” he said. Throwing a stake into the air he watched it flip and let it smack into the palm of his hand. “Let’s go.”
Hester pulled out her own stake, studied it thoughtfully and then threw it high in the air, letting it rotate twice before catching it. Peter’s eyes narrowed at her unspoken challenge and she smiled slowly. “I’m a quick learner,” she said innocently.
He grinned. “That might come in handy,” he said. “There’s a lot I want to teach you.”
“Now, Hester!” Peter called out urgently, hanging on to the writhing vampire’s arms. Hester felt the world narrow down to a piece of sharpened wood, watched in fascination as it plunged through fabric, tore into flesh and finally penetrated the heart. She pulled it back sharply, stepping away from the cloud of dust. Raising her eyes she looked into Peter’s face, his expression a mirror of her own, teeth bared in a savage smile of victory.
If they hadn’t needed to be stealthy as they made their way through the woods to the cavern, Hester would have screamed her exultation to the distant stars. Her first kill. Her first blow against the creatures who had taken her family away. It felt good.
“Well done,” Peter said softly. “But remember, that one was careless and young. Don’t get over confident.”
She nodded distantly, scanning the dark woods. The moon was full and they were managing without lanterns, their eyes adapting to the night. “How close are we?” she asked.
“It’s over there, to the left. I see a glow from a fire; there must be someone in there. I expect most are out hunting.”
Moving like shadows, they made their way to the cave entrance. Hester felt the night wrap around her like armour. The vampires hadn’t bothered to set guards. Three were inside the cave, sitting near to the fire, drinking from a bottle that they passed from hand to hand. It looked like whisky and Hester wondered if vampires got drunk, before dismissing the thought as irrelevant.
Peter studied the three and whispered instructions to Hester, who nodded and moved away from him. Taking a crossbow that he had slung across his back, he fitted a wooden bolt to it, aimed, and fired at the vampire whose back was to the entrance. He was on target. The vampire screamed in shock as the bolt ripped through his heart, dusting before he even managed to stand up. The other two vampires gaped stupidly before beginning to move, their reaction time slow because of the alcohol.
Hester had never fired a cross bow but a cousin had shown her how to throw over arm when she was younger, much to her governess’s disapproval. She ran into the cave and hurled a thin glass bottle of holy water into the face of the smallest vampire. As he clawed at his bubbling flesh, she darted in close enough to stake him.
Peter had fitted another bolt but this one went astray, and the vampire he had aimed at came charging towards him, roaring in fury. Peter had no time to reload. Tossing the cross bow aside, he pulled out a short sword and slashed at the vampire, almost severing an arm. As the vampire stumbled past, going to his knees, Peter neatly lopped off his head.
Hester turned, looking for more adversaries. “This seems almost too easy,” she whispered.
Peter shrugged. “Not something to complain about,” he said shortly. “The tunnel is over here; hurry!”
They began to walk down the tunnel, lit now with torches every so many yards. Hester looked at them uneasily. “Peter, why would these be lit?” she asked.
He barely glanced at them. “Why not?” She opened her mouth but he waved her to silence. “Best not to talk,” he said in a low voice. Hester fell into step behind him, her lips set in a mutinous line. Her skin was crawling, not with fear but with a sense of danger. She could not understand why Peter seemed so unaffected by it.
Behind them, the shadows swirled and gathered. Out of them stepped the demon enslaved to Richard Wilkins. He followed them silently, herding them towards his master.
Sophie’s body lay still, her arms folded decorously over her chest. Richard looked at her thoughtfully. Vampires could take several days to rise but he wasn’t of a mind to wait. She still wore the ring with which he had been controlling her actions and he decided to use it to make her rise immediately. Picking up her hand, he dripped a dark, oily liquid onto the ring, a combination of blood, graveyard dust and some herbs. Murmuring an incantation he stepped back, picked up a cross and a stake and said calmly, “Wake up, Sophie.”
