Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen


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William Swift's mind was racing as he led Sophia up the stairs to the second floor of Ludlow House. Several times he glanced down at her, to find her gazing at him with a weighty sense of expectation that was quite unlike her.

William raised the lantern he carried, dispelling the gloom at the top of the stairs, and reached back to take her by the hand. Sophia smiled wanly, eyes searching his. He turned away quickly, and wondered why he had done so. With her hand in his, he continued down the long second-floor corridor, and turned to the right into another hall that led into the eastern wing of Ludlow House. There was a library along this hall, as well as a music room that had gathered dust ever since his mother's death, so very long ago. And there were several guest rooms that in recent times had housed only the ghosts.

The feel of her hand in his brought a warmth to his heart, a spark of light in the shadow that had fallen over his mind of late. Despite her contentious relationship with Tamara, William saw in Sophia a strength and confidence that he admired greatly. She was intelligent and straightforward, beautiful and graceful. It bewildered him that the two women in his life could not see how much they had in common, and he hoped that one day that realization would make them, if not friends, at least allies.

Yet he also required certain things of Sophia. First among them was that she understand that while he would give her all of his heart, he could not abandon his other responsibilities simply to assuage her fears. He would comfort her as best he could, but she must have courage as well.

They had walked in contemplative silence, then he released her hand so that he could open the door to the bedchamber. He turned the knob and pushed the door inward. Holding the lamp high, he preceded her into the room.

"Oh," he said instantly, brow furrowing, "it's a bit musty in here, isn't it? Stuffy and warm."

He set the lamp down on the dresser, and went immediately to open a window, sliding it up several inches. A cool breeze swept in. "If you get too cold, you can always close it, but it'll do a world of good to get some fresh air into this room. You'll forgive me, I hope. We haven't been able to keep the house properly staffed since grandfather died. And we weren't expecting company."

As he said this last he turned to face Sophia and found her still standing just inside the room, hugging herself and studying him. The plea that had been in her eyes was gone, replaced by a quizzical expression.

"You don't want me here," she said. Her voice was flat.

William faltered. He felt the chilly air flow around him, and the vastness of the house seemed to represent a distance that separated him from his beloved.

"What do you mean?" He tried to sound reassuring, but it came out false, even to him. "That's ridiculous. I always want you with me. Had I my own way, you would never leave my side.

"It's only that-"

He took a deep breath, and found himself struggling to find the words to continue. How could he explain the things that weighed on him, without adding to her hurt? How best to make her understand?

"Oh, no, William," Sophia said, showing such sadness that it pressed upon his spirit.

"What is it, my darling?"

She hugged herself more tightly. "I can read your face, Mr. Swift. I know you. You are trying to find a way to be diplomatic, to hide from me your true feelings, or to soften them in some way that will make them seem less harsh."

He had nothing to say, for that was precisely what he had been doing.

Sophia waited a moment for his answer, then shuddered with a sigh. "If there is any hope for a future between us, you must dispense with such behaviors. There must be no secrets, no hidden agendas, no sweet lies that cause us to be dishonest with each other."

The lamplight flickered across the canopied bed, and the mirror above the dresser gleamed with its illumination. The shadows in the corners seemed to thirst for that light. Outside the open door, the corridor was dark, but the gloom did not trouble William. This had been his home for his entire life. He knew every creak and corner. They were safe here.

And suddenly he understood why Sophia did not want to be at her home. When she had heard the rumors of the spread of the plague, she had become frightened indeed, and she knew as well as William himself that there was true evil in the world. It was only logical that if something evil had come to London, she would want to be here, with the very people meant to protect all of England from that evil.

But there was more to it than that, William realized. Something more profound. At the Winchell estate, there were only servants. Sophia had no family at home. William was the closest thing to family that she had.

No secrets, she had said.

"Of course, my darling-"

"And," she interrupted, "I hope we never again stand alone in a bedchamber with such a gulf separating us."

A soft smile came to his lips, and he felt a kind of relief washing through him, as though a dam had broken. He nodded as he strode toward her.

"I share that hope with all my heart."

Sophia gnawed her lower lip in a way that was both charming and alluring, but also silently heartbreaking. She wasn't as strong as she liked the world to believe. When William reached for her hands, she threw her arms around him and embraced him with such vigor that all the breath was squeezed from his lungs.

Softly he touched her hair, and then bent to kiss her forehead.

"I am glad that you came. Even with your servants there, you are alone in your house. There is no family there, no one to hold you or tell you that all will be well."

He clasped her forearms and gently moved her back a pace, so that he could look directly into her eyes . . . so that she could see how serious he was.

