Description: “You saw the winged men – we did what we could. But mortals are fragile and the Opposition are not. I am not justifying what we have done, only explaining why we need a Treaty.” – Gabriel
“Drowning’s all fine and well, but it’s a grand day for a hanging!” – Belloq
“And here I am, older than the world, transfixed by a dream and brought to this low state by a being whose very existence is but a speck of dust on the glassy surface of eternity.” – James
The battle for the future of humanity has been raging for millennia.
A race of almost divine immortals, the beings identified as the Angels, Demons, Gods and Monsters of human legend, have laid aside their eternal conflict and formed an uneasy truce.
On one side are The Protectorate.
On the other, The Opposition.
The truce can only be upheld while the treaty agreed by both sides is held inviolate: There shall be no direct interference in the affairs of mortals unless they pose a threat to the supernatural world beyond the veil of mortality.
Not everyone wants the treaty to stand.
When James, performing his duty as an officer of the Protectorate, is sent to investigate the possible unearthly abilities of a mortal girl, something extraordinary happens – something for which he and his immortal companions are utterly unprepared.
Someone is manipulating James’ actions. And James is one of The First – in possession of The Name.
The Name which holds the power of creation.
The Name which holds the power to end everything.
The grandfather clock in the corner didn’t care that Annie Hopkins could talk to the dead. It was content to count away the last few minutes of her life, just as it had counted away the last of her father’s. A quarter to four. Only fifteen minutes left.
Annie sat in her usual position in the front room, her back to the heavily draped window and facing the door. Her grey hair was immaculately styled and her plain black dress disguised her bulk as well as it could. Under the table, she’d taken her shoes off and she fought an urge to rub her aching feet.
The large circular table in front of her shone with a deep gloss, reflecting the light of the five electric candles positioned strategically around the room to give the best balance of light and atmosphere. On the mantelpiece, beneath an ornate oval mirror, four sandalwood incense sticks smouldered. She closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, preparing herself for the sitting.
The five people completing the rough circle around the table had filed in solemnly, as countless others had before them, stating their names quietly. This was the largest sitting she’d taken in months. Annie appraised them briefly, starting from her left.
Eric; portly, early seventies, his jovial face lined with care, watery eyes peering from behind thick glasses. His dark brown cardigan had seen better days and was badly in need of ironing. Probably expecting to contact his wife. He was very quiet – his type usually chattered nervously.
Jessica; tall, rake thin, late sixties, severe. Her hair was drawn back in an old-fashioned bun. Most likely looking for her husband – probably to tell him off about something, judging by the intense nature of her gaze.
Her eyes slid over James – he was a tricky one – she’d come back to him.
Alice was next; mid-forties, pretty, slim, dark, eyes full of hopeful longing. Looking for her mother, Annie thought. As she watched, the woman’s lip trembled. Definitely her mother.
Graham; mid-fifties, sceptical, self-assured. He was probably here with Alice, judging by the furtive looks he kept casting in her direction.
Annie smiled gently and glanced back to the centre. James, mid-twenties, raven haired, pale, his dark eyes never leaving her face. Definitely sceptical, most likely a student of some kind, judging by the rumpled leather jacket. She thought for a moment. Unlikely to be here to speak to anyone – except Annie herself.
The atmosphere in the room was dominated by the relentless counting of the clock. As a girl, sitting in this very room, the thing had grated on her nerves. Its endless counting of time seemed to accentuate the boredom she felt in the company of adults. But as she’d grown, so too had her appreciation of time’s swift passage. And the hated clock, at last, had become a comfort to her; an island of stability in the midst of life’s turmoil.
“Good evening,” Annie said, in her most reassuring tone. “I’m glad you have all come. When we lose someone dear to us, it’s expected that we simply accept the loss as part of the natural order of things and then move on with our lives. Sometimes, though, we need that final touch – that final reassurance that our loved ones are well and in good hands. That is what I hope to do for you today.”
She smiled around the table, noting the reactions. Eric, a hopeful smile; Jessica, a tight flicker of her lips; James, impassive; Alice was barely keeping herself under control; Graham’s eyes were fixed firmly on Alice.
“It’s perfectly natural to be a little sceptical about what I do,” Annie continued, “but I would ask that those who are less open to the Spirits suspend any disbelief out of respect for those who may be here seeking enlightenment.” Her eyes flickered over James and Graham, her smile never faltering.
She paused for a moment to give her words time to sink in and then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This would be difficult; she preferred to work with at least one person whose history she knew – to get the ball rolling, as it were. During the course of the séance, details of the others would be slipped and Annie’s sharp mind would stow the information away for future use. But for now she was starting from scratch and the five people opposite were giving very little away.
