Sneak Peek: Eterna and Omega by Leanna Renee Hieber

Sneak Peek: Eterna and Omega by Leanna Renee Hieber

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Eterna and Omega by Leanna Renee HieberLeanna Renee Hieber’s gaslamp fantasy series continues and the action ramps up in Eterna and Omega.

In New York City, fearing the dangers of the Eterna Compound–supposedly the key to immortality–Clara Templeton buries information vital to its creation. The ghost of her clandestine lover is desperate to tell her she is wrong, but though she is a clairvoyant, she cannot hear him.

In London, Harold Spire plans to send his team of assassins, magicians, mediums, and other rogue talents to New York City, in an attempt to obtain Eterna for Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria. He stays behind to help Scotland Yard track down a network of body snatchers and occultists, but he’ll miss his second-in-command, Rose Everhart, whose gentle exterior masks a steel spine.

Rose’s skepticism about the supernatural has been shattered since she joined Spire’s Omega Branch. Meeting Clara is like looking into a strange mirror: both women are orphans, each is concealing a paranormal ability, and each has a powerful and attractive guardian who has secrets of his own.

The hidden occult power that menaces both England and America continues to grow. Far from being dangerous, Eterna may hold the key to humanity’s salvation.

Eterna and Omega  will be available August 9th. Please enjoy this excerpt. 

CHAPTER

ONE

New York City, 1882

The scene inside the Trinity Church graveyard in downtown Manhattan Island on this witching hour was dire, no matter if one could see the myriad ghosts gathered therein or not. A living woman shook on the ground, surrounded by a dead horde.

Louis Dupris, his phantom form floating beside the shaking body of his lover, Clara Templeton, was screaming at her, alongside the spectral spectrum of Manhattan. Not because she’d done anything wrong, but because she was unwittingly drawn into a far more dangerous situation than she could possibly have known. The ghosts were unable to impress this idea upon her, certainly not in her state.

An unkindness of ravens had gathered to add to the cacophony from the tops of a nearby tree that arched over Trinity’s brownstone Gothic eaves and overlooked the graves. Everything dead and living lifted keening protest; wailing and squawking, these ravens as much harbingers as they were scavengers.

A dread power was about to unleash itself over England and America. This was dawning on those in the spirit world who remained attuned to the living. The two countries were woefully unprepared for the black tide that would rise like a biblical plague. Only in this case, the surge would be sent from devils, not from God.

But Clara, a Sensitive—a gifted, empathic medium—wasn’t in any state to help the spirits or herself, seeing as her ability came with the unfortunate side effect of seizures. Her dark blond waves of hair had shaken free of their pins, the cloak she’d worn over her black linen dress seemed to catch most of the dirt her limbs would be battering against, her high cheekbones and distinct angles were tense and taut, her chattering teeth had bitten the inside of her cheek during the seizing, and blood dribbled down her fair chin.

Thankfully, a friend who had been told to mind her business didn’t. Lavinia Kent, one of Clara’s coworkers at the Eterna Commission, launched herself into the Trinity Church graveyard and, not seeing Louis or the ghostly retinue around her, rushed to Clara. She turned her on her side, taking her head in her hands and carefully slipping a fold of fabric from her skirt into Clara’s chattering teeth, never minding the blood on her black gown.

Louis Dupris and the other spectral compatriots attempting to alert Clara were suddenly attuned to a new distraction.

Down Pearl Street, from the site of the Edison company’s vast electricity-producing dynamos, came a terrible whine, a buzzing, terrifying roar. This electrical disturbance disrupted the plane of the dead; the subtle currents upon which they flowed and the various modern conveniences they could interrupt were trumped in a way they’d never experienced. The mild spark of a spirit was nothing compared to the surge of a great turbine.

Louis had noticed, in his fascinating new existence as a ghost, that sometimes he and his fellows could generate electricity—and that sometimes a current could put them out instead.

Clara roused to explosions of lightbulbs along one of Manhattan’s most influential, wealthy streets. Coming to, she slowly focused on Lavinia. Louis, ever attentive to Clara’s eyes from their various amorous encounters during his life, could see her senses returning. He knew they always came back in pieces.

“Vin … what … I…” Clara’s tongue seemed thick and unwieldy.

