Mercedes Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series: The Bartered Brides

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The Bartered Brides (2018)

[Based on “Bluebeard”. Again, Ms Lackey combines her Elemental Masters world with the world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.]

This book continues with the main characters of “A Scandal in Battersea”: Nan, Sarah, Suki, Lord Alderscroft, Isabelle (Memsa’b) and Frederick (Sahib) Harton, John and Mary Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

The story alternates between the experiences of Nan and Sarah on one hand, and the villain Spencer on the other.

It is summer time.  Suki is home from the Harton school, staying with her guardians Nan and Sarah.

The newspapers say that Sherlock Holmes is dead.  He had fallen to his death at Reichenbach Falls in Germany.  But a month before, Nan and Sarah had received an anonymous telegram which said, “Do not believe what you read.”  The girls don’t know what to believe.

John and Mary Watson arrive at the girls’ flat for a wake.  But then their landlady, Mrs Horace, ushers an old woman into their flat – who is revealed to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise!

Sherlock tells how he had set a trap for Professor Moriarty and his criminal gang.  But then he realised at the last minute that Moriarty was going to escape the trap. So Sherlock and John had set off for Europe, with Moriarty in pursuit; they were hoping to capture him there.  They were staying close to water because of John’s powers as a Water Master.

And at Reichenbach Falls they had come face-to-face with their enemy.  Holmes and Watson had shot Moriarty, then the Water Elementals had reached out from the falls and taken him over the edge, then held him under the water.  [Note: this departs from the Arthur Conan Doyle Canon. In it, Watson was not involved in the struggle with Moriarty.  Holmes disappears for three years, and Watson believes him to be dead during that time.]

But many of Moriarty’s gang are still at large.  Holmes would remain hidden, presumed dead, until all of the gang are behind bars.  John needs to be careful, in case the gang take their revenge on him.  Presumably Moriarty’s gang do not know of Nan and Sarah’s connection to Holmes.

Sherlock departs.  Belatedly it occurs to the others that Moriarty might have had an Elemental Magician in his employ.  Magic is a blind spot for Sherlock; he will probably not be on his guard against it.

Later, Nan and Sarah take Suki to the park.  Nan and Sarah sit on a bench, with their birds, Neville the raven and Grey the parrot, with them, while Suki plays amongst the pigeons and starlings.

Suddenly Nan receives a vision of someone doing nasty things to Suki.  Evidently Suki has the same vision, as she screams and points to someone in the bushes.  Neville flies and attacks the man, scraping furrows in his head.  Suki runs and stabs the man in the leg with her knife.  The man runs off screaming.

Nan had picked up from his thoughts that he is a serial child-molester.  He would probably die from infection from his injuries.

Back at home, Nan and Sarah discuss the situation.  The man was probably acting alone.  But it is possible that he was part of an attack by Moriarty’s gang; it would be best to send Suki back to the school for her safety.  They contact Lord Alderscroft, who sends a carriage to take her.

***

Nan is out searching for clues about the man who had intended to attack Suki.

Sarah often uses her skills as a medium to usher ghosts to the afterlife.  Sometimes the ghosts are attached to objects rather than locations.  She had found a locket in a pawnshop, which she had recognised as being haunted.

Now she prepares to invoke the ghost.  Ghosts can usually only be seen at nighttime, but she darkens the room by blocking the light from the windows with cardboard.

But before she can invoke the ghost, it appears, eager to talk to her.  It is the spirit of a young woman called Caroline Wells (Caro).  She had spent much of her life in sanitariums and nursing establishments because of illness, and had died of consumption the previous year.  She asks Sarah not to send her to the afterlife yet; she wants the opportunity to do something useful and helpful.  She will remain attached to the locket – she can travel a certain distance away from it – so if Sarah wears it, Caro can go with her, and experience what Sarah is experiencing.

Nan returns home, but hasn’t learned anything about the man.  Sarah tells her about Caro, and when night falls, introduces them to each other.

The next morning, John Watson arrives at their flat.  In Holmes’ absence, Inspector Lestrade has asked for Watson’s help with a corpse that has been found.  The two girls go with Watson to the morgue.

