‘Maggie,’ he croaked, his voice hoarse. Hot flames roared around him, singeing his hair and blistering his skin. Acrid smoke filled his lungs and made him cough. The coughing caused him to retch. He doubled over.
‘Maggie,’ his wife called from upstairs, ‘Maggie, where are you?!’
He covered his mouth with a hand, his chest heaving and his lungs burning for oxygen. He was half blind from the smoke, disoriented and on the verge of losing consciousness. Don’t black out, he begged himself, try to fight it. But that was an impossible plea. Gasping, he fell to the floor, consciously aware he was suffocating…
His daughter’s voice broke him out of his panic. He fought the darkness crowding his vision, then looked up and saw Maggie coming through the smoke and flames. She was bathed in fire, tiny flames floating in the air around her. In her arms she clutched the porcelain doll he had given her. Something mocking and malicious danced in her eyes.
Maggie stopped before her father and looked down at him, her expression bereft. ‘You’ll all burn,’ she said and a nasty smile split her face.
Her eyes were laughing.
They found the body in a wooded area behind the town. It was a chilly October morning and the first frost of the season had already settled in.
The remains belonged to a local girl who had disappeared a fortnight ago. She had been stripped naked and staked out on the ground. Occult symbols were carved into her body.
News of the gruesome discovery spread through the town like wildfire. No one “knew” anything, but more than a few heads turned to glance at the eerie house on the edge of Dunwood Park.
That morning, Mrs. Aldridge left early for church. She wore an old-fashioned satin dress and a hat with a veil. Her niece hurried ahead of her, nodding politely to people as she passed. A half-intact porcelain doll was clutched tightly in her thin arms. One side of the doll’s face was badly cracked, giving it an ugly, scarred appearance. Its huge, sightless eyes looked strangely alive.
As always, people gave the widow and her ward a wide berth. The rumours regarding the death of the girl’s parents up in Oxford, in a fire, made everyone feel uneasy.
Later that afternoon a police constable came to question Mrs. Aldridge at her gloomy, isolated old house. He seemed uncomfortable and fidgety. The widow invited him to come in, but he declined. ‘It will only take a minute,’ he said, a little too eagerly.
‘Aunt Mabel?’ called a tiny voice from inside the house. Mrs. Aldridge turned to see her niece standing in the hallway. The girl looked displeased. The porcelain doll was still clutched tightly in her hand.
The child blinked at the constable, her eyes huge. ‘My, who’s the oaf?’
The young officer’s face reddened and he stuttered incomprehensibly. Smiling, the little girl stepped beside her aunt. ‘I think you should go,’ she said. ‘Now.’
The compulsion was too strong to deny; it made everything else seem completely unimportant. The constable straightened up. ‘I have to go!’
‘Of course, dear,’ agreed Mrs. Aldridge.
Her niece had gone back to the living room to watch out the window, humming quietly to her doll.
Shortly after the murder, like moths attracted to a light bulb, strangers from outside the town started visiting Mrs. Aldridge. They came at odd hours, sometimes in the mid-morning and sometimes late at night. Word was, the widow barely left her bed on most days. Her niece received private tutoring and never went out to play with the other children. She only observed them from behind the window.
Life in the small community turned tense and uneasy, even resentful. Nobody dared say it aloud, but everyone had the same word on their minds: evil. Soon everybody in the town had come to the same conclusion – Mabel Aldridge was a witch.
‘Eat up, dear,’ said Mrs. Aldridge sweetly, placing a ham and butter sandwich before him. ‘You’re all skin and bones!’
Nikolaj shifted in his chair. He was sitting in an eighties-style kitchen with dark wood cabinets and beige linoleum floor. One wall had a window overlooking the back garden. The other was taken up by shelves crammed with mugs, bowls, plates and cookbooks. A fat ginger cat was sitting smugly on the chair opposite him, washing itself after its meal. Outside, a light drizzle fell from a dull, overcast sky.
Wrinkling his nose, Nikolaj looked at the sandwich that Mrs. Aldridge had placed before him. He pushed the plate away.
‘Thank you,’ he said politely, ‘but I’m really not hungry.’
