In Azgarth’s Shadow
Cassie Sweet © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Light caressed Lady Clarissa’s bare breasts, creating interesting shadows as supplied by the long dark hair that cascaded over her shoulders in tousled curls. The strands revealed as much as they hid. She lay on the bed, gaze fixed out the window, staring at the moonlight. A pensive expression filled her lovely face. She didn’t do pensive well. Pouting and preening were more in line with her nature. Oh, there were the intrigues, instigations, and incidents, but they were solely to amuse.
“How much longer, Nicholas?”
“Not too much, my dear.”
Nicholas Alexandre put the finishing touches on the canvas and stepped back from his work. He’d painted her as Tatiana from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most people assumed Shakespeare wrote the play as a fanciful comedy. What they didn’t know, or understand, was the fact the Bard wrote it from his experiences of the fae realm.
Lady Clarissa was as much Tatiana as any woman Nicholas had ever known. Petty and jealous, she lived in a world where her needs and desires were met at the cost of those around her. He indulged her because her behavior, though outrageous, amused him. He enjoyed the way her schemes horrified society. These days, it was the only thing that lifted his grief.
He studied the details of the painting, not quite satisfied with the illumination. Not to worry, he’d add flourishes later. For now, he was exhausted and wanted only to pack up his paints and—
The door burst open and banged against the wall.
“You wretched whore!”
Lady Clarissa screamed and grabbed at a sheet to shield her naked torso from her enraged husband. “My heart, it’s not what you think.”
Sir Rodderick Danworth laughed and held the dueling pistol pointed at Nicholas’s stomach. “You expect me to believe that? In my own bedroom?”
Nicholas wiped paint from his brush, unperturbed that the angry husband threatened his life. “As you see, I came here to work. I’m nothing more than a humble painter.”
The laugh this time came out bitter, pained. “There is nothing humble about you. Do your promises mean nothing?”
A prick of conscience and a slight brush of regret. “My word is still good, but my purse is not subject to the whims of honor. I still need to eat and live. I have a grieving mother to support.”
The fact his mother hadn’t left her bed since his sister’s death, notwithstanding.
Rodderick kept his gaze focused on Nicholas, much as a hunter might a wild animal. Something stirred in the depths of his eyes, not entirely of the man himself. “You are nothing more than a deceiver. A liar.”
Nicholas inclined his head in a subtle acknowledgment of the accusation and let his suspicions fall to the ground unvoiced. “And so I am what the world has made me.”
Realization and pain morphed into fury, filling Rodderick’s eyes. He fought an inner demon that shone in the dark depths. The gun went off.
Nicholas watched in horror as the shot struck him true. Crimson bloomed across the front of his white shirt, spreading like paint through a jar of mineral spirits. Odd how no pain registered.
The paintbrush dropped from fingers that no longer worked. Sound became a distant, hollow thing. A scream came from behind him, but even that had the quality of a train entering a tunnel, the whistle fading into the dark earth.
If he’d had the ability, Nicholas would have laughed. A mortal wound would not kill one such as him; it only released him into the hands of the fae master, Azgarth. And therein lay his real fear. Servitude on this plane was one of commerce, a way to provide for his family in the manner they’d become accustom. Being one of the chosen in the fae realm for eternity was not the thing of beauty Azgarth promised. The thing he’d seen welling in Rodderick’s eyes.
The only one to derive any pleasure from such an association was Azgarth himself. However, it might give him a chance to see Juliana again. To see if she’d been taken into the fae realm on her death and protected.
Rodderick stood over him, his face white, lips pale. Tears streamed down his face. The darkness had faded from his eyes. “Look what you made me do.”
He was unsure if Rodderick meant Nicholas, Clarissa, or Azgarth. He moved his arm to try to cover the wound and staunch the flow, but could do nothing more than watch as the blood began to soak into the carpet beneath.
Lady Clarissa finally rose from the bed. She stood over Nicholas, looking down on him. Her mouth was pinched with displeasure, no doubt for the stains that ruined the Aubusson. “I knew your jealousy would one day be your downfall.”
