London, 29th August 1880
Elizabeth Summer’s watcher, Sir Wyndam, had called for her to meet him in his private study. It was a room she’d not received an invitation to in almost a year and a half, much to her immense relief.
During their estrangement — not that they had ever been close — they had exchanged minimal words with each other. When possible, they channeled their conversations through Charlie, Wyndam’s coach driver. He tried to dilute the bitterness and disengagement between the slayer and watcher as much as possible.
Nightly, Wyndam would give Charlie instructions on which of the city’s many graveyards Elizabeth was to patrol. Then the next morning, Charlie would report back on her activities. It worked in a fashion. She at least trusted him to a greater extent than she did Wyndam. And, he had a sense of humor, and he was kind to his horses, though, he could drive them at a gallop but would only do so in an emergency. They had saved each other’s lives countless times.
Charlie, like all those under Wyndam’s employ, had been introduced to the secrets of the paranormal world. After all, it was impossible to hide such things from staff. The fifty year old driver had nonchalantly laughed it off with a shrug, and suggested it went a long way towards explaining the aristocracy; they either had to be demonic or at least immersed in the black arts. His reaction might have been more on the somber if he had been told about his predecessor’s fate. Martin had learned the hard way that Thraxis demons were not to be trifled with. Elizabeth had only been acquainted with Charlie for a few months before she let slip that story. He seemed unfazed and claimed to believe his old man was a demon, based solely on the good hidings he would rain down on his poor family. Charlie did take seriously the rumor that the Rotherhithe Workhouse, in South London, was run by hellish demons — it wouldn’t have been the first time for such an occurrence. So she had gone to investigate, but the monsters in charge had turned out to be of the human variety. She had met as many of the human ones as she had the demonic.
Elizabeth walked down the hallway towards Wyndam’s room. She pulled her knuckles inwards. Her nails depressed into her flesh. The incredible strength she possessed, in her curled up hands, cut into her palm as she knocked on his door.
“Please enter,” Wyndam commanded, his voice droning through the closed door.
She unclenched her fist and pain rushed in replacing the pressure of her fingers. Pain gave her clarity. It made it easier to focus in battle. She wondered if that was connected to being the slayer, or if all humans had that ability.
She pushed the door open. Outwardly she expressed humility, bowing her head towards her chest, which made it more difficult for him to catch her eyes. Not that he would try, but she didn’t want to chance seeing what was lurking behind his eyes. She found it easier if she hid her disgust from him.
“You wished to speak with me, Sir Wyndam?” she asked, her overly formal words rushing out. “Isabella conveyed to me that it was an utmost urgency.”
Elizabeth moved further into the room, feeling trapped in its small confides. The space was decked out in glossy black panels and lush red fabrics. Thick curtains covered the small windows, keeping out all natural light. She would have suspected he was a vampire if she’d not seen him leave the house during the day.
“Yes,” he acknowledged her, with some delay and continued looking down as he scribbled away on the piece of paper in front of him.
She could not see his writing from where she stood, but she knew his script was ugly and cramped on the paper, and in its composition. It would be almost impossible to read. The illegibility of his hand consoled her. It meant it would take considerable efforts and patience to comprehend whatever derogatory epitaph he would compose when she died.
Wyndam’s eyes snapped upwards for a second but the muscles in his face were still. It was like he was wearing a mask. His eyes were just as lifeless, glassy and empty like those set in a china doll’s face.
“Please sit, Miss Summers,” Wyndam inclined his head towards the seat directly in front of him. “I have some correspondence I must first attend to. Then we may proceed.”
Elizabeth took a seat in the chair furthest away from him. She folded her hands into ball in her lap, trying to hide the tremors of angry which coursed through her limbs. Slowing down her breathing, she focused on the grandfather clock behind Wyndam’s right shoulder.
When she attempted to sleep at night, she would hear the clock’s insides whirring away right before it struck off another hour. She wondered if anyone else in house despaired over the sound of time running out, probably not, because compared to her their days were potentially limitless. It would be so easy to slip up one night and never hear the dreadful sound again. But, she wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.
The swinging pendulum sliced across the clocks middle and from her vantage point appeared poised to bite into Wyndam’s throat. If it werr possible for him to be injured in such a way she wondered how she might respond. Would she press her fingers to the wound, call out for Mildred or Isabella for help, or would she stay primly sat in her seat and watch as he bled out? She could easily picture his face plastered to the geometric design of his expensive rug, his blood seeping into it, and then the blissful silence which would follow his final gasp.
Wyndam began to speak to her again. She could only hear every other word over the regular ticking of the clock.
She would never forgive him.
It was almost eighteen months since her Cruciamentum — not how she would have chosen to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, not that anyone had asked her. Wyndam had stripped her of her powers, as tradition dictated, and locked her in a church’s cellar with a particularly nasty vampire. She had defied expectations, and made it out alive, barely and bloodily.
Elizabeth had since researched the meaning of cruciamentum, which aptly translated from Latin to the words pain and torment. She believed if someone almost killed you, among other things, it earned you the right to sneak into their private library and to riffle through their watcher diaries and Latin dictionaries. All had been forfeit to her curiosity and vexation. She had to have her small revenge, or she might have ended up breaking his jaw, once she regained her strength, because she had finally realized the extent of his cruelty. Retribution was a luxury she couldn’t afford because who knew how Wyndam might retaliate.
“The Council has approved my request to be relieved of my duties as your watcher, effective immediately,” he said, gaining her attention. “I believe it’s for the best.”
“I agree, of course.”
“Well, yes quite,” he conceded, an awkward laugh lodged in his throat, and she wished he’d choke on it. “Charlie will be arriving at his customary hour. Your things are to be packed and ready to be loaded in his carriage by then.”
Elizabeth didn’t allow herself to react to his news. Any display of emotion, good or bad, would let him win something from their final encounter, and she wouldn’t allow that.
She had thought, after becoming the chosen one, she would never be forced to move home again. She had assumed that a slayer and watcher remained together, until one of them died, most likely her.
“Master Pratt is to be your new watcher,” Wyndam narrowed his eyes at her. “He does not live far away, somewhere in Clapham, I believe. A little insipid by all accounts but a decent enough fellow.”
Elizabeth didn’t trust his assessment because she knew how he saw her and it wasn’t at all flattering.
Wyndam slid his diary across his desk in her direction. He condescended to her, for the lfast time, instructing her to hand it over to his successor. It was a rather bloodless passing on of a baton, from watcher to watcher but no such retirement awaited her.
Elizabeth went to her attic room. It was too warm from the sun having benough on it all day, but she shut the door anyway. She sagged against the frame, slowly sliding down until she was sitting and laughed, all her excitement and relief pouring out. There was hope at last. She had almost forgotten it existed. Jumping into the unknown was familiar for her but only during battle, and it had always led to more drudgery and more than often broken bones. This was different.
She hugged her arms around herself. Then she immediately went into action, dragging out two large trunks from under her bed. She sneezed as five years worth of dust rushed to greet her. She hated that she was able to tell the difference between accidentally breathing in regular dust and vampire — the latter had a smoky aftertaste, best not dwelt on. She used her dress sleeve to wipe away the remaining grime from her luggage.
In her haste, she had packed all her belongings in half the time allotted, though, it was a quick job since she owed little. She placed her second best outfit, two day dresses, nightgowns and undergarments in one of the case. On top of this layer of clothing, she placed her slaying attire: a few shirts, trousers, a cap and a pea coat, for the colder seasons. In these functional folds of fabric she hid her few personal effects.
One of Elizabeth’s keepsakes was a letter her mother had pushed into her hand, over a decade ago, when they had parted. Elizabeth was grateful that she’d learned to read at a young age. Her grandmother, who had been a governess in her youth, had been a good and patient teacher. Elizabeth no longer looked at her mother’s familiar writing with its careful slants and loops. She knew it by heart, having memorized the whole thing on her long journey from New York to London. The last few years she had kept it in an envelope to stop its poor condition from worsening. It had started to split along the line where it had originally been folded. She feared it was irrevocably damaged from being steeped in the salty sea air, as she crossed the Atlantic. It would inevitably crumble into dust. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
She tried not to think about her family, whether or not they had become dust in the biblical or the vampiric sense. Neither, she hoped and it was likely they were safe. Her mother had at least understood how dangerous vampires where. Elizabeth’s own father, after surviving the horrors of the Civil War, had been killed by a stray fledgling. It had meant that, Mrs Summers had been predisposed to understanding the importance of Elizabeth’s possible destiny as slayer. It allowed her, reluctantly, to hand over her nine year old girl to the Watcher’s Council. They then decided it was best for all involved if all further ties were severed between her and her family. She doubted that was part of the agreement they’d struck with her mother.
Elizabeth’s other family possessions were: a birthday card, which her little sister had made and delicately decorated with pressed buttercups and wild violets; and a silver wishbone ring from her mother. She had taken the card because she thought it was pretty and it reminded her of little Dawn. The ring was given to Elizabeth, as she was bundled into a carriage headed towards the New York Harbor. She did not let go of it until it was absolutely necessary.
When she’d tried to wear the ring, it had been too big to go on any of her fingers, even now it was. So she had hung it around her neck with a thick piece of twine to fashion it into a necklace. She had continued to wear it until her fifteenth year, until it had become a liability.
During her first real fight, a vampire had clutched at the piece of metal, and used it to wrench her head to one side. The string had thankfully snapped as she felt the sting of teeth grazing her throat. When she had killed the creature and its remains settled on the soil, she found her ring. It had almost become a trophy for her would be murderer, a gruesome conversation piece it would have used to celebrate her demise. She had kept it secure in her room ever since. Now she wore a practical cross.
Elizabeth then packed her small telescope and her copy of In Memoriam. The first had been a gift from Amelia Crowley. Amelia was a practicing witch and the widow of Elizabeth’s first watcher Mr Crowley. He had trained her only when she was a potential. He had died of natural causes a few months before she was called. Amelia had been the only constant presence in Elizabeth’s life since she came to London. She had taught her all the constellations of the stars, as well as a few simple protection and healing spells, unfortunately Elizabeth didn’t have the knack for anything more complex.
Wyndam had allowed Elizabeth — because he couldn’t come up with a good justification against it — to see Amelia. It was all the socializing he permitted her outside his remit — as far as he was aware. She had made a few contacts and fewer friends over the years. Her two closest friends were Francesca and Henry. They had given her the book of Tennyson’s poetry last Christmas.
The couple owed a bookshop, which had a secret occult section in the back. She had met the two of them when she saved them from a hunter, whose clientele had a taste for werewolf meat. It was how they’d met too.
Elizabeth hid their existence from Wyndam because she knew, from experience, that he was against her having friendships of any kind. He believed a slayer should be alone but for her watcher, and apparently Charlie by proxy. Heaven forbid Wyndam put himself in any actual danger, when he could pay someone else to do it for him.
Francesca and Henry lived their lives the best they could. They kept others safe during the full moon by locking themselves away in a custom-built cage in Amelia’s cellar. Elizabeth understood what it was like to be them. She sometimes felt her own humanity slipped away during the night and returned at dawn. Werewolves at least got a reprieve. A slayer rarely arrived to a new morning without first bloodying the darkness.
Elizabeth’s second trunk was heavier than the first. In order to shut it, she had to sit on its lid until its clasps gave a thunk and a click. She had put all her weapons in it: her stakes, knives, an axe, a small broadsword, holy water and a few boxes of matches. Matches always did in a pinch, especially if the demon had been drinking spirits, the bottled kind; there had been an incident which had called for that distinction.
After Elizabeth finished packing, she took all her things down to the main foyer. She didn’t see a single member of the household and she could only assume Wyndam hadn’t seen fit to telling anyone of her departure.
As she waited, she heard Jemima Wyndam rushing around on the upstairs landing with her Dachshund puppy in tow. The dog’s claws scraped across the wooden floorboards as it lost its purchase during the relentless pursuit of a thumping rubber ball. Then the girls sighed with complaint as her new governess tried to persuade her to go to bed.
When that drama finally came to a close, Elizabeth heard Mildred and Isabella hushed tones as they talked about Robert, the lad who brought the coal. Apparently, according to Mildred, the boy had taken a liking to Wyndam’s eldest daughter Sarah, who had recently become engaged to Master Pryce, another member of the Watchers Council. It seemed watchers, like everyone else, arranged matches among their own ranks. The two women were sure things would come to a bad end, but only for the boy. Sarah was in no trouble at all. She was too shrewd on all matters, especially when pertaining to the heart. Elizabeth thought snidely that Sarah would have made an excellent watcher, if only they would allow women into their club.
It was then quiet around her, except for the sound of the aging house creaking, as it cooled with the approaching night.
Elizabeth knew that everyone would go on without her, with no second thought given to her. There was a difference between being aware of a place’s rhythms and being a part of them. She had never belonged there. But she had to believe she was going somewhere better. It had to be.
Elizabeth hoisted her belongings into the back of the carriage. She grimaced; her sharp movement jarred the broken ribs which hadn’t quite mended from the night before. She’d considered asking Charlie for help with the heavy trunks — he had long since stopped with such token gestures. He’d accepted she was far stronger than him. She’d heal up soon enough.
The slight injury was from a skirmish she’d gotten into with an elegantly dressed female vampire. Elizabeth had been distracted by its vibrant lavender dress. The demon hadn’t suffered with the same problem; a slayer needed to be able to blend in with a crowd, so Elizabeth had taken to dressing shabbily, in coarse, men’s clothes. She was always in bland tones.
Her adversary had struck out at Elizabeth before she’d had time to spot the dress’s large frilly bustle — dead give away. That type of dress had stopped being in vogue a decade ago. An out-of-date style was a sign that someone was undead, though she had heard bigger bustles were unfortunately making a comeback. Her own preference was for a more streamlined look, less of the bulk — maybe she’d just slay all the fashion-forward fiends and really send out a message. Still, she’d have to remain vigilant, not solely slaying from that assumption. It would be awful to accidentally kill a human for such a trivial reason as outdated garments.
In the middle of the brawl, Elizabeth’s cap had tumbled off and revealed her long brown hair. The vampire had sneered at discovering her assailant was a girl, but Elizabeth ignored the jibes. Her costume, after all, meant freedom. In the guise of a boy, she could walk through the roughest boroughs of London during the middle of the night with little harassment. She felt like a Shakespearean maid disguised, passing smoothly through masculine spheres otherwise denied to her. Those sorts of plays tended to be comedies, whereas her existence seemed more aligned with a tragedy.
She was more buoyant now, elated even, to be away from Wyndam, but their early conversation had left her with the need for violence thrumming through her veins. She would patrol later, when she was free from being fastened into the confines of her favourite dress, but would avoid all altercations until then.
Her dress was one she didn’t often get to wear. Its bodice was a dark blue, with a delicate row of buttons reaching from her throat to the dress's teal skirt. The skirt was decorated with a brocade of red flowers, and it flared slightly at her hips. Charlie had approved of the look. He quipped that his social standing would be better after carting her around in all her fine frippery, instead of her being in her usual character of street urchin — who had the intolerable habit of manking up his back seats when she was covered in blood and/or slime.
The carriage slowed down at a corner. Elizabeth hoped Charlie wasn’t stopping for a demon she‘d need to dispatch because, really, being covered in gore wasn’t the kind of first impression she wanted make on her new watcher and his household. This time she wanted to be liked, or at the very least tolerated. Luckily, there was no trouble; just a man asking Charlie for directions to Brixton.
When they reached Clapham Common, the moon was full and clear. She preferred the moon on evenings like these, when it wasn’t obscured by clouds. It was beautiful, and on a practical level it lessened her chances of accidentally killing a werewolf, if she mistook it for a hell beast. When it was cloudy, it was impossible, at first glance, to tell them apart.
Charlie turned the horses off from the Common and onto a leafy street lined with comfortable, middle-class houses. When they came to a stop, Charlie hopped down from his seat. He came around and opened her door sedulously, instead of throwing it open like he usual would, and gave her a comically deep bow. Elizabeth laughed at his antics as she emerged onto the street.
A rust colored cloud slid across the moon’s face, subduing it for a moment. Then the sky was clear once more.
