They left the entrance and made to step on the grass and boggy mud but there were no footprints – not only that but they looked up in the greasy sky and there were these orbs everywhere, like moons, the three of them, without the use of cables, now rose towards one of these and he did not feel that usual sickening sensation of height he’d even had on airlines, there was no sensation and yet that was not completely so – the stench was still real, hearing was still real, eyesight.
He reached for her hand and his hand went right through her hand – he wasn’t even aware of her as his woman now, nor she with him.
Then they were enclosed and as they felt it wrap itself around him – a spherical wall – the sensation came back, they recognized one another, they felt the same old passion again but they didn’t feel everything – for example, no hunger or thirst, no aches. He reached for her hand again and this time it was real, she took his and that strength was there – they were both relieved.
Around them, the surroundings were now ‘painted in’ – the surface became the floor of his apartement – two chairs appeared or maybe they’d been there all along, neither were sure but there they were – the Moineau and Geneviève chairs, he took Jean-Baptiste out of the papoose and handed him to Nikki. They certainly seemed alive, they had their old memories.
‘C’est étrange, Bebe. What now?’
He shrugged. ‘No doubt we’ll be told.’
Gabriella appeared and that gave them some bearings. Jean-Baptiste was delighted and Nikki asked, ‘Are you able to hold babies?’
‘I can make it seem so.’ Nikki handed her Jean-Baptiste who promptly fell asleep in her arms.
Nikki smiled. ‘So, here we are.’
‘Where are we?’ he asked.
‘In a service ship,’ replied Gabriella.
‘How long till we get there?’ asked Hugh.
‘We’re there. We just have to wait for the right moment.’
‘Where is there?’
‘Har Megiddon, of course. You have returned.’
‘So,’ asked Nikki, looking about, ‘we’re not actually … ah … in heaven?’
Gabriella smiled. ‘No, sorry to disappoint, you’re in a service ship and still very much alive. It was necessary to remove various sensations from you for that journey, for example the necessity to breathe, but now you have all sensations returned except pain, hunger and thirst.
You now have a reasonable amount of time together, as long as is necessary for you to say everything you wish to say to one another – it is private here, nobody will listen nor observe, not even me. You may have hours or days, as you wish. When you are ready, I shall appear with Jean-Baptiste and shall lead you there.’
‘To your task, the one you have been prepared for.’
Neither of them liked the sound of that, Nikki asked, ‘You mean you’re taking Jean-Baptiste away?
‘No, I am still here in a sense you can’t sense, I’m babyholding for you. Let’s test this – I shall fade, you will think to yourselves that you are ready for me to reappear – but don’t say it – and watch what happens.
She disappeared and suddenly Nikki realized this could be a trick, he was worried and Gabriella immediately reappeared.
‘All right, let’s do it again but give it a bit more time this time, then think you’d like me to return.’
She faded again but Nikki called out, ‘Gabriella.’
This time she did not reappear but answered in voice. ‘Ask Jean-Baptiste a question – assume he is seven years old.
Nikki thought about it. ‘What is your favourite song?’
The voice of a child began to sing:
Dans la forêt lointaine
On entend le coucou
Du haut de son grand chêne
Il répond au hibou:
‘Show me this child!’
A child of seven did become visible and he was undoubtedly their Jean-Baptiste – just older, that was all, plus he completed the verse:
On entend le coucou.
He faded and Gabriella reappeared with baby Jean-Baptiste. Nikki burst into tears – so that was still possible – she wanted to hold her baby and Gabriella handed him over. All the while though, she’d seen that Jean-Baptiste was more than happy, plus he was enjoying all this attention.
‘You showed me great trust, Lailah.’
‘Yes I did … didn’t I?’ She thought that one through.
‘We did that because there is going to be a time, quite soon, when I shall have to babyhold again and so we need to get this trust worked out first. When you feel you can trust me, Lailah, then I shall hold Jean-Baptiste again while you have time to yourselves and I shall be, with him, waiting at the end of your desire for me to return.’
Nikki walked forward and handed her Jean-Baptiste once more, Gabriella faded. She, Nikki, came over to Hugh and said, ‘I want to trust her -’
‘But it’s difficult – it could all be a giant con trick.’
