Ghosts of Albion: Illusions
In my whole existence I have never seen a lovelier sight than my Louise smiling up at me before our lips touched for that very first time.
Her face was like the most precious of gems; there was always another facet to discover. On first appraisal she was quiet and demure, her translucent skin and pale green eyes only adding to the air of fragility that surrounded her. Yet, I realized later that it had been a mistake to judge her on appearance alone for there was a core of iron underneath the girlish façade.
I first met her at a dinner party thrown by my friend Ludlow Swift in honour of the famed illusionist Capernicus. It was the first and only time I encountered the man, but I sensed in him a great thirst for power that I knew could only end tragically. I once tried to explain this intuition to my friend Ludlow, but he was blind to the other man's faults. Perhaps he could not see the darkness in Capernicus because they were brother magicians, or perhaps it was because Ludlow himself had a great thirst for knowledge, and he wanted to believe that this was what he saw in his friend as well.
As dessert was being served, a tiny pianoforte was wheeled into the dining room by one of Ludlow's servants. A small child stepped out from behind the wooden frame of the instrument and sat down at the bench, smoothing her skirts underneath her.
I can still see in my mind's eye her tiny fingers as they began lovingly to coax a melody from the ivory keys. Then she opened her mouth and the voice that issued forth was that of a seraph. I was utterly charmed and spent the rest of the evening watching her every move as she sat beside her ill-fortuned father.
She was just thirteen at the time, but I sensed that our paths would one day cross again.
Four years passed and then Ludlow received news that Capernicus had been killed in India, attempting one of his extraordinary illusions. In this same letter of loss was a postscript: Louise was now on her way back to London by train where she would take up residence with her new guardian... Ludlow Swift. Needless to say that this came as a shock to my friend. His son Henry was barely seven at the time and the Swift household had a full coterie of maids and butlers and cooks, yet it seemed the idea of having another child in the house was daunting to him. Perhaps it was that he was intimidated by the mere thought of having a young woman only now coming into full blossom under his roof.
I alone was not surprised at this turn of events. Capernicus would never have trusted another soul save his brother magician. For my part, I endured the days awaiting her arrival with great impatience and wonder. As barely more than a child the girl had enchanted me. I hungered to discover what she had become.
"Nigel, when you speak the words, you must have utter confidence in the magick or it will not work."
Ludlow, in his shirtsleeves and wearing an exasperated frown on his face, stood on the lip of the stage at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh watching as I tried to levitate a caged bear. To our knowledge none of my breed had ever been Protector of Albion before, but Ludlow was determined to leave me that legacy when he passed on. I felt the taint of what I was all through me, and yet his faith in me was a cleansing flame in my mind. I aspired to be the man he believed I was.
We were alone in the theatre. The rest of the stage crew would not arrive until the morning, but by then Ludlow would have left off my "magickal" training in order to prepare the mechanical illusions for his stage show that evening. In their way, the tricks he performed in a theatre were more difficult for him than the spells, wards, and glamours of actual sorcery.
"I cannot concentrate on magick, Ludlow, when you lecture me as though I am a school boy," I retorted. It was true. I could not focus under Ludlow's critical eye. Instead of the swift and agile creature of shadows I had become over the centuries, I became in his presence an insecure, awkward oaf that couldn't juggle an apple, let alone float a three hundred pound bear.
My keen ears detected the sound of a door being opened somewhere in the vicinity of the dressing rooms. I jerked my head in the direction of the sound and Ludlow moved to stand beside me.
"There is someone in the theatre," I hissed to my friend, who nodded.
"I sensed it, as well."
Even as he spoke these words the thick, red velvet curtain was parted to frame the angelic face of my dear Louise. She smiled widely at the two of us, exposing perfect bone china teeth.
"Hello, my handsome men," she laughed. Her voice was low and throaty. My heart thrilled with every word. I looked over at Ludlow to see if he was also in her thrall, but he appeared to be more annoyed than charmed.
"Louise, I hope you did not leave the lodgings without your lady's maid."
She sighed and shook her head at her guardian's over-protectiveness. "No one saw me. I was quite sly and hid in the shadows whenever a carriage passed." She looked very pleased with herself. I was always amused by her capricious adventures, each little impropriety, particularly when they flustered the otherwise unflappable Ludlow.
Ludlow's handsome face flared with irritation, then he let good sense win over and he sighed. "I suppose that nothing I say will ever curtail your impulsiveness."
Louise laughed and nodded. "It's true. I'm sorry to have upset you, but I just wanted to make sure Ali was comfortable for the night." She inclined her head, then gracefully walked over to the bear's cage and thrust her hand inside the bars. The bear lovingly licked her slender hand. "A magician's assistant isn't worth her salt if she lets the animals go untended."