Charlie nodded towards a three story home squashed between two others. Elizabeth’s eyes were drawn to one of the house's first floor windows, unadorned with curtains. A candle’s light glowed on the glass; she thought she saw the shape of a figure there but the light shrouded it.
“Here you are,” Charlie announced, regaining her attention with the slight catch in his voice.
She thanked him, then she went to gather her belongs from the carriage to give him a moment to collect himself. She had learned, over the years, that he was a sentimentalist. He was delicate on the matter, and it was best to jest about it or ignore it altogether. This time she didn’t feel like joking.
Their farewell wasn’t as difficult on Elizabeth, because of the many nights she'd thought she'd been saying her final goodbye to him. She would be going to face some unnamed or named horror — some who had increasingly grandiose titles. (Who really had the patience for some demon calling itself the Lord of all the Darker Realms and the Terror Infernos of the Deeper Hells, anyway? Not her. She had separated its pompous head from its scaly shoulders before it got another word out.) She would wonder when she left Charlie how long he would wait for her before giving her up on her for dead. The whole night? She never let him know how close she’d come to death, or even when she had been grievously injured. Amelia was the one she confided in, and mostly because she could help with magic. Elizabeth always hid her last possible words to him by suffixing them with a smile and a quick see you soon. It had worked so well that this was their first parting he had felt to be true.
He trudged down the small front garden to the house and rapped his knuckles against the door.
A skinny boy of about fourteen answered the door. He nodded quickly as Charlie spoke to him. Elizabeth didn’t hear what was said, but the boy replied before he disappeared back behind the door. Charlie turned back towards her, shrugged, and rolled his eyes skyward.
While they waited, she walked over towards Charlie’s two cart horses, Friar and Tuck. She would miss them too. She rubbed her hand behind Friar’s ear. He was the more reserved of the two and, after a moment, he butted Elizabeth’s hand away with a snort from his flared nostrils. She then petted Tuck in the exact same way. He nudged at the slayer with his muzzle so that he could rest his huge head on her shoulder.
“Been too soft on my boys,” Charlie sighed, setting her luggage upright. “They’re not pets, you’ve gone and spoiled them.”
“Oh, I know you,” she told Charlie, and ruffled Tuck’s mane. “There’s a good many carrots and sugar lumps in their futures.”
“I suspected that there might be.” He pulled down his cap and gave her a slow nod. “Just you be careful out there.”
“I will,” he promised. “I stand to be a mite safer, not having to wait around for you all hours of the night.”
Charlie began to climb back up onto his seat.
Elizabeth looked back towards the house; an unfamiliar woman stood at the door. She looked to be about in her mid-thirties, and was a great deal taller than Elizabeth. Her hands were clasped in front of her like she was wearing gauntlets from a suit of armour, protective but ornamental. She waited patiently for Elizabeth, who watched as Charlie settled himself onto his cushion. He then whistled his horses into motion, and she watched until they disappeared out of sight.
Elizabeth dragged her two cases towards the front door, across a path decorated like a skewed chessboard.
“Hello, you must be Miss Summers,” the woman greeted Elizabeth warmly.
“Yes, that would be me. It’s a pleasure to meet you…”
“It’s Margaret,” she supplied, her face unfurrowing as a smile bounded forward. “Well, let’s take a look at you. You’re a tiny thing to be fighting vampires, are you not? I bet you surprise them, once you’re kicking them in the face.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened; she wasn’t used to someone being so vocal about her calling.
“Oh, we’re not shy around here about the supernatural,” Margaret explained. “My own father was half Lister demon, though possibly only one-eighth, if rumours be believed.”
“I’ve never heard of Listers before,” Elizabeth confessed, as she began to move her trunks.
“Oh, they’re perfectly peaceful demons. They have a greyish complexion but tend to go unnoticed by most slayers, sticking to the shadows the way they do. Now my mother–” Margaret paused and waved Elizabeth away from her cases. “Oh, you can leave those. I’ll have Gregory take them up to your room for you.”
Elizabeth thanked Margaret, feeling it was better not to interrupt her speech with a refusal.
Margaret finally took a step to the side to let the Elizabeth enter the house. “Please don’t think me rude not inviting you in proper. It’s the house rules, you see. Can’t be letting you in if you’ve gone and got yourself turned into a vampire on your travels, can we?” Margaret looked back to make sure Elizabeth was following her up the staircase. “I’ll let Mr Pratt know you’ve arrived safely. He’s in his library, as usual,” she gave Elizabeth an easy smile and shook her head. “He’d forget the world if there was no one to remind him about it.”
When they reached the first landing, Margaret put a reassuring hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder. “He’s a kind sir. Nothing to fret on,” she told Elizabeth, before she knocked on the door in front of them.
“Please do come in,” Mr Pratt said, in a polished but soft voice.
Margaret went in. She didn’t fully close the door behind her, which meant Elizabeth could still hear them.
“Miss Summers has arrived.”
“Thank you, Margaret. If you could show her–”
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” Margaret cut him off. Elizabeth assumed it didn’t matter whether Mr Pratt minded or not. “The poor girl must be exhausted, slayer or not, from all the upheaval and her journey here. So, don’t go running her ragged — I know what you watchers are like.”
Elizabeth leaned forward on her tiptoes — enhanced balance to the rescue — until she could see a slice of her new watcher’s profile through the small gap in the door.
He was much younger than she was expecting him to be, though she was probably a lot older than he’d anticipated. Elizabeth knew she had already lived longer than most slayers but perhaps the council wanted to put an end to that record. Maybe they’d given her an inexperienced watcher in another overly elaborate attempt to kill her.
She tried to read the emotions on his face. She had been prepared to see, at the very least, disapproval for Margaret’s imprudent words, but instead his head was tilted at an angle as he regarded her with a combination of perplexity and humour.
“Yes, I suppose we can be trying, even at the best of times,” he agreed, fighting not to let his mouth curl out of its serious shape. “It is fortuitous then that you have reminded me of my nature, so that I do not make a complete bore of myself.”
“It’s just as well,” she scolded him affectionately. “Miss Summers?” Margaret called out, flinging open the door, and almost walking straight into Elizabeth. Margaret shot her arms out to steady them both and turned Elizabeth towards the open door.
Elizabeth entered the room, which wasn’t exactly messy, but cluttered compared to Wyndam’s study. Books and papers were piled on various surfaces, overflowing from their allotted shelves. The carpet had a prominent ink stain on it. Pratt stood neatening the work on his desk, seemingly trying to align the papers perfectly; it was a task he seemed to be finding impossible.
He looked up at Elizabeth as she made her way towards him. She held her head high, thinking it best to appear confident, hiding any weakness until she knew who she was dealing with. It was vital for her to quickly recognise a friend or an enemy; choosing poorly in her line of work could mean the difference between being alive or not.
Their eyes only met for a brief moment before his darted away.
Pratt moved forward to greet her, but ended up hitting his knee hard against the corner of his desk, which he then clutched to remain balanced. He managed to knock over his precisely arranged papers, and a nearby candle wobbled dangerously. Elizabeth’s fast reflexes allowed her to stop the candle from falling over and setting everything ablaze.
She found herself wincing with sympathy, but he seemed not to have noticed the averted disaster. He was biting down on his bottom lip, and possibly holding back a few choice curses.
Pratt unclenched his tensed jaw, running his left hand through his increasingly untidy hair. Composure more or less back, he held out his right hand, as if to shake hers — then drew back with embarrassment. She heard his foot accidentally hit his table’s leg and he blushed at his repeated mistake.
“Please forgive me, I am quite sorry,” he stuttered, and straighten his black cravat. “It was indecorous of me to assume to take your hand.” Pratt drew both his hands back behind him as if confining them into a straight jacket.
Elizabeth noticed for the first time that Pratt was entirely dressed in black. He was in mourning then. She wondered who he’d lost? How long had he been without color? Parent, sibling, friend, lover, or a wife? It was not her place to pry.
“I’m not offended,” she promised him.
They both seemed to be finding it difficult to know the correct etiquette between watcher and slayer. It wasn't an attachment recognised by the rest of society. Who had the power between them — physically there was no doubt there — him or her? When Mr Crowley trained her as a potential, he’d treated her as if he were her kindly uncle. Wyndam, at best, had treated her as if she were his lowliest servant, at worst a millstone, a lifeless instrument with only one use.
“What I meant, that is...” he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “What I should have said was that it’s a pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Miss Summers.”
Elizabeth still hadn’t decided on her opinion of Mr Pratt. Was he was trustworthy? Probably. Was she pleased to meet him? Yes. But would that change? Possibly. She took too long to reply, and a flash of hurt acceptance crossed his face.
“Your former watcher was Sir Wyndam?” Pratt asked.
“He was,” Elizabeth replied, sitting herself down in a chair in front of Pratt.
She must be careful of what she revealed about Wyndam. The two of them could be close friends, for all she knew, but she doubted it, which gave her courage to test the waters.
“I’m led to believe he requested an early retirement. I suspect it was because of a near scrape he had with an infant grappler demon,” she claimed, her mouth slanted slightly upwards, undermining her neutral tone.
Pratt looked down intently at his ink-stained fingers. Elizabeth began to regret her derisive words, until she noticed he was trying to conceal the thinnest of smirks. The council had probably drummed it into his head to brook no insolence from a slayer towards any watcher. But Pratt probably did know him, and Wyndam obviously wasn’t someone who could inspired loyalty or good graces in any being possessing a mind.
“I do appreciate,” she continued, “that running and lung capacity somewhat diminishes from sedentariness, and as one ages and remains human. Enough.”
“Yes, indeed.” His hand covered his mouth to hide either a chuckle or a cough. “I do imagine that’s so,” he agreed, with his composure restored.
“I meant not disrespect,” she said lightly.
“I took your words in the manner they were intended, but I took no offence to them.”
Elizabeth raised her head. She meet Pratt’s eyes unflinchingly, and he surprised her by holding the contact for longer than was appropriate. He still looked away first though. His long eyelashes flickered down over his strikingly blue eyes.
“I’m pleased that you understand.”
“Um, yes,” he mumbled, fiddling with his shirt cuffs. His head snapped up. “Apologies, how rude you must think me. I did not — did you have any supper before your journey here? I could ask Margaret to make up a plate for you. We have bread, cheeses, and possibly some cold cuts. It would be no–”
Elizabeth held up her hand to stop him. “Thank you, but I think we should begin. Could you show me to the nearest graveyard?”
Big thank you to the amazing OffYourBird for betaering for me.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Earlier that day...
William Pratt sat in the Watchers Council library, August was drawing to an end. The first flushes of Autumn had appeared. It was the time of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’; the rosy glow of a fire in a hearth, after being outside chilled by a mild breeze. William felt disconnected from all the Keatsian excesses of the passing seasons.
His mother had died almost nine months ago, and since then, time had slipped by leaving him either feeling flat or frozen with sudden bursts of pain. He couldn’t stop his recollection of her last breath visible on the crisp January air as she laid in her sick bed surrounded by burnished festive trimmings, yet to be taken down. The decorations had been put up during Christmas as they tried to raise her ailing spirits. Since that day, he had buried himself in Council matters, trying to keep himself within his own definition of sanity. He’d had no solace, or vice to escape into — unless poetry counted, but even that too had been ransacked of meaning; all its depths drained away.
William still didn’t feel like himself but, earlier that morning, he’d felt the first sparks of life returning to his soul. There had been the desire to break from routine, to abandon his desk. He’d thought of taking a short stroll to St. James’s Park, to enjoy the warmth of the sun on his skin, before retreating to some secluded spot of shade to read his battered copy of The Sonnets for the Portuguese. Hopefully, it would be better than his previous outing there, which abruptly ended when one of the park’s famed pelicans attacked him over a jam sandwich. Green Park was by far the safer option, even more so the library where he decided to stay.
It had become increasingly daunting for him to be out in public. The mourning suit he wore lead to strangers awkwardly averting their eyes or asking probing questions while feigning sympathy. He detested the formal customs and aesthetic surrounding grief; for one’s parents it was nine months of deep mourning followed by a further three. Who had decided sorrow could be timetabled? The agony ebbed and raised of its own volition. Soon, he would be back wearing colours as if all were perfectly well and fine, whether they were or not.
Margaret had taken down the heavy black curtains from all the rooms in the house, except one. She claimed they needed cleaning, and better to do it now, because they’d be a devil to dry in the colder months. He’d suspected she thought a little daylight would do him a world of good; once the last pair of curtains were draped over her arm, she admitted as much. She added, it would also put an end to folk thinking William had become a vampire, with all his darkened rooms and paleness. No, she didn’t want to entertain a bunch of watchers when they came to inspect the household for bites and doused them all with holy water as a precaution.
The curtains remained untouched in Anne Pratt’s bedroom; the small clock on the mantelpiece had been stopped after her death was pronounced. Light and time had been suspended in her quarters.
William had spent the first half of his morning working on a small prophecy from the scrolls of Aberjian. His Proto-Bantu was a bit rusty, so he’d muddled through only translating the first few words. It was one of the languages he needed to brush up on, like he had with German last year — he’d wanted to read Goethe’s works untranslated. His Russian was much stronger; he’d torn through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with relative ease. It helped that the first non-human language he’d learned as a boy at the Watchers Academy was that of the Glarghk Guhl Kashmas’nik demons, which had its roots in Russian.
He had then taken a break from the scrolls to help Henry Giles transcribe a spell. A spell which might make it possible to summon Dinza the Demigoddess of all the Lost Things— demigods always seemed to have long-winded names. It had been rumoured that the cults of Demeter and Persephone were able to bring her forth from the Underworld. William found himself confused when he translated the words for lettuce and then lamb offal ; it had turned out to be an ancient soup recipe.
It had hammered home to William that he hadn’t worked on anything of importance recently. The last thing he’d worked on with any true merit was last November. He had helped the current watcher and slayer with an exceedingly vicious Vodyanoi demon. The creature had taken up residency under a bridge in Shoreditch, drowning the locals and enthralling some of them into doing its bidding. He had translated a spell which weakened the demon by releasing the poor souls under its control. When he had handed his work to Sir Wyndam — well, when the older man had snatched it from his hands — he’d given William a curt nod and sent him on his way. It was a few days later, in the library stacks, when William had heard of the slayer’s success. He’d been pleased to have finally helped in the fight against the forces of darkness in some vital way.
The library’s heavy entrance doors thumped shut. William’s head snapped up. He spotted Milton Sirk striding towards the front desk and his heart sank like it was another victim at the hands of a Vodyanoi demon, being dragged down into the murky Thames.
Milton was in his final year of training at the Academy and well known, but not for his academics, which were middling at best; he was influential, and to be avoided at all costs.
Henry noticed William’s sudden paralysis and a look of understanding crossed his face when he too spotted Milton. One of them would be compelled into doing a favour for him. He was always after help with his studies, or he’d want to borrow a fairly substantial sum of money. Neither William or Henry was really in a position where they could tell him no because, unfortunately, as it was with the rest of wider society, who your father was or wasn't mattered a great deal. Milton didn’t use his connection as a blunt instrument — there were plenty of those who did — but he had charm enough to give his marks the illusion of free will.
William felt a wave of self-loathing wash over him; how easily he’d submit to someone from a superior social station than himself. And not out of any ambition for political power or to rise in social rankings. It was much worse than that; it was simply because it was the path of the least resistance. He was a polite coward, desperate to avoid all minor conflicts. He knew the faster he surrendered to the Council’s unwritten rules, the sooner he would be left alone to his work — perhaps he’d end up translating an ancient Babylonian text on how to make the perfect stew.
“William Pratt!” Milton bellowed.
William’s teeth gritted together.
“He’s going to find us,” Henry whispered in desperation, from behind a huge book he’d grabbed from the shelf behind them. “So, be a good chap and do the decent thing and see what he wants. Then at least we won’t both get caught in his ludicrous web of lunacy.”
“There is the remote chance that he may give up looking for us and leave,” William insisted, though they both knew this tactic hadn’t ever worked in the past. This time might be different because Mr Griffith, the head librarian, was reprimanding Milton for raising his voice. Unfortunately, Griffith didn’t throw Milton out of the library. William had also greeted the librarian that morning and, once the commotion settled down, Griffith would probably inform Milton on William’s and Henry’s whereabouts.
