The Pyrenees Mountains, 1907
There was a movement outside the window at the end of the hallway, a flutter of shadow in the darkness beyond.
Maudine stopped and waited, alert. She had already extinguished all the torches in the long stone corridor but the moonlight was bright. It bounced from the jewel in Dagobert’s forehead as he stepped forward, examining. He hissed in the direction of the window, a sound like two metal blades slowly running alongside one another, as was common with many clockwork cats his diminutive size.
When they had first come to this castle, the former home of the Immortal Woman, it was deserted, no one having seen La Dona in years. But despite its abandonment it was well provisioned. Fuel aplenty in the kitchen and storerooms, coal and wood alike; well-wicked torches, dried fruit and bottles of wine; a vegetable garden in the courtyard miraculously lush and yielding despite no attendee to be found. There were weapons: blades, clean and sharpened, steam cannons, gunpowder, winding rifles. Laundered linens and stuffed mattresses; great glass vessels full of fresh water. Everything they needed. Perhaps the legends of her being La Dame Blanca, la reine des dames blanche, or some kind of sorceress were true after all. Regardless, it seemed as if the place were waiting for them, waiting to be used. As if someone knew they would have to flee the villages below and seek refuge from the encroaching dark magic of the Sombras.
Maudine saw nothing, but her clockwork pet hissed again. Suddenly a frigid draft rushed through the passage. She looked over at her cat.
“Dagobert, come here,” she beckoned.
But Dagobert did not move, instead he suddenly arched his back and revealed his fangs. Maudine looked up, following his line of sight, and saw it. A Sombra.
She had never seen a Sombra before, and her breath caught in her throat. It stood by the window, silent and almost regal. It did not at first appear menacing, yet somehow that made it feel all the more threatening. She was struck by its close resemblance to the Mage, that magical race who often guided her people, one of whom, Tacet, had even befriended her in the village and led her to this mountain top sanctuary when the Sombra got near. She had been in the village less than a year but even in that short time, she had learned much of the legends of the Sombras and their vicious
The legends said that they were most powerful, and most dangerous, in groups. Even so, she was not prepared for the cold dread which seeing a solitary Sombra produced in her. Its face was obscured by the hood of the dark cloak it wore, but she could see its eyes, the same deep purplish-red of the Mage, a color that always reminded her of plum jam. Its long cloak covered most of its body, and it moved with a grace that suggested that it floated just above the floor instead of walking. The hem dragged across the floor, the material stiff and glossy like oilcloth, hiding the Sombra’s feet. When it lifted its arm, the long full sleeves that surrounded its bony hands seemed to blend into the rest of the garment, so that it was not much more than a sheet of darkness with eyes and claws moving towards her.
The entire hall became icy cold, just like the feeling at the pit of her stomach. The creature stopped midway down the corridor and seemed to be examining her. Watching; waiting. She feared making any sudden moves and so similarly stood stock-still.
To calm herself, she called to mind the face of her jadda. Her grandmother had been the first to recognize her abilities and nurture them and was therefore a touchstone when she needed to summon her magic. Maudine was still a child when the dirigible carrying her jadda, Basira, and her mother, Simone, had disappeared en route to the continent from her hometown of London, and was assumed crashed. But she had not believed them dead then as a child and still did not. As an adult, she had made it her mission to find them, the clues of her search leading her to the village at the foot of the Pyrenees. Whenever she needed strength, she called on her memories of them, knowing that they must still be out there somewhere in the world.
The Sombra opened its mouth to speak.
“Come, my child,” it said. “There is no need to fight.”
Maudine shivered. A wave of sickness overtook her, so that she thought she might retch.
“Jadda?” she whispered.
The voice she heard was that of her grandmother, Basira.
“Come, my child,” the Sombra repeated.
But it could not be. How? What did they know of her grandmother?
“I have waited so long to find you,” the voice said.
Maudine shut her eyes against the pain the sound brought her and when she opened them again she saw the realized form of her grandmother in the place where the Sombra had stood.
