Jack Wolcott was only twelve years old when she and her twin sister Jill, descended the impossible staircase and found herself in the Moors, a world of drowned gods and repugnant royals.
After abandoning her sister to a vampire lord, and under the tutelage of a mad scientist who can do impossible things with flesh and living lightning, Jack quickly learns that in the Moors, death is merely a suggestion.
Jack Wolcott was twelve years old when she descended an impossible staircase tucked away inside her grandmother’s old costume chest and found herself in the sort of wild, magical land that people who had never once been to wild, magical lands enjoyed writing stories about. She suspected that some of those people might have had impossible staircases of their own, staircases that ended at doors entreating travelers to “be sure,” as if anyone could be sure of anything after going down so many stairs.
She further suspected that none of those people had found stairways to the Moors. She’d never been encouraged to read fairy stories, or she might have known better than to open the door, but she’d grown up in a world full of them, and exposure to the background radiation of childhood had been enough to give her the basic shape of the worlds people liked to dream about, worlds where children could fly in veils of pixie dust, or grow bigger and smaller by drinking the right flasks of improperly labeled chemicals, or become royalty by stumbling out of the right wardrobe. None of those worlds looked like the Moors. Children could fly here, if they were gargoyles from the high castles, or if they had masters unethical enough to graft a bird’s wings onto their shoulder blades, where they would inevitably shred muscle and pulverize bone, but might offer a moment’s flight before that messy end. Drinking improperly labeled chemicals might cause uncontrolled growth, fungal and ceaseless, until death was a dream to be aspired to. And as for royalty . . .
The idea was repugnant. Jack had seen the people who called themselves lords and ladies, masters and mistresses, and she wanted nothing of them. No: those stories had not been written by travelers to her sweet and bitter land, sharp as a promise, brutal as a thorn. No one who had seen the Moors would encourage children to go through impossible doors, to listen to the entreating of silent signs. Even the ones who loved the Moors, as she did, completely and with all their hearts, couldn’t be so cruel.
Jack Wolcott was still twelve years old when she left a vampire lord’s castle for the company of a man who would have been called a “mad scientist” in the world of her birth, who did impossible things with dead flesh and living lightning, in whose broad, scarred hands the impossible became merely the ill-advised. Dr. Bleak seemed, at first glance, like the living manifestation of his name: stern and broad-shouldered and unforgiving, with a face no one in their right mind would have called “attractive” or “handsome.” He was a perfect contrast to the vampire lord, whose face was uncomfortably fine, whose teeth were too sharp, and whose hands were utterly pristine.
She left her sister behind in the castle, her twin and second self, all but sacrificing her to the vampire lord. She wouldn’t have done it if she’d had any other way—or maybe she would have. Even at twelve, Jack Wolcott was not particularly inclined to view herself and her choices through rose-tinted glasses; the veils over her eyes were more likely to be bloody than reassuring. She knew that she was colder than her sister, that while she and Jill both had steel in their hearts, the steel that had gone into making her sister hadn’t been properly tempered, and was likely to shatter if struck from the wrong angle. They had been encouraged all their lives to be rivals before they were friends, to view one another as competition for every scrap of attention or affection, and while they had both taken those lessons to heart, Jack had excelled at them, while Jill had only endured. She wasn’t nearly as sure that Jill would have been able to walk away from her so easily, had their positions been reversed.
But they hadn’t been reversed. Jill would have her beautiful dresses and her jewels and her doting vampire lord, and Jack would have hard work and harsh lessons and learn to forge the steel her parents had slid so smoothly into her heart into a weapon that she could wield, not merely a spike to impale herself upon. The Wolcott twins had started from the same place. They had never once been the same.
As for Dr. Bleak, upon meeting the two girls, he had looked at them and seen their weaknesses in an instant, seen them more clearly than the girls themselves could. Weakness is always easier to perceive from the outside, and every good predator knows how to pick out the most vulnerable members of a herd. He would have taken Jill, given his choice of the two, would have taken the girl who seemed so much more likely to break instead of bending, who needed a kind hand wrapped in a cruel shell more than her sister did. Jack would have survived becoming a vampire’s daughter. She would have become something terrible and new, but she, and the Moors, would both have survived the experience.
He wasn’t sure, as the days turned into weeks and Jack’s arms, weak in the beginning, grew strong and dense with muscle, whether they were all going to survive the arrangement they had landed on. But the choice was the choice, and even if he’d been inclined to unmake it in favor of the experiment left unconducted, he would never have been able to get the others to agree. Jill was happy in the castle with her master, the Master was happy with his dutiful new daughter—and was, by all accounts, a doting father, perhaps having learned from his mistakes with earlier “children.” And as to Jack . . .
Sweet Jack, who was so brutally sour in self-defense, who would one day meet the wind that whispered through the cracks in her walls and learn what it meant to soften, he could no more imagine handing her over to a monster than he could fathom slicing off his own arm for a werewolf’s supper.
That he was also a monster in his own way was irrelevant. He knew he wouldn’t swallow her whole while she was sleeping. He couldn’t say the same for his counterpart.
So Jack Wolcott, twelve years old and innocent of how much danger she had wandered into, grew into her proper place as a mad scientist’s apprentice. She rarely ventured anywhere without him, not out onto the cool wide spaces of the Moors themselves, not down to the waterlogged and slowly sinking town where the Drowned Gods reigned supreme, and not into the village that spread, septic and foul, at the base of the Master’s haunted, haunting castle. She kept to the windmill, and made appearances when called upon to do so, stepping out by his side. As days stretched on and her strength increased, she began carrying his bag, and so he began packing a second bag, allowing him to carry more medicines and surgical tools.
