Dead Magic by A.J. Maguire

EXTRACT FOR
Dead Magic

(A.J. Maguire)


Dead Magic

CHAPTER ONE

 

For six copper bits and two brass coins, he should have been afforded a window seat.  Winslow hid a scowl behind his fist and tried desperately to ignore the whining child just behind him.  He thought it might be better if the kid cried or wailed.  That would be preferable to the whimpering pitch of the little girl trying to get her mother’s attention; but it would not have drowned out the chatter of the woman sitting beside him. 

Fates help him, Winslow doubted he would ever forget the sound of Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain, the newest—and if she dared say so herself, brightest—recruit to the Tormey University of Engineering.  Given the tight confines of the train car, the proximity of his barely cushioned seat to hers, and the fact that there were only three other patrons nearby, he understood why she’d chosen him.  The three other people included the simpering girl and her mother, and one blissfully snoring older gentleman two seat rows in front of them.

Winslow’s strictly polite upbringing barred him from making any unkind remarks about his general disinterest with all things technology.  He was a Witch-Born and therefore more prone toward the natural order of things.  And, truth be told, Winslow didn’t give a damn how water came through a pump, just as long as it was hot enough to fill his bath.

Fates alive! he thought and closed his eyes, what I wouldn’t give for a hot bath and five minutes of quiet.

“Am I boring you, sir?” Cosata’s phlegmy voice penetrated his thoughts again.

It would serve the girl right if he introduced himself now, after three quarters of an hour listening to her prattle.  She didn’t seem to care or notice that she had to call him “sir” because she hadn’t bothered to ask his name.  Even if she had, he wouldn’t have told her the truth.  It was better that no one know that he was Witch-Born, at least until he had checked all of the Warding Pillars in Magnellum.  None of the individual House Witches whose lands he inspected would like his trespass, and the Council would most assuredly take offense.

Aside from bringing dishonor and becoming a general headache to his own family, Winslow didn’t think there was much the Council could do about it, but Elsie had been adamant about the discretion.  And with almost a full year of travel behind him, Winslow could understand why.  She wasn’t afraid of the Council, she was afraid of the Untalented.  There was a low and ominous growl amongst the Untalented people, a discord and a distrust, and all of their blame was shifting toward the Houses.

“It would seem that I must be boring you, since you have the gall to fall asleep.”

Winslow felt his left eye twitch and battled down a few snide remarks.  Opening his eyes, he looked at her again.  She was pretty when she was quiet; pert nose and puckered mouth, but her brown eyes glared at him.

“No, not at all.  I find the internal workings of pistons quite fascinating.”

The glare turned hard, “I spoke of pistons more than forty minutes ago.  You’ve not paid attention to a word I’ve said!”

Winslow turned in his seat so that he could face her more directly.  To hell with his genteel breeding, he’d had quite enough. “Have you always been socially inept?”

She gasped.

“Or is it simply a custom of your family to presume that whoever is nearest to you must hear your life’s story?”

“How dare you!”

“Well, I have to assume that your preoccupation with yourself is either something you were born into, or a matter of your upbringing.”

Cosata’s chin lifted and she made a half-snorting, half-wheezing sound just before she found her voice again.  “And here I thought you were an educated gentleman.  Come to find out, you’re just a . . .”

Her words were cut short as they were both thrown forward.  Winslow’s face smashed into the seat in front of him.  He felt the bridge of his nose snap and bit down on his tongue.  Vision blurred and face throbbing, he barely grabbed hold of the seat before the train car pitched leftward.  He was airborne a second later as a violent jolt slammed through the car.

The fabric of the seatback tore under his grip and Winslow finally came out of his daze.  Summoning his magic, he tried to prepare for the next crash.  An instant later, the car behind them came barreling through the rear end of the cabin.  His body bounced off the ceiling and he was tossed out of his seat. 

He hit the next set of seats at a horizontal angle.  His temple knocked into the corner of an armrest with unforgiving force.  Searing pain flashed through his vision and he saw dazzling sparkles just before his entire body got wedged into the foot space between two rows of seats.  Grunting in pain and trying to find his focus, Winslow was almost too late in noticing the threat.

