Hey everyone! Welcome to another edition of We Love The Indies, part of #LetsReadIndie. Today I have Kara Johnson sharing an excerpt of her novel Dead Magic. You can read her interview over at RaeAnne‘s blog.
On balmy summer nights, Highgate Cemetery lay as still and silent as its residents, but as the witching hour approached, a shadow emerged. Footfalls echoed through the rows of vine-covered graves, their names impossible to read in the scant moonlight. Crickets fell silent and the grasses on either side of the well-worn path rustled with life just beneath the surface as Cecil Hale passed. Reaching for the shuttered lantern at his side, the young man stopped and listened for any sign of his compatriots. He had been instructed not to open the lantern until he reached the Egyptian Avenue, but the graveyard was harder to navigate in the dark than he had imagined. The dizzying rows of cockeyed graves seemed to go on forever, all nearly identical to the next.
Closing his eyes, Cecil drew in a long breath and released a wave of energy that began at his russet hair and passed through his feet. In the darkness beyond the curve of trees, he felt a flash of power pulse back. So they had ventured into the vault without him after all. As he rounded the bend, his heart quickened at the sight of the obelisk and lotus-columned entrance to the Egyptian Avenue. Leafy boughs and Jurassic ferns spilled over the top of the mausoleum’s entrance, drowning out the tang of death with the scents of summer. He paused as the iron gate whined beneath his hand, waiting for the light of the night watchman he knew would not appear. A smirk crossed his lips. No one thought to worry about the dead.
Cecil’s gaze swept over the faceless row of doors on either side of him until it came to rest on the wavering radiance of an oil lamp shining from beneath the threshold. Pulling open the door, he shut his eyes against the harsh light of the lanterns within.
“Did they not teach you how to tell time at boarding school, Lord Hale?”
Cecil Hale stiffened. If it had been anyone else, he would have cut them down to size for not only insulting a viscount but for daring to question the standing of the youngest practioner initiated into the Eidolon Club, but when his hazel eyes adjusted, he found Lady Rose glaring at him.
“Do forgive my tardiness, Lady Rose, but it wasn’t easy to find my way here in the dark. Not all of us frequent graveyards,” he replied before he could stop himself.
A low chuckle emanated from where she stood, but Cecil swore he hadn’t seen her lips or chest move. Among the shadows of the mausoleum, her polished bronze hair and pale green eyes took on such an unnatural hue that he dared not question what he had heard. Of all the practitioners he knew, she was the only one he feared. If he stared too long, he could see the energy writhing and slithering around her, pulling at the flames positioned in a circle around the coffin at her feet. It was her power he felt when he cleared his mind’s eye.
As Cecil pulled the crypt door shut, a lanky, white-haired figure emerged from the neighboring chamber. Cecil was accustomed to seeing Lord Sumner in the Eidolon Club’s vast study, but seeing him standing in the mausoleum didn’t sit well. It felt wrong, like seeing one’s grandfather walk out of a Piccadilly brothel. He couldn’t imagine him with his carefully trimmed beard and Savile Row suit anywhere near a charnel house. The man had a lineage as distinguished as any king on the continent, so what could be so important that he would risk being found prowling around a graveyard with the likes of Lady Rose? Perhaps Cecil wasn’t the only one who didn’t trust her.
“Will it be only us this evening?” Cecil asked, his voice reverberating against the vaulted stone as he stared into the darkened chamber.
Without looking up from the coffin edge, Lady Rose replied, “If you’re worried about discovery, I hired a man to keep watch outside, but the ritual only needs one. His lordship is merely here to supervise.”
“Let’s hope the ritual won’t be necessary,” the elder noble murmured, averting his gaze from Lady Rose’s makeshift evocation circle.
“Oh? Are you having second thoughts, Lord Sumner?”
“I think all of us would prefer to avoid such vulgarity. We can only hope his family thought it best to bury the damned book with him.”
“So resurrectionists like us could find it? I doubt it,” she said, running her bare fingers over the lid as if feeling for something.
“Did anyone check his estate and town home?” Cecil asked.
Lady Rose and Lord Sumner exchanged an incredulous look before turning their attention back to the casket. Her fingers slid over the decorative molding and around the brass bars affixed to either side, probing every cranny for hidden springs.
Resting back on her heels, she motioned for Cecil to come to her side with a curl of her finger. “Cecil, would you do the honors?”
