Chapter One –
Abigail did not quite run, knowing that if she did one of the other girls might see and wonder what was the matter.
She did not run, but she hurried at as fast a walk as she dared, her pulse hammering and a hot flush awash on her face.
A repulsive, slippery-warm feeling had taken up residence inside of her, making her skin tingle and her nipples tighten to painful peaks. The place between her legs, that fleshy center that no good and decent girl was supposed to even think about until she gave it over to her husband as his right on their wedding night, dominated her consciousness in a way it never had before.
Oh, to be rid of that hideous, compelling sensation! How? Her first and overbearing urge was to rub it away, but that would be a sin every bit as bad as what she'd just witnessed.
The door to her room was a sight of welcome sanctuary. She went through, closed it, and for the first time since she'd come to Dame Agnes of the Hills Academy for Fine Ladies, turned the thumb-lock.
The room was not quite a cubicle, not quite spartan. The students, who came here when their regular schooling was done but before University or marriage, were limited in what luxuries they could bring from home. Headmistress Elspeth preferred them all to be on more or less equal footing and wanted them to spend their time learning, not trying to one-up each other with clothing and cosmetics and other such fripperies and nonsense.
So it was that Abigail's room was smaller by far than her bedroom at her parents' house, and lacked many of the comforts. The bed was narrow with only a single pillow, the chest of drawers held a fraction of the wardrobe that she'd amassed over her nineteen years of life, and vanity was discouraged so she had hardly been allowed to bring more than a comb and a brush and a tin of dusting powder for her cosmetics.
The small corner desk was littered with thick schoolbooks. The shelf above it held a few trinkets, and as her gaze fell upon the centermost one, Abigail was torn between embarrassment and hope. The eyes of the angel seemed to follow her with reproach.
She reached up with shaking hands and stopped. Surely if she tried to pick up the little statuette now, she would drop it and the angel would shatter on the hardwood floor. That last sign of disrespect, unintentional as it might be, would surely seal her fate.
And she was afraid to touch the angel. Afraid that her hands, tainted with the memory of what she had just seen, would blacken it and mark Abigail as unclean.
The room had a single window, which overlooked the grounds of the Academy. Abigail went to it and opened it, seeking fresh air. Too late, she realized that she had a view of the outbuilding that had been a carriage-house but doubled now as a storage shed … a place that had been taken over as a den of incomprehensible wickedness.
Her fingers clutched at the sill, hard, nails digging flakes of paint from the wood. The carriage-house looked peaceful and innocent enough, garbed in its green cloak of ivy. But she had seen what went on in there. She knew. She did not fully understand, but she knew.
How could Headmistress Elspeth allow it? Surely she was not ignorant. Caleb was her own brother, and when she had taken the prestigious post at Dame Agnes of the Hills, she had arranged to have the poor halfwit for whom she'd spent her adult life caring brought here and given a minor position as groundskeeper.
Caleb. Abigail shivered and wished that she'd never gone out there. It was selfishness that had led her to the dusty attic, greed that made her prowl among the trunks and chests and wardrobes looking for furnishings that she could bring back to her room to make it a little less severe.
What would have happened if she'd called out when she heard the door open?
That question turned her knees to water and she sat on the edge of the bed, close to fainting. It wasn't an answer she wanted. The things he had done to Margaret, despite her pleas and cries … the way he'd taken her clothes away … and then stood there so long with his usually muddy eyes fever-bright, his only movement a slow circle of his palm on the tremendous swelling of his groin while Margaret sobbed and begged and tried futilely to cover her nudity …
But Abigail hadn't called out when she'd heard the door. She hadn't wanted anyone else to find her here, and had hidden. Thinking it was Caleb, but on some innocuous errand. Only when she'd realized that the mewling sounds weren't from one of the many cats that kept the grounds free of mice but from a human throat did she risk looking out.
Would it have been different if she'd intervened? Would Caleb have fled upon being discovered? Would Margaret have been spared? Or would the giant, whose strong body was every bit as fleet and agile as his mind was not, seized Abigail and done the same to her beside her friend? Would he have taken her clothes away, and looked on her with that same expression?