The force of impact between the two train cars made an accordion out of the iron and copper frame.  He felt the pressure of the seat legs against his back and knew he was about to be crushed.

With a shout of mingled fear and anger, Winslow shoved back against it, calling on his Witch-Born Talent for more strength than he’d ever summoned before.  Metal screeched against metal and the grind of derailed wheels against rocky ground throbbed through the iron floor.  He concentrated on his Talent as the car began to fold around him.  And somewhere else, somewhere close by, Winslow heard the distinct sound of Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain choking on a terrified sob.

Gritting his teeth, Winslow prayed the Fates would be merciful. 

 

***

 

Valeda Quinlan hurtled through the entrance of Delgora Hall, propelled forward by the hem of her borrowed skirt—which she had just managed to step on.  She heard the wretched thing rip, which caused her to gasp, but she was too busy trying to catch herself to care.  Her beloved but much-worn portfolio flew out of her hands just seconds before she fell headlong onto the marble floor.  The impact smacked into her palms, jolted through her arms, and bruised her left knee. 

By some miracle, she had managed to keep from landing on her nose, and praised the Fates that she wouldn’t have to meet with House Witch Delgora with a purple and swollen face.  After a dazed moment she realized that her papers had snapped free of their hemp binding and were now littered across the floor.  Two Delgora servants rushed to help pick them up, more concerned with clearing the marble walkway than the order they should be in.

Valeda made a valiant effort not to curse at them because they were only trying to help, and hurried back to her feet. The unfamiliar heeled boots—also on loan—made her left ankle roll and she hissed in mingled irritation and pain.  So help her, she was going to throttle Margaretta for insisting that she wear the outfit.

“Thank you,” she said, flustered.  She checked the far end of the grand hall before taking the piles of leaflets.  To her relief, the large, plush House Seat was empty, meaning that House Witch Delgora had not been witness to Valeda’s tumble.

“Are you all right, Miss?”

“Yes, thank you.”  Valeda paused, startled to find so few bodies occupying the room.  While she was pleased that she hadn’t just made a fool of herself in front of a score of well-to-do Untalented Court members, it wasn’t normal to have only six people inside a great hall.  Especially if two of those six were servants.  She spotted three black and white chainmail tunics at the far end of the room, signifying that the men wearing them were Warders, which only heightened Valeda’s curiosity.

“What is going on?” Valeda looked to the servant beside her, only to discover that he wasn’t a servant. 

Being the lead writer for the Tormey Regular, her job required her to know the faces of every dignitary in Magnellum.  Her embarrassment resurfaced as she recognized the blunt-toothed smile and slick blond hair of Montgomery Taven; Ambassador of House Witch Minne Orzebet.

“Honestly?  I’ve no idea.”  Montgomery nodded to the House Seat.  “Vicaress Leona mentioned something about opening the gardens for tea.”

“Where is House Witch Elsie Delgora?”

“I’ve heard rumors that she is overseeing the construction of an ark.”

Valeda felt a thrill shoot up her spine.  So it’s true, she thought.  House Witch Delgora really is building a haven.  Montgomery shook his head in bafflement, clearly unaware of what sort of madness could force a Witch to such an extreme.  Valeda, however, had a clue.  Or, well, it was a hunch, really.  But it was a hunch that she believed with every fiber of her being.

Magic, the God of Magnellum, was gone.

Valeda could sense his absence as though she were a Witch-Born herself.  She just couldn’t prove it.  Yet.

Forcing herself to laugh, she busied her hands by making a neat stack of her papers, “I thought that was a joke.”

“No, no.  No joke.  It’s about six miles south of here.”  Montgomery’s mouth seemed to tighten for a moment.  “I’ve been waiting two days to speak with the Witch or the Consort, but they will not allow ‘outsiders’ to visit the construction site.”

She mentally noted the wounded pride in his voice.  “Two days?”

“But I hear the Witch and Consort are to be present for the tea gathering, so I suppose that’s something.”

