The Witch Who Came In From the Cold. Episode One: A Long, Cold Winter Pt. 2
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.
Start with Part One found HERE
Following Jordan through the bar’s back rooms, Gabe clutched the charm and told himself that the metal’s temperature made the difference. Gave him something to focus on. Or perhaps it was the pain of the amulet’s edges digging into his palm that clarified his mind. The symbol did not matter, nor did the feather. He would be mad to think so.
Maybe he was.
She led him through a door, lit a candle, and continued down a sloped passage lined with shelves piled high with stock. Most of the Vodnář’s customers would have been surprised to see what stock, precisely. The hall’s first turning held the usual: beer bottles and cleaner, pallet boxes of chips, a vat of nuts, liquor. After the second turn bar supplies gave way to drying herbs and fruits, and what he hoped were roots — the light down here wasn’t good, and some roots did look like mummified hands. After its third turn, the hall might have been a museum stockroom. Wrought metal charms filled one shelf; along another rested a line of ancient nails sorted painstakingly by size and type of head, each tip stained with what Gabe hoped was rust. Large stylized masks in the shape of birds’ and lions’ heads, or in shapes he did not recognize at all, rested on the top shelves, staring down like angels in judgment. Beneath them lay drums and flutes made of beechwood, God, that had to be beech, though the grain looked more like bone. One shelf sported only gleaming knives. He could almost hear the candlelight against their edges.
At the hall’s end stood another door, which opened into an office: leather chair, fine old desk, packed with so many herbs and unguents the smells clashed and overlapped and all he could think was jungle. Jordan fit the candle she carried into an iron holder.
“Close the door. Sit.”
“What,” he said, “no skull? I thought the candle’s supposed to, you know, sit on the skull.” “Perhaps I will have yours out for the purpose. Sit.”
He sat. The throbbing headache returned. He pressed the talisman to his forehead.
She grabbed a bronze bowl off one shelf, tossed it on the desk, lit a small gas flame under a black kettle, and circled around the room, gathering herbs and screwed-shut jars.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to keep you in one piece. This is the worst the headaches have been, yes? The worst since Cairo?”
He crossed his arms. “That’s none of your business.”
She slathered a scoop of what looked like black tar into the bowl, added three handfuls of three different herbs, and mixed them into a paste with a flat blade. “It is all of my business, and very little of yours. By rights you should never have been drawn in to this world. You have tried to ignore it. You have tried to cowboy through, and perhaps now you may see that this is not helpful? Ignoring your difficulty hurts you, and your mission.”
“I know this talk,” he said. “You’re buttering me up for a pitch.”
“I am trying to help you.”
“I won’t betray my people.”
The kettle whistled. Jordan poured water into the bowl, mixed the paste as if she were making cocoa, then added more water. “No fresh goat’s milk, sadly, but this will have to do. Drink, quickly. It will help the pain.”
He set down the charm, and raised the bowl. The bronze warmed his hands. “This is steaming.”
“It will not hurt you. I promise. Try not to breathe the fumes.”
He met her eyes, and drank. Oily liquid, gritty with powder, ash, and herbs, slithered down his throat. The pain receded. His vision cleared.
“I am not pitching you,” she said. “And I do not wish you to betray anyone. There are people who have dealt with problems like yours since long before you were born — and long before your country was born, as well. They will help you, and then you will be able to do your job again. Will you listen to what I have to say, at least?”
Gabe finished the bowl, set it down, and slid it back to Jordan. The pain felt like a radio on in another room — easily ignored. “Fine,” he said. “Tell me.”
Jordan squeezed his shoulder, and smiled. “You stumbled into a new world in Cairo, a world on whose edges I’ve lived all my life. There are two factions: Call them the Ice and the Flame. Their leaders have been fighting a secret war for a very long time, with people like me caught in the middle.” Her smile turned sad. “Sound familiar?”
He nodded. “Good. When you need to vomit, use the bucket beside you.”
Tanya and Nadia chanted, bathing the alleyway in shades of blue and gold, even as the construct lurched out of its bindings. The glow wormed into its articulated stone joints; the “eyes” in the hollows on its head burned a hot white. It leapt once more for the roofline, where Andula, the terrified student, crouched. But they didn’t relent, letting the ancient languages twist and flow.
Then everything happened at once: Andula’s scream, the sparks showering from the construct’s joints, the flash of light that hit Tanya in the chest like a fist. Her hand ripped out of Nadia’s, and she tumbled backward into the heap of broken wooden pallets. Flecks of wiring and crystals sprayed across her lap — the creature’s elemental components.
They’d done it. They’d overloaded the construct with energy direct from the ley lines, more than it could possibly contain. It had been reduced to its base parts, all of the power its creators had stored within it unleashed in a single burst.