“You’re all right,” her friend said gently. “I assume this place is too haunted for you to be in here for too long. Come, let’s get you back home. I don’t suppose you’ll actually tell me what you were doing in here?”

“Official business,” she mumbled and said no more, allowing Lavinia to help her up and gingerly walk with her as her body slowly began to respond normally to her mind’s instructions. Louis knew, from having seen her through more than one of these episodes, that her mind would remain hazy and she’d collapse into a deep and deathlike sleep until morning.

But as he watched Lavinia supporting Clara’s drooping weight and clumsy steps, Louis felt comforted that she would indeed be all right. Both women shuddered as he reached out to try to touch Clara’s hair. At this, he was saddened, as it was likely from his own chill.

He floated away, feeling as lonely as a sentience could. If the loneliness of life was unbearable at times, the isolation of death was the stuff that drove specters to haunt the living for centuries. It was the sharpest of pains, impossible for his theorist’s mind to quantify.

“I have to get through…” the ghost murmured to the night, wafting up a side street speckled with the occasional gas lamp. The constraints of the spirit world were chafing against his desire for clarity and forward motion, lulling him toward the stasis of a mere haunt. He was between worlds, a dangerous place for a man to be recalled to a mission.

“I know leaving her be, that’s for the best, considering her condition, but I need to talk to her,” Louis said anxiously, darting his translucent form back up Broadway. “The files, my work, is a safeguard. Not a danger, but a help, a breakthrough in localized magic. It wasn’t the creation of the compound that was the killer, but the presences that came in after. Clara must understand. Surely something personal can connect us. Clara, love, I need you, and you need me more dead than alive to sort this all out.…” A gruesome but brilliant solution presented itself. “Something tactile. A tactile remembrance where I died … Her hair … Beautiful hair … To connect us…”

In his ghostly state, a helpful idea literally illuminated his grayscale form, and he blazed like a candle for a moment before returning to a ghostly default ofeisengrau, the color behind one’s eyes, a gray the epitome of that purgatorial space between awake and asleep.

“The medium!” he gasped, and thought hard about where he could find the specific woman who had communicated with him before. Unfortunately for them both, the moment in question had happened by force. Mediums and spirits were best met by welcoming relations.

He doubted she’d be happy to see him. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get through. But he had to try. Using a strange new sense that had come to him only in death, he tried reaching out a tendril of association, knowledge, and remembrance. Once a medium and a spirit spoke, an indelible channel connected them, a sluice one could slip through again if given the chance.

Floating amid the wind, time was as amorphous as his body in this state, a serious danger when time was of the essence and he was only essence at all.…

Fifth Avenue, finally. A fine stone town house with the most modern of Tiffany glass panels on either side of the carved wooden front door. There she was. He could sense the medium’s radiance even from outside. He floated through beautifully leaded wisteria.

She was in the parlor having an evening cordial, but hardly relaxed as one would hope at such a late hour, though Louis was relieved he wouldn’t have to wake her. Sitting stiffly in plum-colored satin and starched lace, she remained alert and wary, as gifted as she was mysterious and elegant. He read her posture like a line of dialogue in a play.

With such chaos downtown, if she truly was as talented as those who had kidnapped her and forced that unfortunate séance had indicated, she likely knew the air was off, that New York was an unsettled creature awaking to find itself under threat of being caged …

Tall with dark brown–blond hair streaked with distinct swaths of gray, a woman in her mid-forties as striking as if she were in the bloom of youth, so did she command a space with imperious presence matched only by a glimmering vivacity. She outshone all the crystal in her home and the glass-beaded folds of her double-skirted Parisian gown, the rich plum color doing her fair skin fair service. While she commanded attention like a colonel an army, what Louis needed was hers.

That Louis’s twin brother Andre had fled New York yet again was most inconvenient, the coward. While Andre had sworn he would tend to unsettled matters in New Orleans, the city of their birth, Louis knew all too well that Andre’s reputation was for trouble, not reconciliation, so it may have been ill-advised. If he had remained in the city, Louis could make use of him, for his twin could hearand see him, even in his current state. The ability of both, due to their twin blood tie, proved a rare and useful talent.

“Hello…” Louis said feebly before chiding himself; this was no time for hesitancy. “Good Madame Medium. I know this is hardly custom in regard to communication, but it is an emergency,” Louis stated.

