Symphony Angel gripped the wheel of the rental car as she drove through the violent storm. She was travelling to the regional tri-county airport in the state of Vermont, where she was due to rendezvous with a Spectrum Passenger Jet returning to Cloudbase. It wasn’t a long drive; however she was in unfamiliar territory and the lightning was playing havoc with the onboard GPS navigation system. She barely heard the soft strains of the jazz channel she had tuned into a while before, so focused was she with concentrating on the drive.
The electronic voice of the navigation system cut in and advised her to take the next two turns to the right. She peered out into the darkness but she couldn’t see any signs for the airport. Shrugging, she obeyed the suggestion and indicated to leave the main highway. At the intersection she turned right and onto a smaller country road. The headlights barely illuminated the tree-lined road ahead and the storm seemed to be worsening; the wiper-blades struggled to cope with the unrelenting volume of water that swept across the windshield.
As she continued on down this road, the realisation hit her that it was almost deserted. Not one car had passed her in the last ten minutes and she was sure that this close to the airport there would have been more traffic. She glanced at the console map and saw that the moving red dot representing her car was stationary.
Damn it, she thought. It seemed apparent that the navigation system had finally given up. And that last voice command had surely been incorrect, as she was obviously nowhere near the Tri-City airport. She sighed, knowing that she would have to turn back and retrace her steps. A mighty thunder-flash startled her for a brief second, illuminating the pelting rain outside. She continued on down the road, looking for a suitable spot to turn around when incredibly, she felt the car slow down. She stared at the speedometer, and although she was pressing as hard as she could on the accelerator, the needle was dropping inexorably.
What on earth?
She threw out a few choice oaths as nothing she did stopped the slow paralysis of the vehicle. This car has 200 miles on the clock, she thought disbelievingly, how can it possibly be breaking down?
As an afterthought, she pulled the wheel over to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road and onto the small verge at the edge of the tree line. As the car rolled quietly to a complete stop, she activated the parking brake and thumped the steering wheel in frustration. She tried to restart the engine, but to no avail. As she angrily flicked her fingers over the screen controls she couldn’t cajole anything from the onboard computer, no music, no navigation system, nothing. Everything was completely dead.
Symphony wished for a second that she could instantly transform into Melody. The black girl from Georgia wouldn’t have thought twice about rummaging under the hood of the Thunderbird to see if she could fix the problem. Symphony, despite being a consummate pilot, preferred to leave mechanics to those who knew better. She glanced at her watch, and was startled to note that the display had stopped. How very odd, she thought, and for the first time became concerned that she would miss her rendezvous with the SPJ. She pulled out her bag from the floor under the passenger seat and rummaged around for her Spectrum communicator. She flipped open the device to activate the signal.
There was no way the power could be dead on the device. But it was.
She picked up her cell-phone from the dashboard console and frowned. She was sure that she had switched it on when she got into the vehicle. But this screen was dead too. She pressed the on/off key several times but the screen remained obstinately blank.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” she cried, and threw the offending article on the passenger seat in dismay. She was sure the tiny power cell would have been fine as it had been replaced it only last week. She stared at the window and bit her lip apprehensively. What was she going to do now? Without the on-board computer, she wouldn’t be able to find the phone numbers of the nearest recovery companies. She glanced out at the curtain of water streaming down the windows and wondered how long it would be before the pilot of the SPJ would report her non-appearance and send someone looking for her. The lightning flashed again as she peered out of the windows. She squinted. Was that a light she saw to her right? She thought something had flickered in her vision. She put her face to the glass and peered through. Another flash of lightning expediently lit the landscape.
She hadn’t imagined it.
It was a house. It stood alone on a slight rise, and was framed by the open clearing in the woods. The bright light that had attracted her attention was from a top window. She judged that it was only a short distance walk from her car, so she made her mind up to ask the occupants if she could use their telephone. She would contact Lieutenant Green in Cloudbase, and no doubt he would sort out her predicament in his usual efficient manner.
Satisfied with this idea, she pushed open the door and hauled herself out into the dark night. She instantly had second thoughts as the rain stung her face with demoniacal ferocity and the wind whipped her perfect coiffure into a tangled mess. Gritting her teeth, she stumbled up onto the winding path towards the house. She pulled her jacket to protect her face from the fury of the lashing rain, all the while treading carefully across the sodden leaves and broken tree branches littering the ground. After what seemed like an eternity she reached the house. As she climbed the three steps to the wide porch, she realised she was utterly drenched through to her skin. Rivulets of water ran down her rain-plastered hair and dripped onto the porch.
