Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve


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Nigel Townsend was a private man who didn't appreciate it when company arrived upon his doorstep uninvited. He liked it even less when they simply appeared in his parlor.

Worse, when his guests happened to be the grandchildren of Ludlow Swift, he could be reasonably certain his life was going to be placed in peril. Not at the hands of William and Tamara themselves, of course, but as a result of whatever trouble they had managed to entangle themselves in as Protectors of Albion.

Nigel, himself, had once been chosen to inherit the mantle of Protector, but Ludlow had withdrawn that ordination. Nigel had never blamed his old friend, though. He seriously doubted the spiritual powers that be would have allowed a vampire to become Protector. Just as well.

It wasn't a job he wanted.

And yet somehow, he seemed to have taken on part of the job-the perilous part-without receiving any of the magical benefits. William and Tamara had turned to him for aid and instruction from the very moment they had inherited the power and duty of the Protectorship, and they always seemed to need him most when he was relaxing with a glass of fine whiskey and enjoying a Turkish cigarette.

He was doing precisely that, and reading the comedies of Aristophanes, when he heard the familiar trilling noise that announced translocation. The sound faded, to be replaced by the less musical one of brother and sister muttering indignantly at each other. The duo materialized.

"Hello, Nigel." Tamara smiled and tilted her head just so. Her eyes sparkled. "You look comfortable."

Ah, Tamara. He could never deny her.

"To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, children?" Nigel asked, masking his irritation for her sake. He wore an Egyptian smoking jacket and black trousers, but his feet were bare.

Tamara's eyes sparkled as she took in the jacket and the Turkish cigarette, its smoke curled languidly toward the ceiling.

For his part, William only looked annoyed.

Nigel smiled, exposing his sharp white fangs. It gave him great pleasure to annoy the uptight William Swift. He had decided that it was his duty to loosen the boy up, however he could. He gathered that underneath all that stiffness lurked a berserker waiting to hear the call of battle, and Nigel Townsend hoped to witness the transformation when it finally did occur.

Being undead, he had to take his little pleasures wherever he could find them.

"There's a terrible scourge making its way through London, Nigel. A plague, of sorts, though rooted in dark magic. If you're willing, we're going to need your help," Tamara said.

Nigel saw William wince. The boy hated coming to him for aid.

"Go on, then. Let's have the tale." Nigel crossed his arms and drew sweet smoke from his cigarette.

Tamara regaled him then with a story of cursed idols and transmogrified men, of Indian people dying in the slums from a magical plague. He half listened to her words, while at the same time measuring the thrum of her heartbeat as it danced merrily beneath her breast.

When she finally ceased her tale, he looked up into her luminous blue eyes and shrugged.

"And you would have me do what about this . . . ?"

For the first time since their arrival, William spoke.

"How can you ask that?" His face was pinched into an angry scowl. "There is a threat to Albion! For some reason, our grandfather trusted you. You have an obligation to tell us what you know about this . . . this Bharath."

Nigel just shrugged, waiting patiently for William to finish. One corner of his mouth lifted into a smile.

"I still fail to see what I can do for you, William Swift. I know nothing of that strange Hindu culture. There are other Asian places of which I am fond, but that hellhole India is not one of them. I suggest that you speak to Byron for this sort of enlightenment. He traveled extensively in that region, if I remember correctly."

Tamara took a step toward Nigel.

"Nigel," she began, "what we need from you is your help in locating the Protector of Bharath. I found some reference to him in the journals you brought us, Grandfather's journals, and I think he might be connected with the danger we face."

She reached out and took Nigel's hand in her own. It was warm against the coolness of his skin.

"Please, it must be that if this man, Tipu Gupta, was a friend of Grandfather's, he was at least an acquaintance of yours."

He nodded. "I did have the occasion to meet him, once or twice, and he wasn't a bad sort as magicians go. I would suggest that you pay a visit to his home, in Alipore, a suburb of Calcutta. You can easily translocate from here," Nigel offered. He lifted Tamara's hand to his lips for a quick kiss, and a closer sniff of her blood.

