Many thanks for all your comments and for reading the inaugural chapter of GASLIGHT HADES. While I may not respond directly to all comments, I read and appreciate each one.
Concerning the contest for the links you provided, my apologies for being late on announcing the winner. I’m still going through the links (almost done) and should have an announcement mid-next week.
I hope those of you who checked out Dana Marton’s story THE RELUCTANT CONCUBINE have enjoyed it as much as I have. It’s the first thing I check every morning when I log on. She has me thoroughly addicted to her tale.
Regarding GASLIGHT HADES:
As with all the chapter updates I post here on the blog, I’m including the usual caveat lector with this one: This is a rough draft replete with errors of all stripes and varieties. My editors haven’t seen it, and I won’t do a self edit until the story is complete and I’m ready to turn it over to them for additional flensing prior to revision and formal publishing. In other words, this is the bed hair version.
And now, on with the show. Thank you for reading!
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2011 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
Nathaniel watched Lenore Kenward’s carriage until it disappeared behind a tree-lined esplanade. His Lenore. Despair knifed through him, as cutting and painful as that first moment of recognition when he saw her alone at her father’s graveside.
Her hat and veil hid her face, but he’d recognize that proud posture anywhere, the graceful curves of her body swathed in yards of mourning crape. He’d envied the mist that swirled over her skirts and caressed her back.
As a Guardian, he stayed hidden in the shadows of the crypts and sprawling oaks of the cemetery. His role was not to scare the living but to protect their dead. He’d broken an unspoken rule amongst his kind, manifesting in the midst of the fog and frightening the clutch of mourners gathered nearby, but he couldn’t stay away.
She had changed very little since he last saw her five years earlier—certainly in comparison to him. His appearance was the stuff of nightmares, his aspect warped by the twisted ambitions of a crazed and soulless man. Lenore did not run away in terror; she blanched with fear, but she did not run.
He drew no closer, unsure if she might yet change her mind and flee. Instead, she approached him with single-minded purpose, hesitating only briefly as she drew closer. She might be frightened, but it didn’t stop her from seeking him out. He’d almost smiled. She was still as mulish as he remembered.
When she spoke, the cane on which he leaned nearly snapped beneath his tightening fingers. He might not have forgotten her stubbornness, but the cadence of her voice had dimmed in his memory. Soft and sure, it caressed him as surely as if she reached out and stroked him with her hand, bringing back breathless recollections of a lost time. When she raised her veil to better see him, he’d almost dropped to his knees.
Some would say Lenore Kenward was an unremarkable miss, of strong intellect and banal looks—the perfect recipe for a blue-stocking spinster. Her brown eyes, dark hair and regular features didn’t fit within fashion’s definition of great beauty. Yet Nathaniel had been struck dumb at first sight of her in her father’s workshop almost a decade earlier, his bewitchment complete as he came to know her mind and character.
Even now, when no one would call him a man any longer, he remained ensorcelled, entranced and deeply in love with a woman who once rejected his proposal and now thought him dead.
“Do I know you?”
She’d rammed the knife home and twisted it for good measure with the simple question. Nathaniel thought himself no longer capable of emotions beyond the blunt satisfaction in killing resurrectionists or the equally dull grief in his existence. He’d been wrong. Those four words kindled a living fire in the empty places where his soul and heart once resided—a fire of rage and regret.
“I was your friend and your lover,” he wanted to say. “I would have been your husband had you not rejected me.” Instead he uttered none of these things, answering her with a question of his own. Even if she’d truly known him, the Nathaniel of five years ago no longer existed, only the twisted remains of his spirit were left, still bound to earth by unnatural means in an unnatural form.
He’d almost stopped her from pulling down the veil that hid her eyes and solemn mouth—a mouth he’d kissed and tasted many times. Pain, sharp and bloody, cut jagged lines into his soul, but he didn’t stop her from leaving. Lenore didn’t belong here with the dead and their keeper.
The undertaker and sextons lingered at the cemetery gates, hesitant to venture any closer but unwilling to leave an open grave uncovered. Nathaniel melted back into the concealing fog, a phantom among other phantoms. Another half hour passed before the party returned to the grave. Unlike their work on Albert Kenward’s grave, they carelessly shoveled dirt onto this casket until a loose mound formed. All three looked over their shoulders every other minute until Nathaniel thought they resembled confused pigeons. They would never see him unless he chose to reveal himself a second time, and it amused him to watch their antics.
He was not so amused when they tossed the last shovel of dirt onto the mound, packed their supplies and left the Hamlets. Neither bricked nor warded with the simplest protection spell, the grave was ripe picking for the body snatchers. Either the family didn’t care enough for their deceased to pay for the additional protections, or the undertaker took advantage of not being observed and squirreled away the extra coins into his own pockets.
“I shall have visitors tonight,” Nathaniel whispered to himself. “Regrettably, there is no tea.”
Afternoon faded to twilight and then to evening in the Hamlets, casting crypts and headstones into the silhouettes of a macabre cityscape. In the distance, London glowed from the contained fire of gas lamps, and Nathaniel watched the HMA Pollux sail the path of her nightly run. She was once his home, her crew his family. Now both were as far out of his reach as the star for which she was named.
Tonight the airship hovered low over the Hamlets, her propellers humming a mechanical dirge as steam and aether pumped from her engines. He had wondered if she might make an appearance tonight to bid farewell to the man who had made her the most formidable dirigible in the fleet.
A cascade of white flowers spilled from the open windows of the control and wing gondolas. They fell to earth with soft thuds, a snow drift of petals and stems settling on Albert Kenward’s grave and the neighboring headstones. Two flashes from a beacon light and the ship sailed on, rising higher to ride the celestial currents.