Despite her discomfort, she couldn’t help noticing the structure of the house. It didn’t seem to fit the area. It was very tall, and ornate in style, not much like a farmhouse, which she supposed was the only type of dwelling out here in the sticks. It seemed ancient; the old wood with layers of peeling paint, and the shutters on the windows creaking and banging their protest at the wind’s attempts to haul them open from their hinges. A faint light issued through the shutters, so presumably someone was home.
She rapped the ornate brass knocker, and waited for an answer. No one came, so she rapped again. She shivered, uncomfortably aware of the sodden clothes clinging to every inch of her body. The temperature was dropping as she stood there, and she knew that if she didn’t get inside someplace warm very soon she would be in severe danger of hypothermia.
Still no one answered the door. Shivering and hugging herself to contain what little body warmth she had left, she crept around the porch to look around. The lightning flashed, making her jump, and illuminating the area for miles around. She thought she saw a number of mounds or bumps in the grass behind the house. They were an odd shape and something about them made her want to investigate, but try as she might, the rain and the cloud-filled black night obscured her vision. And it was hardly the thing to do on a stranger’s property in any case.
She turned around to walk back to the front of the house again, when a dark shape loomed up in front of her and a light dazzled her night-accustomed eyes.
“Omigod!” She screamed into the night, and her heart thumped painfully against her chest.
“I’m sorry,” a melodious male voice answered her. “Was it you who knocked at the door?”
“Y-yes. I’m sorry, you scared me.”
Then, as the man moved the light she caught the first sight of his face. Her hand flew to her mouth before she could stop it.
In the radiance of the oil lamp he carried aloft, she saw him smile with cracked lips. “You find me repulsive.” It was said as a statement, but she caught a touch of sadness behind the words.
She felt her face flush with the embarrassment, and yet spoke the lie anyway. “No, I-I- it’s just that…” She spread her hands, not trusting herself to speak further.
He nodded, as if understanding her discomfort. “It is a terrible night to be out. Are you here alone?”
Thankful for safer ground, she nodded her wet head. “Yes, my car broke down, over there.” She pointed back through the woods in the direction of the road. “I was hoping I might use your telephone?”
There was a note of regret in his voice. “Oh, I am sorry too. I cannot make any calls to the outside. I believe the storm must have pulled a line down.”
Symphony’s heart sank. “Oh no,” she muttered. “I was supposed to meet a flight in an hour.”
The old man made a sympathetic tutting sound. “But you cannot stand out here in this weather; you will most surely freeze to death. My house is warm. Please come in and get dry and partake of something to drink. Then perhaps when the storm abates we can find a way to resolve your problem.”
For a brief second, some odd notion took hold of her; that to set foot inside this place was a bad idea. And then she laughed inwardly at the thought. He’s got to be ninety plus and built like a stick insect. I could knock him down with my breath. She found her mouth uttering the words before her brain gave permission. “Thanks, I appreciate that very much.”
“Then come in,” he said, leading the way around the porch into the open front door.
As she entered the dim hallway, she was grateful to be out from the howl of the wind and the chill of the rain. She dragged the night in with her, sopping the wooden flooring. As he closed the door, she had an opportunity to study him in what light there was in the hall and her initial feelings of shock mellowed into pity. His skin, paper thin and stretched, was bleached, as if it had never seen the sun, and mottled with pale mauve patches. What little hair remained on the scabrous scalp was thin and pale. Only his eyes were striking. Two glowing orbs of jade green, and the irises a deep liquid black, fringed with long lashes. They were beautiful eyes, and looked grotesquely out of place on his visage. She also realised that there was something peculiar about the way he talked, very precise and proper, almost as if he belonged in another age, just like his house.
“Ah,” he said, and shook his head. “You must get out of these wet clothes, or you will catch a chill.” He shuffled across the hallway and beckoned into a side room. “Please, come in here to the parlour. I have a fire going and you can warm yourself while I find you some clothes to wear.”
“Oh-r-really, -I-I can’t p-put you t-to any t-t-trouble,” Symphony protested, her teeth chattering with the sudden change in temperature.
“Shhh,” he said in that mellifluous voice. “I will not hear of any arguments. You seem to be a sensible young woman, and it would be hardly sensible to remain in these sodden garments, would it?”
Symphony sighed and obeyed his entreaty, increasingly desperate to shed her wet clinging jacket, blouse and trousers. She entered the room and all at once felt like she had stepped into another time and place, in an older bygone age.
“Now, warm yourself by the fire and I shall only be a moment.”