The corpse is of a young woman – but her head is missing.  She has been in the water for some time, so it is difficult to find out much about her.  Nan examines her dress.  Lestrade thinks it is a wedding dress, but Nan identifies it as lawn-party tea gown.  But it had been discarded by the original owner, apparently passed through several owners and had been mended and adjusted.

But the body is that of a working girl; she could not have afforded such clothing. Although wearing boots, it appears from her feet that she had never previously worn shoes in her life.

***

Spencer is a member of Moriarty’s organisation.  With Moriarty dead, he has become its leader.  [Note: although Moriarty and his organisation are part of the Sherlock Holmes Canon, Spencer and the other members named in this book are not; they are Ms Lackey’s creation.]

George, one of Spencer’s underlings, brings a critically injured man to him.  The injured man is in fact the man who had intended to attack Suki; he is a member of the organisation, but the attack was on his own initiative, he had not done this on orders from Spencer.

Spencer wonders what had happened to the man: it appears that he has been in a knife fight.  Spencer discounts what the man had said to George about a raven.  But obviously that man will not survive; he tells George to take the man to an opium den, where he can die without pain.

***

Nan and Sarah have been invited to dinner at the Watsons’ home.  (The Watsons live in 221C Baker Street, in the flat above Sherlock’s at 221B, a fact they keep secret.  [Note: this is Ms Lackey’s invention; it is a departure from the Canon.])

John tells them another headless body had been found, much the same as the first one.  But he had learned nothing more from it.  (As the story goes on, several more such bodies are found.)

The Elementals have told John what part of the Thames the bodies had come from.  But the Elementals avoid the contaminated part of the river; they first became aware of the bodies when they arrived in the unpolluted section.

Nan, Sarah and the Watsons decide, reluctantly, that they can go no further in the investigation.  They do not have Sherlock Holmes’ detective skills. And in any case, they do not work for Inspector Lestrade, they work for Lord Alderscroft.

***

Spencer is in fact an Elemental Master – of the fifth Element, Spirit. Spirit Magicians are very rare.  In Spencer’s case he has become a necromancer.

In his workroom, he has a vial of Moriarty’s blood.  When Moriarty died, his spirit returned to this talisman.  Spencer intends to bring Moriarty back to life, by transferring his spirit into a new body.  This will require a lot of magical energy.

Spencer has been marrying a series of young women – and then beheading them!  He has modified the marriage vows to bind his brides to him after death.  He stores the head of each bride in a glass jar and dumps the body in a sewer.  The magical energy from the distress of the girls’ imprisoned spirits can be stored, for Moriarty’s eventual resurrection.

Spencer has two ways of obtaining these young women.  In some cases, when the girl’s parents are poor, he pays them so he can take the girl and marry her.  The girl willingly accepts this as she has no other prospects for life.  In other cases, he obtains a girl from a workhouse, ostensibly as a servant, and then woos her and persuades her to marry him.  This method takes longer and involves more work for him.

Now Spencer visits his workroom.  His brides’ heads are stored in a row of jars on the shelf.  He transfers his consciousness to the spirit plane.  The ghosts of the brides appear in a semicircle around him, chained together and wailing.  But also present is the ghost of Moriarty.

Spencer reports his progress to Moriarty.  He has found a young man into whose body he will transfer Moriarty’s spirit.  The man is a poet called Peter Hughs, who is unhappy with his life.  Spencer is supplying him with opium; this will make it easier to eject Hughs’s spirit when he transfers Moriarty’s spirit into his body.

***

Nan and Sarah receive a telegram from Lord Alderscroft, inviting them to lunch at his club.  He sends his carriage to take them there.  They take the birds with them.

The Exeter Club is secretly the headquarters of Alderscroft’s Hunting Lodge of Elemental Masters.  The girls are directed to the Lodge’s rooms.  Alderscroft is there, as are John and Mary Watson, and also Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

Mycroft and Alderscroft tell the group they want them to work with Lestrade on the case of the murdered girls.  There have been more bodies than the ones Lestrade knows about.