“Sirk will not give up, he never gives up. I wager he wants a loan. Frampton saw him lose a fortune on a boxing match at The Lamb & Flag last week,” Henry hissed urgently, holding a closed fist over his book and clumsily jabbing at the air.
Henry had often had the lowest marks at the Academy for mandatory field work and combat skills. William didn’t relish violence himself, but he was a proficient fighter, having learnt from a young age under his father’s tutelage.
“It’s much too early for him to want help with his dissertation,” Henry continued. “He has the tendency of leaving tasks until the last moment possible.”
Milton walked around the corner towards the two watchers. When he spotted them, he waved and made his way over.
“Be brave,” Henry encouraged William, from where he was safely tucked behind a book. “I will write a beautiful ode to you, extolling all your virtues. All I ask is that you spare me now, and that you never write a poem for me in return.”
“So, here’s where you two fellows have been hiding yourselves,” Milton grinned, his eyes crinkled in their corners. “Did you not hear me calling to you? Old windbag Griffith gave me a good scolding for it.”
“I am quite sorry, we did not hear you,” William cleared his throat — he was terrible at bluffing. He was certain to be blushing. “We’re having to focus all our energies on translating the lost writings of the Demeter and Persephone cult. It is a very important–.”
“The Council have done perfectly fine without those writings for thousands of years,” Milton said, waving his hands over their work. “A little longer won’t make the slightest bit of difference I suppose, will it?”
“I suppose not,” William agreed.
“And, if it’s as important as you say, they’ll simply need to get more people working on it right away.”
Henry scribbled something down in Greek and he angled it so that William would be able to read it: important for a lettuce. Soup on! William felt a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth but he managed to remain composed.
The effort not to laugh must have appeared as worry on his face because Milton became serious.
“Pratt, just forget about it all for now. Giles here is quite capable of handling the situation on his own for a while.” Milton tipped his head towards William, his voice lowered. “My father sent me. You’re wanted at the monthly meeting.”
“Me?” William spluttered, unable to stop the words from tumbling out of his mouth, lacking his usual deferential tone. “Why in heavens would they want me to attend one of their meetings?”
William was certain he hadn’t done anything wrong. Or had he? He scraped the surface of his memory, but he couldn’t recall anything to warrant such attention.
“My father wasn’t particularly forthcoming on the matter,” Milton admitted with a raised eyebrow. He seemed entertained by William’s deviation from his usual professionalism. “Nor, can I claim that he is partial to being kept waiting. So away we must go.”
“Yes, right,” William conceded, getting to his feet, which felt like they were locked to the floor.
William collected his work from the table in front of him. He hid his Elizabeth Barrett Browning book underneath the leaves of his notes; he didn’t need for his superiors — on top of everything else — to see his choice of reading materials. Watchers were meant to be too practical-minded for poetry, but William had always felt that many prophecies and spells were lyrical, often metaphorical in nature. The only argument as he could see being made was: that a watcher must be capable of drawing a distinction between reality and fantasy. No trifling with illusions, even if poetry spoke closer to William’s own experience of the world than anything else.
The men at the top of the Council were men of procedure and ledgers. Spells and slayers means to an end. What could such men want with him?
William’s footsteps trailed behind Milton’s long strides. They made their way down the winding staircase, from the back of the library to the coffee room on the ground floor.
William had always avoided this part of the Watchers Council building whenever it was possible. It was a place where a watcher went to engage in small talk, and forge alliances. William found such interactions painful, which forced him into a childlike shyness. He got his work translating only through his aptitude and patience for it. Being a creature of habit meant his colleagues knew he could be found in the library, which he now realised was a deeply flawed system.
When they reached the large room, Milton threw himself down into a leather armchair by the unlit fire and lounged there like a contented house cat.
William debated on whether or not to take a seat himself. How long would he be kept waiting? He hugged his poetry and papers to his chest.
Was he standing correctly? He felt his pose was unnatural. How did others compose themselves into such perfect postures? He feared being noticed, observed, ridiculed.
“Pratt, you are making me feel ill at ease.” Milton clucked his tongue in amusement and waved his hand at the chair at his side. “Which is not a feat easily done, so I believe that congratulations are in order, but please do take a seat, old boy.”
William detested when other Watchers would call him old boy ; it hinted at all the worst traits of youth and age. It wasn’t distinct enough to be a nickname — he didn’t feel he was sufficiently interesting enough to have gained one of those — but it was frequently used against him. Not a name solely reserved for him, but someone in the Academy had used it it once, with a certain derisive tone, which had spread through their ranks. Milton at least never used it with malice; William still hated it.
But, instead of voicing his opinion, William apologised for his odd behaviour and promptly dropped himself down into the chair. He loosened his tight grip on his papers and balanced them precariously on his knees.
He focused on trying not to tap his left foot too much, just enough to assuage his rising nerves, and to burn away his excess energy.
“I will be back in a moment, Pratt,” Milton assured him, tapping William’s knee to draw his attention. “No need to fret, everyone around here’s perfectly friendly. After I have spoken with my father, I’ll introduce you around.” He smiled in an attempt to ease William’s mind. Then he headed over to an older, well-dressed gentleman who must have been Sir Reginald Sirk. He’d been elected a few weeks ago as the new head of the Watchers Council.
There were a few other watchers milling around the room, and more sat chatting easily with one another over steaming cups of coffee and smouldering cigars. William couldn’t identify a single one of them by face or name.
He attempted to look busy, to seem like he belonged. He skimmed through his notes, though he was no longer capable of deciphering a single word, even those in his own handwriting.
Heat prickled across William’s neck, as if he were already under the direct scrutiny of his superiors. Why had their attention focused on him? Perhaps he’d mistranslated a text? No, he always double-checked everything. Perhaps under the duress of grief he’d slipped up somewhere? They’d had him work on some potent spells last week. Had it been that incantation to repeal Anharran demons? Had it instead summoned a multitude of them which were now feasting on all life from Balham to Islington? Or had he failed to sufficiently genuflect to those above him?
William knew he’d been foolish enough to believe that hard work and dedication was enough to get by with at the Council. He’d already bowed and scraped to them more than his self-respect would comfortably permit him to do so. Speaking false, flattering words was tantamount to a lie and an inability to distinguish between reality and fiction. Such behaviour was bad in a watcher. And he wanted so much to be better than that.
Big thank you to the amazing OffYourBird for betaering for me.
By the time William lifted his head more Watchers had arrived to the Council’s Coffee room, and two of them had settled in the seats across from him. He recognised one of them as Sir Wyndam. William burrowed further into his armchair, hoping to go unnoticed by them.
Their conversation was loud enough that William overheard it. He was invisible enough that no one cared whether he listened or not.
“I told Reginald Sirk I have simply gone above and beyond with that girl,” Sir Wyndam sighed, dragging his hand through his greying hair. “When I agreed to take the post, well, I didn’t expect her to survive this long. I’ve done my due diligence and devoted five years of my life, no less.”
“Of course,” the other man agreed, as if he’d heard the words before. “No one could accuse you of not taking your role as watcher seriously.”
“It’s not an easy position either. And, mark my words, she is the most insolent creature I’ve ever met. Ill bred and bad-tempered, even for a bloody Colonial,” he sneered. “Yankees don’t recognise their social betters, and the one before mine was a damnable Mick, head full over the bloody Irish question. What’s needed is a proper English girl who knows her place.”
“On her knees?” the other watcher leered. “I wouldn’t mind giving your girl a go myself, if a slayer could be broken in, that is.”
“Really, Percival,” Wyndam tutted. He slowly rotated his brandy on the table in front of him, making the ice cubes clink against the glass. “One would have to have a proclivity towards bestiality. They’re barely human.”
William sunk his teeth into his lip, keeping in words he mustn’t let out. He glared down at his lap until his sight lost focus; if he’d possessed the power of pyrokinesis, the parchments he held would have gone up in searing flames from his fixed gaze. At the Academy, he’d seen it done with a long loathing look. A small boy from William’s dormitories had done it. He’d been brutally bullied by a Prefect, even more so than William. The boy had focused his attention on his tormentor’s bed and set it on fire with him in it. The older boy had survived, and only slightly singed. William lacked such abilities. He smoothed out the creases in his papers from his powerful grip.
“It’s simply appalling,” Wyndam grimaced, holding his hand over his heart, “to have that little harlot under the same roof as my daughters. I’ve asked since the blasted Cruciamentum to be rid of her, and now that Sir Travers has stepped down it might happen.”
William spotted Milton waving over to him to join himself and his father. He stood cautiously at the same moment Wyndam and Percival took to their feet too.
Wyndam narrowed his eyes at William before he and his obnoxious companion strode towards the Sirks. William froze in place. Milton motioned him over again, with the friendly but patronising air of a schoolmaster encouraging a timid schoolboy to join the other children in a game.
When William went over and joined them, he was introduced to the other gentlemen. It went as well as could be expected — a little awkward but nothing discernibly so. Perfunctory handshakes and titles were exchanged. William endured the tight grip of Wyndam’s hand around his own.
“I trust we’ll be seeing you in this afternoon’s meeting, Master Pratt,” Wyndam condescended, though no one else seemed to notice.
As the men turned to go to the meeting room, William was stopped by Reginald Sirk, who’d placed himself in front of William. Had he made a mistake? If they were mocking him, he wasn’t sure of the meaning or purpose of it.
“Thank you, Mr Pratt, for joining us, especially at such short notice.”
“It’s really no trouble at all,” William lied, pretending that he hadn’t been reciting backwards the alphabets of all the languages he knew.
“Still, it was good of you. I suspect that you’ve inherited something of your father’s good character.”
“You knew him?”
“Yes, we were quite good friends. He’s truly missed. He was such a capital fellow and a splendid cricket player out on the green.”
William nodded, though he never remembered his father having a particular fondness for any sport other than fencing. It was likely he didn’t remember Felix Pratt or possibly, after five years, William’s father had been amalgamated with other deceased watchers; but, for whatever reason, Reginald was trying to get on William’s good side.
“My son has told me — well, in all honesty — very little about you, but what he has said highly recommends you.”
“That’s very kind of him.”
“Not at all, he’s prone to speaking his mind.” Reginald gave a brisk laugh which didn’t reach his eyes. “You’re perhaps wondering why I asked him to invite you here?”
“I was curious as to why, yes.” William smiled and hoped it didn’t appear as painfully forced.
“I’m certain you have some inkling,” Reginald coaxed. His nostrils flared and a less than diplomatic look of annoyance crossed his face. “Because, despite our best efforts to keep it under wraps, there have been rumours that Sir Wyndam is to relinquish his role as watcher to the current slayer.”
“I may have heard something,” William admitted. He supposed he wasn’t as unnoticed as he thought. Had Wyndam intended to be overheard?
“It’s highly unusual, I’ll grant you that, but it is true. His tenure as watcher to the current slayer has been a long one,” Reginald lamented. “Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s an honoured position but it can be difficult at times. It takes dedication.”
“I imagine that’s so. I witnessed how seriously my father took training his potential slayers.”
“Exactly,” Reginald pounced on William’s words. “He was a good man, full of integrity and, above all else, committed to the mission.”
That, at least, William knew to be true. He’d been sincere about the cause and the welfare of the girls he’d trained.
William had gone through the same paces as three of his father’s Potentials and shared a camaraderie with Priya and Tamara; Ruth less so. Ruth had taken an instant dislike to William because he’d had the temerity to be born. It had meant that Felix’s and Anne’s attention were no longer hers alone to command. Ruth had been doted on. She was four when she was tracked down by the Council and shortly after joined the Pratt household. Anne had thought she was unable to have children and when Ruth appeared she’d treated her like a daughter, though Anne was kind and loving to all the girls. William had been a surprise.
The girls had been William’s childhood companions and, despite Ruth’s irritation with him, none of them had ridiculed him for any perceived weakness. None of them had been called, but they'd been brave when faced with the possibility.
He’d seen Ruth at Anne’s funeral. At the wake, he had spoken with her and she admitted the relief she felt having not been chosen but also the disappointment. She’d explained she had been like a child waiting for the first snow of the year. There was the anticipation of waking up one morning to find the streets blanketed in white. But as winter retreated without a single snowflake falling, you realised it would never come. She’d told herself that the snow would have soon turned grey and slushy. Her hands would have been sore and numb with the cold, but an epic snowball fight would have been a great lark. It wasn’t meant to be; instead, hers was a slower and safer path to follow.
“One of your father’s girls found work as a nursemaid. She was a godsend to my ailing sister,” Reginald said. “You see, we do take care of our own when they’ve done their bit for the cause. Sir Wyndam will be returning to his studies on combative magics, with our full and unwavering support.”
“That seems fair,” William noted, wishing Reginald would get to the point.
“Milton says you have a knack for translating prophecies and demonic texts,” Reginald said, with a controlled smile. “I feel that’s where your efforts are best suited, but I’m sure you’ll agree we all must muck in, even if it’s unappealing to our sensibilities?”
“You want me to take Wyndam’s place?” William let his question slip. “But I haven’t even trained a potential slayer before.”
“She’s already been trained, and I doubt it would be a long investment of time for you. She’s almost twenty and few make it longer than that.” He patted William on the shoulder. “You’ll need a little time to consider; come speak to me after the meeting. It would be in your best interest to accept, of course. I hope you see that.”
“I will consider it.”
William knew he hadn’t really been given an option. A carrot was being dangled in front of him, and he knew if he refused it the sharp edge of a stick would swiftly come down on his head. If he accepted, the Council would eventually leave him alone to his studies and in relative comfort, but a slayer would have to die first. It made the offer unappealing. She was doomed to die young; could he delay it?
Once Reginald Sirk was out of sight, Milton came back over with a huge grin on his face.
“I take it that the old man delivered the good news to you?” he asked, slapping William on the back as if he were trying to put out a small woodland fire.
William nodded, not knowing what to say.
“But you said yes, didn’t you?” Milton asked, his usually cheerful demeanour slipping. “I assumed it would be something you’d want, Old boy. Six months work, and then you’ll be free to pursue your own interests with less of this bureaucratic rubbish.”
“Yes, I realise that,” William in an even tone.
“Well, she’s rather long in the tooth for a slayer. You’ll be back to your beloved books in no time.”
“Yes, I will.” William realised this was what it felt like to be chosen, and that he hated snow.
William took a hansom cab after the Council meeting — he hoped to never attend another one. The carriage rattled as it moved over some uneven cobblestones. He gripped his knee for balance and battled against the queasy feeling which hadn’t left him since he’s agreed to become watcher to the slayer.
It had progressed so fast. She was being sent to his house that very evening; Wyndam insisted there was no need for further delay. The girl had few belongings, so packing would not be difficult. William cringed at Wyndam’s dismissive attitude, and was surprised that he hadn’t referred to Miss Summers as old girl .
William struggled to open his front door when he arrived home.
Was he ready for his new responsibilities? He’d trained his whole life for this eventuality and had his father’s good example to guide him. Should he feel this uncertain? Morally speaking, of course, his concerns were warranted there, but his anxiety seemed out of line with his profession. Even Henry, by no means a conformist, was more self-assured in his abilities as a watcher. Why had they chosen William? All the men at the meeting had been positively congratulatory over their decision. They hadn’t dwelt on the wrong or right of things. None of them thought to consult the slayer. What did Miss Summers want? Would the upheaval disturb her as it swept everything away from her? He had that feeling himself — so overwhelmed.
He finally wrenched opened the front door, almost colliding with Margaret. She let out a surprised yelp but soon recovered, continuing to dust the banister.
“Mr Pratt, you’re back earlier than I was expecting. I have no lunch prepared.”
“I am sorry for being where I oughtn’t be.”
She waved off his apology with the rag she was using. A few flecks of dust went airborne.
“I have some news,” William informed her, “which may cause you some great inconvenience without much forewarning, to myself included, but we are to take in the slayer.”
“Oh, dear,” Margaret cried covering her mouth. “How did she die? Bless her soul, both the departed and the new.”
“The slayer has not died. It was agreed that I should be her watcher. She’ll be travelling to stay with us this evening.”
