De Lancey stopped struggling and blinked a couple of times as if he were surprised to find himself lying on his back with a particular part of Grant’s anatomy in such close proximity to his face.
“What the fuck?” he spluttered as he tried to turn his head. “Jesus, Grant, get off me!”
“Merlin?” Grant kept his thighs firmly clamped around De Lancey’s chest. “Has it worked?”
Strange walked over and crouched down beside them, taking hold of De Lancey’s chin and looking into his eyes.
“I think it’s safe now.” his attempt to keep a straight face was not proving entirely successful. “That should stop him from wandering off until we’re ready.”
“Ready for what? Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” De Lancey pushed at Grant’s knees with his elbows. “And for fuck’s sake stop sitting on me.”
Grant stood and held out a hand to help De Lancey up but the younger man gave a snort at the sight of the gloves he was still wearing.
“Wouldn’t want you to risk catching anything.” His tone was sarcastic but his eyes were blazing with indignation as he refused Grant’s offer of help and pushed himself to his feet.
Grant shook his head and gave an exasperated sigh – he really didn’t have time to deal with this right now.
He turned to Childermass. “I don’t know about the others but I’m not taking another step until you explain exactly where we are and what we’re doing here.”
Childermass rolled his eyes, clearly regretting his decision to let the major come along.
“Fine,” he grumbled, “but we don’t have much time. I’ll tell you on the way.”
Setting off in an apparently random direction, he began to recount the events that had led to their current situation.
“So before the box fell into your boss’s hands, my employer,“ he almost spat the word, “gave it to a friend of his who was looking for an unusual gift to keep his young wife occupied. He didn’t know what it was, of course, just thought it would provide a pleasant distraction for her. Unfortunately, she also has a talent for…,” he frowned at De Lancey, “…for whatever it is you do, but there was nobody around to stop her when she went too far and she ended up trapped in this place.”
Grant raised an eyebrow. “I still don’t see why you had to drag us into it.”
Childermass sighed. “Her husband is a politician – didn’t want the press to get hold of the story and all that – so he offloaded the box onto Wellesley under the pretext of paying back a longstanding debt and is flat out refusing to talk about what happened. As is my employer.” The shame was evident in his face as he continued, “but I can’t just leave it like that and I can’t get her out myself so I need your help to bring her home.”
De Lancey put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Well you could have just asked,” he said, “why all the cloak and dagger stuff?”
“I suppose I didn’t think you’d care.” Childermass shrugged.
Walking alongside Strange, Grant muttered to himself, “yeah, and you’d have been right.”
He glanced over at De Lancey and Childermass and raised his voice just enough to ensure they’d hear him.
“I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.”
Strange chuckled. “You’re worried about him, aren’t you?”
“What?” Grant blustered. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m concerned for all of us. In case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t exactly the safest place on the planet. If indeed it’s on the planet at all, which I’m seriously starting to doubt.”
They made their way cautiously through the shifting landscape, picking a path around the strange luminous growths that rose from the earth in front of them with each step they took and stepping carefully over sparkling streams that doubled back on themselves in impossible Escheresque loops.
Despite the effects of Strange’s potion, De Lancey was in no doubt that this was the place he had felt calling him from the Windmill.
Startling cascades of iridescent colour appeared out of nowhere at the edge of his vision and vanished just as quickly when he tried to look at them; hints of a sublime melody caressed his ears, teasing him with the promise of delights beyond anything he’d ever known; nebulous shadows stalked the borders between light and darkness, beckoning to him and tempting him to leave the path and follow them to a place where anything was possible.
He was so enthralled by the sights and sounds surrounding him that he walked straight into the back of Grant, who glared at him in annoyance before coming to an abrupt halt himself with a sharp intake of breath.
A young woman was standing before them in a circle of light, her body swaying to a rhythm that only she could hear. As she moved, her fingers brushed against a cloud of shimmering motes that spun and danced in the space around her and a mournful tune filled the air.
Childermass turned to face the others.
“This is as far as I’ve managed to get,” he admitted, “somehow I keep ending up back where I started whenever I try to get any closer, but I’m hoping you can find a way through.”
He help out a hand to Strange. “The antidote please?”
