Jim had fiddled with the keyhole at The Pythoness's suite and managed to relock it. There didn't seem to be much more to do than that. First, he had prowled around the entire suite, ensuring that no one had come and gone in secrecy, via hidden stairways or secret closets. There was nothing untoward in the apartment itself, other than her laboratory-cum-distillery, and that was full to bursting of everything that could maim or kill mind or body – poisons, hallucinogens, even explosives. Otherwise, the bedroom was just a bedroom with a view of the lawns outside, and the bathroom like all bathrooms.
"We'll need Forensics to go over everything," Jim told the remaining three residents of Saint Germain Island. "Until we can reach the mainland and get them over here, this suite is off limits to everyone."
Blair, who had been blocking the curious eyes of the others while Jim worked, herded them down the stairs, Melusine complaining saccharinely, until Basil asked her if she really wanted to stay in The Pythoness's rooms, to keep her ashes company. That shut her up, and the rest of the descent down the stairs was made in deadly quiet.
At the foot of the stairs, the threesome parted, each sorcerer making for his or her own tower. Basil's was the second front tower, the one with the medieval parapet, which matched The Pythoness's tiered effect as well or as badly as Melusine's circular Rapunzel turret matched Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's onion dome, both at the rear of the building.
Jim checked his watch. It was barely nine o'clock.
He and Blair shared a determined look, and began to explore the mansion, talking as they went.
"I hope we get out of this alive," Blair muttered.
Jim had no hope to give him.
"I can't believe so much happened in the space of what, two hours or so?"
"Yeah. It's a good thing we grabbed supper early. I wouldn't eat a crumb in this place."
They were on the second floor, which housed only three great rooms at the sides and back of the mansion, the front hall having a vaulted ceiling. It was locked, but open to sentinel vision via the keyhole.
"Conference room, Chief, with table and chairs."
"Keep moving, then." Blair bounced with nervous energy. "I can't believe how fast things are happening. Less than three hours to midnight."
"Three hours to the apocalypse?"
Blair didn't answer.
The second room was apparently for the working of magic, full of strange symbols and names and words written on the walls and floor. Blair asked for descriptions of a few, and grimaced. They went swiftly to the third room.
It was apparently a room for worship of Satan, its altar and appurtenances unspeakable. Jim refused to tell Blair what he'd seen.
Staircases rose from the second floor landings to the four towers. Jim confirmed that Basil's tower was above the living room, Melusine's above the kitchen and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six above the servants' quarters. They already knew that The Pythoness's suite was atop the dining room, directly across the great hall from the living room.
"I need a place to think," Jim told his best friend, and they went down the stairs to find the living area, where they had come to collapse on a silver moire couch after the fruitless search. "Got any ideas, Chief? About all of this?"
"They're dangerous people, Jim," his partner said. "Even if none of them has the power that The Pythoness had, and I don't know if I believe that, still they're evil-minded, and we're just bugs under their feet to them. They don't care as much as we'd care when we step on an ant. I don't know what we should do next. Stay out of their way? Let them play out their competition, and see who wins? What if the winner...?" He couldn't finish.
Jim put out an arm along the back of the couch, behind Blair. "What you said earlier. We stick together, and we do whatever the case requires."
"Yeah, but, are we in any kind of control here?" Blair asked, turning on his hip to face Jim. "Is there a 'case' we're on, any longer? The Pythoness admitted killing Groundwater, and she's dead now. What case do we have to work, Jim?"
Jim arched and cracked his back, then groaned. "The suspicious death of The Pythoness, Chief. We work the case."
"Just how do we do that?" Blair sounded exhausted, even to his own ears. "Isn't that a case for Arson?"
Jim stretched again, and put his arm out along the sofa's back again. "Yeah, well, Arson isn't here and we are. What do you know about spontaneous human combustion, Chief?"
Blair grimaced. "Some stuff from the course I was taking, you know, the one with the urban myths."
"So you think it's an urban myth?" Jim asked.
"No, I don't. Do you?"
Jim tightened his lips for a moment. "I wish I did, but I don't."