William reached out and quickly yanked Tamara's hand away. "Thank you for your help, Nigel," he said, his voice pinched. "We shan't bother you again."

Tamara silenced her brother with a curt glance.

"Yes, thank you, Nigel," she said. "We will keep you abreast of what we discover. In the interim, if you think of anything that might be of help . . ."

Nigel's nostrils flared in amusement, and he arched an eyebrow. "It seems I remain your humble servant, despite my worst intentions."

TAMARA AND WILLIAM translocated into the middle of a forest of well-tended ferns. He had been gaining confidence in his magical prowess of late and had insisted on directing the course of their translocation himself. But perhaps he'd been overconfident.

"Oh, well done, William." Tamara sighed. "Where've you sent us now? Some African jungle, perhaps?"

He shot her a dark look. "There's no need to be snide. Considering we've never been here before, you can't blame me if we're a bit off the mark."

His sister raised an eyebrow. "Can't I? I suppose that depends upon how far off the mark."

Once they got their bearings, they found a path through the ferns and shortly were making their way down the dirt roads of the southern Calcutta suburb of Alipore. On the road they met a small, bent old man who was, oddly, carrying three cricket stumps. Fortunately, he was acquainted with Tipu Gupta, and he gave them clear instructions that would lead them to the Protector's bungalow. It was all William could do not to ask the man about the stumps, for he was an avid player, but their mission had to take priority. As they continued, he cast a sideways glance at his sister.

"You gave me the most hideous glare back at Nigel's apartments, Tamara," William chided as he kicked up a cloud of dirt from the road. It gathered like a storm around them, and would not dissipate.

"You were rude. Rudeness does not pay, Will. Especially with Nigel," Tamara replied. "You know how he can be."

William didn't answer her, though. He was too busy shooing the bugs away from his uncovered face and neck.

The late afternoon was warm and pleasant. He found that he did not need the light jacket he had brought with him. In fact, he had taken it off; it hung casually over his right shoulder.

"Are you even listening to me?" Tamara demanded.

He gave her a blank look. "It's these damnable bugs, Tam. They seem hell-bent on eating me alive."

"Well, they're not bothering me at all," she answered, but she stared curiously at the swarming creatures.

William scowled, wondering if his sister was somehow getting the better of him, but he could not for his life figure out how.

"I think this is the place," Tamara said, stopping abruptly and pointing at an old bungalow with bits of greenery growing up its sides. It wasn't a small structure, but it wasn't a mansion, either. It sat back a distance from the road, so that the siblings had to traverse a winding dirt-and-stone path to get to the front entrance.

Upon reaching the bungalow's door, William positioned himself in front of his sister. He was reasonably certain Indian culture would look even less favorably upon Tamara's independent streak than did that of England. She tossed him an irritated look, but remained quiet as he knocked on the old wooden door.

"I think you'd best let me handle this, Tam," he said, but before he could continue, a tiny middle-aged woman opened the door. She wore the traditional Indian sari, and her graying hair was pulled back in a tight bun at the nape of her neck.

She stared at them, but offered no greeting, and her brown eyes were curious.

"We've come to see Mr. Gupta," William said in what he hoped was a respectful voice. The older woman cocked her head and blinked twice before breaking into a fast stream of agitated Hindi.

William didn't know what to do, and he looked back to his sister nervously. Given the expression on the old woman's face, he was sure she was calling him all sorts of horrible names. Tamara stepped forward.

"Let me try, Will."

Tamara closed her eyes and spoke quietly under her breath. "Ostendo."

The woman's words crystallized into precise, accented English that both she and William could easily understand.

". . . and then supposed to arrive in Darjeeling, but the Protector was not to be found," the woman continued. Her words tumbled over themselves.

"You mean to say that he's missing?" Tamara asked, alarmed now.

The woman nodded. "I just said as much, didn't I?"

Thanks to the spell, she now understood Tamara's English as easily as if she had been speaking Hindi.

"We were having trouble with translation," William told her.

She raised both eyebrows, an expression of sudden comprehension on her face, and then shook her head as though amused. "I see. More magicians. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have presumed you spoke Hindi. I'm pleased you can understand me now."

