How do you stop the heart of a thing that is heartless?
|It was four in the morning, and the gibbous moon was falling through the wind-wracked clouds like a dead thing when Richmond braked his Pierce Arrow to a hard stop before the steps of Hammond Hall.
"As here the trail started, so here now it ends!" my friend exclaimed as he lighted with alacrity onto the gravel drive. "Note the wisteria," he added, pointing to the twisted thing that gripped the corner of the manor's north wing.
"Does it signify?" I asked.
"Havilland's cryptic clue?" he barked. He quoted from our late friend's final, frantic letter: "In the Orient's wistful grip, there seek Siva's cold, dead heart." He leaped up the stone steps to the front door, and pushed it open without bothering with the bell.
The marble floor beyond echoed with the click of our heels as we strode in. We had seen lights through the windows as we swung toward the Hall, so we were not surprised when the butler appeared in full dress. From the passageway leading to the north wing, I noted. "Er, Your Lordship," he croaked at my friend.
"Yes, good evening, Fallow," the earl courteously replied, even as he brushed past. "Your mistress."
"—in the library? Thank you. No need to announce us. I half-expect she is half-expecting us already."
I gave the aged retainer, who stared as the earl swept ahead, an apologetic half smile, but said nothing as I followed.
Elisabeth Trelawney, late of the Church of Rome and presently—as our investigations in Sussex had uncovered—of the Church of Satan, met us in the double-wide doorway of the library. She was dressed in a robe of blood-red hue that fell over her fingertips but fell short of her calves. The pentagrams embroidered at the shoulders, though repulsive, were merely decorative, and the really vile thing, I instinctively felt, were the rings of silver that twined her bare ankles, and the black polish that adorned the nails of her stubby toes.
"Your Lordship!" she murmured at the earl. Her tone was polite, but her smile was smug and knowing. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this late but not unwelcome visit?"
My friend's smile was thin, and frost might have formed on his brow.
"A brave front, Miss Trelawney," he boomed in reply, "but I doubt our appearance is 'not unwelcome'."
"On the contrary." Our hostess's voice fairly bubbled with malicious pleasure. "I would have been disappointed if you hadn't come!"
She stepped aside and let us enter the library.
It was much as I remembered it from our first visit. Tall windows looking onto the north lawn; the rest of the room crowded with a warren of bookcases. But the tables at the center had been cleared away, and now there stood in their place a circle of six chairs.
I stopped short when I saw who was seated there, staring back at us with haggard eyes.
Mitford. Sullivan. Cayce. And Havilland.
Our friends, all of whom we had thought dead. All of whom now stared at Richmond and I as though they wished they were. "Good God!" I heard my friend mutter.
Two chairs were empty, and the devilish priestess gestured at them. "Your places are prepared, gentlemen," she said. "Take them up."
"I'll be damned in my grave first!" Richmond replied in a choking voice.
"Would you not prefer to see me there?" She drew from a secret pocket in her robe a long silver knife and presented it hilt-first to my friend. "I believe this is your choice of weapon."
I was fairly staggered. The Dagger of Tanith! My eyes darted to Cayce who, on taking it from the museum, had sworn to plunge it into the breast of whatever beast he found at the center of the Baphomet cult, plucking its strings. How far had he failed, to fall under its sway and tutelage instead!
"You tempt me to murder?" I heard Richmond say.
"I tempt you to fulfill your destiny."
As a snake mesmerizes a bird, so she turned her lidless eyes up at him. I felt myself almost maddened with fury.
But Richmond must have seen and felt worse. That, or some secret goad that passed from her to him caused him to seize the knife from her and plunge it up to its hilt into her breastbone. A foul smell of brine suddenly pervaded the air.
I started in shock, but the girl only shuddered a little, then smiled.
"And so it is done," she said, and she parted the folds of her robe, exposing a pair of snowy breasts. She slid the blade out from between them, exposing a black wound. "Drink now, and join us," she told the earl.
And to my horror, he sank wordlessly to his knees and put his lips to the dribbling wound.
My head fairly spun as the mystery was laid bare. Vampirism atop devil worship! The ensnarement of her enemies' souls in a web of sin, followed by the hypnotic enslavement of their bodily will! I was nearly faint with the panicked desire to flee.
"Come, Rogers," the girl said, and turned her dreamy smile upon me. She held out the knife. "I would have had you first. But to take you last is almost as great a reward!"
I fumbled at the blade with numb hands, and tried to dodge her serpent-like gaze. Still, I thought, there is some last riddle to penetrate!
I saw it when my eyes fell on the Book of Siva, resting open on the lectern, at the same moment I was sharply stung again by the scent of salt water. Water where there should be blood! Havilland had warned. Meaning—a phylactery!
I gripped the knife, and with a quick turn plunged it into the heart of the book.
The ink flushed crimson and ran like liquid. Elisabeth Trelawney shrieked and fell to her knees.
The Destroyer at last destroyed!
Submitted for "The Writer's Cramp" for 3-30-21
Prompt: Use trail, red, wisteria, ink, brine