“Yes, that’s something.”  Valeda fought a wince because the words sounded so lame.  She was distinctly outclassed by the Ambassador and she knew it.  She’d interviewed such well-known men and women before, but was always reminded of her little one-bedroomed apartment when they stood so close.  Men like Ambassador Taven had apartments in manors where their respected House Witches resided, as well as private homes of their own.

The Ambassador seemed to sense her discomfort because he gave her a compassionate smile and bowed his head, “How rude of me, jabbering away without proper introduction.  My name is Montgomery Taven, though you probably already knew that.  Friends and pretty young ladies, such as yourself, are permitted to call me Monty.”

There was nothing lascivious about the introduction from the tall, dignified man beside her, and Valeda decided almost instantly that she liked him.  He was older in the refined sort of way that most Witch-Born grew into, as though time itself had nothing but kindness to offer the man.  His smile was gentle, crinkling his eyes into a warm, blue twinkle, and though she knew him to be ten years her senior, Valeda couldn’t help but think him handsome.  Immaculately dressed in shades of navy, Monty was trimmed with coppery tones.  The fringe of his waistcoat was lined with the color, and she was fairly certain that the buttons on his jacket were, in fact, made of highly polished copper.  The handle of his cane matched the buttons, glinting up at her in the sunlight.

Copper was apparently in fashion, or so Margaretta had informed her, and House Witch Delgora had a keen eye for such things.

You can’t go insulting the Witch before you’ve even opened your mouth.  You’ll do enough of that when you begin to harass her with your questions.”  Margaretta had said it all so sensibly that Valeda had listened.

Thus, she’d allowed her friend to festoon her in the cream and caramel two-layered skirt.  Margaretta could not afford the actual color copper, which she’d bemoaned for half a day before settling on the outfit Valeda now wore.  Cream underskirt of satin, showing class and modesty, and a lacey caramel overskirt, to show color and vibrancy, added to a terrifyingly low-cut bodice of matching cream.  Valeda had tuned the woman out, which she lamented because if she’d been listening she might have paid more attention to the fact that the skirts were an inch and a half too long.

By Fates, Valeda was never going to let another woman dress her again.

Realizing that Monty was waiting for her own introduction, Valeda blushed and stammered, inwardly kicking herself for getting distracted by something as inane as fashion; “Valeda Quinlan, from the Tormey Regular.”

“The Tormey Regular?” Monty sounded genuinely surprised.  “Is Tormey House planning some kind of alliance or union with Delgora?”

“Oh, no, no,” Valeda said, feeling her face color even more.  “That is, I’m not acquainted with House politics enough to say.  I’m here on . . . other business.”

A blond eyebrow quirked up at this and Montgomery hummed.  It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant “hum”, but she recognized the curiosity in him and searched desperately for a distraction.  In truth, her boss would be quite displeased to learn that her three-week vacation was really following the one lead to the one story he’d demanded she forget.  The one story, she thought, that affects every House Land in Magnellum. 

It had been eight years since the last time Magic, the man-god, had walked in plain sight of his people.  Eight years since he had attended a noble Witch-Born birth and bestowed the Talent onto a new subject, and while Magic was known as a capricious sort of god, he’d never been absent from Magnellum for so long.  Valeda could sense that something was amiss.  There was an ominous feeling to the very air around her, a churning in her gut that couldn’t let the story go.  Korman Poutre, owner of the Tormey Regular, could threaten her with her job all he liked, but Valeda had to know the truth.

Spotting the tear in the hem of her skirt, Valeda seized the change of topic, “Oh, Margaretta is going to kill me.  She spent a month’s salary on this outfit.”

“Ah, the vagaries of borrowed clothing,” Montgomery clucked his tongue at the ripped fabric.  “If it helps, I can testify to Miss Margaretta that the skirt plotted against the toe of your shoe and lost the battle.”

Laughing, Valeda shook her head, “I doubt it would help.”

“Ambassador Taven,” a soft, feminine voice intruded on their conversation.

Valeda turned, startled to find that Vicaress Leona had managed to approach them without her noticing.  Dipping into an instant curtsy, she heard Montgomery greet the Vicaress with something that sounded like affection in his voice. 