"How come?" Blair was astounded. "You don't generally believe in that stuff."
"Joel told me about a couple of cases he knew of. We got to talking on a stake-out one night, while you were at the U. There's some statistical anomaly that really makes you want not to live in Pennsylvania, according to him." Jim grinned nastily.
"So what did Joel say?" Blair asked. "I wish I'd known he had experience with it. It would have been useful for the course."
Jim almost smiled at the near-normalcy of Blair's reversion to the anthropology student he would always be. "Well, he said it happens. I guess from the death of The Pythoness, that's not really in doubt, anymore."
"Yeah, that's what I found out in the course, too. Only there is a lot of disinformation out there, you know?" Blair was lecturing, and Jim was glad to have him do it. The storm wasn't letting up at all, and they had to do something to pass the time. Something constructive. Something ordinary. Something potentially helpful.
"Disinformation? Like what?" Jim prompted.
"Like it only happens at night, to heavy people who are alone and who have alcohol problems, plus who smoke or have a fire going. Oh, and that the 'wick effect' explains it all away." Blair waited for questions.
"It happens in the daytime?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, and there have been survivors, too. Mid-80's, a guy still in his teens, in London, England, walks down the street and bursts into flames from the waist up. 1988, Agnes Phillips, Sydney, Australia, asleep in her daughter's parked car, bursts into flames too. Her daughter and a passer-by beat out the fire. A complete inquiry's done, and eliminates accelerants, wiring problems, and smoking as factors. She was horribly burned in just minutes, Jim, and died a week later. And there's no reason for the fire."
Jim nodded for him to go on. He was intrigued by his best friend's wealth of knowledge of such an obscure subject, and needed to draw on it for the case, but even more, he wanted to keep Blair talking. As long as he was talking, he wouldn't be panicking, and if there was ever a situation to panic in, Jim thought, this was the one.
"Okay, homegrown case here. 1980, Florida, Jacksonville. Woman sitting in a car, her friend's driving, and she bursts into flames. The friend tries to beat out the fire, and they crash. At the hospital, they find burns over about a fifth of her body. The investigation is just like Ms. Phillips: no reason for her to catch fire. Plus there was almost no damage to the car, bar scorching the leather a little. She survived, wanting a rational explanation, Jim, and she couldn't find one. She had to settle for spontaneous human combustion."
Blair sucked up some air. "You know, we may have to settle for it, too, Jim."
Jim put up a hand to stop his partner. "Something's going on upstairs, Chief."
Blair was bounced back into the real world again. "Who? Where?"
Jim was extending his hearing ability, intent on something unseen. "Basil. Basil is making noise in his own suite. Moving furniture. And he's mumbling or chanting, but I can't tell what. I thought he was on his way out, but apparently not. I can't figure what he's doing, though."
"Probably some kind of spell." Blair didn't want to think about what spell would be appropriate for the advent of the Anti-Christ. "How about Melusine and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six?"
"She's pacing, and he's as silent as if he were asleep. He could be sleeping, for all I can tell."
"Yeah, the guy is definitely cold-blooded."
Jim stood up. "I can't keep sitting here, waiting for something to happen. Wanna go exploring? Check outside? I want a look at the dock, maybe there's a way off the island we don't know about, and there's the graveyard, too."
"Yeah, yeah, okay."
The partners went to find their coats, and left the mansion for the night air and storm.
A peal of doom and a flash of forked brilliance lit up the dock.
"It's a good thing there's lightning," Blair commented. "I wouldn't be able to see a thing without it."
The icy rain was sheeting down.
Jim smiled into the blackness. "Just keep hold of my coat. I can see well enough. I wanna investigate the graveyard, Chief."
"Oh, great," Blair complained. "We're off to look for ghosts, now?"
"Yeah," Jim said, resignedly. "The dock's a total washout." He jerked his thumb at the disobliging landing. "No boathouse, no boat, not even a canoe."
"And the hangar's a hangar, just as described. No car, even. I guess these people never leave the island itself." Blair hunkered into his coat. Icy and drenched was his world.
