Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

The TARDIS bucked and buffeted madly. The Doctor said there were eddies in the time vortex and was a little disappointed that neither of his companions made a joke out of that on the lines of ‘tell Eddy to get out of the time vortex’. Zoe was not without a sense of humour, but her training in mathematics and logic didn’t extend to puns. Jamie, born in eighteenth century Scotland, had probably never even heard the name ‘Eddy’ as a short form of Edward.

Both of them clung to the TARDIS console and tried to stay on their feet. The Doctor failed to do that twice and had rolled under the console itself, suffering a painfully banged head.

“Oh, my word,” he moaned as he used a handhold on the console to pull himself upright again. “Oh, this is terrible. We’ll never get anywhere like this.”

“We… seem to be getting SOMEWHERE,” Zoe said, pointing towards the big viewscreen on the wall. “Or somewhere is coming to us!”

“That’s impossible,” The Doctor insisted. “No, no, no. Nothing like that should be in the vortex. It’s not right at all. It just can’t be.”

“Well, it looks like it is, Doctor,” Jamie pointed out. All three of them stared at what looked like a ragged chunk of rock with one flat plane. The TARDIS database said that the flat area was eight miles long and five miles wide.

“It looks like an asteroid,” Zoe said. “A piece of a planet that broke away. The flat part could have been the surface.”

“An asteroid shouldn’t be in the vortex,” The Doctor insisted. “That’s completely wrong.”

“Send it a wee note, then, Doctor,” Jamie said. “Because it’s there, and Zoe is right. It’s coming towards us.”

“No, I think it’s stationary and we’re being pulled towards IT,” Zoe amended. “There must be some kind of gravitational pull.”

“THAT is completely impossible,” The Doctor said. “A body that small couldn’t have gravity.”

“We’re going to…” Jamie began

“CRA…SSHH!” Zoe screamed. Jamie’s voice merged with hers.

“Oh my!” The Doctor murmured just before it all went black.

Zoe was the first to wake up. She looked around her in surprise. They weren’t in the TARDIS, but the last thing she could remember was falling against the console when it crashed into the asteroid.

Jamie came around quickly, and as soon as he realised that he wasn’t in the TARDIS he became defensive, reaching for his dirk and moving from lying down to a wary crouch in one smooth move. But there was nothing in the immediate area that looked like it could attack them. He relaxed enough to slip the knife back into the top of his stocking. He looked around at their new surroundings in wonder. So did Zoe.

“It must be on the asteroid,” she said. “That’s the only logical explanation.” She looked up and saw a sky that made her immediately nervous. It was dark, but not like an ordinary night sky on any planet she had been to, or even the black of space with stars and planets in it. This was a blackness that was streaked with angry purple and green that roiled around like an endless storm.

She didn’t like looking at it. She looked around at the place where they were standing, instead.

“Aye, you’re maybe right,” Jamie said to her. “I don’t know where else we’d be. But why does it look like this?”

They were in a garden. A black garden. At least, there were impressions of colour. If she looked at the carefully pruned rose bushes Zoe thought the black leaves had a hint of green in the blackness and the blooms the hint of red. The impeccable lawn was, again, black with a hint of green in the blackness. The same was true of the neatly cut box hedges that divided the large garden into smaller plots.

It was like being in a garden in moonlight, when there were no colours, except they seemed to be in daylight.

Not sunlight, she told herself. There was no sun shining in that sky that she didn’t want to look at again.

There were statues here and there, on black plinths. The statues were mostly white, the only contrast at all in the place. They were rather funerary. That wasn’t a word Zoe used often, and she wasn’t entirely sure it was the right grammatical context for it, but it was the word that came readily to mind. They mostly seemed to be statues of people in long robes with hoods that hid their faces, which wasn’t especially solemn in itself, but she still had the feeling that they were associated with death.

“And what’s that?” Jamie added pointing to the gothic edifice that rose up beyond the garden.

