Imagine thinking the beast was something you could hunt and kill
--William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Perhaps they would never understand real magic. The way it felt. Frightening, implicate, allusive. The way it moved and danced, like echoes underwater. He had tried to show them. Infernum Est Ars. The technique of noticing light in spiritual darkness, the art of finding heaven in hell. He'd spent nearly ten years trying to show it to them. This world of perpetual midnight. The real world, for the occulted.
God, he was tired. He felt tired all the time now. Paul Kistori frowned as he lay in bed, in lamplight, scrolling again through the photos on his phone he had taken last night. He'd found something very unsettling. Something that definitely shouldn't be there. The kind of thing an art student could easily create with an editing program, but this was a raw, untreated image. A dark shape perched atop a set of traffic lights, eyes like twin points of red light. More than just a shape. A hunched, humanoid figure. Paul noticed its eyes first, thinking they were some kind of flare in the lens. Until he began adjusting the brightness and contrast and the perched thing revealed itself. It chilled him, but he'd found things like this in his images before. Wraiths, spirits, lost ones. These things didn't reveal themselves to just anyone. They wanted him to notice them. It was usually an augur, a sign of something to come.
Paul didn't relish the prospect.
"Fuck this," he murmured and tossed the phone onto the duvet. But he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep now. He had to confront this directly. He peered at the ceiling of the old bedroom, the room he'd been forced to share with his sister when they were kids. Paul still didn't like being back here, but it was better this way. Rachel and James were having financial problems, and expecting their first child. They needed the place in Streatham more than he did. It was much bigger and nicer than Mum's old flat. This place was full of memories, many of them unpleasant. But Paul knew he couldn't run from these wraiths, or a haunted childhood.
"Ok, fine," he muttered, and pulled back the duvet. "Let's go."
He put his clothes back on, glancing at the pack of cigarettes on the dresser. They had been sitting there, untouched, for almost three months now. Paul liked to think he was building discipline by not getting rid of them, but tonight it felt more like he was simply torturing himself.
He left the small ground-floor flat, lifted his hood and shoved his fists into his jacket pockets. The night air was brisk. He glanced into the dark mouth of the alleyway next to his building. The security lamp on the wall had been broken for a long time. He pulled his phone from the inner pocket of his jacket, switched to low-light and took a photo. Paul pocketed the phone again and began walking to the end of the street.
Ahead of him St John the Divine sat at the crossing on Vassall. The church had been recently fitted with floodlights but they were usually never kept on all night. At this late hour most of the building was dark. Only its tall spire was illuminated, like a bright knife at the stars. He took out his phone again and snapped a few more pics at the traffic lights. He wasn't sure what might reveal itself this time. Maybe nothing, but the red-eyed wraith had genuinely frightened him. A cursory glance at the images revealed nothing yet. He pocketed the phone again.
Beyond the black wrought-iron railings a narrow garden ran the length of the outside wall of St John. The main gate was always locked at night, but the little side gate for the rectory was usually left open. Paul stepped into the narrow garden. He took a deep breath as he approached the life-sized statue of Christ affixed to the outer wall of the church. Beneath the crucified form was a stone plinth set forward from the wall slightly, where flowers and commemorations were often left. Paul stood before the plinth, pressed his hands together and gazed up at the statue of Christ. He tried and failed to control the bitterness in his voice.
"I'm not ungrateful. I'm just fucking tired. I'm so tired. But I'm willing. I'm always willing. You know that, right? Wraith-cults, monsters, demons. They tried to kill me, but I can take it. Just keep soldiering on, I guess."
Paul laughed as he stood there, praying in the darkness of the narrow garden. He missed his friends. He missed Jessica. He missed Mum and Dad. In the shadows something moved against the back wall. Paul flinched, startled.
A large fox was there among the bushes, peering at him.
The air seemed to tighten.
Paul took a step back, then another. Something was very wrong. A sensation of dread was gathering in his stomach. The fox kept watching, lowering its head slightly. Paul realised it had something around its neck. A black collar. Unnerved, Paul took another step backwards. And then the fox darted into the bushes, lost in the shadows of the narrow garden.