“That’s peculiar.” Margaret’s eyes narrowed for a second before her face relaxed back into a smile. She turned back towards her work. “But it’s wonderful. She should have the back room, on the second floor. It’s a lovely view out onto the garden. It will need airing out,” she explained, then turned back towards him, leaning dangerously over the railing. “I’ll still be able to visit my little boy at my mother-in-law’s on Sundays, shan’t I?”
“Yes, of course you will. There’ll be some changes, but that isn’t a promise I would break.”
“Well, a bit of change will do us all some good,” she said, bouncing slightly on her toes. “I’ll need to go down to the market. There’s a hundred more things to do that I haven’t even considered yet.”
“Yes, the Council hasn’t given us much notice.”
“Their way, I suppose. I won’t touch the other back bedroom,” Margaret promised. She unfastened her apron and headed towards the kitchen for her shopping basket.
“Thank you,” he said, drumming his fingers against the wall.
She looked back at him. “Don’t fret, you’ll be a fine watcher. She couldn’t be luckier — unless she wasn’t the slayer. Remember, I’ve worked for a few watchers, so I should know.”
William began sorting through his books. His collection really wouldn’t do — he didn’t even have a copy of Rhinehardt’s Compendium or Hume’s Paranormal Encyclopedia . He’d have to put in a request at the Council library for some of the more salient texts he would need at hand. There wasn’t a proper amount of time to prepare; he should have asked for at least a day, if not a week.
He managed to edit his sprawling list of books onto a more manageable two pages — both sides — though his writing was in small block letters. Further requests could be made later.
Margaret came into the room after she returned, to ask for his opinion on the white and magenta zinnias she had brought for Miss Summers room to add a bit of colour. Margaret held out the potted flower expectantly for his inspection. She’d gotten a good price for them and was exceedingly proud of it. He was too anxious to give extended commentary on them but agreed they were lovely.
Margaret took out a match from her pinafore. She gave him a pointed look for reading in the early evening gloom. “You won’t be a good watcher, straining your eyes in this light.”
She lit the candle on his desk. He admitted it would make it easier to read.
“Very much noted.”
She made sure the candle was secure in its holder and went back to her preparations for Miss Summers arrival.
He distracted himself as he waited, flicking through his father’s copy of The Slayer Handbook , hoping to find some inspiring words jotted down in the book’s margins, but there was nothing there. He had not read the book since his training. It had been harsh and overly antiquated for his taste.
It was clearly different training a new slayer than working with a veteran one. Her knowledge would far outstrip his own on what it was to be the chosen one. She was a superb slayer, from what he had heard, which he doubted had little to do with Wyndam; some brilliant watchers had lost their slayer on their first night out. William assumed his role would be to support Miss Summers’s already established way of operating. He would fall in line with her, not the other way around.
William looked up at the open window, hearing the clicking of hooves on the streets below. The moonlight offered enough illumination for him to see a cart and two horses come to a halt when the driver tugged the reins.
The man jumped down from his seat with a slight wince and applied pressure from clasped palms into the middle of his back to remove an ache. Then he swung open the vehicle’s door, issuing the inhabitant within a theatrical roll of his arm and hunched over in a mock bow.
A respectably dressed woman gracefully descended and warmly laughed. The driver motioned his head towards William’s house.
He realised that it must be Elizabeth Summers.
She tilted her head towards the sky before levelling her eyes with his window. He was certain she couldn’t see him because he had never seen such an unguarded look of contemplation on another’s face before.
The driver broke her concentration and she looked away. There was a pounding fist on the front door. He heard Gregory go to answer it, and Margaret cursing — which he would pretend not to have heard — at the earlier than expected arrival.
Outside, the slayer moved toward the two horses, patting each one of them behind the ear. The second one rested the full weight of its head on her shoulder. Her apparent gentle and affectionate nature saddened and fascinated William. He wasn’t uncertain whether to be relieved or not that endless battles had not hardened her.
“Been too soft on my boys,” William’s thoughts were abandoned with the sudden jarring utterance from the driver. “They’re not pets. You’ve gone and spoiled them.”
“Oh, I know you,” she accused playfully. There was a slight American lilt to her words — if you knew to look for it. “There’s a good many carrots and sugar lumps in their futures.”
William closed his window to give Miss Summers some privacy. He picked up The Slayer Handbook and at last re-shelved it, knowing he wouldn’t be needing it.
Big thank you to the amazing OffYourBird for betaering for me.
Mr Pratt had agreed to take Elizabeth out to a nearby cemetery but had suggested it could be postponed until the following evening if she needed time to settle in. She’d insisted there was no reason to wait. Elizabeth didn’t want to be dogged by the guilt of abandoning her duties even for one night, but she didn’t admit that to him. The last time she’d been forced to miss a patrol, she’d been ill with a fever which was making its rounds across the city. As she’d laid in her sick bed, a Der Kindestod had murdered five children from the rows of houses across from her. She’d never spoken to them but had often seen them outside playing with marbles or jacks. Their lively games had reminded her of her own childhood with her little sister. The children’s deaths had hit Elizabeth hard. She knew it wasn’t in her power to save everyone, not day after day — though she had often saved the world, usually around May, when something evil had apocalyptic notions — but she always tried. There was always at least one person she could save.
She didn’t tell Pratt about the pent-up energy she needed to release either; it felt very personal. She was cautious about telling a watcher too much. The rare times Wyndam had joined her on a patrol had made her inhibited; he would either gawk at her with sick fascination, as if she was a terrier tearing into a rat, or criticize her every move when she held back. She wasn’t sure which she had detested more. Elizabeth wondered if her new watcher would leer at her for blood sport or pick away at her fighting techniques. Was there a third option?
It would have probably been wiser to simply ask Pratt for directions to where the local vampires congregated instead of asking for his company, but she was curious about him. She wanted to know if he was willing to join her and really be in her world, or if he’d stay safely shielded in the confines of his study. He’d chosen to be at her side.
When their conversation came to a natural conclusion, she had expected him to dismiss her so that she could change into something more appropriate for slaying. She’d watched as he absentmindedly drummed his long fingers against his desk. Elizabeth often did a similar motion when she was faced with the prospect of grueling battle. Charlie would make fun of her for it. He said it was her tell and made her promise never to take to playing cards.
“Do you wish to leave right away?” Pratt asked her at last.
She looked down at her corseted waist and back at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, right, I’m sorry,” he stammered, “I did not consider your… I will wait here while you prepare and then we may leave.”
“I won’t be long.”
When Elizabeth left the room, Margaret was hovering close by. She’d clearly been listening in — not that Elizabeth blamed her after having done the same herself. Margaret didn’t seem concerned at being caught. She didn’t seem intimidated by having a slayer in her house either. Instead, she gifted Elizabeth with an almost conspiratorial grin, which was something Elizabeth hadn’t received in her previous household. They’d been afraid of her. Terrified of her in the way she’d seen people be when they’d come face-to-face with a wounded soldier begging for alms on the street. They felt chastised by another’s sacrifice, and wanted to deny their relief that it wasn’t them. It would never be them . They pretended she must have sinned in some unknowable way and deserved her unfortunate fate. That was their trick: imagine the world less chaotic in its doling out of cruelty.
Pratt was anxious about her but it appeared to be nervousness over wanting her to have a good first impression of him. She found it odd.
Usually, when she met someone new it was after saving them from a vampire, and by then manners tended to be erased in a rush of primal fear which dispensed of the need for small talk. The majority would flee during the fight. The non-instantaneous-runaway-ers would wait and then numbly thank her before they too would run away. It meant she felt out of practice when it came to general socializing.
Margaret handed Elizabeth a lit candle and led her up the stairs to her new bedroom. It was much nicer than her last one. Thankfully, it wasn’t another attic. It probably didn’t suffer from damp in the winter or the occasional rat either.
Elizabeth breathed in the night air from the open window as it mingled with the scent of freshly laundered sheets and fresh flowers. A thick patchwork blanket was folded carefully at the end of her bed — preparation for the colder nights to come.
She decided to wait until morning to unpack. Her trunks had been placed at the foot of her bed. It didn’t appear they’d been opened in her absence, because the only way to close them again required great strength. It meant she had some privacy.
Margaret’s knuckles tapped a staccato tune on the windowsill before she sat down on its cushioned bench. She reached up to the window’s lock, slipped out its key and handed it to Elizabeth.
“It opens out onto the back garden,” Margaret explained. “And there’s a tree you’ll have no trouble climbing, so you can come and go as you please. Just mind none of the neighbors catch sight of you.”
“I’m very stealthy. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I believe that. Turn around,” Margaret instructed Elizabeth, with a turn of her finger.
“You don’t intend to go out in a corset, do you?” she inquired, turning Elizabeth around and beginning to loosen the stays on her dress. “Mine hampers me just cleaning, so I don’t imagine they’re ideal for chasing vampires around the city.”
“Perhaps not. I wouldn’t want to try.”
“A very wise choice.”
Elizabeth took a greedy gulp of air into her lungs. The pressure finally eased off her sore ribs as the corset’s squeezing hold slackened.
“See, isn’t it better?”
“Much,” Elizabeth breathed. Her tensed muscles relaxed.
“How was it?” Margaret asked, her voice solemn in a way Elizabeth hadn’t suspected it could be.
“Before?” Elizabeth clarified needlessly. How could she even begin to explain the past five years? She’d tried not to dwell on her experiences, even while they were happening. All she had were fragments of memories, too small and sharp to handle; she’d given up on trying to piece them together. When you escaped a hell you ran, you didn’t look back. “It was bad.”
“I suspected. Sir Wyndam’s not a man known for his kindness. We talk, us lot. The help who know what goes bump in the night. Heard many an ill word spoken on his wicked youth. He used a scullery maid terribly so, and got mixed up with powerful black magics. Watchers can be just as cruel as any other master.”
“And what of Mr Pratt?” Elizabeth wondered, her voice lowered to match Margaret’s words.
“I sincerely doubt he could be a bother to anyone. Soft as a brush he is; softer, truth be told,” she admitted. “I’ve been here three years and never ever heard a raised word from him. Not even when the poor dear’s mother was sick. Such a lovely lady she was, never met better. Losing her nearly destroyed him. Not sure if I envy him having her around as long as he did, or if it’s better to be spared the pain.”
“What happened to yours?”
“She was a slayer.” Margaret’s busy fingers on the dress stilled for a moment. “I don’t remember her of course, she was younger than you. Her watcher took me in.”
Elizabeth’s dress was loose enough that she was able to wriggle out of it while leaving her chemise and petticoats in place. The heavy material hit the ground with a thump. She felt like her heart had fallen with the dark blue material, unnoticed on the floor.
“That was good of him,” Elizabeth said, with trepidation. She looked at Margaret from the corner of her eyes to see how true it was.
“Yes, I suppose it was.” Margaret bent down, picking up Elizabeth’s dress and hanging it in the room’s large wardrobe. The dress looked lonely dangling from its hook as it swayed slightly. “He could be an alright sort, long as you weren’t too raucous and made yourself useful. Didn’t care for what he called my prattling.”
“That sounds too familiar.”
“He kept me from my father, though, best for me, you see,” Margaret scoffed. “Better no family than demons for a family. But once I took my leave I found them. I worked out the Council was a bit backwards on certain things.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I had to hide many things from Wyndam which he wouldn’t have approved of.” She’d always worried — not enough to stop — he’d find out about her friends, or that she’d let a few weak lowlife demon live — if they’d turned good informants, even if it took a bit of persuasive face punching before they started. Wyndam took issue with anyone who wasn’t definitely human, even slayers.
“Probably for the best.”
Elizabeth squeezed the locks open on one of her trunks. The lid sprung up. She rummaged around looking for something to wear — durable and functional. She laid her clothes on her bed as she found them and flung Wyndam’s diary alongside.
In the back of Charlie’s cab, she had resisted the urge to put one of her matches to Wyndam’s diary and sprinkle the ashes from the open window as they traveled through South London. The lie she would have to tell later about the missing diary stopped her — no need to start things off badly. Now that she’d met Mr Pratt she didn’t want him to read it. Could his mind be poisoned by Wyndam’s pernicious words? Pratt didn’t seem fickle. He also knew Wyndam and probably wouldn’t be swayed against her.
“Please can you pass this along to Mr Pratt while I finish dressing?”
“Thank you, Margaret.”
Pratt could have the book; she didn’t want to be present when he read it. No need to see the look on his face as he took in the dreadful complaints and critiques. She wanted him to see her in the best light possible too.
Elizabeth stepped out into the darkness, followed by Pratt. He carried a small lamp, and the moon was full, offering plenty of light. In his other hand he clutched a stake. She carried her broadsword in a scabbard fastened to her belt and had an extra stake in her coat pocket.
She meant to push the front door closed gently but instead it flew back with a bang against the frame.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth cringed. She’d forgotten to curb her strength for a moment. “I’m usually more careful; after all this time you’d think I wouldn’t be able to forget about my strength.”
Wyndam would have berated her for it, said something about her focusing too much on force and not enough on controlling it.
“It’s perfectly alright,” Pratt assured her. “I can honestly claim to have never cared for that particular door. Among all the doors I frequent it is my least favourite.” Pratt’s eyes met hers for a split-second, and she caught a gentle playfulness in them before he glanced away.
Elizabeth began to smile until she heard an unearthly howl of a creature nearby. Her muscles stiffened in preparation to defend or launch herself into an attack, if she caught a flash of claw, fang or pelt. She scanned the night for any bulky but fast moving shapes.
Pratt moved forward, placing himself at her side, clearly unaware of the danger. Elizabeth pushed him back with her palm against his chest. She was sure she could feel his heart thumping, quicker than her own. He took a clumsy step backwards.
“It’s Oberon,” Pratt whispered to her, as if that should explain everything.
“Pardon?” she asked, still on guard as she moved towards the road. “Is that a name of a demon. A wolf type beasty?”
“It’s the name of my neighbor’s pet beagle.”
Elizabeth’s shoulders slumped forward, and she felt a little foolish. “Oh.”
“Though,” he took a breath to steady himself, “during the full moon he does appear inordinately agitated. I have seen him chase a grown man down the road, as if the poor soul were fleeing for his very life.”
“Perhaps,” she returned with a sly grin, “Oberon has been turned into a werewolf. Do you know what happens if a werewolf bites a dog?”
“I can’t claim to have given it much consideration,” he stammered, his eyebrows scrunched together. He inclined his head to one side. “Do you know yourself?”
She was mildly surprised by his genuine interest. In all her years acquainted with watchers, none of them had requested her opinion or expertise on anything supernatural. They had seemed only concerned with information they could glean from ancient texts or dusty old relics but never about what she had picked up. Any information that she had given to Wyndam had been scribbled down in his diaries. He’d only taken it upon himself to tally up her kills like he was a grocer completing a sales ledger. It bothered her now that the one time her wealth of knowledge was to be valued and she didn’t have an answer.
“I am not sure. I tend to believe nothing happens,” Elizabeth elaborated, her words growing in confidences. “I know, at least, in the case of vampires the infliction can only be passed onto a human host. I once caught a vampire trying to sire his cat. He’d apparently been there for days waiting for the cat to rise, but without success.” It was an incident she remembered well. Vampires were all vicious killers, but every now and again, she would meet one with some sort of attachment still in place — she hesitated to call it love. There was a turned violinist that went home for his instrument, and a parent who returned from the grave for its child. She had told Wyndam about the violin but it had angered him, so she had not reported any other such incidents. She’d never told anyone about the cat before.
“A vampire cat, now that would have been a spectacle, both fascinating and terrifying.”
“It could be worse, depending on if they still liked eating rats.”
“Vampire rats?” Pratt shuddered. “I’ve heard tales of a vampire who could transform themselves into such creature, but I think I should have nightmares if rats could be turned.”
They had reached the end of the road.
“Which way is it?”
Pratt pointed his left hand in the direction she had traveled not much longer than an hour ago; it felt longer. “We can reach St. Mary’s Cemetery if we cut across Clapham Common.
“St. Mary’s? It seems to be a popular name for graveyards. I’ve seen a few.”
It was much easier talking about slaying instead of the usual small talk — oh, how much she’d come to learn that the English liked to pass their time by chatting about the weather and their monarchy. She blended in to the extent where she could comment on the dreariness of a cloudy day or the humidity that ruined many sunny days.