The health of the people within their small protectorate improved, aided by tinctures and potions and interventions that would have seemed impossible the year before, when Dr. Bleak had been but one man, constrained to one man’s limitations. The people began to look at Jack as a welcome addition to their number, even as her hands vanished beneath leather coverings, even as the collars of her shirts were buttoned higher and higher, to protect her from the world.
The Jack Wolcott who had stepped into the Moors at the age of twelve had been averse to dirt and untidiness, had been the first to go looking for hand sanitizer or soap when she happened to brush up against something unpleasant—and the list of things she found unpleasant was expanding, and had been for several years. By the time the incident of the impossible stairs occurred, she could no longer bear the thought of accidentally or intentionally touching raw meat, live animals, dirt, or any sort of bodily fluid. A few months in Dr. Bleak’s care had been enough to add several things to the list, including “dead animals,” “bones,” “any form of lubricant” and “rusty metal,” as well as putting multiple emphasizing lines under “bodily fluids.”
Her first pair of gloves was a gift on the six-month anniversary of her arrival in the windmill, given to her without comment the morning after Dr. Bleak had watched her throw away her dinner without a single bite taken, unable to stand the touch of her cutlery against her naked skin. “You’ll have to learn to make your own,” he said as he handed them over. “I’m not a wealthy man.”
That wasn’t entirely true. By the standards of the Moors, Dr. Bleak was more than merely comfortable, and only the Master and the Abbey of the Drowned Gods could compete with him for worldly goods. But the coin he collected, he kept, claiming that one day it would come in useful. For what, Jack wasn’t sure. She pulled the gloves over her hands, flexing her fingers as they slotted into their individual casings as smoothly as screws into pre-drilled countersinks, and then she did a thing which had never once come easy to her: she threw her arms around the stout, solid pillar of his waist and hugged him as tightly as the span of her arms allowed, stammering thanks that felt too large for her mouth, that felt somehow like learning that something terribly huge and painful wasn’t dangerous after all.
Dr. Bleak knew he was ill-equipped to treat maladies of the mind. More importantly, he knew that sometimes treatment was better done through support and accommodation. There were asylums in the Moors, terrible, thick-walled places built in other principalities, where his young apprentice could have been sent to learn to mistrust and disbelieve her own natural disposition. A need for cleanliness was not so disruptive as to require excision, and a pair of gloves was a small price to pay for a detail-oriented, tidy-minded girl who cleaned up after herself without needing to be reminded, even under the most chaotic of circumstances.
Just as Dr. Bleak was not the first keeper of the windmill, Jack was not the first foundling he had claimed as his own and attempted to train in the long discipline of scalpel and storm. The Moors were a place of delicate balances, every principality held by two monsters of equal power and opposing dispositions. Because the Master thrived in hunger and death, Dr. Bleak stood in austerity and in life, balancing the scales, preventing the judgment of the Moon herself from falling on their shoulders.
He had never seen an out-of-balance principality with his own eyes. He’d heard the stories, of course, of what could happen when monsters were allowed to spiral beyond the Moon’s control, and knew that their fallen domains rarely, if ever, birthed anything but more death, destruction, and decay. He was happy to build the foundations of his own principality’s future on the narrow shoulders of a fair-haired girl who hyperventilated when parts of her meal touched one another.
All of his former apprentices had failed their tests and trials, when the time came, and all of them had been what the small-minded would call normal in their thoughts, measured and precise in their habits, not ruled by any imbalance of the humors. Perhaps Jack, in her single-minded devotion to cleanliness, was precisely what the Moors had been waiting for.
Perhaps by teaching her everything he knew, he would be able to pass the windmill along, as his own master had done for him, and rest.
So Jack grew in the shadow of the windmill and the shadow of her master and the shadow of the vampire’s keep, and none of these shadows were the same, for all that they overlapped each other, one mingling with the next, until anyone who knew them less completely would have thought them all the same darkness. She accompanied her master on his rounds, and if she was squeamish when her hands were bare, she was utterly without fear when they were covered. She dredged nodules from the lungs of iron workers, sliced tumors and rot from the bodies of farmers and farriers, mixed a thousand potions and poultices for healing, administering them with the steady eye of a master in her own right. She learned to heal by learning to harm, and under the watchful eye of the Moon, they were both the same. The land would prosper in her keeping.
Dr. Bleak began to think that one day, he would be afforded the dearest gift any monster of the Moors could receive: he would be able to stand aside from his duties and retire, giving his windmill and his title over to the girl who dogged his steps, her hands covered and her eyes bright. Her sight was not as keen as her gaze, and she began to fashion and mill her own spectacles, forging the frames in the stormlight glare of the flickering clouds, grinding the glass by the firelight until their concave shapes perfectly magnified the world to suit her. Glasses, a high-buttoned collar, tight-braided hair, and leather gloves became the hallmark of the mad scientist’s apprentice, marking her plainly even for those who had never met her before. Wanderers to their principality began to trust her on sight, which was for the best, as Jill was growing and changing at the same pace, and the mad scientist’s apprentice shared her face with the vampire’s beautiful daughter.
