Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen


William leaned back in his chair and rested his hands upon his bloated belly.

He had eaten so much that he could hardly breathe. All he wanted was to close his eyes and sleep until the bulk of his dinner had been digested, though by his calculation that might take weeks. The treacle tart had been divine, just the right consistency, melting in his mouth before he could swallow it. He was going to have to get the recipe from the cook. It had all just been too good to pass up.

As an added benefit, the luscious dinner and the scrumptious dessert had proved so exquisite that William had found he did not even mind sitting beside John Haversham. At first he had been annoyed, but as course after course appeared before them, he and John had bonded, after a fashion. He would still not call Haversham a friend, but at least now he did not mind the man so much.

For the life of him, he couldn't understand why he had disliked Haversham so extraordinarily to begin with. Yes, he was loud, and almost absurdly jovial, with more than a bit of swagger in his manner. But he was so convivial, so enthusiastic in his sense of fellowship that it was impossible to maintain a disdain for him.

He had hurt Tamara's feelings, of course, and William knew he ought to consider Haversham a villain for that reason alone. Yet how could he, when he was relieved to discover that the man showed no real interest in his sister? Enjoyable company he may have been, but he still had a scandalous reputation, and that hardly made him the ideal brother-in-law.

Still, how could anyone not like a man who extolled the merits of a good roast as heartily as John did?

"Are you feeling all right, Willy boy?"

Willy boy? Now that I hate, William thought as he looked up to find John Haversham staring at him. It was funny, but he had never noticed how much Haversham looked like a cow. He had such a long, protruding face, and those large, sad gray eyes.

"I do say, you look practically bovine, Haversham," William said. He clapped a hand over his mouth, horrified that he had spoken so. He had probably offended his dinner companion irretrievably. Yet he had been unable to stop himself. His lips felt swollen, and there seemed a fog around his very thoughts.

And had he slurred his words?

Incredibly, Haversham didn't seem in the least bit offended by William's faux pas. He laughed as if William had made a joke at someone else's expense, rather than his own.

"Bovine is fine. Yes, Willy boy, I must concur."

William blinked rapidly, trying to clear his head. The room seemed to be spinning, and he could not make it stop. How much wine had he enjoyed at dinner? Surely no more than two glasses. Not an amount sufficient to make him feel so disoriented.

"I feel . . . strange, Haversham. Does the room seem to be . . . spinning to you?" William asked hesitantly. Maybe it is the room itself that is moving, and not my head, he thought hopefully.

"Spinning, Willy boy? No, I think not," Haversham replied. William noticed for the first time how nicely Haversham's dress coat fit him. He particularly liked the shiny metal buttons, because he could see his reflection in each one. Without a second thought, he leaned forward and grasped one of the buttons.

"I like . . . your buttons," he said, a pronounced slur to his words. "I can see . . . myself."

He leaned nearer so that he could view his reflection more clearly, and was startled by his appearance.

"Bloody Hell, where did I get these horns?" William said, rather more loudly than he intended. He hadn't had horns this morning, he was positive of that. Would Sophia still love him, now that he was marked so? he wondered.

A middle-aged man with soft, dark hair and an aquiline nose came up behind Haversham. He gave William a confused look before turning to Haversham.

"Do we have a problem here?"

The man's voice was firm. William stood up abruptly, the room spinning dangerously around him.

"Soft," William said as he reached out and petted Sir Robert Peel's hair before fainting dead away.

"NIGEL?" TAMARA CRIED, peering off into the darkness.

She could hear the curses and grunts of the vampire's struggle with Dunstan's ghost, and she comforted herself with the knowledge that they proved Nigel Townsend had not been destroyed.

She had to go to him, to rid the world of the traitorous fiend of a ghost who had pretended to be their ally, and then betrayed them. When Tamara got the chance, she would shred Dunstan's very spirit.

But Nigel would have to fend for himself awhile longer.

Byron had disappeared deeper into the warehouse, scouting ahead for Horatio and Tipu Gupta. Tamara had sent him on that mission, hoping he would also ascertain how many of the fiends they faced, but now she wished she had not done so.