Shock and fear had frozen her, as helpless as was poor Margaret. Abigail had been unable to tear her eyes away as Caleb put his rough, work-hardened hands all over Margaret's smooth skin. Most horrifying of all was the way something within her responded.
As Caleb kneaded Margaret's breasts and flicked his thumbs over the nipples, Abigail imagined she could feel it herself. And when he'd fallen upon her like a slavering dog, shoving his face into the chestnut-furred juncture of Margaret's thighs, fingers clamped into the mounds of her buttocks and lifting her hips to give his lapping tongue better access, Abigail could feel a phantom tongue, all slick warm pressure, probing her own nether regions.
She hated herself for it, for what she was feeling and that she could sit here and do nothing to help her poor dear friend. Except that Margaret stopped seeming in desire of help after a while. Indeed, after a while her sobs had turned to moans, and she was rolling her body and urging Caleb on. When he had risen from her, his chin glistening with his saliva and the juices of her body, Margaret had not expressed relief but frustration.
"Don't stop," she had begged the halfwit, splaying her legs wide. "Don't stop, please, not just yet!"
When Caleb, a grin entirely different from his usual look of oafish geniality giving him an aspect both sinister and clever, undid his belt and shoved his homespun trousers to his ankles, Margaret had not screamed but made a low and hungry cry. Her gaze was fixed on the spear of flesh jutting from a springy mat of dark hair at Caleb's groin.
Abigail's was as well, for she had only ever seen such things before in fleeting glimpses of pictures the other girls sometimes passed around, pictures that she had done her best to refrain from looking at. She'd never dreamed the truth would be so … so real. So veiny and knobbed and large, with a head the shape and color of a plum partly concealed by a flap of skin.
Caleb gripped this tool and worked his hand up and down its length, still grinning that malicious grin at Margaret. Abigail knew what he intended to do with it. She was not entirely ignorant of the ways of men and women, and knew what her husband would expect her to endure. Yet here was Margaret, seemingly eager for what Abigail's mother had explained was a woman's painful and humiliating duty.
"The man's pleasure is in the act," Jane Creighton had explained to her shortly before Abigail left home for Dame Agnes of the Hills. "The woman's joy comes when she fulfills her purpose and holds her newborn babe in her arms."
Her mother had mentioned nothing of the sensations that held Abigail captive. She had gone on to impress upon her daughter the importance of virginity, and how no good husband would be pleased to travel a road that others had been down. Surely Margaret's mother must have given her the same counsel, for most of the girls at Dame Agnes of the Hills reported similar lectures and Headmistress Elspeth herself had reaffirmed it.
Margaret, therefore, should have been appalled at the threat to her maidenhead. She should not have been uttering the lewd words that spilled from her lips – "Yes, bring that lovely cock up here and fuck me full of it!"
The coarse language slapped Abigail's very soul. Caleb only seemed more inflamed, and knelt down beside Margaret's head. His fist closed in her hair but it hadn't needed to, for Margaret turned her face eagerly and opened her mouth to accept as much of his organ as she could without choking. Caleb groaned and pawed her breasts with his other hand.
At last, Margaret pulled free and gasped out another plea. "Fuck me with it, damn you, stuff my cunny full of it!"
Abigail had watched, still frozen and aghast and still with surges of evil longing pulsing in her tenderest flesh. She caught herself envying Margaret's wicked abandon as Caleb lowered his body onto hers and placed the tip of his shaft where she was exhorting him to bury it.
But he hadn't, not right away. He had lingered there, playing the tip up and down until Margaret was quivering and panting and pushing her hips up in what looked to be desperate attempts to engulf him by her own volition. Rather than slap at him or try to get away, she grasped the sides of his thick waist and pulled him atop her.
Caleb's backside gave a mighty flex as he thrust deep, and Margaret's scream was both pain and delight. Her maidenhead was gone, ripped away, and the road her husband would want to be the first to travel was being well-rutted, but all of that was the furthest thing in the world from Margaret's mind if her reaction was to be trusted. She held tight to Caleb's buttocks and raised her hips to meet each downward stroke, their flesh slapping together in a hard, fast rhythm.
