Unnatural Issue

An Elemental Masters Novel

Mercedes Lackey - Author

ePub eBook | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101515952 | 384 pages | 07 Jun 2011 | DAW | 18 - AND UP
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A brand-new Elemental Masters novel from the national bestselling author Mercedes Lackey.

Richard Whitestone is an Elemental Earth Master. Blaming himself for the death of his beloved wife in childbirth, he has sworn never to set eyes on his daughter, Suzanne. But when he finally sees her, a dark plan takes shape in his twisted mind-to use his daughter's body to bring back the spirit of his long-dead wife.

IT WAS NEARLY DARK, and the spring air was turning cold, but Richard Whitestone did not push his horse to any great haste. The road was good, the horse knew the way, and there would be a moon up soon. He had been far too long in London; he could still taste its poisons, feel them corroding his lungs, infesting his body, and he needed to take every moment he could of this journey to purge himself of them. Most people would not have been suffering as he was; most people would escape London after one of the denser yellow fogs, breathe in the clean air of the countryside, and merely thank Providence that they were out. But of course, he would, he had suffered; he was an Elemental Master of Earth, one who commanded all the powers of the Earth itself and the Elemental creatures that represented those powers. Earth Masters loathed cities; Richard, who was one of the most powerful to live even somewhat close to London, had been nauseated from the moment he entered the tainted zone of the city to the moment he left it. He still felt sick, with the very real sensations of someone who had ingested a sublethal dose of, say, arsenic. Now, finally on his journey home, he was able to heal.

Earth Masters seldom left their country homes, where they tended the land and the things living on it. Nothing could have persuaded him to enter the city except the urgings of the Master of the Council, Lord Alderscroft himself. The man they called the Wizard of London was not someone you disobeyed lightly. And to be fair, Alderscroft did not call an Earth Master into London on a whim.

Even knowing that, Richard had been reluctant, but now he had to admit that Alderscroft had good reason for calling him in. While most Elementals shunned the cities, there were those creatures of the Dark that thrived on the filth and decay that was ever-present there. Normally, when such creatures lurked within a city, it was without doing much (if any) actual damage. They merely lived on what was already there. But the unscrupulous or downright evil Elemental mage could make use of such creatures, and as Alderscroft had discovered, one had set up shop in London.

Paving stones and cement were no impediment to something that could swim through earth; the mage had coerced a handful of hobgoblins to steal for him—which was bad enough—and had, quite by accident, discovered that murder was even more lucrative than theft. The Master of such creatures had to know where the valuables were, after all, in order to direct his creatures to steal them. But for a murder-for-hire? He need only give them the right scent, wait until the house was quiet and all were asleep—and turn his creatures loose. The Master had chosen his victims well and trained his hobgoblins thoroughly. The victims were all men and women, mostly elderly, with heirs impatient to gain their inheritance and not particular about how. It was easy for a gang of goblins to weight a victim down in his or her bed to be smothered. It was possible that the murders would never have been discovered at all, but the policeman who had been the first called to the scene of one of the murders by a hysterical maidservant also happened to be an Elemental mage.

Once one such murder had been brought to the attention of Alderscroft’s Circle, it was not long before the others were uncovered.

Since the miscreant had been an Earth Master, it required another to track and counter him. But because he was commanding hobgoblins, it also took one who was willing and able to confront the Dark Elementals as well as converse with and persuade those of the Light.

The only one near enough to London to fit that description had been Richard, and if the blackguard in question had been engaged only in theft, he would have refused. Patience and persistence would have enabled any other Elemental Master to discover the miscreant in time. Murder, however, was another kettle of fish. Richard could not, in good conscience, allow another to take place.

Nor could he permit hobgoblins that had been taught how to murder to continue to exist. Such creatures thrived on pain and suffering, and having gotten a taste of how easy it was to create it themselves, they would not have gone back to their old ways even if their master was gone.