“Thanks,” she replied. When he had departed, she took advantage of his absence to study the room more closely. Curiously, there seemed to be no electric light; the illumination was provided solely by several oil lamps placed around the room, and from the crackling log fire in the huge fireplace. She had to admit the sepia toned and mellow light suited the place. Redolent odours assailed her nostrils: old leather, lavender, musk and violets. Their cloying sweetness was almost too much, making her feel slightly giddy. As she absently ran her fingers down the fabric of a chair and the long swathe of a drape, she realised that what had obviously once been luxurious, was now faded and threadbare with great age. She closed her eyes for a moment, almost seeing the people dressed in the attire of the times, moving about this room. Wrapped up in her musings, his voice startled her.
“Here you are.”
She spun around to find him standing behind her, proffering some clothes in one hand, and a large towel in the other. She had been so pre-occupied she hadn’t heard him come back into the room
“Thanks,” she said, grabbing the items from him and feeling her face flush. Really Karen, stop behaving like an idiot.
“I will leave you once again so you can dress. Will ten minutes be enough for you?”
“Sure, more than enough.”
“Excellent. And then, you must have something to eat and drink.”
She shook her head. “No honestly, I meant what I said about putting you to any trouble.”
“Oh, it is no trouble, no trouble at all.”
And he closed the door behind him, once again.
Symphony darted across to the door and looked through the large keyhole. There was no one in the hallway. She straightened, feeling a trifle foolish. However, she moved to the side of the door so that she was out of view of the keyhole, and swiftly removed her wet clothes. After rubbing herself down briskly with the towel, she wrapped it around her body to look at what he had given her to wear. It was a dress; about ankle length and the fabric made of fine silk. Delicate filigree lace lined the bodice and the long sleeves. It looked like it could have been worn by one of the original occupants of this house. She dropped the towel, pulled it over her head and smoothed the fabric with her hands. She was amazed at how well it fitted. It was just a little tight over her breasts, but otherwise, it was perfect. In it, she felt like some bygone aristocrat. She wished she could see what she looked like, but all of a sudden realised that there were no mirrors anywhere in the room. Then on reflection, she admitted that perhaps the old gentleman did not wish to be reminded of his vanished youth.
A tapping on the door made her jump.
“Is it suitable for me to enter?” came the muffled voice outside the door.
“Yes, it’s okay, come on in.”
He shambled into the room with a large tray in his hands and she could see his green eyes light up with pleasure when he saw her standing there in the dress.
“It’s such a lovely dress. To whom did it belong?” she asked him.
“To a very beautiful woman,” he replied, and bowed his head a fraction at a memory. “Much like you,” he added, and Symphony blushed. His eyes flicked upward. “Oh, I did not mean to embarrass you. It is just that you grace it quite perfectly.”
Symphony shook her head, mumbling, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” He smiled and placed the tray on the table. Then he shook his head as if remonstrating with himself.
“I have been terribly rude, in our haste to get you comfortable. We have not yet made our introductions. My name is Eli. And what do you call yourself?”
He of course expected her to reply in return, but for a second, something inside Symphony screamed silently. She saw his eyes bore into her, and she felt impelled to say that which she did not wish to disclose, as if by knowing her name she surrendered to him some private part of herself.
“Karen,” he echoed, rolling the word around in his chocolate voice as if he took pleasure in the action. “That is a very pretty name.”
“Thanks.” She spread her hands to change the subject. “This house is very old, and incredibly beautiful. How long have you lived here?”
He was busy opening the bottle of wine that he had brought in on the tray. It was dusty with age. “Ah, for so long my memory betrays me.” The cork came out from the bottle with a sucking sound, as if reluctant to be parted from its companion after all this time. Eli poured some of the purple-red liquid into a thin crystal goblet, and handed it to Symphony
“Drink this. It’s very old, and quite excellent. It will return the warmth back to your spirit.”
She took the goblet from him and watched as he poured a second for himself. Symphony swirled the wine in the glass, seeing the tints flare crimson in the lamplight. “I really shouldn’t, I may have to drive.”
He looked downcast. “Please, it is quite a while since I have had company and I think it will be a while before you can get back into your car. The phone lines are still down after all and the storm still rages.”
“Of course,” she agreed. She tipped the goblet in his direction. “Well, good health then.”
He nodded in satisfaction and lifted his own glass in a salute to her. Then he took a deep mouthful, closing his eyes and rolling the liquid around his mouth in evident pleasure.
Symphony took a sip. It was indeed wonderful, tasting of wood, and earth, and cherries and blackcurrants wrapped in velvet, and something else she couldn’t put her finger on.
After a few more sips, Eli said, “I hope you do not mind, but I have a small request to make of you before we eat.”
She nodded uncertainly, being unable to imagine what such a request might be.
“I am a sculptor, and I do not get much opportunity to show my work. I would be delighted if you would do me the honour of viewing my pieces?”
Symphony thought it an odd request, but she accepted that it would sound ungrateful to say no. She nodded again.