Strange rummaged in his bag and handed a bottle of violet liquid to Childermass, who gave the lid a twist and passed it to De Lancey.
“Wait!” Grant made a grab for the bottle but De Lancey snatched it away.
“You haven’t thought this through." Grant hated to admit it but he really was getting worried. He gestured at the lights surrounding the woman. "What are we supposed to do if he gets sucked into that ... whatever the hell it is?”
This just made De Lancey even more eager to get started.
“Don’t be such a baby.” He smirked, summoning all his bravado to show Grant that he wasn’t afraid. “The sooner I do it the sooner we’ll be home.”
With a wink at Strange, he lifted the bottle and emptied it into his mouth.
The music took over his senses and he instinctively knew that something was missing. He discovered gaps that let him slip between the notes and approach the oblivious woman, willing her to open her eyes and take his outstretched hand.
“I can do this!” he shouted. “I can reach her!”
But the closer he got, the less certain he became. Instead of exploiting the silences, he found himself filling in the absent notes, a thrill surging through his veins as the unpredictable harmonies and trembling chords built her simple melody into an irresistible crescendo that far surpassed anything he’d ever created at the club.
“Shit! I think we’re losing him.” The excitement in Strange’s eyes turned to concern as he watched De Lancey disappearing into the cloud of light. “Do something!”
Although he was clearly trying to maintain his air of confidence, Childermass’s voice betrayed his fear.
“I didn’t realise it was this powerful,” he stammered, “I thought he’d be fine. I’m sorry, I don’t think there’s anything I can do.”
Grant spun on his heels and let fly with a powerful left hook.
“Enough!” he shouted as Childermass hit the floor. “This is not happening again! If I wanted to keep watching men walk into traps while I am expected to stand by and do nothing, I would have stayed in the fucking army.”
Removing his gloves, he strode after De Lancey and took hold of his hand. The sudden rush of yearning to become one with the music almost took his breath away and he fought the desire to simply give in and let De Lancey follow his heart.
Grant gripped the younger man’s shoulder with his other hand and managed to stop him in his tracks and spin him round so they were face to face.
The glowing particles in the air were gathering around De Lancey’s head, giving the impression of a golden halo that illuminated wide eyes darkened by dilated pupils and lips parted in an ‘O’ of astonishment and awe.
Grant found himself thinking that he had never seen anything so beautiful, so perfect, but something inside him was still fighting, telling him that this was wrong, that giving De Lancey up to this place would be the biggest mistake of his life.
He forced himself to focus and tightened his grip.
“William?” he was no longer sure if he was saying the words out loud or not. “Can you hear me?”
He tried to reach out with his mind and a violent shudder wracked his body as he was ambushed by long-submerged memories of diving into dark, forbidding waters to try and rescue a drowning man who did not want to be saved.
No! he thought, I am not letting go. Not this time. He does not want to be here. He does not belong here.
As the words rang out in his head, he knew that it was not enough. He couldn’t just think it, he had to feel it. The soldier in him was commanding him to keep the barriers up, warning him that if he let his emotions take over and allowed the pain and regret to surface he would never be able to control it again. But as he looked at De Lancey's face, overlaid in his mind with visions of another beautiful man in what seemed like another lifetime, he realised that he had no choice. He closed his eyes and felt hot tears rolling down his cheeks as he finally let himself grieve for everything he had lost and start to hope again for what might be.
There was a sudden change in the atmosphere and Grant felt strong fingers tightening around his own as De Lancey followed the connection back to the source, bringing the young woman with him in a rush of recognition and relief.
The music stopped abruptly and the lights in the air disappeared, leaving them surrounded by utter darkness and a silence so complete that it made Grant think he might be dead until he felt De Lancey squeeze his hand and heard him draw a shuddering breath.
Childermass and Strange ran over and started to congratulate them but they’d barely had time to say a word when everything shifted and they found themselves standing in a large cave beside a dark pool whose surface rippled with impossible colours.
On the other side of the pool, an imposing throne carved out of the wall was occupied by a figure that appeared to oscillate between the shape of a man and that of something so entirely other that Grant’s brain refused to process it.
A mocking laugh echoed through the cavernous space and the creature rose to its feet, regarding them with a knowing smile as it hissed through pointed teeth.
“Did you really think it would be that easy?”