"Looks like, Chief." Jim led the way down the tarmac to a worn path twisting toward the cemetery. "I wonder how they get the plane fuel." He stopped for a moment. "I just realized how pointless that question is." He shivered at the thought of the power of the sorcerers, and went forward.
The footing was uncertain; what had been hard-packed dirt before the storm had turned to particularly slick mud. Jim put a hand back to help Blair make his way through the dark, and they fetched up at the overgrown field with chills in their souls.
"See anything, Jim?" Blair whispered, knowing there was no need to keep his voice down, but somehow compelled to do so anyway.
"I know they're upside down, Jim," Blair interrupted.
"Yeah, but they're also inscribed. It's – spooky."
"One reads 'Apollonius, poisoned, 1911', another 'Wyrwulf, drowned, 1914,' a third, 'The Beast, suffocated, 1919'. They're all like that, Chief. And they date over the whole last hundred years. Strange names, and murder declared as the means of death for each one." Jim sounded stumped.
"Oh, geez, oh, geez, oh, geez," Blair moaned.
"What is it? What are you thinking?" Jim demanded.
Blair looked at him, dull-eyed. "I think I know what they've been doing, Jim. They've been in competition for a century, or close to it, and I mean the people in the mansion tonight. The Pythoness, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six, Melusine, and Basil. Remember what The Pythoness said? She's as old as sin? I think they've lived for, maybe, a century, who knows how long, all of 'em, and they've stayed put here, defying all pretenders to the throne of Hell to come to them here, to do battle.
"No car, remember? They never leave the island. The rivals get flown in, instead, and when they're dead, they end up in this field." Blair pushed with his hand at the graveyard, as if to remove it from his life.
Jim just stood there, his thoughts his own.
"They've been picking them off," Blair continued, "one by one. I bet the four sorcerers took on whoever practiced in their own field of specialty. Apollonius was the seer of Tyana, and his namesake is declared to have died by poison: I'd bet it was The Pythoness who killed him. 'Wyrwulf' means a shape-changer, as Melusine's name means, and he drowned. Whoever took the name 'The Beast' did it in defiance of Aleister Crowley, and someone suffocated him. Ultimately, there were four left, the masterly four who commanded the four elements with the greatest power, one apiece. The Pythoness, Six Hundred and Sixty And Six, Melusine and Basil.
"My God, Jim, they really are in competition, lethal competition." Blair's voice rose higher, " and now with only four left, they've started battling each other. One of the three of them killed The Pythoness tonight, and they're all back there thinking of ways to kill each other off, until only one is left, and at midnight, the survivor becomes the Anti-Christ!"
Jim needed to check Blair's near-hysteria. "Slow down, Blair, it's just a theory, okay?" he barked, latching onto his partner with a vice-like grip. "We've got work to do." He peered at his watch. A bolt of lightning crackled through the air, illuminating the ghastly scene of the living men at the graveyard of dead, would-be Anti-Christs. "Hold on for just a little while longer, Chief. It's roughly ten now. Let's get back to the mansion. You okay?"
Blair shook with cold. "I guess," he said reluctantly. "But to be truthful, Jim, I'd rather stay out here."
Jim had a great deal of sympathy for that wish, but he reached out to clap his partner on the back. "Yeah, well, duty calls. We've still got a murder to solve. Talk to me, Chief. You know more about spontaneous human combustion than I do."
As usual, having information to contribute brought out the impartial, steady academic in his partner. Blair grabbed a lungful of air and revved up to reveal more information. Jim was intent on him as they climbed down from the field of graves.
"Well, as to the cause, there are three main theories. One is the wick effect."
"What Joel was telling me," Jim put in, peering at his footing, finding the safest way back from the graveyard. "The clothes catch fire and the body fat burns like a candle."
"Yeah. Only the TV demonstrations don't replicate real SHC conditions, and the cases with witnesses disprove the assumptions that the theory rests on."
Jim was surprised. "Really? It sounded good when Joel explained it." He stretched out an arm and kept his partner from stumbling over a nasty rock. Blair had calmed down a lot, and that helped Jim to settle down too.
