A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Twenty-Six

Ben found Warren in the study late one afternoon, the tall windows shut against the light snow falling on the estate lands outside Coventry. Warren had insisted that buying a country house was the proper thing to do, since he could hardly be expected to remain in a dusty, smog-ridden city like London for the entirety of his days without any relief. Ben had questioned the logic of spending so much time trying to get to London only to get away from it, but Warren waved him off and said that the occasional holiday would do them both good.

Ben could hardly disagree, since their time together had been steadily waning over the last few months. Warren had apparently had cause to leave the city fairly regularly—looking at estates and dealing with solicitors, he said, though Ben didn’t know why that would require such extended visits, or why the Travers would need to go with him to choose a country house. He didn’t like to be suspicious, but he wouldn’t have been qualified for his title as Inspector if the details hadn’t seemed odd to him.

All of the questioning and nosing around he had done on the Heolstran road had told him only that the Travers regularly came back with money to spend, which was no surprise to him. Thieves and killers they might be, but it seemed they could be trusted to be discreet, at least. Most people hardly seemed to know even the name of the gentleman the twins worked for, let alone what sort of work they did—which didn’t seem to be very much, really. If Warren felt safer having them around, he supposed he couldn’t blame him for wanting the security, but there hadn’t been any threat against him since the first break-in, and Simon had only made that problem worse by introducing Warren to real blood magic.

Ben felt uneasy about the issue as he looked at Warren now, leaned back in his seat with a book in his lap, a burning cigarette in the ashtray, and his elbow leaned on the arm of the chair as he stirred the spoon in his teacup without touching it. That was almost sign enough on its own. Magic without a grounding token, without at least speaking the words or concentrating, was rare, and Warren was still young to have mastered such things. There was something off about him as well, something that Ben couldn’t quite put his finger on—or perhaps that he didn’t want to. Warren had suggested that Ben take time away from work so that they might take this holiday together. They brought Cam along to help with meals and upkeep, but Warren had hired a couple of men in the village to tidy the place up after they left. It meant that the two of them could spend a few weeks without any worry of being peeked on, overheard, or interrupted. They had spent the time lounging in the sun, eating whatever they pleased, sleeping together and reading in the evenings. It should have been wonderful, but something didn’t feel right. Warren wasn’t the same.

Warren looked up when he noticed Ben in the doorway, but instead of the warm smile Ben expected and hoped for, he saw only the same dark blue eyes that had done nothing but stare at him for weeks. Ben went against every instinct he had by pretending he didn’t know the look. The stoic face, the blank mouth, the empty eyes. He hadn’t seen it often in his career, and for that he was grateful. It was the same face he recognized in Simon—the eyes of a maleficum. Everyone who performed blood magic ended up the same way if they let it get away from them.

His father had told him long ago that a man couldn’t do inhuman things without losing some of his humanity along the way, and blood magic was one of the most inhuman things Ben could think of. He told himself that no one had been hurt, that no one Warren had any cause to interact with had gone missing or been killed—so he at least wasn’t doing anything too dangerous. But that didn’t seem to matter when it came to him staying the bright, smiling young man that Ben had fallen in love with.

“Can we discuss something, love?” Ben asked as he took a seat beside him. “If I’m not interrupting.”

“You’re the reason we’re here, Ben,” Warren said, shutting his book and setting it aside.

“And I’m glad to be here,” he assured him. “It’s good that you’ve given yourself a rest. Do you know how long it ‘ad been since we even shared a meal together before we came ‘ere? You’ve done nothing but work and go to parties—also business, I know,” he added before Warren could correct him. “But that isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about your eyes.”

A small smirk touched one corner of Warren’s lips. “I knew you were a romantic, but—”

“That isn’t what I mean and you know it,” Ben interrupted. “You told me that after Callaway, it was done. Said that would be the only time.”

Warren’s brow furrowed slightly. “You think I’m been doing blood magic?”

“I know you ‘ave. I’m not a fool, Warren.”

Warren considered the number of people whose opinions he had changed over the last few months—people who could have given away his secrets, who tried to overcharge him, or even those he simply didn’t like. He felt the weight of the flask in his jacket, the blood inside tainted with a few drops of a serum that kept it from rotting in his pocket. Having blood always at his fingertips had allowed him to cause more than one irritating guest at a dinner party to go red in the face and excuse himself, panting and dripping sweat as the blood heated in his veins. He was well used to the taste now, though he had been forced to develop a zealous habit of brushing his teeth and rinsing his mouth to keep Ben from noticing.

