“He said it was like a snake. That doesn’t look like a snake.”
On his way back to the study, Kane passed two more arch-fronted corridors. Their yawning mouths were dark and silent, though he doubted they were empty. The authorities will have a field day exploring this place, he thought as he hurried past them. On his part, he was just thankful the nasties and creepy-crawlies would soon be in the past, someone else’s problem, never to be seen, heard of or hinted at again.
As Kane was completing this thought, out of the darkness came something unexpected. He stopped, slipped the bag off his shoulder and blinked in disbelief. It was a square, red-brick cottage, standing in a random spot a few metres out from the chamber wall. With its thatched roof, panelled door and single casement window, it resembled one of the huts in the farmyard above.
Despite his eagerness to get back to Dylan and Arika, curiosity got the better of him and he limped over to check it out. Holding his lamp near the window, he was surprised to find a skinny old man slumped on the straw-covered floor, his back resting against the wall. His head was turned to one side, his feet sticking out in front of him. The man’s face was square and skeletal, his eyes closed, his white hair so long it dangled all the way to the straw.
As the light entered the room, the man’s eyes flew open; he convulsed, threw himself on his hands and knees and scrambled away. His leg was chained to the wall and the links jangled as he scurried across the straw. When the chain pulled taut, he fell flat on his face, pulled his knees into a fetal position and covered his face with his arms, whimpering like a child.
This man, unlike the others Kane had encountered, was naked. Also unlike the others, he was not deformed, apart from being impossibly skinny. His skin was stretched so tight across his bones he looked more like a skeleton than a person. His buttocks showed no sign of muscle and Kane could count every bone in his spine. He was filthy and covered from head to toe in ugly boils, welts, bruises and scars.
“Hey,” he called out. “Who are you?”
The man was rocking and whimpering and showed no signs of hearing him.
Reassured by the chain attached to his leg, Kane went to the door and pushed against it. Surprisingly it swung open. He stepped inside.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, knowing this was something different to the freaks he’d encountered so far. This man looked human – pathetic, starved and terrified, but unmistakably alive. “Hey there, you okay?”
The man whimpered a little more, but the sympathy in Kane’s tone seemed to penetrate his terror. He peered under his arm, squinting against the light.
“Why has Waite got you chained up down here?”
Tears fell from the man’s eyes, and then his head dropped to the straw and his body went limp.
Rushing over, Kane placed his lamp and the bag on the floor and knelt beside him. “Hey, man. Hey. You alright?”
He glanced around and saw in a corner of the room a bucket of water with a metal cup hooked over the edge. Going to it, he dipped the cup in the water, had a quick sniff, then took it back, lifted the man’s head and placed the rim of the cup against his mouth.
The man, groggy but awake, held Kane’s hand in a cold grip as he drank, all the while staring at him in fear and wonder.
After finishing with the water, Kane dropped the cup and helped the man sit up against the wall, where he continued staring into his face with bloodshot eyes, his look of rapture suggesting he was beholding an angel or a god.
“What’s your name?”
The man opened his mouth to speak, but before a word could come out, he froze, grey tongue resting against grey, toothless gums.
“What’s your name?”
He appeared confused by the question.
“I’m Kane. Kane Gates.”
The man mouthed something, then jutted out his head and said with an effort, “Se–bas–jun.”
“Sebastian? Is that it?” Kane nodded. “I’m Kane. I’m a fireman,” he added to reassure the man about his intentions. “What are you doing down here?”
The man looked confused again. Shaking the confusion from his head, he swallowed heavily and said, “The sorcerer.”
“Yes, Wilfred Waite. Did that bastard imprison you down here?”
Sebastian moved his head up and down.
Kane looked at his emaciated body. “How long ago?”
His breathing grew faster. “Don’t know. Was in cellar … for long time. Brought here …” He frowned at the floor. “Don’t know when.” Tears streamed down his face again. “I don’t know,” he wailed. “Who … are you?”
