Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

5,957
07.03.2019

Before he could even begin to spring at her, Alexia moved forward, unafraid, and wrapped both arms about his furry neck.

The change was a little less horrible the second time around. Or, perhaps, she was simply getting used to the feel of it. Fur retreated from where she touched him, bone and skin and flesh re-formed, and she held, once again, the naked body of Lord Maccon in her arms.

He was coughing and spitting.

“That automaton thing tastes awful,” he announced, wiping his face with the back of one hand. It did nothing more effective than smudge the red over his chin and cheek.

Miss Tarabotti refrained from pointing out he had also been snacking on scientists and wiped his face with the skirt of her dress. It was already beyond salvation anyway.

Tawny brown eyes turned to her face. Alexia noted with relief that they were full of intelligence and entirely lacking in ferocity or hunger.

“You are unharmed?” he asked. One big hand came up, stroking over her face and down. He paused upon reaching the cut on her neck.

His eyes, even though he was touching her, went slightly back to feral yellow. “I'll butcher the bastard,” he said softly, all the more anger in his voice for its quiet tone. “I'll pull his bones out through his nostrils one by one.”

Alexia shushed him impatiently. “It is not that deep.” But she did lean into his touch and let out a shaky breath she had not even known she was holding.

His hand, now trembling in fury, kept up its gentle assessment of her injuries. It smoothed softly over the bruises appearing on her exposed upper torso and down her shoulder to the slice on her arm.

“The Norse had it right—flay a man open from the back and eat out his heart,” he said.

“Do not be disgusting,” admonished the object of his interest. “Besides, I did that one to myself.”

“What?!”

She shrugged dismissively, “You needed a trail to follow.”

“You little fool,” he said affectionately.

“It worked, didn't it?”

His touch became insistent for just a moment. Pulling her in against his large naked form, he kissed her roughly, a deeply erotic and oddly desperate melding of tongue and teeth. He kissed as though he needed her to subsist. It was unbearably intimate. Worse than allowing one's ankles to be seen. Alexia leaned into him, opening her mouth eagerly.

“I do so hate to intrude, my little lovebirds, but if you could see your way clear to maybe releasing me?” came a soft voice, interrupting their embrace. “And your business here, it is not quite finished.”

Lord Maccon surfaced and looked about, blinking as though he had just woken from sleep: half nightmare, half erotic fantasy.

Miss Tarabotti shifted so that their only point of contact was her hand nested inside his big one. It was still enough contact to be comforting, not to mention preternaturally effective.

Lord Akeldama still lay on his platform. In the space between him and where Alexia had been strapped down, Mr. MacDougall still fought with the newly created vampire.

“Goodness me,” said Miss Tarabotti in surprise, “he is still alive!” No one was sure, even her, whether she meant Mr. MacDougall or the manufactured vampire. They seemed equally matched, the vampire unused to his new strength and abilities, and Mr. MacDougall stronger than expected in his desperation and panic.

“Well, my love,” said Alexia with prodigious daring to Lord Maccon, “shall we?” The earl started to move forward and then stopped abruptly and looked down at her, not moving at all. “Am I?”

“Are you what?” She peeked up at him through her tangled hair, pretending confusion. There was no possible way she was going to make this easy for him.

“Your love?”

“Well, you are a werewolf, Scottish, naked, and covered in blood, and I am still holding your hand.”

He sighed in evident relief. “Good. That is settled, then.”

They moved over to where Mr. MacDougall and the vampire fought. Alexia was not certain she could effectively change two supernatural persons at once, but she was willing to try.

“Pardon me,” she said, and grabbed the vampire by one shoulder. Surprised, the man turned toward this new threat. But his fangs were already retracting.

Miss Tarabotti smiled at him, and Lord Maccon had him by the ear like a naughty schoolboy before he could even make an aggressive move in her direction.

“Now, now,” said Lord Maccon, “even new vampires may choose only willing victims.” Releasing the ear, he punched the man extremely hard up under the chin. It was an expert boxer's move that laid the poor man out flat.

“Will it last?” Alexia asked of the fallen vampire. She was no longer touching him, so he should recuperate quickly.

“For a few minutes,” said Lord Maccon in his BUR voice.

Mr. MacDougall, bleeding only slightly from a row of punctures in one side of his neck, blinked at his saviors.

“Tie him up, would you? There is a good lad. I have only one working hand, you see?” said Lord Maccon to the American, handing him rope from one of the platforms.

“Who, sir, are you?” Mr. MacDougall asked, looking the earl up and down and then focusing in on his and Alexia's linked hands. Or Alexia assumed that is what he was focusing in on.

Miss Tarabotti said, “Mr. MacDougall, your questions will have to wait.”

Mr. MacDougall nodded submissively and began to tie the vampire.

“My love.” Alexia looked at Lord Maccon. It was much easier to say the words the second time around, but she still felt very daring. “Perhaps you might see to Lord Akeldama? I dare not touch him in such a weakened state.”

Lord Maccon refrained from commenting that when she called him “my love,” he was pretty much willing to do whatever she asked.

They walked together over to Lord Akeldama's platform.

“Hello, princess,” said Lord Maccon to the vampire. “Got yourself into quite a pickle this time, didn't you?”

Lord Akeldama looked him up and down. “My sweet young naked boy, you are hardly one to talk. Not that I mind, of course.”

Lord Maccon blushed so profoundly it extended all the way down his neck to his upper torso. Alexia thought it entirely adorable.

Without another word, the earl untied Lord Akeldama and, as gently as possible, slid his hands and feet off the wooden stakes. The vampire lay still and silent for a long time after he had finished.

