The Witch Who Came In From the Cold. Episode One: A Long, Cold Winter
by Max Gladstone and Lindsay Smith
The Cold War rages in the back rooms and dark alleys of 1970s Prague and crackling beneath the surface of it all is a vein of magic, raw and waiting to be tapped. Covert agents from the CIA and KGB are fighting two wars: one between the United States and the Soviet Union, and another between ancient magical societies, the Consortium of Ice and the Acolytes of Flame.
This story, team-written by a crew of amazing authors is available for purchase on www.serialbox.com and our app. The first episode is serialized for free, here, as a treat to our Medium readers.
Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
January 18, 1970
Tatiana Mikhailovna Morozova lay on her belly on the slate roof tiles, trying not to let the cold harden her muscles. She needed to stay limber for whatever came next — if it ever came next. The past few nights had proven fruitless, but she couldn’t let down her guard. She listened to Prague’s nightlife settle around her, from the distant mutter of drunks to the crunch of thin boot soles against snow to the heavy chill crackling in her numb ears, and tried to sift through them for any signs of her target.
But none of the street sounds were out of the ordinary; not a single person was out of place. Her entire operation, so carefully crafted, had been for nothing.
Tanya grabbed the binoculars from the rooftop ledge — KOMZ, dense metal and enviable optics, standard KGB issue — and surveyed Staré Město Square once more. A lone man crossed the square, kicking up a swirl of fog in his wake, but his frowning face was not that of their target. She swiveled her gaze across the night-stained square toward the streetlamp at the northwestern entrance, where a woman leaned against the post. Tanya couldn’t hear the repetitive click of the lighter flicking open and snapping shut, but she could imagine it; she knew the sound too well. Nadezhda was just as bored as she was — knowing Nadia, probably more. If their target didn’t show soon, it’d be another empty night. Another battle lost.
With a growing sense of desperation, Tanya checked each exit of the square once more. Their sources had hinted that their adversaries were working on a new, advanced scouting method, and this was just the sort of night for them to turn it loose. All their analysis indicated tonight was ideal — weather conditions, star alignment, magnetic pull, all those fiddly little calibration elements that operators like her rarely had to take into consideration. That’s what the bureaucrats were for. But if Tanya let another target slip past, too many people would pay the price.
Several of their assets had already vanished, and they couldn’t afford to lose even one more. She had a better chance out here, on the edge of the Iron Curtain, but then, so did the other side. It was difficult to get information when she was back in Moscow, spending her days in the dank basement of the Lubyanka headquarters, pretending she couldn’t hear the screams from the interrogation cells. And her family was better connected than most, better skilled at greasing the ancient gossip machinery that far predated the East-West divide.
The messages they did manage to pass on were always brief, vague, smuggled in via coded newspaper advertisements or a short radio broadcast on a signal strong enough to pierce the censors’ static. We have located one in Burma, the message might read, or One lost to them in Marrakesh. Tanya didn’t know which side was ahead, but suspected it was a little too even for anyone’s comfort.
Something rattled on the roof ledge beside her.
Tanya dropped the binoculars and glanced toward the array of devices lined up on the ledge. They weren’t so much devices, really — the largest of them was scarcely wider than a ruble — as charms. Talismans. One was twitching like an electric wire starting to fray; another hummed with a barely visible glow. Some kind of detector slowly coming to life.
Tanya held her breath like a fist squeezing shut. There it was, just on the edge of her hearing: a shuffle and scrape, dry and rhythmic. So rhythmic it sounded mechanical. Close enough, anyway. Tanya raised the binoculars again, and sure enough, Nadia had flicked the lighter to life. Their target had arrived.
Nadia lit the cigarette, but held it aloft, uncertain. Come on, Nadia. Give me a direction. Give me something to work with. The bright cherry bobbed as Nadia scanned the square.
Finally, she jabbed it in the direction of a frothily ornate building tiered like a wedding cake of stone.