As the summer of her fifteenth year in the world and her third year in the Moors broke across the horizon like a blood-egg, Jack felt she had found her place and her purpose. She would be the best windmill keeper the Moors had ever known. She would repair and rebuild the bodies of the citizenry, heal their ailments, and keep them as safe as they could possibly claim to be while standing in a vampire’s shadow. And when the time came for her to fight her sister, she would do that as well, with the same clinical precision she brought to the rest of her work. For as Jack grew more advanced in her studies, balance would bring Jill closer to vampirism, closer to the monster she was meant to be.
It could be easy, when sunk in the dance of herbs and simples, scalpels and stitches, to forget that they were both fated to be monsters if they remained here. It could be easy to treat this as an ordinary life, and it was indeed spattered with ordinary things. Jack found her temper growing wild and impossible to control, sending her from rage into weeping in a matter of minutes, and over the smallest things; she spent an entire afternoon slamming doors and screaming at Dr. Bleak, saying that if she had to be sure about something, she’d be sure that she could find the door back to her real parents, in her real house, in the real world. She wasn’t sure, even as she was doing it, why she was so convinced that the word “real” was a knife for her to throw, or why she would want to go back to a world where she’d be forced into frilly dresses and decorous poses, and denied the calm communion of the body and the blade.
Puberty was having its way with her, a little more slowly than it might have in the land of her birth, where nutrition was better and the meat on the table was all too often laden with hormones, but having its way with her all the same, as unstoppable as the winter frost, and as dangerous. Dr. Bleak made silent note of the changes in her physiology, bought her fabric and sewing supplies when she requested them, and when her menses began, called the women of the Moors to assist her with a matter that was outside his experience and his purview.
Once she was convinced that she was neither dying nor ill, and had been lectured by several of the local women about how a natural biological function couldn’t make anyone unclean, had Dr. Bleak given her that impression, they’d smack that patriarchal attitude out of his head if he had, Jack had begrudgingly, grumblingly accepted this as a new aspect of her reality and set her attention to improving it, as much as could be done. She’d crafted better sanitary options within the first month, and mixed several easy, nonaddictive painkilling tinctures, distributing them to the women who had helped her.
A few of those women asked, delicately, if now that she was approaching womanhood, she had started looking any differently at their sons or daughters. Jack shrugged and replied that she hadn’t noticed looking at anyone any differently than anyone else, and the women didn’t press any farther, or ask Dr. Bleak for his opinion. Dr. Bleak would have had a great deal to say about apprentices with wandering eyes and well-controlled hands, who gathered bouquets of poisonous wildflowers for Gideon in the Abbey of the Drowned Gods, who sighed and swooned when the shepherd girls cast sloe-eyed looks in her direction. Jack might not notice looking at anyone differently than anyone else, but that was at least in part because she seemed to be one of those lucky few who found beauty everywhere she looked.
He doubted she’d ever act on any of the things she was feeling—she was too disinclined to view the human body as anything other than a field to be harvested or a machine to be repaired—but he also doubted she would ever realize she was missing anything, as that would require her to admit that she wanted to do things she would otherwise view as revolting.
It was something of a blessing, for a mad scientist in training, to be so disinclined to enjoy the more traditional pleasures of the flesh. The best of their kind were either attracted to absolutely no one or to virtually everyone, and in either case, close attachments never ended well. Dr. Bleak himself had enjoyed a brief dalliance with a baker’s boy when he was still in the grips of his own training, and while he could remember Peter’s eyes with fondness, he couldn’t think of the other boy’s mouth without remembering the way it had worked in mindless anguish after the necromancer who had come to challenge Dr. Ghast had slain and reanimated him.
Dr. Ghast had been a kinder woman than the Moors deserved, and a brutally civilized mad scientist who had raised her sole successful apprentice to be the same. Together, they had slain the necromancer before he could establish himself in their territory, and as his body crumbled into dust, Dr. Ghast had planted a kiss on Dr. Bleak’s forehead and turned to walk into the mountains, vanishing from what was now his principality.
Sometimes he wondered if she had found a new place for herself, a new laboratory in need of a kinder flavor of monster than many the Moors had to offer. Other times, he wondered if, when his own time came, she would have a spare bench set aside for his use, a spare cot for him to sleep upon. It would be a kinder retirement than most monsters were afforded, but if anyone could offer it to him, it would be Dr. Ghast, whose own mentor had been far less kind.
Dr. Ghast had been one of those who chose to abstain, having what seemed like no interest at all in the idea of sharing her bed and breath with another. In her memory, and the memory of his own lost love, Dr. Bleak had lived an ascetic’s life, alone but never lonely, for what monster could possibly be lonely in the company of so many of their own kind?
And now there was Jack, scarce fifteen, bright-eyed and nimble-fingered and not yet committed to a life of solitude, even if her own inclinations seemed set to guide her in that direction. Dr. Bleak looked at her and saw that there was still kindness behind the bright, analytical surface of her eyes; she was learning to break the world down like a carcass, but she had not yet forgotten what it was to be merciful. He only hoped that as he taught her science, he could also teach her humanity. He knew that in the keep, the Master was teaching his own daughter no such lessons.
One day, this small portion of the Moors would belong to two new monsters, and if he did his job properly, one of them would remember what it meant to be kind, how to love the ordinary people in her keeping.