The figure stirred and he saw her eyelids flutter. Any resemblance to a fairy tale princess awakening was ended as her features rippled and reformed, blue eyes turning golden, teeth transforming to jagged fangs, ridges turning her beauty into a travesty. Sophie turned her head and looked at Wilkins. He stayed quite still and began to talk to her in a soothing voice. She listened for a moment before looking around and growling, “Hungry – ”
“Of course you are, my dear,” he said. “And you know me; I wouldn’t let any guest of mine feel that way for long.” He cocked his head, listening. “Unless I’m much mistaken, dinner is coming along right now.” He chuckled. “Just do me one favour; leave your sister to me. She’s fallen in with a most unsuitable young man, or so I’m told, and eating him would be in everyone’s best interests. Well, not his I suppose!”
Sophie’s eyes gleamed. Wilkins looked at her approvingly and said, “Why don’t you slip back into your other face for a moment? It’s never wise to show all your cards.”
She did as he asked and sat on the edge of the table, swinging her feet, a sweet smile on her face.
Hester had been walking for only a minute when she whirled around and saw what was following them. The demon paused, his bulk filling the passageway so completely that Hester knew it would be impossible to get past him. Peter realised that she had stopped and turned to her, impatient words dying on his lips as he saw what she was looking at.
“Hester! Get back here!” he snapped, reaching for his sword.
She shook her head. “No, Peter,” she said quietly. “I don’t think he wants to harm us or he would have attacked before.” She looked up at the demon. It was huge but shaped like a man, with a leathery, scaled skin and small sharp horns protruding from its forehead. His arms were long and the hands twice the size of Peter’s. The demon growled and pointed along the tunnel, his meaning clear. Peter bit his lip and realised the futility of attacking in such a confined space. They trudged along in silence and the demon followed them, close enough that Hester could smell him, a stomach churning blend of blood and decay.
Wilkins looked up as they entered, the familiar smile lighting up his face. “Hester! I am honoured! Twice in one night. And this must be Mr Agnew. Let me see. You have that look about you – from the Watcher’s Council, am I right?”
Hester ignored his words, her eyes fixed on her sister. “Sophie?” she whispered in disbelief. “You’re alive?”
“No,” Peter said urgently, “She’s not Sophie, Hester. You have to remember that.”
Sophie ran over to Hester, arms outstretched, tears glimmering in her azure eyes. “Hester, I was so scared,” she sobbed. “These men attacked me and I fainted. Richard brought me her to recover.”
Hester hugged her automatically, patting her sister’s back, a stunned relief clouding her thoughts. Peter had made a mistake! Sophie was alive. Peter watched grimly and his eyes met Sophie’s as she raised her head from Hester’s shoulder. The vampire’s eyes gleamed with a cold amusement and the face began to twist into its demonic form.
“I’m so hungry, Hester,” she said plaintively. “You don’t mind if I just –”
Richard and Peter both shouted a warning but the demon reacted first, tearing Sophie away from Hester and flinging her against a wall. Hester saw her sister’s true face for the first time and cried out wordlessly, her voice filled with razor edged pain as her final hope was taken away. Peter closed his eyes for a second, overwhelmed by pity and anger.
Sophie got to her feet, hands curled into claws. Hester’s face hardened. Without taking her eyes off the vampire, she said, “I will kill you for this, Richard.”
Her voice was level and passionless but Wilkins flinched. “I had nothing to do with this, Hester and I killed the vampires responsible,” he said hastily.
Hester’s eyes flickered with a bitter amusement. “She wears your ring still. Your collar and chain. Does she still obey you now that she’s dead?”
He opened his mouth to reply but never spoke. Peter had been easing a stake from his pocket, taking advantage of the fact that all eyes were on the sisters. With a skill honed in innumerable darts matches, he hurled the stake past Hester and into Sophie’s heart and Sophie Alpert died for the second time that day, this time for ever.