Rodderick still held the pistol. Disbelief pulled his mouth down at the corners. “I’ve killed him.”
Nicholas tried to inform Rodderick that he was very much mistaken—he still lived and heard every word they said. The one to kill him was much worse than Rodderick could ever imagine.
Lady Clarissa took Rodderick by the arm. “No. We will keep this between the two of us. Call Charles and have him dump the body in Whitechapel. No one will bat an eye for one more murder in that part of town.”
Rodderick nodded mutely. He started out of the room, then turned back as Nicholas took one last shuddery breath.
Figures moved around him in a haze. A head blocked out the light, creating a unique halo around a face cast in shadow. Dr. Mikhail Stanslovich attempted to focus on the image, but his eyes refused to cooperate. The sweet scent of opium tried to pull him under in blissful oblivion.
Small hands and pointy ears made him question his sanity, but then nothing was sane in the midst of an opium-induced haze. The creature began to tug at his shirt, hair, and ears—anything little fingers might grab to get his attention. It failed to stir him. He might have swatted at it a time or two, as one might a particularly nasty bug. Finally, it got the hint and left him alone. Mikhail closed his eyes, taking more of the smoke-laden air into his lungs as he fell deeper into the haze.
A slap to his face and a quick biting reprimand brought him back to consciousness, though he had no idea how long he’d been out. Another reprimand, this one coarser, angrier than the first. He knew that voice and hated the fact he’d been found by the one person who had the ability to make him feel small.
“Leave me alone.” He might have struck out at his attacker, or simply thought he did. With the amount of mind-numbing drugs in his system, it was hard to tell.
“Valentine, grab him under the other arm.” A voice very close to his ear breathed hot breath on him. “We will carry you out by force, make no mistake, Mikhail.”
The sensation of being lifted, floating along a surface of jagged rocks propelled him through the dark room and into the harsh bite of the chill night. He tried to turn away from the effects of fresh air—or not so fresh, as the alley smelled of human waste and vomit. Why were they doing this to him? The indignity of being carried from a drug den against his will was too much to endure. Did they not realize opium was the only refuge from truth? That his entire existence had been called into question? Meeting Azgarth—knowing he was real—had implications on Mikhail’s work and success he’d never anticipated. How was one to react knowing their life was directed by a being with an agenda as fanciful as it was vile?
A few short months ago, he’d believed himself to be the forerunner of scientific breakthrough in the reanimation sciences. He’d given new life to celebrated violinist, Andres Valentine. Literally brought Valentine back from the dead, only to discover that no matter how triumphant Mikhail’s accomplishments, they were not his at all. No, all the most glorious of his achievements he now knew were solely the actions of the fae master, Azgarth.
Mikhail tried to fight against the arms that held him. For his efforts, he was tossed unceremoniously into a carriage. Someone fought with his sleeve. A tiny pinprick of pain came as warm calm filled his veins, chasing away the effects of the opium from his system. He closed his eyes, wishing to hold on to the sensation of oblivion as long as possible.
“You are a disgrace to your profession.” The voice was angry, hot.
“I’m a visionary. No, wait. I tell a lie. Azgarth is the visionary; I’m merely a puppet.”
“For God’s sake. Pull yourself together, man.” The voice held more than a measure of disgust. “You don’t see Henri and me falling apart. Lord knows someone has to keep your practice going as you bask in your self-indulgent breakdown.”
Mikhail cracked an eye open and regarded Dante with a frown. “I never asked either of you to interfere with my grief.”
“Grief.” Dante made the word into an epithet. “The only grief you feel is in the fact you were wrong. Well, you know something, my pickled friend? It was bound to happen sometime.”
“I really hate you when you’re self-righteous.” Mikhail turned away. “You’re pompous too.”
“I’m also the man who is saving you from yourself, though why I’m bothering I have no idea.” Dante turned away and looked out the carriage window. Some best friend he’d turned out to be. Traitor.
The carriage cut through the London streets. Mikhail tried not to sit too close to Dante, nor pay attention to Valentine. They were against him—all of them.
Even Henri had been distant and moody.