Paul swallowed, glancing up at the statue of Christ on the wall of the church before turning and hurrying away.
He wasn't sure if he could do this now. Last night his sleep had been fitful and strange. He could have sworn he heard foxes shrieking and wailing in the night. That awful cry they made. Paul didn't know if it was a mating call or a sign of aggression, but the sounds had always chilled him. Even as a boy. He knew one thing though. Urban foxes were wild, and shouldn't be wearing collars. Paul wasn't sure what it meant, or even what he'd seen exactly. Because the things he saw were often things that others couldn't see. These dangers of the occulted world.
At work today he'd shown Rachel the image of the night-wraith on his phone. The shadow with red eyes, perched atop the traffic lights at Vassall. It spooked her, but his sister was brave. She'd lived with spirits since childhood, just as he did. It was part of the reason they were still so close. While they shelved books and did stock-taking Rachel tried to get him to talk about Infernum, but Paul resisted.
"Come on, this is about the blog, isn't it?"
"No. Fuck the blog. It was a stupid little vanity project anyway. It was sucking the life out of me."
"Bullshit. That blog was your whole world. I know it hurts, bro. You care about people. You're fucking crazy, but you really do care. They didn't lose everything. They've still got your videos. Your visions. You're still useful, Paul. If you want to be."
He laughed dismissively, steering the conversation towards James and the pregnancy and impending motherhood. Rachel let it go. She enjoyed talking about the coming new chapter of her life, and Paul liked seeing the genuine smile in his little sister's eyes.
Now evening was approaching. The sky was deepening into dusk as Paul sat beneath a tree in Kennington Park. He glanced across at St Agnes Church sitting just beyond the park's edge, and thought of Amma. The witch hadn't visited him in a long time. Dreaming was their only point of contact, and she didn't like to be called unless absolutely necessary. That was fine, but it did leave Paul feeling quite alone. He took a breath, removed his phone and dialled a number. It was all in the past now. Crowley, the blood-stained girl, all of it. Paul was grateful. Things were still awkward and tense, but better.
A few moments of silence. "Hey, you fucking psycho..."
Paul tried to smile, even though his friend couldn't see it. "I know it's been a while. I just...I thought I'd give you a call."
"Thanks. You ok, Paul?"
"Yeah, I'm ok. I guess. You?"
"Yeah. Going out tonight. Jacob is taking me to this thing. So, got to try scrub up real nice..."
"A thing? Things are fun. What kind of thing?"
John sighed. "I don't know. Some kind of modern art bullshit. Whatever."
Paul chuckled. ”Got to keep the boyfriend happy, huh?"
"Exactly. Only so much Netflix & Chill two people can do. Apparently."
Paul laughed again. "But it's going good?"
"Better than I ever could've hoped for. Smart, gorgeous, kind, and he thinks the world of me for some reason. Quids in, eh?"
It was John's turn to chuckle. "I missed you, Paul."
"Missed you too, white boy."
"Stay out of trouble, Mr Kistori. I'm fucking serious."
"I'll do my best, Jonathan. Let's end this conversation on a high note, yeah? I'm really happy for you. Truly. Go have fun with your man."
"Ok, psycho. Maybe we'll grab a coffee together soon, when I have the time."
"I'd like that. Peace out."
A smile in John's voice. "Peace."
Dusk soon darkened into night. Paul was sitting alone at the half-circle table in his tiny kitchen, trying to eat some pasta he'd made. Rather than finishing his dinner he found himself scrolling repeatedly through the photos on his phone he'd taken the previous night. No red-eyed wraiths this time, no lost ones hiding in the black. But he couldn't shake the image of the collared fox he'd seen in the narrow garden of St John. He'd been so startled he hadn't even thought to try snapping a photo of it. He still wasn't sure why it unsettled him so deeply. A collar implied an owner, he supposed. But the fox seemed wild and full of strange power. The fox and the night-wraith perched atop the traffic lights were obviously connected somehow.
Paul thought back to that nightmarish week in August, still unsure how or why he'd survived. A surge of anger overcame him.