Tanya swiveled toward the old town hall. There it was, a dark figure, a blur behind the veils of fog. Crunch. Crunch. Each step in slushy snow a labored act. Was the target injured? Weak? Undercharged? They could only be so lucky.
She set the binoculars aside and bounded for the fire escape.
Drahomir was drunk. That was, after all, the plan.
He leaned over the table, clutching his beer with both hands. “And then I could see your friend Joshua to be holding the two pairs — I knew he had them, from his eyes, which are soft as pools. I am an excellent judge of character.”
“You sure are, Drahomir.” Gabe Pritchard raised his glass. “Here’s to your success.”
Smoke and jukebox jazz owned Bar Vodnář after dark. Candles flickered on tabletops. The lamps burned low, and conversation rumbled behind the music, Czech cut with jags of German and French. When the door opened, it drew eyes like filings to a magnet, but never held them long.
“I stayed in, to show him I was not afraid. I could turn the jack or the six, and his pairs would be as nothing against my straight. Through the, what is it — ”
Drahomir grinned like a horse about to bite an apple. “The turn! But you turned no jack, and no six.” He slapped the table once to emphasize each loss. “And he, what is it, re-raised. So all of my money, I push it into the center of the table. I will scare him away. And then, to find on the final card the jack, my friend!” He laughed, and slapped Gabe hard on his bad shoulder. Gabe kept his own smile beaming, and laughed along, though less harshly. “Gabriel! Poker is full of such strange words. Is there a word for this miracle?”
“It’s called being a river rat, Drahomir.”
“Rats,” Drahomir observed, “are fantastic animals. They are hardy, and they live well in the most inhospitable corners of our earth. Wherever you find man, look beneath him and you will find a rat.”
Gabe himself was neither a rat nor drunk, but he faked the latter well. Throughout the game at Josh’s place, he’d steadily poured himself shots of iced tea from a whiskey bottle; after dragging the victorious Drahomir to drinks at the Vodnář, he’d switched to “gin and tonic.” Jordan, who ran the bar, owed Gabe, and he owed her. She knew that when he ordered a gin and tonic with a twist, he meant hold the gin.
Plain tonic was the perfect drink for this kind of work: Gabe had never acquired the taste for quinine, and damn if the stuff didn’t make him squirm just as well as if it were fully leaded.
But that wasn’t the only reason he wanted to squirm, now.
This talk of rats and reading men might mean Drahomir had jumped a step or two ahead of Gabe’s agenda. Gabe liked agendas: He liked conversations to move where and when he wanted under conditions he controlled. The plan had been to get Drahomir drunk and excitable — which Josh’s sacrifice back at the poker table, and his sleight of hand, achieved neatly — but, flush with triumph, the man might be too drunk, too excitable, for the gentle work to come.
Gabe felt a sharp pain in the middle of his forehead, and hoped it was only nerves. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’m glad you enjoyed the game, Drahomir.”
Drahomir mimicked him. “Enjoyed? I found it wonderful. Such talking, it feels like playing against men. I have, you know, played mostly chess — there we keep silent, we watch, we are like machines. I never liked much gambling, but this!”
“It’s a game about friendship, really,” Gabe offered. “It teaches you to know people. When you can trust them. When you can’t.”
“Will we play again?”
“Soon,” Gabe said. The pain intensified. He grimaced.
“Are you well?”
“I’m fine, Drahomir. A headache.”
“Ha. A few too many drinks, my friend?”
“No, nothing like that.” He focused on Drahomir’s dark eyes, willing the pain away. “Look, Drahomir, we’ve known each other for a while now. I’m glad my job at the embassy lets me work so closely with you at the Ministry of Economics. It’s been a good partnership.” Another wash of pain split his head in half between good and partnership, but he kept his voice level. Drahomir looked concerned, but was it concern for Gabe, or concern at the subject of their talk? Jordan, at the bar, stared at him — at them. Had he made a sound without noticing?
