Seven hours earlier…
"So why did you want to meet up in such a hurry?" the zanily dressed girl asked. She lifted her cup, sipping coke through the straw. The Burger King was packed out.
Alice took a sip of her own drink uneasily. On the table next to them, a child was misbehaving, using the crayons kids got with their meals to scribble on the table. His mum was too busy chatting to a friend to notice.
"I have to leave."
Her friend, Helen, raised an eyebrow. She was visibly surprised, but not much. Alice assumed her friend was used to her sudden whims, though this was probably one of the more dramatic ones.
"I wanted to see you before I left London."
Helen put her drink down and chewed on a french-fry vacantly. She tilted her head a little, the motion comedic as she was wearing a bobble hat with oversized buttons sewn into it. "Why are you leaving?"
"It's… I'm sorry but I can't really talk about it."
"Oh boy. Do I even want to think about what you've gotten yourself into this time?"
"It's not like that. I promise."
Helen finished the chip and rubbed her fingers together. Grains of salt petered down onto the food tray. She looked up at Alice again, eyes showing she had realised something.
"It's Caspian isn't it?"
Alice coughed on her coke, nearly dropping the cup. She turned half away, putting a hand to her mouth. A comma of blonde hair tumbled before her eyes. She glanced around nervously, but no one cared, lost in their burgers and conversations.
"You always work me out," she said dejectedly.
"Granted, we've known each other a while."
A silence passed over them, both returning to their drinks and fries. Helen didn't ask another question. Not while they were eating anyhow. They walked back through the shopping centre once they were finished, and approached the bus stop where Alice would take her leave.
"Stay safe," Helen finally said, breaking her silence. Behind her, taxis wrangled for space in the rank. Alice looked to her with bright eyes. "I get that you've known Caspian all your life. You've got to do what you've got to do. Just promise me you'll stay safe."
Alice smiled, fighting back a tear, and pulled her friend into an embrace. "I'll try Helen, I'll really try."
But she could never promise. Not now. Her own safety was the least of her worries.
Once she was settled in the back of the bus, she watched her friend wander into the busy crowds, and then sank back into the foamy seat. She pulled out her phone and slid her finger across her contacts list. Her thumb hovered over Caspian's name, and she sat in indecision for a moment. Suddenly, the screen changed to an incoming call. A withheld number.
She swallowed nervously, accepted the number and put the phone to her ear.
"Speaking," she said quietly.
"Get off the bus at Hyde Park, and come to the nearest bench."
Before she could question the caller further, the line went dead.
Was this her life now? Always moving, always watching over her shoulder. A clandestine way of living, where even her name was lost to the shadows.
Her hand went to the stop button, finger poised as they approached the park she had been instructed to get off at. Though she was filled with anxiety, she had no choice. It wasn't only her own life riding on her decisions now.
Seven hours later…
Caspian heaved the body of the pianist towards the water's edge. The man was surprisingly heavy. On closer inspection he had a large belly – the product of rich food and even richer alcohol. After all, he was nothing but a wealthy dandy, living out his days in a European paradise, purchasing artefacts that other, more important people had their eyes on.
Since he had released the incantation and left the hexagram's range, rigour mortis had begun to set into the body, limbs firming up so that the corpse became a deadweight of sorts. He had to drag the thing against the ground, unable to bend arms or legs to make the motion easier. Even so, he came to the rim of the lake eventually, and laid the body back down so that it was adjacent to the water.
With a firm push, he rolled the man into the lake. The slope meant the body gained momentum, until it was totally submerged in the water. Caspian's trainers and jeans were sodden.
It mattered not. He had what he needed. His hands went to the backpack sitting up on the bank. Inside was the object he had been searching for. The fifth. The fifth of the Asereth ha-Dibroth. Better known as the Ten Commandments.
It was a strangely syncretic commandment. To honour one's mother and father. Was this not the whole reason? Was this ideal not what drove him on this quest? He had forsaken much, but there was an end in sight.
The worst thing was – he knew he was a pawn. What did the Gods care for humanity and all its foolishness? But Nyx had been prepared to make a deal with him. Those were the terms of his Gnostic Oath. He wondered if the other Gods left so much room for liberty in their relationships with their Sephira.
He sat on the bank and looked out to the lake. It was nearing midnight now. The rustic ambers of the falling sun had scattered entirely, leaving only darkness in their wake. It was a full moon.
Too many feelings rattled around inside his head. He was so sick of wallowing. He had been a fun loving guy once. After returning the stone tablet, his hand searched around in the bag for another can of mountain dew. The drink was a little flat.
He would need to leave soon. The estate's security often came around just after midnight. They would know something was up. Caspian hadn't been particularly careful in his endeavours. He did have one thing on his side though. One of the side effects of the long-range hexagram meant the cameras in the chalet had been disabled. They would have no visual identification for Caspian. A plane in Geneva would whisk him back to London in a couple of hour's time.
