She Returns From War by Lee Collins - Sample Chapters

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A free sample from She Returns From War by Lee Collins, the second Cora Oglesby novel, published by Angry Robot in Febnruary 2013.

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Page 1: She Returns From War by Lee Collins - Sample Chapters
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She Returns From War

“A page-turning thrill ride of a novel that couldwell redefine your perception of the ‘wild’ west.”

Rio Youers, author of Westlake Soul

“The Dead of Winter ain’t your granddad’sWestern… Read it with the lights on – but fordamn sure read it.”

Chris F Holm, author of Dead Harvest

“A brilliant, bloody, violent dark fantasy – CharlieHuston turned up past 11.”

Andy Remic, author of The Clockwork VampireChronicles

“[It] turns in your grasp and bites you like arattlesnake when you’re least expecting it. TheDead of Winter… is a gripping read that has left meeager for the sequel.”

Graeme’s Fantasy Book Reviews

“Stunning, mind-blowing, amazing, fan-frikkin-tastic.”

The Founding Fields

“Lee Collins has a winner on his hands!”Popcorn Reads

“I’m impressed. Very impressed… Collins displaysa nice diversity of writing skills, including aunique voice, a solid story, and damagedcharacters that are both likable and strong. Not tomention an original storyline that throws plentyof punches throughout its course.”

Shattered Ravings

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an excerpt fromSHE RETURNS FROM WAR

by Lee Collins

To be published February 2013(everywhere – US/UK/RoW)

by Angry Robot, in paperback andeBook formats.

UK ISBN: 978-0-85766-274-3US ISBN: 978-85766-275-0

eBOOK ISBN: 978-0-85766-276-7

Angry RobotAn imprint of Osprey Group

Distributed in the US & Canadaby Random House


Copyright © Peter Friedrishsen 2013

All rights reserved. However, feel free to share this

sample chapter with anyone you wish. Free

samples are great. We are so good to you. Of

course, the whole book is even better...

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Their eyes appeared first, floating in the night like orbs ofyellow flame. One minute, the Oxford countryside was coldand still beneath an early April moon; the next, canineshapes ran alongside a certain backwoods lane. Tonguesblack as ink lolled from phantom jaws. Though they roseto the height of small horses, their feet made no sound onthe young spring grass. They might have seemed likeillusions – playing at the edge of sight only to vanish whenlooked at directly – but for their eyes. Saucer-sized, theysmoldered like pits opening into a blazing furnace, silentbeacons lighting the road ahead.

Victoria Dawes pulled her scarf up over her chin.Beside her, her mother wore a look of exasperation.The motion of the carriage threw their shoulderstogether time and again, but the seat left the twowomen no room to move apart.

“Come now, my dear,” came her father’s voicefrom the driver’s seat. He had given their usualdriver the night off so he might enjoy the nighttime

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countryside with his wife and daughter. “It isn’t asthough we are asking you to marry a chimney sweepor stable boy. Roger is a fine young man.”

“A fine young man, a fine huntsman, and heir toa fine estate,” Victoria finished for him. “Fine hair,fine teeth, and fine smallclothes.”

“Really, Victoria,” her mother said, “no need to becrass. Your father and I simply want what’s best foryou. Roger Grey will take good care of you and yourchildren.”

“Assuming he could see us around that beak noseof his.”

Her father glanced over his shoulder. “I hardlythink a large nose is reason enough to decline amarriage offer, especially for a woman your age.”

“You make it sound as though I’ve one foot in thegrave already,” Victoria said. Her scarf tickled herchin as she spoke, and she pushed it down. “I’m onlyjust twenty-three.”

“And the last of your friends to be married,” hermother reminded her.

Victoria folded her arms and looked away. Theycould say what they liked; she would not marryRoger Grey. Even if he had a proper nose, the manwas still too simple by half. She didn’t want herchildren to carry on his legacy of dull-wittedcomments and friendliness with hounds and hawks.Roger seemed to prefer the company of such animalsto that of people, but she couldn’t fathom why. Herown father’s hounds held little interest for her, andalthough she had learned to ride at a young age,

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she’d never formed any special friendships with herhorses. She had no pet cats or canaries. Animalswere animals; dumb beasts bred to serve, not sit attable. Were she to wed Roger Grey, she would nodoubt find herself breaking her fast with his favoriteriding-horse each morning.

A flicker of light in the distance caught her eye.Leaning forward, she squinted into the darkness. Ashadowy line of trees stood at attention across anopen field, their crowns forming a jagged horizonagainst the night sky. The moon, just past the firstquarter, flooded the field with silver-blue light.Despite the rumbling of the carriage beneath her,Victoria could still see well enough to make out anodd shape running over the grass. It looked asthough it might have been a horse, but she couldn’tmake out a rider. The shape was also wrong,somehow, but she didn’t know what else it could be.No other animal that size lived in this part of thecountry.

“Father, what is that?” she asked, pointing at thestrange shape.

He glanced in the direction of her finger. “Just afellow out for a ride, the same as us.”

“No need to change the subject, Victoria.” Hermother sat up as straight as she could. “I’ve half amind to–”

The carriage swerved to one side, throwingVictoria against her mother. The older woman let outa grunt as they collided. Before they coulddisentangle themselves, the carriage veered again.

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Victoria’s lungs emptied as her mother’s elbowlanded on her midriff. Struggling for breath, she triedto roll out from under the weight, but her motherclung to her in a panic. She was dimly aware of herfather’s surprised exclamations as he regainedcontrol of the horses.

After a few agonizing seconds, Victoria managedto climb out from beneath her mother and reclaimher seat. “What on earth was that?” she asked.

“I haven’t a clue,” her father replied. “The girlsmust have spooked at a fox, I suppose.” He took adeep breath to steady himself.

Victoria reached down to help her mother up.Before their hands met, the team let out a chorus offrightened whinnies and broke into a gallop. Caughtoff guard, her father tumbled backward into thebuggy, landing squarely on his wife. She cried out inpain and desperately tried to shove him off. Thecarriage shook and rattled as the horses picked upspeed, and the motion kept knocking him off balanceas he tried to gather himself. His struggles onlyprovoked further cries from his wife, who startedcrying.

Climbing over her fallen parents, Victoria pulledherself into the driver’s seat. The reins bouncedalong the floorboards, coming dangerously close tosliding out of the buggy completely. She made a grabfor them and missed, nearly tumbling off her perch.Righting herself, she tried again. This time, a bumpon the road shook the buggy’s frame, knocking thereins into her outstretched hand. Clenching the

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leather strips in a white-knuckled fist, she pulledherself upright. Grunts and scraping sounds camefrom behind her as her parents struggled to regaintheir balance.

Without thinking, Victoria pulled on the reins withall her might. The heads of both horses snapped tothe right. The rest of the frightened animalsfollowed, pulling the buggy off the road and into thegrass. Panicking, Victoria continued to fight with thereins, causing the buggy to swerve violently fromside to side. Stealing glances ahead of them, she sawflashes of bright yellow light looming ahead in thedarkness. She pulled the reins to the right again. Thehorses whinnied, fighting her. Looking right, she sawthe reason for their terror, and a powerful shock offear slammed into her stomach.

Beside the carriage, not three yards away, was ahuge black animal. At first she thought it might havebeen another horse, but its gait gave it away: it wasan enormous dog. Dumbstruck, she stared at it, thereins slack in her hands.

Before she could understand what she was seeing,the monster turned its head and looked at her. Eyeslike tiny suns seared trails of liquid fire across hervision. Victoria jerked backward, instinctively pullingthe reins to the left. The horses eagerly followed herlead, pulling the buggy headlong toward the waitingtrees. The black creature slipped from view as theyturned, bringing her a moment’s respite. Turning herattention back to the team, she coaxed it intorunning at an angle toward the tree line. She could

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still feel those terrible eyes on her. The creature waschasing them now, she was sure of it. With any luck,she could turn the buggy in a slow circle, bringingthem back to the road and a chance at escape.

