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A Soul's Worth

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To keep himself and his secret lover Ben out of prison, Warren sells automatons to the wealthy of Victorian London. The catch? They’re golems given life by witchcraft--and each one costs a human soul.

Fantasy / Horror
Age Rating:

Chapter One

When Warren’s master called him into the workshop the same way he had every afternoon for the past eight months, the apprentice didn’t expect anything more than another few hours of mumbling and sulfur. Sir Edmund Bennett had been attempting the same spell for Warren’s entire apprenticeship, and it was beginning to be a bit of a bore. He had been promised an opportunity to hone his skills under a great master—in exchange for being made a servant for the foreseeable future—and he didn’t intend to waste his best years watching an old man hunch over his table and fritter away what was left of his life. He was learning, but it was more thanks to Sir Bennett’s extensive library and his own gumption than any instruction from the eccentric old witch.

“Come along, Warren,” Sir Bennett scolded him, waving him over to the work table where the empty, human-shaped brass husk lay. It had been an endeavor to create the life-sized conglomeration of brass and leather. Warren had built the automaton shell under Sir Bennett’s instruction, and after three tries it had actually turned out all right, despite his lack of blacksmithing experience. It was only an empty shell, after all. The head looked a bit funny, but the lopsided jaw gave it character.

Every day, Sir Bennett summoned him to the workshop and attempted to bring the metal to life. No one had successfully made a golem in thousands of years, but he was determined to be the one to fill this gap that no one but him had noticed. He had carefully carved the right letters inside the dome of the skull, said the right words, and burned the right incense, but the thing still lay there like the inanimate object it was. Whatever it was that was missing from the ritual continued to elude the so-called master, and it was causing greater and greater frustration for him—which in turn meant more punishing floor-scrubbings for the apprentice. What the great master’s failure had to do with Warren, he wasn’t exactly sure.

Regardless, he stood by Sir Bennett’s side, dozing on his feet while the older man plucked and huffed at his books, clearing his throat more times in an hour than should be necessary.

Sir Bennett snapped his name and drew him out of his daze, shoving a bit of chalk into his hands and commanding him to draw a circle on the floor. This was a new addition, at least. Warren tucked his coppery hair into its usual miniature ponytail and puffed the remaining strands out of his eyes as he dropped to the floor. On his hands and knees, he sketched out the familiar lines of the circle—the lettering, the symbols, the seemingly innumerable lines—it was quite standard for him. Any witch worth his salt could draw a summoning circle from memory.

“Are you hoping to find a spirit to place inside the machine, Sir Bennett?” he asked without lifting his head. “That doesn’t seem like it would quite make a golem, does it? Wouldn’t that just be a possession, or a curse?”

With a snorting scoff, Sir Bennett bent down and flapped a bit of paper in Warren’s face. “These letters, fool,” he grumbled, wiping out a bit of Warren’s hard work with his shoe.

Warren sat back on his knees and took the paper to inspect it while the elder man turned back to the table without another word. “I don’t recognize these forms,” he said, but he got no answer, so he just fell forward again and traced them to the best of his ability.

Sir Bennett shooed him away as soon as he finished, and Warren tossed the chalk back onto the table and dusted off his hands. An interesting twist to the afternoon. He smiled to himself as Sir Bennett shuffled carefully into the circle, but then a tingle of apprehension went up the back of his neck as he caught a glint of something metal in his hand.

“Sir Bennett—”

“Hush!” he snapped, rolling up his sleeves. That was definitely a knife the old man was holding.

“But Sir, you can’t mean to—”

“I said hush! It’s only a bit of blood. I was a fool to think that life could come from nothing. Blood is life in physical form. It must be necessary.”

Warren frowned but kept his silence. He watched while Sir Bennett spoke the words he’d heard over and over. The master drew the knife swiftly over his left forearm, spilling blood onto the floor. The instant the first drop touched the chalk of the circle, a shockwave knocked Warren to the ground, and a bright flash of light made him bring his arm up to shield his eyes.

He called out to his master as he pulled himself to his feet, blinking away the spots in his eyes. The old man lay on the floor, shrunken, and the lines of the circle of chalk now bubbled and flowed with blood. He hesitated to approach, and before he could make his decision, a sharp crack sounded in the room, and the blood disappeared into the wooden floor, leaving no trace of itself or the circle.

