Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen


William opened the door just a crack and peered out into the hall. There was no one in sight, so he slipped out, and then turned to gaze back into the guest room, loath to leave.

Sophia lay on her side, the pale curve of her hip causing him to flush at the sight. A smile played at the edges of her lips, and she drew a sheet up to cover her breasts. There ought not to have been any way she could be coy with him now, not after the way they had just lost themselves in each other, and yet there was something deliciously innocent about her expression.

Go, she mouthed, and waved at him to depart.

William smiled and nodded, yet still he allowed himself one final glance before pulling the door closed. Then he rushed along the hall to the junction with the main corridor.

He had to hurry now, or he would be dreadfully late for dinner at the Algernon Club. It was quite an honor, in his estimation, that they had invited him to the event they were hosting in honor of Sir Darius Strong. Ludlow had been a member of the club, and William wondered if he had inherited membership because of his grandfather. Or if perhaps there was another purpose to the invitation-so they might evaluate him.

Whatever their reason, he intended to make a good impression. With Farris unavailable, assisting Tamara in her research, he would have to prevail upon another member of the household staff-perhaps even the new stable boy-to drive the carriage. He could have driven it himself, of course, but that would undoubtedly be viewed as unseemly for a gentleman of his status.

All these things whirled in his mind as he hurried to his room. He ran a hand over his face, wondering if the bit of rough stubble there would require him to shave. A glance in the mirror would answer that question. He realized he would probably need to bring his original invitation with him in order to be admitted, and hoped he had not misplaced it.

"Well, well . . . who's a naughty boy?"

The words insinuated themselves into his mind, drifting from what seemed everywhere at once. But William knew that voice well, the melodious, amused, self-congratulatory tones of the enfant terrible, the poet laureate of the ghosts of Albion.

"Not another word, Byron," William whispered, glancing about to make sure none of the servants was within hearing distance. Then he peered into the shadows along the hall. "You truly are a wretched, reprehensible lech, do you know that?"

With a sound like a violin out of tune, and a flash of ethereal light, the spectral figure of Lord Byron appeared before him, just alongside his bedroom door.

"You say the sweetest things, William. Truly you do."

The ghost was close enough that his proximity seemed intimate, and to William that intimacy marred the pleasure he had just shared with Sophia. Determined to separate the two, he backed away several steps and crossed his arms in fury.

"My private affairs are none of your business, sir," he insisted. "You may have prevailed upon my sister to debase herself for your amusement, convinced her to believe that because you are merely haunting this place there is no shame in your seeing her unclothed, but her inappropriate behavior should not be construed as granting you license to-"

"You have the most adorable dimple on your left buttock," the ghost interrupted, stroking his chin and gazing at William in admiration. "I wondered if you were aware of it."

"Byron!" he snapped, sputtering. "How . . . how dare you?"

The poet appeared to lean against the wall, though part of his shoulder disappeared beneath the surface. He arched an eyebrow roguishly. "What else am I to do? Have pity, dear William. I am myself denied the pleasures of the flesh. When I hear the bestial grunting and the wet slap of moist skin, it is like a siren call to me. I cannot help but be summoned to bear witness.

"Your young lady is lovely, by the way."

William was speechless. He felt the rage and embarrassment rush to his face, felt the heat of the blood as it reddened his cheeks.

"Oh, come now, there are no secrets here. There have always been ghosts in this house, William, even when you could not see them. Now let's get you dressed for the Algernon Club . . . and not that ridiculous coat of your father's that you love so much. It's quite out of date, you know. While you're dressing, I'll do my best to provide helpful suggestions for your future assignations with Miss Winchell. You've really got to use your tongue more, William. And there are some fantastic positions I learned from a Tibetan mystic that-"

Unable to contain himself a moment longer, William exploded.

"Byron! Shut your bloody mouth, you filthy bastard! I have heard enough of such talk to last a lifetime." He shook his head, trying to get through to the specter. "Sophia is my . . . I love her, do you not understand that? Is there nothing in that cold, dead heart of yours that draws a line between the profligate pursuit of carnal delight and the true passion of the heart? For God's sake, man, have you no sense of decency at all?"

The ghost blinked and then, the picture of innocence, shrugged his phantom shoulders. "Well . . . no. None worth speaking of. And look, I was only trying to be helpful. You'd thank me, really, if you'd stop being so stubbornly proper and take a moment to-"

William threw his hands up in disgust and surrender. He pushed his hand right through the ethereal essence of Byron's body, and reached for the doorknob to enter his bedchamber.