The old woman, still looking the same as she had two decades prior when Maudine last saw her, smiled and lifted her hands. She motioned, beckoning Maudine to step forward, to run to her, to throw her arms around her neck and embrace her. To bury her face in her hair, to inhale of the nutty citrus smell of the oil she dressed it with. To hear the low rumble of her chuckle in her chest. Jadda, grandmamma, Basira. How she missed her so. Some part of Maudine wanted to abandon sense and rush forward, to give
Dagobert let out a loud growl and pounced, hurling his Manx-like body through the air. He landed on Basira and dug his claws into the flesh of her shoulder.
“No!” Maudine cried out, though she could not be sure if she cried for her beloved pet or the apparition of her grandmother.
Basira grabbed Dagobert by the neck and tore him loose from her flesh. Holding him at arm’s-length she hissed at him, the sound mimicking his own. Then with a slight movement, but with great force, she flung him aside. His small metallic body flew across the space and crashed against the stone wall.
Maudine mind’s snapped out of its haziness. Anger crackled through her and she focused in on the camouflaged demon.
Maudine clapped her hands loudly and began to rub them together fiercely. She could feel the currents of magic begin to roil on her skin. The kashafii, the ancient rune-like symbols that had been written on her skin in henna, began to glow with a preternatural light. Basira raised her head and stalked forward, sweeping towards Maudine. The young woman threw up her hands, palms facing the Sombra and it was instantly halted.
“Come no closer,” she warned.
The Sombra threw back its head and let out a sharp cackle.
“I am as real as you are, girl,” it replied with a sneer.
It waved its hand above its head and a sound like a crack of thunder shook the room. It sent a wave through Maudine and she thought she might weaken, but she rubbed her hands together and the light of the magic shone brighter.
Suddenly the Sombra dashed forward, tackling Maudine and knocking her backwards to the cold stone floor. They grappled. The face of her grandmother was above her, and Maudine could barely stand to look at her. The eyes she looked into were full of malice and hate, above teeth bared like a rabid animal. Her grandmother had never looked this way, and it strengthened her to remember this was not her beloved kin. The Sombra wrapped its hands around Maudine’s neck, the fingernails, like claws, digging into her flesh. Maudine shoved her hands forward and tried to place them on either side of the Sombra’s face, but the creature anticipated this, snarling and biting at her fingers. Frustrated, Maudine drew one hand back, curled it into a first and leveled the Sombra with a punch to the neck, a circular flare of light dancing into the darkened hallway at the impact.
The creature fell to the side, gasping for air, and Maudine, seeing her moment, rolled onto her side and grabbed the creature’s head. She framed its face with both of her hands and looked it in the eyes. The kashafii flared and the Sombra howled as, with another flash of light, the concealing spell was broken. The visage of Basira dissolved away and in its place was the currant-eyed mask of the Sombra, its grey, ashen skin pulled taught, its thin-lipped mouth a curl of hatred.
The Sombra flung out an arm and a burst of energy, like an enormous gust of wind, threw Maudine back. She landed with a hard thud but quickly scrambled to her feet. The Sombra was moving quickly and Maudine gathered her strength, planting her feet, and clapping her hands together. She turned her palms towards the creature and focused all of her energy into the spell. A wall of light, translucent and shimmering sprung up between them, spanning the width of the corridor. It held the Sombra at a distance, but Maudine knew not for long. She could see how it clawed at the spell wall with its taloned hands, shredding it, as tendrils of light tumbled around the creature and dissipated like steam.
Maudine dashed over to where Dagobert lay nearby. She picked him up, cradling the poor creature in her arms. He was hurt, badly, but she could hear his mechanisms whirring and as she ran her hand along the smooth surface of his body, he lifted his head ever so slightly to look at her. One eye was shattered; his front legs would not move. She blinked back tears and quickly moved a fold of material aside on her skirt, slipping his small body into the pocket there.
