Today we visit with Wendy Callahan as she shares her story, The Gilded Gun.
The Gilded Gun
An Aetheric Artifacts Prequel
London, April 1889
“Demi, you cannot be serious!”
“You know I am always serious.”
“Yes, but…” Simon Warom sighted his target by the pale moonlight, pulled the rifle’s trigger, and then cursed as it jammed. Before he could switch to another weapon, their foe darted between the skeletal trees and tackled him to the cold ground. Simon yelped and fumbled for something on his belt. The Aetheral atop him reared back and raised his fist overhead.
Demetra slanted a cat-eyed glare at her enemy and her good friend flailing beneath him, muttered, “Amateur,” and threw her fan. The razor-sharp steel edge bit through the Aetheral’s throat, leaving spurts of blood pumping through the wound and onto her comrade. The fan returned to her hand and she calmly wiped the bloody edge off on her own crimson dress.
Simon whimpered, then bit his lip and put on a stoic face. This was rather comical, since he had the countenance of an artist’s rendition of an angel: round-cheeked, wide blue eyes, and perfect lips, all framed by tousled blond hair. He shoved at the dying celestial until he was out from under the hunched body.
“Did you have to do that?” he gasped, rising to his feet to stand beside Demetra.
She shrugged and said, “He would have killed you, my friend. Ask me again if I had to do that.”
“You seem particularly vicious tonight.” Simon hefted the gun over his shoulder and watched the dead Aetheral’s body flake away bit by bit. It would continue to do so until nothing remained – one element returning to another. “Is it the engagement party?”
“Not at all. It’s you telling me I’m too young to get married.” Demetra Ashdown finally looked at him, her golden eyes glaring into his. “I am seventeen. Some would claim I’m far too old to get married.”
“Some would be wrong,” Simon grumbled and fiddled with the defective rifle. “You could wait.”
“I don’t understand the problem.” She walked over to the half-gone body and knelt to rummage through the clothing. When she rose to her feet and turned back to Simon, she presented a small object to him. “Exactly what we wanted,” she told him.
The young artificer took the item and examined it. “Yes, it’s a magnificent piece…”
“The whole reason we came out to Highgate Cemetery before dawn was for this. It was very much worth the price of at least one life.”
“You put very little value on mortal life, though.”
Demetra finally let a smirk curl her lips. “First of all, that was a celestial life. He was an Aetheral like me, and a threat. Second, I’m half-infernal. I will live almost forever, so I am afraid a certain disregard for life is inherent in that knowledge.”
“If you keep up these shenanigans and midnight exploits, ‘almost forever’ will end before you know it,” Simon countered, looking at the glowing orb in his hand. “Still, you are not just my best friend, but my main supplier of Aetheric artifacts. You may be right about this being worth the price…”
“After you’ve examined the compass, I claim full rights to it,” she said, folding her arms and tapping her fan against the crook of her elbow. “I am, after all, the one who found it.”
“Yes,” Simon agreed, looking up at her. “Still, let us not overlook the fact that Mr. High and Mighty Celestial decided he wanted it for himself, and nearly killed us for it.”
Demetra turned with a shrug and walked the path toward the front gate of the cemetery, saying, “He should have known better than to try to take it from me.” She raised a hand to push one of her blonde curls off her face and looked up at the sky. “It’s nearly dawn. We really ought to get home before either of our fathers realize we’re gone.”
“Have you ever worried about what your father thinks of your artifact-hunting activities?” Simon asked, jogging to catch up with her. The array of weapons and implements hanging from his back and belt rattled and clunked with each movement.
“Of course not, but I do have an engagement party tonight and I need my rest.”
“And that illustrates my point exactly. What does your beloved Francis think of this skulking about at all hours, putting your life at risk, and murdering celestials who get too handsy with you or your friends?”
Demetra stopped, turned slowly on her heel to look at him, and raised an eyebrow. “Well,” she began. “I don’t think it’s a problem…”
“You look lovely my dear. Clearly my hard work has not gone to waste. Oh,” Rowena whined and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s finally happening.”
Demetra fought the urge to arch her eyebrow at the woman. It was an expression that crossed her face far too often – one of vexation. Simon often warned her that her obvious pique was off-putting to others, but Demetra cared little for the opinions of others.
“I never thought this day would come. You’re so… so… so very smart, you see, and most men don’t care for bookish women. But, somehow, you found someone who is gracious enough to overlook your faults. Now, to see you about to be well-settled with a man of title and fortune, it does my heart good.”
Demetra refrained from pointing out that her younger half-sister, Verity, was the bookish one. Instead, she shook the frills of her dress into place, smoothed them around her bared shoulders, and said, “Stepmother –”, then decided not to waste her breath. She sighed and resigned herself to Rowena’s sentimental fluttering.
The moment her stepmother turned away to dismiss the maid, Demetra stuck her tongue out at her own reflection. It was true, she looked beautiful with her golden ringlets piled atop her head, and the pale blue evening gown that contrasted with the warm tones of her skin. Rowena put far too much emphasis on looks, and not enough on intellect. The very notion that a woman should not think or form opinions for herself turned Demetra’s stomach.