The Lodge have detected that there is a necromancer at work in London; he may be responsible for the murders.  It seems likely that he is binding the spirits of the murdered girls to him, to obtain power for some terrible purpose.

Sarah, as a medium, needs to learn how to extend her vision into the spirit plane, which will enable her to continue the investigation.  Alderscroft suggests that Beatrice Leek could help her with this.

Nan and Sarah catch a cab to Chelsea, to Beatrice’s home.  Beatrice Leek (who has appeared in previous books), is the leader of a circle of benign occultists, and she refers to herself as a witch.

They explain the situation to her.  She tells them that she is not a medium herself, but members of her family are, and she knows about the spirit plane.  It is not just a matter of viewing the plane: it is necessary to separate one’s soul from one’s body.  Nan can do this as well as Sarah, since the two girls are practically twinned souls.

The spirit plane is a halfway place.  The spirits of the dead are supposed to go on to the afterlife, but some are afraid, some are somehow bound to the earth and some are confused.  Spirits who remain too long in the spirit plane become mad.

Beatrice notices the presence of Caro, since Sarah is wearing the locket.  Caro can help them in this process.

She takes them to her workroom.  Sarah and Nan lie on the floor, with their birds near their heads.  Beatrice tells them to imagine reaching out and taking Caro’s hand, and allow her to pull them into the spirit plane.

They do this, and find themselves as spirits, separate from their bodies, but linked to them by silver cords.  Nan and Sarah can see each other in spirit form, as well as Neville, Grey and Caro.  The material world appears greyed out.  This includes Beatrice, except that she has a pulsing core of golden light in the middle of her body.  They return to their bodies and practise transferring themselves to the spirit plane several times.

***

Back in their flat, Nan and Sarah lie down and separate their spirits from their bodies.  The birds also appear in their spirit forms; they appear larger than in the material world.  As she often does in mystical situations, Nan takes on the form and dress of a Celtic warrior, with a bronze sword and a shield.  Sarah does not have a mystical persona, but she imitates the form of dress worn by Memsa’b’s alternative persona, which is a short Grecian tunic.  Caro, inspired by them, changes her ghostly clothing from the dress she was buried in, to a man’s riding breeches, boots, a riding jacket and a cap.

There are magical wards on their flat, but when they venture outside they could encounter hostile spirits.  Sarah imagines a spear in her hand and it appears.  Caro had learnt archery during her life, so she imagines a bow and arrows, and they appear.

They drift out through the wall and find themselves in the air several feet above the street.  They cannot normally see any traffic or people while in spirit form, but Caro tells them how to concentrate in a particular way in order to perceive them.

They all fly along through the air for a while, until Caro tells them she has reached her limit; she can only go a certain distance from the locket back in the flat.  She goes back.

They encounter a hostile ghost: it has been around so long it has gone crazy and lost its human form. Sarah opens a portal to the afterlife and when the ghost attacks, she knocks it through the portal with her spear.

The girls eventually discover their own limits about half a mile from home.

They encounter a few more ghosts: these are mostly of children who are confused about what happened to them. Sarah opens portals for them as well, and guides them through.

Having done all they can, they return to their bodies.

Later they meet at the Watsons’ home and report their experiences.  Mary suggests they find a hotel near where the first body was found.  While in spirit form, they can talk to the ghosts there, and she and John can watch over their sleeping bodies. And John’s and Mary’s Elementals (of Water and Air) may be able to provide assistance.

So in due course they find a suitable hotel. Nan and Sarah carry the birds in in their carriers.   The girls lie on the bed, while John and Mary sit in the armchairs.  The girls and the birds separate from their bodies and, along with Caro, drift through the wall.  And they meet the sylphs – the Air Elementals – tiny butterfly-winged girl creatures.  Nan tells them they need guidance to the Thames River, where they will need to speak to the Water Elementals.

Soon Caro reaches her limit and goes back.  The others continue on and come to the river, where they meet the Water Elementals – humanoid creatures with scaled skin, big eyes and webbed hands and feet.  Sarah tells them they want to talk to the ghosts of people who had lost their lives in the river.  The Water Elementals direct them to a bridge, where the ghosts of suicides linger.