As for the matter of just who’d created it . . . well, she and Nadia would have to deal with that soon enough.
“Blyad,” Nadia swore, heaving a chunk of rock off her arm. She was sprawled across the alley floor, her dark hair pooled beneath her. Tanya had to blink a few times to clear the afterflash in her eyes to make sure it wasn’t blood.
“What the devil was that thing?” Andula screeched.
Tanya and Nadia exchanged a look. “I need to gather components,” Nadia said. “So we can track down the creators.”
Tanya sighed and climbed back up to the roofline with Andula. “As I was saying . . . You are a Host. You were born attuned to a particular elemental, and, through some means, have been activated. Your elemental has come home to roost, you could say.” Tanya smiled darkly. “Witches like me are able to use these elements for good, but there are witches who would use them for more sinister purposes, too. And they would very much like to harvest this elemental from you.”
“Harvest? Harvest?” Andula crawled back on the roof, away from Tanya. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Tanya chose to ignore her question for the moment. “These witches — the Acolytes of Flame — someone from their organization created that device. An elemental construct. Its sole purpose was track you down for them. Fortunately for you, members of the Flame aren’t the only people capable of wielding elemental magic.”
The girl’s eyes were wild. “And what would it have done if it caught me?”
Nadia trilled with laughter. “Oh, milaya devushka. Trust me, you don’t want the answer to that.”
The crisp night air crackled in the heavy silence for a few moments. “It was tracking me,” Andula finally said. She watched as Nadia wrenched apart two chunks of crystal that had been fused together. “Like — like a radar, or something.”
“Yes, much like that. The Acolytes of Flame are attempting to collect all of the Hosts like you,” Tanya said. “They want the elementals for themselves.”
“So there’s something inside of me? Right now?” Andula pointed to herself. “What is an elemental, and what does it want with me?”
“It wants you. You were born to be together, you were meant to be the Host for the kind of elemental power it represents — like water, or electricity, or earth, so you can use its power to its fullest potential. Think, Andula — have you always had an affinity for water, perhaps, or a particular type of flower? But it wasn’t until you were activated by a strong burst of energy that your elemental could find you.” Tanya’s expression softened. “Don’t worry, it can’t harm you. This is what you were made for.”
Andula laughed, a dry and bitter rasp. “I’ve never known you KaGeBezniks to be big on matters of fate.”
Nadia and Tanya flinched as one. They exchanged a glance, a long, wordless debate, then Tanya closed her eyes with a faint nod. “We’re not here as KaGeBezniks,” Nadia said at last.
“No? Then who are you? What do you really want with me?” Andula folded her arms across her chest. “How can I trust you? How do I know that this ‘Flame’ is the group that means me harm, and not you?”
“We’re with the Consortium of Ice,” Tanya said, resting one hand on Andula’s knee. She was careful to keep her palm curved down, concealing the tiny charm nestled in her hand there. “And we’re here to help.”
Gabe thought that by the third heave, surely there couldn’t be anything left. He was wrong.
Jordan rocked back and forth in her chair and kept talking, as if his guts weren’t lying in a bucket between them. “The Ice like the world more or less the way it is. They are . . . prigs, for the most part, but less vicious than the Flame. I have contacts among them. If anyone knows how to deal with your pain, they will.” She passed him a tissue.
“I don’t need their help” would have sounded much more authoritative if his stomach hadn’t chosen that instant to double him over, dry-heaving.
“That should be the last.” She passed him a glass of clean water once he finished. “Rinse your mouth well. You don’t want any of the stuff you drank lingering between your teeth.”
He rinsed, spit, and wiped his mouth, then tossed the tissue in the bucket. “Is there a place I can dump this?”
She nodded to a door he hadn’t noticed before. “Washroom.”
By the time he returned she’d wiped the bowl clean, and burnt a handful of herbs within. Gabe took his seat. “I can handle myself.”
She laughed. “Like you handled Drahomir?” Jordan did not let the silence linger long enough to compel his answer. “How long can you keep this from your comrades at the embassy? Or from their bosses back at Langley? The Ice can teach you to deal with your problem.”
She shook her head. “I can treat the symptoms. The problem beneath, I cannot touch. And if you let that problem go untended, the symptoms will grow beyond my ability to calm.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No,” she said. “You must speak with Alestair Winthrop. He is a . . .” she searched the air above his head for the right word, and settled on “. . . cultural attaché at the British Embassy. One of your people.”
Gabe crossed his legs and leaned back. She hadn’t said operative. She hadn’t said spy. “A cultural attaché?”
“MI6,” she said. “So, really your kind of people. It’s not like I’m sending you to the KGB.”
“Was that an option?”
Jordan’s smile was very white, but in other respects nothing like a shark’s. “Your service and his are friendly. If your comrades, or Langley, discover the relationship, they might even be pleased: Interagency cooperation is so difficult to achieve, especially in the field.”