Still, she endeavored to be on her best behavior tonight. It was, after all, her engagement party. So she affected a neutral expression and then turned to face her simpering stepmother. They gathered their items for the evening – fans, gloves, reticules, and other such feminine fripperies – and descended the stairs to the narrow front hall of their home. The coachman stood waiting for them, and escorted the ladies to the simple black hansom waiting in the street.
Rowena kept up a steady chatter as they rode in the Ashdown family carriage from their Albermarle Street home to the Wintertons’ elegant townhouse. Demetra wished her father had accompanied them, but some artificing job kept him in the basement, hard at work. She sighed and settled back in the plush seats, intent on ignoring her stepmother’s constant prattle. After more than a decade Demetra had ample practice at tuning her out, and she turned her mind to more interesting matters, such as looking out the window and identifying the artifacts she felt along the way.
Sensing Aetheric items was her singular talent. When she was younger, Demetra wished she was super strong or could conjure fire, ice, or wind, as she’d heard other Aetherals could do. However, her ability to find anything infused with Aetheric energy had served her well time and again, both when she dabbled in artificing and when she sold the items. Oftentimes she sought the artifacts just for the excitement of the adventure, to satisfy her own curiosity, or to address rumors about the existence of specific items. It was her particular obsession in life: the thrill of the hunt.
She heaved a sigh of irritation when her stepmother trilled, “We are here! Oh, I am so excited, for you are the guest of honor tonight.” Demetra rolled her eyes before stepping down out of the carriage, then rolled them again for good measure.
They walked into the house, up a wide, curving staircase, and paused at the top in the grand hall. Just beyond the open double doors, Demetra saw a throng of people in the ballroom. When they stepped into the room, Rowena gave their names to the doorman and he announced them to the gathering.
“Oh dear,” Demetra muttered as the guests pressed forward to congratulate her on the engagement. The crowd of peers surged toward her, almost pushing her back through the entry, and soon she thought she might suffocate under their tiresome well wishes. At least half-a-dozen matrons bore Rowena away, and Demetra heard her stepmother remark on the general elegance of the room, from the splendid crystal chandelier to the sprays of flowers in crystal vases on every wall panel.
“Allow me.” An arm wrapped around her waist and Demetra let out an “Ooh!” of surprise as someone lifted her off her feet. The arm spun her around and placed her back on the hallway floor, just outside the ballroom. “I need a moment with my bride,” the person stated, and the doorman stepped into the entryway to separate them from crowd, most of whom had already resumed their gossiping.
Demetra looked up, smiled at her fiancé, and resisted the urge to smooth his black hair from his forehead. Instead, she focused on his verdant green eyes. “Well, Lord Winterton, it’s about damn time.”
He stroked a finger along her bare shoulder. “I’m sorry. It seems the congratulations worked their way around the room from me to you and back again, and it was very difficult to get past all of that. I finally had to sneak out the side door and come around just to get to you. Now, don’t you look lovely in that blue? You remind me of a very beautiful ice queen.”
“Oh, you realize I’ve never behaved coldly toward you. Now, never mind all of that, and give me a kiss before anyone else sees us.” She tilted her face up toward his and grumbled when he brushed his lips chastely over hers. “Is that all?” she asked.
Francis laughed and said, “Until the wedding night, I’m afraid.”
“Very well. Where is your mother?”
He looked uncomfortable as he said, “Well, she isn’t here…”
“How can she not be here? We’ve been engaged for months and she has not once met me, or even sent a card around to my stepmother.” Demetra glared at him and he sighed.
“If you’re going to scold me, do it in private.” He took her by the arm and led her to a room off the front hall. “Wait here. I’ll be back.”
As Francis shut the door behind him, Demetra whirled and stamped her foot on the floor. “Of all the…” She paused and, looking around, realized she was in the Wintertons’ immense library. Amidst the towering bookshelves that spanned the entire height of all four walls, there was something else – something that pulsed with Aetheric energy. Like a small animal distracted by a bauble, Demetra stood for a few moments, head canted to the side as she regarded the items on the long table in the center of the room. Taking a few steps toward the table, she looked down at the guns on it.
“Well, hello, you lovely celestial energy,” she cooed, her eyes taking in every inch of the weapons, from their gleaming barrels to the polished grips. “What are you doing here?”
She reached out to touch one of the guns, expecting it to give her a bit of a zap, as many celestial artifacts did. Though she had not performed a definitive study, it seemed the opposing Aetheric energies were incompatible. This often resulted in a painful, tingling sensation when she touched a celestial object.
So it was to Demetra’s complete and utter surprise that when she touched the gun, an explosion reverberated around her. The force of it propelled her across the room, through a corner curio cabinet, and into the brick wall. She dropped to the floor as the noise and light subsided, and lay there beneath the shattered glass while bricks crumbled atop her.
