Leopard Ascending

a novel of gaslight and magic

Coming Soon
Part of the Hellion House series:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

Gideon Fletcher slipped his hand inside his greatcoat, reaching for his pistol. The gesture was as natural as taking a breath, for every instinct said he’d just become prey.

He kept walking, the rhythm of his stride even. Carriages rattled past, dodging around the occasional steam-powered vehicle. On this street of tidy shops, clockwork displays rotated behind the shop windows, spinning and flashing to catch the eye. He was aware of it all and ignored most, keenly aware of what dangers might hide behind each window and door.

Anger blunted his fear. He’d been on the way to the Mercury Café, where he went for drink and noise to lighten his mood. Deep in the heart of the gaslit city, he should have been safe. After all, the walls around the city were magically protected.

Should wasn’t worth a brass farthing.

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Casually, he angled his body to the left as if peering in the window of a nearby café. A quick scan of the pavement behind him revealed little. The last of the afternoon crowds dotted the solidly respectable neighborhood. The men wore waistcoats and bowler hats, and the women had servants to carry their shopping. There was nothing here but the pettiest of crimes.

And yet the flesh along Gideon’s spine shrank as if cold, dead fingers caressed his back. He’d felt the same invisible eyes in the wilderness beyond Londria’s walls, where the Unseen roamed. Something stalked this unassuming scene.

Gideon cursed softly, the frigid air turning his breath to mist.

Slowly, he resumed his journey, his gaze traveling up the old stone buildings to search for lurkers along the rooflines. A few of the structures here were from before the Great Disaster of Queen Elizabeth’s time, their medieval roofs a jumble of snaggle-toothed peaks. Above, a passing airship caught the low, setting sun, the silks of its balloon turning the color of flame. He looked away before the brightness dulled his vision.

Movement flickered in the shadows of the nearest building. Gideon turned for a better view, but the alley between the old bank and the offices next to it was empty. Without hurrying his step, he slid into the narrow passage, finally drawing his pistol.

“If you wish a fight, I’m all attention.” His words ghosted in the dim, cold atmosphere. Heart pounding, he strained to hear the slightest footfall above the clatter of the street behind him.

The tail of his eye caught a pale blur. He spun, unable to track the movement. The creature moved unnaturally fast, a kiss of air against his cheek before it was gone. Gideon sucked in his breath, pulse kicking into a gallop as he flattened himself against the stone side of the bank.

He gripped the pistol, tempted to bolt toward the safety of a crowd—but that would leave a predator in the heart of his town. Gideon cocked the hammer and eased away from the wall. Nervous sweat cooled on his temples. He’d fought the Unseen before, and knew his chances weren’t good.

Hugging the wall, he advanced a few steps, then a few more, the darkness of the alleyway a physical mass. The creature was ahead, but nowhere in sight. As he went, the huge stone blocks of the bank gave way to the brickwork back of the Regina Hotel. Space was costly in a walled city, and the builders hadn’t wasted an inch between the two structures. No hiding places there.

In another few strides, he saw the end of the passage was blocked by a heavy door framed by enormous trash bins. Unless someone opened the door, he had the creature boxed in. Gideon gripped his pistol in both hands, moving more slowly now. Sunset done, the light was fading fast.

He almost missed the dark shape climbing the shadowed wall of the hotel. It was already a dozen feet from the ground. Tension twisted Gideon’s stomach.

“Stop,” he said, not bothering to raise his voice. The things had uncanny hearing.

The creature dropped lightly, raising its hands in a mocking gesture of surrender as it turned to face Gideon. It wore a white shirt under a dark suit, no doubt stolen. It even had a pair of fashionable leather boots.

Gideon’s chest tightened with fear. There were two kinds of Unseen—smart and crazy. The crazy ones were bestial, violent, and relatively easy to outwit.

This one was different. Intelligence glittered in the male’s brilliant eyes, making him far more dangerous. The tall, slender figure had a mass of silver hair, gray eyes, and chalk-white skin. The pallor was common to the smarter Unseen, as if the beauty and cunning were entwined.

