So I am going to keep up the practice of posting these first-draft chapters of “The Unsteady Earth” as I run them through my writer’s group. I think it’s good for me to do so. I’m an insane perfectionist who has a terror of sharing anything before it’s “ready” … but taken to pathological extremes, that often results in me never sharing anything, ever. So this is kind of a growth exercise for me. Nothing like working out one’s psychological hangups in public, I always say.

The usual caveats apply. The version I ultimately publish will likely differ substantially from these early drafts. There will also be spoilers. And shitty writing. Enjoy!

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The Unsteady Earth

Chapter One

“The Man Who Killed Dreadnought Stanton”

New York City
Wednesday, January 4, 1911
10 days until the full moon

Will Edwards dreamed of fire. 

In his dream, he stood on a hill overlooking the Stanton Institute, watching it burn. In the leaping purple and blue brilliance of the flames, the limbs of the winter-bare oaks that overstretched the mansion seemed to twist spasmodically. There were muffled explosions as window glass shattered in the intense heat, spewing glowing tongues of flame and billows of bile-thick smoke.

Snow had begun to fall, fat flakes flashing in the werelight. Will brushed one from his cheek, the grit of ash and blood on his fingertips smearing the icy wetness. Fire trucks would soon arrive from boroughs all over the city. New metropolitan engines, old city engines—a hundred and twenty of them, and forty-six trucks and hose wagons and water tanks. Every man and machine that could be mustered, mechanical or horse-drawn. But all the firefighters in New York City would not be able to put out the otherworldly inferno. No human force could quench the blaze. Father would tell him as much.

But that would be later in the dream.

Somehow, Will still knew the difference between dreaming and memory—though it was frequently surprising to him that he did. If this were memory—playing in an endless kinetoscope loop through his waking mind, a clicking whirling cylinder of confused images inexorably carving an agonizing mental groove—he would watch the fire until the snow was falling so hard he could see only the shadows of the flames and the smell of the smoke clinging to the driving needles of ice. Will would not turn away until his feet had lost all sensation, and his blood and char-streaked fingertips were blue, and Aebedel Cowdray’s concern over the wellbeing of their shared body gave the    curse-spirit sufficient power to force Will’s legs to move in stumbling, dazed steps toward someplace—any place—more conducive to their body’s continued mortal existence than the top of a hill in a gathering snowstorm, watching his entire life burn. And Will would let Cowdray carry him away.

(He did not have to, of course. The moon was dark, and the power of the long-dead warlock who possessed him was at its weakest ebb. But having power—and having the power to use that power—were two very different things.)

Will would let Cowdray carry him away, because he could not fight him, because Cowdray was stronger than he was.

Only the force of Cowdray’s strength had kept Will alive in that horrible, disoriented time after he’d attacked his own mother, battering her with force of a magical smelting furnace. If it had not been for Cowdray, he would not have escaped his own attack. The fire had raged out of control so quickly. Will only vaguely remembered hurling himself through a shattered void where a stained glass window once had been—in a moment of desperate panic, Cowdray had compelled him to move. Will would have stayed, trying to reach Ma’am, pinned beneath a beam crackling with indigo flame. He would have saved her. Or so he liked to believe. He wasn’t sure.

That was the advantage of memory. At least there was some uncertainty, some blurring of the razor-sharp, agonizing edge. An opportunity to fool himself, to believe, however irrationally, that he might have behaved better than he did, if only … If only things had been slightly different.

But when he dreamed, there was no such comforting vagueness. His dreams were agonizingly sharp and accusatory, their edge forged of guilt and honed on the whetstone of remorse. When he dreamed, his parents stood with him, watching the fire in which they had burned to death. Ma’am stood with her back to the Institute, her plump form silhouetted by the shifting light, her gray-brown hair haloed. Hands on her hips, mouth twisted in a scolding frown. She said nothing, just looked at Will accusingly.  Or perhaps not at Will. Perhaps she looked inside him, at Cowdray, the corrupted soul of the inherited Kendall curse. Cowdray had once possessed her own mother’s body, infected it like a deadly illness. He’d used it to murder Ma’am’s father, an act which had driven Ma’am’s mother to  insanity and death. Maybe that’s why there was hatred in her eyes. Will hoped that was why.

Father, though, stood close beside him, staring fixedly at the flames. Light danced on his long narrow face. Will preferred it that his father did not look at him. He knew he would not see hatred in his father’s eyes, but disappointment and betrayal were just as bad. Worse, perhaps–because unlike the hatred, there was no question of who had inspired the emotions.

“The fire burns with such singular intensity because it is fuelled by magic,” Father said, in the remote didactic tone he so frequently used—as if he were merely recounting the progress of an ancient battle, long decided. With a small gesture of his head he indicated the fire engines that were running hoses from pumping carts, the diffidence of the gesture indicating futility. “They could fight that fire for days, but they will not be able to control it. It must run the course it is fated to run.”

“Don’t you dare call this fate.” Even speaking the word made Will angry, but he wanted to wake up and making himself angry was the best way.