‘It’s not poisonous, dear,’ chuckled Mrs. Aldridge. She put the kettle on, got a couple of mugs out of a cabinet, and then took a bottle of milk out of the fridge. She stopped for a second, trying to remember if she was forgetting anything, and eased out a sigh. ‘Getting old is such a pain, isn’t it?’ Nikolaj wasn’t sure if he was supposed to reply to that, or if it was rhetorical, so he said nothing. Mrs. Aldridge chuckled again. ‘You will excuse me, dear, for a moment there I forgot old age is not something you have to worry about!’
His mouth curved into a tight-lipped smile. No, you didn’t, Nikolaj thought. Goddamn bitch.
The cat had stopped washing itself and was standing very still, gold-flecked green eyes fixated on him.
The kettle shrilled, and Mrs. Aldridge turned to get a fresh tea bag and pour the water over it into her mug. She then made coffee for Nikolaj and carried it to the spindly-legged table, careful not to spill anything on the floor. ‘Sip it while hot, dear,’ she muttered.
He nodded, but didn’t drink. Mrs. Aldridge brought her own mug over to the table, then shushed the cat off the chair and eased herself into it. She sipped her tea, looking at Nikolaj over the rim of her mug. Seconds passed. ‘Well, then, dear, if you've come to see me, I expect you want something, hmm?’
‘I was told you can divine the future,’ Nikolaj said levelly. ‘Why don’t you tell me?’
Mrs. Aldridge took another sip of tea. ‘I’m not interested in playing games. You came to see me.’ Her brow scrunched. ‘Of course, if you don’t want my help, then all you have to do is leave. Either way, stop wasting my time.’
Something in her tone made Nikolaj’s temper rise and his blood started pumping. He wasn’t used to people talking to him like that and he didn’t care for it.
A low growl rumbled in his throat. His gloved fingers clenched around the mug in his hand as though to break it and his pupils started to glow eerily. His lips pulled back, revealing long eyeteeth.
In the corners of the kitchen, shadows grew and deepened, watching him with expectant non-eyes.
Mrs. Aldridge pursed her lips, annoyance lining her face. ‘You’re in my house, strigoi,’ she chided. ‘So be a dear and get a hold of yourself. Your kind is always so… touchy.’
The calmness of her voice made her words all the more convincing. Nikolaj felt rather than heard the ginger cat creep up behind his chair, teeth bared and claws outstretched; felt rather than saw it starting to grow rapidly, its body morphing into a grotesque form somewhere between a sabre-tooth tiger and a Lovecraftian monster.
Suddenly the radio above the fridge flicked on, playing static. A cracking sound filled the kitchen. The hairs on the back of Nikolaj’s neck stood up in warning: whatever the thing behind him was, it was poised to kill. He clenched his teeth so hard his jaw ached. Dammit all, he couldn’t allow himself to be intimidated. He was a strigoi – one of the purebreeds. They were the descendants of Adam himself.
Nikolaj fixed his gaze on the witch’s eyes, keeping his face blank. His .45 Colt was in a shoulder holster on his left side. Even in his condition, he could draw it in a heartbeat. All it takes is one bullet. She won’t even see it coming.
In his experience, once you got rid of the sorcerer, dispatching their pets into oblivion was rather easy.
As if reading his mind, Mrs. Aldridge smiled and sipped her tea. She pushed her glasses up her nose and said in a honeyed voice: ‘Try to go for your gun, dear. My little darling will tear you limb from limb and then—’
Nikolaj started at the child’s voice. All of a sudden, the kitchen was silent as a tomb.
Small steps sounded behind him. Throwing a quick glance towards Mrs. Aldridge, he turned to look at her niece. The little girl was dressed in a bright, blue dress with white stockings and red shoes. Her hair was tied in a loose ponytail and her cheeks were pink with rouge. She was clutching a porcelain doll in one hand and a TV remote control in the other. For some reason Nikolaj felt goosebumps running down his arms.
The daemon, or whatever it was, had reverted back to its feline form, and was licking its paws and rubbing its face, meowing sweetly.
‘Aunt Mabel,’ repeated the girl, pointing with the remote control. ‘Can you change the channel, please? Murder, She Wrote is on again and I hate it!’
Mrs. Aldridge chuckled and nodded, and then started to rise up. ‘Of course, dear. Right away.’
‘Thank you!’ beamed the little girl.
Mrs. Aldridge took the remote from her niece and headed for the living room with the ginger cat in tow. She didn’t give Nikolaj another glance.