He grit his teeth and took a slow breath. Rachel was right. Infernum Est Ars had been everything to him. He'd deleted nearly ten years of his own work because these fucking things wouldn't let him rest. They ripped his mind wide open, turned his world inside out.
Almost five days without any sleep.
He should have died that week. Any normal person would have. At the very least he should have been hospitalized, forever ruined.
The ugliest images imaginable were pressed against his psyche. Images of death and deviancy. A feral psychology of inversions. Monsters had never felt more real. Paul had suffered psychic attacks many times before, but that week in August had been the worst of his life. Those sick little wraiths kept whispering incessantly, urging him to suicide, imploring him to end his own life.
Finally he deleted everything at Infernum in a fit of horror-filled delirium, then collapsed in bed and somehow slept for twenty-eight hours straight. Paul really didn't know how he was still alive after all that, or still sane. And Rachel, his brave little sister – she had no fucking idea what really happened to him during that week of hell. He would never tell her anything about it. How close she came to losing her big brother.
The long, slow healing process was far from over. Paul was still putting himself back together. The trauma of that experience had marked him for life. But then, so many of his experiences with the supernatural had marked him.
He had to trust his instincts. What else was he supposed to do?
Paul got up from the table, left the kitchen and put his hoodie and jacket back on. He left the building, stepped into the street and glanced into the alleyway next door. The photo he'd taken last night revealed nothing, but he hadn't ventured into the alley. There were dumpsters at the far end, as well as a single-storey extension that housed the communal bins for the next block. He thought about the many times he'd run up and down this alleyway as a child.
Paul took a breath and stepped into the mouth of the passage. He moved quickly through the darkness, turned right at the end, opened the broken wooden gate and stepped into the Hidden Courtyard.
He and Rachel had called it that since they were kids. It was a fitting name because the only way in or out was through the alley. It was hardly ever used by the occupants of the next block, perhaps because of its impractical design, and from the street you wouldn’t even know it was there. Rachel had especially loved it as a girl.
It felt like their own little secret.
The Hidden Courtyard was a long garden enclosed by a high stone wall, dimly lit by three security lamps spaced equally along its length. It was pretty during the day but at night it felt almost otherworldly. In the distance the illuminated spire of St John rose against the night sky.
At the courtyard's end was a large tree, its branches reaching beyond the top of the high stone wall. Beneath the tree a wooden bench was placed. The bench was old and weathered now, but Paul recalled sitting there with Rachel many times, almost always having the courtyard to themselves. He'd even once brought his ex-girlfriend here during the day. He and Jessica had sat with sandwiches and coffee and talked about books and sex all afternoon. Paul smiled sadly. He removed his phone and took a few snaps of the courtyard. The bench beneath the tree had a plaque on it. He knew the words on the plaque from memory but he still felt compelled to go and read them.
He walked the length of the darkened courtyard and sat down on the bench. He traced the plaque with his fingers.
The plaque on this seat was unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen
to commemorate her visit on the occasion of her Silver Jubilee
A bit before his time, but Paul had always been fascinated by the plaque as a child. The local area was filled with such history and strangeness. It was no surprise to him that wraiths and spirits often wandered its night places. He thought of Myatt’s Fields Park, not too far away, and the Jeru named Magda-Edith. He'd never forgotten what she'd told him that night. She told him he wasn’t seeking knowledge, that he only did these dangerous things because he was a nihilist. It was a lie, of course, but it unsettled him nonetheless.
Paul finally left the Hidden Courtyard and returned to the solace of Mum’s old flat. In the warmth of his lamp-lit room he sat on the bed, scrolling through the images he'd taken. He messed around with the brightness and contrast on all of them. There was nothing in the images, save one. The faintest suggestion of a shape behind the bench, beneath the tree.
"I see you," he murmured with a smile.
An odd mix of excitement and unease took hold of him.
Paul could do nothing more on his phone to reveal what might be there, so he quickly transferred the images to his laptop. He opened the pertinent image in his photo-editor. A basic program, but it had the tools he needed. After a few minutes of further adjustment of tones, brightness and contrast, Paul found himself staring at the slender silhouette of a young woman hidden in the shadows beneath the tree.