Death is everyone’s fate,” Father said, his tone maddeningly reasonable. “Eventually.”

“Eventually,” Will spat the word back at him. “But not this way. This was wrong. This was—”

The word murder was in his mouth. Even dreaming, Will choked on it.

Father inclined his head thoughtfully. “You were attacked, Will. You responded reflexively.” He paused. “What else could you have done? That was fate too. You are helpless.”

“I am not helpless,” Will said, but it was merely a retort. He was helpless. He knew it.

“There was nothing you could have done.” Father still did not look at him, and his calm distant tone did not waver. Will could hardly stand the sound of the pity in it. “It wasn’t your fault. You feel pain, and it feels like guilt. But it is just pain. It will pass. Once you accept that, and make peace with Cowdray, it will pass more quickly.”

“Make peace?” Will hissed. “With Cowdray?”

“He is the one with the power, Will.” And now, Father did look at him, his dark green eyes piercing. But behind those eyes, Will saw the truth. The truth of who was speaking. He set his teeth.

“You have the power, Cowdray,” he growled. “But I have the body.”

Father smiled. And if Will had been at all uncertain about who was really speaking, his uncertainty vanished—for Father rarely smiled, and never, ever like that, in a way that mocked the very idea of a smile, of friendliness, of kindness, of ease.

“You have the body now, mooncalf,” Cowdray said, in Father’s voice. “But the moon will be full again soon. Sooner than you think.”

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A furtive elbow jabbed into Will’s ribs, startling him awake.

“Kid! Hey kid!” A low, urgent whisper. “Wake up! They catch you sleeping, they throw you back out in the snow.”

Will eyes flew open; looked around wildly. It took him a few moments, as it always did, to sift the cold hard shards of reality from the soft poisoned miasma of sleep. He assessed his surroundings. He was in some kind of church. It was brightly lit with harsh white electric light. It was warm, and he didn’t remember falling asleep here. His lips tasted of chocolate. For a moment, he wondered if he was back in Justice, Illinois, at the New Faith Seat of Praise. But the preacher pacing back and forth in front of the enormous red cross at the front of the room, spewing and frothing and praising His name was not the handsome Brother Phleger; he was a man with crater-scarred cheeks and bad teeth. Will squinted and blinked and blinked again. Sitting up straighter, he noted the tug of unfamiliar, ill-fitting clothes. He was in New York City, he remembered.

Will glanced sidelong at the man who’d elbowed him. The man had introduced himself earlier—what had he said his name was? Lewis?—and now he had a sketchbook open on his lap and was drawing something, his slim graphite pencil making featherscratch noises on the white paper. Will could not see what he was drawing.

As sleep receded further, random fragments of certainty presented themselves.

It was the fourth day of January and it was a Wednesday. Ten days until the next full moon.

He was wearing a strange but warm assemblage consisting of two shirts, a heavy sweater, a muffler, a vest, and two pairs of pants. He had gotten the clothes from the charity bin of the mission. After the sermon there would be food.

He was in New York City.

His parents were dead.

And he was alone.

Oh no. Not alone, mooncalf, Cowdray soothed, wickedly. You’ll never be alone again.

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Three days earlier, Will had seen a movie at the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street. It was the premier of a film called “The Warlock’s Curse.”

After the movie was over, the crowds had dispersed into the bitter cold and darkness—rushing for cabs and carriages and cars. The freakishly heavy snowfall had not abated; if anything, it was snowing harder. At least another half-foot had been dumped on the city since Will had snuck inside the movie theater, softly shadowing the heels of notables dodging the lightning-bright flashes of press-bulbs.

The heavy snow made the street lights and marquees of Times Square indistinct, a hazy flurry of light and glowing pastel color. The square had a strangely bright, deserted feel—all the electric lights were blazing like tiny white suns, but there was no one to appreciate them. It was just past midnight, and on any ordinary night the square would be thronged with post-theater thrill-seekers flocking to bars and restaurants and cafes—but tonight, all the other theaters were dark, and the only people on the streets were those with nowhere else to go.

Head down, arms held tightly across his chest against the biting cold, Will trudged along the sidewalk, along towering banks of shoveled snow, past heavily-bundled porters still engaged in the futile effort of clearing the walkways even as the snow continued to pile higher and higher. A handful of brightly-lit bars had their doors open; stuss joints and dance halls, dark and growling like a tiger’s empty belly. He had no wish to be swallowed by them. Barkers, made half-hearted by the cold and lack of street-traffic, diffidently invited him to step inside. In any other circumstance they wouldn’t have spared the breath; in his ragged clothes, Will did not look like he had a nickle for even the cheapest shot of whiskey. Shows what you know, Will grimaced bitterly as he passed them. Because he did have money—more than ten dollars in bills and coins that he’d stolen from a candy girl at the theater. She’d taken pity on him and he’d snatched the money from her till when her back was turned. He searched his soul for the presence of guilt, of remorse. But his whole being was saturated with guilt and remorse; the shame of having robbed some poor candy girl of a handful of cash barely registered.

