Dawn eyed the trapdoor nervously but there was no point getting skittish. Nicholas swung his legs through the hole in the floor and began to climb down.
All he could hear was the quickening of his pulse in his temples. Strange smells – wax and old books and wet fur – made his head spin as his feet found the floor. For a moment, he was reminded of the oblituss, the dark tomb beneath the Abbey Gardens, and he had to force himself to let go of the ladder. This wasn’t the oblituss. The faceless man wasn’t going to emerge from the shadows and undo his sanity with a touch. His parents wouldn’t have kept anything dangerous down here, he was sure of it. Then again, he’d never known his parents were Sentinels. How much could he really assume about them?
Nicholas fumbled along the wall. If he could just find a light. He was sure it was a small space from the sound of his breath. Maybe little more than a cubby.
As he stumbled forward, his hands found a cord. A bare bulb clicked above his head, its fuzzy light settling over a bizarre collection of objects. Shelves, crates, broken lamps and intricate brass sculptures of what had to be the Milky Way.
“Heck, took you long enough, kid.”
Nicholas froze. The voice had spoken just over his shoulder. A man’s voice. Brassy and American. He turned around in the space, almost knocking over a stack of yellowed newspapers, but all he saw were shelves and inanimate objects.
“A guy could go nuts down here on his own.”
“Who is that?” Nicholas demanded. The voice was familiar. He had heard it before, but he couldn’t place where.
“Jeeze, don’t lose your head, bub. Down here.”
Nicholas moved towards the voice, spotting an old suitcase that had belonged to his grandfather. Beside it, on a low shelf, an object struck a dancing pose, its white flares, unmistakable quiff and glittery sunglasses moulded from plastic. Crouching, Nicholas crept closer to the figurine.
“Ya got me,” said Elvis.
Nicholas blinked. Of course he knew the voice. He had heard it a hundred times coming out of the radio or on television. It was unmistakable, twanging like guitar strings, and it was coming out of the statue, which remained motionless and appeared just as Nicholas had seen in his visions.
“You’re… you’re not Elvis,” Nicholas uttered.
“Not so bright, huh?” said Elvis. Only his mouth moved. His plastic hips remained motionless mid-thrust. “I get it; you’re starstruck. Not every day you get a private audience with the king of rock ’n’ roll.”
Nicholas almost laughed. “But you’re not the Elvis…”
“Kid, you got eyes?”
“Of course. Alright. So what was your biggest hit?”
“Man, are you writing a book? I can’t remember half those biscuits I baked. Geeze, your folks were never this difficult.”
Nicholas’s smile fell. “You knew my parents… Or, y’know, Anita and Max.”
“Good folk. Shame to see ’em go like that, but now there’s you, bub.”
Nicholas frowned. “What are you? Really?”
“Aside from the obvious? Look, kid, most people don’t ask so many questions when they meet me.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Funny; figured you’d recognise another emissary of the Trinity, being one yourself.”
“How…” Nicholas stopped, suddenly excited, even if a plastic figurine of Elvis was the last thing he’d been expecting. Heck, Isabel had possessed a cat. Why not a talking statue?
Nicholas swallowed, trying to keep his excitement under control. “You’re an emissary… Like a messenger? For the Trinity?”
“Gee, I thought you’d never ask. That’s me, kid. Hey, you notice the world’s going to hell quicker’n a bent-eight?”
“It’s sort of hard not to.”
“The Dark Prophets have that effect. They’re infecting the whole lot. They got this world sicker’n a lizard in a Tequila bottle. You ever tried Tequila?”
Nicholas ignored the question; his entire body had gone rigid. “The Prophets? They’re doing this?”
“Now don’t tell me you didn’t know?” Nicholas wasn’t sure if he had imagined Elvis’ eyebrows momentarily rising above his sunglasses. “They’re back, bubba. Crossed the great divide and we’ve got you to thank for it.”
Nicholas realised he’d clenched his hands into fists. Laurent had tried to raise the Prophets, but Nicholas and his friends had stopped him. True, monstrous things had clawed their way through the gateway before that, but they had closed the portal, prevented Laurent from releasing the Dark Prophets from their hellpit. But this figurine was saying they had failed.
“What did I do?” he demanded.
“Brace yourself, kid, cos this ain’t pretty. The faceless goon, the one who set that town to burning? He was the real conduit, bub. When you and your lady friend performed your mojo – that was impressive, by the by – you sparked the Tortor up good, warmed up the eggs in his undercarriage, got ’em sizzling. He birthed ’em right there in the ruins. The Prophets are back and you don’t wanna be around when they hatch.”
The dreams. The glowing pods. The Tortor’s cremated remains. Nicholas couldn’t believe it. Had everything he’d dreamt been true? The image of Laurent’s throat gushing blood leapt to the front of his mind.
“Laurent… he’s dead,” Nicholas murmured.
“Oh boy, he’s deader’n a doornail. Deader’n JFK and Marilyn combined, may they rest in peace.”
A shiver trickled down Nicholas’s spine. “How?”
“Killed by that flame-haired sister of Satan.”
“Malika.” That didn’t make any sense, either. Malika and Laurent had been working together. They had joined forces in the Abbey Gardens; Nicholas had seen it for himself. Why would she turn on Laurent? Trust probably wasn’t a top priority when you were evil.
“She’s the key to this, bubba. She’s the key to all of it.”
Nicholas scrutinised the statue. “How do you know so much?”
“Oracles sorta know things. It’s our deal.”
“You see things? The future?”
“When the music of the universe sings to ol’ Elvis. Seen plenty of weird shit over the years, but nothing weirder’n the shit you’re carrying around in that karmic suitcase of yours, kid.”
Nicholas didn’t know what to say. He glanced around the cubby hole and leaned in closer. “Did you talk to Anita and Max?”
“Sure, gave ’em my breakfast order every morning. Cuppa joe and a doughnut. Sorry, kid, bad joke. The sad truth is they couldn’t hear Elvis. Most people can’t. Coulda saved them a whole lotta trouble.”
“You tried to warn them?”
“Told them a hundred times about the train,” said Elvis. “But they couldn’t hear worth a damn.”
Nicholas doubted anything would have stopped his parents from boarding the train that they died on. They had been determined and fearless.
Nicholas took a breath, knowing he had to focus on the important things.
“Malika,” he said. “How’s she the key?”
“She’s nurturing the Prophets, boy-o. That makes her pretty darn important. Key player, you could say.”
“So to stop the Prophets, I have to stop her.”
“How do I do that?”
“You’re not gonna like it.”
Nicholas thought of the Drujblade, the mystical knife Malika had stolen from him. He’d have no problem plunging it into her heart given half the chance, and not just because she’d killed his family.
“Try me,” he said.
“You met her maker,” said Elvis. “The demon she served. Or pretended to, for a while.”
“Diltraa.” Nicholas remembered horns, bone-white eyes and a rasping voice like skeletal fingers clawing glass.
“The one and only.”
“Diltraa’s dead,” said Nicholas. Esus had killed the demon after it broke into Hallow House.
“Not dead,” said Elvis. “Banished to the demon plane. You destroyed its corporeal form, kid, but a demon’s essence is never truly toast.”
Nicholas’s jaw started ticking and he eyed the statue nervously.
“Just tell me what I have to do.”