Two more creatures charged out of the trees. Theireyes flashed in the shadows as they ran straight forthe buggy. The terrified horses veered sharply to theleft. The buggy’s wheels skidded along the ground asit pulled through the turn, but it stayed upright.Victoria clung to the reins in desperation. Shethought she could make out the road ahead of them.Just a few seconds and they would reach it.

“Victoria!” her father shouted from behind her.“What’s happening?”

“I don’t know,” she called back. “Now hush!”Victoria could feel the monsters behind them, but

she forced the thought out of her mind. If she lostcontrol now, she would kill herself and her parents.She had to focus on keeping the horses undercontrol. In their present state, not even her father’sdriver would have had an easy time of it, and shehad little experience with driving a buggy. Still, if shecould take herself in hand and guide the animals inthe right direction, they might just live through thenight.

The road appeared ahead of them much soonerthan she anticipated. As luck would have it,however, they were running along it at an angle. Shegave the reins a short, sharp tug to the right as itpassed beneath them. The horses responded, pullingthe buggy out of the grass and back onto packed

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earth. Victoria looked to the right, expecting to seemonstrous yellow eyes bearing down on them, butthe field was deserted. She allowed herself a smallsmile of relief.

“Are you all right?” she asked over her shoulder.“Yes, I think so. Your mother’s fainted on us, I’m

afraid,” her father replied. She felt his hand on hershoulder. “Well done, my dear.”

Victoria nodded her thanks. Ahead of them, shecould see a bridge. The river it spanned was at leastthirty feet across. She didn’t know if the creatureschasing them could swim, but the bridge itself wasnarrow. If they could get across, they might be ableto lose their pursuers. She clapped the reins acrossthe team’s back, but the animals needed noencouragement; the buggy thundered toward theriver at a breakneck speed. Leaning forward, Victoriawatched as the bridge loomed closer in themoonlight. Her fingers curled around the reins. Theywere going to make it.

A black shadow leaped up from the river. Fierceyellow eyes glowered at them as it landed on theroad just before the bridge. Victoria slapped the reinsagain, urging the horses to charge through thecreature. Instead, the animals panicked and veeredto one side. Ahead of them, the surface of the waterspread out like a vast pane of black glass. She pulledon the reins, desperate to steer the buggy away fromdisaster.

When they jumped the bank, Victoria foundherself weightless. Horses, buggy, and passengers

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seemed suspended in midair, floating above themoonlit water like ghosts. She could see each white-tinted ripple and count every reflected star. Thedriver’s seat drifted downward toward the river, butshe remained aloft, sailing through the night.Looking down at her hands, she realized she had letgo of the reins. Her father’s voice reached her earsfrom a great distance. He was carrying on aboutsomething, but she couldn’t make out what. Not thatit mattered. She’d discovered she could fly. Closingher eyes, she tilted her head skyward and smiled,letting the cool air kiss her face.

The shock of icy water numbed her arms and legsas it closed in around her. She gasped at the impact,pulling a mouthful down into her lungs. Spasmsshook her body. Her arms clawed frantically at thedarkness, seeking a way out. The weight of her dressand coat pulled her downward, away from thesurface and its life-giving air. She began kicking. Hershoes slipped off her feet and floated away. After afew more agonizing seconds, she felt her toes scrapeagainst something solid, and she pushed against itwith her remaining strength.

Frantic splashes filled Victoria’s ears as her headbroke the surface. She filled her lungs with night airand was rewarded with a violent coughing spell.Beating her arms against the water, she managed tokeep herself afloat long enough to spot the closestbank. It wasn’t far. She forced her legs into actionand made for it.

Pulling herself up onto the riverbank, she

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collapsed as another coughing fit wracked her frame.Fire scorched her throat, making each breath a sweetagony. Her dress clung to her legs as she broughtthem up to her chest, but she barely noticed its cold,clammy touch. The world consisted of nothingbeyond her aching lungs.

When the coughing fits finally subsided, shepushed herself up into a sitting position. The nightwas still and quiet around her. With a start, sheremembered the shadowy creatures and the franticchase, and an ocean of panic welled up inside herstomach. Victoria struggled to her feet, eyessweeping up and down the river for the buggy or herparents. The water flowed past her, dark and placid.She wrapped her arms around herself with a shiver.Standing there, dripping wet, she suddenly felt verycold and very alone.

Upstream. If her parents were anywhere, theywould be upstream. Victoria shook herself out of herstupor and began walking. It was slow going. Thewet folds of her dress wrapped themselves aroundher legs with each step. She kicked them away asbest she could. Her toes sank into the cool mud thatlined the riverbank. As she walked, she kept her eyeson the river, searching for any sign of the ruinedbuggy.

A splash in the river behind her made her jump.Looking toward the sound, she saw a set of ringsexpanding outward across the surface. A fish, ormaybe a frog. Not one of those dog creatures. Thethought of them sent chills skittering across her

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body. She turned in a slow circle, watching for anytelltale yellow eyes, but the fields around her wereempty. Taking a deep breath, she continued thejourney upstream. Her renewed fear added urgencyto her steps. Every sound, real or imagined, turnedher head and halted her progress. Unwelcomethoughts of the nightmare hounds kept forcing theirway into her mind. She found herself imaginingwhat their jet-black jaws would look like up close,the fetid smell of their breath, how their teeth wouldfeel as they sank into her arm or leg.

A dark shape in the river caught her eye, and shefroze. Her breathing became shallow, soundless.Every muscle in her body tensed itself for flight if theshadow so much as twitched. Moments passed,punctuated by the thumping of her heart, but theshape didn’t move. As the initial fear loosened itsgrip on her, she realized that she recognized theobject in the water.

It was the buggy.“Father!” she called, the shadow creatures

forgotten. “Mother! Can you hear me?”No reply came from the wreck. She began running

along the bank, yelling her parents’ names. Twice,her dress coiled around her legs and sent hersprawling in the mud, but she didn’t stop. When shereached the point where the riverbank came closestto the buggy, she waded out into the water. The riverrose to her waist, but she couldn’t reach the wreck.This close, she could see the upturned rear wheelsrising out of the water. The buggy had completely

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capsized, and there was no sign of the team. Anyonestill inside would be trapped. Shivering, she calledout again. Silence.

Helpless, Victoria waited, hoping for an answer ormovement or any sign at all that her parents werestill alive. The silence became ominous, sendingwaves of fear through her mind. As her panic grew,she pulled off her overcoat and tossed it behind her.Her fingers began tugging at the laces crisscrossingher back. She hesitated, wondering what a fool shewould make of herself if she had to return home inonly her wet smallclothes. If her parents were stillalive, they would be too humiliated to show theirfaces in public after such a display. Any hope she hadof finding a halfway-decent husband would bedashed.

She shook herself. What on earth was shethinking? Pulling the laces free, she peeled her dressaway from her shoulders and down over her hips.The current played with the laces as she stepped outof it and rolled it into a lumpy ball. She tossed ittoward the bank, where it landed with a soggysplash. Now free of the crippling weight, Victoriastarted toward the wreck.

The river swirled around her in dark eddies as shewaded toward the drowned buggy. As the water roseto her shoulders, she realized she would have toswim to reach it. She’d never been a strongswimmer, and even this light current made heruneasy. Survival instinct had fueled her earlier pushto shore; if the current swept her downstream, she

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wasn’t sure she could make it to the riverbank asecond time. Still, if her parents were trapped underthe buggy, she had to help them.

Taking a deep breath, she pushed off with her toesand began swimming. The current picked her upimmediately, pushing her away from the wreck. Shefought against it, kicking upstream until she caughthold of a wheel. The buggy shifted slightly beneathher weight, but it didn’t come loose. Hand overhand, she made her way toward where the openingshould have been.

Swinging around to the side of the wreck, Victoriagot her first good look at what remained of the upperhalf. The entire top had broken loose of the wheelsand fallen forward. Most of the cab was submerged,anchored to the riverbed by its own weight. Victoriasucked in a breath and pulled herself along theframe, submerging her head. Keeping her eyesclosed, she felt along the buggy’s side. Her fingersfound a metal edge, and she pulled herself toward it.The riverbed brushed up against her shoulder. Theopening was barely wide enough to accommodateher arm, but she plunged it in anyway. Fingersspread out, she groped for an arm, a leg, anythingthat might be her mother or father.

