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A Visit

By David Lawrence

As he entered the cave, the Doctor placed the burning torch into the slot on the wall. It was heavy and he was glad to dispose of it.

Death was waiting for him silently, seated on a stool beside the table. Her hood was pulled up but the Doctor could still see her face as he took his place on the stool opposite her. The table was circular and had been carved out of wood with a fine blade, but he saw no scythe, nor any reason why it might have been that particular instrument, or why he'd even supposed that she had made the table herself. Without a word, he looked down at the board and the pieces on it.

Black was losing. Or was it white? And which side was he? He couldn't tell. He made his move nonetheless, picking up the ivory figurine as though it were a lethally destructive weapon and then set it down again.

He sat back, a frown beset on his brooding face. He took off his hat and ran a hand through his ruffled hair as though making sure it was all still there. He placed his hat and umbrella on the ground.

He looked at the board, at the hourglass beside it, and at Death, his frown unchanged. ‘The third time,’ he said at last with only the slightest hint of weariness.

‘The third time,’ agreed Death hollowly. And then she made her move, taking the piece he had sent like a lamb to the slaughter into her line of advantage.

The Doctor pondered over the Knight's capture for a long time before speaking again. ‘Three,’ he mused. ‘A very important number in the book of evil. Knock three times at the Gates of Hades and they will open the door for you. Witches often travel in threes - and the Weird Sisters gave Macbeth three prophecies each time he met them. Three is the standard crew for a Dalek shuttle. King Lear had three daughters. There are so many other examples that elude me for the moment.’ He looked back up at his opponent. She thought she could see him smiling. ‘In human superstition, the Devil appears three times before claiming his victims.’

Death chuckled. It was a pleasant, off-putting chuckle which the Doctor wasn't sure he liked. ‘Come now, Doctor,’ she said, ‘both you and I know that neither the Devil nor God exist.’ And then, after a pause, ‘At least, not in the context people believe them to exist in.’ She smiled at him knowingly, because he too possessed the knowledge that amused her so. He made another, better move, while she added ‘And the Shakespearean allusions are hardly legitimate examples. Not after the hand you had in them.’

The Doctor's thoughts were still on the board, scanning each piece like a hawk. ‘My knowledge of structure was better than Will's,’ he replied, as though it justified things. ‘But the poetry was all his. I just told him where to put it. And you can talk. Context is hardly the medium to measure belief by. You know that as well as I do.’

When he looked at her again, her smile mocked him rather than agreed with him.

‘Whose life do you come to offer me this time, Doctor?’ she asked. ‘Who is the sacrifice? What bargains have you come to make with me now?’ Her laugh, hollow and empty, seemed to come from somewhere else in the cave.

His eyes were dark and he remained still. ‘No sacrifices,’ he said simply, ‘I haven't come here to bargain with you, Death.’ And she could feel the hatred he bore towards her. It was a feeling she liked.

‘Then why have you come?’ She glared at him. He could see her ghastly white face beneath the hood. ‘I am Death. This is my realm. None can come and go as they please. Not even you.’ The same mocking laugh again. ‘Do you think you're Odysseus? Or Aeneas?’ And she kept on laughing. ‘They visited the Underworld and then were able to leave again. But they paid the price. Are you prepared to pay the price, Doctor?’

He hadn't missed a beat. ‘Just put it on my account,’ he said, still calm and composed. It took more than Death's laughter to unnerve him.

She continued. ‘Aeneas saw three things, didn't he?’

The Doctor nodded. ‘The number again. But then, that was a book you had a hand in, wasn't it? The book of evil? So you're as guilty as I am.’

‘All are guilty of something,’ she purred. ‘Some of us more than others.’

He turned away, darkness shrouding his face once more. ‘Not always by our own choice,’ he murmured.

‘Three things.’ Death resumed her recollection of the past. ‘Guilt, Peace and Destiny. I could have shown you those three things, had the circumstances been different.’ She rose from her stool and went into the shadows. ‘If you were Ace, I could have shown you your doomed lover, as Aeneas was shown Dido, suffering at the unnatural death he forced upon her. But as Guilt, he serves a different purpose when shown to you.’ And then another figure stepped out from the shadows, an unseen light case across his face. A tall man, bestowed with a handsome ugliness and an accusing smile.

‘Jan Rydd,’ whispered the Doctor, ashen-faced. He searched for Death's dark shape lingering nearby and rose his voice. ‘There's no need for this,’ he pleaded.

Death shook her head. ‘Oh, but you're wrong. There's every need. As a symbol of Guilt. Your guilt. If I recall, you played a particular part in sending him to me, did you not?’ He could feel her leering smile, even though he could not see her. The apparition raised a silver goblet, toasting the Doctor's contribution to his fate. Death took the goblet from the outstretched hand, coming back into the light, carrying with her a flask.