Farris was still on the floor of the warehouse, struggling to rise and clearly disoriented. When he'd crashed into the wall, he had struck his head, and now Tamara saw him reach up to the back of his skull and wince as he touched a tender spot. When he brought his hand down there was blood on his fingers, dark and glistening in the golden illumination of the magical light she had conjured.

The Rakshasa must have smelled the blood, for even as the four of them loped from the dark depths of the warehouse and into the glow of that conjured light, they all began to veer toward Farris. One of them hesitated, though, crouched a moment, then began to sprint toward Tamara instead, a second one following close behind.

Oh, I think not. I will not be eaten by a gaggle of small-brained demons. And neither will Farris.

Tamara screamed, raising her arms above her head as though in some macabre ballet, her fingers sizzling with bright blue flame. In one synchronized motion she thrust her arms out in different directions. Chilly gooseflesh rose on her left arm as the very air froze around her fingers, and a crackling sound filled the warehouse. The two Rakshasa lunging after her instantly went as rigid as statues, coated with blue ice, their momentum causing them to topple to the floor and shatter into hundreds of shards.

Simultaneously a second spell erupted from the fingers of her right hand and arced across the floor to envelop Farris in a sparkling cage of violet light, providing a ward against attack. It was one of the most powerful protection spells Tamara had mastered.

Never had she attempted two spells at once. Had anyone suggested it to her in calmer times, the mere idea would have left her skeptical. But these were desperate times, in the heat of battle, and she would tax her body, soul, and magic to the very limits to protect herself and her allies.

The two that had been about to attack Farris hesitated as they neared the cage of violet lightning surrounding him. One of them threw back its head and let loose a howl of frustration, but the other only growled, then emitted that high-pitched hyena laughter and turned away from Farris, eyes falling upon Tamara. Despite the scent of Farris's blood, they knew he was no longer viable prey.

But Tamara . . .

They started toward her. She held out her left hand again, the blue fire still burning bright in sharp contrast with her pale white fingers.

"Try me," she taunted the Rakshasa.

They moved toward her, their sharp claws making a clicking noise on the floor. Their fetid breath was staggering as they moved nearer, a miasmic cloud that was nearly enough to overpower her.

Then from the darkness behind the monsters came the ghostly form of Lord Byron. The specter came darting from the shadows and attacked one of the demons. He wrapped phantom fingers around the filthy matted fur at the back of the Rakshasa's neck, and in one smooth motion plunged a fist through its skull. Though he was only spirit, pure ectoplasm, the penetration was devastating. The Rakshasa let out a high, keening wail unlike anything she had heard from the demons before, and crumbled to its knees, weakly batting at its head in an ill-fated attempt to reach for Byron, not realizing it had already been dealt a fatal blow.

"Good show, Byron!" Tamara cried.

"Tamara, look out!" the ghostly poet shouted.

The Protector of Albion spun, magic erupting from her fingers without as much as conscious thought, incinerating a pair of Rakshasa as they tried to attack her from behind.

"Well spotted!" she called, her hand still held aloft in front of her. The ghost, having disposed of a second demon himself, moved to join her.

AS TAMARA AND Byron held off the Rakshasa, Nigel engaged Colonel Dunstan in a battle of wills.

Though the ghost had assumed an early advantage over the vampire, Nigel had kept the colonel at bay thus far. Dunstan was a ghost, but he was capable of destroying a vampire if he could do enough damage to the body. Yet Nigel Townsend had been in combat with ghosts before, and from the wild look of desperation in Dunstan's eyes, he thought perhaps the colonel had little experience with the undead.

Nigel gripped Dunstan's spectral arm with such strength that his fingers punctured ectoplasmic flesh. With his free hand he grabbed the back of the ghost's head and bared his fangs with a hiss. They were jutting from his mouth, elongated in the fury of battle, and his eyes gleamed a bright crimson. Nigel darted his jaws forward and tore a piece of Dunstan's ghostly essence away.

