She’d been unconscious for over an hour before the throbbing ache in her head, arms and back brought her to wakefulness. She raised herself up on her elbows and immediately regretted the manoeuvre. Groaning, she sat upright and surveyed the damage. The whole of the wall, the French Doors and the bay window next to them, had been blasted to smithereens when Ash had been thrown through them.
Oh God, Ash! she thought, remembering how he’d been surrounded by demons.
He had fought as hard as he could, but they’d beaten, kicked and punched him into submission before forcibly carrying him away to God only knew where.
What was she supposed to do now? He had said not to follow him, no matter what, but she couldn’t just leave him to whatever fate they were going to dole out to him. The memory of Sebastian chaining and torturing him with the dagger flashed into her mind. It made her stomach churn and she almost vomited. She was not going to leave him to that. The first thing she needed to do was figure out where on earth they would take him.
She didn’t even know who she was looking for. Was it someone she knew or a random stranger? She thought back over her previous lives. Who had it been in each of them?
To begin with it had been her father, but that didn’t make any sense now, her own father was in France and it didn’t seem to work like that anyway. And that had been the catalyst for the curse, not really a part of it. Then there had been the Witch Finder, a kind of revenge for Catherine’s burning, but she hadn’t known him before he’d ridden into town.
With Evelyn it had been her own brother and in Mons he had been a German Officer, again no one she had known until he found her in her home village. If there was a pattern, she couldn’t see it. Maybe there’d been a clue in the journal she’d missed… well it was too late now, the journal was gone.
“Wait,” she said aloud. What was it Ash had said on the journey home?
He had said there were crossovers, previous lives encroaching on the present, and those crossovers had never happened before. What if one of those lives was encroaching now. She ground the heel of her hand into her forehead.
“Come on, Kate, think.”
And then it hit her, a real light bulb moment. She was Kathryn wasn’t she, in the village where it had all started? Hadn’t he attacked Reverend Pilling in the church that Thomas Whittle had built? Where else would he go now?
She got to her feet, a little too quickly, dizziness making her stumble over a broken table. She steadied herself, brushed herself down and made for the front door, grabbing her car keys from the hall table on the way out.
She fastened her seatbelt and started the engine, breathing a sigh of relief when it chugged into life.
Thank God they overlooked the car, she thought and screeched out of her driveway in reverse gear.
The tyres skidded on the road as she turned the car to face the right direction and lurched forward, her foot flooring the accelerator.
* * *
Slow down, she cautioned herself. He didn’t save you from skidding on the ice so you could kill yourself at the same place racing to his rescue.
She wondered if he was going to be angry with her when he saw her.
Tough, she thought again, it’s my turn to save him.
It took her less than ten minutes to reach the church and she pulled in to the lea of the wall, hoping it would hide her from anyone watching. She freed the seatbelt and got out of the car, using it to crouch behind while she tried to get a look at the church. There were dim lights inside. Candles, judging from the flicker. He’d already set up his altar then.
There didn’t seem much point in trying to hide anymore, so she walked to the lych-gate, or at least where there used to be a gate. It had been ripped off its hinges by overzealous demons.
Could demons enter a churchyard? She searched for any sign of eyes peeping out from behind gravestones. She couldn’t see any moving shadows, but remained wary as she walked steadily up the path to the front entrance.
The door was locked. She hadn’t expected that, but she knew how to get in and set off round the back to the vestry door. The key wasn’t under the plant pot, but the door was unlocked. So he’d found the key before her.
That must have been how he’d been able to get in to attack Reverend Pilling.
She pushed it open, wincing as the hinges creaked, and tiptoed down the passage to the door to the church. Putting her ear to the ancient wood she thought she could hear laughter from the other side. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. It was sadistic, mocking.
If he’d hurt Ash, she’d… What?
What was she going to do? She still had no idea how to send him home and end this. Maybe she was just going to make things worse. She took a deep breath, filled her cheeks with air and blew it out through the circle of her lips to slow her beating heart. She pressed the handle and pushed open the door a crack. There was silence from the church so she carried on, emerging from the vestry between the dark wooden pews. She hugged the wall and made her way towards the chancel.
Through the pillared arches she saw Ash, shirtless and bleeding, hung from the beams above by chains, shackles clamped tight round each wrist. The metal bit into his flesh, and being no ordinary metal it burned him. Deep cuts scored the flesh on his chest, stomach and arms. She cried out and clamped her hands over her mouth, tears springing to her eyes at the sight of his pain. His head whipped up at the sound she made. Who wouldn’t hear her coming? It echoed through the church.