Suddenly an unearthly howl filled the house.

It echoed down from the topmost floor, drifting in a long, shrill cry from eave to eave. The screaming, laughing voice of the demon Oblis.

The voice of his father.

"Willlllllllliam!" the demon called. "William!"

There was a chilling, singsong lilt to it that made him cringe, and caused a bit of the boy he had once been to wither inside.

"Willlllllllliam! I can smell her, boy. I smellllllll her. The lovely stink of your sin is on everything. I can taste it in the air. I'll have her, one day, William! I'll have her in ways that would cause even the eyes of Hell to turn away."

Waves of revulsion passed through William and he glanced back the way he'd come, wondering if Sophia could hear the demon's filth from behind closed doors, hoping that perhaps she had fallen asleep. Anxious, he turned back to Byron. The apparition seemed less substantial now, so transparent that he was barely there at all. But the ghost rolled his eyes and smirked.

"Pig," he said.

William did not smile. In truth, he had never been so chilled. It was all he could do to hide from Byron the way he shuddered, then, and the fear that scuttled across his skin like a thousand spiders. Once more he glanced back the way he'd come, waiting to see if Sophia would emerge. When she did not, he let out a breath of relief.

With a scowl at Byron he pushed through the ghost and into his bedroom.

He hesitated just a moment before closing the door, afraid in that moment to be alone. If he'd had the courage, he would have gone up to that small room on the third floor, the former nursery, and he would have driven a dagger through his father's heart, just to silence the voice of the demon.

But William Swift had never been quite that brave.

NIGEL TOWNSEND CROUCHED over the map of ashes he and Tamara had magically created on the floor of the study. The wax-encased apple seed that was such a vital part of the spell moved swiftly across the ashen map of London. Farris muttered several times in amazement as the waxen seed floated a fraction of an inch above the floor, and made its way along streets and through squares on the map. The ashes were dark gray, almost black, but they shone with a glimmer that came not from the lamp and firelight in the room, but from the magic imbued in them.

Nigel silently admired Farris's loyalty to the Swifts, but he would have thought after all the man had seen that something so simple as this would fail to astound him.

When the seed paused, and seemed to hover near the River Thames, Tamara smiled that beatific smile of hers, pushed back the stray lock of hair that was forever her bane, and clapped her hands like the little girl she'd once been.

"Oh, well done," she said. "I'd say Tipu Gupta is still in the land of the living after all. What a relief. At the London Docks, from the looks of it. If we get down there quickly enough, I'd wager we'll have no trouble locating him."

Nigel nodded, but with some hesitation. "Indeed. And perhaps we'll get some answers, as well. The docks are the threshold to Wapping and Shadwell."

Tamara frowned, standing up straight and twirling that lock of hair around one finger in nervous contemplation.

"Yes. I'd thought of that as well. A great many things have become clear to me just lately. The archaeologist, Carstairs, was transformed into one of these reptile men, just as so many others have been. In each case, it seems proximity to one of the statuettes that Carstairs smuggled into England from India is to blame. The statuettes themselves may be cursed, but there is a greater pattern to all of this.

"And what of the Indian men who have been plagued by this curse, then transformed? Surely they weren't wealthy enough to buy the statuettes from Carstairs. It's possible they may have been sailors for the East India Company, but living in those slums . . . it seems unlikely.

"Could it be that the accursed icons were purposely given into the possession of certain men, such as the earl of Claridge; that they were actually targeted by this plague? The magic and the demons involved are all of Indian origin. When we count in the defilement at St. Paul's, it seems to suggest some sort of malicious intent, perhaps, due to the very act of smuggling sacred relics out of India through illegal means."

Nigel ran his tongue over his pointed teeth. His skin was cold. It was always cold, but this night it seemed a deeper chill had settled into his bones.

"Then the thefts from museums and such might be our enemy stealing back the smuggled relics," he suggested.


Farris coughed into his fist. His eyes averted, he shrugged. "If you'll excuse me, miss?"

"Yes, Farris?"

"Well, it's only that, if it's some magical bloke from Calcutta or Bombay behind all this, why curse his own, like? From what we've seen, there are a lot more Hindu types turned into these scaly fellows than there have been Englishmen. And the women . . . well, the ones who've gone through the horror of all this, having been got at by the cursed ones and giving birth to . . . it'd be a terrible thing to curse yer own people with something like that, don't you think?"