Copper was not a highlight in Leona’s garb, Valeda noticed that straight off.  The girl was resplendent in rich greens, so deep and constant that Valeda imagined she’d sprouted from the jungles of Delgora.  To Valeda’s envy, Leona’s hair shone healthy and bright in the sun, making perfect golden ringlets that brushed her shoulders.

No one should be allowed to be so beautiful, she thought.

“The gardens are prepared.”  Leona gestured toward the western side of the grand hall, a hall that, to Valeda’s dismay, only served to feed her sense of inadequacy. 

Great, high windows, all of them open, with massive pillars running the length of the room to the raised dais and ornate House Seat.  Everything was a mesh of marble and brass fixings and Valeda thought again about her little apartment.

Outclassed, she told herself, definitely outclassed.

“If you will both follow me,” Leona half turned but paused at Valeda’s squeak of alarm.

“Oh, my Lady, I mean Vicaress, I am just . . .”

Monty interrupted her by taking possession of her elbow.  “Miss Quinlan is my guest.  An Untalented, but purely charming guest.  I trust the House Witch will not mind the added company?”

“No, not at all.”  Leona appeared highly amused by this turn of events and gestured for them to follow.

At the suave and also amused gesture from Monty, Valeda began to do so, allowing him to escort her through Delgora Hall.  Korman would wheeze with laughter at the sight of his pants-preferring, mud-diving, get-dirty-if-you-have-to, star reporter being treated like a dignitary.  Valeda herself was having trouble with a fit of nervous giggles, but somehow managed to keep her reactions limited to a smile.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she whispered to Monty. 

They passed through the garden doors and into a canopy of large, jungle leaves.  Flowers bloomed everywhere, peppering the greenery with bright splashes of pink, yellow and purple.  Were it not for the humidity, which made unpleasant prickles of sweat bead over her spine and pool in the hallow places of her body, it would have been the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in person.

“Nonsense,” Monty whispered back to her.  “We cannot have Miss Margaretta’s best skirt sacrificed for nothing.  Besides, I’ve been here two wretched days.  In my estimation, the Witch owes me for my time.”


CHAPTER TWO

 

It was the dripping that woke him up.  Warm and wet, he couldn’t see what it was that kept splattering against his neck, but in the darkness of his metal cocoon Winslow could hazard a guess.  He’d managed to make a pocket of space with his magic, just big enough that he hadn’t been crushed to death.  But as his Talent had waned, the train car had collapsed around him.

His right foot throbbed.  Sharp metal tore into his skin when he tried to move it.

“Mother, Maiden and Crone!” he hissed and tried to relax.

He needed to concentrate.  He needed to breathe.  But the breathing part was hampered by what felt like two tons of pressure aimed directly at his chest.  In the blackness of his little space, he could hear an alarming crackling sound in his shallow breaths.  Leaning back against the bite of cold metal, Winslow closed his eyes and summoned his Talent again.

He could sense it at the core of his being, faint from over-use but still there.  Slowly, meticulously, he took an inventory of his injuries.  His magic led him, pinpointing several lacerations, a fracture in his left elbow, a large contusion on the left side of his skull where the seat had snapped free of the train and hit him.  Concussion, more than likely, but not nearly as disconcerting as the collapsed lung, he thought.  His right leg was broken in no fewer than three places, mostly near his foot, where the floor of the train car had been sandwiched against the wall of the train.

“Have mercy,” he winced and wheezed at the same time.

Another droplet hit his jaw and Winslow focused.  The map his magic had made of his battered body consumed his mind.  He could see it, feel it, as he commanded his Talent to mend the lung.  It was an agonizing moment as he bent time, speeding up the recovery process for the injury and he cried out from the pain of it.  The sound of his own voice seemed very small, as though the train had swallowed him whole. 

His lung patched and inflated and he took his first full breath of air since the crash.

After three deep breaths, Winslow concentrated his Talent on escaping from the train.  The window would have been near his feet, or at least, that’s where he estimated it would be.  When he’d landed on the floor, his head had been half in the aisle and his body managed to lodge itself there.  He could feel indentations in the metal floor where his elbows pushed back against the crumpling train. 

