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The Case of the Spellbound Child

The Case of the Spellbound Child

by Mercedes Lackey

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Overview

The fourteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series continues the reimagined adventures of Sherlock Holmes in a richly-detailed alternate 20th-century England.

While Sherlock is still officially dead, John and Mary Watson and Nan Killian and Sarah Lyon-White are taking up some of his case-load--and some for Lord Alderscroft, the Wizard of London.

Lord Alderscroft asks them to go to Dartmoor to track down a rumor of evil magic brewing there. Not more than four hours later, a poor cottager, also from Dartmoor, arrives seeking their help. His wife, in a fit of rage over the children spilling and spoiling their only food for dinner that night, sent them out on the moors to forage for something to eat. This is not the first time she has done this, and the children are moor-wise and unlikely to get into difficulties. But this time they did not come back, and in fact, their tracks abruptly stopped "as if them Pharisees took'd 'em." The man begs them to come help.

They would have said no, but there's the assignment for Alderscroft. Why not kill two birds with one stone?

But the deadly bogs are not the only mires on Dartmoor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780756412135
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: 12/03/2019
Series: Elemental Masters Series , #14
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 16,815
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the best-selling Heralds of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator.

Read an Excerpt

1

Alf grinned as he pushed open the whorehouse door into the damp London night. Good pay for an easy job had brought him and Reg enough to splash out on a night of it, and he was feeling fine.

Then a blinding flash whited everything out, at the same time that Alf’s head erupted in excruciating pain.

Then flailing, then falling, falling.

Then for a moment, nothing.

And a moment later, he found himself standing in a gray fog, though there’d been no fog when he stepped out of the whorehouse. He stared straight into the eyes of his mate, good old Reg, who’d been a few steps behind him.

When had he turned? What had hit him?

Reg held a lead cosh in his right hand, and stared down at the street at his feet.

Wut? Was ­we. . . .

Reflexively, he stared down ­too—​­and saw his own body lying face down in the dirt in front of the whorehouse door, with Reg between the body and the temporarily empty street. Two and two added up toReg just bashed me ’ead ­in. . . .

Bloody ’Ell!

And at just that moment, when he was torn between blind rage and shock, he felt something he’d never felt before: a cold chill, agraveyard chill, and a strong, almost irresistible pull at his back, as if something had just gaped open behind him and was about to suck him in.

Instinct did the rest. So instead of flying at Reg in a fury, he leapt forward, into the street, into the path of a ­slow-​­moving, transparent cart, which did not so much as pause for him as it passed right through him. Or he passed through ­it. . . .

That wasn’t what had his attention, as he whirled to see what had been behind him. It was a gaping, swirling hole where the whorehouse door had been, behind where he had been standing, a bottomless hole that drank in what little light there was and let none escape.

That was when he realized, somewhere in his head too deep for thoughts, that he wasn’t just hurt, he wasdead, that his “mate” Reg had just murdered him, and that the hole would have sucked him down to Hell if he hadn’t jumped out of its reach. Why it couldn’t do sonow, he had no idea, but he didn’t intend to stick around long enough to find out. As Reg stuffed the cosh in his back pocket and bent down to start rifling through Alf’s clothes for valuables, Alf turned and ran.

Through the pub on the other side of the street. Without opening the door.

The moving shadows, the transparent figures bellied up to the bar paid him no heed as he sprinted straight across the pub floor and out into the “area” in the back. And straight through the privy. He stopped just short of the next building, not because he was ­winded—​­he wasn’­t—​­but because shock stopped him.

Everything past the pub wall was lost in the shadows and fog, but he still felt that hole to Hell out there. Waiting. Waiting for him to accept his fate and let it take him.

“Ye keep on waitin’!” he shouted, his voice curiously thin and reedy, scarcely more than a whistle. He looked down at himself. He looked exactly as he remembered himself when he’d left the whore’s room and come down to wait for Reg. Moleskin trousers, bracers, threadbare shirt, battered tweed jacket, boots badly in need of resoling. ­But . . . faded, what little color there had been all drained away, leaving everything in shades of gray. Just like everything around him. And other than ­emotion . . . he didn’t feel anything. Not tired. Not in pain. Not hungry, though he’d been famished a moment before, and about to suggest to Reg that they get a meal at the pub. He wasn’t cold or hot, and he couldn’t smell a thing, and he knew the “area” back here reeked of shit and urine. And he could see through everything except himself.