“Kane. I’m Kane.”
“What are you? Are you –?” His eyes opened wide and he drew back in terror.
Kane waved his hands at him, before realising the gesture was probably more alarming than reassuring. “Don’t worry, Sebastian, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help. Waite did something bad to my brother and I’m here to save him.”
Sebastian stared at the open door as if expecting some horror to come creeping into the room.
Kane checked the door too, just in case, then glanced around the room, trying to figure out why this man was here instead of in one of the many cells he’d passed. More to the point, why was this place here at all? Who would build a house in the middle of a dungeon?
“Why does he have you chained up in this hut, Sebastian? It makes no sense. As much as anything down here makes any sense.”
Sebastian’s eyes were now searching Kane’s face, tracing a line along his mouth, to his ear, his hair, his eyes, his nose, back to his mouth. He had that confused look again.
“Do you know why? Did he ever give you an explanation?”
“I applied for job.” He reached out and touched Kane’s arm, mesmerised by the curve of his biceps. Kane’s arms were almost the size of Sebastian’s legs. “Woke up … chained up.”
To Kane, it sounded similar to what happened with his brother. “Was it a job as his assistant?”
“Oh,” said Kane. Then this must have something to do with Waite’s store. He’d used coercion on Dylan, but Kane wasn’t surprised Waite would resort to plain kidnapping if it suited his needs.
Sebastian put his hands between his legs and rocked from side to side. He didn’t appear embarrassed by his nakedness, and he didn’t seem to feel the cold. “Summer job,” he added.
“Summer job? What does that mean?”
“University summer job.” Shutting his eyes, he dropped his head back against the brick wall. “Six weeks shop assistant.”
Kane stared at him, at his long white hair, deep wrinkles, pasty skin and scarred body. His initial thought had been that this was another body swap – an earlier one. But then, why were both he and Waite old? And if Waite had already swapped bodies with a young Sebastian, why did he need Dylan’s body? It didn’t make sense.
“How old were you when you were kidnapped?”
“Young. Nineteen, twenty.”
“Did Waite swap bodies with you?”
Sebastian frowned at him. “Kidnapped,” he insisted.
“He drugged me and kept me in his cellar. Then here.”
Kane scratched his chin. “That sounds like something a garden-variety psychopath would do. Not Waite’s style. What could he –” Suddenly, the awful truth hit him and sent him bounding to his feet. “You’ve been Waite’s prisoner since you were nineteen years old?”
Sebastian cowered against the floor, frightened by Kane’s sudden movement and raised voice.
“That must be at least … forty years.” Forty years of being locked in a cellar, and now this awful dungeon. Forty years of living in darkness, chained to a wall, starved. “Why would he do that?” he asked incredulously, feeling himself getting faint with anger.
Sebastian pushed himself upright. “He comes in and watches me.”
“That’s creepy, even for Waite.”
“And he brings things: a whip or a knife or …”
Kane stared down at him. “And he –?”
Sebastian traced the bruises and scars on his abdomen with his finger. “He hurts me.”
Kane felt the blood drain from his head, saw black spots before his eyes, felt sick and dizzy.
“He says I need to understand he has no choice. But he never explains why.”
“He tortures you?”
“Hurts me, then leaves me in the dark till the next time. His assistants too … bring food: bones in water and old meat with maggots and mouldy bread. They’re worse than the sorcerer. Enjoy hurting me.”
Kane couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Stealing bodies was bad enough, interrogating resurrected dead people the work of a psychopath; but torturing this pathetic human being for forty years for no apparent reason was pure evil.
“Waite has kept you alive all these years just to hurt you?” he asked, hoping that by saying the words out loud it would help him comprehend Waite’s intentions.
“Did you know him before he kidnapped you?”
“You didn’t upset him somehow? Or your family? … they did something to him?”
