Ghosts of albion accurs.., p.1
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       Ghosts of Albion: Accursed, p.1
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         Part #1 of Ghosts of Albion series by Amber Benson
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Ghosts of Albion: Accursed
The young woman slipped out of the doorway into a maelstrom of men and women moving up and down the cobblestoned street. Her body was entirely covered in a bright red cotton sari and stanapatta that were far too thin to protect her from the evening's chill.

  The stench of the river filled the air to the point that the ramshackle buildings and filthy, winding alleys of London's Shadwell district seemed saturated with it. Nevertheless, the night was alive. Drunken oafs stumbled out of taverns and haggard, filthy prostitutes hawked their wares. Music drifted from an open doorway, punctuated with laughter. Rough-hewn men with stony eyes and gruff humor-sailors and dockworkers all-prowled the alleys in packs, speaking the languages of a dozen nations.

  The woman kept her covered head down so that no one could see her face, or notice the fear in her eyes that would clearly identify her as prey. At first, she kept her speed equal to those who jostled around her, but like a frightened animal she picked up her pace as much as she could, until she was almost running as she weaved in and out of the uncaring crowd.

  Her heart hammered in ragged time against her ribs, like a tiny, frightened bird screaming for release. She wanted nothing more than to silence it, but that would mean death, and surely nineteen years on this Earth wasn't enough. She knew that the quick only danced for a few precious moments before being swallowed by their partners, that it would catch her someday-this death-this thing that struck the fear of the gods into her very soul. But why did it have to come so soon?

  She thought of her twin daughters, Chhavvi and Chhaya, and prayed that she would live to see their beautiful faces again.

  From somewhere behind her, she heard someone call out her name.

  "Avani!"

  Desperately she ignored it, pushing forward, colliding with a pair of young sailors who regarded her with a hungry look. Terrified that they would grab her, that they would stop her there, she veered into a dark, empty alleyway to get away from the crowd and shake off her pursuers.

  Immediately, she realized her mistake. She should have stayed hidden in the crowd. They would not murder her with so many witnesses around. But in the filth of the vacant alley . . .

  She reached a new intersection, took another turn, and plowed deeper into the maze of the slums of Shadwell.

  This new alley was as desolate as the last. Ordinarily she would have been terrified to encounter a stranger in these hidden passages, where life was worth nothing and people took what they wanted. But now she prayed for the intervention of a stranger. Even an open door, some sanctuary where she might find protection for herself and for . . . the other.

  The thing she was carrying inside her.

  It had happened against her will. The man had been possessed, had forced her onto the ground behind the marketplace, and had defiled her. She hadn't told her husband, or her family, because she knew what they would do. But the very next morning, when she awoke, she found herself heavy with child, and knew that her life had reached its end.

  Now as she ran, she reached down and cupped her bloated belly. She had loved carrying the twins, cherished the pleasant feeling of new life growing inside her. But this experience was nothing like that. This time she felt misshapen and ugly, full of something poisonous that fought wildly within her, weighing her down and depleting her energy, so that even the effort to draw breath exhausted her.

  Behind her she heard the clamor of feet on cobblestones and knew they were still on her trail. She tried to run faster, but her back and stomach were aching more than ever. When her foot caught on an upraised piece of stone and she tripped, falling and scraping her hands and knees, she was almost relieved.

  The inevitable had come.

  Tears burned her cheeks, and she felt as if something had burst inside her. She reached down and felt a viscous fluid issuing from between her legs. There had been small droplets earlier that day, of a thick green paste, and now this. She was glad of the dark, so she could not see the color of this new humiliation.

  She tried to pull herself back up, but did not have the strength. Deep, heaving sobs issued from her mouth, and though she tried to prevent them, covering her face with her hands, her body would not comply. She began to shudder, not from grief or fear, but from a horrid sickness that was making its way through her.

  The men followed her tears to where she lay on the ground. Though she recognized their features, there was no trace of love or sorrow, or even pity in the faces of her father and her husband. Only her younger brother, Tek, did not glare angrily down upon her. Instead his large, almond eyes held a mixture of fear and shame, and he would not hold her gaze.

  "Avani, you have shamed your family," her father said as he stood over her.

  Her husband, Rajeev, had dark brown eyes that had once gazed upon her as though she were a golden lotus flower. But now they held nothing but contempt. She was soiled, now, tainted forever. In his mind, she had betrayed him, and deserved nothing less than what she got.

  Avani felt her heart shatter into a million tiny shards. She had never guessed that anything could hurt so much. She had loved them all so dearly, and now, when she needed them most, they had forsaken her.

  "Rajeev, please-" she begged.

  He spit on her.

  She reached out to touch his foot, but he kicked her hand away.

  "But I didn't-" she said, but stopped, knowing it was futile.

  She watched as her father pulled an unlit torch from the cloth bag bound at his hip and lit it. He glanced around to make sure that they were alone, then he motioned for her husband and brother to lift her up. Avani fought as they grasped her roughly by the arms and stood her on her feet.

  With a cry to Shiva, she closed her eyes and prayed for a quick end.

  The night sang with a strange, jangling noise like discordant music, and she heard Tek scream. But the sound seemed to come from some distant place. Then the acrid smell of burning human hair filled her nostrils, and slammed her back into reality. Even as she opened her eyes, he released her arm, and she saw his singed eyebrows and eyelashes. He had been burned, somehow, and she saw the terror in his eyes as he turned and fled back down the alley the way they had come.

  "Let the girl go!" came a voice from behind her. With Rajeev still gripping one arm, she managed to turn, and saw an old man leaning upon a walking stick. He was Indian. His skin was dark, his eyes were bright, and he stood in the middle of the alley, glaring at her father and husband. Everything about him indicated an air of command.

  Her father gathered his wits and handed the torch to Rajeev, then walked toward the old man.

  "This does not concern you," he said through clenched teeth. "It is a matter for family. "

  "You must let the girl go," the old man said again. "This has nothing to do with family. Evil has touched her, but she may still be cleansed, if you will stand aside. "

  Her father moved forward again and shoved the old man. Avani gasped, thinking he had hurt the poor fellow, but she was surprised to see the old man still standing.

  "I have warned you," the newcomer said, before lifting his stick and pointing at his attacker's heart. Silver light flashed from the tip and enveloped her father in a halo of white flames. He shook as though in the grip of the gods, and then collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

  Rajeev took a step back, pulling her with him, but the old man moved swiftly now. The same silver light leaped from his walking stick and struck Rajeev. He shuddered uncontrollably, and his grip slipped away. She watched as her husband fell to the ground, and did not stir.

  Avani dropped to her knees and began to cry again.

  "Please spare us, oh great one . . . "

  The words were no soone
r out of her mouth than a wave of pain swept over her, racking every part of her body. She wrapped both hands around her voluminous belly and screamed.

  "Too late," she heard the old man whisper in the language of her homeland. "Damn her, I'm too late. "

  THE OLD MAN could only watch and mourn as the girl dropped to the ground, her body lurching uncontrollably. The toadlike creatures began to drop from between her legs, an unholy, hideous parody of birth. Their bulbous, sickly yellow eyes gleamed preternaturally in the shadows.

  But there were too many of them, and they wanted to get out.

  Her belly split with a sickeningly wet tearing noise and a splash of blood and viscera, and then they came flooding out of her. The girl's wide brown eyes stared glassily at the night sky. By this time she was beyond pain. She twitched once, but she was already dead as the small creatures, their bodies covered in a sickly greenish slime, hopped away to disappear into the maze of alleys and crumbling buildings, into the deeper shadows.

  The old man wept for her, his heart heavier than all creation.
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