She waited a few moments and then chanted her usual opening, concentration creating a small furrow between her eyebrows.
“Spirits from the air, from the water, from the fire and from the earth. I sit and I wait. I lay me as a bridge between the worlds. If you would commune with those you love come forward and speak.”
She opened her eyes and waited for a few moments, casting her gaze around the circle, trying to gauge the easiest mark. She saw James’s lips twitch with a smile as her eyes drifted over his pale face.
“I have a woman here,” she said, glancing quickly between Eric and Alice. “She is…”
“Really p****d off!” croaked a harsh, feminine voice in Annie’s ear. Her eyes widened in shock as she twisted her considerable bulk around toward the unexpected sound. Behind her the room was empty, as she already knew. She tried to regain her composure. It must be my imagination, she thought. The stress of the anonymous sitting.
“No such luck, you old fake,” the voice snarled.
Startled, Annie tried to stand but couldn’t.
“Ladies and gentleman, I apologise profusely. I am feeling unwell and….”
“I have a message for James,” the voice snapped. “And I don’t appreciate being sent to this hell-hole to deliver it.” The words dripped with almost palpable malice.
“James,” Annie said, gasping for breath. “There is a message for you. Do you have a loved one you’ve come to reach?”
“You’re the medium,” James said. “You tell me.”
Annie tried to breathe slowly, fighting the waves of panic which broke over her. “What is your name and message, spirit?”
“A name’s a powerful thing, Annie. Best leave that alone for now. As for the message, tell James to get his little show over and done with. I’m getting tired of waiting for him.”
Annie passed a hand over her face. This wasn’t right. “James, the spirit says you have to get your show over and done with – she’s waiting for you.”
James’s face split in a wolfish grin which never quite reached his eyes.
“Certainly,” he said. He fixed his eyes firmly on Annie, and held her in place by force of will alone.
The moment stretched. tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock. Annie trembled, writhing uncomfortably under the force of James’s gaze.
“We want you to stop it,” he said.
“Stop it?” Annie asked.
“Stop holding séances. You’re hurting people.”
Realisation dawned in Annie’s mind. A clever-clogs student, she thought, here to expose me – using a hidden speaker to frighten me. Her resolve hardened and she met his gaze fiercely.
“I merely convey messages from the dear departed to…”
“Oh, stop it, Annie. We know what it is you profess to do, but you don’t understand the consequences.”
“I give people peace…” Annie said.
“No. You drag people from where it’s safe and warm, and then you leave them here. You leave us here.”
“Now see here, young man,” Annie said, trying to regain her air of quiet authority.
“You have a daughter, don’t you Annie?”
Annie’s thoughts flashed to Linda. “What? Yes, but…”
“But you had another, didn’t you?”
Annie’s eyes flashed with fury. “How did you…”
“Have you conveyed messages to her?”
Annie tried to stand again, hands gripping the edges of the polished table. “This has gone far enough,” she snapped. She pushed down on the smooth table top and lifted herself from her seat with great effort.
“Sit.” James commanded, his gaze hard and intense.
She sat wordlessly, staring into James’s face, held by his dark eyes.
“Call her,” he said, his voice silky steel.
“This is absurd,” she said, “I won’t continue with this any longer. I want you to…” She looked around the table. The other guests sat quietly, attentively, showing no signs of alarm.
“You called her for Linda,” James said.
“Linda was upset. She was very young when… when she…”
Annie trembled as James’s eyes bored into her own. Dark eyes, blazing and burning. Dark eyes in a pale face. You leave us here, he’d said.
“Call her.” His voice was satin.
Annie whimpered, beginning to see. “She’s already here isn’t she?”
“She’s been here since you first brought her back, all those years ago. But she’s not as…” he paused. “Not as intact as we are.”
Annie looked in horror at the faces of her guests, only now seeing the pallor and the dark eyes.
“Call her, Annie. See what it is you do to us.”
“Oh, God, Jenny,” Annie moaned.
The door at the back of the room creaked. Annie sat back in her chair, trying to mould herself to the wood to escape from James’s cold eyes and the feeling of boundless dread emanating from beyond the sitting room.
A single pale hand came around the door and gripped the edge. A second hand on a slender arm shot from the darkness and hit the wall with a slap like cold meat on a chopping board. Annie jammed her fist into her mouth to stifle a scream as a face appeared in profile, moving too quickly, like a video tape on fast forward. A white face, slack-jawed, mouth gaping. A single eye, like a sucking black vacuum, staring lifelessly forward. Inclined at forty-five degrees, the head rotated up, looking sideways, fixing Annie with those bottomless pits of blackness. A plaintive cry wailed from the motionless, screaming face; “Maaaaaaaaaaaama!”