Tamara smiled. "You seem rather relaxed about the idea of magic."

"I have served Tipu Gupta for twenty-three years. Very little surprises me after all that time."

"But Gupta is gone, you say?" William asked, pulling them back to their purpose.

"They are both gone, and cannot be found. It is not my place to keep watch over them. I am only a servant in this household, though I raised the child as my own from the very moment of her mother's death," the woman explained. She studied them carefully. "Why are you looking for him? Do you know anything that might help us discover where they've gone?"

"Our grandfather, Ludlow Swift, was a great friend of Tipu Gupta," Tamara said.

At the mention of Ludlow's name, the woman's eyes lit up, and her mouth curved into a smile, making it clear that she had known and been quite fond of their grandfather. But the effect was brief, and her expression darkened as she shook her head. "Why are you here? If the Protector of Bharath is in London, why are you here?"

"I'm sorry," William said, befuddled. "The Protector . . . you mean to say that Mr. Gupta's gone to London?"

The woman nodded vigorously. "Yes, of course. There is trouble there, he says. That must be where she has gone, too."

"It makes no sense," Tamara muttered, as though to herself. "If he knew what was happening there . . . if he went to help, why wouldn't he have contacted us? And who is this girl you mentioned?"

"His daughter, of course. They are both missing."

Tamara frowned. "And you know nothing else that would help us locate them? He said nothing that would provide a clue?"

The woman shook her head. "Nothing. You will find them, though, won't you? I worry for him. He is an old man, now."

William stood up a bit straighter. "Yes, madam. Of course we'll find him. Find them both."

"Thank you. I believe you will."

Abruptly the woman reached out and stroked the curve of William's jaw. He was so surprised by her action that he didn't stop her.

"So much like your grandfather. Ah, Ludlow . . . he knew how to treat a lady," the woman said. She winked at him, then, and closed the door, leaving them standing there staring in astonishment.

"Well, fancy that. Ludlow was a ladies' man," William said as he turned and grinned at his sister.

"Oh, William, do try to open your eyes once in a while," Tamara said airily. "I've known for ages that Ludlow was a notorious lothario. Haven't you paid the least bit of attention to Bodicea? The woman practically swoons every time someone says Grandfather's name."

"Oh," William said, feeling foolish in a way only Tamara seemed able to elicit.

"Back to London, shall we, Will?" Tamara said, taking his hand.

"Yes, and quickly," he said, frowning.

THE ALLEY STANK of urine and human refuse. Tamara had to lend William her handkerchief, which she had perfumed that morning with lavender, so that he could cover his nose and mouth against the stench. "Thank you," William said, his voice muffled by the press of the cotton.

It was still afternoon, and the loud throng of voices and of cartwheels slapping against cobblestones filled the air around them, giving them a false sense of security. Here in Shadwell, no matter how many people passed by in the surrounding streets, Tamara and William would be considered fair game. Indeed, they were too fair, too cleanly scrubbed, and far too well dressed to be inconspicuous here. The accursed men, those twisted, reptilian monsters, would be less out of place in the winding streets and unwashed throngs.

"Come on, William," Tamara said, taking her brother's hand. "Let us go to meet Horatio and Colonel Dunstan. We cannot be far from the hospice Horatio described for us."

That was the magic of translocation. Even if you didn't know precisely how to reach your destination by foot, the spell would still manage to place you within walking distance. As long as you kept focus on what you desired, magic always knew. Their recent missteps had been prompted by William's inability to focus, the result of which was that they found themselves in the oddest places.

Fortunately, Tamara had taken the reins this time, and she knew enough about Shadwell to get them to the general neighborhood where they would meet with Nelson. She had spent time down here, among the sick and destitute, delivering food and old clothing. As much as William complained that they had been ignoring the plight of the poor, Tamara doubted he had ever set foot in these slums.

Blessed with good fortune and health, she had felt it her duty to assist others who were not so fortunate, making certain they had the basic necessities. She and several of her friends had donated their time, bringing supplies to the women and children who inhabited these streets. She and Helena, who had a particular fondness for sketching the street urchins, had come here together, accompanied by a few of the other women from the charitable society.

