The vampires call them ‘The Others’. Neither living nor dead, the revenants are mindless and unstoppable – and in the carnage of the First World War, governments already running short of men to throw into battle might be very interested in soldiers who don’t ask questions and are hard to kill. Front-line volunteer nurse Lydia Asher is horrified to learn that someone has found a way to control revenants, and is creating them for this purpose.
Back in London, Lydia’s husband, former spy James Asher, is even more appalled to learn that revenants are beginning to show up in England, on the loose. Since revenants devour vampires, the vampires of Europe – most of whom are at the Front, feeding completely unnoticed on the dying – join forces with the Ashers to find the source of the threat before the world is overwhelmed.
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A James Asher vampire novel
By Barbara Hambly
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
'Don't go out there —'
Dr Lydia Asher turned as a weak hand plucked at her skirt.
By the light of her lantern the young soldier's face was drawn with pain and chalky with loss of blood. The single eye that had survived the shrapnel when a German shell had struck the forward trench blinked up at her with desperate intensity.
'It's all right,' Lydia whispered. 'You're safe here, Brodie.' It was astounding how many peoples' names she managed to remember, now that she wore her spectacles full-time. Around them the long tent was silent, the wounded men sleeping. For the first time in nearly a week, the road eastward from the camp was quiet, the surgical tent, across the way, dark. Northward, in the direction of Ypres, she could still hear the guns. It was March of 1915. 'We're all —'
The young man shook his head. 'She's walkin' tonight, M'am. I seen her look into the tent. The bean sí ...'
'Shhh.' Lydia leaned over him, marveling that he was alive at all – she'd assisted Major Overstreet yesterday in removing nearly two pounds of wood and metal fragments from the boy's chest – and gently straightened the blanket; the night was bitterly cold. 'It isn't a banshee.'
'It is, M'am,' insisted Brodie, his voice barely a breath, in his pain still mindful of others who slept nearby. 'I seen her in the trenches, just before the Germans came on. The other men have seen her, too. She wears a nursin' sister's uniform but she's none of them here at the station, her eyes is like a cat's in the dark. Wait till she's gone by, M'am. 'Tis the worst sort of bad luck to see her.'
'I'll be all right.' She made a move to disengage her sleeve from the grasping fingers, but his eye pleaded with her.
'You think I'm off me head but I'm not. I really have seen her, down the trenches, in the dead of the night. Me mates say they've seen her near the aid stations, an' the clearin' stations like this one —'
Quietly, Lydia said, 'She doesn't come into the wards like this one. You and your mates —' her glance took in the other men, shapeless lumps beneath the blankets in the frowsty darkness – 'will go back to hospital tomorrow. It isn't you she comes for.' She pushed up the white cuff of her VAD uniform – the best the Medical Corps could come up with for her, as she was neither a nursing sister nor a surgeon – and showed him the four stout lines of silver chain around her wrist. 'Silver keeps them away, you know. I'll be perfectly all right.'
His eye was slipping closed and his head, in its swathe of bandages, sagged back onto the thin pillow. 'Does she come for the dyin', then? That's a bean sí, isn't it? And if I seen her walkin' ...'
'Just because you saw her,' murmured Lydia gently, 'doesn't mean she's coming for you. You rest now, Mr Brodie. I promise. You'll be all right, and I'll be all right. You'll be moved back to hospital in the morning.' If they have enough ambulances and enough petrol and enough drivers for the less desperate cases, and if the Germans don't decide to shell the Calais road again ...
He slid into sleep even as she stepped away from his cot. When she reached the tent-flaps at the far end of the ward, she lowered the flame on her lantern as far as she could, and adjusted a sheet of tin around the glass chimney, such as the wire-cutting parties sometimes used, or the bearers out searching for the wounded. After eleven days in the gutted village of Pont-Sainte-Félicité Lydia was sure enough of her way around the casualty clearing station to at least not bump into walls or fall into either the gaping cellars of bombed houses or the shelled-out labyrinth of abandoned German trenches that surrounded the town.
She pushed up her spectacles to rub her eyes.
She had swabbed the last of the blood from the fluoroscope table that was her charge, checked to see that the machine itself was disconnected from the generator wires, and put back in their places the clumsy lead apron and gloves that she insisted on wearing (to the annoyance of the surgeons: 'It's not a bloomin' death ray, M'am! We've got men dying in here!'). She'd sent her assistant, a slow-speaking Welshman named Dermott, to bed some hours before, when he'd started making mistakes owing to the fact that like herself he'd been awake since yesterday morning. Everything that was left to do, Lydia was reasonably certain, could wait until daylight.
This had to be done while darkness yet covered the land.
The thing that Brodie had seen (How DARE she come peeking into the tents!) she didn't worry much about, though nothing living stirred in the camp now except the ever-present rats.
As she had intimated to Brodie, in such proximity to the Moribund Ward, where nearly two hundred men lay irreclaimably dying – not to speak of the lines of trenches to the east – she, and he, and all the men in his ward, were almost certainly safe.
