The end is coming, but who will be cursed and who saved? Can Edmund survive this last trial intact or will he lose his soul? Read on. And to catch up with the story so far, see the instalments below.
One, two, three, four, five, six , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four, twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty three, thirty four and thirty five.
‘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.
Daggers of sunlight stabbed the room, piercing every corner, leaving no inch untouched. It cut into my back, my head, my arms, a burning blade scorcing the skin from my body, slice after slice down to the bone.
The world had turned to red through my sun scorched eyes, Slatina a man of flame, an effigy of fire and I knew this to be his true form. Frances staggered under the glare, Samuel slumped, leaning against the wall for support, the clean, pure light of the sun too good and honest for us to bear.
And the Devil looked to me, inside me, through me, the strongest of us. But still he shuddered in the sunlight, every muscle quivering with the agony of that honest light. If I was to act it had to be now.
‘You think to defeat me with the sun?’ he bellowed. He was shaking now, the whole of his will turned to standing against the blaze. ‘I have stood for millennia. I have watched empires rise and fall, followed in the wake of conquering armies, seen nation lay waste to nation and that slain nation rise again to fight their victors. The world is a speck beneath me and I am its master. I am of the Creation and shall remain when the Earth is burned in fire and crumbled to ash and I shall eat the crumbs of its existence.’ He clenched his fists, flung back his head, screaming, ‘I am eternal!’
With all the righteous anger within me, I pulled myself up straight, punching against the pain of the heat, of my disintegration. And it was as if the sun was peeling away my every falsehood, my pretence, my shows of lying courage, ripping me clean. And with every dishonest action and thought gone, hope went also and love and charity and shame and selfishness until there was only the core of me, the hard nugget of what I had become. There was nothing now but my own true self. And I faced that full on, recognising me for what I was, accepting it, welcoming its new creation.
I was monstrous. I was a devil.
Without another thought, I leapt, felt his neck beneath my hands, dug my nails into the sinews of his shoulders, tearing, ripping at him, watching his flesh fall away. He lashed out, tore at my back, flaying me as I stood. His neck arched and I glimpsed fangs – longer than a wolf’s, sharper than pins, curved as a new moon – and he pulled back his head, ready to strike.
But my own body changed in response, my jaw widening, my own teeth changing, growing, pricking my lips and I was ready. I pushed with my legs with all my might, flinging my whole weight at him. He staggered, toppled, fell and me with him.
And as we fell I called, ‘Samuel! Frances!’ hoping that they would hear me, hoping that their instincts would overwhelm their pain and fear, that the monsters in them would take hold.
With the force of our falling I thrust my chin towards Slatina, felt my fangs hit his neck. At first there was resistance, an unyielding solidity. Then we hit the floor and I felt him puncture beneath the force of me.
It was like dying. Centuries of pain, of horror, of death flowing from him into me. And I felt what he had felt, saw what he had seen – the fires of the Beginning, the rise of worlds, of people’s and his part in their destruction. I felt his pleasure at each life he had taken, how each soul was snatched by his hand and dwelt within him still, the chorus of voices screaming in an agony at all they had lost, deafening, their hopelessness so great I had to force myself not to pull away.
He bucked and struggled like a rabbit trapped in a snare, his throes threatening to shake me off. But then I felt others beside me. Samuel and Frances, scrabbling at their former master, finding space to feed. And for a while the three of us were side by side, united in Slatina’s destruction.
How much time passed, I do not know. But for a moment the four of us were one. One monster, four minds, weaving together, our histories shared, our lives overlapping.
As I sank into them I felt our horror, our destructive nature. But something more. I felt our solitude. The knowledge that even as we joined we were alone and always would be, never to know the comforts of home and hearth and family more.
The pain of it overwhelmed me and I succumbed …
‘Wake, sir. You must wake.’
I opened my eyes to see Peg Fair’s kindly face looking down upon me. My whole body creaked in agony, my skin a hard carapace, stiff and solid. I felt I heard my eyelids crack with each blink.
‘Peg?’ I tried to say the word, but my throat was so scorched it would not come.
Soft hands lifted my head, poured water on my lips, the liquid at once a sweet relief and almost more pain than I could bear.
After who knows how long, I found the strength to look about me. I was lying on a bed in a small, dark room, a tattered sheet pinned across the window. I could smell the Thames, a gull called, long harsh, solitary.
‘What happened?’ I whispered.
‘I fear you are not strong enough to hear. And yet it cannot be long until the watchmen find us out. If you are to know, you must know soon.’
I felt for her hand and squeezed it. ‘Tell me, dear friend.’
And so she did.