The medium turned toward him, though she did not look in his eyes or at his person, but past and through him. While she could perhaps sense his presence, she did not fix upon him. All he needed was for her to hear him, and to help.

* * *

Mrs. Evelyn Northe-Stewart was relaxing after a late dinner with her husband in their mahogany-paneled parlor filled with exotic, mystical souvenirs from around the world when the ghost first came to call. They were night people, she and Gareth, Mr. Stewart having to keep the hours of artists and the leisure classes, associated as he was with the new Metropolitan Museum of Art. For Evelyn’s part, when one often convened with the dead—whether invited or not—one was relegated to the clock of an owl.

She wasn’t one to “see” ghosts, and not always hear them either. But she never failed to feel them, and she felt this one first as a gust of cool breezes. Then came a strange twisting in her abdomen and an odd radiating vibration outward. The strength of it meant she had encountered this particular spirit before, that she was a previously established channel.

“Gareth, darling,” she said to the mild-mannered man staring at her appreciatively, as he often did. She knew he still marveled that he had convinced her to marry him.

In a world that chided—if not hated—her for being a powerful woman and gifted Sensitive, finding a man like Gareth, who wanted her to be nothing more or less than her whole self, was a treasure worth more than the fortune her dear—similarly awestruck—late husband had left her. She had been lucky enough to procure one forward-minded husband, let alone a second, and she was as grateful of this as she was desirous for her sex to be afforded equality.

“Yes, dear,” he replied, responding warmly to a broken reverie. Gareth was a peaceful soul; however, spirits unsettled his quietude.

“Don’t you think you’d love a cigar in your study? I’m getting a … premonition. And it doesn’t seem to want company.”

Gareth Stewart rose slowly, his fair face paling against his auburn beard. “Indeed…” He never knew what to say in cases such as this, so he simply left a room when it cooled degrees and the day turned from normal to paranormal. To each their worlds.

Once he exited, Evelyn gestured impatiently as she spoke. “I know you’re here. Out with it!”

The ghost must have floated closer to her, for the feathers of the fascinator pinned into her coiffure wafted in the breeze of his spectral presence, tendrils kissing her forehead. The flames of the crystal-globed gas lamps on a small mahogany table beside her velvet settee flickered subtly.

“I need your help,” the ghost said.

While pleading and desperate, after all she’d seen and weathered, she was a wisely wary woman, and suppliant tones alone were not enough to enlist her.

“You need help,” she repeated, staring in his direction, changing the focus of her eyes in an attempt to see any differentiation in the line of flocked wallpaper, anything that might give an indication of his form. “Spirits always do.”

“It’s a matter of grave importance,” he insisted. “I wouldn’t bother you with trivialities, not after all we’ve been through. You might remember me…”

“Ah. Yes.” She set her jaw and turned away from the spectral voice. “The twin. No wonder I can hear you so clearly, Mr. Dupris. You maintained the channel.”

“Yes,” he admitted ruefully. “I had to.”

Her shoulder twitched beneath tailored layers of satin. “You know, that is hardly comfortable for us,” she said through clenched teeth. “When you keep the channel open, it’s like a cut on our skin never healed and is continuously exposed to the elements.”

“No. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Truly.” The spirit did seem contrite. At least this one was eloquent enough to comprehend in more than sentence fragments. Either she was gaining greater talents, or the ever mysterious spirit world was empowering this individual above all previous. “But I need any access I can afford,” the ghost insisted. “You, Madame Medium, are at the core of all those who are important and critical in the times to come.”

At this, the medium’s eyes flashed a fierce warning. “If you want something of Clara—”

“I do,” the ghost she knew to be Louis Dupris, Clara’s secret lover, exclaimed, wafting before her face in a chill gust, and she turned, unwilling to truly face him, whether he was visible to her or not. Extended ghostly exposure was exhausting and made Evelyn feel plucked at as if she were a series of string instruments being played all at once.

The ghost would not be deterred. “You need to help me contact her.”

“I will do nothing to upset her,” Evelyn declared.

“This is beyond her,” Louis countered. “You and she must understand what happened at the Eterna site on the terrible day I died. I am beginning to unravel what sabotaged us in that house. We were not alone when the disaster happened. I need someone to listen.”