"Let go, leech!" Dunstan cried, and he thrust himself upward, flying toward the ceiling.

Nigel's grip slipped. That was the problem with ectoplasm: it ran like mercury through your hands if you weren't careful. He snarled in frustration and leaped upward himself, jaws gnashing in blind, berserker rage.

"Coward!" he screamed. "You flee like a girl child! Come, fight me like a man. Like the soldier you once were!"

"And let you tear me to ribbons? I think not!" Dunstan countered. High above Nigel, he raised his hand and manifested an ectoplasmic sword that seemed to grow from his palm and glowed with a pale, ugly green light.

Before Dunstan could launch another attack, however, the shadows around them exploded in shimmering blue fire, and a searing bolt of magic struck the ghost. The specter went rigid, letting out a cry of alarm that was cut short by the magical assault. The sword he had manifested dissipated, and the ghost simply hung there in the air like a fly trapped in amber.

Tamara appeared from the shadows, mystical blue energy still dancing around her fingers as though she had unleashed so much power this night that she could not stanch its flow. Even as she approached, the incapacitated Dunstan floated down within easy reach. Nigel grinned, baring his fangs.

"Well done, Tamara," he snarled, even as he took hold of the trapped ghost and drove his fangs into Dunstan's spectral throat, teeth pushing through ectoplasm as though the ghost's flesh were overripe fruit.

"Nigel, no!" Tamara screamed.

But the vampire paid her no mind. With fang and claw he began to shred Dunstan's spectral essence, and the ghost began to go flaccid, like a sail when the wind has suddenly died. Nigel might not be able to destroy the specter completely, but if the vampire tore him apart it would take time for Dunstan to reconstitute himself.

"Nigel, stop! We need him!" Tamara shouted again.

Staring at her right through the transparent, withering phantom held in his grip, Nigel continued to tear at the ghost. His brows knitted, and he tried to warn Tamara off with a simple glare.

With a flick of her hand, Tamara released Dunstan from her binding spell. Furious, Nigel pulled back from the ghost to upbraid her, and the wraith Dunstan had become slipped from his grasp. He disappeared into the ether, leaving only empty air.

"Bloody Hell, Tamara Swift! Do not interfere when you know nothing of the situation," Nigel said, his voice low and menacing.

"Do not think to correct me, Nigel! I told you we needed him, but you were set upon destroying-"

"I was incapacitating him. There is a difference, girl! I'm well aware that none of our allies trust me because of my nature, but I thought I had at least earned the benefit of the doubt from you. Now because of your impetuousness, we've lost him!"

As Nigel took an angry step toward Tamara, Byron materialized between them.

"She did not know, Townsend. Use your head, man. Obviously she wasn't aware what you were doing, and how could she have been? Their studies have touched only the surface," the ghost said hotly. He was uncommonly belligerent, hands up as though he might shove Nigel backward if he attempted to get any closer to Tamara.

"You want the same, poet?" Nigel rasped, spitting the last word as though it were a slur.

Byron held his ground. "As you wish," he said, keeping his gaze locked on Nigel's.

For a long moment neither of them gave way. At last, Nigel shook his head sadly and turned from them. "I am tired of being treated like an enemy," he said as he began to walk away, seeking the solace of shadows.

"Nigel, I'm sorry. I didn't understand. I still don't, really . . . ," Tamara called after him, but he ignored her, choosing to prowl the perimeter of the warehouse rather than respond.

"Don't let it bother you, my pet," Nigel heard Byron say. "Vampires are notoriously moody."

In the darkness, he sneered, but he did not rise to the bait. He needed time to let his anger go, to release the bloodlust and malice that had been nurtured by his fight with Dunstan's ghost.

"What was I to think?" Tamara said again, her voice low as though she spoke only to Byron, though Nigel knew she was aware that with his vampiric senses he could easily hear her. "Oh, Byron, there is so much I'm still learning, and I am afraid that one day the things I don't yet know about magic will be the death of me . . . or of those I love."

Byron muttered something soft and kind, and Nigel felt a black guilt settle over him. He ought to go to Tamara, and soothe her, to help her master the power of the Protectorship.