“Well, it’s a building, of course,” Zoe answered him. “It looks like some kind of huge cathedral or a really fancy house. It’s rather grim looking, though. All that black stone.”

“Looks like a prison,” Jamie noted mournfully. “Let’s not go near it.”

“Where’s The Doctor?” Zoe asked. Until that moment she hadn’t even realised that he wasn’t with them. They looked around the immediate area, but there was no sign of him, and no sound of him. If he was anywhere near here, they would expect to hear him saying things like “Oh, my giddy aunt” or “Oh, dear, oh dear, this isn’t right at all. This won’t do.”

“He’s not here with us,” Jamie concluded after a while.

“Suppose he’s in there?” Zoe suggested, looking at the big house. She had decided it WAS a house, not a cathedral or a prison. A house was a comforting idea, the other two possibilities less so.

“He might not be,” Jamie considered.

“But maybe he IS,” Zoe insisted. “And maybe the TARDIS is, too. We should go and look. Even if he isn’t… it’s a house. These gardens are well kept. There must be people. They might know something.”

Jamie sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was enter that forbidding looking house, but it was looking as if they had no choice.

“I still think it looks like a prison,” he said. But he came with her, anyway.

The Doctor was worried. He was no longer in the TARDIS and he couldn’t see Zoe or Jamie anywhere.

He looked up at that roiling infinity above him and shook his head mournfully.

“That is not right at all,” he said to himself. “Not right. I shouldn’t be here.”

There was no sign of the TARDIS, or, for that matter, anything else on this empty plain. For as far as he could see in every direction there was nothing but black sand. Not soil, which was usually black due to the composting of organic material within it, but sand. He had taken a handful of it and carefully analysed it, by the simple methods of first holding up a pinch of it close to his eyes and looking at it, then sniffing it, and finally tasting it. He concluded that it was crystallised silica with a particular polarisation that made it appear black.

Black sand. An endless desert of black sand.

Which was impossible in itself if he really was on the asteroid. The TARDIS had measured it. Eight miles by five miles wasn’t endless. It was a perfectly finite area.

But looking at the place where the distant horizon met that roiling sky was like looking at infinity.

Except that infinity wasn't that colour.

Jamie and Zoe looked at the huge door at the top of four wide steps of black stone. It was black, no surprise. There were the heads of large iron nails studding the wood for no apparent reason other than to make it look heavy and strong.

There was a knocker made of blackened metal in an unusual shape.


“Strange shape,” Jamie said.

“It’s an Omega,” Zoe told him. “A Greek letter, the last letter in the Greek alphabet… it usually symbolises death. It’s a strange thing to have as a door knocker.”

It was just a piece of shaped metal. There was really nothing to be scared of. But she WAS scared.

All the same she reached for the knocker and rapped three times. She wasn't doing it very hard, but even so, it sounded loud and sonorous and anyone inside the house must have heard it.

“Nobody’s home,” Jamie said after about ten seconds. “Let’s go.”

“No, I hear footsteps,” Zoe answered.

The footsteps were almost as sonorous as the door knocker. Zoe wondered what sort of person was going to open the door. She listened apprehensively to large bolts being drawn back and then the creaking of hinges.

And the tall, broad-shouldered man who stood before them was everything she had been apprehensive about. He was swarthy of complexion with black eyes, a hooked nose and thin, humourless lips. He wore a butler’s uniform, but there was a noose hanging around his neck. That curious accessory made him look even more sinister than he already was.

“We…” Zoe began. “We’re… that is.…”

Her voice – and her courage - failed her.

“Look,” Jamie said, either with extra reserves of bravado or a show of it that sufficed. “We don’t know where we are or how we got here, and our friend, The Doctor is missing. So if the laird o’ this manor is haime… we’d beg t’ see him for a wee while.”

He descended deeper into his Highland dialect as he spoke. Perhaps the reminder that he was a piper for his Clan, who led men into battle with his fighting air, helped at that moment.

“Come in,” the butler said. “The Master will see you shortly.”