His eyes were dull, but when he saw her his face crumpled in despair.
“I told you not to follow me,” he said. “I’d rather take my chances in Hell than put you through this again.”
“I couldn’t just leave you.”
He tried to smile, to reassure her, to show her he was grateful and understood.
“Aw, isn’t that sweet,” said a voice from the shadows.
Kate stiffened. Ash pulled at the chains in vain, trying to get loose so he could protect her.
“Who are you?” Kate demanded, trying to sound more confident than she felt.
When the voice didn’t answer she grew impatient, angry.
“Show yourself, you coward.”
A figure stepped from the shadows behind the pulpit. He held a dagger in one hand and used it to pare the dirt from beneath the fingernails of his other. It caught the light and Kate could see the symbols etched on the blade. It was wicked sharp. Last to emerge was the face. Kate’s jaw dropped when she saw him.
Peter Sharpe was the last person they had suspected. They hadn’t even considered him at all. He was supposed to be away, travelling to an antiques sale, but then that would fit, wouldn’t it? If he’d bought the dagger and book at an auction or boot sale. It would be an easy way for it to come to him.
“Hello Kate,” he said with a fiendish grin.
His voice sounded different from the warm, friendly man she knew as her boss and he looked awful. His hair was greasy and unkempt, he hadn’t shaved for days and his eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. He began walking towards her across the chancel and she backed up against the wall. Ash’s chains rattled as he strained to free himself.
“Don’t fight the inevitable, Kate. Embrace your destiny.”
His arms were flung wide in a dramatic gesture. Kate put several pews between herself and her boss. Peter didn’t want to play cat and mouse, he knew what would bring her to him and turned towards the angel. As Kate realised what he was about to do she cried out.
“No! Don’t touch him!”
He smiled at her over his shoulder and put the point of the blade to Ash’s chest. Ash clenched his teeth; he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of screaming at the searing pain. Peter dragged the knife down his skin in a straight line from breastbone to navel. Kate screamed and ran forward.
“Stop it, please stop it!” she sobbed.
Peter removed the dagger, blood dripped to the floor in a pool beneath Ash’s feet. He turned to Kate, who had stopped at the altar he had set up. The casket with Catherine’s ashes and the diary lay on one side and in the centre lay the book, open at the ritual on one of the lecterns from the archive room. Either side were the heavy silver candlesticks that would normally adorn the altar where the offertory plate stood. This had now been filled with blood. She guessed the blood was Ash’s.
“I used it to see you coming here,” he said. “What better way to seek you out than with the blood of the angel that loves you so?”
Peter stood in front of her; she pressed her back to the table’s edge and leaned away from him. He shoved his face into hers, so close she could smell his putrid breath and the stench of stale sweat from his clothes. He looked like he hadn’t had a bath or brushed his teeth for weeks. Scabbed over cuts peeped out from beneath the cuffs of his dirty shirt. It reminded her of Thomas Whittle and the self-inflicted cuts he made to perform the black magic spells from the book. Had Peter been doing the same? Of course he had.
“Peter, this isn’t you,” she crooned. “You’re better than this, you can fight it.”
“I don’t want to fight it!” he spat through gritted teeth, spittle hitting her in the face. “I want to end it! I want what should have been mine centuries ago. I want to be immortal!”
“So why haven’t you killed him then?”
“Because I need you here too. I want you to watch me while I do it. I want you to consent to it.”
“Never,” she said, and the voices of all those who had gone before her echoed alongside her.
He jabbed the dagger at her. Ash groaned and struggled again.
“I won’t do it,” Kate said, her voice husky, her eyes spilling over with tears at Ash’s pain.
“Won’t you?” Peter sang, dancing away and slashing the knife across Ash’s bicep.
The angel cried out despite his best efforts.
“When I’ve finished with him you’ll be begging me to kill him. You’ll be desperate to end his pain.”
“Don’t listen to him, Kate,” Ash said.
Kate pressed her lips together to stop herself from screaming. Her lips trembled. Her mind was spinning, searching for a way out of the situation. The debate raged in her head. What did Ash need her to do? Should she kill Peter, should she repeat Evelyn’s sacrifice and kill herself? That seemed better than being responsible for anyone else’s death.
