Edmund has just made the most painful decision of his life, but can he save Peg’s life and triumph over the Devil of Moravia? See below to catch up on his story so far.
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I bent low then, pressing my lips to hers for the last time in this mortal form, wishing, praying that we might yet be worthy of mercy and be reunited in the next life.
Pulling away, I left her hand to drop to the counterpane. Lifting Peg from the rug, I turned my back on Frances.
I must write this last, reader. That through all these long days and nights she has never – and will never – be far from my mind.
I wondered for the first time whether Samuel had some hand in choosing that chamber. For I had visited the house during our previous acquaintance and knew there to be a loose wall panel beyond which lay a secret passage. Making my way along the wall, I pressed and knocked upon the wood, listening closely. Finally! The sound of tapping echoed in the space beyond. With some pressure the panel gave, releasing the cool scents of mold and disturbed dust.
Taking up the candle stub, I glanced upon my Frances for the last time. She did not stir. I could hear nothing of her breath, not the merest movement to show life still remained. I might have stood all day, frozen in that moment of longing for all that was gone … had not Slatina’s voice reached me from without.
‘Edmund? Has your greed overcome your manners?’
With one last glance of her closed and silent countenance, I dashed to the fallen Peg. She was stirring a little, making to stand. I slipped my arm under hers to support her. She awoke fully then, looking from me to the sickbed, eyes widening in alarm and I feared any moment she would cry out.
A knock came now, impatient at the door. ‘Edmund! You have had your fun. Time to share.’
At the sound of Slatina’s voice, Peg’s shuddered. If she screamed, the Beast would be upon us. But then she saw the panel, the gaping sliver of darkness beckoning. I saw she understood and with a wary nod of assent, she allowed me to help her through the entrance and into the passageway beyond. Closing the secret door behind us, I felt the future closing up before me also. For there was no future without Frances.
The passage was narrow, hardly wide enough for us to walk side by side, the walls rough with plaster, hung with webs. We had walked no further than a few yards when a terrible shriek echoed behind us, loud and piercing and filled with demonic fury.
We stopped, breathless, shivering with terror. It could only be Slatina. He had entered the chamber to find us gone. How long before he found the loose panel and came after us? Then Peg was tugging at me and we were shuffling onward, leaving the sounds of Hell behind.
The candle flame grew ever smaller as we walked, dancing light drawing the eye to alcoves cut into the walls. Such peculiar sights. In one was hung a buckskin coat and linen shirts, another contained nothing but a large mirror, the silver peeling and spotted. I glimpsed a jester’s motley, soiled brown about the neck, then a cat with skin bald and tight as a drum. The way was so dark and narrow, the sights so bewildering – here a card table laid with silvered wigs, there another with medical instruments of glass and the sharpest steel – that I wondered if perhaps we had not survived the sickroom but instead passed over to Purgatory without realising we had perished.
Finally, we reached a flight of shallow steps and I felt sure we must reach the ground very soon. The candle flame finally guttered out, plunging us into darkness, slowing our progress and leaving us to move with greater caution. Then my foot hit a step that felt wider than the others. With some exploration I realised it was not a step at all but a paved floor and feeling the walls with my hands, I found a door of pitted oak, a handle of good, solid brass. I gripped it hard and turned.
The handle would not move. I tried again. Nothing. Again I tried and again, finally putting my shoulder to the door, but the wood was like iron and would not budge. I hit the thing with my fists, clawing at it like a rabbit worrying at a snare. Had we come so far to be thwarted by a locked door?
Suddenly, Peg pulled at my hand. I ignored her, pushed her off in my desperation to find a way out. She took my arm, shaking me fiercely, hushing me. In the silence I heard what she had sensed before me. Noises, drifting from beyond the door – the scuff of fallen leaves, footsteps drawing ever nearer.
Peg’s grip grew tighter. We stood close, her breath fluttering. There was a grind of metal, the shudder of wood sticking. The door rattled open.
There was a light, white and hard, blinding in the former darkness. I thought to escape, but where? Only horror lay before us, a trap behind. If this was to be my last battle, let it be in open ground. I squared up to face my fate with what courage remained to me.
Like ice water trickling down my spine, a voice hailed us.
‘There is no besting me.’
I was battered to the ground, a moment later Peg was beside me, terrified face flickering in the lamplight. A kick to the head, dirt beneath me, stones cutting into my side, the smell of earth and rats. Another blow, piercing my ribs like an arrow. Mores kicks – to my face, my head, my body – countless, unending.
As more blows fell and more, I knew I was to die. As I sunk into the pain, there were but two thoughts that haunted me; that I had failed to save the girl.
And that Slatina yet lived.
Darkness took my hand.