"One experimenter, John DeHaan, is well accredited in the arson field. He worked with pig carcasses and hog fat, setting them on fire and documenting the results."
"What's wrong with that?" Jim wanted to know.
"Nothing, unless you don't replicate the conditions of the cases, and misrepresent the meaning of the findings, Jim." Blair's tone was scalding. "The BBC in England bought the 'wick effect' as the explanation for spontaneous human combustion and filmed a demonstration. Only, see, DeHaan gets the carcass burning by using an accelerant –"
"Ah," Jim said. They took small steps, Blair placing his feet exactly where Jim's had been before him.
"Then, he lets it burn a few minutes, but when it threatens to spread beyond the carcass to other things in the test room," Blair said between footfalls, "they extinguish the fire. In SHC, there's a highly limited circle of damage, and no one puts the fire out. If you read DeHaan's paper, it's clear that the pigs burned for hours before being consumed to ash and bone fragments. You don't find bone like that in the real cases; everything that burned is fine ash, powder. Plus in another documentary, DeHaan admits that it would take twelve hours or so for a human body to burn down to ash like that. Crematoriums use temperatures around 2000 to 3000 degrees, and it still takes a few hours."
The lightning flashed again. "Be careful, Chief," Jim took advantage of the illumination. "That grade change down there is steep."
"Got it, Jim. Thanks."
Jim wanted to get at the real cause of The Pythoness's death. "Okay, give me options, Chief. If she didn't die because of the wick effect, what did our poisoner die of instead?"
Blair sighed, and took the slope downwards lightly, Jim braced to catch him if needed. "There's a Cambridge man, Dr. John Emsley, who fingers phosphorus, in the form of diphosphane, in the digestive tract, saying it can burn internally or ignite methane in the tract, and they don't need oxygen to burn. There's a couple of bad jokes about constipation you don't wanna hear, Jim. Phosphine ingested directly could do it, perhaps, but no one eats insecticide. You didn't see any phosphine or phosphorus anywhere around here, did you? There wasn't any in The Pythoness's lab."
Jim took Blair's weight against him for a moment, pivoting so his friend found his footing securely on level ground. "No, nothing like that. The stuff's risky to work with. Joel and I talked about that too. We both have some experience with it; it's in bombs. Rappacini's daughter probably didn't want to blow herself up, let alone poison herself with it. Ever hear of 'smoking stool syndrome'?
Blair eyed Jim as the sky lit up briefly. "You're kidding me, right?"
Jim said, "Nope. Believe me, you don't want it. If there's anything else, tell me back at the house. The rain and lightning's getting worse. Let's run for it!"
They sprinted for cover. The rain kept coming, the winds whipping the drops into scattergun shot. Conversation halted until they reached the portico at the rear of the mansion. Bending down to catch their breath, Jim looked a question at Blair and Blair answered.
"We need -- a high heat source -- to char down -- to bone fragments," Blair panted.
"So what could do that?" Jim threw at him, pulling up again.
Blair breathed deeply. "A guy, Larry Arnold, suggests there's a sub-subatomic particle called a pyroton. Only, no one's identified a pyroton, and it's a circular argument. What's a pyroton? The thing that causes SHC. What's SHC? The effect of a pyroton."
A horrible flash blinded both men, and a tree on the other side of the island flamed and crackled. The earth beneath them trembled, and they clutched at each other as they were nearly thrown off balance.
"Lightning?" Jim asked when the ground was steady again. "Is lightning a possibility?" He stared off into the distance, picking up flares not visible to his partner.
"It's hot enough, Jim. Like about 6000 degrees. But there's no direct strike evidence. And most people hit by lightning aren't that badly burned."
"Some electrical phenomenon, then?"
"Maybe." The two men entered the mansion, as Blair kept talking. "There are at least three cases with blue flames or blue auras, which were witnessed. A woman in London, England, died in front of her father and brother-in-law, and they saw blue-green flames shooting out of her mouth. A man in South London, a tramp, was found by bystanders attracted by the blue flames shooting out of a slit in his chest and abdomen. They say he was burning from the inside out.
