That was when it had all become too much to ignore.
That was why Celestina was here.
If it had ended with Elspeth, all might have been well, for the rest of them at least. The headmistress would have been punished eternally for her incestuous acts. But it hadn't ended there. Caleb, taking more eagerly to this lesson than any book learning in his entire life, began visiting himself upon the girls like any wolf in a sheepfold.
Some were frightened of him, or angry, and chased him away with loud recriminations. Some let him do what he wished, welcoming him eagerly. Others succumbed with tearful obedience to the commands given by Elspeth herself, who would sit and watch and urge Caleb on as he deflowered and ravished one girl after another. Sometimes she would ready them for him, wetting them with her tongue or massaging them with oils that would ease the passage of his size.
Evil had come to the school. It was no simple matter of human impulse. Celestina knew that only a demon or devil could have driven such a good and true woman as Headmistress Elspeth, or a blameless simpleton like Caleb, into sin.
She would have an answer. She would know who had done this, and why. Not that she had to strain much to imagine why. It was what they did, the devils. They found it amusing to visit their evil upon decent and God-fearing folk. To drag them down, dirty them.
If the guilty one – not that guilt meant anything to a devil – could be found, salvation for Elspeth and Caleb and the girls might still be possible. That was Celestina's purpose here, her duty. The weight of those souls was upon her.
So she ventured further, and into suffocating passageways where thin columns of stone served as the bars of cells through which skeletal hands grasped and reached and caught wisps from the floating whiteness of her robes. Incoherent voices from mouths without tongues begged her, and once when she strayed too far to one side, a bone-scrawny hand snatched feathers from her wing.
The passage widened into a round chamber with a floor of crisscrossing beams over a lake of fire. The walls were hidden under tangles of chains, bodies dangling and caught in them like insects trapped in the web of some gigantic spider that spun with metal rather than silk. At the pinnacle of the room's domed ceiling was a platform, a heavy sheet of iron suspended by the stretched bodies of four men whose arms and legs had been horrendously elongated and whose eyes were desperate and aware.
The platform held an array of levers and a demon. The demon was catlike, with rust-brindle fur and urine-yellow eyes burning with their own malevolent radiance. Its taloned paws jerked on the levers as it screeched and laughed maniacally. Each time it threw a lever, one of the bodies cocooned in chains would plunge toward the flaming lake. Sometimes the cat-demon would stop them before they were immersed, raise them and lower them a few bone-jerking times, and then return them to dubious safety. Other times, the hapless sinner would plunge, shrieking, straight into the lake.
Celestina was about to call up to the demon when a fingertip touched her shoulder and slid to her elbow. The touch seared like a brand.
Gasping, she whirled with her hair and robes flying about her in a billow.
"You," the devil before her said in a very amused tone of voice, "must be lost."
Chapter Three –
Headmistress Elspeth tossed and turned in fitful dreams, the bedclothes wrapping her like a shroud and restlessness twitching at her limbs.
The girls. The laughing, playing girls. Isabella and Rose, thinking they had the willow glade to themselves. And why not? It was screened by brush and the long green hangings of boughs, reachable only by a path so narrow and low that they could only pass one at a time and stooped nearly double. From the outside, the small sun-dappled circle at the glade's heart was invisible.
Invisible, except from one spot. The high dormer window of Elspeth's quarters looked down straight into the ring of trees and the expanse of grass at the center. From there, she had seen.
It was hardly a surprise that the girls did what they did. Elspeth knew of the yearnings in the flesh of the curious young. Some of them came to Dame Agnes of the Hills already educated in ways that were not included in the curriculum. Some left lovers behind. Some had been introduced to the ways of men and women by their cousins, or brothers, or even their fathers. They whispered their secrets to each other, shared smuggled-in books of naughty drawings or writings, and cuddled in their maidenly beds when the lamps were out.
Elspeth knew of this but ignored it, pretended that it did not happen, because whenever she allowed herself to think of the girls enjoying those caresses, she burned with a jealous spite and an unfulfilled urge to join them. That simply could not be. She dared take no lover from among her students, for word of it would get around, and charges of favoritism might be leveled at her.