At the end of it, just before Caleb shuddered and collapsed heavily onto her, Margaret voiced a wavering cry that transcended anything Abigail had ever heard. She then fainted dead away.
Abigail had become aware then that her traitor hand was pushing awkwardly at the front of her skirt, that she was shifting her legs and causing the cloth of her undergarments to rub enticingly. She was also breathing much too quickly, much too loudly.
Below, on the floor of the carriage-house, Caleb rose from Margaret's unconscious body. As he withdrew from her, Abigail saw the blood and other fluids streaking his softening member, saw more of it staining Margaret's thighs.
She had remained where she was, hardly daring to breathe although the resultant dizziness made her fear that she would faint too. Caleb moved about, gathering his clothes, wiping himself clean with a handkerchief that he stuck indifferently into his pocket. He left Margaret sprawled where she was, whistling a tune as he returned to his duties.
Abigail thought about going to Margaret and rousing her, seeing if she was all right. But surely Margaret would be horrified to know that her ruination had been observed.
So, like a coward, Abigail slipped from the carriage-house and fled through the gardens. She slowed her pace when she came near the school, and paused to smooth her hair and try to pat the blush from her face.
Luckily, no one had remarked on her as she made her way to her room. She had hoped that she would be able to settle her nerves once she was safely back amid familiar surroundings, but the scene would not leave her mind. Her body ached with some unwelcome and unfulfilled need.
She went to the wash-basin and dashed cold water onto her flushed face. The feelings coursing through her finally ebbed, and in their absence she was left with a bereft and mildly nauseous condition instead. She felt dirtied, but no longer blackly excited.
The angel on her shelf had regarded her evenly throughout her reminiscence. Abigail blushed again, but it wasn't as if the statuette could read her thoughts, was it?
Or was it? After all, if she was to believe in guardian angels that could hear her prayers, she had to believe they would know everything there was to know, whether she confessed it or not.
Her hands had stopped shaking. She took down the angel, and the coolness of it served as a balm to her nerves. She ran her fingertips over the ridges of its feathers, kissed the haloed top of its head.
"Deliver me from this," she murmured. "Please, help me."
Chapter Two –
The gates of Hell opened before Celestina with a ghastly squeal.
Smoke wafted out, stirring the gossamer of her gown and blowing the silken white-blond strands of her hair back from her temples. She smelled brimstone on that smoke, and blood, and suffering.
Her wings flared out, white feathers shining in the gloom, then tucked close against the slenderness of her frame in a gesture both defensive and regal.
The wind carried more than just the scents of damnation. It carried the sounds as well. The whip-cracks, the crackle of flames, the anguished screams of the tormented, and the malevolent laughter of the devils. This last, the laughter like black and evil water, eddied around Celestina and touched her with the first cold brush of fear.
Yet she was resolute. She had business here, had every right to be here as a representative of the heavenly powers. The matter of the corruption could not go unanswered.
Just thinking of it made Celestina quail in disgust. That such a thing had happened, had been allowed to happen … that the headmistress of a girl's school so ardently devout that it was very nearly a convent should sink into such depravity …
Celestina's mind shied away from the entire subject. She could not even bring herself to think of it, of the lewd and hideous deeds that had taken place behind those high, ivied walls.
What mattered was that it had been done deliberately, and with malice. Someone had stepped beyond the bounds. Someone would have to pay.
She stepped delicately through the gates, their metal bars bent and askew in torturous shapes that hurt the sanity, their substance glowing dull orange. The path was cobbled in skulls held in place by the obsidian flow of lava, cooled but still harboring enough heat to warm the soles of Celestina's feet through the thin layers of her gilded sandals. She grimaced as she entered the fetid bath of Hell's hot and nastily humid atmosphere.
Ahead of her stretched a vast and featureless plain broken only by the road of skulls. The sky overhead was turbulent and terrible, blood-red and roiling with sulfur-yellow clouds, shot now and again with jagged ebony bolts of lightning. The contorted faces of sinners appeared and faded and reappeared in the churning clouds and their cries echoed dismally on the constant, scalding wind.