“Yes, there must be many that go by that name. I always seem to be a stone’s throw away from St Andrew’s, which might be an actuality for you — I am certainly not as adept at throwing,” he admitted, pushing his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. “If it helps, the cemetery also goes by the name Battersea Rise.”
“Rise? Was there a terrible zombie uprising there?” she joked, then worried it might be true. And what if it was where his mother had been laid to rest?
“Nothing so macabre. It’s the name of a nearby street, but there might have been a horde of zombies roaming around there at some point in history.”
“So, it can’t be ruled out.” She turned towards him with a smile. “And we can’t assume it wasn’t a horde of zombie rats.”
Elizabeth moved forward with purposeful strides with the sound of Pratt’s deep chuckle at her back.
“Nightmares, I tell you,” he joked back before moving to catch up with her. They moved in sync across the park towards her nightly patrol.
Elizabeth was sitting on a bench tucked away inside St. Mary’s Cemetery. She could see a small chapel that was split down the middle by a hollowed out stone archway. The building and the surrounding grounds seemed fairly new as nothing had gone into disrepair. The names on gravestones had not been blotted out by overgrown moss or by the harsh elements. These were the dead of the still living.
In order to keep herself occupied, Elizabeth was throwing her stake into the air and catching it as it hurtled back towards her. This was what slaying mostly was: loitering around a spooky location waiting for something undead to appear. Not exactly thrilling.
The next time she caught her stake she balanced the flat end on her palm. It wobbled when her attention drifted to Pratt. He was standing nearby. His features were painted orange by the glow of his lamp and the deepening shadows. He hadn’t spoken in a while, but his eyes darted from one grave marker to another, searching them. Had he ever seen a vampire before, let alone fought one? It was a long time since her first fight; no matter how much you read or trained beforehand, you weren’t ever ready. She remembered missing the heart on her first try — panicking as her blood slid down her collarbone. She didn’t miss again. Could Pratt hope to defend himself even against a weaker fledgling?
Elizabeth’s stake fell from her hand and pierced the ground beneath her feet.
“Mr Pratt, have you faced a vampire before?”
“Twice,” Pratt answered, his head lowered as he studied their shadows stretching across the grass. “At the Watchers Academy, they always keep a master vampire shackled up in the basement.”
“Why?” Elizabeth asked, thinking it was probably for when slayers were crass enough to survive to eighteen, and they really wanted to surprise them with a gift.
“They have the vampire tell horrific tales to the first year students. It scared me, which I believe was its purpose.” He squeezed his eyes closed. “But one day he managed to escape, and made it to the main building. He killed one of the boys, and I staked him, almost by accident really. It helped that he disregarded me as a threat.”
Pratt placed his lamp on top of a gravestone
“And the other time?”
“It was earlier this year,” he said. His skin had started to pale. “I was on my way home after leaving a party when a woman accosted me. I thought she was a pickpocket, but when she spoke it was as if she knew me and was plucking my thoughts from my mind. I believe she was a psychic as well as a vampire.” Pratt bent down over to a newly dug grave. He pinched a piece of loose dirt between his fingers.
“What happened?” Elizabeth urged him softly.
“I believe she had designs to turn me. I was no match for her; I only had a miniature crucifix in my pocket. So I ran away.” He rubbed his dirt-stained fingertips on his clean handkerchief. Then he retrieved his light. “You would hope I would know better than to leave home without a stake.”
He held his lantern over the grave he’d been inspecting, and he finally looked back at her. “This one, do you think?”
“Vampire? I can’t be certain, could be natural causes. We wait either way.”
“I checked the newspaper before we left; a man was interred here this morning. He’d been set upon by an unidentifiable wild animal.”
“And I find myself,” she said, rolling her eyes, “once again asking: how many maulings by unknown animals are to be reported before journalists find it suspicious.”
“They’re not paid to see such things.”
“Yes, we alone know the truth,” she said, feigning a serious air and attempting to catch his eyes. “It was the work of that dastardly dog Oberon. He has struck again.”
“He really is a lovely dog.” Pratt’s words had an even tone, but she could see a hint of a smile on his lips which she wanted to win from him.“I feel I have done him a great injustice having painted you such an untrue picture of his character.”
“He’s a terrifying folk legend. You know it’s true, why else do you smile? Are you not part of the vast conspiracy to cover up his existence?”
“I’m obviously a failure at keeping secrets and shall be excommunicated by my co-conspirators.” He walked towards her, abandoning his graveside vigil. “I was the one who told you about him.”
“That seems awfully convenient.” She raised her chin.
Pratt shook off his amused grin and sat at the other end of the bench. “The paper stated that the gentleman had been exsanguinated and had two small puncture wounds on his neck.”
“Yes, that would suggest a vampire.”
They sat in silence. Elizabeth spent a lot of time in graveyards alone, which had suited her before — better than sitting in an attic trapped in a Brontësque nightmare; the wild woman contemplating mischief and fires. She liked having Pray there; she shouldn’t relax into that feeling because it might not happen again. How could he not be bored by this?
A far off church bell rang eleven times. She licked her lips, suddenly tense with the quiet; she needed words — to make a cache of them for later use.
“I’m sorry.” She turned her head towards him, his attention already hers. “Most of the time, being the slayer isn’t interesting. It’s a lot of walking around or sitting without sound or sight of demon, or even human. It’s just this.”
“That must be rather tedious for you.” Pratt’s eyebrows lowered as if considering the reality of the slayer’s life for the first time. She assumed many of those before her died of apathy; attributed instead to a corporeal foe instead of abstraction.
“I suppose it’s better than nothing but peril, and it would get me out of the house where I can breathe and stargaze.” She loved to see the stars as a child even before she learned their stories from Amelia. “I usually bring a candle with me to read by or to have a game of cards. Not easy. My last game of solitaire on a sarcophagus was scattered by irate vampires — they didn’t take kindly to my refusal to play Old Maid.”
“You’re making that up?” Pratt choked with astonished amusement.
“Oh, well if you’re intent on ruining my fun; I was playing on top of a mausoleum,” she admitted, planting her feet onto the middle of the bench and turning towards him. “But that doesn’t have the same ring to it, and they didn’t want to play Old Maid as much as they wanted to rip out my throat, though if you’ve ever played the game you’ll forgive me the comparison.”
“I forgive you for your poetic license.”
“Thank you, ever so.” She reclined the upper half of her body back onto the bench and pillowed the back of her head on her clasped hands. It made looking at the sky easier. “What’s your favorite constellation?”
“What are you doing?” he asked, not a rebuke but as if she’d done something incomprehensible. Had her light mood taken her too far? Much too late to be concerned with that now.
“I was making Pegasus the right way up.”
She pivoted her body back gracefully into her previous position. She gave Pratt a half-smile to reassure herself as much as him; he returned it.
“He’s tricky that way, as well as being a rather boxy fellow for a horse.” Pratt moved a little closer to her. His eyes skirted the sky as he tried to locate the constellation where she’d been searching herself. They still sat apart, but she was certain she could feel the warmth of him coming through his woolen overcoat. “I don’t believe he’d fare well in the Grand National, though I do not suppose they allow flying horses to compete.”
“A mistake on their part,” she grumbled. “I believe it would make it more entertaining, don’t you?”
“I dare say it would.”
Elizabeth heard a twig snap somewhere nearby — if it was non-demonically inflicted animal she was going to look like the world’s most high-strung and reactionary slayer the ever known. She twisted around to see the yellow glow of a vampire’s predatory eyes. Vaulting over the bench, she landed in a crouch. She scouted the surrounding area with her senses; best not to be surprised if more vampires decided to join the fray. Nothing — not even the sire had turned up to attend the rebirth.
Pratt was a silent presence at her back — no surprise attacks from that direction — for her. No, she needed to concentrate. He was a watcher, and in theory could take care of himself. She shut out the sliver of protectiveness; it could overwhelm her.
The vampire gave out a throaty growl and raised to his full height. It’s focus finally fell to her. Her pulse quickened as her blood went up, ready for a fight. She clenched her fists.
Elizabeth threw herself into a backwards handspring. Her feet planted into the demon’s stomach. He flew backwards into a crypt; if he’d been human his bones would have shattered from the impact — but he was just dazed.
She grasped her sword’s hilt and yanked it from its sheath.
The vampire stumbled upright, its legs wobbling like a fawn’s. Some fledglings seemed disoriented when they first dragged themselves free from their grave. She waited for its body to become aligned with the demon now controlling it. Wyndam would have cut her down for taking her time. She had a clear opening to behead her foe; she wanted a hard fight.
Elizabeth jammed her fist into the underside of the vampire’s jaw and sent him sprawling across the grass. She followed fast; plunging her sword downwards, she pierced a shoulder. He grunted in pain as she twisted the blade out. Blood leaked out sluggishly from the wound.
He was ready the next time she thrust her sword at him. Fingers wrapped around the blade — it had to be painful, he used her moment of distraction to catapult her towards a gravestone.
The vampire hissed through its teeth as it pulled its lacerated but still intact fingers away from the blade. It then used its newfound strength to stomp on her sword and break it into two pieces.
Elizabeth was weaponless now. She’d been careless leaving her stake over on the bench. There was a line of trees nearby. If things turned dire, she could improvise with a branch. She didn’t feel in imminent danger; the vampire was fairly strong but dimwitted — not that most fledglings were rogue scholars — all monosyllabic grunts and bloodlust. Occasionally, there’d be a newborn who was less predictable, who retained its intellect and creativity. It was the eloquent ones she had to watch out for — the ones that seemed almost human — they were the better hunters.
“A stake would be nice!” she called out to Pratt, keeping her tone light so as not to worry him.
“Elizabeth!” She froze, shocked to hear her first name. Few used it, and none uttered it with breathless concern; propriety had been crushed in the emergency.
She ducked a punch from the vampire, rolled away, and sprung up at Pratt’s side.
He handed her the stake without any hesitation or clumsiness he’d demonstrated earlier, but it was short-lived. The vampire tackled him to the ground and managed to club him once in the face before she could reach them.
The vampire seemingly had forgotten she was the real danger — idiotic demon.
Elizabeth tugged on his shoulder, pulling him away from Pratt and onto the end of her stake. The wood lodged in its spine; she used the heel of her hand to shove it the rest of the way through the back of the demon’s heart. The dust sprinkled her shoes.
“Nice work,” Pratt complimented her from his still prone position.
She held her hand out to him and pulled him to his feet. The worn leather of his glove was smooth against her bare skin. He gave her fingers a soft squeeze in gratitude but immediately released her hand and dropped his arms to his side. It had happened so quickly she hesitated to call it holding hands.
He bent over and retrieved his lamp, hissing in pain when he grasped its handle.
“Are you badly hurt?” She looked him over for any obvious injuries.
“No, nothing serious. I will perhaps wake tomorrow a little bruised and sore but, in all likelihood, it appears I’ll live.”
“Of course,” she agreed, hoping he was being honest. “Well, I suppose one mediocre vampire is a trifle compared to your many deadly encounters with Oberon, the beast of Clapham Common.”
Their lantern extinguished as they approached home on Elms Road. Elizabeth was accustomed to walking around once the sun had gone down, but Pratt appeared inexperienced at navigating through such darkness. He almost tripped crossing over a furrow on the road, but she clasped his elbow — somehow his chin ended up clipping the back of her skull. It didn’t hurt her, though when she twisted around and grabbed his waist to steady him he grunted in pain. Was he hurt worse than he’d led her to believe back at the graveyard?
“I thought the vampire only hit your head?” Her fingers twitched against his hip bone as she deliberated on whether to check him for injures.
“Yes, he did. I was simply startled when you...” Pratt trailed off and looked down at where her hand was still on him.
“I am sorry.” She released him, and he moved back to respectful distance.
He shook his head. “There was no harm done. As I said, you merely surprised me is all and your hands were cold.” It seemed to be an excuse, but she let it go.
When they reached the front door of his home, he allowed her to pass through first.
He went into the parlor for a candle. When he returned, she handed him one of the matches she’d remembered hiding in one of her shirt pockets, then followed him to the training room so she could pick out a replacement for her broken broadsword.
“My father had a large collection of weapons,” Pratt explained as he opened the huge cabinet filled with them.
She plucked down a crossbow. It was over a year since she had her own. Wyndam had forbidden her to use his — completely unfair. She’d been passing through Whitechapel with one, tracking down a vampire, and she’d been spotted by a policeman. When she was put on the spot, she was a terrible liar. She’d blurted out that she was a ratcatcher, and she was hunting them with a bow. He didn’t buy it and confiscated her weapon, suggesting she’d do better to invest in traps or a mousing moggy. Wyndam had been livid.
She placed Pratt’s crossbow back and took down a broadsword, similar to the one she lost but it was far lighter.
“This will do well.”
He pulled a practice dummy into the center of the room for her to use.
She gave the sword an experimental swing and nicked the dummy’s left shoulder. She sprung backward on her heels before lunging forward again. The blade was sharper than she anticipated; the dummy’s head came off and rolled over to Pratt’s feet.
“I meant to do that,” she smiled sheepishly at him.
“Mistakes happen. And while I have never decapitated a practice dummy, I have toppled over a bookcase and have broken many teacups and saucers. Margaret will no longer allow me in the kitchen.”
Apparently, they were both used to making mistakes. The difference was her accidents were from underestimating her strength, but his seemed to be from overestimating his weaknesses.
When Pratt’s eyelids had begun to drop at regular intervals, Elizabeth suggested it was perhaps time to retire for the night. In contrast, she’d felt too energetic to sleep herself, and she had her new weapons to test out — he’d given her the sword, and the crossbow after catching her eyeing it longingly.
She climbed out her bedroom window and scaled down the tree beside it. Margaret had chosen the room well. Elizabeth jumped the rest of the way and landed on the lawn, narrowly missing a rose bush.
The surrounding homes were in darkness, but the moon was enough for her. She was certain no one would see her as she clambered over the wooden gate and slipped down the silent street.
She stopped outside The Windmill pub which was on the edge of Clapham Common. It seemed like it might be a good hunting ground for vampires, through the pub had closed for the evening. But she kept an eye of a few drunken stragglers at a discreet distance.
The first of the men urinated up against the wall before he wobbled off to a nearby house. He struggled for a few minutes with his keys before he was finally triumphant. She then caught a couple in a compromising position. If you searched London’s seedier back alleys for vampires, you soon became immune to being scandalized — tonight’s fare was relatively tame. She observed for a second to make sure kissing and groping were only leading to the bloodless kind of lust.
She sat back down on the wall outside the pub — far away from where the man had relieved himself — and waited for the lovers to be done with their tryst.
A few minutes later, the couple walked back out onto the street. There was a quick flash of gold into the woman’s pockets before she was away. Not love then but need; she hadn’t experienced either. All her encounters in such places were of the fighting variety. But she did wonder how it would feel to be softly kissed or grasped with passion. It was best for a slayer not to think about such things.
Elizabeth was about to get up and leave when a small black cat ambled across the bricks towards her. Its huge yellow eyes were trained on her face.
“A black cat?” Elizabeth scoffed. “Isn’t that, I don’t know, a little old hat?”
The cat’s tail twitched as if it were annoyed. Then its limbs began to lengthen. Its paws stretched out into tapered fingers and its muzzle smoothed out. A pair of brown eyes, which Elizabeth knew very well, glared down at her.
Amelia always favored transforming into a cat, occasionally an owl or a bat. None of these seemed a creative choice for a witch.
“That’s the point, so that you might recognise me but no one else will even notice me.”
“Well, you might at least be a calico or a tabby.” Amelia ignored Elizabeth’s comment. “Are Francesca and Henry safely locked away for the night?” Elizabeth asked after her friends. She worried about werewolf hunters during the full moon.
“As we speak, they are howling and rattling away in their cage,” Amelia assured her with a visible shudder. “Shedding and getting their awful dog smell all over my cellar. I only left them alone because I got news of you being transferred by the Council.” She swiped her gray braid back over her shoulder. “Which one did you get?”
“Mr Pratt. I do not know his first name,” Elizabeth replied in monotone. She knew if she expressed her already good opinion of him to Amelia that she would somehow taint it. Not out of malice, she loved Elizabeth like family, but that she simply saw the worst in things.
