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 madness, one man struggles to keep his humanity, his honor, and his hell-bent mission intact....
Bounty hunter and lycanthrope Cedar Hunt vowed to track down all seven pieces of the Holder—a strange device capable of deadly destruction. And, accompanied by witch Mae Lindson and the capricious Madder brothers, he sets out to do just that. But the crew is forced to take refuge in the frontier town of Des Moines, Iowa, when a glacial storm stops them in their tracks. The town, under mayor Killian Vosbrough, is ruled with an iron fist—and plagued by the steely Strange, creatures that pour through the streets like the unshuttered wind.
But Cedar soon learns that Vosbrough is mining cold copper for the cataclysmic generators he’s manufacturing deep beneath Des Moines, bringing the search for the Holder to a halt. Chipping through ice, snow, and bone-chilling bewitchment to expose a dangerous plot, Cedar must stop Vosbrough and his scheme to rule the land and sky....
There were plenty of good ways to die. Cedar Hunt wiped tice off his face and pushed through the knee–deep snow, leaning against the wind. Some people said drowning wasn’t bad; others said hanging was a peaceful way to go. But he had decided real quick that dying in the teeth of a blizzard wasn’t any way to lay a soul to rest. Cold just made him angry and anger fueled his determi¬nation to keep right on living. “Mr. Hunt,” Miss Dupuis called over the howl of the wind. “A river, I believe.” He looked back at the people following him as he broke trail through the drifts. Miss Sophie Dupuis was an acquain¬tance of the Madder brothers. She looked like a French diplomat but was part of a secretive group of people who, as far as he could reckon, spent most their time taking the law into their own hands to try to rid the land of the Strange, those unholy creatures from myth and legend intent on killing good folk. But now there was an even greater threat than the Strange. The Holder—a strange–worked weapon made of seven ancient metals—was scattered across this land.
Cedar had seen the destruction even just one piece of it had caused. It wiped out a town of people, left their bodies as playthings for the Strange, and nearly killed his friend Rose Small.
The remaining pieces of the device would do the same or worse. And if they fell into the wrong hands, they could bring the United States, and all within it, to its knees.
His instinct for the Holder’s whereabouts had sent them north out of Kansas, heading up to Des Moines. But this snowstorm had fouled his senses.
“Which way?” he called out to Miss Dupuis.
She adjusted the compass in her hand and pointed west. They’d been hoping to catch a direction toward civilization for hours now, and following a river was their best hope of doing so.
Behind her loomed the Madder brother’s wagon, pulled by a team of mules. Alun Madder sat the driver’s seat. A miner and deviser by trade, he was a bear of a man: heavy coat, wide–brimmed hat, messy curls of hair, and beard add¬ing to the wild look of him. Even in the pounding snow, he kept his pipe hot, pulling cherry red coals from the bowl.
His two brothers, Bryn and Cadoc, were behind the wagon, pushing when the mules weren’t enough to pull the sleds they had rigged up beneath the wheels. In the back of the wagon, out of sight, was the woman Cedar loved, the witch Mae Lindson. His brother Wil, who carried the same Pawnee curse as Cedar and currently wore a wolf’s shape because of it, was also in the wagon.
The wind thrashed harder, picking up snow and ice. Cedar shivered under the onslaught.
If Mae Lindson hadn’t cast a spell of warmth on his hands and feet every few hours, he knew he’d have lost his fingers and toes yesterday.
It had taken Mae several attempts to find a way to bind warmth to skin without scorching flesh. He figured he’d carry the scars on the back of his wrists for years to come, but didn’t regret a moment of the pain.
Because of her, they might make it to shelter. If shelter could be found.
One thing was certain: there was no turning around now. It was well past midday, and the path behind was blocked by fallen trees and piles of snow. The mules and horses strug¬gled with every passing hour.
They were running out of daylight and running out of time.
Cedar tipped his head so he could see up from beneath the brim of his hat to where Miss Dupuis pointed. Nothing but snow and hills ahead, though he thought he could make out a downward slope.
“Are you sure?” he called back over the wind’s howl.
“Yes. If the maps are correct, there should be a river there.” Miss Dupuis’s voice quavered. She was shaking even though she wore a long wool coat over her several layers of skirts, kidskin gloves, a rabbit–skin muff, and a rabbit–skin shawl across her shoulders. Her hair was tucked up beneath a woolen cap covered in a heavy layer of white that would not melt.
The compass in her hand burned a bloody red and let off enough heat to stay the snow from its surface. She’d shown him the contraption the Madders had devised—a combina¬tion of sextant and compass housed in an enameled case filled with sand that could be heated to keep the user’s hands warm.
Now she tucked her palms into the furred hand warmer to keep her gloved fingers from freezing.
Miss Dupuis had refused the warming spell from Mae, knowing that every time Mae cast the spell, it drained Mae’s strength.
“You should return to the wagon,” Cedar said.
“Not yet. I’ll watch for lights, town, rail. If we come on the river and follow the banks, we should see a town.”
Cedar didn’t waste breath arguing. Truth was, he could use a second set of eyes in all this white. “Shout if you see the river. I’d rather not find it by falling through the ice.”
He adjusted his course west, every step sinking into snow up to his knees, despite the snowshoes he’d strung together out of strips of leather and willow. He’d fashioned the shoes a week ago, when he and Wil had first felt the weather tak¬ing a shift toward the worse.
Neither of them had expected this storm.
“Where you think you’re going now, Mr. Hunt?” Alun Madder hollered from the seat of the wagon.
“Des Moines!” Cedar had been telling him that the city should be the nearest shelter for two days, but the Madders refused to believe him. Refused almost to admit Des Moines was a city that existed in the world at all.