“I’m… not sure we want to bother him,” Zoe hastily backtracked. “Perhaps we’ll just….”

“You must see the Master,” the butler added. “You have come to his door. You must present yourself to him.”

Zoe said nothing more. Nor did Jamie. They clutched hands for comfort as they stepped over the threshold into a hallway with black wooden panels and grey painted walls. There was a large clock directly opposite the front door with that same Omega symbol in the middle. The pendulum in the case swung back and forwards with a sinister noise of air being sliced but it didn’t look as if the hands moved. They were set at midnight.

There were portraits on the walls of more cowled figures like the statues outside. They all looked alike. To the left of the clock a wide staircase with a carpet that was black with a hint of deep red went upstairs. To the right a narrower one went down. Either side of the hall were doors leading off into other rooms.

The butler knocked on the door immediately to the left. A voice with the same sonorous depth as the door knocker simply said ‘Enter’.

“Go in,” the butler said, stepping back and nodding to them.

“I’m… not sure I want to,” Zoe answered. “Look, we really don’t mean to bother anyone. We just.…”

“The Master brooks no refusal,” the butler said. “You must present yourself before him.”

They pushed the door open and stepped inside, not knowing who or what to expect.

The room was about eight yards square with a good quality Axminster carpet, black with a hint of deep red. On the carpet was a desk made of black lacquered wood. The desk held a large ledger and a very elaborate chess set with the pieces set ready for a game as well as a pen and ink stand with a fountain pen in the holder.

The man sitting behind the desk in the monochrome room didn’t look as frightening as they expected. He was dressed in a sombre black suit, like a cross between a school headmaster and an undertaker. He had thinning hair and was slightly overweight, and his eyes were watery. He was looking over the ledger and occasionally picking up the pen to make notes.

“Come in,” he said. “Please sit down. I’m afraid you’ve caught me unawares. I wasn’t expecting new arrivals today. I can’t quite understand how you got here without a petition. But since you are here, we’ll find a place for you… a niche within our community.”

“Your community?” Zoe and Jamie looked at each other.

“But I don’t understand,” Zoe said in a quiet voice

“Neither do I,” Jamie added in a more agitated tone. “Where are we, and where is The Doctor? Who are you?”

“Who am I?” the man asked. “Don’t you know?”

“I wouldn’t be asking if I knew, would I?” Jamie responded.

“This is very unusual,” the man continued. “I have never known anyone to arrive at the House of Death and not know its Master.”

“The House of…”

“Death. I am Death, Master of the dead.”

“You are… no… that’s not… you can’t be. We’re not….” Zoe was frightened. She shivered even though the room was not cold. “No. We’re not dead.”

“Of course not,” Death answered. “If you were, you would not come to my house. I would come to you and open the door to the afterlife for you. Those who come here are between life and death.”

“What do you mean?” Jamie demanded. “There’s no such thing. Dead is dead. I’ve seen men die on the battlefield. There’s no inbetween.”

“Have you never seen men brought from the battlefield still holding onto life for a few hours, perhaps a few days, before the inevitable?”

Jamie paused. He was young, but he had seen many battles and that struck a true note with him.

“Aye, I have,” he answered. “But what of it? It’s the same thing. They’re alive and then dead. There’s no inbetween.”

“There is if the one facing the end strikes a bargain with me. If he or she really doesn’t want to die, if he is willing to make the deal… he can have eternal life here in my land.” `

“You mean… that man… your butler….” Zoe didn’t quite know how to end that sentence. But she didn’t have to.

“Silas Knox. He was hours away from being executed… for a crime your ears do not wish to be sullied with. He made the bargain with me, and remains as my servant, bonded for eternity to do my bidding.”

“So… this is a place where criminals escape justice?” Zoe commented. “I don’t want to stay in a place like this. Even if I was… if we really WERE dead, and I don’t believe we ARE, I don’t want to stay here.”

“I’m afraid you have no choice,” Death told her. “You are here. And there is no way out.”