He smiled. “Excellent. I keep them in the attic, so we have to climb a few stairs, therefore do take care as they are quite steep.”
He picked up one of the oil lamps from the table and ushered her out of the room and down the corridor. Symphony lifted the hem of the dress so as not to trip over it, and the old wooden staircase creaked under their footsteps. The stairwell was in darkness save for the light of the lamp, which cast looming shadows on the walls. It narrowed as they climbed, and at the top of the last step was the door to the attic room.
For some inexplicable reason, Symphony felt the hairs on her neck rise as she approached it. A stray cobweb brushed her face as she took another creaking step. She jumped with fright, and then stopped for a second to remove it. She swallowed hard, feeling ridiculous at her sudden edginess.
Eli gently opened the door, and it gave way with a long creak. Symphony followed him into the attic room. It was so steeply pitched under the gables that she had to bow her head as she entered. She scanned the room, seeing the same faded glory evident downstairs. There was little furniture, save a couple of damask covered chairs and a heavy, ornately carved mahogany table in the centre of the small room. He placed the oil lamp on the end of this table and moved away from it.
She gasped as her eyes were inexorably drawn to the sculptures that he had spoken of. There were seven of them, arranged in two rows, in order that each one could be seen from any position in the room. Seven beautifully carved heads of young men and women, each swell and curve of the features and hair rendered with such precise detail and clarity that they seemed somehow to be as real as life.
“Oh my God,” she said, taking a deep breath. “These are absolutely incredible.”
With rapt fascination, she moved closer in order to study them. The old man remained standing aside, watching her reaction with evident pleasure.
“What are they made of?”
“Clay. Such a simple material, but to those with the ability, it can offer beauty far in excess of its inanimate substance.”
And yet, as she studied them, and about to tentatively stroke the cool surface of one with her fingers, a feeling akin to revulsion stole over her. She pulled her hand back. For all their beauty, there was something disconcerting about these pale renderings of flesh. For each one seemed possessed of a peculiar radiance, as if they were somehow lit from within. The eye sockets, although bare and formless, and the curved cheeks, all glowed with a knowing translucence.
She shook her head in undisguised admiration. “Well, I’ve never seen anything quite like these in my entire life. They truly are…exquisite. How on earth did you do that?”
“Make the statues glow like that, make the clay look like it was real flesh?”
He gave a modest bow and his eyes glittered. “Oh, that is my secret. But I would not be too immodest if I said it was a gift, my talent as it were.”
“But I don’t understand… Why do you keep them locked away up here in this attic? You would realise a fortune if you sold these at an art emporium in any of the big cities.”
“Ah, I have no need nor want of money. I have everything I need in this house.” He spread his arms in an expansive gesture and inclined his head politely in affirmation of her effuse praise.
He moved across and again picked up the lamp. “I am pleased that you find them beautiful. And now, we shall eat, as I promised you.”
He closed the door once again and led the way back to his parlour room. He motioned her to the table with its two mahogany carver chairs at either end. “Come, sit down. I only have some cold meats and vegetables, but it will keep the wolf from the door as it were.”
She moved across to the table and sat down in one of the chairs. “No, I’m sure it will be wonderful, you really are too kind.”
“Ah no, it is you who are kind in indulging me with your presence. It is so rare that I enjoy company at dinner. And I know you wish to return for your rendezvous, but for me, this is a delightful interlude. And to have such a pretty guest makes it twice as delightful.”
Symphony blushed and caught his eyes, and was unnerved by the curious change of expression that she saw there. He was looking at her as if he saw something within and beyond her, and all at once she felt an unaccountable impulse to flee this house, with its strange occupant and faintly sinister sculptures. Then he was smiling as he poured her more wine and her rational mind whispered that she was behaving like a child. She pushed the feeling away.
As he passed her the china plate she realised that she was starving, and she attacked the food with eagerness. She noted however that he barely picked at his plate, although he did continue to sip at his wine. For a short time there was silence as they ate. It was punctuated only by the crackle and hiss of the burning logs in the fireplace, and the loud repetitive ticking of the massive grandfather clock, standing like a dark sentinel in one corner of the room. The oil lamps sent flickering shadows playing across Eli’s face, deepening the gaunt hollows so he seemed even more of a parody of a human being. She wondered how old he really was. How strange that he should want to remain in this old house alone, with so few modern comforts, with only his beautiful but haunting statues for company.
After they had finished the meal, Symphony felt unaccountably drowsy, lulled by the warmth of the fire and no doubt, by the wine. She yawned. The clock struck the hour and the sound issuing from it was deep and sonorous, with a strange cadence such that she felt as much as heard it. She glanced at it and said, “Goodness, it’s late, I don’t want to keep you up.”