The metal form on the table clicked and whirred, and Warren took a step backwards from the scene. Black oil seeped from the machine’s mouth as it raised itself into a seated position, leaving sticky puddles on the workshop floor as it leaned forward to stand. Its movement wasn’t jerky or stilted like the automatons of the age—it swung its legs gracefully over the side of the table and pushed itself up onto its feet, glancing down at the body on the floor with passing interest. This didn’t seem to bother it; it just looked up at Warren with bright blue aperture eyes that closed and opened again in a mimicry of blinking.

“Who are you?” it asked in a stilted, tinny voice, its metal jaw clanking quietly.

Warren paused, considering his options. He had a dead master on the attic floor, surrounded by all manner of candles, incense, drawings, and spellbooks. He had a walking, talking automaton that definitely should not exist.

Should he call the police? Yes, that would go over well—Hello Constable; I’ve no idea what happened. Just up and died. Don’t mind the way he looks as if he’s been mummified. Been that way for years. Pay no attention to the workshop library full of books you’ll no doubt call pagan heresy—it is 1890 after all; isn’t this meant to be the future?—and by the by, please don’t arrest me. My golem can vouch for me. Flawless. The mundanes definitely wouldn’t burn him at the stake.

In a moment of panic, Warren fled from the room, throwing the bolt on the door and leaning against it to listen. He could hear the machine move about a bit, but then silence. He held in his sigh until he reached the bottom of the stairs, where he dropped with a heaving breath. This was well above his pay grade. He didn’t know if the machine upstairs was going to go on a rampage, or die after a few hours, or go to sleep in the cupboard. Any and all of these seemed equally likely to him. After so many months, it hadn’t seemed possible that Sir Bennett would actually succeed.

A sudden knock on the back door made him jump and clutch at his chest, but he stood and attempted to straighten his shirt, checking it quickly for any stray spatters of blood. When he opened the door just a crack, he let out a sigh of relief as he saw Ben’s familiar face. Ben would know what to do, surely.

He pulled the door back to let him in, quickly shutting it again once the other man was inside. The last thing they needed was nosey Mrs. Burnham spotting him from her window.

“Is the old man about?” Ben asked, leaning up to peer around Warren’s head.

“No, he—”

“Good,” Ben cut him off, stepping into his space and gripping both sides of his face as he kissed him. The cool brass of Ben’s right hand made him shiver, but it quickly warmed against his skin.

Warren attempted to squeeze out a protest, momentarily distracted by the rushed, feverish nature of the kiss. He managed to get his hands between them to push Ben away by his chest, holding up a finger to quiet the other man when he began to object. Just seeing his face was a relief. Ben was strapping and handsome, with dark brown hair and a constant bit of stubble on his jaw. He looked particularly dashing in his dark blue constable’s uniform, his jacket collar high against his jaw with shining silver buttons in a row down the front. The thin leather strap attached to his belt ran up over his shoulder, supporting the weight of the various crime-stopping gadgets in the straps on his duty belt. Warren could even see the chunky silver chain of his pocket watch running between his pockets. Ben’s clear, hazel eyes peered down at the shorter man with confusion, bringing him back to the present.

“He’s dead,” Warren clarified at last.

“What d’you mean, he’s dead? You sure he’s not just ‘avin a kip? Man ‘is age, you never know.”

Warren thumped him in the arm and promptly regretted it, shaking the pain out of his fingers. The entire arm was mechanical and had been for three years, ever since Ben’s real one had been crushed by a falling beam in a burning house. “He’s dead. Deceased. Passed on? His mortal coil has been thoroughly shuffled off,” he insisted. “There is a golem upstairs,” he added in a whisper, as if the machine could hear him. “Sir Bennett made it, and now Sir Bennett’s quite bereft of life.”

“What, a real one? The ol’ mad bastard finally did it, did he? Let’s ‘ave a look,” Ben laughed, brushing past the smaller man on his way to the stairs.

“Wait!” Warren rushed to get ahead of him again, standing on the first step and blocking the way up with both arms. “You can’t just go in there! What if it attacks?”

“Attacks?” Ben reached up to lightly pat his lover’s cheek. “What, it’s got a murderous nature? It’s a golem; it’s a blank slate if it’s anything at all. You want we should just leave it up there until ol’ Sir Ed rots through the floor? Don’t be a pansy. Let’s ‘ave it open.”