Don’t overthink it. Make the touch, make the call. You’ve strung this guy along, now show him the bait, and the hook. Gabe and Josh had figured Drahomir for an idealist and a patriot — a smart one, he’d have to be, the man had survived more purges than a cholera victim, but an idealist and a patriot still. Gabe had gone thirteen rounds with Headquarters over the proper pitch. Don’t offer money, that would make us seem venal and corrupt. Play into Russian narratives. Let him know money’s around if he needs it, but don’t think you can buy him. Don’t offer asylum. If he wanted to run he’d have run already.
Give Drahomir Milovic, assistant undersecretary of the Czech Ministry of Economics, a chance to be a hero. And let him take it.
Headquarters was doubtful.
“I especially value your friendship given everything your country’s been through in the last few years,” Gabe continued. Meaning, though he wouldn’t say it out loud: the Prague Spring, Soviet tanks in the Staré Město, the end of their government’s short-lived normalization. This was when Gabe needed the soft eyes, the earnest stare, the Marlboro Man jaw and the aw-shucks John Wayne calm: You can trust me, sir, I’m Amurican, ah just want whut’s right. And he could have done it, had done it in a hundred gin joints all over the world, except for this damn pounding in his head like some furious dwarf burrowing inside his brain, mining for gold. It was all he could do to keep from wincing. Pull it together, dammit. Make the pitch. “We agree on a lot of things. You like freedom. You like being able to trust the people you sit next to. You like making your own choices, for your own reasons.”
The dwarf hit a fresh vein of ore. Gabe raised a hand to his temple and tried not to scream.
“My friend,” Drahomir said, not listening, worried — worried about Gabe because of this beautiful connection they shared that Gabe had spent the last six months building, block by painstaking block, “you seem unwell. We should find you perhaps a doctor.”
I know people, Gabe could not say, because the words could not escape the ring of the dwarf’s hammer, who would give their lives to know what you know. To sit at the Minister’s ear and hear the poison the Soviets whisper there. To watch the little traces that matter: sudden shifts in spending patterns, interest in new industries in third-world nations, transfers of raw capital backed by Red guarantees. And when Drahomir said, Ah, but I have this knowledge, and I can do nothing to help my country, to help my people, he, Gabe, would reply, You can. Knowledge, Drahomir, is power. Like at the table, when you knew my buddy held two pair. And if you help us — and I’m not talking anything major here, just little details, schedules, the answer to a question or two once in a while, so long as you feel safe — you can sleep at night, and know you’ve done your part to slide a knife between the ribs of those smiling bastards who step so tenderly onto your country’s throat and bear down.
That’s what he would have said, but with kinder and more measured words, with the soft Iowa assurance he’d deployed so readily with assets in Cairo and Madrid and Bangkok and Milan, so that Drahomir, like all the men and women before, would listen, and look into his heart, and find that in that secret place he had forged, unwilling, unsuspecting, a tool to Gabe’s own specs: a hammer, maybe, or wrench, or screwdriver, or pry bar, or knife. A tool with a handle, waiting to be used.
That’s what he would have said, but the dwarf hit cerebellum paydirt and what he said, instead, was sharp and four-lettered and of no use to anyone at all.
Tanya and Nadia crossed paths one block west of the square, ahead of their target. The street was a patchwork of shadow and light, everything reduced to hazy blobs that either melted into the darkness or blotted the lamplight. Having to rely on their own imperfect eyesight, the women were at a disadvantage.
Better to focus on what they could turn in their favor; better to minimize their shortcomings and leverage their strengths. Just as their forebears had stolen the secrets of the atom bomb rather than wasting money uncovering it for themselves. She and Nadia had three advantages over their target: One, they could be certain their target would take the most direct path available to its destination. Two, that it would move at a steady pace. Three, and perhaps the most crucial: It had no idea they were looking for it.
