Excerpt: Moseh's Staff

Excerpt: Moseh's Staff

Book 4: Artifact Hunters

Wooden planks covered the windows; nails stuck out at crazy angles, as though someone unused to wielding a hammer put the boards up in a hurry. They could have blocked out the light, but the haphazard construction left gaps between each slice of timber. Cara glimpsed enough to tell night from day, morning from afternoon. Moments of quiet from full on terror.

It only took three days for her to fear dusk. As the shards of light retreated with the approach of night, the men returned. She pressed her ear to the door, listening. Waiting. A light tread headed down the hall, and she raced to the far corner of the room. She tried to make herself small and insignificant, burrowing into the wainscoting as close as her frame would allow. She curled into a ball, her arms around her knees, spine flush with the wall. A sob broke off in her throat as the footsteps neared her prison.

Day three, and no one had come for her.

Three days, and no one stopped the horror.

Her muscles protested every movement, and her body ached, not just the welts from the beating or the dark ring of bruises around her wrists, but in other places. Would he tear her in two, rend her body like her mind and leave splintered pieces scattered on the floor? Another cry welled up as she forced the memory away, tried to forget what they did to her each night. Every footfall made her heart leap into her throat. The lock clicked as the key turned, and then the door handle rattled.

Her pulse faltered.

She screwed her eyes tightly shut and buried her head between her knees. She couldn’t breathe, her heart jammed in her throat trying to escape even if she couldn’t.

The boot tread continued into the room, then stopped.

Don’t see me. Don’t see me.

A hand gripped her ankle and dragged her from the corner.

“No!” she screamed, her hands scrabbled for purchase on the smooth floor. She tore her nails trying to find a knothole to stop her slide.

No one heard her cries. No one would save her. As seconds stretched into hours, she experienced an epiphany; she either laid down and gave up, or fought to escape. In the space between one heartbeat and the next, she made a choice. She might be outnumbered, outsized, and overpowered, but she would never give up. She kicked and clawed, striking out blindly with her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see his face. Couldn’t bear to see him grinning at her as he did those things to her body.

Large hands captured her wrists and held her tight, stopping her torn nails from digging into flesh. The panic in her chest erupted at being confined. She tried to scream, but the terror constricted her throat, and only a high-pitched keen escaped.

“I have you, cara mia,” he said.

The fear short-circuited her brain and constricted her vocal cords, only a whimper managed to pass her lips. Her body shook as she lashed out at anyone, anything, and adrenaline pumped through her veins, giving her the strength to fight on.

“No. No, no, no, no!”

“You’re safe, cara mia. You escaped and they were punished. They will never touch you again.”

Something about the low tone soothed the raging fear. Her mind stilled for an instant. Something was different this time. Arms wrapped around her and held her close, but not to hurt—to protect. A steady beat next to her cheek pulsed through her with the lull of a soft wave.

The cry of terror turned to a sob of relief.

“Safe?” She stuttered over the word, not daring to say it out loud. Still unwilling to open her eyes, lest this prove a cruel trick.

“Safe,” the familiar voice whispered.

Safe. Dear God, she was safe. It was over.

The child in her cried with relief while Nate stroked her hair.

“I will always protect you.”

* * *

Some foul creature tortured her brain with a brand of pure sunlight. She cracked open one eye as she sat upright and dragged the blanket with her. A shadow opened the curtains, outlined by the ring of fire that burned across the floor. The figure turned. The fog slowly lifted, and Nate walked toward her. He picked up a mug of coffee from the end table, placed it in her hands, then sat on the bed. For once, he didn’t hide his worry; he wore it openly on his face and in the piercing blue gaze.

“The nightmares are back and each time they grow worse.” He reached out and tucked a short strand of auburn hair behind her ear.

She didn’t want to think about it. She thought the nightly struggles were confined to a dark corner of her mind months ago. Until recently. She inhaled the sharp aromas wafting off the mug and curled her fingers around it tighter. “I thought I had defeated them, but they have arisen and claw themselves free in my mind.”