Instinct, which had served him well until Reg betrayed him, told him that his smartest move was to stay still and quiet until he had a better lay of the land. So wait he did, as pub patrons came and used the privy or just pissed against the nearest wall. And he never felt a moment of fatigue, for what might have been minutes, or might have been hours, until that cold, dark tugging at his ­insides . . . stopped.

Cautiously, he stepped through the pub wall, feeling something like resistance this time as he forced his way through it. It ­was—​­well, he wasn’t sure what it was like, only that he didn’t much like the feeling, but it was better than waiting for another drunk to come out here to piss and open the door. Through the passage he went, then passed with a shiver right through all the blokes crowded up against the bar, then caught a bit of luck and got through the front door along with a staggering drunk.

The hole in the air was gone. It felt like a victory, and he whooped and shot his fist straight up, then shook it at where the hole had been. “Yew ain’t got me, yer barsterd! Yew ain’t gonna get me neither! Oi’m too tough fer ’Eaven an’ too smart fer ’Ell!”

He stood there, rejoicing in his achievement, for quite some time, as wraiths of people and carts and the occasional cab passed through him. But eventually, as the elation wore off the thought came slowly creeping up upon him.

Now what?

After fruitlessly looking for ­Reg—​­though what he was supposed to do if he found Reg, he had no ­idea—​­he went to stand by his unmoving body and brooded down at it.

He was a ghost now, he supposed. It was clear given the way that the living passed right through him that revenge on Reg was flat out of the question. So what was he to do with himself now?

Ghosts apparently didn’t eat, drink, or need shelter; and he didn’t feel anything at all except emotion. For a very long time he stood there, staring at his body, which lay conveniently out of the way of traffic. A few other people stared at it too, and moved on, as he himself would have done had he ­encountered—​­say, good old ­Reg—​­in a similar state. Dead bodies on the pavement were not an uncommon sight at night in this part of London, and once they’d been looted were regarded more as an inconvenience than a curiosity, much less a horror.

Just as he began to wonder if anyone was going to do anything about him before dawn, the police “body wagon” showed up to collect it, the loaders picking him up by the shoulders and heels like a bit of old rubbish and unceremoniously heaving him up into the ­wagon-​­bed with three others like him, another man, a child, and an old woman.

And the wagon rolled off. He knew what came next: the morgue, someone going through his pockets in a vain attempt to find something to identify him, finding nothing because of course Reg had taken everything, maybe a day before he was either dumped in a common grave with the other unidentified stiffs or (more likely) sold off to medical students. So there was no reason whatsoever to follow that wagon.

In fact, the only thing that really mattered, the thing that made him red hot with anger, was that bloody Reg was going to get away with it all.

And even then, he couldn’t sustain the anger. It bled out of him like water in a sieve, leaving him, once again, feeling nothing, and wondering what to do with himself.

One by one he ticked off all the things that used to give him pleasure, and realized they were all things he couldn’t do now. Eat, drink, natter with the lads, gamble, whore, sleep in a good soft ­bed—

Did ghosts sleep? If he could pass through walls and people, a bed probably wouldn’t hold him.

He realized he’d been staring at the spot where his body had been all the time he’d been thinking, and raised his eyes as the whorehouse door opened to let out another customer.

­Well . . . I can still watch.

 

When the madam closed the door on the last of the evening’s customers, once again, he found himself with nothing to do. Watching had ­been . . . exciting at first, but not for very long. He soon realized that without a body to be aroused, watching other people rut was disappointing. In fact, the only interesting thing was watching and listening to the girls when they weren’t futtering. He’d always assumed they were getting pleasure out of it all too; after all, they certainly made all the sounds and expressions of someone having a good time.

Except it turned out that they weren’t.