Before then he needed to hide the tablet. He finished his drink, throwing the can into the lake to sleep with the dead pianist. He plucked his katana from the ground, unsheathing it carefully, and with the point drew a pentagram around the bag. He muttered incantations. Short ones, for this act was not a particularly strenuous one. It would ensure only the unquestionable contents would be seen by the border control staff. Taking a pinch of salt he sprinkled it over the outside of the bag.
Satisfied, Caspian closed the bag once again, sheathed his katana, and began to walk away from the lake. He was a hooded shadow in the darkness, a forsaken spirit moving through the night.
Six Hours Earlier…
"It is your bond with Caspian that drew him to you."
Alice's hands were clasped in her lap. She wasn't quite seated on the bench. Perching on the edge was a better description. Her fingers circled one another agitatedly.
"Are you prepared?"
She swallowed, and hazarded a glance at the woman sat next to her. Straight silvery hair fell just below her jaw line, and blue eyes watched her with genuine care. Trish, she was called.
"I said my goodbyes," she whispered, barely able to get the words out.
Trish nodded slowly, seemingly satisfied. "And your name?"
"Pandora." Alice. Always Alice. Never forget it. Must I? Should I? Can I?
"Good. He picked that name for a reason you know. Pandora was the first woman. Some cultures call her Eve. Some Lillith. But she is the original woman to walk on this earth."
The words meant little to her, though she feigned a wan smile to show acknowledgement.
"You know – this doesn't have to be scary. You will see him again soon. Caspian, I mean."
Alice turned to her again, eyes drifting beyond to watch a family picnic in the dewy grass. Laughter filled the air. A thought occurred to her, as she watched.
"Why did Caspian keep his name?"
"I do not know the reasoning entirely, but it was part of his Gnostic Oath."
That didn't answer her question at all. Not one bit. But she doubted this woman knew any more than she had already said.
They sat in silence for five minutes, and then the cab pulled up. The whole journey through London's crammed roads made her feel sick to her stomach. The queasy feeling remained when they finally got out, sunlight refracting off the glass tower that rose up before them. This was the mouth of hell, in all its modern, urban glory.
Trish's hand came to rest on Alice's shoulder. "I'll be with you right up until they begin the ritual. It will be okay, I promise."
"How long ago was it that you became a Sephira?" Alice asked. Trish's hand recoiled from her, and her head tilted upwards. A gaze into the sun.
"Thirty two years now."
"Do you…wish things could have been different?"
"I don't know any different, do I?"
That was all she said, simple and brutal, and yet it told Alice everything she needed to know. Things would get better in time. She would forget her old life. And the years would pass quickly too, she thought. She wondered where Caspian was, right now. Was he safe?
They entered the building through a revolving door. Trish's heels clicked against what appeared to be a marble floor. The reception desk was strangely unmanned, Alice noted, as they proceeded to an elevator.
"Did you ever wonder why there were so many empty buildings in the city?" Trish asked rhetorically, "they move around. Never using the same building twice. On this plane, at least."
She didn't ask what the last sentence meant.
Inside the elevator there were no buttons for individual floors, instead a security keypad was affixed to the wall, and Trish quickly input a long series of numbers. The thing rattled to life, and they were hurtling up only a moment after. Alice fought back the nausea, hands clinging to the side rail.
When they got to their destination, both women walked out into a dimly lit corridor, Trish leading the way towards a metal door. She stepped aside, and gave Alice an expression of encouragement.
"He'll be waiting for you in there. I'll be here when you come back out."
Alice nodded slowly, trying to gain a measure of control over her breathing. She reached a hand to Trish, touching her arm affectionately.
"Thank you for everything."
The woman smiled at the compliment, nodding once again, before her eyes went to the door. All those stories of her childhood came flooding back. Her name. The stories the children used to tell. Alice in Wonderland. Through the rabbit hole. Madness, madness everywhere. She was Alice, and it was time to step out of the logical realm - the safe, tidy world where everything made sense. And then she would be Alice no more.
Finally, with one last exhalation, she opened the door and stepped into the waiting darkness. The tiniest sliver of light remained as the door fell back on its hinges and closed itself. She had made her decision.
"Welcome, Alice. It is time for you to make your Oath to the Court of Gods. I, Erebus, will witness your Gnostic vows."
The voice was dark and rich, and easy on the ear. She could fall into a trance at the very reality of his words. She steeled herself for a moment, knowing she wanted her own words to come out with conviction.
"My name is not Alice. I am Pandora."
In that sliver of light, she could make out the shape of a figure, sat behind a desk. And momentarily, she thought she could see a smile.
A/N: I promise things will be explained next chapter, as Alice/Pandora makes her Gnostic Oath to the mysterious Erebus... All reviews are returned!