The demon roared in anger and began to lumber towards Peter but Wilkins halted him. “Enough, Gralik. That was unfortunate but I suppose it was understandable. We’ll allow Mr Agnew that one gesture but I think that will be all.”
Hester turned to look at Peter, her face unreadable. He wondered if she would blame him, if she thought that perhaps Sophie could have been reasoned with or saved. After a moment that felt like an hour she said simply, “Thank you, Peter.”
Wilkins eyes narrowed. “As there is no barrier to our marriage now, Hester, I think I’d prefer it if you moved away from this gentleman. It’s not seemly for you to be on such close terms.”
Hester raised an eyebrow, every inch the lady. “You do yourself too much honour, sir,” she said coldly. “You are not a suitable husband for an Alpert. There are certain standards, you know.” Her eyes flicked around the basement disdainfully. Peter swallowed an admiring grin. Hester had managed to make black magic and demon summoning seem on a par with eating peas with a knife.
Wilkins cocked his head to one side, considering her words. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll just kill you both instead.”
Richard Wilkins was annoyed. It was an unusual emotion for him. He planned his life so that nothing went wrong. There was no need for annoyance. It wasn’t tidy. It was unnecessary. He looked at the two people who were the source of so much aggravation and felt a swell of pleasure that he would soon be looking at their bloodied bodies.
“Gralik – ladies first, I think,” he said. The demon reached for Hester. As she dodged him, her eye was caught by a gleam of gold on his finger. He was wearing one of the rings. That meant that he was only obeying Richard because of magic.
“Peter; chop off the demon’s hand,” she called, putting the table between herself and Gralik. “He’s under a spell.”
Peter looked at the demon and saw a flicker of uncertainty pass over its face. Gralik had gripped the table, intending to hurl it out of the way so he could attack Hester, but now Peter watched as the demon studied his own hands, deep in thought.
Wilkins frowned. “Do as you’re told!” he said to the demon.
Gralik threw back his head and growled deep in his throat. He turned to stare at Peter, leaving his hands flat on the table. Peter raised his sword, stepped forward quickly, and brought the blade down, severing three fingers. They lay on the table, sticky blood oozing from them. Hester swallowed, unable to take her eyes off the gruesome objects. As she watched, the ring encircling the middle finger began to glow hot, charring the flesh around it. The metal went white-hot and then crumbled, leaving behind nothing but ashes.
The demon was free.
Hester smiled in relief but Peter was wiser. He doubted that gratitude would be the paramount emotion in Gralik’s mind. He just hoped that Wilkins would be his first target, leaving time for him to get Hester to safety. The speed with which Richard was backing away, trying to reach the stairs, indicated that he was in doubt at all as to Gralik’s intentions.
The demon stretched as though testing his freedom. He seemed uncertain, almost frightened as though after so long enslaved, he could not act independently. His hesitation allowed Wilkins to slip away as Hester and Peter tried to move to the tunnel entrance. Richard ran up the stairs, and locked the door behind him.
In the basement, Gralik emerged from his reverie and stared at the two who had freed him. His mouth opened and he looked at them pleadingly, trying to speak. As they watched in horror, he began to burn up, consumed in moments by a strange fire like the one that had destroyed the ring.
Hester turned away with a shudder, resting her head against Peter’s shoulders. “Peter,” she said, “is that what will happen to father if we remove his ring?”
Peter smoothed her hair. “It might if the proper ritual wasn’t performed,” he said. “Hester, I didn’t get chance to tell you before but I found out something of what Wilkins intends to do.”
She frowned. “I thought you said he was going to transform into a demon when you used that scrying spell. It seems an odd idea but he’s an odd man.” Her voice was waspish as she thought about all that he had done to her.
“When I was down here, I found a list he had drawn up. Hester, it was incredible! He intends to build this town and use it as a way of focusing the dark energies from the Hellmouth. Over time, they will build up until they are sufficient to allow his transformation. He won’t become a demon like the one you just saw, or like a vampire. He’ll be a god, ruler of a dimension of hell, power incarnate. But it can’t happen yet. It takes time. He has to wait decades for the right moment. A century in fact. Certain stars must be in alignment, certain rituals undergone.”
