Shadowy figures emerged from the darkness and surrounded them, and when they tried to turn and run they found that they were unable to move.
The shadows parted as the creature approached, its eyes reflecting the colours swirling on the surface of the pool. It circled the group slowly like a spider sizing up the flies it has caught in its web and deciding which to eat first. Its movements were disjointed and erratic and there was a hint of terrible otherness about its presence that sent chills down Grant’s spine and made the hair on his neck stand on end.
“Ah.” The creature had stopped in front of De Lancey. It raised a claw-like hand and trailed a long, sharp nail down the side of his face. “You are the one.”
De Lancey shuddered with revulsion at the touch on his cheek and fought to keep his voice steady as he raised his chin and stared back in defiance. “The one what?”
“Why, the one who will finally free me of this prison and allow me to return home. Come.” it beckoned with a crooked finger and De Lancey found himself stepping forward, his feet no longer under his own control.
Grant tried to reach out and stop him but the paralysis extended to his arms as well as his legs and all he could do was look on helplessly as the creature led De Lancey towards the mouth of a dark tunnel that led off from the side of the cave.
“You see,” it continued as if it were simply making polite conversation, “I was banished here a very long time ago and I need your assistance to return and take my revenge on those who wronged me. I spent eons crafting the lure that I sent into your world and just when I thought that pathetic specimen,” it indicated the young woman standing next to Strange, “was the best I was going to get, it has finally brought me one who is strong enough to end my incarceration.”
Grant hissed at Childermass, “Sent into our world? Help it get home? What the fuck is that thing and where is it from?”
Childermass shrugged. “As far as I can tell, it’s not so much a where as, well, I suppose you could call it another dimension.”
Grant felt a surge of anger rising in his chest. “And this place?”
“A bubble of sorts. Hidden between the planes of existence. Apparently constructed as a prison for our host.”
“You knew all this and didn’t think to tell us?” If Grant’s arms has not been pinned to his sides by invisible forces he would have swung at Childermass even harder than the last time. “What the fuck gives you the right…?”
They watched in trepidation as the creature came to a halt next to the opening in the wall.
”The door to my cell.” It gestured expansively as it took a step forward and its way was suddenly blocked by a veil of golden light. “Locked from the other side, of course. You, however, will find the key and open it for me.”
De Lancey gave an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders.
“Oh I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I don’t know how to do that. May we go now?”
The creature seemed to loom over him, its voice becoming even more menacing. “Oh but you do know how. I have witnessed your remarkable talent.” It grasped his wrist and tried to force his hand into the light. “Open it!”
Grant glared at Childermass, the force of his anger not quite concealing his concern.
“What will happen to him?”
Childermass flinched as if he had been struck. He glowered back at Grant but avoided looking him in the eye and his reply was uncharacteristically meek. “I don’t know.”
Their new companion, who had introduced herself simply as Emma, suddenly found her voice.
“Oh now you don’t know.” She was seething with barely suppressed rage. “That’s just bloody brilliant. You finally manage to get this far and you have absolutely no idea what the hell you are doing. Fan-fucking-tastic. Let’s just put all these people’s lives on the line so you can prove a point to my pathetic excuse for a husband and his ridiculous little friend.”
In an attempt to diffuse the tension, Strange offered a hopeful “Perhaps it will let him go if he does what it wants,” but his cheery optimism was starting to rankle with Grant, who rolled his eyes and muttered, “If you believe that you’re even more naive than I thought you were.”
De Lancey was determined not to give in that easily. He could sense the evil emanating from this thing and had no intention of helping it to escape. He snatched his hand away and folded his arms.
“I won’t do it and you can’t make me!”
The creature sneered. “Oh can’t I? I might need you alive but the others are a different matter. Let’s see how much you care about your friends.”
It bared its pointed teeth in a grotesque facsimile of a smile and called to the shadows that still surrounded the group. “Bring me the fair one.”
As the formless entities propelled Grant forward to stand beside him, De Lancey scoffed, “Yeah right, like I care about him,” but his heart skipped a beat when the creature produced a peculiar-looking blade from the folds of its cloak and twirled it nonchalantly between its fingers.
“I am told that the pain this inflicts is quite excruciating,” it rasped.
