The Age of Steam
IN STEAM AGE AMERICA, MEN, MONSTERS, MACHINES, AND MAGIC BATTLE TO CLAIM THE SAME SCRAP OF EARTH AND SKY. IN THIS CHAOS, ONE MAN FIGHTS TO HOLD ON TO HIS HUMANITY—AND HIS HONOR…
Life on the frontier is full of deceit and danger, but bounty hunter Cedar Hunt is a man whose word is his bond. Cursed with becoming a beast every full moon, Cedar once believed his destiny was to be alone. But now, Cedar finds himself saddled with a group of refugees, including the brother he once thought lost.
Keeping his companions alive is proving to be no easy task, in part because of the promise he made to the unpredictable Madder brothers—three miners who know the secret mechanisms of the Strange. To fulfill his pledge, Cedar must hunt a powerful weapon known as the Holder—a search that takes him deep into the savage underbelly of the young country and high into the killing glim-field skies defended by desperate men and deadly ships.
But the battles he faces are just a glimmer of a growing war stirring the country. To keep his word Cedar must navigate betrayal, lies, and treacherous alliances, risking everything to save the lives of those he has come to hold dear…
Cedar Hunt stared down at his bloodcovered hands. Glossy and dark, fresh and plentiful, the blood dripped between his fingers, slicking his arms and snicking to the dirt between his boots. More than just covering his hands, the blood tasted sweet and thick on his tongue and coated his throat as he swallowed.
Not the blood of a beast, the blood of a man.
“That’s enough now, Mr. Hunt,” a woman’s voice said, steady and low.
He looked up. Realized he stood beneath a sparse forest canopy, evening light dabbing gold across branches and leaves.
Dabbing gold across Rose Small too. She had on her bonnet, the tips of her hair swinging just above her shoulders to catch that dusky sunlight and wear it in shades of amber. Though shadows lay low over her face, her blue eyes shone through like a sunfilled sky. But her mouth, so often curved in a smile, was tucked down in a tight frown.
She motioned with the shotgun held low at her hip. She didn’t have her longshot goggles on. Didn’t have to. Cedar was only a few paces in front of her.
“I’d sure prefer it if I didn’t have to shoot you tonight, Mr. Hunt, but by God and glim I will.”
“Rose?” Cedar whispered.
Why was the girl pointing that gun at him? They’d been traveling together more than a full month across Oregon and were just into Idaho, he, Rose Small, the widow witch Mae Lindson, his cursed brother, Wil, and the three Madder brothers. He hadn’t once come to his senses with any of them standing at arms against him. Not even when the moon had taken him full into his curse.
“Glad you’ve a mind for talking, Mr. Hunt,” Rose said. “Even better your ears are working.” She lifted the gun. “But I’ll still plug you if you don’t step away from that man, and head back into the wagon.”
He’d known what he had done the moment he’d seen blood on his hands, tasted it on his lips. He’d killed a man. In daylight.
And he’d done it as man, not a beast, with no thrall of the moon to blame his actions upon.
He looked down. The dead man wasn’t very large nor very young. He had the look and the smell of someone who spent most his days riding and hunting bounties on men’s heads and most his nights gambling away the noose money.
“Who?” he rasped.
“I’d ask his name,” Rose said, “but don’t think he’ll say. He broke into our camp and tried to kill a few of us, Mae included. You . . .” Her voice faded off. Then she sort of huffed a chuckle. “Never saw a thing like it. And I’ve seen things. Strange things.”
Mae. Of course. He’d never stand idle if she was in danger. But to lose his mind to this kind of rage was not at all like him.
“Did I change?” Cedar couldn’t remember the wolf coming upon him. Couldn’t remember sliding down that slick, hot stroke of pleasure to stretch into the fur and claws of the beast that the Pawnee gods had cursed him to wear on the three days of full moon.
Reason left him when the beast was in control and his thoughts reduced to hunger, hunt, and killing the Strange. He searched his memory for how the dead man had come to be broken, his blood pouring down Cedar’s throat.
Nothing came clear.
“You didn’t change,” Rose said. “Not in skin anyway. But I’m not sure how much of a man’s mind you were in possession of. Didn’t use a gun to kill him, Mr. Hunt. You used your bare hands. Broke him once and just kept right on breaking him.”
She paused to let that soak in good.
“So,” she said brightly, “now you need to be moving on. We want you locked up in the wagon for safekeeping. Yours and ours.”
Cedar took one last look at the man. “Someone should search his body. See if he carried a reason to be following us. He was following us, wasn’t he?”
“The Madders said maybe for a week or so. They’re off seeing if he had company.” Rose started walking, her boots crunching through the dry autumn underbrush.
Cedar started walking too, staying well ahead of her trigger finger.
“Don’t know as to why he thought killing us was worth the effort,” she said. “We don’t have much to steal. We aren’t causing any trouble.”
