Youthful Indiscretion (Beginning)

Defending Sovereign, Church, and Country from the Forces of Darkness

This story can be viewed as 'fan fiction'. It is meant to be an homage to two of Clive Barker's works: a short story, "The Hellbound Heart", and a movie, Hellraiser, which he wrote and directed. Though elements have been altered to fit into the Sir Differel Van Helsing story universe, we have nonetheless tried to remain faithful to the concepts outlined in Mr. Barker's works, while steering clear of those used in the later movies of the Hellraiser franchise, with a few minor exceptions. Our readers will have to judge how successful we are.

This is a complete story, and is only available here, on Goodreads, and on Wattpad.

Pinhead, the Cenobites, and the Lamarchand Box/Lament Configuration are copyrighted © and trademarked ® by Clive Barker. They are used here without permission. (Mr. Barker has been notified of their use.) However, this story is not intended for commercial use.

#

"What's next?" Aunt Sunny asked.

Henry focused on another of a series of objects on a shelf. "A brass statue, about a foot high, like a reclining Buddha, but with an elephant's head. The ears are ragged, like bat wings, and the trunk has a toothed sucker-disc on the end of it."

"That's Chaugnar Faugn."

He turned and grinned as he spotted his mother standing in the doorway of the vault.

"Hey, Diff," Aunt Eile said.

She didn't take his eyes off him. "How's it going?"

"It's been fun," he replied.

"Henry's been a great help," Eile said.

"Yeah, we should be done in an hour!" Sunny added.

His mother gave him the look she used when she knew he was telling a little white lie to avoid hurting anyone's feelings. When Eile and Sunny had asked if he wanted to assist them, he had jumped at the chance to get out of weapons training, and the idea of seeing all the old relics in storage had sounded exciting, but in the end it had been pretty boring. They didn't know anything about any of them, they were just cataloging them to update the records. It wasn't long before he found himself wishing he was doing anything else, including training, but Eile and Sunny had really wanted to spend time with him and he didn't want to disappoint them.

"Would you excuse us, Henry?" his mother said. "I need to speak with the Girls for a moment."

He nodded. "Yeah, sure."

She flashed a disapproving frown before she stepped out of the vault. She didn't like it when he picked up their manner of speech.

He turned his back on them as they conversed quietly outside in the corridor. Ordinarily he would be very eager to eavesdrop, but his boredom made him uninterested for once. He just wanted to get it all done so he could get out of there. The catacombs, which were the lowest subterranean level below the manor house, had several vaults where is ancestors, as well as his mother, kept objects they had collected over the decades under lock and key. He knew that Mother had wanted to do a complete inventory of their contents for several years, but had never found the time. As such, when Eile and Sunny had volunteered to do it she took them up on it so she wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. He had always been fascinated to learn what they contained, but rather than being the bizarre, frightening, and macabre objects he expected, just about everything had turned out to be pretty ordinary, and most of it looked like junk. It made him wonder whether running the Caerleon Order would really be as glamorous as he imagined it would be.

As he examined the shelves in front of him in an indifferent manner, something caught his eye. It was partially hidden behind a piece of jagged, multicoloured crystal. He glanced behind himself and saw that his mother was engrossed in her conversation with Eile and Sunny. He stepped closer to the shelves and reached up to feel for it. He grasped what felt like a box-shaped item and took it down. It was a cube, about four inches square and solid black, with a shiny, lacquered finish. It appeared to be all one piece, but as he turned it about in his hands he felt very tiny indentations. He examined it more closely and saw very fine lines, like etchings. They were almost imperceptible, but when the light from the ceiling fixture shined on the cube just right he could see them more clearly.

His heart raced as he realized what it was: a Bedlam block, made from interlocking polycubic pieces. He loved puzzles; Vlad gave them to him to teach him how to think analytically, and rewarded him for each solution with a wolf-ride around the estate. The Bedlam block was supposed to be one of the most difficult anyone could make. Each piece could only be removed one at a time, in a specific sequence, and only when the others were manipulated to free it. This one looked especially hard, because not only were the seams hard to see, but unlike a normal block the different pieces were all one colour. Whoever had created it must have been both a master craftsman and an artist, or so he thought, because the design and workmanship could not be compared to any other puzzle he had seen.

He glanced over his shoulder again, and saw that Eile, Sunny, and his mother had their backs to the open vault door. He hurried over to where he had set his pack, which contained the gun Mother had given him along with water and a few bags of snacks. He placed the block inside, then as an afterthought buried it under the snacks. Some part of him said that what he was doing was wrong; that he should show it to his mother and ask her permission first, but he was certain that since it was in the vault she wouldn't let him keep it. He understood that, technically, since it had been locked away for safe keeping, the Order either considered it valuable or a threat, but if the latter was true, Mother never would have permitted him to help Eile and Sunny. Besides, it was just a puzzle; what harm could it cause?

"Henry."

He looked up, startled to see her in the doorway looking at him, almost as if she had read his mind. To cover his actions he grabbed the water bottle as he straightened up. "Yes, Mother?"

"I'm sorry to pull you away from your fun," though she flashed a lopsided grin that indicated she knew how he really felt, "but Vlad insists on giving you pistol training."

He grinned back, but tried to sound disappointed. "Yes, Mother."

She stepped away from the doorway. "Run along, then."

He grabbed up the pack and headed out, but paused when he reached his surrogate aunts. "I'm sorry Aunt Eile, Aunt Sunny."

Sunny looked hurt, but Eile displayed a wry smile, as if she understood the real reason. "It's okay," she said, "another time."