“Tell him,” Valentine whispered.
Mikhail gazed over at Dante. “Tell me what?”
“There’s been a murder. A painter of some recent fame.”
Mikhail sat up as much as his weakened, drugged state would allow. Dante’s antidote had given him a somewhat clear head, but his body remained weak. “What have I to do with a painter?”
“Only the fact it was a fresh kill, the body dumped. I thought perhaps you might return to the land of the living by performing a resurrection.”
“If the bugger was careless enough to get himself killed, it is of no consequence to me.”
Dante glared. “You’re pathetic and not the man I thought I knew.”
“And the world isn’t what we thought either.”
“Is that reason enough to let a great talent die? One who paints portraits of the fae realm?”
Mikhail turned in his seat to fully face Dante. “What did you say?”
“Nicholas Alexandre’s favorite subject is the fae realm. The court of Azgarth.”
Air eased out of Mikhail’s lungs. Nothing he’d heard so far had captured his interest as much as that fact. “You should have mentioned that first.”
“I’m not sure it would have penetrated the veil of opium.”
That stung. Dante was a just and moral man. A good man. He’d hate seeing anyone he cared about lose themselves to the oblivion of drugs. The set of his shoulders alone was enough to prove he was irritated at Mikhail.
Shame burned right below Mikhail’s heart. He rubbed a hand over the spot. “How was our subject killed?”
“Shot. Dueling pistol. Lead ball to the gut.”
Mikhail let out a moan. The newer revolvers didn’t do near the damage the old dueling pistols did. “Bad?”
The carriage stopped. Mikhail’s head was a bit clearer, but he was certain they’d not traveled all the way to his estate. “Why have we stopped?”
He looked out the window to the gates of Dante’s house. “Why are we here?”
Dante climbed out of the carriage, and then he and Valentine helped Mikhail down. His legs remained unsteady. Whatever Dante had used to counteract the opium, hadn’t quite made it through to Mikhail’s limbs. His head started to pound. Light hurt his eyes.
They walked through the rooms to the surgery where a man lay on a table, covered by a sheet. Blood hung in glass bottles, going into a large vein in his arm. Henri sat next to the table, monitoring the subject. On the subject’s chest was the compressonator, pumping out a steady beat, doing the work of the heart.
Mikhail motioned for Dante and Valentine to bring him closer to inspect the subject. He had no doubt Dante had already fixed the wound and stitched up the abdomen.
He pulled down the sheet and studied the straight stitches transversing the torso. “Did you have to remove much of the small intestines?”
“No. A few repairs, but the worst part was that the ball ripped through the abdominal aorta. I suspect he bled out before the body was dumped.”
Mikhail narrowed his eyes. Doubts of the feasibility of saving this particular subject rose. “We’re going to lose the window. There isn’t time for a full transfusion before the serum is administered.”
Dante gave him a wicked smile. “I may have found a way around that small problem. I added the serum to the blood. It’s being infused along with the transfusion. Premixed before going into the body.”
Mikhail gave a bark. Weariness rode him and he sagged down into a nearby chair. “If you thought of all this, you hardly needed to drag me from my activities.”
Dante cut a haughty glance his way. “That was not active. It’s an excuse, and a poor one at that.”
“Did you bring me here to abuse me?”
“If that’s what it takes to get you sober and clearheaded.” Dante closed the space between them and held out his hand. “Come. Let me see you to a room where you can sleep.”
That was the first sensible thing Dante had said all evening. Pride had him shooing the offered hand away. He might be shaky as a new foal, but he’d make it to the room under his own steam or not at all. Not after Dante had the audacity to speak to him so in front of Henri and Valentine.
Mikhail pushed off from the chair and held his hand on the back until he felt stable enough to walk. He shot a glance to Henri. Both he and Valentine had turned away. Shame gouged a pit under his heart. Some mentor he’d turned out to be.
He cleared his throat. “Lead the way.”
Dante gave him a dubious look, then turned and walked slowly from the room.
“You can move faster, Dante.”
“I don’t want you to fall, and since you refused my assistance, prudence must prevail.”
