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In a dark, close room at the back of a dockside inn, there was a bed and nothing else.
The bed itself was old, sagging at its center, and it stank. Despite its wear from years of use, not a single person had slept a night upon it, though a few had passed out briefly within its confines. No one had ever dreamed of airing it, though at one point someone had swapped sheets with another bed when one of its occupants had left some sick on the coverlet. Its pillows had been stolen long ago, but they’d been only stain-filled accessories for those desiring more creative sexual positions or a means of stopping the breath of one whose partner had feared a loose tongue. It was a dirty, filthy bed in a morally bankrupt establishment, available to anyone who could plunk down the coin to rent it for an hour.
It was Charles Perry’s favorite bed.
Goddess knew it was practically a passive delivery system for disease, and there was that horrible lump in the middle of the left side that always managed to ram itself into Charles’s thigh just as he was about to come. But -- well, in fact, yes, Charles loved this bed, not for what it was but for what it meant to him. In this inn and in this bed, no one asked questions. It was the worst whorehouse in the city, but it was popular because here you would not get arrested. And because Charles was such a loyal, frequent customer, and because his grandfather’s fat purse was open to him so long as he was discreet, Charles had this particular bed reserved. When he came to the Randy Sailor with a man or a woman, the proprietor simply smiled, passed him the key and a bottle of wine, and wished him well.
Tonight Charles had come with a man and a woman, but not even this had made old Bimsy blink. Charles was having more trouble with his doxies, to tell the truth. The male was squeamish at the idea of a naked woman in bed with them, and clearly the girl’s Hainian accent had been as fake as the rest of her, because it was pure Etsian revulsion she’d expressed when she’d caught Charles kissing the male when she’d come back from the loo. “A bloody molly!” she’d hissed to another whore lingering at the bar when she thought Charles had gone upstairs. “He wants to fuck that dark bugger, then stick it in me!”
Charles had nearly let her go then, but she’d pasted on a smile when she went into his arms, and after he fished out a dram for them both to sniff, he’d found her revulsion almost amusing. “I don’t want to stick it in both of you,” he had told her, tugging at the laces to her bodice. “I want to stick mine in you while he sticks his in me.”
And after some drunken fumbles and a great deal more drug, this was precisely what they had done. There were some kisses, and there was some suckling, but mostly everyone was ready for the fuck, and they had quickly gone straight to business. The girl lay back on the bed, her head lolling off the side, her legs thrown over Charles’s shoulders as he’d wedged himself inside her. The man came up behind, whispering nasty, incoherent Tansian into Charles’s ear as he’d gripped Charles’s biceps and found his position. Charles cried out as he entered the female, and so did the girl, and then the man cried out as he entered Charles, and then it had been nothing but sensation and heat, and then, blessedly, there had been release.
Now the man and the woman Charles had hired for the night were curled up beside him in his favorite bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, purring in the afterglow of sex and the lingering effects of Hain’s finest illegal substances. Charles stroked their naked necks and sweaty tendrils of hair. This was why he loved this room, this bed: because here he could find peace. This was why he kept coming back to the docks, despite his grandfather’s disgust for the habit. And to be here with a man and a woman at once, however awkward the herding had been, to lie here like this was worth it all. For this single, fleeting moment, he felt happy. As his blood pounded and the drug blasted his brain, he knew a fragile peace, and he reveled in it, letting it expand around him.
When the woman would have risen, he kissed her and urged her gently back down beside him.
“Just rest,” he said. “Rest and enjoy the moment.”
She wrinkled her nose at him, but she smiled too, the indolent leer of one high and sated. “Are you one of the Goddess chasers?” she asked, her false Hainian accent only half in place. “Did we fuck so you could ‘touch the divine’?”
Charles laughed and touched her nose. “You’re the only goddess I believe in” -- he tried to remember her name and failed -- “darling.” He kissed her lips, then turned to nuzzle his male companion as well. “The pair of you are the only Lord and Lady I need.”
The girl giggled, nipped at Charles’s nipple, then settled down beside him again.
Charles leaned his head back against the metal rail and sighed. He could stay this way for hours. Days. If he didn’t have to eat and piss, he could stay this way forever. But he could not stay forever. Soon the darkness that the drugs and sex had chased away would find him. This moment of peace was fragile, and it could not last.
And then, though it was far too soon, the light shifted and the peace came to an end right then and there.
There were shadows everywhere, but now those shadows began to move. They shifted slowly at first, hesitant, and as they grew more confident that they had found him again, they moved with purpose and deliberation.
Charles tensed. The drugs were not even out of his system yet, but here they were: the ghosts, the wraiths returned once more. They should not have been able to find him yet. They should not have been able to come back so soon.
They should never have been able to find him here.
It was not the drugs that made the shadows shift about the room. It was supposed to be the drugs that stopped this. They still purred inside him, making the room swim and dance in colors only addicts knew, and Charles’s cock was still half-hard, but as he stared at the edges of the room, the dark shapes were already rising. They were thick, gray mist, curling against the floorboards, the walls, the handles of the windows, and the knob of the door.
They were here. The wraiths were here again.
They can blast through both drugs and sex now, Charles realized, despairing. Though he turned his head away, he didn’t close his eyes, knowing that gesture would only make his suffering worse. In that darkness, they were terrible. He stared at the pretty man beside him instead: dark, so dark, his skin like smooth chocolate, his lips so fat and plump, just like his lovely, perfect cock. Charles tried to focus on the sex, sliding his hand down to the other whore’s breast, teasing it, making her gasp. Yes. Yes, let us lose ourselves again in pleasure. Make them go away, my lovelies. Make them go away.
But the wraiths had their grip on him now, and Charles suspected not even the most carnal of lovemaking or priceless dram would chase them off now. And even as the female began to coo and slide her hand down his stomach to Charles’s naked sex, even as he shut his mind to nothing but cock and cunt and carnal acts, he was still lost, because the mist was curling now around the bed and rising up its sides. He looked up and found the shadows were on the ceiling. Charles turned to the male whore, staring at the beautiful expanse that was his chest, but the wraith mist was curling around him too.
“Help us,” it whispered.
Charles cried out.
The woman sat up, confused, then narrowed her eyes as she saw Charles’s face. “You’re doing it,” she said accusingly. She nodded at the door. “Marie said you did this, that after you fucked, you went all strange.”
“What is this?” the male whore asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“It’s nothing,” Charles said quickly, then winced as he watched a smoky finger form against the man’s sweaty neck.
“He sees things,” the woman said to the man. “Unnatural things. Ghosts. And worse.”
The man paled. “Ghosts?”
“No,” Charles lied, then shuddered and looked away as a face began to form over the man’s shoulder. He could not bear to see their eyes.
“You’re seeing them,” the woman accused. “You’re seeing them now, aren’t you?”
They were pushing through her body, making their faces merge with hers. They made it appear as if she were dead, decaying right before him, her eyes hollowing out to deep black sockets, her cheek sliding away as he watched. Charles looked down at his hands.
“It’s just a side effect of the drugs.” The mist was coming across his lap now, curling against his wrists. He resisted the urge to shake it off. “It will go away.”
The female gave a dubious grunt. “Marie says you scream like you’re being skinned alive.”
A tiny, gray-black face appeared above Charles’s shaking hands. It had no eyes, and its mouth only gaped. It was a skull, but it was a skull warped and twisted into agony.
“Help us,” it pleaded and reached for him.
“It only happens to me,” Charles assured her. “You won’t see them. Ah!” The skull before him had begun to disintegrate, and he’d made the mistake of closing his eyes. When he opened them, he was sweating, and his doxies were climbing off the bed.
He reached out, trying to pull them back as they retreated through mist so thick now he couldn’t even see the walls. “Please,” he begged. “I’ll pay you double. Triple. Whatever you want. Just stay. Don’t leave me alone with them. Please.”
The man was shaking his head. “Ghosts are bad,” he whispered, and he turned away.
“No!” Charles climbed to his feet, stepping over the mist figures, swallowing his revulsion and shivering from the cold that emanated from them. “Please! You don’t know what this is like! Every day! Every day, every moment, unless I am high or fucking! And even that’s starting not to work.” He wiped his cheeks, which had become damp with sweat and tears, and he tried to smile. “Please -- just stay with me. One of you. Just stay so I don’t have to go through it alone. Please. I beg you. I will give you anything if you stay. Anything.”
But the whores only shook their heads as they retreated into the mist, and then the mist thickened and they were gone. Charles called to them, reaching for them, but they did not come back. Soon he could not even see the end of the bed, and then he could not even see his hand in front of his face.
“No,” he whispered, swallowing against the thickness of his throat. “Please, no.”
The figures formed in earnest now, a horde of wraiths, gaunt-faced and empty-eyed, moaning, reaching, clutching at him until he did not know his own skin from the hands that pressed upon him.
“Help us,” they pleaded, pulling on him. “Help us, Father. Help us. Set us free. Help us.”
“I can’t help you,” Charles whispered, knowing they would not listen, but he couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’m not your father -- I can’t help you! I don’t know who you are! I can’t help you!”
The gaunt faces turned angry. “Help us, Father!” They tugged at him, pulling him down to the bed, their hands pressing on his chest until he thought his ribs would break. “Help us, help us, help us, help us!”
“I don’t know how!” Charles shouted.
Cold fingers pressed against his eyes, forcing them closed, and Charles saw them all, and he began to scream.
He woke hours later, cold and shaking and then vomiting. He turned on instinct to the side, and strong hands gripped his hair, aiming his head at a wooden bucket.
“That’s the way,” a gruff voice said, and the hands held him patiently as he emptied his stomach again. When Charles was done, his companion handed him a damp towel, which stank only slightly less than the bed. Charles ran it over his forehead, his mouth, and his neck.
“Thank you,” he murmured and fell back against the mattress. He opened his eyes and smiled weakly when he saw his rescuer was Bimsy. “Sorry, good man. Thank you for looking after me. Again.”
But Bimsy was not smiling, and his face looked grim and hollow in the lamplight. “You screamed like a banshee, Mr. Perry. You drove customers out of every bed and out of the bar. I had to send for an alchemist for my poor Alma.”
Charles realized where this was heading. “I’ll see you’re well paid. I’ll pay for all the business you lost. I’ll pay you double.”
But Bimsy’s eyes were full of fear. “I can’t bear to hear that sound again, lad. You couldn’t give me all the money in the world to make me hear that sound again.”
“Bimsy,” he pleaded, “I have nowhere else to go.”
“Sure as you do,” Bimsy said gruffly. “Fancy man like you could buy your own place if you wanted.”
“Not with my grandfather,” Charles shot back. “Not with my family, as you well know. And you’re the only innkeeper that won’t turn me in for the Indecency Act.”
“Go to an alchemist, then.” Bimsy was grasping now. “That one in Golden Lane. The renegade -- did you look into him like I said?”
No, Charles had not. He’d gone as far as the door, seen the tubes and potions and smelled the sulfur, and he’d run straight for a dram. Charles sat up and reached for the old man’s hand. “Bimsy, if you think the sounds I make are frightening, imagine being the one who sees what causes me to make those sounds.”
Bimsy had the decency to look guilty, but he still pulled back. “I can’t help you, Mr. Perry,” he said with some apology, but mostly with fear. “I’m sorry. But you’re no longer welcome at the Randy Sailor.”
Charles wanted to plead. He wanted to get on his knees, to beg, to promise to be Bimsy’s slave if that’s what it took, but he didn’t, because he could see by the man’s face that this battle was already lost. The only victory now would be to leave with some small shred of his dignity, so Charles smiled weakly and leaned back. “Very well,” he said with studied nonchalance. “Just send me your final bill, and I’ll see you’re paid.”
Bimsy winced but nodded. “Go see that alchemist, Mr. Perry. It isn’t natural to scream like that. Not natural at all.”
“An alchemist is a bad idea for someone in my family,” Charles said.
The room seemed to be growing darker. Was that a cloud going past the window? Was it something else?
He reached for his silk jacket, draped carefully over a nearby chair, and fished around for a cigarette before sticking the nub of one between his lips. “I may be a bastard son of the House of Perry and Whitby, but I carry their blood nonetheless. An alchemist would make a feast of me.”
“This one’s different,” Bimsy said. “He’s rogue.”
“That only makes him worse,” Charles pointed out. He searched the pocket again, now for his flint, then pulled it out and held it to the end of his cigarette. He caught a shadow moving in the corner of the room, just starting to creep, and his hand shook.
“This one isn’t like that. He’s after power of a different kind.” Bimsy took the lighter from him and made a spark. “He does sex magic, that one.”