He grinned back at her and hurried off. He headed for the north stairwell and ran all the way up to the second floor, then sprinted across the west wing to his bedroom. He threw the pack on the desk and pulled out the block. He looked around for a hiding place, where the servants wouldn't find it, and focused on the linen chest. He knew they only changed out the whole contents once a month, and they had just done so a few days before. He opened it, pushed the piles of towels, sheets, and blankets out of the way, and placed the puzzle on the bottom, letting the linens drop back on top of it. He figured that should keep it hidden for the rest of the month, which would be plenty of time to solve it.

He took the pistol out of the pack and slipped it into one pants pocket while placing the two magazines in the other. He went down to the ground floor and out the back, through the portico and across the terrace and patio into the garden. Vlad met him there and escorted him to the guard station in the security fence, where one of the soldiers waited for them with an electric cart. He would drive them to the shooting range at the troop compound. Along the way he felt his conscience nag at him. He really shouldn't keep secrets from his own mother, especially considering that the Order she ran as director was Britain's premier monster hunting organization. Anything it dealt with could be dangerous. But he just couldn't believe the block was a threat, and with a bit of luck he could have the puzzle disassembled in a few days, a week at most, and return it before anyone was the wiser.

After all, he was going to be Director himself one day, and he considered that good practice for the kinds of clandestine activities he would have to engage in at that time.

#

He felt anxious all the rest of the day. Aelfraed, his mother's butler and his instructor on Order procedures, Mr. Holt, the house Master-at-Arms and his trainer for hand-to-hand combat and fencing, and Dr. Mabuse, the Order's mad scientist and his academic tutor, all noticed and remarked on it, but they had all made the same erroneous assumption, that he simply wanted to hurry the time along so he could play video games with Eile and Sunny. At least he was able to keep his mind focused on his lessons, otherwise he had no doubt they would report his distraction to Mother, who would then confront him about it. While he might keep secrets from her, he had so far never lied to her (not counting fibs) and he had no intention or desire to start, so he would be in a real dilemma if she demanded an explanation for his inattention.

Despite the fact that the minutes crawled by like hours, he managed to make it to evening without a major mishap. He went back to his bedroom to clean up and change, then headed for the tea room. In the hallway he paused and listened to his mother practice the cello. She always did that before high tea, assuming she wasn't involved in some kind of crisis. He figured he must be early; she was never late for anything.

He entered the tea room and watch as Aelfraed and a maid set a table. When he lived with his paternal grandmother, he ate supper, but Mother preferred a meal tea. In many ways it was like a more elaborate version of lunch. He didn't care; Grandmother never ate with him, but Mother always did, assuming there weren't any monsters she had to go kill.

The cello stopped playing, and a few minutes later she entered. She came over to wait beside him.

"I'm afraid I have bad news," she said. He looked up at her; she could mean almost anything.

"Eile and Sunny had to return home; something about their daughters. They're okay, but as a result they won't be able to play with you as they wished tonight."

Connie and Liza; he knew them rather well, because whenever he went to stay with Eile and Sunny they competed with him for their attention. They were ten years younger than him, just old enough they no longer needed constant supervision, but could bedevil him to distraction.

"Oh. I hope everything works out." But he wasn't disappointed. As much as he loved playing video games or watching movies with them, he was anxious to take a crack at the puzzle.

"I'm sure everything will be fine. Meanwhile, fortunately I have the night off, so I thought we could do something together. Anything you like."

Ordinarily that would have him excited. Despite her best efforts they didn't often spend time together, quality or otherwise, at least not without taking a week or more off. "Could I take a rain check?"

She threw him a startled look. He understood why she was surprised. For the first couple of years after they had gotten back together he often begged her to do things with him, and sometimes threw a fit when she couldn't. He stopped as he got older, especially when he moved in with her after Grandmother died, having acquired a better understanding of her duties and responsibilities, but he figured she would probably remember that over his current behavior.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't feel well."

She took off a glove and felt his forehead and cheeks. "You're not running a fever. Do you feel ill? Your stomach maybe?"

"No, I'm not sick, I just feel tired."

She nodded as she put her glove back on. "We did run you ragged this afternoon. But we could watch a movie. Avatar 2 is available on the Blockbuster Channel."

"I actually have some homework I need to finish before school on Monday. I was going to do it tomorrow, but if I do it tonight maybe we could go horseback riding after Sunday roast."

She flashed a disappointed expression before she suppressed it. He felt bad about blowing her off like that, but he was in earnest.

"I can't promise anything, but I have no meetings, my reports for the week are finished, and there are no operations going on. As long as nothing comes up, a ride around the estate sounds lovely." Then she flashed a rueful half-grin. "I can show you where I used to hide in the motte-and-bailey when I was younger than you are now."

He smiled and nodded. "Then it's a date."

"Tea is served My Lady, My Lord," Aelfraed said as the maid curtsied.

As they ate, they spoke of mundane matters: his latest school projects, the most recent adventures of Team Girl, and Dr. Mabuse's newest breakthrough, but perhaps inevitably the conversation turned towards the relics in the vault. "You seemed so excited about helping the Girls; what happened?"

"I expected them to be more interesting."

She flashed a lopsided smile. "You mean, you hoped they would be more frightening."

He sported a sheepish grin. "Yes, but that would've been fine if Eile and Sunny knew any stories connected with them, and they didn't."

"I see." She had that look she used when she was amused by his naiveté. "Pray tell, what would you like to know?"