"One day soon, I hope that you will join me here at Ludlow House, as my bride. And yet I confess that even that joy fills me with a certain trepidation. You know the duties Tamara and I have inherited. They place us-and all of those around us-in constant peril. Even within our own walls there are-"

"I can take care of myself, William. I am perfectly capable," she said crisply. The Sophia he knew and loved was coming again to the fore.

"Yes," he said, tightening his grip upon her wrists. "You are a formidable woman. But you must understand me. Though you may feel safer in this house, here in my presence, that may be only an illusion. Much of the world is illusion, Sophia, and willingly surrendering to such a pleasant mirage can be dangerous."

She pulled one hand loose and reached up to caress his face, running her fingers lightly across his cheek and touching his lips to silence him.

"You fear for me," Sophia said, her eyes crinkling now with affection. She paused a moment, and nodded as though to herself. "You worry that with all the troubles clamoring for your attention, both natural and supernatural, you will not be able to protect me."

William nodded.

Sophia let her hand drop to his shoulder, and pulled the other one free, then moved closer, pushing her body against his, cleaving to him, molding herself to him in a way that was unspeakably delicious. She gazed up at him, yet there was none of the playfulness that had accompanied earlier attempts to tease or seduce him.

She wore a mask of propriety in public, and beneath that William had seen a more playful persona, of the temptress. This was an entirely new face, and he felt as if it was the most truthful.

"You will do all that you can, William," she said, her voice low, a grave sincerity there and in her eyes. "As you have done thus far. My life has been in your hands before, and I have survived. From the time I discovered the life that you and your sister lead, I knew that there was danger involved-that I would find myself in the presence of evil. Something of that, I confess, is enticing. You and Tamara are involved in a grand conflict, and the nobility of it would have captured my heart, even if the boy who gave me my first dance had not already done so years ago."

William was taken aback by this confession. A smile came unbidden to him, and he even uttered a small chuckle.

"So long ago? Sophia, we barely knew each other then. It's only little more than a year since that party at the Hartwells', when we bumped into each other-"

She glanced down shyly. "Are you really that blind, sir? Well, I suppose men often are. Let me confess that our renewed acquaintance was hardly that casual. You might even say I arranged the entire thing, and had been wanting to do so ever since that first dance.

"I have acted the coquette, William, and invited the advances of other men who wished to court me. I have said cruel things to you, but it has all been to protect myself, to hide from you just how many of my hopes I have wagered on you. You have held my heart and my dreams in your hands for years, William Swift, though you never knew."

"We were just children," William said, amazed.

"Yes, but we're not children anymore."

Sophia reached up and undid the simple knot that kept her hair pinned. She let it cascade across her neck and shoulders. She shook it out, even as she touched William's face again.

"So, you see, I have only two choices. I can live a mundane life of shallow society parties, inventing new ways to spend my inheritance. Then, certainly, I would be safe. Or I can pursue the dream born of that little girl whose toes you once stepped on while trying to dance, and cherish every day of our courtship. Then become your bride, despite whatever dangers I may face at your side."

She laid her cheek upon his shoulder.

"I think I'll risk it," she murmured, "and thank God for the chance."

Sophia tilted her head back to meet his eyes again. "So now I have exposed myself to you fully, William. I have put my heart at your mercy."

He gazed down at her, and for a moment he could neither speak nor breathe. It wasn't the elegance of her features that so paralyzed him, however, but the openness and vulnerability of the light that shone in her eyes.

And it terrified him. William wanted Sophia beside him forever, wanted her to marry him and for them to fill Ludlow House with the laughter of family, of children, in a way it had not been for so very long. But now that she had revealed the depth of her love for him, he feared for her more than ever. Sophia had said this had always been her dream, and it was his as well. Yet it would not be a simple dream to fulfill.

"Your courage astounds me," he whispered.

Sophia smiled. "It is a reflection of your own. You give me faith."

William could not help himself. He pushed his fingers through her hair and stroked her face, and instead of stepping back from her for propriety's sake, he pressed himself against her.

If he had any hope of an ordinary life, it would require a woman of rare spirit. How had he had the fortune to discover such a woman as this, who loved him to distraction, just as he loved her?

"You are all I ever wished for," William rasped, voice thick with emotion.

Sophia slid her fingers behind his neck and drew him down to kiss her. William's chest ached as he surrendered. Their lips met tentatively at first, brushing gentle and moist. Then they kissed in earnest.

Her hands slid down his back. William cupped the back of her head with one hand and with the other he traced light lines upon her upper arm. Their tongues danced together playfully and for a moment they separated, foreheads pressed together, laughing softly. The smile on Sophia's face in that moment was a reminder of the little girl he had danced with so long ago, and he fell in love all over again.

