There life is supremely easy for men.
No snow is there, nor ever heavy winter storm, nor rain.
The darkness of the alley rivaled the intent blackening the hooded woman’s words.
As surely as dusk had fallen on Philadelphia, so too did it seem one of the city’s great families would also fall.
“Are you most certain?” asked the woman’s companion, a man of perhaps forty years. He snatched at his rioting hat as a breeze sliced down the alley, making both watchmen and lantern light shiver in its wake. He cursed the need to meet in such a place—one of the few alleys where the substandard candlelit lanterns were still required. Gas lines were too great (and volatile) a temptation for this neighborhood’s inhabitants and too much a hassle elsewhere. And, while stormlight illuminated most of the city, no such technology was wasted here.
No one of Lord Stevenson’s rank wished to be caught dead in the Below. And caught dead was certainly a possibility in this neighborhood considering the turf disputes between the Blood Tubs and Moyamensing Killers. “To storm such an estate on the Hill and be wrong … And on the night of young Lady Jordan Astraea’s seventeenth natal celebration…”
The watchmen shifted at his words, woolen coats rustling as they raised their gazes toward the estate balanced on the mountain above. The Hill was the safest realty in Philadelphia.
When the Wildkin War had pushed the residents of what was briefly called Society Hill up Philadelphia’s slopes and away from the hungry lapping of the waters (and the hungrier things swimming within their depths) the Astraeas had been the first family to stake a claim. Now there was no returning to the first properties the great families had owned. The recent influx of immigrants had turned the area’s elegant original homes into squalid tenements and boardinghouses. Not that the wealthy would want to return with the water so dangerously close.
The hesitancy of the lord’s words ill matched his desires to move against the Astraeas, and the young woman knew it. She had been careful selecting this Council member and contacting him through subtle means. His grudge against the Astraea family was long-standing, though most had forgotten it.
But, even so young, she had a gift for discovering the little things that either pulled men together or divided them. It was a precious and necessary family trait when one held her social standing. “I know this as well as I know my own name,” she snapped. Moon-white gloves appeared long enough to tug the deep hood of her Kinsale cloak farther down, swallowing any hint of her face in shadow. A ruby flashed on one finger before her hands disappeared once more into rich folds of velvet.
The Councilman’s gaze flicked from the mysterious lady to the fluttering light of the smoke-stained lanterns near the alley’s entrance. “One might suppose you, too, are a Witch—the way the wind cries when you are angered…”
“One might suppose,” she quipped, the breeze playing with the heavy velvet hem, “that such words would be considered treasonous considering my rank. Go to the Astraea estate this evening. The Witch will be there, as I’ve said.”
Light stuttered across his sharp features and he nodded. Shrinking against a fresh chill, he pulled his tall hat’s brim lower over his brow. “And who—?”
She held her hand up, silencing him. “Bring a Tester. He will know the Witch easily enough.”
He waited in silence with the watchmen—with no Weather Wraiths currently in Philadelphia proper he had settled for using simple men—until the lady disappeared from the alley and the sounds of a carriage rattling across cobblestones told of her departure.
He did not need her surname to guess her rank. From the noise on the street he knew her carriage was horse-drawn by a single, calm steed, like the carefully tended cavalry’s or the privately owned ones barely afforded in the city—not like the wild-eyed and panicky survivors of Merrow attacks. A steed such as hers would have been well protected, stabled, and that took significant money.
She was at least a member of the Fourth of the Nine and that was good enough for him.
Finding another Weather Witch at the Astraea estate meant further lessening old Morgan Astraea’s influence by casting doubt on the high-ranking Councilman. He’d do anything to peel one of Astraea’s fingers back from the reins he held, anything that would put himself a step closer to achieving his goals.
“We must hurry. Call in the nearest Tester and a Ring of Wraiths. There will be some nearby Gathering. If we are to do this we must do it well and professionally.”
A watchman split from their group, jogging to obediently do his duty.