"For instance, that statue with the elephant head, the one you called 'chaw-nahr fawn'—"

"Chaugnar Faugn."

"Okay, but what is it? Why do we have it?"

"That one was before my time. My father, your grandfather, acquired it with the help of your grandmother, before they were married." And she proceeded to spin a tale full of harrowing adventure, daring-do, and narrow escapes from horrible death that had him on the edge of his seat. It didn't end until after they started eating their dessert.

"That was bloody awesome!"

"Henry!" She threw him a disapproving look. "You shouldn't use that kind of language!"

"You do, all the time!"

For a moment she appeared shocked, but then an embarrassed scowl washed across her face. "I'm an adult—!" She caught herself and flashed a chagrined smile. "Which is no excuse. Still, you're really too young to talk like that."

"Mrs. Widget told me you used to say worse when you were my age."

"Hmph. I'm going to have to have a talk with her about speaking out of school."

"What about a simple cube?"

Caught off guard, she blinked in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"

He didn't know why he had mentioned the block. Maybe his conscience was getting to him, but he couldn't take it back. Still, he figured if he was careful, he could learn something about it before he tried to solve it.

"I saw this cube; it was so big—" He pantomimed a four-inch square space with his fingers and palms.

"What did it look like?"

"It was dark and plain; I couldn't see any features, but its corners and edges were rounded."

She developed a thoughtful look. "That doesn't sound familiar." Then she smirked. "But truth be told, I don't know half of what's down there. That's why I wanted to conduct an inventory. I could check the Girls' record, but they had to leave before they could finish."

He shrugged. "No, that's okay. I doubt it could match the statue story. Any others like that?"

She grinned, and told him another, about an icon she and his father had recovered from Serbia without Vlad's help. It took them well past the tea hour, during which Aelfraed and the maid returned to clear the table, but he hardly noticed them. He wondered if she might have been gilding the lily a bit, but it was too spine-tingling for him to care.

After she had finished, she got a call from Sharona Turing about an incident that was unfolding in Cambridgeshire, so she walked him back to the children's bedroom before heading down to Intelligence on the ground floor. He found it ironic that after making up an excuse to get out of spending time with her, something had come up after all, as it always seemed to do. Once she left, though, he pulled out his notebooks. He did have homework, and he didn't want to have to explain why he hadn't completed it, but it was less than he made it out to be. He figured he could be done in a couple of hours.

At precisely 7:45, Aelfraed appeared with his bedtime snack, milk and a plate of biscuits. He had already finished a few minutes before, but pretended to be busy for his benefit. At exactly 8:03, his mother knocked on the door that connected his bedroom to her boudoir. He looked up as she opened the door.

"Still at it?"

"Yes, but I'm almost finished."

"What is it?"

"A report on the Cromwellian Commonwealth, with special emphasis on the Protectorate."

"Very well, but don't stay up too late."

"I won't."

"Let me know when you're in bed, and I'll read to you."

"Not tonight, please, I'm going to be pretty tired and I just want to go straight to bed."

She looked disappointed again, even a bit hurt, and he felt a pang of remorse.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes; I'm sorry."

Then she flashed an irritated scowl. "You have no reason to apologize. If you're tired we can skip it. You're probably getting too old for that anyways."

"No, I really enjoy it! How about tomorrow night?"

She tossed him a grateful smile. "That I believe I can arrange. Any preferences?"

"How about something from Le Morte d'Arthur; maybe, Gareth Beaumains, or, Gawain and the Green Knight?"

"Very well. Good night, Henry, sleep tight."

"Good night, Mother."

She started to close the door, but hesitated and pushed it open again. "I'd like to read your report tomorrow."

"Yeah, sure."

She frowned, and he grinned. "Sorry."

She gave him an amused smirk and closed the door.

He waited until after Aelfraed brought her supper and picked up his glass and plate, and made a show of being finished. He changed into his pajamas and let Aelfraed tuck him in and turn out the light. He didn't go to sleep, through; he was too keyed up, waiting for Mother to retire. She always tried to be in bed by nine, so she could spend as much time in the Dreamlands with his father as she could manage. He would know when she retired when the light showing under the door went out.

He heard Aelfraed return for her supper things, then his door opened. He squeezed his eyes shut and through the lids saw her shadow loom over him as she bent down and kissed him on the cheek. She then retreated, closing the door behind her. He opened his eyes to watch, and in a few minutes the light under the door went out.

He realized she was going to bed early. He threw off the covers and ran for the nearest window. From that angle he could see a window of her bathroom. After about five minutes a light came on behind the frosted glass, and occasionally her shadow passed over it as she crossed in front of the light. Fifteen minutes later it shut off again, and he knew she had gone into her bedroom on the other side of the wing.

He was safe. He hurried over to the linen chest and dug down for the block. At first he couldn't find it, and in a momentary stab of panic he thought a servant had discovered it and turned it in. Frantic, he felt around for it and touched it, and almost fainted with relief. Pulling it out, he took it to his desk and turned on the lamp. He turned it around in his hands, examining it closely. As the light played off the surface, he thought he saw faces reflected in the sides, but they were so subtle and fleeting that he dismissed them as optical illusions.

He spotted the finely etched lines and ran a fingernail along them, but frowned. A standard Bedlam block was composed of thirteen smaller blocks, but the pieces in that puzzle looked too big. He realized there couldn't be more than six, if even that many. That should have made the puzzle elementary to solve, but try as he might, not matter how he pushed, twisted, or pulled, none of the pieces moved even the slightest. He wondered if in fact it might have been solid, and only made to look like a puzzle, but he stubbornly kept at it. He had put himself through too much to just to quit for no reason.

