A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Twenty-Seven

Warren allowed Owen time to clean himself up after he arrived at the house, which also gave him ample time to tease Elizabeth once she showed her red face through a small opening in the bedroom door.

“Know how to handle brutes like him, do you, Elizabeth? Been around worse?” he said dryly, and she swatted at his arm on her way past him.

“As I keep out of your business with Mr. Cartwright, I expect you will do me the same courtesy,” she said with a haughty lift of her chin as she sat straight-backed on the chaise, running her fingers through her loose hair.

“I need to talk to you about that, actually.” She glanced up at him with a lifted eyebrow. “We’re going to the country. Ben and I.”

“Rather a quick turnaround, isn’t it?”

“I mean for good.” He took a seat beside her and found it in himself to faintly smile. “I’m going to stop production of the golems—the automatons. We’ll live at the country house. You can visit if you like, of course, but I imagine you’d rather maintain the house here.”

Elizabeth gave a small sound of consideration, and after a moment, she reached out to pat Warren’s knee. “Good for you. I imagine that will make him quite happy. And me as well, honestly; the house is a bit crowded for my liking.”

“I don’t imagine I’ll need the Travers any longer,” Warren pondered, “but I hate to put them out with so little warning. Perhaps I’ll keep them on, and they can assist me when I have cause to come back to London.” He leaned in close to watch Elizabeth’s face with a conspiratorial eye. “I’m sure you could find a use for at least one of them in the meantime, couldn’t you?”

“Don’t make vulgar insinuations,” she said with a sniff. “Can I help with anything?”

“I don’t think so. I have a few outstanding orders yet that I’ll make good on, but mostly I’ll need to get rid of my excess stock and make apologies to everyone who won’t get one of my machines.”

“The trials of desirability,” Elizabeth sighed. “You’ll manage, I’m sure.”

Owen reappeared with a slightly damp shirt, and Warren stood to face him.

“Get your brother; we’ve a visit to make,” he said, and Owen gave him a quick salute and shouted down the hallway for Simon.

“I don’t expect I’ll be at home when you get back,” Elizabeth noted, keeping her eyes purposely away from Owen. “I’m expected at Lady Blackwell’s. Do keep me informed of your progress, though, and let me know if I can be of any use.” She stood and moved back toward her bedroom, turning to glance at Warren over her shoulder. “Not that I’m so anxious to get rid of you,” she added kindly. “But I think it will be good for both of you. Mr. Cartwright has bluster, but his tender nature is hardly suited to the city.”

Warren smiled faintly. “I agree. Thank you, Elizabeth.” He tilted his head at the Travers as they arrived in the parlor, and he whistled to Cam on their way out the front door.

Dusk was only just beginning to fall over London as the three men rode toward the river.

“I ‘ear that right, boss?” Owen asked. “You givin’ up the family business?”

“Yes,” Warren said quietly. “I’ll still keep you boys on if you like. I’m sure I’ll have business in the city occasionally, and apparently Elizabeth would miss you.”

“She would,” Owen agreed solemnly. “So where are we visitin’ now?”

“The Llewan,” Warren said. “I owe them a favor, apparently, and I should tell them not to expect many more gifts from us.”

“Why now?” Simon asked, and Warren let out a short sigh.

“Because Ben asked. Because it’s what I should have done a long while ago. You were right about the blood magic, Simon. My father was right. I won’t lose Ben because of it.”

The Irishman seemed to accept that answer, and they rode in silence until they reached the now too-familiar warehouse. Warren opened the door for them, and Simon lit the way through the dark tunnels to the wide entry of the den.

The blackness of the lair soaked up the light from Simon’s flame, giving only the barest hint of what lay inside. Warren waited at the arch with folded arms for the elder to appear, slinking and shuffling his way out of the crawling darkness until his wrinkled face was illuminated.

“You’ve returned to us in person, Hayward,” he rasped with a slow chortle. “To what do we owe the pleasure? Come to learn a few more tricks?”

“This is the end,” Warren said simply. “There will be two or three others, and then no more. I’ve come to tell you that I’ll do your favor for you now or not at all. I’m leaving London.”

The old man scowled at him, and he straightened up his hunched back as well as he could to look Warren in the face. “The end,” he muttered, squinting as he looked into Warren’s eyes. “No. Not yet.”

Warren lifted an eyebrow at the man as he scuttled away. “Not yet? I’m telling you to collect your debt or forego it; there is no negotiation here.”

“We choose when to collect,” the old man spit, “and you are not yet ready.” A hissing whisper sounded from the darkness, and the elder turned his head to listen. “We do not leave the city,” he added after a moment. “Perhaps some is better than none at all.” He whispered and mumbled, seeming to converse with the very dark itself, and then he turned to Warren with a conciliatory grin. “We accept, Hayward,” he murmured, and he offered his hand to the younger man.

Warren didn’t move, keeping his arms safely crossed in front of him. “You think to get a grip on my pulse, cur? Tell me the price of the gifts I have given you.”

The elder hissed at him with angry droplets of spittle spilling out over his chin, yellow teeth clenched and bared in a snarl. “We did not train up a witch to see him walk away,” he growled, and both twins moved closer to Warren as the darkness shifted ominously in front of them.

The blackness of the den seemed to move en masse, and Warren caught a glimpse of sickly pale limbs coming toward them when Simon pushed him aside, flames pouring from his mouth in a long breath and spilling like liquid over the floor between them and the Llewan. The sound the creatures made was hideous; they shrieked and cried while they attempted to escape the flames burning their ragged cloaks. A few managed to get by, and Warren could hear Owen’s sound of disgust as he was forced to grab one of the sickly men around the neck to keep him from reaching his employer.