"Another, in Budapest, a guy in a field, glowing blue all over, collapses. A busload of physicians get out to help. He's dead, with a shoe blown off, and there's a hole in the heel of his foot. The autopsy shows his stomach and belly were carbonized from the inside out. It was reported in a meteorological journal; they were thinking it might be ball lightning."
"Yeah, a real wild card. They're only just now beginning to replicate it in labs, and not much is known about it scientifically. It might be a plasma form, very, very hot, it might be a weak electrical field with microwaves, I'm not sure how that goes, but, then, neither are the researchers. But ball lightning can enter a place through a window without harming it, as sunlight does, or down a chimney, out of an electrical socket, or through the water pipes, so don't shower in a storm, you know? Plus it just lollygags around, here, there, and everywhere, as it sees fit; it doesn't follow a straight line, and will stop, go straight up, zigzag, change speeds. Oh, yeah, ball lightning is a real wild card."
"Okay," Jim said, thinking things over, and looking at his watch again. Twenty to eleven. Suddenly, his head spun to the side, his eyes toward the far end of the great hall, his mouth open but speechless.
Blair said nothing, recognizing the signs of a sentinel listening for something important
He only had a moment to wait. Jim turned to him again and whispered, "Melusine is on her way toward the other tower at the back. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's suite."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world."
The two from Major Crime moved silently toward the back of the building.
"Don't you see? The power balance is off! We have to team up! We're not strong enough, either of us, to fight him on our own!"
"Dear Melusine, I don't need to 'team up' at all. I am already the Anti-Christ. My number is my name. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six. I will come into my full powers at midnight and transmute myself into any form I choose. Then my competitors had best be gone from this place."
"I'm not a competitor, Six! I don't want to be the Anti-Christ. You know that!"
"I know. You want to be the Whore of Babylon. I don't know if I want you, though, little schemer."
"Six, whatever I want, Basil wants to be the Anti-Christ. He's real competition for you."
"All I need to do is wait, stupid girl."
"And what if he kills your body before the stroke of midnight? What then, Six? Will you take the throne of Hell if you're already dead? I don't think so. Neither do you."
"No, not if I'm already dead. Hmm. Perhaps. The balance of power is unequal. If you wish to lend your strength to mine in warding off Basil that suits my purposes well enough."
"How kind of you, Six."
"Mockery isn't going to get you the role of the Whore and my consort in Hell, Melusine."
"No, but this might."
"Save it for later. If we want to take further precautions against Basil, we should do so now."
"Okay, the deal's done, and all I'm hearing now are more scraping noises, like with Basil earlier. I think they're moving furniture or something."
"They could be creating a larger protective circle than Six usually uses, one big enough for both of them."
"Yeah, Jim. You know, blessed salt strewn around it, only I guess they'd use cursed salt instead. The names of demons they're calling on written outside, upside down crosses and runes and stuff. They call on the four elements to protect them, and sit in the circle until whatever magical brou-ha-ha going on is over and it's safe to go out again."
Jim stared at the frame of a painting of Baphomet briefly, and then snapped his fingers. "Didn't The Pythoness say her element is earth?"
Blair perked up. "Yeah, she did."
"That's why the power balance is out of whack. One of the four elements is out of play. Probably no one knows how the element of earth works now."
"That fits with the graveyard, too. Survival of the four fittest sorcerers. Now, they've got to kill off each other until only one is left. With The Pythoness gone, that would mean the other three represent air, water and fire, and the power of the earth is just kinda sitting there. Neutral? I wonder...."
"Which of the others is which, Chief?"
"Melusine has to be water. She's the mermaid, remember?"
"Yeah, right. Fire and air. Which is Basil and which is Six?"
"Geez, Jim, I don't know. They whipped up this storm among the three of them. I can't tell which of them is fire and which air. Fire would account for the lightning. Air for the wind. Melusine wears blue, like water, and The Pythoness wore green. Maybe their colors are a clue. Basil wears black, which I guess is because it's Satanic, anticipating his victory, perhaps, so that's neutral. Six wears yellow. I wonder if that's yellow for the sun? Or for Lucifer, the light-bringer, and fallen angel? If so, he'd be fire. How do we know that the SHC was caused by the fire sorcerer, anyway? It's a good guess, but that's all. They may all know a lot of fire spells." Blair threw up his hands.