And he would. He just needed a moment to settle his nerves.

Even as these thoughts played across his mind, he heard a moan coming from an open doorway. He glanced up, thinking they had found Tipu Gupta, but it was Farris, emerging from the room with one hand clapped to the back of his head.

"Farris, are you all right?" Tamara asked.

"Thanks to you, miss. If you hadn't put that spell on me, I'd've been dinner for sure."

The butler winced and drew his hand away from the back of his head. He'd been injured, and the smell of his blood made Nigel's nostrils flare with hunger. He managed a smile.

"You fought admirably, my friend. You've a lion's heart."

The stout, barrel-chested Farris stood a bit taller, touched by this sentiment. "Thank you, sir. I do my best. Nothing special about old Farris, I'm afraid. No magic here, as you know. But I try to make up for that with my fists." He hesitated a moment before going on. "I hope you'll accept my apologies, sir. I was quite rude. Misjudged you, I did."

Nigel sighed. "You're far from the only one. It is in the past. Let's neither of us speak of it again."

Farris nodded gravely, and Nigel found himself pleased to have forged a new bond with that courageous man.

Tamara hurried over, Byron floating behind her, glaring balefully at Nigel. But all her attention was on the butler now. Nigel was pleased that Farris's arrival had drained away the tension between them.

"How badly are you hurt, Farris?" Tamara asked.

He gave her a weak smile and shook his head. "I'll have a knot on the back of my head for a few days to come, but I feel as hale as I was before those demons attacked."

Tamara raised an eyebrow and stared at him doubtfully. "Farris?"

The stalwart butler nodded. "Right, well, I could use another of those spells of yours, mistress. That might fix me up right good and proper."

Not for the first time, Tamara wondered at the healing properties of magic. She always felt stronger, better able to cope with intense situations after she had used a spell. Sometimes she pondered the idea that one could become quite addicted to the sensation. Or addict others to it. Nevertheless, she cast a minor spell, easing Farris's pain.

"All right, what's next?" she asked her friends. "We've got to assume that wherever Tipu Gupta is being held, Horatio is imprisoned, as well. Colonel Dunstan led us here to be slaughtered . . . a plan I'm pleased we thwarted. But I do not believe that our locator spell was incorrect. It worked perfectly, and it indicated Gupta's presence in this very spot, or near enough. Otherwise we would have suspected Dunstan's duplicity all the sooner. He must have brought us somewhere very near their actual location. We've got to search every alley, every building, in the area. And we've got to start now."

WILLIAM AWOKE IN near darkness, to find himself propped up in a stiff leather armchair. He drew in a deep breath and found that his chest hurt.

As his eyes adjusted to the firelight, shapes began to come into focus. The first thing he saw was a huge hearth with a roaring fire, blazing away. He was in a small study. A large teak desk took up a good portion of the room, and two looming curio cases stood as sentries on either side of it. A stuffed lion's head hung from the wall above the mantel, and at first William thought it was somehow attached to the robed figure that stood below it.

When he squinted, however, he saw that the lion and the man were indeed separate, but somehow that didn't make him feel any better. There was something sinister about the robed man, his face obscured from William's gaze. Something sinister about the room itself, and the Algernon Club in general, in fact. It wasn't entirely unexpected, but it was a disappointment.

He had so enjoyed dinner.

He tried to sit up but found that his body could not do what he asked of it. He was trapped here, probably trussed up like some sacrificial lamb for the slaughter. He knew now that he shouldn't have come, that all the good food they had served should have been suspect.

Now I shan't have a hope of getting the recipe for that treacle tart, he thought petulantly.

"What do you want?" William managed to ask. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth, and made the words hard to form. He was still slurring a bit, but it was better than before.

What exactly had happened? he wondered. He remembered dinner and John Haversham and . . .

Oh, no, William. You didn't really pet the hair of Sir Robert Peel, as though he were some lapdog! He felt his cheeks flush crimson. How horrible. He would never live the embarrassment down.