The little girl strolled through the kitchen and climbed into the same chair her aunt had sat in. Her eyes were no longer those of a child – they were cold and calculating and bright. ‘You will excuse Mabel,’ she said authoritatively. ‘She’s staggeringly incompetent for a Wiccan her age.’
Nikolaj kept the surprise off his face. ‘You’re the real witch.’
The girl shrugged and carefully laid the bisque doll on the table before her. ‘Show me your hands, vampyre,’ she said.
For a moment Nikolaj hesitated, then took his gloves off and put his hands on the table. His skin was dry and wrinkled, like an old yellow raisin. Half of his nails had disappeared already and his bony fingers looked malformed. They looked painful. Brown age spots covered what little was visible of his arms.
The girl reached as though to touch his wrist, but dropped her hand. ‘You’ve started to age. I can see it around your eyes, in the lines on your face—’
‘The immortality spell is breaking down,’ Nikolaj interrupted her sharply. ‘I’ll be dead by the end of the month, probably within fifteen days.’
The witch didn’t try to argue. ‘So what? You’ve come looking for a cure?’
He snorted. ‘I’m five hundred years old. I already know what the cure is.’ His smoke-grey eyes narrowed. ‘There is only one thing that can reverse the aging process and restore my immortality. The blood of the Ásheru.’
‘The descendants of Eve,’ she chuckled. ‘It might be hard to find one, seeing as how your kind almost hunted them to extinction during the World Wars.’
She cocked an eyebrow. ‘Besides, aren’t there any Ásheru slaves left in Adam’s court?’
Nikolaj’s silence was response enough. ‘Can you help me find one or not?’
‘Sure I can… for a price.’
‘First, I want to be sure you understand this. No one,’ her voice dropped to almost a whisper, ‘No one breaks deals with me, for there are consequences.’
He didn’t hesitate for even a split second. ‘I understand.’
The girl was quiet for a few moments. Leaning back in the chair, she took the porcelain doll in her lap and started playing with its hair. Her expression seemed distant, focused on something very far away.
Then she blinked and looked at Nikolaj sharply. ‘The deal is this,’ the witch said. ‘I will tell you where to find an Ásheru. In return, you’ll agree to owe me a favour.’
‘What’s the catch?’
She just smiled. ‘This is my first and only offer.’
Nikolaj thought about it for a second. He didn’t like the idea of owing her a favour. But he couldn’t afford to say no either. He took a deep breath. ‘You have a deal.’
Something flickered in the little girl’s eyes, then her face went utterly blank. A breeze whispered through the kitchen, causing Nikolaj to shudder. The touch of magic tickled his skin. ‘It is done,’ she breathed. Her eyes seemed brighter somehow, eager. ‘Tell me, vampyre… How good is your French?’
The apartment was on the top floor of an old building just a short walk from the Eiffel Tower, the Champ de Mars, and the River Seine. The window to one side gave a spectacular view across Paris, and a set of French doors led to a small balcony. It was night, and the cityscape was awash in the colours of the night lights. In the starlit darkness, the nearby Eiffel Tower glowed like a beacon.
The City of Lights, Nikolaj thought, taking a drag off his cigarette. He exhaled a cloud of smoke and tapped some ash onto the sidewalk, then flicked the fag-end over his shoulder, where it landed in a puddle of water. A group of teenagers eyed him suspiciously as they walked past him, but he ignored them. It’s time.
Inhaling deeply, Nikolaj called upon the darkness. La Fée Verte, the faery-hooker whom he had bribed with a bottle of cheap absinthe, had assured him that the witch had been accurate. There really was an Ásheru in Paris. She had also offered him pleasure and company, but he had refused. Sex with faeries was dangerous.
Especially in the City of Lights.
The shadows drew together, pooling at his feet. Nikolaj looked up to the balcony, his stare unwavering. A swirling, dark portal formed in the air before him… and he felt something tear inside him. He gasped in shock and pain.
The immortality spell was close to completely breaking down.
Gritting his teeth, Nikolaj stepped through the portal. It was as if he had suddenly been immersed in ice-cold water. Blackness swallowed him whole and his breath caught in his throat.
