Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Alexia was not quite sure what to say. She was both repulsed and frightened by the eminently reasonable way in which the man spoke. For there she sat, flush against a werewolf, a man whom this kidnapper, this torturer, thought of as an abomination. Yet a man whom, she realized with no surprise whatsoever, she loved.

“Thank you for the kind offer—” she began.

The scientist interrupted her. “Your cooperation would be invaluable, but it is not necessary, Miss Tarabotti. Understand, we will do what we must.”

“Then I would act in accordance with my conscience, not yours,” she said firmly. “Your perception of me must logically be as warped as your perception of him.” She dipped her chin at Lord Maccon. He was glaring at her intently, as though trying to get her to stay silent. But Miss Tarabotti's tongue had always gotten the better of her—hinged in the middle as it undoubtedly was. “I would as soon not be a willing participant in your fiendish experiments.”

Mr. Siemons smiled a tight little psychopathic smile. Then he turned away and yelled something in Latin.

A brief silence descended.

There was a rustle among the scientists and thugs gathered in the doorway, and the automaton pushed them aside to enter the cell.

Lord Maccon could see the revulsion on Miss Tarabotti's face, but he still did not turn around to find out what had caused it. He remained resolutely facing away from the scientist and those who stood behind him, keeping his naked back to the events. He had grown tenser and tenser as Alexia and Mr. Siemons exchanged barbs.

Miss Tarabotti could feel his vibrating aggravation at every point of contact between their bodies. She could see it in the hard muscles under his bare skin. He practically quivered, like a dog straining at its lead. Alexia knew he was going to break a moment before he did.

In one smooth movement, Lord Maccon turned and lashed out with the mirror shard. Mr. Siemons, seeing a certain apprehension enter Alexia's face, stepped out of range. At the same time, the automaton came forward and to one side, lunging for Miss Tarabotti.

Caught midswing and hampered by having to stay in physical contact with her, Lord Maccon could not switch to strike against the automaton quickly enough.

Alexia was not so restricted. As soon as the evil thing closed in on her, she screamed and lashed out, certain she would die if that repulsive imitation of a man touched her.

Notwithstanding her aversion, the automaton grabbed Miss Tarabotti under the armpits with its cold fingernailless hands and picked her up bodily. The monster was amazingly strong. Alexia kicked out, and though she made definitive contact with the heel of her boot, it did not seem to affect the creature. It threw her, still kicking and screeching like a banshee, over one waxy shoulder.

Lord Maccon whirled back toward her, but the combination of his lunge and the automaton's attack had broken contact between them. Alexia, draped facedown, caught his panicked expression through the tangle of her hair and then the flash of something sharp. With his last conscious thought, Lord Maccon had thrown the shard of mirror into the automaton's lower back, just under where she hung suspended.

“He is changing back!” yelled Mr. Siemons, retreating rapidly from the room. The automaton, carrying the squirming Miss Tarabotti, followed.

“Neutralize him! Quickly!” Mr. Siemons ordered the men waiting in the doorway. They rushed into the chamber.

Miss Tarabotti felt a little sorry, realizing they had no idea how fast the change would occur. She had claimed it would take her an hour to change a werewolf back into human form. They must have thought it took equally long to change back. She hoped this gave Lord Maccon some kind of advantage. It would be a mixed blessing in any event, his animal instincts now taking over completely, placing everyone, even her, at risk.

As they moved rapidly down the corridor, Miss Tarabotti heard a portentous snarl, a sad wet crunching sound, and then terrified screams. Those cries being so much more impressively bloodcurdling than her own, she stopped her bansheelike screeching and turned her attention to trying to get the automaton to drop her. She kicked and writhed with animalistic vigor. Unfortunately, the construct's grip was like iron about her waist. Since she had no idea exactly what the monstrosity was made of, she figured its grip could actually be iron.

Whatever the skeletal superstructure of the homunculus simulacrum, it was coated in a layer of fleshy substance. Miss Tarabotti eventually stopped struggling, a waste of energy, and stared morosely down at the shard of mirror sticking out of its back. A small amount of dark viscous liquid was leaking from where it stuck. In fascinated horror, she realized Lord Maccon was right. The being was filled with blood—old, black, dirty blood. Was everything, she wondered, about blood with these scientists? And then: Why had Lord Maccon been so intent on wounding the automaton? It came to her. He needs a trail to follow. This will never do, she thought. It's not bleeding enough to leave drops behind.

Trying not to think about it too closely, she reached for the piece of mirror embedded in the automaton's oozing flesh. She slashed the soft underside of her arm against an exposed corner of the sharp shard. Her own blood, a healthy bright red, welled fast and clean and dripped in perfect droplets onto the carpeted floor. She wondered if even her blood smelled of cinnamon and vanilla to Lord Maccon.

No one noticed. The automaton, following its master, carried her back through the receiving room of the club and toward the machinery chambers. They passed by those rooms Miss Tarabotti had visited on her tour of the Hypocras facilities and on toward parts she had not been allowed to see. This was the area from which she had heard those terrible screams.

They reached the last room at the very end of the corridor. Alexia managed to twist about enough to read a small slip of paper tacked to the side of the door. It said, in neat black calligraphy, framed on either side by an etched octopus, exsanguination chamber.

Miss Tarabotti could see nothing of the interior from where she hung, until Mr. Siemons issued instructions in that undecipherable Latin of his, and the automaton put her down. Alexia bounced away from the creature like a not-very-agile gazelle. Undeterred, the automaton grabbed both her arms and wrenched her back to itself, holding her immobilized.

She stiffened in revulsion. No matter that it had just carried her the length of the club, her skin still shivered away in horror whenever the monster touched her.

Swallowing down bile, she took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Reaching some kind of equilibrium, she shook her hair out of her face and looked about.