He kissed her again, blood rushing through him, the heat of arousal turning into a blazing fire. Sophia took his right hand and placed it upon her breast. The hard material of her dress and the corset beneath were rough to the touch, but his thumb and first finger lay upon the soft and tender skin that was not covered by her clothing. In what little part of her breast was revealed he could feel her pulse, feel the warmth that flushed her.

Mustering all his strength, William stepped away.

"No," Sophia whispered, and she caught her breath as she reached out to take both his hands in hers.

"I . . . they'll be wondering what is taking me so long."

Sophia went to the door and closed it. "Let them wonder," she said, returning to him.

He shook his head. "If I stay, we both know what will happen."

Sophia smiled. "Yes. We do."

"And the desire rages in me like nothing I have ever felt. It is an ache so deep that it brings real pain. I wish this were our wedding night, Sophia, but it is not. It would be a disservice to you if I-"

She laughed, but there was only love in it. She pulled him close again, pressing herself against him.

"Quite the opposite, in fact."

This time, she was the one who stepped away. She reached behind her head and began to unbutton her dress.

"Now, you listen to me, William Swift. This may not be our wedding night, but one day soon I will be your wife. I care not a whit for the proper order of things."

The dress slid to the floor, crumpling around her ankles, and she stepped out of it.

William watched, entranced, his breath coming in shallow gasps. The lamplight flickered across Sophia's face and her pale skin as her loveliness was revealed to him in full for the first time. One by one her undergarments were shed until at last she stood before him, entirely nude.

The curve of her hip made his breath catch in his throat. The revelation of her. He felt a hunger like nothing he'd ever known.

"Now," she whispered, walking toward him. "I have burned for you all this time. And if I wait another day, another hour, I fear the fire will consume me."

"Oh, my God, Sophia," William said.

It was all he could manage. He took her in his arms, his hands exploring her, caressing every soft curve of her. She guided him, and he found her slick and warm. One finger slipped into her, and then Sophia's knees went weak. She collapsed against him.

William lifted her up and carried her to the bed. He laid her there and she watched, an angelic smile upon her face, there in the lamplight, as he removed his own clothes. There was no more hesitation in him now. Nothing he had done in his life had ever felt as purely true and right as this.

When he went to her she stopped him at the edge of the bed.

"I just want to look at you," she said.

But that was a lie, for her hands caressed his chest, her fingers running all over him. The chill breeze from the open window made him shiver, but her touch was warm. His arousal was so complete that it hurt him, and when she slid her hands over his prick it leaped at her touch. It seemed as if every nerve ending in his body had clustered there.

"Now come to me," Sophia said, and she gazed up at him as he slipped onto the bed.

At first he lay beside her. He kissed her deeply, stroking her face and hair and soft, pale breasts. His tongue made small circles around her dark nipples, hard and quivering, and again his fingers slid inside her, then caressed the slippery folds of her sex.

Their kisses grew more fevered, and Sophia lay back, her hair fallen around her, framing her face. The lamplight danced, and he shook his head in amazement as he gazed upon her beauty, as he looked into her eyes and saw there everything he had ever hoped to see. All other responsibilities, all other duties, were secondary in that moment.

Forgotten.

Once again her fingers wound about his pego, taking him in her grip. She guided him between her legs and as he thrust forward, pushing into her, she shuddered with pleasure and began to whimper, the edges of her mouth lifting in a smile of gratification, of fulfillment long delayed.

He took her in long, slow strokes and she drew her fingernails down his back and wrapped her legs around him, quivering anew with each thrust. William felt as though his entire being were focused at the point where their bodies met. The moist heat of her flesh gave way to him and now the twin fires that had so long been stoked within each of them were joined in a single exultant blaze.

BY THE LIGHT of oil lamps and the blaze of crackling flames in the fireplace, Tamara and Nigel Townsend sat in the library of Ludlow House poring through ancient texts her grandfather had collected throughout his life. Most of them had been stored among his personal possessions; others he had given over to Nigel for safekeeping, or stored in secret caches throughout the city. Since his death, they had gathered as much of his collection of Arcanum as possible into this room.

When Bodicea had delivered word that the Swifts needed his help, Nigel had come far more quickly than Tamara would have expected. In truth, it troubled her. For him to respond thus, he must have felt that the crisis they were facing was even more perilous than she had imagined.

Having summoned their ally, Bodicea had been restless, but there was no new task for her. It was difficult for ghosts to grasp physical objects, so even the turning of the pages of a book proved a significant effort. Thus, Tamara had asked the queen to relieve Byron at last of the job of standing guard over Oblis. This left her alone with Nigel. Once upon a time, that would have been unthinkable.

In the aftermath of their grandfather's death, Ludlow House had been overrun by supernatural creatures. Tamara and her brother had been in desperate need of a safe haven.