“There has to be.” Jamie grabbed Zoe’s hand and turned towards the door. He grasped the handle and wrenched it open. Any other time she might have protested at being hauled about in such a way, but in this instance she was grateful to Jamie for helping her to move her legs when she had become so petrified it would have been difficult for her to do so on her own accord.

Outside the door, the sinister Silis Knox waited.

The Doctor knew exactly what this black plain with that impossible sky represented. But he refused to accept it.

“No,” he shouted, his face tilted upwards. “No, I am not here. I refuse to accept that I am. It is not my time, yet. This is a trick. I am being manipulated. And I won’t have it, I tell you. I won’t have it. Show me where I really am.”

“You get out of my way,” Jamie snapped at the butler. “You’re not a fit man to stand in the way of a Highlander.”

He pushed past him and ran towards the front door. He half expected it to be locked, but it wasn’t. He pulled it open and stepped forward, but on the threshold he stopped, clinging to the black stone doorframe fearfully.

“Where’s the garden?” Zoe asked, looking out at a nothingness filled with the same roiling blackness that had been in the sky. “Where has it gone?”

“Only those with the Master’s favour may go out into the garden,” said a quiet voice. Jamie and Zoe looked around and saw a young woman with long, flowing black hair. She was wearing a long white gown such as young women in a past era might wear for bed. This notion was born out by the soft indoor shoes on her feet.

Knox stepped past Jamie and Zoe and closed the door again.

“I am Sarah,” the woman said. “The Master asked me to show you your place in his household.”

“We don’t HAVE a place in his household,” Zoe protested. “You don’t understand, and nor does your Master… Death… if that’s who he really is. We don’t belong here. We’re not dead, or dying. There has been a mistake.”

“That can’t be right,” Sarah replied. “Or you could not be here. Please, come with me. There is nothing you can do. It is best to accept your fate. Those who rail against the inevitable find their tasks more onerous than those who accept their fate.”

“Why are you here?” Zoe asked. “Not that… not that I believe it at all. There’s no such person as Death, and no such place as this. Jamie is right. Dead is dead. But what happened to you?”

“I was murdered,” she answered. “My uncle came to my room in the night and stabbed me seven times. It took a long time for me to die. There was nobody to come to my aid. I prayed that I would not die, but my prayer wasn’t answered. When I was on the point of death, The Master came, instead, and offered me the chance to live in his house. And I foolishly accepted. I would have been better off dead. I regret every day accepting such a bargain.”

“Why?” Zoe asked. “What is the bargain? What does he ask for in return?”

It was a question she felt she had to ask. But she almost dreaded the answer.

“My soul,” Sarah replied. “He gave me eternal life in return for my soul.”


Zoe must have sounded a little unconvinced. Sarah turned to her with a shocked expression.

“There is no higher price,” she said. “And what I have in return… is too little.”

“What do you do here every day?” Zoe asked in spite of herself. She still didn’t believe it, but she felt she had to ask the questions and hear the answers to them.

“I do this,” Sarah said, opening a door and stepping into a room full of handlooms at which sat women of different ages and in different clothes, of all sorts of historical eras. They were all weaving long pieces of cloth in black and silver threads with a pattern that reminded Zoe of the time when she had visited the British Museum in London and seen the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’.

“What is it?”

“It is the fabric of time itself,” Sarah said. “We weave the story of time… all history, everywhere…. All people… all beings who ever were… woven together in the cloth of life.”

Zoe blinked. The room looked at first glance not much bigger than the laboratory where she had worked on the Space Wheel. When she looked again, she realised she couldn’t see the end wall. It went on endlessly with women continuously weaving.

“That is the worst of it. Seeing the pattern forming beneath our fingers… the endless cycle of life that we are no longer a part of,” Sarah explained.

“What about the men?” Zoe asked. “These are all women.”

“They spin the threads of life that we weave,” Sarah replied. “All except Knox. The Master set him apart from the others… because of me.”