“I haven’t been hurting anyone,” he said easily, and Ben moved from his seat to kneel in front of him and clasp his hands.

“Don’t lie to me,” he whispered. “You can lie to everyone else in the damn world, but don’t you lie to me. I can see it in you. You’ve got to stop this, love. I told you I can’t overlook it.”

“Are you going to arrest me, Inspector? For blood magic? I didn’t realize it was a listed statute.”

“I’m serious!” Ben snapped, clenching Warren’s hands tightly. “You don’t know what you’re doing to yourself.”

“I know precisely what I’m doing. I think perhaps it’s you who doesn’t understand. This is above your pay grade, Inspector—your business is the cutpurses and the brawlers on the Heolstran road. Not someone of my calibre.”

“Your...calibre?” Ben released Warren’s hands and got to his feet. “You’re joking, right? Don’t you see what you’ve become? This is exactly what I warned you about, innit? It’s all gone to your ‘ead. The money, the parties.”

“Yes, it’s been awful for you, hasn’t it?” Warren stood to be closer to eye-level with him, his voice deadly calm. “The free lodging in my home, the holiday, the new clothes, the promotion. You’ve really hard it quite hard.”

“You didn’t get me that promotion,” Ben objected, and he felt his heart sink at the cold chuckle that came from Warren’s lips.

“Don’t be dull, pet,” he said with a mild sneer. “Do you honestly think that your predecessor really had such a serendipitous accident?”

“You didn’t,” Ben breathed. “Warren, the man will never walk again! A good man, and an honest Inspector! Why would you do this? I would have been promoted eventually!”

“And by my hand you have been promoted now!” Warren snarled, and Ben took a small step away from him. Warren hesitated, taking a quick, calming breath. “By my hand you could have anything in the world that you wanted, Ben. You have only to ask, and I shall make the very stars spell your name. You could be Chief Inspector within the week, or Commissioner within three months.”

“I don’t want what I ‘aven’t earned,” Ben said, his shoulders heavy as he looked at the unrecognizable person who had replaced the man he loved. “And you shouldn’t want to give it to me,” he pressed. “This isn’t what you wanted; can’t you see that? I thought you wanted us to live free and in peace. You’ve done that. You don’t ‘ave to keep on with this. You can’t keep on. If you really want to do something for me, Warren, you ‘ave to stop.” He moved close and put his hands on either side of his lover’s face, looking down into his eyes with desperation. “What I want is for you to quit. I want you to sell your last golem and come and live out your days here, with me, before you go so far there’s no pullin’ you back.”

Warren watched him with those achingly empty eyes, which narrowed just faintly as he took in the inspector’s words. “As simple as that,” he whispered, and Ben nodded and bent to touch his forehead to his.

“As simple as that. Who knows—maybe if you stop, you’ll get better. You don’t know ‘ow different you are,” Ben said softly, shutting his eyes as his breath mingled with Warren’s. “I don’t want this. I want what we ‘ad. I want who you were. I love who you were.”

Warren closed his eyes, his fingers reaching up to curl into Ben’s sleeves, and let out a slow sigh. Wasn’t this what he always said he was fighting for? Simply to be close to him, to be able to relax and love him in peace? Perhaps it could be that easy. He had almost endless money saved, as well as earning income from the investments he had made. They could live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Still, the thought passed through his mind that this one man might not be worth the trouble it would take to break down his entire business.

He clenched the fabric of Ben’s shirt, pushing the idea away. This was exactly what Ben was warning him about. It wasn’t just one man asking him. It was Ben. There was no point to any of this if Ben wasn’t happy. Simon had called blood magic insidious—if it could make Warren question himself when it came to loving Ben, then perhaps the cost was more real than Warren had imagined. Perhaps he wasn’t yet so far gone that he couldn’t be reminded of why he had started all of this.

“If it’s what you want,” he said at last, “I’ll do it. I’ll return to London to finish some business, and then I’ll move everything out here.”

“No more parties,” Ben added. “No more telephone calls and stumblin’ ‘ome drunk, and no more golems. No more blood magic.”

He hesitated, looking up into Ben’s forlorn face. “If that’s really what you want,” he said slowly.

Ben kissed him, and Warren found himself smiling faintly as the other man pulled away from him with a laugh. “Elizabeth can even come and stay with us, of course,” Ben said. “I imagine she’ll want to go back and forth, so you should probably keep the house in Belgrave Square.”

“Of course.”

“This is excellent, Warren,” Ben laughed, and he touched the redhead’s cheek and kissed him again. Even after everything, if Warren was still willing to give it up, then he wasn’t completely lost. “This is the promise you must keep, yes? No going back on it.”