Something bumped against her outstretched hand,and she clutched at it. Wet cloth slid between herfingers. It was an arm. She shook it, hoping to feel atwitch or flex in response. Nothing. Frantic, shebegan pulling it toward the opening. The arm cameeasily enough at first, but it stopped short before she

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could pull it through. No matter how she pulled, itrefused to come any closer.

Her chest heaved. She needed air. A flurry ofbubbles escaped her mouth as she released the armand swam to the surface. Making a desperate grabfor a wheel, she climbed on top of the ruined cab.Victoria beat on it with her fist twice, then paused tolisten for a response. Nothing. She tried again. Onlythe quiet gurgling of the water around thesubmerged buggy answered her.

A fit of despair swept through her. Lifting herhead, she screamed at the night sky. The echoesrolled back to her from the trees. She screamedagain, pounding her fist against the metal husk thathad become a coffin. The cold steel shifted beneathher as she rolled onto her back. Her third screambroke down into sobs. Warm tears trickled out frombeneath her eyelids and traced new tracks of wetnessacross her face. If only she could have brought thehorses under control. If only she’d learned how todrive and swim instead of spending her time readingthose silly novels, her parents would still be alive.The knowledge that the evening drive came aboutas a result of her refusal to marry twisted her insideswith guilt until she felt like vomiting.

She didn’t know how long she lay on top of herparents’ tomb. When at last the storm subsided, sheshivered and lifted her head.

Yellow eyes peered at her from the riverbank.Victoria’s despair vanished beneath a white-hot

flame of rage. The creature stood at the water’s edge,

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lantern eyes fixed on her. It knew exactly what itand its kin had done to her. She pulled herself into acrouching position, waiting for the monster to leapacross the water. It might kill her, too, but sherefused to be easy prey.

“Come, you coward!” she called, beckoning to theshadow.

The hound made no reply. Its eyes glowed largeand grotesque in its dark face. Beneath them, blackjaws worked in silence. Victoria returned its gaze,hands curled into fists, ready for anything. Anothershadow joined the first on the riverbank, but neitherone made a move toward her.

“Filthy beasts!” She rose to her full height,balancing on the wreck. “I’m right here!”

The creatures turned their heads, their eyeslooking downstream. Victoria glanced in the samedirection but only saw the moonlit water. Turningback to the creatures, she beckoned to them again,but whatever they saw downriver held theirattention. She yelled and waved her arms. Theyignored her. After a few moments, they turned andran into the night, vanishing into the shadows alongthe river.

Victoria watched them go, her defiant posturedeflating. Exhaustion flooded her body, and shecollapsed into a sitting position atop the wreck. Herparents were dead. Those creatures had driven theirbuggy into the river and drowned them. Therealization left her numb, as cold and unfeeling asthe river beneath her. Somewhere in the back of her

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mind, she realized what a sight she must be, sittingon a ruined buggy in the middle of a river in naughtbut her wet underthings. It would certainly be thetalk of Oxford if someone found her.

She put her hand against the cold metal, intendingto push herself back on her feet. Her palm slipped,and she found herself lying on her side. A breath ofwind made her shiver. She needed to get up, to goback into town for help, and she would. Just not yet.

“Hallo! Are you all right up there?”Victoria’s eyes snapped open. Where was she?“Miss? Can you hear me?”Maybe they were talking to her. It would be polite

to answer. She opened her mouth to speak, but shecould only produce a hoarse croak. Stiff with cold,her arms creaked in protest as she forced herselfupright. Blinking away the haze of sleep, she lookedaround for the speaker.

There, on the riverbank: a shadow was holding alantern in one hand. The yellow light sent a thrill offear through her body, and her eyes snapped wideopen. Her legs were under her in an instant, readyto fight, ready to run.

“You’re awake,” the shadow said. “Can you tellme what happened?”

Victoria swallowed. The monsters hadn’t talked toher before. “Um…” she managed, her voice thin.

“I’m sorry?”“There was an accident,” she said.“I can bloody well see that,” the man said. “Are

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you all right?”She felt along her own body, hands burning with

the cold. “I think so. A bit chilly, though.” Shewrapped her arms around herself, suddenlyremembering that she had left her dress on theriverbank.

“What’s your name?”“Victoria.” Was that all of it? “Victoria Dawes.”“Henry’s girl?” The shadow lifted its lantern

higher, letting her see the outline of its face. “It’s me,Edward Brown. Do you remember me?”

“I can’t see you,” she replied, “and anyway, myfather’s dead.”

The lantern twitched to one side. “I beg yourpardon?”

“Yes, he and my mother both,” Victoria heardherself say the words, but she couldn’t understandwhat they meant. “They drowned.”

“Here?” The shadow named Edward pointedtoward the half-sunken buggy. “Are they stillinside?”

“Yes. I tried to pull them out, but I couldn’t. Inever was a very good swimmer, and it’s so cold.”

“Good heavens,” Edward said. “Did this justhappen?”

Victoria’s forehead wrinkled. “Not too long ago.I’ve been here for a little while.” Her voice soundeddull and leaden in her ears.

“Can you come down? You must be frozen half todeath.”

“I’ll try.” She stood up. The buggy shifted beneath

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her, and she nearly fell.“For God’s sake, do be careful,” Edward said.

“Here, let me help you.” The shadow’s feet splashedinto the shallow water. It came on until the waterrose to its waist, then held out a hand. “Climb ondown, my dear. I’ll help you back home.”

“That would be nice,” Victoria said, grabbing aholdof a wheel and lowering herself down. “I think I’dlike to sit by the fire for a moment.”

“You can do just that, I promise. We’ll make onenice and big for you.”

Victoria gasped as she lowered a leg into the water.The touch of the icy river jolted her out of her stupor.Suddenly, she could feel her parents’ hands reachingout for her from inside the buggy. They needed herhelp, and she was just going to leave them behind.

“Oh my God! They’re still in there!” She poundedon the side of the buggy and heard a knock in reply.“Did you hear that?”

“That was just the echo, love.”She stared at him. Had there been an echo before?

She couldn’t remember. But if there hadn’t beenone, her parents must really be dead. Now she wasalone in the world: no parents, no husband, nosiblings. Only a few family friends who certainlycouldn’t take her in. How would she make her way?

What strength she had left abandoned her, andher legs threatened to drop her down into the inkywater. Maybe it would be better that way. She couldjoin her parents in Heaven. The good Lord musthave meant for them all to perish in the crash

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tonight, but somehow she had avoided that fate. Itwasn’t too late, though. All she had to do was dropinto the river and let it carry her away. She felt half-dead from cold and damp already; the end wouldn’tbe long.

“Victoria,” Edward’s voice cut through herconfusion, “take my hand. We’ll see about sendingsomeone for your parents when we get back toOxford. Let’s get you home, dear.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she wrapped hershaking fingers around his outstretched hand.

The lacy black veil offered little protection from thepastor’s kind glances, nor could it block out themurmurings of the other mourners. Victoria couldhear them whispering the same words herneighbors, friends, and own mind had beenhammering into her for the past five days. If it hadbeen proper, she would have stuffed blackhandkerchiefs into her ears to drown out theirendless condolences and apologies. Most of themwere strangers, acquaintances of her parents whocame to pay their respects. Victoria suspected thatsome of the tears falling were not quite sincere, thoseshedding them secretly wishing to be elsewhere. Shestole a glance over her shoulder. Near the rear of thechapel, she spied a cluster of men in expensive suits.Business associates of her father’s, no doubt. HenryDawes had had the sense to invest in electric powerwhen it first came to England, and his business hadquickly expanded into a small empire. Men such as

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these envied him his success even as they workedwith him. Had they the choice, they would surely betoasting her father’s death in their offices andstudies. Still, etiquette demanded their presence inthe cemetery chapel, bidding farewell to a man theyhad thought was beneath them.