She said these last words with a mischievous smile, barely attempting to conceal the truth, that it was merely a ruse, an excuse to spy on Ludlow and myself. Louise was an intelligent girl and she had immediately realized that there was something more to the Swift fortune than mere currency. She had been raised by a father who was a master of illusion, but in Ludlow's presence she had seen feats of magic that baffled even her. Yet, there was no way that she could ever guess the truth.
"Nigel, would you please escort Miss Louise back to our lodgings. I have some unfinished preparations for tomorrow night."
Had my heart been capable of beating, it would have thundered.
I nodded, happy to oblige.
She looked lovely in the moonlight. Her skin was opalescent, her eyes bright and eager. She looped her long slender arm through mine and I could smell the blood as it gently coursed through her flesh.
"I came to see you, my love." Her lovely green eyes were downcast as she intoned those few heart-wrenching words, but I knew that coyness was not something that came naturally to her.
I pulled her tiny frame to me and guided the two of us into a quietly darkened alleyway. My mouth was immediately upon hers and as we kissed I counted the beats of her racing pulse.
She pulled away and rested her head against my chest. "Oh, Nigel, love, I want to stay like this, just the two of us, forever."
Her curiosity about Ludlow's secrets was only one of the reasons she had escaped the watchful eyes of her lady's maid and come to the theatre. I was the other. If Ludlow ever learned of our affair there would indeed be hell to pay. And if he even suspected that Louise knew of my true nature, he would surely blame me. Never would he believe that she had guessed it herself. Always a clever girl, she had observed my comings and goings, had taken note of my hesitance to walk in daylight, of the coldness of my skin.
I never told her, but I was grateful that she knew. That a woman such as this could know my nature and love me regardless... it was more than I had ever hoped.
"Nigel, please," she whispered, kissing my between words, her hands boldly roaming. "Make me as you are so that we may explore the night together. You need never be alone again."
Her words were like salve on my wounded soul, that she should be willing to make such a sacrifice out of her desire to be with me. Yet I could not let selfishness sway me. I had tried to impress upon her over and over that my state was far more a curse than a gift. To die, even to rise again, was an end of life, and a beginning of something else, some horrid parody of existence. I took my pleasures where I found them, but I would have traded my cold heart for one warm and beating without hesitation.
"Louise, my little one, I would not inflict such misery upon one I love so dear."
I saw the disappointment in her eyes... and then pain. Her body tensed, thrown against mine, and then I caught a scent in the air, like nutmeg. That was what magick always smelled like to me. I looked down at Louise and saw embers of fear in her eyes as she slipped into unconsciousness. Holding her limp form in my arms, I gazed past her, deeper into the alley, even as Ludlow emerged from the shadows, scowling at me.
"You have shared too much with her, Nigel. You have abused my trust and friendship. Louise was given into my care by her father. I have always feared that this would prove Capernicus's most terrible mistake. But I always imagined the dangers she would face would come from my enemies."
I shook my head. "Ludlow, things are not as they appear. I swear to you. My heart is true. I never told her - "
"Your heart is dead," he said, his countenance as grave as I had ever seen it. "And I won't have you swear any oaths to me this night, Mr. Townsend. Such is for gentlemen of honour. If you have any at all, you'll stand aside now. Even if you were merely an ordinary man, you have shamed me by bringing dishonour to a young lady of my house. But you are not a man. Are you so full of passion, and so empty of reason, that you would invite this girl to share the nightmare of your life, the curse of your Godforsaken thirst? Fool. I won't allow it."
I wanted to argue that he was wrong, that I would never have endangered Louise, or tainted her with the curse of my own damnation. But I could not be certain that such a declaration would have been the truth.
"Where will you take her?" I asked.
His eyes flashed with anger. "Far from here."
Ludlow reached out and lifted her from my arms. There came a familiar chiming sound and the air rippled as he translocated, the two of them disappearing into the darkness, leaving me alone in the alley with the scent of nutmeg.
There was a terrible weight of pain in my chest, the darkest of ironies. My heart was not as dead as both Ludlow and I believed. I could still grieve.
I returned to London alone, never knowing if Ludlow had canceled his performance in Edinburgh. My rooms were suited to my nature and could be shuttered tightly during the daylight hours. I had learned a spell to protect me from the sun, but used it only sparingly. In the ages since my death I had come to prefer the night, and even with magick to shield me, I was anxious in the light of day.