As he passed a narrow alleyway, a streetwalker called to him, her desperate voice soft and rasping.  Will peered into the gloom of the grimy passage; in the streetlamp’s dim, wavering light he saw that she was huddled for shelter against a brick wall plastered with handbills. Her skin was pink with cold; her nose, her slim forearms, her half-revealed breasts.

Once, Will would have blushed. But now, he stared at her—not out of desire or even pity, but rather something more like hatred. It wasn’t that he hated her … rather, he hated how she appeared in the light of Cowdray’s eyes. A woman like this, bleating and coughing and bruised, was the meat a predator craved. Will had never before seen human beings in such shades of horrifying ugliness. Now they were all merely prisoners of stink and flesh, slaves to aging and decay and death. Even Jenny—even Jenny.

But while Will still had the body, he was very careful not to think about Jenny. He walked on quickly. He could hear the prostitute’s coughs echoing behind him. He did not know where he was going, but he was going away from her.

Cowdray, amused, shifted idly in the back of his mind. Maybe when I next have the body, I will take one of them and see how long I can make her scream before she dies.

Will shuddered, with cold and horror and disgust, and lifted his wrist to his mouth, pressing the tenderest part against his teeth. The spot was already broken and raw from the times he’d bitten himself there before; he’d discovered that causing his body pain would make Cowdray fall silent for a time. But it was a trick he had to use carefully. Each time, Cowdray recovered more quickly. And each time, he came back with another grudge to repay at the time of the next full moon, less than a fortnight away, when their shared body would come once more into the cruel spirit’s possession. Sighing heavily, Will did not bite.

“You’ll do what you like,” Will said, flatly. He lowered his wrist. “There’s nothing I can do to stop you.” He was aware how defeated his voice sounded. He felt Cowdray’s disgust.

Pathetic, Cowdray said. Have you given up fighting me already, mooncalf? Do you have any self-respect at all? Any courage?

Will shook his head. The questions were so ludicrous he could not even formulate an answer. He was alone in a strange city. His parents were dead. And the one person who had helped him—his older brother Ben, whom he’d relied upon for answers—was gone. Vanished. The last time he’d seen Ben was in Justice, Illinois, at the disastrous consecration of the New Faith Seat of Praise—the Scharfian megachurch built by the famous Teslaphone preacher Brother Dolphus Phleger.

A blast of icy wind sliced along the dark sidewalk, driving needles of ice into Will’s face. Stepping to one side, Will pressed himself into a corner of a recessed storefront and huddled, tucking his stiff numb hands beneath his armpits and rounding his back to the bitter wind. As the blast subsided, he rested for a moment in the brightness of the light from the shop’s display windows. His barely-warmed fingers felt for a piece of paper that was tucked inside his breast pocket—a magically sorcelled piece of stationery. It was fold-worn, grubby, smudged with blood and soot. Will had made the unfolding and refolding of the paper a kind of ritual; he did it several times a day now. The action didn’t comfort him, precisely—especially since the answer he was looking for was never there, and the paper remained resolutely blank, front and back. Ben had written him hundreds, perhaps thousands of words on this one piece of paper; each night at midnight the previous day’s message would vanish, leaving the paper blank so a new message could be written.  But now, even the last message it had held—I know where you are—penned the night before the disastrous Consecration, when Ben had revealed himself an undercover agent of the Stanton Institute going by the name of “Professor Coeus”, had long since faded into invisibility.

Will stared at the place where the words had been for a moment before refolding the paper and tucking it back. It was a reflexive movement, not even a purposeful one; he unfolded it merely so he could refold it, so he could then tuck it away.

Why? Why didn’t Ben write him? Why abandon him now?

You know why. Cowdray’s voice was curt, dismissive. If you are to get anywhere, mooncalf, you must begin asking yourself more difficult questions. For example, why, when I ask you about courage, do you think about your brother? Why are you forever seeking someone’s skirts to hide beneath?

Because, Will thought, whatever else Ben might seem to lack—brotherly loyalty, integrity, ethics—he possessed something far more valuable. Answers. But even if the sheet of stationery were to magically fill with words, Will knew it would take more than one sheet of paper for Ben to provide those answers—and far more than that to make Will believe he was telling the truth. Because every action Ben had taken, from the moment he’d revealed himself as “Professor Coeus,” seemed to indicate that despite his protestations of working for the Institute; despite his fine words about trying to help Will, to save Jenny, to save the world—he really only ever been interested in one thing. Stealing Aebedel Cowdray’s snuff-box.

Over three hundred years old, it was a magical artifact of immense power. It was was nothing less monstrous than a suffering engine—an artificial hell that imprisoned hundreds of souls in torment, storing century upon century of pain and misery, a well of power that could then be tapped for monstrous uses.

Because Will’s body and blood was cursed by the spirit of the warlock who had created the artifact, Brother Phleger had sought to use Will to unlock the snuff box’s vast power. But Phleger had lost control of the magical rite, and Cowdray had invaded his mind.

With Will incapacitated, and Phleger reduced to a filth-babbling madman by Cowdray’s attack, Ben had not hesitated. He’d seized the snuff-box and run. And Will had not heard from him since.