He lost track of time, such that he could have worked on it for three days and never noticed, while five minutes would have seemed like five hours. As such, he was rather surprised when he heard what sounded like a soft click, and one of the corners showed some give. He tried to push it back into place, to figure out how he had loosened it, but it wouldn't stay; it kept sliding back out, as if on its own. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle at the thought, but nothing happened as he held it and watched. After a few minutes he grasped the piece and extracted it. It slid against the other pieces along fluted slots, and when it was free he saw two oiled pegs attached to it. The inside surfaces of it and the other pieces still in place were highly polished, like mirrors. He examined the rest of the block, and saw what looked like three more pieces attached to a central core; it had a pair of small holes, into which the piece's pegs would insert.

He smiled at his success, inadvertent as it was. The block was a challenge, more so than he originally thought, and he felt a creeping excitement come over him. He couldn't wait to work on the next piece.

Even as he gripped it, he heard music emanate from it, like that of a toy music box. It was a simple, repetitive tune, predictable, and so trite as to be almost boring, and yet there was a nobility about its character that made it seem majestic despite all that. It didn't last long, but while it played he sat listening in rapture, oblivious to everything except the music.

It stopped, and at the same moment there was a knock at the door to the outer hall. He jumped, shocked, and grabbed up the block and the piece.

"My Lord?" It was Aelfraed. His voice was muffled, but unmistakable.

He ran for the linen chest, pushed open the top, and shoved the puzzle down to the bottom as Aelfraed knocked and called out again. He dropped the lid and scurried to the desk to shut off the light when the door opened.

"Are you all right, Master Henry?" He used that form of address whenever he wanted to emphasize that he was playing the authoritative adult instead of the manservant.

"Yes, Aelfraed, I'm fine. I just got up to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water."

"I see, but why use the light at your desk rather than by your bedside?"

"Because, I...needed to check something in my homework, a mistake I thought I'd made. It was nothing."

"Forgive my asking, but why now instead of in the morning?"

"I was already up, and I wanted to have it finished before tomorrow. Mother and I have plans."

He smiled and nodded. "Very well, My Lord, but you should be in bed, otherwise you'll be too tired to do anything tomorrow."

"I'm turning in now. Good night, Aefraed."

"Good night, My Lord." He backed away and closed the door.

Henry switched off the light and went back to bed. As he snuggled in, he realized what must have happened. The lights in the outside hall had been turned down, which made the weak light coming from under the bedroom door more obvious. The guard then alerted Aelfraed.

He would have to figure out some way of defeating that for the next time.

#

Vlad prowled along the inside perimeter of the house grounds security fence in his black dog form, looking for breaches or other security problems. The Human guards were very efficient, thanks to Giles Holt; he didn't expect to find anything, though he could look where and in a manner no Human could. He had no concern over tripping one of the claymore or bounding mines, or a flame fougasse projector, because his current form was as insubstantial as fog. Nor would the sensors pick him up, except for the night vision cameras; he made no sound for the ultra-sensitive microphones to hear, and he put off no heat for the infrared cameras to see. Still, who knew what diabolically clever device Dr. Mabuse might whip up that could make him stand out like a candle on a black night?

He made patrols like that as often as he could, not only to protect the Van Helsing Bloodline, but also because there were paranormal threats only he could detect and deal with. Humans were particularly vulnerable at night, whereas his powers were exulted during the hours of darkness. Though he felt nothing but contempt for the vast majority of Humanity, being as they were little better than sheep to wolf like himself, there were several on the estate that he felt an obligation to protect if he could, Men and Women with the Will to transcend the blandness of Mankind and rise to heights of greatness few could imagine much less reach. One such was Sir Differel. Even if she were not of the Bloodline he would protect her with his life. Her son, Henry, on the other hand...he had not decided about him. As a Van Helsing, he commanded his loyalty and servitude, but he had not yet proven he was worthy to command him. Not that that mattered to his Oaths, but it mattered to him. He genuinely liked the boy, and he hoped he would one day make him proud.

He slowed, as he felt a strange presence enter the estate. He stopped, swiveled his ears, and cocked his head. There was something; he couldn't determine what, exactly, but...

Then he heard it: a short rondo of banal but sublime music. He assumed his normal form and slowly turned in place completely around. It was too faint to identify, and then it ceased, preventing him from pinpointing it, but it had been real, of that he had no doubt. He had no idea what it signified, but the memory of it disturbed him, despite its prosaic tune.

He shuddered; he had a feeling like someone walking over his grave.

#

Henry kept working on the block throughout the week, when time permitted. During the day he went to school in Downham Market; in the afternoons he trained, while evenings were reserved for study and homework. He barely had any free time, except for a couple of hours spaced widely apart. Nonetheless he made time, after his mother retired if necessary.

Unfortunately, the next two pieces proved more difficult to remove. It was as if the puzzle was designed to get harder rather than easier. He didn't remove the second piece until Monday, though he figured the time he spent with Mother on Sunday had something to do with that. In the morning she boated with him up the River Great Ouse to the Wash near King's Lynn for some fishing. They returned in time for Sunday roast, then went horseback riding around the estate. As she promised, she took him on a tour of the motte-and-bailey, and even showed him the entrance to a secret tunnel that connected to an opening beneath the secret stairwell under the Catacombs. Only four other people knew of it, which didn't include Aelfraed, Mr. Holt, or Mrs. Widget, so he could use it in an emergency if necessary. Upon their return to the house they play some billiards followed by a video game, and had supper while watching Avatar 2. Finally she put him to bed and read to him before she retired as well. He got up when he figure she was asleep, stuffed a towel against the bottom of his door, and worked on the puzzle in bed, but found he could only maintain the energy for about an hour before fatigue forced him to quit.