It was the summer of Jack’s fifteenth year when the sound of screams drifted once again from the open heath below the windmill. Jack was in her garden, tending to the herbs she grew for medicinal use; she was surprisingly dexterous with a pair of gloves on her hands, and could manage her own weeding when necessary. She was also remarkably unsqueamish about small things with many legs, as long as she wasn’t expected to touch them bare-fingered. Dr. Bleak was in the stable, stitching up a gash in the side of the younger of their two horses, the unimaginatively named “Pony.” She had been one of Jack’s first truly solitary projects, assembled one piece at a time from the local carrion after he’d informed her that if she didn’t want to walk everywhere, she would need to find a steed of her own.
She’d been with him less than a year at that point, and had still absorbed enough of his craft to raise the dead entirely on her own, using nothing more than copper wire, reoxygenated blood, and the runoff from a particularly violent storm. He’d been in the windmill when he heard her laughter, wild and bright and very close to inhuman, ringing out over the sound of thunder, and when he’d run outside to the stables, he’d found her with her ear pressed to Pony’s patchwork chest, listening to the sound of the mare breathing.
That was the night he’d stopped thinking of her as a duty and started thinking of her as a daughter. There’d never been a prayer for him, once he’d finally begun to see her clearly.
Pony was as alive as any other horse, thanks to Jack’s clumsy journeyman science, but she didn’t really understand pain the way she should, and had a tendency to run into barbed wire fences without noticing the injury. It made her tireless and dependable. It would also make her dead for a second time if they didn’t constantly maintain her physical form.
Screams were nothing unusual in the Moors. Dr. Bleak looked up for a moment, a flicker of irritation crossing his face, and bent back over his work, easing the needle through Pony’s flesh and drawing the wire tight. The reanimated horse nickered and nosed his hair with her muzzle, snorting hot breath into his ear.
The scream echoed again, closer this time. Dr. Bleak sighed and kept sewing. If he was judging the sound correctly, he only had a few minutes before his day was summarily interrupted, and he wanted this finished before that happened.
The sound of Jack running across the yard presaged her arrival by only a few seconds. She shoved the stable door open, hard enough that both Pony and Bess, Dr. Bleak’s old nag, jumped in their stalls. Dr. Bleak swore, nearly dropping the needle.
“What is it, apprentice?” he demanded.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, straightening. Her gloves were filthy, he saw, caked with mud and crushed plant matter. If she hadn’t at least brushed them off before coming to him, something was genuinely wrong. Even dirt that wasn’t touching her directly would usually be dealt with before she could carry it inside. “It’s just that you said I should always tell you when we’re going to have visitors, and I think we’re going to have visitors.”
“When?” He tied off the wire, silently promising to come back and finish the job when things were less hectic—not that Pony would judge him. If their visitors were important ones, he could ask Jack to handle the task herself. Pony was her creation, after all.
“As soon as they can get the wagon up the hill, I think,” said Jack. “They’re coming as fast as they can, but I don’t think they’re accustomed to this sort of terrain.”
“They who, apprentice?” Dr. Bleak allowed a warning rumble to enter his voice as he stood.
Jack took a step back. “The innkeeper and his wife,” she said. “They’re on the side of the hill.”
“And who is screaming?”
“Why?” Eventually she would grow beyond the need for such simple questions, would learn to assess a situation and provide him with everything he needed to know in a sentence. But until that day arrived, he would pry the information out of her like the meat out of a lobster, and it would be all the more delicious for the effort that it cost him.
Or so he’d tell himself, to keep from losing his temper.
“Oh,” said Jack, brightening. “They’re bringing a corpse in the wagon. Is there set to be a storm tonight?”
“No,” said Dr. Bleak, uncomfortably. Most corpses were brought to him when a storm was actively rolling in, the sky turning bruise-black and the air going bright with ozone. They didn’t have the facilities for storing the truly dead in the windmill, which was more designed for the restoration of life than the preservation of death. Other scientists might design their spaces differently, but his priorities had always been directed toward undoing the natural damage done by life on the Moors.
“They’re coming anyway, sir,” said Jack. “Shall I tell them you’re not available?”
“No,” he repeated. “If they’re coming when there’s no storm, and screaming as they , something is truly wrong.” Something that could, perhaps, attract the Master’s attention and tip the balance before it was time. He tucked the needle into its case as he stood and strode toward the door, broad shoulders briefly blotting out the light. Jack, who was learning to listen to the orders he didn’t give as closely as the ones he did, scurried behind him, keeping close but also keeping him in the lead, where any questions would fall first to him.
He pushed open the stable door as the Choppers were cresting the curve of the hill. A few seconds in either direction and they wouldn’t have seen each other appear, the villagers from below, the mad scientist and his apprentice from inside. The Moors thrived on such perfectly aligned accidents of timing.
The wagon they pulled was more of a cart, designed to bump along behind a horse or mule, not to be pulled by two frantic people across the long stretch of broken, unforgiving ground between here and the village wall. Dr. Bleak said nothing, only folded his arms and watched them come.
Charles Chopper had been a woodcutter in his youth, and a strong one, with a straight back and powerful arms. There had been some rumbling, in Dr. Ghast’s time, that he might be a hero in the process of being made, intended by the Moors to set right some terrible wrong. That had come to naught, as so many heroes did, and his vast strength had been spent entirely on the great evergreens that grew in the mountain foothills, and in courting Irina Barker, who was set to inherit her parents’ flock when they passed away.
