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The Tenth Gate

~ Part Five

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Hearts beating a little too fast, they walked out of the museum. They walked briskly, not speaking, trying not to glance behind. Turning down a side street they ran to the car, fumbled for the keys, and held their breath while she started the engine. Ella felt her skin grow clammy with fear, but no one had followed. They’d got away with it, and had carried the tenth etching, smooth and unfolded, home between the papers they had brought with them.

There had been an unspoken agreement to leave the final task until later, until the shade of evening grew. Ella knew what she wanted to find, the demons she wanted to conjure, and the uses, both dark and light that she wanted to make of the knowledge that would fall from the newly reunited pictures. The witch that she could be had reached out for them, called them back from across the years. But she didn’t know what Corso would want. Her reading of minds was, as yet, imperfect, and centred on the emotions. Cold hard scheming fact was impossible for her to reach into. And that was what he did best, the sharp mental pivot around which his daily life revolved. Greed and power drove him, but she didn’t know which held the upper hand, or if those weaknesses could be used to bind him to her. She’d drawn him in to get the etching, planned this moment from the day she’d first seen into his thoughts in the library, the day she’d used his lonely imaginings to set the trap that was baited with what she had found in the hidden corners of his mind. But she still didn’t know what he would do.

And she hadn’t expected to have to deal with the infection he had brought to her, the stalking, treacherous love that grew, threading its way inside. That hadn’t been in her take-it-and-leave-him plan.


The first cold touch of autumn had crept into the late August’s evening air. A shroud of damp mist edged from the river across the flood banks and onto the fields towards her open windows. The sickly miasma of the rot that follows ripeness, the first advances of the mortality that the harvest season foretold hung in the stagnant air. The greens of summer were dusty and faded, tinted with decay. Somehow they both felt the chill and the sadness of a change about to come. Not enough warmth in the evening air to give comfort, the fire had been lit. The hearth spluttered with this first flame of the new season, damp and green wood spitting and smoking, angry in its new role.

A yellowing paper, thick, clearly hand-made, lay on the dining table, surrounded by the nine others he’d pulled from his bag. Reunited at last, they almost glowed, a shared recollection of times past. There was some magic about these things from the past, things that had seen more than today’s eyes could hope to see.

Corso looked closely at the ten pictures. How would they work magic now that they were reunited? How would it change him, that touch of something so old? Are the atoms of a thing created from desire changed by the emotion that flowed around it? Is its character changed when it becomes the subject of cheating, of avarice, of love? Do echoes of the times it’s passed through sound within it? Does it absorb something of the chaos it creates?

He ran his possessive hands over the ten, picked up the new one, and studied what it showed. Figures, back view, leaning over a round table, a room with a fireplace, ten pictures in a circle. A pool of light lay in the middle, a hand dipping into it. The legend beneath was a single word. Veritas. Truth. He knew that this was indeed what they had looked for. The style of today’s find was the same, the paper contemporary with his nine, and the signature matched. All that would be needed was the incantations, the words spoken in the correct order, the catalyst for the chemistry.

And he knew that this time it would work. This domestic stage had none of the drama of the scene at the castle, but this setting matched the way the pictures had been used before, by Ella’s ancestor. The scene in the last picture matched this room, the circular table and the flaring hearth. This was the place where he would find his devil.

As the sun faded, they began. A long look at each other, a hope to find trust in each other’s eyes. Both longing and guardedness. Set the etchings out. Light a candle. Read the words. Watch and wait. But nothing. Ella paced, anger rising. Try again. What was wrong? They had set out the ten pictures, the circle was complete. They had read the words. Still nothing. Tension leaking into the air. Few words spoken. All should be well- the pictures were real, and they were set out as they had been shown. Open a bottle of wine, light another cigarette. More wood to spit in the hearth. Try again.

Still nothing. Bats swooped outside the still, open window. The sky that dreadful blue that is so nearly black. Night crept across the fields towards them.

“We need a fresh view of this.” Corso’s voice was quiet, determination forcing cold logic to take over from the hot panic that fills the mind when things don’t go right. He’d always been a planner; he worked by knowing what he’d do in advance. He didn’t like reactivity. He slumped into the corner of the old sofa, the firelight lighting half his face, darkness covering the rest, and drew heavily on yet another Lucky Strike. The wine was almost finished, but he felt absolutely clear headed.

“Come and sit down. Ella, we’re going to work this out.”

She turned away from her vigil at the table. “Will we? Sometimes plans don’t work as they should, you know that.”

“No, they’ll work. Maybe not right now, but this is a set of clues set to be broken. Your family, the way we got the last picture, it’s meant to be. One final piece to find, that’s all. We’ll do it. Come and sit down.”

She moved over to him, warming her hands in front of the glowing logs. He was startled, shocked, to see that she was close to tears. Giving in to her feelings was not the sort of thing she did. Since he had met her, she had been in control. Emotion did not pour from her. Lust maybe, and sometimes he wondered if there was the faintest trace of love.

“Does it really matter if this doesn’t work?” He knew the answer before the question faded away.

