A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Eight

Shortly before dawn, the Travers showed up at Warren’s door, each holding the arm of a man with a brown sack over his head. The way he slumped in their grip suggested that he’d given up struggling some time ago or perhaps was unconscious completely. Warren let them inside and led them up the stairs to the workshop, where he had prepared the incense and the circle. He begged them to be quiet as they went, as he had left Ben sleeping in the master bedroom. It was a heavy risk, bringing them here so soon, but he trusted in Ben’s resounding snores to keep his secret safe.

The twins held the silent figure easily over the chalk, keeping him still by the shoulders and wrists. It was easier this way. No plaintive face to look up at him, no panicked voice. No trembling hands. Still Warren hesitated. He didn’t know that he could trust these men, really—he expected they were both witches, so they knew he would use magic, but there was no reason for them to know the details.

“Will you leave me?” he asked, looking up at the twins as they exchanged a look. “This is...something I need to do alone,” he explained, deciding against telling them to their faces that he didn’t trust them. The brothers released the man on the floor, letting him tumble limply onto his side, and Owen gave Warren a small nod before he left the workshop with Simon in tow.

Warren looked down at the helpless man and wondered where the Travers had found him, how much of a beating he had taken before he got to this point. He wondered what his name was and if he had a family. He shut his eyes and pressed the balls of his hands into them, allowing himself one last whimper of indecision before inhaling and opening his eyes. There was no point to such thoughts. It came down to whether he cared more about this stranger and the life he led than he did about Ben and their future together, and that simply wasn’t the case.

He took the knife from the work table, situated the man’s body over the circle, and slit his throat. He still fell back from the shockwave, barely catching himself on a nearby shelf. He clicked open the workshop door to allow the Travers back inside and dropped his stained knife on the table.

While he tended to the golem—which was now behind a long partition to avoid it having a first memory of a bloodless corpse—by assigning it a number and giving it instructions as to its owner, the twins rolled up the stiffened, shrunken body in a thin blanket.

Warren turned to them, taking the billfold he’d set aside and handing Simon the agreed-upon fifty pounds. “Do you have a plan for getting the body to the Llewan?”

“Thought we’d take your autocar,” Owen offered. “I’m a great driver.” Simon’s face made a brief picture of disagreement, but he said nothing.

Warren frowned. “I’d prefer if the autocar isn’t seen going to and fro very often. It could be traced back to me.”

“What, seen going down to the docks? Is that illegal?”

“How often do you plan on needing this done, Hayward?” Simon asked, tucking his ill-gotten gains into his coat pocket.

“I...I don’t know. I know that right now I need twelve. Well, eleven now.” He glanced over his shoulder at the golem, standing silent and curious across the room. “But I need time to build the shells.”

“Once a week is reasonable to have shipments of goods from the dockside markets,” Simon shrugged. “Sell us your autocar, and we’ll claim we’re you’re porters. If anyone asks at all, which I find unlikely.”

“Sell—no, no,” Warren said. “Just take it. I think I ought to buy a new one, in any case.” He smiled faintly, but when he looked back up at the twins, he found himself shrinking at the cavalier way they handled the corpse, Owen toting it downstairs over his shoulders as carelessly as if it were a sack of potatoes. This was necessary, he reminded himself. This is what would secure a future for him and Ben, but what kind of people was he getting involved with in the process? How many bodies had they disposed of that they didn’t bat an eye at wrapping up a corpse and carrying it away to be eaten in some blood ritual?

Warren called to the new golem to sit still and shut the door behind him as he left the workshop, but he stopped short and barely stifled a startled cry as he turned to find Simon looming over him at the top of the stairs.

“I’ll need the words,” he said, his dark blue eyes empty.

“Words?”

The sound of a body being dropped unceremoniously into a carriage reached them, and Warren heard the back door close gently again. At least the brutish brother was considerate of requests for quiet.

“I assume the Llewan have some sort of security. I don’t imagine they’ve left themselves open to casual wanderers making their way into their lair. It would be magic, wouldn’t it?” He folded his arms, and at this distance Warren noticed the marks on his knuckles for the first time—a circle with a dot inside on the left index finger, and on the next, a tiny, simply-drawn skull within a square. On the right, a single dot on each finger. More dots were on the skin between his right thumb and forefinger—four dots in a square with the fifth in the center. He found himself leaning forward slightly to inspect them until Simon cleared his throat.

“Oh—oh! Yes. Yes of course.” Warren told him the incantation to open the door, and the exact location of the warehouse. “It’s blood magic, you know. You’ll need to—”

“I’m familiar,” Simon cut him off. “It isn’t a problem.”

“I told you I don’t like you messing about with that,” Owen called up from the hall.