They talk to the ghosts.  But the ghosts have not seen the ghosts of the headless girls.  Sarah provides portals for the ghosts to enter the afterlife.

A sylph guides the girls back to their hotel.

***

Spencer meets Moriarty again, who asks about the Organisation.  Spencer tells him that some of the men have gone missing, one has died of infected wounds, and three have gone over to a rival organisation.

Moriarty orders the deserters killed.  He is sure that Sherlock Holmes is responsible for the disappearance of the missing men; no doubt they have been arrested and imprisoned.

They need to teach Holmes a lesson.  Moriarty tells Spencer to have John Watson murdered.

The next day, Spencer meets with his henchman, Geoff the Elf – so called because of his friendly attitude – up to the time when he coshes his victim on the head. Spencer gives him the orders that Moriarty had given him.  Geoff should get a group of men to follow Watson, and wait for an opportunity to kill him.

***

Nan and Sarah meet with the Watsons again.  The Watsons are currently staying in the flat above John’s surgery; their landlady, Mrs Hudson, is cleaning their flat in Baker Street.  Besides, this flat is cooler in the summer heat.

Mary says they ought to talk to the Elementals in the polluted part of the river, where the bodies arrive before they get to the unpolluted part.  John says this means he would need to summon a hostile Elemental, a Jenny Greenteeth, which he will have to control.

After some discussion, they decide to go to Execution Dock in Wapping, at night.  Nan and Sarah will go with John, and Caro will be with them.  The birds will stay in the flat with Mary, as they can’t fly at night.

The girls return home and change into the clothes they wear for combat training, based on Gurkha men’s clothing.  They catch a cab to Wapping where they meet with John.  They take the stairs down to the dock.  Sarah has an umbrella, which she can use as a fighting stick; it has a solid steel core and a sharp ferrule at the end.  Nan has her Gurkha knives.  Caro appears with her bow and arrows.

John summons Jenny Greenteeth – a really ugly creature – and asks her about the headless girls.  But Jenny is not happy being coerced, and attacks them.  They all fight back.  Jenny agrees to take John to where the bodies first appeared in the river.  Caro volunteers to go instead.

Soon Caro returns and tells them the bodies had entered the river from a sewer.  Jenny couldn’t take her any further.  John says he will get a map of the sewers.

John and the girls split up to return home.  But then Caro tells the girls that John is being attacked.  Nan and Sarah race after him, and find him surrounded by a gang of men.  The girls wade in and attack the men. The fight goes on for a while, but eventually John and the girls win and the men run off.  They must have been from Moriarty’s organisation.

They all take a cab back to the Watsons’ flat.

***

The men show up at Spencer’s house with their injuries and report their failure.  They say that they had been attacked by a gang of Hindus, who were keeping a protective watch over Watson.

Spencer thinks this unlikely.  But then he remembers the Hartons have Indian servants with fighting skills.  And this must mean that Lord Alderscroft must be involved.  And Watson must be investigating the headless bodies; if he was in Wapping, he is getting a bit close for comfort.

Spencer thinks of an alternative plan: to kill Mary Watson.  John Watson will be so devastated he will give up the investigation.  This will also send a message to Holmes.  He reports this to Moriarty.

One of Moriarty’s houses has photographs of all possible future targets.  This includes one of John and Mary Watson.  And what is more useful from a magical point of view, the corresponding photographic plate: the light which touched the victims etched the image in the plate.

Spencer casts the spells of a black magic ritual.  This includes cutting out the part of the plate showing the Watsons’ faces, grinding it down into a powder, mixing it with lacquer and applying it to a basket.  He fills the basket with fruit and injects the fruit with arsenic.

When Mary touches the basket, she will feel a compulsion to eat the fruit.  And if John gets caught by the same compulsion, all the better.

He takes the basket to the Watsons’ grocer and hypnotises him into adding the basket to the Watsons’ order box.

***

The grocer’s boy delivers the box to the Watsons’ flat above the surgery.  Mary notices the extra basket of fruit which she hadn’t ordered.  She touches the basket and gets a sudden strong urge to eat the fruit.