Sadly, recent events had caused her to discontinue her efforts.

"This way," Tamara said, leading William through the zigzagging alleyways. Turning a corner at a brisk pace, she uttered a small gasp and stopped abruptly in the middle of the narrow alley they had entered. William almost ran into her.

"What is it?" he asked, but he practically swallowed the last word as he saw what it was that had given her such pause.

A large green toad sat on a loose cobblestone, staring up at them. It made a loud croaking deep in its throat, and, as if summoned by the first, three others hopped from the shadows.

The toadlike creatures-for upon closer inspection they seemed quite a contrast with any toads Tamara had ever seen-had small, glittering red eyes that fixed unblinkingly upon the siblings. Their bulbous, sludge-covered bodies shimmered darkly in the obscured light that streamed through the narrow gap between the roofs of the tenement buildings.

"What in the Lord's name-" William began, but his words died in his throat when he heard the clicking of something sharp against cobblestone.

"William," Tamara said, her voice a measured contralto. "Look."

A pair of long, dark shadows blotted out the light that came from a filthy lane running behind the tenements, intersecting the alley they occupied. The figures moved toward them, and their features became clear.

They were enormous, hunched demons with mouths full of gnashing, dagger teeth and skin like rough leather where it wasn't covered in filthy, matted fur. Their eyes were yellow, and crusted with a sickly glaze.

"Run, Tam!" William shouted, trying to pull his sister back.

"Are you insane, Will? You need my help!"

Tamara stood her ground, her head bent low, her eyes watchful as the creatures picked up speed and loped toward them. Their feet cracked cobblestones as they ran, muscles taut and shifting beneath the sheath of their skin. They opened their jaws in silent howls, further baring the rows of fangs that jutted like daggers in their angular mouths.

"Ignate!" William thundered, throwing his hands up in front of him.

A ball of red fire formed from the tips of his fingers, and he hurled it at the closest demon. Its eyes widened and it tried to escape the spell, its claws scoring the tenement wall as it lunged aside. But it was too late. The magical fire engulfed it, and it fell to the ground writhing in pain, its howl no longer silent.

Distracted by the stink of burning demon and the unearthly screech of its death throes, Tamara misjudged the speed of the other, and as it leaped at her she had no time to cast her own spell. She dropped to her knees and rolled out of the demon's path in a desperate move that slammed her shoulder into the tenement wall. She cried out at the impact but instantly climbed back onto her feet, her eyes wet with pain.

Her fingers were twisted into the sigil for a spell, but her attacker had been diverted by the screams of its companion and now rushed at her brother. William screamed as the monster raked its claws across his chest. He staggered backward and fell to the ground.

As the demon crouched to attack once again, William stared up into its tiny eyes, terror jamming his throat and paralyzing his body.

"Ignate!"

Tamara shouted the spell and the magic erupted from within her. The look on her face was almost one of ecstasy. With a thrust of her hand and a flick of her wrist, the arcane fire burned across the alley and struck the demon, spreading quickly along its shoulders and back. It turned on her, enraged and in pain, swiping wildly at her with its claws.

Still sprawled on the ground, William raised his hand, and the flame poured out of him as if he himself were ablaze with it. Already burning, dying, the monster could not escape. The fire engulfed it entirely now, burned away the matted hair on its body and then quickly set to work melting the flesh and muscle away until the thing was nothing but bone, and it collapsed into a heap on the cobblestones.

Tamara ran to her brother, helping him to stand. She fussed over him, looking at the scratches the thing had given him. Its claws had mostly torn his jacket and shirt, but there were thin gashes across his chest as well, and the blood was staining cloth.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I think I will be. Though I wonder if the claws of that creature could carry the infection . . . the curse."

Tamara frowned. "We've no reason to expect that. Even werewolves have to bite to pass along their curse. Still, a strong healing spell ought to close those wounds and protect you from infection, as well."

"We hope," William replied.

Tamara nodded. "We hope. How does it feel?"

He winced. "It stings quite a bit, but I'm mostly worried about wandering around with bloodstained clothes."

"Here?" Tamara asked wryly. "No one will notice."

