Witchery a ghosts of al.., p.1
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       Witchery: A Ghosts of Albion Novel, p.1
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         Part #2 of Ghosts of Albion series by Amber Benson
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Witchery: A Ghosts of Albion Novel
Cloaked in shadows, Aine skulked through the orderly corridors of Stronghold and slipped past the guards, out into the wild wood in search of love and magic.

  Oh, there was magic aplenty within the walls of that gleaming citadel, and in the spire that thrust upward from the heart of the forest, but it was a pale shade of the passionate magic she dreamed of, and knew existed. All she had to do was take that first step, beyond this world, into Faerie, the land of her birth.

  The sisters of Stronghold still held to the old ways, but the ordinary world had begun to influence them so that this outpost between the worlds had become tame.

  Aine yearned for wild magic, for unfettered love. She withered from the taint of the humdrum.

  No longer.

  Tonight she would embrace the wild of the wood and the chaos that true magic was meant to unleash. If she could not cross back over into Faerie, then she would find that magic here. The moment she passed through the door and moved into the trees beyond the walls of Stronghold she began to run, laughing softly, her heart exulting in this freedom. Her long, royal blue cape was clasped firmly, with the hood pulled low over her head, to obscure her face and disguise her from anyone she might pass. The color was deep enough to hide her as she moved through the shadows. The night was cloudy, so shadows were plentiful.

  Aine had left her bedchamber dark, with two large pillows forming a soft outline under the thick bedclothes. She knew the ruse wouldn’t fool anyone who came too close, but there was no reason for anyone to seek her out this evening. Unless the winds of fate blew ill and by some coincidence one of her sisters or cousins sought her companionship, all would be well.

  There was a chill in the air that touched her face with cold breath and tried to slide its icy fingers inside the folds of her cape. The garment had been a gift from her aunt Giselle, a member of the council that ruled Stronghold. She wrapped the woolen drape more tightly around her shoulders, grateful for its warmth, as well as its cover.

  Now she came to a small clearing and paused in the dim moonlight. She slid her fingers along the cape’s hem, until she found the hidden pocket that lay within, and produced a tiny whistle. Aine put the whistle to her lips, tasting it, but did not blow. She was only supposed to use the instrument when she reached the safety of the sacred circle of rowan trees, in the woods south of Stronghold. There she would play the haunting melody that the sprite Serena had taught her.

  A mischievous grin touched her lips as she thought of Serena. Though fairies and sprites were kin, Aine had been taught all her life to avoid her people’s tiny, capricious cousins. Sprites visited Stronghold from time to time on one bit of business or another, but rarely were they welcomed within the outpost’s halls. Aunt Giselle had tried to discourage Aine’s friendship with little Serena, but the sprite had become her dearest friend. She was pure emotion, and entirely honest, and Aine loved her for it.

  “Sprites may be kin, but they are better allies than neighbors,” Giselle had often said.

  Aine always nodded gravely, long having realized there was no point in arguing against this prejudice. And if her friendship with Serena had made her more mischievous herself, in truth she cherished that part of her heart.

  Magic was meant to be wild.

  Like love. Love, which had driven her out into the forest tonight. The melody she would produce with her whistle was a powerful Calling. It would create a phantom manifestation of her true, destined love, no matter where he might be. Aine so longed for love that she was determined to discover what the future held for her, what man would hold her, and take her, and want her forever.

  So she walked on, continuing southward.

  It was strange to think that she didn’t know his name or even what he looked like. She imagined that his hands would be strong and warm, burning his touch into the soft skin of her shoulders as he pulled her ever so gently toward him, their lips brushing in that first magnificent kiss. It was all childish fantasy, of course, and she knew that it was only his image she would summon, not the flesh and blood man.

  The crunch of dirt underfoot yielded to the soft hush of dew-touched grass, and soon Aine found herself surrounded by the majestic ring of ancient trees. Their beauty took her breath away. The others in Stronghold rarely ventured this far south. There was many a tale told of human girls— and fairies, as well— being captured by the ghostly Wild Edric and ravished by his retinue of huntsmen, undead creatures that roamed the woods, embroiled in an eternal hunt.

