Continuing the practice of posting these first-draft chapters of “The Unsteady Earth” as I run them through my writer’s group. 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 Two

“Uncle Royce”

New York City
Thursday, January 5, 1911
9 days until the full moon

A few hours later, after a cold and fitful rest, Will made his way down Seventh Avenue toward 34th, where he hoped he might be able to catch a train to Detroit. The thick flurries of snow made everything hazy and indistinct; he could see only what was directly before him as he trudged through the heavy powder. In the silence of the darkened city everything was soft, but also sudden—unexpected objects appeared when he was almost on top of them. A lone pedestrian bundled and waddling. A fire hydrant entombed beneath a smooth blister-like drift. A dark rat scurrying from one cover to another, trailing fingertip footprints.

At 34th, the columns of the new Penn Station’s Roman facade jutted up from sloppily-heaped snowpiles. A narrow shoveled tunnel provided a dark passageway up the stone front steps. As Will passed through the slushy outer vestibule, a sleepy newsboy rattled a paper at him.

New York World, mister?” he called, though the once-over he gave Will indicated that he questioned his ability to afford the penny. But at that hour, in that storm, there weren’t many other people to sell to. “Maybe you wanna check your stocks.”

As he bit back a rude retort, Will caught sight of a picture on the cover of the paper. It was a picture of him, a new picture, a close-up drawing of his face. Fishing out a penny, Will snatched the paper and hurried away, head low. Stepping into a cove between two marble pillars, Will scrutinized the image—a skilled likeness that showed him sleeping, his head resting peacefully on his chest. The caption beneath it read: Murderer in Repose? Sketches from the Seventh Street Mission on a Snowy Night. Oscar Lewis.

The picture wasn’t as big as the one in the Times had been, but it showed how he looked right now more accurately than the photograph had. Suddenly, all the comments Lewis had made about murder and newspapers made sense. But if Lewis had guessed who he was, why hadn’t he turned him in? Why be satisfied with drawing his picture when a bigger story—and a bigger payday—could be had simply by stepping outside to hail a beat cop?

Perhaps the answer was to be found in the puzzling little question mark that ended the caption’s first sentence. Will remembered what the sketch-artist had said:

If Dreadnought Stanton weren’t dead, that would mean that the man they say killed him was innocent. Seems like he’d want to tell his side of the story.

Will folded the paper, picture-side in, and tucked it inside his coat. Whatever the reason, he was glad Lewis hadn’t turned him in. He had to get to Detroit.

But, just as he had feared, the snowstorm had brought all the trains to a complete standstill. Small groups of desperate travelers, bundled like fat sausages against the cold, were camped in various states of repose near the ticket windows. Some were stretched out on wooden benches, asleep, hats over their faces. Some smoked cigarettes with intense concentration. Stranded, marooned, they were all waiting for some change in circumstance. Not all of them, however, shared the same weary resignation. One of them, a young salesman, was particularly agitated. His large sample case, emblazoned with the name of a trade firm (“Jacobs & Sons, New York City”) sat battered and worn by his feet. He had laid his ash-colored homburg on top of it, and had thrust his red face as close to the bars of the ticket-agent’s window as he could without actually biting them. His voice shrilled in the early-morning silence.

“Do you understand me, pal? I have to get to Philadelphia! It’s a five-hundred dollar sale on the line. They can’t all be stopped!”

“Yessir, all of them,” the clerk drawled. He was an old man, with tobacco-stained gray whiskers, and he seemed perversely determined to deliver bad news in an extremely pleasant way. His slow mildness clearly stirred up the hot-headed young salesman, and he clearly enjoyed this. “Nothing goin’ for days”—he stretched out the word “days” like it was sugar-taffy—”not until this storm passes.”

“Don’t you people do any work? Plow the tracks?”

“Why, I’m sure we do work,” the ticket agent retorted thoughtfully, rubbing his chin as if the question required deep contemplation. “Yes, I guess we do—”

“Listen, bub. I need to get to Philadelphia. Have to get to Philadelphia. Do you know how much commission I’m going to lose if I’m not up there by morning?”

The ticket agent considered this. An innocent look of inspiration crept over his face.

“Well, say! I know what you can do! There’s a Haälbeck Office right next door.” He indicated the direction with a pointed finger. His voice was sweetly cruel. “They’re doing a bang-up trade with this snow. Maybe they can squeeze you in between the older gents.”

The young salesman’s eyes narrowed. “Think you’re being cute?” he snarled.

“Can’t you afford the fifty bucks?” the ticket agent credibly imitated shock. “It is for a five-hundred dollar sale, you said?”

“And risk a case of magical allergy that might kill me? No, thank you!” the young salesman picked up his homburg and jammed it down on his head. Before seizing his sample case, however, he shook an impotent fist toward the ticket agent’s bars. “Think you’re so cute! Well, hell with you! It’s so a young man can’t do an honest day’s work anymore! You old men—all of you—who can still use magic … when us wide-awake young fellows, the ones really working, plowing tracks and making sales why, we get sick if we even touch the stuff! Restraint of trade, that’s what it is! Unfair advantage! A five hundred dollar sale!”