Dr. Bleak remembered them young, and saw them rarely now that they were grown, occupied as they were with the keeping of the inn they had opened after Charles retired. Their daughter watched the flocks now, Alessandra—no, Alexis. They all began to blend together after a time, the pretty village girls with their unscarred skin and their trusting eyes. How so many innocents could be born in the shadow of a vampire was something he would never come to understand.
He was sure Jack knew the girl better than he did. They were of an age, after all, and he had the vague idea that teenage girls spent time together, discussing the sort of things that were of interest to teenage girls, and not to middle-aged men who had long since spent their youth on lightning and restraints. He glanced back at his apprentice. She was staring at the corpse in the cart with admiration, but no sign of recognition; the girl was a stranger to her then, or had been, before death had come along to make her a stranger to everyone.
It was in moments like this that he almost wished Dr. Ghast had been less dedicated to her craft, more willing to allow herself to be displaced by the necromancer who had come to steal her place and his Peter away. Only one theft had been successful, and now here he was, alone but for his apprentice to face a pair of grieving parents.
“What happened?” he asked, gentling his voice as much as he possibly could, so that it was less the rumble of thunder and more the rattle of bones in a forgotten crypt.
“She . . . she had been secretive of late,” said Charles, twisting his hands together, as Irina let out another disbelieving wail. Dr. Bleak fought back the urge to order her into silence. “Sneaking out in the early hours of the morning, after the first flickers of dawn had come to light the sky, but before the sun could rise.”
Dr. Bleak frowned. That close to morning, the Master and his ilk would be returning to their crypts, no longer willing to risk the sunlight, and most of the hungry things that stalked the heath by night would have long since filled their stomachs and slunk back to their dens. It wasn’t safe—it was never safe to roam outside the walls at night—but it was closer to safety than any other hour of darkness. What could she possibly have been doing?
Then Irina fell upon her daughter’s body with another wail, and the girl’s head lolled to the side, revealing the streak of white that cut through her wheat-gold hair, like a single strike of lightning across a summer sky. Dr. Bleak’s expression hardened as he stepped forward, reaching past Charles to catch the girl’s chin in his hand and turn her head to the precise angle he desired.
“Tell me,” he said, voice gone still and cool. “Was her hair like this when she sat down to dine with you last night?”
“No, sir,” said Charles. “She . . . she came to dinner, and she went to bed as normal, and sometime after the morning bell, she snuck away, past the wall. The first watch found her at sunrise, lying in the heather. There’s not a mark on her, anywhere. The only thing alarming is her hair.”
“Yes, her hair,” said Dr. Bleak. “Your daughter has been dallying with a phantom lover. They must have been courting for some time. But a kiss from the dead means death to the living; as soon as their lips touched, her heart stopped. I can tell you her death was mercifully quick, or more of her hair would have had time to change. It charts the duration of their embrace.”
The girl had died fast and clean and without suffering, and from the expressions on her parents’ faces, this was not the blessing to them that it should have been.
“We brought her to you because sometimes . . . sometimes you can help,” said Charles. “When Katherine’s boy fell and broke his neck, you were able . . .”
“I was able because there was a storm,” said Dr. Bleak gently. “Without a storm, there’s nothing I can offer her save for a dignified burial.”
“And a harvest,” piped Jack, who had yet to learn that sometimes it was better to leave certain things unsaid.
It was true that undamaged organs were easier to keep than an entire body, and that there was always someone in need of a new heart, or new lungs, or new eyes. It was a way for the girl to live on, even if she herself was gone.
Her parents didn’t look as if they found this comforting. Her mother gave a despairing wail and threw herself across the body, jostling the cart. Charles wrapped his arms around himself, expression grave.
“How long?” he asked. “How long before you have to . . . to bury or harvest her?”
“The body will keep for two days under the conditions we can offer here,” said Dr. Bleak. “If a storm rolls in during that time, I’ll be able to attempt a resurrection, but the longer we have to wait, the lower our chances for an uncomplicated success will be. Please believe me when I tell you that sometimes, a poor resurrection is worse than no resurrection at all.”
“You’ll have your storm,” said Charles, who had once been forecast as a hero, and from the darkness in his eyes, Dr. Bleak believed him.
Working together, the four of them were able to move Alexis’s cold, limp form into the windmill, where they laid her out on the slab beneath the skylight. This done, Jack escorted her parents out of the windmill to allow Dr. Bleak the privacy to begin his work.
He started with cables, clipping them to her wrists and ankles, and her thighs, sternum, and ears. They would keep a low electrical charge running through her flesh, staving off damage and decay. He knew from his discussions with Jack and other foundlings that electricity didn’t work like this in every world; in some places, running current through a corpse would just result in a cooked corpse. The Moors, cruel as they were, could be kind when they wanted to.
They were like Dr. Ghast that way.
He was pressing the conduction pads to Alexis’s neck when Jack slipped back into the windmill and moved to stand beside him, eyes fixed on the beautiful body on their slab. He glanced at her and kept working.
Finally, she asked, “Can he really promise you a storm?”
“If he pays for it, and before you ask, no, you can’t pay for it.” He pressed another pad into place. “You are my apprentice, and as such there’s no value in tempting you to stray. The people who can pull storms from thin air would laugh if you came to them.”
“But it can be done.”