“You had a couple the first few months we were together. Then none until early this year.” He cupped her face, and his thumb stroked her cheek. “Now they are almost weekly and stronger. You struggle so hard to be free, Cara.”

She closed her eyes and turned her face into his palm. “They nearly broke me, part of me wanted to just lie down and die. It would have been so easy. I realised it could take weeks for Nan and Grandpa to find me, but I didn’t want to be the sort of person who just gives up. They wouldn’t. So I chose to fight.”

“How do we make you free?” he whispered.

She took a sip from the mug and let coffee vapour drift up to her brain. “It’s linked to what’s happening out there.” She waved at the window with its thick white frosting. Even though they approached the middle of March, London lay frozen—but far worse affected the city than just the temperature. The cold pervaded the atmosphere. The people were morose and laughter diminished, the life and vitality sucked from their bodies from some unseen force.

She shook her head. “Something bad is coming, and the demons are rising up with it.”

* * *

Cara stood in the secretary’s office and plucked invisible dust motes from her clothes. Unable to rest, her hands kept fussing with the lush fabric of her skirt.

“We’re not in trouble,” Nate whispered from behind her. He reached around to take her hand and still the nervous movement.

She snorted. “Name one trip here that hasn’t resulted in trouble.”

His lips twitched. “Fair point. But no one will try and kill us here. Not today.”

The secretary pushed apart the doors and announced them. They stepped into the queen’s personal domain. Victoria, dressed in full mourning garb, stood in front of the world map that covered one wall. Her hand rested on the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Aotearoa.

“We hear your endeavours in the colonies are successful, Viscount Lyons.” The queen launched straight into business, not letting them teeter in their uncomfortable positions.

They rose from their brief bow and curtsey. “Yes, Your Majesty. The new long-range airships take immigrants and supplies out and will return laden with cargo,” Nate replied.

The monarch’s hand swept upward and over China. “We look forward to the taxes from your new trade to supplement our treasury.”

Cara swallowed her sudden laughter so hard that tears sprung to her eyes. She coughed, trying to put the air back into her lungs. Nate didn’t pay taxes, McToon, the canny Scottish lawyer, saw to that.

Ignoring his choking wife, Nate spread his hands. “I labour to benefit Queen and country, ma’am.”

Victoria made a noise deep in her throat that mimicked Cara’s scoff of disbelief, then flowed to the window. With her steps made invisible by the enormous crinoline, she appeared to run on wheels. She raised a hand to the glass and traced a passing flake. “Why does the snow keep falling?”

Cara chewed her lip. Was it a rhetorical question? Better to steer a neutral course. “It is an unseasonably late winter, ma’am, but it has happened before.”

The queen turned and fixed her with a piercing gaze, so similar to Nate’s in many ways. It tore through your protective layers and left you exposed. She needed to add only the most delicate arch of her eyebrow to express her complete disdain for Cara’s words. So hard to reconcile her with the fun-loving Nessy, her natural mother.

“We approach April, Lady Lyons. Not only does the Thames remain frozen, but our scientists tell us that each day the ice thickens when it should melt. We are well aware this phenomenon is wrapped around London, but elsewhere in our dominion, spring approaches.” Her hand curled into a fist, the steady gaze faltered. She looked away for a moment and when she met Cara’s gaze again, her face softened, the lines visible on her brow. “Is this our doing?”

Hatshepsut’s Collar discharged its energy into the sky and unleashed a storm upon London. Many speculated that the unnatural winter was triggered by the lightning that shot upward to the sky that October night. The more poetic said the very heavens grieved for Prince Albert, and winter would last as long as the queen wore full mourning.

“No, ma’am.” Cara had thought exactly the same as the more pragmatic citizens and read every book Malachi could provide that alluded to the Collar. She could find no reference to it altering the weather beyond the short-term effect of the lightning. The storm should have cleared within one or two weeks. As days turned into months, it became obvious the cold grip was localised and worsening. The rest of England warmed, daffodils popped up their heads, and lambs cavorted in fields. It was more than the snow, for a dread settled over London as though the damp crept into the populace and chilled their spirits. Long-buried demons clawed to return and haunt the people. Tempers flared as the citizenry turned fractious and the Enforcers were overrun with petty crime and disputes.