With that the terror left her, and the excitement of the moment subsided. She smiled and began to laugh softly.

It must have been contagious, for William joined in.

"How did you manage that, anyway?" she asked. "I've never seen that spell work so intensely before. It consumed that creature until there was almost nothing left. Tremendous magicianship, Will."

William shook his head. "I don't know, Tam. I was afraid for you, and then it just happened. All in a day's work, I'm afraid."

But despite his casual words, he beamed at her compliment.

DEMONS WEREN'T NECESSARILY confined to darkness, but they did seem often to prefer the night. So Tamara and William had been surprised by the daylight attack in that filthy alley, and as they proceeded toward their destination they moved with a new wariness.

They sought the temporary hospital that Colonel Dunstan had reported, which the locals had set up. Twice Tamara pressured William to ask people for directions as they passed on the street, which he did, but they received no cooperation. In the end, they found the place largely by the stench of sickness and human waste, baking in the spring sunshine.

"Tamara!" a familiar voice called as they walked toward the building, from which issued the moans of the suffering.

She and William turned and saw a doorway lost in shadows; upon the doorstep were the gossamer images of a pair of ghosts, the specters of Admiral Nelson and Colonel Dunstan. The way they wavered with the interplay of sunshine and shadow, passersby would hardly have noticed a disturbance in the air. Tamara herself might not have been able to see them had she not heard Nelson's voice.

As surreptitiously as possible, William and Tamara pretended they were speaking only to each other. Horatio made his introductions, and Tamara related the tale of the attack that had just taken place. Colonel Dunstan frowned several times and stared at the stains on William's shirt as Tamara told the tale. Horatio was near apoplectic, particularly that the siblings had not summoned help.

"We were perfectly capable of defending ourselves, thank you," William sniffed.

Nelson's ghost stared at him with a dubious expression. "And what is that upon your breast, then, my young friend? Some sort of dye? It was reckless of you not to call upon me, knowing I was so close."

Tamara sighed. She would never get used to having to smooth the ruffled pride of men. "Honestly, Horatio, it was over almost before it had begun. Had it gone a moment longer, we would have realized our predicament and summoned you straightaway. I should think you'd be pleased that we acquitted ourselves so well."

The specter calmed at that. "Well, yes, of course, though I expect no less from the two of you. I daresay you've come a long way under the tutelage provided by Bodicea and myself."

William smiled. "Indeed. Thank you."

Nelson watched him to see if there was any sarcasm in William's tone, but after a moment he seemed to decide that the response had been genuine. Throughout the entire exchange, Colonel Dunstan only watched with interest, nodding gravely from time to time. Now he gazed at Tamara as he spoke.

"Very few have been the prey of Rakshasa, and lived to tell of it," Dunstan said. "You are fortunate."

He was a small figure, like Nelson, and there was a fierce intelligence burning in his translucent eyes. With his thick dark hair and olive skin, Tamara thought him handsome for an older man. Nelson seemed often to tremble with the need for action, but for his part Colonel Dunstan exuded a quiet strength. He was the sort who would examine every aspect of a situation before determining his course, she decided.

"What more can you tell us about them?" William asked. "If we're to encounter more, it would be helpful to know what it is that we face."

"Rakshasa," Dunstan said, "are the ghouls of the Hindu Pantheon. They usually hunt in pairs, though not packs, and their minds are small, easily harnessed with dark magic."

"They were horrid," Tamara said, remembering the yellow eyes, the crouched, feral stance, and the sight of those claws slashing at William. "Were it not for our magic, they would have had us for their dinner."

Suddenly the door to the makeshift hospital opened, and an elderly Indian woman stepped out. William and Tamara glanced at her, but the woman did not seem to even notice them-as if they were ghosts, as well. She turned to the right and started off along the narrow, twisting street, soon disappearing from sight. Then they were alone again.

Just as Tamara was about to speak up, there was a disturbance in the air a few feet away, at the entrance to an alley that ran between buildings, a place so narrow it could barely have been called an alley. The world seemed to flicker there, with a haze like the heat of a summer's day over dark brick or flagstone, and then the ghost of Queen Bodicea appeared. Like Nelson and Dunstan, she was remarkably transparent, merely a wisp of a phantom, an image upon the air, but she was there nevertheless, spear in hand, and looking as grim as Tamara had ever seen her.