“He must be well out of the prime of his life. Older than Mr Crowley would have been.”
“He’s fairly young, perhaps a relative.”
“That must be it. I haven’t heard of anyone else by that name. I only spoke a few times to Mr and Mrs Pratt at the Council’s Christmas parties. Pleasant couple,” Amelia drawled, making her innocuous description sound like a scathing retort. Elizabeth, knowing better, disregarded her flinty tone.
“What I remember about those parties were the sugared almonds you’d always return with.”
“You had such a sweet tooth.” Amelia gave her a slight smile. “I supposed I felt justified in taking something from them and handing it to you.”
Elizabeth wanted to throw her arms around her, but she knew Amelia wasn’t partial to physical displays of affection.
“I will see what I can learn about your new situation. I’m glad you’re free of Wyndam, such a loathsome man.”
“I feel I might be better off now.”
“I will do just as well to look into things myself,” Amelia said firmly. “Goodnight, dear.”
The older woman pushed herself off the wall and when she landed on the ground it was on orange webbed feet. Then, with a gruff honk, she spread her wings and took flight.
“Much more original,” Elizabeth praised, as she watched the black shape of a goose pass in front of the moon.
William was exhausted from the eventful day, but when he laid down, with a pillow wedged beneath his head, he was suddenly as awake as he’d been when he’d called out to Elizabeth in the graveyard and thrown her a stake. It was the kind of alive that could easily lead to death — or a vampire tackling you to the ground. All in all, it could have gone worse; he hadn’t suffered any blood loss, broken bones or spectacles, and he hadn’t been rendered unconscious. Unconsciousness was an ailment the majority of watchers would suffer at some point in their lives. There was only a slight pounding in William's skull and a twinge in his neck from the impact, and his side ached from where Elizabeth had grabbed him to stop him from falling over. He could feel where a bruise was forming and blossoming under his skin across his hip bone. Would it take on the shape of her deceptively delicate fingers? He pressed his palm against it; pain and heat spread outwards to where he refused to let his thoughts and hands follow. Her touch had been a gesture of kindness not to be misinterpreted or perverted by his latent desires.
It was ten months since William had been dimwitted enough to profess his utterly unrequited feelings towards Cecily. Worse still, he’d almost been — no, let himself be — bitten by an enthralling vampire; she’d been like Poe’s dark lady Berenice with a knowing smile before her teeth transformed, becoming ‘white and glistening, and ghastly’. The story was completely fixated on teeth; the only mystery of the Poe’s death was that he’d not been turned into a vampire sooner. Was it the sin of self-slaughter or one of carnality which had also resonated within William? He’d been able to recognise the evil of the act and had run away. He thought he’d left it behind him in that grim alley; so why had he told Elizabeth any of it? It was part of her world, but she was a light in that darkness, not another shadow. But had she ever wanted it, ever wished to die? God, he hoped not.
That night had been humiliating and heart breaking, but it hadn’t ruined him, though he’d been foolish enough at the time to think that it had. A week later, his mother died. He then found a greater store of despair, carved deep into the earth. Dirt and darkness and nothing more. He’d still been aware of all the beauty in the world but he could not turn his head towards it, a conscious prisoner of Plato’s cave. William’s spirits, already low, were starved of the sublime; such tragic joys a true poet could not do without — not that he was one. Elizabeth had revived those senses. She’d struck him with her loveliness and charm. It explained this feeling. That’s all it was, all he could allow it it to be. And if it wasn’t? Well he was resigned never to speak a word of it or write a single tragic syllable. He’d learned from his errors; a crow courting a peacock — a more ridiculous a match there never was. But unlike with Cecily, Elizabeth had given him something he craved as much as romantic love: her friendship.
Sleep was turning out to be elusive. William wrapped his dressing gown around his frame and lit a candle to guide his way to his study. It would be better to work and make use of his insomnia. On his desk he found Wyndam’s journal where Margaret had placed it a few hours ago. He turned the book over in his hands. The prospect of reading it left him cold. He assumed his predecessor would have the sense to omit — at the very least tone down — his unsavoury opinions on the nature of the slayer from his written record. That was giving too much credit to Wyndam.
William turned to the first entry, which was dated the 25th January 1875. Wyndam’s handwriting was clumsy, careless and his choice of words was pompous — even for a fellow watcher. William hoped his own proses didn't quite reach such pretentious heights, notwithstanding his more spectacular failures in the realm of poetry. He forced himself to read through Wyndam’s account, hoping something might be gained from it.
Wyndam’s and Elizabeth’s first meeting had been indicative of the rest of their dismal acquaintance. According to Wyndam, Elizabeth had asked many inane questions, even before a formal introduction had passed between them. She’d nodded at his magic books and imprudently asked what type of spells he could do; she very much hoped they didn’t involve transmogrifying himself into a cat or making a rabbit appear from a hat. She suspiciously eyed the one on top of his head. Wyndam was one of those tragic individuals who couldn’t recognise humour. He’d taken her literally and thought her a simpleton. That was, until her next round of questions, a few days later. She'd been interested about the nature of souls, for instance: did all humans have one? Would you be able to feel it if you really concentrated? Was there a test for one? Was Wyndam sure he himself was in possession of one? Wyndam had railed at her, saying that of course he did, and Elizabeth wondered aloud at his certainty. She’d been forbidden to speak on the subject again. Slayer or not he would not have such insinuations levelled against him. Then he believed her to be a malicious girl, with marginally more intelligence than he’d previously accredited to her. If she was as cunning a slayer, she might survive long enough not to be an embarrassment to Wyndam or a blemish on his record.
Only a few pages later, after Elizabeth 'botched’ her first fight with a vampire, Wyndam once again doubted her fitness for her role. She’d managed to miss the heart and let the creature close enough to bite her. It was only through sheer luck that she survived at all. Eventually, she was able to rudimentarily stake her opponent. Then to Wyndam’s horror, while blood was flowing freely from the jagged wound at her throat, she burst into tears because she thought she'd lost some blasted cheap ring. William knew it was probably shock and that the ring must have sentimental value. Perhaps it had been her mother's; he carried around the weight of his own mother's wedding ring in his coat pocket.
William skimmed through the next few weeks of entries. It was more of the same. Wyndam became obsessively opposed to the friendship which had begun to develop between Sarah, his daughter, and the slayer. Elizabeth had encouraged Sarah’s natural aptitude for magics and her desire to one day become a watcher. Wyndam scolded both for what he saw as a preposterous idea; a woman could never become a member of the Council. He put an end to them being friends by telling Sarah that slayers weren’t capable of having such close bonds with others, it was an indulgence that could get Elizabeth killed and place humanity in serious peril. William could tell that the older watcher took satisfaction in stifling them.
William closed the diary, unwilling to read on. Elizabeth deserved better than the petty cruelties she’d been previously dealt. He wanted to erase her pain and loneliness, even more than he wished to exorcise his own. How could he even begin to do such a thing?
It was later than usual when William made it downstairs for breakfast. His appetite was better than it had been recently, but it was still weak. He’d noticed in the mirror that morning how much weight he’d lost. How had he failed to notice his face becoming gaunter or the flesh receding around his ribs? What must he look like to the outside world? He forced himself to eat a small boiled egg and two pieces of toast; the crumbs were rough but manageable when covered with jam and washed down with some weak tea. Margaret disapproved of the quantity of food but was happy to see him eating something rather than just picking at it.
William was still sipping his lukewarm tea when Elizabeth appeared at the dining room door. Her posture was relaxed, almost serene; it reminded him of the first time he’d seen her out on the road from his window. She seemed to be taking in the details of the room. When her eyes finally met his, they seemed to widen. He hoped he hadn’t been staring at her, but he’d tried not to stare at her last night — with more failure than success — and she hadn’t been perturbed by it then. It was as if she believed her presence was unwelcome. The absence of her self-assurance and gregariousness puzzled him but perhaps it was a remininant from her previous household. She wouldn’t have dined with Wyndam.
“Good morning, Miss Summers,” he greeted her softly. The words felt thick on his tongue. Miss Summers was the proper address, but felt overly formal after having shouted to her in the cemetery. Still to call her Elizabeth in his home would be taking liberties; it was far too intimate. It was safer this way.
William got up and pulled out an empty chair, inviting her to join him at the table. He waited for her to move as his limited reserve of courage dwindled until he dare not even look at her.
“Good morning, Mr Pratt,” she finally returned warmly, after what seemed like a lifetime. “Sorry if I’ve intruded on you, but I smelled the food and couldn’t resist.”
How could she believe her presence was the slightest bit unwelcome? Her company was already becoming the one he favoured above all others. He allowed himself to look at her. A piece of hair had unwound itself from her plait and was grazing her collarbone. How had he never noticed before that a collarbone could be beautiful? If he reached forward, he could skim his index finger along the bridge of it. He wondered if she’d give a pleasant shiver at the caress or swat him away for being so presumptuous.
He crossed behind her, pushed her seat forward and swiftly sat himself back down.
Elizabeth gave him a sweet half-smile and he yielded her the other half in return. Her happiness called out to his own. Oh, how doomed he was. No matter how ludicrous his feelings were… well, he didn’t have the talent for denial. Emotions hit him hard and instantaneously. Just being in the same room with her was intoxicating.
“Did you sleep well, Miss Summers?”
“Well enough,” she answered, unfolding her napkin with a lethal flick of her wrist, “but only a little, though it was a slumber of excellent quality.”
“I’m pleased to hear that. No, that’s — what I mean —,” he stumbled over his words, feeling for all the world like a bumbling fool. “I’m pleased to hear that it was a good night’s sleep, but not that it was a scarce amount that you slept because that is most unfortunate.” He spoke over half a dozen languages but couldn’t form a simple sentence in his native one.
“I’ve decided to blame the full moon for my restlessness. I went out slaying again, after having destroyed your practice dummy for the third and final time.” She gave William a solicitous look before she snatched up four pieces of toast and dropped them onto her plate. “I found a demon tavern over by Battersea Station.”
“The Falcon harbours demons?”
Elizabeth began to carefully cover a slice of bread in a thick layer of raspberry jam.
“Mostly harmless. I didn't stay long, heard about some grave robbers who needed saving. When I found them, they were foolishly digging up a vampire.” She gave exasperated sigh. “They agreed to never steal corpses again and devote their lives to a charitable courses, or they cursed at me and made rude gestures because, quote: a bloke at the Royal will give you nine guineas and two shillings for a fresh corpse you daft deviant bint.” She shook her head and bit into her toast, “Such fools. No one's grave robbing for the hospitals anymore. I’m guessing it’s for some necromancer, probably Jeremiah the Peddler. He’s popular with the Spiritualist crowd.”
“He’s not known to the Council. They try and keep a records on those practicing magic.”
“They probably think he’s a fake. He goes for the theatrical, all floaty tables and voice throwing. Spend enough time with me, you’ll meet lots of interesting characters.”
William turned to his morning newspaper. He wrestled the large pages open with a loud rustle and scanned through for anything pertinent while Elizabeth finished eating her breakfast.
“Did anything supernatural seep through into the journalism of the day?” she asked, pouring herself a tea and topping up his. “Werewolves, zombies, vampires or perhaps sightings of a woman transforming herself into poultry?” She folded over the edge of his paper to give him an expectant grin. He felt his heart speed up.
“Unhand my paper,” he scolded her affectionately. She rolled her eyes dramatically and slumped back with a smirk. “Sadly, there is no poultry news to report on.” He took a sip of his tea. “There’s what appears to have been a vampire attack at a home on Arlington Street. Not discreet, lots of bodies and a few missing people. Probably to be turned into minions.”
“They might have been targeted for their wealth. I suppose it’s a way to temporarily acquire a home. Most vampires will squat anywhere but you’ll get some who prefer luxury.”
“I suppose the better diet of the rich thickens the blood.” William shook his head with mocking disapproval. “Gourmet vampires. Something new to worry about at fancy dinner parties."
Elizabeth gave a small chuckle. “You’re not like other watchers.”
“I suppose, that was a touch macabre of me.” He effaced himself. “How many watchers have you known?”
“About five,” she replied. “Did you ever meet any other slayers?”
“I have not. I have only had the pleasure once,” he mumbled, feeling himself blushing. He moved quickly past the comment. “My father did train some potential slayers and I trained alongside them. I have read about many of them, of course, from the watchers journals.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You can’t really know anything about them from what the Council’s written. Perhaps their watchers only saw a limited sides of them.”
He felt he had said the worst thing possible after seeing how her previous watcher had written about her. He felt righly rebuked by his clumsy words. In the Watchers Academy, he’d often had dissenting thoughts. It had often seemed to him that the slayer did the hard work while her watcher scribbled it all down like a hack reporter. They were then forgotten and the chronicles of their battles were dusted off years, even centuries, later and fed unquestionably to naive watchers in training.
William shakily returned his cup to his saucer. A few drops sloshed out, staining the tablecloth. “Yes,” he whispered. He tried to mop up the mess he made with a napkin. “I am sincerely sorry for my lack of sensitivity on the matter, Miss Summers.”
He felt wretched. They had been of similar minds, but now he had dashed her newly formed fondness for him. He kept his breathing under control.
Elizabeth’s fingers twitched and creeped towards his before she thought better of it and withdrew her hands into her lap.
William’s shoulders sagged in relief. The anger he had seen had not been for him. He supposed he might have overreacted because of previous rejections. Had she really been about to reach out to him?
“I have heard that the dairies are cold — and not just about our deaths, but about our lives too.” If her hand had still been on the table, he didn’t think he’d be able to fight his instinct to reach out to her. “I suppose slayers weren’t their intended audience, which makes sense. We’re not even taught to read.”
“How did you know that?”
“I saw your eyes light up when you saw the sign for Battersea Rise last night and you mentioned you read by candle light in the cemetery.”
“Wyndam assumed I couldn’t read and I never let on. I was taught by my family. They neglected to teach me Latin — we had no use for it in the new world,” she joked with her usual gleam. “So, I was in luck when I took a peek at some of the old journals and they were written in English, and when they weren't, an English to Latin dictionary came in handy.”
“I will pretend I heard nothing of that. Would you like to write your own accounts? I’m sure there are many tales that Wyndam neglected to record. Whatever he did or didn’t say, well, you’re already somewhat of a legend as it is.”
“I’m a famous slayer, really?” Elizabeth asked sceptically. “Will I be mobbed on the streets by the adoring masses? It’s just as well I have a disguise.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I suppose demons know who I am,” she conceded. "But they’re not filled with praise as much as they are with death threats.”
“Alright, so it is only among a certain group of people you’re known, but I have heard about some of your battles — you defeating the Níðhöggr, and recently there was the Vodyanoi, which was all I heard any one talk about that season. And those are only what I’ve heard of,” he pointed out, “and I am far from being in the Council’s inner circle. I will get you paper and ink and you can—,” he babbled with excitement and was already by the door when her words stopped him.
“Mr Pratt.” Her tone was flat. “I’m certain if my reading would be frowned upon, then my writing would be more so. And would it not get you into trouble? Who would even read it? It might never reach another slayer.”
“There must be a way. If we think it through. Well, for now, the diary shall be in my handwriting but will be your words. I mean, if that is your wish.”
“It will not always be in my words, but I hope it should always be in your hands.” She played it lightly, but he saw a flash of pain in her eyes.
A world without her in it? Had it really only been a day since he’d not known her. It was unfair, was what it was, that she of all people had a death sentence hanging over her head. He didn't know how he could possibly face losing her. Well, he just wouldn’t allow it then, would he? Not this girl, not any day. She was the best slayer there ever was and he’d simply have to be the best watcher there ever was too because he would give his all to keep her alive.
“May I?” Elizabeth asked, splaying her forearm across the table towards William. She opened her palm, pressing her knuckles into the linen tablecloth. What was she requesting? He couldn’t comprehend her question — not because he was distracted by the inviting curve of her fingers. Did she want him to thread his fingers through hers? Feel the rapid rhythm of his pulse against her answering heartbeat? No, not that. She wasn’t trying to comfort him either; the hesitation which made her withdraw her offered hand before was absent. Even with her immense bravery, she couldn’t unblinkingly throw aside basic propriety, could she? He squeezed his fingers around the fragile handle of his teacup, anchoring his touch; he wouldn’t break society’s rules.
