“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”
Lenore was gone, and the brief dream of redemption turned to dust. Taking a breath and swallowing a bewildering grief, Kirsty pushed brutally past her own pain and fear and moved to the tear between the worlds, Tom and Joey on her heels. There were worse things than losing one’s soul – and the child that could be the last hope for the world had been borne away into Hell.
Picking up the puzzle box Lenore had dropped, she realized what they had to do. The horror of it was more than a person could understand and remain sane, but perhaps she’d been fooling herself about her sanity all along.
Tom didn’t stop to consider consequences or sanity, but Kirsty stood in his way before he could enter the Labyrinth. She wondered impassively if he would strike her.
“Get out of my way. I have to get them back!”
“Go in there without a weapon and you’re meat.” Holding one box, Kirsty reached into her purse slung over her shoulder and pulled out another, sealed inside a clear plastic bag. It was the anniversary gift, the thing that had torn away her humanity, piece by glistening piece. “Take this.” She placed it in his hands, keeping the one Lenore had used for herself.
“This is a weapon?” He asked, impatient and incredulous.
“Yes. Joey knows how to use it.”
“But … if we’re in the Labyrinth,” Joey said, “it can’t banish them.”
“You stabbed the Cenobite with it and it hurt him. Elliott told me that anything touched by Leviathan could harm his creatures, even kill them.”
“That doesn’t make sense. If he’s their god, that’s crazy –”
“Everything about this is, isn’t it? We have to trust Elliott.”
“He’s a part of the Cenobite! How can we be sure?”
“There’s no time. We know it hurt him once. I’ll keep this one in case we get separated. Let’s go.”
Tom went through the torn gate first and Kirsty waited to follow Joey in. She watched as Tom tore away the evidence bag. Time seemed to stretch as she watched it fall from the puzzle box.
For a moment, she thought the sound was in her head, having heard that cold laughter there so often. When the voice spoke, there could be no mistaking it.
“Ah, Kirsty – leaving so soon?”
For a moment, she almost crumbled. She looked up at the only person who could understand her fear, and staring into Joey’s terrified eyes, found a strength she never knew she was capable of. Giving her a soft smile, she began to turn to face her nightmare made flesh.
Raising her chin as her eyes locked on the black gaze of the Cenobite, she answered Joey with a forced calm she couldn’t feel. “I’ll have to keep him from following. Go. Save Louis. Use the box to fight them and bring him out.”
“How can we find him?” Her hands grasped Kirsty’s shoulders.
“Follow the sound of Leviathan. She’ll take him there – up at the top of the Labyrinth, where you can see the damn thing.”
“What about Lenore –”
“She’s gone – he’s perverted her mind. Only Louis matters now.”
Joey pressed her forehead against Kirsty’s hair. “I’m so sorry… If I had left you alone–”
“Go. Make this worth it.” The touch of her only friend left her and their footsteps fled behind her into the eternal halls of Hell.
“So touching.” He moved slowly closer, stopping barely ten feet from her. “The warrior spirit rises, making the soul that much more rich, and ripe.”
“I can finally keep that promise. No more running.” She dropped the purse at her feet.
“Yet you intend to use the box to send me back, do you not? If you do, you will trap them inside.”
“They have their own way out.”
“If my servants do not kill them, they may have a chance, for a time. Yet there is another consideration. Send me back, and I will tear them myself.”
“I can’t leave you here, or they’ll never get away safely.”
“A conundrum. Before we choose, there is someone else here who longs to see you again.”
Kirsty’s stomach flipped over. She whispered, “My father?”
The Cenobite smiled. “Not quite.”
A door behind him opened and a woman stood there. Her Cheshire smile had haunted Kirsty’s nightmares ever since this madness began. A vicious hatred welled up in her, burning away her fear.
She hissed the name like a curse. “Julia.”
“Hello, Snow White. Care for another try?”
Kirsty looked quickly at the Cenobite. He spread his hands. “Vengeance is yours. I will not interfere until this conflict is decided.”
It was an insane choice, but she made it without hesitation. It would give Joey time. She knew the Cenobite would take her if she survived, but if Julia killed her, could she escape the Labyrinth and find a real peace?
Her fingers worked without looking down at the box in her hands. The solution had been given to her after she had lain with the Cenobite’s human soul. As the dark cube became a gray diamond, its patterns marked in silver, small cuts opened on her fingers. She ignored the drops of blood that fell to the floor. Holding one end of the configuration like a dagger, she advanced on the woman who had aided the resurrected Frank, and helped him kill her father.
Julia’s weapon was in her flesh, the power in her clawed hands to suck the life and flesh from her body. Kirsty didn’t fear that as much as her own hatred. She had to lose this fight, even as the desire to kill this woman whipped her soul.
“I’ve dreamed of this moment,” Julia said, circling her. “The Toymaker’s mother was good enough to help me prepare for it.”
“She was a weak fool.” Kirsty kept the configuration low at her side.