Nigel saw something behind the girl's eyes, then. A shadow made of sorrow and dark knowledge. It pained him to see how much of her innocence was gone.

"You're right, Farris. It is a terrible thing. But it seems the only answer, at least for the moment. We are dealing not only with cruelty and hatred here, but with madness." Tamara set her lips in a grim line. "I cannot imagine how it must be to live in a conquered land, to see its riches despoiled, and to know its people must bow to the will of foreign rule. Perhaps madness and hatred are a natural response. But not evil. Not this."

Silence swallowed the room a moment before Nigel sundered it.

"It may be that our enemy has even grander plans. Dare I say it, but Farris is correct. Why curse your own people without reason? Whatever black sorcerer stands against us, he has done nothing without purpose thus far, and I can only imagine there is purpose to that aspect of the plague, as well. The toads are the eyes of our enemy, or so we've come to believe. The Rakshasa his servants. But the accursed ones certainly must serve his dark cause. Might it be simply a question of numbers? Could his plan require far more of the creatures than the curse of those relics can quickly create?"

Tamara nodded. "There's logic there. But to what end?"

"I'm afraid to hear the answer to that," Farris grunted.

"We'll have it soon enough," Tamara said, gesturing toward the ashen map once more, to the white waxed seed that trembled above the London Docks.

Nigel glanced down at the map, and a deep frown creased his brow.

"What's this, then?" He scowled.

The apple seed was moving again. Swiftly.

"Oh, my," Tamara said. "Magic propelled it before, but if it's tracing Gupta's movements now, he is moving awfully quickly for an old man."

"Too quickly to be on foot," Nigel observed, as the waxen seed raced away from the docks.

"Almost too quickly even to be in a carriage," Farris added.

"He must be in trouble. In the grasp of our sorcerer, I'll wager!" Tamara cried. With an air of command that came over her at such times, a confidence and courage worthy of the Protector of Albion, she threw wide her arms and lifted her chin. The candlelight cast lovely shadows upon her face.

"Lord Nelson, I need you now!" she called into the dark corners of the study, into the spectral world that existed side by side with that of the flesh. When formally summoned by the Protector, the ghosts of Albion would always hear, and appear.

A moment later, a phantom light shimmered in the corner of the room and the spirit of Horatio Nelson appeared, still clad in the uniform of the navy and with one sleeve pinned to his jacket where his arm had once been.

"You speak my name, and here I am," Horatio announced, chin raised. "Horatio Nelson reporting for duty, my dear."

"You must hurry, Horatio," Tamara began, and with a gesture and an intense gleam in her eyes, she gestured to the magical map on the floor and explained its function. "Here we have a map that shows the location of our quarry. You must go after Tipu Gupta. Follow him if you can. I'd translocate there myself this instant, but I don't think I'd be able to transport Nigel, as well, and I don't think it wise for me to go alone."

Nelson nodded gravely. "Yes, of course. I'll go straightaway. But what of young William? Why can he not accompany you?"

Tamara arched an eyebrow and glanced at Nigel before replying. "My brother is off to his affair at that gentlemen's club this evening. It's up to me to locate the Protector of Bharath, and I'm perfectly capable of accomplishing the task. At the moment, however, it looks as if Mr. Gupta may have run into trouble. Let's make certain he survives the night, shall we?"

Nigel smiled. She was headstrong, but he could not help admiring her. "Let's see we all survive the night, if you don't mind."

A THICK YELLOW mist rolled along Shadwell Street, cloaking the crumbling buildings and hiding away a thousand nightly crimes. Nelson was as insubstantial as the mist itself as he appeared on a street corner. He had never entirely approved of Nigel's presence in the Swifts' inner circle, but he supposed the fiend had proven himself loyal enough. The two men had unpleasant history together. But the admiral would never have allowed his personal feelings to interfere with his sworn duty to Albion.

The ghost glanced quickly around to get his bearings. He was quite a distance from the river, here, though he could hear the tinkle of distant bells and thought, if he peered intently through the fog, that he could see a billowing white purer than the mist, a cloud that might well have been the sails of ships upon the Thames. And he was sure he could hear the flap of canvas, even from here. The sound brought a profound melancholy to his heart, for there was nothing Horatio missed more of life than the open sea, and the rush of wind in the sails.