“Might I take a look at the newspaper myself, Mr Pratt?” Elizabeth clarified, with confusion and mild amusement in her voice.
“Oh,” William choked, trying to get his words out. Clearly, that had been the only possible meaning of her request. “Right. Yes, of course.”
He wrestled the paper closed. A few pages slid out of order, becoming wrinkled as he struggled to put them right again. He was pleased to hand it to her without further incident but was dismayed to notice his hands were stained by the newspaper’s print. “Ink,” he muttered without thinking and displayed his hands. Why did his mouth only give him free rein for inane utterances? What a dullard she must think him.
Elizabeth gave her own hands a cursory glance before holding them up in the air. “I believe mine shall soon match,” she challenged, as if an ink smudge had equal weighting to a faded battle scar. She didn’t appear to carry any such badges of honour. Those marks had disappeared effortlessly — he’d at least need the aid of a bar of soap to clear his hands. Slayer healing was like sleight of hand magic. The damage was merely hidden and concealed behind her eyes; blink and you’d miss it. William was now privy to how it was done.
The pain wasn’t in her eyes now. Instead, they sparked with her vibrant spirit — a wildfire he couldn’t match. She was full of life and he dare not profess his desire to keep her that way. His devotion would seem ridiculous and binding. Was it as hopeless a task as trying to save his mother had been?
William had followed every order his mother’s physician had given. Dr. Gull would speak in hushed tones to William outside his mother’s bedroom and lecture the younger man on their duty to protect the weaker sex. Weaker? He should have argued for Anne’s strength but was silent. Gull proceeded to warn William that his mother must not become over-stimulated by outside influences or her delicate constitution would deteriorate faster. She had to be confined to the house and forgo all social engagements. It didn’t help. They’d only ensured the time she had left was infinitely more miserable. William no longer trusted the Dr. Gulls of the world over his own conscious. Keeping Elizabeth alive meant letting her live.
She was still leafing through the paper when Margaret began clearing away the remnants of breakfast. The clattering of crockery didn’t break Elizabeth’s concentration, so he was surprised when she spoke.
“Thank you, Margaret. It was very delicious,” Elizabeth said, flicking her eyes up.
“Really, it was no trouble,” Margaret said, evading the compliment and swiping her hand across the table to clean the crumbs. “And there’s more food where that came from. We’re well stocked up after my visit to the market yesterday. I’m going to be baking almond cakes and making my special oxtail soup for the evening. I’m going to pick some fresh thyme from the garden for it.”
“It sounds like it’ll be a great feast.”
William was relieved that Elizabeth and Margaret were happy in one another's company — also that today’s soup didn’t include lamb or lettuce after yesterday’s ancient soup mishap. He should arrange to see Henry Giles soon.
Margaret smiled at Elizabeth and took William’s plate away. “At least someone appreciates my talents in the kitchen,” she jested.
William opened his mouth, ready to defend himself, but Elizabeth leaned forward.
“I think,” Elizabeth whispered loudly behind the shield of her hand, “she likes me more than she does you.”
William moved forward, adopting her mannerisms. “She is a most excellent judge of character.”
Margaret bent at her waist, reaching their level. “And she has the most excellent working ears this side of the Thames,” she parroted William’s accent and looked at him squarely. “Little passes her attention.”
“I suppose that it does not,” William agreed, turning red and scratching at the back of his neck. Had she noticed his attraction to Elizabeth? Was it so blatant? Elizabeth seemed to not have read anything into their words — he hoped.
“I meant nothing of it.” Margaret’s features softened. “If I didn’t think you a good sort, I’d have been off long ago.” She collected their plates, dangerously stacking them in her grip and backing through the door towards the kitchen.
Elizabeth folded up the newspaper and rested her elbows on it. “I think we should investigate the murders on Arlington Street further. Half the household is missing.”
"Why do you think they were taken?” he asked, tilting his head to the side and waiting for her response.
"Too much to eat in one sitting. Or something else...” She took a deep breath, raising her shoulders in a shrug. “The lurid details of the murders were only hinted at — too horrific even for the gutter press, I presume — but there was mention of teeth and fingers” — her face scrunched up — “extracted, which likely means torture. Obviously, controlled torture. They wanted something. If they’d merely been doing it for fun, well, they usually don’t stop at — you’d expect more dismemberment and possibly a head...” she trailed off, giving him a look of concern. “Too much?”
No, it was that he realised it was more real for her: what vampires were capable of. He’d read much worse accounts but it had never seized him viscerally. Not even the dead student at the Watcher’s Academy felt believable. The escaped vampire had killed the boy quickly but without relish. Then the body had been covered by a sheet.
“The vampire in the Council basement did not spare me a single salacious detail.” William met her eyes steadily. She must know she could be candid with him, though he was glad he’d already eaten.
Elizabeth suggested that they take the train from Battersea into town. William reluctantly agreed; he suffered from motion sickness on trains. Outside the station, he spotted The Falcon pub which Elizabeth had mentioned visiting the night before. Its exterior didn't suggest that by night it transformed into a demon bar.
She squinted at him through the glare of the sun. “We have more pressing business than the destruction of property owned by the harmless demon class — I believe the publican was human, as far as I could tell.”
“Right, yes,” he said, noting how increasingly flustered her words became. “And if you truly want to learn if someone is a demon, you must ask them directly on their honour and they cannot tell a lie.” he teased her, surprising himself. “I was merely curious about the establishment.”
“My struggle to behave myself as a proper lady — disguised as a boy — wasn’t for naught then,” Elizabeth sighed in relief. “I will remain glad not to have caved in a single demon’s skull with a stool then, even when a chaos demon tried to lay a slimy hoof on me. I only smashed a beer bottle over that particular demon’s head — his friends did get showered by some shards but no deaths. So I can go there if we need information in the future, just obviously not from the chaos demon population.”
“I shall refrain from suggesting we burn down the pub then, until further notice.”
Elizabeth smiled brightly at him and then nodded her head towards the station. “Shall we?”
William took a deep breath as they entered the busy train station. The crowd inside consisted of two powerful opposing currents. Both forces had been agitated by a sudden and final flare of summer; one headed to the gleaming calm of Brighton and the other to the roar and bustle of the city.
They sat opposite one another in the window seats of their compartment. The train was still motionless after the departure time passed. More people clambered in. Discreet conversation was no longer possible, especially when a colicky infant next to William began screaming in his ear.
He was trying not to fidget nervously. His shirt collar was cutting into his throat and his black suit was unabatedly attracting heat. He closed his eyes for the length of a few heartbeats then slowly blinked them open. Elizabeth was there, out of her seat. She was much too close when he already felt like he was drowning. Leaning nearer, she pressed her handkerchief over his clenched fist; it was a utilitarian act. It didn’t mean what it would have from another woman — the ladies of his class had elaborate codes, with their handkerchiefs alone. If a lady drew her handkerchief across her cheek: she was in love you, but drawn through her hand: she hated you. Such misunderstandings had made a mockery of him in the past. From Elizabeth, it was a sign of friendship. He dabbed it against his brow as she returned to her seat. The smell of sweet violets, the flower of Aphrodite, invaded his senses — not calming but at least distracting.
The train came to life and slowly whistled into motion. Its conductor, with the balance of a captain at sea, shunted the carriage doors open. William paid for his and Elizabeth's tickets. The man stared at Elizabeth until she balled up her unadorned ring finger. He returned William’s change with a sly look on his face. The mixture of lechery and disapproval grated on William's nerves. Had he shamed Elizabeth? From an outside perspective, their acquaintance seemed improper; his hatred of locomotives was reinforced.
Elizabeth was dappled by sunlight — her hair glowed — as she looked out of the window. Did she seem more distant now? He focused on the passing landscape instead. The tracks took them into the haze of the beautiful grimy city with flickering images of green parks interspersed. The infant beside him finally settled.
After arriving at Victoria, the rest of their journey was by foot. They skirted around St. James’s Park — avoiding any stray pelicans. While William wouldn’t be ashamed to lose a fight to a vampire with a pelican was another matter. It might make the paper though and give Elizabeth her bird article: Man Pecked to Death by Pelican. Not the Ovidian transformation of woman into bird, but it might do. He was sure she had an amusing anecdote to go with her request, but it would save.
“We’ll need a cover story,” Elizabeth said, stopping at the sign for Arlington Street, “if our connection to the household is questioned. We’ll say we’re distant family from the country,” she suggested self-assuredly.
“What part of the country?”
“I only know London,” Elizabeth grumbled, before blurting out, “Canterbury?”
“I have been there,” William nodded enthusiastically before looking past her, wondering how to broach his next subject. He forced the words free from the riggings of his vocal cords. “And of our connection, what are we to claim?”
“Before, I’d say I was Sir Wyndam's niece visiting from America. We’d travel with one of his daughters so that no one might think—,” she twisted her hands into fist, a slight sneer on her lips, “that they not think I was his mistress.”
William raised an eyebrow slightly shocked at her bluntness. She lowered her gaze to the cobbled streets.
“I didn’t fail to see the look the conductor gave us,” she said, blushing a little. He was reminded of Cecily’s face pinking with shame when his poetry — unmistakably about her — had been public spectacle. Did Elizabeth feel disgust by the implied image of them entwined together in a tangle of sheets and flesh. Was she scandalised? Ashamed? Any such sentiment explained her inability afterwards to cast her eyes on him until they’d departed the train.
“If anyone enquiries about us we should say that we are wed. I have a ring.” Her hands went to the nape of her neck, untwisting a hidden bow. A plain silver band appeared from the front of her high collar dress. She placed it on her hand and eyed it critically. “Hopefully none should look closely. It does not match the fine cut of your suit.”
“Why would anyone believe such a match?” he said, disappointment straining his voice. William couldn’t believe it. He’d failed to ever secure a woman’s attention let alone her eternal vows to be his. He was certainly beneath Elizabeth’s attentions. If she’d been out in society, instead of the slayer, she’d have had her pick of suitors. The reams of poetry written on her exquisiteness and exuberance would have provided enough heat to fuel a home through the coldest of winters.
“If I wore my best dress I might pass suspicion.” She pouted, eyeing her hand-me-down dress — the coarse, faded material too loose across her shoulders. “You are right,” she inferred agreement from his silence. “It is clear we were not born into the same station of life. A love match then. You wished not to change my ill manners or questionable wardrobe.”
Love match was even less believable, but he managed to keep that particular judgement to himself. “Here.” He fished his mother’s wedding ring from his breast pocket. “This might help with the deception. It was my mother’s; she hoped that one day I might marry.”
It gleamed, promising potential denied to the likes of him. He placed it in her palm. He couldn’t slip it onto her finger. It was too cruel a fantasy to indulge in. It fit her perfectly.
“Now take my arm.” She tipped her head at him expectantly. “It’s what one does after taking someone’s hand.”
Was she jesting? He’d never walked with a lady — it implied courtship. She was sure to notice something amiss. Trembling fingers, tensed muscles — a physiological response was sure to betray him.
Elizabeth gave a huge sigh. Tired of waiting, she hooked her hand around his biceps and pulled him in step with her.
Her skirt swished against his leg with every step. The heat of her bare arm seeped through the sleeve of his jacket. He tried to hollow himself out into indifference.
Elizabeth spotted the right address and tugged him down the steps towards the front door. She turned towards him sharply. “I’m not good at this,” she said worriedly, like she’d forgotten why they were here until that moment. “We should have snuck in.” She sighed in defeat. Her free hand hovered against the door and the other constricted painfully around his arm. He knocked the door in her place, to both their surprises.
“It shall be quite alright,” he consoled her. “If we’d been caught breaking in, they’d have called for a constable.”
The door swung open before Elizabeth could argue that a constable would only be a problem for William.
A young maid with a sickly complex stood and glowered at them from the house’s threshold. Her eyes were pale and showed no strength, but there was plenty of energy in her voice. “Yes? Who might you two be?”
“We’re distant relatives of the family that lived here,” Elizabeth began her rushed explanation. “We have spent all night travelling from Canterbury to pay our final respects to them and offer our condolence to you.”
“Then you made your long trek down here for nothing, didn’t you? Nothing here for carrion like you to pick off the bone.” The maid’s mouth twisted into a malicious curve. “The eldest son is inheriting everything as soon as he returns from his grand European tour. So you’re out of luck.”
Elizabeth placed her foot in corner of the door before it could be slammed upon them. “What bit you?” she asked, calmly.
“You were here when it happened, weren’t you?” Elizabeth said, her voice a gentle prod.
The maid was quiet for so long William thought she wouldn’t tell them anything. “They said he was a priest.” She took a steadying breath. “But he was death, I think. They travelled far, like you. And only asked that they might rest a moment and trouble me for a drink. I invited them in.” She rubbed at her throat. “One of them bit me and then threw me against the wall… I crawled away.”
She looked to Elizabeth again, as if awaiting judgement.
“You did all you could,” Elizabeth said definitively. “If it's possible, I need you to tell us what you can recall. I want to stop these monsters.”
“The priest,” she breathed shakily, “he wore a hood but his face — I thought I was mad. I couldn’t tell the police — they’d cart me off to bedlam.” She laughed harshly. “His eyes were yellow, mouth stained red and teeth like razors. More bat than man. But the other three were beautiful. Only one was a man — sounded vaguely Irish. The woman who bit me was American and the other woman sounded local — but didn’t make a lick of sense. I heard young Miss Jane screaming as I got to the street and I kept going.” Her eyes were wide with remembered horror. “The bobbies said they didn’t take anything but I noticed Miss Jane’s china doll Edith was gone.”
Elizabeth decided it would be best to return to Arlington Street at nightfall. It was familiar hunting ground to the vampires now; home still to any fledglings they might have been made. They headed to Watchers Council Headquarters for research materials to compile a rogue's gallery for their potential vampire gang. William was disgusted that Elizabeth couldn't follow him in the building. Women — even Slayers — were barred . He held his anger in and gave her his pocket-sized volume of The Sonnets for the Portuguese — Elizabeth to Elizabeth. He left her sitting on a bench in the sun where he would rather have remained.
William went straight to the library, not caring to reacquaint himself with the men from yesterday. He found Mr Griffith, the head librarian, shelving in the charms and curse section of the library. Griffith was pushing the books into an even line with a small wooden block. Satisfied with his work, he turned to face William. “I ask you Pratt, what kind of monster puts Mcs before Macs?”
“People are careless,” William agreed, surprised by the older man’s sudden lack of formality.
“I heard of your promotion. Congratulations are in order.” He got to his feet and held out his hand. William had been ready to awkwardly shake hands with him. “Your list?”
William took his book list from out of his pocket. Griffith took it and quickly scanned through it.
“Calliope’s Encyclopedia of Magic?” Griffith read aloud, seemingly impressed by its inclusion. “We only have a reference copy, but you are no longer governed by the reference only rule.”
“I would not presume.”
“Presume. My books might now save lives, though I argue a good book can change a life, but in your hands they might now save the world.” He grinned. “I will send them to you. Then I expect them returned in good order and to see you here again after your work with the slayer is completed.” Why was her death a forgone conclusion for everyone else? He must reject such thinking. “Master Giles will not cease in his prattling to me without you to keep him company.”
“It has been but a day.”
“A day to many.” He closed his eyes and huffed. He gave the list another once over, “We have Rhinehardt’s Compendium but it needs repairing. I’ll do a quick shelf check for the others and be back with you momentarily.”
William waited by the window overlooking the courtyard where he knew Elizabeth to be. She was difficult to spot. She was thumbing through the poetry book he’d left her for amusement — sadly, he hadn't a pack of cards to leave her with too.
Her muscles seemed to tense as she looked up at imposing facade of the building. Was she counting in her head all the injustices inflicted on her and all the facets of her life controlled from this very hub? Or she was planning on how to break in and rifle through another library? Her demeanour transformed and she waved at him enthusiastically, probably drawing disapproving glance from his fellow Watchers out there. He waved back sedately, hoping that from a distance his bright smile wasn't giving himself away. She returned to her book a few moments later as a shadow came over William’s shoulder.