It smiled, baring a mouthful of sharp teeth. Regardless of their mental powers, they all fed on human flesh.

Gideon pulled the trigger. The shot roared in the small space—or maybe that was his own voice. His back slammed to the stone surface of the alley, pain lancing through his skull. The figure was on top of him, seemingly untouched by the bullet.

The creature’s lips moved, but the shot had dulled Gideon’s ears. Clawed fingers gripped his jaw, the Unseen’s strange eyes intent. Gideon sucked in a breath, ready to shout for help. Surely someone had heard the pistol shot.

The Unseen bent lower, its wild, earthy smell filling the air as if it brought the forest with it. It stopped barely an inch from Gideon’s face, tendrils of silver hair brushing his cheek. This time, it was impossible not to make out its words.

“I am Masson,” it—he—said in a cracked voice, as if something had gone wrong with his throat.

He spoke. For the barest instant, Gideon’s mind blanked with shock. Words made the monster like a human. More like him. He has a name.

“You’re the brother,” the monster added with a tinge of curiosity. "I thought that might be so, but now I'm sure of it."

Shock made Gideon flinch. “What?”

But carnivore’s claws dug into his flesh, pricking deep. Pain seared through his surprise.

He thrust the muzzle of the pistol into Masson’s belly.

A door slammed open to Gideon’s left, the sound of steel on brick ricocheting through the alley. Masson’s shoulders hunched in reaction, the posture feline.

Gideon pulled the trigger. The gunshot muffled the Unseen’s defiant shout.

Recoil slammed Gideon back against the hard ground as Masson writhed away, hands cradling his gut. Dark blood spattered the ground, but the creature remained on his feet. Commotion rang from the open door, but Gideon didn’t take his eyes off his opponent.

Masson sprang, fangs bared. Gideon launched from the ground, driving his shoulder into the hurtling form. Bones jarred as they collided. The impact drove Gideon back, feet skidding. They grappled, claws tearing the pistol from his hand and taking flesh with it. Despite the wounds, Masson was impossibly strong. Gideon punched his temple, knocking him aside.

The reprieve didn’t last. Teeth aimed for Gideon’s throat, but he twisted and let the fangs bury themselves in the heavy fabric of his greatcoat. They scraped his collarbone, needle-sharp. Revulsion shuddered through him. He flung his opponent off with a guttural shout of disgust.

A figure darted into view, swinging a cudgel two-handed. The weapon connected with Masson’s upflung arm. The snap of bone was followed by a feral shriek. Masson shrank away, but not before a second figure ran into view, and the newcomer had a long knife.

Gideon tried to snatch up the pistol, but his hand refused to work. He grabbed with his left instead, unwilling to be the only one without a weapon. The other figures were running now, chasing Masson toward the dead end of the passage. He brought up the rear, ignoring the flare of pain from his ruined hand.

It was hard to see, the only light at that end of the alley the faint golden squares from the hotel windows above. Gideon followed the scuffle of feet, navigating by instinct. The need to strike back, to finish the enemy drove him like madness.

You’re the brother.

There was only one thing that could refer to. This was the Unseen who had murdered Gideon’s twin sister.

He put on a burst of speed. The alley seemed endless, though he covered the distance in seconds.

There was a scuffle and slide of boots on stone.

“Sainted mother of plague rats.” The man with the knife came to a sudden stop.

Gideon nearly bumped into his back. “What’s going on?”

“There.” The figure with the cudgel—a woman—stumbled to a halt and tilted her face toward the roofline. He followed her gaze, barely making out what the two were staring at.

Broken-armed and gut-shot, Masson was swarming up the side of the hotel again, moving as if his injuries meant nothing. Cursing, Gideon aimed his pistol, but darkness made the shot impossible. He fired anyway, sparks fountaining off the bricks. He swore again, this time with venomous fury.

Masson paused, taking one backward glance, and then silently vanished onto the roof. Rage pulsed through Gideon, making his wound throb. There was no point in pursuit—not when he was this far behind. The network of aqueducts that served the city’s rooftop gardens could take the Unseen anywhere.

“Missed him again,” the woman muttered.

