80

Darby woke to the sound of chains. Hers. They were moving.

The metal shackles bit into her wrists as her arms were jerked above her head. The chains kept climbing and the chains attached to her feet were moving too, sliding down the tiny holes inside the floor.

She wrapped her hands around the chains above her head and pulled with all of her strength. Her fingers and palms, cut and tender from the long hours of trying to sharpen the pieces of wood and pick the locks, started to bleed and she couldn’t maintain her grip. The chains kept rising, and, as she had been without food and water for days, her strength evaporated.

But not her will. No, her will to fight was still there. She had to conserve her strength for when the opportunity came and this wasn’t it.

Her feet dangled above the floor, arms stretched high over her head.

She closed her eyes and breathed slowly to calm her pounding heart. Time passed and the muscles in her arms and shoulders and back strained and cramped, but she kept her breathing steady, her mind clear. Pain was created in the mind. Pain could be controlled. It could be managed.

The door opened and she kept her eyes closed.

A click of footsteps this time and they stopped in front of her. She heard a match being struck.

‘What did you do with the bowl?’ a muffled voice asked. ‘We know you broke it.’

She didn’t answer.

The footsteps left, stopped, then came back.

‘You put them in your toilet,’ he said. ‘How ingenious.’ Soft laughter. ‘Open your eyes.’

She kept them shut.

‘Open your eyes.’ He stood by her side now. ‘I shall not ask again.’

She didn’t and heard another match being struck.

Clink clink.

She gulped air and her body stiffened with fear.

The pain can be managed.

A whistling sound…

I can manage the pain.

… and hard strips of metal were raked against the back of her thighs. Her eyes flew open and she hissed back a scream, shaking on the dangling chains and casting shadows in the flickering candlelight.

The person who stepped in front of her wore a black theatrical cape made of what looked like thick velvet over a dark suit with a silk crimson scarf. His face — his real face — was hidden underneath a white mask of wood shaped to resemble the devil, maybe a vampire. The mask was scratched and peeling in several spots, especially along the long wooden nose, and a couple of teeth were missing from its wide grin. False black hair shaped into a widow’s peak on the top, and tiny black marble eyes. Grand Guignol at its finest, she thought.

A white-gloved hand with red fingertips sharpened into points held a carved wooden handle; at its end was an O-ring with three chains, each made of seven links.

‘A chain scourge. A rather wonderful invention. The first time I used one was in a castle in Nuremberg and I fell in love.’

‘Is that what you’re doing here?’ Darby said through gritted teeth. ‘Creating your own little private Hitler-inspired army to take over the world?’

A tired sigh from underneath the mask. ‘The time for creating war has passed. Unfortunately. I don’t like it up there any more. The surface. I don’t like what we created. It’s become… evil. Unmanageable.’

‘But you keep going up there to snatch children. Why?’

‘Because I want to,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘Because I can.’

He hit her again with the chains, this time across the shins. Sparks flew across her eyes and her body shook as she clamped down on a scream, refusing to give in to him.

‘I can create a lot of pain,’ he said. ‘And pleasure.’

Darby didn’t answer, concentrating on his voice. It was calm but she detected something else, something in his choice of words. He had said ‘I can create’. Not we. I. The leader?

He traced his fingernails down across her stomach. ‘You’re very beautiful, and your bone structure is excellent. Good hips. Now that I’m seeing you in the flesh, I may have to reconsider my original intentions and use you for breeding.’

The nails moved up her stomach. ‘We should start soon, as I fear my time in this body is limited.’

‘Are you an Archon?’

‘The first. Iadabaoth,’ he said, unsurprised, more interested in continuing his examination of her body.

‘I understand there are twelve of you. Where are the other eleven?’

‘Here and there.’

The man folded his arms across his chest and placed a hand underneath his chin, his nails clicking across his wooden cheek.

‘We need to discuss ovulation.’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Tell me when you get your period and I might be able to help you out.’

Darby started laughing. Laughed so hard that tears spilled from her eyes.

‘I can make you unspeakably ugly,’ the man said.

‘Like Charlie?’

‘Yes.’

‘Now I know why you wear the mask. You must be one ugly fuck.’

He cupped a hand over her heart. Left it there for a moment with the side of his head pressed against her stomach.

The nails dug into her skin and the mask tilted up at her.

‘You are a true knight warrior. I could rip your heart out right now and eat it in front of you and yet you show no fear. Remarkable. Truly remarkable. I can’t remember the last time I encountered one of your type. Well, well, this does present a rather unique opportunity.’

‘Better get to it quick, then. We know who you are.’

‘I’m sure you think you do.’

‘We know about the tattoo.’

The Archon didn’t answer.

‘The one on the upper lip,’ Darby said. ‘We found them on Mark Rizzo and John Smith.’

‘Ah. The mark of the trusted servant.’

‘To you?’

‘To all of us. John Smith belonged to another. Thomas Howland was mine. The one you knew as Mark Rizzo. He helped bring me the children. Lots and lots of them to play and experiment with.’

Charlie’s voice echoed inside her head: Tell her, Daddy. Tell her what you did.

‘What’s with the mask?’

‘I prefer it.’

‘Why? What are you afraid of?’

‘Afraid?’ A tremor in his voice. ‘What makes you think I’m afraid of you?’

‘The masks and the costumes,’ Darby said. ‘This whole Dungeons and Dragons thing you’ve got going on down here.’

The gloves came off. Darby saw long, soft fingers. He worked at the edge of the mask and lifted it off his head.

A woman. Shaved head and pale egg-white skin threaded with veins and a pair of cold ice-blue eyes that looked liquid in the candlelight. But definitely a woman. You could see it in the cheekbones and lips. No eyebrows and the voice was wrong. The voice belonged to a man.

The Archon smiled and Darby saw shark’s teeth, tips sharpened into daggers.

‘Satisfied?’

Darby didn’t answer.

‘You haven’t asked about Mr Casey and his daughter.’

‘They’re here?’

‘Yes. Most of them, anyway.’ The woman clasped her hands together. ‘Which one do you want to live? Do you have a favourite?’

‘Both.’

‘You’re going to have to kill one.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘The one you pick shall decide your fate. You can contemplate this while we affix the obedience device to your back.’ The Archon held up the device Darby had seen on the spine of the toothless, tongueless thing in New Hampshire — a black plastic box with a series of spiked metal ends. ‘You will do what you are asked or you will suffer incredible pain.’

The mask came back down. The Archon left the room.

The door shut. Darby heard a creaking sound coming from somewhere outside and then the chains loosened and she collapsed on the floor, the whip marks throbbing and a pins-and-needles sensation sweeping across her limbs.

‘You will,’ a strange voice whispered in the darkness. ‘Believe me, you will.’

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