‘Do you feel that?’
She then thought she wanted Jean-Baptiste back and both reappeared. Gabriella was not in the least impatient, Jean-Baptiste not in the least worried, just happy to see Maman again.
‘You can fade again now, Gabriella,’ said Nikki. ‘For fifteen minutes – does that time mean anything to you?’
‘You are still human – of course it does. We shall reappear in fifteen minutes.’
‘And you won’t look at us or listen in?’
‘Promise.’ She faded.
‘Hugh, I should be terrified about my child … our child, sorry … and yet I’m not. I’m starting to think about your arms again.’
A recliner started to form over to one side, exactly where it had been in the apartement – it was the same recliner. She looked down at herself and she was wearing the same white blouse and navy skirt she had been on that second afternoon. He though was not in gyps, just in boxers.
‘This is very, very weird, darling man.’ She thought a bit more. ‘Well, are you going to lie down on it?’
He went over and did that, she came over and climbed onboard and something truly weird now happened – she’d forgotten to undress but there, to her side, on a chair which had appeared, were her folded clothes and she was naked on top of him.
‘Is this right to do?’ she asked. ‘I mean, are we meant to do this, or not to do it?’
‘But I’m not wearing anything, we can’t ask her back.’
‘Gabriella, is this all right what we’re planning?’
‘If you’re planning a second child, it’s quite all right,’ said her voice from afar.
‘A second child!’ exclaimed Nikki. ‘Is that possible?’
‘Quite possible if you want, only you need not make bowers and make love in fields for weeks.’
‘Very, very weird,’ said Nikki. ‘All right, we’re wasting time and I must feel heavy on top of you – can we have thirty minutes, Gabriella?’
‘You have whatever time you need. Just think when you’re ready and we shall reappear. Perhaps not just at this moment though unless you want us to observe the process. Do not fear, no one is listening or watching – only once you wish.’
Nikki, sprawled over him, looked down and shrugged. ‘So let’s get on with it, shall we?’
It might have been half an hour later, it may have been longer but they were lying side by side and that had been as human as two humans could get, although the recliner had of course cramped their style – they hadn’t wanted to test the floor in this situation and the recliner had seemed firm enough.
She observed, ‘It’s near the end of us as living beings, isn’t it?’
‘Seems to be.’
‘Will we need to leave Jean-Baptiste with her?’
‘Maybe so, temporarily. For his safety. I think we may be off on our task and he cannot be with us on that – surely we would not want him to be.’
‘Yes, there is that.’ She thought some more. ‘Kiss me deeper than you ever have before, forget all the troubles we’ve had, let yourself go.’
How much longer they’d taken they’d lost count, they were lying in each other’s arms and were content. Are you ready for Gabriella to return?’ he asked.
‘I’d like to clean up a bit first.’
Different clothing appeared on a table which had also appeared – they were robes and there was also a tub of what appeared to be water, plus linen, on a table. She climbed off, he did too, they washed and dried.
They both thought Gabriella should reappear and she did, with Jean-Baptiste – Nikki could immediately feel his sense of well being, particularly as Maman and Papa seemed happy.
‘That was most necessary, Lailah, for a few reasons. Firstly, you have conceived again,’ Nikki gasped, ‘and that protects all three of you in the next … sphere, shall we call it. Secondly, you have both just altered your history, extended it but it’s too early to explain all that. Thirdly, you have just provided Jean-Baptiste with his pass to cross the river when it comes – you have now encoded memories in his soul – happy memories. Trust me that it is so. And fourthly – you are now Laila for real.
Now, unfortunately, I must explain the task and give you the chance to refuse it. On the airship, you dealt with a threat and liquidated it. That was an improvement on the hospital where he could have hurt you badly but I absorbed his energy. So you have progressed. Now you have progressed again – you will never be asked to take on that which you are not capable of. Is that much clear?’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘It’s a similar task. You will distract him enough from his purpose that he will turn his ire upon you. In fact he will vanquish you but in that very act, he will realize, too late, that he has not done so and that is his final downfall.’
‘He?’ asked Hugh? Not the big one, not -’
‘No, of course, not, just his minion in Jerusalem. But if he fails, it is the start of a chain reaction and so what you do is quite vital. It is not only you, there are many other people at that same time doing similar things, good people, each having this same experience now.