Charles’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline as he inhaled. He let the smoke pool in his lungs, felt the buzz smooth out the edges in his head, and he watched the shadow melt away. He let the smoke out on a sigh. “Sounds kinky.”
Bimsy shrugged. “No worse than anything you already done, I reckon.”
Charles couldn’t argue that one. He smoked for a moment, considering. Sex magic with a rogue alchemist. It still sounded dangerous.
In the corner of the room, the shadow stirred again, and Charles quickly looked away.
“I sent a boy over to ask, and he said he could see you today,” Bimsy pressed. “Said you sounded intriguing.”
The shadows in the other corners were moving too, not yet forming, but they were gaining strength too fast. Within an hour, he’d be in their throes again. I can’t take much more of this. He drew on the cigarette again with some intensity.
“I thought you was dead when I first found you today,” Bimsy said. “Lord Whitby’s grandson, dead in my house. I all but felt the noose around my neck, lad.”
Charles tapped his cigarette into the bucket and shook his head. “The ghosts don’t kill me. They won’t.” He didn’t know how he knew this, but he did. Drive him mad, though -- that, they could do. Just like dear Dad. He sighed and turned to Bimsy. “If I go to this alchemist, can I come back here again?”
“If he fixes you, sure enough you can,” Bimsy agreed.
The shadows were moving again, and the mist was rising. It wouldn’t even be an hour before they were back.
“The alchemist said to send you over as soon as you were about,” Bimsy said. “Just think, you could have a cure, go home and rest, and be back with a new pair of bunnies by tomorrow night.”
It would never work like that, Charles knew. If it worked at all, with a rogue alchemist it would never be that easy. But the shadows stalking Charles were taller now, and he could see their faces forming as their gray, thin fingers reached around Bimsy’s throat.
Charles tossed his cigarette into the bucket and sat up in the bed. “Hand me my coat, Bimsy.”
He shrugged into the blue silk, wrapping himself in stale beer and smoke and perfume, and headed for the door, ignoring as best he could the icy cold and weak, plaintive cries that echoed all around him.
* * * * *
All alchemists had their lairs in Golden Lane.
They practiced all over Etsey, but their sanctuaries were in the capital, in Boone: their laboratories, their dungeons, their cabinets of curiosity, and their vaults they never so much as let their apprentices open. The world’s darkest and most dangerous secrets were likely all tucked within this narrow half mile of street, but no thief dared so much as glance down it. Being cured by an alchemist was often enough to get you killed. Stumbling into one of their lairs without their knowledge could bring you a life that made you wish for death.
Charles turned up his collar and huddled against the wind as he maneuvered his way into the narrow, brick-lined street. There were gas lamps flickering in several of the windows, and in one there was even an electric lamp, a luxury not even Charles’s family yet enjoyed. The shops at this end of the alley were of the guild and therefore were of high quality. Each alchemist here had a patron, and the grander the patron, the grander the storefront. Charles’s grandfather kept one of them. Charles had met him once a year from the time he was born until he was thirteen. He still had nightmares about being stuck with needles, his blood dripping into a bowl as the wizened old creature watched it spill away. The alchemist had taken extra when Lord Whitby wasn’t watching, because it was fun to play with the blood of a House heir, not to mention profitable. In fact, Charles had been fairly certain his first hit of drug at a party had been amplified with a by-product of a visit with Old Rooky.
Alchemists were nasty, paranoid creatures, and they loved power. Charles’s blood was nothing but power, though little good it did him. He had no talent for magic. He’d tried, but it came to nothing, which wasn’t unexpected. He had, as his grandfather loved to remind him, talent for nothing at all.
Except sex. Charles was fantastically good at fucking.
Charles stopped at the edge of Golden Lane and looked back to the dock, lighting another cigarette as he watched workers unload the cargo. Yes, Bimsy had known just how to work him, hadn’t he? Sex magic. If Old Rooky had used that to test his blood, he wouldn’t have minded so much. Still, Charles worried. Nothing about alchemists had ever been good, in his experience. And if this one was a rogue -- well, either he was an even more heartless bastard than the others, or he wasn’t any good. Also, fun as sex magic sounded, what good could it possibly do? One way or another, this was almost guaranteed to be a mistake.
But as Charles stood there, hesitating, staring into the foggy shroud of the docks, he watched the gray mist begin to form again. He finished the cigarette, tossed it into a puddle, and continued down the winding lane. Mistake or not, it was the only choice left outside of madness.
He passed the fancy shops, the modest ones, and then the very, very humble, until at last he left the lane altogether, leaving the brick paving to wade through the mucky mud of an even narrower alley to the small, huddled, unmarked dwellings that were the havens of the alchemists operating outside the guild. Charles grimaced and put his handkerchief to his nose to dull the stink as he wound his way to the dark shack at the farthest end of the street. Once there, he lifted his hand and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said a voice from within.
Charles smoothed his hair behind his ears, cleared his throat, and opened the door.
The room was very small, and it was crowded with books and complicated sets of glass tubing. The shelves were full of pots, jars, and cases whose very appearance made Charles ill at ease. It smelled ten times worse than the alley and the Randy Sailor bedroom put together: there was sulfur, yes, but rot as well, and other unnamable, undesirable pungent scents that tickled the roof of Charles’s mouth and the back of his throat and made him want to gag. He pressed his handkerchief more firmly to his nose, sucked a breath in through his mouth, and waited.
The alchemist sat at the desk in the far corner of the room. He was thin, sallow, and sandy-haired. He had his fingers threaded together, resting them beneath his chin as his narrowed eyes ran up and down Charles as if he were little more than a laboratory sample.
He was not in any way handsome. Not that it mattered. But given this was allegedly to be “sex magic,” it would have made things a little easier.
Charles lowered his handkerchief and made a slightly awkward bow. “I am Charles Perry. I was told perhaps you could help me.”
The man made no answer, only continued to watch Charles patiently. He looked mildly amused.
Charles shifted uneasily on his feet and reached into his pocket for his purse. “I of course can pay --”
The man sat up, freeing his hands so that one of them could wave Charles’s comment away. “Payment will be discussed at a later time. Before such mundane details are broached, I have several questions I wish to put to you.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Some are necessary for me to begin my work. Others are, I admit, simply to satisfy my own curiosity.”
Charles forced a smile. “Certainly. Ask me anything you like.”
“I know a great deal about your factual history, of course.” The alchemist laughed. “House of Perry and Whitby. Bastard son. I believe I’ve bought your blood on the black market a time or two, when your grandfather was still making certain you were his true offspring. Of course, one can see why he was so eager to try and disown you. Bit of a troublemaker, you are.”
Charles hated this already. “Do you have a name?”
“I am Martin Smith,” the alchemist replied. “And I think you will find, as we get to know one another, that we have more in common than you might suspect. But I get ahead of myself.” He leaned forward slightly, letting his steepled fingers fall away to join the others as they nestled casually beneath his chin. “Tell me, Charles Perry, what it is that you want.”
What he wanted? Charles blinked, then frowned. “I thought Bimsy told you. I have nightmares --”
“I did not ask you why you wanted my help,” Smith said. “I asked you what it is you want.”
Charles didn’t know what to say. What the devil could this have to do with anything? “I don’t know. To -- well, to be happy,” he said lamely. “I want peace. Happiness. Peaceful happiness. Money’s all right, but happiness or peace would be fine. If the dreams were gone, if I could forget --” Charles blushed and looked down at the floor. “I don’t know,” Charles said again, almost in a whisper. “I truly don’t know what I want.”
Smith rose from his chair and gestured at Charles. “Remove your clothes, then turn and face the door.”
Charles took a step backward, stumbling over his own feet. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m certain I made myself clear.” Smith ran his gaze up and down Charles’s body once more, then curled his lip and shook his head. When Charles failed to move, Smith clapped his hands sharply. “Strip, pet. I don’t fancy doing it myself.”
For a moment, Charles considered bolting. This meeting was clearly going pear-shaped. He’d known the alchemist would be eccentric, and Charles wasn’t against sex, obviously, but -- well, this was just odd as all fuck, wasn’t it? But where else would he go if he left? If he got high again now, high enough to dull the wraiths, he risked killing himself or worse. If he went back to his grandfather’s house, he’d have to kill himself.
“Please,” Charles said, trying to sound penitent, not panicked. “Please -- I need you to stop these dreams.” He glanced at Smith’s long hands again, then, since the subject had been broached, at his groin. “I’m not -- I don’t mind trading sex, if that’s what you want, and I’m flattered, but I truly need --”
Smith laughed so hard he could not speak for several minutes.
“Trading sex.” Smith wiped tears from his eyes and righted himself. “I’m not going to fuck you, pet, not if I can help it.”
Charles glanced again at the door. “Bimsy said you used sex magic. I don’t know what that is, but…” When Charles trailed off, waiting for Smith to clarify, the alchemist only lifted one of his pencil-thin eyebrows. Charles cleared his throat. “How does it work?”
Smith leaned forward, his pale eyes dancing in their own cold light. “Take off your clothes, and I’ll show you.”
Oh, it was time to run. The stink was climbing inside Charles’s nostrils now, and he’d gotten his answer as to why this alchemist was rogue: because he was barking mad. Charles began to back away toward the door. “I think I will give this matter a bit more consideration. Thank you, though -- yes, thank you, because you’ve been very helpful. Truly.” He tripped over a pile of books and knocked his elbow against a table, jostling some tubing. He laughed nervously. “Thank you. Very much. I’ll just -- be going --”
Smith tilted his head curiously to the side. “Goodness. Is that fog creeping beneath my door?”
Charles turned, knocking the table again as he cried out. Goddess save him, it was here. And it was well formed. It was beneath the door, clinging to the walls, the ceiling -- it was everywhere. Charles could see the hands of the wraiths and the edges of their faces. He shouted, glanced around for an exit, then slammed into the table, pressing himself tight against it.
It was at the windows too. It was everywhere.
Smith rose from the desk and walked idly toward Charles. He reached over Charles’s shoulder to a shelf behind the table, withdrew a cigarette from a box, and waved it at Charles. “Undress, pet. I need you naked for what I intend to do. If you hurry, I’ll drive them back before they can reach you.”
Charles started to refuse, then stopped short, realizing what the alchemist was saying. “Wait -- you can see them?”
Smith picked up a flint from the table and shrugged. “Not like you, no. But I know they’re there.” He struck the flint, brought the spark up to the end of his cigarette, and inhaled lazily. “And I know they’ll get worse. I also know I won’t stop them until you start stripping down.”
Charles stared at the alchemist for several seconds, trying to gauge his insanity, trying to find some other way out of this. But Smith only stood there smoking, looking slightly bored. The mist wraiths kept coming.
Hesitantly Charles slid out of his jacket.
Smith did nothing.
Charles undid his vest and then his shirt, tugging it out of his trousers and peeling it away from his skin.
Still the alchemist did nothing.
But when Charles pulled his first arm from his sleeve, the alchemist picked up a small, white object from the table, and when Charles withdrew his other arm as well, leaving his torso naked, Smith aimed the object over his shoulder, tossing it backward into the mist. It exploded in a sharp, angry pop, shattering in a cloud of dust and stinking so bad that Charles finally gave up and gagged. But when the dust settled, the mist was gone.
Smith resumed smoking. “That ought to buy us enough time to make some inquiries.” He gestured to Charles’s trousers. “Hurry up.”
Charles looked around for somewhere to drape his shirt, but there was nowhere that was not already crowded with sharp objects or dirty apparatuses. He placed it as carefully as he could on a cleanish space on the floor.
Smith watched impassively as Charles crouched down and fought his way out of his boots. “You do not have nightmares, Charles Perry,” he said. “You have visions and you have dreams, and because you have ignored them, they are stealing into your waking hours. But the dreams are not what truly ail you. Your dreams are but a symptom of something greater.” He leaned in closer, his eyes glinting in the dim gaslight and the smoke from his cigarette. “Dreams such as yours are whispers from other places, other times, and even other selves. It is the most basic sort of magic. It is the work of moments to turn off your dreams for a brief period of time; it is an hour to do so permanently. However you would soon find yourself feeling listless and dull witted.” Smith cast a derisive glance at Charles. “Despite your insistence that you desire nothing more than ‘peace and happiness,’ if you did not have your dreams, you would soon be begging for new nightmares.”
Charles wrenched the second boot free and propped it with the other beneath the table. “I’ve had a lifetime of nightmares, living and waking. I won’t want more nightmares once you get rid of this one.” He rose and wrapped his arms over his naked chest. “I don’t want anything but a nice, boring existence from here on out.”