Your brother betrayed you, Cowdray said, harshly. He got the snuff box. That’s what he wanted. That’s all he wanted. He was using you, mooncalf. Why do you think I call you that, eh? Because you are no better than a bawling little bullock, crying for its mother. You pathetic fool! Pining after anyone who comes along with a little bit of the spine that you lack. You are a man, act like one! Fight!

Will sank his teeth into the back of his hand deeply, tasting blood. He felt the pain wash through him; he felt Cowdray gasp and stagger.

Oh, I see. Of course you think you should fight me. Because you think I am your only problem. Cowdray was bitter and scornful. Until you realize that I am really the least of your problems, mooncalf, you will continue to bawl for a mother who has gone to the slaughterhouse, until you are led there yourself.

But the pain had its intended effect—Cowdray fell silent after this last sally, retreating into the back of Will’s mind like a sullen cur—and the pain also made Will feel brighter and sharper. Looking up, he saw that the shop he’d taken shelter outside of was an all-night Times Square drug store, the kind that catered to drunkards and tourists. Looking into the snowfrosted front window, a pasteboard advertising placard caught Will’s eye. It depicted a curled snake, surrounded by 13 stars. He blinked as he recognized the logo of Sanitas Pharmaceutics. The company that manufactured Panchrest, the miracle medication that had stopped the ravages of the Black Flu. … by blocking the human body’s ability to channel magic in any form.

Certainty of his next move filled his entire body. It felt perfectly right. Of course that was what he had to do. He felt for the money in his pocket. Of course.

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Inside, the drug store smelled cleanly of sulphur and iodine and alcohol. A bell over the door tinkled merrily as he entered; the warmth inside the shop made Will slightly dizzy. He had to stand for a moment near the entrance, steadying himself. There was a rack of periodicals near the front window; he stared down at them blearily, as if selecting something to read.  From somewhere in the back of the store there was the sound of a Teslaphone playing—not music, but a midnight news broadcast. The presenter’s resonant voice floated around him on clouds of letters:

The storm that currently holds the entire Eastern Seaboard in in an icy death-grip has led to business shutdowns, disruptions of travel, and shortages of staple food goods. In Detroit, Michigan, food and coal shortages have led to riots.

Papers shuffling.

Returning to the death of nationally-known warlock Dreadnought Stanton …

Still staring at the periodical rack, Will noticed that all of the brightly-colored Dreadnought Stanton serials had sold out, certainly snatched up by memorabilia seekers. The empty metal rack wavered before his eyes; he had to reach out to clutch it for a moment to keep from falling over. The void of stories the empty rack represented reminded him of his father. Gone. But his father hadn’t been Dreadnought Stanton—even if he had been born with that name, he hadn’t been anything like the flamboyant hero. His father was a fallible, imperfect creature of flesh and blood, and always had been. Will had never had any illusions about his father; but how strange that he should be so affected now, when the illusion had been destroyed.

He wiped his eyes with his dirty, damp sleeve. There was the sound of a click as the Teslaphone was switched off, leaving a yawning void of silence. The counterman, who Will now realized had been covertly watching him from the back of the shop, cleared his throat. In the sudden silence, it seemed as loud as a rockslide.

“Happy New Year, friend,” he chirped, in a voice that rang too-loudly through the quiet store. “What can I help you with this evening?”

Will staggered slowly to the counter. His wet feet, now warming, were heavy and the feeling was returning to them, making them all pins and needles. The snow on his clothes was melting, releasing ghastly odors of charred wool and blood. But it was warmth, and he intended to savor it as long as he could.

“I would like to buy a dose of Panchrest,” he said, fumbling money out of his pocket with a trembling, stiff-fingered hand—wadded bills, cold damp silver. With slow deliberation, he smoothed out one of the bills for the counterman to see.

The counterman looked at him incredulously for a moment, then grinned uneasily. He had shining brilliantined hair parted down the middle, and a peculiar twitchy pallor–not the sickness of magic allergy, rather something more mundane, like a nocturnal creature that never ventured into the sunlight.

“Sure, Panchrest,” he joshed back, glancing down at the money then back up to Will, his eyes bright and intense. He seemed to speak too quickly, as if rushing to get the words out. “Tell me another, mister.”

“You sell it, don’t you?” Will pointed in the direction of the pasteboard advertising placard in the front window. Sparkling, covered with gold swirls, it bore the distinctive logo of Sanitas Pharmaceutics: a curled snake, surrounded by 13 stars. The extravagance of the advertising, Will knew, was the result of—or perhaps the justification for—the very expensive price tag: $10 for a single dose, more than most working men made in a week. But the bills on the counter were enough.

“There’s not much demand for it. People generally don’t just walk in off the street at two in the morning to buy Panchrest. Doctors come in sometimes, but usually they go through suppliers.” Each word was like a ball-bearing dropped in a metal bowl; sharp and staccato.

“Why do you advertise it if you don’t sell it?” Will drew out each word, as if trying to slow the man down to his speed. He wasn’t sure if he was understanding him. Words were hard to parse at the moment.

