Is Edmund the same man he was before Slatina stumbled into his life on that cold, desperate night so long ago? Read on to find out more. And see below to catch up with his story so far.
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I was suddenly gripped by a terrible hunger, an overwhelming thirst the like I had never felt before. It gripped my stomach, pulling it tight as a drum.
Unable to pull away, unable to make sense of the horrible drive that befell me, I stared at Peg, helpless, speech a stranger.
She smiled, sweet and sad. ‘Time to accept who you are, sir.’
Once more, Old Noah’s words rang in my mind. Know who you are … no matter how dark, no matter how squalid.
Finally, I felt the truth of all that had gone before. Slatina had led me to kill. He had led me to drink of others. He had led me to become something … other.
Mouth dry from yearning, I gasped, ‘What are we, Samuel?’
He shook his head in sorrow. ‘There is no name for what we have become. No name any would dare utter aloud. Only know that we are of an ancient evil. We shall be forever.’
‘Forever?’ Was this the truth? To live in horror forever?
‘There will be no forever if the now is not seen to.’ Peg extended her arm. The welts were fresh, barely healed. As if sharp teeth had dragged along the flesh.
My stomach rolled at the thought. But still I gazed on her. ‘I cannot,’ I muttered.
‘And yet you must,’ she said. ‘That creature may be the Devil himself and you his creation, but you are not him. You saved me sir -‘
‘I lured you from your home to die -‘
‘For love!’ She cried. ‘And though you put yourself in mortal danger, still you saved me. You are not him.’
I saw the truth in this. For despite the abhorrent occurences to which I had been witness, I had acted with more decency and courage in recent days than I had in the five previous years.
Peg Fair was now our anchor, our clear head amid the chaos and so it was to her I now turned. ‘Tell me what I must do.’
She smiled, such a sad, gentle smile that tugged at me. ‘You and Lord Samuel are weak. Samuel has fed but little these last days, you not at all. Feed. Find your full strength.’
She stared at me with such intensity, the room seemed to drop away until there was only Peg and her pale eyes and her words, hard as granite. ‘Even the Devil must die.’
I think I loved her then. For her courage. For her sweetness. For her steel. For knowing what must be done and for not allowing us to shy away from it.
She pressed her arm under my nose, the scent of her exploding on my tongue, of hay and sweat and warm, soft evenings. I could hear her pulse, the rush of her blood in her slender veins, each pump of precious fluid forcing an extra layer of scent about me, until I felt I could trace her life – the acrid air of Southwark, the sweet wild flowers and grasses of her family home.
And as I imagined her mother and the washerwoman, the country smells of milk and animals and clear running water, somehow she was in my mouth, her skin salt on my tongue, my teeth pressing into her, a soft, sweet release of fluid inside me. And she tasted as I imagined, but better, bringing life and fire and heat into my heart, flowing through me until my pulse rang in my ears and it was hers and hers was mine, two strong hearts beating as one.
Suddenly, she pulled away. ‘Sir, I am weak.’
The blind pleasure of that moment passed away and I looked about me, dazed. Peg’s face was ashen, the only colour about her the blood greasing her arm. I could feel the wet of her smeared upon my face, rouging my cheeks, my chin, the world coloured red through gored lashes. I felt filthy, ashamed.
I glimpsed Samuel, greedy eyes watching me, watching Peg, knowing that he was hungry for her too.
‘Edmund.’ The Frances Demon’s voice reached me through the door, at once alluring and revolting. ‘Time to finish this.’
She was right, it was time. I signalled Samuel over, bade him put his shoulder with mine and together we finally moved the press aside. I took him by the arm when we had done, pulled him back a few steps away from the door.
‘Peg,’ I whispered, ‘get yourself away under the bed. Keep hidden. Whatever you hear – no matter what you hear – only come out when all has grown quiet.’ I took her hand . ‘Get away then. Somewhere far. Do not look back.’
Pale and weak as she was, she squeezed my hand, nodding her assent. I waited a moment for her to hide herself and turned to the chamber door.
‘Come in Slatina. We shall not stop you.’
And there he was, within the chamber, the door closed behind him as if he and Frances had passed through it without an opening or a closing. He seemed to glow, from his pallid skin stretched across his skull, his teeth, shimmering bright as pins, his eyes like embers. And Frances beside him, so alike in every devilish detail, she might be his twin.
I thought of all that had gone before, of the night of my first meeting with the Devil, of our visit to Samuel and the killing of the thief. I thought of the Earth Angels and Frances coming to me, our dreams of escape. Of the cupboard of horrors, of Old Noah and his wise words. All of this tumbled before me like magic lantern slides and at the end, as the light of my memories faded, there was just the four of us facing each other. And it felt right that we who had so closely tied ourselves together should be present at the end.
‘Edmund, Samuel.’ Slatina gave his most ingratiating bow. Before taking Frances by the hand. ‘All of us, together at last. You cannot imagine how much this pleases me.’
I smiled at the little man’s arrogance. ‘Pleases you?’ I said.
‘Why, yes,’ he said. ‘It has been difficult for you, I know. Shaking off the morbid shackles of human existence. But you see the truth now. There is no life for you but with us.’ He pulled Frances close, their faces turned together, meeting in the deepest of kisses.
I swallowed the bile gathered in my throat, blinked away the image of my own girl, gone now. ‘You assume much,’ I said.
He released her and looked at me with the most loving smile. ‘There is no choice for you, Edmund. You are mine.’ Steel glittered in his eye. ‘Forever.’
‘There is always a choice,’ I said, walking towards the shutters, towards the drawn curtain, ‘For those prepared to sacrifice all.’
I looked at Frances for the last time, at the hollow woman she now was, a wax likeness of her old, sweet self. ‘Farewell, love.’
I reached for the catch, lifted it free and flung wide the shutter.