Victoria herself felt only a great emptiness. Attimes, the void seemed cold and lifeless, a great deadthing lodged inside her ribs. She looked at thewooden boxes lying side by side on the bier and feltnothing. No wails tore themselves from her lungs;tears lingered in her eyes but did not fall. Had theyseen her behavior, her parents surely would havefound it improper. It wasn’t the way a young womangrieved for her parents. They wouldn’t expect her tocarry on like a drunken wench in the gutter, but sheought to have the decency to weep. She couldalmost hear her mother’s voice scolding her whileher father looked on in his solemn way. Her blueeyes grew defiant behind her veil as she mouthedher rebuttal and watched their faces crease withfrustration.

All at once, the hard lump in her chest becamebrittle as glass. Her breath caught in her throat, andshe held it for a moment, afraid to breathe too loudlylest she shatter. A single tear trickled downward,tracing a line through the powder on her cheek.Clutching at the handkerchief in her hand, shesqueezed her eyes shut and willed away thegathering storm. Even if it was proper, she wouldn’tstart blubbing like some infant. She was now Ms.

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Victoria Dawes of Oxford, heiress to her father’sestate and mistress of her house. The young girl whohad let her parents die because she could not savethem had died in the river. A new woman hademerged from the wreck of the buggy.

“Now, let us commit the bodies of Henry andAbigail to their final resting places.”

The pastor’s words brought her back to her presentsurroundings as mourners began leaving the chapel.They would proceed to the Dawes family crypt,where the bodies of her parents would be laid to rest.Wood creaked softly as the pallbearers lifted theirburdens for one last journey. Keeping her eyeslowered, Victoria followed her aunts outside.

The April air was chilly beneath grey clouds as theprocession wound its way toward the crypt.Weathered headstones stood at attention to eitherside of them, their mossy crowns lifted in silentsalute to the ones joining their ranks. Stone angelswept into crumbling hands, still grieving for men andwomen only they remembered. Victoria studiedthem with a detached fascination, wondering ifangels really did weep for the passing of mortals.Were the lives of men so valued in the heavenlyrealms? It seemed absurd. Surely these statues,carved with such skill and care, represented nothingbut the vanity of those buried beneath them.

When the procession reached the tomb, the crowdparted to make room for the pallbearers. Victoriawatched them pass, uncles and cousins she didn’tknow, but they didn’t meet her eyes. They carried

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her parents into the cold shadows of the mausoleum.The stone walls of the structure were milky-grey,matching the hue of the clouds overhead. Mosswormed its way along the stone in fluid shapes, butit lacked the venerable serenity of the neighboringcrypts. Her father had it built when she was a younggirl to house himself and his descendants, but he hadbeen too ambitious in its size. The sons he hadenvisioned lying next to him in eternal repose neverarrived. Victoria’s only sibling, a younger sister whohad died in infancy, was the sole occupant of thefamily crypt.

Until today.Tradition dictated that she should wait outside

with the other women while the men followed thedead for the final interment. Had it been an aunt anduncle in the coffins, she would have gladly complied,but these were her parents. It was her failing thathad brought them to this place. She owed it to themto see their bodies to rest herself.

The air inside the crypt smelled musty, of stoneand soil and water. Men holding lanterns had gonein ahead of the pallbearers and now stood by thecorners of the waiting sarcophagi. Eerie shadowsdanced to the rhythm of the flickering light like feyspirits. The sound of dripping water echoed in theshadows.

Victoria drew in a sharp breath. Her vision swamas a long-forgotten fear welled up inside her. Shesuddenly felt as though she was trapped inside anightmare from her childhood. In them, she would

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always find herself lost in a maze of dark alleyways.Rain-slick cobblestones were cold on her feet as sheran, terrified, always just a step ahead of someunseen terror. Bleary gas lamps floated in the hazearound her, but their light gave no comfort. Instead,they only served to confuse her, drawing her everdeeper into the labyrinth. Sobs filled her throat,choking off her cries for help. And still she wouldrun; she knew that stopping meant certain death.

A hand touched her shoulder. She whirled towardit, arms rising. The haze lifted from her eyes, and shesaw the face of her father’s brother looking down ather. Concern creased the skin around his eyes.

“Are you still with us?” he asked, his voice quiet.Victoria felt a hot rush of blood burn her cheeks.

She nodded, lowering her eyes to the dusty floor.Her hands trembled. She forced them to be still andturned back toward the lanterns. The shadows stillfrolicked in their mischievous dance, but they nolonger hid the monsters that haunted her dreams.

The pallbearers lowered her father’s coffin into thesarcophagus. Echoes filled the small space as theyslid the stone lid into place. Two lions, standing ontheir hind legs and grasping a sword hilt betweentheir forepaws, adorned the heavy slab. The Dawesfamily crest. It was supposed to be her heritage andher pride, but she’d never felt much like a lion. Afox, sometimes, when she had done somethingclever, but never a lion.

The crypt grew colder as the men paid their finalrespects and left one by one. Soon, Victoria stood

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alone before the beautiful stone boxes. The lantern-bearers stood in the doorway, throwing shadows andlight across the relief carvings in the walls. Victorialaid a hand on each sarcophagus, feeling their chillthrough her thin black gloves. Letting herself returnto that night and its harrowing memories, she calledto mind an image of the black dogs. She willedherself to stare into their glowing eyes. Rage flowedthrough her like liquid fire, and she let it spread,filling every fiber of her being. Her eyes glittered likedistant stars.

“Father.” Her voice was dark and hard like thegranite walls around her. “Mother.” She drew herselfto her full height. “I’m sorry I failed you. I know itcan’t help you now, but I vow to you that I will huntdown those beasts. I will hunt them to the ends ofthe earth and back, and I will kill them. I know I maynot have been the daughter you wished for, but I willmake you proud in this. No matter the cost, nomatter the distance, I will give you justice.”

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Victoria felt the curious eyes of the fellows all aroundher as she stood beside the coach. Aspiring scholarsin flowing robes strode along the paved avenues ingroups of two and three, oblivious to the grandeurof the buildings around them. Their conversationsgave way to mute stares when they caught sight ofher. Although Oxford had just established their firstwomen’s college, she imagined it had been a goodwhile since many of the students here had seen ayoung woman of marriageable age without anescort. Stray strands of hair peeked out from beneathher hat, gleaming like gilded steel in the sunlight andcatching the golden thread woven into the bodice ofher dress.

She straightened her back and allowed her bosomto thrust forward a little. Might as well give thesepoor shut-in schoolboys something to remember.Her mother had been a shapely woman, and Victoriahad inherited her good fortune. Combined with herfather’s piercing blue eyes, she’d stolen many a


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young man’s heart since growing into womanhood.She found it quite tiresome at times, waiting for asmitten messenger boy to deliver his message orseeing round, gawking eyes follow her fromdoorways and carriage windows. Still, she couldn’tresist the modest flaunting of her charms from timeto time.

Today, however, she couldn’t linger to teasepassing students. Pulling a slip of paper from a coinpurse tucked in her bodice, she compared the namewritten on it to the building in front of her.Blackfriars Hall. This was where she was supposedto meet him.

Victoria approached the front entrance with an airof caution. Unlike the other buildings that comprisedthe various colleges at Oxford University, BlackfriarsHall was a squat, simple construction that had falleninto some disrepair. Two rows of windows staredgloomily out across St. Giles, and a third above themwas nearly lost in the sloping roof. It boasted nosweeping arches or towering spires, and even itsfront doors were plainly carved. It seemed a poorchoice for the professional edifice of such arenowned scholar.

Her hopes dampened, she pulled open the old oakdoor. Inside, the floor groaned beneath her,announcing her every step. A man ensconcedbehind a massive desk looked up at the sound,candlelight dancing in his spectacles.

“Excuse me, miss,” he said. “Are you lost?”“No,” Victoria replied. “I’m here to visit a friend of

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my father’s.”The man smiled and rose to his feet. “You must be

mistaken. You see, Blackfriars Hall has not been inuse by the university for a very long time. We keepit open for historical purposes, but I’m afraid thereare no offices here.”

“But I’m certain he told me to meet him here.”The paper crackled in her hand as she held it out tothe man. “Blackfriars Hall.”