Now the part which requires faith. When I tell you that whatever he does to you, however much it feels real – it is not real – you must believe this for your own survival. Let us be clear about that.
If you keep your mind on that truth, fix your mind on it, just as you stared into Chloe’s eyes, then you will be unharmed. You will die after that though but that will be our doing – that is is to ease you over to see Jean-Baptiste.’
‘What?’ shrieked Nikki, ‘you will kill Jean-Baptiste?’
‘No, he will pass over in my arms, because that is where you will both be, on that side. Just as Little Nikki passed over, just as Sophie Magdalena passed over. Has anything I have done on your behalf so far felt wrong in any way?’
‘Nooooo, not really.’
‘Faith, Nicolette, faith, Hugh. Remember, the creature will rage, rant, fling things at you, will try to hurt you but it is not real, this you are assured of – always keep your mind on that. If you do not, then it becomes real.’
She paused to let that sink in. ‘You may have as much time as you need again.’ They both shook their heads. ‘All right, if you feel you are ready, follow me. I would that you did not see this but I urge you both to gird yourselves for a vision terrible – you must see this first before you pass over.’
They followed her to an area near the skin of the orb which showed a panorama below and they were both rooted to the spot.
There was no sound inside the orb, no smell but they could see mayhem and wanton destruction below, as far as the eye could see, to the end of the Plain of Esdrael and then, on the bubbling sea, were flotillas.
Humanity grimly waited in ranks, expectant, terrified, held in place by the occasion and by the threat, over the other side of the valley was the same scene but of a different hue. Opposing armies were lined up – but for what? To slaughter each other for no reason?
On someone’s orders?
Above, in the putrid sky and quite close to them in fact, were creatures clearly there to strike terror into hearts.
One of these creatures swooped, took a soldier in its talons and four metres above the ground, tore him in two, his uniform, insides and two halves, viscera spilling from them, tumbled to earth, splattering the silent soldiery, a constant reminder that even words and thoughts were known.
‘You will have many questions, both of you.’ They just stared at Gabriella, who added, ‘Come – you have both seen enough.’
She led them to a quiet area, most likely near the centre of the orb and bade them rest but how could they rest when they were nauseated? She nodded and said, ‘All right, let’s have the questions now. Ask as you would wish.’
They looked hard at her and if it had not been for her history in which they had never once been let down, they would have been deeply fearful now.
‘Ask,’ she repeated.
‘Why do you allow this carnage?’ Hugh opened the questioning.
‘I have not the power to prevent it.’
‘Then why doesn’t He give you the power?’
‘To become just like the enemy?’
‘It’s all … horrible!’ cried out Nikki but in her heart, she knew there was far more to come.
‘That man had the chance, the choice, it was offered to him and he might have been saved. He refused.’
‘You should have made him!’ almost shouted Nikki.
Gabriella looked at her and Nikki knew the answer already. ‘To make us no better than the other side, Nicolette? And there is another question – what of the martyrs? Was their sacrifice in vain?’
‘Is there no vengeance for these monsters?’
‘Oh yes, there is vengeance and it is at hand.’
Hugh was stunned. They’d driven in cars through that valley, towards that hill and apart from the Ege Company busloads, it had been largely peaceful – the view from leafy Har Karmel had been tranquility itself … and now the sky was darkened, orbs hovered, glistening, above the smoke and carnage below, blood flowed along the contours of the land as those involved in the centre of the melee died, the blood flowed about the ankles of the soldiers who awaited their turn to die – it trickled down towards the sea.
Gabriella continued. ‘They curse us, curse you, curse their Maker. They are now beyond reason, in that survival state where every pestilence is blamed on good.’
Nikki was sullen. ‘I understand why these people are there but it’s still wrong.’
‘Yes, it is very wrong. Every one of those people you see had the chance to make the choice you have made. Every one of them made his choice, her choice, in the fullness of that knowledge. They hardened their hearts. It is wrong but as free choice is inbuilt, there was no alternative.’
‘So you punished them.’
‘No, I see that you do not understand. They were not told, ‘Believe or you will be punished.’ It was explained in good time, ‘Believe so that you can escape a terrible fate.
