Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen


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At the southeastern corner of the palace, William stood utterly still and listened for the sound of any approaching enemy.

The buildings across the street were cloaked in fog that clung to each brick and board and roiled in great clouds along the ground. There were occasional breaks in that filthy gray-orange wave, giving glimpses of a window or door or a stretch of empty street, but they were brief and only served to make the depth of the fog seem more unnerving. So William listened.

There were a great many sounds out in the fog. Though muffled, they told him what he wanted to know. Despite appearances to the contrary, he and his allies were not alone. There were snuffling, animal noises coming from the murk, and once a terrible screeching, like cats fighting . . . but these were not cats.

He heard a woman shout in surprise, then the slamming of a door, followed by a shattering of glass and then a more distant, more muffled shriek that he could have heard only because of the otherwise complete silence.

Poor woman, he thought. As tempting as it was to race off in search of her, he knew it would be utterly futile. She'd seen something she was never meant to see, and paid for it with her life.

"They're coming," he said to his companions.

Tipu Gupta, usurped Protector of Bharath, nodded gravely and pushed himself up on his walking stick. He could not have been considered hale, but there was a strength in his countenance and posture now that had not been there before. William thought he was getting a glimpse of what the man must have been like in his prime.

Though the young man had never quite considered it that way before, his grandfather was a hero to him. And Ludlow Swift had called Tipu Gupta friend and ally. They had stood side by side and fought the darkness, risking their lives and their souls. As William studied the old man, with his deep brown eyes and weathered skin, he realized that he was gazing upon a legend.

Something changed in William, then. He drew a long breath and stood a bit straighter himself. That was the sort of battle this was. There would never be history books written about it, no poems crafted or songs sung. But it would be spoken about in whispers, by ghosts and magicians and demons.

Beside him, Farris drew out both of his revolving pistols and held one in either hand. The gentleman's gentleman gave William a solemn glance, then peered out into the fog, weapons at the ready.

"Let 'em come, I say." Farris aimed his pistols into the gloom. "Let 'em come."

Moments later, as if in answer, the first of the Children of Kali darted out of the darkness. There were several off along the southern wall of the palace, shadows passing through the thick gray cloud so that they vanished and reappeared from moment to moment. The twisted, accursed men ran with a dangerous agility, knifing through the night, but it wasn't those few that concerned William.

Others had appeared almost immediately out of the mist-blanketed St. James's Park, and that band of monsters rushed toward the gates of Buckingham Palace as though the dinner bell had sounded.

And perhaps it had.

William started toward the gates, but Gupta snagged his arm.

"We must not separate," the old man rasped.

"Sorry to disappoint you, but we have little choice. The attack is on two fronts, and must be fought on both."

Farris gestured with a gun. "The vermin at the gates won't be turned away. They're on a mission, they are. But those others, well, might be you could make short work of them, drive them off with a nasty spell or two and then join us at the gates. After all, those 'round the side aren't going to be getting in from that direction. Unless they plan on climbin' the walls."

Gupta was correct. It would not do to separate. But Farris had a point. It might take him only a few moments to deal with the attackers heading for the southern wall.

"Go guard the gates!" William snapped. "I'll be right along."

With only a moment's hesitation, they did as he instructed. The old man used his stick to walk, but moved with surprising speed. Silver light swirled in circles around his legs, dispelling the fog there, and it became clear that he was propelling himself with magic. William had to wonder how much of his sudden vitality was magical . . . and how long it would last.

Then he turned west and started along the southern wall. More of those reptilian men, some dressed in the rags of the East End slums and others in the fine clothing bespeaking wealth, emerged from the alleys and side streets to his left, but he ignored them. Up ahead, those that had first shown themselves reached the wall. One did not bother to slow, leaping at the obstruction, scaly, webbed hands sticking to the stone, talons digging in. It began to climb.

Damn you, Farris, for being right, he thought.

There were too many of them for him to destroy quickly. He had to think of another way to keep them off the wall, to get them to focus their attack on the front, so that he and his allies could work together.

The Children of Kali began to hiss, some of them even to wail a kind of high, keening cry that made his stomach turn. Never had William been so aware of being on his own. He wished he and Tamara had not needed to split up. She was so much more clever when it came to magic, and so much more difficult to rattle.

William thought of Sophia, and images swept across his mind of the wedding they would have one day. He thought of the elegant interior of Swift's of London, and of the people who worked for him there, of the utter, wonderful ordinariness of it all. And a liquid fear raced through his veins. Not only fear of his own death, but fear, too, that no matter how much he struggled and fought to return his life to normal, every time one of these supernatural crises occurred, he would never really be able to do so. Never be able to rest.