Bitter hours passed into numbing days. It had become customary for me to spend most nights at the Swift estate and I missed the life there, the bustle of the staff and the laughter of young Henry. Alone in my lodgings I extinguished the hope that Ludlow had given me and I wondered how many nights I could manage before hunger drove me out into the pubs in search of a woman willing to give herself to me, to bare her legs and her throat.
On the ninth day after my departure from Edinburgh, I woke abruptly, sensing that it was only early afternoon and wondering what had roused me while the sun still shone.
Then I smelled her, there in the darkness of my bed chamber.
I smelled her blood.
"Louise?" I peered into the shadows and saw her there, perched on the edge of a chair I had brought from Cairo, once upon a time. Dark crescents were beneath her eyes, as though she had not slept in a year, and though her dress was as elegant and proper as any she had ever worn, there was something torrid about her appearance. Her face was slack and haggard, and far too pale, and her eyes were wild with desperation. Before she said a word to me, I saw the plea in them.
"He could not keep me from you," she whispered, her words almost lost, despite the stillness of the room.
Perhaps I should not expect her to leap into my arms, to catch me in a passionate embrace, but I confess I was surprised that she did not. I wanted to go to her myself, to feel her gentle lips upon mine, to caress her and cradle her against me.
But I was not worthy of her. If I had come to any conclusion since my return from Edinburgh, it was that. I had soiled her, tainted her, and Ludlow had been left with no other recourse than to remove her from my presence.
"You should not be here," I told her.
"I will die, should I go anywhere else," she said, her gaze unwavering, even as tears began to spill down her face.
With all the unnatural speed and strength of my kind I sprang from the bed to stand, towering over her. I was so hungry that the copper scent of her blood seemed impossibly strong. The temptation aroused so many yearnings in me, none of them pure.
"I am a monster. Has Ludlow not explained that to you? Whatever romantic notions have poisoned your sense of reason, dismiss them. What little honour I have, what love there is for me to give, are given over to the certainty that I shall never damn you to an eternity of bloodlust and darkness."
My Louise shivered as though a chill had passed through her. Though she seemed even more pale, a smile dimpled her cheeks.
"But that's what I want, Nigel. I want to be with you. I want to be like you. I want to live forever, to walk the night, to never sleep. There's magic in what you are."
"No," I said, all the fire draining from me. "It isn't magic. It's only a different kind of hell. I won't take the vibrant life you have and give you this... " I gestured around the room, at this place that was my prison in daylight hours. "... in return."
Her smile faltered and her eyelids fluttered. She tilted forward in the chair as though she might collapse to the floor and then she caught herself. Louise blinked several times, lifting her head as though trying to stay awake.
The smell of her blood was so strong, so rich. But was it only my hunger that made it so?
"Louise? What have you done?" I asked, my cold heart dying all over again.
She opened her hands and let the bloody dagger fall to the floor. Louise had taken the Turkish blade from its place upon the wall in my study.
Her fingers splayed wide, she reached out her arms so that I could see the long, vertical wounds she had slit into her wrists. The elegant gown she wore was a deep burgundy, but only now did I see that it was stained with a darker red, spreading as it soaked into the fabric. When she shifted in the chair, the blood that pooled in her lap splashed on the rug at her feet.
"No!" I snarled, and went to her, kneeling in the sticky wetness of her blood. I was so ravenous that when I had scented her blood so strongly, I had thought it the madness of my hunger that made the odor so powerful. A blind and foolish thought. A scent so rich came only from spilled blood. And now it was all around me. She reached out to touch my face and her fingers painted my skin with her blood. Every instinct I had demanded that I taste of her, that I run my tongue over her wounds and sink my teeth into her flesh.
I wept for her and pulled her off the chair. I cradled my dear Louise against me in a grotesque parody of my desires.
"You little fool," I rasped. "What have you done?"
Her eyes were glazed and she stared off into the darkness as though observing some faraway fascination. But she heard me, for the corners of her mouth twitched in the hint of a smile.
"My love. I have eased your pain. The difficult task is already done. I am fading. You won't have to take my life, only give me new life. Eternal life."
"No," I said, shuddering.
Her eyes fluttered closed. In his arms he could feel the rise and fall of her chest slow. The space between each breath grew.
Louise inhaled sharply and her eyes opened wide. Her right hand rose weakly and she brushed her fingers against my lips. I tasted her blood. The tang of it upon my tongue was too much. I hissed, baring the needle fangs that death had given me, but I turned my face away so that she should not witness the beast in me.
"Nigel," she said, her voice light, as though she were talking in her sleep. "We'll be together."