They were told that we can only rescue those who believe they can be rescued. That is the be all and end all. Now we take a short break, then I shall return and answer more fully – it is necessary that you finally understand. ‘Do you feel fear?’
Nikki was choked and he wasn’t far off. ‘Yes.’
‘That is lack of faith in both of you. When you stop fearing, then you are at one. There is no need to fear anything they can do, no matter how bad it seems. He cannot take your spirit by force and his power over your body is not real this time, not if you have faith that it is not real. This is all about faith.’
‘We get the general idea,’ said Hugh.
She left them for a time.
Gabriella returned and with a gesture, invited them to continue the questions.
Nikki opened. ‘Why can’t you help those people still on earth – just because they don’t believe, they must die?’
‘Inside both of you is … let me find a word you would understand in human terms … let’s call it a code, an embedded code -’
‘Who embedded it?’
‘Who wrote your DNA? This code alerts us, enables us to assist you, keeps you alive, even now. Without that code, we have no communication channel and we have no mechanism by which we can send aid your way.’
‘You could stop all that below if you wished,’ cried Nikki, her anger kindled.
‘Again and again, Nicolette, we offered to deliver each and every last person from it but each refused our help. The two of you did not refuse it, therefore you are here.’
To Nikki’s dismayed look, Gabriella added, ‘you, Nikki, have not refused but neither do you believe. You are here because of the one who does believe. Would you have Hugh and your child pass over and go one way, you the other, down to the valley?’
‘What! You’d separate me from my family?’
‘No, we would not separate you from your family, quite the opposite. You’d separate yourself from your family – it’s entirely your choice, your decision.’
‘Jean-Baptiste goes with me!’
‘You would choose death then, not only for yourself but for Jean-Baptiste as well? You would take him with you down there?’
‘This is … chantage!’
‘It’s choice – that’s all it is and all it’s ever been.’
Hugh asked, ‘What about someone good – say a Buddhist holy man who’s paid homage every day? Does he die too?’
‘He has more chance than most because his mind is already open to possibilities – he is given his chance. The world cannot end until all have had their chances – all.’
‘Can those down there change their minds?’
‘Of course – at any time and then they join us here or on one of the other orbs.’
‘And what must they believe in order to get onto one of these orbs,’ asked Nikki.
‘That they can escape that fate by believing they can be saved from it.’
‘Just that. Belief seems an easy thing. In reality, it is an insurmountable obstacle for so many.’
They wanted to ask more but felt they’d only be going round in circles if they pursued this line.
Gabriella felt it in them and added more about the encounter they were soon to have. ‘This being you will meet has no right to be there, he will make sport of you, mock you and ask you to sign your spirit over to his master.
There is purpose in this. While your spirit emanates from a common source, your aura, in return, feeds back to the source when the channels are open, when the code is in place. This symbiotic relationship refuels itself and all attempts to break it are what drive the so-called mystery religions – it is an attempt to steal this key locked within the symbiosis.
The enemy can never gain that key but he can go about it the long way, by asking every soul to give itself to him – freely. He interprets tricking you into doing so as ‘freely’. If every soul were to give itself freely to him, he would be in a strong position to gain the key.
The majority of the world has unwittingly already done this – squandered its birthright, through the seven sins for example, by dabbling in things they have no understanding of, and they have no idea they are lost until it is too late.
You see, it need not be a conscious thing. Every time you know something is right and you do something else, you lay yourself open, you become exposed to control. It also weakens your resolve and following this loss of resolve, your soul slowly dies within you. So far, there are still a few, a minority, who have not signed their souls over. They are the targets of his enmity.’
Nikki could see where this was going, what was in store for them and her lips and mouth were dry. She knew that Jean-Baptiste, as an innocent, did not need to pass through this time of unpleasantness – but they did.
‘Why must we do this?’ she still asked.
‘Imagine it as a boat voyage. Those who have accepted our help have a sturdy vessel with high sides, while the others have a leaky raft. Both still meet the storm and the raging seas, both still travel the same journey. The first ones have the better chance.’
‘Can we refuse to go any further?’
‘Of course you can. Free will, remember. I can take you down to the Valley of Jezreel now, if you wish.’