“I don’t understand,” said Hester. “He’ll be dead long before that.”
Peter shook his head. “That’s why he wanted Sophie. He planned to sacrifice her as part of an immortality spell.”
Hester stared up at the stairs, her face drawn with anger. “Peter, this is important but we cannot stay here. Why don’t we just go and kill him, right now, before he conjures up another demon?”
Peter looked at her, shocked. “Kill him? But, Hester! He’s human. The Council isn’t authorised to kill humans, only demons.”
“He’s worse than a demon,” she said flatly. “If you won’t do it, I will.”
“I can’t allow that,” said Peter firmly.
The look she gave him would have frozen hell. “I don’t recall asking your permission,” she said.
“If you kill him, who will remove the spell from your father?” Peter said desperately, watching as she began to climb the stairs.
“If he’s dead, it might end by itself. And Father would rather die than be like this. I know he would.”
Peter sighed. “Wait. I’m coming.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Peter.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They reached on the landing at the top of the stairs and Hester tried to open the door. “It’s locked!” she said in dismay.
Peter took a step back and brought his foot up. He kicked the door twice, taking a savage pleasure in destroying something, and shattered the lock. “Not any more, it isn’t,” he said.
They emerged into the hall, looking around cautiously. It seemed to be deserted. The air in the house had the settled quiet of a house long left empty. “Where is he?” asked Hester. “And the servants, his mother?”
Peter frowned. “I don’t know but I think we should leave.”
“Father!” said Hester. “Peter, do you think he might try and hurt Father?”
His eyes met hers and held before they both realised that the answer to her question was certainly, ‘yes’ and began to hurry towards the front door.
Hester and Peter stood looking up at the mansion. Lights blazed from several windows on the ground floor but there was no sign of a carriage.
“Did you leave it all lit up like this?” asked Peter.
Hester frowned, trying to remember. “I think so – I’m not sure. I left in such a rush. Perhaps Father woke up? He must be worried about us.”
They hurried towards the door, which stood open, and went inside. There was a murmur of voices coming from the parlour and Hester walked to the door and threw it open, her face hardening as she saw that Mrs Wilkins and her son were sitting with her father, calmly discussing the weather.
“Why are you here?” she demanded. “Get out of this house!”
“Hester!” protested Colin. “These are our guests, our friends!” He took in Peter and frowned. “Who is this?”
Hester stared at him in desperation. “Father, I know this is going to be hard for you to accept but I have some terrible news. It’s Sophie, she’s –”
“Sleep!” Richard ordered, jumping up from his chair. Colin gave him a puzzled look and sank back in his chair, his eyes closing. “I think we need to have a little talk before you say something you might regret,” said Wilkins.
Hester was baffled by his smooth demeanour. “Isn’t this a little polite considering that you were trying to kill us just now?”
“That was unfortunate but necessary. No need to be rude about it though, is there? We seem to have reached an impasse.”
“Not really,” said Peter. “I’m authorised by the Council to –”
Maria Wilkins snorted. “They can give you orders, young man, but they have no authority here that I’m aware of.”
Peter bit his lip, painfully aware of the truth of her words. Richard smiled at Hester, arching a whimsical eyebrow. ‘After all, my dear, just what is it that I’ve done that’s so bad?”
Hester’s eyes widened with indignation. “’What have you done?’ For a start, you’ve brought us here, persuaded my father to invest all his money –”
He held up an admonishing finger. “Your father is a very wealthy man, young lady. He’s invested, certainly, and a fine return he’ll get on it, but I think you’ll find that his fortune is still intact.”
“You’ve controlled him and my sister, made them do what they wouldn’t normally have done.”