Miss Tarabotti worried. His wounds should be healing themselves. But, instead, they remained large, gaping holes. There wasn't even any blood dripping from them.

“My dearest girl,” said the vampire finally, examining Lord Maccon with an exhausted but appreciative eye, “such a banquet. Never been one to favor werewolves myself, but he is very well equipped, now, is he not?”

Miss Tarabotti gave him an arch look.

“My goodies,” she warned.

“Humans,” chuckled the vampire, “so possessive.” He shifted weakly.

“You are not well,” commented Lord Maccon.

“Quite right, Lord Obvious.”

Miss Tarabotti looked at the vampire's wounds more closely, still careful not to touch him. She wanted desperately to hug her friend and offer some consolation, but any contact with her and he was certain to die. He was near enough to it already, and returning to human form would end him undoubtedly.

“You are dry,” she remarked.

“Yes,” agreed the vampire. “It all went into him.” He gestured with his chin toward where the new vampire lay under Mr. MacDougall's ministrations.

“I suppose you might take a donation from me?” suggested Lord Maccon dubiously. “Would that work? I mean to say, how fully human does preternatural touch make me?”

Lord Akeldama shook his head weakly. “Not enough for me to feed from you, I suspect. It might work, but it also might kill you.”

Lord Maccon unexpectedly jerked backward, pulling Alexia with him. Two hands were wrapped around his throat, squeezing tightly. The fingers on those hands had no fingernails.

The automaton had crawled all the way across the floor, slowly but surely, and was trying to fulfill the last order given to it: to kill Lord Maccon. This time, with the earl in human form, it stood a fairly good chance of succeeding.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Royal Interference

Lord Maccon sputtered and gasped for breath, trying to fight off the repulsive creature with only one hand. Miss Tarabotti beat at the automaton with her free arm. But nothing they did seemed capable of wresting the construct from around the earl's neck. Alexia was about to let go of Lord Maccon's hand and back away, knowing he could free himself in werewolf form, when Lord Akeldama stood shakily up from the platform on which he rested.

The vampire produced a still miraculously immaculate white lace handkerchief from a waistcoat pocket, stumbled over, and wiped the rest of the smudged word off the automaton's forehead.

The monstrosity let go of Lord Maccon and collapsed onto the floor.

The most remarkable thing then occurred. Its skin began melting away in slow rivulets, like warm honey. Slow black blood, mixed with some black particulate matter, leaked out and intermingled with the skin substance. Both slid off a mechanical skeletal structure. Soon, all that was left of the automaton was a metal frame wearing shabby clothing and lying in a gooey puddle of old blood, wax, and small black particles. Its internal organs appeared to be all gears and clockwork mechanisms.

Miss Tarabotti's attention was drawn away from the fascinating mess by Lord Maccon saying, “Oops, whoa there,” and reaching for Lord Akeldama with his free arm.

The vampire was toppling over as well, having utterly exhausted what few resources of energy he had left in administering the deadly handkerchief. Lord Maccon, attached to Alexia with one hand, managed only to slow his fall with the other but not catch him completely. The vampire crumpled to the floor in a sad little heap of plum-colored velvet.

Miss Tarabotti bent over him, still desperately careful not to touch him in any way. He was still, miraculously, alive.

“Why?” she stuttered, glancing over at the automaton, or what had been the automaton. “Why did that work?”

“You only wiped off the P.” asked Lord Maccon, looking thoughtfully at the puddle of homunculus simulacrum residue. Alexia nodded.

“So you turned VIXI—to be alive—into VIX, with difficulty. Thus, the automaton could still move, but only barely. In order to destroy it entirely, you needed to remove the word and the activation particulate completely, breaking the aetheromagnetic connection.”

“Well,” huffed Miss Tarabotti, “how was I supposed to know that? That was my first automaton.”

“And a very good job you made of it, too, my pearl, on such short acquaintance,” complimented Lord Akeldama tenderly from his prone position without opening his eyes. He had yet to succumb to the Grand Collapse, but he looked in imminent danger of doing so.

They heard a great clattering and a quantity of yelling from the hallway behind them.

“Arse over apex, what now?” wondered Lord Maccon, standing up and dragging Miss Tarabotti with him.

A conglomeration of impeccably well-dressed young men bustled into the room, carrying with them the trussed and bound form of Mr. Siemons. They let out a collective shriek upon seeing Lord Akeldama crumpled on the floor. Several rushed over and began billing and cooing about him in an excess of emotional concern.

“Lord Akeldama's drones,” Alexia explained to Lord Maccon.

“I would never have known,” he replied sarcastically.

“Where did they all come from?” wondered Miss Tarabotti.

One of the young men whom Alexia remembered from before—had it only been a few hours ago?— deduced the cure to his master's ailments quickly enough. He pushed the other dandies aside, pulled off his blue silk evening jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeve, and offered his arm to the destabilized vampire. Lord Akeldama's eyes blinked slowly open.

“Ah, my capable Biffy. Do not let me drink too long from you alone.”

Biffy leaned forward and kissed Lord Akeldama on the forehead, as though he were a small child. “Of course not, my lord.” Gently he put his wrist to the vampire's pale lips. Lord Akeldama bit down with a sigh of relief.

Biffy was both smart enough and strong enough to pull away halfway through the feeding. He summoned one of the other drones to take his place. Lord Akeldama, as thirsty as he was from his recent abuse, could easily damage a solo donor beyond repair. Luckily, none of his drones was foolish enough to try and stay the course. The second young man gave way to a third and then a fourth. At this point, Lord Akeldama's wounds began to close, and his skin went from frighteningly gray to its normal porcelain white.

“Explain yourselves, my darlings,” ordered Lord Akeldama as soon as he was able.

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