At work the next morning Paul didn't mention anything more to Rachel about the image of the night-wraith on his phone, or the silhouetted young woman he’d found standing beneath the tree in the Hidden Courtyard.
Instead he kept things intentionally superficial and upbeat. Rachel clearly sensed that something was wrong, but she didn’t ask him about it. Paul wondered if she was just too tired of his constant melancholy to really care. It didn’t matter. He felt determined now, and he didn’t want to frighten Rachel any more than he already had. She was due to give birth in six months. Soon she'd be taking her maternity leave and Paul would have to run the bookstore on his own for a while. He didn't know if he was prepared for that.
Truth be told, he was simply living day to day. Moment to moment.
Paul made up an excuse to leave work an hour early and headed straight back to Camberwell, to the Lambeth Archives at Minet Library. He'd spent countless hours of his youth in this Archive. Beyond being a somewhat gifted psychic Paul liked to think of himself as a competent historian.
For the first hour he sensed nothing.
He quickly scanned through local photographs, old ordinance files, laminates of pre-war periodicals dating all the way back to the 1800s. The most prestigious portions of the Archives were now digitised and accessible online, but so much of it wasn't. The stuff that most people didn’t give a shit about. As Paul thought about it he frowned, feeling stupid. He realised he was obviously taking the completely wrong approach.
He asked the clerk if he could instead take a look at the miscellaneous folders. These were leather folders filled with sealed plastic sleeves containing odds and ends, bits and pieces that couldn't be adequately indexed or cross-referenced. The lost things, in essence. After almost another hour, as the sky beyond the windows began to darken – Paul finally sensed something.
At first he wasn't sure what he'd found, but he could feel the import thrilling through him. The electrical sensation, the hairs standing on his arms. He glanced nervously at the clock on the wall. The Archives would be closing in fifteen minutes.
There were two items in the same sleeve.
He couldn't remove them but he could view them clearly. A torn half of a typed page, apparently from a law firm, that seemed to be discussing the particulars of a woman's death. There was no letterhead to identify where the page originated. Beside it was a faded black & white photograph. A pretty young woman, no more than nineteen or twenty years old. Blonde hair. Standing just outside the door to a horse-drawn carriage. Paul knew in his bones this was the girl in the shadows beneath the tree last night. His instincts were screaming it. He eagerly flipped the sleeve to check the back of the photograph. There was handwriting on the back, and Paul's heart almost leapt into his mouth.
Esme Rousseau, Camberwell. Died November 6th 1896.
Paul swallowed and glanced over at the clerk behind the desk. The older woman was busy at a computer terminal, angled away from him slightly. He quickly removed his phone and surreptitiously snapped a few images of the page and photograph.
The skies were dark as Paul walked quickly home, along Myatt’s Fields Park, past St Gabriel’s College and down Patmos Road towards St John the Divine. The face of the young woman was fixed in his mind’s eye for the entire journey.
Now he sat in Mum’s old armchair in the lounge, peering at the face of the dead girl on his phone.
“What do you want from me, Esme?” he murmured. “Why’re you showing yourself to me?”
In the torn page her death was called sudden and unexpected. Perhaps an illness, but more likely some kind of fatal accident. She appeared to come from at least a middle-class family if not outright wealth. Paul had already gone online and tried to find references to a Rousseau family living in Camberwell during the 1890s, with no luck. The handwriting wasn’t evidence that the young woman lived in Camberwell, of course, only that she was there when the photograph was taken. There was no telling who took it or how her image or the page from the law firm ended up at Lambeth Archives.
“Are you dangerous, Esme?” he asked quietly, but there was warmth and sweetness in the girl’s eyes.
Paul sighed. He already knew what he needed to do, but he was afraid. He got up and went to the kitchen, made himself a coffee and spent the next fifteen minutes drinking it at his leisure as he tried to gather his courage. When he was done he put his hoodie and jacket back on and left the building.
The mouth of the alleyway seemed even darker this time.
"Ok," he murmured. "I'm coming...”