The man took the paper from her and inspected it.“Yes, that is what it says. Perhaps youmisunderstood?”

“Perhaps not,” Victoria replied. “I’m quite capableof reading, sir.”

He offered her a thin smile. “With whom were youexchanging letters?”

“A Mr. Townsend, an acquaintance of my fatherand scholar of some renown.”

Behind his spectacles, the man’s eyes widened. Helooked back down at the scrap of paper andswallowed. “Mr. James Townsend?”

“Yes.” Victoria stood up straighter. “He requestedthat I come visit him, and he instructed me to meethim in this hall.”

“Of course,” the man said, returning the paper. “Ifyou’ll follow me.”

Surprised but pleased by her host’s suddenacquiescence, Victoria fell into step behind him. Heled her down a long corridor lined with closed doors.Some had names and titles carved into their ancientwood, but the doorman’s pace was too brisk for her

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to get a good look. Their footsteps echoed throughthe empty building. Despite herself, Victoria pictureda procession of ghastly scholars with black robes andpale faces following them. Her skin prickled, and shepushed the thought away. She was here to speakwith this James Townsend and learn from him howshe might avenge her parents. Whoever he was, shewas sure he wouldn’t be impressed by a youngwoman who was frightened of echoes. He expectedthe bold, determined woman from her letters, andthat was who she must be.

Her silent guide led her up a flight of stairs anddown another corridor. Dust danced about his shoesin tiny swirls. The back of Victoria’s throat begantickling something fierce. She tried to swallow itaway, but it persisted. Lifting her hand to her mouth,she coughed as quietly as she could. The soundseemed to fill the building like a locomotive in atunnel, but the porter did not turn or even seem tohear.

Some distance down the hall, he turned andapproached a door indistinguishable from the others.She half-hid behind him as he rapped on the doorwith his knuckles.

“Yes? Who is it?” The thick wood muffled thevoice behind it.

“You have a caller, Mr. Townsend,” the man in thespectacles replied. “A young woman.”

There was a muted exclamation of surprise, andthe door opened. The man on the other side wassmall and stout. Light from behind him glinted in his

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glasses as he smiled and extended his hand. “Mr.James Townsend, erstwhile professor of religiousstudies, University of Oxford.”

Victoria didn’t smile as he kissed her hand.“Victoria Dawes of Oxford, daughter of the lateHenry and Abigail Dawes.”

“Yes, of course,” James replied, placing his otherhand on top of hers. “My sincerest condolences foryour great loss. Your father was a remarkable man,and your mother a most worthy wife to him. Please,come in.” He stood to one side and waved a handtoward the room beyond.

Victoria smiled her thanks as she stepped throughthe door.

“Thank you, Benedict,” James said to the otherman. Benedict nodded without replying and beganretreating down the hall, his footsteps fading into thedarkness. Closing the door, James turned back toVictoria, who stood with her hands clasped in frontof her. Her face must have reflected her distaste forthe strange porter, because James let out a chuckle.“Oh, don’t mind him. A queer fellow, to be sure, butharmless. You’d be hard-pressed to find a man in thisbuilding who wasn’t a curious sort.”

Victoria’s smile felt shaky. An uneasiness had beengrowing in her since she came into Blackfriars Hall,and neither Benedict nor this James Townsend madeher feel any more comfortable.

“Please, have a seat.” James motioned toward apair of high-backed chairs facing the fireplace.Victoria obliged him, settling gingerly onto one of the

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thick cushions. Electric lanterns filled the small roomwith a dingy yellow light, mixing with the sunlightglowing through the single window. The remains ofa fire blinked at her with a dozen red eyes. Shelveson either side of the hearth sagged under the weightof the innumerable books piled on them. Victoriastarted searching for familiar titles, but quicklychided herself for expecting a scholar to own any ofthe Gothic romance novels she fancied.

James went to the desk and rummaged throughthe drawers. After two failed searches, he produceda dark green bottle and a pair of snifters from a thirddrawer. Glass clinked against glass as he filled thesnifters. Crossing over to the other chair, he offeredher one of the glasses before sitting.

“In memory of your parents,” James said, liftinghis glass. She touched hers against it and brought theliquid to her lips. Checking to make sure James wasoccupied with his own drink, she gave the contentsa quick sniff. It smelled of apples and cinnamon.Satisfied, she drained her glass. The cider wassweetened with honey and not too strong. Shethought it an odd thing for a man to drink in theprivacy of his study, but perhaps he kept the bottleon hand for visiting women. The founding of St.Hugh’s College at Oxford meant that he mustentertain them regularly now, she supposed.

James set his glass on the carpet beside his chair.“I must apologize for the surroundings,” he said. “I’msure they aren’t what you expected when I invitedyou to visit the office of an Oxford professor.” She

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opened her mouth to reply, but he continued overher. “To be honest, they aren’t what I expected whenmy associates offered me the position. One typicallydoesn’t associate the world of Oxford University withcloset-sized offices in rundown buildings, but herewe are.” He laughed at that. “I do sometimes wonderif I’ve moved up in station at all since leaving LordHarcourt’s employ. He did always say I was lackingin wit.

“But I digress,” he said, straightening up andlooking at her. “Perhaps I should apologize for myindiscretions instead of my surroundings. Here I amblathering on about myself when you have such aweight of your own to bear.”

“It’s quite all right,” Victoria said. In truth, shedidn’t mind his prattling; it saved her from having tobring up an awkward topic. “You are aware of myreasons for coming to see you?”

“I gathered some of it from your letters. You wishto discuss the circumstances surrounding the deathof your parents and feel that my particular expertisemay be of some use.” When Victoria nodded, thescholar sighed. “I’m not sure how much assistance Ican provide, you understand, but I will do what Ican.”

“I appreciate your time.” Taking a deep breath,Victoria made herself look him in the eye. “I believemy parents were killed by supernatural forces.”

To his credit, James Townsend did not laugh orraise a skeptical brow. Instead, he merely cocked hishead to one side and studied her through his

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spectacles. “What gave rise to this belief?”“My own eyes,” she replied. She recounted the

events of that night, everything she could remember.The story sounded absurd even as she told it, butJames listened with rapt attention. When shefinished, he leaned back in his chair and stroked hischin.

After a few minutes of silence, Victoria said, “I’venot gone mad.”

“No indeed,” James replied. “I’d not evenconsidered it, in fact.”

“So you believe my story?”He nodded. “It is a fantastic one, I must admit. In

that, at least, it is fortunate you found my nameamong your father’s letters. Had you approached anyof my colleagues regarding this matter, I daresay youwould have found them far more skeptical. Worthymen, all of them, but perhaps a bit too cloistered intheir thinking. Such matters are more academic thanpragmatic for them, you see.”

“But not for you?”“Oh, no. You see, I alone of them – to my

knowledge, at least – have practical experience withthese sorts of things.”

Victoria leaned forward. “You have experiencewith the creatures that attacked my family?”

“No, not them per se,” James admitted, “althoughI am familiar with the stories regarding suchcreatures.” Standing up, he moved to one of thecluttered shelves and began scanning the titles. “Onehears reports of them all over England, though their

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exact nature and behavior, even their names, varyfrom place to place. Generally, however, they arereferred to as Black Dogs, and they are regarded assigns of ill omen when they appear.”

“If only it ended there,” Victoria said.James nodded. “Yes, omens are much more easily

dismissed, and from what I remember, thesecreatures will not usually venture beyond theharassment of travelers.”

“In the strictest sense, I suppose they didn’t gobeyond that in my case, either,” Victoria said. Part ofher couldn’t believe she was discussing her parents’death in such a detached, factual manner. Had herheart died somewhere in the weeks since? Perhapsso, but if that was the price she had to pay, she wouldpay it.

James grunted his agreement and pulled a bookfrom a pile. The movement caused several others tobegin sliding off the shelf. He put out a hand to haltthe impending disaster. Pushing them back onto theshelf, he tentatively removed his hand. Theyremained where they were, and he returned to hischair. He began leafing through the book even beforehe sat down, the pages crackling softly.