  Aine paid no heed to these tall tales. There was no creature, human or magical, that could frighten her away from her destiny. She wouldn’t allow it.

  Something shifted in the woods nearby; a tree branch cracked, and the leaves rustled in the rowans. She squeaked, startled, and turned her head toward the sound, but saw nothing. Aine listened intently, but after a few moments of silence, she shook her head, assuming that her fright had been prompted by the prowling of some nocturnal beast.

  I am not afraid.

  She had work to do, and she wasn’t going to let some woodland creature chase her away. She slipped off her cloak, setting it carefully in the grass, and went to stand in the middle of the grove. She took a piece of bloodred ribbon from her dress pocket and pulled her straight, chestnut hair into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. At her shoulder blades she could feel the tickle of magic, the place where— if she wished it— gossamer wings might emerge.

  But that was for another night.

  Aine knew that most considered her pretty. Of course, humans could not be trusted to view the creatures of Faerie objectively. Magic clouded their vision, so that they could only see great beauty or abject terror when looking at fairies and sprites and their like. But all of her friends at Stronghold assured her she was beautiful. In a mirror, Aine might admire her own face. Her eyes were soft and brown, ringed by a fringe of dark lashes, and her lips were pink and fetching, forming a perfect bow. When she smiled, her eyes crinkled up at the corners, and the sprite Serena had once said that her laughter was like the sound of a thousand tiny silver bells, all being rung at once.

  Yet Aine never felt beautiful. At sixteen, her gangly body often seemed beyond her control. In her mind, she moved with the awkwardness of a newly born colt. Her body felt cumbersome, causing her to continue to see herself as a child, rather than the young woman she had become.

  The wind picked up, and Aine wished she had not taken off her cape so quickly. She ran her hands briskly over her exposed forearms, trying to warm her chilly body, but only managed to bring out more gooseflesh.

  She looked up, her eyes scanning the cloudy heavens. A patch of open night appeared as a large cloud was shifted south by the whim of the wind, revealing the full moon that the sky chart had promised her.

  If she did not complete the Calling before midnight, she would be forced to wait another month before she could try it again. That would be an eternity. No, tonight had to be the night.

  Another loud crack filled the air, echoing around the sacred circle. The sound came from somewhere behind the trees. She felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and a cold shiver spread down her spine and into her back. She turned, her eyes wide with fear— and saw

  Nothing.

  Aine slowly released the breath she had not known she was holding, her eyes refusing to believe what they saw. She could sense something large watching her from behind the thicket. Yet, the fact that she saw nothing actually frightened her.

  She began to understand why people told ghost stories about this place. She took a deep, calming breath and felt her heart skipping double-time inside her chest. The m
oon disappeared behind another cloud, throwing the little grove of trees into darkness.

  Aine almost screamed as she heard a low rustling to her right. Peering into the shadows, she saw a large, flowering shrub begin to shake.

  “Who’s who’s there ?”

  Her voice was shrill, even to her own ears.

  Something erupted from inside the bush, bulleting toward her. Aine did scream this time, the sound ripping from her throat as terror seized her.

  She spun and began to run, but immediately lost her footing on an exposed root and fell hard onto her hip. She cried out, pain shooting down her side, and squeezed her eyes shut against the oncoming tears.

  Frantically she pushed up onto her hands and knees. She bit her lip against the hurt, and began to crawl as fast as she could away from her attacker.

  Aine put the tiny silver whistle to her lips and blew furiously on it. She was no longer focused upon her original purpose, instead merely hoping that someone would hear, and come to her aid.

  The entire grove was overtaken by the sound. It filled the air, suffusing the forest with the tintinnabulation of a thousand ordinary whistles. The sound was accompanied by the scent of crushed rose petals.

  As she drew in a shaking breath, the whistle fell from her lips, and she sank to the ground. She looked up and stared at the beast that had frightened her so, feeling more than a little ridiculous.

  The fawn stood, trembling, in the middle of the grove, its liquid brown eyes locked on the terrified girl who lay sprawled in the grass. It shook itself, and bits of shrub still attached to its tail fell softly to the ground.