He vaguely remembered the look of shock on the parliamentarian's face. Here was the man who had brought about the formation of the Metropolitan Police-the peelers, for God's sake-and William had petted him.

On the other hand, his mortification was likely for naught. If things continued the way they had been going, he would never be in Sir Robert's company again. Perhaps there was a bright side to being murdered by a mysterious gang of occultists.

Then again, perhaps not.

"As you've no doubt surmised, Mr. Swift, your food was drugged. We required that your mind be dulled, to make it difficult for you to muster your magic, in the event this conversation goes . . . awry."

That final word, so mundane, sounded so sinister now. William swallowed hard.

"It was the treacle tart, wasn't it?" He sighed. "Villains."

"Silence!" the robed man commanded.

"Right, fine. You said you wanted to have a conversation, but apparently what you meant to say was soliloquy. Go on, then. Have at it."

The robed man stood beneath the lion's head, ominous and still. William felt himself frozen, not merely by the drug in his blood, but by pure dread.

"The Algernon Club has existed in one form or another for centuries," the robed man said. "At first it was an enclave of magicians, a place where information was exchanged, truces made, and alliances forged. Dark sorcerers were not welcome, though they managed to infiltrate the group from time to time.

"Over the years we acquired a public face, that of the gentlemen's club, so popular in London in this new era. An interest in magic, and a certain position in society, were all that would be required to make an application, and soon enough the Algernon Club became known for its amusing eccentricity. We are well known now as a collection of sleight-of-hand artists and illusionists, tricksters, and stage mystics.

"Or so the world believes.

"Among the entertainers, however, there remains a core membership, including the directors of the club, who are true to its founders' wishes. There is real magic here, William, as I'm sure you know well.

"From its inception, the club was aware of the existence of the Protector of Albion. In the earliest days, the Protector was a sailor, a ship's mate named Harry Curtis. It was an unwanted anchor to him, curtailing his ability to pursue his love of the sea. His mother had been Protector before him, and had passed the mantle to Harry. He despised her for it. They were both commoners. Harry Curtis took his own life without naming an heir to the legacy, but the soul of Albion would not be denied, and soon a new Protector was chosen, and the legacy restored. In time-more than ninety years and three Protectors later-the legacy fell to Maurice Ludlow.

"In all the history of the Protectorship of Albion, Maurice was the first to accept an invitation to become a member of the Algernon Club. The directors of the club did as they had always done, attempting to share secrets and spells to better our fellowship of magicians, as well as safeguard the people of this great land. It was an honor to have the Protector among us.

"Upon his death, Maurice passed the duties and power of the Protector to his grandnephew, Ludlow Swift. Your grandfather, William. He was also a member of our club. Now, though, Sir Ludlow is dead, and we would like to know if the mantle has passed . . . to you."

The robed man stopped speaking and walked over to one of the curio cabinets. William held his breath as the man unlocked the case and pulled open the door.

Inside were three of the stolen Indian idols.

"Don't touch them. They are not safe-" William began, but he did not finish as the man lifted his hand and began a protection spell. A blue flash of light formed over the stone creatures, and William gasped.

"Your concern is understandable, but not necessary, William. The club became aware some days ago of the curse that had been laid upon these idols, and the plague of evil they were spreading. In the time since, we have had agents working ceaselessly to locate and recover as many of them as possible, doing our best to halt the spread of this horror. We have purchased them when possible, and stolen them when we had no other choice. Those in our possession have been made safe, counterspells cast upon them so that they are harmless, as long as they reside within our walls.

"In the time since your grandfather's death, we have been attempting to determine the identity of the new Protector. The disappearance of your father deepened the mystery. It would have been preferable for us to undertake this recent action with the Protector's approval, but under the circumstances we had no choice but to proceed upon our own instincts. We hope, now, to remedy that situation, and to once again have the Protector of Albion counted among our number."

"Who are you?" William asked.

The man reached up and lowered the hood of his robe, revealing handsome, regal features and dark hair peppered with gray. "Lord Simon Blackheath. The director of the Algernon Club. At your service."