Then she grinned. “You don’t suppose we’ve gotten famous, do you? Maybe someone heard how we took apart Shard LeFel and his matics? Wrote us up in a newspaper somewhere?”
“Folk are rarely hunted for their good deeds,” Cedar said. “I don’t think we’re famous.”
Sure, he had mistakes in his past that might put a price on his head. But Rose had never been outside of the little town of Hallelujah, Oregon, until now. Mae Lindson might be a witch, but she wasn’t the sort of person to go about causing harm.
The Madder brothers were a mystery when it came to their moral standings and past deeds. They liked to spin tales fantastical of things they’d done, places they’d been, but none of those yarns pointed clearly to shady doings.
“Could be nothing to do with us,” he finally said. He rubbed his thumb over his lips, wiping away the blood there, and resisted the urge to lick it off his fingers.
Coredeep inside him, the beast shifted, letting him know it was still hungry. If there was no Strange blood to spill, it seemed just as happy with the blood of a man.
He straightened his shoulders against the chill of dread that slipped down his spine.
The beast was growing stronger. Hungrier.
“So he was just desperate?”
“Could be,” Cedar said. “Saw an opportunity to plunder his way westward. Plenty of folk do it.”
“Land pirates?” Rose sounded excited about the prospect.
She’d seen violence. Killed without a flinch men and Strange creatures that crawled up out of nightmares. But even death and much darker happenstances hadn’t been able to shake Rose Small’s sense of wonder in the world.
Cedar hadn’t yet seen a thing that could dim her spirit.
“Just a rustler, more like.” He paused. Turned to her. “We should search him.”
Rose hesitated. Cedar gave her time to look him straight in the eyes. She held his wild gaze and measured his sanity.
Looking at him like that, when the beast was so near the surface of his reasoning, was something most people couldn’t do.
But then, Rose had a bit of the wild in her too. Wasn’t a metal she couldn’t shape or a device she couldn’t jigger with her fastthinking mind and clever fingers.
“Not that I don’t trust you, Mr. Hunt,” she said. “It’s just . . .” Her mouth tugged a crooked frown. “You tore him apart. With your hands.”
“Rose,” he said softly, resisting the urge to put his hands behind his back where she wouldn’t see the blood. As if that could hide his sins from her. “Whatever happened, it’s done.”
She bit her bottom lip and those springtime eyes searched him like she was peering through the shutter of his soul. “I’ll keep the gun where it is, just the same.”
Cedar walked back to the body. He glanced at the surrounding forest. Didn’t see anything out of place. Well, except for the dead man. Not many bugs had found him yet, so it’d been just a few minutes at most since he’d killed him.
Snapped his neck, to be precise.
Cedar knelt and turned the man so he could study his face. A heavy black beard spread chin to temple. All his unwhiskered skin seemed to be covered in grime. His eyes were rolled back in his head and blood dripped a line out the corner of his mouth. Cedar picked up each of his hands. All the fingers were still attached, calluses and scars where you’d expect them to be on a man who rode the range.
He’d carried two guns, one thrown off in the brush about ten feet east, the other still in the holster. The weapons weren’t nothing fancy, but they were well tended. He’d been good with his guns.
Not good enough to draw more than one before Cedar had killed him.
With his bare hands.
Cedar searched pockets, coat, and shirt. Handkerchief, tobacco pouch, rolling paper, and a knife. Not a lot else. Not a single coin on him, not a scrap of a letter, not a photo of a loved one.
“You done pawing that fellow to death?” The voice was so near him, Cedar started.
Alun Madder, the oldest of the brothers, crouched down on his heels near Cedar. Cedar was not a small man, but Alun took him on width.
Built like bull buffalos, the Madder brothers were all heavily bearded, widejawed, and accustomed to a life of mining, drinking, and brawling. When they weren’t fighting, they had an uncanny knack with metal, matics, and odd devices.
Cedar owed them a favor for helping him find his brother, who he had thought was long dead. They’d been true to their part of the bargain, and so he was holding true to his.
Riding east to return Mae to her witch sisterhood before her ties to them and the magic of the coven sent her clean insane. Riding east so maybe those same witches could break the Pawnee curse Cedar and his brother carried. Rose, he supposed, was just looking to see the world wide, though he knew she cared for Mae and wanted to see her set to rights.
And on the way he would uphold his promise to hunt for the Holder, a device made of seven ancient metals cobbled together into a weapon of great power.
The Madders said even uncobbled, the Holder could cause ruin, rot, destruction.
If that was true, then the brothers’ priority of gathering it upwherever it was the pieces had landedand getting it out of the hands of the innocent was a worthwhile cause.
“You’re of a quiet mood, all of a sudden,” Alun Madder said. “This man someone you know?”