Nathaniel beckoned with two fingers, and flower petals rose from the ground, spiraling into an ivory ribbon that twined around his arm before settling in his palm in a mound of fragrant slips. He held them to his nose and breathed. Rose and lilac, lily and violet. These were from Lenore’s garden. Only the Kenward women grew such lush flowers.
The screech of metal from the oldest part of the cemetery shattered the quiet. Nathaniel didn’t move, his eyes closed as he savored the heady perfume of Lenore’s white roses and listened to the spectral voices of warning that rose around him.
“They are here. They are here.”
The wrenching iron sound was as familiar to him as birdsong–rails bent to create more space in the fence enclosing the graveyard. His visitors had finally made their appearance.
Resurrectionists always traveled in packs of no less than four, and tonight there were a half dozen. The Guardian followed them as they fanned out among the headstones, scuttling over markers, kicking aside carefully laid bouquets and charms. Considering the noise they made and the haphazard destruction of the graveyard, Nathaniel wondered why they bothered to stay hidden behind crypts and trees.
Emboldened by the lack of guards or a confrontational caretaker, the men’s voices rose from furtive whispers to casual conversation. One pointed to the spot where Lenore’s father rested and the unprotected grave nearby.
“‘ere, lads. We got a naked one and one in stays. Easy enough work tonight with two on the dirt and four on the bricks.”
Another chimed in. “The doctor’ll be ‘appy. Two blokes should keep him busy for a fortnight or so.”
“May I suggest a good book instead?”
Nathaniel smirked at the startled shouts and curses that followed his remark. Moonlight glinted on steel, and he neatly dodged the thrown dagger that whistled past his ear and struck the oak behind him with a hard thunk.
“You missed.” He casually circled their little group as they tightened into a defensive cluster.
They’d dressed for an evening of thieving, tool belts slung across their hip, picks on their backs. One man bared yellow, broken teeth at Nathaniel and raised his arm. He clutched one of the new mercurial disrupters for sale on the black market. He aimed it at Nathaniel’s heart, and his cracked grin promised murder.
“We’ll make it three blokes then, mate. I’ll bet Doc Teppes would pay ‘andsomely for a bone keeper seein’ as ‘ow you’re muckin’ up ‘is business these days.”
The de facto spokesman’s bravado lent the others courage. They snickered and two more brandished sidearms. Nathaniel braced his weight on his cane and shrugged.
“Shoot then, and let’s get this over with. I haven’t all night.” He closed his eyes for a moment and shifted, feeling his armor come alive and slither across his skin. As with the time before this, and the dozen more before that, the action was met with yelps of horror and the predictable lock and whine of a disrupter just before it fired.
He knew what they saw—a white haired, pale-eyed demon wearing armor that writhed and hissed and snapped fanged jaws in a Medusa dance around his body.
A miasma of green light filled his vision before a blunt force smashed into his chest. Nathaniel stumbled, the breath rushing out of him in a hard gasp. He righted himself with the aid of his cane. Mercurial rays that would have killed a normal man ricocheted against his rib cage and darted through his altered veins in a shower of razor-edged splinters. The living armor pulsed with verdant luminescence, shifting back to rigid angles and points that set him aglow like an ethereal gaslight.
“For God’s sake, shoot it again!”
More blasts, more green light. Nathaniel shuddered from the agonizing shock of the blows but remained standing. All his focus centered on containing the energy suffusing his body, shifting and shaping it until it emerged from his chest in a rotating sphere of emerald fire. The orb hovered between him and the resurrectionists, tiny bolts of lightning arcing along its surface.
“Dust thou art.” Nathaniel blew gently and the sphere exploded, blasting outward in a blinding surge.
It enveloped the men in radiant flame. Their screams were mere ripples on the night breeze, dampened to whimpers by the rays’ effects. Fabric and flesh melted away from bone that darkened to coal and finally disintegrated altogether until what were once five men became nothing more than the scrapings from a dirty fireplace.
Nathaniel ran the tip of his cane through one of the ash heaps, pushing aside the melted scraps of destroyed disrupters. “And unto dust shalt thou return,” he whispered.
The sepulchral chorus chanted in his ears once more. “They are gone. They are gone.”
“Yes, and good riddance.” He suffered no guilt for dispatching the vile creatures that desecrated the dead and turned them over to men who would make them lurching horrors. He wiped the cane on the dew covered grass. And people called him monster.
He left the ashes where they’d fallen. Wind and the inevitable rain shower would wash them away until they became part of cemetery earth. He paused at Kenward’s grave. “Be at peace, friend.” He scooped up another handful of petals. Frail slips drifted between his fingers as he carried them through the graveyard to the caretaker’s cottage.
There would be no more thieves tonight. They were a territorial lot and staked their claims on certain burial grounds on certain nights. Once others discovered this band no longer offered a challenge, a new group would take their place to do the nefarious Dr. Teppes’s work. Nathaniel snorted derisively at the pompous pseudonym.
A carafe of wine awaited him at the house, left by the wife of the rector who attended the adjacent chapel. No amount of wine or ale would ever dull his senses again, but he could find some lost measure of humanity in the simple act of enjoying a libation.
The cottage had once been a homey place, despite its location. Now it reflected the cemetery’s hushed solemnity. Nearly empty of furniture, the rooms lay in darkness, broken only by bars of moonlight filtered through panes of cloudy glass. Dust drifted across Nathaniel’s feet and rose in a murky cloud when he sat at a rickety table in what was once the parlor and poured wine into a pewter chalice.
Cool on his lips, the wine was sweet and tasted of summer—or what he remembered of summer. An image spun before his eyes, of a grey-eyed girl with an easy smile and long dark hair that glinted red in the sun.
“Lenore.” White rose petals danced across the table, and the name echoed in the void.