Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


The steam produced by the mechanicals discolored the walls and ceilings of the laboratories, causing the white wallpaper to buckle and pimple outward in yellowed boils. Oil from the gears leaked across the floors in dark viscous rivulets. There were other stains there, too, rust-colored ones that Alexia did not care to think about.

Mr. Siemons proudly detailed the function of each machine, as though relating the accomplishments of his favorite children.

Though Miss Tarabotti heard wheezing gasps and clunks in nearby rooms, she was never shown any machine in action.

She also heard the screams.

At first the keening was so high in pitch she thought it might be sourced in one of the machines. She was not certain when she realized it came from a human throat, but the absolute knowledge of its origin hit her so hard she stumbled under the weight of it. No machine could make such a noise as that high, agonized moaning squeal, like an animal being butchered. Alexia leaned heavily against one wall of the hallway, her skin clammy, swallowing down the sour bile her writhing stomach produced in sympathy. She thought she had never before heard so pure a sound of pain.

The machines she had been seeing took on new and horrific meanings as she realized what they might do to a physical body.

Mr. MacDougall was concerned by her sudden pallor. “Miss Tarabotti, you are unwell?”

Alexia looked at him with wide dark eyes. “This place is all madness. Do you realize that?”

Mr. Siemons's jowls swam into her field of view. “I take it you will not cooperate willingly with our research?”

Another high keening scream rent the air. Inside that cry, Alexia could hear Lord Akeldama's voice. Mr. Siemons cocked his head at the sound and licked his lips, as though savoring a pleasant taste. Miss Tarabotti shuddered. There was something almost lustful in his gaze. Only then did she finally come to a realization of the truth.

“What does it matter, if that is to be my fate either way?” Miss Tarabotti asked.

“Well, it would be easier all around if you were a willing participant.”

And why, Alexia wondered, should I make this easier for you? She grimaced and said, “What do you want me to do?”

Mr. Siemons smiled like he had just won some competition. “We need to observe and verify the extent of your preternatural abilities. There is no point in us undertaking extensive experimentation if we cannot determine if your purported soul-sucking curse-canceling powers are, in fact, genuine.”

Miss Tarabotti shrugged. “So, bring me a vampire. All it takes is one touch.”

“Really? Remarkable. Skin to skin, or does it work through clothing?”

“Through clothing most of the time. After all, I wear gloves like any respectable person. But I have not explored the particulars.”

Mr. Siemons shook his head as though to clear it. “We will explore further, later. I was thinking of a little more definitive testing. After all, it is full moon night. As it happens, we have just received a substantial delivery of new werewolf specimens in full change. I should like to see if you can counteract such a substantial change.”

Mr. MacDougall looked alarmed. “That could be dangerous, if her abilities are false or over exaggerated.”

Mr. Siemons grinned wider. “That would be part of the test, would it not?” He turned to Miss Tarabotti. “How long does it usually take for you to neutralize the supernatural?”

Alexia lied instantly and without hesitation. “Oh, generally not much more than an hour.”

The scientist, with no prior knowledge of the rapidity of her abilities, was forced to believe her. He looked at the goons, two of whom had been shadowing them throughout the tour. “Bring her.”

Mr. MacDougall protested, but to no avail.

Once more prisoner instead of guest, Miss Tarabotti was dragged unceremoniously back toward the confinement area on the other side of the club grounds.

They took her to the other hallway, the one in which she and Lord Akeldama had not been ensconced. Previously silent, it now resounded with snarling cries and howls. Periodically, some door or another would vibrate violently as though a large body had hurled itself against it.

“Ah,” said Mr. Siemons, “I see they have awoken.”

“Chloroform works better initially on werewolves than on vampires but does not seem to last as long,” reported a young man in a gray jacket who appeared seemingly out of thin air, clutching a leather notepad. He wore a pair of those monocular cross-whatsit lens things, the glassicals, which somehow looked less ridiculous on him than they had on Professor Lyall.