“Well, it’s a nice looking placard, isn’t it?” the man jerked a shrug. “Looks good in the window. And if you don’t have an actual case of Black Flu,  there are plenty of other alternatives that are cheaper and almost as good.” Making a “wait here” gesture, the man hurried to the back and returned with two plain brown boxes. He set them down, side by side, on the counter before Will. “Now, I gather your problem is some kind of magical affliction, yes? Can’t be strong enough to kill you … but it likely makes you feel pretty rotten. Right? Am I right?”

“It’s a magical affliction,” Will said, leaning heavily on the counter. He was very tired and very hungry. He hadn’t eaten since the night before, and he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since days before that. The warmth of the drug store made all his limbs feel leaden, and the counterman’s speedy babble was both confusing and lulling.

“So, admittedly, these compounds won’t cure you forever, like Panchrest will. But they’ll subdue the flow of magic in your body temporarily. Ease the symptoms.”

“This is an elixir for female troubles,” Will growled, reading one of the boxes.

“Don’t let the label fool you. Yes, it’s for feminine complaints primarily, you know, for the agony of the monthlies or whatnot, I certainly don’t know. But it’s got enough morphine in it to knock you out even if you aren’t wearing a petticoat. It’s the cheapest, so a lot of folks like you—” He stopped short, looking at the grimy, wrinkled money Will had spread out on the counter. “But then again, price ain’t necessarily an object, so honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it. One false move with this stuff and you’ll end up in Bellevue.” He pushed the unsatisfactory lady’s elixir to one side. Opening the second box, he withdrew a squat brown bottle and showed it to Will. “This is a newer medication, and much better. Heroin hydrochloride in compressed tablets.” He pushed the box toward Will. “Specific for coughs, but grind a couple of those up into a powder and drink it with a shot of whiskey and I guarantee you’ll find relief.”

Will stared at the little brown bottle. He blinked, shook his head—he was still uncertain as to whether or not he was failing to understand the man, or the man was failing to understand him. “But I don’t want either of those. I want Panchrest.”

“Buddy, no offense, but even if you do have the cash, I don’t know if I can look myself in the mirror tomorrow morning if I let you give it to me! You’re half froze to death! If you’ve got all that dosh to throw around, why not go buy yourself a warm coat?”

“Are you going to tell me how to spend my money?”  Will snarled. “I know what I want—what I need. I need Panchrest.”

“Why do you need Panchrest?”

“I just need it,” Will said, sullenly, not wanting to explain that Panchrest was a medication that would stop his body’s ability to work magic. Block all the channels through which magic could flow. He wasn’t certain that taking Panchrest would mean that he’d be free of Cowdray—but if he could keep Cowdray from using his body to channel magic, to wreak horrible magical destruction, that would be enough.  “Now are you going to sell it to me or not?”

The counterman shrugged. “No sir, I’m not. I can’t. The distributor came through before the New Year and took back all the stock. Same all across the United States. Panchrest been taken off the market. A very odd thing. I hear they’re reformulating it.”

Cowdray chuckled. Will felt despondent, and angry. So angry. Furious. He closed his eyes, weariness and hunger making the world spin around him. He contemplated the  bleak rhythmic nature of what his life was to become … cycles of two weeks, as the moon waxed and waned, a tug of war for control between himself or Cowdray. There was only one way out.

“Fine,” he spat, more for Cowdray than the counterman. “Then give me a bottle of goddamn arsenic. All right? The biggest, most deluxe goddamn bottle of arsenic you have. Enough to kill a hundred rats. You sell that, don’t you?”

The counterman, hithertofore loquacious, stared at Will, slack-jawed. And to Will’s immense satisfaction, even Cowdray braced and bristled nervously—but his unspoken response was perfectly assured, perfectly calm:

You will not kill yourself.

“One of us is going to have to leave this body.” Will muttered to Cowdray, under his breath.

It would be a permanent solution only for you, mooncalf, Cowdray said. And you haven’t shown the slightest bit of courage to this point. Why should I expect that to change now? You are a coward, and you lack the nerve.

“Do you think so?” Will hissed. The counterman had not moved. Will glared at him challengingly.

“Are you going to sell it to me?” he snapped.

The counterman looked at him for a long time, calmly. It was the weary, knowing look of someone who’d dealt with a lot of Times Square crazies. Finally, he drew in a deep breath, retreated from the counter, and, after rustling around in the back for a moment, returned with a small bottle. He slammed it down on the counter with a pointedly loud “snap” then slid it across the counter to Will with a frown of challenge.

“There you go,” he said. “Arsenic.”

Will seized the bottle. The bottle did indeed bear a skull and crossbones logo, and looked sufficiently poison-like; but upon closer examination, Will could see that it wasn’t actually poison; it was rotgut whiskey—a marked-down gag item, left-over from Hallowe’en. The skull grinned mockingly at him. Will looked at the counterman, and was about to say something when the counterman interrupted him.

“That’ll take care of whatever’s bothering you,” the counterman said, flatly. “It’s all I got to sell you, friend. Take it or leave it.”