In truth, Tanya much preferred stalking this kind of prey over the usual drunken, paranoid diplomats the rezidentura chief frequently sent her to follow. Those men were always ready to throw a punch, looking for spies everywhere, a confusing mix of alcohol and counterintelligence training sending them looping halfway around Staré Město trying to shake tails real and imagined. But that’s where the advantage ended. Diplomats, agriculture secretaries, cultural attachés, and the like — they rarely showed a fraction of the raw determination that tonight’s prey surely would.
“Couldn’t get a good look,” Nadia said, voice pitched low so it wouldn’t echo off the stone around them. “Still not sure who they’re after.”
“We’re close to Bar Vodnář.” Tanya pointed along the narrow, curving street ahead, through the hazy shapes of balconies and cherub statues jutting from the dark. “Everyone likes to make trouble there.”
“Well, let’s try to stop it before it gets too close. Last thing we need is to pick a fight with some supercharged construct.” Nadia pitched her cigarette into a snow bank. “You have enough dampeners?”
Tanya’s jaw stiffened. Between her grandfather’s constant second-guessing and Nadia’s chiding, it was hard not to feel like a child, fumbling along. Hadn’t she proven herself enough? But she nodded, huffing out a white cloud of breath before her. “I’m ready.”
“Great.” Nadia rolled her shoulders and her neck — the fighter in her limbering up for a brawl. “Since we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with, let’s keep it standard. You take the lead, find out who our target’s after. See if you can’t get that person to safety in a hurry. Use the Vodnář safe room if you have to, though try not to get that nosy bartender involved if you can avoid it. I’ll circle back and try to delay or disable our target.”
Tanya refrained from pointing out that this was exactly how she’d set up their operation last time, only with their roles reversed. That operation belonged to another world — a whole other set of problems. Their mundane daytime world of geopolitical struggle, scrabbling for scraps of information that could change the fate of governments, entire continents. How tiny it all seemed, comparatively.
No, Tanya thought, as she glimpsed their target up ahead. Its limbs — definitely something stony, bound with metal and a host of other elements — shimmered in the dim streetlights a block away. A construct, a being assembled by powerful sorcerers and breathed to life with elemental energy. A creature fueled by a single purpose: to hunt down an elemental Host.
This world was something else entirely.
Gabe’s dwarf wormed spineward. He grimaced, and clutched the table’s edge.
“My friend,” Drahomir said. “You are not well. A doctor must be found.”
“It’s fine, Drahomir.” Gabe ground the words between his teeth. “I have to ask you something.” Hammers struck his temples. Meet Drahomir’s eyes. Be John Wayne. “You probably know I don’t.” He tightened his jaw through a spasm. Jordan set down her towel, watching him openly. He was attracting too much attention, dammit. “You won’t be surprised to learn I don’t work — ” But he cut off for a rapidly indrawn breath as wires of pain shot up and down his spine.
Fine officers stroked out on assignment. People had heart attacks. But this didn’t feel like a heart attack. Poison? He’d not left his drink unattended — that was a rookie mistake. Could Drahomir have — no. They’d watched the man. They knew him. He wasn’t a killer.
Drahomir took his wrist. “Gabriel, let me take you to the hospital. Or at least your embassy. You are in pain. They will surely want to care for you.”
And let Drahomir go down with him in public documents, let him be seen entering the American Embassy — how much use would the man be then? Gabe tried to shake his head.
A shadow blocked out the light. “I’ll take care of him. I’ve seen this before.”
Jordan Rhemes set her hands against the booth tabletop and loomed over them. Silver strands in her dark hair caught the light.
Drahomir looked at her, astonished. So did the rest of the bar.
Too much, Gabe wanted to say to her. You’re attracting attention. Not that Gabe himself wasn’t, here and now.
“He is my friend,” Drahomir repeated. “I will take him to hospital.”
“You,” Jordan replied, “should leave, now. It’s past your bedtime, Assistant Undersecretary. Your wife is no doubt anxious. I’ll make sure he’s safe.”
