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Selkie Cove: Chapter Three

SelkieCoveLH

With Selkie Cove coming out July 25th, I’ve decided to post a chapter a week until it comes out. That’s how excited I am for you to read it. I’m still copy-editing, so please pardon any typos. If you’re interested, you can pre-order it here.

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Chapter Three

The Curiosity

On the walk back to the museum, Immanuel replayed what had happened at Benekey’s over and over, looking for a way he could have made Adam stay. He had been looking forward to his lunch date with Adam all week, so why wouldn’t it somehow end badly? Reaching the museum’s familiar Gothic façade, Immanuel stared at the masses of people tittering within. He swallowed against the tightness working its way from his throat to his chest and ducked around the side to take the servants’ entrance in. As he climbed the back stairs up to his office, he dreaded running into another curator as much as what awaited him at home. Adam was angry, and rightly so, yet the thought of wrangling with Adam’s vile stubbornness was more than Immanuel could bear. Whatever the solution, it would have to be Adam’s idea.

At the top of the stairs, Immanuel froze with his hand on the worn door. Someone was in his office. A shadow passed behind the mottled glass, disappearing near his desk. Immanuel’s heart pounded in his temples as the urge to run overtook his muscles and set every hair on end. Drawing in a steadying breath, he tried to banish all thoughts of Lord Rose. It had been months since he was attacked and Lord Rose’s soul was sealed in a lead tomb in the bowels of Interceptor Headquarters. Lady Rose supposedly shared a similar fate, but as the shadow paced past the glass again, Immanuel caught the unmistakable shape of a corseted waist. Could she have gotten free and come after him?

Slowly ducking back into the stairway, Immanuel fumbled through his leather satchel for his vivalabe. The moment his fingers brushed its cool, brassy surface, a wave of calm passed over him. The brass ball was the size of a compass and weighed twice as much. If he took it out at night, he could hear the steady cadence of its clockwork heart, ticking in time with his own. With two clicks of a hidden button, the ball’s lid fell back to reveal an etched face lined with minute chips of colored stone. In an instant, the marbles scattered like billiard balls, leaving only three clustered together: a white, a green, and an amber. Immanuel released a tense breath, letting his head fall back against the cold stone in relief that Lady Rose’s red stone was nowhere to be seen. He stared at the amber stone and bit his lip. Why would Judith Elliott come to see him at work?

Stuffing the vivalabe back into his bag, Immanuel smoothed his heavy wool coat and pushed a wet blonde curl from his forehead. Even if Judith would ultimately discern something was amiss, he didn’t want her to read it on his face. If she wanted to know, she would have to work for it. In three long strides with his eyes cast to the floor, Immanuel reached his office and slipped inside. Judith looked up from behind his desk, her hazel eyes meeting his without hesitation. With a knowing smile, she studied his latest sigils with a gold magnifying glass hanging from a chain around her neck. No matter where he saw her, Judith Elliott was unmistakably American. Where the British embraced etiquette to the point of meekness or passive aggression, her intentions were always as straight and loud as a gunshot. If he hadn’t known any better, he would have assumed it was her office by the glint her eye and the self-assured way she stayed rooted in his seat even as he hung up his bag and coat.

“Your sigils are quite interesting, Winter. Very complex for someone who has only begun. Did you know that no two sigils are exactly the same? Every practioner leaves their mark, their own mental baggage. Did the books I lent you help at all?” Judith asked, her blonde hair glinting in the electric lamps as Immanuel switched them on.

“Somewhat,” he replied, shifting uncomfortably beside the veiled specimen. “I’ve been trying to expand my knowledge outside of life and death magic, and it’s given me plenty of ideas. Some… some I can barely read. It doesn’t seem to click no matter how hard I try.”

“Too many archaic rules?” A smile quirked across her lips as she looked from the water-stained paper to Immanuel’s downcast brows. “Don’t be sheepish. It happens more often than most of us would care to admit, especially in the beginning. Some things won’t work for you. You’ll find magic is more of an art than a science.”

“The strange thing is, the techniques… It felt like a lot didn’t apply.”

“You’re an evolutionist, so it stands to reason that magic has also evolved over the centuries with human need and understanding. It morphs with geography, time, beliefs, and of course, the practioner. What worked then, doesn’t necessarily work now, and plenty of practioners made rules to prevent novices from getting any farther than the basics. I know some of the writings are dense, but I thought they might, inspire your work rather than act as a guide. Stop by Interceptor headquarters, and I’ll have the librarians give you some texts more suited to your interests.”

Immanuel stood at the end of his desk, watching Judith study his work. “I don’t mean to be rude, Miss Elliott, but what are you doing in my office? Does the director know you’re here?”

“Sir William was more than willing to let me speak to the curator who will be handling my prized specimen,” she replied with a flourish toward the creature.