William rushed to her, Tamara close behind him, and soon the two of them were crowding into that narrow gap. Nelson and Dunstan followed at a calmer pace.

"What's happened, Bodicea? Have you emasculated yet another of our enemies?" William asked archly.

The spectral queen lowered her chin and gazed at him through slitted eyes. Had Tamara not known better, she would have thought Bodicea about to run her brother through.

"I will not apologize. No one lays a hand on Bodicea and lives."

"Yes, of course," William replied quickly. "Too right. You went easy on the filthy tadpole, that's what I think."

Tamara would have rolled her eyes if she hadn't been concerned about offending Bodicea herself. Her brother was a strange man, courageous in the face of evil and yet intimidated by a strong-willed woman.

"After the frustration of my failure at Carstairs's residence last evening," the spirit continued, "it was a pleasure to have an enemy I was supposed to destroy.

"What do you make of them, my friends? Any connection between these creatures and the sort of hideous transformation Carstairs underwent?"

"There must be," Tamara said firmly.

Bodicea looked at William. "What of the Algernon Club? Can it truly be coincidence, William, that Carstairs had in his possession an invitation to the very same dinner to which the club has invited you for this evening?"

"The Algernon Club. William?" Tamara asked. "Why did you not tell me we had been invited to dine there?"

"Tam, you see, I, uhm . . ."

"It's about time we took a closer look at the place, all those magicians, and who knows how many of them knew Grandfather was the Protector. There may be other real magicians among them. I've been wondering how we might learn more, and here's the perfect opportunity!"

"Tam, please, listen to me for a moment-"

"I shall wear my burgundy gown. The one with the beading-"

"Tamara, there is no need to decide which gown you shall wear, since you were not invited," William said finally. His face was red with discomfort.

"Oh," Tamara said quietly. "I did not know. I supposed . . . well, that we would both be invited." She frowned deeply. "I suppose it only makes sense. It is a gentlemen's club, after all. Yes, that does seem to be the long and the short of it, doesn't it?" She spoke this last sentence almost to herself, as if she was justifying the slight in her own mind. "Though you'd think if any of them were aware that we shared the duties of Protector . . ."

"I'm sorry, Tam. I shan't go, if it would upset you," William said.

"No, you must go. One of us must make their acquaintance, find out what we can about the club and its members."

"There is more," Bodicea said. "Your friend, Tamara, this John Haversham. He has dealings with the club as well. I followed him there this morning."

"You what?" Tamara said. "Why on Earth would you do that?"

"That is why I was unavailable earlier today. I found his behavior last night quite curious. If his goal was not courtship, then I could not figure why he had gone to so much trouble to arrange for the evening at the Egyptian Hall."

Tamara shook her head, staring into the strange, ghost-filled shadows of that alley.

"Just a moment, Bodicea. Am I to understand that, in addition to following John this morning, you spied on me while I was in his company last night?"

The ghost gave Tamara the same darkly dangerous look she had given William moments ago, but Tamara wasn't so easily cowed. After a moment, Bodicea softened.

"You were grief-stricken over the death of Miss Martin, Tamara. I feared that you might not be entirely rational. My apologies for being surreptitious, but I was concerned for your welfare."

Tamara sneered. "Far too many people seem to think me incapable of looking after myself. I'll thank you all to mind your own business, from this point forward."

Nelson, Bodicea, and William all looked properly chastised. Colonel Dunstan seemed to fade somewhat. Tamara didn't blame him. None of this was his affair.

"In future," Bodicea replied calmly, "I shall make certain any such action is taken only with your consent. However, it seemed advisable at the time. And regardless of whether or not it was proper, it seems to me that Mr. Haversham must have some other reason to desire your company."

"Hold on," Tamara said, interrupting Bodicea and peering at her askance. "You were in the hansom cab last night?" Her voice cracked slightly.

But the ghost merely raised her eyebrows. "I am afraid that I spent the majority of the evening accompanying Farris. He seemed rather lonely, without his sprite at his shoulder to harass him."