He didn’t know what nonsense they had in those stub¬born heads of theirs, but ignoring a town didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Alun let out a hard whistle and pulled the mules up short. Even Miss Dupuis’s horse jerked at the sound and stopped, head drooping, grateful for the rest.
Alun lifted a lantern to better see through the snow, and sunset light slapped across his round, weathered face, reveal¬ing a beard white from snow, a bulbous nose stuck in the center of his close–set features, and glass–sharp eyes looking out from beneath bushy brows.
Quick tempered and quirky natured, Alun Madder was the eldest of the brothers. The blowing snow turned him into a ghoulish figure, as if the face of death itself was peering
out at Cedar through a casing of ice.
“We will not stop in Des Moines,” Alun said flatly.
Cedar was pretty sure that was the first time the miner had actually spoken the name of the town. But he didn’t care to point it out. He didn’t care in the least if the Madders acknowledged that the town existed.
“We will or we won’t last the night.” Cedar spaced his words like hammer strikes. “The mules are near dead. The horse too. We won’t last long enough to dig our own graves. We stop in Des Moines.”
“I say otherwise,” Alun yelled. “And so do my brothers.”
As if called to battle, the other two Madder brothers strode through the snow alongside the stopped wagon, both carrying geared–up shotguns against palms and shoulders.
Near freezing to death did a lot of odd things to a man’s sense of reason. It was said some went raving mad, tore their clothes off, and ran through the snow naked while their blood turned to ice.
Maybe the cold had frozen up the Madder brothers’ brains.
Maybe Cedar didn’t give a damn about that.
“Do not stand against me, Alun Madder, and think you will win,” Cedar said. “And do not think I will stand here and waste time fighting you instead of finding our path to salvation. If you have some device or matic you’ve bolted together that can change the weather or give us speed, I’ll wait for you to bring it out here; otherwise I am going to find that city.”
“A city of devils,” Alun said.
“Good. I expect they’ll keep the fires warm.”
Alun scowled and returned to puffing smoke out of his pipe.
That was answer enough.
Cedar turned his back on the brothers and their guns and pushed through the snow down the next slope.
They could shoot him in the back for all he cared. He wasn’t going to stand still in the middle of a blizzard and argue his heartbeats away.
After what seemed a long time, the mules let out hoarse brays, and the crunching hiss of the wagon’s sled runners scraped through the snow behind him again.
Good. They were still following him.
The spell of warmth around him gradually wore away and the cold sank through skin down to bone. Hands, face, and feet went numb, but he pushed on.
It seemed all the world was ice and death. There was nothing but putting each foot down, one after another, breaking through to solid ground for the horse behind him, who left a path for the mules and wagon.
Cedar lost all sense of time to that rhythm, and soon the Pawnee curse showed him other things riding that storm. The Strange were thick in that wind. Ghostly fingers and teeth clawed at him, catching at his coat, his feet, his hat.
Angry. But not solid enough to draw blood.
He could kill the Strange, even in this ghostly form they took. It would make the world a much better place without them and eventually, if he killed them all, he might again regain a normal man’s life. The curse he carried forced him to hunt and kill the Strange. All the Strange in the world. He suspected he’d breathe out his last days before that was done, and still not be free of the curse.
But he was too exhausted to fight them today. He ignored these Strange that plucked and wailed and bit. Life was all that mattered now. And life, for all of them, meant moving west.
Wil, beside him, growled. Cedar looked down, surprised to see his brother out of the wagon.
Wil’s ears were flattened against his wide, gray–and–black skull, his copper eyes the only flecks of color in the snow. Wil saw the Strange too, likely smelled the moldy green of them as Cedar smelled them, likely saw the flash of eyes and heard the trebled laughter warbling through the air.
The Strange couldn’t do serious harm unless they took on a shape, a form, a body. As Cedar had learned firsthand, dead people were the clothing preferred by the Strange, though there were times they could inhabit other bits and matics.
He wasn’t going to give them any corpses to waltz about.
“Don’t,” Cedar said to Wil. “There is no time to chase them. They’ll lead you to your death.”
Wil growled, but stayed close, snapping at the swarm of Strange, and holding them off as daylight drained away and the shadows deepened.
“Mr. Hunt,” Miss Dupuis called out. “Please, Mr. Hunt. You must stop!”
The heat in her tone finally soaked through the cold that gripped his thoughts. Cedar stopped. Wil’s teeth were dug in the cuff of his coat, and he was pulling backward, whining.
For good reason. They had reached the bank of the river. If Cedar had walked even three steps more, he’d have slid down the steep embankment and landed in the water.
The Madders behind him were talking—no, they were arguing, loudly—about ice and rivers and speed and some¬thing else Cedar couldn’t hear except for the smattering of curses and the phrase “that devil,” followed by words that must have been their mother language of Welsh.
“We’ve found the river,” Miss Dupuis said.
Cedar lifted his free hand and rubbed his stinging eyes. His vision was blurred by the snow, his hand lifeless in the heavy gloves.
The river was not flowing. It was a frozen ribbon that wound off to the northwest, black and dusty as an old chalk¬board.
“Good,” he croaked, his mouth and throat on fire. He needed water, he needed rest; but there was no time for either with night fast approaching. “Town won’t be far.”
“We’re going to step back, Mr. Hunt,” Mae Lindson said, “so the Madders can come through.”
Cedar jerked at her voice. When had she climbed out of the wagon?
“Cedar,” Mae said again, her tone stern, as if trying to pitch her voice over a fever snuffing out his senses. He sup¬posed she wasn’t much wrong to do so.
Along with the cold confusing his head, his ears were filled with the eerie voices of the Strange, calling him. Pleading for him to follow.
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