"I hate you," he said in the dark, in the fog, and wasn't at all certain to whom he spoke.

Then a smile touched his lips. He had an idea.

Tamara would have come up with a way to stop them. But in that moment he had asked himself what Tamara would do, and suddenly he knew.

Something hissed in the murk over his left shoulder, but he ignored it, hoping he had the few seconds he needed. His eyelids fluttered, and the ice in his gut melted as he raised his hands. He felt the power of Albion deep inside him, thrumming in his bones, and he racked his brain for the words that would give his incantation form. The magic of the Protector of Albion was immense, part of his flesh. Part of his soul. But the skill to wield it, that had to be learned.

William had never had much luck with more complicated magic. Now he would see if that had changed.

His whole body ached as he summoned the energy, imagining the spell. He curled his fingers into claws, and slashed at the air in front of him, drawing symbols he did not even realize he recalled from his studies. The surge of power was like hammers pounding his arms and chest.

"Mutatio cito lancea," he whispered.

Half a dozen of the reptile creatures had leaped up onto the wall by then, slithering upward, their scaly, mottled flesh gleaming wet from the moist air. At the last syllable of his spell, the wall wavered for a moment as though made of liquid instead of stone, and then in an eyeblink thousands of spikes grew from the wall, stone lances that thrust out and impaled the Children of Kali that were there, and several that stood close by at the bottom, preparing to climb.

They didn't even have time to scream.

He could practically feel the one that was rushing up behind him.

William spun and summoned a spell as he did so, and the monster was buffeted by magical fire that consumed it, leaving a tower of ash in the shape of a hideous man. With the next gust of wind it collapsed and eddied away into the fog.

"Accendo!" he cried, turning to the others.

A brilliant flash of light burst from his hands like a flare, reflecting off the fog so that it seemed a solid blanket of gray filth. But where there were breaks in the fog, he saw them. And they him. The Children of Kali hissed with hatred and hunger, and when William turned to race back around the front of the palace, they followed.

The fog grasped at him as he sprinted toward the gates, eyes narrowed in search of Gupta and Farris. There were figures in the mist, dark things outlined against the cloyingly moist gray fabric of the air. Some of them crept, but others barreled forward without hesitation or stealth. One of them was huge and crouched low, uttering a roar that came out like a laugh.

Rakshasa.

So there were demons among the accursed now.

He pushed past curtains of fog and came in sight of the palace gates. Tipu Gupta stood in front of them with his staff raised, guarding the royal palace, guarding the queen of England, not out of duty but of righteousness. Whatever spite he may have held in his heart for the way his people were ruled by the British Empire, this night the fight was not between nations, but between light and darkness. And Gupta had chosen his side ages past.

Silver light danced around his entire body, arcs of lightning that encircled him. Much of his power as Protector might have been drained away by his daughter, but he was still connected to the soul of Bharath, and had far more skill and experience in wielding that power than William could imagine.

Two Children of Kali rushed the gates, where Gupta held the staff in both hands and pointed its tip at them. Silver-blue energy flowed serpentlike from the simple walking stick and the twisted, damned men screamed as their hellish flesh melted from their bones. They collapsed together in a single wet heap.

A crack echoed across the sky, the sound ricocheting around in the fog. William flinched and tried to locate its source, and then he saw Farris, perhaps twenty feet beyond the old man, wielding those pepperbox revolvers. Another crack slapped the air, a gunshot, and this time William saw its effects. One of the Children of Kali, rushing toward the butler, wasn't merely halted, but staggered back as a bullet punched through its chest. It toppled to the ground, attempted to crawl toward him, then shuddered and died.

Farris started back toward Gupta, both guns raised, watching the fog for monsters. William ran up to the gates, falling in beside the old man even as Farris joined them from the north. The three formed a line of defense against the evil things that assaulted the palace. Farris fired again, this time taking a Rakshasa in the eye. The back of its skull exploded outward in a shower of gray matter and bone shards. The rightful Protector of Bharath let loose another searing arc of silver lightning that evaporated the fog it touched, and turned two of the Children of Kali to ash. By its clothes, William thought that one of them might have been his old friend Frederick Martin, and he felt the burden of that death upon his heart.

Yet it did not slow him. With a flick of his wrist and a bellowed incantation he froze one of the accursed reptilian creatures that had pursued him from the south. Another collided with it from behind, shattering it, and William cast a spell that immolated the newcomer and two others.

Still they came.

"You will fall" came a dark, insinuating voice that emanated from the swirling fog behind him.

He spun and found himself face-to-face with the ghost of Colonel Dunstan. The traitorous specter wore a hideous smile. William raised his hands, spheres of magic crackling around them, prepared to defend himself if Dunstan dared attack him.

