Authors: Margaret Rogerson
It connected with a crack. Her whole body shuddered at the impact, and flecks of drool spattered her face. Thrown off balance, the fiend clung to the side of the coach much as Nathaniel had a moment earlier, tearing the finely
carved wood to splinters as it scrabbled for purchase. Each claw was as long as a man’s finger, dirty and hooked. One swipe would tear her apart. The glaring eyes declared that it intended to do just that.
But the blow she’d landed had left a raw mark seared across its scaled muzzle. Saliva hissed and sizzled on the bar in her hands, evaporating like water thrown onto a hot saucepan. Her perspective
shifted. The bar was made of iron.
Encouraged, she swung again, and felt a satisfying crunch. The fiend went limp. Its claws slid free. When it struck the ground, it tumbled end over end and lay struggling to rise, its wounded head sending up trickles of steam. The other fiends leaped over its body, their eyes locked on the coach.
She turned to Nathaniel, her weapon still steaming.
Nathaniel spared her a glance, and then another, followed by a third, before he wrenched his attention back ahead. “I am applying myself to the fullest,” he assured her.
The coach swung around another bend. Someone screamed. A horse reared, struggling against its handler; a basket of cabbages spilled across the road. They had left the empty byways behind. As they careened down the
street, dodging carts and wagons, Elisabeth had brief impressions of shocked faces flashing past in the gaslight. Pedestrians scrambled for the curb, fleeing from their path.
The first fiend rounded the corner behind them. It didn’t
bother weaving through the traffic, but instead took a direct route, bounding over the displaced carts as if they were stones laid across a river. Coal and apples
and kitchen utensils went flying. Bystanders fell back, shielding their heads with their arms, as the street disintegrated into chaos.
“Stop,” she cried. “People are going to get hurt!”
“What do you propose I do? Raise a white flag? Ask the fiends nicely not to eat us?” A muscle worked in Nathaniel’s jaw, betraying his own frustration.
“Use your magic!” she exclaimed, astonished that she had
to be the one to suggest it.
For a wild moment he looked as though he might laugh. “Sorcery requires focus,” he shot back instead. “Concentration. There are limits. I can’t fling spells around while I—”
He swerved the carriage, narrowly avoiding a cart that hadn’t moved out of their way quickly enough. The pony hitched to the cart shied from the hooves of Nathaniel’s horses and crashed into
a booth stacked with baskets of herring. The cobblestones vanished beneath a silvery flood of scales. Elisabeth ducked as the coach’s wheels sent a stray fish spinning over their heads.
“I’ve seen you bring an entire courtyard of statues to life,” she said. “You’re a magister. These people are counting on you. Make a stand.”
He conveyed to her with a single look that he found her difficult,
irritating, and probably mad, but as they barreled toward a square, he pulled up on the reins and swung the coach around. She braced herself as the wheels jumped the curb. They dragged to a shuddering halt on the paving stones, drawn up beside the grand brick buildings that lined the square, a fountain interposed between themselves and the street.
As soon as the coach stopped moving, Elisabeth
clambered from the driver’s bench onto the flat wooden roof. From here she could see the entire path they had taken after turning onto the main street. She took in the confusion of toppled wagons, balking horses, scattered produce. Shouts carried on the night breeze, mingled with the shrill whinnies of the horses. Closer by, the handful of vendors near the fountain were hastening their efforts to
pack up their carts. The pedestrians had seen the coach coming, and had already emptied the square. A few stragglers hurried up the steps of the nearby buildings, where they were swiftly pulled inside. Doors slammed. Faces pressed to windows. The air smelled of roasted chestnuts, and despite everything, Elisabeth’s stomach growled.
Her eyes roved across the scene of chaos. At first she saw no
hint of the fiends. Then a hunched, scaled back slinked between two abandoned wagons; a plume of steam rose from behind an overturned cart. She fixed her gaze on the spot until a fiend prowled into view, and her heart skipped at the sight of it. The left side of its head was burnt, its left eye a weeping ruin. It was the fiend she had struck from the coach.