He heard a small whimpering sound, muffled through the metal surrounding him.  Winslow flinched, his heart twisting at the anguish he heard.  It came again, originating from somewhere to his left.  Craning his neck back, he squinted at the dark, calling on his magic to pull his vision into sharp focus. 

A jagged tear made a vent in the iron floor, exposing shadowed ground that looked impossibly far away.  The tear was a good two feet from him, but by the angle of it Winslow could calculate that their car was jammed up on top of something.

“Hello?”  His voice was raspy, sounding eerie even to him.

A sniffle and a light movement came from just beyond the tear, and Winslow’s stomach dropped.  The little girl and her mother, he thought.

“Hello?”  He said, more forcefully this time.

“My hand is stuck and Mother’s asleep.”

Winslow closed his eyes again, his chest locked in grief.  Fates have mercy, he prayed, may that woman just be unconscious.

“What’s your name?”  He tested his moving room, hissing as his fractures came roaring to life. 

“Mirabella.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mirabella.  My name is Winslow.”

Gritting his teeth, he forced his Talent to mend his body.  He had to go one injury at a time, but none of the fractures were quite as agonizing as the lung had been.  His magic still needed rest, but little Mirabella needed rescuing now, too.  And if he was fully honest with himself, Winslow was starting to get claustrophobic.

“Are you hurt?” Mirabella asked.

“Only a little,” he bit back a curse when he realized he couldn’t fix his leg until he freed it from the bent metal.

“Mother says men swear a lot when they’re in pain because it makes them feel better.”

He smiled briefly before pressing his palms to the seat half folded on top of him.  “I don’t know that it makes us feel better, but it certainly lets us focus on something else.  Are you hurt, Mirabella?”

“My hand is stuck and I can’t feel my fingers.”

“What’s it stuck in?”

“I don’t know, I can’t see around Mother’s head.”

Winslow fought back the images that brought to mind.  Imagining the girl staring at her dead mother for however long he’d been unconscious, he felt terrible that he’d been so frustrated with her before.  Of course, he didn’t know that the mother was dead.  He prayed she wasn’t, but someone had lost enough blood for it to drip into his face.  It seemed uncharitable to hope that fate belonged to Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain.

“Mirabella, I’m going to move the seat that’s on top of me.  There’s going to be a lot of noise.  Try not to be frightened.”

He waited for her to acknowledge him before he pushed at the seat.  It was a joint effort of his natural strength and his Talent to move the thing, straining muscles and magic to an almost painful point.  Iron scratched into iron, screeching in a spine-tingling pitch.  Something shifted higher up in the train car, slamming into the row of seats as it came free.  Winslow felt the shock of it rattle into his arms and through his shoulders but didn’t let go.

Mirabella screamed in pain and Winslow stopped, panting and alarmed.  “Mirabella?”

She continued to cry, great gasping wails, and Winslow panicked.  He tore his foot out of the vice it was stuck in, shouting in mingled fear and pain as the metal tore deep into his leg.  All the fractures in the offending appendage shifted to squeeze through the opening.  He fought his way up to the tear in the floor, placed his good foot on the jagged lip and shimmied his way up to where Mirabella should have been.

He found a booted foot first: feminine, with a half an inch of pointed heel and several dainty buckles up the side.  By its size, he could tell that this was the mother.  Carefully, trying not to jostle the train any more than he already had, Winslow reached out and circled the woman’s ankle with one hand.  He concentrated on the sensation of touch and tried to ignore Mirabella’s hiccupping cries.

A rapid, stuttered pulse beat into his palm and he exhaled in relief.

The mother was alive.

“Mirabella?”

“My hand . . .”

Fates alive!  He wished he could see through metal.  “I know you’re hurt, but I need you to be brave.  Can you be brave?”

“Mother says being brave means you look at the thing that scares you most and tell it to scram.”

Winslow smiled and wiped blood and grease from his brow.  “I like your mother.  Do you think you can be brave?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”  He paused and bent to duck his head through the hole.