“It does, you know it does.”

“Why? Ella, why is this so important to you?”

She looked hard at him, blinking through the tears. “Because I’m angry. Because I don’t like failure. Because this mind-reading, this witchcraft, is a thing I can only half do. I can only do it sometimes, and only incompletely. I want to command my abilities, to have the power that they did all those years ago.” She hesitated. “Just because I know I can.”

Sitting down, she drew her palm across her eyes, wiping away the weakness.

Somehow, it felt right to put his arm around her. It was his choice. He felt comfortable with the act. He felt how well she fitted into the hollow between his arm and his chest, how soft her hair felt as she rested her head against his neck. He breathed in her scent, a slow inhalation, the sweetness of her skin mingling with the nicotine and wine tastes on his tongue. He brought his arm closer, drawing her into him, feeling the warmth of her body, the little swells of muscle and the sharpness of her small frame. She gazed past him into the dying flames, lost in thoughts of the day’s events, the theft of the picture and the failure of the magic that the pictures should have brought. But as he stole a glance at her, he saw that she still cried. No sound, but a silent weeping. However guarded you keep your soul, failure comes hard. A lesson he had learned from bitter experience. The taste of being used was hard to forget, but he wanted to hold her, take away her pain, absorb the misery that flowed from her.

However guarded you keep your soul, he thought, love can creep inside.

Leaning towards her, he kissed her cheek softly, almost brushing the tears away with his lips. The lightest, the tenderest of touches. A touch that did not signal sex. Somewhere, sometime over the last few days he had changed. Since his storm drenched arrival, she had worked on and erased all his fantasies- the bathroom, the kitchen, the library-, and now his mind was cleansed and only reality remain. The only thing left to fill his mind was the warmth and the softness of the kiss itself.

She lifted her face, turned her lips to his. She tasted of honey, and tobacco.

All his senses were lost in those soft wet lips and the lightness of her exploring tongue.

“Make love to me.” She only whispered it. Love, not sex. He took her hand and drew her upstairs, knowing that love was what the strangely changed man he had become needed.


In Ella’s cluttered and bookish room, Corso looked up from the bed they had at last shared. The night that fell on the countryside was different to that which fell on the city. No sodium glow, no growl of traffic making its way through the dirty streets. Only nature’s sinister choir of clicks and insect chatterings, rustles and pouncings. The brittle and unnerving sounds of a world that came out when the human world retreated.

Asleep beside him, wound in the crumpled sheet, lay Ella, her breathing light and regular, her hand beneath her head. He looked at her and wondered why she had chosen him, why she had given herself to him so completely. Their love making earlier had been different to the sex they had shared before, but the words to say how escaped him. Here he lay in a room filled with books, with words all around him and yet he was lost, unable to put what he felt into coherent expression. Words would not come. Why had it been different? What had changed? What was this new feeling?

When he had cupped his hands around her face, felt the smoothness of her skin, what had he thought of? Only that feeling. He had let his hands ease off her clothes, saw them fall in untidy folds on the floor as her white skin and dark shadows revealed themselves. Her hands had explored him, her soft caresses echoing his. What had he thought of? Only that touch. They had lain so close, length of their bodies touching, each cautiously learning and understanding the need they created in the other.

He had kept his eyes open as they made love. He wanted to see if she smiled, he wanted to be able to tell if she loved him. But all he saw was beauty, the beauty of the simple act of trust that made him want to please her, make her shudder, cause her the little death that takes all the world’s cares away. Love had made him generous, and he realised the freedom that giving created in his lost and shuttered soul. As the blackness of night enveloped them the ecstasy of despair, the emptiness of the mind that the moment brings, had broken over them both. When they looked into each other’s eyes, they saw nothing but each other.

Their bodies still wrapped together, he lay wordless and still. Now there was no need for language. Silence prevailed. This, he realised, was what sex without fantasy was like, sex where he concentrated on his and another’s minds and bodies. Sex that sprang from the soul, sex that was making love. And it was the most erotic he had ever experienced.

The words of the books around him were not enough to describe this love making. The nouns were too coarse, their sounds too clinical. The verbs were too simple and the adjectives too trite. The syntax of his language did not seem sufficient to explain. But he knew that he had found his missing piece. And at that moment, he realised that lust and love were not the only dimensions that mattered. His missing piece, the part of his soul that was lost, was the ability to care. It was the alchemy that turned sex into making love, the piece that had filled the empty space in his mind that had once held his fantasies.


The smells of night were on the air as he finally came to terms with the knowledge that sleep would not come. He had thought about the last day incessantly, and he now knew that he loved her. But, her need for the etchings still fresh in his mind, a sickness ran through him - he didn’t know if she felt the same way.

Sitting up, taking care not to disturb her, he reached for his cigarettes, pulled a robe around him and went back downstairs to where the pictures still lay. The last red glowerings of the fire lit the room, the dark wood of the old table reflecting the greasy sheen of a gibbous moon between the scattered pictures. The night was quieter than he’d known it, the last bats swooping away as the first false dawn rays greyed the misty air. Ella’s cat slept on the grate, avoiding the chill that leaked from the open window. Nothing moved except him, leaning over the pictures, touching them, hoping to gain the inspiration that would tell him their secret. The clock ticked, so loud in the silence that he could hear its cogs grate and springs relax.