A heartbeat later he stepped through to the other side. Suppressing a shudder, Nikolaj looked around, trying to get oriented. He was standing in a large living room decorated with art, ceramics, artificial flowers and figurines. The furniture was mahogany and the upholstery midnight-blue velvet. Paintings and mirrors hung on the dark aubergine walls, and candles were lit in every corner, giving the room a comforting glow. The air was smoky and practically cracked with old magic.
The Ásheru woman stood in the doorway to the bedroom, watching him with piercing blue eyes. She was dressed in a gown, with bare feet, and had skin the colour of chocolate cream.
She didn’t seem surprised by his appearance. ‘I was expecting you sooner, Lord Nox,’ she said in French. ‘You really should know better than to trust an absinth faery.’ One of her eyebrows cocked itself into a questioning arc. ‘Unless, of course, you were hoping I won't be here? A killer with a conscience maybe, yes?’
To this Nikolaj found himself unable to reply, but he smiled emptily and shrugged. ‘Too late now,’ he said in fluent French. Shadows skittered around him, like spiders descending from their webs. ‘You should have run when you had the chance.’
She didn’t even blink. ‘You have no idea who I am, do you?’
He did know, actually. Her name was Sévérine Lafargue and her lineage could be traced back to the First Woman. Up close, there was no mistake about it – she was a true descendant of Eve. Nikolaj could sense it with every fibre of his being.
The witch had told him the truth.
What she hadn’t mentioned was that Sévérine was also a priestess of the Vasii, the ancient spirit-gods of the Vasilisc religion. In his long existence, Nikolaj had only run into the strange priests and priestesses twice: once in Morocco, during the Spanish Protectorate, and then a second time during the Yugoslav
Wars. He knew little about their origins – supernatural creatures rarely socialized with each other.
Valerian knows more, but he’s a secretive bastard, isn’t he?
It didn’t matter anymore. Valerian didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that he had found an Ásheru. Her blood was going to make everything right again. ‘I will make it as painless as possible,’ he said reassuringly. ‘You have earned that much grace.’
Sévérine neither moved nor replied. She regarded him with a mixture of pity and resentment. ‘I’m sorry you’re dying,’ she said finally, ‘but whoever sent you here has tricked you. The Lords Vasii won’t let any harm befall me.’ Her eyes met his and held. ‘Here be dragons.’
Nikolaj smirked. ‘You put too much stock in your gods.’
Before his words had faded, he launched towards the Ásheru, moving with supernatural speed. The shadows, which followed him like a pack of dogs scenting meat, wove together and gained substance, a sword with a blade as dark as night appearing in Nikolaj’s hand.
And then everything happened in a blur.
Sévérine’s lips moved and her eyes glowed azure. The air before her shimmered like water and Nikolaj’s blade smashed into an invisible wall. Upon impact, both the sword and the barrier shattered, releasing a howling whirlwind of energy. A load roar deafened the vampyre.
It sounded like a speeding train as the windows cracked and then exploded.
The shattering glass rained down on Nikolaj, but he was more concerned with the Vasilisc priestess, who was still on her feet. She had stepped back into the bedroom, her eyes blazing azure fire, her hands raised, and was chanting feverishly, repeating the same words over and over again, ‘Yäa mäa Vasii, yäa mäa Vasii…’
Suddenly, without any warning, the whole building trembled slightly as if hit by an earthquake. The shattered windows flew open and a shaft of moonlight pierced the shrouded gloom. Sévérine’s throaty voice rose to crescendo.
Nikolaj reforged his sword. He appeared to have aged ten years in the last few minutes.
My own magic is killing me. There was an irony there, somewhere.
Only his reflexes saved him. He felt movement behind him and whirled in time to see something tall and slender, faceless and eyeless, take on a shape. It was human-like – head, body, arms, legs – but appeared to be made of concentrated air and moonlight. Instead of hands it had two razor sharp blades.
Nikolaj swore under his breath and managed to raise his sword just in time to stop the translucent entity from decapitating him. He looked at its face, and saw that there was a dull red pulse where its eyes should have been.
It seemed to regard him carefully, with something close to contempt.
Keeping Sévérine in his peripheral vision, Nikolaj lunged, his sword slicing nothing but air as the entity moved out of range with acrobatic speed. It retaliated with a lightning-fast attack, which opened a deep gash in the vampyre’s arm. Dark red blood stained his jacket. Nikolaj felt rage rise in his breast. He was done playing nicely.