Smith exhaled smoke into Charles’s face and gave him a withering look. “You practically sustain yourself on scandal. You drink too much. You smoke anything that will give you a high. You fuck anything that moves, male or female and both at once. How you’ve avoided the pillory and mandatory licensing is a magic more powerful than anything I’ll ever know, though I suppose having a grandfather as determined as Augustus Perry to keep his House out of the tabloids goes a long way. You’ve found your way into trouble since you were old enough to reach for it -- even the circumstances of your conception are criminal. And this is saying nothing, of course, of that business in the north when you were seventeen.”
Charles hugged himself tighter and looked away. “I don’t want to keep that fucking dream. You wouldn’t even suggest it if you knew what it was I saw every time I closed my eyes. For years now they’ve been haunting me -- every night! You think I drink and whore for fun? Not anymore, I don’t. I’m trying to forget. I’m terrified of the dark space behind my own eyes. I just want peace. I swear to you that’s all I want.”
Smith made a derisive sound in the back of his throat. “Let us make a wager, then. For no payment whatsoever, I will remove your nightmare. But first I will walk you, waking, through your dream. All the way through it. If you still wish me to banish it, I will, and you will leave happy and peaceful. I will remain here, unpaid and well shamed for my arrogance.”
Charles glanced at Smith, unable to believe what he had just heard. “And if I want to keep the dream?” he asked, thinking, There is nothing in this world that can make that happen.
“Then you will pay me whatever I ask,” Smith said. “You will submit to me in full rite. You will give me your power whenever I ask for it, however I ask. As much as I ask for. You will be bound to me completely, and you will submit to me willingly until I am finished with you.”
Charles held up his hands. “No more bleeding. I’m not doing that again.”
The end of the cigarette disappearing into the crease of two fingers as Smith bared his palms. “I have no designs on your House blood. I cannot even access it outside the guild. If I so much as sniff it, they will come down upon me.”
“Then what ‘power’ of mine would you be bargaining for?” Charles asked.
Smith’s eyes danced. “Your own, pet. The power that is your own.”
Mad. The man was completely cracked. Power? What power? Charles didn’t have any power! Submit? Sex magic, but they weren’t going to fuck? What would Smith want to do, have Charles polish his shoes with his semen? Would fluids not be involved at all? Would Smith only want to paint mad little symbols all over Charles’s cock? He smiled to himself. This was too easy.
Yes, a deeper part of his mind whispered. It is. Dwell on that for a moment.
But Charles shoved the whisper aside. There was nothing to dwell on. The man had chased the mist away with nothing more than a chalk rock. The alchemist could do more, and he wanted to trade for Charles’s “own power.” Charles had no power. He couldn’t so much as pull a penny from behind someone’s ear. There was nothing to lose. So maybe somehow he lost this wager, and in a moment of insanity he said he wanted his nightmares back because somehow they weren’t nightmares anymore. So he had to “submit” to Smith. Charles was not shy or proud. Maybe this alchemist was molly and wanted a sex slave. No problem -- he’d done that before. Maybe he liked it rough. Also not a problem. Maybe he wanted no sex, like he said -- maybe he wanted someone to clean up the place. Boring, but if it got rid of his nightmare or made it a good dream? He didn’t care.
And he wasn’t going to keep it. When he got rid of the nightmare, everything would change. Everything. He could do anything, go anywhere -- he had so much money now from his grandfather that maybe, once the nightmares were gone, maybe he would leave the country, just like Lord Whitby had told him to do every time he handed over a pouch. Maybe he would go find a tropical island with nothing but beautiful men and women and new, amazing drugs and sandy beaches.
Oh yes. Once this nightmare was gone, everything would change.
“Not my blood,” Charles said, just to be sure.
Smith held up a hand as if reciting a vow. “I will not so much as scratch you, sir. Not a single nick against your skin.”
And there was no way to use his blood for magic without taking it out of him, that much Charles knew. He stayed a smile. “Fine,” Charles said, trying to sound light, not giddy with certain victory. “I accept your terms.”
Smith nodded, looking almost serene. He motioned once more to Charles’s body. “Finish.”
Charles reached for his belt, pulled it loose, and let his trousers fall. He undid his drawers and stepped out of them too, and then as an afterthought removed his socks. He stood there, naked and cold but not uncertain, and he looked the alchemist in the eye. Oh yes. This was going to be good.
“I’m ready,” he said, and he waited.
Smith didn’t do anything, though, not right away. He continued smoking and watching, and so Charles watched back. His attention became fixed on the cigarette, making him wish he had one. But as Charles watched, he realized that while the cigarette was nearly spent, it had been that way for several tokes now. Yet Smith smoked it casually, as if he could make it go all night.
After another lengthy inhale, Smith blew the smoke out the side of his mouth as he tapped ash onto Charles’s discarded clothes. “You became testy when I mentioned your family.”
Charles shifted on his feet, letting his gaze slide away to the black pane of the window. “We aren’t particularly close.”
Smith’s smoke curled against Charles’s face, tickling his nose. “The Perrys are one of the legendary Four Houses. The legendary blood of the Goddess herself runs through your veins. You’re plagued by dreams, but you won’t examine any possible reason for them within your own family? Did the dreams never strike you as a warning?”
Charles didn’t answer, just rubbed his arms. He didn’t mind being naked, but he didn’t like being cold. He was thinking and talking too much about the dreams, and as usual, it was calling the nightmare up in his mind. Cold hands, cold and wet and gray. He imagined they were in the shadows, climbing out, coming toward him.
“You’re talking about the curse. It’s a myth. A bunch of nonsense.” Quit asking stupid questions and give me my release.
“So says the man who has come to a sex magician to rid him of nightmares.” Smith laughed and tapped out his ash again. “You should tell your brother you think the curse is nonsense.”
“My brother is dead,” Charles said. “He went to war in Catal ten years ago, to the Death Unit. No one comes home from that. Not even Saint Jonathan Perry.”
Smith inhaled again. Charles frowned at the nib, trying to catch it growing back. It should be singeing Smith’s fingers by now.
“You will see your brother again. Soon, I expect.” The corner of Smith’s mouth turned up, and he almost snickered. “And the witch. She, I will admit, fascinates me.” The alchemist smiled as he lifted the cigarette back to his mouth. “I have my theories on her.”
What witch? Charles shook his head, tightening his grip on the table. “What are you talking about? How do you know all this?”
“Sex magic,” Smith said slowly, as if Charles were stupid. “It isn’t an erotic trick or a fetish, despite what you’ve been thinking.”
“But how -- you said you don’t fuck unless you can help it --”
Smith sneered. “By the Goddess, you are thick. Sex magic, pet, is using orgasm, my own or another’s, to induce visions, cast spells, enchant objects, or harness power. I fuck but a few times a year, and then only in special circumstances -- though I admit sometimes the special circumstance is that I am very, very angry.”
Charles didn’t know what to say to that. It sounded weird. Not kinky weird, just plain weird. Before he could stop himself, he had a vision of Smith sitting in that high-backed chair behind his desk, eyes fixed off into space as he worked insistently on himself, inducing an orgasm. It was a decidedly nonerotic thought.
“Enough chat,” Smith said. “We have a wager open between us.” He took one last drag on the cigarette before holding it up by the nib, letting the smoldering end stand between them like a short, sooty candle. “We must seal it.”
The alchemist held out his wrist and calmly applied the hot embers to the pale, sensitive skin beneath the heel of his palm. Charles flinched, but Smith gave no reaction as he made a long, straight burn line halfway up his own arm. When he was finished, he lifted the nib again.
“We seal our bargain with fire,” he said and nodded to Charles’s arm. “We must both seal.”
Charles swallowed, jerking his head in a nod as he held out his wrist. He hissed and bit back a cry as Smith gave him the same treatment he had given himself. When he was finished, the alchemist murmured a word under his breath, took one last drag, then tossed the nib onto the floor, stomping it out with the toe of his boot. He reached into his pocket and withdrew something small, white, and smooth. Then he pressed it against the soft flesh of Charles’s sex.
In an instant, Charles felt his eyes fall closed as he slid into his dream.
The nightmare engulfed him like a wave, but this time it was sharper, brighter, and more painful than it had ever been. The pale wraiths formed in his mind, tall, thin, clustered by the thousands, shrouded in faint, gray-blue mist as they reached for Charles, but this time he could feel their hands as they brushed his arms, and he could smell the fetid rot of their breath.
“Please,” they whispered to him. “Please, Father. Save us. Save us.”
Charles tried to pull back. “Make them stop,” he pleaded to Smith. “Take the dream away. Make it stop. Make it stop.”
“Push past them.” Smith pressed the stone more firmly against Charles’s balls. “There is more to the dream.”
“There isn’t anything more! They’re just going to die in front of me again! There isn’t --” Charles started, then stopped, realizing Smith was right. He could feel it. He only ever remembered the wraiths, their hollow faces and their cries that tore at his heart, but now he could see there was more.
“Push past them.” He lifted his hand and tentatively brushed the wraiths aside. He felt a veil, thin as gossamer, but it was layered, and he fumbled through three, four, five sheets -- every one he lifted, there was another. He was just beginning to despair, and then the seventh was brushed aside and there were no more.
The wraiths moaned, and the sound caught at Charles’s heart, but to his relief the ghosts parted.
And then he saw her.
There were shadows all around, but there in the waking dream, Charles saw her, tall and golden and glorious, more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. She was staring off into the mist, searching for something. And yet as Charles grew accustomed to her glow, he could see more of her. He saw her colors shift: gold, blue, gold again, and finally she looked almost human, her long hair shining still, but it was black as night, its gossamer strands drifting around her on their own currents of wind.
Beautiful. She was completely, perfectly, absolutely beautiful, the most beautiful creature that Charles had ever seen.
Tears streamed down Charles’s cheeks, and he stretched out his hand to her. If he could only touch her. If he could rest even just a finger on one lock of that shining black hair, he was sure he would never know sorrow again. Everything. She was everything in the world, everything he had ever wanted. Everything he had never even known he wanted.
As if she sensed him, she turned. Their eyes met. Charles grew dizzy as he watched her burn brighter and brighter. She was smiling at him, reaching for him, coming for him, only for him. And as he watched, aching, dying for her touch, he watched her change, and he saw. He saw all of her --
Smith withdrew the stone, and with it went the vision, wrenched from Charles before he could even see her face.
Charles clutched at his heart and cried out, bereft, and looked up through foggy eyes at the alchemist, who was staring down at Charles with victory.
“Tell me,” Smith said. “Tell me what you saw at the end of your dream.”
Charles blinked, the fog of the vision still swimming inside him. “I -- I don’t know.”
“Tell me,” Smith said sharply. He lifted his burned wrist, holding it up between them. “Tell me what you saw in your dream.”
“The Goddess,” Charles whispered. “I thought I saw the Goddess.” He shook his head. “But -- I can’t -- She’s just -- It can’t --”
Smith didn’t laugh. “The Goddess of all Creation. Yes. That is who you saw.” When Charles shook his head again, Smith went on. “You are not mad, nor are you imagining things. She is dead to almost all the world except our humble little island country, and even here at best we only pay her lip service or canonize her in fable. The Lord and the Lady, in her more human aspects -- even you, in all your ignorance, must know that story.”
Charles nodded, still dizzy, and the old schoolyard rhyme floated up from his subconscious. “‘The Lady is lost, and the Lord is dead. Take love where you can, and give her some head.’”
Smith rolled his eyes. “Yes, such a charming little doggerel. And yet it is accurate. We receive only from this world what we take from it, and romantic fools are usually buggered.” He laughed. “But the romantics are always so ready for the lash, aren’t they? ‘Union with the Divine,’ the dram drones down at the docks cry. They will pay any price for even the barest hint at her ecstasy, and yet I have given it to you for free.” His eyes danced in wicked satisfaction. “For now.”
Charles swayed on his feet, his heart pounding. “That was truly the Goddess?” he whispered. “I saw her?”
Smith advanced on him, looking very much like a cat with a fat canary whose wings had been clipped. “Tell me now, pet. Tell me what it is that you want.”
The vision had been taken from him, but the memory and the feeling still burned like fire inside of Charles. “Her,” he whispered, aching. “I want to see her again.”
“You must keep the dreams to see her,” Smith said. “They are your gateway to her.”
“Then take me back.” Charles shut his eyes and tried to find her on his own, but there was nothing. He almost cried at the loss. “I don’t care what you do. Just take me back, now.”