He didn’t answer her. She felt her heart skip a beat and glanced at him. What she saw this time made her throat constrict. The expression on his face was the same, and yet, it wasn’t. And when he spoke again, the melodious voice was now laced with unctuousness, “Oh my dear, you do not keep me up, for I rarely sleep.”
Symphony tried to rise from the chair, but suddenly found she was unable to do so. Her arms and legs would not obey any of her mental commands, as if the neurons had stopped communicating with one another. Her brain felt numb; she found difficulty in framing thoughts or words, even simple ones, and for one awful moment she was even afraid that she was unable to breathe.
My God, the wine! Have I been drugged?
And yet, that made no sense, for he had been drinking it too. So what was happening to her?
She watched, unable to move, as he stood up from his chair and shuffled across to a huge sideboard. He opened one of the doors and pulled out a large wooden board. On returning to the table he placed it down and removed the damask cloth to reveal a large lump of clay. He stroked it gently and whispered, “Ah, the clay the clay, so full of promise. That something so inert can be made sentient with the breath of life.”
Unease prickled its way down Symphony’s spine as she watched him stroke the material like a lover caressing the skin of his beloved. There was something wholly obscene about the action. Fear bubbled up inside her, and the sense of impending danger became tangible.
“You’re going to make one of your sculptures now?” she babbled.
He stopped stroking the white lump and looked up to meet her frantic eyes.
“Of you, my dear. I’m going to create you.”
His eyes glittered with an unholy light and he drew his tongue over dry lips as if she had suddenly become a tasty morsel that he wanted to devour. “To be created anew, as an immortal. To leave behind the prison of your future and to remain forever in perfection.”
He picked up a strand of her blonde hair, letting it fall through his fingers. Her mind shrank back from the caress, but her body refused to follow, being held in place by an invisible force. She stared at him. His words made no sense, but each uttered syllable filled her with a dread that clutched her heart and congealed the very blood in her veins. She thought of all those heads in the attic, and a shiver of terror prickled from her scalp to her feet.
“You see my dear, your ravishing beauty will fade, as surely as the seasons turn, year by year, until they are a distant memory. This way, your loveliness shall be cherished, personified and immortalized for eternity.”
He began to stroke and mould the clay. And as he did so, he hummed, a little off-key. Symphony tried once again to move, but she felt stupefied, as if she was trapped in some dreamful state. She could only sit, immobile, and watch in morbid fascination as his gnarled fingers shaped the material into the shape of a head. Her head. Little by little, as the form of her likeness took root in the wet clay, Symphony began to feel a pull within her flesh, like a swirling current gently rising from the centre of her being.
He continued to shape the structure of the face, fingers lovingly stroking out each strand of her hair in the clay. And the current within her swirled faster, being pulled to the surface, and in opposition, was replaced by a chill darkness that leached into her very bones. And with every stroke and pinch of his gnarled fingers, she felt her strength seep away.
And as the girl’s beauty ebbed, like a dying sun, so it was transferred to the clay beneath the fingers of the old man. The bloom began to appear on the smooth cheeks, as if blood was being drawn from those fingertips into invisible veins. The clay began to glow, just as the skin of poor Symphony became dull and shrivelled. It was as if her very essence was being pulled out by some invisible force and feeding the monstrous power of the hideous creature who moulded the clay.
“Why – are – doing – this?” she asked and she heard her voice, cracked like old varnish on an oil painting.
“It’s my obligation – I must. And now you must be silent, for the end is near.”
If there had been an observer in the room, he or she would have seen Symphony’s body age in front of their eyes, her youth and beauty drawn out to create the splendour of the sculpture. Symphony strained her frail neck and uttered a pitiful cry as the saw the withered hands resting on the silk dress. And as she also knew that her face, if she were to see it in the mirror, would be ruined. Her weak cry was as a child’s, full of terror and loss. She knew now that her fate was to die, for she could feel her life force slipping away, like water through fingers, and she was helpless to stop it.
And then, with a sudden jolt of reality, the doorknocker banged violently.
Eli’s fingers stopped in mid-stroke, his head jerked up and he looked to the doorway. “Quiet,” he said to his captive in a sibilant whisper, a warning glance in his eyes.
There was further insistent knocking, and male voices could be heard at the front door.
And surely, by all things wonderful, she recognised both of those voices. And one in particular that filled her heart with frightful hope and a bitter joy. Symphony’s thoughts fluttered as a nightingale trapped in a cage. Pitifully weak, but with a strength borne of desperation she cried out.
But by that effort the remainder of her strength was exhausted and she slumped back against the chair. And then there was a dread silence.
Dark, dismal despair claimed her. Her would-be rescuers had not heard her plea for help and she was going to die here, in this despicable place, with this hateful creature draining her spirit for his macabre ends. Eli, hearing no further noise, went back to complete his horrific task.