Cedar pulled a cloth out of his back pocket and wiped his bloody palms and arms until they were mostly clean. He shook his head. “You?”
The miner had a blue kerchief tied tight over his head, but wore no hat. His gaze was on the dead man. “No soul I’ve ever known. Looks to be a drifter. Found his horse back a ways in the forest.”
“Bring it. We can use a fresh mount.”
“Already done, Mr. Hunt. I’m not the sort to leave a useful thing”he gave Cedar a pointed look“or creature behind. No matter how it falls into my hands.” He pushed on his knees to stand and peered down over his thick dark beard.
“As Miss Small was saying, we’d like you locked in the wagon now. Night’s coming. We’d rather you weren’t out roaming. And besides”he walked off toward camp“the witch says she has an idea for easing that curse of yours.”
A pang of hope snarled Cedar’s gut. “She said she couldn’t break the curse unless she had the sisterhood, and days to do it.”
“Said otherwise just before you wandered off,” Rose said.
“So she’s talking?” Cedar stood.
“Oh, she’s been talking nonstop since we set camp. Just don’t know who she’s been talking to.”
Cedar followed Alun through the trees to the clearing. There was a little more light here beyond the reach of branch and shadow. The grass was tall and silkyellow around the stones, bent to the wind, and hushing away at every stray breeze. They’d had the luck of clear weather, but any day now the skies would change.
Storms were coming down from the north Cascade Mountains and Bitterroot Range. Strong enough to bury them in snow. Strong enough to swell little creeks into hungry rivers and trails into muddy bogs. They’d a plan to skirt the bottom of the mountain range and reach Fort Boise, Idaho, by the next week. Now he was just hoping they’d make it far enough into the Idaho Territory by nightfall to reach Vicinity. If the rains hit hard, they’d be locked flat in their tracks for the whole of winter.
Alun strolled over to the hulking wagon he and his brothers drove. The drafts that pulled for them were off a ways grazing. So too the other horses, with a new little roan among them. The dead man’s mount. Theirs now.
“Keep going, Mr. Hunt,” Rose said from behind, the gun still at her hip. He’d like to tell her she was being overly cautious, but that wasn’t true.
More than once he’d pulled up out of a dream of hunt and kill and blood, only to find himself sitting in his saddle, his horse spooking and the other folk in the group asking him what he was stopped and listening for.
He’d told them nothing. But that wasn’t true. The beast inside him wanted out. It was making sure it could be heard.
He knew what the Pawnee had planted in his soul and knew how to keep it caged.
Mae paced near the fire they’d set between the Madders’ wagon and the women’s tent. She had a handful of plucked grasses and was braiding them together as she walked and muttered.
Less sane every day that went by. The coven of witches she’d once belonged to was calling her home, and taking away bits of her mind the longer it took her to get to them. He didn’t understand witches. Didn’t understand why her vows to the coven meant now that her husband was dead, they could drag her to madness unless she returned to them.
But he knew cruelty when he saw it.
“Look who I found just out in the trees, Mrs. Lindson,” Rose called out.
Mae turned and studied him across the fire. She seemed to be made of sunset there against the sky. The red firelight burnished her pale skin and yellow hair, catching sparks in her inscrutable eyes, and drawing dusty shadows across her soft lips.
Cedar’s pulse kicked up a beat. Since his wife’s death, he’d thought he’d never be shed of the pain of grief. Never have reason to feel again.
Until he’d met the widow Mae Lindson.
“I’m gonna take him to the wagon now,” Rose said. “And when you’re of a mind”
“No.” Mae drew her hand up to smooth her dress, discovered the grasses, and frowned. She let the grass drop from her fingers. When she looked back up at him, it was with an ounce more clarity.
“Leave your guns and knife here, Mr. Hunt,” she said.
Cedar unhitched his gun belt, then his knife. Set them all down easy on the ground. When he straightened, Mae walked round the fire and stopped right in front of him.
He couldn’t help but inhale the scent of her, always the sweet honey of flowers. They’d been on the road for days now without much more than a splash in a creek or two to sluice the trail dust. But Mae was beautiful, serene. Looking upon her made his breath catch in his chest.
She took his hand and turned it over like she was looking for a wound.
“This blood,” she said. “It’s not yours, is it?”
When she spoke, it was as if a rope had been cut free from around his heart. It was a puzzling thing being near her. A thing that felt so much like love, it might even share its name.
Not that he’d said as much to her. He didn’t know if there would ever be room in her grief to love another.
“Mr. Hunt?” Mae said. Then, “Are you hurt?”
“No.” The beast inside him twisted and dug deep, wanting out. Wanting Mae.
She caught his gaze and held his own hand up so that he would look at it.
“Where did this blood come from?”
He drew his hand gently away from hers. “Man needs burying back a ways.”