“I’m here now,” Evelyn declared, exasperated. “We’ve a strong channel, don’t squander it—”

“Our laboratory was invaded, Madame, by multiple presences. As my chemist partner Barnard and I combined the Eterna materials on that fateful day, our material must have been threatening to outside forces. One of our colleagues was courting something terrible. We didn’t know…”

There was a long and terrible pause. Evelyn felt queasy. Such prolonged contact, with such clarity, was unprecedented. She now understood Clara’s overwhelmed nature when it came to contact with the dead. Whatever she could take and save Clara from the brunt, she had to do. “More,” she said quietly, gesturing toward the sound of his voice. “Tell me as much as you can.”

Louis continued, his haunting voice deepening in sadness. “I didn’t notice it until I returned to the brownstone after death, to find clues, trying to remember. The site had been a home, once, but Goldberg had gone mad, emptied the place of everything but our work. He was so odd, muttering things we could not understand…”

“Such as?” Evelyn closed her eyes. Perhaps she could focus on him better if she didn’t try to look at the place she thought he occupied, just felt his draft.

“It was a language I didn’t understand,” Louis replied, frustration underpinning his every word. “We thought it was Yiddish, but now I’m not sure. I remembered having seen something very odd, right before everything went wrong. In the wall, carved in, was the outline of a door. And it sort of became one—a blank space, a void where there should have been substance. Dark entities stepped through. Shadow-like, devoid of light, the opposite … As if summoned. It happened right as the Eterna Compound turned into a noxious gas. I remember nothing after that.”

“Entities. From a door. Carved in a wall…” Evelyn murmured. The room spun, and she could feel all the color drain from her cheeks. “My God…”

“What?” Louis countered in wary concern.

“It never really ended, did it?!” the medium said, her words a rasp, as if scrabbling for purchase in her throat. “The Society just went deeper underground … The network broader … Good God, we could’ve nipped it in the bud then, but now…”

She jumped to her feet and began to pace, looking down at the dark whorl of her plum skirts around the rich mahogany furnishings, the sumptuous deep tones of Tiffany sconces casting mottled, bruise-like patches of colored light onto her pale skin as she passed beneath them. For all her love of deep colors and magnetic shadows, at the moment she longed for blinding brightness to cast off any hint of darkness.

“You have … experience in such dealings?” Louis asked cautiously.

“Two years ago a demon tried to kill my friends,” the medium replied gravely. “Part of an insane plot, something hellish and mad, and surely too similar to what you’ve described to be coincidence. And if so … then it would have made that whole dread business mere child’s play. An exercise. A drill. A test for a coming apocalypse…”

“Whatever it is,” the ghost insisted, “we have to stop the shadows before they wake.”

“They’ve always been awake, Mr. Dupris,” Evelyn snapped. “Devils never sleep. The trouble is that now, it seems they’ve multiplied.”

“So will you help connect me to Clara?” Louis begged. “We’ve no time to waste. The devils are patient, but when moved, they seem to act with horrific, swift aptitude. They came upon my team the instant our work crested unto glory. We had wrought something of hope and honor when we were quashed by darkness.”

Evelyn sighed and quit pacing. The dark satin whorl stilled and silenced. “I’ve no choice but to help. We’ll need all hands on the proverbial spiritual deck.”

“Thank you. There is an odd clarity in death that sharpens the grayscale of human morality. In the moments when I can keep focus, a feat itself, I see more clearly what’s most valuable.”

The medium turned again toward the direction of his voice. “What do you need from Clara?”

“As you know from the séance you were forced to undergo, there remains a block between Clara and me. I cannot speak to her directly. Yet she alone understands the heart of the Eterna Commission and its properties enough to see it to a solution. Those shadows were threatened by what we made. It was a mortal protection, and they killed us for it.”

“Clara’s block is there to protect her. You know of her vulnerabilities, the senator guards her—”

“Of course I know that!” Louis cried. “One spirit alone does not overwhelm her, only when they cluster. I do know her, knew her”—Evelyn heard wrenching sorrow in his voice—“well, Mrs. Northe-Stewart. I knew her well and loved her with my whole heart.”

The medium pursed her lips. “Then why did no one know?”