He stepped into the shadow and began walking down the passage towards the courtyard. Before he could reach the wooden gate something seemed to slow his steps. Something heavy and unnatural. Paul swallowed and looked to his right. As his eyes adjusted to the dark he could make out the dumpsters against the wall, and the half-open doors for the extension that housed the communal bins. He knew that wraith-ambient had clustered in that place. He could feel it. A vicious, ugly energy. If predation had a taste, he could taste it now in the back of his throat.
There was no point running from these things.
They always found him anyway.
He swallowed again as he approached the doors. He moved cautiously half inside, so he could run if he needed to. It was pitch black in there and the rancid smell from the bins was almost overpowering. But the ground was wet. Paul steadied himself just in case. He carefully removed his phone and unlocked the home-screen to provide some light. The breath left his lungs immediately.
"Holy Mother of God..."
The cat was lying behind one of the bins, its stomach torn open. Entrails lay strewn across the blood-slicked concrete. Paul quickly pressed a fist to his lips to stop from heaving. He didn't know what the fuck was going on, but wraith-ambient was all over it like a sickness. And something even more frightening. Something older.
"Oh fuck," Paul murmured in terror. "Please, no. Not this. Please not this..." He backed slowly out into the alley again, and when he turned around his heart almost froze.
A large fox was watching him.
Less than ten feet away. The fox with the black collar he'd seen two nights ago in the narrow garden of St John. Paul's stomach tightened like a fist when he realised there was blood all across the fox's snout. It lowered its head menacingly, and bared its blood-smeared teeth. It growled at him. He had never heard a fox growl before, but he knew this was not just a fox. Paul was rooted to the spot in literal terror.
Oh, Paul, please come...
A female voice, deep in his mind. Like an echo of an echo.
I beg you. I've no one else.
The fox was blocking his access to the courtyard. He knew the animal could lunge for him at any moment. He instinctively pressed a hand to his chest, over his heart.
Suddenly the fox turned and darted away, immediately lost in shadow.
Paul knew the longer he stood there the more afraid he would become. He wouldn't allow himself to falter like this. He willed himself to move, forced himself to open the broken gate and step into the Hidden Courtyard.
He couldn’t see anyone. But he could feel something. A feminine presence, just as afraid as he was. Paul forced himself to quickly walk the length of the courtyard. Finally he sat down on the bench, in the dark, beneath the branches of the tree.
Paul realised his heart was beating very fast. His hands were trembling. He tried to take a slow, measured breath. “Don’t thank me yet. I’m scared shitless. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. I never do.”
You are very brave, Paul.
Yes. Very brave. But you can’t help me. This was just a warning. It tells me to warn you. It's coming for you.
Tears were welling in Paul’s eyes now. "What's coming for me?" He already knew the answer, but he needed confirmation.
"Let me help you, Esme. Let me try."
I would love that, but you don't understand. I belong to it now. Nothing can help me. It binds me, as it did the little girl. The one you tried to save once.
"You mean Elsie Bryant?"
Yes. She isn't home. She's like me, but far, far away. You can't help me, Paul. I wish you could. You think you’re a hero, but you're not. You're a monster. But the one who binds me...it is the king of monsters.
Paul could feel the tears on his face. "I'm not a monster."
Yes you are. It showed me things. Secret things. He calls you the one of thorns and tears. The valleys of heaven run with the blood of children, Paul. You are so brave and kind to try, but you can't save any of them. Not a single one. That makes you a monster.
"Listen to me, Esme. I don't know what he's done to you, to your mind, but I'm not afraid of monsters. I'm afraid of violence, and pain. But I'm not afraid of him. Whatever the fuck he is."
I know. That's why you're going to die.
“What is he? Tell me what he really is."
You know what he really is. An angel. A terrible, terrible angel.
Paul swallowed, closing his eyes. “Yeah, well, guess what? I'm an angel too.”
Not like him.
Suddenly the female presence withdrew, and Paul was sitting alone and scared in the darkness of the night. On the bench, beneath the tree, in the Hidden Courtyard.
The next morning at work Paul was strangely silent. Rachel noticed immediately, commenting on his low energy and lack of banter. She mentioned the blog again and the image of the night-wraith he'd shown her, but Paul really didn't want to speak about any of it.