Nigel Townsend had at one time been an apprentice to Ludlow Swift, learning from their grandfather the trade of the magician. Tamara and William were aware, of course, that a rift of some sort had come between the two men. Indeed, Nigel had been largely missing from their lives for quite some time. But after Ludlow's death, Nigel had been one of the first people they'd considered going to. And the ghosts concurred.

Nigel had accepted the Swifts into his home, and had taught the fledgling sorcerers what magic he could. He had some small sorceries at his disposal, but he knew that the Protectors of Albion would most require guidance, and time to study. For their power was innate.

So Nigel had given them access to his occult library, had offered a place to sleep, and had fed them. And one night he had appeared in the shadows of the guest room he had provided for Tamara. At first he had attempted to seduce her, and then to taste her blood.

Nigel Townsend was, of course, a vampire.

The resultant horror and fury had led to a brief conflict, and the severing of their relationship with Nigel. The Swifts had even considered that Townsend might have been in league with the forces of darkness. But the truth was that Tamara had never believed that. Not for a moment.

Even during the time of their estrangement, her grandfather had spoken admiringly of his old friend. And Townsend had seemed genuinely forlorn when he had learned of Ludlow's death.

And that night when Nigel had visited her so secretly in her bedchamber . . . in her heart she knew that he ought not to bear the blame entirely. There had been a magnetism between them from the moment she had entered his home, and she had relished his attentions. Not that she had intended to take that attraction any farther. She was quite young, even naIve, and Nigel was far older even than she had known, and more than worldly.

She had not resisted when he went to kiss her. Not really.

But had she known he was a vampire . . . known that his supernatural bloodlust might drive him to do something terrible . . .

Nevertheless, while all of the others had been swearing vengeance against Townsend, Tamara had sought only to discover his true nature. For she believed that at heart he was the man her grandfather had called friend and ally; that he would be a defender of Albion, rather than one of its enemies. In the end, her instinct had proven correct. Nigel made amends, and a peace was struck in time for all of them to band together for the common good.

Nigel spent many a night at Ludlow House. He often helped to watch over the possessed Henry Swift. The vampire had proven himself their ally on several other occasions. But he and Tamara had never again spoken of that night in her bedchamber.

"Tamara," he said, that deep, honey-sweet voice snapping her from her reverie. "Are we keeping you from something?"

She blinked, cheeks flushing warmly, and smiled at him.

"Not at all. Sorry. I was a bit lost for a moment there. I'm afraid I'm not very used to fighting an enemy I cannot see. It's damnably frustrating, isn't it? To have had so much darkness spread through the city, almost under our noses, and to be no closer to solving the puzzle than we were at the start."

Nigel frowned, his face etched with the same dignity and nobility she had always admired. Beneath his roguish exterior, these qualities were what had allowed her to retain faith in him when others would not. He was handsome in his own way, his features bespeaking origins in northern Africa, perhaps Egypt, though he never spoke of such things. But it was the strength of character, the sincerity of his eyes, that led her to trust him.

"We are closer," he assured her. "Much closer. We know, at the least, what we are facing. Now we must discover who is responsible, and what they hope to achieve with all this horror, the spreading of this plague, the theft of Indian icons and the vandalism of the tombs in St. Paul's. Our enemy originates from India, of that much we can be reasonably certain. And the best way to find the answers we seek, to at last confront the evil directly, is to recruit the assistance of the Protector of Bharath."

Tamara nodded. "I believe he's already provided some assistance, and may be in need of it himself."

"Either way," Nigel replied. "Whatever he knows, we need to know. There are many pieces to this puzzle, and it seems as if we are missing the largest of them. Perhaps William will discover something useful at the Algernon Club. But I think our best chance is to . . ."

The vampire frowned. "Where is William? It's taking him an awfully long time to dress."

Tamara smiled mischievously. "Sophia arrived some time ago. Apparently the news of the plague has frightened her so much that she had to seek solace. I'm quite certain I don't know what's become of him since."

Nigel raised both eyebrows, and a twinkle appeared in his eyes. "I do so love to see the righteous brought low."

"Yes, indeed. He won't be chastening me for quite some time, I'll wager." Tamara laughed softly.

"All right, back to work, then. We've still got a great deal to do," Nigel reminded her.

A squat, powerful figure appeared in the open door of the library. Tamara twisted around, catching a glimpse of the figure in her peripheral vision, and saw that it was Farris, carrying a heavy iron pot in front of him. A vague, burned smell emanated from it.

"Yes, well," the butler sniffed, "p'raps if certain people would quit flappin' their gums, we'd make more progress."

Tamara's eyes went wide. "Farris!"