The torrent of vitriol was as disjointed as it was furious. And it hadn’t the slightest impact on the ticket agent. When the young salesman paused for breath, he merely interjected pleasantly:

“Anything else I can help you with, son?”

You? Help me? Fat lot of help you’ve given me, or ever will, you damned old fogey! The only help young men like me will get is if when Portman-Yates makes it to the President’s desk and all you old sons-of-bitches are forced to take the Panchrest. Live under the same limits we do. That’s the only help we young men are ever going to get!”

“If you’re going to swear, I’ll call the cops,” the ticket agent yawned.

“I’m done swearing,” the salesman growled. “I’m done talking all together. By God, I promise you, my Congressman is going to hear about this!”

Will watched the young man’s turbulent retreat. He did, Will noticed, storm off in the general direction the ticket clerk had indicated—toward the Haälbeck Office, where, for the extremely high price of fifty dollars, a man could pay to step through an old-fashioned magical device called a Haälbeck Door which would allow him to travel swiftly and magically across great distances. A whole interurban system of the doors had been put in place several decades earlier—before the Black Flu had fundamentally altered humanity’s relationship with magic, leaving anyone under the age of thirty congenitally unable to use magic without severe allergic reaction.

Anyone over thirty, however, born before the depredations of the Black Flu, were unhampered by such physical restrictions. Their ability to use magic was unimpaired. And so, older businessmen could take Haälbeck Doors in snowstorms and close five-hundred dollar deals, where their younger competitors could not do so without risking a bout of magical allergy, the severity of which would be dictated by the amount of magic involved.  A small amount of magic might leave a young man feeling queasy. A very large amount of magic might be fatal. It depended on the person and the magic and the situation.

So, perhaps, despite his angry words of refusal, the young salesman did think a five hundred dollar sale was worth risking a bout of magical allergy. Or perhaps, like other disgruntled young businessmen, he intended to hurl his sample case through the window of the Haälbeck Office in an act of economic protest.

Will walked away from the ticketing area, hands jammed in his pockets, pondering what he should do next. Getting to Detroit by train was clearly out of the question. And ironically enough, unlike the young salesman, he would have no physical difficulty using a Haälbeck Door, despite the fact that he had only turned eighteen a couple of months earlier. Just a few days after he’d been born, magic had been used to save his life from a bout of Black Flu—and as a result, his body had developed a kind of immunity to the damaging effects others his age suffered. He could channel magic as harmlessly as any older person—a fact which Cowdray would surely take full advantage of once he reclaimed control of their shared body. A fact which made it of critical importance for Will find a way to keep Cowdray from reclaiming control of their shared body.

But while Will had no physical difficulty, there was another just as pressing and seemingly insurmountable: financial. He didn’t have fifty dollars. After the small amount he’d given the clerk at the Times Square drug store, he had something less than ten dollars in grimy bills and coins.

If it’s money you lack, you need only take it, Cowdray said. Look, see that man there. Will’s eyes followed the drift of Cowdray’s thoughts, and came to rest on a prosperous-looking older man in a well-tailored herringbone suit, a heavy gold watch-chain looping from his vest. Standing at the station bar, he was draining of a pint of pilsner—his third, judging from the empty glasses. He will need to piss soon. Follow him. Use blood to quiet him. Take the money from his purse.

“I’m not a thief,” Will muttered.

Cowdray’s abrupt contempt saturated him, made him shiver.

You stole money from that child at the theater. Without any suggestion from me. Then Cowdray fell silent, allowing Will to watch as the well-dressed man pushed himself away from the bar, steadied himself with conscious effort, then began toward the concourse urinals.

Almost unconsciously, Will followed him, keeping his distance. It wasn’t that he intended to do anything. He just didn’t want to lose sight of the man.

You don’t even have to steal if you don’t want to, Cowdray murmured softly. Men have tastes. If you would rather be paid—

Without taking his eyes off the man, Will lifted his arm and sank his teeth hard into the softest part of his wrist. Cowdray hissed, and was silent.

The man swayed unsteadily as he walked out to where a broad set of filigreed ironwork stairs led down to the concourse level. Above them, the broad panes of glass set in the high arched ceilings glowed with the opaque, distant glow of approaching dawn. Here, near the platforms, it was cold. The tracks were empty. Will followed the man down to the baggage level to the lavatories.

The man threw open the door to the lavatories with a bang, and stumbled in. Will’s heart thudded. He couldn’t just rob someone. But he had to get to Detroit. Harley Briar might know how to help him, and time was running short, and soon the moon would be full again, and  …

Will opened the door to the lavatories silently, entering without a sound.

Standing at one of the urinals, the man leaned with one hand braced against the white-tiled wall. He didn’t look up as Will entered. Will glanced around the room—it was empty. He fingered the razor in his hand. When had he taken it out?