William stared. His head had begun to clear, the effects of the drug wearing off, and now he felt his pulse racing. He so wanted to believe Lord Blackheath. The idea that he and Tamara might have such allies to aid them in their cause was one that would make him rejoice . . . if it turned out to be true.

Of course they had been aware for some time now that there were other magicians in England, and that some of them belonged to various secret societies. According to Ludlow's journals, however, most of them were apparently black magicians, devoted to dark deeds and enslaved to evil masters.

"There is no mention of the club in my grandfather's journals," William stated flatly, climbing to his feet and brushing off the seat of his trousers.

"Of course not. The true nature of the Algernon Club is cloaked in utter secrecy. Ludlow would never have betrayed our trust in that way."

Lord Blackheath respectfully lowered his head and waited for a response.

William studied the man. Blackheath could have killed him while he was unconscious, yet he had not. There was also the matter of the stolen idols, which explained many of the errant mysteries connected to the present crisis. It all seemed too good to be true. Which meant it probably was.

As he considered it, though, William decided that the only way to discover whether or not the man could be trusted was to see the conversation through to its natural conclusion. He could not find any reason not to confirm for Lord Blackheath what the man already seemed to know.

"You are offering me membership in the Algernon Club?"

Lord Blackheath smiled, his dark eyes ringed with tiny wrinkles. "Not only in the club, but on the council. The Protector has held a seat on the council for more than a century."

"All right, then. I accept." William grinned then, and raised an eyebrow. "But I should inform you, my lord, that you will need two empty chairs, not one."

Storm clouds passed across Lord Blackheath's eyes as he frowned at William. "I beg your pardon. Two?"

"I have inherited the Protectorship of Albion, just as you thought," William went on, straightening his jacket and feeling the magic of his inheritance surging up within him, sparkling just beneath his skin. "But I share that legacy. My grandfather chose two heirs, myself, and my sister, Tamara. I accept your invitation on her behalf, as well."

The older man's eyes went wide and he paled, his jaw working for several moments during which he seemed incapable of forming words.

"But . . . ," he said at last. "But, this is a gentlemen's club."

William crossed his arms and gazed at Lord Blackheath balefully. "Good," he said. "Then I can be confident that in my sister's presence, you will all behave like gentlemen. You desire to have the Protector of Albion among your ranks, my lord. So you shall have both of us."

IN THE MOLDY, rotting hold of the creaking ship, Nelson watched Tipu Gupta quietly meditating, legs pulled beneath him. The man seemed to gather strength from the quiet chant he intoned under his breath. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the Protector of Bharath looked up and gave the ghost another weak smile.

"I am sorry I have dragged you and your friends into my troubles," he said.

"Nonsense," said Nelson. "This plague affects us all. It is not your burden to shoulder alone. We must stand united against it."

Tipu Gupta shook his head sadly.

"Yet I am responsible, Lord Nelson. This evil has afflicted Albion because of me and my . . . poor choices."

Horatio raised a ghostly eyebrow. "Please explain."

The man nodded slowly, a pain deep as the heart etched on his face. "It was because of Ludlow Swift's passing that I was reminded of my own failing health," Tipu Gupta began. "I, too, had not chosen an heir, and I realized that, though I had a number of years still left on this Earth, I had much to teach my pupil. That the choosing had best be done soon, if I was to impart all the knowledge I possessed."

Horatio nodded.

"I was a fool. I chose unwisely-"

Suddenly a loud buzzing noise rent the air.

"What in the-" Horatio began as a blue light filled the hull of the ship, blinding Gupta and causing the ghost to retreat.

With a noise like meat frying in a pan and a flash of bright light, Tamara Swift translocated into the dank cargo hold. Her dress was torn and her hair unkempt, but her eyes were bright and gleaming with courage and determination. Even in his lifetime, Admiral Nelson had never been so happy to see the face of an ally.

"Tamara!" he cried.

"Horatio, oh, thank the Lord," she said, and rushed to him.