  Aine began to gulp air, and that became a giggle, shock causing a mild hysteria to overcome her. She pulled herself up into a crouch, careful of her injured hip, her heart drumming loudly in her ears. She reached out with a tentative hand.

  The fawn took off like a shot, the scent of fairy magic frightening it into action.

  Something behind the fawn caught her attention and her heart seized in her chest. Then she remembered the whistle, and the magic she had set out to perform this evening, the purpose of that Calling.

  Apparently, it had been successful.

  “Hello, there,” she whispered, the words still etched with a trace of giddiness.

  The young man blinked, his silvery face contorted in confusion, as he stood before her in a pair of loose-fitting britches and a longish nightshirt.

  Aine moved closer, letting her hand touch the translucent outline of the young man’s figure. It was cold and clammy, and she immediately pulled her fingers away from him.

  “You’re so cold,” she said, but the young man did not reply. His gaze was far away.

  Aine sat back on her heels, wincing at the sharp pain that shot across her side, and took a better look at the man she had called.

  She felt a pang when she realized he was really more of a boy than a man, with longish dark hair that curled in hanging coils, framing his face. She couldn’t tell if his eyes were dark or light, but there was a kindness that emitted from them that warmed her heart, and chased away her fleeting disappointment.

  He had a nice face, his aquiline nose holding court over a smallish mouth and high, patrician cheekbones. He sneezed, and his thin shoulders shook, making Aine laugh.

  I wish you could hear me, she thought. Or, at least, tell me your name.

  Slowly, the apparition began to fade away.

  “Please, don’t go!” Aine called, but it was no use. After a few moments, the vision of the young man disappeared entirely.

  More saddened by the experience than comforted, Aine used the trunk of one of the rowan trees for support as she pulled herself to her feet. She reached for her cape, draped it over her shoulders, locked the clasp, and was immediately enveloped in its warmth.

  Her hip hurt when she put her weight on it, but it was sturdy enough to hold her up. Her eyes on the ground in front of her, she took a step forward, then stopped, as a long shadow crossed her line of vision.

  She looked up, expecting to see the fawn again, or perhaps the phantom young man. Instead, she found herself face to face with a stranger.

  “Oh,” she stammered, and she froze.

  The figure wore a heavy brown cloak, its hood pulled low enough to hide its entire face. It stood less than three feet away from her, but made no move to close the gap between them.

  “What do you want?” she demanded, emboldened by the fact that it made no advance.

  The creature offered no reply. Instead, with startling speed, it reached out a gnarled hand and grabbed her by the throat, cutting off any cry for help.

  Aine fought desperately against the creature’s hold, raking her long nails across the heavy fabric of its cloak, trying to claw at the flesh beneath. The thick garment protected it, but still she lashed out, again and again, trying to hurt it, to break its hold on her.

  The world began to swim around her as its grip on her throat choked off her air. She struck out with her fist, knocking its hood back, revealing its long, twisted face, and eyes that gleamed in the pale glow of moonlight.

  Aine raised her hand to strike again. The creature gave a shrill cry, mouth cruelly contorted, and with its free hand it grabbed her arm, stopping the blow before it fell.

  With a quick twist, it shattered the bones in her right forearm.

  Its grip on her throat tightened, closing off her scream. Glaring into her eyes, it intoned a spell in an ancient, barbaric tongue. If only she could breathe, she thought she could have made out the words, understood that old, dead language.

  The flesh of her face rippled with magic. Needles of agony shot through her mouth, and then she understood. But Aine could do nothing as tight little stitches threaded through her lips, suturing her mouth closed.

  Blackness pooled in her peripheral vision as the last of her strength began to leave her, only the pain in her shattered arm keeping her from losing consciousness.

  Now that she was unable to scream, the creature released its grip on her throat. She breathed desperately through her nose, the threat of suffocation receding with the blackness around her vision.

  Wildly she searched her mind for some magic that would not require words or the gestures of both hands. She could think of nothing.

  A single spark of hope remained.