Nigel only smiled. "Ah, well, even a little garden snake has fangs. You don't like me much at all, do you, Mr. Farris?"

"Can't say I do, sir. Where I was raised, you get a leech attached to your skin, you've got to burn it off. Never believed in all the stories about your sort, but nothin' I've heard makes me want to trust a vampire."

With that Farris fell silent, and Nigel turned away. In his hands, he held the figure of Vishnu and the serpent that Tipu Gupta had once given Ludlow Swift, Protector of Bharath to Protector of Albion. He studied it now. By the light of tall white candles, he gazed at every facet of the arcane object, and for a moment it seemed as if he hadn't even noticed Farris's insult.

Tamara stared at her butler, this man who worked for her, but who had also become a friend to herself and her brother. She tried to put all her surprise and disapproval into her gaze, but Farris steadfastly refused to meet her eyes. Instead he stubbornly stared at Nigel, awaiting some response.

The silence in the room was palpable. This was the very library where she and William had spent long days and nights, poring over every volume of supernatural lore and occult instruction they could lay hands upon, trying to teach themselves mastery over the powers they had inherited.

Those had been terrifying times, and yet they had also been among the most exciting, the most tangibly real days of her life, for in that time Tamara had realized that in some horrifying way, a dream had come true for her. She had always believed herself destined for a life beyond the constraints of society. Something of consequence. She had received all she had desired, and learned to fear it, as well.

"Farris-" she began.

"You know, Tamara," Nigel interrupted, still examining the talisman. "I have endured the doubts and suspicions, even the animosity of your brother and your ghostly confidants, because despite outward appearances I do have a certain respect for them."

He picked up one of the white candles and angled it so that its dripping wax fell onto the bronze figure of Vishnu, cooling quickly and hardening in place.

"I will not, however, allow myself to be denigrated by the help." The vampire sneered, his eyes going crimson in the gloom, and his fangs glistening in the candlelight. "So you'd best rein in this yapping dog of a servant . . . that is, if you wish to continue to enjoy his services."

Farris's face grew ruddy with anger, and he took several more steps into the room with that cast-iron pot in his hands.

"Now, see here!" he began.

"That will be enough, Farris!" Tamara snapped, silencing the man immediately. He had the good sense to look chastened, but she could practically see steam rising from his ears.

Tamara pushed away the books she had been searching through and stood up from the study desk. Atop it stood a bronze lion William had once accidentally brought to life. Such amusing times were a distant memory at the moment, however. She picked up an apple that sat on the edge of the desk and opened and closed her fingers around it; then she crossed her arms and regarded them both.

"Why men run this world is a mystery for the ages," she said. A lock of hair had fallen across her eyes, and she blew it away with a puff of breath. "Nigel, you know well how staunch an ally Farris has proven since we first engaged him as our butler here at Ludlow House. He is as much a part of our crusade to defend Albion as any of us. He never shirks a fight, and has shown unmatched courage in the face of terrors that would have made lesser men soil their drawers and bawl like infants."

Farris stood a bit taller, lifting his chin proudly.

"And you, my friend," she continued, casting a harsh glance toward her butler. "Mr. Townsend combats an affliction, but he has acquitted himself admirably as our ally in the past. Regardless of what mutterings you might hear issuing from my brother's mouth, or your own superstitions, he would risk his life for yours simply because we are all allies in this struggle. Whatever prejudices you have, you must rise above them, or you are of no use to me."

Nigel raised an eyebrow and regarded her carefully for a long moment, then turned to Farris.

"Well, bring it here, then. We shall see if your household skills extend to the kitchen."

Farris hesitated only a moment. Clearly Nigel's jest did not sit well with him. Then the butler looked at Tamara, nodded once, and strode to the desk she had so recently vacated. He set the iron pot down upon the wood, paying little heed to whether it might scorch the surface.

"I did just as you asked," he informed them both, gesturing into the pot. "Several branches from a yew tree, a spool of white yarn, three red ribbons, and . . ." He looked a bit regretful, and shot another glance at Tamara. "A photograph of the late Sir Ludlow Swift."

Tamara peered into the pot. There was no trace of the ingredients Farris had just described. He had set them on fire inside that iron vessel and let it sit upon the stove as they burned. All that remained was a substantial amount of dark gray ash.

"All right," Nigel allowed. "Now, Tamara. The apple, please?"

She picked up a small, sharp knife from the desktop, and plunged it into the fruit. The smell of it was pungent and delicious as its juice slid down the skin, making her fingers sticky. Tamara glanced at Nigel, who was continuing to coat Gupta's Vishnu talisman, rolling the candle between his fingers and letting the melted wax drop onto the arcane artifact.

"Only one seed?" she asked. "Are you sure about that?"