"Come to watch the proceedings, betrayer?" he snapped.

"Too right," the phantom soldier replied. "Wouldn't miss it. I was loyal to the Crown, Mr. Swift. While I lived. In death, I saw the error of my life. And when the horror began in the East End, you proved me right. The British aristocracy looks upon my people as animals, house pets at best.

"So much for so-called nobility. Now you'll-"

"Please do shut up!" William said.

Before the ghost could react, he threw his arms wide and shouted a brief binding spell. Ethereal chains appeared in the air, wrapping quickly around Dunstan. If the ghost had been quicker, he could easily have vanished, slipping away into the ether. Perhaps Dunstan had assumed William not up to the task of capturing him. He was not the first to underestimate the grandson of Ludlow Swift. But William was becoming used to shattering such low expectations, and he liked the feeling.

The chains were as insubstantial as the ghost himself, but as they tightened the ghost was bound as though he were made of flesh and blood. Those spectral bonds shimmered with a pale blue light that spread over Dunstan's ectoplasmic substance, tainting him the same hue.

The sound of Farris's guns boomed once, twice, a third time. William heard the crackle of Gupta's magic. For the moment, though, he left the battle to them.

"What . . . what have you done? You cannot touch me!" the traitor cried.

"I haven't touched you, fool. But what kind of idiot must you be to think you could taunt me without fear of retribution? I am one of the bloody Protectors of Albion, Colonel. Capturing an errant ghost is one of the very first things I was taught when I inherited this power. Now, you wanted to watch; that's all right with me.

"Watch, and witness Albion's triumph!"

Suffused with magic and fury, he turned to rejoin the fray.

Only to find Sophia Winchell standing before him, gazing up at him in fear and need.

"So-Sophia?" he stammered.

She smiled. Her flesh seemed to ripple. Then it wasn't Sophia standing before him, but a beautiful Indian girl with hatred in her eyes. A glamour. He'd fallen for a simple glamour.

Priya Gupta struck him, clawing his face, and as William staggered back her fingers seemed to erupt with darting, jagged serpents of bloodred magic.

"Perhaps not," she purred.

IN THE GUEST bedroom where she had so recently lived out a delicious dream she had nurtured since her youth, Sophia Winchell slept fitfully. There was a chill in the night air, damp and cool as it slipped through the narrowly open windows. She shuddered beneath the heavy covers and burrowed deeper, but it wasn't truly the cold that disturbed her sleep.

Nor was it the barely audible screaming that came down from the topmost floor. What wrinkled her brow and drew her again and again almost to wakefulness was the vast emptiness of the house around her, the frightening loneliness that gripped her, even while unconscious.

She dreamed, there in that comfortable bed, of being alone.

And woke to the sound of her name being spoken with all the insistence of a rap on the door.

"Sophia! Wake now, girl!"

Flinching from the unpleasantness of her dreams and the hardness of that voice, she drew a long, abrupt breath as though her lungs had been stilled for a moment, then opened her eyes.

Above her there towered a naked woman whose face was painted for war, whose eyes were alight with a strange blue-white flame, and whose flesh was utterly translucent, shot through with shadows and the flickering light of the candles she had been too frightened to blow out before going to sleep.

"Good Lord," Sophia whispered, recoiling, drawing herself up toward the head of the bed, her legs pulled under her.

Sleep often erased memory and identity, and so it took her several seconds to realize that this was not some nocturnal shade there to haunt her. Ghosts terrified her, made her feel as though she might crawl out of her own skin, but they were not unknown to her.

Nor was this ghost, specifically, unfamiliar.

"Queen Bodicea," Sophia breathed, drawing the covers up to her throat in awkward counterpoint to the specter's brazen nudity. She could not help letting her eyes survey the warrior woman's transparent body just once, amazed at the firmness of her thighs and arms and the fullness of her breasts. The phantom's body was streaked with the same war paint as her face, though the colors were dull and the paint no less an apparition than the queen herself.

"Rise, girl," the ghost commanded, her form wavering slightly, floating there beside the bed. "Hurry. The Swifts have need of me, and I cannot leave you here."

Sophia threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, hugging herself against the chill in the room. She threw on her robe, but it was too thin to combat the cold.

"Where are we going?" she asked. "I must dress. I shall move as quickly as-"

"There isn't time. And you cannot leave the house. You are safe within these walls, from the crisis facing London this night. There are wards and defenses-"

"They've been breached before," Sophia countered.

"Only when someone was fool enough to leave the door open, or invite the enemy in. Heed my instructions and you shall be safe," the ghost declared.