De Lancey felt himself faltering as he realised what it was about the weapon that was so disconcerting – it seemed to absorb the light from its surroundings and left a glittering trail as it moved through the air, as if it were sucking out all the heat and making the moisture in the atmosphere coalesce into sparkling crystals of ice.
He dreaded to think what would happen when it came into contact with a living being and the idea of another person suffering when there was a way he could prevent it made him feel physically sick, particularly when that person had already saved his life twice and was only caught up in this mess because of him in the first place.
He sighed with resignation and was starting to move towards the curtain of light when the creature ripped open Grant’s shirt to hold the weapon against his chest, revealing a tattoo of a burning mountain and the words ‘Stand Fast’ emblazoned over his heart.
De Lancey froze and stared open-mouthed at Grant, who gave an almost imperceptible smile and shook his head, his lips forming a single word - don’t - as the weapon made contact with his skin.
The tip of the blade disappeared into Grant’s body. Although there was no blood and no physical wound, it seemed to warp the area around it and a network of dark lines began to spread out from the point where it entered.
Grant, however, did not so much as flinch.
Certain that this display of stoicism was intended as much for his own benefit as anyone else’s, De Lancey did his best to reflect Grant’s confidence and strength.
“You picked the wrong guy to torture,” he taunted, “Major Grant was in the Army, you know. He’s survived a lot worse than this and he’s sure as hell not going to give you the satisfaction of letting you know if you’re hurting him.”
“Is that so?” The creature hissed as it pushed the blade deeper.
A visible tremor ran through Grant’s body and a moan escaped his lips but he kept his gaze fixed on De Lancey’s face and the message in his dark eyes was clear – don’t you dare give in to this thing because of me.
“Well, well. It seems you really don’t care.” The creature twisted the obsidian handle and Grant’s face turned deathly pale, his features contorted in a spasm of agony. “Perhaps I’ll just kill this one and move on to the next, then. Tell me, how many deaths do you want on your conscience today?”
De Lancey couldn’t take any more. Seeing Grant suffer like this was bad enough but the thought that he would be denied the opportunity to make amends was too much to bear.
He reached one hand into the shimmering wall of light and a single mournful note echoed through the chamber.
“That’s better.” The creature pulled the blade from Grant’s flesh but kept it pressed against his chest. “Now if you would be so kind as to complete your task.”
The music began to swell as De Lancey sought out the chords that would allow him to open a passage through the veil and put an end to this, one way or the other. As he began to lose himself in the melody, tendrils of luminescence emerged from the tunnel and started to swirl around the creature, drawing it towards the opening.
“Wait!” Grant drew in a deep, shuddering breath and strained against his invisible bonds. His voice was ragged and hoarse and his eyes flashed with a rage that would instill fear in the bravest of men. “Let’s give this thing a taste of its own medicine.”
De Lancey gasped with disbelief when he realised what Grant was suggesting, but he reached out and grasped the major’s outstretched hand before the creature had a chance to react.
He cried out as he felt the full force of what Grant was experiencing but held on and let it surge through him, channelling the pain and anger into a crescendo of ear-splitting intensity. The lambent coils that had been guiding the creature turned a violent shade of crimson and tightened around its body, dislodging the weapon from its hand and trapping it in a glowing net that seemed to solidify as it constricted.
The shadows disappeared and, free to move at last, the others rushed to the edge of the pool. Childermass knelt down and touched the water and Strange watched as the surface rippled and shifted, providing a glimpse of a familiar room. He smiled and beckoned to Grant and De Lancey. “Lads,” he shouted, “we’ve got a way out!”
Grant flashed a triumphant grin and tugged at De Lancey’s hand.
“Come on,” he urged, “let’s get out of…” but his smile disappeared as he realised too late what he had done. By giving in to his desire to punish his tormentor, he had sealed his companion’s fate.
With a heavy heart, he understood that De Lancey wouldn’t be able to relinquish his position without releasing the creature and putting everyone in danger again and, what’s more, that he had known this when he took Grant’s hand and had done it anyway, giving up any hope of securing his own freedom to make sure they were safe.
“You stupid…” he berated himself as the grip on his fingers loosened and De Lancey whispered, “Go with them. I’ve got this.”