“It isn’t a problem,” Simon insisted. “Owen has little patience for dark magic; don’t mind him. He’s as mundane as they come,” he said.

Warren paused. “What, he is? But you’re—aren’t you identical?”

“It’s a mystery,” Simon said blandly as he moved down the stairs to meet his brother. They both glanced up to Warren on the landing. “See you next week, Hayward,” Simon said, and Owen clapped a friendly hand on his shoulder as they exited the house.

Warren waited until he heard the grinding engine of the autocar putter away before he released a sigh, sinking down to sit on the steps. He looked up when he heard Cam’s metal feet clinking into the hall.

“May I come out, Warren Hayward?”

“Yes. Yes, Cam. I’m sorry. You probably don’t need to hide when they come around.” Warren got to his feet and stepped down to the hallway, rubbing at his tired eyes.

“You do not seem to sleep much,” the golem observed.

“I don’t, do I?” Warren agreed with a small sigh.

“Is there something I can be doing to help Warren Hayward?”

Warren paused, and he looked at Cam curiously. He could be helping. So far its entire existence had consisted of reading Sir Bennett’s histories in the study and occasionally helping to cook meals—but a standard, mechanical task would be easy for him. “Would you like to learn how to build golems, Cam?”

“I am a golem,” it confirmed, patting its own chest with metal fingers. “I can build more of me?”

“Well, I would need to cast the spell to give it life,” Warren explained, “but you could build the bodies. I could show you how.”

“I would like that,” it said with a nod. “I will try to build things. Shall we go now?”

“Now? God, no. I’m going to bed.”

Cam nodded, so Warren crept through the bedroom to the master bath to wash the drops of blood from his hands. He watched the tinted water go down the drain with his jaw set tight. There wouldn’t be any more room for hesitation. No more weakness. He dried his hands and returned to the master bedroom, where he stripped off his clothes and buried himself in downy blankets. Ben stirred briefly, but only snorted and rolled over onto his stomach. He laid awake for a time, hoping that the Travers could be trusted and that he wouldn’t have the constabulary breaking down his door within the hour. They were the only variable in his plan now. Just a short time ago, he would have done just about anything for fifty pounds, so he hoped the same applied to the—he hesitated to use the word “gentlemen”—he had just hired. He didn’t know much about the criminal underworld, but he knew prison tattoos when he saw them. He was willing to bet that the larger brother had them as well, and that he hadn’t injured his eye in an innocent factory accident or somesuch.

He let out a slow sigh and turned to rest his cheek on Ben’s firm shoulder. For this, he was willing to take any risk.

In the morning, Warren had barely sent Ben off to work when there was a sudden rap at the back door. He thought for a moment that Ben had forgotten something, but when he opened the door, he saw the Travers standing in his garden.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed, waving them quickly inside and shutting the door. “You can’t just come around whenever you please. If someone saw—”

“There were issues,” Simon said blandly while Owen poked his head around the corner to the dining room and began to help himself to the remnants of breakfast.

“Issues? Issues with what?”

“The Llewan. They said they want to see you if this is going to be a permanent arrangement.”

Warren frowned, watching Simon’s face for any hint of how bad he suspected the situation was, but he only stared blankly. “Why would they want to see me? Did they say?”

“I didn’t exactly press them for details. Owen wasn’t keen to spend more time down there than was necessary,” he said a bit louder.

“Not a bit,” Owen called back from the dining room, sounding like his mouth was full, and Warren sighed. There wasn’t anything good that could come out of the Llewan specifically wanting to talk to someone.

“No,” Warren said, running a hand through his hair as he paced a quick circle in the hallway. “No. I won’t go. I’m not getting eaten.”

“Then you’d better think of another way of getting rid of bodies in the kind of numbers you’re talking about,” Simon said with a small shrug.

Warren stopped and looked up at Simon, then turned to lean his head against the wall and sighed. He waited a few moments, running a few possibilities through his head, and then he turned back to the taller witch. “Fine. I’ll pay you an extra twenty pounds if you come with me. I’m really not keen on being eaten.”

“All right by me,” Simon said, and he leaned over to look through the doorway into the dining room. “Coming?”

“On it,” Owen said, and he shoved the last of the eggs into his mouth before clambering up out of Ben’s seat.

“Not now,” Warren stopped them. “Come back tonight. Just before dark. I don’t want anyone seeing me making trips back and forth in broad daylight.”

“You’re the boss,” Owen said with a quick salute, and Simon nodded before they both let themselves out the back door.

“Damnation,” Warren swore once they’d gone, and he dropped into a crouch in the middle of the hallway and hid his head in his arms. He was going to be eaten; he knew it.

The Travers arrived shortly before dusk, as promised, and Warren left Cam with instructions to let Ben inside but to tell him that he’d gone out to meet a friend.