“Would I, a man with a most particular heritage, have been allowed to ask for her hand?” Louis countered bitterly. “Not to mention that Senator Bishop prohibited the Eterna researchers from contacting his ward.”

“I am aware of the senator’s rules,” the medium said. “How did you meet, then?”

“At a soiree, early in my employment, before any trouble began. From first meeting in a quiet alcove, I was lost. Our rendezvous infrequent as we were both so careful … My heart was noble, I assure you, and a gentleman’s boundaries were maintained. But all that is history. What I believe we created in that house was a Ward … Not a ward in need of a guardian but a Ward, in old magical terms—”

“A Ward of protection, yes, I am aware of the concept,” Evelyn asserted.

“Someone, something, didn’t want us to have it, and we need to know why. So now I beg you—obtain a lock of hair from my darling Clara,” the spirit said, his chill directly at her ear, as if he didn’t want her to miss one word of the vital details, “and take it to where I died. Localized magic is about connecting organic materials of life and death, and since I don’t have a grave, I can only hope that the disaster site will serve, and that from there, I will be able to tell Clara more about the Warding.”

“I hope you’re right, Mr. Dupris.” She was brilliantly conversant with him, but she couldn’t be sure if that was instinct or literal translation from his plane to hers. “But I shan’t be visiting your haunted house, or Clara, past midnight. This is the stuff of the morning, for safety’s sake. Now leave me be lest you drive me to nightmares. Good night, Mr. Dupris, and I’ll deal with you tomorrow. You can … waft yourself out.” With a curt nod of her head, she exited the parlor.

Louis bowed after her, a formality even if she couldn’t see him, calling a good night and thanks, and then, with what focus he had left, floated back onto dark Fifth Avenue, praying for dawn.

* * *

When Clara awoke the morning after any seizure, it was a sequence of putting herself back together, sense by sense, like restacking a deck of cards that had been thrown onto the floor and scattered.

For a woman who prized herself on relative control of her vast emotional and metaphysical scope, the loss of control in an epileptic seizure was the worst fate that she could imagine. She’d had to endure it since a séance she’d attended just as she was beginning to blossom into womanhood. Clara had expected that becoming an adult would change her abilities somehow but had not anticipated that becoming more sensitive would make her more susceptible to fits. Since the age of thirteen, vastly greater care had to be taken lest she be overtaxed and overtaken, as she had been at midnight in Trinity’s sacred plot.

Every muscle of her body was screaming in pain. The clenching part of the seizure was always brutal and lingered on like a beating. Thankfully, this time she hadn’t bitten off a chunk of her tongue; the cheek was bad enough.

When the thorough aches sharpened her senses enough to grasp the whole of herself, she noted was in her own bed, in the elegant little upstairs room that had been hers since she moved into the town house after her parents’ deaths. Rupert Bishop had been a congressman then; now he was senator. But even then, he had made sure that his young ward had lacked nothing. He had seen to her education and given her leave to be and to express herself, to expand her mind. Most of all, to become the Spiritualist she and Bishop both felt she was born to be.

When she was only twelve years of age, it was her vision as expressed to grieving widow Mary Todd Lincoln that led to the creation of the Eterna Commission. Now, seventeen years later, she would have to be the one to end it, somehow. Too many people—not least her beloved Louis—had already died.

Lavinia. Thin memories returned like pale mist creeping over a dark expanse. Darling Vin had been her hero. That’s how she’d gotten home. She didn’t remember being helped into bed, but she must have put her in this muslin nightdress, as her best friend knew Clara would be mortified if Bishop had had to do it … What about Bishop…?

As the last of the mists that enveloped her mind cleared, Clara realized her guardian was staring down at her, tall and imposing in fine charcoal shades of dress, his silver hair mussed, his elegant, noble face with its oft-furrowed brow knit more harshly than usual.

“Hello, Rupert…” she said cautiously. Did he know she’d stolen out to bury Eterna evidence in the Trinity Church graveyard? Clara decided playing innocent was the best tack. “What happened?” she said, widening her eyes and reaching for her guardian’s hand.

“You’ve been asleep awhile. Longer than usual. I didn’t see the seizure, but…” Bishop was about to step forward and grasp her outstretched hand when they were interrupted.

“There was quite an event,” came a familiar female voice from the hall. The talented medium, Mrs. Evelyn Northe-Stewart, entered the room.