Smith ran his thumbnail down the center of Charles’s chest. “You must concede with words.” Smith’s thumb slid down the length of Charles’s semihard cock. “You must say you wish to surrender to me. If you want me to take you back to her, you must tell me that you accept my terms. You must tell me you submit to me in full rite.”
“I submit to you in full rite.” Charles shut his eyes tight as Smith’s hand slid over his sex. “I accept your terms. I want to go back. I want to keep my dreams. Just take me back to her.”
Smith smiled. “We have a bargain,” Smith said, then took Charles’s cock roughly in his hand.
Charles felt the stone slide once more against his flesh, cold despite Smith’s handling; he cried out in relief as the dream began again. He shuddered past the wraiths, pushing deeper, searching for her. For a moment he feared it had been a trick, that he would not find her.
But then, just as Charles was beginning to despair, she appeared again.
So beautiful. Smith was jerking hard against Charles’s cock, and the stone was so cold that it burned, but Charles didn’t give a damn. She was here. Just looking at her was more wonderful than anything he had ever known in his life. It was the peace and euphoria of lying with a man and a woman at once, but multiplied beyond his ability to calculate. It was heaven. It was like looking at heaven.
The Goddess. I am looking at the Goddess.
He waited, breathless, willing her to turn faster, to see him, to come to him, to take him in her arms, to make him alive for the first time in his life. But when she turned to him, she looked at him with sorrow, and when she opened her mouth to speak, her words cut at his heart.
“Beloved, what have you done?”
Smith’s whispered against Charles’s ear. “Keep her talking. And tell me everything she says.”
She called me beloved. Charles opened his mouth to tell Smith, but the Goddess raised her hand and shook her head.
“You must not obey this man,” she said. Her voice was like music, even in anger. She rose up, full and glorious. “He has tricked you. You must tell him nothing.”
Charles felt the pull of her command war with Smith’s spell, and the effect made him feel sick. “I can’t do this,” he whispered. “Stop --”
The Goddess was still rising like an angry, golden thundercloud. “I will come to you. I will come to you now.”
“What does she say?” Smith demanded. His hand was still working rhythmically at Charles’s sex, maintaining the erection with a weird dispassion. “Is she coming? Did she say she was coming to stop me?”
The Goddess laughed, a dark sound, and it made the heavens shake. “Tell him yes, beloved. Tell him yes, I am coming.”
“Yes.” Charles swayed on his feet, grabbing on to Smith’s shoulder to keep himself from collapsing. Sweat broke out against his brow, and his stomach heaved. How he was maintaining an erection through this, he would never know. “Yes. She says yes, she is coming.”
“Watch closely now!” Smith was breathless with excitement. “She will change. You will see, briefly, the form she will take when she comes, or possibly where she will arrive. Watch! Watch! Watch, and tell me what you see!”
Charles couldn’t have looked away even if Smith had ordered him to. The Goddess was rising, swelling, so large now she could have covered the whole world -- all the worlds. This one and all the worlds that ever existed or ever would. It was amazing. It was unreal. It was more erotic than anything he had ever seen. Charles had always laughed at the weird cultists who babbled on about uniting with the divine, and he had fucked more than a few of them because there was no greater lay than someone in the Goddess cult looking for the Lord or the Lady in an orgasm. He would never be able to laugh at them again. His desire for the creature before him was physical, yes, but it was so, so much more. She wasn’t just made of light; she was light. Light, life, love -- she was everything. He would burn every inch of his body for one touch of her hand. He wished with all his being that she would touch him now.
She bent toward him, her smile dancing up into the dark, spiraling stars that made up her eyes. “You are my beloved. My only beloved. Remember this, and carry it in your heart. I will come for you, heart of my heart, and I will find you. I must shatter to do this, and I must change and enter Time. The road to you will be difficult, and our road back home will be harder still. But I will come for you, my love. Nothing in this world can keep you from me, not even this arrogant alchemist. He has no concept of what he has unleashed.”
Charles wanted to ask her how she could be sure. He wanted to ask her about the wraiths, who they were, if she could help them. But before he could so much as open his mouth, she reached down and touched him with her shining, golden hand, and in that moment, he knew true heaven.
And he saw her again, all of her, and he saw the golden fire rise up around her as she changed, as the light broke into pieces and shattered before streaming across the sky, across the universe, across time and space and everything known and unknown. Deeper still, far away in the darkest darkness, Charles saw a great portal open, then close again.
He saw who she was, who she had been, who she would be.
He saw the veil and all its layers rend and dissipate, flying over the whole world, and he saw one fall and land, and watched, full of love, as it drifted toward him and wrapped around his head --
Charles cried out as he came in the most violent orgasm of his life. It was so intense that for a moment he thought he was dead, dying the most wonderful, perfect death he could imagine. But even as he came back down to earth, he felt the shift. He heard Smith murmuring something intently in a language Charles did not know, and he felt the stone go burning hot against his skin.
Something pulled hard and sharp in the center of Charles’s chest before racing down and exiting with the rest of his semen. He fell forward as his knees and ankles gave way. This time Smith did not catch him; in fact, he stepped out of the way, crossing to the other side of the room as Charles fell, naked and weeping, to the floor.
He hit hard, but Charles was too numb and aching to care. He was beyond hurting. He felt bereft. He felt as if he had touched heaven, then lost it, and on the way down had been raped by a thousand demons.
Cold. He was so cold.
He reached up and pressed his fingers to the center of his chest. “You took something from me,” Charles whispered. “You pulled something from inside of me.”
“Power.” Smith wiped his hand against the edge of a test tube, nudging Charles’s semen inside. The alchemist held it up to the light of a lamp, tapped it twice, then smiled in academic pleasure. “Just as I thought. Only the barest scratch against the surface.” He set the test tube in a rack and came back to Charles, bending down to pat him affectionately on the head. “You are practically brimming with power, pet. I am very, very pleased.”
“What have you done?” Charles whispered. What have I done?
“Nothing more than I told you in our compact,” Smith replied. “You have given me some of your power, and I in turn have taken you back to the Goddess. It’s regrettable that you will no longer find her there when you visit the dream, but that is her doing, not mine. Which reminds me. What did you see, pet, when she changed? What form did she take? I want to have an appropriate reception ready.”
I won’t tell you! But even as he thought this, Charles felt his burned wrist begin to ache. He shut his eyes as the alchemist’s command forced him to speak. “It wasn’t clear,” he said, his voice dull and monotone. “I saw so many things. Shadows. Monsters. White. Something white and bright and shining. I saw --” A vision flashed clear and sharp against his mind, but when he tried to speak, it vanished and another took its place. “Water. I see moors and forests together in a place they should not be, and I see water. Dark, terrible water. And ancient gray stones.” His head dipped from the weight of the vision. “I see my brother. I see Madeline Elliott. I see Stephen, and a blonde girl.” The images pulled harder and harder, making his head ache. “I see one I do not know. Dark-skinned, but not as dark as Tansia. He is foreign, not of Etsey… I see darkness. A demon. Demons -- demons everywhere, hiding, lurking, waiting --”
I see a veil, torn apart.
There are seven. There are seven veils of my Goddess.
In the water, I will find the first.
The vision closed over his head, then pulled back and away. The spell lifted and was gone. Charles sank back, cold and empty, to the floor. The visions he had seen slipped like water from his mind.
Smith clapped his hands. “I knew it! It is the curse of the Houses! It is the legend of the ghosts! And so by her coming, the others will also! I won’t have to do a thing. They will all come of their own accord, drawn by magic more powerful than the earth itself! It is everything I dreamed and more! And it is mine! All of it, all of it mine! Let them laugh at me now, those bastards who kicked me out and called me a fool! Let them laugh, now that I will harness the most potent power in the universe!” He bent down, laughing, and surprised Charles by pressing a kiss against his forehead. “Oh, my precious, precious pet. You have pleased me very much. So much, in fact, that I believe I will give you a special treat. I will show you what sex magic can truly do.” He smacked Charles roughly on the bottom. “Stand and brace yourself against the edge of the table.”
Charles was so weak he didn’t think he could stand, but there was an edge of command in Smith’s words, and he found himself rising even though he did not mean to, complying in a daze. He snapped out of it, though, as he saw Smith approach him with something long and leaden and frightening in his hand. It was about seven inches long, more than two inches thick, studded with rough-looking bumps, colored black as night. Charles’s mind searched wildly for an alternative purpose for the object, but there was no getting around the fact that it was blatantly phallic. And there was something else about it too -- something wrong.
Magic. It is magic. He didn’t know how he knew, but suddenly he did, and he was terrified.
Smith seemed pleased. “Impressive, isn’t it? But I promise you’ll find it tame in time.” Charles began to sputter, and Smith held up a hand to silence him. “Sex magic can be painful, yes, pet. But I will teach you to find pleasure in it as well.”
“Please,” Charles whispered. He couldn’t take his eyes off that hideous phallus. “Please -- please, don’t!”
Smith gestured to the table. “Brace yourself against the edge there and bend over, legs spread wide.”
Driven by the force of the spell, Charles did as he was told, gripping the edge of the table as he prepared himself for Smith. It felt unreal. It was so mad it shouldn’t be able to be real, and yet it was. How the blazes had this happened? How had he come to this?
Smith brought out a small pot and brush and began painting on Charles’s skin. “You will feel a certain tightness this first time. It will not be like anything you have ever experienced, and at first you may find it somewhat unpleasant. That will, sadly, affect my ability to draw power out of you. But we will bear through it together, and soon it will be heady for the both of us.”
He set the pot of paint aside and spread Charles’s cheeks with his hands, probing him lightly with his finger.
Charles tensed, then froze as he felt a soft brush of air against his face, lingering on his lips.
“Be brave,” he heard the Goddess whisper in his mind.
“What is happening?” Charles whispered back, swallowing tears. “Why did you appear to me? What does this madman want from me?”
“Things he should not be taking,” she whispered back. “You will suffer much at his hands for a time. But take heart. I am coming to you soon.”
Charles felt Smith’s hands against the sides of his hips, nudging him wider. He drew in a shaking breath and lifted his head, staring ahead at the wall. “Why would you come to me?”
The Goddess appeared before him and touched Charles’s cheek, looking at him with tenderness. He knew, somehow, that he alone could see her.
“Beloved, search your heart, and you will know the answer.”
He watched her start to fade, watched the veils fall back into place, and he wanted to sob. “Don’t go!” He lifted one hand off the table to reach for her. “Don’t go! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”
“Don’t leave me!” Charles cried aloud, reaching for the place where she had been, eyes stinging with tears.
Then Charles felt the cold tip of the phallus nudging the back of him. He tried to reach for the Goddess once more in his mind, but then Smith pushed the phallus roughly inside him, and all Charles could do was scream.
But as the screams took him away, as his mind left his body and found safety in the darkness, he knew quiet.
Six. When the veils came down on the Goddess, there were not seven. There were only six.
And as the alchemist raped his body and his soul, Charles wondered, dizzily, what had happened to the other one.
On the same night that Charles submitted to the alchemist, in the faraway land of Catal, his brother Jonathan was screaming too.
Gentle hands pressed a stick into his mouth, urging him in a low voice and foreign tongue to stay quiet, to bite down, to remember to breathe, to hold fast and fight. Jonathan didn’t have anything left to fight with, however. He had no idea what exactly he was fighting for at this point. His neck was on fire, and he would swear he was drowning, possibly in his own blood. His left thigh and groin were wet with pus and blood, his nerves were raw, and his muscles were weak from tensing against the pain. In the distance, he heard the monks shouting angrily. If the fever didn’t take him, Jonathan knew the Cloister would.
But through it all, the voice stayed with Jonathan, soothing him.
“Daghata, mira.” A hand closed over Jonathan’s own; he gripped it tightly, using it as his lifeline as he descended once more into the abyss.
He dreamed of demons and darkness, of hot claws that ripped over and over again at his flesh. His father loomed over him, eyes rolling in his head and spittle forming at the edges of his mouth as he laughed.
“Time to finish it, boy.” Drool dripped down Neil Perry’s chin. “Time to come back and finish it once and for all. Come home, boy. Come home.”
“No!” Jonathan tried to shout, but his father stepped on his throat, cutting off his air. No, I won’t! I won’t! he screamed inside. His father laughed and placed the sword in Jonathan’s hand, and the demon rose within him, taking over his body, crowding out his mind --
Sweating and shouting with a throat that felt like fire, Jonathan woke from his nightmare and found himself in the small, cramped compartment of a merchant ship. For a moment, he feared he was captured or, worse, lost. But then his equerry appeared beside the hammock and stroked his face, and Jonathan relaxed.
