The Seventh Veil
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 within it, though a few had passed out briefly within its confines. No one had ever dreamt 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 even then they hadn’t been anything but stain-filled accessories for those desiring more creative positions, or, once, to stop the breath of one whose partner had feared he would have too loose a 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.
Oh, not the bed itself, obviously, because 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, it was this bed that he loved, not for what it was, but for what it meant. 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.” They let it out if he was not in town, and unbeknownst to Charles, they frequently had to oust others they’d let it to as he lingered downstairs at the bar with his lover-to-be for the evening. Charles wouldn’t have cared, though, if he’d known. What mattered was that when he came to the Randy Sailor with a man, or a woman, they 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. He’d had more trouble with his doxies, to tell you the truth, which had been the greatest disappointment. The male had been squeamish at the idea of a naked woman in bed with them, and clearly the girl’s Hainain 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, and 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 found her revulsion almost amusing. “I don’t want to stick it in both of you,” he 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 is precisely what they had done. There were some kisses, and there was some suckling, but mostly everyone was ready for the fuck, and they quickly went 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 wedged himself inside her. The man came up behind, whispering nasty, incoherent Tansian into Charles’s ear as he teased him, then gripped his biceps as he found his own position. Charles cried out as he entered, and so did the girl, and then the man, and then it had been nothing but sensation, and heat, and then, blessedly, release.
Now the man and the woman Charles had hired for the night were curled up beside him, drifting in and out of consciousness, purring in the afterglow of sex and the lingering effects of Hain’s finest illegal substances. The whores were curled up on either side of Charles, and he stroked their naked necks and sweaty tendrils of hair as he smiled through slitted eyes at the back of the door, basking in the headiness of release. This was why he loved this room, this bed. This was why he kept coming back to the docks, despite what 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 happier and more complete than any other moment. Here, now, 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 cooed and kissed and urged her gently back down, to keep the spell going a bit longer.
“Just rest,” he urged her. “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 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, gently, then turned to nuzzle his male companion as well. “The pair of you are the only Lord and Lady I need.”
She giggled, nipped at his nipple, then settled down beside him again.
Charles leaned his head back against the metal rail and sighed, content. 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 the drugs and sex had chased away would find him. This moment of peace was fragile, and it could not last.
And all too soon, it ended.
The room was dark, and close, and there were shadows everywhere, but as Charles sat basking, he saw those shadows begin to move. They shifted slowly, and first, and hesitantly, and then, as they grew more confident that they had found him again, they moved with purpose and deliberation, coming for him. Charles tensed. The drugs were not even out of his system, but it was not the drugs that did this. 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 his cock was still half-hard, but as Charles stared at the edges of the room, the dark shapes were already rising. They were thick, grey 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, despair coming in the knowledge’s wake. Charles turned his head away, but did not close his eyes, knowing that would only make it 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, then moan. Yes, he thought, desperately. Yes, let us loose ourselves again in pleasure. Make them go away, my lovelies. Make them go away.
But the wraiths had their grip on him now, and not even the most carnal of lovemaking would deter them. Charles suspected even an entire dram wouldn’t chase them off, now. And even as the female began to coo, and slide her hand down his stomach to his naked sex, even as Charles 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 they were on the ceiling, too. 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 jerked, and 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 man asked, sleepily, 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 went pale. “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 said, accusingly. “You’re seeing the wraiths now, aren’t you.”
They were pushing through her body, making their faces merge with hers. It made it appear that 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,” he said, lying again. 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, grey-black face appeared above Charles’s shaking hands. It had no eyes, and its mouth only gaped, a skull, but 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 to them, trying to pull them back to him as they retreated through the mist, so thick now he couldn’t even see the walls. “Please,” he begged. “Please—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 turned away.
“No!” Charles climbed to his feet, stepping over the mist-figures, swallowing his revulsion as they cracked and snapped beneath his feet. “Please! You don’t know what this is like! Every day! Every day, every moment, unless I am high, or unless I am fucking! And even that’s starting not to work.” He wiped at his cheeks, which had become damp with sweat, and tears, and 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, not even 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 skin for 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, and their voices grew louder, full of rage and despair. 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, suddenly, 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 hand held him still patiently as he empties his stomach again. When he was done, it handed him a damp towel too, which stank only slightly less than the bed. Charles ran it over his forehead, then his mouth, and then his neck.
“Thank you,” he murmured, and fell back against the pillows. He smiled weakly at 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 as he shook his head. “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 Nancy.”
Charles read where this was going in the proprietor’s face—the same look his doxies had had—and he paled. “I’ll see you’re well paid,” he said, his voice breaking. “I’ll pay for all the business you lost. I’ll pay you double.”
But Bimsy’s eyes were full of fear, and when he spoke, he whispered. “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.”
“The 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 sulphur, 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 he had already lost, that there would be no changing his mind. The only victory to be had now would be to leave with some small shred of his dignity. He smiled, weakly, and leaned back on the pillows. “Very well,” he said, with studied nonchalance. “Just send me your final bill, and I’ll see that you are 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 my family,” Charles pointed out. The room seemed to be growing darker. Was that a cloud going past the window, or—? He reached for his silk jacket draped carefully over a nearby chair and fished around for a cigarette, then stuck the nub 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 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, but 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 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, Charles admitted to himself. He drew on the cigarette again, with some intensity.
“I thought you was dead, when I first found you,” Bimsy said, tightly. “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. “They 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 thought, bitterly, and sighed.
“If I go to this alchemist,” he said, “can I come back here again?”
“If he fixes you, sure enough you can,” Bimsy agreed. But his tone was too light, and strained.
The shadows were moving again, and the mist was rising. It wouldn’t, Charles realized with sick dread, even be an hour before they were back.
“He 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 were taller now, and he could see the faces forming, and the grey, thin fingers were reaching out around Bimsy’s throat.
Charles tossed his cigarette into the bucket and sat up in the bed. “Hand me my coat, Bimsy,” he said, and rose on unsteady legs. He shrugged into the blue silk, wrapping himself in stale beer and smoke and perfume, and then he headed for the door, ignoring as best he could the crunch and creak of shattering ghost bones that crumbled in his wake.