The dying light of sunset streaked across the public’s promised clear sky, illuminating the fat-bellied airships hanging overhead as they awaited instructions for their coast into the Eastern Mountain Port. It would be a clear night for docking cargo, with rain scheduled to fall on Tuesdays and alternating Fridays only.
Lord Stevenson reached up to his hatband to adjust a metal and glass contraption nestled there, bringing its system of lenses and scopes over the hat’s brim and down to sit on the bridge of his nose. Blinking as he rolled a finger across a small brass gear by one of the two scopes, he flipped through a series of tiny lenses, watching the atmosphere high above him come into sharp focus. Faint and feathery disruptions overhead manifested as wisps of clouds, which slowly edged their way across the evening sky, pulling in from all directions to draw together above Philadelphia’s most desirable real estate: the Hill.
And remarkably near the Astraea estate, which sat at the Hill’s crest like the king of the stone-faced mountain.
The newspaper folded near Bran’s elbow was a distinct temptation with its headline of Unseasonable Frosts Frustrate Philadelphia. Bran ran the back of his hand across his forehead and tried to focus on the books lying open before him. A Genealogy of Witches, Wardens, and Wraiths was heavy enough reading, but writing the blasted thing? Even worse. He tapped his pen’s steel nib to clear it of ink and set it down.
But the only way to track the Weather Witches was through their lineage—family lines meant much as magicking was one of the traits passed to one’s offspring. Whereas one might attribute a propensity for headaches to pale blue-eyed people living in very sunny climes, connecting physical traits to witchery was not so simple.
Were brown-eyed brunettes more likely to trigger and demonstrate witchery than green-eyed blondes? Statistically speaking, no. But redheads … gingers … they were fiery in more ways than one.
He blew on the page and tenderly lifted its corner, lingering on the memory of a redheaded girl from his hometown. More trouble than he had ever expected. He grinned, but, catching himself, squashed the expression and refocused on his task.
Gingers and anyone from Galeyn Turell’s line seemed particularly prone to witchery. It was as they said: “The apple does not fall far from the tree.”
Luckily, all Weather Witches manifested their affinity for magicking before the age of sixteen.
His desk lantern’s brilliance ebbed, its glass panes reflecting equal amounts of shadow and light. He leaned forward to inspect it. The glowing double-terminated crystal powering its interior seemed constricted, producing only a soft, wavering glow. He glanced at the lanterns lining his library walls. The fire hazard of candles and brief monopoly of gas had been replaced years ago in most of the country by stormlight and their energy source: stormcells, tiny crystals that held power and eased it out slowly.
But even that technology was not without flaws. It did have a distinctly human origin.
His room still radiated a soft white light, each stormcell bright and steady except for the one on his desk.
The one that mattered most.
He shook his head and picked up the set of bone keys resting on his desk’s corner. A Maker should be afforded plenty of light for his work.
He snatched up a smaller journal and opened it, running one finger down a list of names and times. Someone was not doing what they needed to … Ah. His finger stopped on the name of a freshly Made girl.
Age six and recently Gathered from Boston.
Most people would expect little from a child—yes, a sense of decorum and proper etiquette, of course that, but usually they had another year or two before they were thrust into some form of necessary employment. But Witches were different little beasts. Age was of far less importance than proper training.
Witches Burned Out. Best to train them up, Make them, and pull all the power from them as quickly as one could—harness the energy before it dissipated—before they died, leaving only one final stormcell, one specially colored crystal, their soul stone, behind.
This child was too young—too newly Made—to be Fading. Either she wasn’t trying or she wasn’t Drawing Down enough.
He pushed his chair back, picked up the lantern, hung the keys on his belt, and grabbed his small journal. Tank Five. Best go and deal with the problem now rather than suffer the consequences of not solving it later.
Out the door and along the narrow hall he went. Down seven flights of stairs. That was the real headache of maintaining rooms in the Eastern Tower’s upper apartments—traveling so far up and down just to reach the Holding Tanks. At the eighth floor’s landing he peered through the narrow strip of smudged glass at eye level and, steeling himself, opened the heavy wood and iron door. He paused there, nose stinging at the thick scents of chamber pots, old hay, sweating rocks, and perspiring people.