The elder had his eyes on Warren, who scowled behind his guards. The old man reached out his hand and beckoned Warren closer, forcing him to take a step forward. “You made an oath, Hayward,” he rasped in almost singsong teasing. “You are bound to submit.”

“Submit?” Warren answered through gritted teeth, fighting the pull the elder had on his blood. He could feel it, drawing him forward by his very veins. He ground his heels into the stone floor and snapped, “Brec,” teetering forward as though his strings had been cut. The look of panic on the elder’s face made him pause, but he could feel fury in his chest—the first thing he’d felt with any depth in a long while. He hadn’t done all of this just so that some flea-ridden creature in a sewer could tell him to submit.

The flask in his jacket pocket felt heavy. He had made a promise to Ben—but it wouldn’t be the first promise he had broken. He took the flask and uncapped the lid, spilling only a drop of precious blood down his chin as he emptied the container and dropped it to the dusty ground.

“Come here,” he snarled, and he reached out a hand toward the elder, tugging him closer without touching him. The old man’s feet dragged on the stone floor, scraping and scuffing as he attempted to pull out of the invisible grip. When he drew near enough, Warren reached out and snatched up his wrist, feeling the blood pump through the Llewan’s veins with a rhythm that was like a sweet song to him. The old man went limp in his grip, and Warren could feel the pale flesh heating quickly under his hand.

“You thought me a meal, did you?” he whispered softly. “Teach me your ways, let me grow strong, and then devour me like all the rest?” Warren leaned down close to the old man’s blotchy, twitching face, and he said in a low voice, “You miscalculated.”

Warren took hold of the man’s throat and pulled until the wrinkled skin broke, spilling blood over his hand in burning rivers. The smell of it almost made him lose his senses, but it wasn’t until he lifted his bloody fingertips to his lips that his world went dim. Ahead of him, the Travers were building a small pile of burned or beaten bodies, but the sound of the brawl was muffled to him. Everything seemed darker and yet more clear, even the blackness of the inner den. The blood had never been like this before.

He let the old man’s body drop to the floor and crouched over him without thinking, letting the blood pour into his cupped hands and tasting it greedily. It ran hot over his tongue and pulsed through him like electricity. The elder weakly clutched at Warren’s shirt for his last few breaths, but his hand went slack as his blood soaked into the sand on the floor. Warren touched the red stain with longing he’d never felt, and as he lifted his hand, droplets rose up from under his palm as though drawn by his will, forming a shifting sphere of red in the air. He watched it with held breath, holding his hand still to support it until he heard one of the twins shout at him, and all the sounds of the tunnel came rushing back over him. He could hear the roar of flames and the sparking thud of fists on flesh, the screeching and the shouting of the Llewan as they attempted to claw past the Irishmen to get to their elder.

With a shuddering breath, Warren drew the blood nearer to him, and as it coursed down his throat, he felt heat in his veins that he could barely stand. His stained hands trembled as he rose, and as he stepped over to the twins, the Llewan in front of him seemed to quiet. He brushed the Travers apart with a gentle touch and stood in front of them. These skittering, crawling creatures had left marks upon his men and threatened his own life. He could feel them in front of him, each one of their trembling heartbeats thudding in his ears. Eight of them left—no, ten.

Warren reached out a hand and the Llewan scattered, but he could pull them just as easily as if he held their strings. He drew them back from the dark corners of the den and forced them to the floor in front of him. He could see clearly in the dim light given off by the few bodies whose cloaks still burned, and he looked down into the faces of the wretches before him. He recognized the woman whom the elder had claimed as his daughter and drew her to her feet, watching her dirty face as she struggled against the force of his will.

“Listen to me,” he said softly, his voice low and cold, and the woman glanced at him and away as though afraid to meet his eyes. “Your elder is dead, and the debt you claim I owe is paid with your lives, do you understand?”

She nodded because he allowed it, and she chewed nervously at a cut on her lower lip, probably where Owen had caught her in the mouth during the scuffle. Warren’s eyes went immediately to the red droplet on her lips, and the woman trembled as he leaned in close to her, frozen in place as he slowly licked away the precious blood. He looked down into her wide grey eyes, a breath away from her, and he let her fall to the ground.

“You can lead these people,” he told her, “and you will continue as you have been. But I expect that if I call for you, you will answer, and that these men will be safe here by my command. Am I clear?”

“Yes,” she hissed softly, cowering against the filthy bodies of her fellows.

Warren turned away and gestured to the twins to follow him. He could sense their hesitation, but they walked with him through the tunnels, a small flame in Simon’s palm for light, until they reached the empty warehouse. The outside world seemed bright to Warren now, and he flinched as Owen pushed open the door and they stepped into the moonlight.

The twins paused at the door, both of them watching their employer with curious eyes. Blood covered Warren’s face and hands, tiny rivers beginning to dry on his cheeks and chin. He looked up at them with cold, empty eyes, as though he hadn’t just moved people with a gesture and taken over a centuries-old blood cult.

“You’ve, uh,” Owen started quietly as he tapped his own chin, “you’ve got red on you.”

“Thank you,” Warren answered dryly, taking the handkerchief from his pocket and beginning to wipe the blood from his face.

“What now?” Simon asked, glancing over his shoulder to check for passers-by.

“Now nothing,” Warren said. “We carry on as planned. Tomorrow I’ll make some calls, and we’ll begin to prepare for the move. This is finished.”

The brothers exchanged a brief look, but Warren simply brushed by them on his way back to the autocar, scrubbing at the bloodstains on his chin as he went.

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