She touched the thick links of silver that protected her wrists, and the further chains that lay over the big blood vessels of her throat, and reflected with a kind of tired irony that she stood in the one place in all of Europe where she could be fairly sure that she was not going to be attacked by vampires.
The silence outside was like death, save for the not-very-far-off thunder of the guns.
With her lantern hooded, her eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness. Those who hunted the night in nearly every city of the world were well used to turning aside the eyes of the living. They would assume that she, too, believed the simple mental tricks that shielded them from human notice – that she was merely making some routine round – and would not slip away when they heard the damp scrunch of her footsteps.
But she was aware of what she sought, and so could sometimes see past their illusions. Over the past week and a half – at least before the mad avalanche of wounded had begun to pour in six days previously – or was it seven? – she had been able to catch glimpses of them, and had kept a list. Tall dark woman, big nose. Stout man, sleek dark hair. Tall blonde man, square face. Small blonde woman, beautiful ...
Those were only the ones she'd seen. She knew there were others.
Hundreds, certainly. Thousands, perhaps.
Would Jamie, her husband back in Oxford with their three-year-old daughter, recognize some of them? Probably. He knew more of them by sight than she did, though she was certain that on her second night here she'd glimpsed Elysée de Montadour, the Master vampire of Paris.
At a guess, every vampire in Europe was here in Flanders, or further south along the line of trenches that stretched from the Channel to the Alps. Most of them would be lurking around the hospitals. With far less courage than the stretcher-bearers, they only ventured into no man's land itself in the dead hours of the night, if at all. Men and women who had chosen to murder others rather than face whatever lay on the far side of death weren't about to run the risk of encountering a raiding party, or being caught in a sudden barrage of shells, or becoming entangled in barbed wire that would hold them until the sun rose and ignited their pale and bloodless flesh.
Not when there was easier prey a few miles off.
The shattered walls of a ruined cottage provided her with concealment. Her lantern's hooded glimmer touched broken rafters, charred spills of bricks, gaping cellars. Most of the furniture – and many of the bricks – had been looted within hours of the clearing station's establishment in Pont-Sainte-Félicité (she herself had bagged a kitchen table for Dermott's makeshift developing station). She strained her ears as she moved from room to room, until she heard a flickering whisper and stepped close to one of the blown-out windows.
And there they were. Six feet from the window, themselves taking advantage of the walls of a ruined house to survey the hospital tents which glowed very faintly in the darkness, from the lanterns within. Their reflective eyes caught dim shreds of light that shone through the cracks of the hastily-erected wooden mess huts. The tall, dark woman with the big nose, and two men – the taller man strong-built, with fair, receding hair, the smaller, slender and dark. Both men wore British uniforms; the woman, a black dress that blended with the night. Their flesh was almost milk-white, and they stood so close to the window that she could see the woman's hands were armed with inch-long claws. Were it not for the stillness of the blighted town Lydia wouldn't have heard the wind-whisper voices. Flemish? Italian? Lydia knew that vampires had come to the Front from as far away as Sicily, Edinburgh, Athens.
She blinked – her eyes were aching, she had spent twenty hours out of the past twenty-four either taking x-ray photographs of bleeding men or helping out in the surgical tent – and when she looked back they were gone.
'Bother,' she muttered, and moved on.
Not what she was seeking.
Still her heart quickened with terrified dread.
What she sought, she had seen seven nights ago, the night before the big push at Neuve Chapelle. Every night, every day, in the surgical tent and the fluoroscope room and in her dreams when she'd collapse at odd hours to snatch some sleep, she'd fought recurring dread – I have to find out what was happening. I have to see if it happens again ...
It took her about two hours to circle the collection of medical tents, wooden huts and mule-lines, meticulously careful to look about her as if she were simply checking the area for spies or deserters or for Quartermaster's Storeman Pratt out making deals for the Army rations he stole and sold to civilians on the side. She saw three more vampires: one in the ruined houses of the village – the slim woman with soft cascades of light-brown hair whom she'd seen last week, Lydia recalled – and two down in the caved-in horrors of the deserted German trenches, wearing dark civilian clothes and whispering to one another in German. The language didn't trouble her. Plenty of Swiss spoke German, not to mention French Rhinelanders. In any case, she knew quite well that once a living man or woman crossed into the kingdom of the damned, they generally lost all interest in the affairs of the living.
To the vampire, the war – and the battle zone – meant one thing only.
The deserted trenches around the village were horrible. They swarmed with rats, reeked of the German soldiers buried when English shells had caved in their dugouts. Five months at the Front hadn't cured Lydia of her morbid horror of the vermin. Carrying her lantern low so that its light wouldn't be seen above, she had to hold up her skirts in the other hand as she picked her way down the side of a shell-crater, and into the zigzag pits. The water down there was almost knee-deep and freezing cold, and her feet groped to stay on the duckboards down under the surface. The mud beneath them would be like quicksand.
She didn't see the thing she'd seen the previous week. Stumbling with weariness – I HAVE to find out ... What if there's another push tomorrow and it's another five days before I can watch again? – she scrambled up the broken trench ladder she'd scouted out the week before.
I HAVE to find out ...
