Mesmerised, Jen walked forward into the room.  The glow came from candles.  Hundreds of candles, all around the room in candelabra, on the floor, and in the alcove where their light glittered from the surface of the beautiful and magnificent statue of the minotaur at the far end.  The flames flickered with the movement of the air as she walked to stand in the centre of the room, the dancing light lending the scene an unreal quality.  She turned at the silence as Lord Ambrose shut the panel behind him and cut off the sound of conversation from the library.  That small, cold smile was still in place.

“What do you think, Miss Alexander?”

“Oh!  It’s beautiful!” she breathed, forgetting for a moment her dislike of the man in amongst the beauty of the statue, and the light dancing and dazzling from it and from the gold paint on the newly-restored murals all around the walls.

“It is, rather, isn’t it?” he said, before producing a key from his pocket and fitting it into a keyhole she had not previously noticed in the panel that led to the library.  He pocketed the key and turned back to her with a look of smug satisfaction.

“There – now we won’t be disturbed.”

All of Jen’s apprehension returned in a rush, and she went cold again.  She falteringly asked, “Should… Should we be worried about being disturbed?”

“Not at all, now.  I merely wish for you to be able to appreciate the aesthetics of this room without interruption.  So please – appreciate.”

Jen obeyed, since there wasn’t much else she could do, at this point.  She looked around the room as Lord Ambrose moved to the far end and began rummaging around behind the altar in front of the alcove.  She noticed for the first time that he air had a slightly hazy quality to it – probably due to the bowl on the altar itself, which seemed to be emitting an almost invisible smoke.  The air, nonetheless, seemed to hold a faint sweetness that was very pleasant.  She breathed it in as she gazed around the walls, watching the candlelight dancing on the murals, forming weird and compelling patterns of light and colour that pulled and stretched her vision this way and that.  At first, her eyes chased them all over the walls and ceiling, causing her to feel a dizziness that she feared would make her fall.  She stood as still as she could, not having anything to steady herself against.  Eventually, the dizziness subsided as her eyes stopped chasing the patterns and just allowed them to wash over her vision, drawing her deeper and deeper into a languor that was almost trance-like.  She heard whispers of movement from the direction of the altar, but ignored them, so entranced was she by the patterns of light and colour weaving in and out of her vision.  When the hollow, resonant whispering began, she ignored that, too.  At least, at first.  Then images began to form behind her eyes.  Images which she couldn’t have described, but which filled her first with fear, then revulsion.  But slowly, slowly, the revulsion gave way and began to mutate into a feeling of devotion.  She saw, in her mind’s eye, a picture of the minotaur, superimposed over that of Lord Ambrose, bestriding her inner world like a god – shimmering and awe-inspiring.  She turned her head reluctantly, dragging it away from the beguiling patterns on the wall, and beheld a figure standing behind the altar.  It was wearing a flowing white robe, and held an incense burner in one hand.  In the other, it held a long, wickedly sharp knife.  In a daze, she watched the figure move from behind the altar.  It seemed the minotaur was moving towards her, until she realised that the statue was still in the alcove, and the head had been removed.  It was obviously hollow and was being worn as a mask by Lord Ambrose, who was slowly closing the distance between them, through the haze of incense.  She felt the need to prostrate herself before this godly figure – to fall on her knees and worship humbly before his mighty presence.  As she turned, preparatory to sinking to her knees to await his command, the heel of her unaccustomed shoes caught in a crack in the stone floor.  With a helpless cry, she measured her length on the floor, her head bouncing off the flagstones as she hit.

She blacked out.

 

When Jen came to, seconds later, she had moments of confusion as her vision swam with flashes of gold, silver and white.  When it cleared, she remembered where she was and what had happened.  The knock on her head seemed to have cleared it of the bemusement generated by the combination of patterns, smoke, and whatever that whispering had been.  She saw Lord Ambrose, standing astride her in that ridiculous white robe with the bull’s head mask perched on his shoulders, censer in one hand, and knife in the other.

The knife was raised, held ready to strike.

Her eyes widened and, quick as a flash, she kicked him as hard as she could, solidly between the legs.  He collapsed in a heap with a grunt, the knife and censer flying from his hands and clattering across the floor.  As he clutched himself, groaning, Jen offered up a prayer of thanks to any one or any thing that may have been listening and looking after her.  For there, glinting on the floor, she saw the key, which had flown out of his pocket as he hit the floor.  She made a grab for it, and got it.  But Lord Ambrose had made a grab for her – and caught her wrist.  She tried twisting and pulling away, but his grip was too strong, so she kicked out again, scraping her sharp heel down his leg.  He cried out and let go.  Jen scrambled quickly to her feet and was at the door, adrenaline pumping.

With shaking hands, she barely managed to fit the key into the lock and turn it before she heard Lord Ambrose beginning to move slowly towards her.

She wrenched the panel open, taking the key out with the thought of locking it behind her.  However, when she got through and swung it shut, she found no keyhole and concluded that it must be designed to lock from the inside only.  She didn’t stop to consider the implications of this, merely slipped the key into her bra and began to walk through the room as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.  The murmur of conversation did not change as she moved through it, and she thought with relief that no one had noticed her making her swift exit from the room.  But then Rick was there in front of her.