“And he’s a . . . whatever.” Her face screwed up. “Sorcerer is the term they prefer. But yes. From as old a family as they come. The Ice cares about things like that: bloodlines, titles, families. Prigs, like I said.”
“And he’s MI6. Of course.”
“I don’t care for the Ice at all, Gabriel. But Alestair is a good man. He will help you.”
Yes was the word on the tip of his tongue. It tasted smooth, round, soothing, cough-drop fresh. But with the pain gone, training caught him like a trap. An officer massaged an asset through the stages of the recruitment cycle like a priest led parishioners through the stations of the Cross: Find a potential source, trace the outlines of his needs or hers, build relationship through trust or fear or common cause, and then recruit. Coax the player into the game.
I’m not trying to pitch you, Jordan had said. But that was the cycle’s core, the double blind, the story told and sold: This isn’t a process, these steps aren’t mechanical. You’re special. We care. The magic was real. Cairo streets twisted through his nightmares. Jackals laughed and metal feet clattered down cobblestones in memory. Knives gleamed in shadows, their edges blood-wet. He saw those dark dream visions waking, sometimes, before the headaches came.
Jordan wanted to help. Or wanted him to feel that’s what she wanted.
He swallowed the yes, said “No,” and stood. The room did not tilt or sway as he approached the door. “Gabriel — ”
“No,” he repeated, finding it easier the second time.
She rounded the desk toward him, reached for his arm but did not touch him. “You cannot ignore Cairo forever. Sooner or later you will have to face the wounds you took. Sooner or later you will have to trust me.”
He couldn’t bear to say no a third time, so he walked through the door and shut it behind himself.
Karel Hašek watched with one perfectly crinkled eyebrow as Vladimir spread the contents of his satchel on his desk, early morning light painting them with a softness that, having failed, they didn’t deserve. Molten tangle of copper wiring. Crystal fragments. A bundle of herbs or flowers, singed beyond recognition. A chunk of quartz. Vladimir snapped the satchel closed, then crossed his hands before him, waiting for his boss to speak.
“What?” Karel asked. “That’s it?”
“That’s all we recovered from the alley where we located it, sir.” Vladimir’s thick fingers clenched around the satchel straps. “I suspect that whoever dismantled it most likely took the rest with them.”
“Whoever. Whoever.” Karel raked a hand through his dark curls. “And who, pray tell, do you think is capable of dismantling such a construct?”
Vladimir’s throat bobbed; he looked around the study, half-afraid the rest of their coven might pour out of the shadows at any moment. “The — the Ice, sir?”
“Yes. Yes, the Ice. But what are they doing in Prague?” Karel shoved away from the desk and began to prowl, pacing in long strides. “When was the last time they bothered to track down the Hosts on their own?”
“All they seem to care about is interrupting our work,” Vladimir said.
“Always we must stay two steps ahead, Vladimir. Never be the one to pursue. What good is it doing the Soviets to chase after the Americans, after all? Kennedy said he wanted a man on the moon, the Soviets poured all their funds into trying to beat them there. No. Too late. They tried to squash our spirit here, in Prague, but by tamping out one fire, they ignited a dozen others. So it will be for the Ice.”
Vladimir studied the map pinned up behind Karel’s desk. Hand-drawn, centuries-old, the political boundaries embarrassingly outdated. But the stark diagonal lines formed an uneven grid that never budged. Whatever they accomplished with the ritual, with all of the Hosts bound together as one, that grid would remain, ready to serve them. An endless power source for their endless reign.
“But they have our Host,” Karel continued.
Vladimir cleared his throat. “We cannot be certain of that. If we can identify the Host through what remains of the construct, we might be able to locate him or her through more . . . conventional means.”
“Mm. Perhaps.” Karel plucked up one of the crystals, turning it over in his fingers. A splinter of darkness lingered at the center. Vladimir couldn’t remember if it had been there before their ritual or not. “Or at the very least, we might locate these Ice interlopers. That could be far more valuable, in the long run.”
Vladimir blinked a few times, then forced himself to nod, even as he was trembling inside. “Naturally, sir. But — but in the meantime. What shall I . . . tell the others?”
“Tell them we’ll need to conduct a new ritual sooner than we anticipated. I’ll check the charts, the almanac, but I think there are several auspicious times ahead.” Karel grimaced. “It would be better if we could gain access to the confluence beneath Bar Vodnář.”
“The one the Rhemes woman owns?” Vladimir asked. His shoulders rolled back as he stood up straighter. “I think we might have a solution to that.”
Karel seized his coat from the rack and swung it on. Heavy tweed, a fine English cut — something from before the tanks rolled in. “Then see to it.” He pulled on his cap. “I have a lecture to give.”
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