“Again?” Gideon asked sharply. His pulse raced so fast, it left him lightheaded.

“That one’s been here before,” the man said. “We came when we heard your gunshot.”

“It was a good thing you did,” Gideon said, though resentment darkened his mood. He wanted vengeance.

“It’s the first time anyone’s drawn blood from that one.” Huntley twirled his knife in one hand. “Congratulations are in order.”

Gideon opened his mouth, but couldn’t form a proper response.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said. “Few citizens of Londria know the Unseen breach the city walls, and fewer dare to admit such heresy. Yet, here we are.”

Yes, there Gideon was—furious and in agonizing pain. The only thing keeping him civil was unanswered questions. “Who are you?”

“Not so fast.” The man offered a one-sided smile. “Names are risky. It’s a dangerous game slaying monsters. The city fathers would sooner toss us behind bars than admit their magic can't keep the beasties out.”

Gideon frowned. He’d learned the hard way that wasn’t exaggeration.

His silence wiped the smile from the man’s face. “If you want no part of this chase, walk away.”

“I appreciate your caution. I've fought the Unseen beyond the wall. And inside, too. I've seen what they can do.”

Something in his answer struck the right chord. The man visibly relaxed. “I've seen you around town. You're one of the airship family. You flew rescue missions into the Outlands."

Gideon nodded.

"Let’s swap stories," Huntley said. "Perhaps we can help one another.”

Gideon nodded, equally reluctant and curious.

The man stepped closer, the dim light showing his features. “The name is Huntley.”

He was about Gideon’s age, clean-shaven and wearing round wire-rimmed spectacles. He wore a fashionable tweed suit, as if on his way to a shooting party. Only the long knife hinted that his quarry was more than grouse.

“Why no guns?” Gideon asked.

“Not when we’re in the heart of the city. Too noisy. The club has practical rules.”

“Club?”

“Happy to introduce you, old fellow.” Huntley extended his hand, welcoming but firm.

Gideon hesitated. This so-called club might prove to be a gang of dangerous crackpots. Who else hurled themselves at the Unseen with no more than a knife? Still, he raised his right hand automatically. Gideon had been brought up a gentleman, and it would be churlish to refuse the gesture.

Huntley’s eyes went wide. “I say, you’re bleeding.”

Gideon looked down, and pain roared to life with an agonizing throb. Grooves dug into the flesh of his palm and fingers, soaking his hand in a red, sticky glove of gore. His vision tunneled, the last rush of battle-frenzy collapsing like a punctured balloon.

The woman had remained in the shadows, staring after Masson, but now she snapped from her reverie. She cast a look their way and drew in a hissing breath. “Mr. Fletcher! I should have known it was you.”

He managed a grunt of surprise as the woman thrust her club into Huntley’s hand and hurried to Gideon’s side. “Layla?”

She caught his wrist, bending his arm for a better look. “Claws or teeth?”

“Claws.”

“Good. We’ll take you inside.” She shot Huntley a look that crushed any argument.

Her brisk manner steadied Gideon, though his mind struggled to put her into context. The Layla he knew—tall, red-haired, and lovely—favored frills and lace. Clubbing a monster seemed wildly out of character, and yet she’d done just that. The memory of the risk she’d taken turned him cold.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She cast him the same quelling glance she’d given Huntley. “Same as you, I suppose. Now, be quiet.”

“I have questions.”

“They can wait.”

She used his handkerchief to wrap his hand, though the cloth soaked through as fast as she bound the wound. Wasting no more time, she led Gideon through a narrow door. It was the same one she and Huntley had burst through minutes before.

Their path led into the hotel, the passage turning into a servant’s stairway that crawled up the building in a never-ending series of landings. Gideon had lost track of the floors—perhaps four?—when they finally emerged into a dark-paneled foyer. Huntley crossed to a set of double doors with shining brass knobs.

Through the haze of pain, Gideon realized this part of the hotel was discreetly hidden from the main run of guests. Although accessible through the front door, it wouldn’t be easy to find unless one knew the way. In other words, keeping rooms here would be costly. Whoever Huntley was, he had money.