Annie cried out in anguish as the childlike form flopped forward onto its hands and knees. And then it was in the room, crossing half of the length in less than a second. Lurching and twitching, the grinding of bone syncopated with the wet slap of feet and hands.
Terror closed around Annie’s chest like a vice, squeezing the breath from her. She closed her eyes, holding them tightly shut with all the force she could muster and wincing at the hot, coppery taste of blood flowing from the fist at her mouth.
“Look, Annie,” said James, his voice quiet. “Look at what you’ve done.”
Annie shook her head violently in the negative, her whimpers failing to cover the grating, snapping, crawling sound which coincided with the creaking of the table. Tears burst from behind her clenched eyelids and she knew – knew – that Jenny’s empty sockets and yawning mouth were inches from her own.
“Make her go!” Annie shrieked, “Make her go back! She’s suffering!”
“We’re all suffering, Annie. But we can’t go back. We don’t know the way. We don’t know how.”
Jenny’s ghastly wail rang out again, from inches away. Annie whined and turned her head away as she felt cold and fetid breath flowing across her face. Her hands flew over her ears.
“I didn’t know,” she screamed.
“You didn’t ask!” James thundered.
“How could I?” Annie cried, spraying blood from her lips. “How could I ask?”
“You had no problem asking questions, Annie,” James said. “You were too busy inventing the answers to hear the screams. If you’d listened, you’d have heard.” His voice dropped a little. “You were too wrapped up in being a fraud to realise you were genuine. And the faith – the belief – you created was too powerful for us. We were drawn like moths to a flame – pulled from warmth and safety by the love of those we’d left. To here. To this grey desolation.”
“I won’t do it again. I’ll never…”
“Oh, I know that,” James said.
“What will you do to me?” Annie asked in a whisper.
“It’s not us you have to worry about. It’s Linda. See you, Annie.”
The funereal toll of the clock counting its first chime of four went unheard, masked by Annie’s gasp for breath as crushing pain blossomed in her chest. Her eyes flew open, looking on the suddenly empty room, bulging and watering. Linda’s voice, laughing, full of joy, floated from her memory and covered everything.
I love what you do, mum. You bring so much comfort to people.
The clock sang its second of four.
It gets me through the dark times, you know? To believe that, no matter what, I’ll be able to get in touch – find out if you’re okay.
The third of four tolled in the distance and was drowned by the roaring in Annie’s ears as she fell to the side, clutching her chest convulsively.
Like you did with Jenny, mum. To know I can find you like you found Jenny again.
The fourth bell tolled, echoing gently around the walls of the empty sitting room.
London, beyond the Veil
The Veil, that metaphysical curtain which separates the mortal plane from the great beyond, pulsed lightly in reaction to James’s presence. The eternal world beyond the Veil was invisible to those bound in the chains of mortality but, like a two way mirror, everything on Earth – human triumphs and failures, kind acts and most desperate crimes – was visible from the other side. The Veil encompassed everything and everyone in the myriad worlds of creation, colouring and distorting the scurrying lives of oblivious mortals. Through the ages, those sensitive souls able to peer through in some way, saw the other world as a purgatory – a home to the lost and the damned. Their assumptions were closer to the truth than they knew. For immortals, the Veil was a permeable curtain – a gateway between the living and the dead, but for humankind it was the great division at the end of life.
James, one of the First among the Ciriath, older than almost everything in creation, looked sadly through the thin, rippling, curtain and watched the end of Annie’s life; saw the new Annie rise, shining, from the carcass of the old. She faded to a single point of glaring light, and then went where he never could.
“See you soon, Annie,” he murmured.
Beside him, the white, twisted, figure of ‘Jenny’ sprang to her feet, gave a shudder and rearranged herself into a more natural looking position.
James glanced down at her with a slight frown. “I’m not sure the horror show was entirely necessary, Emily,” he said. “And in the Maker’s name – do something about those eyes!”
Emily’s hands flew to her face, probing fingers finding dark and empty sockets where they didn’t belong. She laughed, her voice like wind-chimes, and shook her head briskly, sparkling eyes of the brightest blue suddenly popping into existence in her pale face. “Damn!” she said. “Why do I always forget the eyes? Anyway, you know me, James – no half measures.” She ran a tiny pale hand through her hair in a futile attempt to impose some order on the wild, dark, corkscrews. “What now?” she asked.
James smiled. “Back to the Depot and then on to the next one,” he said. “Same as always.”
Careless Talk, by John M. Dow