“Because he was my uncle, who killed me… in order to have the fortune I inherited when my mother and father died. He killed them, too. And his other brother who might have protected me. I was the last who stood between him and the inheritance.”

“And he is here with you?” Zoe was appalled.

“He made the bargain, too. He gave his soul to the master in return for eternity.”

“But how terrible for you, to have to see him all the time.”

“I don’t see him often. The Master makes him serve him daily, as you saw, but he has other tasks for him. I will show you.”

They crossed the endless room in a few steps. Zoe turned and looked. The door they had come through was so far away it looked tiny. They passed through another door into the room where the men spun the threads that the women were weaving. Again, it looked endless, but they crossed it in a few paces.

The Doctor looked around. That was more like it. That was what the TARDIS had really collided with – a barren piece of asteroid that had somehow or other become trapped in the time vortex. He looked up. The raw vortex was not a pretty sight, but it wasn't the first time he had seen it. It didn’t shock him anymore.

Of course, there was still some nonsense going on here. He was standing up in a place with no gravity and breathing in a place with no air.

And then there was THAT.

Behind him was the TARDIS, perched on the very edge of the one flat plane of the asteroid. But he knew he couldn’t just get back into it. He was going to have to see this nonsense through to the end.

He set off towards the ridiculously impossible thing that waited in the middle distance, feeling extremely annoyed that it was necessary.

They stepped into the next room. Zoe clung to Jamie’s arm. He gripped her as if he had no intention ever to let go.

“What is this fiendish place?” he asked.

“This is the hall of souls,” Sarah replied. “This is the Master’s Treasure House. Here he stores the souls that are bargained. Mine… Knox’s… and everyone who has ever made that terrible choice.”

Zoe stopped looking. She couldn’t bear it any longer. She buried her face in Jamie’s shirt front and pressed her hands against her ears. The sight and sound was dreadful.

Jamie held Zoe and wished there was someone he could turn to for comfort. This was worse than the worst battle he had ever been in, and he could remember well enough the sight and sound of that, the clash of swords, the screams, the agony of death.

Even on a battlefield, a man only died once, even if it was lingering and painful, there was a release at the end.

But the ethereal figures he saw in this room, ghostly shades of what they used to be, died every minute, over and over and over again. The suffered constantly the agony of their battle wounds or the pain of crippling disease, the mental torture of the condemned prisoner who was down to his last hour.

“Yes,” Sarah said, even though the question was not asked. “My soul is in here somewhere, dying endlessly of the wounds my uncle inflicted. He is here, too. But it is worse for him. I don’t have to come here every day.”

Zoe dared to look around. As with the other rooms it was at once finite and infinite. And even the infinite space was filled with the pitiful wretches.

And among them they saw Silas Knox walking slowly, with a huge book in his hands, a thick leather bound ledger with locks to seal it when it is closed.

“It is never closed,” Sarah said. “Knox’s task is to count the souls. But the task is endless. There are so many already that it would be impossible, and new souls are added all the time. And every day he begins the task he find the pages blank. He must begin again.”

“I think I would rather die than endure that,” Zoe said. “Is there no way to end it?”

“Only if the soul is bought back from the Master,” Sarah answered. “But that happens only rarely. The price is too high.”

“What is the price?” Zoe asked.

“I think I know,” Jamie said. He wasn’t highly educated like Zoe. But he had learning of a different sort. Quite apart from knowing full well the reality of sudden and violent death, he had been taught what happens to the soul of a man after it had departed from the mortal body. Or at least what should happen.

“An honest man or woman must buy a soul back with his or her own,” Sarah explained. “Few will do that.”

“One man did,” Jamie said in a quiet, certain tone.

“That was a long time ago,” Sarah replied. “And we have little hope that it would happen again.”

“Well, I’m not waiting to find out,” Zoe said. “I’ve had quite enough of this. I told you, we’re not dead. And we’re not staying here. Even your Master was surprised to see us. There’s something not completely right about it all. So… I think… if we can’t just walk out of the door, I think you’d better take us back to him right now.”