In his head, Grant knew it made sense. He tried to convince himself that he would be able to come back, that this wasn’t like before and De Lancey would be strong enough to hold on until he could find a way to make things right, but he could sense the fear and desperation beneath the younger man’s determined exterior and he simply couldn’t bring himself to let go.
“Damn it Grant, you’re one stubborn son of a bitch.” De Lancey was too tired to argue and his relief at not being left alone was palpable. The effort of keeping the creature confined was taking its toll and he sagged against Grant’s shoulder, his eyes coming to rest on the striking design of the tattoo and the words that now seemed all too relevant. Despite, or perhaps because of, the feeling that the end was near, his curiosity got the better of him.
“What is that anyway?” he asked. “An army thing?”
“A family thing.” Grant raised his eyebrows, surprised at De Lancey’s ability to make him feel at ease even as they faced an unknown fate. “It’s the clan crest.”
“You’re Scottish?” De Lancey chuckled, “Why, Major Grant I would never have guessed. Have you got a kilt? Are you a true Scotsman?”
“Aye,” Grant winked. The younger man’s humour was infectious and he had nothing left to lose. “Maybe I’ll show you when we get home.”
The mention of home set off a pang of regret and he looked away, determined that De Lancey shouldn’t see him waver. Strange and Emma were no longer in sight but Childermass was still kneeling by the edge of the water, his eyes closed in concentration and his hand resting on the rippling surface.
“For fuck’s sake. What the hell is he waiting for?”
His question was answered when Strange clambered back out of the water with something tucked under his arm. He ran over to them and set the box down on the ground, opening the lid to let the beams of light shoot into the darkness high above them.
“Emma’s idea,” he gasped as he tried to catch his breath. “She told me to mention amplifiers and feedback loops. I have no idea what she was on about but she said you’d understand.”
De Lancey’s puzzled frown transformed into a wide grin.
“Genius!” he exclaimed. “Sorry, Grant, I’m going to need my hand back.”
Sensing a moment of hesitation and recalling the memories of loss that had surfaced the first time they touched, he leant forward and kissed Grant’s trembling lips. “I’m not going anywhere. Trust me.”
Grant felt a surge of hope and certainty. He let go and watched De Lancey manipulate the beams of light with his slender fingers, drawing out glowing filaments from the two sources and using the last of his strength to weave them together. The creature twisted and writhed in pain as the eerie music from the box started to resonate with the sound of the blood-red strands that held it immobilized.
“Ready?” With one final flourish, De Lancey completed the circuit and collapsed, his eyes rolling back in his head.
Grant darted forward and caught him before he hit the ground. He tried to lift the inert form but the effects of his earlier torment had left him barely strong enough to stand.
Strange put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. “Let me,” he said, gathering De Lancey into his arms and making for the pool as fast as his burden would allow. Grant stumbled after him without looking back, and with the creature’s shrieks of frustration and agony ringing in their ears, they stepped across the threshold between the worlds.
Grant opened his eyes to the welcome sight of the Windmill’s ornate ceiling, partly obscured by the concerned faces of Bella, Wellesley, and Emma.
He turned his head and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Strange sitting on the floor with De Lancey cradled in his lap and Childermass on the other side, pale and shaking on his hands and knees.
Then he looked again and realised De Lancey was not moving, despite Strange’s efforts to elicit a response.
He crawled over to them and gently placed his hands either side of De Lancey’s face. His voice caught in his throat as he reached out for the presence he had become accustomed to.
“I can’t feel anything.”
Bella rushed over and positioned her fingers on De Lancey’s wrist. “It’s alright,” she said, ”he’s got a pulse, he’s breathing. I think he’s just unconscious.”
Grant looked at her and shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. I can’t feel anything. I can’t….”
De Lancey sat up with a start. His breath was coming in ragged gasps and there was an expression of such terror on his face that all Grant could do was put an arm around him and pull him into a strong embrace, murmuring softly, “It’s OK. We’re back. We’re safe.”
“Are we?” De Lancey looked up at him with frightened eyes. “How do you know this isn’t just a trick to make us think we’ve won? God, Grant, I don’t even know what’s real anymore.”
Grant held him close and kissed the top of his head. “This is real,” he said, “trust me.”