But that day when she'd seen Isabella and Rose … blatant hussies that they were, not confining their loveplay to the dark hours of the night but by bright midday in the green heart of the glade …
She turned over in her bed, half-woke to fuss with the pillow, subsided. The haunting images danced through her sleepy mind. Isabella, olive-complected with sable hair spread around her like a shawl … Rose, dainty and pert and strawberry-blond, bent lovingly over Isabella's voluptuousness …
And then she'd seen Caleb. The dormer window was not the only view-place after all, for he was hidden in the bushes at the edge of the clearing with his back to the school. Watching the girls. Stroking himself.
Long ago, a lifetime ago, she had caught him in the playroom of the house in which they'd lived with their stern parents. He had been touching his tumescence, squeezing it, sliding his curled fist up and down, and his slack mouth was half-curved in an empty gape of pleasure. Elspeth, not a headmistress then but just an overworked and under-appreciated sister, a spinster-in-waiting with her stocky figure and dour face, had descended on him in a scolding fury and told him never-never-never, he would go blind, he would grow hair on his hands so all the world would know what he'd been doing, that if their mother or father found out he would be whipped for certain. Unable to understand anything more than her anger and his guilt, Caleb had burst into tears and quit his self-abuse.
Until that day, years later. Only then did it occur to Elspeth that he probably hadn't ever truly ceased at all, but just taken pains to hide himself from her before he gave in to that sinful indulgence. As he spied on the girls, he did not grope with hesitancy but with the knowing skill of much practice.
He had to be punished.
Remembering, in her light state of dreaming, Elspeth moaned and rolled in the bed. A madness, it must have been a madness. Calling him to her office, lecturing him … and there had been something different about Caleb then, hadn't there? A cunning she had never noticed in him before.
She mumbled into her pillow, the very words she'd said to him as he stood before her with shoulders hunched but not as shamefaced as she felt he should have been. "You've been a bad boy, Caleb, a very bad boy. You must be punished."
The switch was something she kept more as a threat than an item of use. The presence of it, the mention of it, was enough to quell even the most disobedient girl. Too many of them would have recollections of being switched on their bare bottoms by governesses, or fathers.
Elspeth had never used the switch on Caleb but as he stood there, his eyes peering like sly animals from the caves of his sockets, she was seized by a fury. "Take down your trousers," she'd ordered him, drawing the switch from its resting place above the hearth. "Take them down and bend over the chair."
He had done so, wearing nothing beneath so that his organ sprang free and wagged there, insolently erect. Elspeth stared at it, saw how much larger it was than it had been when they were younger.
"Look at you!" she spat. "For shame, Caleb!"
The switch lashed out as if her arm had a will of its own, and striped his buttocks with a scarlet weal. He jumped when the blow landed, and astonished pain brimmed his eyes with tears.
"Horrid boy! Wicked, sinful boy!" Elspeth hissed. "Down over the chair."
Chest hitching, Caleb did as she bade and gripped the legs of the chair when his stomach was pressed against the seat. She struck his backside and the backs of his upper thighs again and again, laddering the weals, turning all of his skin an angry red. With every swing of her arm, she watched in satisfaction as he jerked against the chair. She could see the pendulous sway of his scrotum, and when she moved to the side she also saw his erection still stiff as ever, bobbing up and down like a dowsing rod.
"Get on your back, on the floor," she commanded.
His face was wet, and the strangled sound of stifled sobs came from his bull neck. He thumped to the rug and trembled there, not daring to cover himself. Elspeth stalked to him, meaning to switch him on that upstanding, offending part until it shriveled and bled.
Now, in her lonely bed, she grimaced and pulled at her own hair as if in hopes of dislodging the memory of what she'd done next. An insanity had seized her, that was it. The only possible explanation. For rather than bring the switch down in a series of vicious cuts, she had …
"No," she groaned, head turning side to side. Helpless denial, useless negation.
She had bade him cover his face, shut his eyes, and not move so much as a muscle. Then, caught up in her mad abandon, she'd pulled up her skirt, removed her undergarments, stepped over Caleb, and lowered herself to her knees so that he thrust up between her thighs. She pinioned him there, rubbing against him, feeling the hot satiny slide of his skin through the thick curls that covered her mound.