Draw blood, Cowdray whispered urgently. I will give you the words—

But at that moment the man straightened, and began buttoning his trousers. He looked at Will and smiled crookedly. Not smiling back, Will swerved into one of the stalls, banging it shut, fumbling the razor closed and tucking it away. He sat down on the toilet, holding himself as still and silent as he could until he heard the man leave. Then he buried his face in his hands.

“This is not who I am,” he whispered, voice cupped softly within his palms.

It is not who you were, Cowdray said. But it is who you are now. Who we are.

Helplessly, Will let his hands drop to his lap. The motion made the paper in his vest pocket crinkle, and he felt reflexively for it, an object of comfort.

Will unfolded it the paper, smoothed it mindlessly. By this time, the ritual was so pat and unconscious, in fact, that Will was in the process of refolding the paper before he realized that there was writing on it.

New writing.

Cold prickled along all his nerves as he lifted the paper closer, squinted at it in the half-light of the toilet stall.

I know you are still in New York.

Meet me at 13 Madison Avenue—the Sphinx Building—as soon as you receive this.

Ben.

Will began to tremble, both from the cold and from his overwrought state. Cowdray, however, was calmly arch.

What a message to send. After all you’ve been through.

Will’s excitement at the new message from his brother was suspended for a brief moment as he pondered Cowdray’s response. It revealed many important things, he realized. If, as Will suspected, the spirit was unable to read through their shared eyes, Cowdray would certainly take care not to reveal this weakness—no matter how dearly he desired to know the message’s contents. And that those contents did indeed seem to be opaque to him—the phrasing of his statement suggested that even the jist of the letter was beyond him. So even though Will had read the words, and he had comprehended them, they had not somehow leaked into the part of Will’s mind that Cowdray shared. Will filed these details away, deciding quickly to run one more experiment.

“Ben says that … he is well,” Will lied carefully, running a finger over the words as if reading them back. “He says that we will see each other soon.”

Oh, certainly, Cowdray said. There was scorn, but no hint of suspicion in his thoughts—not of Will, anyway. Now he wants to find you. But think, mooncalf—why has he not wanted to find you before? And is it a good idea to let him find you now?

But behind Cowdray’s warning, Will could perceive his intense longing. It was a strange feeling tinged with black and blue and gold. Cowdray wanted the box back too, more deeply than Will could imagine even Ben wanting it. The thought that it might be nearby—within the same city, within a few short blocks, perhaps—excited Cowdray immensely. But Will had control of the body. He had to think.

Ben was unable to channel magic. Like many others, he had taken the Panchrest—the medication which blocked the pathways through which magic flowed within the human body. So on the face of it, it would seem he posed little threat, at least insofar as a magical artifact like the snuffbox was concerned. However, at the Consecration he’d revealed that even those who’d taken the Panchrest were capable of directing magic, using the body of another. It was a process called vamping. He had done it using Will’s body at the Consecration, and perhaps it was his intention to try to do it again.

Will could, of course, simply refuse to allow it. Or could he? How much of what he’d agreed to at the New Faith Seat of Praise was as the result of his own volition? How much of it would he choose to do again, knowing what he knew now? How much of it was his older brother—whom he had trusted—manipulating him for his own ends?

There was the sound of the lavatory door opening and closing. The sound of another man steadying himself at the urinals. Will glanced up from the stationery—which he’d been staring at the whole time—then looked back quickly, fear jolting through him at the thought that the message might have disappeared, an illusion, a hallucination. But no, the words were still there.

I know you are still in New York.

Will quickly folded the letter and tucked it away.

He had trusted Ben before. He wouldn’t trust him again.

But he was going to get answers.

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Will exited Penn Station onto Seventh Avenue and made his way along 31st Street. The going was slow and laborious. While some shopkeepers, hoping to open for the day, were making efforts to shovel the sidewalks, most had given it up for lost; the snow just kept coming down, and the horse-drawn plows piled snow onto the sidewalks as fast as they could be shoveled clear.

He looked for street signs. The snow was piled so high now that it was hard to see them; some were thickly encrusted in ice. He didn’t know the city very well, but he’d quickly picked up on the logic of the grid. All the named avenues—the ones like Park and Madison—were on the east side of the island. If he kept heading east along 31st he should eventually hit Madison—then he’d just have to figure out if that put him above or below the building number he was looking for.

He had to walk about four avenue blocks to reach Madison, and they were exhausting in the snow. But Madison Avenue, being more heavily-traveled, had been plowed more recently, and Will found that he could walk down the middle of the street without much difficulty.

It was as he walked down Madison Avenue that he saw the strange light.

He had been used to pitch-darkness as the heavy snow had blotted out the electric streetlights and brought down powerlines. But as he passed 26th, all around him the air seemed to take on peculiar lambence. Before him, somewhere up ahead, something was glowing brightly, as if lit by hundreds of bulbs. And as he drew closer, he saw that the glow was coming from a sleek, sparse, elegant black marble building.

13 Madison Avenue. The Sphinx Building.

The glow didn’t precisely emanate from it, but seemed to flash in shards from it, like a description Will had once read of the Northern Lights. As he got closer, the snowfall seemed to slacken. Around the building, somehow, the sidewalks were clear and bone-dry.