"We seek one man. Therefore, only one seed," Nigel confirmed. "The talisman is linked eternally to Gupta by his previous possession, and the link between your grandfather and the Protector of Bharath was strong. We're simply going to follow it."

"So you've said," Tamara replied, "though it still seems difficult to visualize."

Nigel smiled. "Let's stop trying, then."

He set the candlestick down and held out his free hand to Tamara. She used the tip of the knife to pry a single seed from within the apple. Nigel glanced at Farris and the pot of ashes, then looked back at Tamara.

"You're the real magician here, Tamara. Prepare the map, please."

With a nod, she turned to Farris. "Would you mind spreading that on the floor?"

"On the . . . ?" The man looked stupefied.

"Yes, yes," Tamara said, hurrying him with a gesture. "There, where we've cleared a space. Right upon the wood. Don't worry about embers. I can put a fire out fairly quickly, if I have to. Just spread it out into a square or a rectangle, as large as you can without spreading it too thin."

As Farris did so, she set the sliced apple on the desktop, and began to reach for the book she had last held, only to pause as she realized how sticky her fingers still were from the fruit. Tamara glanced around for something to clean them and, seeing nothing, began to lick them.

A flash of memory went through her mind, of the way she had debased herself with John Haversham. In the same moment this memory brought an embarrassing flush to her cheeks and a rush of arousal. Glancing in his direction, she caught sight of Nigel watching her lick her fingers.

She dropped her hands quickly, wiping any remaining apple juice on her skirts. Nigel gave her a lopsided, playful grin and smiled. But it was innocent enough, and Tamara allowed herself a nervous, rueful chuckle, then shook her head.

Then she picked up the book.

As Farris finished spreading the ashes upon the floor, she opened the pages to the one she had marked. Nigel had found the appropriate spell for her, and she had practiced the old Celtic pronunciation. Now she took a deep breath and intoned the words. Her voice was soft, yet she spoke strongly, enunciating carefully.

Farris wore a grave expression as he stepped back to watch, and as Tamara repeated the words a third and then a fourth time, he gasped in amazement and stared down at the ashes on the floor.

At the map.

For that was what they had become. Every single ember, every grain of ash that had been in that pot, had shifted position slightly. And now what lay upon the wooden floor was a light covering that showed, in sharp detail, the entirety of the city of London. Every street, many structures, most of the major landmarks were there. There were no names, of course, but to any true resident of the city, they were unnecessary.

This was London.

Tamara smiled proudly and closed the book, then glanced at Nigel.

"Well?"

The vampire altered the position of the items in his hands. Now he held the candle beneath the wax-coated talisman, which still vaguely held its shape. The flame flickered up and began to melt the wax again. Nigel crouched over a small saucer he had placed on the floor. Upon it lay the single apple seed. He allowed the white wax to drip from Gupta's talisman onto the seed, coating it.

"If he has managed to return to this plane of existence, this spell will locate him. If he is dead, the wax will turn black. If he is still beyond this realm . . . the spell will tell us, though it will take a much stronger bit of magic to locate him then.

"We'll start simply."

Nigel set the candle and talisman aside, and waited for the wax to dry on the seed. It took only a moment.

Tamara watched in fascination as Nigel picked up the wax-coated seed, studied the ashen map upon the floor, and then set the seed down at a place on the map that roughly approximated their current location, at Ludlow House.

Then, of its own volition, the waxen seed began to glide across the floor, moving through the ashen streets of London in search of Tipu Gupta.

THE FILTHY WATER of the Thames churned ever onward, but the wind had turned blessedly to the south, carrying the stink of the river away.

The old man was known only as Arun to those who worked the docks, and he wandered now among them. He passed slowly by the endless warehouses, leaning on a hand-carved stick that had been a gift from one of the women he had cured, whose sinister pregnancy he had terminated with a wave of his hand. The woman had been afflicted, but the demonic parasites had not fully taken root within her womb, and he was able to save her.

She had gotten sick, vomiting up the most hideous green and black bile imaginable, but her swollen belly had gone flat, and she had been spared the fate of so many other ragged women living in these poverty-stricken districts.

But it was little enough. He might alleviate the suffering of a handful, but they were merely symptoms. The plague was still spreading, a curse that transformed his own people, yet would have far greater consequences than to kill a handful of poor fools tainted by their yearning for the land of their birth.

No, he had to do more.

Dozens of men had been twisted and transformed by the curse, by the touch of Shiva, and he knew it was up to him to exterminate them all before the evil could spread even farther. He paused along the river and closed his eyes. Breathing deeply, he caught the scent he had been searching for. No wolf or hound could have tracked it, but he was attuned to it from a lifetime of tasting the arcane.