“Yes, here we are,” he said after a few moments.“This phenomenon has been reported throughoutthe Isle of Britain for hundreds of years. As I said,they typically don’t attack directly, seeming to preferinducing fear and panic rather than harm. Still, asyou so recently discovered, sometimes even thatbehavior can lead to tragic ends.” Turning the page,

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he continued. “There are accounts of such creaturesbehaving benevolently, specifically in Somerset,where it is known as Gurt Dog. Not a terriblyimaginative name, but only some of these areinteresting. Black Shuck and Padfoot seem to berather prevalent, though not in this area. Still, Isuppose they’re as good as any listed here and betterthan most. Shall we refer to these creatures as such?”

“I suppose so, yes,” Victoria said, dreading thecontinuation of what had become a lengthy lecture.

“Far more intriguing a name than, say, Hairy Jack.Now then, you said the creatures that attacked youhad yellow eyes?”

“Yes,” Victoria said with a nod. Goosebumps roseon her arms and legs at the thought of them. “Theylooked like storm lanterns or windows in distanthouses.”

“That does seem to be an oddity, then,” Jamessaid, adjusting his glasses. “Most accounts reportbright red eyes, although they share the luminousquality with your sighting. Always seen at night, too.Some seem to think they are related to storms orother atmospheric phenomena, although sightingsare also associated with crossroads, ancient ‘spirit’paths, and places of execution. I don’t suppose youwere near any of those things that night?”

“Not a crossroads, certainly,” Victoria replied. “Idon’t know about spirit paths or places ofexecution.”

“No, of course not. Why would you?” Jamesoffered her a rueful smile. “After all, only old oafs

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like me go in for these sorts of tales. Pretty youngladies such as yourself have more pressing issues toattend.”

“My parents no doubt wish I’d paid such mattersmore heed. They would have liked to see memarried off before their deaths, but I would have nopart of it.”

“No need to torture yourself over it,” James said,patting her hand. “What’s past is past.”

“Had I just listened to them, we may never havegone on that drive.” The words tumbled unbiddenout of her mouth. “All they talked about was theoffer of marriage I had received earlier that week. Iintended to refuse it, more out of spite than anythingelse, I suppose, but they kept trying to persuade meotherwise. I don’t suppose it would have been allthat bad, really. He wasn’t a bad sort, I’d certainlybeen propositioned by worse men, but I still felthesitant. I’ve never liked the thought of marriage,but I should have tried harder.”

Realizing what she was saying, Victoria clappedher hand over her mouth. She felt herself turningcrimson and looked away. Tears crept into thecorners of her eyes, and she brushed them away.She’d gone and made a fool of herself, showing thatshe still was just a feeble-minded woman after all.James would never help her now.

“I’m sorry,” she managed, her voice quiet. Shestarted to stand when she felt a hand on her arm.

“No need to apologize,” James said. “Please, sit.”She settled back into the chair with all the dignity

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she could gather. “I didn’t mean to say all that.”“I don’t imagine you did,” he said, “but sometimes

our emotions do get the better of us.” He pulled hishand back into his lap, where it began worrying acorner of the open page. “I do think you’re beingdreadfully hard on yourself. It wasn’t your fault, youknow.”

Victoria nodded, managing a small smile. Sheknew it was, but it would be best not to argue withthe only man who could help her.

“Right. Now, then.” His voice slid back into alecture tone. “As I was saying...ah yes, thesecreatures appear along roads most frequently, so thatin itself would explain your encounter well enough.From your account, I assume they made no noise?No howling or snarling or such?” Victoria shook herhead. “Right, so then we know it wasn’t a skriker.They’re supposed to make a dreadful din, hence thename.”

“Would that have made any difference?”“Not in the long run, I suppose, but it’s always a

good idea to place these sorts of encounters in asaccurate a context as possible. Generalizations canbe dangerous, you see. It wouldn’t do to mix up ablack shuck with, say, a werewolf. Quite differentcreatures with quite different methods for handlingthem, and mistaking one for the other could verywell be deadly.”

“So these black shucks can be killed, then?”Victoria asked, hoping to redirect his focus back tothe purpose of her visit.

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“This text is unclear in that regard, I’m afraid,”James said. “Quite informative on the nature of theirappearance and behavior, even bits on how to wardagainst them, but not a word on their mortality.Being spirit creatures, I suppose it’s rather a mootpoint. It isn’t as though they have physical bodies.”

Victoria’s shoulders slumped. “So they’reinvincible?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” James looked at her overhis glasses. “Why? Are you hoping to hunt them forsport?”

“Not sport,” she said. “Vengeance. I said as muchin my letter.”

“Did you?” James asked absently, returning to hisbook. “Perhaps you did. In any case, one thing I’vefound in this line of study is that very few creatureson this earth are truly indestructible.”

“But you just said the black shuck is immortalbecause it hasn’t a body.”

“Mortality works differently on the spiritual plane,my dear. I almost hesitate to even use the word. It’ssort of like asking how the color green would taste,if you follow me. It isn’t really applicable in suchcases, but we must use what limited mortal languagecan provide to discuss these higher matters.”

Victoria bit back her reply. She wished he wouldsimply get to answering her question, but shecouldn’t just say it. After a moment’s consideration,she settled on a more acceptable response. “Whatword might be more appropriate in this case?”

The scholar’s eyes explored the ceiling as he

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considered his answer. “Banishment, perhaps?” hesaid at length. “Sealing? It really depends on whatyour aim is. Spirit creatures may be influenced byhumans, as we are part spirit ourselves. Indeed, themore unlucky ones – humans, I mean – end up asspirit creatures in many cases. Surely you’ve heardof ghosts and hauntings?”

“Of course,” Victoria said, “but how does one dealwith such encounters?”

“Via spiritual medium, most frequently,” Jamesreplied. “A medium establishes contact with thespirit of the deceased and discovers why it chose tolinger on the earth instead of departing for theafterlife. Should the spirit prove hostile ordangerous, a medium can work with a member ofthe clergy to consecrate the building against furtherintrusion.”

“But the spirit doesn’t actually die?” Victoria felthope slipping through her fingers.

“Not in the strictest sense, perhaps, but really,what is death? Simply a change in state. If you’llpardon the example, consider your parents. Whenthey perished in that horrible accident, their spiritswere not snuffed out. They merely transitionedbeyond the physical plane into a spirit realm, whichmost refer to as Heaven or paradise. The precisenature of that plane is not clear, though manyhypothesize that it embodies an entire range ofdwellings – for lack of a better term – rather than abinary system of paradise or punishment.

“When interacting with the spirit plane, therefore,

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it is entirely possible to prevent entities from crossingover back into this world. Just as a physical deathtypically signifies the cessation of exchange with thephysical plane, so too does this banishment act as asort of ‘death’ in that it prevents an entity frominteracting with one tier of existence.”

“So it would be possible to kill these creatures,then?” Victoria asked, leaning forward again.

“As much as one is able to, yes,” James replied,“although you would need someone highly skilledin such things, especially in your case. This padfootcreature isn’t your run-of-the-mill ghost.”

Victoria’s brow creased in confusion. “Can’t youhelp me?”

“Oh, my word, no,” James replied, flustered. Hegestured at the mountains of books surroundingthem. “As you can see, my interest is primarilyscholarly.”

“But I thought you said–”“That I had practical experience in these matters,

and so I do.” The scholar’s face distorted, unable tosettle on a look of pride or sheepishness. “First-handexperience, as a matter of fact. While I was in theemploy of Lord Alberick Harcourt, I had theopportunity to assist in the vanquishing of a roguenosferatu, what you might call a king vampire. It wasthat very encounter that earned me my place atOxford, if you want to know the truth. The otherOccult scholars here felt that having one in theirnumber who had first-hand knowledge of thenosferatu would be invaluable to their studies.”

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“Could one of them help me, then?”James took a breath and looked down at the book

in his lap. “I’m afraid that is highly unlikely.”“Why?”The scholar didn’t answer for a moment. His

fingers toyed with the book’s pages. “Frankly, mydear,” he finally said, looking up at her, “because youare a woman.”