There is something strange here, Cowdray observed.

“Oh gee, what makes you think that?” Will retorted loudly. But the sarcasm was merely intended to mask his own nervousness. Clearly, it was no ordinary building, but rather a building suffused with magic—and even though Will was no expert, he knew that it had to be big magic.

Why have we come here? Now there was suspicion in Cowdray’s thoughts. Suspicion and apprehension. I mislike this.

You and me both, Will thought, but this time he did not speak the words.

The Sphinx Building had no windows, and only one canopied entrance, its heavy, ornate door flanked by a pair of veiled caryatids. Will tested the handle; the door opened easily. Warm air streamed out, surrounding him, drawing him inside almost physically.

The building’s lobby was expansively circular. The floor was of black marble veined with gold, and the walls were stencilled with odd designs—stylized red blobs. There was no doorman, no elevators, no stairs; the room was as self-contained as a fishbowl. There was no exit save the doors through which he’d entered. Against the far wall, opposite those doors, was a small sleek ebony table with a guestbook on it, the kind into which one might sign attendance. Will crossed the lobby to look down at it. It was blank, save for one large flourishing signature:

Damon Royce, Executive Director

Will spun, intending to make a break for the door. But as he did, he saw that three men now stood before it. Four, if you counted the one man Will wanted least to see in the entire world.

Uncle Royce.

Or rather, not-Uncle Royce; the man had taken great pleasure in informing Will, when last they met, that everything he thought he knew about his family was a lie. That really, not-Uncle Royce was actually Damon Royce, head of the Agency, and that he had been sent by the Stanton Institute to serve as a kind of jailer over Will’s family. To ensure both that Ma’am fulfilled her duties as the avatar of the increasingly-insane spirit of the Earth, and that Father never tried to reclaim the power of the name that he’d sold to the Institute.

Will stopped short, gathered himself up. Clenched his teeth. He realized, in a moment of irrelevant clarity, that the red blobs on the wallpaper were stylized orchids.

Not-Uncle Royce looked annoyed and out-of-sorts, much as he usually did. He wore a dark cashmere overcoat and black calfskin gloves, as if he’d just come in from outside and was ready to leave again at any moment. Will recognized the men standing behind him as a Trine—the functional unit in which Agency warlocks worked, each leveraging the power of the others. Will had encountered a Trine before, in Detroit. They had killed an old woman, his landlady, Mrs. Kosanovich, before his eyes. And the man who had led that Trine in Detroit—the one who had introduced himself as Bernays—was here now as well, in Royce’s retinue.

But this time, Bernays—and the other two men beside him—looked terrible. Ragged and tired, their black suits were rumpled, their faces were hollow with purple shadows of exhaustion. Even the red orchids they wore in their lapels seemed withered and wilted.

The foundation of their power is gone, Cowdray murmured urgently. Dreadnought Stanton is dead. You can defeat them. We can defeat them. Easily.

But Will revealed nothing of this as he stood examining Royce and his men.

“So, you are now the Executive Director,” Will said. “A title you inherited from … Mrs. Zeno, that was her name, right? The old woman who … Ma’am—” Will choked on the last words, bravado failing him. Royce sniffed.

“Yes. I am now the Executive Director of the Institute as well as the Agency,” he said. “The latter role I have always had. The former I assumed after Mrs. Zeno died at your mother’s hand.” Royce paused. “Your mother is still alive, by the way. She survived the fire.”

Will blinked a half dozen times. The last time he did, he felt hot tears soaking his lashes. He did not brush them away. Neither did he speak. He felt certain that it must be a lie, that Royce must have some reason for wanting to trick him … but he did not want to hear it was a lie.

“Aren’t you going to ask about your father?” Royce said, after a long silence.

“I don’t need to,” Will said. “He was Dreadnought Stanton once. If he was still alive, he’d be standing where you are. With Agency warlocks standing behind him, ready to kill me, I suppose.”

Royce pursed his lips. “That statement contains several incorrect assumptions,” he said. “Let me take them in order. First, while your father was once Dreadnought Stanton, it would be immeasurably dangerous to let him reclaim his name. Therefore, the fact that I have assumed the role of Executive Director has nothing to do with whether he is alive or dead. Second, if he were in my position, I don’t think he would want to kill you.”

“If you don’t want to kill me, then why do your men have knives?” Will’s eyes had caught sight of one Bernay’s hand sliding beneath his coat, where steel gleamed between belt and vest.

Royce smiled, icy and contemptuous. 

“You really have very little talent for critical listening, Will. I said if your father was in my position, I didn’t think he would want to kill you. Because if he were in my position, there would be no need to kill you.” Royce took three steps backward, and the warlocks of the Trine came to stand before him. And now, the knives were no longer hidden, but rather drawn and at the ready. “My position, however, is exactly the opposite. I don’t just want you dead, I need you dead. With you alive, I can’t keep what remains of your father’s power together for very much longer.”