Will was about to give the counterman a piece of his mind when he realized something odd.

Cowdray was … afraid.

Will lifted the bottle, examined it.

“Pure arsenic, is it?” Will said. The counterman lifted an eyebrow. It was clear that Will was acting more crazy than his usual run-of-the-mill crazies.

“You can read, can’t you?” he said. And indeed, it was written right on the bottle that it wasn’t really arsenic—

But Cowdray was still afraid.

“Sure, I can read,” Will said, softly. “I can read just fine.”

But what if …

What if Cowdray couldn’t?

Somehow, even though Will could understand the meaning of those words, Cowdray couldn’t. Will let his eyes drift over the letters, feeling the old familiar struggle to make them resolve into meaning. He’d struggled with a condition called word-blindness all his life, and had to work very hard to read at all. What if … what if that made it hard for Cowdray, as well? What if Cowdray actually believed what Will held in his hand was poison? That Will actually meant to kill himself?

“Listen,” the counterman said, voice breaking through Will’s frenzied contemplation. “You want it, that’s what I got.”

You won’t do it. Cowdray was afraid. Cowdray was afraid. It was delicious to Will, horribly delicious.

“Oh yes,” Will said aloud, experimentally. “This is exactly what I want.”

You can’t do it, Cowdray said urgently. You must not.

Wrenching the cap off the bottle, Will lifted it to his lips …

You know where I go if you die? Cowdray barked urgently, as the smoothness of the glass touched Will’s lower lip. To the next unborn Kendall. Do you know that?

Will’s hand began to tremble as he realized what Cowdray meant.

The next Kendall in his mother’s womb.

Jenny’s child. His child.

Will looked at the bottle in his shaking hand. Even knowing that it wouldn’t kill Cowdray, he wanted very much to drain the bottle—just for the momentary pleasure of terrifying the beast inside him—making him believe, even for a second, that his host was braver and more resolute than he gave him credit for being.

But Will, even desperate and exhausted and hungry and half-frozen, was smarter than that. Jenny had once told him he was a genius. Genius or not, he knew that was better to let Cowdray remain fooled. Let him believe that it had really been arsenic.

“All right,” Will muttered, in tones of weariness and defeat he didn’t even have to feign. He lowered the bottle. “You win.”

Cowdray’s palpable relief flooded through him. Even if the warlock’s vengeful spirit did have an escape route in the form of Jenny’s unborn child, surely it would not be savory to him to have to wait another eighteen years to take advantage of it.

But Will felt better than he had in many days. He knew something that Cowdray didn’t. He could hide something from the monster that shared his body. It heartened him, gave him strength.

“I’m not going to take this,” he said, pushing the bottle back to the counterman. “Keep it. Maybe you can use it to kill some rats.”

He  was shuffling toward the door, the counterman called after him. He scooped up three nickel chocolate bars from a Hershey’s box on the counter, tossed them to Will. “Kid, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but those’ll put some color in your cheeks.”

“Thanks,” Will said. The chocolate smelled delicious. More sustaining than meat, was written on the wrapper.

“And not for nothin’, but I expect you know about the Scharfian mission? They’re right down the block, on the corner of Thirty-Second and Seventh. Big red neon cross out front, you can’t miss ‘em. They’re open all night and they have a charity box of clothes. They gave out a bunch over Christmas, but they must got something left. At least a coat, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Will said, without turning. Then he did turn, and he touched the brim of his cap to the man. He tucked the chocolate into his pocket. “Thanks for your help,” he said. “I’ll see you around.”

“I hope so, friend,” the counterman muttered, watching Will as he disappeared into the dark snowy night. “I do truly hope so.”

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Will did find the Scharfian mission, and, throwing away his tattered old clothes, was able to put together a strange but warm assemblage consisting of two shirts, a heavy sweater, a muffler, a vest, and two pairs of pants. He had kept little more than his motoring cap, his Tesla Industries identification pin (which he kept carefully tucked behind his collar), the goddamn straight razor—and of course, the piece of stationery from Ben.

There was a midnight service, with a crater-cheeked preacher talking about desperation. Some of the regular alkies heckled the preacher mercilessly, interrupting his sermon with comments about Brother Phleger, whose breakdown had so recently been broadcast via Teslaphone. Sitting on one of the battered, penknife-marked wooden pews in the back, Will stole furtive bites of one of chocolate bars the counterman had given him, nibbling down the corners. The bitter, sour-milky sweetness gave him fresh strength. That, and the possibility that he’d learned something that might give him an advantage—however slight—over Cowdray. It was the first time he’d gotten the better of the cursed spirit.

It had to be his mind’s own struggle to read words that made it difficult for Cowdray to read through his eyes. That could be a huge advantage. It also meant that all of those letters Ben had written him, with all their strange family history … Cowdray would not know any of it. Sucking melted chocolate off his thumb, Will remembered something Jenny had said the last time he had seen her. That during the five days she’d been held prisoner by Cowdray, she said he’d asked her questions about him, about his family.