“I cannot.” He held onto Gabe — why? Maybe Drahomir knew what Gabe wanted to say, maybe he wanted to agree, if Gabe could just get the damn words out.
“You can,” she said, and looked at him. The turning of her head left a trail of music, like soft bells, and her eyes were large. Drahomir paled. He tried to speak, but found no voice. “Go.”
Drahomir scooted from the booth, and stood. He backed toward the door, eyes fixed on Gabe, and in his gaze Gabe saw the wreckage of months of planning. Groping behind himself, Drahomir found the door, opened it, and staggered out into twists of fog and snow.
Jordan nodded once when he was gone, as if she had settled everything, or anything. “I was worried he might follow through with that hospital idea. That wouldn’t be good for any of us.”
“Do you have any idea how long it took me to get him here?” he whispered in Coptic.
“Won’t matter one damn bit if you drop dead in my bar.”
“You had no right — ” But before he could finish his sentence, the world thinned and sped up at once, and the table rushed to meet his face.
Tanya sprinted back from the lead, just far enough that Nadia could see her, and met the other woman’s eyes. Confluence, she mouthed. The intersection of two ley lines, those globe-spanning sources of energy, several of which cut through Prague. They could be used to power everything from the tiniest charm to a massive ritual conducted by hundreds of sorcerers.
The particular confluence they were approaching happened to lie beneath Bar Vodnář, to the consternation of pretty much every sorcerer in central Eastern Europe. The bar’s owner, Jordan Rhemes, wasn’t exactly friendly to institutionalized witchcraft, no matter which institution it was. And for reasons Tanya found it best not to question, she was especially unfriendly to witches who happened to also be intelligence officers for the KGB.
Nadia held Tanya’s gaze just long enough: Message received. They could use the energy from the ley lines to power some of their rituals — hopefully enough to stop the construct. Easy. Then all they had to do was corner a creature formed of elemental magic for a single-minded purpose — the pursuit and capture of a Host. A task it would continue for eternity until it either acquired its target or had been completely smashed into its base components. Yes. Tanya twisted her mouth into a scowl. It’s as simple as that.
Nadia reached into her satchel and pulled out a small charm. Tanya couldn’t see it from this distance, but she had a pretty good idea which one Nadia had chosen — two stones sandwiching a dried paste of dirt, bound with a thin copper wire in an elaborate design. Nadia puffed out a sharp breath onto the charm to supply the final component, then lobbed it over the construct’s shoulder as hard as she could.
The charm plinked against the cobblestone street, several feet ahead of the creature. For a moment, nothing happened. Tanya used the delay to dart forward one block, evening her path with the construct’s once more. Then the creature’s foot landed just short of the charm.
A dagger of rock and hard-packed earth shot up from between the cobblestones, sending the monster flying as it pierced two stories upward into the air. The crack of shifting earth ricocheted across the ornate facades that lined the street. Tanya cringed at the noise — but the time for subterfuge had passed. They could not allow this abomination to reach the Host. The construct crashed onto its back in the middle of the street, limbs whirring frantically, its mechanical drone shifting into a dizzying screech.
“Poshli!” Nadia shouted at Tanya as the stone dagger submerged itself back into the street. Go. “Find the Host!”
Tanya sprinted forward into the fog. Only a block to Bar Vodnář. If the Host was nearby, he or she might feel drawn toward the ley lines, whether they understood why or not. And depending what type of elemental they hosted . . .
Well, Tanya didn’t want to think about what might happen to an unsuspecting Host if he or she tripped a ley line without proper training. Especially with a construct homing in — who knew what they might unknowingly unleash while trying to protect themselves? The power of two ley lines coursing through someone who didn’t know enough to channel them properly — it’d make the cover-up for their last intelligence op look like a stroll in Gorky Park.