“And which room is he in?”

The man pointed with his notebook at one of the doors. One of the few that was not vibrating but stood ominously still and quiet. “Number five.”

Mr. Siemons nodded. “He should be the strongest and thus the hardest to change back. Toss her in with him. I will check back in an hour.” With that, he left them.

Mr. MacDougall protested vociferously. He even struggled against the two goons, attempting to stop the inevitable. Miss Tarabotti's valuation of his moral fiber rose substantially. But it was all to no avail. The two lackeys were of the overly muscled variety. They tossed the pudgy scientist aside with barely any effort whatsoever.

“But she'll never survive. Not with one in full change! Not if she takes so long to counteract them!” Mr. Mac-Dougall continued to protest.

Even knowing the full extent and rapidity of her skills, Alexia, too, was worried. She had never changed an angry werewolf before, let alone one fully moon-mad. She was pretty certain he could manage to get in at least one bite before her abilities would take full effect. Even then, if she managed to survive that, what kind of man would she be trapped with? Werewolves tended to be physically strong even without their supernatural traits. Such a man could do her considerable harm, preternatural or no.

Miss Tarabotti had very little time to cogitate the possible shortness of her future before she was thrust into the portentously quiet chamber. So quiet, in fact, she could hear the door being locked and bolted behind her.


Nothing but Werewolf

The werewolf charged.

Miss Tarabotti, whose eyes were not yet accustomed to the darkness of the cell, perceived the monster as nothing more than a bulky blur of darkness heading at supernatural speed in her direction. She dove awkwardly to one side, only just fast enough. Her corset stays creaked in a most alarming manner as she tried desperately to twist out of the way. She stumbled upon landing, nearly falling to her knees.

The wolf hit the closed door hard, behind where she had just stood, and slid to the floor in an ungainly heap of long legs and sweeping tail.

Alexia backed away, hands up before her chest in an instinctive, and entirely useless, defensive position. She was not ashamed to admit she was deathly frightened. The werewolf was huge, and she was becoming convinced that what preternaturals could do would not be fast enough to cancel out what he might be able to do first.

The wolf resumed an upright position, shaking himself like a wet dog. He had a long glossy pelt, silky in texture and of some changeable color difficult to determine in the shadowy room. He crouched down to charge again, powerful muscles quivering, saliva leaking out one side of his mouth in silver rivulets.

He leaped forward in another burst of speed and then twisted before he struck, yanking himself back mid jump.

He could have killed her easily that time. There was no doubt in Alexia's head that his fangs were coming straight for her jugular. Her initial dodge had been pure luck. She was nowhere near fit enough to go up against a regular wolf, let alone a supernatural one. True, she was an inveterate walker and had a decent seat for the hunt, but no one would ever make the mistake of calling Miss Tarabotti a sportswoman.

In an apparent state of confusion, the great beast circled to one side of the cell, then the other, weaving about Alexia and sniffing the air. He gave an odd, frustrated little whine and backed slowly away from her, swaying his bushy head back and forth in profound mental distress. The yellow of his eyes glowed faintly in the dark room. Alexia thought that their expression was one of worry more than hunger.

Miss Tarabotti watched in amazement as for several minutes the werewolf continued his internal struggle, pacing back and forth. Her respite did not last long, however. It soon became clear that despite whatever held him back, the urge to attack was overpowering. The wolf's mouth opened in a snarl of bloodlust, and he coiled his muscles to spring at her once more.

This time, Alexia was pretty darn certain she would not escape unscathed. She had never before seen so many sharp teeth in one place.

The werewolf attacked.

Miss Tarabotti could make out his form more clearly now, her eyes having adjusted fully to the gloom. Yet all she could really process mentally was a great shaggy mass of killing frenzy plunging toward her throat. She wanted desperately to run, but there was nowhere for her to go.