Warren tried to keep Ben from going up the stairs, but the other man was much bulkier and so easily moved him out of the way. Together they climbed the steps and put an ear each to the door, but after a few moments of silence, Ben pulled the bolt and opened the door.

The door creaked quietly as Ben pushed it open, and he poked his head inside. Across the room, the brass creation stood quietly in front of the bookshelf, a hefty tome open in its hands. Sir Bennett’s body lay in front of the table just as Warren had left it, not seeming to bother the golem at all. The machine turned its head as the two men stepped into the room, and it lowered the book to look at them with bright eyes.

“This book is called a history,” it said. “Is a history a book of stories that are true, or not true?”

“Sometimes one and sometimes the other,” Ben said with a laugh while Warren stood bravely behind him, peeking around his shoulder. “Listen, mate, d’you know where you are?”

“I am here,” it answered simply.

“Right. Can’t argue that, I suppose. Let’s try again. Do you know what you are?”

"I am me," it said.

Warren stepped out from behind Ben, watching the machine with a furrowed brow as he hesitantly moved closer. "You have a sense of self," he marveled, his voice a whisper. "You're not just an automaton." The golem only watched him. "You are you. Do you know where you came from?"

"I woke up."

"You woke up," Warren laughed softly.

"Yes. I feel as if I was sleeping for a long time."

"You feel. Ben, this is incredible. Do you know what we're looking at?"

"Well he's a golem, innit? Of course he's not mindless."

"Sir Bennett died to make you," Warren explained, taking another tentative step toward the machine and gesturing down to the body. "Do you understand death?"

"He has not moved at all since I woke up."

"That's right. He isn't going to move again. He's dead. He's no longer living."

"He's snuffed it," Ben added helpfully, and Warren snapped a quick glare back at him.

The golem looked down at the body and set aside the book it was reading to crouch at Sir Bennett's side. "He is no longer living," it repeated. "He is no longer living because I am living?"

“It seems so.”

“This is all very ‘eartfelt,” Ben interjected, “but might I remind Mr. ‘Ayward that there is currently a dead body in his attic?”

“Do you have any memories?” Warren went on, ignoring Ben’s interruption as he moved closer to the machine. “You can clearly speak English, and I thought perhaps since you’ve clearly inherited something of Sir Bennett’s—”

“Who is still gathering dust at your feet, Warren,” Ben spoke up, but he went unheard.

“—that you might have some remnant of him in you yet.”

“I do not remember,” the golem said as it rose. “I simply woke up. I saw you, and you ran away. I found a book, and then you came back.”

“Fascinating,” Warren breathed, and he reached out to gingerly touch the machine’s metal arm, which it placidly allowed. “It’s cold,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know why I expected otherwise. It isn’t as though you have any insides, is it?”

“Dead body, love,” Ben called again, waving in an attempt to get the other man’s attention. “Needs summin done with it, hasty like,” he tried.

“Can you feel this, when I touch you?”


“Interesting.” Warren cupped his elbow and drummed his fingers on his chin, pondering, until Ben shouted at him and he jumped.

“Warren! Dead body. In the attic. Needs movin’.”

“Oh. Oh!” Warren seemed to remember himself and quickly skittered away from the corpse. “What do we do with it?”

“Got a lot of experience with dead bodies, have I?”

“Well we must do something, and you’re much more cavalier about the whole mess than I am.”

“Don’t suppose callin’ the constabulary is on the table.”

“Don’t be foolish. You suppose your fellows wouldn’t have any questions if we were to show up at your station with my master’s wrinkled corpse? It wouldn’t cast any suspicion on us at all.”

“Could throw him in the river.”

“Nonsense; he’d be discovered immediately.”

“Bury him?”

“What, in the garden? Use your head.”

The golem glanced back and forth between the men as they bickered, blue eyes blinking.

“If you’re just gonna sit there and say no to everything, why don’t you come up with some ideas of your own, smart lad as you are?” Ben said grumpily, and Warren frowned at him.

“Because I have so much experience with dead bodies, either.” He paused. “What about the Llewan?”

“The what? You got summin in your throat?”

“Llewan,” Warren said again, enunciating the raspy word the best he could. “It’s Welsh. You know, the...the ones underground.”