“You were right,” she said to the watching Cenobite, “the scared little girl has grown up.” Smiling at Kirsty again, she added, “But you had to become a murderer to be interesting.”
“Give up the games, bitch. We’ve both got a date with the devil.” Kirsty darted her gaze to the Cenobite, and Julia lunged instantly.
Collapsing into the strike, she let the woman knock her to the floor. Her wrist was slammed down and pinned, the silver diamond skidding away. Julia’s hands closed on the sides of her head.
“Nothing personal, babe,” she gloated.
Kirsty’s soul was tugged violently. The urge to fight tensed her body and she struggled to lie still, to allow the drain that might damn her, yet would keep her from the Cenobite’s depraved lusts. Focusing on Julia’s hate-ravaged face, her vision started to blur. The mouth over her opened in a silent cry, or was she preparing to suck her life from her in a kiss?
Silver. Something silver protruded out of the mouth. Wetness splashed into her face, blinding her. Kirsty’s body came alive again, desperate to fight, and too near death to resist the urge to survive.
Pitching Julia away from her, she rolled to her stomach and then rose to her knees, frantically wiping her face. Drops of blood clung to her eyelashes as she stared down at her attacker. Julia lay on her face, and the configuration diamond was punched through the back of her skull.
Numb, she watched it move. With turns and twists, it reformed itself into a cube inside the skull, shattering the bone more before it rose, dripping, to hang before her stunned and bloody sight.
“Take it, child. Banish me and save yourself. Or … can you finally acknowledge your desires? The time to play is well past. I will have your soul.”
“You said you wouldn’t interfere.”
“Until the conflict was decided. I admire your resourcefulness, as always. You must have realized I would never allow you to fall to such a diminished fate – and so you still toy with me, to the end. When I know your flesh at last, you will find the suffering pales all human pleasure, even dimming what you took from me in dreams.”
“Don’t fuck with me. That was Elliott. I know.”
His laughter echoed in the silent room. “I will not, I assure you. In this form, there are so many more delights to indulge in.” He offered her his hand, the smile ghosting on his lips. “Take the box or take my hand. I am through with waiting, and with bargains.”
Kirsty reached out, her fingers closing on the slick surface of the bloody box. She plucked it from the power that had held it in the air and shuddered. Meeting his calm and silent stare again, she swallowed.
“You want me to do this.” The truth of it paralyzed her, but her sluggish mind couldn’t comprehend it. “Why?” Tears threatened as his cold smile remained.
“Send me back now, and my triumph will be assured. I can always collect you in time.”
“They’ll find him. They’ll beat you, and get out, get away.”
“Your faith is commendable – yet the gates must be opened from this side.” She shook her head, but he pressed on. “If Hell could open them from within, we would never have needed the configurations to enter your world.”
She choked and the tears fell, washing the blood from her face in streaks. “You’re lying. Lying…” She tried to think, tried to breathe. “Tiffany made the box work from the inside, she got us out.”
“The gate was open already, Kirsty. The box will close it, yes.” He moved closer to her, his hand held over her head, the palm down. The image of a priest, offering comfort and absolution, tore her as his hooks soon would.
Kirsty bowed her head and sank down over her knees, clutching the box to her chest. Sobs ripped from her throat. “Elliott,” she breathed, desperate. “Please help me.” She twitched when his palm touched her head, her body shaking.
“There are mysteries impossible for you to understand. The Religion of Sorrows is not the horror you imagine.”
The palm lifted, but then his hands raised her to her feet. Dizziness pitched her, and her free hand struck the silver hooks in his chest, her fingers sliding over the gashes in his flesh. An electric feeling went through her, the scent of blood and vanilla that clung to him making her senses spin. His hands held her arms gently.
Weakened and sick, she let her forehead touch the ridged leather covering his body. The pattern of the alien clothing caught her thoughts, her head turning to lay her cheek against it as her eyes followed the lines and shapes she had studied on the boxes for years.
His chest rose and fell as he breathed in the blood that covered her like an alluring perfume. A muddled memory intruded, but as she tried to capture it, it fell into mist. When he spoke, she felt the voice thrum through the leather.
“Your suffering has courted me through years of meaningless conquests. Deep in your soul, the desire to enslave, to control – it drives you again and again to this moment. This choice: to command such power, to have the love of one who can give you eternal devotion – is that not worth this small surrender?”
She lifted her head, but froze at the sight of the box she held in her other hand. The pattern of it appeared to melt into his shoulder. Shaking her head to clear it, she tried to regain her sense of self. “Love… There’s love in Hell? That must be a lie.”
“Kirsty…” The haunting familiarity in his voice made her look up at him. “You had love, and pleasure in my realm. Taking this, you have him, too.”
“No.” She tensed. Escaping his grasp would have been impossible, but to her shock, he released her. Backing away, she held the box between them. “What I had with Elliott wasn’t tainted. He fights you, and so will I.” Eyes locked on his, her thumb stroked the box, her fingers moving it instantly, as if it was eager to help her against him.