She turned and advanced towards the Sombra. The spell wall was barely there anymore, but enough remained so that she was able to manipulate it. She walked forward determinedly, her hands in front of her as if pushing, and the wall moved with her. She put all her strength into shoving the Sombra back down the hallway and towards the window. The wall flickered, growing even weaker, and Maudine’s eyes darted along the ceiling, trying to think of something more. Her eye caught on the seam of the stones there, and inspiration stuck. She dropped one hand to her side, flexing the fingers. As she lifted it again, she began to flourish her fingers, moving them as if she played an instrument, so that it looked like she was writing letters onto the air. She began to hum, a low rumble at the back of her neck that moved up and turned into a full throat vocalization. Her voice seemed to amplify through the magic so that the room filled with sound.
She thought of her grandmother and her mother and summoned all the power she could from them. In her pocket, she felt the soft, weak movements of Dagobert. Her heart leapt and she lifted her hand even higher, her stream of song undulating like the strings of a kora. Suddenly a burst of light appeared just in front of her hand. The Sombra, on seeing this, let out a roaring hiss, and began to strike against the wall with all the magical force it could muster. Maudine pulled her hand back, the light following her movements and then she snapped her arm forward, the spelled sphere catapulting towards the ceiling of the hallway. Maudine scrambled back just as the magic wall cracked and dissipated. The Sombra leapt forward but not in time enough. The hurled spell connected and the stone ceiling suffused with warm, beaming light, cracking at the seam. There was a noise like the splitting of a mountain and the roof opened up, collapsing in.
Maudine tripped on her skirts as she tried to run
She collapsed on the floor, profoundly exhausted.
Hearing footsteps approach, she looked up to see Tacet, the Mage, appear, followed closely by two new arrivals she did not immediately recognize.
Tacet helped her to her feet and the other two supported her until she felt she could stand.
“Sombra?” asked Tacet, looking at the remains of the hallway beyond.
“Yes,” said Maudine, shivering against the cold winds that whipped through the fallen walls.
Tacet turned to others.
“Go, please,” Tacet said. “Find others to help with repairing. We must not leave the castle exposed.”
The others nodded and were off.
“You defeated a Sombra,” Tacet said calmly.
“But only one,” Maudine replied. “How many more are there to come? And can we withstand them all?”
“We are better here, in this place. It will help,” said Tacet.
“But how?” asked Maudine.
Tacet did not reply.
Maudine looked over the pile of stone. The manner in which the creature had so perfectly assumed the form of her grandmother still shook her. It was true, as the legends said, that the Sombra could somehow tap into your deepest thoughts and desires. She had hoped the stories were exaggeration, but now she saw they were not. How troubling and angering it had been to see her grandmother before her like that. Yet, on some level, she admitted to herself, it had been thrilling and almost joyous to see the woman she adored so greatly practically alive again. And that, she knew, was the most frightening and dangerous edge to the Sombra’s magic.
“It took the form of jaddati, my grandmother.”
Tacet nodded. “Yes.”
Maudine reached into her pocket and carefully lifted out Dagobert. His eyes were closed but he seemed to be functioning still.
“Do we have a mekanik here?” she asked Tacet.
“Yes, one arrived this morning. She is setting set up a lab in the old stillroom.”
Maudine turned towards the main part of the castle, ready to find the mekanik. Tacet lifted a torch from the sconce on the wall and gestured that Maudine might follow beside.
“Do they only come at night?” asked Maudine.
“No,” answered Tacet. “They come always.”
“Then this battle that lies before us,” said Maudine. “It will be even more treacherous than I had imagined.”
Tacet held the torch up higher and looked down at her, the dark, jam-colored eyes calm and determined.
“Yes. It will.”
Joshua Ian is an emerging writer living in New York City. His stories have appeared in Coffin Bell Journal, Chaleur Magazine, and Enchanted Conversation eZine among others. For more steampunk, keep an eye out for his story “Barren Strawberry” publishing in the Perfectly Poisoned Anthology ‘Steamed’ in November and his story collection ‘Through the Spindle’ shortly thereafter. Follow him on Facebook & Twitter @joshuaianauthor or at his website: https://moodyboxfan.com