She paused, no words came from either of them initially, then Nikki requested, ‘May I speak with my husband for a few minutes please? Alone, without you listening in?’
The moment she’d gone, Nikki asked, ‘Do you believe any of this? Do you think we are actually in one of these …’
‘Orbs, yes. Do you believe we have to go through this trauma, that we’ll be protected, that we’ll see Jean-Baptiste again? That we’ll … get to this heaven?’
‘I believe so.’
‘And if I don’t agree? If I say this is all rubbish?’
He said nothing.
Finally, she said, ‘You do know I’m coming with you, don’t you?’
Gabriella reappeared and Nikki said, ‘We’ll do it.’
Still clasped in each other’s arms, they found themselves in space but not in free fall, yet neither were they soaring, nor even floating. It was as if the space they were in had been de-painted and there were no points of reference. They’d not asked what to say to the enemy, knowing that it would be supplied.
Slowly, new surroundings were ‘painted’ in and they found themselves in a broken down tunnel, ancient stonework crumbling, the hellish noise outside coming through in waves, along with the stench and the stench is what got to them first, the overwhelming sensation of rancid sweetness.
They looked at one another and set off, reaching the end of the concourse, turned towards the stone stairs leading upwards, climbed and climbed and climbed, pausing for breath and then climbed the last of the way.
Immediately they were challenged by two guards who backed away upon seeing who they were.
A similar thing happened twice more while they walked for the entrance to what they’d never thought they’d ever see. Clearly, this was the light-stoned Temple and they knew exactly where they were going.
The guards at the first columns dropped back, those at the inner door did the same and then they followed the route they knew full well but how they knew it was beyond them.
Up two sets of broad but shallow steps and they were in an atrium of some magnificence.
She rested a hand on his forearm. ‘This is it, Hugh, you do know that, don’t you?’
‘Is everything right between us? Is everything forgiven?’
‘Of course it is.’ He dropped into the last kiss and those two minutes said everything which needed to be said. ‘Be cheeky, Moineau, I plan to be outrageous – don’t be bullied into accepting anything. It’s illusion what happens to us at his hands. Let’s remember that. Bye, my love.’
Two huge doors opened inwards before them and there they were, inside the Holy of Holies.
Before he could stop himself, Hugh addressed the being lounging on the chaisse-longue on the raised dais. ‘You are on consecrated ground and therefore are blaspheming against your Lord and Master. Get ye gone from this place.’
The being, clearly human but seeming-powerful for all that, did not bat an eyelid but he did sigh. ‘Have a care.’
Hugh felt his tongue fall back to his throat, he was gasping for air, he collapsed to the floor. His tongue was released, he gasped for some time until his breath came back, then he stood shakily again.
‘You are on consecrated ground.’ It was Nikki speaking this time. ‘Depart now, turn from your ways and pay tribute to your Maker.’ She’d seen that in a film. Now she suffered the same as Hugh who strode towards the being but was stopped and could not move in any shape or form.
‘So,’ murmured the creature, bemused. ‘They care for one another.’ He let them go. ‘Is there anything further you wish to say because I have one or two things to ask of you.’
Hugh stood again, restored. ‘Listen, you poor sod, you’re on a hiding to nothing here. Your so-called master can’t win this war, he’ll never find the key, no matter how many brains he dissects or how many sacrifices he performs. It simply doesn’t work that way. We know how it works, this symbiosis, he knows it too and so we want to ask you – why bother with all this?’
‘I shall only ask once more for you to hold your chattering tongue.’
‘Go to the devil.’ The creature’s eyebrow was raised at that and Hugh pressed on. ‘Listen, my friend – cut your losses, join us and you might still be saved.’
The audacity at first surprised, then amused the creature, he even nodded in a flicker of admiration.
When he spoke, the voice became like a deep rasp. ‘Why do you bother with all this, this thing you know must end in grief for you? We have a place for you right now, right here. You are bold. You might be one of our mightiest generals. Come now, think this over and don’t place your faith in a fairy tale of the blue yonder. Here I am, standing in front of you and I offer you both a place. Think of what we could achieve, what you have already achieved with the former head of your nation. This is too much talent to waste in this fashion.’
‘I’m going to ask you one last time,’ said Hugh, evenly. ‘Renounce this way and depart from this holy place.’
