Birds of Prophecy
Birds of Prophecy
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Book 3 of the Dashkova Memoirs
- Historical Fantasy
- Supernatural Steampunk
- Myths & Legends
Katerina Dashkova must die.
When Warden Simon Snyder seeks Kat's help to solve a bloodless murder, she becomes entangled with a prophecy that predicts her death on the Winter Solstice. The investigation turns an old friend into a dangerous enemy, complicates loyalties, and creates a mystery so deep that Kat will have to expose herself to ultimate betrayal to solve it. Even if she does, the question remains: Can she save Philadelphia from an ancient evil?
Intro Into Chapter One
Intro Into Chapter One
A bird is known by its flight. My father, Roman Dashkova, often whispered this proverb to me when we visited the other nobles of the Russian court. The meaning was: you could tell a person by their home and how they lived. Roman never said these words without implicit judgment hanging from his stern lips.
If he could see beyond the grave into my front room, he would have marched out, taking with him his courtly retinue. I could scarcely comprehend the view myself as I lay on my divan with an old sheet tangled around my feet, my head feeling like it'd been cut off and jammed onto a spike.
With trembling hands, I pushed myself up and nearly passed out from the rush of blood to my head. My mouth had turned to a bucket of glue and my eyes had been plucked out and rolled through brambles before being shoved back into their sockets.
In any other circumstance, I might have lain back onto the divan and pulled the blanket over my face. Except this was my front room and the last thing I remembered was returning from the Franklin Estate. Ben had given me a large dose of the immortality powder, and by the time I had reached my door and punched in the code, I could hardly keep my eyes propped open. If I'd done this in my sleep, I worried for my sanity.
Sitting in neat rows along the wall were piles of refuse: broken glass, splintered wood, bent brass pipes, and the like. I recognized the detritus as the remainders of my home that had been damaged in the previous weeks by that deathless assassin and my old friend, Voltaire, when he'd broken my alchemy equipment searching for powder.
The glass had been collected from the cellar, where it had been scattered across the cold stone. Except the glass hadn't just been collected, it'd been sifted and sorted into similarly sized pieces all the way up to nearly recognizable chunks of tubes and beakers. The smallest pieces were so fine, barely achieving a description above dust, that I couldn't imagine that I'd bothered to collect them.
I heard a slight mechanical whine coming from the staircase. My confusion turned to fear when I realized I was being watched.
Turning my head until I faced the creature on the stairs required excessive amounts of grimacing. Its pointed golden face regarded me with an alien expression that lay somewhere between observation and calculation.
"Aught," I said, my voice coming out as a grinding whisper. My lips were as cracked as the desert.
"Kat, awake," said the golden pangolin.
It bounded down the stairs, its golden scales catching the light coming through the crack in the curtains. Aught collected a pewter mug from the table with its raccoon-like hands and presented it to me while standing on hind legs.
The water was ambrosia. He brought me two more full mugs and I drank them down, feeling bottomless. Only the ache in my belly kept me from taking a fourth.
"Aught," I said, "my little bogatyr knight. Thank you."
The golden creature sat on the floor cleaning its paws.
"Ben come," said Aught, his silky mechanical voice like two coins being rubbed together, "wake, nothing."
"I'm just glad he's back," I said, cradling the mug. "How long have I slept?"
"Seven days, Kat slept," said Aught.
"Seven days?" I exclaimed, the effort to speak making me dizzy.
"Come quick, Ben says," said Aught.
Memories from before came flooding back: flying to the airship Brave Eagle, the battle with Koschei, the strange gauntlet, and the last words Ben spoke before I returned home: "We have to save Philadelphia."
Rising to my feet took three tries, the first two aborted when black spots formed in my vision. Standing straight resulted in a series of pops in my spine and a burst of pain traveling down the sides of my legs.
"If only the bath worked—I stink of the sewer," I said, picking at a grayish layer of filth on my skin. It came off like dead skin.
"Fixed, bath," said Aught, then he bounded into the next room, and the sound of water falling nearly made me swoon.
After drinking another mug, I shrugged out of my dress and found the bath, half-filled with steaming water. When I submerged, the gray material stayed adhered to my skin.
The watery god on the tiled ceiling looked down upon me with appropriate disapproval as I considered the eighteen handles on the organ-like pipes. Each one would provide a different bathing experience, and I'd sampled eleven of the handles, never once considering the last one shaped like a star due to Ben's warning. The first seventeen handles gave a luxurious bathing experience, but the last handle was forbidden.
I touched the flower-shaped handle, deciding against it in case the fragrance was unpleasant. In my weakened state, I was afraid any malodorous scent would turn my stomach inside out. Rather than risk further injury, I sunk into the hot water, letting it surround me like a cocoon.
When I surfaced, Aught was climbing across the pipes. Each time he made a new handhold, it clinked in response. His tail swished through the water and splashed me playfully.
I thought he was merely showing me what he could do, like a proud child, until he swung down and turned one of the unknown handles.
"Aught, no!" I screeched, scrambling too slowly to stop him.