What had he said about Evelyn, that killing herself wasn’t the only thing she could have done. Kate whizzed through the options that Evelyn could have had. She had the knife, she killed herself, but that wasn’t right, she could have killed Sebastian, but previous attempts to kill the bearer of Thomas Whittle’s soul hadn’t solved anything either. The only other option that Evelyn had open to her was the one thing that had never been done before.
Her mind reeled in shock. Was that it? Was that what she had to do to set him free? How could she? How could she look into his eyes and plunge that dagger into his heart? How could she kill the man she loved? But maybe that was why it was so hard, maybe that was why she had never done it before…
If only Sebastian wasn’t there to chant the words of the ritual…
As she was arguing with herself, Peter had continued his monologue. He was preaching to her now, telling her they’d been chosen for something great, miraculous, amazing… He was pacing back and forth across the chancel. She had to shut him up.
Kate glanced across at Ash. He stared at the floor. He looked lost, defeated. Her heart ached to hold him. Why couldn’t she make him see that none of this was his fault. It wasn’t Peter’s fault either. After going over everything that she’d read in the diary, every conversation she had had with Ash while they’d been together, a couple of things had jumped out at her. And suddenly that was it. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Every time she had shown pity for Thomas, for Sebastian, Ash had reacted. Now she knew without a doubt what she had to do. She risked glancing behind her for the position of the ornate candlesticks on the altar, and while Peter carried on talking, she began to edge her way towards them.
She wanted Ash to notice the change in her. He had to be able to hear the excited beating of her heart, but he wouldn’t look up. He was so lost in his misery, convinced she was going to die because of him again, he had given up caring what happened to him anymore.
Kate wondered if she could do something similar to Ash’s aura trick and send him calming vibes. She focused on her heartbeat, tried to slow it down, shut out Peter’s droning monologue and inched ever closer to that candlestick, willing Ash to look up at her and hear her thoughts. In all the time she’d known him, he’d always been able to hear her thoughts, feel her emotions, why when she needed him to see what was in her head, did he not seem able to?
Was the metal that the chains were made of somehow responsible for blocking their connection? It appeared so. There were deep burn marks around his wrists and she knew that when Sebastian had tortured him the shackles had prevented him from using his angelic powers to transport himself from one place to another. He had whispered into Evelyn’s mind, but had never been certain he had reached her.
When she reached her goal, she felt behind her, her hand moving like a drunken spider across the cloth until her fingers made contact with the cold metal of the candlestick. She curled her fingers around it and pulled it closer to her back.
She must have reached Ash in some way as something seemed to catch his attention and he raised his head, cocking it on one side. He seemed to be listening for something, and as his eyes found hers, he frowned. Kate gave him the smallest of secret smiles and was rewarded with seeing the light come back into his eyes. He stood a little taller and there was hope there once more as he watched her curiously.
“And when I finally receive my reward from Lucifer, no one will be able to stop me!”
Peter came to a standstill in front of Kate and smiled at her, shaking his head like a sympathetic father.
“Poor girl, five hundred years of misery and you still haven’t managed to work out how to end this. Even with his diary, the whole sorry tale spelled out for you, you can’t see the wood for the trees,” Peter said.
Kate straightened in defiance.
“Karmic debt,” said Kate, shocking Peter into silence. “When souls reincarnate together because they love each other so much they need to be together again,” she smiled at Ash. “Or sometimes because they do something so bad to someone they have to seek forgiveness.”
“It’s not that simple,” he mocked. “Forgiving him isn’t the answer. You love him, as far as you’re concerned he has never done anything to be forgiven for. And neither has the man this body belongs to.”
“I know. It wasn’t Peter’s choice to do this, or Sebastian’s or the Witch Finder’s. The only one who had the choice to say no was Thomas Whittle. And there’s only one way I can forgive him. Free Ash, and let him take me back to the beginning.”
There was silence. Peter weighed up Kate’s words and realised he was about to lose his chance again. He sprang into action, bringing the dagger over his head in a sweeping motion towards Kate’s heart. She swung the candlestick in front of her and blocked the blow, but with his full weight behind it, it was forced closer and closer to her chest.
As she struggled against him the face before her seemed to twist and change.
“Witch,” he hissed. “When I am immortal you will burn in Hell.”