“Hush, mira.” Timothy’s olive brown face was lined with worry as he dipped a cloth in a bowl of water and held it to Jonathan’s lips for him to suck. “You are very ill. Do not try to speak.”
Jonathan tried to draw on the bitter cloth, but in the end Timothy had to tip Jonathan’s head back and squeeze the water directly into his mouth. His throat burned where the knife had cut into it, and when he coughed, he felt blood seep into the bandage wrapped around his neck. His leg throbbed, and in the center of the wound, he felt something cold and dark and hard. Jonathan shivered, for he knew what that something was. When it moved, Jonathan slid back into the darkness, where the nightmares and the fire waited for him.
This has to end. He crouched tighter into the safe space inside his mind. I have to find a way to end this.
He drifted into the darkness again, so deeply this time that he did not dream at all, only floated in blissful nothingness.
When he drifted to the surface once more, he was no longer on the ship; he was in a bright, sunny room. It was sparsely furnished, but there was something alarming about the place. It was all wrong, even for an officer’s quarters. It was the wrong wood, to start -- it was too hard for Catal and too dark. The ceiling slope was too steep, and the windows were too small, fitted with shutters designed to keep out snow, not desert sun.
Timothy urged Jonathan back against the pillows. “Be still,” he said, speaking this time in Etsian. “We nearly lost you -- again. Rest now.”
You can’t lose me, as well you know. Jonathan wanted to snap at him, but then he saw the maid cross by the foot of the bed. Her hair was dark, but she had pale skin, not the brown complexion of those of the south, and she wore a mobcap and full white apron. No one anywhere on the Continent dressed this way.
Jonathan was beginning to feel ill, and for the first time in a long time, he was not ill from his physical afflictions. “Where am I?” he asked in Catalian. Tell me we are still at the war. Tell me we are still in Catal, in your war-torn country, Timothy, where I will be safe. Do not tell me I am where I am beginning to fear I am.
Timothy shook his head. “You must lie still.”
Jonathan closed his hand weakly over the front of Timothy’s shirt. “Where am I?”
“Etsey. We are at your town apartment in Boone.” When Jonathan swore and tried to rise, then coughed from the effort, Timothy eased him back down onto the pillows again. “I had no choice. When the major general saw you, he discharged you on the spot and ordered you home. I think he assumed you would be coming home in a casket, but I didn’t know how to explain otherwise. They just packed us both on a ship and sent us off. If you hadn’t made me your equerry, I don’t think I’d have been allowed along.”
“Home.” Etsey. Jonathan shut his eyes against a wave of nausea. How long have I been here? He had no concept, and the thought made him cold. The journey from the southern coast of Catal took seven days under favorable conditions -- if they had run into blockades or storms, it could have been weeks. He reached up and touched his neck, but there was no wound, only an angry scar tender to his touch. There weren’t even any stitches left. More than a month, then. Had he been on the ship for a month? It was doubtful. Likely he had been here for some time.
How long? How much ground has it already gained?
“I can’t stay,” Jonathan rasped in Etsian. “I cannot stay in Etsey.”
“There is nowhere else to go, mira.” Timothy dabbed at Jonathan’s forehead with a cool cloth. “Rest. We will discuss our next move when you are well again.”
I cannot rest, Jonathan tried to say, but he couldn’t find the strength to speak. I cannot stay in Etsey. But he couldn’t move, let alone rise and leave. He lay helpless in the bed, clammy and cold, desperate to rise but unable even to keep his eyelids open. A wave of nausea swamped him; Jonathan heaved, then heaved again, and as Timothy shouted desperately for the servants, Jonathan slid back into unconsciousness.
This time he dreamed a new dream.
He was walking the moors, his sword at his side, his thumb reaching back to rub across the golden circle on the pommel. He felt the power rushing inside him as he moved over the ridge and past the great tree, heading to the cottage at the edge of the woods. She was inside. He knew because he could feel her. He closed his hand over the medallion on his chest and smiled, his heart light just at the thought of seeing her again. He pushed his way through the roses hanging over the arbor, his gaze fixed on the door as he crossed her garden. But something was wrong. His heart ached for her, but something deeper inside him was rising, something dark. Something terrible. It didn’t ache. It hungered.
“Finish it. Finish it now. Finish her.”
The door opened, and Jonathan smiled and ran to take her in his arms. She smiled back and came out to meet him. But as she fell into his embrace, the darkness took control, pulling his sword from the scabbard and lifting it up high above his head. She saw the shadow fall and looked up, her smile fading. Jonathan leaned forward to kiss her, to tell her it was all right, but the darkness inside him moved faster, and he watched, helpless, as his own hand brought down the sword to cleave her in two --
Jonathan woke drenched in sweat. “Madeline!”
A figure stepped forward from the darkness. Jonathan shrank back in the bed, the dream still hanging over his mind like a veil over reality. He felt the hard lump in his leg shift; he felt what hid inside it slither across his skin, tightening, sending waves of pain through his body.
He felt the demon’s claws dig into him, trying to take over.
“Finish it. Finish it now.”
A cool hand touched his face, but it was not Timothy tending him now. Head spinning, leg aching, body shaking as he fought to hold the demon at bay, Jonathan looked up.
Madeline looked down at him and smiled. “Hello, Jonathan.”
He sank back into the bed, chest heaving and lungs rattling as he stared up at her. Goddess save me, she’s more beautiful than she was when I left. She stroked his face, still smiling, and she lifted a tin cup to his mouth. Jonathan held himself still, sweat running down his brow as he drank, still staring at her, fighting to keep the demon in check.
“It is time,” it whispered. “It is well past time.”
Jonathan seized, and the demon took over, growling as it lifted his hands from the bed, aiming them at Madeline’s throat.
Madeline screamed. The demon let go, and Jonathan saw with sick horror that it was not Madeline at all but the maid.
“Madman!” she cried, then ran from the room.
Jonathan sank into the bed, biting back bile. It was starting. It was already starting.
The door opened, then closed. Soft footsteps approached the bed, but when Jonathan saw that it was Timothy, he only turned his face away.
“The maid says you attacked her,” Timothy said in Catalian.
Jonathan snorted and made a halfhearted gesture at his groin. “With what?” But he shut his eyes against the guilt. He had attacked her. For that one moment, the demon had taken control. He opened his eyes and stared at the pattern on the wallpaper. “I have to leave,” he said, trying to be firm, but he was afraid he only sounded desperate. He was. “I cannot stay in Etsey. I must leave now.”
“You’re still weak,” Timothy said, shaking his head, “You have attacks every day. I had to rent out the surrounding apartments in your name. The tenants were all shouting to the constable that the place was haunted.”
“It is.” Jonathan coughed, then winced as he swallowed. “How long have we been here?”
“In Boone?” Timothy picked up the cup from the floor and set it on the stand. “Six weeks.”
“Too long.” Jonathan groaned and rolled all the way over to his side before fighting his way into a sitting position. Six weeks. It had been six weeks on Etsian soil.
And it named its first target as Madeline.
Jonathan swung his good leg over the side of the bed and hissed against the pain as he dragged the other after. “Get me my walking stick,” he rasped.
“You can’t stand!” Timothy tried to push him back down. “You must rest!”
“I can’t rest. Not here. I have to leave.” He tried again to stand, but Timothy was right. He could not. He swore and sat back down again.
Timothy glared at him. “This is madness, this talk of leaving.”
Jonathan laughed darkly. “Not yet, but that will come soon enough.” He ran a shaking hand through his hair. “I cannot stay here. I don’t expect you to understand, but I need you to help me leave. Right now.” Except he feared it was already too late.
“There is nowhere to go!” Timothy waved a hand at the window. “Mathdu, Jonathan! I don’t need to fight you in addition to everything else! When I’m not wrestling with the landlord or battling racism from your ever-so-unenlightened countrymen and countrywomen, I’m staving off your grandfather, who keeps demanding to see you -- usually in the same breath he is demanding my resignation, I might add!”
That made Jonathan lift his head. “Watch Whitby. He’ll try to take you down, and he’ll do it sideways. If you so much as flirt with a man within range of his spies, he’ll have you charged with the Indecency Act.”
“As if I have time for flirting when I’m playing your nursemaid!” Timothy swore in Catalian under his breath, then began to pace. “Indecency Act. I haven’t looked that one up yet, but I can hazard a guess, knowing this place. Ten rhadus says it is some mad decree by your whore of a Goddess, probably to do with purity?” He sat down, defeated, on the edge of Jonathan’s bed. “Bathdu. I hate this country.”
“Then help me leave it.” Jonathan winced as his leg spasmed; he pressed his palm against its side to try and calm it. “The wounds to my neck are almost healed, but you’ll notice the others are as bad as ever and in fact are getting worse. This will continue as long as we are here, and it is just the beginning. I need to leave. Get me to Hain, if that’s the best we can do. I don’t care. Just get me out of Etsey. Get the ocean between it and me again.”
“I don’t understand why just being here is so objectionable, and I resent that you won’t explain it me,” Timothy said. “If it’s the climate, Hain will be worse. Is it the tension of being here, where your past has so many shadows? That isn’t like you, but I won’t think less of you if that’s the case.”
The darkness within Jonathan’s wound began to move, and he smiled a humorless smile. “I’ve already told you why. You just don’t want to believe me.”
Timothy snorted derisively. “Magic is a very stupid explanation. And demons is an even more ridiculous one.”
Jonathan winced and shifted his leg again. “This is old magic. Older than anything most people can understand or bring themselves to believe in. And the demon is real. Goddess bless, Timothy, even you must see that by now.”
“I see that you have an injury,” Timothy shot back. “I refuse to believe you have a demon living in your leg. K’hertha, Jonathan, you are not a superstitious fool! This is nonsense! Magic! I’ve seen your country’s magic. It’s little more than science unexplained.” But even as he said this, Timothy looked at Jonathan’s neck and his festering thigh, and he frowned.
“I have not told you much about my family,” Jonathan began. “In some ways, we are no different than any other aristocratic clan: We’re elitist, arrogant bastards obsessed with money, status, and land, ready to stab each other and anyone else in the way of maintaining and advancing our positions. But there is more to my ancestry than that. We are a House, which means our lineage is more about our blood than our estates and our gestures at Parliament. Our House is very old, born in a time that has passed into legend, under circumstances so strange and unreal even most Etsians count our story as fantasy. Every old family has dark shades, ugly secrets it would rather were not known. Every family has a monster in the closet, a secret demon for which they will lie and cheat and kill to make sure word does not get out of its existence.” Jonathan pressed his hand on his thigh, fingers curling against the edge of the bandage. “My family’s demon is literal. You may not wish to believe it, but it’s true. I have a curse on my head, and despite my insistence I would never become embroiled in my family’s darkness, ten years ago I managed to land myself in the center of it. I swore I would never come back to these shores, because I knew if I did, I would bring the darkness with me. I carry things that should not be allowed to return. I staved off some of its power by leaving, but now that I’m here, it’s all beginning again. Things are changing inside me, things that I do not know how much longer I can control. People might die, now that I am here.” He closed his hand over his chest, over the medallion lying beneath his shirt. People I care about.
“I have no wish to stay here either,” Timothy said, “whether or not you are cursed. But none of this changes the fact that you are too ill to travel again. And don’t give me that nonsense about not being able to die. By your own warped logic, if you are compromised further, what is to keep this alleged demon from taking over, killing me, and ordering the ship back to Boone?”
Timothy spoke with thick sarcasm, but the possibilities he painted made Jonathan chill to the bone. “Then I must go alone,” he said. “Or take me out to the ship and tie me down.”
But would it be enough? Would it be enough to stop the darkness? Jonathan swore under his breath and wiped his hand over his face.
“There must be a physician here who can help you,” Timothy insisted. “If you are bent on leaving, at least allow one of them to bolster you first. Perhaps your ‘magical’ injury can be cured by an Etsian physic.”
“There isn’t --” Jonathan cut himself off, arrested by a new thought. Etsian physic. His hand closed over his chest, and he toyed with his medallion absently through his shirt. “There is no such thing as a physic in Etsey. But we do have alchemists. And witches.”
Timothy looked dubious. “Would they have any effect on your ailments?”
“I don’t dare go near an alchemist,” Jonathan said. “Not as a Perry as a general rule, but especially not with what I carry. But a witch -- if I could get to the right one, she might be of use.”
“She would have a cure?”