He made no move to stop her, but the fear that he had told the truth about trapping Joey couldn’t hold her back. Calling to mind everything Elliott had told her, every word he wove as he caressed and pierced her, she saw in the whole how to fight, how to win.
“Poor Kirsty. So sure her love for the soldier will help her destroy her enemy. The man you touched has never been separate from me. What you believe he is died before your father’s father was born. But you will learn. The lessons have only begun, my love that was, and will be.”
The box moved, spun, closed. Terrified of the chains he could still summon, she closed her eyes. Light flashed through her eyelids, and the roar of the closing gate struck her with a wind that blew fierce for a moment before swirling into silence.
Her eyes burned, fouled by Julia’s blood. Sickened and nearly faint, she opened them. The Cenobite was gone – but the body of her step-mother remained. Staring at it, knowing what she had to do, she tried to swallow the bile that rose in her throat. In the next moment, she fell to her knees, dropping the box. She leaned over, sickness cramping her guts, choking her until she succumbed.
When she could rise, Kirsty stumbled into the kitchen. She winced at the sight of the housekeeper, stretched over the table and fastened to it with dripping iron hooks. The eyes seemed to accuse her.
Backing up, she hit a counter, and the knives kept there rattled in their heavy wooden block.
~ ~ ~
The fire roared, spewing acrid black smoke into the room as she fed it the hands that had tried to consume her. They fell on the glowing bed of curling newspaper covering the charred stones of the fireplace and began to melt.
Memories of the thing that had been her husband plagued her as the heavy blade quartered the meat, splintering the dark bones as she chopped them, and the polished and blood-soaked wooden floor underneath.
She ignored the blood that covered her as she tried to block out Trevor’s face in her mind, his lips moving, speaking her name with longing.
The tools of Thomas Ramsay’s trade lay about her, interspersed with clumps and sections of flesh. Only one of the blackened bones was whole, a long femur, roughly stripped of muscle. Raising the cleaver one last time in sore fingers, she smashed it down diagonally on one end of the bone. Shards and slivers, and detritus of meat, flew around her as she turned her head and closed her eyes.
When she opened them, it lay in front of her. The weapon that could kill them: tapering to a vicious jagged point, it waited to avenge her father, Joey’s Terri and Doc, Kyle, and so many nameless others. It would reclaim their suffering and deprive Hell of as many demons as she could manage before she fell.
And Elliott. I will avenge Elliott.
The nausea was gone as she tossed every piece, shard, and gobbet that she could pick up into the fire. She knew the risk of the blood left behind, but the others were more important now.
“I’ll get Joey out, with her lover and the heir of Phillip Lemarchand. They aren’t trapped.” She reached for the box with one hand as she picked up the bone spear with the other. “I can’t help Elliott, but I will save them.”
The memory of Elliott’s touch drove away Trevor’s torments. She could almost feel his lips on her breasts as he whispered the secrets of Hell, giving them to her without expectation, or guile, or even hope.
She had wanted his body more, the driving thrusts inside her bringing her mind to a stunning emptiness where pleasure she had never known waited to cleanse her of all sin.
There was nothing left of him in the modern world, no descendants, no scrap of DNA. She couldn’t bring him out of her dreams or free him from his prison. All that remained was the knowledge, the secrets. How to kill Cenobites, and perhaps, how to live when it was finished.
One-handed, Kirsty caressed the puzzle box as she struggled wearily to her feet. The blood of the Prince of Hell had mixed with hers, and with Julia’s, on the hand that stroked the box. It began to move, the chimes played, and when they stopped and the great bell began to toll, her body had ceased to tremble.
Cold and full of hate, she watched the room change, the walls shatter, and the gate open. A Cenobite strode through it, unknown to her. Massive and grotesque, his torso a double row of heavy breasts, he raised shrunken arms as if to welcome her. The smile on his face was twisted, the bottom lip pulled down and anchored to a nipple. The teeth opened to speak.
Kirsty moved, fast and lethal. The jagged bone, blackened by the damnation of Leviathan, was buried to the hip socket in the obese horror. She looked up into his eyes, a predatory smile on her lips.
“I’ve heard it all,” she whispered, and yanked the weapon free as the body began to fall.
The head crashed into the fireplace and exploded as the rest of it struck the floor. The broad back caught fire and spread a thin blaze over the bubbling wood and searing blood.
She turned away from watching it burn when she was sure it wouldn’t rise. Facing the open gate, vengeance in one hand and salvation in the other, Kirsty entered the ordered and endless halls of Hell.
The droning hum of Leviathan seemed to greet her. She thought of the Cenobite who had called her his love, the old adversary who had driven her before him in fear all of her adult life, and her lips pulled back over her teeth.
“You told me once that knowledge was power. Come on, you bastard. It’s time to play.”