But the worst thing of all, to Celestina's way of thinking, was how the clouds occasionally parted, how the skies occasionally cleared, and through those rents in the red and the yellow could be seen the serene blue, the soft white, and the golden glow of Heaven. Bad enough that the damned should endure their eternity of misery, but to be afforded glimpses of the paradise they had missed … that was the cruelest blow of all.
As she moved along the path, trying not to step on the skulls and finding it an impossible task, she began to see the contours of the land. The plain was not featureless after all, but so vast that the hills and dips and sharp slashes of canyons blurred into invisibility. Here and there, the twisted boles of trees stuck up from gritty grey soil. Dried vines clawed at the earth like long, thin fingers. Her wide, guileless eyes surveyed the landscape with both pity and horror.
The path looked as though it went on forever, but appearances were deceiving here and before long she had reached something new. A cliff wall, towering so high that the top of it raked with spires of stone at the clouds, tattered them, slashed the sky itself into ragged wounds.
A cavern mouth gaped at the base of the cliff, fanged with rock formations and lit from within by a baleful hellish light. The wind came from here, a steady toxic exhalation, and the screams of the damned were louder, nearer, more agonized than ever.
Celestina could only see in a short ways before vision was lost in a fuming fiery mess. Shapes moved and danced in it just beyond the limits of sight. Shadows. Writhing and leaping forms.
This was the place where fools rushed in and angels feared to tread. Feared or not, though, it was where Celestina knew she must go.
Taking a deep breath – not because she needed to but because some habits of mankind had translated themselves to the seraphim over the millennia – she crossed the threshold and into the mouth of the cave.
She was on a walkway made of stone that was at once rough and slick, and narrow. To her left, the world dropped away into a fathomless pit. Malformed things clung to the sides of it, bubbling with pestilent sores, keening piteously for release. Demons flew disdainfully around them with bat-wings beating at the air and barbed tails lashing.
To her right, a sea of excremental mud slopped and boiled. The stench was tremendous, and the damned dotted it like islands, wailing and bemoaning.
Her kind heart went out to them and she reined it in. They had brought this on themselves. That was what she had to remember. In life, they had done the deeds that deserved them this fate, this everlasting punishment. God's forgiveness only went to those who earned it through penitence and atonement.
Celestina continued, sparing a glance back to see the cave opening receding into the distance. The cavern soared above her to dizzying heights. Ledges were positively acrawl with imps, who cackled and chortled and jabbed their tiny poisoned pitchforks at a steady line of shuffling souls as they made their way along a switchback road constructed of human bodies. At the top of the road was a judge's desk, hundreds of feet tall, where a scarlet-eyed devil ordered the final disposition of each new arrival. His voice boomed and roared in indistinguishable echoes. The dead souls begged for mercy, but there was no mercy here.
Headmistress Elspeth would share that fate if Celestina could not intervene on her behalf. The same punishment would be visited upon each of the girls who had participated in the unholy deeds, even those who had been coerced against their will.
Unbidden and certainly unwelcome, the scenes swarmed over her. How had it begun? Was Elspeth the weak one, the one who had welcomed the devil into herself? Or was it Caleb? Half-witted and hulking, he had been gentle despite his size and strength. Gentle, with all the intellect of a small child. He knew right from wrong … he would have known better than to allow himself to be taken over.
Or perhaps it had been one of the girls. Some of them came to the school already wiser than their years, some sly and none too innocent of the vile ways of men and women. Celestina knew of what went on in the bedrooms when the lights were doused.
Girls sharing beds, cuddling together, embracing and giggling in companionable fun but sometimes slipping into sin. Their clever soft hands caressing each other, whispering of what their suitors or cousins or even fathers had taught them of such things. Kissing, fondling, raising their nightgowns to compare the hairiness of their mounds or the plumpness of their breasts. Some might even go so far as to play lascivious games with the blunt wax ends of candles, tearing away their maidenhood rather than preserve it for their husbands as was right and proper.
Yes, all of that had gone on and been largely overlooked, a blind or even indulgent eye turned to it. Only when Elspeth brought Caleb into her chamber had it begun to turn dark and foul. Only when she – his own elder sister! – had made the halfwit take down his trousers … grasped the thick length of him and rubbed him until he was stiff with an arousal that he should not have been able to understand … lain back and introduced Caleb into herself.