There was an awkward moment when, were he a man of flesh and bone, they would have embraced. Instead they only gazed fondly at each other for a moment before Tamara turned her attention to the old Indian man who still sat cross-legged upon the floor. She squatted down beside the man and stared at him.

"You are Tipu Gupta, are you not? The Protector of Bharath?"

The old man took a long, shuddering breath.

"I am."

The sadness on Tamara's face broke Nelson's heart. It was as though all her courage had failed her, and he knew she must have been thinking about Helena Martin, and perhaps all the others who had suffered so horribly in recent days, as well.

"Please, sir. Can't you explain this all to me? There has been so much horror. We fight against these demons, see women violated and men turned to monsters, so much death and cruelty, and we don't know why."

He gazed at her for long seconds. "Why?" he said, at last. "A single word, a simple question, but it never has a simple answer. Had you lived in India before the English came, or seen the way our people are treated in their own country, you might begin to understand. Had you spent time in this district, near the docks, in the filth with sailors from the East India Company who were carried here so far from home and then abandoned without any way to return to India, you might know. My country, my people, are trampled beneath the boot of the British Empire."

There was such bitterness in his voice that Nelson felt sympathy even as he bristled at the man's anger. As a naval man, he felt the call to defend the Crown, to defend England, but he said nothing. Gupta was a fellow prisoner and posed no threat.

Tamara's mouth gaped open. "You . . . you're responsible for all of this?"

The old man shook his head in despair. "Yes. But not in the way you think."

"I should hope not! For whoever's done this has cursed not only London, but slaughtered your own people, as well!" Nelson snapped.

Tamara shot him a withering glance. "Lord Nelson. Get hold of yourself." Then she turned her attention back to the Protector of Bharath. "Mr. Gupta, sir?"

He met her hard gaze with his own. "I trained my daughter, Priya, as the Heir of Bharath, the Protector-in-waiting. Upon my death she would look after our country and keep it safe from the encroaching evil. Just as your grandfather chose you and your brother."

He sighed and shook his head. "She was the wrong choice. The Protector is to combat supernatural threats. Evil and dark magic. War and diplomacy must be left to human society and its governments, for better or worse. It is not our place to interfere with civilization, only to protect it.

"I have no love for the British Empire. But my daughter has nurtured a hatred for the English in her heart her entire life, despising your control over our people and lands. Named as my heir and successor, she began to tap into the magic of the soul of Bharath, sapping my power from me before it was her due. When I had been sufficiently weakened, she attempted to kill me, so that she would receive what remained of my power . . . what she had not already stolen.

"I survived, but only barely. With most of my magic at her disposal, she fled India, bent upon vengeance against the British Crown."

"Your own daughter?" Tamara exclaimed. "I am so sorry."

Tipu Gupta nodded, his eyes sad and empty.

"Weakened as I am, I followed Priya here and tried to undo the evil she had perpetrated, tried to stop her. But I cannot. I do not know how to explain it. She must have been studying spellcraft for years, without my knowledge, abusing my trust, making supplication to the gods, courting demons . . . so that once she had even a fraction of my power, she was able to wield it with deadly skill.

"I am depleted. Most of what I was, I am no longer. But Priya only grows stronger. I think she believes she has allied herself with the goddess Kali, but the thing that whispers to her in the shadows of her mind is not Kali. It may be an aspect of the goddess, a dark, feverish, savage thing, but not the goddess herself. Still, it gives Priya more power even than she stole from me. The longer my daughter taps into that power, the more difficult it will be for me to stop her when we face each other for the final time."

Tamara took his shaking hand in her own and squeezed.

"Why did you not come to us? We would have helped you," she said.

The old man shook his head.

"I thought that your father was the heir, the Protector of Albion. And since I found him to be incapacitated, I chose to fight my daughter alone. And I was . . ."

He gazed up at her, jaw set grimly. "I was ashamed."

THE WIND WAS colder than the girl could have imagined. It whipped through the thin fabric of her sari and chilled her copper skin. Her long, black hair, her pride as a child, was held firmly in place beneath a piece of thin, white cloth. She had chosen white, the color of bone, the color of death, because it mirrored her mood, and because the goddess wished it.