Jonathan stared down at the bedclothes. “The only trouble is that most witches won’t be any good to me,” he said. “When they find out what is wrong with me, they will refuse to…give me what I need. There are a few who might help, though. One in particular would be very glad to assist me in what I have in mind.”
Timothy nodded tersely. “We’ll go straightaway.”
“There are dangers,” Jonathan said. He fiddled with the medallion again. “There are people I must avoid at all costs. We must be in and out with absolute secrecy. She will not come to us; we must go to her. And yet the place where I must go to see her is full of dangers for me, and it is the place where I am most likely to be a danger to others.”
Timothy put his hand on Jonathan’s shoulder. “I will go with you. I will do everything I can to assist you. You know this. I want to see you cured, Jonathan.”
Jonathan nodded, keeping his head down so as not to reveal his guilt. Cured. The right witch could cure him, yes -- but it would not be the cure Timothy wanted.
Finish it. Yes. It’s time to finish it, indeed. Except Jonathan had no intention of letting the demon be the one to decide what was being finished.
“To where shall I arrange transportation?” Timothy asked.
“North.” Jonathan felt his leg twitch, and he placed his hand over the wound, trying to gentle the beast within. “We will be traveling to the village of Rothborne.”
* * * * *
Timothy Fielding hated Etsey.
He hated the climate. For years he’d listened to Jonathan effuse over the lush, green forests of his homeland, heard him espouse the poetic beauty of a mist-covered moor, listened to him sing the praises of the splendor of the white cliffs jutting out over an angry sea. But now that he had arrived to bear his own witness, Timothy couldn’t see it. He had traveled over almost the entire length of the island country, and now he was in the northern moorlands, at an inn outside of the “quaint rustic village” where Jonathan had spent much of his youth. Timothy did not find it quaint, and the term rustic seemed generous. This was not a village; it was a hole that people lived in, and from the smell of things, they pissed in it too. Oh, there were elegant manors for the upper class scattered everywhere, and there were the poor middle classes who dressed like their betters but scraped along with everyone else, but even they were not the norm. Most of Etsey was dirt hovels and rickety shacks. And even the best of the houses were trapped in the same wet and cold and fog of the hovels -- and this was summer. Timothy had no desire to see snow, no matter how much it looked like “a soft blanket of white over the world.” He suspected it was only wetter and colder.
Timothy hated the people of Etsey as well. He’d known Etsian soldiers for years, and he’d acclimated himself to their idiosyncrasies and contradictions, and he’d even managed to find most of them to be charming in their own simple way. The charm must have come from being abroad, Timothy decided, because the natives themselves were less developed than apes.
“They distrust foreigners,” Jonathan had warned him as they’d traveled north. Sitting at the bar in the pub room at the inn outside of Rothborne with two dozen pairs of eyes glued to his every move, Timothy let the understatement echo in his mind as he snorted into his ale. Distrust foreigners. They didn’t distrust him. They wanted to string him up or put him in one of their quaint, rustic pillories for no other reason than he had a permanent tan and wore “funny clothes.” As Jonathan would say, Goddess save him if they discovered how creatively and frequently he had violated their mathdu Indecency Act.
And that was another thing to hate, Timothy thought darkly, taking in more ale. The Goddess. He’d thought her modest enough when the soldiers appealed to her in battle, and he still wasn’t against the idea of a metaphorical mother for these backward, superstitious morons, but their Goddess was little more than a greedy whore from what he had seen. The soldiers had appealed to a great spiritual force that would, they hoped, give them strength and courage when theirs was spent. In Etsey itself, however, the deity seemed to be as much a slave driver as the Continental God and ten times as arrogant. They didn’t just call their country Etsey. The whole world was called Etsey, according to the Goddess, implying that they were, by extension, the chosen country, the only one that really mattered.
Timothy granted the Goddess points for being interesting enough to be two halves in her human form, one male, one female. He’d never understood the Lord and Lady lore exactly: something about the divine being both masculine and feminine, and should they choose to incarnate, they would be one and the other. Timothy also liked their bawdy little rhyme they’d trotted out when drunk; it was crude, yes, but it was true. It made sense, and it was catchier than “You make your own destiny.” He sensed, however, that suggesting to the grubby, angry men and women glaring at him that they should invite their domineering, judgmental Mother to go down on them would not win him many points of favor.
Timothy drained the last of his ale and set the empty tankard down on the bar in front of him. He kept his fingers on the side of the mug, tapping them idly as he tried to decide if he wanted another or if he should head back upstairs to check on Jonathan. What he wanted, he admitted in black humor, was to be fucked. To be absolutely honest, he wanted to fuck, then be overpowered and fucked back. He didn’t want any preamble or niceness, and a dearth of conversation would be considered a bonus. He had months of anger and fear pent up inside him, and now he had judgment and hate as well. He wanted it purged, and he didn’t feel like setting up a circle of candles and meditating. He wanted to feel alive, not connected to a greater whole. He wanted someone to remind him that he had a body, that he was vulnerable and soft inside, and he wanted someone to use those insides roughly. In the old days, this would have been an easy request to fulfill -- though not in a single one of the old days had he ever felt this black or frightened or unsteady. Of course, it didn’t matter, because the old days weren’t just gone, they were decimated, their bones ground beneath the unforgiving heel of the Cloister Army’s boots.
What Timothy had now was his mira, the brother of his heart, dying in this rat-stinking inn while they waited for some folk-magic witch to cure him, and in the meantime, provincial matdhu ghorae were hoping he’d give them an excuse to gut him. Oh, and he had their Indecency Act, which made the prospect of being fucked impossible without having himself flayed and raped with broken bottles if he was caught. He didn’t even let himself travel down the maddening mental road that began with the idea that it was, however, perfectly fine for the old ghora next to him to repeatedly stick his hand beneath the barmaid’s skirts in front of the entire pub room.
It’s probably some sick sort of homage to the Goddess, he thought, then swore in Catalian and rose from his stool, ready to concede defeat and head back upstairs.
“Your pardon,” he murmured automatically when he moved too quickly and ran into someone. He tensed, certain the way his luck had been running it would be some big, brutish beast of a man who would use Timothy’s blunder as an excuse to pick a fight; he didn’t have the leisure for a brawl just now.
But the man he’d stumbled into wasn’t brutish or beastly, and as Timothy took a better look at him, he decided he was probably the least likely man in the room to throw a punch. He wasn’t gaunt, not physically, but there was a hollowness about him that made Timothy pause. And when the dull, blue eyes met his, Timothy couldn’t help himself.
“Are you well, sir?” he asked.
The man smiled, but it was a macabre sort of half gesture. It died quickly, and he lowered his eyes without answering.
Timothy knew he should let it go, but there was something about the stranger that tugged at him. The man looked like one of the victims in the Cloister camps, except he didn’t have whip marks visible on his flesh.
“Sit,” Timothy said, motioning to the chair beside the one he had just vacated. “Please. Let me get you something to drink.”
The man turned his face to the wall, staring at it as if he expected it to speak back. Timothy held still, waiting to see what the man would do. The stranger was well dressed, better even than the “gentleman’s armor” of fashion Jonathan had insisted on wearing for their travels; where Jonathan settled for gabardine, this man wore a softer, tighter weave, and his vest and coat were of a quality of silk Timothy hadn’t seen since Catal. His boots shone in the hearth light, and he was wearing some sort of scent -- a very pleasant scent, though Timothy couldn’t quite place it. His blond hair was neat too and was swept up in a style popular in Boone. The eyes, though. The eyes and mouth gave it all away. This man, dapper as he might be, was a mental wreck.
The man turned back to Timothy, looking more haunted than ever. “You need to stay away from me.”
Timothy leaned forward so no one else would hear his words. “If you are in trouble, I can help you.”
The man laughed. It was the most defeated laugh Timothy had ever heard. “No.”
“I know I’m slight, but I’m not untrained.” Timothy leaned in even closer. “I am formerly of your country’s Special Services. At this particular second, I have no less than fifteen weapons on me, and that doesn’t count my hands or my mind.” He looked into the stranger’s eyes, not bothering to hide his empathy. “You look ruined. Let me help you. I have an ill friend upstairs I cannot abandon, but I can help you get away, at the very least.”
He reached out to touch the stranger’s arm.
But the man was stepping back, his already pale face gone completely white, his dull eyes dancing with dawning horror. “You’re the foreigner.” He held up a thin, trembling hand as if to ward off evil. “He was right,” he whispered. “Goddess save us, you’re here with my brother, aren’t you? You’re here with Jonathan Perry.”
Apprehension doused Timothy’s empathy like a bucket of icy water. “How did you know that?”
The pale man stumbled back, shaking his head. “Go,” he croaked. “Go now. It’s probably too late, but go --” The man convulsed, clutching his right forearm, then jerked his head to the door. “Get out!”
Timothy nodded and turned to leave, not knowing what else to do. But when he tried again to head for the stairs, another man was standing in the middle of the room, looking at Timothy with a smile that could only be described as feral.
“Well done, pet,” the man said, his smile widening. “I believe you have found what we are looking for.”
Matdhu. Timothy didn’t reach for one of his knives, but he widened his stance. The entire pub had gone quiet, settling in to watch what clearly promised to be a show. The new stranger was dressed in a similar style to the pale man who had warned him to go, though this one wore darker, subtler tones, and there was a coldness about his eyes Timothy instantly disliked. Timothy did a quick survey of the rest of the room, but they looked only curious, not alert and ready. Timothy relaxed a little. Just two opponents, then, one of whom might possibly be an ally. He could take them out, run a knife across whatever locals decided this would be a good opening, and head up to rouse Jonathan. Even half-wasted, he was deadly in a fight.
The new stranger held out his palms. “Easy, Mr. Fielding. You have no need to draw your knife.”
The words were quiet and unremarkable, but Timothy seemed to feel them pelt at the back of his brain; he blinked and swayed on his feet. He shook his head to clear it, but when he stole a glance at the sickly man, he caught him staring down at the floor, looking guilty and despondent. And terrified.
The other man took a step closer to him; Timothy had his hand on his waist knife and was on the point of drawing it when the man spoke again.
And just like that, Timothy could not move.
The man smiled and reached out to wrap long, wicked-looking fingers around Timothy’s arm. He felt his skin beneath the stranger’s grip go hot and then suddenly cold. Timothy’s mind became soft and quiet.
“You will go upstairs and bring your master,” the stranger said. “You will bring him to the inn yard, and you will not alarm him in any way or alert him to my presence.” The grip on Timothy’s arm tightened. “You will do this now.”
The man let him go. Timothy blinked, then nodded, his head feeling like it was both heavier than lead and lighter than air at once. He stepped around the man and headed for the stairs.
Something is wrong with me. The thought bounced anxiously around his brain. Timothy felt as if he were split in two, as if part of him were awake and part of him were sleeping. Unfortunately the conscious part seemed unable to control any part of his body. How had that happened? What had the man done? He’d bested Timothy before he’d even touched him!
Stop! Don’t listen! You don’t have to listen to him! he shouted at himself, but his body did not heed him, only continued in its trancelike ascendance of the stairs.
He was sweating when he entered Jonathan’s room; inside the prison of his own mind, Timothy was slamming himself against walls, trying to regain control of himself by sheer will, but it wasn’t working.
“You must come with me,” he heard himself say to Jonathan as he blinked up from the bed. “You must come downstairs with me to the inn yard.”
Don’t! Don’t do it! It’s a trap! But Timothy could not make his mouth move. His own body would not obey him.
Jonathan sat up groggily, frowning as he rubbed the side of his face. “Has something happened? What --” He stopped, taking a closer look at Timothy’s face. His eyes narrowed, then darkened. “You’re enchanted.”
Yes! Yes -- No, that’s impossible, but there is something strange happening! Some drug or something -- I don’t know! Just don’t listen to me! “You must come with me now.”
But his words were leaden. He didn’t even sound like himself, and the aberration did not escape his friend. Jonathan reached for his walking stick and leaned on it as he ran his gaze up and down Timothy’s body. “You would never have let someone near enough to get anything into your pockets. It must be something else. They must have brushed you, or --” He zeroed in on Timothy’s sleeve, then touched it. Timothy cried out as his arm began to burn.
“A pin, with an anchor on his own person, from your reaction. Fuck,” Jonathan said, looking unhappy. “I was hoping it was an amateur making mischief. But not with a pin and anchor.” He looked up at Timothy, gentling his gaze and speaking in the voice Timothy had only heard him use when he was trying to talk a private with a mortal wound out of panic. “It’s very important you don’t fight this. I suspect you’re upset right now, if you managed to retain any of your will at all, but you need to heed me, mira: do not fight the spell. You can go mad. I’ve seen it happen, and if you go there, I can’t bring you back. Just ride it, and trust me as you know you can.” He reached out and took Timothy’s hands gently in his own. “There’s an alchemist in the inn yard. It’s important we go down to greet him and that you do exactly what he orders you to do, even if you think it’s going to hurt me. You cannot disobey him. Tell me you understand. Nod, if that’s all you can manage.”