“How hard are they to kill?” she asked,
as Nathaniel climbed over the rail and joined her.
“That depends on your definition of killing.” The wind ruffled his hair and teased his cloak. “Anything that comes from the Otherworld can’t be slain in the mortal realm, just banished back home. Their spirits live on after their bodies are destroyed.”
It felt dangerous to speak in the tense, expectant hush that had fallen over the square. Elisabeth
noticed that someone had lost their hat, and it had blown into the water of the fountain. A lady’s glove lay in the gutter. The fiends prowled nearer, winding
sinuously between the carts. They had separated, advancing from six different directions.
She amended, “How many times do I have to hit them before they won’t get back up again?”
Nathaniel’s mouth twitched. “I think you’ll get the hang
of it, Scrivener. You aren’t lacking in enthusiasm. Now—give me a moment. I need—fifteen seconds. Perhaps twenty.”
He closed his eyes.
She had imagined sorcery to be immediate, like drawing a sword. Now, seeing the stillness of concentration that settled over Nathaniel’s face, she wondered, for the first time, what it must be like to cast a spell. The effort that it required—not of the body,
but of the mind.
He drew in a breath and began to speak without opening his eyes. The Enochian words fell jagged-edged from his lips, stinging the air. The wind intensified, whipping around him, flinging leaves and scraps of newspaper skyward, tousling the spray of the fountain. The hair stood up on Elisabeth’s arms. His expression remained perfectly serene.
This was not like drawing a sword.
It was like commanding an army. Becoming a god.
Above them, the sky darkened. Black clouds gathered, sweeping inward, funneling over the square in a boiling vortex. The air grew oppressive with moisture. The streetlamps dimmed. A greenish glow bloomed deep within the clouds, drenching everything in the uncanny twilight that preceded a storm.
Whatever Nathaniel was doing, the fiends weren’t going
to give him fifteen seconds. The moment he began his incantation, the fiend with the ruined eye sprang forward. It snarled at the others, issuing a command. The two fiends on either side of it leaped toward the square, their muscles bunching with powerful strides
that carried them toward the coach at an impossible speed. Their tongues lolled from their mouths, crimson and steaming.
shook her windblown hair out of her face and raised the bar over her shoulder. The seething rotation of the clouds matched the sick turbulence in her stomach.
Teeth flashed. She swung. A crack split the night, and a burst of emerald fire scorched her vision.
As the spots cleared, she discovered that she was still standing. Both fiends lay on the ground in front of the coach. The first one was
sprawled with its neck bent at an unnatural angle. She had done that. But something else had happened to the second. It lay in a tangled heap, its burnt flesh popping and sizzling like meat on a spit.
Nathaniel extended his hand. Emerald lightning forked down from the clouds, flashed once, twice, with a sharp crack and an echoing rumble that shook the ground and rattled the windows—and when it
faded, another fiend lay cooked on the ground. Sparks danced between Nathaniel’s fingers. He turned to strike the next fiend.
It was the leader, the one with the ruined eye. While Elisabeth and Nathaniel were busy with the others, it had prowled over to an overturned cart on the street. Now it stood there, watching them in silence, its lips skinned back from its teeth.
Lightning rippled through
the clouds, spiderwebbing outward in a maze of jagged filaments. Power coursed around Nathaniel, ready to answer his call. But he didn’t act.
He was staring at the fiend’s front foot, resting on the cart, the cart that was pressed against a boy’s chest, who had been trapped there when the cart toppled over. The boy appeared younger than Elisabeth, his slack, unconscious face tipped to the side.
A knot of people looked on from some distance away, clustered
against a building that hadn’t let them inside. A woman near the front of the crowd was screaming; two young men held her back. All three of them had the same ginger hair as the boy beneath the cart.
“I can’t,” Nathaniel said. His lips barely moved, as if he were in a trance. “Not without hitting him, too.”
Elisabeth reacted instinctively,
readying herself to jump down from the coach. “I’ll lure it away,” she said.