But when he removed the second piece the following night, he heard a different version of the music from two nights before.

However, he wasn't able to remove the third piece until Friday night. While he had only short periods of time to work on it, it still proved to be the most difficult piece yet. When he finally succeeded in extracting it, the music was again a different version of the two previous tunes, and while pleasing, he had hoped it might be even better given how hard that piece was. Still, as far as he could tell, he was down to just two pieces, but he was somewhat disappointed to find that solving the puzzle was not as exciting as he expected it to be. It had become like a chore, and he just wanted to get it done so he could forget about it.

The next day being Saturday, the start of the weekend meant he would spend most of his time training, but because of that, and in recognition of his lack of free time during the week, he was given the morning off to do whatever he wanted. Eile and Sunny would also be coming for a visit in the afternoon, so he could finally make it up to them for blowing them off the previous weekend. Of course, it also meant that Sunday's training would be even more grueling than normal, to make up for the time off last Sunday, but he didn't mind. Once they were all into the next week, things would get back to normal.

As much as he wanted to, however, he couldn't spend the morning holed up in his room working on the puzzle. Someone was bound to check on him. Instead, after breakfast he went to the Game Room and played video games until Aelfraed came to inform him lunch was ready. He followed him to the Sunroom and was surprised to see his mother with Eile and Sunny waiting for him.

After hugging his surrogate aunts, they sat down to eat. "Henry," his mother said, "I wanted to let you know something has come up. I am canceling your session with Dr. Mabuse, I need her to perform an analysis on some samples one of our agents has collected, and I am postponing your session with Aelfraed until after your training with Holt."

"But nothin's gonna stop us from havin' fun tonight!" Eile said.

"Darn right!" Sunny said. "We've gotta surprise for you: a sneak preview release of Resident Evil: Resurrection!"

Eile stared an angry look at her. "Way ta spoil it, ya butthead!"

"No, that sounds wonderful!" he said. Sunny was always doing that, but it didn't matter, since she tended to wait until at least the last minute even if it was premature.

"Well," his mother said, "be that as it may, Holt won't call for you until two. I'm sure you can find something to keep you entertained until then."

"As a matter of fact, there's a series on PBS about a tour of European cities. They'll have three episodes before two. I thought I'd watch that in my bedroom."

She smiled and nodded. "Sounds like an excellent idea. You're getting old enough, let me know if there's any place you'd like to visit, and I'll arrange a trip during summer break."

He grinned as much from surprise as pleasure. "Thank you!"

He raced through lunch, mostly because Mother dominated the conversation with Eile and Sunny, but certainly because he wanted to get the puzzle finished. Once he was finished, he hurried back to room. He turned his telly on and switched to PBS America, so if anyone checked up on him they would find him doing what he said he would. He then retrieved the puzzle and its pieces. If he separated the last two he planned to reassemble it so he could sneak it back into the vault sometime that weekend. Hopping into his bed, he settled against the pillows and started to work.

He spent an hour just turning it around in his hands, studying it and occasionally tugging at the pieces or twisting them halfheartedly. He wasn't in any hurry. If the third piece was any indication, he expected the last two to take hours to come apart, maybe even days. Still, there was no reason to put it off. Maybe he'd get lucky—

There was an audible click, and the pieces slid apart. Without even fully realizing it, he pulled and separated them. For a shocked moment he just stared at them, one in each hand. When the surprise wore off, however, he felt apprehensive rather than happy. He suddenly realized something was off; as his mother liked to say, the nickel had finally dropped.

He tried to reconnect the pieces, as if doing so would somehow reverse something he had started that he knew nothing about. Yet like with the first piece they wouldn't snap back together, they kept pushing apart like two magnets with their north poles facing each other. Frustrated, he threw the pieces onto the bed with the others. Something was very wrong, he could feel it, but he had no idea what to do.

Then he remembered: wasn't there supposed to be music? Then he did hear something, but it wasn't the tune he was familiar with. It sounded like a...a bell! A huge, ponderous church bell tolling in a solemn, almost mournful manner. That didn't sound good.

Movement caught his eye. Looking down in front of him, he saw the pieces reassembling themselves! Scared out of his wits, he threw himself out of bed, but then stood and stared at them as his heart pounded in his chest, his gut turned to ice, and his hair stood on end.

It was only then that he realized he was in major trouble.

#

After lunch, Differel took the Girls to the Gymnasium to give them a rapier dueling lesson. As usual, they were acting like their typical carefree selves, giggling and playing even as she tried to drum the basics into their air-heads.

"Eile, move your feet! Sunny, keep your blade up!"

"Ha! En garde, ya bimbo!" Eile said as she lunged at her partner.

"Touché away, you blackguard!" Sunny replied as she parried and lunged back.

"All right, enough! Stand down." She waited until she had their attention. "Look, I understand you two think this is grand fun, but if you're going to learn how to do it right you have to master the basics."

"I thought we had those down cold!" Sunny said.

"Yes and no. You run the drills well enough, but when you spar it all seems to go right out of your heads. So we're going to run some sparring drills. Now, watch what I do." She took a fighting stance and made ready to go through a series of moves, when she heard a bell tolling. Puzzled, she relaxed and looked around, trying to focus on its source. From the way they cocked their heads, she knew the Girls heard it as well.