Cara reached out for Nate. They both believed they knew who was behind the abnormal winter. When the Thames froze, it radiated out from Southwark, confirming their fears. They just didn’t know what had such an effect. What could be so powerful as to distort the weather over an entire city? Cara believed the timing was deliberate, if only she could discern the reason.

“We shall investigate, ma’am.” Nate squeezed Cara’s hand, silencing the protest on her lips.

“Good.” Victoria nodded and returned to her desk.

“If I may make one request, ma’am?” Cara halted the queen’s return glide.

“Yes?”

Cara took one step forward. “Amongst Prince Albert’s things are a number of books he collected on matters of unusual phenomena; they may assist our enquiry if I could have access to them.”

“Very well, I shall have them delivered to you.” She took her seat and pulled a dispatch from the pile in front of her. The audience over, she no longer saw Nate and Cara, and it was their prompt to leave just as invisibly.

Cara chewed her lip all the way home while her stomach roiled and rolled. Everything converged, her nightmares returned and when she turned her mind to their new task, it recoiled and cowered as she once did. At the mansion, she stripped off her outer layers and handed them over like an automaton. Nate guided her to his study with one hand at the small of her back.

“It all centres on the Curator. We need to learn more about him,” Nate said as the door snicked closed behind them. He peeled off his jacket and tossed it over the back of the sofa. “We need to dig into his history and try to figure out if there is an artifact that could do this.”

Cold gripped her and slowed her heart. “I can’t do this.” She shook her head and paced the study.

“Why?” Nate asked, watching her constant movement.

How to put it into words? The dread stirred in her gut, a sixth sense told her this investigation would not end well. The little voice told her to turn back, that she was being led up the garden path of a very elaborate trap. “We cannot go up against the Curator and whatever he wields.”

“Don’t you want answers?”

“Perhaps I would rather not know.” The Curator. She shivered at the remembrance of his cold touch sucking all the warmth from her body. Did he have something that allowed him to do that on a grander scale, to take the heat and hope from an entire city? The old nobleman set her father on his path to destruction. The man who fed his obsession with resurrecting her mother. The man whose face appeared in her nightmares and obscured Clayton’s features. What was the connection? Her mind drew back. Better to not know, it whispered.

She stopped in front of Nate. “You have your new position as the queen’s spymaster. Let’s leave the cold and go to Russia, I long to catch up with Natalie.”

The set of his jaw said he wouldn’t be swayed, but he took her hands in his. “Don’t you want peace, Cara?”

She raised her gaze to meet his. The nightmare grew in intensity, thrusting her back into her fourteen-year-old body and making her relive the terror over and over. She grew tired of fighting, perhaps it was time to run.

I want peace for you,” he said. “I would do anything to tear that memory from your mind so it never disturbed your sleep again.”

She took a deep breath and willed her rampaging stomach back under control. “I know. But part of me thinks I can outrun this.”

He smiled as he drew her into his arms. “You tried running, but I still caught you.” He stroked her back. “Let us lay the past to rest, once and for all, so we can move forward with our lives. Plus, the queen commands it, and we are the only ones with some idea of what is at play. We cannot let the people of London freeze. What of your friends in the Rookery?”

Her mind battled her heart. She spent many afternoons in the St Giles Rookery; she found the children there smart and eager to soak up the knowledge from the teachers Nate employed. She would not see her little friends freeze. Yet still the fear bubbled up, the nameless worry that preyed on her mind in her weakest moments.

“What if I lose you?” A solitary tear slid down her cheek. “What if this is the fight we cannot win?”

“Impossible.” He breathed against her hair. “It’s just the idea of digging up the past that has wakened your demons. We will fight this, and him. Together.”

She nodded, the demons laughed, and the dread remained.