Eyes flickering open, the old man wavered a bit, and then pressed on. The London Docks lay ahead. Masts loomed almost spectrally in the night-black sky and the moist curtain of mist that always seemed to enshroud the river on these spring evenings, merging forever with the smoke that belched from towering chimneys.

He had visited London many times in his life, but he had never stayed very long. Duty had always called him home. How strange, then, that now-at the end of his life-duty would call him here one last time.

How many ships were docked here? Thirty? Fifty? A vast forest of masts loomed in the semi-darkness. And there were other docks than these. How many vessels floated in the waters of the Thames this night? He could only begin to imagine.

The old man continued onward, and soon found himself among the bustle of sailors preparing for departure. They spared him nary a glance as they shouted to one another. Mariners of all stripes, grizzled old men with the sea in their eyes and faces as weathered as the hull of an ancient ship, young boys with no other means of survival than to take to the sea. There were black faces and brown, including some of his own countrymen. He wondered if they missed the hot sun and golden sands of Calcutta. They hoisted pigs and horses on board, and crate after crate of stores for the journey.

The mates shouted to one another, the only form of communication they seemed to know, these sailors. They shouldered heavy casks with remarkable ease, and set about Herculean tasks as though there were nothing extraordinary at all about their stamina. For to them there was not. These were seafaring men, and their journey was more than just beginning, it was never-ending.

A Babel of languages swirled around the old man as he maneuvered among the crews of several vessels. Russians and Swedes and Danes and Americans, Spaniards and Frenchmen and Egyptians and Chinamen. This was a culture all its own, one they shared. He considered how much the world could learn from an hour spent in the confluence of the London Docks, among filthy laborers and wandering the mazes of Wapping and Shadwell.

But such was not to be, for men of consequence would be loath to sully themselves with such an excursion. And what would they see if they did make the effort? The value of the place, the richness of it would be lost on them. All they would find were the rotting boards and loose, slime-encrusted cables, and the despicable and suspicious characters who lurked about, feeding off of the industry of the place or picking the castoffs from the garbage and from the mudflats. Anything to scrape a few shillings together for a bit of drink or a roll with one of the slatternly women whose lives had led them to the numbing, purgatorial existence of the prostitute.

And yet . . .

And yet.

Foolish old man, he thought, and he went about his business. He could not save the people from themselves, but he hoped to be able to save them from a power beyond the natural world. From true evil.

He had barely escaped with his life earlier in the day, exhausting his body and soul and the reserves of magic that were left to him by opening a second portal in the very instant the first had closed behind him. The dark realm where the Rakshasa resided, a world that existed side by side with this one, had almost claimed him. The demons had clawed at him, tearing at his clothes, and he had just barely summoned a doorway out of their dimension and slipped back into the world of his birth, shutting the door behind him.

He had survived. He could no longer feel the magic in him, but he had made it out of that dark realm alive. Still, weakened or not, his people needed him, and he would fight for them.

Once again he inhaled deeply, but this time the wind had shifted, so he choked on the filth in the air and issued a rasping, wet, ragged cough. He shuddered, catching his breath, and then continued on. He knew now where he was going. If not the precise location, at least the general direction. He strode past the vast, two-story warehouses that stored much of the cargo brought in on vessels. There were customs agents in the shadows of those massive structures, but the old man waved a hand through the air and became invisible to their eyes. He had neither time nor inclination to bother with such men, nor offer any explanation for his presence.

So it was that no human eyes watched him as he went to the Shadwell Dock Stairs and began his descent. He could have taken Wapping Old Stairs, but some of those steps, so close above the river, were chipped and crumbling, and he was an old man, after all.

Only the toads observed him.

The toads had been watching him all along. They seemed not to realize or to care that he noticed them, but he could not have missed those bulbous, sickly yellow eyes with their unnatural radiance gleaming from the darkness in dirty alleys and the thresholds of closed-up shops, from the pylons around the docks and between crates of cargo. They watched.

In fact, even without the scent, he could have tracked his prey simply by following the toads.

Now, though, as he drew closer, he could sense them. He no longer needed even the scent of their iniquity; their very presence radiated an unease that made him queasy. Carefully he descended the stairs, the river roiling by, far too close now.

At a landing, he started off into the darkness of a ledge that ran along just above the river, to a door that he had been certain he would find. There were other ways into the vaults beneath the London Docks, but this was the oldest, a private door, constructed in a time before these vaults were used for their present purposes.

It was a heavy iron slab with only a ring to serve as both knocker and handle. Even had it not been locked-as he was certain it was-the old man's meager limbs could never have drawn it open. Instead he placed the flat of his hand upon the cold metal and whispered a prayer to his ancestors, and the iron door swung inward, scraping stone.