"I didn't know you had a bell!" Sunny squeaked. Her penchant for stating the blindingly obvious could be pretty annoying, but in that case she was way off the mark.

"I don't."

They glanced at each with expressions that mixed surprise and puzzlement. "Then where's it coming from," Eile asked, "Denver?"

"Maybe Downham Market," Sunny said.

She shook her head. "Both are much too far away for even the loudest bells to be heard here on the estate."

"So what's going on?" Eile asked.

"I really don't know, but I doubt it's anything important." Having said that, she nonetheless assumed it was significant; anything so inexplicable had to be.

Vlad practically burst through of the floor, and stepped out of the cloud of shadow with a thunderclap, startling all of them.

"Bloody hell, Thrall, what's gotten into you?!"

"Master!" The sight of him agitated, even anxious, caused her heart to stutter. "I recognize the sound. It is the bell that announces the impending arrival of the Cenobites!"

Her mind skipped a track. "Merciful God! That means—"

"Someone inside the manor has opened a Lemarchand box, most likely the dreaded Lament Configuration."

For a moment she went numb. If true, the implications were nothing short of apocalyptic. Then her training took over. She pulled out her cell phone and activated the walkie-talkie feature.

"Mr. Holt, come in."

After a few moments: "Holt here; go ahead, Mum."

"Place the house on alert for an imminent Cenobite incursion."

There was a shocked pause, then: "Yes, Director, immediately!"

"What's goin' on—" Eile said as Differel put the phone away, but she was interrupted by a house-wide address.

"Attention! This is Master Sergeant Holt. All guard units on full alert. Prepare for an imminent incursion. All staff evacuate immediately. Assemble in the parking lot for transport to the troop compound. Senior staff coordinate with me. Holt out."

She stared at Vlad, dreading her next order, but it had to be done. "Stand ready. When the Cenobites come through, you will be the first to confront them."

He returned a grim visage, but he bowed. "Yes, My Master." He then dissolved into shadow and faded away. As if that was itself a signal, the bell ceased tolling.

She glanced at the Girls, torn between ordering them back to the States or asking for their help, but as she debated with herself she realized she would rather have them at her back than an entire SAS troop in full battle gear.

"You two come with me." And she headed for the locker room.

They sprinted to keep pace. "Just what the freakin' hell is going on anyways?!" Eile asked.

"Yeah, what's this 'lament configuration'?"

Once inside she began to change out of her dueling outfit as the Girls emulated her. There wouldn't be time for a shower, but they hadn't had time to work up a sweat yet. "The Lament Configuration is a type of Lemarchand box. Those are a series of puzzle boxes created by Philip Lemarchand, a maker of mechanical toys and singing birds back in 18th century France. Solving them opens temporary portals to other planes of existence and creates bridges across the Schism linking these realms with Earth. The most infamous and dreadful is known as the Lament Configuration, because it opens onto a plane of endless pain and suffering some call Hell. This realm is ruled by the Cenobites, former victims of the box who have such dark souls that they become part of the plane itself. Fortunately, they can cross over just long enough to claim the person who solved the puzzle, and they must return before the portal closes."

"Well, forgive our ignorance," Eile said, "but it sounds like no one's in any real danger, as long as they've got nothin' ta do with that box."

She finished tying her cravat and slipped on her jacket. "Unfortunately, I swore to protect my people, even from their own folly. I have to do whatever I can to save whoever solved that puzzle."

She paused and looked at them, feeling trepidatious but hopeful. "I probably shouldn't ask this, but I could really use your help. I would appreciate it if you stayed until this situation was resolved."

They glanced at each other with big grins on their faces. "Are you kiddin'?" Eile said. "We wouldn't miss this for the world. Yeah, sure, we'll do whatever we can."

"Onward to adventure!" Sunny shouted with the full force of her prodigious lung power. Differel winced, but grinned. She alone might just be enough to frighten the Cenobites back to Hell.

#

As soon as the block fully reassembled itself, the tolling stopped. Apprehension crept over him; he knew something was about to happen, he just didn't know what. Then the room began to grow dark. He looked around at the the lights. They didn't appear to grow dim; in fact, they seemed as bright as ever. Rather, the areas over which they cast their luminance shrank as the borders became more distinct and sharp. Beyond them, the room fell into shadow like it would at twilight when the sun had set but the sky was still bright.

In that moment They appeared in his room. It wasn't like how Vlad emerged from shadow, or the affect of Dr. Mabuse's transporter machine. Quite literally one moment the room was empty, and next five beings stood in its center. The thing he noted first was the stench. Though not overpowering, it was enough to turn his stomach, and yet overlaid was the scent of vanilla, which partially mitigated but could not completely cover their foul, rotten odor. At almost the same time he spotted the blue phosphorescent glow that surrounded them like a mist.

Their most horrific feature, however, was that each was deformed or mutilated in some hideous fashion. One was morbidly obese, with its face so swollen with fat that the wrinkles distorted and obscured its features. Another had a flap of skin covering its eyes while its disfigured mouth had the lips pulled back well away from its mouth and the teeth clattered together endlessly like it was chattering. The third was the size of child about his same age, but its flesh had been seared as if in a barbecue while its eyes stared out from their sockets without blinking. Number four looked like a teenage girl, and while bald was otherwise unmarked, except for a gaping wound in her throat held open by small hooks. They all wore clothing that looked like a combination of religious vestments and butchery garments, except they were made from black leather and vinyl. The robes exposed areas of skin on their chests and stomachs, and it was pierced and sliced and coated with fine powder, like talcum, or...ash? The garments themselves were sewn or hooked into the skin, as if that was needed to keep them in place, in the manner of buttons or zippers.