His eyes widened. “That was you?”

“Technically yes, though it really belongs to the Interceptors. We heard from our sources off the coast of an interesting specimen that was to be sent to the Royal Zoological Society. The box mysterious disappeared and ended up at the museum with special instructions to have their resident seal expert examine it.”

“Fantastic.”

Judith chuckled at Immanuel’s grimace. “Finding a scientist who has a foot in both worlds is incredibly difficult. You should be flattered that we chose you, especially when you don’t officially work for us. I had to fill out a lot of paperwork to get an exception to involve you.”

“You believe the thing is real?”

“Despite what Sir William told you, there is more in this world than what your books lead you to believe. You of all people should understand that. What we need you to do is study the specimen, analyze it, dissect it, and tell us how it died. The latter may require you to use unconventional means. Before I leave you to it, I need you to sign the paperwork promising that you will not divulge what you find to anyone outside of the Interceptors, including Sir William.”

“Don’t worry, I have no intention of telling him any more than I have to.” Being the laughing stock of the department was the last thing he wanted to be if the thing turned out to be genuine.

Reaching into her reticule, Judith retrieved a folded wad of paper and smoothed it across the desk. She handed the pen from Immanuel’s blotter and pointed to each place he should sign. Immanuel released a soundless sigh at the magazine-sized stack. He should have read it, but he had neither the time nor the patience on a good day. Near the bottom of the fifth page, Immanuel paused. Any party involved may be recalled to carrying out a further investigation on behalf of Her Majesty’s Interceptors if Her Majesty sees fit. As he reread the minute type, Immanuel felt the nudge of Judith’s energy caressing the edge of his mind like the invisible arm of a jellyfish. If he let her, she would slip into his mind, probing through his thoughts until she found what she sought.

“You could have asked first,” he replied, ripping his mind away from her grasp with a turn of his head. Hastily signing the last of the documents, Immanuel pushed them back to her and dropped his pen into his breast pocket. “Will that be all?”

“My apologies, Winter,” she said, her eyes traveling over his scar before lingering on his crooked frown and faraway gaze. “I didn’t mean to offend you, but you don’t seem yourself. Is everything all right or have I come at a bad time?”

“I received some bad news at lunch, but I will have my report to you about,” he paused, trying to picture the creature trapped within the glass coffin, “whatever that is, by the weekend.”

With a nod, Judith tucked the contract into her bag and slipped past him. At the door, she stopped to watch Immanuel collapse into his chair. “There’s one thing I have been meaning to ask since we last spoke. Have you given any thought to becoming an Interceptor? You never gave me an answer.”

Immanuel stared at the pages of sigils littering his desk alongside his acceptance letter into the Royal Zoological Society. His nights were spent trying to manipulate cups of tea when he should have been knee-deep in research. He had a career now, one that he was actually decent at, and yet— He frowned, averting his eyes from Judith’s. Yet he still felt out of place at the museum. Every day he feared that at any moment he would be unmasked for the imposter he was. Something was missing. At times he wondered if it was the absence of fear now that Lord and Lady Rose were gone, but there was a bigger void that research and recitation, or even Adam, couldn’t hope to fill. And that terrified him.

“I fear I still don’t have an answer for you, Miss Elliott. I haven’t ruled it out, but I don’t know if I’m ready to take that step.”

“Fair enough. If you should change your mind, you know where you and Mr. Fenice can find me.”

Immanuel licked his lips and hesitantly asked, “Your… Your offer is still open to both of us?”

“Of course. Your earnest relationship makes you stronger than the sum of your parts.” She flashed a good-natured smile even as her power nudged at his mind. “Good day, Mr. Winter, and give Mr. Fenice my regards.”

With a final nod, Judith slipped into the hall and disappeared. Immanuel melted deeper into his chair, letting his head fall over the low wooden back. As his chair lazily spun, his eyes fell upon the dirty sheet covering the crate. Peace had sounded like a wonderful thing to have, but with most of his life, peace was fleeting. It had been foolish of him to expect that Judith Elliott wouldn’t come barging back into his life after all that happened. But did peace even matter now that Adam lost his job? Equilibrium had been destroyed by the time the creature reached his office.

Tucking the sigils back into his desk drawer, Immanuel withdrew the pair of gloves he kept tucked beside his sigil journal. He slipped on the elbow-length leather gloves and stood beside the crate. Immanuel drew in a long breath, steeling himself against whatever nightmare he was about to uncover. In one swift motion, he ripped off the canvas and tossed it aside.