He caught her arm. “That’s exactly what the fiend wants,” he snapped. “To draw you out on your own so you’ll make an easier target. Don’t be an idiot, Scrivener.”
She looked at the boy, who would die if they did nothing, and back to Nathaniel.
Don’t be an idiot
. “Is that what you call it?” she asked.
passed across his face. He let go.
Elisabeth’s boots struck the paving stones. She advanced on the fiend across the empty square, newspapers blowing past in the wind. She weighed the iron bar in her hands. The fiend bared its teeth wider, giving her an inhuman grin. Its claws flexed, pushing the cart harder against the trapped boy. It wouldn’t move until the last possible second.
behind her, illuminating the street in a wash of green. Elisabeth didn’t take her eyes from the demon.
A raindrop spattered the ground at her feet. She broke into a run, feeling the bar become an extension of her arm. Everything moved quickly after that. Fangs, claws, snarls. The bone-jarring impact of her weapon glancing off a horn, a bright ribbon of pain tearing down her shoulder. With each
breath, she inhaled the stink of carrion and brimstone. She concentrated all her effort on pacing backward as she deflected the fiend’s blows, pulling it away from the unconscious boy.
The rain began to fall in earnest, sheeting across the square, running into Elisabeth’s eyes and blurring her vision. Another flash of lightning transformed her circling opponent into a stark etching of light and
shadow. A second flash, a third. Had Nathaniel missed the other fiends? There should have only been two of them left. As she spun, searching, she saw more silhouettes creeping toward her, their eyes shining like embers through the curtain of rain. Too many of them to count. In her horror, she faltered.
There was no pain—but suddenly the world turned sideways, and the paving stones rose to meet
her, cold and wet and grimy, slamming the air from her lungs. The bar skidded out of reach. She struggled to breathe, feeling as though a vise had clamped around her chest.
A lightning bolt split the air so close by that for a stunned moment she was certain it had struck her. Then the steaming body of the leader collapsed at her side, the light dimming from its single red eye.
“Steady on, Scrivener.”
Arms lifted her from the ground, gathering her onto Nathaniel’s lap.
“The boy,” she croaked.
“His family has him,” Nathaniel said. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine.”
But we won’t be
. There were too many fiends. They were surrounded. She gazed up at Nathaniel’s gray eyes, wondering if his face was the last thing she would ever see. Rain dripped from his nose and clung to his dark eyelashes. This
close, she thought that his eyes did not look as cruel as she had once imagined. She had been so frightened of him before that she hadn’t spared much thought for how handsome he was, which now seemed like a terrible waste.
Nathaniel’s brow furrowed, as though he saw something in Elisabeth’s expression that troubled him. He looked away, squinting against the downpour. “Silas?” he asked.
master?” The servant’s voice was little more than a whisper in the storm.
Somehow, Elisabeth had forgotten about Silas. She struggled to keep her eyes open. And there he was—impeccably dressed, balanced effortlessly on the edge of a rooftop high above them. He gazed down at the scene with detached, pitiless interest. The pounding rain left his slender form untouched.
How did he get all the way up there?
Shadows advanced from every side. They loomed at the corners of Elisabeth’s vision, permeating the fog with their carrion stench.
“We could use some help down here,” Nathaniel said, “whenever you’re finished admiring the view.”
Silas smiled. “With pleasure, master.” He removed first his right glove, then his left, and neatly slipped them both into his pocket. Then he stepped from
the edge of the rooftop, out over a four-story drop.
Elisabeth couldn’t see him after that. Her eyes sagged shut on the sliver of now-empty sky as all around her there came a chorus of yelps, and crunches, and howls, punctuated every now and again by the sound of something limp and heavy being flung against a wall. All of that came from far away. Her thoughts had stuck on a single image: the
sight of Silas’s hands when he’d taken off his gloves.
He didn’t have fingernails. He had claws.
“Elisabeth?” Nathaniel asked, and the sound of her name chased her into the dark.