He thrust forward with his sword, whilst ordering the shadows to shred the entity’s face, and the blade pierced straight through. In a sudden burst of speed, Nikolaj pulled his sword out and swung it in a two-handed arc that ripped the concentrated air and left the black metal ringing in his hands. The entity evaporated like smoke. Nikolaj sneered and bared his fangs. He turned to face Sévérine.
His eyes widened slightly.
Another translucent entity stood by the bedroom door, its massive body hunched and its eyeless face fixated on him.
Sévérine stepped beside the Guardian and laid a hand on its shoulder. She straightened and when she spoke her voice had a deep resonance that was not her own. ‘You’re no match for us, strigoi. You’re old and weak and broken. Leave this place now and you can die in peace.’
For a moment, Nikolaj thought about it, he really did. Then he sighed and said: ‘Screw you. You can take your peace, and shove it—’
He didn’t finish his sentence. Three things happened simultaneously. Nikolaj summoned the darkness, sending a horde of shadows towards Sévérine. He threw his sword at the hunched entity, willing it to pierce through the magicked flesh. And he drew his gun, raised it, and pulled the trigger once, twice, a third time. The bullets were silver: they could cut through magic just as easy as a knife through cheese.
The priestess’s defences were of no use.
The Vasii abandoned Sévérine just as the first bullet hit her straight in the chest. A circular bloodstain blossomed on her dress. The second bullet caught her in the eye, taking off half her head as it exited her skull. The final shot got her in the stomach. She collapsed in a bloody heap on the floor, mouth half-opened in disbelief.
The Guardian disappeared like smoke on the wind.
His gun still in hand, Nikolaj looked at Sévérine’s body with a sidelong glance. He didn’t enjoy killing, but it didn’t weigh on his conscience either. What bothered him was having to sink his teeth into the corpse and drink it dry. ‘Couldn’t do it the easy way, could you?’ he muttered to no one in particular and sighed. Better get it over with.
With that thought on his mind, Nikolaj took a step towards Sévérine’s body.
The sound of a child’s laughter caused him to spin around and point his gun. Suddenly a wind rose up and swept across the floor like a tornado. It howled, lifting debris and glass into the air, and hurling them at the vampyre.
Nikolaj dove and rolled, coming back to his feet as he searched for his assailant. He had recognised that laughter, ‘Show yourself, witch!’
A surge of energy, like high voltage, rushed into the air around him, electrifying his entire body. His fingers went numb and he dropped the gun. The darkness swallowed it voraciously as though starved. Nikolaj had to fight to regain his composure. Black spots danced before his eyes. He blinked a few times to get a little moisture back onto his dry eyeballs.
Mrs. Aldridge’s niece stood before him, dressed in a sea-green dress embroidered with butterflies, with her golden hair tied up in bunches. She was smiling dreamily, holding the bisque doll’s hand and swaying a little on her feet. Iridescent rainbows of light danced around her head and twisted down into her doll. Nikolaj felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise in alarm…
It was over in a heartbeat. One moment the little girl was holding a doll, the next she held a woman’s hand, seemingly oblivious to the change. It all fell into place then, like the pieces of a stained glass window. He had been played for a fool.
‘Thank you, dear,’ said the woman in a half-mocking tone. ‘I’ve been waiting almost a hundred years for someone to rid the world of that old crone and break the Vasii’s curse.’
Nikolaj kept his expression calm, though his blood surged and pounded. He looked at the witch standing hand in hand with the child whom until moments ago she had possessed. Her face made him think of sculpted ice, beautiful and cold. She was wearing an old-fashioned dress, white opera gloves, and a fur stole around her shoulders. Her chestnut hair was elegantly piled on top of her head showing off her long slender neck. Nikolaj felt certain he had seen her somewhere before. It took him a moment to remember where: her portrait hung on a wall at Valerian’s villa in Switzerland. ‘I know who you are.’
She smiled slightly and let go of the child’s hand. As she did so the girl’s eyes rolled up and she slumped unconscious to the floor. ‘And I know who you are, Nikolaj Nox. You look just like your father.’ She glided forward, her skirts rustling behind her. ‘This is a splendid irony. Will you give a message for me?
Tell Valerian that Amélia Clarisse de Richead sends her love.’ She stopped and met his gaze, her lips pursed. ‘On second thought, I’d rather do it myself.’