Will watched the gleam of the knives. Contempt saturated him, and it wasn’t just Cowdray’s. Because he knew, in that moment, that this was all merely shallow posturing. As if Will—as if anyone—couldn’t smell just exactly how weak the men standing before him actually were. But something perverse made him widen his eyes and play along.

“Then you won’t give me the choice?” Will mimicked desperation. “Agency Warlocks always give people a choice, right?” He looked hard at Bernays, remembering how before, the man had attempted to make him choose between the needle and the knife—death, or forced magical sterilization with Panchrest.

“It is no longer possible to offer you that choice,” Royce said. “Sanitas Pharmaceutics has taken the Panchrest off the market. What stockpiles the Agency had had were destroyed in the fire, and the company is refusing to release any additional supplies. There are large political forces at work, Will. They will overwhelm us soon, unless …” He trailed off thoughtfully, a canny look stealing over his face. “Unless … perhaps … there is another choice I can offer you.”

Will repressed the urge to laugh. He remembered, quite randomly, a bit of Latin doggerel Father would recite whenever he encountered a blatantly self-serving or disingenuous ploy. Adventavit asinus, he would say, in his weary, cynical way. Translated, it had something to do with a donkey, but Father’s meaning had nothing to do with the translation. Rather, it meant, “Watch out. Here comes the con.” And without a doubt, this was a con. Threaten death, offer rescue. It was like theater. Bad theater.

“What other choice?” Will said softly, to keep from revealing his scorn.

“Help us,” Royce said. “Your mother is here, in this building. She is failing fast. You saw the strange lights around this building when you came here, I’m sure. They are the manifestation of the earth’s rage. Ososolyeh is using your mother’s body to lash out, madly, without any kind of reason. It is causing the snowstorm here, hurricanes and earthquakes elsewhere.  But the power of the magic is destroying her, and I don’t know how long she can survive.” He paused. “You can save her, Will.”

He’s lying.

“And you want me to believe you care about saving her?”

“Of course I do,” Royce snapped.

“But that’s not what you said. What you said was that you needed to hold my father’s power together.” He shrugged dismissively. “But I suppose it’s a better story to tell me it’s about Ma’am, isn’t it?”

“You jump to conclusions so quickly. You fail to consider that both statements might be true. That I want to keep intact the power that the Institute has spent decades amassing, and I also want to help your mother.” Royce regarded Will steadily. “Look outside. There’s never been a storm like this one—not since 1888, the last time we failed to precisely meet Ososolyeh’s insane demands. The last time we were unable to honor the specifics of Settlement. I believe you’ve indicated you’re familiar with the Settlement?”

Will did not reply, but knew he did not have to. He knew of the Settlement, an agreement that had been reached with Ososolyeh, the alien spirit of the earth, to keep it from destroying all humanity, which it had come to perceive as a vital threat. Humankind had agreed to pay its blackmail in blood—the blood of powerful Old Users. And the Agency was the strongarm that collected and delivered those payments.

“The Institute spent the past three decades bolstering the power of Dreadnought Stanton’s reputation so that the Agency could use that power to fulfill the terms of the Settlement. Now that Dreadnought Stanton is dead, my Trines do not have the power they need to pursue their duties. And your mother, the avatar of the earth, the creature who has always communicated its will, will die within days if something is not done. The system has collapsed, and seems beyond repair.”

He paused, his critical gaze delivering the natural conclusion: And it’s all your fault.

However, after this painful moment of silence, Royce continued. “As a result of this collapse, the earth seems to have gone truly mad. It doesn’t take a geologist to understand what kind of havoc a conscious—and insane—earth can wreak. And the longer the Settlement is not honored, the worse the damage will be.”

“And what do you think I can do about it?”

“I can bring Dreadnought Stanton back to life,” Royce said, with a calmness at odds with the enormity of the statement. “There’s nothing stopping me from doing so … except you. You have a blood-claim on his power—a right your father transferred to you when you were an infant, when he saved you from the Black Flu. If I were to resurrect Dreadnought Stanton, there would be nothing stopping you … or rather more precisely, the creature inside you… from invoking that blood claim, stealing the power and using it for your own ends. Unless you agreed to help. Unless you … joined us.”

Will remembered how Bernays had used magical words to crush Mrs. Kosanovich to death. It had been a terrible death, a cruel and monstrous death. And nothing he had seen or heard of the Agency led him to believe that, for them, it was anything other than routine.

“I don’t think I want to join you,” Will said.

“If you don’t care about saving your mother, maybe you care about saving your wife—” These words came from Bernays, but were cut short as a cloud of black fury passed over Royce’s face and he spun, striking Bernays across the face with a half-closed fist. It was a viciously swift movement; Bernays sunk to one knee, his hand pressed to a split lip. He lowered his head, glowering, but said no more.

Credomantic theater Two-bit play acting …

But Will hardly heard the warning in Cowdray’s thoughts. Sudden panic rose in his chest, almost choking him.

“Jenny?” Will took a step forward. “What does he mean? Is she in danger?”