A group of sylphs appear and fly at her face trying to stop her.  John enters the room, and the sylphs fly at him as well.  Mary uses her magic to banish them.

But then Neville and Grey arrive, and also try to stop them getting to the fruit.  Nan and Sarah had been on their way to visit.  Now Nan runs in, realises what is happening and throws the basket into the oven.  It goes up in flames.

With the crisis over, they realise the fruit must have been poisoned, and that it must be the necromancer who had tried to kill Mary, and possibly John as well.  He must have realised that John was hunting him.

Nan suggests that they fake Mary’s death.  This will buy them some peace.  Sarah goes out and sends a telegram to Lord Alderscroft.  Shortly afterwards, Alderscroft arrives, and they tell him what had happened.

An ambulance arrives and Mary is taken out under a shroud.  John goes in the ambulance with her.  Alderscroft calls Scotland Yard, who proceed to investigate as if a murder had actually taken place.  Alderscroft talks to the coroner, who agrees to produce a fake death certificate and autopsy report.  In the meantime, Mary is smuggled back to Baker Street.

John arranges for another doctor to take over his practice, and lets it be known that he is going to live at 221B Baker Street to be looked after by Mrs Hudson during his bereavement.  This will actually allow him to stay in his Baker Street home with Mary.

***

Inspector Lestrade arrives at Nan and Sarah’s flat. Another headless body has been found, but Lestrade doesn’t want to bother Dr Watson at this time.  He takes them to the morgue.

He shows them a Chinese slave tattoo on the girl’s back, at the base of the neck.  The girl is Chinese, from the peasant class, and unlike the previous girls, she is not a virgin.  She had probably been brought into the country as a prostitute.  She is wearing a dress similar to the other victims.

They conclude that the murderer has found it more convenient to pay for a supply of Chinese girls.  But this means that the murderer doesn’t care about the victims’ race, social status or state of purity.

The girls go to the Watsons’ and report their findings.  They had been uncertain before, but they are all now fairly confident that the murderer of the girls, the person who tried to kill Mary and John, and the necromancer are all one and the same.

John brings out his map of the sewers.  Unfortunately there is an extensive network, within the East End of London, which feeds into the Thames at the point Jenny Greenteeth had indicated.

It seems they have come to a dead end.

***

Nan, Sarah, John and Mary decide to go and stay at the Harton school for a few days.  Nan and Sarah miss Suki, and Memsa’b and Sahib may have some ideas about how they should proceed.

They travel there by train.

Nan and Sarah meet up with Suki and tell her what has been happening.  Then they all meet with Memsa’b and Sahib and provide all the details of their investigation.  Sarah introduces Caro to them.

Memsa’b and Sahib have figured something out.  Sarah’s facility with interacting with spirits, opening portals, entering the spirit plane, and detecting spirits associated with objects, all mean that she is more than just a medium.  She is in fact a Spirit Master. And because of Nan’s close association with Sarah, she is also recognised as a Spirit Magician.

Sarah realises that the area where the necromancer is located will have no spirits, because he would have bound all the spirits to himself.  She should be able to determine where such areas are.

Later they meet again and Caro appears to them all.  If Sarah can identify those areas which have no spirits, Caro can investigate, to determine the possible reasons for this.  And together, Sarah, Nan, Caro and the Air Elementals can locate the necromancer.  But Sarah and Nan will need to have a place to leave their sleeping bodies while they enter the spirit plane.

Nan suggests they can make use of the Baker Street Irregulars (those street urchins who run errands for Sherlock) to explore the East End and locate all the suitable places where they can rent rooms.

***

Neville comes to Nan with the news that Lord Alderscroft is staying in his bungalow on the estate.  (The school is located on Lord Alderscroft’s country estate.)  They invite him to come at teatime.  When he does, they make their plans.

Nan, Sarah, John and Mary return to London with Lord Alderscroft in his carriage and stay at his townhouse.