Their train had leapt the tracks.  In the shadow of their particular car, Winslow could see the railway tracks more than five feet away.  The ferny, mountainous landscape of southern Clenci meshed with the white-washed gravel that held the train tracks.  He was grateful for the sudden brush of late autumn air through the vent on two accounts.  For one, it smelled a damn sight better than the wreck of the train; and for another, it meant less of a chance of a fire.  At the moment, he had quite enough trouble to cope with.

“Mr. Winslow?”

“One moment, Mirabella.”

He didn’t want to move anything on the inside of the train again.  Fates only knew what else might fall on top of them if he did.  They didn’t have time for him to climb on top and work his way down to them, either.  Pulling his head back inside the train, Winslow glanced between the snaggle-toothed metal and feminine boot.  There was no way to help Mirabella or her mother until he could see what he was dealing with.

Setting his hands against the edge of torn iron, he summoned his magic once more, growling as he ripped the train floor further.  He kept tearing, folding the iron away, ignoring the sharp bite of broken metal in his palms.  His own blood started a slow roll around his wrists, soaking into the sleeves of his dress shirt.  The tan, linen material turned a rusty color at the cuffs and for a moment he turned his attention to that instead of the strain.  Then he redoubled his efforts, widening the hole until he reached the mother’s knee.

Pausing for breath, Winslow balanced on the shredded floor and considered the tangle of iron and woman before him.  The best way to get the girl and her mother out of the train was just to continue ripping the hole in the floor, and then lower them down.  But Mirabella’s hand was stuck on something and he had to get around the mother to see properly.

With a resigned sigh, Winslow got back to work.  Bracing himself on either side of the hole, he peeled back the floor, pushing warped curls of iron away until he encountered Mirabella’s leg.  Then he continued further, inch by painstaking inch, scooting his own body along for better balance.

He found the trapped hand first.  A little arm in pansy-printed sleeves led up to the seat just beside them.  A seat that had come loose and now sandwiched Mirabella’s hand to the train floor.  Gingerly, slowly, Winslow worked the metal away from her hand.  It was more than broken, he realized with a pang of sympathy, it was crushed.

“Mr. Winslow?” Mirabella’s voice was closer now, and he could hear the tremble of fear in it.

“Just call me Winslow.”  He freed the hand and carefully pulled it away from the seat.

“Are you a Witch-Born?”

“Would it matter if I was?”  Grunting in effort, he pushed at the metal caging them in, dragging it back and away, and shoving with his shoulder when it got too high.

“I can’t imagine an Untalented man staying behind to free me.”

“Nonsense.  There are some perfectly sensible Untalented men who would do everything they could to save you.”  His fingers found a shock of curly hair and he breathed in relief.  With another two bends and rips he revealed her face and, panting, tried to grin at her.  “Hello there, Miss Mirabella.  Would you like to get out of the train now?”

She nodded at him, her green eyes blinking.

“Excellent.  Scoot closer to me and I’ll show you the way out.”

Careful not to jostle her mother too much, Mirabella shimmied her way toward him.  When she reached the lip of the hole, her eyes grew wide with surprise.  He knew she was still in pain; she had to be with her hand the way it was.  Still, she didn’t cry out when he took her by the arm and lowered her down.  Even with his body stretched as far as it would go, it was still a drop, but aside from a small oof on impact, Mirabella kept calm.

The mother—Fates be praised—wasn’t stuck on anything.  Winslow pulled her by the waist, then fought to sling her limp form over one shoulder.  When he was confident she was secure, he lowered himself until he dangled from the awkwardly positioned train car.

It really is a drop, he thought, as he stared past his boots and at the ground.  He tried to calculate if his magic could withstand a time-bend, and realized that if he tried that, he’d never recover from it.  Grimacing, he took a deep breath and let go.

His still broken foot hit the ground first and he yelped.  His body collapsed under the weight of Mirabella’s mother and jolts of pain shot up and down his leg.  Dizzy sparks overwhelmed his vision when his head smacked into pebbly ground.  Dazed, hissing in anguish, Winslow stared up at the underbelly of the train car.

“Mother, Maiden and Crone,” he muttered.