Right into his trap. Cowdray was annoyed. Slow, mooncalf, slow …

“No, I want to know,” Will countered, forgetting that no one else could hear Cowdray’s voice. But he did take a deep breath, and worked to calm himself. Cowdray was right; whatever Royce might say about Jenny was just as likely to be a lie as anything else.

Royce drew a deep breath. It was clear he was carefully framing his words, whether truth or lies.

“Your mother has been our primary concern, because she is the one with the connection to Ososolyeh,” he said, finally. “However, there are other factors that trouble us gravely. Your brother Ben, in particular.” He paused. “You know that Ben stole Aebedel Cowdray’s snuffbox at the Consecration. Took it and vanished.”

“Yes,” Will said.

“And you are aware, I believe, how much raw magical power the snuffbox contains?” Royce said.

“Yes.”

“I believe Ben intends to use that power to take over what remains of the Agency and the Institute. In short,” Royce said, with a puzzling half-smile. “To overthrow me.”

Will’s brow contracted in puzzlement.

“Overthrow you? Why?”

“That is a very long story,” Royce said, drily. “Your brother Ben has been a kind of … special project of mine since he was removed from your family’s home. For many years he was my employee. He worked for the Agency.”

This information was shocking … but as Will reflected on it, not surprising. Turning it over, he found that it was a key that unlocked many doors that had been strangely closed. So many things suddenly fell into place.

“Back in California … before Thanksgiving dinner,” Will mused. “You were the one who gave me the letter from Ben, the one written on the Sophos’ stationery.” He looked up. “And after the Consecration … that’s why it was Agency warlocks who stormed the church, even though Ben said he was working for the Institute.”

“He wasn’t exactly lying,” Royce said. “The two organizations have always been intimately interconnected. In your brother’s case, he worked for the Agency for several years, before retiring from regular duty. His skills were much better suited to assignments of particular sensitivity and difficulty. Posing as Professor Coeus—an expert in Aebedel Cowdray—he was to gain Phleger’s trust. Once that was accomplished, his mission was twofold: to obtain the snuffbox, and to kill Phleger.”

“But the Agency kills warlocks,” Will said. “Phleger wasn’t a warlock.”

“He was powerful enough to draw Ososolyeh’s attention,” Royce said. “We do not question the orders we are given.”

Will shook his head.

“Then Ben failed at both missions. He clearly did not reclaim the snuffbox for the Institute, as you don’t seem to know where he is. And he didn’t kill Phleger.”

“He certainly seems to have failed one of his missions,” Royce agreed. “But Phleger is dead. He hanged himself after you unleashed Cowdray on his mind.”

“But Ben had nothing to do with that.”

Royce shrugged. He did not smile.

“Would you have done it if Ben not put you in the way to do it?” He asked.

“No, but—”

“The fact that your brother was physically unable to wield magic—and yet occupied a position where he was constantly called upon to do battle with magical forces—required him to develop exceptional resourcefulness.” There was honest admiration in Royce’s voice as he spoke—and the depth of feeling in his words surprised Will. “I directed him to kill Phleger. And Phleger is dead.”

“You’re … proud of him,” Will said. “But you think he wants to overthrow you? To gain control of an Institute and an Agency that’s crumbling around you? Why?”

“He wants power,” Royce shrugged again, as if the answer were wholly self-evident. “This is the best time to take it. And if the possibility exists that I can hold together Dreadnought Stanton’s power, surely he can as well. He is arguably in a better position to do so, as a matter of fact. And perhaps that is how he justifies his betrayal. He has always been the most pragmatic of your stubborn, dreamy, deluded clan.”

“It can’t just be about power—”

“It is always just about power,” Royce interrupted. “Always. Your brother fulfilled one part of the mission—killing Phleger—because it served him to do so. Keeping the snuffbox for himself also serves him. I do not blame him, Will. He has been terribly cheated. Of all of you, he should have been the greatest. He deserved to be. And, despite what I’m sure are your self-pitying fantasies to the contrary, his is the greatest tragedy. If he can defeat me, he should. But I must fight him with every scrap of power I can muster. Every tactic, every stratagem. I owe him that respect.”

Will was silent for a long time, considering these words. He rubbed the sore place on his wrist, the place he had bitten to silence Cowdray.

“Then if it’s just about power, as you say … he will try to unlock the snuffbox.”

“Without a doubt,” Royce said. “He must.”

“And the only way he can do that is by using my blood.”

“Or the blood of your unborn child,” Royce said. He glanced back at Bernays, who was now standing with his hands clasped behind his back. There was still a smear of red across his upper lip. “Which brings us back to Jenny. She is currently a guest in the home of S.O. Hart, the President of Sanitas Pharmaceutics. She is under his protection, brought there by his son, Atherton. I believe you have met him.”

Will nodded, remembering the handsome older man who had itched to blow his brains out in Detroit. “And if you know where she is … then Ben must know too.”

“I’m sure he does,” Royce said. “Thus, if you want to save Jenny—and if we want to reclaim the snuffbox before he uses the power in it for himself—it is very important that we find him before he is able to find a way to get to her. She is well-protected by S.O. Hart … but as I have said, your brother is very resourceful.”