"Please talk to me, bro."
"I'm fine. I’m just tired. Didn't sleep well."
"Just fucking talk to me, Paul."
"Seriously, Rach, I'm fine. Just leave me alone, ok?"
There was a sour mood between them for the rest of the day, but that was the least of his problems. He was starting to believe what the dead girl had told him. That he was going to die soon. That this so-called angel was going to kill him this time. Paul recalled that terrifying night in his late twenties. The soundproofed garage in Leytonstone.
The mirrors. The spider.
The girl in the Hidden Courtyard last night had got under his skin, more than the dead ever had before. Her spirit seemed lucid, yet far from sane or balanced. Paul understood why. This thing was slowly corrupting her. Feeding on her. He thought sadly of little Elsie Bryant and how much he'd wanted to save her. He thought about how badly he'd failed.
Esme's words from last night came back to him and made his spirit sink.
The valleys of heaven run with the blood of children, Paul. You can't save any of them. Not a single one. That makes you a monster.
When night came he made preparations to summon Amma. He needed the witch's counsel, her strength. But he felt nothing of her presence while he breathed and visualized. As he lay in bed and prepared to enter the dreaming he already knew Amma wouldn't join him. She was either busy elsewhere or had turned her back on him. Paul had never felt more alone. All he could do was wait for sleep, trying in vain to hold back the tears.
A park at twilight. A man with a fox on a leash. A book in his hand. The fox pissed against the foot of a tree as the man struggled to read in the losing light. Paul moved past them. Suddenly the man closed the book and Paul caught a glimpse of the title.
The Time of the Angels.
A little hollow in the tree. Paul reached into the blackness. A girl was screaming in agony somewhere. Elsie? Esme? Rachel? There was blood inside the hollow.
Paul awoke from the nightmare with a start, clutching the bedsheet in his fist. A slick of cold sweat across his body.
"Oh fuck," he murmured in desperation, but grateful it was over. He opened his fist and released the clumped bedsheet. He glanced at his arm in the semidarkness and saw four vertical scratches on his skin. He could feel them stinging, beginning to bleed. Paul grimaced, turned over and pressed his face into the pillow, literally shaking, waiting for the waking world to reassert itself.
Another morning finally came. Paul didn’t get back to sleep. He felt exhausted. He deleted all the photos on his phone. The night-wraith with red eyes, the silhouette in the courtyard, the torn page, the photo of Esme Rousseau standing beside the horse-drawn carriage.
He wanted nothing more to do with any of it.
Perhaps Esme was right. Maybe he was a monster. A narcissist with pitiable delusions of grandeur.
Paul didn't go to work. He lay in bed until late in the afternoon, his phone on silent. Esme Rousseau was obviously a very powerful psychic, and this thing had been feeding on her for over a hundred years. The thought was sobering, terrifying and unimaginably ugly. Crowley, blood-stained girls, lost children he couldn't save. It seemed the fucking nightmare of his life was never going to end.
Part of him really wanted it to be over.
He got up from the bed, took the unopened pack of cigarettes from the dresser and rummaged around in one of the drawers for a lighter. Nearly three months smoke-free down the drain, but what would it matter? Before he lit the cigarette he glanced at the little statuette of Ganesha that Jessica had given him as a birthday present back at university. The Hindu elephant god seemed to peer at him, silent but watchful. He thought about Jessi's cancer and the strength it must have taken to overcome it.
"Damn, girl," he muttered, and laughed. "For an ex you're still up in all my shit..."
He shook his head and snapped the cigarette in half. He crushed the pack in his fist and tossed it into the wastepaper basket beside the dresser.
It was only when the sky began to darken that Paul finally checked his phone. He had several texts and missed calls, all of them from Rachel. He didn't bother to return those calls. He tried to eat something but only picked at his food. He couldn't shake the nightmare.
The fox on the leash. The hollow in the tree.
The sound of the screaming girl.
Night eventually came again. Paul found himself aimlessly wandering the streets with his hood up and his fists in his pockets. It had rained earlier in the day and now the night-time roads and pavements were glossy and reflective. A night of mirrors, like that fateful night in Leytonstone. Paul was circling Myatt’s Fields Park when for some reason he thought to check his phone. He had left the phone on silent but saw that Rachel was calling him again.