And then, all at once, the sound of creaking and splintering wood punctuated the oppressive silence, as the front door gave way to superior force. The old man stopped again, his eyes glowering, and a hint of uncertainty on his face. His sanctuary had been breached.
He moved towards the girl, when all at once the drawing room door crashed open with resounding force…and two wet colourfully clad figures burst into the room…
Symphony’s voice was barely audible. “Adam…” she slurred, and grasped the air with her withered claw.
Captain Blue shrank back involuntarily from the appendage and stared, aghast with horror. His eyes darted from the old crone in the chair, to the equally ancient old man, hovering over the statue he was moulding which, unbelievingly, bore the likeness of Symphony Angel.
Blue turned to Captain Scarlet, who stood shaking his head at the scene. He seemed equally unable to come to terms with what it represented.
“It’s me…Karen,” the crone murmured in a pleading voice, and Blue watched in morbid fascination as a single tear rolled down the seamed cheeks, and with that effort being too much, her head slumped back onto the chair.
Blue’s mind rebelled. This – this thing was Karen? No – no!
He felt sick to his stomach. This was a nightmare beyond imagining. Her face, her skin, so vibrant in youth, was now ravaged by hideous decrepitude. But then, Blue realised, deep in his soul, that she spoke the truth. He felt Symphony’s spirit, worn and diminished as it was, cry out to his own, and consuming rage overtook his horror. He turned and faced the old man, the force of his emotion rolling across his face like a violent thunderstorm.
“What in God’s name have you done to her?”
Eli’s lips curved in a sneer. “Ah, she is precious to you…”
Blue moved menacingly towards him. “More than you’ll ever know, you sick pervert! I don’t understand any of this, but by God’s name I’ll send you back to whatever hell you came from!”
He grabbed the olds man’s neck with his large hands; the latter did not struggle to break free, but held Blue’s eyes with an unblinking stare. The sneer remained on the lips as he spoke.
“Neither Heaven or Hell has any dominion over me.”
Eli’s green eyes bored into his and Blue felt an uncertain fear well up in him. But his love for the Angel and his overwhelming desire for revenge conquered that fear and he squeezed his fingers tighter round the scrawny flesh, feeling for the nerve endings.
“Maybe so, but if you don’t return her back to the way she was, I’ll throttle you where you stand.”
The words were dragged out between Eli’s lips, slowly turning bluish as the oxygen was starved from his lungs. “I – have never – done such a thing…”
The answer did not impress the blond captain and his strong hands pressed harder. A rattling sound issued from Eli’s throat as the life force was squeezed out of him.
“Captain Blue, no!” Scarlet cried, moving forward at last, and grabbing Blue’s arm. “This – creature has done something awful to Symphony, but killing him won’t help matters!”
Blue grit his teeth in fury and hissed, “You just heard him, he can’t do anything! But he’ll pay for what he’s already done!”
“I know you’re upset. But you still can’t do it. You’ll be court-martialled. And I can’t let that happen to you.”
“What would you do if this was Rhapsody sitting here?”
Scarlet’s face darkened. “I’d feel the same way about it, as well you know. But my answer would still be the same.”
The anger in Blue’s eyes did not dim, but he let Eli go, and the old man hunched himself over the sculpture, rubbing his scrawny neck where Blue’s fingers had left red welts. He studied the two newcomers with a guarded expression.
Blue had moved across to Symphony who had watched the scene with haunted eyes. He knelt in front of her and took one of her ruined hands in his own. Eli’s eyes narrowed and he leered. “You are lovers, of course. How incredible that you found her. You must indeed share a special bond. It is such a pity that you cannot be together for eternity.”
Blue turned and bestowed him a glare that by rights should have killed him on the spot. Scarlet shushed him, knowing that the shock of what had happened had fractured Blue’s normally calm and taciturn exterior. He turned back to the strange old man.
“This girl is our friend. I don’t know how you did this dreadful thing to her…but we want her youth restored. There must be some way.”
“As I have said, I have never tried.”
Scarlet’s eyes narrowed. “Try. Or maybe I’ll have second thoughts about saving you from my friend here.”
Eli looked back to Blue, who still stared at him with hard eyes.
He shrugged. “The possibility is there. It requires a sacrifice however.”
“And that is?” Scarlet demanded.
“Her life spirit must be exchanged for that of another.”
“What do you mean by that, exactly?”
“The life spirit will be transferred from the clay to the girl through the vessel of the other. And then their spirit becomes forfeit, for the clay.”
Blue retorted, “ Surely you can’t trust him!”