Timothy was breathing hard. No, he didn’t understand. This was insane! Spell! He wanted to shout at Jonathan that he was not enchanted! He was not! His breath came out in short, tense puffs of air, and his eyes began to burn.
Jonathan squeezed his hands tighter. “Daghata, Timothy. Hold on for me. Do not let some slimy little alchemist beat you.”
Timothy huffed out another breath, and a tear ran down his cheek. He means to hurt you, and I cannot stop it. I cannot even warn you!
Jonathan reached up to touch Timothy’s cheek. “It will be fine. I promise you. But you must promise me you will not fight. Gata, mira? Do not fight, not until I free you. And do not worry for me. I will be safe, I swear.” He let go of Timothy and touched his own shirtfront. “You have seen my medallion. I told you it was from an old friend, and that’s true. It’s just that it’s from an old friend who was at that time training with a witch, the very one we are here to see. It isn’t just a medallion, Timothy; it’s a charm, one of the most powerful kinds my country makes. Everyone wears them here to ward off what just happened to you. I should have thought of it sooner and procured one for you. I’m sorry I didn’t. It’s not uncommon for a local to try and enchant a foreigner, but generally it’s harmless, and you look dangerous enough that I didn’t think they’d take you on. I never thought there would be an alchemist here. They never come this far north.”
Timothy’s breath had begun to even out through Jonathan’s speech, the low, gentle tones soothing Timothy’s jangled nerves. He felt as if he were less separated now, though he could still feel the bands of the enchantment -- or whatever it was -- tempering his abilities. He began to understand why Jonathan was so insistent he not fight; it hadn’t been his imagination that he was separated from himself. But he couldn’t just surrender. That would make him more insane than fighting.
Shutting his eyes, Timothy drew a deep breath, drawing on his old training, on his own “magic,” on the control and will that had kept him alive in the Cloister camps. He wasn’t warning Jonathan. He was luring him down to the inn yard as he was meant to. He was telling him everything so that he would move more quickly. He needed to tell him everything. He needed to be certain he went down to meet the stranger.
Both strangers. He needed to tell about both strangers.
Timothy felt the spell rising up to stop him, so he whispered quickly before it could. “Brother. Your brother.”
His arm began to ache, and he clutched it as he cried out. Jonathan swore and gripped his hand. “I told you not to fight it!” But there was a new urgency in his tone as he went on. “Brother? My brother? You don’t even -- No. He would never come back here.” He ran a hand over his mouth, then laughed blackly. “But an alchemist would bring him. And if anyone could be goat led -- Fuck.”
Still clutching his arm, Timothy stepped back as Jonathan used the walking stick to push to his feet. Timothy’s head was pounding, and he felt heavy, as if he were full of water. Jonathan glanced at him, paled, and took his arm again.
“Do not fight it. This is not the time to play proud Catalian. If it helps you, I have a plan, but I can’t explain it to you because if I do, you’ll be obliged to sabotage it.” He reached into Timothy’s pocket and withdrew one of his finger knives, unfolding it before carefully placing it on Timothy’s finger. “You need to wear this, Timothy, to keep me in line. Because you know you must make certain I meet this man. You must use whatever force you need to. And you must not fight it. It will be all right, Timothy, so long as you follow his instructions. You’re going to lead me down now, and I’m unarmed, aren’t I? I don’t have any weapons. I’m too weak to lift them, aren’t I?”
Timothy was finding it difficult to breathe. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, though more from fighting the enchantment than anything else. He wanted to weep, but he was having a difficult time holding on to himself.
Jonathan drew Timothy’s unarmed hand up to his mouth and placed a kiss on the back of it.
Now Timothy was weeping. That was not an erotic gesture -- he’d given up on receiving any of those from Jonathan long ago -- but it was the most humble, sincere sort of Catalian apology, and it broke Timothy. You’ve done nothing wrong! Timothy wanted to shout at Jonathan. It’s me who is betraying you!
As if he had heard him, Jonathan smiled ruefully and shook his head. “No, Timothy. This is my country, and I know how it works, and it was I who failed to better prepare you. I have been selfish, because there is much I don’t want you to know about my life here. I’m apologizing because if I had been forthright with you, none of this would be happening. It is my pride this time, and I am very sorry it has brought you to this, because I know better than anyone how much this is tearing at you. I know you don’t believe in magic, and I know you hate this country. But I do believe, and I know what is waiting for us below.” He squeezed Timothy’s hand again. “Trust me, mira. Trust me as you have done before. Let go. Let the spell take you. I promise I will bring you back again.”
Timothy didn’t want to let go. He wanted to keep fighting. But the waves were closing over his head now, and he could feel the fragile threads of his sanity beginning to unravel.
Help me, he cried, though to whom he didn’t know.
He felt soft, gentle hands rest on his shoulders; they stilled him, and they quieted his mind.
The voice appeared in his head as if it were his own thought. Perhaps it was.
“Daghata, Raturjula D’lor. Daghata dur hi.”
It was a woman’s voice, one he did not know, one that decidedly did not belong in his head, but it felt wonderful and soothing. My native tongue and my true name both -- almost my name, anyway. The voice was softer and yet stronger than the spell, like a current flowing beneath it, a river no enchantment could ever reach. He didn’t understand what it was or how it was inside him, but he didn’t care. He could not surrender to a spell. But he found he could, quite easily, surrender to this.
“Ma nur qu’in alah hjarta,” he whispered. He held fast to the sound of her voice, focused on the place he found her inside of him; Timothy’s eyes fell closed, and he let out a long, ragged sigh as he let himself go, sinking down past the enchantment and into the golden abyss.
Soft, but very strong.
Thin, feminine arms caught Timothy, but they were by no means frail or weak. He looked up at the woman who had caught him, but he could not see her face; it was veiled, allowing him to see through to her eyes and mouth to recognize that she was smiling and looking at him fondly, but he could not see her features distinctly. She glowed as if she, not her clothes, were luminescent.
I don’t understand, Timothy tried to say, but she put her finger over his lips. The gesture was oddly comforting.
“Do not try to speak,” she said. She righted him so that he stood beside her. They were of exactly equal height, though she seemed much, much taller. She smiled through her veil and took his hand. “We will walk now. You must not fight, not until it is time.”
She didn’t wait for him to agree; she simply stepped forward, and Timothy came along with her before he realized what he was doing. For a moment he thought they were in a sort of forest, a real forest as they had back home, not these dour, muddy patches of damp and half-rotted wood. But then, no, they were at the inn again, and he was walking down the hall, Jonathan on his left, the strange woman on his right. Jonathan moved haltingly because of his injury; the woman had no trouble at all, not even with the walls. If Jonathan nudged her toward one, she simply went through it. And from Jonathan’s extraordinary lack of reaction to a gold-glowing woman of astonishing height walking through walls, Timothy had to assume he couldn’t see her, which probably meant he hadn’t heard her speak, either.
Timothy tried to frown. This didn’t make sense.
The woman tightened her hand on Timothy’s arm. “This is not the time for questions. This is the time for trust. Your friend has asked you to cede to his wisdom in this matter. It will go badly for everyone if you fail to do this.”
Timothy wanted to ask who she was, to demand she explain what was going on, but he didn’t, in part because he knew she would just admonish him again, and in part because he felt so heavy. Jonathan made it look as if it were he leaning on Timothy as they came down the stairs and entered the pub room, but despite his mira’s injuries, it was the other way around. Timothy felt as if he were barely holding on, as if he might slide away at any moment. Sometimes he thought he could see it, a black chasm that opened up beneath his feet, a sucking darkness that would have claimed him were it not for Jonathan on the one side and the strange golden creature on the other.
It isn’t logical! Timothy wanted to shout. He whimpered instead.
“Do not fight it, or you will be sucked down and much will be lost, Raturjula,” the woman said.
Jonathan leaned over as well, whispering to him as they passed through the now crowded pub room toward the door. “This will be my brother Charles outside, Timothy. We have an odd, unfortunate history. It’s strange that he is here. He swore he would never come again, and I don’t blame him.” He nodded to the curious eyes watching them, then spoke in Catalian. “The people here are very provincial. They fancy themselves religious because they have a powerful witch in residence, a witch so powerful she is on the witch’s Council. This particular parish is very, very pious. They are strict with rules and order. Aberrations frighten them, but fortunately for us, my family frightens them more. We are their ruling House, and they know our history, and unlike most parishes, Rothborne still believes in the old magic because they see it every day. You have an advantage in being my equerry. If anything happens to me, produce your seal. Use it to command safe haven.”
Jonathan kept speaking, his voice a soothing monotone, an anchor Timothy could hang his aching mind on. Jonathan, he knew, was simply trying to keep him occupied -- telling him things, giving him information, yes, but mostly just talking to engage him. He was whispering now, but he did not stop talking. “Now we are out the door,” Jonathan was saying. “Now we are at the inn yard. I see my brother ahead. Hold on, Timothy. Hold fast.”
Timothy’s head lolled as he tried to lift it to see. He wanted to see the man again. “Something wrong with him,” he croaked in Catalian. “With your brother. Needs help.”
“Shh,” Jonathan said. “Remember, we are here to do whatever the alchemist wants. You won’t break his spell, and you won’t fight it. We are cooperating.”
I want to help. I want to help your brother. The black chasm opened before him again in his mind’s eye, and he felt himself starting to go down.
The woman pulled hard and fast on his arm. “You will have your moment to offer assistance to the beloved, but this is not that moment.”
She had spoken in Catalian, and yet it was dialect he had never heard, containing strange echoes that seemed to go back to the dawn of time. The beloved? He frowned at her, but she only smiled and reached up to stroke his face.
“Daghata, Raturjula D’lor.”
Timothy frowned harder at that, because that was the second time she’d called him D’lor. But then the pin in his arm began to ache, and he felt his head swing around in time to see the strangers from the pub room emerge from the shadows. Timothy wanted to look at the one who had said he was Jonathan’s brother -- Charles, Jonathan had called him -- but he could only look at the other, the taller, thinner one, standing in the center of the yard, smiling serenely with his hands tucked into his pockets.
“Welcome home, Jonathan Perry,” he said, removing one hand from his pocket to place it over his abdomen as he made a formal bow. “Allow me to introduce myself; I am Martin Smith, a practical alchemist.”
“Ah.” Jonathan spoke casually. “I did wonder what a guild alchemist would be doing this far north. Now I understand: you are one of the renegades.”
Smith waved his hand airily. “We prefer practical alchemists, but yes, you are correct. I am not of the guild.” The alchemist’s eyes darkened; both Timothy and Charles swayed as the alchemist spoke again. “We have business between us, Jonathan Perry.”
Jonathan walked forward, and Timothy came along, his feet all but floating off the ground. The chasm below him was huge now, sucking so hard he felt it in the center of his chest. He looked up at Jonathan’s brother, wondering if he felt it too. He couldn’t tell; Charles Perry simply looked dull and lost, and he kept his head down. Jonathan, however, seemed entirely unaffected, and he continued on with Timothy at his side out to the place where the alchemist stood, his only hindrance his ruined leg.
“I can’t see what business I have with an alchemist,” Jonathan replied breezily. “I’m here only for a brief visit; I was injured in the war, and I come to seek healing from the Morgan. I doubt she will willingly tolerate any alchemists in her parish, practical or otherwise.”
The note of warning in Jonathan’s voice made Timothy think the alchemist would be apprehensive, but Smith in fact only seemed to gloat more. “Oh, this is unfortunate. I suppose you would not have heard, having been not just out of the parish but of the country. The Morgan is dead. Her Apprentice is standing in her place.” Timothy felt Jonathan’s shock at the news; even as he was still reeling, the alchemist went on. “You might be happier for it, however; her Apprentice is an old friend of yours, I understand. Madeline Elliott.”
Jonathan’s knee gave way, and he leaned hard on Timothy, who in turn had to lean on the woman or he would have fallen to the ground. Jonathan was shaking. Whoever this Apprentice was, the mere mention of her made him very upset. Timothy wanted to comfort him, but he felt the spell pushing at him, holding him back. The vortex in his mind opened wider, and he felt now as if he stood on the edge of a knife, high wind whipping all around him. Only the glowing woman kept him from teetering away.
