Magic & Steam: Book Three
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April 28, 2022
Series: Magic & Steam
Cover art: Reese Dante
Genre: Steampunk, historical, romance
February 15, 1882
In the middle of the East River, between Manhattan and Long Island City, was a two-mile-long island called Blackwell’s. This unescapable, disease-ridden plot of filth was where New York sent undesirables—its poor, its criminal, its incurable, and its disturbed. On the northernmost end, isolated from the workhouse, penitentiary, almshouse, and hospital, stood the Asylum for the Magically Insane, a three-story, two-winged structure of agony and despair and my Hell on Earth.
“Fitzgerald is loose!” a matronly nurse shouted, her voice ringing off the stone walls. “Wake Dr. Ashland at once. No, no—it’s Simon Fitzgerald!”
I raced down a dark corridor on my slippered feet, the freezing winter air leaching what little warmth remained in my body, causing my toes to go numb and feel as if I were running across a bed of sharp rocks. Between the city’s budget perpetually underfunding even the most basic necessities in which to keep innocents in their care alive, and the tender mercies shown by abusive and cruel staff, the asylum wasn’t lit or even warmed by steam during the nighttime hours, save for the nurses’ station. Violent patients bullied the meek for ownership of threadbare blankets lousy with fleas and lice, and nurses—many of whom were actually criminals serving sentences at the penitentiary and working at the asylum as a means of saving every single penny—mocked, beat, and starved the helpless who begged for warmth to see them through the night. It was like owing money to a gang-run gambling hall. You were most certainly going to die; it was simply a matter of how that would make the experience one of interest.
Thrusting a hand forward, I conjured a wind spell and blew the lock plate from a door, tore hinges from the wall, and sent the heavy wood crashing deeper into the unlit east wing. I ran through the opening, the shouts of staff growing in volume as they stormed the second floor after me. The wails of the insane echoed from within the dozens of locked rooms I passed. A sudden uptick in the bitterly cold draft that clawed through my ill-fitting institutional clothing informed me I’d reached the activity room. In theory, doctors and nurses were supposed to supply a number of stimulating mental exercises for patients, in either an attempt to rehabilitate or at least settle the worst of disruptive behaviors, but like the rest of this madhouse, there was no funding. Instead, the large room was empty, save for several long and uncomfortable benches where patients were left to sit all day with nothing but their delusions. A well-meaning man of the cloth had managed to set up a meager library for patients, but between the Irish who couldn’t read and the Germans who begged for titles in their mother tongue, the books saw little use.
I skidded to a stop in front of the nearest window, wiped frost from the warped glass, and studied the black water that separated me from hope, from freedom, from the life I’d lost. The twinkling skyline of New York was so close—and yet word among those locked away and left to rot behind these walls was that no one had ever survived the crossing.
I’d been dismayed upon learning that security had been the one sound investment the city took to heart when the residence opened in 1841. After all, magic had been illegal then—was illegal for over another twenty years, in fact—and this hadn’t been an asylum but a prison. Upstanding citizens, criminals, and lunatics alike had been locked up together if they were found to be magic-wielders. City officials had to be certain our kind couldn’t escape, couldn’t return to the streets of Manhattan, couldn’t pose a threat to the society that didn’t want nor care to understand us. And it didn’t matter that now this space was used only to house the insane outcasts of the magic community—every window was still reinforced with bronze on the second floor and iron on the third, with the patients separated into groups whose magics were inherently weak against these metals.
But Dr. Ashland hadn’t heeded the warnings of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam when officials from D.C. dumped me here—warnings that I was more dangerous than any patient he’d dealt with thus far. Because without being magically inclined himself, Dr. Ashland hadn’t understood the severity of what it meant to be a caster whose abilities broke the scale that’d been used in the oversight and regulation of an entire population. He hadn’t comprehended that simply because lightning was my default elemental skill, it didn’t mean I wasn’t gifted in every other known spell, even illegal magics like gravity.
And why should anyone consider me a threat? I was freshly thirty years of age and had the stature of most women, with brown hair mottled with gray that was at odds with the youth of my face. I was not an intimidating man, and my survival had depended for years on being respected, but in the end, entirely forgettable.
But I suppose that had really just been one more lie.
Dr. Ashland had housed me on the second floor because the bronze reinforcements weren’t conductive to my lightning spells.
Not an issue.
I took a few steps back from the window, raised my hands, and flames erupted from my palms. The fire painted the benches and walls and windowpanes of the room with a radiant red to orange to yellow glow as the spell intensified. If only I could feel the effects of my own magic… I was so goddamn cold. But it was a cold that went beyond the bitter February night. It harkened back to Fort Donelson, Tennessee—submerged in the icy waters of the Cumberland River, cries of dying men, so chilling that I had expected to see psychopomps with my own two eyes, haunting the snow-covered and blood-spattered battlefield, severing the souls of soldiers from their ruined bodies.
My nightmares hadn’t begun in 1862, only amplified into something more, something worse, but those days and nights of frozen waters and frozen terrors at the fort had put me on the trajectory to Antietam—to becoming the monster I was today.
I looked toward the ruined door on my left as the open threshold filled with women in white aprons and burly men on loan from the penitentiary. I shifted my vision to the magic plane and watched tendrils of raw power blossom and unfurl around two men. Great. Criminals with casting abilities. I turned back to the window, and without a moment’s more delay, released a massive fireball. The flames shattered the glass, melted the bronze reinforcements, and cracked the stone wall.
One of the men cast a water spell, and the deluge barreled toward me. Still focused on my escape route, I sent a powerful gust of wind through the opening, blowing the flames outward and removing debris so I could climb out. Without meeting the caster’s gaze, I invoked lightning in my other hand and let my magic find him. My storm of electricity slammed into his magic, enveloped the water entirely, and then he was screaming and his flesh was cooking and I was completely numb to another murder being heaped onto my shoulders.
That same matronly nurse—Louise, that was her name—was screaming another warning, perhaps to the arriving Dr. Ashland, that I was casting multiple spells at once.
It was a cautioning well worth the air in her lungs, because I could count on one hand the number of casters with such skill and control. The problem with this particular ace up my sleeve was that the energy required to harness two distinct elements pushed my body’s threshold to the maximum quite quickly, even when I wasn’t already exhausted, starving, and half-frozen. Another minute of this and I’d overtax, pass out, and wake up with another streak of gray in my hair.