Ben’s lip curled in disgust. “You’re jokin’, right? I’m not goin’ near them.”

“What are Llewan?” the machine spoke up, reminding both men of its presence.

“They’re creepy is what they are. Damned Welsh,” Ben grumbled, but Warren held up a hand to quiet him.

“The Llewan are a very old order of witches,” he explained. “They use a specialized sort of magic that involves the consumption and use of blood or corpses.”

“Creepy,” Ben confirmed, but the golem was silent for a few moments.

“Practical,” it decided, giving a small nod of its brass head.

“Precisely. Practical.” Warren turned to the other man and gestured at the door. “Fetch a blanket or something, will you? We can’t be seen with a body in the street.”

“Sure, just a body-shaped roll of blanket. That’s much better.” Ben trotted out of the room and down the stairs even as he complained, and Warren sighed and turned back to the golem.

“What shall we call you? I don’t suppose you have a name for yourself.”


“No, I thought not. Did you find a name in the history that you liked, perhaps?”

The machine turned its head with a soft scrape of metal and peered down at the open book on the table. “This book is by William Camden. May I also be William Camden?”

“Ah, perhaps not exactly.” Warren thought a moment. “A cam is also a mechanical part, you know. We could call you Cam.”

The golem’s eyes shuttered closed and open as it seemed to consider this proposal, and then it simply said, “Yes.”

Ben appeared in the doorway with a heap of blanket over his shoulder, the ends dragging on the floor. “Right then. Let’s get on with this terrible idea, shall we?”

Cam stood back and watched curiously while the two men spread out the blanket, and Ben casually rolled Sir Bennett’s body onto one end. They wrapped him up carefully, being sure not to leave any telling fingers or feet hanging out either end of the blanket. Warren had to excuse himself for a few moments when the task was complete in order to take a breath out the window.

“What exactly is your plan here, love?” Ben asked as he tucked in a last stray bit of blanket. “Has Sir Ed gone away on extended vacation?”

“I don’t know,” Warren groaned, thunking his forehead against the window frame. “Can’t we just pretend nothing’s happened at all?”

“What, you’ll just carry on apprenticing under no one, then? At least you’ll be able to give yourself glowing reviews.”

“It isn’t as if he goes out,” Warren insisted, turning back to the other man with a frown. “If I don’t have an apprenticeship, I’ll have to go back to Huntingdon and clean tables at father’s inn. I won’t be of use to anyone there.”

“You’re not much use to anyone ‘ere,” Ben chortled, and he raised his hands in surrender against Warren’s glare. “You can’t just stay ‘ere and act like everything’s fine. How will you get money to live on? What about when people come callin’ for him?”

“He never sees anyone, and I keep his books already, in any case. He didn’t like to handle that sort of thing. My name is on most of his paperwork.”

Ben stared at him in silence for a moment, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “That’s rather convenient, that. Warren, love, you would tell me if you’d actually murdered him, wouldn’t you? I would have to report you.”

“Murdered—honestly,” Warren hissed. “Now I’m to be blamed for Sir Bennett’s self-imposed seclusion? If I knew a spell to drain all the blood from someone’s body and do away with it so neatly, I can think of better people to use it on than the man keeping me from being elbow deep in dishwater until the end of my days.”

“Well, that certainly went a long way towards not making me think of you as a murderer,” Ben grumbled, but he gave the other man a teasing grin and nudged the blanketed body with his foot. “Best to wait until dark, eh?”

“You’re coming with me, then?”

“Unless you want to take the golem with you,” Ben shrugged, resigned to his fate.

“My name is Cam,” it spoke up behind him, tilting its head to peer at him curiously as he laughed.

Under cover of darkness, Warren and Ben slipped out the back door of the house, carrying Sir Bennett’s stiff body between them. Warren turned back once to tell Cam one last time to please stay put and keep quiet, and the golem waved politely as it shut the door behind them.

“Into the carriage,” Warren said in a whisper, and Ben hefted his end of the body onto his shoulder and threw open the coach door. It creaked under the weight as they dropped the body in. It was an old model that threatened to putter to a rolling stop every time Sir Bennett had taken it out in the street—or rather, every time he’d made Warren drive the thing while he sat comfortably in the enclosed seat—but he’d had no cause to buy a new one.