‘It wasn't my doing,’ the Doctor insisted.

‘Wasn't it?’ questioned Death. ‘Then why does it disturb you so?’ As she spoke, the apparition faded away to be replaced by another. A man the Doctor didn't recognise. ‘If you were Bernice, I might show you Peace. The father you have been searching for.’

The Doctor nodded at the new figure, this well-built man with closely-cropped white hair, wearing a space fleet uniform and a smile. But unlike the previous apparition, it was not an accusing smile, but the smile of a man at peace. That made sense. ‘Commander Isaac Summerfield, I presume?’ the Doctor grinned.

But Death was not about to allow him a moment of relaxation. ‘The reason she travels with you is partially in hope that she might find her father, is it not?’

‘I fail to see why you ask, since you seem to know all the answers.’ The Doctor frowned again. ‘So he is here, then?’

‘Bernice's father?’ Death shrugged as she sat down again, the apparition dissolving behind her. ‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Many dwell here. He may be one of them. There is only one way you could ever be certain.’ She poured wine from the flask into the goblet and sipped. ‘So why have you come?’

‘No reason. Just to warn you.’ The Doctor fixed his eyes on Death and she dared not break his stare. ‘To warn you to be ready.’

Death considered this, then offered him the goblet. He accepted it and she poured more wine into it. ‘I've always been at your shoulder. I've never needed any warning that I might be required in matters involving you. So it seems that I must also warn you. Your time is almost up, Doctor. Soon you must face your fear.’

The Doctor gave her a bitter scowl. ‘I'm not scared of you, Death.’

‘Not yet.’ Death rose again and turned away from her guest. ‘The third thing applies to you and none other. I could show it to Ace or Bernice and it would be meaningless. Destiny. That was the third thing Aeneas saw, remember?’

‘Of course.’

Death turned back to him. ‘Many lives have many destinies. Yours is the fate you have avoided for all time. Although you have forced others to face this destiny, you have always denied it of yourself. You must face your fear. The fear that has always followed you and haunted everything you do.’

He watched, unimpressed. ‘Everybody faces their fear eventually. I'm not afraid to face mine.’

Death shook her head. ‘I would be, in your place, Doctor. I would be terrified. Because yours is a particularly dangerous fear. I have seen the things it can do. I have fed on the carnage always left in its wake, and I do not know that you are strong enough to confront this fear and survive. Not even Time's Champion has the power to battle such an enemy.’

The Doctor took another mouthful of wine. But it wasn't wine in the goblet, it was blood.

Death's laugh was nearing hysteria. ‘I think your fear will destroy you,’ she told him gleefully. She came closer and he could see the malicious joy in her terrible eyes. ‘I think your fear will consume and swallow you, as it has done so many others. Shall I show you your fear? Look into the wine!’

She sat back down, and she examined the chess board, contemplating strategies for soldiers of ivory. The Doctor wiped the blood from his lips and looked into the dark thick red of the goblet.

He stared hard and began to visualise things in the wine, the blood of destiny. Dark, terrible things that clawed and snarled at all he believed in. But he wasn't scared. Not by them or by Death. Then more things swam up to greet him, trying to pull him into the pits with them, trying to claim his soul as one of theirs, and showing him other souls they already owned. Souls he recognised. Two faces. Ace and Bernice, transformed into ghoulish temptresses, inviting him to join the pain and suffering they revelled in. But he still wasn't scared. He'd been frightened by experts in his time.

Another shape was forming. He peered deeper, trying to make out what it was. One single shape, rather than the multitude of nightmares that had preceded it. Was this it? And then it was a familiar face that stared back at him from the world within the goblet.

He saw himself, and then he was scared.

The hourglass shattered, glass and sand scattering in tiny fragments.

‘No bargains? No sacrifices?’ Death taunted. She moved a piece. He could not tell if it was black or white. ‘Check,’ said Death, and gestured with a gaunt, bony hand. ‘Your move.’

But the Time Lord shook his head, put down the goblet and got up, hat and umbrella in hand.

‘You can't just walk away from here, Doctor,’ warned Death, but he did just that. As he walked away, she called after him, ‘Are you ready to face your fear, Doctor?’

He stopped and turned back to her. ‘I don't know,’ he admitted. And then he left.

Death watched him go and found herself almost admiring his foolish courage. ‘We will meet again,’ she murmured, ‘and I will ask you the question once more. Perhaps then you will have found an answer.’

Until then, she could only wait.

This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).

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