As imperious as Bodicea's tone was, Sophia sensed a hesitation in her. Still, she did not argue further. If William was in danger, and Bodicea had been summoned, she would not hold the ghost back from going to aid him. She took a night coat that William had loaned her from Tamara's armoire, slipping it on even as the ghostly queen went to the door.

The air shimmered in front of Bodicea and suddenly she was holding the long war spear she often carried.

"Open it," said the specter.

Sophia tensed and drew open the door. Bodicea could have gone ahead of her but obviously did not want to leave her alone. The ghost flitted out into the corridor, and Sophia followed.

To her surprise, they were not alone. Martha, the maid who practically ran the Swift household, was there along with Sophia's own lady's maid, Elvira.

"See here," Elvira said, instinctively keeping her voice low. "What is this about?"

Bodicea shot her a dark look. "Follow me."

Her tone made it clear she would brook no argument, so when she floated toward the stairs, the women fell in behind her. Martha seemed grimly serious yet calm enough. Elvira, on the other hand . . . she had seen things she could not explain, but Sophia believed that this was the first time she had been so blatantly presented with the existence of ghosts as an inescapable truth. She had no idea what had been said to her maid before Bodicea had woken her, but Elvira's eyes were wide with shock, and she was entirely docile, a word that had likely never before been attached to the woman.

As they started down the stairs, following the specter, the silence of the house was broken by the howling of a madman. The screams of Henry Swift floated down to them. Beside Sophia, Elvira whimpered and grabbed hold of her employer's arm. Despite her own fear, Sophia found herself patting the woman's hands to soothe her, and escorting her as though Elvira were the mistress and she the maid.

Sophia had seen the cruel, slavering, vicious thing Henry Swift had become, had heard him speak with the voice of the demon, the glint of evil in his eyes. But she had never heard him shriek like this, as though he fully intended to scream until Henry's heart burst, or his throat became too raw to utter a sound.

"What is it, Bodicea? Please, tell me what's happening!"

The specter continued to descend the stairs. It was Martha who turned to Sophia after a moment's hesitation.

"We should be perfectly safe, miss. Nothing can come in after us, and . . . Oblis . . . himself making all that racket in the nursery . . . he's trapped there, just as if he were behind bars."

"Then . . . ," Sophia began, frowning as they reached the bottom of the steps. She looked after Bodicea, who paused at last, then at the two older servant women. "Why are we going wherever it is we are going?"

Bodicea floated back to her. The queen had been so tall in life that she had to gaze downward to look into Sophia's eyes. Her aspect was ominous.

"We have the utmost confidence in the spells that are binding the demon now. The Protectors have learned from their own past errors. But Oblis has not been without a guardian since his captivity began, and if I am to leave you here in the house with him, we must take precautions."

Sophia regarded her evenly, mustering courage she did not feel. "Precautions," she repeated.

"This way," Bodicea commanded.

She led them from the foyer deep into the back of the house, past parlor and drawing room, dining room and kitchen, and a small study that seemed to have been unused for some time. Sophia thought they passed the hall to the atrium, but was not sure. The house always seemed larger to her than she remembered.

There was a tall, imposingly thick ironwood door at the rear of the house that did not seem to match any of the other decor. Bodicea did not hesitate a moment, drifting through it.

Sophia hugged herself. The lunatic screams of the demon should have been inaudible all the way down here, but somehow she could still hear him, and her skin prickled with revulsion and dread.

She opened the door.

The spectral queen awaited within. The room was an arsenal, filled with swords and daggers, double-bladed battle-axes, longbows, and quivers full of arrows, crossbows, and armored gauntlets.

"Farris and William completed this sanctuary only recently. The door and walls are reinforced with iron. There are dried provisions on that shelf in the corner. If the demon were to get free, you would still be safe here. Oblis is a Vapor; he has no substance save the body he inhabits. Yes, he is remarkably strong, and indeed he may levitate. But he cannot translocate, and this room is built well enough that he will not be able to enter, as long as you do not open the door.

"So you will stay here, until the Swifts return. I do not abandon my post lightly. Lord Nelson came specifically to call me to my duty, and I will not ignore the call. But you will be safe, as long as you remain here."

Sophia stared at her. None of this felt right to her. How confident could William be of the spells binding Oblis into the nursery if he and Farris bothered to build this room? Certainly it would be helpful in other circumstances, as well, but they had to have had Oblis in mind while doing the work. Which meant they had allowed for the possibility of his escape.

And now she was going to be left here, locked in with two middle-aged women whose combat experience likely consisted of killing the odd rat or two in the kitchen.

The things she had said to William earlier came back to haunt her now. She had assured him that she wanted this life, that she would rather live with these dangers than without him.

It pleased her to discover that she had meant every word.

But that did not assuage her terror.