He’d never kept to any one house or any one girl; he’d always told himself it was no use having a favorite, because if the girl found out shewas a favorite, she might start asking things of him, like presents, or for him to keep her. The one he couldn’t afford, and the other would be as bad as a wife, and more expensive, with none of the advantages, like putting her to work for him, and Hell’s own chance of getting her to take a real job after the easy work of lying on her back in bed for her money.

So he’d never caught any of the girls he used at the tricks he caught them at now.

Like, using the exact same words and actions on every single man that took them upstairs. It was like watching a play, over and over and over.

This was a house with only four girls, and he had half the night to watch ’em at it. He’d stayed with the Irish gel after she’d sent off a sailor, because he’d been curious enough about what she did between men not to leave for another room. Wash up, it turned out, and wearing an expression of utter weariness while doing so. He’d been about to leave when a second mark came pushing open the door, but her first words to him stuck him in place, because they wereidentical to what she’d said to the first lad he’d watched her with.

“Oh, come in, me foine boyo! Sure, and with such a foine lad as yew at me door, I’ll nivver go back to Ireland!”

And after that, every word, every action, was identical to her performance with the sailor, right down to the timing of every sigh and cry.

And when he slipped into the other rooms, he discovered it was the same with the other three girls. The only time they changed their ­performance—​­and even then, it was only the “before” and “after,” not the act ­itself—​­was with someone they’d had before.

By the time the madam closed the door on the heels of the last man, he was thoroughly disenchanted. Not that he’d beenenchanted by whores before, but a man liked to think he was something special in the way of a stallion, and now he knew he was just one more ­broken-​­down old nag at the back end of the stable, getting the same perfunctory rubdown and ration of dusty old hay as the rest.

He was brooding over this as he forced his way out through the closed door and into the street.

And it felt as if he had walked into a gale.

The pressure of something like a mighty wind, but not wind, forced him into a crouch, and to his horror, he felt and saw bits of himself flaking off and floating away! It took him a moment to realize that what he was fighting ­was—

—​­the morning sunlight, pouring down the street from an unusually cloudless sky.

In a complete and mindless panic he turned and forced his way back in through the closed door of the whorehouse, where he stood just inside the front passageway. He should have been shaking. He ­felt—​­lessened, somehow, as if something was missing. Reflexively, he looked down at ­himself—

—​­he could see through himself.

Terror engulfed him.

He hadn’t just imagined that the sunlight was stripping bits of himself away. He’d been eroded. His mind went blank with shock, and he fell gratefully into the blankness, because blankness was not terror.

 

He was jarred out of his shock when the madam of the house walked through him to answer a summons at the door. Outside, night had fallen. The sounds of the pub across the street came to his ears as if from a vast distance. Andhe was no longer transparent.

A dull sense of relief came to him. ­So—​­whatever the sun had done to him, there must have been a way he had healed himself over the course of the day. ­Except . . . he didn’t remember anything of the day. Nothing at all. What had happened to him wasn’t like sleep, and although it had repaired him, it hadn’t refreshed him at all. It had been more like he was a kind of clockwork that had run down, and something had just set him going again.

Or actually, more like being blackout drunk, without the fun of getting to that point.

He wasn’t sure what made him more uneasy and unhappy, nearly being torn apart and scattered on the wind by sunlight, or going all blank for the day.

And now what was he going to do? The ­night-​­time hours stretched before him, and there was not one single item in the entire list of things that used to give him pleasure that he was able to do anymore.

And the one thing he could ­do—​­spy on ­people—​­wasn’t any fun if he didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. What was the good of knowing secrets about people if you couldn’t make use of those secrets?

He stood there in the passage, brooding, while customers came and went. After last night’s revelations, he really didn’t want to watch the whores anymore.

Someone walked through him on his way upstairs, whistling “You’ll Miss Lots of Fun When You’re Married,” and this time it struck him like another (but pleasant) blow to the head thatnow he could get into any music hall and any theater in the city for free, and stay as long as he liked. In the toff seats, too!

A surge of cheer went through him at the thought, and suddenly everything seemed brighter. Bloody hell if I can’t get into them fancy toff whorehouses too! He’d heard they had all sorts of goings‑on there, music and dancing and orgies, good as a music hall or better, ’cause the girls had less on.