"You stay just as you are, Caleb, and take your medicine," she'd said in a hoarse voice that was not her own. "You have to be punished for what you did. Keep your eyes shut, keep your face covered. It will all be over soon."
So saying, she rose up a little and sank back down onto him, impaling herself. She was slick with moisture but even so, was pierced by a sudden rending pain. It passed almost at once and there she was, with Caleb's cock – yes, cock, she'd heard the word and been appalled but now greeted it with delirious hunger – stuffed well up her belly.
She rode him, rocking on his stiffness and driving his lash-wealed backside against the rug with each forth-and-back motion. What she could see of his face was a mask of mixed pain and ecstasy and she could feel him tensing within her, growing harder, swelling.
Up and down she rode him, back and forth she rode him, and the delicious friction sent sparkling waves and bursts exploding outward from her core. She sensed a pinnacle and strove for it, working her loins in a slow and sure rhythm, aware that she was crying out yes-yes-yes with each beat, and then a whirling-falling-turbulence caught her up and spun her away.
Elspeth sat bolt upright in her bed, a patch of moonlight spilled in her lap. Her heart was thundering, her skin damp with sweat, and she was in an agony of need.
A bell-pull hung by the bedpost. She tugged it, imagining the chimes far off in another room. Then, knowing she had time before the summons was answered, she hastened from her bedchamber to the hall where the girls slept.
All was silent. The headmistress looked from one door to the next, chose one, and rapped softly.
Chapter Four –
Collecting her dignity after her gasp of startlement, Celestina drew herself up and settled her wings against her back. "I have come on business."
The devil chuckled indulgently. "That's what they all say. It makes a good excuse, but we all know what they really want. You're no different."
"I do not know what you mean."
He was male in appearance, crimson-skinned with leathery wings. That was all Celestina saw before observing that he was naked and turning swiftly away.
His laughter curled into her ears and insinuated itself. "Don't you like what you see, pretty angel?"
"I have come –"
"—seeking an end to the possessions and demonic rites –"
"Look at me, pretty angel."
Above them, the cat-demon yowled with cruel mirth as one of its victims became partway unwrapped, kicking free only to then cling desperately to the very chains that had been its prison.
"I am here on business," Celestina repeated.
"I can help you. Look at me."
She reluctantly, and guardedly, did. She was careful to keep her gaze elevated but was unable to be oblivious to the rest of him.
The devil did not resemble the goateed and widow's-peaked Mephisto so often depicted, but had a square-jawed face and full lips that wore an inviting, sensuous smile. His eyes were utterly black, twin orbs of polished onyx, and the flames reflected across the surface of them in hypnotic whorls. A mane of long dark hair fell to his broad shoulders. He was powerfully built, tall. A tail swayed behind him, partially erect and waving side to side in long, snakelike curves. He wore a necklace, fine links of ivory fingerbones supporting a human sternum that had been studded with jewels in all the colors of pain.
"Now," he said, low and warm. "Am I so frightful to look upon?"
"I am not here to look at you," she said in her loftiest possible manner.
"Right." He grinned easily. "You're here because of Sister Elspeth. Shall we adjourn to someplace more conducive to a discussion?"
As if to punctuate his words, a sinner loosed a wrenching howl of agony. Celestina suppressed a shudder.
"I'll take that as a yes," the devil said. "This way."
Still with misgivings, but eager to get this out of the way as soon as possible that she might return to the clean and pure realm with which she was familiar, Celestina allowed him to lead her from the round room with its chains and its lake and its attendant cat-demon.
"I am Varyk," he said as he preceded her, the muscles in his back and legs and haunches moving smoothly with each step. His tail brushed against the hem of her robe and she fell a few paces behind. He peered back at her. "How are you called?"
"Celestina," she said. "Do you know who's responsible for --?"
"Yes, yes." He waved, as if it was of no great concern, and pushed open a door. Standing gallantly back, he bowed and gestured. "In here."
"I want to get this over with," Celestina informed him as she swept past, careful to keep her wings folded tight so that the outer edge did not brush against him.
Keeping a wary eye on him, she entered the room.