"Bodicea, I don't think that-"

"Lock the door," the ghost replied, and with those words her insubstantial image fluttered as though on a breeze, and she was gone.

Elvira stared at the place where she had been, mouth agape, and then took several steps toward the back of the room, shaking her head. Martha met Sophia's gaze with a firm nod. Sophia returned it, and strode quickly to the heavy door. With her hand on the bolt, she swung it shut.

Just before it bumped heavily into place, the sound of the shrieking came again, muffled but inescapable. It sounded joyful to her, as though Oblis knew they were alone down here, hiding from him behind locked doors, armed with medieval weapons. In fear of him, despite his bonds.

It sounded like a madman's glee.

Sophia drew a shuddering breath, bit her lower lip, and threw her weight against the door, sliding the bolt home.

And she could still hear him.

CROUCHED IN THE lee of a thick stand of shrubbery, Nigel Townsend uttered a throaty laugh. It came up from deep within him, unbidden, and he bared his fangs.

The Rakshasa had been moving through the palace gardens, and he had intercepted their attack. There were more of them, out in the fog, or perhaps the other figures he had seen were the Children of Kali. But he was not concerned with the others, for the moment. Only these.

The filthy animals that had set after him in the garden, like wolves on the veldt.

What they did not understand was that he was a vampire, and vampires were not prey. Never prey. Even cornered, as he was, by three slavering demons with piss-yellow eyes and rows of ivory needles for teeth, he was the predator. There had been four of them, after all, but the corpse of the fourth lay a dozen yards away, its chest shattered and its heart torn out. Its blood stained Nigel's hands and clothes. The scent of it was maddening, and drew the laughter from him, brought his own monstrousness to the fore.

The vampire was risen.

The Rakshasa stood to their greatest height as if unfolding from the crouch they usually moved in. That was their stalking pose, Nigel thought, but this . . . this was the way they showed their animalistic dominance, before they attacked. The fog drifted languidly past them, moist air clinging to their patches of leathery skin and the filthy, matted hair that covered most of their bodies. Their long talons were like knives, and the three of them began to close in on him, raising their claws as if to promise evisceration.

Nigel brought his own hands up. The nails had elongated into claws of his own. "You're not the only ones with pretty blades, lads. Not at all."

They paused and threw back their heads, as if having taken offense. The howls that came out of their stinking maws began almost like those of ordinary animals, but then broke into a series of those unnerving, barking laughs. One by one the three demons lowered themselves again into their stalking pose and continued to move in slowly, pacing from side to side, keeping his back up against the shrubs that scratched against him.

Nigel only sneered.

"Fools. Have you never seen one of my kind before? You lot are demons. Evil, that's true. But you haven't the first clue about real cruelty. Only humans understand that. If you'd caught me with the others, with the Swifts or their phantom comrades at my side, you might've had a chance at me. I would've been fighting the monster in myself as much as I'd have been fighting you.

"But you caught me alone, with no one to see my true nature. That was your mistake."

Then the red hunger of the beast raged up inside him and his grin became a different sort of howl. A battle cry. He gnashed his jaws and darted toward the Rakshasa to his right. It flinched backward, attempting to dodge, but it had not been Nigel's target. As he lunged, one of the others reached for him, claws slashing down.

It was what he had expected. With the one on his right off balance, he sidestepped the other's attack, grabbed hold of its arm, and wrapped the arm around himself almost as though they were dancing. Spinning, he slammed himself against the demon, crashing into that filthy fur . . . too close to it for the other two to attack.

If the demon had had a moment to act, it might have crushed him to death then, shattering his chest and his cold, black heart. But its jaundiced eyes went wide with surprise, and Nigel reached up with one powerful hand and forced its head down toward him as though to kiss.

Ravenous with bloodlust and fury he opened his jaws impossibly wide, each of his teeth now extending to a sliver point. Then he tore out the Rakshasa's throat with a moist, ripping noise and the tug of muscle and tendon. Its black blood sprayed his face even as he shoved it away, turning to drop back into a crouch, facing the other two. He spat leathery flesh and sinew onto the ground.

Warriors-human or supernatural-would have been given pause. But the Rakshasa were not warriors at all. Just demons. Filthy vermin from some dark netherworld, doing the bidding of their mistress. Even so, they hesitated. Their chests rose and fell with fetid exhalations and then they began to move from side to side again, searching for an opening, for the perfect moment to attack.

Nigel did not intend to give them a chance.

The creature to his left looked younger and stronger, so he leaped at that one. It was quick, and it snatched him out of the air, claws gripping his throat, trying to choke him even as it brought its other arm around to plunge its long talons like knives into his chest. Pain seared him like fire blazing across his flesh and in the bones and organs of his upper torso. The demon was satisfied with its work and it let out another of those hyena laughs.