Jim was musing. "Would the sorcerer of the air be strong enough to take on fire and water?" he asked.
Blair looked thoughtful. "He could deprive the fire of oxygen and put it out that way. Water is not a direct threat to air as such, but could do a lot of harm to a human body. If the air sorcerer has a lot of sylphs, air elementals, at his disposal, he could whip up a cyclone and remove the water from his vicinity. I just don't know who is who."
"Yeah, nature spirits, servants of the masters of the elements of air, water, fire and earth. The Pythoness would have had gnomes, Melusine undines. Whoever is air has sylphs, and whoever fire, salamanders, fire-resistant snakes, not the newts, you know?"
"Let's go find out who's got what, then," Jim suggested.
They jogged up the stairs to Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's suite.
No one had answered the knock. Jim used Blair's knife again and picked the lock. "I'm getting pretty good at this," he told his partner as he gave the knife back.
They opened the door and entered an exact duplicate of The Pythoness's antechamber. Only this one was hung with loose muslins and silk swags, an Aeolian harp and discordant wind chimes, all appurtenances of the master of the air. So that left Basil as the master of the element of fire.
"You think he killed The Pythoness?" Blair asked, as they slowly circled the room.
"What? By black magic? No, I don't believe in it. I know, I know. It's dangerous for us if I don't believe in it, but I can't manufacture belief just for this one occasion. I'd rather go with the wick theory."
Blair clicked his tongue, but let it go.
Beyond the antechamber were three rooms, in the same arc as The Pythoness's – the bedroom, the bathroom, and a room with a closed door that was the equivalent of The Pythoness's laboratory, the place where Six Hundred And Sixty And Six worked.
Jim strode to the room and opened the door without any announcement.
"Stay back," Six hissed at them.
"Get out," Melusine ordered. "You're in terrible danger. Leave us alone, you pests."
They were working on creating a circle of safety, as Blair had predicted. Only on the floor of the room, a huge upside-down pentacle was inlaid with black marble, as were two outer circles around it. Etched into the marble was the face of a goat, the upper two points of the star its horns, the lower two its ears, and the bottommost its beard. It was really only large enough for one to use. Melusine was pouring out salt along a huge ring of chalk they had drawn, enlarging the sphere of protection, chanting as she went. Six was writing names in the circle, names that called on fallen angels, Belial, Mammon, Leviathan, Ophis.
When Jim attempted to close the distance between them, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six looked toward him and threw out his open palm. "I, stulte!"
Jim felt himself swept up off his feet and driven by a great wind all the way back to the door to the hallway. He hit the granite door side and collapsed in a heap.
"Oh, my God," Blair cried, and dashed to his partner. "Jim, Jim! Are you all right?"
The sentinel started to pick himself up off the floor, and accepted a hand up. "Yeah, I think so. What just happened?" His confusion showed as he checked out his new whereabouts.
"I was about to ask you the same thing," Blair said anxiously. "From where I was, it looked as if you were blown away, literally."
Jim swallowed hard. "I was." His tones fell low. "I think maybe he just used magic on me."
Blair's face was a picture of concern and relief. "So you believe now? That we're up against something we may not be able to deal with alone?
Jim shook his head. "I still don't believe it, Blair. Maybe it was just a freak gust of wind." His voice betrayed him.
Blair grabbed his shoulders and shook him. Jim was startled into giving his shaman his full attention.
"Look, Jim. You'd better process this, and fast. This was no freak gust of wind. We're inside, there's no window open, it's raining out there like it's the second flood.
"You've got to integrate what you just experienced with everything else you know and have ever believed in. There are spirit animals, Jim, and we both have them. This is something in the spiritual realm, and it's not benevolent. It's going to kill us. They're going to kill us, or whoever is the winner will. We don't have time for you to be of two minds. So get it together. Our lives depend on it!"