A forgotten fact tugged at Gideon's mind. Huntley. Ned Huntley. There was something he should know about the man, but pain and exhaustion numbed his memory.

Huntley threw open the doors, and piano music eddied from the suite. Voices followed, along with a cloud of tobacco smoke and the scent of strong coffee. Gideon’s gut twisted at the smell, his wounds making him queasy.

Huntley stood in the doorway to face the room’s occupants and raised both knife and cudgel in a victorious salute.

“Huzzah!” someone shouted from inside the suite. “The conquering hero returns!”

“Did you get it?” cried another voice.

“Almost,” Huntley said with a theatrical sigh. “It went skyward before we caught it.”

“Come on,” Layla murmured to Gideon, taking his arm. “He’ll be here all night taking his bows.”

With that, she pulled him past their host and into the room. It was a vast salon, overdecorated in red velvet and far too many gold tassels. A drift of mismatched carpets muffled their steps as they entered, though any stray sound was drowned out as the female pianist struck up a triumphal march.

Besides the musician, there was a young man sprawled on a brocaded fainting bench. Across the room, two dandies played chess on the sofa with the board on the cushions between them. There was a playful air about the group, as if they were no more than ordinary students whiling away the time. The pile of weapons on the lid of the grand piano said otherwise.

Layla seated Gideon on an ottoman and helped him out of his greatcoat, careful of his injury. Instantly, the young man on the fainting bench rose and poured brandy from a crystal decanter, thrusting the glass toward Gideon.

Gideon set his pistol down on the low table beside him and accepted the drink. At the other end of the room, Huntley was regaling the crew with an account of the fight.

“Stay while I fetch water to clean you up.” Layla left in a swirl of skirts.

Gideon did as he was told. Voices receded as he sipped the drink, pain and brandy filling his mind until Layla returned with a washcloth and basin.

“Bad luck.” The young man who’d brought the brandy produced a medical bag and began unpacking tools, setting them out on a low lacquered table that stood next to the ottoman. “I’ve seen worse, though. Had you encountered this monster before?”

Gideon submitted as Layla unwound the handkerchief. The motion hurt and made his palm start bleeding again. He caught his breath, but forced himself to answer. Talking was a distraction from the fire in his hand.

“Possibly. I’ve fought the Unseen numerous times but never had leisure to study their faces. This one called himself Masson.”

The medic looked up, large brown eyes wide. He had a thin mustache and goatee, giving him the air of a starving poet. “It spoke?”

Gideon gave a silent nod. Despite the loud conversation around them, everyone seemed to have heard. The noise faded as they began to gather around. Blood dripped from Gideon’s hand into the basin with a hushed plop.

“It was one of the pretty ones,” Huntley said. “One of their ringleaders.”

There were other terms for the smarter Unseen—masters, herders, kings. Some speculated they were another species from their bestial cousins. Gideon had never cared much, loathing them all equally, but now he had a name. Now he had an individual to hate.

“Masson won’t be pretty for long,” he said in frozen tones.

Huntley gave a low laugh. “Very good, Mr. Fletcher. I knew you were a kindred spirit.”

A chorus of agreement ran through the group, and for a brief moment Gideon was cheered. He raised the brandy glass in salute and drank the fiery liquid down.

In the meantime, the young man had finished arranging his medical instruments. “Just to reassure you,” he said, “I am a resident doctor at Walton Hospital, so I do know my way around a row of stitches. My name is Fitzwilliam Arden.”

As he spoke, he slid into a professional manner. All at once, he didn’t seem quite so young.

“Gideon Fletcher.”

Arden took the washcloth from Layla. “Were you injured anywhere else, Mr. Fletcher?”

Gideon closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. “The beastly thing bit my shoulder.”

For an instant he drifted, the soothing touch of the warm water prompting him to drop his guard. A mechanical click snapped him back to attention.

He opened his eyes to the sight of his own pistol an inch from his face. Huntley held it, his grip perfectly steady. All around them bodies were moving, the hiss of steel on scabbard whispering through the room.

There was nothing friendly in Huntley’s expression now.

“Did the bite break your skin?”

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