  With a thought, she summoned her wings. Diaphanous and glittering with vivid color, they unfurled instantly from her back.

  Aine reached deep within herself for a single, last drop of strength. With her good hand she hammered at the creature’s grip even as she raised her legs, propped her feet against its torso, and pushed.

  She broke its grasp. Hope blossomed and she spun desperately in the air, wings beating, driving her skyward. She could see the moon and the stars through the opening in the trees above, and flew toward the dark, velvet sky.

  A hand caught her by the wing and pulled her back down. The creature got a fist tangled in her hair and held her fast. With the other, it ripped her left wing from her back.

  The agony was such that Aine shrieked, tearing the stitches in her lips, spilling her blood down her chin.

  The creature struck her in the side of the head and she went down on the ground, barely able to stay on her knees. Once more it gripped her hair. It lifted her up and dragged her toward an old, thick rowan tree.

  There came a terrible ripping sound, and the trunk of the rowan began to split apart. It opened wide, a queer darkness yawning inside. Broken and bleeding, she hadn’t the strength to make any protest as the creature thrust her through that opening in the rowan.

  It tucked her limbs inside the tree and then raised its hand to cast another spell.

  The rowan began to close around her. Aine thrust her unbroken arm forward to try to stop the tree from sealing her within.

  Ignoring her struggle, the creature
finished its spell and watched as the tree closed around its thrashing prey. Satisfied that its job was complete, the thing vanished into the night. The only sign of a struggle left in its wake was a twisted protrusion that jutted oddly from the thickened truck of a rowan tree, in the shape of a young girl’s arm.

  The moon reappeared from behind a cloud, bathing the empty grove in a soft, glowing light. The only sound, there in the dark of night, was a soft keening that might have been the sad whistle of the wind through the trees, or the quiet weeping of a shattered, hopeless young fairy.

  On a late spring day in Highgate, north of London, the warm air was heavy with the promise of rain. William Swift sat in a room on the third floor of Ludlow House and gazed with determined hatred at his father, who peered back at him with a demon’s eyes and a madman’s smile.

  Evening was still hours away, but in that chamber darkness had already fallen. It was no ordinary darkness, no mundane arrival of night. It was a living, churning shadow that had swallowed the room and blotted out every bit of natural daylight, so that the windows were black as pitch and a fog of darkness pulsed and breathed, filling the space between the two living beings who sat facing each other on hard wooden chairs.

  The only light came from thin white candles that had been placed every six inches in a rough circle around the center of the room, a circle that included both William and his father, Henry, within its boundaries. The candles had been made by virgin hands and cooled in holy water, and an unnatural blue tint engulfed each wick. The color was beautiful and calming and strong. The shifting shadows that swirled about could not touch that uncanny blue light.

  The room had once been a nursery. Both William and his younger sister, Tamara, had slept here in their infancy. He was determined that once the demon was gone, and his father was restored, no one would ever use the nursery again. With his own hands he would board it up, nail it shut, and remove the knob. They were, each member of the Swift family, forever stained by their contact with the evil and the damned, and their home was equally tainted.

  This infestation in particular, though, could not be allowed to remain. At the same moment as he and Tamara had inherited the abilities and duties of the Protectors of Albion— novices though they were in a perilous and eternal war— their father had been possessed by this demon Oblis. As they studied and practiced and honed their knowledge and their skills, each new triumph convinced them that now they would have the fortitude needed to exorcise the creature from Henry Swift.

  Yet each time they tried, they failed.

  William had been growing more and more restless. The knowledge that his father was trapped within his own body, enslaved to the demon that was housed therein, haunted the young man, awake and asleep. His work as manager of the family bank, Swift’s of London, had suffered. Too often he wandered around, little more than a ghost himself, dark circles under his eyes. At times he nodded off, waking to find himself in the midst of a conversation, or having walked into a room without remembering why he’d gone there or what he’d been seeking.

  But now the moment had come. He would not rest until the demon had been extracted from his father’s flesh.