The vampire reached up then and grabbed its lower jaw, slicing off the tip of his left ring finger on its teeth as he tore that mandible from its roots with a pop of bone. The thing's screeching was pitiful as he ripped the remnants of skin that still connected it, and then the jawbone was in his hands.

The Rakshasa let him go, reeling away from him and staggering, dropping to its knees as black blood flowed over its chest.

"If you want to kill something like me, you'll have to do better than that," Nigel growled.

Something shimmered unearthly blue in the fog behind the screaming, suffering Rakshasa, and Nigel frowned when he saw that it was Byron. The specter rushed through the fog toward him with no trace of the pretty, clever words or fanciful pretense that were his hallmarks. Nigel knew instantly that something had gone horribly wrong. Yet even as Byron whipped toward him through the fog, he heard the shifting, leathery noise of the Rakshasa behind him making one final assault.

He spun and brought the stolen jawbone around in an arc, using it as a weapon. The rows of jagged fangs glistened in the damp air and he felt as though he were in a dream as he twisted through that gray-orange cloud of mist . . . and then he slashed the surviving Rakshasa across the face with its brother's own fangs, carving flesh and puncturing those eyes, which spurted yellow pus that sizzled on his skin like acid.

It shrieked, blinded, and he slipped around behind it and quickly snapped its neck, dropping the demon to the ground. The one with no lower jaw was still bleeding, still wailing, and it began to twitch. It would die soon, but Nigel would let it suffer.

There were other things afoot.

He ran through the fog to meet Byron, the ghost nearly passing through him in the thickness of that cloud.

"What is it?" Nigel demanded, all manner of terrible imaginings in his mind. "What's happened?"

The very fabric of the ghost, his spectral essence, seemed to roil with emotion. He brought his hands to his face, fingers bent as though he meant to tear at himself in grief. There was such horror in his eyes that the red beast living in Nigel's heart, that berserker soul in him, withdrew, and the part of him that was still human faltered. He had no need to breathe, yet still he held his breath.

"Tamara," Byron said, frantic. "The girl was there, Priya, and Tamara's been injured. Badly. You must come quickly." And then, the worst of it, the words that tumbled out of Byron with more anguish than Nigel had ever heard in a voice. "And I cannot help, cannot touch her, not even just to lend her comfort."

The ache that leaped into Nigel's heart astonished him. He was not in love with the girl, not that. But he loved her just the same. It felt, in that moment, almost as though he were alive again . . . alive enough to feel the acute emotion that made humanity an utter joy and total anguish.

"Come," he said simply, and then he raced through the fog. He could hear other things moving about the gardens, crashing through greenery and snapping tree branches as they moved toward the palace, but he no longer cared about the queen or about Albion. Not in that moment. The queen could bugger off.

Byron sailed through the air beside him, utterly transparent despite the bright shade of his velvet coat. How often had Nigel thought him a fool? And yet in their shared fear for Tamara, they were joined in a manner neither was accustomed to.

They left the gardens behind and raced for the corner of the palace in sight of Constitution Hill, the place where Nigel had left her-and damn you for doing it, you fool, he thought. For just a moment the fog cleared, and he saw her on the ground up ahead, slumped on her side with a pair of Kali's Children looming above her unmoving form. He thought he could hear their hiss, but it might merely have been the wind and the dark magic of that damnable fog.

Then the mist shrouded the palace again, and it was several long seconds during which he was sure they must be eviscerating her before he and Byron emerged again, a dozen feet from where Tamara lay.

The accursed monstrosities that stood above her were dead, turned to volcanic glass by sorcerous flames. Tamara's right hand was outstretched toward them, frozen in the act of casting that spell. It had been too much for her, though, and she had fallen unconscious from the effort.

Nigel rushed to her. Unthinkingly he lashed out, shattering the glass creatures in his frustration and fear. A shard of glass carved a gash in his arm, but he barely flinched at the pain as he dropped to his knees beside her, scooping her up.

Her blood soaked through his trousers, warm and sticky. The wound in her shoulder was small and could be easily patched, but the puncture in her abdomen was not so simple. The blood bubbled from it, drenching her dress and her jacket.

He was a vampire, cursed with the taint of Hell, of a horror to which God turned a blind eye. All of the gods, in fact. Nigel Townsend had not uttered a prayer to any deity in many years.

Tonight, he whispered a prayer to the heavens.

"Do something!" Byron cried. "You must! Look at the wound! She's going to die unless you can heal her."

"I . . . I've never studied healing magic. I can't-"

The poet could be shrill at times. Not now. He slid his fingers into Nigel's hair and yanked back his head. "You worthless bastard, with all that you owe these children and their grandfather's memory . . . you do something!"