Kate could feel the other woman looking out from behind her eyes. Isabel was strong, she had no fear of the Witch Finder. She had faced him once before and defeated him. She leant her strength to Kate and together they pushed the Witch Finder back.
Kate ran down the aisle, turning at the last pew to face him as he chased after her. He lunged and she dodged backwards out of his reach. Backing into the Christmas tree that stood in the entrance of the church. She edged around it, then pushed it over, sending it toppling towards him. He wrestled with it then extricated himself, trailing a length of tinsel from its branches.
“Let it go, Witch Finder. This is no longer our fight,” Isabel said, gently.
The Witch Finder growled and made a grab for her arm, catching her by the wrist and pulling her towards him.
“I forgive you,” she said.
The Witch Finder frowned for a moment, then his shoulders slumped and his face softened in an expression of relief as he was released from centuries of anger, bottled up from one incarnation to the next.
Isabel, finally at peace, threw Ash one last, fond, farewell glance before she returned Kate’s body to her, but it wasn’t over yet.
Peter reached out towards Kate as if begging her for help, but the steel in his eyes made her draw back. She took a step to the side and then he came after her, trapping her against the pulpit. He spun her to face him and flung her back against the wood panelling, his hand at her throat.
“Evelyn?” he said, trying to focus on her face.
Kate swallowed, she’d been dreading this. Ash pulled ever harder at the chains.
“Stay away from her, Sebastian. It’s me you want, remember?”
“You can wait, angel. My sister and I have unfinished business.”
Sebastian’s hand squeezed tighter. Kate struggled for breath. Evelyn hovered in the corner of Kate’s mind. She looked past Sebastian at Ash, then turned her eyes to her brother.
Sebastian pressed himself against her, brushed the hair from her face then kissed her, hard. Then in one swift movement, he swung her around and stepped behind her, his arm across her chest, the dagger at her throat. Kate, aware of everything that was happening, was powerless to act.
Slowly Sebastian shuffled forward, pushing Evelyn before him until she stood face to face with Ashrafel.
Evelyn, my beautiful Evelyn,” Sebastian said. “I’ve missed you, my love.”
“Don’t listen to him, Evie. I’m with you. I never left you,” Ash said.
Evelyn reacted to neither, but Kate felt something shift. Evelyn was pushed aside and another took her place. She winked at the angel and flashed him a grin.
“Charlotte?” Ash said, in surprise.
The woman Kate had become stamped her foot hard on top of Sebastian’s, crushing his foot beneath the heel of her boot. Then she elbowed him sharply in the ribs, knocking the wind from his lungs and twisted out of his grip.
Peter doubled over, clutching at his body in pain. He staggered backwards and fell to the floor. The dagger clattered on the flagstones. He clutched at his head, twisting it this way and that between his hands. Between screams he muttered phrases in German.
“Make it stop,” he screamed up at Ash, kneeling on the floor before the chained angel.
He reached down to the dagger at his side, tortured by the awful images inside his head, and his fingers curled round the handle. He fought against the pain and prepared to lunge at Ash, but Kate was quicker.
Throughout the struggle the forgotten candlestick had remained in her grip and she leapt forward, swinging her arm as hard as she could, catching Peter on the side of the head. He crumpled to the floor.
Kate flung her weapon aside, picked up the dagger and made her way towards Ash. He was smiling now with pride. She touched the shackles at his wrists and they fell away, but she couldn’t look at him. Her heart was still breaking, but for a different reason. She knew what she had to do was going to take him away from her forever. He’d be gone and she’d be alone again.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she whispered.
Tears trickled down her cheeks as he lifted her chin.
“You have to, it will never end if you don’t.”
“Can’t you stay? We could be together for this lifetime at least.”
He shook his head.
“We tried that, remember. There’s always a price and then it starts all over again.”
She flung the dagger to the floor and held onto him, but he held her at arm’s length, picked up the knife and pressed it into her hand.
“I would take Hell over Heaven any day, if it meant I could be with you, but I can’t save you from this nightmare unless you send me home.”
She shook her head.
“I’ll always be with you,” he said, seeing the thing she feared most in her thoughts.
Kate flung her arms around his neck and sobbed, her face buried in his shoulder. She breathed in the scent of him and committed it to memory, not willing to forget a single thing about him. Then determined to get it over with, she kissed him for the last time.
She placed the point of the dagger against his heart.
“I love you,” she whispered. “And I forgive you.”
She pushed as hard as she could, forcing the dagger home.