Eli shook his head. “You may try again to kill me, but I speak the truth, and it is not certain to succeed. But the choice is yours to make. Are you willing to sacrifice your youth for that of your beloved?”
Blue was astounded. “Choice? You call that a choice?”
The sculptor shrugged, the expression on the face declaring that this was his final say on the subject.
A wild idea sprang into Scarlet’s mind. “I’m willing to trade my life and soul as forfeit for that of the girl’s,” he said.
Blue turned on him. “Paul, are you crazy? You can’t possibly agree to anything this madman is suggesting!”
Scarlet waved his protestations away. “Trust me on this Adam, please?”
“Paul…you can’t,” croaked Symphony, leaning forward in her chair. Further words proved too much for her but she pleaded with the Englishman with her eyes.
He smiled. “I don’t want to hear any further arguments about it. All right?”
Both Captain Blue and Symphony Angel nodded, acquiescing to the self-assurance of their colleague.
Eli stayed silent at this interchange, merely regarding them all quizzically with his knowing eyes. For to him, it mattered not which man took the place of the girl. For both were strong handsome and vital specimens, and either would be a worthy exchange for the female. That was, indeed, if it would work. For he had never envisaged such a process, far less executed it. However, it would be a… challenge.
“So, what do I have to do?” asked Scarlet of the old man.
“You must sit here.” He motioned to the chair he dragged from the other side of the table to place beside Symphony. Scarlet did as he asked.
“And now you must take the girl’s hand in your own.”
Scarlet reached out to grasp Symphony’s left hand, and as his fingers clasped her crooked gnarled ones, he gave her a reassuring smile. The Angel blinked away a tear, and looked pitifully at Captain Blue, who still knelt at her other side with a pained expression on his features. Scarlet nodded at Blue and the latter exhaled, and let go Symphony’s hand. He stood up and moved away from the seated pair.
Scarlet had been through all manner of trials and tribulations in his career, but of them all, this surely had to be one of the strangest he had ever faced.
“Well, old man,” he said jauntily, “why don’t we get on with this, if indeed you are capable of reversing this process?”
“Do not be so much of a hurry to die,” the sculptor responded, but in spite of himself he was impressed at the aura of calm self-assurance radiating from this handsome young stranger. Scarlet’s blue eyes stared unwaveringly at the sculptor with a coolness verging on contempt. That was indeed most impressive, Eli thought, considering he knew in advance of his doom. Ah… indeed, the clay would respond mightily to this epitome of maleness. And yet, there was a core of steel about this one that unsettled him oddly, a feeling that he had never quite experienced in his long life. Could that be an icy sliver of fear slicing through his insides? Absurdly, he felt more alive than he had experienced for a long, long while.
“And so, it begins…” he intoned in a voice that seemed to echo down the corridors of time.
A heavy oppression descended on the room, as Eli’s hands grasped hold of the sculptured likeness of Symphony. He pulled at the white clay; squashing the firm nose, the fine lips, the exquisite tresses, all back into the mass of the material. Blue gasped, hardly able to trust what his eyes beheld, and yet, as the form of the sculpture diminished, so did the lines on the face of his beloved Angel. The process of decay reversed before his very eyes. And, as the bloom of youth once again took its rightful place on Symphony’s face and body, he squeezed back the tears of relief that had gathered behind his eyes.
The sculptor Eli bowed his head, as if requiring a respite from his exertions.
“And so, it is done,” he said in a whisper.
Scarlet gently squeezed Symphony’s hand. It was once again soft and flawless. With her other, she touched her face in trepidation. There was only smooth skin beneath her exploring fingers. And with the rapid return of her strength, the dam of her emotions burst open after her terrible ordeal, and she collapsed sobbing in the chair. Just as Scarlet was about to comfort her, Blue flew to her side, equally overcome, and pulled her up into his arms.
“It’s okay, you’re okay now.” As she leant into his strength, she cried silently into his shoulder. Blue looked grimly at Scarlet, but he and the old man had locked eyes once again.
“No – no,” Symphony gasped, as she knew what the fate of the brave captain would be.
“And now, you shall keep your promise,” Eli said, and began to remould the clay. The amorphous head began to take the shape of a man’s, that of the dark-haired captain. Then, as the features were formed, he began the process to draw out Scarlet’s essence and bind it into the sculpture. Endless minutes ticked by and Symphony and Blue clutched one another in trepidation.
Symphony stifled a sob, as she saw Scarlet’s face pale, dark lines appearing on his skin. The old man smiled evilly as the sculpture started to glow faintly with the spirit of his sitter. Scarlet felt his life current swell, making his head spin as if with extreme vertigo. And then, as his own miraculous powers of rejuvenation came to the fore, he could feel his essence pull back against the tide and the watchers saw the lines on his skin retreating.