With the construct down, Tanya now had to rely on the charms in her trench coat pockets to track down the Host. Not that they were much more reliable, this close to the ley lines, than any of her other field equipment — the static-snarled bug detectors, wonky signals scans, improperly ciphered codes that passed as standard issue. One charm vibrated the closer it got to anything powered by elemental magic, but unfortunately, that description applied to a surprising portion of Prague. Two things this city was lousy with: spies and witches. And more than a few, like Tanya and Nadia, who qualified as both.
The humming in her pocket grew fainter, then stronger as she crossed from one side of the street to the other. The confluence was only a few blocks away now, so accounting for its pull . . . Tanya took a deep breath and plunged around the corner of the next building. Right into a young woman.
“Oh! Omluvte mě!” the girl cried, reeling back. Her blonde hair, only a little lighter than Tanya’s own, was tucked into a knitted cap, and she wore a thick, boiled wool coat over flared trousers. A university student, if Tanya had to guess. Working class, probably a good little junior Communist who supported the Party and attended all the right rallies and didn’t associate with those Prague-Spring, Aleksander-Dubček types who only ever made trouble.
But the charm was vibrating madly, threatening to drill a hole in Tanya’s thigh. This had to be the Host.
“Come with me. Quietly, please.” Tanya’s Czech was filed off at the edges, prickly with her Moscow accent. “Do not make a sound.” She looped her arm through the girl’s and ushered her toward the next block — the back alleyway and service entrance for Bar Vodnář.
Tanya knew she looked terrifying right now, her face flushed with exertion, blonde wisps of hair snaking free of her braid, her lips pulled back in a painfully false grin. But sometimes fear was a necessity. Fear got people to comply.
The girl resisted for only a second before her limbs softened in resignation. “Who — who are you?” she whispered, as they approached the alley’s mouth. “No. Let me guess. Státní bezpečnost?” The Czech secret police. “KGB, with that accent.”
“Quiet. I need you quiet for one minute.” The darkened alley enveloped them, but now they were only yards from the confluence: Whether the Host girl could feel it or not, Tanya could sense every charm and talisman jammed in her pockets coming to life. “I can explain everything.”
The touch of cold metal cleared Gabe’s head and righted the spinning bar, almost. The room still danced behind him and around him, but less forcefully, and the ache in his head dulled. Jordan’s hand was on his hand, her long, dark fingers pressing a charm into his palm — a closed eye in iron, with a narrow white feather wound through the metal.
“Does this help?”
“You,” he said, finding words came more easily now, “had no business chasing him away.”
“Don’t give me too much credit. You did more than enough.” He’d heard doctors sound that way before, when operating on patients they judged terminal. “I just helped the process along. Follow me.”
“No,” he said, but she was already leaving. He hated this feeling: drowning in foreign waters. It reminded him of Cairo, of smoke-filled basements and impossible visions, of 1968 and the year he’d first met Jordan Rhemes. Back then he’d thought the only secret world was the one where he lived and worked. He slid out of the booth and pursued her, shakily, one hand always touching something solid: the side of a booth, a table, the wall, a bare water pipe. Jordan’s skirt swayed ahead of him, but her shoulders were fixed and steady as a battleship prow. “It’s only a headache.”
“Even you do not believe that,” she said. “I did not save your life back in Egypt to watch you decay now.”
“I can handle this on my own,” he said.
Tanya steered the girl toward a stack of wooden pallets. “Climb. Get up high.” They climbed up to the low roofline of Bar Vodnář and settled on the edge of slate tiles; Tanya kicked away the pieces of lumber closest to them so no one — or rather, no thing — would find an easy path up. “All right. Can I trust you to stay put long enough for me to explain?”
The girl nodded. Her face was still soft around the edges, but her eyes sparkled with youthful determination. Tanya remembered that feeling from her own days as a student back at Moscow State. Back before she was assigned here, at the frontlines of the stalemate.
“My name is Tatiana Mikhailovna, but please, call me Tanya, if you like. I’m a cultural secretary at the Soviet Embassy” — the lies flowed easily as water these days — “but that isn’t why I’m here tonight. There are people hunting for you. I want to protect you from them, but I need your cooperation.”