Tracking the wretch through the filth that was the City had been bad enough. But Richard had been forced to take the mage on nearly single-handed; his own Elementals would not (indeed, could not) come to his aid, and the Elemental Masters of the allied powers of Fire and Water had been of limited help. Of all the Elements, Earth was the most obdurate, and the hardest to subdue or destroy. Fire could be extinguished, Water diverted, but Earth . . . persisted. It had not been an easy fight, and when it was over, Richard had been exhausted and sickened.

Alderscroft had urged him to remain in London to recover, and in the protected and warded confines of the Exeter Club, he would have been able to do so. But he had been away from home more than long enough.

Especially considering that his wife, Rebecca, was heavy with child. It was true that she herself had urged him to go to London, and in letters she had supported him in his decision to stay and fight. But the last thing he wanted was for her to be alone for too long when she was so near her time.

Not that he had any great fears for her. She, too, was an Earth mage, and a good one, if not a Master. Earth mages—especially those who never needed to leave their home ground—tended to be robust and healthy individuals. Earth magic was that of fertility and growth, after all. But he had missed her more with every day and longed for her company the way he longed for the good, clean earth under his feet again.

As he passed between the hedgerows, the only sounds were the clopping of his horse’s hooves on the hard road and the occasional lowing of cows and baa-ing of sheep on the other side of those hedges. The homely sounds soothed him, and the presence of the beasts fortified him with their energies.

He and Rebecca belonged to the class known as “country squires.” Although they did not have official titles, the very considerable property called Whitestone Hall as well as the farms Richard owned had been in his family for generations. The estate was as remote as it could possibly be in this part of England, and no substantial changes had been made to it in the last hundred years. Earth magicians were conservative in their needs and solitary in their ways. The Whitestones had been Elemental magicians for longer than they had owned the house and lands; most of them had been of Earth, although an occasional Water or Fire mage had been known to crop up in the line. The soon-to-be-newest addition to the family had already given satisfactory signs that she would follow in her mother and father’s footsteps.

As he rode into the growing darkness, getting farther and farther from anything that the benighted considered “civilization,” Richard felt the land healing him of the damage the goblins had done, and cleansing the poison the city had poured into him. He didn’t want to approach Rebecca still tainted by the filth he had wallowed in for the last week, especially not when she was growing near her time. She was seven months along by his reckoning, and he would not take the risk of inadvertently contaminating her or their unborn child.

It was as lovely a summer evening as anyone could hope for. There was just enough of a faint chill in the air to make Richard glad of his coat, but not so much as to make him shiver. His keen sense of smell picked out the scents of wild roses, clover, and cut hay. A little farther on, he detected water—a slow-running stream by the scent of it. The slow footfalls of his horse’s hooves made him vibrate in sympathy with the earth. It took careful purging to rid himself of the filth without bringing the pollution to his own ground. He had to reduce it to its component parts, be it magical energy or actual, physical poison like the soot in his lungs. Only then was it safe to deposit elsewhere. And even then there were poisons, like lead, that were impossible to break down. He would need a special session to be rid of those, one best carried out in the security of his own workroom. He could summon a dwarf to take the poisons away; dwarves were clever with such things and would make something useful of them. Even a poison could be used for something, in the right hands. It would be beneficial to both himself and the dwarf; this was how an Elemental Master should conduct his magic—without coercion, and with both summoned and summoner coming off the better for the transaction.

But these poisons could be encapsulated and isolated for this moment; cleansing and healing himself as he was doing now would give him the strength to keep such things safely contained.

Even though it was deep dusk when he crossed the invisible boundary that brought him onto his own lands, he felt it. The land recognized him and greeted him as its own.

And then he felt something else.

It struck him like a blow to the heart.

A powerful wrongness. Turmoil. And grief.