Screams reached her ears through the pounding and pulsing in her head. Trying to focus her eyes, Demetra raised her head, then dropped it again. A shadow floated just beyond her vision – human shaped, and making frantic motions with what she thought were its hands. Her entire body protested any movement. She lay there taking shallow breaths, which evoked sharp, stabbing pains along her entire torso. “Cracked ribs,” she told herself, familiar with the sensation. “Most inconvenient.”
A burning sensation permeated the fog in her mind and she added lacerations to the injury tally. Just as she caught her breath and regained her bearings, strong hands pulled her out of the mess.
With a cough, then a groan, she looked up into Francis’s eyes, grimaced, and said, “Interesting guns. How’s the party going?” A metallic taste teased at the edge of her tongue and she reached up to gingerly pat at the blood trailing from the corner of her lips, down along her chin. “Ow,” she murmured.
Francis gripped her arms too tight. “I’ve sent for a doctor. You must be in shock. We need to keep you still and warm.”
“You might have considered that before moving me,” Demetra answered, keenly aware of the growing sensations of agony flaring throughout her body. “My ribs are broken yet again.”
“Yet again?” Francis supported her to a small sofa across the room and laid her down upon it. “How is it that a lady of any breeding is familiar with such things?”
“You… know…” Demetra wheezed, then wrapped an arm about her abdomen and shuddered with pain.
Francis gripped her hand, his hold still far too constricting for comfort, and said, “Please don’t die.”
“Silly… boy…” She gave her head a feeble shake from one side to the other. “People do not die… of broken ribs…” Even as she tried to brush off the incident, she saw the distressed look on Francis’s face would not ease. “You won’t lose me,” she whispered.
In response, Francis clutched her hand and furrowed his brow. He remained kneeling beside her until the doctor arrived.
“Where did they come from?”
“My mother gave me the pair only recently, after father died. But that’s not the point.” Francis clenched his fists at his side and shook his head. “I knew what you were when I met you – all of London knows your family history. But I didn’t realize what it could mean for us. You could have been killed.”
“But I wasn’t. Tell me more about the guns.” Demetra watched him, wide-eyed and curious, while he paced the parlor floor of her family’s home. She feared he would wear a path in Rowena’s floral carpet. “Sit down,” she said, patting the space next to her on the golden-beige loveseat. A week of doctor’s visits after the incident, the outward signs of her injuries had healed. Beneath her pale green day dress, she still kept her torso wrapped, but the worst of the injuries had healed and she could move without pain knifing through her.
“It’s no use, Demetra.”
“What do you mean? I haven’t seen you all week. We’ve had no chance to talk. I want to know more about the guns. They had protective energy. Why would your father have such things? Why would your mother give them to you? Where did they come from?”
“Your curiosity will get you killed,” he growled, turning to look down at her. “They already turned our engagement party into a complete and utter disaster. Stop going on about those infernal guns!”
She glared at him. “They were celestial, first of all, and forget the party – everyone survived. I’m just dying – well, almost died – to know what you’re doing with such artifacts.”
“That is not funny. I know this is your life’s work, but that night – seeing what happens when you actually touch one of those artifacts – hit much too close for comfort. My fear is you’ll die for some tidbit of Aetheric knowledge. I can’t do this anymore.” Francis shook his head and turned away from her.
“But you can!” Demetra cried, jumping to her feet and wincing briefly at the pain that radiated out from her injured ribs at her movement. She caught her breath and continued. “We can work together, as a team, the way Simon and I do. One of the things you always said you loved about me was my audacity. What happened to the man who once said he chose me over all those other wishy-washy socialites, because I refuse to preen and display myself like a vain swan, or sit about and gossip like some mindless hen?”
With a pang, Demetra realized if she were speaking with Simon, he would point out all the avian analogies, then laugh with her, and all would be well.
“I already told you,” Francis responded in a dull voice. “It’s over between us.”
“Over?” She stared at him and tried to comprehend what he was saying. “Francis, just as you chose me, I chose you. I love you. You’re not some painted peacock strutting about for attention. You are an intelligent and feeling man. I couldn’t settle for anything less.”
“Well, I’d rather settle for less. You’re too…” He wiped a hand over his face, then shook his head. “I am simply not sure I want a wife who can outmatch me in a battle of wits. I won’t have a wife who makes me feel intellectually inferior to her on a daily basis. It’s not at all appropriate. You will make me a laughing stock.”
“I…” She took a deep breath. “You don’t want to marry me?”
“No. The engagement is off.”
Demetra watched in dismay as Lord Francis Winterton jammed his American style Boss of the Plains hat atop his head and walked out the door, and out of her life.
Wendy is an urban and steampunk fantasy author, Pagan writer, and the foxy half of the radio hosting duo at Sounds of Steam. In her mundane life, she is a homeschooling mom and genealogist from Bridgewater, Massachusetts. She lives in Nebraska with her husband, son, daughter, black-headed caique, and three cats. She has written and published novels, novellas, and almost five dozen articles on various topics. You can keep up with her at www.WendyLCallahan.com or www.facebook.com/