His life had become such a shambles. For that, he had no one to blame but himself. Oh, it was easy to place the responsibility squarely on Azgarth’s shoulders, but there had to be better avenues to defeating the fae master than falling into a cloud of mind-numbing smoke.
They climbed the stairs. Mikhail had to stop every few steps and steady himself. A wave of dizziness washed over him, causing cold sweat to break out on his brow and coat his back. A reaction to the opium mixed with whatever antidote Dante had injected into him.
Dante stopped a few stairs up from him. “Are you unwell?”
Mikhail swallowed down the rising nausea. “Give me a moment.”
Dante came back to him, placing a firm hand on his back. “No one is here to see if I help you or not.”
“And you are the most stubborn, stupid man I have ever met.”
The charge stung in more ways than Mikhail was willing to admit. If he acted as if the words had no impact, perhaps Dante might not use them as frequently.
Mikhail closed his eyes and waited for the wave of sickness to ebb. With any luck, he’d not make himself a further fool by vomiting all over Dante’s marble staircase. Not that he’d eaten anything that day in order to come up.
Dante studied him closely. “Now what’s wrong?”
Mikhail lifted his hand to say it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to admit that he didn’t remember the last time he’d eaten or what kind of meal it had been. The idea of food put him off in a bad way. His stomach roiled and pitched.
He took Dante’s hand and squeezed it. “I think I need to lie down.”
“Let me get you to a room.”
He started to lower himself to the hard stairs, but Dante scooped him under the arms and picked him up.
By Sir Issac’s balls! This was the final humiliation.
He closed his eyes and allowed Dante to drag him down the hall like an oversized rag doll.
They stopped. A door banged open. Mikhail was helped to the bed, and then dim light started to build behind his closed lids.
Slowly, he opened them. Concern filled Dante’s face as he stood staring down at Mikhail. “You have some tough decisions to make, my friend.”
Mikhail rested his arm on his forehead. He knew. He just didn’t like others pointing out the obvious. “If you are going to lecture me on my drug consumption, you can save your breath.”
Dante let out an aggrieved sigh. “Then perhaps you’d like to discuss your funeral arrangements.”
A cold fist grabbed his heart and squeezed. Death was a sure way to give Azgarth triumph. If he died before finding the book with his and Dante’s names, neither of them would ever be free.
“I’m not going to die.”
“Says the man hell-bent on killing himself.”
“It won’t come to that.” Mikhail put no conviction behind the words. He hadn’t any to spare. Kicking the lust for a potent drug wasn’t so easily done, not even by a man of his experience and knowledge.
“You might believe that, but as one who has to sit by and watch as you fall further into your despair, I see nothing but a bad end to you and it’s killing me.” The last of Dante’s words were choked off in emotion. He turned away, heading for the door. “If you need anything, just ring the bell.”
Ring the bell? Mikhail glanced around and could not locate the bell pull anywhere in his vicinity.
He closed his eyes. Immediate and horrific dreams rose. This wasn’t the restful sleep of a man under the influence of drugs, but a nightmare born of his mistakes. So many to account for over the past few months.
Visions of potential failures in reanimation poked and prodded him. Faces with sloughing skin gazed at him accusingly. One lifted a clawlike hand to point a skeletal finger. The mouth opened, but the words that issued forth were garbled, unintelligible. He’d never seen any of those people—had never used so many human subjects. So what was this, some preview of his bleak future?
A voice whispered in his ear, counter to the ones who threw doubts like rocks at his confidence.
He might have had his share of failures when he first began to experiment in the new science of reanimation, but his human subjects had lived. Valentine was a triumph. But could he be counted? Did Azgarth have more a hand in keeping him alive than any of Mikhail’s ingenuity?
Another blow to his pride? Would they never end?
“Leave me alone.”
The visions dissipated on command, so much smoke on the air.
He rolled onto his side, tucking a hand under his chin. If he took nice deep breaths and let relaxation come, perhaps he’d fall into an untroubled sleep and wake in the morning to a new world.
Or perhaps the world would be as always—out of his control.