“But….” Sarah began.

“But nothing,” Jamie snapped. “We’ve seen enough of this unholy place. Take us back to him with his desk and his ledger and tell him we want to check his figures.”

Sarah sighed wearily and told them to follow her. She turned around and stepped towards the door out of the Hall of Souls. Jamie and Zoe followed her.

In the middle of the empty plane of barren rock, was an eight yards square piece of good quality Axminster carpet, black with a hint of deep red. On the carpet was a desk made of black lacquered wood. The desk held a large ledger and a very elaborate chess set with the pieces set ready for a game as well as a pen and ink stand. The pen was in the hand of the man sitting behind the desk, but when The Doctor approached he placed it on the stand and sat back with his hands folded.

“You know the rules,” The Doctor said.

“I do.” The man moved the ledger aside and pulled the chess set into the middle of the table. The Doctor sat opposite Death and cracked his knuckles theatrically as he considered his opening move.

Jamie and Zoe were worried. They seemed to be taking much longer crossing the spinning room this time. The door to the weaving room remained as far away with each step as it ever was.

“It’s a trick!” Jamie protested. “A trick to stop us from getting back to him.”

“It is not a trick,” Sarah replied. “It is simply longer to go back than to go forward.”

“That’s nonsense,” Zoe told her. “Logically, a journey back is the same length as a journey to a place.”

“Not here,” Sarah told her.

“Even here,” Zoe insisted.

“Sarah!” Silas Knox appeared out of nowhere. He was still carrying the great ledger. “There is… a… discrepancy. These two must go to see the Master, at once.”

The Doctor had won two games of chess in a row. Death had a resigned expression on his face.

“Very well,” he said. “Take your two friends and go.”

Jamie and Zoe stepped onto the carpet from nowhere. They looked around as if surprised to see the wide empty plain around them.

“Where did the room go?” Zoe asked.

“The room, like everything else, is a concept,” The Doctor replied. “Everything you see here is also a concept, but it exists in a slightly more solid way than the rest of the house.”

Sarah and Silas had stepped onto the carpet, too. They didn’t seem surprised to find themselves in an office without walls. Silas put his Ledger down in front of Death.

“Sir, it is clear. The tally does not match. These two should not be here. They are not dead or near death. And they did not make a bargain with you.”

Death looked at the Ledger for a long time. Then he looked at The Doctor, and at Jamie and Zoe.

“It has never been heard of before,” he said. “But it is true. Their souls do not belong to me. I cannot keep them here.”

“So we can go?” Jamie asked. He turned to see the TARDIS only a few steps away from the carpet. “Right, then we’ll be off. Come on, Zoe. Doctor, we’re done here.”

“Not quite,” The Doctor said. “I won two games of chess. Each time, I wagered my soul against the freedom of one of you. But since he didn’t hold your souls, that means I am owed. You must free two more.”

“That is so,” Death said.

“Sarah,” Zoe piped up bravely. “Doctor… let Sarah go. She doesn’t deserve this place. She made a mistake because she was hurt and frightened and he took advantage of her.”

“He always does,” The Doctor pointed out. “Very well, I shall have Sarah’s soul from you, sir.”

“Who else?” Death asked.

“My uncle,” Sarah said in a quavering voice of one who had not made a decision for a long time and who knew how important this one was.

“Really?” Zoe looked at her in surprise. “But he killed you. Surely he deserves to be here, punished for eternity.”

“My uncle,” Sarah insisted. “He has suffered enough.”

“Him,” The Doctor decided. “Let them both go, now. That is the bargain.”

“It is done,” Death replied. He waved his hand. Sarah gave a soft cry as her body was bathed in white light and slowly dissolved into the air. At the same time Silas cried out in fear. He, too, was bathed in light and dissolved.

“Where did they go?” Zoe asked. “To… heaven… or….”

“They went where they expected to go,” Death answered and didn’t elaborate further.

“Can we go now, Doctor?” Jamie asked.