He answered the call on a whim, touched by her persistence. "Hey."
"What the fuck, Paul! I was so worried…"
Paul smiled sadly. "I'm sorry, Rach."
"This is about the night-wraith you showed me, right? The thing with red eyes?"
"It's way bigger than that."
Rachel was silent for a few moments. "Listen to me, Paul. I know you think you're a burden. That I'm tired of you. Of who you are. But that shit is not true. I'm just fucking scared for you. You're so goddamn relentless."
"You don't have to worry about any of that anymore."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm fucking done trying to help people."
More silence. "No you're not."
"Oh, yes I fucking am."
"You don't want to help people? That's not you. That's not my big brother. Talk to me. What's going on? What's really going on?"
"Lost souls, Rachel. Vampires. Angels. I don't know. Ugly, ugly stuff."
"You're scaring me, Paul."
"I know. That's why this has to stop." Even more silence on the line. "Trying to find the words, Rach? This is what I’m talking about. You deserve better than me. I fucking hate constantly dragging you down into my world."
"Our world, bro."
"No, Rach. My world. You're married. You're going to be a mum soon. Real things. Good things. I can't keep trying and failing. It's killing me on the inside, I swear."
"Trying to help people, you mean? The lost ones?"
"Yeah. I'm a fucking joke."
"That's bullshit. My big brother is a gangsta. A real hero."
Paul chuckled. "That's very sweet. But it’s nonsense, Rachel. If you really knew some of the shit I've experienced you wouldn't say that. You would beg me to stop."
"I don't want to get you killed one day, Rachel. Do you hear me?"
"Bro, listen to me. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to? A newbie? An outsider? Of course I'm scared. I'm terrified. That's why I can't walk in that world anymore. But if there's one thing I know it's that Paul Kistori isn't a coward. My brother is fucking crazy. He can be a real asshole sometimes. But he’s kind. He doesn't give up. Not on love, or magic, or people who need his help. He's the best man I know."
Paul swallowed, genuinely touched by his sister’s words. He tried to speak but didn't know what to say.
"Look," Rachel added. "I don't want you to constantly put yourself in danger, Paul. Of course I don’t. But I also know how this works. I’m not stupid. It's why I worry so much..."
Paul took a long, deep breath. "Thanks for the call, sis. I really appreciate it. I'm sorry I scared you. I'll see you tomorrow, ok?"
"I hope so, Paul."
"I'll be ok. We'll speak tomorrow, I promise."
“I…I love you, Brother Bear.”
“Love you too, Rach.”
Paul ended the call, took another deep breath and gazed up at the night sky.
It didn't take long to reach St John the Divine. Paul stood in the narrow garden beyond the black railings, gazing up at the life-sized statue of Christ affixed to the church's outer wall. The crucified form peered down with stone eyes of such tender sadness. Paul frowned, strangely humbled. Like he was seeing the image for the first time. Tears welled in his own eyes as he peered up at the statue.
"I’ve been lost my whole life, Father. I don’t think that’s a shock to anyone. But you've always been with me, I think. Since I was a child. I don't know what you are, really. A god, a story, a dream. But I know you're very powerful, and very kind. I guess I could learn something from that, huh?"
He frowned again.
Maybe he could still be useful, if he chose to be.
He bent over and kissed the stone plinth beneath the feet of the statue. The sound of a car beyond the railings. Headlights from the passing car threw a moving shadow along the wall of the church. For a moment it seemed as though the statue of Christ turned its head towards him slightly, and blinked.
Paul took a step backwards, shaken by the sight.
He left the narrow garden of St John and walked briskly towards home. But he didn't go into the flat. The alleyway next to his building was darker than ever. Six months from now Rachel was due to give birth. Paul would finally be an uncle. He didn't want his nephew or niece to grow up in a world where everyone was too afraid to care.
To hell with that.
Paul stepped into the mouth of the alley, into shadow. He moved quickly but carefully, deeper into the dark. And then it was there in front of him, like a bad dream. The thing he was dreading. It was barely visible in the darkness at first.