Confused by my hunger and the taste of her blood, her words brought me back to myself. They clawed at my insides. I wondered, now, if Louise had fallen in love with me, or with the idea of immortality, with the romance she perceived in the night time world, life in the shadows. The temptation to give in to her fondest wish was almost greater than my lust for her blood. To have this beautiful, fragile creature at my side for eternity, to have a lover and companion who shared my curse... perhaps it would not seem so much like damnation.
Her eyes closed once more. Her breath rattled in her chest.
I held her in my arms and lowered my head to brush my lips against hers in a whisper of a kiss.
"Oh, Nigel," she said, her voice barely audible, even to my ears. "Yes."
Her eyes closed for the last time. She slipped into unconsciousness as her life blood ebbed from her body. I crushed her to me and began to rock back and forth, and I sang to her a song I had learned when Constantine was a boy. My heart felt as though it had been the recipient of that dagger, and the blade now twisted inside me.
Had I done as she asked, it would have been for my own benefit. Forsaking her desires was the only gift I had left to give her. I wept bloody tears as her heart beat its last, and I remained there for long hours, holding her.
By the time Ludlow arrived, having only just learned of her absence, Louise's flesh was as cold as my own.
"And this is how it ends," my old friend said.
I gaze up at him, my face streaked with my lover's blood, but I saw in his furious gaze that he did not think I had killed her. He was not a rash man. He saw the dagger, and the state of her, and he understood what had occurred.
"Ludlow," I began. "She wanted me to - "
"I know what she wanted," he snapped. "Thanks to you."
Bereft, I shook my head. "No. I never - "
"Encouraged her? Of course not. But you make it seem so attractive, Nigel." The grief in Ludlow's voice twisted the dagger in my heart once more. "Your very presence is seductive. You have all the charm of Eve's serpent, even without the malign intent. Are you so blind that you cannot see what that could do to the heart of a foolish young girl, grieving the loss of her father?"
His words cleared a fog from my head. My friend had not condemned me, but as I accepted this truth, I condemned myself.
"How can it be?" he roared, towering above me. "How can it be that a man could live as long as you have and never grow up? You did not kill Louise by your hand, my old friend, but do not let that release you from your guilt. You are still responsible. It would never have come to this if you had given one moment's thought to consequence."
All the anger seemed to go out of Ludlow then. It was as though he began to shrink. He shook his head sadly and gazed at Louise's limp form in my arms.
"Nigel," he said, sadly, and his tone had changed. This was my old friend speaking to me, now. "I dearly hope that this will change you. I dare say your whimsy has likely cost other lives in the past, and one day I fear it will be the death of you. Or perhaps of me."
In time, Ludlow and I repaired our friendship, but it was never the same. I was never invited to be a part of his stage performances again. I had the good sense to abandon my studies of spellcasting and the like so that he did not have to endure the additional heartache of dismissing me. We both knew that I was not to be his successor as Protector of Albion. In even conceiving such an idea, he had been guilty of a bout of whimsy of his own.
But Ludlow's crime was innocent enough. His love for me had not cost anyone their life.
I braved the sun in order to attend her funeral, but there was little enough of it that day. The sky was dark and pregnant with black clouds. Thunder rolled and the heavens wept. And in spite of all that had happened, I was still arrogant enough in those days to fancy that they wept for my Louise and me.
About the authors
Amber Benson and Christopher Golden are no strangers to the Cult website, as they created the Ghosts of Albion series for the site.
Amber is probably best known for her role as Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She's also written, produced and directed an independent film, Chance. Amber lives in Los Angeles.
Christopher Golden is a novelist and comics writer with dozens of books to his name. These include a Bram Stoker Award-winning book of criticism, CUT!: Horror Writers on Horror Film, (editor), the vampire epic Of Saints and Shadows and the Prowlers series. His latest novel is The Boys Are Back in Town.
Chris's notes on the story follow:
When Amber and I first brainstormed Ghosts of Albion, we were just as interested in Ludlow's tenure as Protector of Albion as we were with William and Tamara's. So we've always intended to tell stories about Ludlow, and this is the first time we've had the chance.
As one of the early stage magicians, despite his wealthy heritage and class status, he's a fascinating character. I'm intrigued by the old stage magicians and have been ever since I worked at Billboard magazine and had the original posters for Blackstone and Thurston above my desk.
Spinning out of the first Ghosts of Albion tale, Legacy, one of the most interesting subjects regarding Ludlow was his relationship with Nigel. They were friends, Ludlow was training him to be Protector, and then it all fell apart. Fans were asking how that had happened, and Amber and I wanted to know as well - hence this story.
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