‘Aaaaggghh!’ roared the creature and Hugh fell to the ground, writhing this way and that, in deep agony. Blood appeared from his nose and ears, red froth appeared from his mouth, he was lifted, released and fell to the stones.
‘Stop it, stop it,’ shrieked Nikki, taking three steps towards the creature, then she stopped as if hitting a stone wall, her breasts enlarged and deflated, her thighs were forced apart and she felt something unholy, wholly evil entering her and yet nothing and no one else was in the room. The creature desisted and she fell to the ground, Hugh crawling over to hold her.
The creature made as if to play a violin, then turned a stern face to them. ‘I tire of this interview. You will sign a document agreeing to come into the service of my Master and that will be an end to it.
He clapped his hands and the necessary materials were brought from a sideroom by two clerks or scribes or whatever.
‘We need to read these first,’ Hugh reminded him. ‘Never sign anything you haven’t read.’
The creature sighed again. ‘Yes, yes, if you must. Ten minutes.’
Hugh took both and gave Nikki her copy. They sat on the stone and started to read. Nikki actually guffawed at one part and then read on.
Eventually they came to the end.
Hugh spoke. ‘May I ask one question?’ The creature, seeing that Albus was finally coming to his senses, nodded for him to continue. ‘Creature, sir, I’m in awe that whoever wrote this piece of garbage ever seriously thought we’d sign it. You can stick it where the sunlight won’t see it and tell the goat the same thing.’
‘Hugh! You’ll stop speaking like that before me now. I’ll not have you descending to his level.’
He looked at her and saw the smile playing at the corners of her lips. He returned her smile but in the next moment was lifted bodily and flung against one of the columns, a bolt which appeared to be very real and very steel came from the creature’s hand and pinned him to the column by a good foot or so.
Nikki screamed and dropped to her knees, knowing this was one Hugh was not coming back from. If they’d managed to get him from the bolt, the internal damage … Before she’d even had a chance to respond, seven men in robes emerged from the siderooms and it was clear their intent with her, as the creature settled back on his chaisse-longue to enjoy the show.
She continued to scream as it began and went on and on and on, Hugh made one attempt to climb off the bolt and the pain knocked him out, which didn’t suit the creature one bit.
When he came to, Nikki was lying on her side, in foetal position on the stone, still clothed and he knew precisely what had happened. Now, from where she lay, she found the greatest insult she could think of in front of this creature and in this Temple. She invoked the word Jesus at him, he flinched so she said it again. Hugh picked up on it and started doing the same. The creature shut up their tongues, swept down the steps, released his tongue and asked if he’d sign.
‘Yes,’ said Hugh, gasping for air.
The creature looked hard at him, decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and the bolt just disappeared, as if it had never been there. Hugh felt his wound and there was none. Nikki had turned her head, she’d seen this as well, put two and two together and finally remembered what Gabriella had said.
They’d believed the rape had taken place, they’d believed Hugh had been impaled but now she felt nothing, as if nothing had happened at all.
It was a mighty powerful illusion too because each had experienced the full extent of the horror during it but now they appeared whole and yet not whole. He shuffled across to Nikki and held her. ‘Just stick together and stay firm.’
The creature now demanded, ‘You gave your word. You said you would sign – you freaks always keep your word.’
‘Yes, I gave my word and I shall sign. Give me the paper.’
He went across to the table which had appeared, Nikki was in shock and yet she felt something had to have been in the wind.
‘You want us to actually write, freehand, that we accept the conditions and to state what we understand by those?’ Hugh asked, just to clarify. The creature, now back on the chaisse-longue, nodded impatiently. Nikki looked on incredulously as he bent down and began to write. If anything, she would have said he was jaunty and knew she’d best get over there too.
Glancing down at what he’d written, she saw all and asked, ‘May I write mine in French?’ The creature nodded again. She scribbled something not quite the same but similar, in her own language.
Hugh now asked if they could approach to do tribute to him. The creature’s eyebrows went up again but he grunted his affirmation. They kissed one final time, quickly, both approached him obsequiously, bowing and scraping, until they were at his chaisse-longue.
Then the tribute began.