There were plenty of sailors living in the hovels of Shadwell district, but this wasn't the sort of place Lord Nelson had frequented while still alive. He started east through the mist-the direction Gupta seemed to have been moving-and quickly passed through some of the iniquity that seemed drawn to such places, or bred there. A pair of harlots, likely prostitutes, wailed as they clawed at each other, beating and scratching and then tumbling into the gutter where they rolled around, locked in bloody combat like wild animals. Dirty beggar children appeared out of the damp fog like ghosts themselves, sad-eyed creatures who watched the proceedings as though their hearts and minds had gone numb . . . which Nelson presumed they had indeed, long ago.

And the men . . . Nelson could barely stand to see the gin-soaked, grizzled shades of humanity dressed in rags and asleep in doorways. Their clothes and faces were layered in months of grime, and one in particular had open sores upon his face and a mouth left open and drooling.

Better to be dead, Horatio thought. Far better.

Sounds of another skirmish drifted from the mist ahead, and he rushed along the street, invisible to the eyes of the living. Harsh, dissonant music rose from the cellar of a small inn as he passed, but all his attention was focused on the noise ahead, for there was a horrid, bestial snuffling that mingled with the groaning of a man in pain.

As he passed a row of shuttered shops, the wind shifted and the mist parted just long enough for him to get a glimpse of his quarry. The very essence of Nelson's spirit shuddered at the sight of the malformed, reptilian creatures that had once been ordinary men. He thought of his feeling a moment earlier, that it would be better to be dead than to be one of the filthy lost souls in the alleys of Shadwell, and knew that even those wretches were better off than these, whose flesh-and perhaps even souls-had been so twisted by evil.

They shuffled along with that peculiar gait of theirs, something between a dart and a hop, and one of them bore a white-haired, copper-skinned figure over its shoulder. That could only have been Tipu Gupta. There was blood on the man's face and spattered in his hair.

The devils! Horatio thought.

But as he gave chase, the mist enveloped the creatures again. The ghost of Lord Nelson drew his spectral sword and raced after them, wishing that the fact of his death allowed him some special perception here in the world of the living. There were advantages to being dead, but that was not among them.

Only moments passed before the wind cleared the mist away again, but his quarry had disappeared. The ghost paused, frustrated, and stared along the street ahead. Off to his right lay the entry to a narrow alley. Behind what appeared to be a rooming house stood a warehouse so vast that it disappeared into the darkness and the fog. As he peered in that direction, there came a creaking noise and a thump of wood upon wood, followed by a clanging as of metal chains.

"It must be," Nelson whispered to himself.

The air seemed to tremble around him, and even as another cloud of mist began to roll in he felt the presence of another ghost. Almost at the same moment, a voice reached him.

"Admiral," it said.

Horatio spun around in alarm, sword at the ready, but he lowered the blade when he found the ghost of Colonel Dunstan materializing just behind him. Dunstan wore a grim, disapproving look on his face. Though the mist passed right through him, along with the sickly yellow light from the lanterns of Shadwell Street, still the ghost's expression was clear.

"Two visits to the East End in one day. I'm pleased to see the so-called Protectors of Albion have finally taken an interest in what's happening in the less savory corners of London," Dunstan said.

Lord Nelson scoffed, and then added a scowl for good measure. When he spoke, it was a harsh whisper that came from him, though none of the living could have heard him unless he desired it.

"Now, see here, Colonel. I told you before that I do not appreciate your insinuations, and I'll have an end to them now, or I shall take it as a personal insult. It may be unfortunate that the sinister goings-on in this neighborhood came so late to the attentions of the Protectors, but that is no blemish upon their honor or the purity of their intentions. Now that they are aware of the situation, they are acting to remedy it with alacrity."

Dunstan hesitated. His handsome features were still cut into a frown, but after a moment he nodded. "I'll allow I may have rushed to judgment, Admiral. And if the Swifts are acting as you say, I shall give them the benefit of the doubt. But I'm afraid Kali's Children will not wait-"

"Kali's . . . I'm sorry, who are-"

"The transformed men. They bear a curse made in the name of the goddess. Their lives and souls are hers now. Whoever commands them in Kali's name, whatever master they serve, the monsters will slay the Protector of Bharath as soon as they have all gathered. And if that warehouse is their lair, the old bloke is as good as dead if we don't stop them now. We cannot wait for your Miss Swift, I'm afraid."

Nelson did not appreciate the colonel's tone. Though he maintained that he was no longer truly an admiral himself, merely another soldier in the eternal war between the light and the darkness, he would not be ordered about by a man he had outranked. Dunstan wasn't even a naval man!