Yes, the voice spoke in her mind, in the native tongue of her homeland. White for death. White for vengeance. You have done well, daughter of Kali.

Priya smiled to herself, no longer cold. The love of the goddess warmed her. She was here for vengeance. And it thrilled her to the very core to think how close she had come to fulfilling her aim. From the poor, suffering fools who had been cast aside in the slums of London like refuse, she had created a small army. Some of them had been traitors, serving their English masters, and others had been victims. Either way, they were better off now, transformed into the reptilian Children of Kali, serving both their country and the goddess. She had begun with them, and then proceeded to punish the guilty, using the Curse of Kali to destroy the thieves, one by one, and transform them, as well. They would serve the cause of vengeance for the very goddess they had defiled.

It was perfect. As Protector of Bharath, she had wrought monsters from the flesh of men, and she had them to do her bidding. With the help of the goddess, she had yoked the mighty Rakshasa to her command. And now the endgame had begun. One more night, and she would wrest control of the entire British Empire in the name of the goddess, and the accursed would destroy the city of London.

Never again would a foreign power look toward India with predatory eyes and imperialistic ambitions. Not after this.

Priya closed her eyes and placed her hands upon her abdomen, where she had tattooed the thirty-six tattvas in ink, etching the symbols with the tip of a blade and then staining the wounds black. All for the goddess.

Now, under her breath, she began to chant a mantra to soothe her mind.

"Krim Om Kurukulle Sarva-Jana-Vasamanya Krim Kurukulle Hrim Svaha," she whispered, pausing only a moment before chanting the mantra a second, then a third and fourth time.

Yes, daughter, the goddess said, the voice in her mind warming her flesh and making her gasp, as a shudder of pleasure rippled through her, beginning at the tips of her fingers and ending deep within her yoni. The time had come at last. Now you will be the true Protector of Bharath, safeguarding your people with the courage your spineless father could never muster. At last, a worthy Protector has risen.

Priya opened her eyes and called into the frigid night. "Children, I call you! Come to me! Rise and destroy your enemies in Kali's name!"

THE NIGHT GREW colder, and freezing rain began to shower down upon the makeshift hospital in Shadwell district. Wind ripped at the coverings that protected the patients, and the rain slipped in through every crack.

The wind died suddenly, and there fell upon the place an unsettling silence. The doctor and the others who were caring for the suffering looked up from their tasks, sensing something in the air that filled them with dread.

A single shriek of agony ripped through the troubling silence and then was joined by another. Then another, one by one, until it was an unholy chorus. The women who lay upon the cots in that filthy hospice arched their bodies and gripped the rough blankets as their wombs began to tear. The curse that had afflicted them had followed a predictable course, days of discomfort and grief followed by excruciating labor and death while giving birth.

But now all the victims were engulfed. Regardless of how long since they had been infected with this plague, from women who had staggered into the courtyard this very evening to those who had been there for days, each and every one began to scream and thrash, their bloated bellies undulating . . . and from each there burst a stream of grotesque toad-creatures, erupting from the torn bodies to spill onto the floor.

The doctor could not bear the sight. He had seen too much. With a cry that matched their wails of pain, he struck his skull against the wall. Once, twice, a third time. Then, weeping and bleeding, he fell to his knees and vomited in the cold rain as the toad-creatures hopped off into the darkness.

It was only after those hideous things, with their bulbous yellow eyes, had all disappeared that the first of the accursed men, the twisted creatures that had defiled those very women, tore themselves free of their blankets and bindings and leaped from their cots. Their caretakers screamed and attempted to flee, but to no avail. They were caught and gutted with scaly fingers tipped with ragged claws. The accursed men ate their fill of the human flesh, steaming in the cold night air. The creatures were hungry after such a long time spent waiting for the call.

When they had finished, they lingered with the corpses of the women who had died giving birth to their spawn, waiting patiently until a pair of Rakshasa came and led them away to the waiting water of the Thames and the call of their mistress, the Protector of Bharath.

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