The room contained six iron platforms of equal size and shape, bolted to the floor and paired off into three groups of two. Each platform, the size of a large man, was equipped with a plethora of restraints made of various materials. Two young scientists in gray frock coats and glassicals bustled about. They clutched leather-bound notepads and were jotting observations in them using sticks of graphite wrapped in sheepskin. An older man, about Mr. Siemons's age, was also in attendance. He wore a tweed suit, of all horrible things, and a cravat tied with such carelessness it was almost as much a sin as his actions. He also wore glassicals, but of a larger, more elaborate kind than Alexia had seen before. All three gentlemen paused to look at them when they entered the room, their eyes distorted to hugeness by the optical glass.

Then they were back to moving between the lifeless figures of two men lying on one pair of platforms. One figure was tied down with sisal rope, and the other…

Alexia cried out in horror and distress. The other wore an extravagant plum-colored velvet evening coat stained with blood and a satin waistcoat of sea-foam green and mauve plaid torn in several places. He, too, was tied down with rope, but he had also been crucified through both hands and feet with wooden stakes. The stakes were bolted into the platform on which he lay, and Alexia could not tell if he lay still because of the pain they caused him or because he could no longer move at all.

Miss Tarabotti wrenched toward her friend convulsively, but the automaton held her fast. Finding reason only at the very last, Alexia figured this was probably a good thing. If she touched Lord Akeldama when he was in such a weakened state, her preternatural abilities might bring about his immediate demise. Only his supernatural strength was keeping him alive—that is, if he was still alive.

“You,” she sputtered at Mr. Siemons, searching for a word horrible enough to describe these so-called scientists, “you philistines! What have you done to him?”

Not only had Lord Akeldama been strapped and nailed down, but they had hooked him into one of their infernal machines. One sleeve of his beautiful coat had been cut away, as had the silk shirt underneath, and a long metal tube emerged from under the skin of his upper arm. The tube ran into a mechanical steam-driven contraption of some kind, from which came another tube, which hooked into the other man. This second man was clearly not supernatural; his skin was tan and his cheeks rosy. But he, too, lay as still as death.

“How far along are we, Cecil?” Mr. Siemons asked one of the gray-clad scientists, completely ignoring Miss Tarabotti.

“Nearly done, sir. We think you may be correct about the age. This seems to be going much more smoothly than our previous procedures.”

“And the application of the electrical current?” Mr. Siemons scratched his sideburns.

The man looked down at his notations, twiddling the side of his glassicals for focus. “Within the hour, sir, within the hour.”

Mr. Siemons rubbed his hands together delightedly. “Excellent, quite excellent. I shall not disturb Dr. Neebs; he looks to be concentrating deeply. I know how involved he gets in his work.”

“We are trying to moderate the intensity of the shock, sir. Dr. Neebs thinks this might extend survival time in the recipient,” explained the second young scientist, looking up from some large levers he was fiddling with on the side of the machine.

“Fascinating thought. Very interesting approach. Proceed, please, proceed. Do not mind me. Just bringing in a new specimen.” He turned and gestured at Miss Tarabotti.

“Very good, sir. I'll just get on, then,” said the first scientist, who went back to what he had been doing before they entered the room with barely a glance in Miss Tarabotti's direction.

Alexia looked Mr. Siemons full in the face. “I am beginning to understand,” she said in a quiet, deadly voice, “who is the monster. What you are doing is farther from natural than vampires or werewolves could ever get. You are profaning creation, not only with this”—she gestured rudely with her thumb at the automaton holding her tightly—“but with that.” She pointed to the machine with its suckerlike metal tubes reaching hungrily inside the body of her dear friend. The horrible contraption seemed to be drinking him dry, more hungry for blood than any vampire she had ever seen. “It is you, Mr. Siemons, who is the abomination.”

Mr. Siemons stepped forward and slapped her hard across the face. The sound, a sharp crack, caused Dr. Neebs to look up from his work. No one said anything, though, and all three scientists immediately returned to their activities.

Alexia recoiled back against the cold stillness of the automaton. Instantly, she jerked forward away from it once more, blinking away tears of frustration. When her vision had cleared, she could see that Mr. Siemons was once more smiling his tight little psychopathic smile.

“Protocol, Miss Tarabotti,” he said. Then he said something in Latin.

The automaton hauled Alexia over to one of the other sets of platforms. One of the young scientists stopped what he was doing and came to strap her down while the creature held her immobile. Mr. Siemons helped to secure her ankles and wrists with rope tied so tight Miss Tarabotti was certain she would lose all circulation to her extremities. The platform was decked out with massive manacles made of solid metal that looked to be iron coated in silver, and there were more of those awful wooden stakes, but the scientists clearly did not think she needed such extreme measures.

“Bring in a new test recipient,” Mr. Siemons ordered once she was secure. The gray-coated young man nodded, put his leather notebook on a small shelf, took off the glassicals, and left the room.

The automaton took up residence in front of the closed door, a silent wax-faced sentry.

Alexia twisted her head to one side. She could see Lord Akeldama to her left, still lying silent and unmoving on his platform. The older scientist, Dr. Neebs, seemed to have completed his task. He was now hooking another machine into the one with all the tubes. This new apparatus was a small engine of some kind, all gears and cogs. At its heart was a glass jar with metal plates at each end.

The remaining gray-clad young scientist came around and began to rigorously turn a crank attached to this device.

Eventually there issued a sharp crackling sound, and a vibrating beam of extraordinarily white light ran up the tube attached to Lord Akeldama's arm and penetrated his body. The vampire jerked and writhed, pulling involuntarily on the wooden stakes impaling his hands and feet. His eyes shot open, and he let out a keening scream of pain.