But the fifth and foremost, whom he took to be the leader, was the most compelling. He was hairless, with dead-white skin, and his face and scalp was etched in a grid of lines. At each intersection a large pin or small nail had been driven into the bone below. Unlike the others, who looked vacant or mindless, he seemed intelligent and aware. He stared at him with a sardonic half-smile, as if he alone knew a secret others would give their lives to know. It sent chills down his back even as he felt ill. Yet despite how repulsive they appeared, there was something about them that he found fascinating, even provocative. Even as he feared he would vomit at any moment, he felt enchanted by their presence, even a little bewitched.

But then the nail-headed one frowned, like he realized something was wrong. His companions moved towards the bed, he assumed with the intent to take him, but as they tried to go around their leader, he held up a hand.

"No, he did not summon us."

Summon!? He stared down at the block in horror. That's why it was in the vault! How could I be so stupid!

Vlad appeared in an explosion of shadow, in front of the bed between him and the monsters. "Run, Little Master!"

Whatever spell, psychological or psychic, that held him in that room broke, and his terror galvanized him. He ran for the door to the Nurse's Room, pulled it open, and made for the opposite side, that led into the Nursery. From there he could access the secret stairwell and make his way down to his mother's office. She would protect him.

As he reached the other door, he heard the one for his bedroom slam shut.

#

Vlad moved to block the door to keep the Cenobites from following his Master's son, but he felt the one called Pinhead extend his power to push it closed.

"Vlad Ţepeş Drăkulya." Pinhead regarded him with what appeared to be an arrogant expression. "Have you finally decided to surrender yourself to us?"

"No. My current existence still satisfies me."

"Then why do you interfere with our actions?"

"I defend the Van Helsing Bloodline. So long as I draw breath, no harm will come to those who possess it."

Pinhead sported a bored expression. "So be it." Even as he spoke, iron hooks at the end of heavy chains flew out of the walls, ceiling, and floor. The chains wrapped around Vlad's body, ensnaring him, as the hooks dug into his flesh, ripping through to the bones. They lifted him off the floor and spread-eagled his limbs even as they pulled him apart.

Through the haze of agony and blood he saw Pinhead scan the room in a slow manner, as if searching for something. "The one who summoned us is not here. Come, we must search for him." They turned as a group and headed for the hall door. As they passed through it, the chains dissolved into thin air and he dropped. Before he hit the ground, he transformed into shadow and flowed under the bed to reform. He had to do so quickly; he knew they would follow Henry for the time being, hoping he would lead them to their victim, and Henry would go to his mother.

#

Differel and the Girls were in the north stairwell, halfway between the first and ground floors, when her cell phone beeped. She paused and answered it.

"Differel here; report."

"Holt speaking. The Cenobites are in the Grand Hall, second floor, just outside the Matriarch Suite."

Too soon; she had hoped for more time. "Fall back. Do not engage; repeat, do not engage! Follow them for now, but keep your distance and do not interfere unless they threaten someone. Understood?"

"Yes, Mum."

"Keep me informed of their progress. What of my son?"

"He is not in his bedroom."

Her heart stuttered as her breath caught in throat. "Start a search for him immediately!"

"Right away, Mum. Holt out."

She passed the phone to Eile. "Take all reports from Holt."

"Sure thing, Diff."

"You want us to help with the search?" Sunny asked.

"Not yet. Stay with me for now."

They continued on. They got off at the ground floor, Differel used her pass card to open the security gate and the door to her office, and then she went to the room safe. She unlocked it and pulled it open with Eile's help. Sunny entered first and switched on the light; she and Eile followed and went to the weapons locker. She pressed a thumb against the reader and heard the metal doors unlock. Opening the cabinet, she removed and passed to Eile a British Army L128A1 semi-automatic shotgun with a bandolier of 12-gauge shells, followed by an FN AR-57 semi-automatic carbine which she passed to Sunny along with a bandolier of 50-round magazines, and finally a Parker Hale submachine gun with a 180-round drum magazine for herself.

While she waited for them to lock and load, she heard the kick panel that led to the secret stairwell open in the back. She aimed the PH as a box of files was moved aside, but relaxed when she saw Henry crawl through the shelves.

"What are you doing here?"

He stood up and sprinted over to her. "Five monsters appeared in my bedroom. Vlad told me to run, so I came down here to find you."

Her gut seized as the nickel dropped. The cube he mentioned; its description matched that of Lament Configuration. He must have taken it and solved it! Bloody hell, I've been so stupid!

But she couldn't worry about that yet. She had to get him to safety.

She held out her hand. "Come on, let's get you out of here."

He took it and she led him out as the Girls followed. As she entered the room, however, she spotted the Cenobites standing just in front of the hall door. The hall guard stood in the doorway behind them, training his assault rifle on their backs, while Holt stood in the doorway to the Meeting Room.

She summoned Caliburn as she raised her gun.

"Henry, get behind us!" Eile said. He ducked past Differel as he retreated back to the Girls. Vlad exploded out of a burst of shadow in front of the desk, a Maskeulin .700 Nitro Express revolver in each hand.

Everyone froze as they waited for the Cenobites to make a move, but they remained still as statues as they surveyed the room. The one she recognized as Pinhead stared straight at her.

"What do you want?" she asked.

Pinhead took a step closer. Vlad shifted the aim of one gun to track him, but he came no closer. "We have come for our due." He sounded like he spoke from the bottom of a tomb.