  The creature sat across from him, grinning in the shadows that danced with the blue light of those blessed candles. The eyes that opposed him were not those of Henry Swift, but of Oblis. The demon often attempted to manipulate the members of the household by speaking in Henry’s voice, exhibiting the gentle kindness of a father. And from time to time, William thought that perhaps it really was his father, wrestling the demon down or slipping through when Oblis was distracted.

  But he could never be sure, could never know if he spoke to the man or the beast.

  All of that was going to end.

  The darkness was cold. A rime of ice frosted the windows and the floors, the walls and the chairs. William and the demon stared at each other, both breathing evenly. Oblis’s expression was strangely curious.

  In the center of the room, precisely midway between them, stood an elegant, handmade perfume bottle swirled with pink and red and blue glass and stoppered with a handmade glass butterfly.

  “Well, now, this is lovely, isn’t it?” the demon said in Henry’s voice. “Just the two of us, and a pretty bauble. ”

  William glared at him. “We’re not alone. ”

  Oblis sat back in the chair, comfortable in spite of the chains that bound him to it. They were, after all, only physical bonds to prevent him from causing harm to Henry’s body, or attacking anyone who entered the room. Once the chains themselves had held many spells, binding magic. But he had managed to escape more than once, and William and Tamara had become very, very careful. The numerous spells that kept him prisoner were in the walls themselves; they would not allow him to leave the room while his demonic essence was within the flesh of Henry Swift. The young Protectors made no attempt to shackle his spirit alone— they wanted the demon to depart their father’s flesh, more than anything, and their spells would not prevent that— but Oblis was not quite through tormenting them yet.

  “No, we’re not alone, are we?” the demon whispered, in his own voice now, a kind of serpentine rasp that seemed spoken just beside William’s ear. “Your father’s here with us, isn’t he? Though he’s a bit tongue-tied at the moment. ” He chuckled at his own wit.

  William remained impassive. He had learned not to rise to the demon’s bait.

  Another voice flowed from the darkness. “This is a bad idea,” it said. “I wish to make certain that, later, you’ll remember that I warned you. ”

  The demon arched an eyebrow.

  “When I said we weren’t alone,” William told him, “I wasn’t referring merely to my father. ”

  “Oh, I’m well aware of the presence of the ghost,” Oblis replied, not bothering to glance into the shadows from which the voice had come. “I simply take no notice. I don’t like to encourage this impression they have, that they are of some consequence. ”

  A low chiming sound filtered into the shadows of the room, and a figure began to manifest in the corner, beside a blackened window. The specter had one arm and was dressed in the garb of the Royal Navy, but the navy of years past, not the present day. Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson was one of many ghosts who functioned as allies for the Protectors of Albion, attempting to aid them in defending the mystical soul of England against sinister forces that would corrupt or destroy it.

  “I’m also not sure what you hoped to gain from the phantom’s participation,” Oblis went on. “He cannot harm me. Not while I occupy the form of your dear, dear father. ”

  William opened his hands. “True enough. Oh, Horatio could hurt you a great deal, but he wouldn’t, as long as you possess my father. But we’ll soon have you out of there. And then you’ll find the fury of a ghost of far greater consequence than you’ve ever imagined. We’ve each a reason to make you suffer, but I suspect Bodicea’s vengeance upon you will last an eternity. ”

  The demon only scowled, but William saw a flicker of doubt in Oblis’s eyes that pleased him. The ritual ought to work, but if it went poorly and Oblis tried to escape, Horatio ought to be able to hold onto the vapor demon long enough to imprison him. He might even be able to destroy the demon once it had left its human host.

  One way or another, they would cage him. And if they could cage him, they could destroy him.

  But the ghost of that brave, if slightly pompous and effete, admiral had not been enlisted to take part in this ritual as a combatant. William had simply wanted someone there to watch over him, to warn him if he seemed to be falling under the demon’s influence, and to sound an alarm if the worst happened.

  “William ” the ghost cautioned.

  “I’'ll remember, Horatio,” the young man rep
lied.