The Tanks were worse than any stable he’d ever been in, especially in the crawling heat of late summer, and the Tanks Witches stayed in before their Reckoning? Not a thought he liked to dwell on. Night only faintly dulled the rankness stabbing his sinuses and left him a little less dizzy than day. Frankly, had there been no problem with any Witch, he would never venture down to the Tanks. But he was the Maker and a Maker’s reputation was built on his successes.
Or destroyed through his failures.
But, he had made enough changes in his system since the escape of the Kruse boy.
He raised the nearly dead lantern, its rectangular glass panes shimmering more from other lanterns’ lights than its own power. He slipped on a pair of thick gloves hanging by the door with a snap of rubber, feeling them fall into a proper and clinging fit.
Bran tugged out his journal and found the girl’s name. He called, “Sybil! Sybil, do you hear me?”
A moan drifted to his ears.
His lantern flickered in response.
He stood before her door in an instant, his hand fumbling through the bone keys. He found the one he needed and popped the door open. In the dark cell the child lay flopped like a rag doll in the straw of her bedding. Moonlight streamed through the bars in the only outside-facing window on Floor Eight and he scrambled forward, reaching a tentative hand toward her forehead.
Fever could spread like western wildfire in the Tanks and wipe clean an entire season of Witches before racing through the compound, murdering the Grounded populace, too. Even through the gloves, the touch of her flesh reassured Bran there was not enough heat to prove fever. He shifted his hand, clamping it more tightly to her brow.
There was barely enough heat to prove life.
Sybil’s flesh was cold as the water in the claustrophobic cell’s corner bucket. Bran stretched the distance and dragged the sloshing wooden pail to him with a grunt. “You aren’t drinking,” he muttered, noting the volume of water remaining. “You can’t Draw Down if you don’t drink. And you can’t Light Up if you don’t Draw Down. Sit,” he demanded, grabbing her arm in an effort to right her.
He dragged her limp form up until she nearly appeared seated normally against the damp stone wall—although her head lolled on her slender neck and her eyes remained unfocused and dull.
The lantern in her Tank was as dead as her expression. She hadn’t even managed to keep her personal lantern powered. Or perhaps she no longer cared to.
Bran reached into the bucket, fishing for the awkward thing at its bottom that was both spoon and cup. His fingers towed it up, gloves coming back slick with a rainbow’s oily sheen. “Dammit.” He kicked the bucket over, water splashing toward the sluggish drain in the room’s center, and he stormed out the door, fist curled tight around the empty container’s handle.
The watchman at the hall’s end raised his head in question.
“When was the last time the Witches had fresh water?”
The man blanched, shrugging his shoulders. “They have water…”
“Fresh water,” Bran demanded. “They cannot Draw Down properly if they don’t drink. And they can’t drink slime.” He whipped the bucket out at the man, clipping his chin with the bucket’s edge. “Do right by me or your reputation will suffer.”
The man rubbed his jaw but nodded.
“As will your face,” Bran added. He shoved out the door and jogged down the last flights, coming out onto Holgate’s main square.
By night the compound was an eerie sight. Built by a Hessian with a penchant for castles and Old World architecture, it was in stark contrast to almost every other place in the Americas. Which was why it was perfect for Making Witches. Close to a large freshwater lake but far enough inland from the bay to make Merrow attacks difficult (Holgate and Philadelphia being determined not to suffer as Baltimore had), the place provided all he needed. Water to make weather, height to catch air and lightning, and rock so chances were less they’d catch fire and burn.
Chances being less were, of course, far from a guarantee.
The base of what the occupants called Tanks and Tower was broad stacked and mortared rock that shimmered when flecks of mica and pyrite caught the moonlight, making the place ripple at night like some otherworldly locale. Bran shook the thought from his head.