“Not yet,” The Doctor replied. He looked steadily at Death. “What price for them all?” he asked.

“All?” Death was surprised. “Nobody can bargain for them all.”

“One man did,” Jamie said again.

“Yes, one man did,” The Doctor said. “I am not that man. I do not offer myself in willing sacrifice. But I will offer myself against all those you hold. You know who I am. You know that my one soul is worth them all.”

“Doctor!” Jamie cried out. “No, Doctor. You can’t. This is a terrible place. You can’t risk it.”

“But I can, Jamie,” The Doctor answered him. “I can. And I will. Do you accept, sir?”

“I accept. But we will not play chess.” He reached into his desk drawer and took out a pack of playing cards. He placed them on the table. “One card each, the lowest card wins.”

“Accepted,” The Doctor said. “Zoe, my dear, will you remove the jokers from the pack and shuffle them.”

“I… don’t know how,” she said. “I’ve seen it done, but I’ve never…. Games of chance are played with computer generated random numbers in my time.”

“Do your best,” The Doctor told her.

Zoe picked up the cards and took the two jokers from the pack. She was shaken to see that one of the figures in a jester’s costume looked like Death. The other looked like The Doctor.

“Just a frivolous detail,” The Doctor said, glaring at Death and daring him to say anything. “Ignore that, my dear.”

Zoe shuffled the cards as best as she could. It wasn’t neat, it wasn’t smooth, and twice she dropped them in a heap, but the cards were shuffled. She tidied the pack and laid it on the desk, equal distance between The Doctor and Death.

Death took the first card without looking at it.

The Doctor took the second.

Death laid his card on the desk face down. The Doctor did the same.

Death turned his card. It was a three of spades.

“Aces are high, Doctor,” Death said. “Only a two will beat that card.”

Zoe was a mathematician. She knew the odds of The Doctor holding one of the four out of fifty-one remaining cards that was a two. They were not astronomical, but they were high enough to make it a terrible gamble, and at such a price.

The Doctor turned his card.

The two of hearts.

“You win, Doctor,” Death said. “The souls go free. But you know there will be others. Bargains will be made again. My house won’t be empty for long.”

“As long as the universe exists, that will be so,” The Doctor said. “Perhaps we will play again. Perhaps I will lose next time. Or perhaps another man will come. Who knows? Certainly not you or I.”

The Doctor stood and reached out his hands to his friends. He smiled at them.

“Now we can go,” he said.

Zoe woke with a groan and sat up. She was lying rather uncomfortably on the floor underneath the console. Jamie came around quickly, reaching for his dirk, but relaxing when he saw that he was in the TARDIS.

The Doctor was sitting cross legged, playing a tune on his recorder.

“Doctor!” Zoe sat up and looked at him. “I had the strangest dream… I think it was a dream. It must be, because we’re here, now.”

“I had a dream, too,” Jamie said. “About a terrible place… a house full of lost souls. And you, Doctor…. You….”

The Doctor smiled and stopped playing. He reached into the top pocket of his jacket and took out a playing card. Jamie took it from him and stared. Zoe did too.

“The two of hearts,” The Doctor said. “My card, always.”

“Then… it WAS real?”

“It was neither real nor unreal,” The Doctor said. “The House of Death isn’t on any map or star chart, any more than the soul of a living being can be pointed to on any anatomical chart.”

That made sense, in a way. It didn’t entirely explain everything, but it made a lot of their questions redundant. That didn’t stop them from starting a whole lot of sentences with “But…” and “Why…” and “What if…” But The Doctor just went back to his recorder until they stopped and looked at each other and realised that those were questions that they had to answer within their own hearts, and if they couldn’t, then nobody else could help them.

The Doctor nodded quietly to himself, knowing that they had reached that conclusion. He stood and went to the console. He checked their time and place and initiated a landing. Whether it was a peaceful time and place or one where they would be plunged into mortal danger he didn’t know. But that was the challenge that had sent him wandering in time and space in the first place and he was ready for it.