Involuntarily, he put spurs to his tired horse, startling the beast into a gallop. With a growing sense of panic, he urged the beast down the old Roman road and then past the wall that marked the lands of Whitestone Hall. His heart pounded with the throbbing of hooves on the road, and fear of a sort he had never experienced before gripped him in an icy clasp.

The horse did not need guiding; it bolted through the open gates as soon as it saw them. The lane was straight and true; they scorched toward the country house, ablaze with candle and lantern light, the doors standing open wide.

He pulled the horse to a stop to see his housekeeper, tears streaking her face, standing in the doorway, pressing messages and shillings into the hands of the stable boy and the gardener’s boy. She burst into more tears at the sight of him, as he flung himself off the horse. “Master Richard! Master Richard! I swear, sir, we did what we could, but town is so far away, she started with no warning, before her time, and she tore before the midwife could get here, and the doctor was away—” She continued babbling as he pushed past her and sprinted for the room that should have been his sanctuary.

He knew, he knew what he would find as he ran up the stairs to the best bedroom. He felt it, a sudden emptiness in his heart, a wound that would never heal. He threw open the bedroom door—

He had expected to find a welter of bloody sheets, pain and chaos. He found only clean, calm death.

With a heart gone cold, he approached the ancient canopied bed in which so many generations of Whitestones had been born, loved, and died.

The curtains had been pulled aside, the sheets and coverlet stripped away and replaced. There was no sign here of the struggle that had claimed his wife, of the terrible pain she must have endured. A single candle on the stand beside the bed cast its soft light on the beloved face, the broad brow, the tender eyes, now closed, that had once been startlingly blue. The high, sculptured cheekbones worthy of the attention of the finest artist were pale as the marble bust of Athena in the parlor; the lips that had been full and pink as the roses she loved were now white. Someone had smoothed Rebecca’s long, black hair and parted it neatly, spreading it out on the pillow. Her long, slender hands were folded over her breast. He touched one; it was already cool and growing colder.

He heard footsteps behind him: the housekeeper, wringing her hands, her voice hoarse with grief and weeping.

“How long has she—” he asked. He could not finish the sentence.

“Three hours, sir. She started afore her time; we tried to hold it back but something went wrong. The midwife was here, but she couldn’t do anything. She tore, somehow inside, all of a sudden. I sent the boy for the doctor, but he was out, and by the time he got here—” She broke into a fresh bout of weeping. “She was gone. All he could do was save the wee one.”

“What?” He turned on the woman; what she saw in his face must have terrified her, for she shrank back as if he had threatened to strike her.

“The baby, sir. The lady was gone, but he was able to save the baby. Your daughter. She’s small, but—she’s alive, and he thinks like to stay so.” The candle flickered, casting moving shadows, like the ugly little hobgoblins he had so lately fought. “You can see her now, sir. Cook’s daughter had her own wee one two months ago, and she’s nursing her now—”

Rage filled him. How dared that creature, that parasite that had sucked the life out of his Rebecca, still be alive when she was not? How dared Heaven punish him by taking the one person on Earth he loved more than life itself and leave behind this . . . thing, this unformed nothing, this unwelcome stranger?

His vision darkened, and he felt anger coursing through him, as if his veins were filled with burning ash instead of blood. The anger was a relief; it pushed aside his terrible guilt, the certainty that if he had been here—he could have saved her. He was an Earth Master, a healer. If he had been here—if he had just pushed his horse to get him home—if he had never gone at all—

But no. He was not the guilty one. He had gone to do his duty, and it was not his fault—no, no, none of this was his fault. No, it was this interloper that had murdered his beloved.

“I do not wish to see that—thing,” he snarled. “Do what you want with it. Let it die. It killed Rebecca, and I never want to set eyes on it. Never! Do you understand me? Never!”

The housekeeper shrank back until her back was against the wall. “But, sir—she’s your—” She bit back what she was going to say. “Yes, sir,” she said instead, and made her escape.

Richard Whitestone sank down beside the body of the only woman he had ever, or would ever, love, and wept.

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