Rose stepped up a little closer to rub out a stray ember that popped free from the fire. “We can take care of the dead,” she said, “after the living are tended and resting in the wagon.”
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” Mae asked with a sort of worry he hadn’t heard out of her in days.
He pulled a smile into place, hoping it softened his eyes, eased the hard line of his jaw. Hoping it made him look more like a man who still had his reason in place.
“As well as can be, thank you.”
“See?” Rose said kindly. “We’re all doing fine.”
Cedar tipped his fingers to his hat, then strode off toward the wagon, Rose right behind him.
If he stayed near Mae any longer, he’d take her in his arms. Hold her. Hell, kiss her and do the things a man can do to a woman.
Things she would not welcome. Not with her husband’s death so fresh in her eyes. Not with the tracks of tears on her cheeks. And the nights, every night, her whispering his name like a prayer.
The clatter of metal on metal rose up from the other side of the wagon, louder the closer he came.
The other two Madder brothers, Bryn and Cadoc, were off just a ways from the wagon, cussing over a chunk of brass and tangle of wood equipped with at least three valves that were sending off thin puffs of steam.
Bryn, the middle born, was taller by a finger or two than Alun, but not so tall as Cadoc. His beard was clipped tight, and he wore a brass monocle strapped over his ruined eye. The lens flashed an unnatural turquoise from under his floppy hat as his wide, nimble fingers used a half dozen tools to tinker with the steam device.
Cadoc Madder didn’t much involve himself in conversation unless it was to say something vaguely prophetic. He had on the same denim overalls and heavy overcoat all the Madders wore, the pockets of which bulged with gadgets. Tonight a knit cap sat over the bush of black hair on his head.
Cedar didn’t know what sort of contraption they were trying to fire up, but it appeared to require a heavy hammer and wrenchboth currently being used to pummel the contraption.
Alun Madder leaned against the wagon wheel, smoking his pipe and watching Cedar with a hard gaze.
“Here we go now.” Rose motioned the shotgun toward the wagon steps. “A roof over your head and a lock on the door. Cozy.”
“You’ll need more than a lock,” Cedar said. “You know where the shackles are?”
“I think so.”
“Find them.” He stumped up the stairs and ducked into the darkness of the wagon.
The wagon was so cluttered with supplies, packages, and oddments, it was like stepping into a town bazaar. Nets and scarves and rope hung from the framed ceiling; boxes, bundles, chests, and shelves were stuffed tight to bursting.
The nets could be set out for hammocks as the Madder brothers were used to traveling in some comfort. To one side of the nets was enough space for a bed. That’s where Cedar headed.
He ducked a swinging lantern and stood at the bottom of the bedroll spread on a pile of sacks that had fewer hard edges than most the rest of the wagon’s contents.
Wil lay curled on the wool blanket. Even when Wil was in wolf form, his eyes remained the same old copper color and carried an uncanny intelligence. The wolf lifted his head and ears, watching Cedar sit and press his back against the sideboard.
Cedar let his hand drop so Wil could scent the blood, which he had probably already smelled before Cedar had even entered the wagon. Even though Wil seemed able to keep the mind of a man about him while in wolf form, it was plain foolish to bed down near a wolf with unfamiliar blood between you.
Wil sniffed Cedar’s hand, then stared past him at the wagon door.
Rose was coming. He could hear the weeping chime of the shackles in her hands.
But it was Mae who stepped into the wagon.
“Mae?” he said. “I thought Rose was bringing the chains.”
“She is,” Mae said. “I’m here for your curse. To . . . to make it less if I can.”
She held a bundle in one hand, just larger than a handkerchief. He couldn’t smell what she had wrapped up in it, but Wil whined.
“Do you think you should? Now?”
“Rose saw you kill a man.” Mae spread the kerchief out on a crate, revealing the contents. Herbs, a candle, a small bowl, and a bell. Her hand dipped to touch each item, over and over again, as if doubting their reality.
“I suppose she did,” he said.
Mae pulled the skinning knife from the sheath at her waist. “I don’t think we can wait any longer to . . . ease this.”
She straightened her shoulders, but it did nothing to hide the exhaustion threading her. Mae had spent most of the journey dazed in her saddle and staring at the sky through the night.
It tore him up to see her falling apart more and more each day.
Not that she’d complained. Not once. She’d known that leaving the coven would someday set this cost in motion.
“I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Lindson,” he said, “but don’t you need your sisters’ help?”
“What I need, Mr. Hunt,” Mae said softly, “is a man with a sound mind.” She swallowed and nodded, as if agreeing with herself. Or with the voices only she could hear.
“A lot of land to cover before winter strikes.” She nodded, nodded. “Your expertise on the trail and surviving the wilds is invaluable. We are relying on you to see that we arrive at our destination. Safely. As safely as we can.”
“Sad day when a cursed man is the sure bet,” he muttered.
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