“It can.” He turned away from the slab. “It’s not a small or simple thing to call a storm. They’re as much a part of the Moors as the Moon, and She doesn’t like to be trifled with. If he pays the price, he’ll have his storm, and if it comes fast enough, we’ll wake the girl. If not, we’ll hope her parents agree to a harvest before her heart rots inside her chest.”
Then he walked back toward the door, and out to the stable, where his work waited. Jack, still in her dirt-smeared gloves, stayed where she was, eyes on the dead girl, barely aware that she was holding her breath, not at all aware of why.
Slowly, the light outside the windmill shifted, mellowing from day into the first stirrings of dusk. Jack gasped and turned from the dead girl. Practicality would always win out with her, and it was her job to put dinner on the table.
She and Dr. Bleak were sitting down to dine, scarcely an hour later, when the first crack of lightning tore the sky. The thunder was only half a breath behind. Jack looked up, eyes wide. Dr. Bleak sighed as he rose.
“The poor fool went and did it,” he said. “He bought me a storm. Well, come on, Jack. We mustn’t keep the lady waiting.”
At his order, Jack worked the crank that opened the roof, pulling the skylight back one laborious turn at a time. Dr. Bleak busied himself with stripping the body, covering it in a sheet, and strapping the girl’s hands tightly around two metal rods. All the work he’d done to prepare her for preservation would serve them well in the resurrection. Efficiency was sometimes its own reward.
He began barking orders. Jack rushed to fulfill them, following instructions she had received before but had never been in a position to carry out. Lightning split the sky again and again, until he commanded her to flip the switch that would extend the final antenna.
She did. The lightning, like the hungry hand of the Moon, reached down and grasped it tight, and everything was brilliance and the burn. He was dimly aware of the crash as Jack’s small form was flung into a shelf by the jolt; she didn’t cry out, so she was either dead or would be fine. He kept his eyes on the dead girl.
Breathe, he willed her, as he had done a hundred times before. Breathe, damn you, breathe.
Alexis Chopper opened her eyes.
Dr. Bleak’s laughter rolled out through the Moors, as wild and unfettered as the raging storm above him. The Choppers, still crossing the heath from the Abbey of the Drowned Gods, looked up with new light in their eyes, suddenly hopeful that the world might be setting itself right after all. They began walking faster, racing the coming dark to the dubious safety of a mad scientist’s lair.
In the windmill, Jack was helping Alexis sit up. Alexis looked at her, heart still beating too fast, thoughts still blurry from the lack of oxygen, and blurted the only name she could think of:
Dr. Bleak dropped the cable he had been winding to put away.
“No,” said Jack, reaching up with one still-smoking glove to adjust her glasses. “My name is Jack. Jack Wolcott. I’m Dr. Bleak’s apprentice. You’re Alexis Chopper. I’ve seen you across the square when I was shopping, but you’ve never elected to speak to me.”
“The mirror,” gasped Alexis, recoiling. Jack took a step back, expression going smooth and neutral. Alexis blushed, cheeks turning cherry red. Dr. Bleak felt his breath even out a little at the sign that he had done a perfect job with her resurrection. “I’m sorry,” said Alexis. “I’m so very sorry. But you’re the reflection of the Master’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Jack nodded miserably. Alexis grimaced.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “But everyone says a vampire can’t have a reflection, and you’ll disappear when she comes of age. Between that and the way anyone who pays attention to her disappears, I’ve been afraid to approach you. I . . . how did I get here? I wasn’t here when I closed my eyes.” The first flickers of alarm crossed her face. “My parents will be so worried about me. I have to go. I have to get home before—”
“Before the cock crows?” asked Jack, a little more sharply than she might have before she’d been called her sister’s reflection. “The cock crew long since, and the morning came, and the daylight went, and your parents brought your body here to us, to be subjected to the storm. You died, Alexis Chopper. One of us has disappeared already, and it wasn’t me.”
Alexis stared at her, eyes wide and heart pounding, and in that moment Jack knew three things without question: that Alexis was the most beautiful girl she had ever seen, and that it was no surprise Alexis had managed to attract a phantom lover. It was more of a surprise that the ghost hadn’t found himself in a queue of living lovers twelve deep.
The third thing was that there was no point in her staying here and making moon-eyes at the other girl, who would never see a shadow as its own living creature, and would never love her as she was already halfway into love with Alexis. Jack turned abruptly to Dr. Bleak.
“My clothes are charred, and I need new gloves,” she said. “May I be excused?”
Dr. Bleak, who was still staggered at hearing his own lost love’s name from the formerly dead girl’s lips, nodded silently, and stayed where he was as Jack turned and scurried away, up the windmill steps. Alexis watched her go with the confused air of someone who wasn’t used to being fled from.
“Did I say something wrong?” she asked.
“You shouldn’t court phantom lovers,” said Dr. Bleak shortly. “You’re still alive, for all that you tried to throw that life away, and it never ends well when the living dance with the dead. He’ll have the breath from your lungs and the rhythm from your chest a second time if you let him, and second resurrections never work as well as the first.”
“Peter told me it wouldn’t hurt,” said Alexis. “And it didn’t. He kissed me and everything went away. I was supposed to wake up with him, on the Moors. I was supposed to stay with him.” She began to look alarmed. “Why didn’t I stay with him?”