There was no floor beneath her feet. The pit was so inky-dark and cold after the smoldering heat and light of the rest of Hell that it was like being plunged suddenly into the deepest trenches of the sea. The doorway above dwindled to a speck and was gone. Air rushed and whistled around her.
Celestina spread her wings but she was disoriented by the fall, unable to tell which way was up. Just as she got her bearings, she was seized by strong arms and pulled up against a bare chest that was as warm as banked coals in a hearth.
"Easy, now," Varyk chuckled in her ear. "I've got you."
"Release me at once."
"And have you fall, hurt yourself? Whatever kind of host do you take me for?"
His wings flapped with a sound like sailcloth in a fierce wind. Celestina struggled in his arms, revoltingly aware of the hot and heavy press of something against her hip. He laughed and his tail, a smooth flexion of muscle, coiled around her waist to hold her more firmly.
"Let me go!" she snapped.
"We're almost down, pretty angel. Should be reaching the bottom –" and here, with shockingly obscene intimacy, he slid a hand down to first cup, then squeeze hers, "—any minute."
"How dare you!" Celestina yanked at his arm, at his tail. Her wings were partly crushed between their bodies. A few feathers came loose and drifted, snowflakes in the darkness, as they floated down.
Varyk landed, and a moment later Celestina's feet touched smooth cool stone that felt like marble. She pushed at him in another futile effort to free herself.
"That isn't very friendly of you," he chided.
"What do you think you are doing? I am leaving."
"I can't permit that, not when we're only just getting acquainted. It isn't every day that one of us is lucky enough to catch himself an angel. I'd never live it down if I let you go without a kiss."
Shock splashed over Celestina. "Never!"
"Not even one kiss?" He sounded wheedling, but there was a threat beneath it that chilled her.
"As I've told you –"
"Yes, yes. You're here on business. And I can tell you everything you need to know about your naughty little girl's school and your lusty headmistress. For a price. For a kiss."
She struck out. Her vision had adjusted to the deep violet and indigo shadows and she fetched him a smart blow to the face.
Varyk laughed. "That'll cost you another kiss. Care to strike me some more?"
"I insist that you release me at once."
"You don't understand, do you, pretty angel? You're in my realm now. You've wandered far out of your territory and that makes you fair game. I'll have that kiss now."
Before she could say another word of protest, the devil clamped his lips over hers. They were hot and full and moist, and parted enough to let his forked tongue dart out to attempt and pry her mouth open.
In a sudden surge of strength, fueled by her horror and revulsion, Celestina wrenched herself away from him. He grabbed at her, caught the collar of her robe, and she heard it rip, felt the air on her alabaster flesh from neck to waist.
Furious now, so much so that it drowned out her fear, Celestina flung her wings to their full extension and thrust her arms skyward. A brilliant radiance surrounded her, illuminating the room. She saw a marble slab like an altar, saw the manacles at its four corners, and a silvery spike of fear tried to reclaim her.
Varyk shied away from that abrupt, dazzling light, bringing his wings forward to shield his face. But in the shadow of his wing, she saw his grin and it was as mocking as ever.
She looked up, seeing the door as a tiny pinprick in the vast column of blackness. A mighty downstroke of her wings and –
His hand closed around her ankle as she shot upward.
A startled cry, not a scream but shamefully near one, burst from her. Varyk hauled her down, brushing off the frantic beating of her wings as if she were no stronger than a moth. He wrestled her onto the marble slab and closed cold iron around her ankle with a loud click.
Celestina fought madly but almost before she could believe what was happening, she was locked in place. Her arms were outstretched to her sides, her legs together, wrists and ankles in the manacles with her wings spread flat under her body and her robes and hair tossed all around in disarray.
"What a lovely sight this is," Varyk said, standing near her head. "A pretty angel, and mine to do with as I please."
Her protests and outraged shouts were muffled as he leaned over and kissed her again. This time, her mouth was caught open and his tongue shot eagerly in. He held her by the sides of her head so that she could not turn her face away and prolonged the kiss, uttering a low growl of enjoyment.
At last, it ended. Celestina choked and spat, and blinked away the indignant tears that had sprung to her eyes.
"You're a lively one. Celestina, wasn't it? How nice. Did you like that kiss?"