The clock! The action of the clock! The revelation hit him out of the silent darkness. Weren’t all things demonic the opposite of the way the world tries to make things? Wasn’t the devil the Anti-Christ? He had laid the etchings out wrong, he had set them clockwise around the table. What if…?

Working fast, he moved the sheets around, anti-clockwise now. Did the moonlight on the table glow more brightly? Did some mist spill in through the window? He whispered the words in sequence, ending with the last, veritas, the truth. Silence and stillness. A pause like a moment of falling, where the air is drawn from the lungs. And a shimmering light, the gelatinous surface of a pool of not quite liquid emerging on the table within the circle. A liquid that gave light but did not allow reflections, a pool of tarnished quicksilver.

Corso looked very closely. The picture had told him what he had to do. Like he had seen in the last picture, he dipped in his hand. Nothing, only a sticky blood-heat dampness. It has no smell, caused no changes. What was it? He smoothed the oily liquid between his fingers. Still no change. He put his fingers to his lips, and touched the ghostly mass with his tongue. Nothing, only bitterness. He turned away in disgust.

And then he saw the cat. But to say saw did not describe it. He not only saw the cat, but he knew about the cat. He knew it dreamed of the barn. It tasted the night’s kill in its mouth. He tasted the same blood and feathers, felt the warmth of the dying logs on smooth licked fur. He felt as the cat felt, traced out its thoughts. He felt the freedom that comes to the self-centred. He felt the coldness of a creature who kills for sport. He knew how it would soon search out another prey, and how it would delight in cruelty. He could see each malicious, manipulative thought that passed through the creature’s mind. An animal mind, devoid of morality. For the few seconds before the vision faded, he knew everything the cat knew. He had perfect, terrifying knowledge of another’s mind.

Corso sat heavily on the sofa and stared at the fire. His hands shook as he reached for a cigarette, and a sweaty pallor glistened on his skin. Now he knew. The spell had worked, but the devil it conjured was not the fire and brimstone apparition that all the picture’s users had expected. It brought a devil, certainly. The devil it brought was knowledge. The ability to see inside another’s mind, to spy on their soul. A blessing and a curse.

As the clarity faded Corso, head in hands, considered the value of this knowledge, and, scraping his shattered feelings together, considered how he would use it. Profit or a more personal gain? This could be a useful asset for a book dealer. Buyers would rarely tell him even half a truth and sellers even less. Business would thrive. He had only to take the pictures and run. But there would be other uses. His mind in free-fall, he thought of Ella. When he had looked for love, what had he seen? Did she think of him, or only of the pictures? Was it love he had seen in those brown and gold, tear filled eyes?

The man that he had been would not care. But the man that he was now hoped it was. But with it would come the commitment and responsibility for another. Would the knowledge that she loved him be a greater burden than finding that she didn’t?

But she couldn’t love him. Why should she feel anything for anyone like me, he thought. Perhaps he’d been sure all along, but not knowing left him with a grain of maybe, a last and forlorn hope that she felt like he did. The pictures were the temptation to lose his final fantasy, the fantasy that Ella loved him, the one he wanted to cling to.

And if, Ella long abandoned, he ever met another woman, if he ever was close enough to call a man friend, he knew he would tempted to do the same.

Quick decisions were what he did best. That hadn’t changed. He’d take the hurt and uncertainty he felt now over the greater hurt that he would find when he put the liquid to his lips and looked at Ella. He’d always been independent; it was one of his strengths. Bleak necessity meant that he was used to being alone. He would cut this necrotising love from his soul. He needed no-one. His old life could be reclaimed. Better the devil you know, he thought, lips narrowing under the irony.

Moving very quietly, he went upstairs, dressed and packed. He did not look in at the sleeping woman who had bewitched him, but gathered up his memento mori of failure, his nine pictures, carefully stowing them in their usual place in his worn shoulder bag. He would not take the last one, which belonged with her. He threw on his old green coat, and took a last look around the room, fixing forever the memory of this place he had almost made home. Last thoughts about the choices he’d made flew though his mind. He tried to keep his face expressionless. There was a sulphurous flare of a match, the red glow of a final cigarette, and a broken, bitter murmur.

“You wouldn’t have fitted here. Close it down, shut it out. Learn and move on.”

He rubbed his thumb across the corner of his eye and smeared a bead of salty water across his cheek and into his greying hair.

The truth was not beautiful, he told himself as he turned and picked up his bags. He turned his back on the dying fire and, determining not to turn back, walked towards the door.

He looked down. His hand hesitated for the briefest of moments before resting on the handle. A last and final reconsideration or a gathering of courage before a hard necessity?

The chill draft of the cold season yet to come made the curtains billow as he clicked the door softly shut behind him and walked slowly away into the grey dawn light.


The End