"Thank God that flying pest has seen fit to go back to the forest," William said. He had found the little creature to be more than a trifle annoying.

"And of course, I had no desire to intrude upon the intimacy of your evening," Bodicea added.

Tamara felt herself turning a horrible shade of crimson. "There was nothing intimate about it, I assure you."

William stared at her, and Tamara returned the look, silently daring him to comment further about her night out with John Haversham.

Nelson cleared his throat, catching everyone's attention.

"My friends, Colonel Dunstan has much to show us. Perhaps we ought to postpone these discussions of drama and deception for another time."

THE HOSPITAL TENT broke Tamara's heart. Misery lived there, sucking up what little bit of life was left to the poor, suffering, bedridden patients. She felt ill as they stepped over the threshold and began to walk among the afflicted. The same feeling was mirrored in William's features, which surprised her. Not that she thought her brother callous, but he could be dreadfully self-absorbed. Yet here, he was overwhelmed by the plight of the people around him.

"This is a terrible place," Tamara whispered to her brother. They stayed close together as they walked down the slim aisle that separated the cots. "I can feel death lurking in every shadow, Will."

He nodded, but seemed incapable of speech. He kept the handkerchief clutched to his face. A thin, gape-mouthed woman caught William's eye, and he knelt down beside her and took her hand.

"Hello," he said, his voice soft.

The woman turned and stared at him mutely. Tears pooled in the corner of her eye, and slid silently down her cheek.

"What're you doing?" demanded a hard voice behind him. They turned to find a small Indian man standing across the aisle, glaring at them. William stood up and turned to address the man.

"I . . . she is suffering. I just-" William began.

"I don't know what you want here. You have no right to be in this place!" The little man's voice was shrill, almost to the point of hysteria. He looked as if he hadn't slept in days; there was prickly stubble all over his jaw and upper lip.

"Please, we meant no harm," Tamara said, coming to her brother's defense. "We only came to offer our help."

The man spat on the floor between them. "No one wants your help!"

Tamara took a distressed step backward.

"How dare you behave so in the presence of a lady," William snapped.

"William, please," Tamara said. The little man looked as if he was going to cry, and she could not bear to add to his trouble. She grabbed William's arm and started to lead him away. The man, who seemed pleased to run them off, turned and walked back to the other end of the tent.

"It would do us no good to offend him further, Will," Tamara said quietly as they walked. "Just look at him. The wreckage of a man."

He shook his head, confusion and frustration showing on his face. "I cannot bear much more of this. I think I must step outside and take the air."

Tamara did not follow him. Instead she continued to walk the rows of cots, looking at the strange, round-bellied women and the men who were beginning to show the effects of the curse that had transformed so many others already. Their flesh was tinged with green and brown and yellow and had a rough, scaly texture that would only grow worse.

In the corner of the makeshift hospital tent, Tamara found an old man they had not noticed before, kneeling beside one of the afflicted women. She moved closer so that she might get a better look as he performed his ministrations. There was something strange about the man, and something familiar, too.

He was Indian, in his late middle life, but there was a youthful elasticity to his skin that was odd. She watched him as he spoke quietly to the woman. His words seemed to have some effect on her, because she smiled and lifted her hand.

Tamara smiled sadly, watching the interchange between the much younger woman and the old man. It stabbed at her heart, encouraging painful remembrances of her own father and grandfather. Things she would have rather forgotten.

Suddenly the woman screamed as the things in her belly began to writhe. She reached out, flailing at her distended midsection with both arms, pounding at whatever lay inside.

The old man did not hesitate; he pulled a small dagger from a sheath at his hip and slit the woman's throat.

Horrified, Tamara covered her mouth with her hand to keep from gagging. She looked around wildly for help, but no one else seemed to have noticed the murder.

Knowing what she must do, she took a step forward, and then another. The murderous old man looked up, sensing Tamara's presence. He bowed his head as she raced toward him, her hands aloft in front of her, lips just forming the words for a holding spell.

But it was for naught. Tamara never had a chance. He vanished right before her eyes.

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