Yet the logic was sound, and what truly mattered was the crisis at hand.

"You're right, of course," he said, turning the blade of his sword toward the narrow, dirty alley. "With me, then, Colonel. We must save Gupta, at all costs, for it seems certain our answers lie with him."

"Lead on, Admiral," Dunstan replied.

Their forms little more than mist within mist, they rushed across the street and down the alley.

The windows of the rooming house were open and shouting could be heard from an upper floor. Beneath that, the subtler, primal sounds of sexual congress came from a grime-encrusted basement window. They ignored all these signs of life, for it was death that concerned them now.

Horatio and Dunstan reached the warehouse and passed, insubstantial, through the outer wall.

Inside, the monsters were waiting.

THE CARRIAGE CLATTERED along cobbled streets at dangerous speeds. As the horses galloped along Swain's Lane through Highgate Cemetery, Tamara sat forward, hands clutching the edge of her seat.

Nigel was beside her, and she could feel the darkness and the power radiating from him. He wasn't merely tense with anxiety and curiosity, but hungry in anticipation of violence. Nigel was darkly handsome, and his lusts for the pleasures of the flesh were eclipsed only by those of Byron himself. He had no trouble convincing the trollops in the pubs he frequented to let him suckle at their breasts or throats, and prick them with his teeth just enough to taste of their blood. He would not kill them, only take what was freely given.

And not always of trollops. Often enough, from what Tamara had heard and surmised, he was given such a gift from a lady or a maiden. Some of her own friends, upon meeting Nigel at Ludlow House, had spoken of their intense admiration for him, of the man's magnetism.

But this night, a different kind of lust was upon him. Not carnal lust, or bloodlust, but the hunger for battle. Once upon a time Nigel Townsend had been touched by evil, and it had tainted him ever since. It had been the temptation that led to the death of the only woman he had ever loved, and forever stained his friendship with Ludlow Swift. Nigel hated what he was, and though he posed as a reluctant fighter-even a coward at times-he relished any opportunity to turn his hatred outward.

Tamara knew him better than anyone, but she was keenly aware that even she knew very little of his life before he had come to London. He rarely even hinted at his own past, and she dared not ask. Someday, she would have the courage, she would find the moment.

But this was not the time.

"Can't the bloody horses go any faster?" Nigel called.

Farris was up on his seat at the front of the carriage, holding the reins. They could not see him, and he didn't bother to slide open the wooden panel that would allow him to address them directly. He did not respond at all, in fact.

"I'm sure he's driving them as fast as he dares," Tamara said.

"Perhaps he ought to be more daring, then," Nigel replied curtly.

She shot him a withering glare. "Farris is one of the bravest men I've ever encountered. And as he still must draw breath . . . as his heart must continue to beat for him to live . . . I'd say he has quite a bit more to lose than you do, Nigel. Caution should not be confused with stupidity."

The vampire seemed about to argue. He had the telltale gleam in his eyes. But then he only smiled, and reached out to pat her hand.

"Of course, Tamara."

"Don't patronize me!" she snapped.

Nigel scowled. "I wouldn't dare. I merely acquiesce to your greater wisdom."

She wasn't sure if he was mocking her, but before she could admonish him further, the horses whinnied loudly, and Farris shouted something she could not hear. The carriage swung to one side as they started to turn, and in that moment there came a melodious trill. A ghost began to coalesce in front of them.

Bodicea was meant to be guarding her father, so Tamara expected Horatio, or perhaps Byron. Instead it was the spirit of Colonel Dunstan who now manifested before her.

"Miss Swift," the ghost began. "I bring dark tidings. Admiral Nelson and I located the lair of Kali's Children . . . the cursed men who have been involved in such unpleasant deeds. But the creatures were waiting for us . . . not only they, but demons as well, Rakshasa summoned by the same master. I am . . ."

The ghost straightened up, as though reporting to a superior officer, but his expression was grim.

"I am sorry to report that in our effort to free the Protector of Bharath, Admiral Nelson has also been taken captive."

"What?" Nigel snapped, eyes narrowing. His upper lip pulled back, revealing his fangs. "But Nelson's a ghost! Those things could hardly keep hold of him for very long."

Dunstan's eyes darkened. "There are greater powers at work here, vampire, than you know. A ghost cannot die, but a soul can be ruined. Tainted. Destroyed."

The words were like needles in Tamara's heart. "Oh, no, Horatio," she whispered. And then it was her turn to shout to Farris-to speed the horses, and caution be damned.

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