Torchlight burned within.

He entered and began to explore. Wine casks were piled on either side of the vast room. There were corridors upon corridors lined with casks and crates. He smelled spices and tea, tobacco and sugar, all of which were stored in massive quantities in that labyrinth. The vaults were like the catacombs beneath Paris or Rome, but instead of the dead, they stored the economic lifeblood of London.

There were acres and acres of tunnel vaults here. Torches burned in sconces on the walls and lanterns hung from hooks, throwing flickering shadows upon the casks. Puddles of bloodred wine had formed beneath taps. The sickly sweet smell of brandy clashed with the acrid odor of burgundy. But most remarkable of all the characteristics of this vast underground-in a city where there were so many secrets-was the fact that only a meager wall of earth and stone held back the power of the river's current, preventing it from flooding the vaults.

It was an old place, here, filled with mystery and reeking of commerce. Only a comparative few had access to these vaults. Tonight, though, they had been invaded by things that didn't belong, creatures that sucked the light out of the air and trailed shadows in their wake.

The old man was all too aware that he hadn't seen a single toad since he had entered the place. Yet he had no illusion that this might indicate the absence of his enemy. Rather, it was certain that those lowly, mindless creatures, the eyes of evil, dared not come so close to their master. No, the evil that threatened London had been here, and recently.

Exhausted and in pain from the ache in his hips and knees, the brittleness of bone and muscle, he walked on and on, around corners and through the valleys between tall stacks of crates and casks. But he moved quietly.

Quietly enough that when he at last rounded a turn and entered through an arched doorway into one of the smallest, oldest, and deepest vaults under the docks, the monsters did not hear him arrive. He caught his breath in his chest as he slitted his eyes, trying to pierce the gloom.

There were four, perhaps as many as six or seven, if the shifting shadows beyond them materialized into something more substantial. His hands trembled and his heart fluttered in his chest. All of them had once been men. Some were dressed in the garb of Hindustani men, long brown tunics over ragged trousers, waists girded with sashes of black or white. Others, however . . . it was clear they had once been men who worked in this place. Sailors and customs agents whose occupation had been to inspect the goods stored there.

They were not men any longer.

They hissed in the shadows, their brown and green scales gleaming in the dim torchlight. The old man had wondered what their presence here might mean, but he thought he understood now. The customs agents had been tainted by the smuggled icons, the little gods, as retribution for their part in the atrocious theft that had been conducted for so very long by London shipping companies. With them transformed, these vaults had become a natural lair for the accursed things.

A nest of vermin.

And he would exterminate them.

With a deep breath he intoned the words of a tantric incantation.

"Om navah Shivayah. Om Shakti," he began. He was weakened, but not so much that he could not wield any magic at all. There was a moment when his body trembled, and then the power shuddered through him.

Once upon a time it had flowed through him, from the heart of the Earth itself, from Shiva, from the world and into his own hands. He could still touch the magic, but it was no longer inside him. Yet if he could grasp it, he could wield it. And he would. He recalled all the spells and rituals. His fingers could still weave.

Motes of golden light danced in the air around him, and he felt an unseen wind tousle his white hair. He let go of his walking stick; it clacked to the floor.

The creatures stiffened and then, as one, spun to face him. They hissed, forked tongues snaking from their mouths. Their sickly yellow eyes locked on the old man, and one by one they began to slither toward him.

"Yes," he said. "Come to me."

Those sparks of magic coalesced around his fingers, and once again he began to chant. He inhaled the breath of confidence, of righteousness. He had been charged with a holy mission, a sacred trust, and he would fulfill it.

A low snarl came from the archway behind him.

The old man turned, magic spilling from his hands, and blinking out as pain from the sudden movement-from the rigors of age-shot through him. He staggered without his stick, but even as he did so he saw them, two slavering demons lunging into the vault toward him. Their eyes gleamed red, and their claws slashed the air. Their snouts snuffled and they uttered low hyena laughter as they bared rows of jagged needle teeth.

Rakshasa.

They had been quieter by far than the old man.

He thought he had escaped them, but they had not allowed him to get very far. And now he was too weak to fight them. They descended upon him. He expected their claws to rend his flesh, but instead they only batted him like predators playing with a tiny rodent.

The old man fell to the ground beneath them. Their fetid breath brought bile up the back of his throat.

Then one of the Rakshasa picked him up and carried him farther underground. The old man tried to summon the strength to cast a spell, but the moment he muttered a word the other Rakshasa swatted at his head.

The darkness of unconsciousness claimed him, and all he knew was the motion of the demons running through the cavernous underground world beneath the docks.

He had failed in his sacred charge.

The curse would continue to spread. A plague upon London. A plague upon Albion.

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