“Because your parents love you enough to steal a storm for you, and who knows what they’ll have paid for the privilege?” Dr. Bleak began turning the crank to close the roof again, distracting himself from the girl on his slab, whose innocence seemed suddenly offensive. “It takes three days for the spirit to collect itself after death, three days when resurrection remains an option. It’s a gift of the Moon, keeping us from bringing back empty vessels, and to keep the pleasant dead from being ripped from their chosen hauntings and forced back into flesh. You were dead less than a day. Your parents brought you straight here. They’re returning for you now, and I suggest you go with them without complaint. They owe you so much less than they have given.”
Alexis clutched the winding sheet to her chest, casting her eyes down at the floor.
Dr. Bleak snorted. “Did you forget where you come from, little girl? Did you forget that the Moon gives you everything you have and will one day take everything away from you? Did you forget that we—all of us—serve at Her whim, and have nothing more than She allows us? You are here due to love and science in equal measure, for I don’t love you enough to summon a storm on your behalf, and your parents lack the patience and training needed to summon lightning to your veins. Be grateful for what you have, and leave the dead to their own devices.”
The roof closed, he turned his back on her and stalked to the door, stepping out into the storm and leaving her alone.
Alexis Chopper had always been beautiful. It was one of the first facts she had come to know about herself, as she grew old enough to understand that she was a person distinct from her parents; her beauty informed everything she did and everything she was. Her body was large and plentiful, a feast of a girl. Her hair was lush and her smile was welcoming. She had spent enough time with her family’s flock to have acquired some of a shepherd’s resistance to scarring disease, and so her face was fair and fine. And for all of that, which might have been enough to curdle a less generous heart, she was also kind.
Her kindness was as intrinsic to her as her loveliness, if not more so, for beauty can be spoilt, can change with the times, but kindness is eternal. She could tell that she’d done something wrong, that her death had upset two people she didn’t know, who helped to maintain the balance that kept her and her family safe. Slowly, she slid down from the slab, wrapping the sheet around herself in a loose gown and tying it at the waist for modesty’s sake, and then began to ascend the stairs, following after Jack.
The windmill was laid out in a spiral, allowing the mechanisms which drew power from the turning of the blade and the striking of the storms to rise, unhindered, through the center. The stairs were steep, but Alexis was accustomed to running across the heath and marching through the mud; they barely slowed her steps, especially when compared to the foreboding wall of Jack’s door. Alexis hesitated before knocking, feeling vaguely as if she were committing some unforgivable intrusion.
“Hello?” she called. “Jack? I’m sorry for what I said before. I just wanted to explain why we’d never met.”
“I don’t think you’re really a shadow. I just didn’t want to catch the Master’s attention, and he watches who talks to your sister. I thought . . . I suppose I thought he might watch who talks to you as well.”
The door swung abruptly open to reveal Jack, now wearing clean gloves and fresh glasses, bow tie undone and collar askew. “He doesn’t watch me at all,” she said. “He knows I belong to Dr. Bleak, and he doesn’t want to skew the balance.”
Alexis rolled her eyes. “The balance,” she said. “A vampire hunts us in the night, and our survival hinges on the patience and charity of a man everyone refers to as ‘mad.’ If there was ever balance in these Moors, it died long before either of us was born.”
Jack laughed, hiding the sound behind her hand. “I suppose that’s true,” she said. “But Dr. Bleak believes in the balance, and more importantly, so does the Master. It’s what keeps us safe out here. Well. Safe-ish.”
“I heard you and your sister came through one of the doors,” said Alexis. “Was your other world truly so terrible that this one seemed preferrable?”
Jack blinked. She saw few people outside the official business that brought them to the windmill, and people who were concerned about their children or their dead loved ones or their own missing limbs weren’t generally much for small talk. “My other world was . . . fine,” she said, words dull and insufficient in her mouth. “My sister and I lived together in the same house, with our parents. We had enough to eat, and clothes that fit us, and soft beds, and not too many chores.”
She wasn’t sure she would have been able to sleep in her childhood bed if it had been offered to her now. That much softness would be smothering, like sinking into marshmallow foam. She no longer thought of “not too many chores” as a benefit, either. The other children at school had been envious when she told them how little she’d been expected to do, but expectations had been low because no one had believed she was capable of anything. Here, she worked tirelessly every day, made her own clothes, and slept on a bed that was only marginally softer than a stone slab—and sometimes she slept on the slab, when the sky was clear of clouds and no lightning loomed—and she was happy, because she was finally allowed to decide who she was and what that meant. Dr. Bleak asked her to be useful. As long as she was that, she didn’t need to be anything else, and if she had been incapable of being useful to him, he would have found her somewhere else to be, someplace safe and comfortable and far away from the Master’s machinations.
Jack didn’t know the phrase “family estrangement,” but if she had, she would have been forced to admit that it sounded uncomfortably like the family she and her sister had left behind, a world where little girls had existed to be seen and not heard, where the only thing Jill could ever have done right was somehow transform herself into the little boy their father so desperately wanted, and the only thing Jack could do right was nothing at all. They had been shadows in their parents’ haunted house, and if that had made them vulnerable to a world filled with more literal hauntings, well, no one could have guessed that before they had been claimed.
“It was fine,” said Jack again, almost like she was trying to convince herself.
And Alexis, who might live in a world filled with monsters, but whose parents loved each other as much as they loved her, who kept their simple, solid home filled with firelight to chase away the shadows, and whose laughter was warmer even than the hearth, who had been willing to bargain with the Drowned Gods to buy a storm for her salvation, could hear the strange hesitation in Jack’s words, the places where the syllables didn’t quite line up with the tone, but couldn’t understand them. The idea that some parents couldn’t love their own children was too foreign to her, too impossible and unwanted, and so she pushed it away, refusing to consider it further.