The old man frowned, as if disturbed by this untoward dislocation of events. The frown deepened as he drew on his inner power. The girl had been strong; unusual in both one so young and female, but the man, he throbbed with a life force so strong. He had never before encountered one such as him. Eli was spurred on, exhilarated by the knowledge that this would be his finest artwork yet, the culmination of his existence.
His hands manipulated the clay ever faster; summoning whatever dark forces he was in thrall to, in order to draw out Captain Scarlet’s essence. But, equally potent, the uncanny power of retro-metabolism restrained the forces of decay spawned by that of the sculptor. Scarlet felt his life force ebb and flow, as if it was caught in some ferocious whirlpool. Perspiration burst out from every pore of his body, to stand like cold pearls upon his forehead.
Eli began to feel a frantic terror amid the strains of his efforts and Blue could see the strange desperation dawning on that cadaverous face. The motions of his hands around the clay became ever more feeble, and it was becoming apparent that the battle was turning in Scarlet’s favour. Eli gave a short cry, as if realising this, and yet, he had only to remove his hands from the clay to end his predicament. But that seemed to be impossible, for it was as if there was some unholy tether between Scarlet’s life essence and the fingers of the sculptor.
And as the three of them watched with mounting horror, an indescribable change came over the sculptor. The body began to shrink, and wither and crackle, the life essence being sucked into some unknowable vortex, created by those shaking hands which were unable to prise themselves from the clay.
Eli began to tremble, as if imbued with some awful ague. The keening wail issuing from the ghastly mouth split their ears. And the body of the sculptor decayed, the pale monstrous face dissolving into itself. Only the eyes remained the same, to the last, glowering in frightened anger.
Despite the dreadful scene Blue couldn’t help hear an absurd phrase echo around in his head: “I’m melting, I’m melting!”
And before their astounded eyes, there remained nothing to show for the creature’s passing but a pile of dull ash, as if the body had been cremated. And in the air, hanging like some dreadful miasma, was a loathsome odour, like that of a corpse, laid too long in the ground, which had been exhumed and exposed to the air.
“That stench!” Blue gagged, his hand flying to his face to evade the putrescent smell.
Scarlet sagged in the chair, exhausted by his ordeal. The others rushed to his side, Symphony almost embracing him in her relief at his escape.
“Good God, what was that... thing?” Blue said, exhaling slowly.
Scarlet shook his head, as yet unable to form any words.
Symphony whispered, “I can’t believe you found me before…” Blue saw her bite her bottom lip to halt any further show of emotion.
“We found the car in the woods and Adam had a... premonition,” Scarlet said at last.
Symphony’s hand flew to her mouth as she remembered something. “At the back of this house, I saw some strange mounds in the grass…” she trailed off, the horror gripping her heart with an icy chill, for she knew now, with certainty, what they were.
Blue watched her stricken expression, and squeezed her shoulder. “Wait here, I’ll take a look.”
Symphony moved to Scarlet and took his hand, tilting her head to look at her saviour. She noted that his face was pale and drawn but that slowly, the colour was beginning to return to his cheeks.
“How did you know…?” she started to say.
“That my retro-metabolism would work?” He smiled. “I wasn’t sure that it would, but I knew it was worth trying.”
Symphony said nothing, but the look in her eyes told him everything.
After a companionable silence, Blue returned to the room, a look of revulsion on his face. “I found a spade out at the back, and dug into one of those mounds. They’re graves. Seven of them.”
“What did you find… in them?” Symphony uttered in a quiet whisper, already knowing the answer but hardly daring to believe in it.
Blue nodded. “A body, of an old woman. I imagine if we dig the rest up, we’ll find more of the same.”
Symphony shook her head. “I think they were probably all young people, just like me. But all of them were subjected to the same fate as I was, except, they didn’t have an indestructible man to rescue them.” She stood up suddenly. “In the attic…you must go and look…it’s obscene.”
She led the way up the dark stairs, all the while gripping Blue’s hand tightly. And when they entered the attic Symphony uttered a short cry of fright.
On each and every one of the sculpted heads, the light within had died, leaving only a ghostly imprint of what had once been there, yet this time, the lips on each, were curved in a gentle smile, as if each of these tortured souls had been released and set free following the demise of the creature who had trapped them so cruelly.
As always, the characters from the TV series: “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, are the property of the companies that own the rights to the series. May they forgive me for any liberties I have taken with their wonderful heroes and heroines!
Any other characters and places therein are a product of my own fevered imagination.
And to the following people, without whose patience and enthusiasm and beta-reading skills I would surely fall short of my writing goals and aspirations, Chris Bishop and Marion Woods. Thanks once again ladies!
And a Scary Halloween to all!
Caroline Smith 2004
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