“Where are you going, Jen?” he asked.

“I, er… I need some fresh air,” she replied, warily.  If Rick had been through what she had just been through, that explained his strange behaviour when he’d come out.  In fact, she realised that she was very likely standing in a room full of men who were prepared to get down on their knees and worship Lord Ambrose as their god.  The thought was not a comforting one.  She swallowed nervously.  She realised that she couldn’t even trust Rick, and that thought hurt.  She made up her mind, smiled as brightly as she could, licked her lips and said, “Actually, Rick, these shoes are killing me.  Hang on…”  She bent down and slipped her shoes off.  Standing up again, she smiled winsomely and said, “Would you hold them for me for a moment?”

His upbringing took over and he said, “Of course.”  Then he bent to retrieve them as in the act of handing them over, she dropped them.

As he bent to retrieve them, Jen dodged around him and ran for the door.

“Jen?” said Rick as she passed him, reaching out to grab her leg just a fraction of a second too late.

As she raced through the library, conversation died as heads turned to follow her progress.

As she reached the door, she heard the sound of the panel leading to the room being wrenched open, and Lord Ambrose – still wearing the mask, by the hollow, booming quality of his voice – screamed, “Stop her!

Jen didn’t look back to see if anyone obeyed their master, she ran for it, down the corridor, towards the hall with the idea of escape through the front door.  Where she would go after that, she had no idea.

She ran down the corridor, twisting and turning, until she got to the main gallery that ran around the hallway and she got to the head of the stairs.  She was about to rush headlong down it when she stopped herself, reasoning that it was no use escaping a lunatic with a knife to then break your neck falling down stairs in that escape.  She saw a solution providing comparative speed and safety and, without hesitating, she threw her leg over the polished banister and slid to the bottom, where she jumped off and ran for the front door.

The question of “Where to now?” went through her head, but it turned out to be moot.  The front door was locked.

“Shit!”  She panicked for a moment, and then shook her head to clear it.  She heard sounds of pursuit coming down the corridor above, so swiftly darted to the nearest corridor and ran down it until she found a servants’ door.  She ran through the warren of passages in what she hoped was the direction of the kitchen.

Before long, she was hopelessly lost.

She didn’t stop, though – the thought of that knife and all of those men in Lord Ambrose’s thrall spurred her on, charging up and down stairways and along anonymous corridors.  In the end, though, she had to stop and catch her breath.

She very quietly and carefully opened one of the doors back into the main part of the house.  She needed a place to hole up and hide until she could decide what to do next.  Looking around, she recognised where she was.  There in front of her was the carved newel post that she’d twisted half a lifetime ago – or so it seemed – to open the trapdoor leading to the concealed stairway.

Quickly, she ran to it, twisted the carving, and the trapdoor opened.  She almost threw herself down the stairway.  As she closed the trapdoor behind her and the darkness swallowed her up, she didn’t notice Lord Ambrose appear at the far end of the corridor.

 

The stairway was utterly black.

Jen moved down it very carefully, one step at a time. One hand was on the wall, the other groping in front of her, in case she hit any sudden walls, turns or low ceilings.  She felt for the steps with her bare feet.  They seemed to go down forever.  Eventually, she decided that she needed to stop, think and rest.  She tried to make sense of what had happened.  What the hell was going on?!  She tried to sort through it all from the beginning.  The dinner, Rick, the interesting developments that had halted so abruptly and the reason Rick had given for this.  The library, the dazed look on the faces of people as they emerged from the room, Rick emerging so creepily different, then practically pushing her into the room with Lord Ambrose, who seemingly tried to hypnotise her with lights and whisperings and, she guessed, some sort of drug.  Then he tried to kill her.  None of it made any sense.

Or maybe it did.

Nearly all of the people here tonight were powerful and influential in one way or another.  Except for her and Rick.  Did Lord Ambrose seek to gain control of those men’s loyalties and use them for his own ends?  But what about her?  She was just the poor sap brought in to try and sort out the library.  Or she was.  Perhaps now she represented a different kind of power?  Power over his brother, whose toys he delighted in destroying as a child.  Who he now liked to hurt by breaking everything his brother holds dear.

And where did that leave Jen?

Sitting in a pitch black secret stairway trying to decide what to do next.

 

In the end, her decision was made for her.  She heard the trapdoor open and saw the light it let into the stairway.  However, it had curved gently, unnoticed in the dark, so she couldn’t see who was up there.  Not that it really mattered at this point, anyway.

“Jeeennnn…   I know you’re down there.  Why don’t you come back out?  You’re really being very silly, you know.”

Jen shuddered. Even Rick’s voice didn’t sound like his, any more.  Before, it had been warm, dark and deliciously rich in her ears.  It had trickled down inside her to form a warm glow in her stomach, where its deep tones resonated.

Now, though it may just be circumstance, it sounded hard, sharp and menacing, despite the warmth she could tell he was attempting to put into it.