“One of my mother’s sisters found a door,” said Alexis. “She never came back. Maybe she went to your world.”
“Maybe,” said Jack. Then: “I’m not going back, either. The door we found said to be sure, and I’ve never been as sure of anything as I am that I belong here. I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life, and someday this is going to be my protectorate, my windmill, and I’m going to dance with the lightning and laugh with the thunder, and no one will ever tell me I look like my sister again.” She suddenly seemed to realize that her tie was undone, and reached frantically up to start tying it with inexplicably clumsy fingers. After her third failed try, Alexis stepped forward.
“Here,” she said. “Let me.”
Jack knew she should protest, but instead she stood perfectly still, only her throat moving as she swallowed, and allowed Alexis to tie her bow tie into a tidy knot, tugging on it to set it straight. Then she stepped back, and Jack felt her sudden absence as an aching, unforgiving void.
“There,” said Alexis.
“You smell like honey,” blurted Jack. Her cheeks flamed suddenly red, and she ducked her head, looking away. “I’m sorry. That was inappropriate.”
Alexis’s own cheeks heated up as she took a step back, away from Jack. “We just met,” she said. “I think it’s a little soon to be commenting on one another’s hygiene.”
“My hygiene is without flaw,” said Jack.
Alexis, who had noticed the scent of lye and harsh, ashy soap wafting from the other girl’s skin, smiled a little as she looked at Jack. “I suppose it would be,” she said.
“I avoid contact with all contaminants.”
“That must be difficult, living in a building full of pieces of dead bodies.”
“The dead are almost always cleaner than the living,” said Jack. “The process of decay is natural and predictable, and if your corpses are off getting into things you didn’t ask them to, that’s necromancy, not science. We practice science here.”
“I see,” said Alexis. “So those gloves, they’re for my benefit?”
“No,” said Jack uncomfortably. “They’re for my own comfort.”
“I’m sure you have beautiful hands, if you keep them covered all the time.”
“You have beautiful everything,” said Jack, and blushed harder, until it looked like she was going to do herself damage with blushing alone.
“Thank you,” said Alexis, and looked away, leaving Jack to her embarrassment. “I suppose my parents are coming to get me . . .”
“Hopefully,” said Jack. When Alexis turned to frown at her, she shrugged. “They went to the Abbey to buy you a storm. There’s no guessing what they’ve paid for the privilege, and the Abbey often deals in more . . . theoretical coinage. Please don’t dally any further with phantom lovers. They’ll stop your heart for nothing but a moment’s fun, and you’re unlikely to join them in eternity.”
“You don’t get to tell me who to dally with,” said Alexis boldly. “Not unless you’re proposing to dally with me yourself, and fill the time you’d have left empty.”
Jack stared at her, cheeks still red. It seemed impossible that she could have any blood left anywhere else in her body. “I . . . you . . . what?”
“The Moors spin on stories, and this is a classic one: the formerly dead maiden and the mad scientist’s beautiful daughter.”
The light that had been starting to gleam in Jack’s eyes guttered out like a candle. “I gave up being beautiful a long time ago. That story belongs to my sister, not to me.”
“Who told you that there’s only room for one person inside a story?” Alexis demanded. “That isn’t true. That’s never been true. You don’t have to take things away from others if you want to have them for yourself! You have a heart, don’t you?”
Jack blinked, confused. “My anatomy is standard for a human woman of my age and stature.”
“Well, so do I. So do my parents. So does your Dr. Bleak. If we can all exist, and have hearts, why can’t two people share the shape of the same story? Why does your sister being beautiful mean that you’re not allowed to be? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Jack blinked again, more slowly this time. Then, voice careful, she asked, “Do you want me to dally with you? You don’t know me. I could be dreadful.”
“You have a good smile and steady hands, and you know how to raise the dead, which is phenomenally useful. And you’re alive, which is an improvement on my most recent courtship.” Alexis shrugged. “I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do. I just meant that if you wanted to tell me what to do, you’d have to give me a reason to listen.”
“We could go for a walk,” said Jack carefully. “After you’ve seen your parents, and found some clothing more concealing than a shroud. It’s not terribly appropriate.”
“No, I suppose it isn’t,” said Alexis, and laughed.
Jack laughed too. The sound was swallowed by the rain that had started to pour outside, blanketing the land in soft sheets of cascading water. In the yard, Dr. Bleak looked up, and smiled. If his apprentice was happy, then the girl from the slab was well, and her parents had not paid whatever impossible price the Drowned Gods had asked of them for nothing.
Sometimes that was the happiest ending—or, if not ending, place to pause—the Moors had to offer. Two girls, as yet unsure of each other, but willing to learn more, willing to draw closer, laughing through the rain. Not too far across the heath, Alexis’s parents paused, took each other’s hands, and walked on with renewed vigor. They would see their daughter soon. They had summoned the storm, at a terrible cost that they had nonetheless been more than willing to pay, and their family had survived another brush with the deep dark that lurked beneath the hills. There was still rain. There was still laughter.
Sometimes, that can be enough.
“In Mercy, Rain” copyright © 2022 by Seanan McGuire
Art copyright © 2022 Corrine Reid