‘Oh, great creature, you know you really are the ugliest muvver I’ve ever met, did anyone ever tell you that? Plus you stink too,’ he grinned and she childishly poked out her tongue, the creature flew to the table in an instant, read what each had written – it was the Apostle’s Creed – the two of them looked at each other and held hands, they suddenly fell to the floor, deceased.
The creature was beside himself – he hadn’t done that, it hadn’t been his doing, his intention had been to draw their innards from inside them, through their mouths and he’d been cheated.
Now the two were beyond him and he’d not even begun.
It mattered not what he did to each of their bodies in the next two hours and as he finally subsided to his chaisse-longue, he was both sickened with anger and deeply afraid because he’d promised these two contracts, he’d have to file them, those were the rules, he could not afford to destroy them now they’d been written and signed and his mouth went very dry.
He wanted to punish them over and over but short of flinging bloodied chunks of flesh and organs or their heads about the Temple, there was no further way he could hurt them – they were gone, passed over.
He sat on the chaisse-longue and brooded, stroking his chin with his gnarled fingertips.
They were in some sort of corridor in space, bounded by countless rays stretching endlessly into the distance and they were being drawn down that corridor.
At least they were conscious that there was still a ‘they’.
After a shortish time, they came out into … well … a space and in that space was Gabriel, with Jean-Baptiste in her arms. To their minds, nothing had altered since the orb – well obviously that Temple business had but now they were in the same situation with Gabriella, or so it seemed.
Gabriella handed Jean-Baptiste to Nikki, to fulfil the promise but then reached out to take him again. ‘You are now in what we call the first house. It’s not a house as you understand it but it suffices as a definition for us.
In this house you have a period together now, the two of you, to revisit, to make amends, to close circles. You can go anywhere, as time and distance have no meaning here but you do have a limited amount of … perhaps we could call it … personal fuel. There will be sufficient. Leave Jean-Baptiste with me during this time and I shall await your return.’
Nikki agreed. ‘We can just … go anywhere?’
‘Yes. This is your last chance for now to visit the temporal world, to make contact down there. Don’t spend time in long conversations because there will be an opportunity later for that, when those below will be here and it becomes much easier. This time now is to visit and see.’
‘What happened to the River Styx?’
Gabriella smiled. ‘It does exist, you crossed it but all of those things are just words.’
It beat airports, hunkered down in car boots or bolted down beneath back seats of cars. They thought up their destinations and asked if Gabriella needed to know. She already knew. They asked if they needed to wait until the ninth day. This was the ninth day if they deemed it so.
Nikki asked if it would frighten people to see them.
Nobody would see them without mental effort from both, combined.
Should they appear to people?
It was up to them but it might be an idea to speak softly and warn those people first. They were to remember they were visiting the living, not those who had crossed the divide. The time for that was later.
The first and most logical place was the Lodge and thus they were now on what had once been the front porch. Though they’d lost their sensory apparatus, they knew the air would be acrid and yet, all sorts of mites still infested the air, eating tree bark and gnawing at anything gnawable.
Down the street was what looked like sewage and blood, ankle deep.
It was a crime against nature what had happened here. Wanton, senseless destruction, walls ripped down – not bombed or anything like that – just ripped down. Francine’s and Jean’s half was pretty well rubble but the gardener’s side still had that bed of Geneviève’s and the other bed of Ksenia’s.
They both looked at each other and then back at the relic of something now long gone.
Nikki’s birthplace was next, which Hugh had never seen and that was also near rubble, apart from corners where the floor remained partially intact, yet soggy. He caught his breath because in one corner of the downstairs were the remains of a soft toy, a bear.
Nikki was distraught but obviously she had far more visiting to do and she couldn’t take a soft bear with her.
Now came a tough one – the garage where Geneviève and Jean-Claude had passed on – he lifted the lid of the box and Jean-Claude … well … it might have been better not to have seen that.
He replaced the lid and they moved on to the English Chapel.
The name on the stone wall was still in place – the mob had neither erased it nor torn it off – Ksusha had been left alone.
The carpark was much the same, gravelled but no car had been that way in quite some time. She was clearly not there.
They went to the Farmhouse – rubble.
They moved to Melun.
Nikki’s parents’ house was not there, Thierry’s terrace house still was, largely intact but with no one in there.