Staring back at him from beneath the bath of embalming liquid was a seal with a human’s face. For a moment he merely stared at it, his mind unable to grasp how the mismatched pieces fit together so seamlessly. While the body retained the shape and grey spotted fur of a seal, the creature’s face appeared out of place with its sharp cheekbones and Cupid’s bow lips, but what held him wholly was the creature’s eyes. They were wide and round like the seals he had studied the past few years, yet they retained the colored rim of a human. Hers were the steely blue of tossing waves, now unnerving in their stillness. Immanuel lowered his gaze, following the curve of the creature’s body until he reached its hands. Hands. Where there should have been bow-legged fins, there were fine fingers jutting from a meaty furred palm. Backing up, Immanuel looked at her feet to find only a tail and nothing more.

Carefully opening the lid of the steel and glass box, Immanuel leaned closer until the embalming fluid bit at his eyes and left the unforgettable tang of death and alcohol on his tongue. With his nose scarcely a breath above the surface, Immanuel’s gaze probed the monster’s fur for any sign of stitches or manipulation from a charlatan. The Fiji Mermaid had been the talk of the scientific community until they realized Barnum had sewn a fish to a monkey in an attempt to dupe the public and scientists alike, but this was different. This wasn’t some poorly crafted hybrid freak, no matter what Sir William thought. Gathering his tools, Immanuel threaded tubes through the glass case, letting the preservative fluid drain into a large bucket until the creature beneath was laid bare. He locked eyes with the creature as he hesitantly squatted at its side. At any moment, he feared it would turn toward him with its sightless eyes and release some ungodly sound he only knew in nightmares. Carefully removing his gloves, Immanuel let his hand hover over the beast’s brow. He bit his lip, knowing that in a moment, he would see the last moments of a seal or a human or some strange life form in between. Drawing in a constrained breath, skin and fur met.

Water flooded every orifice, filling them with the cold salty murk of the sea as he hung weightless. His mind fought the unnatural sensation, but the body whose eyes he saw through merely twisted toward a dull hum thrumming somewhere nearby. He and the creature glided effortlessly toward the vibration. In the distance five massive  brown contraptions rose through the silt. He thought it could have been a sunken ship or the remains of some ill-fated dirigible from its steel frame and wire umbilical cords running up to the surface. As they grew closer, fear bubbled in her breast. Someone was supposed to be there. She had sworn she heard the call crying out to her beneath the waves with its hypnotic resonance. Watching the swirls of silt, a soft note wrapped around their mind. It spoke to a part of her so deep she felt it in her core and drew her closer to the forest of metal.

Immanuel felt it before they saw it: the thrust of water crashing into them followed by the sudden blossom of pain that started at their armpit and spread to every cell in their body. They thrashed, catching sight of a long pole and the faceless brown beast at the end of it, its face caked with mud and weeds. An indescribable feeling pass through their body. Something beneath the surface peeled away as pain tore through their arms and crept into every bone until their body screamed once more. In an instant, where there had been grey flippers upon the pole, now there were hands, but before Immanuel could stop them, they tore it out. Blood dribbled out, flooding their vision as a weight fell over them. Their mind reeled at the disorienting constriction of the net as their body seized with the current and they sank beneath the mass of their misshapen body. Their heart sputtered and their vision spotted. He was coming. The brown beast was coming for them, looming over them with its hooded, faceless head and hook at the ready. They drew in a breath, lungs convulsing against the alien burning of salt water. The others, she thought as the world darkened to a pinpoint of dim light.

Immanuel fell back, landing hard on his side as he gagged and wheezed. His lungs tightened as he released another dry heave despite tasting the brine of the ocean on his lips and deep in his throat. His stomach and lungs spasmed while his mind sought to save him from drowning on land. Resting his head against the cold planks of his office floor, Immanuel swallowed and fought to slow his breathing until the urge to vomit passed and all that was left was fatigue. The strength had been sapped from his body as if he had spent the entire day fighting the tide. Raising his gaze to the door, he made certain no one was coming before closing his eyes. His hands shook as he rubbed his forearms to silence the burning that had flooded his body accompanied with the deep cracks of tissue restructuring. He was fine, he reminded himself over and over until his body quieted enough that his mind could believe that what he had seen had happened to someone—something—far from himself. It had seemed so human. The thoughts felt more like his own than any cattle or chicken’s ever did.

Immanuel slowly climbed to his knees, fighting his trembling limbs as he used the desk for support. Squeezing his eyes shut, Immanuel wished Adam was there to anchor him to reality, to rub his back and make him tea to help the shakes subside, but then he heard the chatter of the curators outside his door and remembered there were hours to go before he could see Adam again. He staggered forward and knocked the lid of the glass coffin closed with the back of his hand before tossing the sheet over it to hide the creature’s lifeless features and half-human form. Sinking into his chair, Immanuel grabbed his pen and quickly scribbled out the details of the vision.

If he waited too long, there would be no proof of the beast who killed her, and Immanuel wasn’t going to let that happen.


Thank you for reading! Please let me know what you think, and if you’re interested, you can pre-order Selkie Cove.

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