He shrugged. “The rings are powerless against a truly determined personality. Don’t see one on your finger, now do you? Sophie was ready to fall in love; your father was ready to make a clean break with the place that reminded him of your sainted mother. The rings enhanced their existing desires, they didn’t create them.”
“It still wasn’t right,” Hester insisted. “And it’s led to Sophie’s death. I hold you fully responsible for that.”
Maria Wilkins stirred. “Richard is many things but he’s not a vampire. She was wandering around and got taken. The vampire who turned her did it to give her life back. He meant no harm. It’s in their nature to hunt and to feed.”
“You make them sound so – friendly,” murmured Peter, his voice edged with sarcasm. Her eyes flickered towards him but she remained silent.
Hester felt that the balance of power had shifted. She glared at Wilkins and said, “So what is it that you plan to do? And why? What is the appeal in becoming a demon? I don’t understand it.”
Richard and his mother exchanged glances. “Tell them, Mother,” he said quietly. “I think they deserve to know.”
When Maria Wilkins had finished her tale of early death and doomed men, a silence fell. It was impossible to doubt the truth of what she said. The pain of imminent loss wound through her words like barbed wire.
Hester cleared her throat. “I’m – sorry,” she said finally. “I can imagine how you must feel –”
“I doubt that,” said Mrs Wilkins with bitter finality.
Hester glared at her. “I lost my mother and now I’ve seen my sister die before me. Don’t tell me what I don’t understand, old woman.”
Maria’s mouth twisted in recognition of a worthy opponent and she bowed her head ironically. “True. But you weren’t expecting their deaths, didn’t live with the shadow of certainty hanging over you. As I watched him learn to walk, I knew his steps were numbered.”
“You could say the same for any of us,” interrupted Peter, tired of the drama. “We’re all born to die. It’s an inescapable fact of life.”
Her eyes gleamed like wet stones. “There are ways to escape and that is what we are doing.”
“Yes, by taking my sister’s life!” Hester said indignantly. “You were going to kill her to gain immortality.”
“Not immortality, “Wilkins protested. “Just a long enough life that I can live until the time is right. And then, then I’ll live forever but not as a human. I’ll be so much more than that.”
Hester and Peter gave him disgusted looks but he met them with an unruffled composure.
“So, what now?” said Hester. “We can’t let you do this, any of it. You can’t kill another young girl and we can’t let you carry on running this town the way you see fit.”
Wilkins sighed. “I suppose not. Oh, well! It was worth a try.”
Peter stared at him, suspicion flaring at such an easy victory. Wilkins reached into a pocket and pulled out a box, tossing it thoughtfully from hand to hand. “What’s in there? Put it down!” ordered Peter, grabbing Hester’s arm and tugging her towards the door.
Wilkins smiled angelically. “It’s the solution to all our problems,” he confided. Before Peter could stop him, he turned and threw the box into the fireplace. It ignited with a soft explosion that drove a red-tinged smoke into the room, billowing up like a storm cloud. Hester and Peter sank to the floor, their faces slack with shock.
Wilkins and his mother seemed unaffected by the smoke. As it cleared, which it did in moments, they studied the three sleeping figures, their faces thoughtful.
“We can’t kill them you know,” said Richard. “Too much to cover up. A memory spell, do you think?
Maria looked at him. “I’ll take care of it,” she said heavily. “You go back to town. There’s work to be done. We’ll need to book tickets to England; get rid of this young fool and the girl.”
Richard stared at Hester’s form with regret. “I suppose so,” he said. “But who can I marry now?”
A smile spread across Maria’s face. “You’ll marry Sophie Alpert,” she said. “I told you.”
For once, she had surprised him and she took a sombre satisfaction in that. “But she’s dead, Mother. Well and truly dead.”
She nodded. “She is. But does her father know that? Who do we know who can step into her shoes? Alone in the world, already in love with you, pliable and keen to better herself?”
Comprehension dawned and he threw up his hands in delight. “Edna Mae. Of course!”