“And how do you think I can help?”

“Just as your child shares Cowdray’s cursed blood, you share Ben’s. There is magic that you can work, as his brother, to locate him. Perhaps even to compel him to reveal himself. Blood can be used to call to blood. We can teach you this. We can find Ben together.”

Will said nothing. Royce licked his lips before speaking again.

“You know, Cowdray could have told you all of this, too. He knows of this magic, surely. And I know he speaks to you … you made that apparent just a moment ago. But perhaps he does not want you to find Ben.”

He is a liar, Cowdray snarled. But Will could sense the false bravado, and he could feel that Royce was telling the truth.

“And why would Cowdray not tell you of something so useful?” Royce continued. “One might suggest that he’s waiting until the moon is full again, and he has control of your body, and your body’s ability to channel magic. Because if Ben is to be found, he wants to be the one to find him. Because he wants the snuffbox too, doesn’t he? More than anything?”

“Yes,” Will said softly, once again. But then, narrowing his eyes, he frowned at Royce.

“I can’t trust you,” he said, finally.  

“No,” Royce said simply. “You can’t trust anyone.”

Will smirked grimly.

“Now, that’s two honest things you’ve said,” he said. “Watch out, it might get to be a habit.”

“Here’s a third,” Royce said. “You can trust yourself least of all. So what is a man to do when he can’t even trust himself? What is to his best strategic advantage?” He paused. “I know that magic is new to you, Will. You are being forced to learn it. If you learn only one thing about credomancy, learn this: belief creates reality. By trusting, you can create trust. You can make those whom you trust trustworthy. Do you understand?”

Will considered all of this for a long time, looking between Royce and Bernays as he did. Finally, he exhaled.

“No.” He said. “I don’t understand. It all sounds like hogwash. Trusting you isn’t going to make you any better than you are. And why should I believe you can help me? You aren’t blood-sorcerors. Your power is all sunk in the grave with a dead man. And he’s not coming back, no matter what kind of necromancy you think you can pull.” He paused, thoughtfully. “There is someone who can help me, though. I think. And I do trust him. He is who I am going to find.”

“Who?” Royce said, too quickly. Will shook his head.

“That’s for me to know,” Will said, thinking of Detroit—thinking of Harley Briar. “If what you say is true, he can teach me how to find Ben. And he’ll do it without me having to hand over the snuffbox to you and the Agency.” He drew in a deep breath, blew it out with determination. He felt strangely better–light and strong. “Now, I will let you do one thing that will help me. And if you help me now, maybe I’ll feel grateful, and maybe sometime I’ll feel like repaying you.” The words came out with a hard negotiating edge that surprised even him. Will stepped close to Royce, stretching out his hand. “Give me fifty dollars.”

Royce’s brow lifted with surprise. “Fifty dollars?”

“I know you’ve got it. You always carry cash.” He snapped his fingers impatiently. “I need fifty dollars.”

After staring at Will with perplexity for some time, Royce finally reached into his pocket. He pulled out three gold coins—double eagles, worth $20 each. He laid them in Will’s hand.

“I don’t have change,” Royce said drily.

Will closed his hand quickly, sliding the heavy coins into his pocket. “I’ll have to owe you,” he said. Then, pulling his coat around himself more tightly, he started for the door.

“So you won’t help?” Royce said. “She’s your mother, Will.”

Will said nothing, but kept walking.

“And you called me a murderer,” Bernays muttered, as Will passed him.

Will stopped. Uncontrollable fury twisted his stomach. It wasn’t even Cowdray, this was all his own. Spinning, he threw a hand against Bernays’ face—his palm smashing against Bernays’ nose, feeling it crack and give. He dragged his fingertips through the sudden rush of sticky red. Then, sliding his hand up, he grabbed Bernays by the hair, threw him backward, sunk a knee into his belly, and pressed bloody fingertips onto the side of his face. In the back of Will’s mind, Cowdray howled with abrupt glee. He made words available to Will, tossed them like a weapon: words in a guttural language of power. Will spoke them without hesitation. Cowdray made them available, but Will chose them. He was glad to make the choice. He felt flame rush from his fingertips. Bernays screamed.

Will stopped before the man was dead. The irony of killing a man for the insult of calling one a murderer did still penetrate his enraged consciousness. When he did finally push himself back up to his feet, though, Bernays was unconscious, with streaks of burn and char on the flesh of his face that would leave indelible scars.

Will glanced wildly around at the other men of the Trine. They all had their hands at their belts, skin touching steel, but it was reflex merely. Will saw the futility in their eyes. If Will wanted them dead, they would die.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful

Will turned his eyes onto Royce, and he could feel the anger and heat of his own glare. The man who he had known as his uncle tried to maintain an air of cool, clinical curiosity, but Will saw the pulse fluttering at his smooth-shaven throat. Saw him swallow hard.

“Will,” Royce said. “Please reconsider. I will not betray you, I swear it.”

Will recognized the gravity of the statement as being the oath of a credomancer, one not given lightly and never broken.