“I won’t,” Warren promised, resting a hand on Ben’s chest. “As soon as everything’s settled, we’ll come back. Within the month.”

Ben smiled and reached up to squeeze Warren’s hand against his heart. “Within the month.”

At the end of the week, Ben and Warren were due to return home, so they rode on the train back to London—Ben a few seats away—and parted ways at the station to avoid being seen returning from a trip together. Warren’s afternoon held only the exquisite delight of returning to Belgrave Square earlier than expected, and thus catching Owen slinking out of Elizabeth’s room with a very satisfied grin and a wink, but Ben had work to do.

Ben returned to his station and endured the jeers and jealousy of his fellows at his near month-long sabbatical, and he found his desk loaded with the paperwork he so loathed. He almost wished he was still only a constable—even more so now that he knew that Warren had been the cause of his advancement. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to forgive that, not really—but at least Inspector Abbott was still alive. He had to take Warren’s word that he hadn’t been using his blood magic to actually hurt anyone beyond that. There were other uses that would be more useful to him in any case.

Ben shook his head and leaned his elbows on his desk with his hands in his hair. There was no rationalizing what Warren had done. He had tried the whole week after their conversation to justify it in his head, to make excuses, but there were none. No reason could be given for taking a man’s blood and twisting his thoughts to better suit you.

Still, Warren, for his part, had seemed to make an effort. He engaged Ben more during those last few days and spent less time staring through him when they spoke. There was hope for him yet, despite everything. There had to be.

Ben sat up with a start when he heard someone clear their throat in his doorway, and he looked up to see Mulryan holding his hat at the entrance of the office. Ben waved him inside, and the constable stood across the desk from him with a smile.

“You have a good trip, Inspector? Get all of your relaxing done?”

“Well enough,” Ben said as he leaned back in his creaking wooden chair.

“Ought to go away more often, you ought,” the constable said with a short laugh.

“Why’s that? I thought you’d miss me too much, Mulryan.”

“Desperately, sir,” the other man chuckled. “But while you were away, it’s been quieter around here than it has been in months. Not a single missing person. That’s unusual for a month spread in any case, but I suppose people have been locked up rather tightly these days.”

Ben’s brow furrowed as he looked up at the constable. “Not a single one?”

“Not a one,” Mulryan answered. “Seems whoever’s been snatching people’s done run off or gotten bored. Don’t worry though; I won’t have the boys entertaining thoughts that you’re bad luck.”

“I might just be,” Ben murmured, and he cleared his throat and sat straight in his chair. “Anything else?”

“No, sir; I’m off. Glad to see you back, sir.” The constable nodded at him and went about his way, leaving Ben to stare at the map of the city pinned up behind his desk. It wasn’t so unusual for there to be death and misfortune in the poor districts, but unfortunates and vagrants had gone missing at an alarming rate for months. No witnesses, no bodies, no nothing. Ben knew that in general if someone went missing like that, it was accountable by the presence of the Llewan if not by more mundane circumstances, but they had never taken people in numbers like this. Now it had stopped?

He had spent months trying to track down someone—anyone—who knew anything about the disappearances, and he wasn’t the only one working on it. There was nothing. Either great numbers of poor were up and leaving London with no trace, or someone needed a great number of bodies.

A cold chill went up Ben’s back, and he stood to lean his hand over Belgrave Square on the map. The thought had crossed his mind before, but he had ignored it. Warren told him he knew how to make golems without blood. He hadn’t had any reason to doubt that, and he had refused to. Everything was easily explained. It wasn’t strange in the slightest that Warren preferred to work alone, or that the Travers went out at all hours of the night. Warren still needed a workshop to do his magic, and it made sense that he would keep the entrance hidden from casual visitors.

Ben had rejected completely the idea that Warren was connected to the disappearances, but he couldn’t explain away the fact that they had mysteriously stopped while the two of them were away from the city. Or that the golems still seemed to take around a week to ship out, even though Cam built the husks much faster than that. “Keeping up demand,” Warren had told him when he’d questioned it. He had accepted that answer, too. There was simply no way that the missing people coincided with Warren’s work. Warren might not have ever been the gentlest soul, but he wasn’t a murderer. Still, doubt gnawed at Ben’s gut until he swore at himself and scoffed that it could easily be disproved.

He turned to push aside the papers on his desk, spilling them in a flutter onto the floor, and he searched the desk until he found the book he kept that listed every unexplained missing persons report. He scanned the pages and his calendar, desperate for something to quiet his unease, but the dates were clear—there had been no disappearances during any of Warren’s trips to the country to look at estates.