“Edna Mae,” agreed his mother. “Fetch her.”
When he had gone, she sat down, drained of energy. Letting him go without saying goodbye had been very hard, but if he suspected even for a moment what she planned to do –
She shook her head. He was a good boy. He wouldn’t have let her go through with it, but she had come too far to hesitate now. Her life was over and his was just beginning. She had shown him the way, taught him what was important and now she would use her power to fuel this spell.
Her eyes passed to Colin Alpert. He would live for years, never suspecting that the daughter he gave away in marriage was not his youngest child. Edna Mae wouldn’t get the chance to refuse. She would become Sophie and look after Richard with all the loyalty that was required in his wife.
Hester and Peter could go and she would make it so that they never returned. No need to kill them. They had made trouble for her but she was not a vengeful woman. They would doubtless marry and Peter would have a companion in his life. Not as a Watcher of course. She couldn’t risk someone spotting the spells that would seal off his memories of his time in Sunnydale. Their lives would play out in England, too far to visit Sunnydale often, and Colin could be encouraged to go to them when grandchildren arrived. For there would be no grandchildren in Sunnydale. The line ended with Richard.
She did all that was needed and set up the spell. As Richard pushed open the door, a puzzled Edna Mae in tow, she triggered the final phase. He was just in time to see her burn, her life force flashing out in a dark rainbow of light. She had excluded him from the effects of the spell and he watched in horror as her frail body was consumed utterly, her eyes closed as if she could not bear to see his face as she died.
She had propped Hester and Peter in chairs and as they woke the confusion faded from their faces as new memories shifted and meshed in their minds.
“Sophie!” Hester called out. “There you are! Out gallivanting with Richard till this time! We were worried, weren’t we father? Come in; there’s someone I want you to meet.”
As Richard turned to see the new Sophie walk towards him, tears prickled his eyes, but he brushed them aside. There was no need for sorrow. The future was bright and cloudless now.
Buffy Summers walked through the cemetery with Giles at her side. He didn’t patrol with her often but sometimes he liked to see for himself that she was safe at the end of a night’s Slaying. She would never know how he lay awake and restless some nights, pessimistically waiting for the call that would tell him his Slayer was dead.
“You must feel relieved that the Mayor was defeated,” he commented. “The threat he posed was, well, -”
“It was personal,” she said ruefully. “He really had it in for me, didn’t he?”
Giles polished his glasses, considering her words. “I went through some old records today,” he said. “When we knew about the Mayor, I requested all the archived material we had on him. Typically, it arrived now, days late.”
“The Council knew about him?” exclaimed Buffy. “How’s that?”
Giles shrugged. “It seems he was the last in a rather unpleasant family, notorious for their use of dark magics.” He frowned. “We sent someone out here to investigate a century ago. The records are a little confused after that. No correlation seems to have been made between the original Richard Wilkins and his son and grandson; all of whom were of course, the same man. The report was incomplete, reassuring without being very informative. Had it been more in depth, possibly his plans could have been nipped in the bud.”
They walked on a little and Giles glanced idly at the crypt that loomed up on the right. “Well, there’s a coincidence,” he said.
Buffy followed his look. “The Alpert crypt. What about it? Big. Ugly. Good place for vamps to lurk.”
“The investigator came back from Sunnydale with a bride; Hester Alpert, the eldest daughter of one of the founders of the town. Her father is buried here and her sister married Wilkins. She died many years ago, of course.”
Buffy looked supremely bored. “Well, whatever,” she said. “It doesn’t matter now. He’s dead.”
Giles pursed his lips. It was an epitaph of sorts, he supposed.
They left the cemetery behind, walking down streets that Hester had seen built, past trees that she had seen as saplings. The warm night wrapped around them and the town settled to sleep.
The town that Richard Wilkins had built for demons on the Hellmouth.
The town that had taken so many dreams, so many lives, but in the end had turned on its creator and robbed him of victory.