For a moment, he wished they had left the door open to the crypt. The stale air pressed in as he drew in a breath and held it. Cecil steeled himself, ready to avert his gaze when the lid cracked open, but as he tried to yank it loose, a bolt of pain shot into his wrists and up his arms. Howling, he staggered back, nearly kicking over Sumner’s lamp.
“The bloody thing’s hexed!” he cried, rubbing his burning, twitching hands.
“The duke’s underlings were smarter than I thought,” Lord Sumner said under his breath.
Grabbing a handful of dust from the floor, Lady Rose cast it across the casket top. A series of rings, lines, and scribbles appeared through the detritus. Cecil leaned in to get a closer look. He had never seen a sigil that actually worked. The Eidolon Club didn’t endorse the use of such an out of fashion technique, so there had been no reason for him to bother learning about them. At the pulsing throb in his hand, he wished he had. Before he could finish tracing the twisting line with his gaze, Lady Rose pulled out a handkerchief from her Gladstone bag and scrubbed at the sigil. Cecil watched with wide eyes as she gritted her teeth and continued even as the arcane symbols crackled and arced with electricity beneath her palm.
She released a labored breath and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Open it.”
Cautiously, Cecil reached for the lid, expecting to feel the bite of electricity once more. The lid groaned under his hand, but as he raised it, the bile crawled up his throat at the overwhelming stench of putrefaction. The smell of rotting meat mixed with the bite of acid and the coppery sweetness of blood was so strong that he dared not look down. He had hoped that in the few months since his death, the Duke of Dover’s body would have been reduced to nothing more than a skeleton in a suit. From the corner of his eye, he could make out an unnaturally blackened and melted face and a hint of bone peaking from the top of what he could only imagine had once been the duke’s hand. As he returned to his station near the door, Cecil covered his mouth with his handkerchief, hoping Lady Rose and Lord Sumner wouldn’t notice his sudden pallor, but she was already leaning into the coffin, her hands probing the body for the missing grimoire.
“Just as I suspected, it isn’t here,” she said, turning to Sumner.
“Then, what do you propose to do now?” he replied sharply, knowing the answer.
“The ritual. Unless you no longer want to acquire the book, but I highly doubt the Pinkertons or your investigators will be able to find it without hearing what the duke has to say.”
Lord Sumner’s lip curled in disgust as he locked eyes with the witch perched beside the coffin. She held his gaze, her green eyes at ease while the noblemen squinted at the pungency of the rotting corpse. With a final look at the duke’s bloated form, Lord Sumner retrieved his cloak and hat from an empty niche.
“Do what you will, but I will not be a part of it. Leave a message for me at the club if you find anything, but don’t taint me with your bone-conjuring.”
Storming out of the crypt, Lord Sumner slammed the door, leaving Cecil and Lady Rose in silence. She stared ahead, her face betraying nothing even as she sat back on the dusty floor. Cecil dared not ask if she was all right.
After a moment, she licked her lips and swept a stray bronze curl from her forehead. “Cecil, if you ever want to succeed, never let theory trump practical knowledge. Despite your position, you’re never too good to use what you have learned.”
“I don’t plan to rely on theory, Aunt Claudia.”
Satisfied with his answer, she asked flatly, “Did you make the tincture I asked for?”
Cecil nodded, reaching into his breast pocket for the flask. It had taken him most of the day to prepare it from the notes she had given him, but it was perfect. It had to be. He had been so careful to check the thermometer and even test some of the precipitate to ensure he had created the intended compound. What it did, he had no idea. Plucking it from his hand, she sniffed and swirled it before setting it aside.
“Very good. Do you intend to stay for the ritual or would you prefer to wait outside, Lord Hale?”
“If you would permit it, I should like to stay.”
“I see. Then, you must remain quiet and out of the way. You may be disturbed by what you see, but you must remain silent. Can you manage that?”
For a brief moment, Cecil considered slipping out the door of the crypt and getting into the first cab that would take him back to his flat, but he was an alchemist and to be taken seriously, he had to stay even when Lord Sumner would not. Sealing off his energy with a slow exhalation, Cecil stepped further into the shadows until his back rested against the damp stone. He watched as Lady Rose reached into the Gladstone bag at her side, pulling out a large, squat bowl, a bottle of what appeared to be water, a handful of narrow vials, and a rough obsidian blade. She emptied the bottle of water and three of the vials into the bowl. Placing it before her, she wafted the faint trail of smoke that rose from the liquid toward her. As she closed her eyes, her body rocked in time with the languid curve of her hand and a low chant resonated in her throat. Her free-hand skated through the dust at her side, scrawling tiny shapes he couldn’t make out before darting for another vial to add to the bowl.