Victoria’s cheeks colored. “I don’t see what thathas to do with it.”

James shifted in his chair, clearly uncomfortable.“Yes, well, these are traditional sorts of men. Theirscholarship is excellent, but their views are veryconservative. They were among the opposition whenthe founding of St. Hugh’s College was firstproposed, and I daresay they refuse even now toacknowledge it as an institution.”

“And because of my sex, they would refuse toassist me?”

“In essence,” James said, looking unhappy.For the second time since she entered the office,

Victoria felt tears burning in her eyes. This time,however, they made her want to scream at the mansitting across from her, to take his precious books andthrow them into the fireplace, to shatter hisridiculous bottle of cider across his desk. Her revengewas so close, and James Townsend’s colleagues couldhelp her realize it, but they wouldn’t. Not becauseshe was too young, too stupid, or too poor, butsimply because she hadn’t been born a man. Herfingers clutched helplessly at the folds of her dress.

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Was she really to just give up and return to herhome, awaiting the day when she would marrysome witless buffoon more interested in her estatethan in her person? Could she live with herself afterthat, having failed her parents in the promise madeover their bodies?

James was still looking at her.“I’m sorry,” she said, unable to meet his eyes. “I

appreciate your hospitality and your assistance. Thatjust wasn’t the answer I was hoping to hear.” Jamesopened his mouth, but she held up her hand. “No,really, it’s all right. I will figure out a way to avengemy parents on my own. Your information aboutspirit mediums will be very useful, I’m sure. Theremust be someone in this country that isn’t opposedto working with a woman.”

Standing, she dropped James a perfunctorycurtsey and turned to leave. Her hand was on thedoorknob when his voice stopped her.

“I may know someone.”She paused, not turning. “Another of your

scholars?”“Quite the opposite, in fact.”Did she hear a hint of laughter in his voice? It was

enough to make her turn and look at him. “Who,then?”

Instead of replying, James stood and crossed overto his desk. Refilling his glass from the bottle, heraised a silent toast in the direction of the afternoonsun. The golden liquid disappeared down his throat,and he turned back to her. “Another woman.”

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The young girl looked up in confusion. Her mother stoodover her, gently shaking her awake. The girl blinked sleepfrom her eyes. She smiled sleepily, but the hard look on hermother’s face did not soften. Her mother’s hair fell in blackwaves over her shoulders, its glossy sheen catching the softlight peeking through the door.

The girl sat up, confused and frightened. Her mothershould be smiling. She always smiled in the morning whilethey were still warm, before they had to go out into the cold.She would always wake the girl with a smile and a pieceof corn-meal bread. That day, her mother had no breadand no smile. She was serious and sad, and that made thegirl afraid.

Sunlight filled the small room as the blanket coveringthe door was pulled to one side. The girl’s father steppedup beside her mother and looked down. The girl held herbreath, clutching at her blanket with small, strong fingers.She knew something was different. The faces her parentswore told her. But what could upset them? They were thebiggest and smartest people she knew. Her father was a


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singer, a man of the spirits; he knew a lot and told herabout things when she asked. Her mother was strong andkind and pretty, a source of comfort when the boys in thevillage told stories of monsters to scare her. Her motherdidn’t fear the witches they spoke of, so why was she afraidnow?

“Come,” her father said. “We must go.”“Where?” the girl asked.“I do not know,” her father said. Beside him, her mother

was making a face like she was trying not to cry. It wasenough to bring out the young girl’s tears.

“Hush,” her mother said. “No need for that. Be bravefor us.”

The girl sniffed back her tears and bit her lip. She couldbe brave like her mother. To show it, she lifted her arms,and her mother picked her up. The girl’s father bent toretrieve the blanket, and the girl grabbed at it greedily. Hesmiled then, but he didn’t look happy.

Stepping over to the entrance, he pulled the blanket asideand walked through. The girl’s mother followed, carryingher securely. The girl kept one arm curled around hermother’s neck and the other around her blanket as they leftthe warmth of their home and stepped into the cold winterair.

There were a lot of men outside. Some of them she knew,men from her tribe, but most of them were strangers. Theywore funny clothes and had skin the color of the soft fur ona rabbit’s belly. They carried metal sticks that they pointedat the people from her village. She saw her friend’s motherthrowing some corn cakes into a basket. Other women werewrapping clothes in blankets. Men loaded bundles onto

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fuzzy grey donkeys.One of the new men came riding up on a horse. He yelled

something that the girl didn’t understand, and the otherpale men began moving toward the villagers.

The girl felt her mother’s arms squeeze her tightly. “Hesays we must leave now,” her father said.

Victoria clasped her handbag in front of her, glovedfingers absently working their way back and forthover the top. Behind her, the city of Denver carriedon its daily life with fervor. Horses clipped andclopped along the cobblestone streets, carrying ridersor drawing carriages and buggies behind them.Around their massive hooves, dogs barked andscurried in motley packs. Mothers hung out ofsecond-story windows, calling to their children inthe streets to wash up and be careful and don’t forgetto pick up an extra loaf of bread for their visitingcousins. In the distance, the harsh call of alocomotive echoed into the blue sky. Underscoringthe other sounds was the steady patter of feet inshoes and feet in boots and feet in nothing at all.

The city had taken her by surprise when she’d firstarrived. Arranging the train from New York hadbeen a simple enough affair, and the coach had beencomfortable despite James Townsend’s warnings.She changed trains twice, once in Cincinnati andonce in Kansas City, her luggage cared for by pairsof young bag boys who kept stealing glances at heras they worked. She gave them each a smile and atip when they finished, their faces telling her that

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they would have just as easily taken a kiss in placeof her money.

When the locomotive had finally pulled intoDenver, she had stepped out of the train car andsucked in her breath. In the distance, marchingbeyond the quaint city skyline like an army of bluegiants, a line of mountains glowered at her. Beneaththeir proud peaks, curving slopes of green andbrown ended abruptly in jagged cliffs, sheared andcauterized like an amputee’s limbs. They sprawledacross the western horizon from end to end, fadinginto the haze hundreds of miles away. She had neverseen anything so frightening or magnificent in herlife.

Now the city hid them from sight, but she couldfeel them lurking somewhere beyond the quaintbuildings. She imagined the ground beneath her feetsuddenly losing its balance and tilting upward,sending her tumbling toward the mountains like apebble on a drawbridge. The entire city would slidedownward, the screams and crashes drowned out bythe horrible rumbling of the earth as it came undone.

Victoria shook her head. She had to get a grip onherself. No use adding to her real worries withimagined ones. Taking a breath, she focused her gazeon the golden cross that crowned the church in frontof her. It was modest, perhaps three yards tall, buthad its own understated appeal. The gold shonebrightly in the morning sun, throwing shafts of lighton the buildings across the street. Beneath it, saintswatched the world with solemn eyes, their windows

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set into walls of brown stone. Such a modest churchmight have suited a small town in England, but itseemed at home among the crude buildings thatsurrounded it.

She walked up to the front door and pulled. Theslab of wood, richly stained, refused to budge.Planting her feet, she wrapped both hands aroundthe handle and leaned back. A breath of incenseswirled around her as the door finally opened.

Once inside, the darkness of the foyer blinded herfor a moment. She stood still, breathing in the scentsof tallow and incense and candle smoke while hereyes adjusted. Carpet the color of wine spread outbeneath her feet. Ahead of her, an arch opened intothe small sanctuary. She took a few tentative stepsthrough it, careful not to let her feet make any noiseon the carpet. The room beyond was still and dark,but the saints still watched her from their windows.Candles flickered like stars along the rows of pewsand around the altar. At the far end, a crucifix hungfrom the ceiling, the savior watching over this houseof saints. A purple sash hung down from his arms,adding an air of royalty to the man carved in eternalagony.

“Welcome, child,” came a voice near the altar.“Please, come in.”

A nun robed in black and white stepped downfrom the dais and stood at the end of the aisle, herhands clasped in front of her. Victoria crept towardher, a sudden shyness slowing her steps. Havingbeen raised Protestant, she felt out of place in this

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church, as though her mere presence angered thefaces in the windows. The nun’s face was kind andwrinkled, and she focused on that. She even offeredthe older woman a smile as she came nearer.

