November 8th, 1878
The last hints of the wan sun were just vanishing from the steel grey November sky when Elizabeth DuPont returned to the house, flanked by two enormous wolves that padded next to her like guardian hounds. It was unusual for the disparate members of the Dupont family to sit down with their Whateley cousins. Although the DuPonts had built an enormous parlor into their Ghost Creek estate for just such large family get-togethers, it was seldom filled. Tonight, however, would be special.
Elizabeth could have been one of the prettiest women in Ghost Creek if she had paid more attention to her appearance. She was grimy and disheveled, and what might have been chestnut-colored hair was a dirty brown; limp, matted and uncombed. She wore no shoes, but walked quietly on callused bare feet, leaving dirty footprints on the parquet floor. The formless blouse she wore revealed more of her dťcolletage than was socially acceptable, but if she was aware of this, she made no attempt to cover up. Her eyes were lit with the unsettling and undeniable hunger of a born predator. She groped and batted at the polished brass door handles of the parlor, as if unfamiliar with her own hands.
Help came from in the form of Willard Crogan, who strode purposefully for the door, rifle attached to his hand even in the house, reached out and simply pressed the door handle down. Elizabeth showed him her teeth in what might have been a smile, then swung the door open. Crogan made as if to follow her in, but she stopped him at the threshold, her wolves each letting out a throaty growl.
"Sorry Willard," Elizabeth said with a wolfish smile. "This is family business, no monsters for you to track or shoot." He held her gaze for a moment, clearly disappointed until she reached out and caressed his stubbly cheek. "Maybe Iíll make it up to you later, then."
Somewhat mollified, Crogan picked up his rifle and ambled sullenly towards the kitchen. Sniffing the air, one of the enormous wolves let out a low growl until Elizabeth gently stroked his ears.
"Sounds like someoneís jealous," came a voice from behind her. But Elizabeth knew the smells of moustache-wax and Bay Rum well enough to know her cousin Eustace without having to see him.
"I got no use for jealousy in man or wolf," she said, still not looking at him.
Eustace made a card appear in his hand, and with a flourish, revealed the nine of diamonds; the Curse of Scotland. He waved it in his cousin Elizabethís direction, but her back remained unimpressed.
"Shall we go in, then?" he asked, tired of being ignored.
Even Eustaceís boots made no noise on the parlorís lavish Persian carpet. Three large stained glass windows caught the very last rays of sunlight, spilling pools of multicolored on the walls. The first window was done in greens, and seemed to depict some sort of octopoidal creature surrounded by blue, stylized water. The middle window, centrally located and slightly higher than the other two, was clearly the form of some bull-headed beast, detailed vividly in dark, semi-opaque grays and fiery reds for the monstrous mouth and eyes. The third window, in a departure from the representational art of the other two, depicted an abstract series of a dozen or so disks, each one different pale color. In the center of the room rested an oval, mahogany table, neatly surrounded by seven chairs. Elizabeth took one of these, her wolves circling the seat like sharks, sniffing for danger, then settled themselves alertly at her feet.
As Eustace chose his chair, his cousin Abigail entered, smelling ever so slightly of nightshade and henbane, the scents of childhood. She had dressed formally for the occasion, in a tight-bodiced dress of lush green velvet that rippled like a breeze over a meadow. Eustace himself was wearing his best jacket and trousers, but he had never had paid attention to the nuances of fashion the way Abigail had. As for Elizabeth -- well, at least she was dressed.
"Good evening Eustace. And Elizabeth," Abigail greeted them formally, her voice warm and smooth. With so much business around Ghost Creek, social family gatherings like this had become disappointingly rare.
The three Whateleys, Hezekiah, Cassandra, and Osmon, entered together as befitted the ruling caste of the house. Hezekiah lead the procession in solemn silence, his dark grey suit indicating serious business at hand, and Cassandraís diaphanous dress of blue patterned silk drew the eye like a magnet. Osmon lurked behind his more eye-catching cousins, his freshly-pressed suit already wrinkled and worn-looking. Attending the three was their man Bransby, the immaculate lines of the rail-thin manís suit occasionally out of true where his knives were concealed. Bransby liked knives.
Hezekiah and Cassandra took the two chairs flanking the head of the table, while Osmon strode up to the chair Eustace had settled in and looked at his DuPont cousin expectantly. Slowly, and with a show of courtesy, Eustace stood and found himself another seat.
When everyone was finally settled, the double-doors opened a final time, and the familyís guest guest stood framed in the doorway. The legendary Nicodemus Whateley, most recently of Gomorra, was resplendid in his well-tailored charcoal suit, bone-topped cane, and carefully-polished shoes. But his sartorial elegance didnít hide the dark puffiness below his eyes, nor the pinched, bloodless look to Nicodemusís face. Nevertheless, Nicodemusís familiar, arrogant swagger was unchanged as he strode to the chair at the head of the table.
Noiselessly, Bransby appeared next to Nicodemus with a tea service, and enough cups for everyone.
"Thank you, Bransby," Nicodemus said, taking a cup from the tray. The famed hucksterís gaze traveled up and down the assembled family, and sipped his piping hot tea in silence.
Well, cousin," Hezekiah, as head of the household, formally broke the silence once everyone had been served. "What is the news from Gomorra? We havenít heard anything for more than a week."
The huckster dandy put his tea down on the table, and stroked the small growth of whiskers on his chin for a moment, trying to formulate a reply to such a broad question.
"Well, there is no news from Gomorra, except Jack Brash has gone missing," he said simply.
"And with all that money he owed the Family," Eustace said with tight-lipped disapproval. "Where did you look for him?"
"We would have checked his room at the New Dunwitch, but it had burned down," Nicodemus returned, a gleam in his eye.
Eyebrows were raised all around the room.
"Do you think Jack was capable of doing such a thing to hide his tracks?" Abigail asked softly.
"I didnít witness it myself," Nicodemus responded thoughtfully. "But I suspect that it was the legions of manifested manitou that overran the place. They pretty much razed all of Gomorra."
"Legions of manitou!" Osman echoed, his gravelly voice filled with concern and surprise. "I can understand one or two spirits, but Iíve never heard of large numbers of manitou being brought over physically."
Nicodemus nodded gravely. "Likely the cause was Gomorra slipping into the some sort of Hell that vermin-infested cretin Elijah thought was going to be the Last Kingdom."
"Elijahís Last Kingdom?" Hezekiah Whateley asked, leaning forward in his chair. "Jebediah said that he was going to bring us all in to help bring that about. Has it arrived?"
"It came, and then it went again," Nicodemus said with a tight edge to his voice. "I managed to stop the ceremony that would have merged Gomorra with Hell forever."
"Correct me if Iím wrong, Cousin," Cassandra said, her voice oily smooth despite the menace in her tone. "But wasnít Elijahís Last Kingdom supposed to bring our Lord Knicknevin to Earth, in accordance with Wilhelminaís plans?"
Nicodemus fiddled with his cane for a moment, then met the expectant eyes of each of them in turn.
"Knicknevin and the returned Wilhelmina murdered my beloved Dolores. They were using Luciferís body in an attempt to establish his kingdom on Earth, and I was forced to destroy them both." Nicodemusís eye dared anyone in the room to find fault with his actions. "Aside from that, there is no news from Gomorra."