“Why, William you sly devil!” Henry gave an impressed whistle through his teeth. “Are you courting that young lady? Did you contrive with Milton yesterday to get out of translating recipes for a rendezvous with her? I forgive you, of course.”
“What?” William slowly ran back through Henry Giles words. “No, that’s — that’s Elizabeth Summers.”
“The slayer?” Henry asked earnestly. He was the first watcher William had spoken to who seemed to take it seriously.
“I’m her watcher now. She’s a brilliant slayer and --.” William’s smile died on his lips. What was wrong with his friend?
“No.” Henry shook his head. “No, Rosaline was already too much.”
“Cecily,” William corrected him.
“Oh, I know her name,” Henry sneered. “I was implying your romantic heart has you falling in love quickly and unwisely. And I shall not be part of it. I shall not be your Mercutio,” Henry almost seethed. “That way lies death and sword play.”
“It’s — she is — we’re friends and I wish for no more.” William didn’t recognise his own voice, maybe because he'd never lied to Henry with it before.
“Oh, no I saw the smile on your face just now.”
“She doesn’t see me as —” William waved his hands. “No woman has cast her sights on me.”
“That you’ve noticed. There's a first for everything.”
William clenched his jaw. “Fine. My heart is — captured.”
“When she dies, what will it do to you?” He looked William straight in the eyes. “And any hint of impropriety will put you in hot water with the Council.”
“I know. You think I don't, but I do.”
Henry nodded and patted William's shoulder. It was the second time he’d offered William such a comforting gesture within the year. William knew Henry thought there'd be a third time. They never agreed on everything.
“Now.” Henry suddenly grinned. “I wish to meet this girl that has enchanted you so thoroughly.”
“What, why?” Elizabeth wasn't exactly keen on watchers.
“So that I might steal her away from you.” He rolled his eyes. “William, I am a happily married man. My wife, however, could do better than I, and I wish not to upset her. I want the slayer's advice on a matter with a demon I’m having. Wait here. I need to get my papers.”
Elizabeth sat on a bench in the Watchers Council’s courtyard as she waited for Mr Pratt to return. Their headquarters faced out onto the busy street of Pall Mall. She’d wrongly assumed that they’d have wanted to be more discreet about their existence. After all, they demanded secrecy from their slayers. But here they were out in the open with their opulent Westminster offices; a continuous flurry of palled men decked in dark expensive suits frequenting their ornate doors. They blended perfectly into the political and commercial heart of the city. How deep did their influence go? Were they the reason behind a small, dreary islands bureaucratic and violent rise to power? Faced with that possibility, Elizabeth felt even her own strength and skills would be paltry if she was ever pitted against them.
Why had she never noticed their building before? There was no chance that she could have missed it. Had to be a glamour. The spell must only allow for a shallow awareness of the structure’s existence but block any further curiosity from the otherwise unaware. It’d be enough to keep demons, witches and even slayers from investigating any closer. Such magic would take a lot of energy — costly to the caster and the Council’s coffers; it had to be there for more than mere caution. Could it be that their fortress had been stormed in the past? Elizabeth could understand why; she did feel a mild desire to ransack their haven herself, nothing devastatingly malicious: some cracked spectacles, shattered tea cups and a few unpalatable manuscripts rendered in two. Shake them up. Make them feel as impermanent as they had made her. But what good would it do, really? It’d probably earn her a more direct assassination attempt on her next birthday. And what would the Council do to the watcher of such an unruly slayer? A watcher who’d helped his slayer shatter another one of their illusions by revealing their location to her; a weakness in their defense.
Pratt was in their stronghold now. It was unnerving being stuck out here imagining all the patronizing things they could be saying to him about her. Oh, but you must always keep them in line. You have to understand Slayers don’t have the same depth of feelings as you and I do. Not long now, old chap — most give up like old mares at her age. He must hate it; she had to believe that. Pratt hadn’t given her a reason to doubt him. There’d been no signs that he was like any of the other watchers she’d met. True, he did look the part. He wore the livery of his tweedy order: made to measure three piece suit with the glint of a gold watch chain strung across the lower rungs of his ribcage. She’d also noticed, as he’d made his way across the gravel towards the Council’s main building, that he’d inherited the overly formal walk of a watcher. Spine straight, head held high but blinkered forward like a workhorse in its harness — focused on the defined path ahead. It was a demi-march — probably drilled into them when they started crawling but before they were forced to shed humor and kindness. Pratt must have been resolute enough to resist the majority of his training — notwithstanding the standardized posture and attire. So, why had they given her such an unorthodox watcher? It didn’t make sense. Was it an oversight, or had they failed to see him as she had done? Whatever the reason, she was glad of it. The situation she now found herself in, for once, had vastly worked out in her favor and she had every intention to make the most out of their mistake.
Pratt had left in her care his pocket-sized copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Another difference of his. She’d never known Wyndam, or the late Mr Crowley, to open a book which wasn’t on such unvaried topics as demonic phrenology or a vaguely worded yet terrifying prophecy, which witches out roaming on a Scottish heath would have found ambiguous.
The pages in his clothbound book were delicately dotted with faint penciled-in notes; thoughtful attempts to unknot meaning from the printed lines of poetry. In the same careful hand, she found his name written on the inside of the front cover: William Pratt. Now that Elizabeth had his full name she didn’t know what to do with it. Names were powerful things to have.
The smell of sweet violets had imprinted itself onto the book. It must have been pressed against the handkerchief she’d given to him on the train. She’d seen him tuck the material into one of his pockets. Was it a mistake to give him the small scrap of fabric? Had she given into the same impulse which had compelled him to give her poetry? She hadn’t dared address what she had done and William had minimized his own actions. His long fingers had fluttered at his sides before he curled them into stable fists and claimed to simply being leaving her with a form of entertainment. Sadly, he admitted he’d not had the foresight to bring a deck of cards with him, though he doubted a meager game of cards would hold the same excitement as one of her games of solitaire on a sarcophagus. His eyes had then sought hers for her amusement and once satisfied in his search he averted his gaze. He took a deep breath and uttered how unjust it was that she was not allowed into the building — for heaven’s sake, even the British Library now permitted women into their reading room. It was absolutely archaic, was what it was.
The tendons in Elizabeth’s arm twitched with her need to reach out to William to comfort them both. If he hadn’t dared meet her eyes again, she might have been brave enough to entwine her fingers with his. His mouth contorted into a smile. He quipped that at least out here she wasn’t in danger of dying from complete tedium — his fellow watchers were even far less charming than himself. She had been in no doubt of that.
Fatal tedium felt like a real possibility now. William had to return soon. She glanced back at the building in front of her, scanning its facade. Her eyes were drawn to a black suited figure standing at one of the second story windows. It was William. He appeared to be observing the crowded courtyard below but his features were unreadable from her current vantage. His face was obscured further by the luminous reflection of the sun playing on the glass pane separating them. Was he looking for her?
She waved at him. Her arm moved in a ridiculous wide arch before she could think to stop herself. After a few painful moments, her enthusiastic waving was met by the slow lift of William’s left hand and then a dash of his open palm — much more understated, hesitant. Elizabeth looked away. A small laugh escaped her. Why the hell had she gone and done that for? Slayers didn’t frivolously wave at their watchers, and if they happened to by accident, well, their pulses certainly didn’t rabbit and they didn’t get all flustered about it.
The flusteredness — a small fraction of it — was due to the glares of disapproval she was receiving from the surrounding Council members. Good. They probably deserved to have their blissfully sunny afternoon disrupted by a slayer’s vulgar social graces — not that they knew she was the chosen one. She probably looked like a devoted wife waiting for her beloved to be done with his important Council business for the day. Watchers were of course allowed to have such connections, unlike her. How was that fair? They got to keep their families and friends; she got ripped away from her mother and sister, rarely saw her friends and then in secret, and now she’d been given a false wedding ring. She wondered at William’s lack of a wife. Not that it was unusual that he’d yet to be married; men weren’t forced into the arrangement, especially so early, but he must at least be at an age where it was a consideration. He would make a good husband — to someone. Someone could already be waiting in the wings: a nice heiress with the proper watcherly connections. It could explain them promoting him to being her watcher. Give him a prestigious position to make him more suitable to marry one of their daughters off to when his current obligation ended, once Elizabeth was just another dead, mostly forgotten slayer. No, William would surely remember her.
Elizabeth eased her grip from around the spine of William’s book. It was best not to dwell on such heavy topics, especially a future which didn’t include herself. The future wasn’t her remit; there was no future of hers to shape, claim or share. The slayer lived in the moment. She was alone, no one belonged to her and she didn’t belong to anyone else, not truly. But William had somehow already become, in some undefinable way, hers. She felt it — a small spark of a thing in the darkest of nights. If she was sensible, she’d snuff it out. She’d curb her humanity, focus on her mission and abstract notions of heroism. But she didn’t want to. God, did she not know what to do.
She tipped her hand back against the bench with a sigh — William really should have left her with a pack of playing cards to distract herself with. Usually, she would occupy herself by watching the people around her. She’d imagine what their lives really contained, which in the city after dark could be horrific, but the people who belonged to the daylight hours seemed softer. They belonged to a more patient side of life which she’d only experienced as a child, a fantasy. But today she was surrounded by the council and their inner lives did not hold the same rosy tint to them. Still, she at least could still enjoy the novelty of being outside under a clear blue sky. It wasn’t the familiar color of her washed-out day dress — it was closer to the warm shade of blue of William’s eyes. Elizabeth closed her own eyes. She slowed her breathing down as the sun’s rays seeped through her eyelids and her skin. The warmth was relaxing. Her thoughts slowed.
Elizabeth’s sense were suddenly alert as they fluttered like a snared bird. Had she been asleep? She was surprised at the ease she must have dozed off with. William’s book was being carefully drawn away from her weakened hold. No further prickles of danger announced themselves — safe, then. Her muscles went lax and her eyes remained closed.
“Stop, thief,” she muttered through a lazy grin as she grasped the culprit’s wrist in a loose grip. The smooth slide of a suit’s sleeve against her fingertips confirmed her suspicions of the man’s identity. His wrist flexed against her strength but he made no attempt to flee from her.
“A thief, am I?” William sighed, pretending to be affronted by her accusation.
“Yes, I believe that you are.” She grinned despite her act. “And I made a promise to defend this book at all personal cost — up until the point of disturbing my sleep.”
William gave a soft chuckle which had become one of her favorite sounds. “Do you think that will stop a noted criminal such as myself?” he asked. His voice had dropped to a lower pitch. “I should not hesitate at the mere prospect of disturbing a young lady’s afternoon nap. This cheap, annotated text must be worth some sum of money.”
He stepped closer to her, his hand turned slightly and his thumb skated across her pulse point. Her blood pounded at its post-wave speed. It was a second. Was it an accident? Not being able to see him made it easier to pretend nothing was amiss. “Never, in all my years,” she replied haughtily, “have I faced such an evil and yet unintentionally, unambitious criminal.”
“Unambitious?” He tutted. “I would have you know, its true owner would pay a handsome reward for the safe return of his property.”
Elizabeth's eyes slid open as she nudged the book into his hand. “My reward then?”
William visibly swallowed, his adam’s apple bobbed forcing any words down with it. He took a step back. She reluctantly relinquished him from her hold. Had she done something wrong?
“I would have left you sleeping,” he admitted sincerely, the false confidence of his persona discarded. His eyes landed on the sonnets still balanced on the edge of her lap and travelled down her leg to her toe. “But a dropped book to the foot is an entirely unpleasant way in which to wake up.”
“Then you haven’t been roused from sleep by a Howler demon looming over you.” She shuddered. “The shrieking will set your teeth on edge, but it’s nothing compared to their stench.”
“I’ve never had the misfortune myself,” William replied, tucking his book into his breast pocket. The silence between them made her feel off-kilter.
“You weren’t waiting long while I was sleeping, were you?”
“Only a moment. You looked so peaceful, I—,” He abandoned his words in favor of the sweetest smile she’d ever seen. He glanced around surreptitiously at the crowded courtyard before he sat beside her — closer than he’d done the night before.
Elizabeth finally noticed a huge stack of books he must have placed on the bench before he’d woken her. “Those could really damage a foot.”
“I shall have to be very careful then.” He picked up the first volume from off the unstable tower and flipped it open in his hands. There was a flicker of a smirk on his lips, contradicting his otherwise serious countenance. “The Council frowns upon crippling slayers with heavy books.”
“Lighter ones are acceptable, then?” she asked, matching his mood. “Oh, but that might damage the priceless books. You can’t have that.”
“Well, of course they only use the books that are no longer of any use.” He sighed dramatically. “Ones on innocus and extinct demons, or prophecies that turned out to be fragments from ancient cookbooks. And then they exclusively drop them on the heads of the trainee watchers.” He held the open diary towards her. “I managed to retrieve a few watcher’s journals.”
“They just allowed you to take it?”
“Allowed? Did we not just surmise that I am a notorious book thief?”
She plucked the book from his hand, raising her eyebrows at him.
“I borrowed them, then,” he admitted, elaborating, “with permission and the requisite paperwork which was signed by myself and the head librarian. And then he only gave me access to certain entries. Nothing that might implicate current watchers or their relatives with any scandals or wrongdoing. I assume.”
“But they still have them? Under lock and key?”
He gave a faint nod of agreement. “And a mystical barrier of some kind.”
Amelia might know what protective spell they would have used. It might even be one of her own. She had done some independent alchemy work for the Council when she was younger before she’d become the second Mrs Crowley. Elizabeth couldn’t ask Amelia about it because she doubted she’d approve of her fixation with getting her hands on Watchers’ journals. She knew the risks weren’t worth it. Besides they were unlikely to contain anything real about the slayers before her.
“Did you learning anything about our vampires?” she asked, returning the diary to its original place.
“I was drawing something of a blank until I spoke with a fellow translator, Mr Giles. I— before this present time worked on translating”—he shook his head—“which is immaterial to the — well, he recalled an old and powerful vampire who fit the description of the fraudulent priest. He’s called The Master.”
The Master? Why did those in power always have such self-important names? At least it was succinct. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s the head of the order of Aurelius,” William elaborated. “It was rumoured that around a century ago his kingdom was somewhere beneath the city.”
She’d definitely need to hunt the sewers now. She hated the sewers — she’d need better shoes, possibly wellingtons. Practical, though they wouldn’t strike her foes with fear and weren’t the best for delivering a decent kick in. “Whereabouts under London?”
“Somewhere under Holborn where there’s now the underground railway.”
“Then the best place to begin is still under Arlington street then.”
“No,” William blurted out. He seemed as surprised by his words as she was. “Sorry, what I mean is it’s too dangerous at present until we know more. He always surrounds himself with powerful vampires, not mere disposable minions.”
“They’re all disposable when you stake them.” She gave him a half smile, attempting to lighten things between them. He didn’t return her amusement for the first time. Had the idea of her death already become real to him? She wouldn’t have that.
“Best to exercise caution. Hunt them on neutral ground. Not seek them out in their den.”
“We should find out why he’s here.” Elizabeth gathered up the books and got to her feet. “I still think they were looking for something in that house. Nobody living can tell us, but I know people who can contact spirits.”
Amelia definitely could but Elizabeth still felt it best to keep her away from William. Her friends Francesca and Henry could help. They owned a small bookshop near Kings Cross which had a large occult section. It was popular with the spiritualist crowds: the real ones and the posers.
“Right, yes, and more research is needed.” William scanned the crowd and lowered his voice. “You know that I am the first to speak ill of my fellow watchers. But my friend Mr Giles extended an invitation for us to dine at his home tomorrow evening,” He looked down at his interlocked knuckles. “But only if you wish to.”
“Why?” Present company aside, she did not want to have a meal with a watcher. She’d worry about small talk and if she was using the right cutlery. Why so many damned spoons?
“He wants to help his brother-in-law with a demon problem but the Council will not involve themselves. It’s his father, really. He doesn’t approve of Mr Giles wife.”
“She’s not up to their standard then.” She rolled her eyes. “If I say no, will you still dine with him?”
“Yes, he’s my only real friend in the Council and I trust him implicitly.”
“Then for your sake, I will accept the invite.”