“Stop it.” Jonathan regained his footing and propped Timothy up again. “Stop pushing on his mind. You have me here before you, which is what you wanted. There is no need to torture my equerry.”
“No, there is no need,” Smith conceded, “but it does seem to alleviate some of my frustration at not being able to enchant you. Besides,” he added, smiling wickedly at Timothy, “he’s something of a collector’s piece, isn’t he? A Catalian pleasure slave. I thought they had all been tortured to death in the Cloister camps, and yet here he is.”
Court concubine, Timothy tried to growl at him, but he no more than formed the angry thought and he was reeling again, crying out and sagging between Jonathan and the woman’s arms as his head threatened to split in two.
Smith was laughing. Timothy lifted his head and saw, through blurred vision, Smith leering at him, tucking both hands into his pockets. “And such will. I must have him as soon as I deal with you, Mr. Perry. The possibilities simply enchant me.”
“And how do you propose to deal with me?” Jonathan had shifted his grip on Timothy’s arm, gently forcing Timothy’s hand open, and with the gesture opening the finger knife mechanism as well.
Smith pulled his hands from his pockets and guided Charles out in front of him, holding him firmly in place by the shoulders. “With my little pet,” he said, then yanked hard on the back of Charles’s hair, lifting his face.
The pale, dull eyes were no longer blue. They had no iris or pupil, and they glowed a hot, angry gold.
Beside Timothy, Jonathan’s entire body tensed, then buckled. Then Jonathan roared.
“Yes!” Smith cried. He lifted one of Charles’s arms, which Timothy realized held a sword; the alchemist murmured a word, and Charles lifted it up farther on his own, ready to strike.
Jonathan straightened, no longer hampered by his injury. He pushed the release button on the side of his walking stick, sending the casing skittering away on the ground as he raised his own blade. Timothy caught a look at Jonathan, and he staggered back at the ferocious expression on his face and the unnatural red light of his companion’s eyes.
“Daghata,” the gold woman whispered, holding Timothy up the way Smith was holding Charles, though by his arms, not by his hair. She kept Timothy’s hand inside Jonathan’s grip by the force of her own. “It is almost time. Keep your hand in his. It is almost time to fight.”
Timothy didn’t want to keep his hand in Jonathan’s. “I have a demon inside of me,” Jonathan had said. Timothy had always assumed Jonathan was being metaphorical. And yet if Timothy had to describe what he was looking at now, he would have to say he was looking at something demonic. It was not a virus. Not an infection. There was something else wearing Jonathan’s skin. Something dark and terrible.
A demon. He was not standing next to Jonathan. He was standing next to a demon.
And then, like the flicker of a flame, it was Jonathan again, just for a moment. Then it happened again, and again. Charles Perry had nearly drawn the sword fully over his head, and he still looked completely possessed by the alchemist’s spell, but Jonathan was fighting whatever had come over him. The flicker became a beam; the demon vanished, and Jonathan turned to Timothy, wrapping his hand tighter around his friend’s wrist.
Now, what? Timothy wondered. But Jonathan was already swinging them both around. He brought up the blade of his sword stick in time to block his brother’s blow, but at the same time he was raising Timothy’s wrist, lunging hard at the alchemist’s midsection. Jonathan’s leg gave out; he leaned hard on Timothy. Timothy was weak and could not bear him.
The gold-glowing woman caught them both. Then she reached over and plucked the pin from Timothy’s sleeve.
“Now, Raturjula! Now is the time to fight!”
Timothy felt his head clear, the enchantment not gone but pushed back by a great gold ring that expanded out beyond his consciousness. He could see only the alchemist, and with this sudden clarity and narrow focus, he truly saw the alchemist. He had one hand on Charles, gripping his hair tightly as he murmured strange words, but his other hand was in his pocket, and his fingers were moving.
Pin and anchor. The pin was in my sleeve. The anchor is in his pocket.
Jonathan was trying to lift Timothy’s hand again, and Timothy realized it was this he was aiming for: the alchemist’s pocket. Timothy didn’t fight Jonathan’s direction, only helped it along, standing upright at last and supporting his friend as he drove the small, wicked finger knife straight down across the seam of the alchemist’s coat. Timothy gave it an extra push at the last second so that the knife went into the bastard’s tender skin. The alchemist screamed, and Timothy felt the last of the enchantment break as seven silver stones tumbled out, then shattered against the ground. Charles Perry stumbled, then fell to the ground as well, shaking his head as he woke from his trance. Jonathan was struggling to right himself, but he was staggering hard now. The alchemist was clutching his leg, but he looked up with dark, furious eyes at Jonathan and started to murmur angrily beneath his breath.
Timothy stepped away from Jonathan and let him go down as he bent and picked up the casing of the sword stick. He stood and swung it around in the same motion, smacking it hard against the side of Smith’s head. The alchemist crashed to the ground, and he did not move again.
The gold woman drifted in front of Timothy and gave him a sad smile. Then she vanished.
Timothy didn’t know whether he was disappointed or relieved. He lowered the sword stick casing and turned around.
“He’s down,” Timothy said in relief. But when he saw Jonathan, his heart seized, and he fell to his knees beside his friend. “Mira.”
Jonathan was shaking, fighting what appeared to be some sort of a seizure. His groin and left thigh were wet with blood, and more was burbling from his lips.
“Out of here,” he croaked, spraying blood over his shirt as more dribbled down his chin. “Away.” He reached up and clutched weakly at Timothy’s shirtfront. “Away.”
“Ah’s meir qu’atak! You cannot travel now!” Timothy shouted at him. “You will die!”
Jonathan dragged him in closer, so close that their noses were practically touching, so that Timothy had no choice but to look into the black pools of terror that were Jonathan’s eyes.
“Demon,” he whispered. “It is taking over.” He coughed, bringing up more blood. “Madeline,” he whispered, the name tearing from him. “Madeline!” He coughed again violently, and he cried out in despair. Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell, unconscious, to the ground.
“No!” Timothy cried, clutching his mira.
Charles Perry crouched several feet back on Jonathan’s other side, reaching out to brace himself against the ground. He still looked unsteady, but he was a little less dull now. His eyes had returned to normal.
“You need to go before Smith comes around.” Charles stared at his sibling with a sad expression. “Get him well out of sight. And don’t tell me where you’re headed. That will be the first thing Smith does. He’ll draw the information out of me.”
“Your brother needs a doctor.” Timothy pressed his hand against Jonathan’s thigh, despairing at how much blood had soaked his clothes.
Charles was quiet for a long moment as if he were considering something carefully. “There is no doctor here,” he said at last. “But I can send you somewhere better.” He reached up and undid the knot in his cravat, stopping twice to steady himself against the ground. When he had it undone, he pulled the long, wide strip of cloth away and handed it to Timothy. “Use this to bind him. Are your things upstairs in your room?”
Timothy unhooked the knife from his hand, then took the cloth and set to work wrapping Jonathan’s thigh, doing his best to catch the tear that went to his groin as well. “Yes. One trunk. I haven’t unpacked us yet. We only just arrived.”
Charles patted his coat. “Smith doesn’t let me keep money. Do you have any coin? I’ll send a boy up to fetch it, and then I’ll find you a coach.”
Timothy pulled his purse from the inside of his vest and tossed it over to the other man without hesitation, though he did feel a tug of unease after. Charles must have caught the look, because he gave him a rueful smile. “I’ll be right back,” he said, then rose and headed to the inn.
Timothy watched him go, still wondering what madness had possessed him to hand over half their traveling money to not just a stranger, but a stranger aligned with the alchemist. Not aligned; enslaved, he corrected himself, then swore under his breath and turned his attention back to Jonathan. The bandage seemed to have staved off the worst of the bleeding. It was stained red, but the stain was not spreading any farther. He felt for Jonathan’s pulse, and to his immense relief, he found one.
He realized a little belatedly that the crowd that had previously been merely observing the inn yard theater was now closing in around him. They didn’t look happy. Timothy kept one hand on Jonathan’s chest, but he fumbled for the sword stick with the other, ready to spring the casing and start fighting if it came to that. How he would protect Jonathan and fight off twenty men, he did not know, but he’d find a way.
Then he remembered what Jonathan had told him, and he set down the sword stick and fished once more in his vest pockets. When he found the thick, leathery piece of paper with the great red seal, he thrust it out in front of him.
“I am Timothy Fielding, equerry to Jonathan Perry, the heir to Augustus Octavian Perry, Lord Whitby.”
The men paused. “No fore’ner can be equerry,” one of them said in challenge, but there was uncertainty in his tone.
Timothy seized on it. He reached into his pockets again and produced another, smaller seal. “I was made his equerry while serving with Mr. Perry in the Catalian War. I am an agent with the Special Forces of the Etsian Army.”
The men were murmuring now, and a grizzled old man using a crude, knotted cane to walk hobbled forward to squint at Timothy’s seal. His eyes went wide as he read the document.
“Death Unit.” The old man stared in disbelief at Timothy. “No one comes out of that alive!”
“I did.” Timothy tucked both papers away again. He took the sword stick in hand. “Now stay back, all of you.”
The old man nodded, taking several steps away, but he cast a worried look at Jonathan. “Perrys only bring misfortune to this parish,” he murmured.
“Not compared to the misery I’ll give you if you all don’t clear away,” Timothy said, and to his immense relief, they all fell back this time. His heart was still pounding as he lowered the sword stick. So there were advantages to paranoid, ignorant parishioners: if you managed to get them to respect or fear you, they did so completely.
Charles Perry reappeared with a gangly youth in tow bearing Jonathan’s trunk. A coach and four were pulling up behind him in the yard. “I’m sending you to the abbey,” he said as the coachman took the trunk and loaded it on the roof. “It’s vacant, but it’s Jonathan’s, actually, so there’s no trouble -- and given what just happened, it’s probably the most appropriate place for him. I couldn’t get anyone to stay with you, but you may be glad for that. I’ll send better help as soon as I am able to track Madeline down.”
“You said not to tell you where we were going,” Timothy said, hefting Jonathan carefully to his feet before dragging his unconscious body to the coach.
“If Smith can’t find me, he can’t ask me.” Charles smiled wanly. “Anyway, she might be able to help me too. I’ll face the moor, even at night, for that.”
Timothy had been draping Jonathan over his shoulder; when he had him in place, he glanced up and looked at Charles. “She?”
“The moor witch. Or, apparently, her Apprentice.” His face softened a little. “She’s an old friend of mine too.”
“Jonathan seemed uneasy when Smith mentioned her,” Timothy said.
Charles grimaced. “Yes. But there’s no one else. Anyway, if she finds out about this, she’ll be coming for him. She might have taken the witch vows, but she’s still Madeline. She’s going to come for him.”
Charles held open the door to the coach but did not help as Timothy wrestled Jonathan inside; he seemed reluctant to touch his brother. Timothy wondered again why he was trusting Charles. When Timothy had Jonathan secured inside, he stepped half-out of the carriage again, hanging out the door with his hand anchored on the frame as he stared down into Charles Perry’s face.
The blond man stuffed his hands in his pockets, still looking wan and worn too thin, but now he looked charmingly abashed as well. “I know you’re suspicious of my aiding you. But I truly am trying to help. Not for Jonathan. For you.”
Timothy felt the word catch in the center of his chest. “Why?”
“Because you tried to help me,” Charles Perry replied. “You didn’t know me. You just looked at me, saw I was in trouble, and you tried to help. Thank you.”
A stable hand appeared behind Charles with a large white horse; Charles turned to him, pressed some coin into his hand, and tossed the purse back to Timothy. Timothy caught it, but he didn’t move back into the coach, and he didn’t say anything, just kept staring at Charles Perry. He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t seem to stop.
He watched the gold woman form slowly between Charles and the horse, a ghostly, glowing figure. She smiled at Timothy and placed her hands on Charles’s shoulders.
“I will guard the beloved,” she said in Catalian. “It is time for you to go.”
No one else reacted, not even Charles; they couldn’t see her. Timothy swore and glared at her. “I hate this country.”
Charles laughed; the sound felt like a song in Timothy’s ears, and when he saw how it transformed the pale man’s face, he wanted to jump down and drag him into his arms.
What is wrong with me? He glowered and ducked into the carriage without another word, slamming the door behind him. He looked down at Jonathan, who was sprawled awkwardly across the seat. He looked so ill, so much worse than he had ever been.
I should never have let him drag us here. I should never have let him leave Boone. I didn’t want to let him go, but I did, and look what has happened.