“Is this a lie, Warren Hayward?” Cam asked, tilting its head.

“Yes, it’s a lie. Ben’s better off not knowing about this, Cam. You understand, don’t you? It wouldn’t make him happy to know this.”

“I understand,” the golem answered after a moment, and Warren patted it on the shoulder, called it a “good lad,” and turned to face the twins standing near his back door.

He sat in the back of the autocar with Owen while Simon drove them along the bumpy streets, made even more uncomfortable by the constant creaking and groaning of the aging engine. Springs were even beginning to poke out of the seats in untoward places, causing Warren to shift numerous times during the journey. He did his best not to imagine the bodies of Sir Bennett, Mrs. Burnham, and the two men whose names he didn’t know, piled into the back seat to be transported to a place where their bodies would be mutilated and devoured in the name of some dark ritual better forgotten. He told himself over and over that a different fate awaited him in the darkness of the dockside lair.

The autocar creeped slowly along the docks, the carriage rocking creakily as the engine sputtered to a stop. Warren took a deep breath before stepping out of the carriage toward the dusty warehouse, Owen trotting along behind him while Simon climbed down from the driver’s seat. Warren unlocked the door the same way he had before, and Simon did him the favor of cutting his own palm to gain access to the hidden cellar door. He dug his wooden token from his pocket and lit the way through the maze of tunnels, attempting to steady his pounding heart.

At the entrance to the pitch black lair, Warren stopped so suddenly that Simon almost bowled into his back. Warren swore he could already see the mass of black moving inside the den. He jumped when he felt a hand slap down onto his shoulder, and he looked up to see Owen giving him an encouraging nod.

“Wouldn’t be good for business if we let them eat ye,” he said with a cheerful smile, and Warren actually let out a short laugh.

“Then let’s hope we can keep doing business,” he said, and he took the last few steps toward the entry arch, the flame in his hand flickering eerily in the darkness.

The hunched man appeared immediately, tilting his head up at Warren with a squinting scowl. “Hayward,” he croaked, pausing to let out a wet cough. “You’re taking advantage of our generous nature.”

“Generous?” Warren said before he could stop himself. “You’re the one getting free bodies for your rituals.”

“I’m not a fool,” he growled. “We got along just fine without you until now, but you seem not to be able to get along without us. That means we’re doing you a favor.”

Warren hesitated. “I’d...I’d say more mutually beneficial, really—”

The man hissed at him and drew closer—more quickly than Warren thought possible for such a crooked-looking man—and Owen put a guarding hand on Warren’s chest as he placed himself between the Llewan and his employer.

“No more games,” the man rumbled, glaring up into Owen’s face. “You’ve asked us for our help, Hayward.”

Warren gingerly pushed Owen’s arm aside so that he could face the filthy little man. “And?”

“And we agree,” he said with a crooked, yellow smile.

“You...you agree? Then why am I here? Why did you want to see me?”

“Our help isn’t free. You must do something for us in return.”

Warren hesitated. “What is it you want?”

“A promise,” the old man hissed, a sickly cackle coming out of his throat as he pointed at Warren with a shaking hand. “You must promise to give us something in return when we ask for it. You owe us a favor. A debt. We can collect whenever we like.”

Warren saw the twins exchange a look out of the corner of his eye, and he stared at the wretch in front of him for a few long moments. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

“No,” the man coughed.

Warren looked back at his guards as though they could—or would—make the decision for him. There were very few things that the Llewan could want from an outsider, he suspected, and he was already providing them with one of them. If they asked anything that was too much, he could always just refuse, couldn’t he? He gave a short sigh out of his nose before turning back to the Llewan and saying firmly, “I agree.”

The old man snorted and disappeared back into the mass of black behind him. After a moment, he returned with a large bowl stained and crusted with who-knows-what, and a chipped dagger with rough leather strapped around the handle. He placed the bowl between them with thin, spotty hands and shuffled his way around to Warren’s side, reaching up to wait for Warren’s hand.

With only a single reluctant swallow, Warren passed the wooden token in his hand to Simon, and he bent forward and allowed his forearm to be snatched up by the old man’s grimy claw. He flinched when the jagged blade cut into the inside of his arm and the man wrung the blood from his veins with a flick of his hand, pouring red liquid from Warren’s arm into the bottom of the bowl.

“An oath,” the man rasped, and he released Warren’s arm to slice deeply into his own and let the blood flow into the basin. He dropped the dagger onto the dusty floor and held his hands over the mixture of blood, chanting ancient words that Warren had never heard. He picked up the bowl to swirl the contents, whispering to the blood as he drew it near to his face. He turned to a filthy cloak at his side that Warren realized was a human being, and a pale arm shot out from underneath the filth, sprinkling a handful of white dust into the basin.