The air grew thick with the stench of sulphurous smoke until Cecil feared he would be ill. Lady Rose’s lithe body writhed and snapped as her chant grew louder and more insistent. Sounds morphed into words he nearly recognized but were lost before his mind could retrieve their meaning. Drawing in a loud breath, the words ceased.
The obsidian knife flashed in the wavering candlelight. In one swift motion, Lady Rose ran it across the duke’s hand. A few drops of a thick black liquid seeped from the wound and across her open palm where a bloated finger lay neatly severed from its mooring. Cecil silenced a gag with a tight swallow as the stench of offal overpowered his senses. Whispers raced across Lady Rose’s lips as she raised the finger high before dropping it into the bowl. The smoke writhed and condensed, combining with the shadows lingering at the edge of the circle of candles. Monstrous faces flickered. They rose in open-mouthed grotesques only to be swallowed by another until finally the vague outline of a man solidified. His stern eyes and hollowed cheeks locked onto Cecil’s hazel gaze before turning to Lady Rose.
“Duke Dover, we—the blind living—humbly ask for your assistance. Your divine sight sees all: past, present, and future. Tell us, sir. Tell us where the Corpus Grimoire lies at this moment,” she pleaded, her voice level but tinged with yearning.
The duke’s face dissolved, drifting and roiling until a new scene appeared in the smoke. A paper package sat among stacks of crates and bags of letters stamped London, England. The faint hum of a dirigible reverberated through the tomb. It was on a mail ship.
Lady Rose’s eyes widened. “Duke Dover, who will receive the package? To whom is it going?”
Smoke twisted into a column before chipping away to reveal the soft curves of a woman. Her hair was fashionably curled into black coils that trailed down her neck and across the shoulders of her violet gown. Cecil leaned closer. Her rounded cheeks, the wide byzantine eyes, the tight set of her jaw in concentration. He knew her. During the season, he had sought her out at each dance, entranced by her wit and the warmth hidden behind her knowing looks and pointed remarks. Her figure fell in on itself before stretching higher into the form of a wiry young man. He would have been unremarkable, except for the long scar that cut through his left eye. How could they both have the grimoire?
A shadow stirred in the corner of the mausoleum. It climbed along the stone, straining and expanding until it nearly engulfed the entire wall. Cecil’s heart raced as the shade solidified into the shape of a man. It lashed out with an arm and wiped the flames from the tops of the candles. The tomb plunged into darkness, the only sound the swoosh of the shadow and the clatter of the bowl as it tipped.
Groping for the lantern at his feet, Cecil felt for its radiant warmth and quickly opened the shutter.
Even before he was able to see, he knew the spirits had left the crypt. Despite the godawful smell of the corpse, he no longer felt as if he would smother. Stepping closer, he could make out a spreading stain where the bowl had fallen over and spilled the brew. Lady Rose stood behind it. She glared down at her ruined ritual before turning her hardened gaze to Lord Hale. He swallowed against the flare of power emanating from her body. Questions hung on his lips as she snatched the empty vials from the floor and threw them into her Gladstone.
“You aren’t going to try again?”
“There’s no point. The duke didn’t have much steam to begin with. He wouldn’t have lasted through another question, let alone being resummoned. We have enough information. The book is in transit, and it will fall to one of them.”
His mind trailed to the vision of the young woman with the dark hair and owl eyes. “How will you find them?”
“I have my ways,” she replied, pausing to lock eyes with something in the darkness. “If it’s in the city, one of us will feel it and find it.”
“The girl, I think I know her,” he said, not wanting to imagine what would happen if his aunt got to her first.
Lady Rose looked up from her bag, her eyes softening with interest. For the first time, her gaze was free of scorn as she searched his face. “Really? Can I trust you to keep an eye on her and report back to me? If she has the grimoire, it will be your responsibility to retrieve it.”
“But what if she won’t give it up?” Emmeline Jardine wasn’t a stupid girl who could be easily swayed with his noble charms and a bit of flattery. “She’s a true medium. I can sense her power at the Spiritualist Society. What if she wants to keep the book for herself?”
With a faint smile, Claudia ran her handkerchief down the length of the obsidian knife. “Then, we will simply change our tactic.”
He swallowed hard. “And the other man?”
“Leave him to me.”