“I am Sister Alice,” the nun said.“Victoria Dawes,” Victoria replied, dropping a

curtsey.“You’re from England?” Sister Alice asked.Victoria nodded. “I’ve only just arrived in Denver.

I’m from Oxford, originally.”“What brings you to the house of God?”How to answer that? Victoria looked down at her

hands for a moment, biting back the first answer thatappeared on her tongue. Catholics and their pride.She swallowed before looking back up. “Well, I’mlooking for someone, and I was instructed to beginmy search here.”

Confusion deepened Sister Alice’s wrinkles. “Amember of the clergy?”

“Not exactly,” Victoria said, “although I believe thisperson has worked closely with the priesthood inyears past. Her name is Cora Oglesby.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of her,” Sister Alice replied.“What work did she do?”

Doubt began creeping into Victoria’s thoughts.Had James Townsend been mistaken? “Well,” shesaid, “as I understand it, she is a sort of bountyhunter. One of those rough-and-tumble gunfightersthat populate the American frontier.”

“That’s strange. I don’t know what need theChurch would have of a bounty hunter. You said she

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worked for our parish?”“To be honest, I’m not sure.” Victoria watched the

nun’s confusion with a sinking feeling. “I’m workingon information I received from an Oxford scholarwho claims to have worked with this woman in thepast. I have very urgent business with her, and headvised me to ask the Catholic clergy to help me findher.”

Sister Alice gave her an apologetic smile. “I’msorry, child. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of any bountyhunter working for the Church, especially not onewho’s a woman.”

“Is there anyone you might ask?” Victoria said.“Father Baez may know,” Sister Alice said, “but

he’s probably still asleep.”“I know it’s terribly rude to ask, but could you see

if he would speak with me?” Victoria unconsciouslytwisted her fingers together. “It really is dreadfullyimportant.”

Sister Alice looked off to her right for a moment.Victoria could almost see the scales balancing in thenun’s head as she weighed the request. If Sister Alicerefused to help her, Victoria would chain herself toone of the pews until this Father Baez appeared. Ifhe couldn’t help her, she would just have to moveon to the next city.

“Well,” Sister Alice said, turning back to her, “Idon’t normally like to bother him, but since you’vecome all this way, I suppose I can go check on him.Don’t expect much, though.”

“Thank you so much,” Victoria said.

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The nun nodded. “Have yourself a seat,” she said,pointing to a pew. “I’ll be back soon.”

Victoria sat, the wood creaking slightly under her.Sister Alice disappeared through a door on one sideof the altar, her habit vanishing into the shadowsbeyond.

Leaning back into the pew, Victoria folded herhands in her lap. She tried to imagine what herfather or mother would say if they found her in sucha place, waiting to hear whether or not a Catholicpriest knew where to find an American bountyhunter. She shook her head and smiled. It really didsound absurd, and that she was traveling alone madeit all the more so.

Still, she had reason to believe she could followthrough with what she’d started. After all, she’dmanaged the trip across the Atlantic with littledifficulty. It had taken the Jewel of Scotland just overtwo weeks to make the passage. Victoria spent muchof her time aboard in her cabin, searching historiesfrom her father’s collection for any references toblack shucks. When her eyes grew tired, she wouldventure above deck to watch the ocean swellbeneath the ship. Spring storms blossomed on thehorizon, dark and menacing, but the Jewel slid bythem without incident.

When she’d made port in New York City, she gavethe immigrations office slight pause. They wereunused to a woman traveling alone, but in the endthey’d waved her through. One of their officers hadpointed her in the direction of the rail station, and

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she’d easily found a coach to take her through themaze of streets. Grand Central Station had beengrand indeed, and the endless press of bodies tookher breath away. Once she’d regained her head, shefound a train bound for Denver and bought herselfa ticket. Indeed, the hardest part of her journey hadbeen adjusting to the coarse way Americans had ofspeaking.

Echoing footsteps pulled her back into the present.Looking up, she saw Sister Alice emerge from thedoorway. A man entered with her, clutching her armin one hand and the head of a cane in the other.Victoria rose to her feet as they approached.

“Victoria Dawes,” Sister Alice said, “may I presentFather Emmanuel Baez.”

“The honor is mine,” Victoria said, extending herhand.

The priest released his hold on Sister Alice’s armand kissed the young woman’s hand. Drawinghimself up as straight as he could, he looked at herand smiled. “A pleasure, my dear.”

Sister Alice guided him to the pew and helped himto sit. Victoria took a seat nearby, careful to maintainwhat she considered a respectful distance. The priestleaned back against the pew, his white hair andbeard seeming to shine above his robes. He lookedat her again, and she could see a spark in his darkeyes. “Now, then,” he said, “Sister Alice tells me youhave some business with me.”

“Yes,” Victoria said. “I don’t want to waste yourtime, so I’ll come straight to it. I’m looking for a

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woman named Cora Oglesby.”Father Baez’s eyes went wide, and he drew in a

deep breath. “There’s a name I haven’t heard inyears.” He smiled then, a thin line beneath his beard.

“So you know of her?”“Of course.” The priest cleared his throat and sat

upright. “She and I have a history. Not a very happyone, but a good one.”

“Do you know where I might find her?” Victoriaasked.

Father Baez started to answer, then paused.“Might I ask why you want to find her?”

“I have urgent business with her,” Victoriaanswered, trying to sound as harmless as she could.

The priest considered that, then turned to SisterAlice. “Would you excuse us for a moment, sister?”Taken aback, the nun stood to her feet, nodded, andstalked across the dais. Once she disappearedthrough the side door, Father Baez turned back toVictoria. “Cora Oglesby deals in some very darkbusiness, young lady. I pray you’ll forgive myreluctance, but not everyone who knows about herhas benevolent intentions.”

“I understand,” Victoria said. “It’s precisely herdealings in those dark matters that caused me to seekher out. I need her help, you see.”

The white eyebrows twitched. “Oh?” Victorianodded and looked down, unsure if she shouldelaborate. Father Baez gently touched her hand.“You don’t need to worry about telling me, child. Wepriests are used to keeping secrets,” he said, eyes

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twinkling.Victoria smiled. Her tale was outlandish, she knew,

but if this priest really did know this Cora Oglesby,perhaps he wouldn’t be a stranger to outlandishtales. She recounted her encounter with the blackshucks on the road, the death of her parents, and hermeeting with James Townsend. A tremor crept intoher voice as she spoke. She’d only told the story inits entirety once before, and hearing herself say italoud again drove the reality and horror of it thatmuch closer to her heart.

When she finished, Father Baez nodded, strokinghis beard with one age-spotted hand. Victoriawatched him, keeping her hands still with no smalleffort. “Well,” he said at length, “it does certainlysound like Cora’s kind of job.”

Victoria’s breath left her lungs in a rush. “So you’llhelp me, then?”

He nodded. “I’ll tell you what I know, but I’mafraid I haven’t heard from her in a good while.Nearly four years, I think.”

“Any information at all would be wonderful,” shesaid, her eyes alight.

“Cora can be a difficult woman to find,” FatherBaez said, “so remember that as you search for her.When I knew her, she was never content to stay inone place for long, but certain events may havecalmed her spirit a little.”

“What events?”“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” he replied. “A

shepherd must keep the secrets of his sheep.” When

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she nodded, he continued. “Before she left Denver,Cora told me that she planned to use her most recentbounty prize to open a printer’s shop.”

Victoria was dumbfounded. “A print shop? Whatwould a woman like her want with a print shop?”

“Maybe age has slowed her down like it has me,”Father Baez said. “You should count yourself luckyif it has.”

“Why? Is she dangerous?”“The Cora I remember could shoot the ears off a

squirrel from fifty feet away, but she never turnedher guns on anyone without reason as far as I know.She may be wild, but she’s not a murderer or a trainrobber. Still,” he added, looking at her with the sametwinkle in his eye, “I wouldn’t suggest making herangry.”

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