The next day, Sarah and Nan disguise themselves as young men. (This is one of the detective skills Sherlock has taught them.)  They are accompanied by three young men, Eddie, Fred and George, who are members of Alderscroft’s Hunting Lodge.  They are all dressed similarly, and appear to be a gang of young toughs.  They all wander together around the East End, while Sarah maps the areas where there are no spirits.  They complete the job within the day, although Sarah’s and Nan’s feet are aching by the time they are finished.  Sarah has identified five areas without spirits.

Alderscroft has read up on necromancy, and learnt that if a necromancer wants to make continual use of a spirit, he must keep part of its physical body.  He must be keeping the heads of his victims in his workroom.  This will be tangible evidence of the murders, so they can get the police involved.  Mary points out that the necromancer must have his own house; they should get the Irregulars to look for houses (as opposed to rented flats) within the five areas.

***

The next day, John sends the Irregulars out.  At teatime, their leader, Tommy Wiggins, reports back.  [Wiggins is a character from the Sherlock Holmes Canon, however his first name of Tommy is Ms Lackey’s invention.]  Tommy tells them that three of the five areas have no houses, so these areas can be eliminated.  And he has marked on the map where there are suitable rooms for rent close to the specified areas, where the landladies don’t care what their tenants do.

Nan, Sarah, John and Mary arrive at a rental room close to one of the remaining ghost-free areas.  They let the birds in through the window.  As before, Nan and Sarah lie on the bed while John and Mary keep watch.  Nan and Sarah and the birds transfer into the spirit plane and meet up with Caro and a swarm of sylphs.  They drift out through the wall and head towards the centre of the ghost-free area.  But after a while, Caro stops.  She says something ahead is calling her: if she goes any further she doesn’t think she can resist it.  She heads back their rental lodging.

The map had shown a Methodist chapel at the centre of the area.  Now, in the spirit plane, they see that the chapel’s door has been replaced by a big beautiful shining Door, similar to the portals that Sarah is able to open.  This is why there are no ghosts.  Sarah thinks there must have been a Methodist minister in the past, who was a Spirit Master; he had created the Door, to allow ghosts to continue to pass through, after his death.

So this is not the area with the necromancer.  They head back.

So the next day they repeat the process in the other ghost-free area.  When Nan, Sarah, Caro and the birds reach the centre, they find a house which is obviously the right one; it radiates with a dark “anti-glow”.  And they can’t pass through the walls: the occupant has used magical protections which make the house seem solid. But Sarah discovers that the protection is weaker at the corner; they manage to squeeze through at that point.  But their bodies need to be closer before they investigate further.  They head back.

***

Alderscroft has gathered together Lestrade and his police officers, and members of the Hunting Lodge, in addition to Nan, Sarah, John and Mary.  They occupy a vacant building not far from the necromancer’s house.  The three women are disguised as men (what would Lestrade think if he knew who they were?!); they head off to a separate room, where they let the birds in, and Nan and Sarah lie down and transfer to the spirit plane.

Nan, Sarah, Caro and the birds head back to the necromancer’s house, and enter through the corner.  Caro and Sarah detect something happening in an upstairs room.  They go up to the attic, which is above the room they are interested in, and poke their heads down through the attic floor to see what is happening.

They see a whole lot of ghostly girls, chained together.  As they watch, a man appears in the spirit plane: this must be the necromancer.  He goes to a table, uncovers something (the talisman), and another ghost appears: it is Professor Moriarty!  The necromancer tells Moriarty he is about to perform the ritual to transfer Moriarty to his new body.  Nan, Sarah and Caro see a young man lying on an altar.  This must be the body intended for Moriarty.

Nan tells the others she is going back to tell Mary.  She forces herself to wake up back in her body, and tells Mary that the necromancer is going to bring Moriarty back to life.  Mary rushes to tell Alderscroft.

Nan returns in spirit form to the necromancer’s house.  Sarah tells her the necromancer is preparing for the ritual.  Then the ceremony commences.

Nan looks out the window, and sees the police and the Elemental Masters fighting what look like animated corpses.

Sarah, Nan and Caro have to stop the ceremony before Moriarty is brought back to life!

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