Will pushed slightly further. At the Consecration, Cowdray had forced the memories of those five days back upon him. Will had kept those memories carefully locked away, afraid to explore them .. But now, he reached through them very, very delicately, as if through a thick tangle of blackberry brambles. And in doing so, he remembered—the questions Cowdray had asked Jenny were ones he wouldn’t have had to ask if he’d read Ben’s letters.

Allowing himself to remember even that much made Will shudder. But the pain had been worth it. The idea that Cowdray couldn’t read through Will’s eyes … It was something. Will wasn’t sure how he could use it, yet … but it was something.

Thinking of Ben’s letter made his hand stray unconsciously to his inside pocket. He withdrew the paper, unfolded it, smoothed it. In the harsh white electric light of the chapel, he regarded the stationery’s engraved letterhead—the logo of the Stanton Institute, a rampant eagle with the motto “Ex Fide Fortis” beneath it.

How many times are you going to look for a message from your brother? Cowdray sneered. He an opportunist. Even if he were to contact you it would be only to serve his own ends. Surely you must see that. And why would he contact you? He doesn’t need you to unlock the snuff box. He knows that he can use the blood of your child do so. Wouldn’t that be easier for him, don’t you think?  

Will held his thoughts close, away from Cowdray, as he refolded the paper and tucked it away. He did not know where Jenny was, though he suspected she was with Atherton Hart, the financial advisor who had helped her invest the hundred thousand dollars she’d embezzled–well, she called it borrowed–from her father. Will remembered the way the handsome older man had looked at her, kind and protective. He had seemed to be a good man. But if Ben had the snuff box, and wanted to use Jenny to unlock it, Will didn’t give even the handsome, successful Atherton Hart very good odds.

A man slid into the pew next to him. Cold washed off him in waves. He looked more sober than all the other men, many of whom had now laid off catcalling the preacher and were nodding off in their pews. He leaned back in the pew, letting his elbows drape over the bench’s back.

“Rotten night out,” He extended a hand. “Oscar Lewis.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Will said, not offering his own name in return. But Lewis didn’t seem to care.

“This preacher, he’s no good. But they’re all off their game since news went around that Phleger hanged himself. You read about that in the papers?”

“I don’t read the papers,” Will said. Lewis looked him up and down for a long time.

“You really should read more,” Lewis observed. He was silent for a while, listening to the sermon, before he added:

“What else could he do, really?” Lewis said, conversationally. There were dark circles under his eyes; Will recognized that the man was likely making small talk simply to keep himself awake. He smelled like booze. “Apparently they found him hanging from the highest rafter in that new church of his out in Chicago.”

“Justice,” Will said, distantly.

Lewis regarded him oddly.

“I suppose you could call it that,” Lewis said. “Though death for bad preaching seems like pretty harsh justice to me. Of course, maybe that wasn’t what he was being called to task for. Maybe it was for trying to gull and manipulate the minds of his followers. It’s all credomancy, you know—propaganda.”

Will felt a chill at the word. Ben had described the magical practice of credomancy to him. The magic of faith, belief, perception.

“Now, it’s possible that Phleger isn’t dead at all. Me, I don’t believe a credomancer is dead unless I see it with my own eyes. Like Dreadnought Stanton. I’ll wager you a dollar right now that he’s not dead.”

Will’s eyes jerked up so violently that the man, who was just making conversation, fell silent, startled.

“Are you saying he isn’t dead?” Will asked.

“I’m saying I bet he isn’t,” the man said. “You have to know how to read these things. You got to look at how the coincidences add up. There’s a great big fire, and he dies … right before the premier of that new moving picture of theirs? That’s coincidence number one. And number two … apparently people have seen him all over. There have been sightings. There’s stories about it in the yellow sheets.” The man made a scoffing noise. “Not that I put even a penny’s worth of credence in those fishwrappers, but I can tell you, we aren’t getting the whole truth, I can promise you that.”

Will’s head spun. He frowned. Was it really possible that Father wasn’t dead? Or was it some sort of ploy? He knew the Institute maintained Dreadnought Stanton’s power on the simple premise that he was alive … had the actual man died, and now they were tried to salvage the story … or was it the other way around?

Credomancy. Cowdray’s voice in Will’s head was a sneer. The magic of priests and courtiers. Blood is far more reliable.

“Now, if Dreadnought Stanton weren’t dead,” Lewis added, with a strangely knowing glance, “that would mean that the man they say killed him was innocent. Seems like he’d want to tell his side of the story.”

“I guess,” Will said, distractedly.

The man unbuttoned his coat and eased it open. His entire body was encased in newspapers—he had stuffed his coat with them. He peered down at his own chest for a moment before making a recognizing grunt. He withdrew a half-folded section of The New York Times.

“Here,” he said, handing it to Will. “Like I said, you really should read more …”

There was a sudden loud bang, loud as a gunshot. Will’s heart almost exploded and he jumped. But it was just the mission’s hired flatfoot, prowling the back of the chapel, enforcing attention. He had brought down a wooden policeman’s truncheon on the back of the pew.