Jen got up and moved carefully away from that voice, further down the stairs.  She stumbled as she unexpectedly reached the bottom.  She hurried forwards, away from Rick, and what he seemed to have become.  She heard him start down the stairs after her.

“Now, come on, Jen – you really don’t want to be going that way, you know.”

Jen ignored him and began to creep away as quickly as she dared in the gathering gloom as the passage continued to curve.  She followed it hurriedly, in the hope that it might lead somewhere; anywhere that would allow her to get out of here.

The passage was still curving as she saw a light ahead.

 

Jen broke into a run.  She wasn’t thinking much by now.  There was very little room in her head for anything other than escape.

As she rounded the final bending section of passage, then, rushing through a doorway, she nearly collapsed in fear and confusion.  For here was the subterranean room she had dreamed about.  It was circular and vaulted.  There was the central altar where she had seen the girl’s body, which the minotaur had devoured.  Lit with flaming torches held in brackets around the walls, it was essentially the same room.  It had the same seven entrances, leading to who knew where, the same stains on the slab.

But there was one important difference – all around the room, there were robed and masked figures emerging from the doorways.

In a blind panic now, Jen turned to run back the way she had come, but Rick was there.  She collided with him and landed on the floor, looking up at him and wishing she wasn’t.  His face was closed, cold, and dead.

She scrabbled backwards into the room as the seven men who had emerged from the doorways took up positions in front of them, preventing her escape.  One of them was Lord Ambrose, still wearing the mask.

“Welcome, Miss Alexander,” came the cold, hollow tones.  “Welcome to the Temple of the Minotaur.  How gratifying it is that the sacrifice runs so willingly towards the altar.”

Jen spun to face him.  “S…sacrifice?”

“I will offer your blood to the spirit of the minotaur.  In return, the spirit will increase my power and influence to far beyond that of a mere mortal.  I will truly belong to the divine immortals.  In being chosen for this sacrifice, you are honoured far beyond your station.  You will, I hope, show appropriate gratitude.”

Up to this point, Jen had been terrified and frozen to the spot.  However, at the mention of ‘appropriate gratitude’, the terror was replaced by rage.

“Gratitude?” she exploded, furiously.  “You arrogant prick!  Who the bloody hell do you think you are?”

The response roared out from behind the mask, “I am Ambrose, Lord Harrington-Harrington!  I am the twenty-ninth earl of this place, and you will show proper respect, or suffer the consequences!”

“I’ll show you all the respect you deserve, Ambrose.”  Walking up to him, she spat on the floor at his feet.  Looking him in the eye that was visible through the holes in the mask, she snarled, “What are you going to do, Ambrose – kill me twice?  You’re nobody’s lord, – you’re just a spoiled little bully that wants everything his own way and no one else to care about anything else but you.  You selfish, stuck up…”  But she got no further as Lord Ambrose’s hand shot out and he grabbed her by the throat.

“Silence, you coarse little bitch!” he hissed from behind the mask; then he backhanded her hard across the face with his other hand.

Pain exploded in Jen’s head as she flew across the floor from the force of the blow, landing stunned at Rick’s feet.

From behind the impassive mask that watched her tumble across the floor, the voice snapped, “Richard!” and a finger pointed to the altar.

Dazed from the blow as she was, Jen barely felt it as Rick grabbed her.  He bodily hauled her up, dumping her supine on to the altar and knocking the breath out of her in the process. As she lay there, helpless, gasping, she heard the hollow voice say, “Here brother, take the knife.  Show me your devotion,” and the steely ring of a knife being drawn.

She turned her head to see Rick take the knife and approach the altar.  Still gasping and struggling against the world swimming around her, she watched his dead eyes as he advanced towards her, the knife held ready.  By the time he reached her, she had her breath back, but still could not move, nor make her voice obey her.  She wanted to scream, but all she could manage was a croaking whisper: “Please, Rick – don’t do this…”  Her eyes filled with tears.  “…remember who you are…”

Rick seemed impervious to her entreaties as he raised his arm for the killing blow, then he hesitated as, for a fraction of a second, his eyes cleared and filled with anguish.

“Run,” he whispered, through teeth gritted with the effort of not bringing his arm down.

Then his face closed again, and his arm described a deadly arc through the air.

Jen didn’t need telling twice.  As his arm descended, she rolled off the slab and hit the ground running.  The knife clanged off the stone, raising a shower of sparks before shattering.  A piece scythed through the air and slashed the back of Jen’s leg as she ran.  She didn’t even notice as adrenaline, fear, relief and anger drove her on, dodging the guard and disappearing through the nearest doorway, grabbing a torch on the way.

She could here Ambrose screaming orders as she sprinted down the tunnel, the flames from the torch streaming out behind her, leaving a trail of blood from her slashed leg.

This was a different tunnel from the one she’d entered the chamber through, and Jen hoped that it led somewhere more useful than the last one.  Preferably, out of the house somewhere.  She ran up more stairs, the sounds of pursuit behind her, until she came hard up against a slab of stone.  She whimpered.  Now what?

She could hear her pursuers approaching and she had nowhere to run.

 

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