“No,” Will said.

Royce nodded.

“All right,” he said. He tapped Will’s pocket, where, somehow, he knew the piece of stationery still rested. Then he extended the hand, clad in a smooth black calfskin glove. “If you change your mind, you know how to find us.”

Will took Royce’s hand. The leather of his calfskin glove was cold, still faintly damp from the snow outside. Royce clutched it tightly, held it, drew Will in even closer. His dark eyes gleamed.

“I am not surprised to find that sangrimancy seems to come so easily to you. You’re more like your father than anyone ever could have imagined.” He punctuated the words by giving Will’s hand one final, tight squeeze.

“Goodbye, Will,” he said.

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When Will arrived back at Penn Station, he was cold and shaking.

At first he thought it was just the weariness of the past several days catching up to him. But soon he realized, it was more than that. He felt sick and numb. Once inside the station, even standing directly in front of one of the tall kerosene heaters, he continued to shiver. He flexed his right hand. He could hardly feel it; it was stiff, like it was no longer a part of him. It had to be the cold. It could only be the cold. He was tired. He was hungry. He’d used magic to hurt Bernays, hurt him terribly. Almost kill him. That’s what it was, that’s what it had to be. Tucking his numb hand beneath his armpit, Will made his way to the Haälbeck Office.

The office was small, and it seemed smaller because there were so many businessmen—old men—crowded inside, waiting in line on the hard wooden benches. The firm was indeed doing a brisk business. Will took a seat on the end of one of the long benches. He hunched over, arms folded tightly, trying to get warm. He couldn’t stop shaking. He looked at his right hand, tried to move his fingers. They did not move.

Something is wrong with the body, Cowdray was saying. At least Will thought that’s what he was saying. Whatever was wrong with him was making Cowdray’s voice recede, fainter and fainter, spinning down a long dark passage. Yes, Will thought. Something is wrong with the body. But he had no idea what. He had to get to Detroit.

Food might help, he thought. An enterprising boy had carried in supplies to resell to the waiting businessmen; from him, Will purchased a paper cup of coffee and a hard roll. He consumed these slowly and carefully, but they did not seem to help. When he was finished, as he went to dust the crumbs from his fingers, he saw, to his shock, that his right hand—the hand that was numb and dead—was now also discolored. His skin, from fingertips to wrist, had taken on a sickly green tinge.

He realized, quite suddenly, that it was his right hand that Royce had shaked.

Poison, Cowdray said, with sudden realization. His voice was now pinprick tiny, so far away. Of course. It must be. He needed you dead. He said it …

Tucking his discolored hand back beneath his arm, Will staggered to his feet. Desperately, he pushed his way to the counter.

We were too strong to attack magically and he knew it. So he took the route of the poisoner …

“I need to get to Detroit, please,” Will pleaded. He had pushed his way to the front of the line. He knew he was speaking too loudly, that he sounded wobbly and desperate. But if he could just get to Detroit. He had to get to Detroit …

“Hey, buddy!” One of the older men called from the back. “What the hell? There’s a line here! Get back in your place!”

“Please, I need …” Will had to steady himself. “I need to …”

He felt the world growing dark. He wasn’t going to make it.

I can get us there, Cowdray said. Let me take us there.

“Christ, kid!” Another man was yelling at him now. “You’re too young to use a Haälbeck anyway! Get out of here!”

“I can’t,” Will whispered.

The body will not be fully mine, Cowdray urged. But I will keep it from falling.

Will couldn’t fight any more. He let himself sink backward. He felt Cowdray step forward. Even though his body was still growing weaker by the moment, Will felt Cowdray pull it up straight. He lifted his chin, felt his lip curl in a sneer. He looked at the man at the front of the line, the man he’d cut in front of. The man wasn’t yelling like the others, but was eyeing Will with sardonic contempt, as if just waiting to give him a piece of his mind. Will laid a hand on the man’s wrist—his good hand—and squeezed.

“You don’t mind if I go ahead, do you?” Will felt himself say softly, his eyes holding the man’s. He wasn’t sure what passed between them, what power traveled from his hand to the man’s skin—no blood was exchanged—but the man jerked his arm back as if burned.

“Yeah, sure, go ahead,” the man said hastily, stepping out of the way. “Be my guest.”

There were howls of outrage from the rear of the line, but they rushed past Will’s ears like the sound of wind as he took the three gold double-eagles from his pocket and handed them to the Haälbeck clerk. Will felt Cowdray holding him up by sheer stubbornness as, together, they watched the clerk prepare the portal for Will’s destination.

Detroit, Michigan. Union Station.

Perhaps it was the magic of the door. Or perhaps it was the poison. Or perhaps it was Cowdray betraying him once again. Whatever it was, as soon as Will stepped across the threshold, delirium enveloped him and everything went black.

finis

4 Responses to “The Unsteady Earth”: Chapter Two (First Draft)

  1. B-Rob says:

    Looking forward to this! Hope more chapters are coming.

  2. golisterMC says:

    Exceptionally well written! +1

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