Nikolaj’s skin crawled. He felt the surge of magic in the air, sharp and precise… Following an instinct, he flung himself to the side and rolled, just as the air where he had stood caught fire. The flames burned so hot they turned yellow. Nikolaj got to his feet and scanned the floor for his gun, but it had fallen into the darkness. There was no time to search. Calling upon the shadows, he gathered them in his hand. The black blade caught the moonlight.
‘We had a deal,’ he growled.
Clarisse nodded. ‘You’re right, of course, dear. We did. And I have kept my end of it.’ Her eyes gleamed mockingly. ‘I told you where to find an Ásheru, as we agreed. Now I’m calling in that favour you owe me.’ Nikolaj’s skin prickled. ‘You’re a loose end. I just can’t have that. So I request you to do me the favour of killing yourself.’
‘That’s not what we agreed on.’
‘You willingly accepted the terms of the deal, vampyre. This is the favour I ask. Kill yourself.’
‘No,’ Nikolaj said, just short of yelling. ‘The deal is broken.’
He moved so fast she barely saw him. He was going to take her head off… Searing pain exploded in his brain, and his breath whooshed away and wouldn’t come back. He collapsed in agony, his muscles spasming erratically, terror and pain overwhelming him. His ribs creaked and cracked, and his skin burned as if he’d been doused in acid. His flesh started to melt away from his bones as he screamed.
He heard the rustle of Clarisse’s dress. ‘I warned you, dear,’ she said smoothly. ‘No one breaks deals with me.’
Nikolaj howled in pain but managed to look up at the witch. She was no longer beautiful. Her skin looked like white marble. No blood in it. The left side of her face was covered in cracks like spider webs. Her hair was lank and her eyes had turned into pools of black ink, opaque and totally unreadable.
Nikolaj tried to say something, but couldn’t get any words out because of the blood filling up his mouth. Through the pain, he felt his lungs collapsing. She tricked me, was his last thought. Blackness swallowed him, and everything went dark.
Maggie awoke with a gasp, her heart pounding. She had had a terrible nightmare. A faceless woman came gliding out of the wardrobe in the corner and tried to kidnap her. She managed to escape outside… Only to find herself stranded in a dark labyrinth of hedges. She kept screaming until her throat was hoarse and sore, but nothing at all happened. There was no one to hear her.
Rubbing her face with one hand, Maggie searched in the darkness for her doll. It was the one Daddy had given her, with glittering glass eyes and firm lips painted the colour of ripe cherries.
Mom had called it creepy.
Maggie’s fingers touched something warm and sticky. She pulled them away, startled, and lifted her hand to her face.
Blood. The scent was metallic, sharp. Her stomach lurched at the sight and she cried in alarm, pressing her hand to her breast. ‘Daddy, Mommy!’ she exclaimed.
Something moved in the shadows, edging closer to her. ‘It’s okay, child. No need to be afraid.’
Slowly, very slowly, Maggie turned towards the speaker. For a moment, she couldn’t make out who it was.
Then the woman leaned closer and her ghastly face contorted into a gnarled smile.
Maggie opened her mouth to scream… Fingers like twigs closed around her arm and drew her forward in the darkness. ‘Be a good girl, now,’ Clarisse ordered. ‘Not a squeal from you.’
The compulsion was impossible to resist. Maggie’s eyes glazed over and she went limp in the witch’s arms. Like a broken doll, Clarisse thought. She ran her nails over the girl’s scalp…
A gust of wind rose up from the ground and Clarisse felt a portal open behind her. The terrible stench of dead things gone bad filled her nostrils and she straightened her back. ‘Mabel,’ she said icily.
Mrs. Aldridge stepped into the living room, letting the portal close behind her, and snapped out a guttural word in an ancient tongue. All candles in the room came alight at once. She glanced at the corpses sprawled on the floor, blood and flesh fragments splattered around them, and she tsk-tsked her tongue. Then her face split into a grin. ‘Nicely done, my sister,’ she said.
Clarisse pursed her lips disdainfully. ‘The girl is yours, as we agreed. Kill her, now, and our deal is done.’
The widow tsked again. ‘All in good time.’ She looked at Maggie’s slack form in Clarisse’s arms and started forward, closing in on her like a spider descending upon a fly caught in his web. ‘There is power in death, as there is in life.’
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