“Swear,” he said, and he offered the bowl to Warren, so close that he recoiled from the smell.

“I swear,” he said, clutching the seeping wound in his arm, and a hiss of dark smoke rose from the blood.

“It is allowed,” the man croaked. He dipped his hand into the bowl and lifted his blood-stained palm to Warren’s face, trailing bloody stripes with his fingers from the redhead’s forehead to his chin. Warren kept his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth tightly closed to avoid tasting the foul concoction, but he peeked open one eye in time to see the old man lift the basin to his mouth and take a large mouthful. He spit bloody saliva into his palm and pressed a handprint to Warren’s heart, making the younger man stumble and flinch from the pulse of intense heat.

Simon caught Warren’s arm to steady him while the old man chortled.

“It is done,” he said in a raspy whisper, and then he disappeared into the mass of black.

“I’m all right,” Warren assured the twins as they pulled him away from the pit’s entrance. Owen’s face showed more than a bit of doubt in the flickering firelight, but they walked on toward the exit, Warren pressing his handkerchief into the cut on his arm.

Warren climbed into the back of the autocar immediately when they reached the surface, since he didn’t think it would be wise to be seen on the street injured and covered in blood, and began to wipe at his face. He felt the carriage shift as Simon climbed up into the driver’s seat, but then his heart sank as he heard the telltale grinding of the engine. It sputtered and popped and wheezed but refused to actually start. Warren opened the carriage window and leaned out to watch the two brothers bent over the open hood, even heard a sparking zap as Simon attempted to get the electrics going, but the effort only ended with Owen swearing and kicking the wheel.

“It’s no good,” he said with a helpless shrug. “We’ll ‘ave to walk it.”

“Walk it?” Warren gestured at the blood all over his face, which seemed to staunchly refuse to be removed by his handkerchief. “You want me to walk all the way to the West End looking like this?”

“Unless you know how to get there some other way,” Simon said. “Perhaps we could find a kindly enough driver of a taxicab.” Warren groaned, and Simon cut him off, “You did know that the autocar was old.”

“I know,” he relented, and he stepped out of the carriage. “Please at least tell me that you two know the streets well enough to take a few back alleys.”

“What good would we be otherwise?” Owen chuckled, patting Warren on the shoulder.

Simon paused, and then he moved to the back of the autocar and pried off the grubby brass numbers on the back end, tossing them into the river. The autocar’s identification dealt with, the three men walked down a nearby side street and began to make their way back to Sir Bennett’s house.

It was actually a very successful sneaking, Warren thought as they finally neared Sir Bennett’s street, but they were forced to stop when they encountered workers in the alley ahead of them, unloading crates of something or other into the back door of a pub. The alternate route took them directly in front of the pub, where a small crowd of people milled out, listening to the music inside and talking loudly amongst themselves.

“Perhaps they’ll be too drunk to notice me?” Warren offered helpfully as they peeked around the corner. “Or I could try to cross the street?”

The twins exchanged a wordless glance. Owen tilted his head toward the pub and lifted his eyebrows, and Simon gave a short, puffing sigh and shrugged his shoulders.

“What what what,” Warren said, waving a hand between them. “What’s being decided here?”

“You just wait ‘ere,” Owen said as he tilted his neck this way and that to crack it, “and make a dash fer it once they’re distracted.” He pulled a set of electric knuckledusters from his jacket pocket and slipped them over his fingers, pausing to test their spark against each other.

“Distracted? What are you—wait!” Warren hissed after them, but the twins had already stepped out into the light of the lanterns lining the street and were heading straight for the pub. He hid in the alley and watched with one eye as the brothers approached the crowd, where Owen seemed to purposely put himself in the way of one man’s animated gesture.

Owen shoved the man and spat a warning at him, which caused an immediate chain reaction of defensive shouts and return shoves. In a moment, mugs of ale were spilling onto the pavement, and the front of Simon’s shirt had been caught in someone’s fist. Owen ducked out of the way of the first punch that was thrown at him, snatching the man’s arm mid-swing and twisting it around behind his back to force him to his knees. He shoved the stranger away by the back of his head, and Warren could hear his laugh from the alley.

For too long, Warren was frozen in the alley in disbelief, but then he remembered the reason for the brawl and darted out, turning his face away from the crowd as he trotted across the street and away from the brightly-lit pub.

He knew where he was, at least, so he was able to creep his way back to Sir Bennett’s garden, shushing the back gate as it creaked and rushing through the door. He panted as he leaned against the door, and he winced at the sharp pain in his arm as it dripped blood onto the hallway floor.

“Should this also be a secret, Warren Hayward?” Cam asked, making Warren jump as it appeared in front of him, but then he laughed.

“Yes. Yes, I think it should.”

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