“You two!” the guard whispered harshly (a ridiculous effort, Will noticed, because the sound of the heavy black wood coming down on the pew had made even the preacher at the front fall silent) “Knock off the jib-jab! Shut the hell up or get the hell out!”

Both Will and Lewis sat at attention, eyes fixed on the preacher, and said no more.

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Will discovered that Lewis’ tactic of conversation to help keep him awake was a good one; and after they stopped talking he did fall asleep a couple of times. The second time he woke up, he was alone—Lewis had gone—and everyone was being shuffled out of the mission, back onto the street. Some of the old alkies were complaining, whining tiredly about the snow, begging to be allowed to stay, but the employees had apparently heard enough sob-stories for one day. Most of the men didn’t even bother trying; they just wrapped their clothes around themselves more tightly to keep in the warmth that they’d managed to soak in.

Will was warm and dry in his new, ill-fitting clothes as he was shoved back out into the thickly-falling snow. He opened the newspaper Lewis had given him to shelter his head when he noticed a giant photo on the front page.

The picture on the front page, he realized, was of him. The Man Who Killed Dreadnought Stanton, the caption read.

Will folded the paper and tucked it under his arm, slipping and sliding through the heavy snow until he saw vacant, sheltered doorway near a dim, snow-obscured streetlight. He crouched in the doorway, blowing on his fingers, spreading the paper open and squinting at it in the dim light.

He read the article. There was a manhunt on for him. He should have expected it, but he hadn’t put the pieces together. He suddenly felt cold—colder—and edgy. He scanned the paper again to get hints about how much they knew about him. Did they list his name? No they didn’t. That was a good thing.

He read the article for more information, but there was little to be had. They didn’t mention his name, only that he was a desperate character and mostly likely armed. Most of the space was taken up by the huge picture of him, caught in the stark light of a flashbulb. He remembered the pressbulbs going off at the theater. Will scratched at his growth of beard, glad he hadn’t shaved in a week, despite the straight razor he carried. He’d used it for so many other things—worse things—it had seemed disrespectful to use it for its intended purpose. He was also glad for the jumbled motley he wore. It was awful, but nothing like the rags and burned charred tatters he wore in the photo.

It is also very easy to change your appearance, Cowdray noted with a silent yawn. The magic for it is simplicity itself.

“You can keep your damn magic,” Will barked. He was learning not to respond to Cowdray’s voice out loud, but sometimes he still forgot.

Still, he found that after the brief amount of sleep he’d been able to get, and the dry clothes, and the third chocolate bar he’d eaten before he left the mission, he was feeling much better. He could actually think.

He realized that if he wanted to stay alive—and he knew now that he had to—he couldn’t get caught by the police, or by anyone else who might be looking for him. He had less than a fortnight until Cowdray reclaimed the body they shared … and with the power Cowdray knew Will’s body could channel, it seemed a terrible certainty that the next time Cowdray took Will’s body, he would not give it back. Will couldn’t afford to lose a moment of that time sitting in a jail cell, trying to explain his predicament to cops who didn’t know a damn thing about curses or magic—and who wouldn’t believe a young man like him could suffer from such a powerful curse anyway.

And that was if the police found him. If the Agency found him ….

So clearly, getting out of New York City—where his picture was on the front page of every newspaper, even the ones the bums tucked under their coats—was a very good idea.

But where could he go? He could think of only one person who might be able to help him … Harley Briar, the labor organizer he’d met in Detroit. A man who Will thought of as a friend … except for the fact that the last time Will had seen him, he had recovering from a violent beating Will gave him, bruises and broken nose. Will wasn’t sure exactly if Briar would welcome him back to Detroit with open arms … but he was the only one Will could think of who could help. He was a sangrimancer, after all. He knew blood magic. Briar was the only person Will could think of who might stand any chance of helping him deal with Cowdray.

But he had no idea how to get to Detroit. While he had most of the money left he’d stolen from the candy-girl, it wasn’t enough for a train ticket to Detroit … even if the trains were running, and with the snowstorm having brought the rest of the city to a standstill, he doubted that they were.

You can have whatever you want, Cowdray said. If you need money, you can have money. Anything you need, I can show you how to take it. Take it with both hands, with courage.

“Go to hell,” Will spat, aloud, not caring who heard. Cowdray chuckled.

Too late, mooncalf. We’re both already there.

It was now getting on three in the morning. The darkest time of night, and the coldest. He couldn’t do anything at the moment. The doorway wasn’t warm, but it was sheltered and dry. The small amount of sleep he’d gotten in the mission was making him crave more. He curled up in a small ball, wrapping his arms around his chest and tucking his knees up tight.

finis

3 Responses to “The Unsteady Earth”: Chapter One (First Draft)

  1. Lois Athena Buhalis says:

    I can’t tell you how THRILLED I am to read the start of the next book! You may think some to the writing is shitty, but I don’t. You set the winter in New York vividly, and I LOVE it that Chowdray, powerful as he is, can’t read, and that there may be some hope, after all. And Dreadnaught Stanton lives? Well, of course! I’m greatly looking forward to reading more.

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