The large fox with the collar.
It was standing in the centre of the passage just like before. Paul froze in his tracks. He glanced to his right, at the extension that housed the communal bins. He knew the mutilated cat was still in there; it's stomach torn open, its entrails all across the floor.
The fox came forward a few steps, into full view. Like a wraith surfacing in a black lake. Its snout was covered in fresh blood. He couldn't bear to think what defenceless animal it had slaughtered this time.
Slowly, carefully, Paul sank into a squat and picked up a chunk of broken brick from near the wall. He hefted it in his palm and slowly rose to his feet again. The fox watched, lowering its head in an act of menace.
"Listen to me," Paul said quietly. "Tell your master that I'm not afraid of him. He's a coward. Preying on the innocent. A sick fuck, angel or otherwise."
The fox snarled, baring its bloodied teeth.
"You hear me, wraith? I'll bash your skull in if I have to. Let the girl go."
But Paul knew something was terribly wrong. He could taste blood in his mouth. In a moment of horror he realized his gums were starting to bleed.
He immediately spat out a mouthful of blood and saliva.
Pain was beginning to move though his body. A strange, leeching kind of pain. Paul tried to keep it together. The fox snarled again and took another step towards him in the darkened alleyway.
"Esme Rousseau," Paul said shakily. "Let her go..."
His gums were still bleeding.
He knew that if the fox decided to attack he wouldn't stand a chance, despite the broken brick in his palm. "Fuck you," Paul hissed. "And fuck your master."
He was about to lunge towards the collared fox, about to raise the brick in his hand – when the animal suddenly darted away into the blackness. For a moment Paul just stood there before coming to his senses. He dropped the brick and broke into a sprint, shoved open the wooden gate and stumbled into the Hidden Courtyard.
The fox was gone.
The courtyard was dark and seemingly empty.
But Paul could feel the female presence tethered to the bench beneath the tree. The presence was terrified, confused. He hurried the courtyard's length, slowing to a stop when he reached the bench. His head was beginning to swim. His gums were still bleeding. He swayed, spat a mouthful of blood and saliva onto the grass, and sat clumsily on the bench. He could feel his mind starting to lose focus.
Paul, I'm scared. What’s happening?
"I don't know."
The air around him seemed to tighten. Paul's nose began to bleed. Slowly at first, then profusely. He pressed a hand to his face in a vain attempt to stem the flow. It spilled between his fingers, down his neck.
Is he killing you?
"He can't kill me. I won't let him."
He's...he's afraid of you, Paul. I can feel his fear. Dear Lord...
Paul's mind was shifting and swimming dangerously now. His nose continued to bleed.
"Esme, listen to me. I need you to talk to him, because I think I might pass out soon. You can hear him, can't you?"
"What does he say?"
That he's taking something from you. In exchange for my…my life. Oh, Paul...
"What is he taking?"
Years. Many years.
Paul spat another mouthful of blood onto the grass. "Take them, coward."
I can feel him leaving. He's actually leaving. My God, Paul, who are you...?
The nosebleed slowed to a trickle. There was blood all down the front of his jacket now. Paul could feel something change. His mind began to clear a little, his senses sharpening. He gently shook his head and blinked repeatedly.
He’s gone, Paul. I can feel them now. Such warmth. There's light. There's light all around me. It's everywhere...
Paul was about to tell her not to be afraid when he sensed the female presence suddenly withdraw completely.
He realised he was alone in the courtyard now, in the darkness of the night.
The nosebleed finally stopped. He pushed his fingers inside his mouth, to check his gums. They had stopped bleeding too.
Paul squeezed his eyes shut and took a grateful, measured breath. He was still alive. He knew that Esme had just been taken somewhere. Somewhere better. He could feel it in his bones. But something else had shifted too. He realised there was no wraith-ambient anywhere near him. There was a cleanliness in the energies around him that he hadn't experienced in days. In several months, really. Since that week of hell in August.
He sat there in stunned silence, in the Hidden Courtyard, for almost an hour. Processing, thinking, recovering. Eventually, Paul realised he was smiling.
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