Ben began to climb up onto the driver’s seat beside him, but Warren shooed him away.

“You must sit in the back,” he said. “People will notice if I’m driving an empty coach, and they’ll certainly notice me driving along with a policeman.”

“In the back?” Ben objected rather loudly, causing the other man to hiss at him. “I’m not sittin’ in the back and riding across London with a corpse beside me.”

“Yes, you are. Please, Ben.”

“Ugh.” He gave Warren one last glare in the darkness before climbing in, and he shifted Sir Bennett’s body to the far end of the coach. The car jerked as Warren started up the engine, belching out black smoke and lurching into motion.

London was damp and dark, the streets illuminated only by the flickering gaslights lining the pavement. The wheels of the autocar splashed through puddles on the cobblestone as Warren directed it through the city, having to stop only once when the engine gave out. He could feel Ben staring at him through the window as he hurried to check under the hood and swatted away the moths that quickly surrounded his small lamp. He blew it out as the engine started again, climbing back into the driver’s seat to continue their journey.

The Llewan lived in a dank underground compound beside the Thames, the entrance to which was well-hidden. They kept to themselves and only ventured out of their hole in the dead of night, seeking out unfortunates whose bodies may have yet gone unnoticed. They were a gruesome sort who never sought contact with the outside world, preferring to practice their dark arts only within their small clan. Warren only knew where to find them at all because he had once been asked to drive Sir Bennett to their lair early on in his apprenticeship, when his master had sought to find a connection between the Llewan’s necromancy and his own golem research. No such connection had existed that he could find, but Warren was left with the memory of the stinking den where the Llewan made their home.

He turned off the autocar’s engine as it creaked to a stop in front of a riverside warehouse. The breeze off the water smelled of refuse, but he was glad for it because it helped to hide the stench that escaped as soon as he opened the coach door.

“Christ almighty,” Ben coughed as he stumbled out of the carriage. “We should’ve put him in the cooler. What a pong.”

“I’ll worry about cleaning out the coach later,” Warren said, briefly covering his nose with his hand before reaching inside to pull Sir Bennett’s body toward him. Ben helped him lift it out, taking the blanketed burden over his shoulders while Warren rushed ahead to the building. A heavy chain held the large door, but a short incantation and a quick spit into the lock clicked it open, and Warren pulled aside the chain and leaned his body weight against the door to pull it ajar. He waved Ben inside and heaved the door closed again, leaving them in a dark, dusty lumber yard.

Warren sidestepped a few tool tables and made his way to a suspiciously clear bit of floor, covered in sawdust and worker’s footprints. He crouched down and brushed his hand over the dusty floor, mumbling the words he heard Sir Bennett speak long ago. He took his small knife from his pocket a cut a thin line in his palm, pressing a dripping handprint against the ground. A burst of musty air made a square in the dirt, and Warren flipped up the newly-visible cellar door.

“Warren, what are you playing at?” Ben whispered, glancing down at Warren’s hand. “That’s blood magic, that is.”

“It’s only to gain entry,” he answered, wrapping his handkerchief around his hand. “Come on. We only have a few moments before the door shuts again.”

Ben gave him a skeptical glance as he stepped down into the cellar, stumbling slightly on the steps from the weight of the corpse on his shoulders. “I ‘ope this is all worth it to you,” he mumbled, pausing at the bottom of the rotting steps to watch the other man drop the door shut above them.

“This is the only way. You’ll see.”

“I don’t ‘ave to like it.”

“Please, Ben. Let’s just have it done.”

The tunnels under the warehouse were pitch black and dripping river water through cracks in the stone, wetting Warren’s shoulders. He dug in his pocket for the small wooden token marked with runes, and he held it in his palm, doing his best not to drop it in the darkness. He breathed a soft word onto the wood and it burst into flame, flickering painlessly in his hand.

They walked through the tunnels, Warren leading with the light, and they found many dead ends and backtracking paths before they happened upon the right way, which finally opened up into a large room. The ceiling here was just as low and cramped as the tunnels, but the smell was much worse. The air was warm and humid and reeked of body odor and decay, and the darkness moved in front of them with the shuffling of dozens of filthy bodies.

So close it made him jump, a voice hissed beside Warren, “Who dares enter uninvited the home of the Llewan?”

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