A rung of the ladder snapped soggily beneath her foot. She dropped the lantern, grabbed for support, and a hand came down from the darkness above and grasped hers, cold with the cold of a dead man's. The iron-strong fingers tipped with inch-long claws.
She was drawn up over the parapet of sandbags at the top with the effortless strength of the Undead.
'Mistress,' a voice murmured, 'when first you came to this place, for two nights did you walk thus, but I thought you had given the practice o'er. You shall come to grief at it.'
Lydia shook out her muddied skirts and propped her thick-lensed spectacles more firmly onto the bridge of her nose. 'I thought all the vampires were out making a feast of the wounded.' Her voice cracked a little, at the memory of poor Brodie, of all the men in the ward. She realized she was shaking with weariness. 'Either here or up in the frontline trenches —'
'What would you, Mistress?' returned the voice reasonably. 'When the shelling is done, and the dying lie in the mud of the battleground where the guns have left them, where none will reach them? When men die in their blood waiting for an ambulance that will never come? We feed upon blood, lady. We feed upon death. The whole of Flanders, the whole of the Rhineland, the whole of the Front glows with sustenance such as we are, in time of peace, are obliged to ration, sip by sip, lest our existence be suspected. Can you blame those who exist by absorbing the life-force of the living, for being drawn to such a banquet?'
'Yes!' Lydia tried to pull her arm free of his steadying grip. She staggered in her exhaustion and would have fallen had cold arms not caught her, thin as whalebone and steel, and lifted her bodily. 'I can. I do. It's so unfair ...'
'You are frozen,' said Don Simon Ysidro's soft voice. 'And spent. And I promised James that I would look after you here in Flanders.'
'He'd never have accepted such a promise —'
'Nevertheless I gave it.' To his near-soundless whisper still clung the accents of sixteenth-century Spain, whence he had journeyed, a living man, to the court of the queen whom the English called Bloody Mary. He had encountered the Master of London among the stones of an English churchyard one dark night, and never returned to his home. 'And you will come to grief not from the kindred of darkness,' he went on, as he bore her toward the tents, 'but from getting your feet wet in cold such as this, or from encountering that pestilent creature who peddles ammunition and food and heating-oil to the local peasants – to the poor Germans, too, belike.'
'Storeman Pratt.' She relaxed suddenly, and rested her head on the vampire's thin shoulder. 'You're perfectly right, Don Simon, he probably would kill a nurse who surprised him at it. Or at least make up some frightful crime and then blackmail me about it.'
Beneath her cheek she felt the sturdy wool of an epaulet, and guessed that he, too, had adopted the uniform of a British officer – Procured from Mr Pratt himself, I daresay! – which no observer, if they did spot him, would dare question. He probably had impeccable papers, too – Very likely purchased from the same source! She felt beaten, her anger denied and deflected, lost in the greater rage at the greater deaths about which she could do nothing. Her mind touched briefly on the young Yorkshireman who'd died on her x-ray table ... Was that this morning? Yesterday afternoon? On poor Brodie, whose x-ray had showed her that he would almost certainly have his legs amputated once he reached the base hospital at Calais. On another boy – barely seventeen, he'd looked – she'd checked with Captain Calvert in the surgical tent, sobbing for his mother and so riddled with shrapnel that he'd been set gently aside, so that men whose lives could be saved could be operated on first.
You're dying anyway, we have no time to save you ...
Shuttling desperately between her fluoroscope machine and the surgical tent where every trained hand was needed, she hadn't even had time to go back and see that youth before he died.
Tears that she hadn't been able to shed closed her throat. More than anything else, she wanted to be with Jamie at this moment. To be back in Oxford and out of this place of stink and death and cold. I'm just tired, she told herself firmly. I'll feel better when I've had some sleep ...
Don Simon Ysidro was a vampire. There had been times, in the eight years of their acquaintance, when she had hated him – for what he was, for what she knew that he did and had done in the centuries since his non-death. There had been times when she'd felt herself falling in love with him – despite her unswerving love for the tall, leathery Lecturer in Philology at New College, Oxford whom she had adored with the whole of her heart since the age of fourteen.
But Jamie was back in Oxford, still recuperating, slowly, from the pneumonia that had nearly killed him in the first month of the war.
And she was here, in the darkness, feeling the thready pale spider-silk of Ysidro's long hair brush against her forehead, and hearing the guns.
She said, 'Someone else is out there looking for vampires.'
'Are they, indeed?'
Excerpted from Pale Guardian by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 2016 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've read and loved all the James Asher novels, that said, why only the 4 star rating? Because I'm getting a little tired Dr. Asher and her whining about how terrible the vampires are morally and are all cold blooded killers. Yet daily she sees the horrors that are perpatrated by humans against each other by choice where the vampires are driven by an instinct they can't control. As a doctor she knows this! Yet every interaction with the vampires, on her behalf mind you, brings on the cry of "poor, poor, pitiful me", but she's right back there when she needs something. Enough already, accept it and move on or leave the situation because this is becoming tiring,
Ms Hambly once again has produced an evocative novel of both the horrors of vampires and World l l as well as love and compassion of her protagonists.