Booth was beginning to fall apart.
In this grim grey London, the drunkard’s body hadn’t lasted long at all— much to the displeasure of the thing burning its way through him. It wasn’t the magic’s fault; there was so little to hold on to here, so little to feed on. The people had only a candle’s light of life inside them, not the fire to which the darkness was accustomed. So little heat, so easily extinguished. The moment he got inside, he burned them up to nothing, blood and bone to husk and ash in no time at all.
Booth’s black eyes drifted down to his charred fingers. With such poor kindling, he couldn’t seem to spread, couldn’t last long in any body.
Not for lack of trying. After all, he’d left a trail of discarded shells along the docks.
Burned through the place they all called Southwark in a mere hour.
But his current body—the one he’d taken in the tavern alley—was now coming undone. The black stain across his shirtfront pulsed, trying to keep the last of the life from bleeding out. Perhaps he shouldn’t have stabbed the drunkard first, but it seemed the fastest way in.
But the failing shell and the lack of prospects had left him with a predicament. He appeared to be rotting.
Bits of skin flaked off with every step. The people in the street looked at him and moved away, out of reach, as if whatever was eating him was contagious. Which, of course, it was. Magic was a truly beautiful disease. But only when the hosts were strong enough. Pure enough. The people here were not.
He walked on through the city—shuffled, hobbled, really, at this point—the power in this shell only embers now, and quickly cooling.
And in his desperation, he found himself drawn on—drawn back—to the place where he had started: the Stone’s Throw. He wondered at the pull of the odd little tavern. It was a flicker of warmth in the cold, dead city. A glimmer of light, of life, of magic.
If he could get there, he might find a fire yet.
He was so consumed by the need to reach the tavern that he did not notice the man standing by its door, nor the carriage fast approaching as he stepped off the curb and into the street.
* * *
Edward Archibald Tuttle stood outside the Stone’s Throw, frowning at the time.
It should be open by now, but the bolts were still thrown, the windows shuttered, and everything within seemed strangely still. He checked his pocket watch. It was after noon. How odd. Suspicious, he thought. Nefarious, even. His mind spun over the possibilities, all of them dark.
His family insisted that he had too vivid an imagination, but he held that the rest of the world simply lacked the sight, the sense for magic, which he, obviously, possessed. Or at least endeavored to possess. Or, truly, had begun to fear he would never possess, had begun to think (though he would not admit it) did not exist.
Until he found the traveler. The renowned magician known only as Kell.
That single—and singular—meeting had rekindled his belief, stoked the fires hotter than they had ever been.
And so Edward had done as he was told, and returned to the Stone’s Throw in hopes of finding the magician a second time and receiving his promised bag of earth. To that end, he had come yesterday, and to that end, he would come again tomorrow, and the next, until the illustrious figure returned.
While he waited, Ned—for that was what his friends and family called him
—spun stories in his head, trying to imagine how the eventual meeting would take shape, how it would unfold. The details changed, but the end remained the same: in every version, the magician Kell would tip his head and consider Ned with his black eye.
“Edward Archibald Tuttle,” he’d say, “May I call you Ned?” “All my friends do.”
“Well, Ned, I see something special in you. …”
He’d then insist upon being Ned’s mentor, or even better, his partner. After that, the fantasy usually devolved into praise.
Ned had been playing out yet another of these daydreams while he stood on the steps of the Stone’s Throw, waiting. His pockets were weighed with trinkets and coins, anything the magician might want in exchange for his prize. But the magician had not come, and the tavern was all locked up, and Ned—after whispering something that was equal parts spell and prayer and nonsense and trying unsuccessfully to will the bolt from its place—was about
to pause his pursuit for the moment and go pass a few hours in an open establishment, when he heard a crash behind him in the street.
Horses whinnied and wheels clattered to a halt. Several crates of apples tumbling out of a cart as the driver pulled back sharply on the reins. He looked more frightened than his horses.
“What’s the matter?” asked Ned, striding over.
“Bloody hell,” the driver was saying. “I’ve hit him. I’ve hit someone.” Ned looked around. “I don’t think you’ve hit anything.”
“Is he under the cart?” went on the driver. “Oh God. I didn’t see him.”
But when he knelt to inspect the space beneath the carriage, the spokes of its wheels, Ned saw nothing but a stretch of soot—it was, strangely enough, vaguely person-shaped—across the stones, already blowing away. One small mound seemed to move, but then it crumbled inward and was gone. Strange, he thought with a frown. Ominous. He held his breath and reached out toward the smear of charcoal dust, expecting it to spring to life. His fingers met the ash and … nothing happened. He rubbed the soot between his thumb and forefinger, disappointed.
“Nothing there, sir,” he said, getting to his feet.
“I swear,” said the driver. “There was someone here. Right here.” “Must have been mistaken.”
The driver shook his head, mumbling, then climbed down from the cart and reloaded the crates, looking under the cart a few more times, just in case.
Ned held his fingers up to the light, wondering at the soot. He had felt something—or thought he had—a prickle of warmth, but the feeling had quickly faded to nothing. He sniffed the soot once and sneezed roundly, then wiped the ash on his pant leg and wandered off down the street.