Ben dropped the book back to the desk and paced the office, tracking paperwork all over the floor. He couldn’t do this now. He couldn’t doubt Warren just when he had agreed to give it all up and live quietly with him. Not when they were so close to having everything they wanted.

He stopped and let out a soft sigh. He couldn’t go on not knowing for sure, either.

He scooped up his hat off the rack as he left the office and brushed by the questions raised from a few constables who saw the mess he left in his wake. He took a taxi to Belgrave Square and rang the bell at Warren’s house. Cam answered, as expected, and Ben watched him with suspicious eyes as he entered the parlor. If there was something going on, Cam must know about it.

“Is Warren at home? Elizabeth?” he asked the golem, and it shook its head as it shut the door. “Mrs. has gone to a salon. Warren Hayward took the twin men on an errand just now.”

“An errand,” Ben sighed. He turned the machine by its shoulders and looked into its blue lightbulb eyes. “I need to ask you something, Cam, and I need you to answer me true, do you understand?”

“Yes, Ben.”

“Do you know how Warren makes his golems?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve seen him do it?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me how?” The golem shook its head, and Ben frowned. “Why not?”

“I have been told to keep the secret.”

“From everyone, right? From the mundanes. But you can tell me.”

“I have been told to keep the secret especially from Ben.”

Ben let his hands drop from the golem’s shoulders, his brass hand scraping softly against the machine’s metal arm. “Why from me?”

“I cannot say.”

Ben stepped back from the golem and nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks, Cam.” He paused. “Could you fix us a cuppa? Been an ‘ell of a day already.” He thanked Cam as it moved toward the kitchen, and as soon as it was out of sight, he slipped quietly down the hall to the cellar entrance. It was hidden, of course, by a sliding bookcase locked in place with a spell. Ben tried a few of the anti-warding spells he knew before he hit on the right one, and the bookcase slid sideways to reveal the steps down into the cellar.

He took careful, quiet steps, listening for any sign that the workshop might be occupied, but there was nothing. At the foot of the stairs, he had to take the handkerchief from his pocket and put it to his mouth. The smell was sickening. The room smelled of dust and rot and dark magic, which always carried the stomach-turning sweetness of decaying flesh. Ben had been in his share of malefica dens through the years, and the stench always clung to the walls like a sickness. He never expected to encounter the scent in a house he almost called his own. The ward on the bookcase must have kept it from seeping into the rest of the house. There could be no doubt that blood magic had been done here.

He explored the cellar, scanning the shelves of supplies one might expect to find in any witch’s cupboard—incense, chalk, charcoal, various stones and tokens, dried herbs. Bits of chalk were scattered on a table at the far end of the room, and a circle had been sketched out on the stone floor in front of a wooden partition. Ben crouched to inspect the circle, reaching out to put his fingertips in the white dust. It wasn’t a summoning circle. There were similarities, but the markings around the outside edge were different than any he’d seen before. He hadn’t thought to get a good look at the ones Warren used early on, and he’d been too late to see the one that had taken Sir Bennett, but he had a sick feeling in his stomach that this was the very same.

Ben stood to look around the partition, where an empty golem lay on the table with a bloody knife beside it. Something caught his eye in the corner, and he bent to pick up a ragged lock of blonde hair, stained at one end as if it had been torn from the scalp.

“Warren, what have you done?” he whispered, and he dropped the hair and turned away from his grisly imaginings. At one end of the shelf lining the wall, a cabinet sat held shut with a latch, and the wood didn’t match that around it. It looked as if it had been recently installed.

With only a moment’s hesitation, Ben flipped the latch and let the cupboard doors fall open, revealing half a dozen rows of small jars and vials, each full to the brim with dark liquid. He took one from its place and removed the cork to smell the contents, and he dropped it with a snort, spilling the fluid over the floor. Blood. All of it was blood. The only blood magic Ben knew of required fresh blood directly from the victim—the impracticality of it being only reason it wasn’t a much more common crime. What would Warren possibly want with a store of the stuff?

Ben sunk to the floor, barely avoiding the pool of blood, and dropped his handkerchief to put his head in his hands. All of these things might still be explained away if he gave Warren the chance, but he knew the truth in his bones. His love was a maleficum and more than that—a killer. He tried to recall the number of golems Warren had sold, the number of poor souls who must have passed through the garden and lost their lives for his greed. He’d been blind, and it had cost the lives of dozens upon dozens of innocent people. He had to put an end to it.

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