Jim said nothing, but his eyes pled for understanding in his doubtfulness.
Blair softened a little. He knew Jim hated the mystical side of being a sentinel as much as Simon Banks hated the sentinel concept as a whole, and that was a very great deal. He gripped his partner's shoulders once for comfort, and then patted his biceps. "Just think about it, and keep thinking about it. Okay?"
The two of them went back to watching the preparations of the sorcerers of air and water. Melusine lit candles, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six wrote arcane symbols from the Kabala and other sources around the widened circle, and both chanted.
It wasn't enough. Blair cried out in astonishment and fear, and Jim yelled with him.
There was fire in the sorcerer's room. Balls of light, white, blue, yellow and orange, were coming through the windows, breaching the glass without damaging it, floating toward the circle, ringing it and dancing around in a fragmented, random pattern.
Six Hundred And Sixty And Six called out, and winds whistled inside his chambers, freezing Jim and Blair, but having no effect at all on the balls of light.
Melusine called for water, which pitter-pattered from the ceiling above. The drops slid off the 'skins' of the lights, and onto the granite beneath. She yowled defiance, and fell to the floor, grabbing Six Hundred And Sixty And Six by the ankles. With a mighty surge, she lifted him cleanly off his feet and out of the circle, which was undamaged and cast its protection around her unabated.
Six Hundred And Sixty And Six blasphemed God and cursed the treacherous sorcerer of the water, coiling into a fetal position, unshielded.
The balls of light stopped moving. Between the space of one breath and the next, they reformed in a circle around the sorcerer of the air.
"What do you see?" the shaman whispered, shaking, into the sentinel's ear.
"I think I see ball lightning, or will-o-the-wisps," the sentinel replied, breathlessly. "Something like fire or plasma, I don't know what."
"Oh," said the shaman. "I'm seeing the balls of light, but I'm also seeing salamanders inside them, Jim. And I think there may be sylphs here, too."
Jim reached for his forearm and hung on tight.
The circle of fiery lights began to close about the sorcerer.
Six Hundred And Sixty And Six threw out his arms. "Ergo animam aeris pasco, ideo mutuo dominum tuum adirite!" he cried.
As Jim and Blair watched disbelievingly, half of the balls of light separated themselves from the rest, and floated out through the windows by which they had entered, doing no damage, just like sunbeams.
No longer floating randomly, the remaining lightning balls targeted the man. He was engulfed in plasma hotter than the surface of the sun. In a trice, there was nothing left of him, except one shoeless foot. All but one of the balls of lightning burst, leaving drips of water in their wake. The last ball floated to an electrical outlet on a wall, and disappeared into the socket.
It was over.
Melusine got up, and staggered over to Jim and Blair. "Did you see that?" she choked out.
But as Jim and Blair were about to answer, another cry pierced the night air.
"Basil?" Jim and Blair asked each other, and then ran for the suite belonging to the sorcerer of fire.
By the time they got there, the door was in scorched splinters, apparently blown apart by a great blast of fire. The chambers were empty of fireballs, salamanders and sylphs. Of Basil, there was no trace but ashes in a heap scattered in a wide circle, like the ashes of Six Hundred And Sixty And Six.
Melusine crept toward the men of Major Crime. "Is, is, is he – dead?" she whispered.
Blair whirled toward her. "Yes. He is. You're the only one left."
The lovely blonde's whole demeanor changed in an instant. She grinned with evil glee. "Then I guess I win. Such an easy triumph. I cringed and deferred to their 'superior' masculinity, and they ate it up, the dolts. Just pushing Six out of the way, and letting him cremate Basil, and vice versa, so they killed each other off. And they thought I didn't have a chance." A deep guttural rumble of malice and merriment filled the tower. "Meet the Anti-Christ," Melusine exulted, "and bear witness to her birth!"
She swelled, growing taller than Simon Banks, wider than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and harder of feature than any picture of Moloch.
She, or he, or it, threw back her head and screamed with unholy laughter.
Continue on to Act 4