She was tall and striking, her once blond hair had gained streaks of classic silver, matching her with Bishop, her contemporary, ever dressed in the most magnificent finery straight from Paris’s fashionably innovative minds.

Clara had long ago taken on Evelyn’s style as inspiration, both in fashion and in furnishings, sure to tell her guardian that she, too, preferred her dresses Parisian and her surroundings entirely of the new Tiffany firm’s provenance, seeing as the studio had just redecorated the White House.

Drinking in Evelyn’s latest fashion was one of Clara’s favorite pastimes, and today she did not disappoint in a champagne-colored bombazine day dress with a matching capped-sleeve jacket trimmed and accented with thin black ribbon.

“May we have a moment?” the medium said, turning to the senator. “Clara and I?”

“I … she … Clara just woke up,” Bishop replied. The hesitation was unlike him, and while relations between her and her guardian had been strained of late, Clara’s heart swelled that no discord could outweigh his infallible care for her.

“It’s a personal matter, Rupert,” Evelyn insisted, keeping her tone warm out of deference to his protective instincts. “I received a message that concerns her.”

The senator’s brow knit further. Giving Clara a worried look, he reluctantly left the room.

The medium turned to Clara gravely. “I had a visit from your Louis…” she began.

Clara swallowed hard.

Louis had awakened aspects of herself—mind, body, and heart—she had not experienced before. She had loved him truly for who he was, a passionate and energetic man of visions and spiritual gifts. Rupert Bishop held an old sway over her heart, one she never dared indulge, but Louis had helped her live more fully than she’d ever allowed. His death had been a hard and unexpected blow; that he still had a connection to her was a bittersweet comfort and a pang.

Evelyn, ever attentive and empathic, waited for Clara to meet her gaze again before continuing. “Louis was very insistent on gaining access to you. To talk to you.”

The memory was sharp enough to make Clara close her eyes. Louis had often said if he could do only one thing in the world, it would be just to sit and talk to her. They both believed in Eterna’s mission. Louis’s commitment to Eterna was shaped at least in part by his desire to make his principles of spirituality and his Vodoun faith something science could champion.

She could not help but think back to their passionate discussions, often conducted while lounging about on the bed of his tiny flat near Union Square. Clara was all too willing to find reasons to excuse herself from work and dart uptown for a secret rendezvous. The weight of Evelyn’s stare drew her away from the memories of her dead paramour.

Clara’s body felt suddenly restless and caged by her condition. She shifted to sit upright, wincing as her arm and back muscles clenched again in a painful vise, but she refused Evelyn’s help, as she needed her own movement to unlock them again. She cleared her throat and began cautiously.

“Louis wishes to speak to me … about us? Or was it … something of Eterna?”

“Eterna,” Evelyn was quick to reply, moving closer to Clara and sitting on the edge of the bed. “He is learning, in the spectral realm, about what may have gone wrong at the site. Dark forces are afoot, having been granted entry by human avarice.”

Clara thought of the disaster site and shuddered. “That would stand to reason, if reason can even apply there.”

“Devilry has a peculiar reason to it, and a twisted logic. Louis believes dark presences that invaded the room treated the Eterna Compound as a threat.”

When Clara had, daringly, visited the site of Louis’s death, she had a terrible vision of looming beings … Perhaps the same presences Louis referred to. She had thought they were ghosts, but her time there had been so short, it was possible she had not perceived them as the threats they were. Her head wasn’t nearly as clear as it needed to be, hadn’t been since Louis’s death.

She shook herself out of self-pity and stared at her dear friend and mentor with a ready ferocity.

“I said I would do this only with your permission,” the regal woman stated. Clara nodded, hoping perceptive Evelyn would both note and trust her freshly steeled mettle.

“There is indeed more at work here than mere sentiment,” Clara murmured. “I honestly don’t know what I’m meant to do, with the commission, the research, the information … Perhaps Louis can help be my spiritual guide through the mess.” She stared up at Evelyn plaintively. “I just hope I hold up. I have to. I can’t let my condition get in the way. I wanted to be there for him, in life, to work with him.” She clenched her fists. “I’ll take what time with him I can get.”