The specter's touch was only a reminder that Nigel himself was not human. He glared at Byron until the ghost faltered and released him, glancing away shamefacedly.

"It's . . . Nigel, I'm sorry, but it's Tamara."

"Don't you think I know that? I can see her, Byron. I smell her blood! I . . ."

And an idea came to him. A very dark idea. The red beast inside him trembled with anticipation at the thought. Nigel narrowed his gaze and a low rumble came up from his throat as he stared at Tamara. There was a way to save her.

A way . . .

His nostrils flared with the scent of her, and he squeezed his eyes closed and twisted his head away, fresh sorrow and torment drowning him as he recalled the last time he had been faced with such a choice. Her name had been Louise, a young girl who worked onstage as part of Ludlow's magic act. She had discovered Nigel's true nature and fallen in love with him, and he with her. Yet the lure of what he was had tempted her. She saw romance and real magic in him, when he knew that it was only monstrousness and death. She had pleaded with him to make her like him and then, when he refused, she had slit her wrists. Louise had wanted to love him forever, but Nigel would not damn her to an eternity of bloodlust and darkness.

He had let her die.

There was no way he could allow the same thing to happen to Tamara, and yet once again he would not give in to the temptation to create another like him, to give her damnation instead of death.

"No," he said grimly.

There came more hissing from the fog, and the laughter of at least one more Rakshasa. The vampire turned and glared at Byron.

"Hold them off. Whatever it costs you, hold them off."

Black tree branches could be seen thrusting like skeletal fingers clawing from the fog, right through Byron's body. He was silhouetted in that fog. Insubstantial and yet with more presence than Nigel had ever given him credit for.

"They won't touch her," the poet vowed.

Then he was off, flitting through the fog.

Nigel turned to Tamara, her blood still soaking through the knees of his trousers, and he slapped her.

Unconscious, she flinched.

"Tamara! Wake up, damn your eyes!"

He slapped her a second time, then a third.

Her eyelids fluttered open, brows knitting in pain. "Nigel?"

"Wake up!" he snapped again. "Listen to me, girl. You will not surrender to this, do you understand me? You are the Protector of Albion and the granddaughter of Ludlow Swift. Your wounds are not beyond your power to heal. The magic flows through your veins, sweats from your very skin. Remember the way the Rakshasa could sense it before, because it was seeping from you? It's a part of you, girl. Seize it!"

Tamara shook her head, ever so slightly, eyes closing again. "I . . . I cannot, Nigel. I don't feel it now. I feel . . . nothing."

"Then by the gods I shall make you feel something!" he snarled, and he plunged a finger into the wound in her shoulder, twisting it around.

Tamara went rigid, eyes flying open wide, and she let out a scream that echoed through the fog and all the way up Constitution Hill. A stream of filthy invective the likes of which he had never heard from such a proper girl spilled from her mouth, and she snarled at him like an animal.

"You son of a whore!" she gasped as she completed her cursing of him.

Nigel smiled. "That's a story for another day, pet. Now you listen to me. You will heal your wounds. If not for yourself or for Albion, then for your brother. You are a far greater magician than William can ever hope to be. If Priya has made such short work of you, what will she do to him?"

He saw the fear appear in her eyes, but still there was no fire there. "It is more than the wound. Her magic has poisoned me, somehow. I can feel it burning in me, tainting me."

"Then flush it out!"

Her eyes went wide, but she was staring past him.

The Children of Kali had come. Byron was fighting them to the west, near the garden, but these came south from the hill. Nigel swore and leaped to his feet. He glanced around wildly as more and more of them emerged from the fog, closing in on him and Tamara. He counted no less than a dozen, probably more.

"Tamara," he warned. "I may have to leave you alone again."

But even as he spoke the words the air shimmered all around him, the fog shifting and shuddering as though battered by a hundred errant breezes. A sound like wind chimes filled the night, and then they were there.

The ghosts of Albion.

Like a wave they materialized, one after the other. Some he recognized but most he did not. Soldiers and playwrights, teachers and carpenters, men and women who had nothing in common during their lives, and yet shared one vital trait in death . . . they were all, now, soldiers in the war against the darkness.

"Take them broadside, my friends, and give no quarter!" cried a voice from above, a voice Nigel had never been happier to hear.

He glanced up and saw the fog shifting around the phantom form of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. The man could be a fool at times, with his priggishness and arrogance, but in war he commanded nothing less than awe. And he was not alone.

With a battle cry that made even the animal within Nigel cringe, Queen Bodicea appeared from the fog, her spear clutched in one hand and a small ax in the other. As always, her face and nude body were painted for war, and her scream curdled his blood. Nelson was courageous and brilliant, Bodicea cunning and savage, and the ghosts of Albion were their army tonight.