The student hunched her shoulders forward, drawing back from Tanya. “Hunting for me? People from your . . . embassy?” She said the word plainly enough — not dipped in the venom Tanya would expect from one of the Dubček sorts, but the distrust was clear.
“No. No, nothing like that.” Tanya shook her head. “Let me ask you . . . uh, Comrade . . .”
The girl hesitated, then shoved her hands into her pockets. “Andula.”
Tanya gave her a sheepish smile — a well-worn tool in her kit for softening up a potential asset. “Andula. Děkuji.” Thank you. “Have you experienced anything strange lately, perhaps when you cross through Staré Město?” She gestured toward the winding street beyond their alleyway. “It might be more intense during periods of low tide, or when there is a full moon, or — or perhaps when Venus is visible in the — ”
Andula’s stare was inching wider and wider, the sort of expression usually reserved for dealing with ranting lunatics.
Tanya cleared her throat. “What I mean to say is, have you noticed any strange sensations in this part of town? A headache, perhaps, or a tug of some sort, deep in your gut.”
“I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. I . . .” But then Andula’s eyebrows drew downward. “Wait. No, now that you mention it, I did feel ill the other day, when I was collecting my stipend at the university offices not far from here. And then tonight, it was like this — I don’t know, this . . . pressure, just in the back of my skull.” Her eyes narrowed. “Your friends at the ‘embassy’ haven’t done something to me, have they?”
“No, I assure you, it isn’t that at all.” Tanya laced her fingers together, the leather of her gloves squeaking. Where the hell was Nadia? She should have dismantled the construct by now and joined them. Somehow, for all her brusqueness, her partner was always better at explaining these things. The best Tanya could hope for was to spin an intriguing enough tale that the girl’s curiosity or confusion would keep her from running. “There is no easy way to explain this, Andula. You are what is known as a Host. A vessel for one of the thirty-six elementals that power the world’s sources of magic. Because of what you are, you are in danger from those who would use you to — ”
Andula scrambled to her feet, tiles crashing to the alley floor beneath them. “All right. I think I’ve heard enough.”
“Please. Just let me finish.” Tanya pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s very important that you hear me out — ”
“Get back!” Nadia roared in Russian as she tumbled into the alley’s mouth. She wasn’t alone — she was coiled around the main body of the construct, ungloved hands clawing desperately at the copper components that traced strange shapes all around its trunk. The construct lurched, menacing, toward the roofline, and leapt at them. For one moment, the phosphorescent eyes and gash of a mouth carved into its rocky face seemed to fix right on Tanya and the girl before Nadia was able to throw enough weight to send it crashing back to the alley floor.
“Wait right here,” Tanya said to Andula — no more softness, no apologetic tone. No more time. She clenched her teeth and jumped down from the roof.
Tanya dug a charm out of her pocket and snapped the twigs on it in half to activate it. As she tossed it against the construct, the twigs turned into vines, flourishing over the construct’s trunk, tangling around its limbs. Nadia bounced to her feet, nimble as ever. “Are we close enough?” she asked in Russian.
“It’ll have to do.” Tanya pulled out the components bag and dumped it open on the construct’s twitching form. Flashing metal filings, herbs, flint, more twigs. She added a gob of saliva to the mix, then stepped over the construct to join hands with Nadia.
A bluish-gold glow seeped out of the spell components. It swirled into the air and wrapped itself around the two women, gilding the construct, the pile of discarded crates, the edge of the roof as they began to chant. Old Slavic words tangled into Latin; Aramaic put in an appearance. The longer they chanted, words droning as the intensity swelled, the more the glow illuminated, until it was pouring out of their mouths with each phrase and slicing through the cold night air.
The construct rattled beneath them, trying despite the vines to continue its grim march. Just a few seconds more, Tanya prayed, as she let her chant punch through the night.
Then the vine snapped, and the construct lurched forward.
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