The handle was shaped like an oval with two prongs on the top. Aught made two full turns before I could make it halfway across the bath. A hollow chattering echoed out of the tube, like a thousand hungry insects clapping their mandibles.
Heartbeats later, a thick black liquid rushed out of the tube. It spread like ink. Pieces of the black flood surged towards my side of the bath and then I realized it wasn't liquid, but a wave of black beetles.
The scramble up the stairs proved disastrous as I missed the first step and plunged into the water. The beetles surrounded me like a web. Their tiny hard feet grabbed my flesh and their mouths worked my skin.
I came up screaming, the beetles, each one as small as the tip of the littlest finger, covering my body like leeches. Shiny chitinous armor protected them from the blows I rained upon them, most of my fury hitting water or my own flesh.
The plague of beetles climbed my neck and onto my face, mandibles clicking. I slammed my eyes shut as they blanketed my head, entangling themselves into my hair, pulling and tugging until I wanted to scream, except that opening my mouth would expose me to further attacks.
My flails and slaps did nothing to dislodge them. Tiny nibbles scratched at my flesh, making me feel like I was being rolled through a bed of pine needles. It burned worse on my sensitive flesh: nipples, lips, eyelids.
Fearing that I would pass out, I calmed myself, enduring the mass of beetles on my naked body. With eyes clamped shut, I tried to breathe through my nose, thankful none had tried to climb into that, or any other orifice. Eventually I began to realize that the swarm was uncomfortable, but not fatal. They weren't burrowing into my skin or ripping chunks from my flesh.
As they climbed over me, their collective bodies hummed an unfamiliar tune, like crickets or frogs at dusk. It rose and fell in a soothing cadence, and only then did I realize the insects were not piercing my flesh, but devouring the gray material that my body had excreted.
The beetles released themselves from my face, enough that I dared to open my eyes again. One beetle dove off my arm into the water and dissolved like paste. Others followed, like lemmings from a cliff, diving en masse. I plucked one from the back of my hand and examined it as it wriggled between forefinger and thumb. The glistening brown body bulged with plumpness, expanding the chitinous armor. I released it to return to the water and it disappeared as quickly as tears in the ocean.
My fears assuaged, I tried to relax and let the critters dine on my bodily waste. The delicate nibbles made me feel like I'd been rubbed down with cayenne pepper.
When the last beetle disappeared, I lowered my arms to my sides and slumped against the steps.
Aught watched me like a monkey on a vine. I splashed him quite forcefully.
"You knew what would happen," I said. "Didn't you? I thought you were my friend."
Aught stared back with an unassailable expression.
The steaming water on my raw flesh proved more than I could bear. Shivering, I made my way to my room and toweled off. When I caught a glance at the full length mirror, I thought a stranger had wandered into the room.
The hair that had been milky white a week before had returned to a vigorous ebony. My flesh was pink like a newborn. I poked at my face, feeling the tightness of youth. Even before the powder had begun to wear off, I'd never looked as young.
Leaning back, I stretched my arms into the air, examining myself on all sides. Only when I looked down to scrutinize myself directly did I notice faint black lines threading through my flesh like contour lines on a map.
A probing touch revealed nothing. The lines were symmetrical and followed the general curves of my body. As I traced one that went from my ribs towards my pelvis, it disappeared as if it'd been absorbed.
I blinked a few times, concerned it'd been my imagination, but something told me that they'd been real. I had to believe they were some side effect of the immortality powder.
Then I remembered that Ben Franklin was expecting me.
"Ben can wait," I said, staring longingly at my feather bed.
Aught's voice from the doorway startled me. "Come quick, Ben says." The golden pangolin was peering around the corner, as if it were too shy to enter.
"I heard you the first time," I said over my shoulder as I searched through my closet. "But I'm sure he's figured whatever it is out. I've been asleep for a week."
"Trouble, Philadelphia in," said Aught.
"I don't think he'll want me showing up like an owl in an ivy bush," I said.
Aught said nothing, which I assumed meant he agreed. Of course, it could have also meant he didn't understand, which suited me rightly. I didn't know what to make of the little automaton pangolin, even if Ben had sent him to help.
I lingered over the men's clothing in my closet, wanting their comfort, but chose a homespun cotton gown with rose petal patterns instead. The excessive buttoning it took to fasten the front made me long for a pair of breeches and a jacket, but I reminded myself the dress was significantly less confining than the attire I’d worn at the Russian court.
On the way out, I found two letters that had been slipped under my door. They both had official stamps on them from the local government. My stomach did a few flips as I knocked the wax seals off.
The first was an official notice of breach of contract. I'd failed to deliver pamphlets to the Agrarian Party. They expected the down payment plus damages in return. The second notice was from the city courthouse, notifying me that my rent on the Patriot Letters was past due and that unless I could pay that amount, plus late fees and interest by the end of the year, I would lose my business. I left the letters on the armoire and headed out the door for the Franklin Estate, choosing to walk so I could clear my head and the stiffness in my back. I didn't make it two steps before trouble found me.