“I wasn’t from anywhere near Arbroath. I went to see about a job. In the paper. That was the first time I met him.”
Surely there’s more to it than that, Kane was thinking. But he didn’t have time to question the man further. Glancing at the door, he said, “Look, Sebastian, we’ve got to get going, before that bastard gets back. I’ll get you to safety, then we’ll deal with Waite and those freak assistants of his.” He pulled out the keys he’d stolen from Gilles and tried one after the other in the shackles. Eventually one worked and the chain fell away from Sebastian’s bony ankle.
“Come on then,” Kane said, helping him to his feet.
It wasn’t easy supporting Sebastian while carrying the oil lamp and the heavy leather bag – particularly with his arms and legs still bruised and aching from the fall down the stairs – but fortunately Sebastian didn’t weigh much and the cottage was close to the passage that led to the study.
As they reached the opening, Kane was halted by a sound from deep inside the chamber.
“Can you hear that?” he whispered. But Sebastian was unresponsive, half comatose, and didn’t respond.
Kane listened again. Something was coming up behind them. He raised the lamp, squinted into the darkness and listened hard as something flopped and sloshed across the floor of the chamber.
“Jesus,” he muttered. It’s that sadistic, murderous freak, Gilles, he thought. He’s sent something after me.
That was when he heard Arika calling his name.
Hoisting the bag higher on his shoulder, he took off down the passage, dragging Sebastian behind him.
At the door to the study he stopped, panting and staring. Arika was leaning both hands on a chair, looking up, the terror in her eyes suggesting she’d feared it wouldn’t be him at the door. Dylan was next to her, slumped over the table, his head resting on one arm. The old body was struggling to breathe.
“Arika,” Kane said. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Thank Christ you’re here, Kane. It’s Waite. He was here.”
Kane glanced at the old man’s back. “You mean …?”
“It’s Dylan again. But Waite … came back. He said something was coming for us.”
“He wasn’t kidding.”
Dragging Sebastian into the room, he deposited him in a chair, placed the lamp and the bag on the table, went to his brother and lifted him under the arms.
“Who’s this?” Arika asked, staring at the naked white-haired skeleton.
“We gotta go,” Kane said. “Whatever it is, it’s close.”
He nodded at the bag. “Take that, will you? I found the book. It’s in there, with the axe. I’ll help Dylan.”
His brother raised his head. “Kane,” he groaned, “it’s Waite: he’s –”
“Yeah, I know. But we gotta move.”
He helped Dylan to the door, while Arika went quickly about the room shoving papers and books into the black leather bag, along with the rifle, cattle prod and her own bag.
“Kane,” said Dylan, “Waite is –”
“Oh shit!” cried Kane.
Down the passage, at the place where the bricks curved towards the chamber, something brown and slug-like had taken hold of the wall and was pulling itself through.
“What is that?” murmured Dylan, stiffening.
More of the thing oozed into the passage, its slimy skin shining with phosphorescence, lighting up the surrounding bricks with a sickly glow.
Arika peered under his arm. “It’s Waite’s pet,” she said. “He said it was like a snake. That doesn’t look like a snake.”
Kane wasn’t about to hang around waiting to see the rest of it. But they still had Sebastian to consider. Leaving Dylan with Arika, he went back to the old man, who’d slipped off the chair and was now curled up on the floor.
“Sebastian,” he said, shaking his shoulder. “Sebastian.”
But the man had lost consciousness. His body was limp, his breathing barely discernible. Kane’s heart sank. It wasn’t going to be possible to take him with them.
Pulling a cushion off one of the chairs, he placed it under Sebastian’s head, took off his jacket, lay it over him like a blanket, then rejoined Dylan and Arika.
“Come on,” he said, ushering them out, closing the door behind them. “We gotta get to the stairs.”
The snake-slug thing was closer now, though fortunately it moved more like a slug than a snake. With a last glance at it, Kane hurried Dylan and Arika along.