The Children of Kali began to die.

And then the sound of hoofbeats and the clatter of a carriage reached them, and a hansom cab rattled out of the fog. It had left the street and was coming across the grounds outside the palace, rushing at them, right into the midst of the fray. Only one man was inside, and the horses neighed as he reined them to a stop.

He leaped from the cab.

"Tamara!"

Nigel prepared to kill him. "Who the hell are you?"

But then he saw Tamara's face. There was confusion there, but also a tenderness that was surprising.

"John?" she said.

Nigel narrowed his eyes. "John? That Haversham bastard? I've heard about you. What are you doing here?"

"I've heard about you as well, Mr. Townsend. I'm here to help if I can. When William left the Algernon Club, we all suspected there was something amiss, but never imagined . . ."

He settled down beside Tamara in the very spot Nigel had just vacated, and gazed upon her kindly. "They sent me after him, Tamara. But I would've come anyway, if I could."

With the poison magic of Priya Gupta in her system and her wounds still bleeding, she barely had the strength to gaze at him, but she managed. "I . . . I don't understand. The . . . the club?"

"William hasn't told you?"

"Told us what?" Nigel demanded, though he glanced about as he said it, eager to rejoin the battle, listening to the sounds of monsters dying in the fog.

John was examining Tamara's wounds, and now he shot a dark look at Nigel.

"There isn't time." He looked back at Tamara. "What's important is that we know who and what you are. Both of you. And we've been trying to help. The idols that were stolen . . . we were trying to gather them up so no one else would be infected. I was the primary thief."

He bent lower then, holding Tamara's hand tightly, and though he whispered so low that no human ears could have heard him . . . Nigel was not human.

"They assigned me to you, do you understand? To discover the identity of the new Protector. That's why I reacted to your . . . enticement the way that I did. I hated the idea that you and I might have shared such intimacy under false pretenses."

He bent to kiss her forehead, and Tamara reached her hand up to caress his face, ever so weakly.

"It seems you're too late," she said.

"Nonsense," Haversham replied. "I can help you. The meager magic I have at my disposal is a pale shade of yours, but perhaps I can bolster-"

"No."

Nigel flinched. He heard Byron shouting something, but wasn't sure what it was. His attention was split between the war and Tamara's condition.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" the vampire asked, incredulous. "Don't let your pride destroy you, Tamara. Don't be a fool. Not with so much in the balance. If the man can help you-"

"I don't need help," she snarled.

Face etched with pain, she forced herself to her knees. Blood had soaked her dress in bizarre patterns. When she glanced up at Nigel and John, her eyes were alight with life; golden sparks flickered at their edges, danced around her fingers.

"I am the Protector of blessed Albion, gentlemen. The power and the duty are mine."

She set her jaw, her body swaying, and raised her arms.

That golden light began to flow from her, enveloping first her hands, then her arms, and finally sheathing her entire body. In the chaos of combat her hair had been coming unpinned. It was entirely unbound now and flew wildly around her in a wind Nigel could not feel, and waves of other colors went through the magic womb she had created for herself.

Her eyes were unfocused. She turned her palms upward and began to chant.

"Vieo viscus cum animus," Tamara said, rocking with the words.

She chanted them again and again, and then, suddenly, she flinched as though she had been stabbed again. Gritting her teeth, she continued the chant. The agony was writ in her every movement and expression. In the midst of that incantation she let out a cry of pain that was like the roar of something wild. And perhaps it was.

She took up the words again, and as she did a kind of red mist began to ooze from her wounds. It wasn't blood, but something brighter, twisting in the air as though fighting her magic. Nigel knew this was the poison Priya's attack had left in her.

The mist rose from her wounds and began to evaporate, burning up in the shimmering light that surrounded Tamara.

"Vieo viscus cum animus," she continued, but her voice had more power now, more strength, and she held her head higher as she invoked the magic of Albion.

The wound on her shoulder was hidden within the folds of her clothing, but the one in her abdomen was so large and the dress torn enough that he could see the flesh begin to knit itself together.

"Fantastic," John Haversham muttered, and Nigel was sure the young man wasn't aware he had spoken aloud.

Tamara stood up, her legs wavering a bit even though her gaze did not.

"Where is Priya Gupta?"

"There was more fighting 'round the front. I heard it as I came down the road," Haversham revealed.

Tamara nodded. "Of course. She thinks she's done with me. She's going to try to destroy her father and William now, then go right in through the gates."

Her smile both thrilled and unnerved Nigel.

"If that's where the real battle is taking place," she said, "then that is where we shall go."

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