"Please be more specific."

"We collect those who open the Lament Configuration."

"And who here has done so?"

Pinhead pointed at her and the Girls. "He did."

Her gut froze as his words confirmed her worst fears. She peered back; Henry had squeezed himself into the space between the desk and the grandfather clock. He looked frightened, like she expected, but there was a hint of guilt in his expression. She glanced at the Girls. Both appeared anxious as they sweated, but Eile nodded as Sunny winked.

She turned her attention back to Pinhead. "You want my son?" She put a growl in her voice, to make him understand she had no intention of surrendering him.

"No."

It took a moment for that to register, and then she did a mental double-take. "I beg your pardon?"

"It is not hands that call us, but hearts."

She felt her temper flare. "Damn it, explain yourself!"

His expression didn't change, but she got the impression his contempt for her increased. "It is not the physical action of opening the box that summons us, but the desire to do so. Your son sought to disassemble the box, but it was for the joy of solving the puzzle, not to experience our exquisite experiments. But there was one whose desire was for pain and death; he is the one we seek."

"He?"

"Or she."

She scowled. "Henry, that puzzle box you told me about; did you open it?" She didn't take her eyes off the lead Cenobite.

He didn't answer immediately. "Henry, tell me the truth: did you disassemble that black lacquered puzzle cube?"

"Yes, Mother." He sounded very contrite, as if he understood he was in major trouble.

"Mr. Holt."

He nodded and disappeared down the hall.

Suddenly a suspicion occurred to her. "Henry, you said it was in the vault you helped Eile and Sunny inventory."

"Yes, Mother."

The nickel dropped. "Bloody hell." She finally understood what Pinhead was getting at. "Someone planted the Lament Configuration there, hoping my son or Eile and Sunny would find it and open it, and be taken by your Order."

"Precisely."

"Except whomever it was got their facts wrong."

Pinhead made no reply, and she wondered at that.

Mabuse came into the room. She had one of her portable scanning devices, and she began to maneuver around the Cenobites as she took readings.

"Do you know who you're after?"

"No, but it is someone in this house."

"How can you be sure?"

"Though we appear to the one who opens the box, we are drawn to the one who desires our presence. He is here, somewhere."

"I'll find him for you, but only if you return to your realm first."

"No. That person is our due. We will not return without him, or a suitable substitute."

"How long can you remain before the bridge closes?"

"It will not close until we find the one we seek and return with him to our realm."

Her mind skipped a track, as Eile muttered, "Holy Jesus God!", and Sunny squeaked, "Oh, my fabulous gravy!" They're loose on Earth!

It almost seemed as if a faint trace of a smile played at Pinhead's lips. Can he read my thoughts? "All we want is our due. The rules of our Order prevent us from doing more, and they are inviolate."

Something Pinhead had said finally registered. "You mentioned something about a substitute. What does that mean?"

"The one who is our due may offer a replacement for us to take back in his stead, but such must be worthy, a soul darker than his own."

That made sense, and it gave her an idea. A dangerous one, to be sure, but if it worked Henry would be safe.

"But, while it is desire that calls to us, we are permitted to claim whoever opens the Lament Configuration, even if he is not our rightful due."

"Meaning?"

"If we cannot find he who is our due, we will take your son."

"Over our dead bodies!" Sunny squealed, and Eile said, "Yeah, do yer worst!"

"Shut it, both of you!" She knew they meant well, but their defiance wouldn't help matters.

Holt reappeared in the doorway beside the door guard, and he held up a black box about the size of his fist. She nodded, and willed Caliburn to vanish as she laid the submachine gun on the nearby chair. She approached Pinhead and stared him straight in the eyes. "I offer myself as a substitute for my son."

The Cenobite looked down at her and examined her closely for some moments, then flashed a cruel half-smile. "Agreed. Despite your self-restrictions, your soul is worthy. You might even become a Cenobite yourself, after perhaps a century."

"Never mind that. How long will you wait for me to find your 'due'?"

"One hour; no longer."

She had hoped for more time, but..."So be it. In the meantime, I accept your word that you will cause no unprovoked harm, but I don't want you running loose. Will you wait in a location I designate?"

"Agreed."

She glanced at Mabuse. "Doctor, would you be so kind as to take the Cenobites to your lab? See to their comfort while the rest of us conduct our search."

Mabuse smiled and nodded. "Certainly, Director." She stepped closer to Pinhead. "If you and your colleagues would follow me?"

He regarded her in a cold manner, but as she turned to leave he followed, and the other Cenobites fell in behind him. Holt and the door guard stepped into the room to get out of their way, and she paused long enough to take the Lament Configuration from him.

Once they were gone, Differel turned to Vlad. "Take Henry and the Girls to their home in the States."

"Yes, My Master."

"Buuuut—" Sunny began. She turned on her, giving her a baleful stare.

"EEEP!" She jumped back, and even Eile looked disturbed.

"For once, please, just do as I say! You too, young man."

Henry returned a timid look and nodded. "Yes, Mother."

The Girls put their weapons down, took Henry by the hands, and led him to Vlad. He lifted Henry up and placed him on his shoulders, then wrapped his arms around Eile and Sunny's waists before vanishing in a cloud of shadow. Her last vision of Henry was his look of anguish. Regret stabbed at her heart that that might be the final memory she would have of him.

She glanced at Holt. "Call an immediate meeting of the senior staff. We don't have much time."

He nodded. "Yes, Mum."

Conclusion

We Hold the Line, and This Line Shall Not Be Crossed!