Shifting out of bed, swinging her legs down slowly, and then rising at a bent angle that made her feel older than her age, Clara winced again. Evelyn moved to assist her, but she waved her off. “No, thank you, I have to move eventually, and on my own, otherwise I can’t shake loose what still wishes to clench and seize.”

Clara moved to her vanity and withdrew a pair of small silver scissors from a top drawer. She looked into the mirror, her green-golden eyes staring past her somewhat haunted reflection, and snipped a lock of deep blond hair from her unkempt tresses. With a rough pull, she wrenched the clump free from the confines of her messy braid, looking alternately at the long streamer of hair in her hand and her somewhat mad-looking reflection.

Plucking a box of matches from her nightstand, Clara lit a taper, removed the candle from its holder, and tipped it above one end of the lock of her hair. Droplets of wax fell, sealing the hairs together.

Sitting back on the edge of the rumpled bed, Clara divided the strands and wove a thin braid, then sealed the second end. She blew out the candle and stared into the wisps of smoke for a moment as if she was hoping to read a message there.

“I hope this works,” Clara said, and the tone in her own voice surprised her. Eterna had aged her beyond her twenty-nine years.

Evelyn nodded. “I can feel the tide of the city will darken, waking up old, terrible cases we thought we’d put to rest. We need to avail ourselves of any and all information. Thank you, Clara, for being willing—”

“It’s the least I can do for his life,” she murmured, worrying the end of the braid between her fingertips before finally passing it over to her mother figure and mentor. “I was never honest about him, I might as well attempt to honor him.”

“I will try to do right by you both,” Evelyn promised. The two Spiritualists held each other’s weighty gaze.

“You’ll find the key to that house in our offices,” Clara stated. “In the top drawer of my desk. Thank you, Evelyn. Truly.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” the elder woman said gravely. “We may yet be dragged through hell and back.” She stood and walked toward the door.

Clara stopped her with a plea. “Don’t tell Rupert about Louis, please? About this return? It’s a…”

Evelyn lifted a hand that fluttered in a gesture of understanding. “Sensitive subject, yes. But don’t leave the poor man entirely in the dark,” she insisted. Clara looked away, guilt twisting within her. The medium pressed a bit further, coming back into the room, close to Clara to take on a gentler tone. “You could have gone to Rupert with your love, Clara. Did it really have to be a secret? Do you not owe him more than that?” A look from Clara gave Evelyn pause. “I won’t tell Rupert unless circumstances of safety require the knowledge. But I am telling you now that you cannot fight this fight without him.”

“I will tell him, I promise.”

Evelyn reached out and took Clara’s hand. “You know I’ve always considered you family. Remember that. Brace yourself, Clara. You are strong, you mustn’t forget it. Don’t let your condition ever tell you otherwise, it’s undermined your agency and your confidence for years. Get that back at all costs. What we’re up against, if it’s anything like what I’ve unfortunately been inured to, Lord help us all. The meek shall not inherit the earth unless we, the loud and bold, stop an onslaught of devilry.”

Clara nodded. “I promise that, too. Strength. Now more than ever.”

Evelyn squeezed her hand hard, then let go and exited the room with the calm grace uniquely hers. Clara hoped she would embody the same qualities as she aged. She wondered when to expect Louis and what their new connection might be like.

If Mrs. Northe-Stewart was successful, a new aspect of the Eterna Commission would unfold, along with a new stage in her relationship with Louis.

She’d buried everything in the Trinity Church graveyard because she did not know what else to do, but she had to do something. Having dug a grave for all the Eterna material she had—all Louis’s papers, all his mystical and imaginative work on talismanic, localized magic, and personal power tied to one’s place on this earth—she had buried half her heart in that hole as well.

After loving him, feeling responsible for his death, being misled that he might actually be alive, only to find out he remained a spirit after all, could she bear this next shift to a kind of relationship she could hardly have predicted? She steeled herself just like she had done with feelings for Rupert Bishop so long ago, reinforcing the mausoleum doors of her emotions.

Sentiment cooled and hardened like a winter’s grave. There was no time for a star-crossed love between forbidden planes of existence when preparing for further supernatural woe. Friend or foe was impossible to determine, British or American, living or dead. Clara hoped the spirit realm could make some sense out of whom to trust and what next to attend to.

Copyright © 2016 by Leanna Renee Hieber

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