They moved swiftly to Paris and Nikki had much visiting to do, he had Cafe Noir and his old flat, plus that of Genie.
Time for England.
His childhood haunts were sad testimony to the madness which had blighted the land and he didn’t dwell.
The cavern in Scotland – nothing much there.
Some of their old friends in Germany were next and here they struck gold. Pieter and his wife were still alive and still going about their routines. Both paused as if they sensed something and Nikki thought it best to move on, not to appear to them.
Then they decided to give it a try.
Slowly, at the fireplace, the ghosts appeared hazily and the two in the armchairs were frightened. ‘It’s Hugh and Nikki,’ said Hugh. ‘Nothing to be frightened of – we’d just like to thank you for everything. I know about Nicolette.’
‘Pieter, Helga, we are married, all is well, we have a child Jean-Baptiste. I owe you everything – nod if you can hear me and you understand.’
The old couple did, then looked at one another, asked, ‘Hugh, Nicolette?’ but Nikki said, ‘Sorry, we haven’t the power to remain any longer. Thanks again for what you did, for everything.’
Russia. Moscow Anna was no longer there but brother Vadik was and not so little either, lying around aimlessly, waiting for it all to end.
Shadzhara. He took in various parts and then another tough call – an elderly couple in Ksenia’s flat, still alive. The place was still spick and span and Ksenia would be grateful for that.
Anya’s home followed, he glanced about but it was long deserted, as was Viktor’s. Certainly nothing was moving in this ghost city now and thus no food, no greenhouses, no market gardens any more.
He wanted to see Anya’s grandparents’ dacha. It was overgrown and the house and verandah had rotted half away but the Table was still in place.
Australia. There were the plaques on the wall, there was the cross in the church garden, there were all the old haunts but a sense of urgency was now starting to creep up on both of them.
‘Just a few more. Where?’ he asked.
‘She’s alive, Nikki, I feel she’s still alive.’
Suddenly they were in the flagstoned area in front of the big house in Vincenza and there she was – sitting on a stone seat on the terrace. A sort of fine, sickly mist drifted down on her – she seemed oblivious – but it wasn’t rain, it was coloured yellowish brown and her feet were awash in the sludge.
She still wore her Prada flats, such as they were.
They concentrated and appeared, she looked at them both and if they’d expected shock or horror, they got only sorrowful eyes in return. She smiled weakly and spoke their names.
‘We’ve a short time only, love,’ he said. ‘It takes too much effort to stay visible. Tell us quickly where all the others are.’
‘Quickly?’ She just looked down at the slush, then up at them again. ‘Thanks for coming, Hugh and Nikki. It means more than you can know.’ She reached out both hands, they tried to take them, saw how weakened she’d become and now felt themselves fading.
‘We’ll see you when you get here,’ he reassured her. ‘It’s not a big deal, you know. Just believe and Gabriella will come for you. I love you.’
He wanted to check out the house and then wished he hadn’t. Anya’s mother and the rest of the Italian side of the family had passed on – it seemed over a period of a few weeks. Anya had done what she could and Nikki noted some grain left but that was all.
They felt themselves drawn away now, losing power and both knew it was over. As he took her hand, it slipped through his and it took effort on both their parts to give their hands substance.
They passed through dark emptiness, finding themselves back in a familiar place, recently familiar anyway.
‘Well,’ they looked at each other, as Gabriella appeared with Jean-Baptiste and Nikki took him back. ‘Well.’
Nikki began to fill Gabriella in on the day but she raised a hand. ‘I already know what you did. So, unless you’d like to talk through any of it, let’s move on. I shall be with your Anya at the end.’
They nodded gratefully and looked at one other but there was no great necessity to ask any more – it was all pretty well done now.
‘Then it’s time for you both to understand what is coming. You will move now to the next house and that, I’m afraid, is your contact with the temporal world over. It would be possible for you to revisit it if there were a world to visit but now we are coming to a point when grave matters are dealt with.
I’m sorry to say that you’ll begin to lose your necessity for each other. You will feel it for some time yet, because you have people to meet and to make your peace with in this house. Then you will move to the next house and so on but my task will have been completed within the next house. So see you there.’
She faded as she always did.