  “You don’t know if it will work. ”

  William stared at his father, his gaze locked again upon the eyes of the demon within. “No, I don’t. But I’ve run out of patience. ”

  Oblis smirked with Henry’s lips. “This should be interesting, then. ”

  Though there was a tremor in his heart, William kept his hands steady as he raised them, revealing the straight razor clasped in his right hand. He flicked it open with a flourish, the gleaming steel sliding out of the ivory handle.

  Before he could begin to doubt, he drew the blade across his left wrist, hissing through his teeth with the sting. A line of blood welled up instantly and began to trickle across his palm. Several drops fell to the floor.

  And then the blood began to pulse from the cut, the flow increasing.

  When he spoke, the words were in halting German, memorized from a handwritten journal produced by a demonologist whose work William had discovered in the course of his research.

  “With the blood of his blood, I summon you,” he said. “With the blood of his blood, I draw you out. ”

  Several drops that had begun to fall were abruptly arrested in mid-air, quivering there a moment. Then they began to flow across the room, sliding through the air slowly, like mercury rising. Before long, the string of blood stretched toward the center of the room, until it reached a point just above the perfume bottle— the receptacle— he had placed there.

  For the first time, the demon looked concerned. Henry’s brow furrowed deeply.

  “What do you think you’ve discovered, boy?”

  William ignored him, massaging his left arm, running his hand down from the elbow to the wrist so that the blood flowed from the slit. More and more ran out and into the air, and the stream of blood that led from him to the center of the room thickened.

  From that point above the perfume bottle, the blood began to streak outward in multiple strings, tracing the air in straight lines that led toward the white candles that circled them.

  The demon stared at William from beneath heavily lidded eyes. William’s arm ached and the cut stung, and when the flow began to diminish, he reached up without hesitation and sliced more deeply.

  Blood raced through the room now. Like spokes on a wheel it extended from the center to a place three feet above the flickering blue flame of each of those candles, and then from candle to candle, quickly tracing a circle around them. Indeed, it was a wheel now.

  A wheel of blood.

  Thin though the lines were, William knew he’d lost a lot of that fluid. If he succeeded, it would be worth it. And if he did not, he might well lose all of it.

  Suddenly the wheel was complete, and a final spoke began to thrust from the center point, creeping through the air toward the body of Henry Swift and its demonic occupant.

  William bent over, elbows on his knees, struggling to keep his head upright. The combination of blood loss and exertion was beginning to take its toll.

  “William, you should stop this,” Horatio said softly. Again, the ghostly voice sounded as though it originated just at his ear. “You’ll be too weak to— ”

  But it was too late. The flow of blood had reached its terminus, directly opposite William. A straight line of his blood ran from his wrist, across the room through the center axis of the wheel, and then touched his father’s chest, between the chains that bound him there. Henry’s shirt was immediately drenched in red.

  The blood of his blood.

  The blood of his son.

  The ritual would draw the demon out of his body, and force Oblis into the bottle, leaving him trapped there like a genie.

  The moment the blood touched him, the demon screamed. Oblis let loose with a guttural roar of anguish, and threw back his head. When he leveled his gaze again, and glared at William, his eyes were utterly black.

  He screamed, opened his mouth again, and this time there were voices there. Not just the two William would have expected— Oblis and Henry— but a dozen more at least. They were cursing and shouting in a jumble of different languages, yet Henry’s lips were not moving. It was as though he were a horn, and those voices were merely the sounds that came from it.

  Then suddenly he slumped down in the chair, sagging against his chains.

  Slowly he stirred, and his eyelids fluttered open. The expression on that face— his father’s face— was pitiful.

  “William?” Henry said. “Oh, my boy have you finally done it?”

  William held his breath. He dared not respond, fearing to be made a fool of yet again. How many times had Oblis convinced him, or Tamara, that they were speaking to Father, only to have them discover that they were being manipulated?

  But that voice, the weariness in it could it be?

  “You have no idea what it’s like down there, William,” his father said, anguished. “The things I’ve seen. And there’s no rest, oh, no. None at all. ”

  Still William said nothing. The fingers of his right hand tightened on the ivory handle of the straight razor. The blood had begun to coagulate in the slice across his wrist— that was the very reason he had cut horizontally, and not lengthwise. But there was enough blood now for the ritual.
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