There was no otherworldly anything. He was a man of science. His reputation depended on it. The fairy tales and things that still held sway in rustic churches and around fires late at night had been proven to be of this world.
Yes, there were things that stole children from their cribs at night and monsters that ate his fellow men. There were misbegotten and misshapen beasts that haunted deep forests and abandoned houses and there were certainly devils seemingly drawn from man’s darkest desires. And magick. Grim, dangerous magick that tore families and empires apart. But none of that magick was here.
Not in the truly civilized parts of the New World.
The Wildkin, including the Merrow, Pooka, Kelpies, Gytrash, Oisin, Wolfkin, Kumiho, and a host of others were as firmly of this world as the other natives that called themselves the People.
And they were just as unwanted.
Magickers were expressly forbidden in the New World. The only ones that had crossed the ocean were the result of Galeyn Turell’s bizarre Making when the Merrow—naturally occurring beasts only a few distant cousins beyond the normal human family—attacked the ship the girl had been on after an accident that had killed one of their princes.
If Galeyn hadn’t demonstrated her strange weather-wielding powers as the Merrow slithered their way across the boat’s blood- and gore-slicked deck the winds would never have kicked up and hurled the Merrow away, and the ship would’ve never vaulted into the air and made it to the colonies.
And there would be no Wildkin War.
How eagerly since then had foreign authors turned a blind eye to the true nature of the Merrow—Hans Christian Andersen the worst offender, using fiction in an attempt to fashion peace.
Unbidden, Bran’s eyes went from the well and pump in the town’s square to the descended portcullis, and the lake and bay not far beyond. The Merrow were never more than a heavy flood away from Holgate’s lake …
He hooked the bucket onto the heavy faucet’s head and, grabbing the pump’s handle, filled it in one long stroke. He was back inside and up the stairs nearly as fast as he’d come down, the burden of the water secondary to the fact that a dead Witch would mar his record.
Nearly as much as the escape of a previous Witch had.
The Witches were all he had. For better or worse they were his only go at immortality. His was one of the most important jobs in all of the Americas. His might be a name to continue on along with those of other great men. Like that of presidents or generals, or like his father.
Or he could be forgotten, leaving nothing of note behind.
He could fail.
“Here,” he said, scooping the water and pressing the ladle against her thin, pale lips. Water poured across her cheeks and chin, spilling down her throat to soak into the linen shift she wore.
She shivered and choked, but she swallowed. She drank. So he scooped more and poured more and she sputtered, her already large eyes going wider. He slowed the flow of liquid, letting her catch up with a few eager swallows before she shook her head and mumbled something.
Her eyes, now slightly brighter, remained unfocused and her lips fluttered before she had air enough behind her thoughts to form words. She blinked at him, coughed, and tried once more.
Her voice strained and small, she said, “They come. And there is naught to be done for it.”
She gasped and the stormcell in his lantern blazed so bright blue he fell backward, blinded. The lantern flew from his hands, glass splintering as the thing burst into pieces, the glaring soul stone tumbling free and into the thick and dusty hay.
By the time it returned to its normal intensity and most of his vision was back, Sybil was the cold of death, the very same cold as wildly running water.
“The stone,” Bran hissed, sifting through the wet straw and grime, his fingers blackening with filth as he hunted for the elusive sparkle of a soul stone. “Aaah!” he exclaimed, pulling his hand up to his face, glass sticking out of it like porcupine quills. “Damnnn…” Bleeding and cursing, he pulled the splinters free, and stood to sweep the floor with his booted foot instead, fingers plunged into his mouth and filling it with the taste of iron and dirt.
His stomach dropped when he heard the distinct sound of something scraping across the last bit of a grate before clinking its way into the darkness of the room’s single and filthy drain.
The soul stone was as good as gone.
Copyright © 2013 by Shannon Delany
Since she was a child SHANNON DELANY has written stories, beginning writing in earnest when her grandmother fell unexpectedly ill. Previously a teacher and now a farmer raising heritage livestock, Shannon lives and writes in Upstate New York and enjoys traveling to talk to people about most anything.