Keeping her wits about her, Alexia stepped toward the charging monster and a little to one side. In the same movement, she tilted sideways as much as her corset would allow and crashed against the beast's ribs, knocking him out of his leap. He was a big wolf, but Alexia Tarabotti was no lightweight either, and she managed to broadside him just enough to throw him off kilter. They fell to the ground together in a coil of skirts and bustle wires and fur and fangs.

Alexia twined her arms, her legs—as much as her underpinnings would allow—and anything else she could manage about the wolf's huge furry body and held on as tightly as humanly possible.

With a profound sense of relief, she felt his fur disappear and his bones re-form under her fingers. The sound of muscle, sinew, and cartilage breaking was truly gruesome, like a cow being butchered, but the feel of it was even worse. The sensation of fur disappearing at her touch, crawling away from any point of contact with her body, and the bones, liquidlike, changing their very nature under his flesh, was one that would haunt her for months. But, eventually, she held only warm human skin and solid lean muscles.

Miss Tarabotti took a long, deep, shaky breath and from the smell alone had no doubt at all whom it was she held. For the scent was all open grassy fields and night air. Involuntarily, her hands moved against his skin in relief. Then, of course, she realized something else.

“Why, Lord Maccon, you are stark naked!” Alexia said. She was appalled beyond all reason by this last in the long string of indignities she had had to suffer in the space of one torturous evening.

The Earl of Woolsey was indeed completely nude. He did not seem particularly perturbed by this fact, but Miss Tarabotti felt the sudden need to close her eyes tight and think about asparagus or something equally mundane. Coiled about him as she was, her chin wedged over one of his massive shoulders, she was being forced to look down directly at a nicely round, but embarrassing bare, moon. And not the kind that caused werewolves to change either. Although it did seem to be changing aspects of her own anatomy that she would rather not think about. It was all a very heady—or bottomy?—experience.

But, Alexia reasoned, at least he is no longer trying to kill me.

“Well, Miss Tarabotti,” admitted the earl, “nakedness happens, I am ashamed to say, particularly to us were-wolves. To compound the offense, I must ask you most cordially not to let go.” Lord Maccon was panting, and his voice sounded funny, all low and gruff and hesitant.

With her chest pressed hard against his, Alexia could feel the rapid beat of his overtaxed heart. A strange series of questions ran through her head. Was his exertion the result of the attack or the change? What happened if he changed into wolf form in full evening dress? Would the clothes rip? That was sure to be inconveniently expensive! How come it was socially acceptable for werewolves in the wolf state to run around completely starkers, but not anyone else?

Instead she asked, “Are you cold?”

Lord Maccon laughed. “Practical as always, Miss Tarabotti. It is a little chilly in here, but I am well enough for the moment. “

Alexia looked at his long, powerful, but bare, legs dubiously. “I suppose I could loan you my underskirt. “

The earl snorted. “I hardly think that would look very dignified.”

Miss Tarabotti reared back so she could look him in the face for the first time. “I meant to drape over you like a blanket, not to wear, you ridiculous man!” She was blushing heatedly, but with her dark skin, she knew it was not noticeable. “Besides, remaining exposed is hardly a dignified condition either.”

“Aye, I see. Thank you for the thought, but…” Lord Maccon trailed off, becoming distracted by something far more interesting. “Uh, where exactly are we?”

“We are guests of the Hypocras Club. That new scientific establishment that opened recently right next door to the Snodgroves' town residence.” She did not even pause to let him interject but hurried agitatedly on. Partly because she wanted to relay everything she could before she forgot something vital and partly because their intimate proximity was making her nervous. “It is the scientists here who are behind the supernatural disappearances,” she said, “as I am certain you are now well aware. You yourself have become one of those very vanishing acts. They have quite the arrangement here. We are currently in underground facilities reached only by something called an ascension chamber. And there are rooms upon rooms of exotic steam and electric current machinery on the other side of the foyer. They have got Lord Akeldama hooked up to something called an exsanguination machine, and I heard the most horrible screams. I think it was him. Conall”—this was said most earnestly—“I believe that they may be torturing him to death.”