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The Nightmare Garden

(The second book in the Iron Codex series)

A novel by Caitlin Kittredge

Man rules now where They ruled once;

They shall soon rule where man rules now.

After summer is winter, and after winter summer.

They wait patient and potent,

for here shall They reign again.

—H. P. LOVECRAFT, “The Dunwich Horror”

1

The Dark City

IN MY DREAM, I am alone.

The spires of a ruined city reach for gunmetal clouds, the horizon a wound in the belly of the sky.

Acrid chemical smoke burns the insides of my nostrils, and all around, sirens wail, banshees made of iron, steel and steam.

A road stretches out before me, and I must walk. Walk toward the dead city, under the red sky stained with the black taint of fire and smoke.

Something breaks under my boot, and I know before I look down what I’ll see.

Bones. Human skulls, femurs, ribs. The bones of other things as well, things that starved once the humans rotted away. Twisted spines, elongated jaws. Teeth.

I am alone. Alone except for the sirens, alone except for the burning, empty city on the edge of a rotting, polluted river green with algae, host to rubber-skinned, gibbous-eyed things with mouths large enough to swallow me whole and protruding stomachs ready to digest me.

Not even a ghoul remains to send up a howl. The city is dead. My city is dead.

My mother was in that city.

My mother is dead.

I am alone.

And I know that this city, this disaster, this spreading disease of flame and death, is all my fault.

I woke up with my head pounding and the rest of my body fever-hot. My thin blouse stuck to my skin, while the frozen air that swirled through the broken walls of the farmhouse raised steam off my bare legs. The Mists, this place where I’d found myself, so far from my home, was unforgiving in every way, including the predawn temperature.

Kicking back the blankets from the half-rotted mattress, I pulled on my coat and shoes and stepped through the door. It was held in place by only one hinge, which let out a rusty shriek. I froze, but no one sleeping inside stirred.

We were all tired. Tired to the bone.

Outside, unfamiliar stars stared down impassively from a crumpled velvet sky. The horizon was silver now, not red like the sky of my dream, and I felt the pounding of my pulse and the sickness of the nightmare subside.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

“I had a bad dream,” I said to Dean. He leaned against the clay wall, a Lucky Strike jammed between his lips, his hair falling in his face.

Dean blew out a blue cloud that blended with the sky. “I’d offer you one, but it’s my last pack. Somehow I doubt there’ll be a filling station around the next bend in the road.”

“I don’t think so,” I said quietly. I went and leaned against the wall next to him. I was shivering, and my stomach snarled at me. We hadn’t exactly been eating regularly since we’d run away from Lovecraft. Away from everything.

From what I’d done, and from the city that poisoned me with its very existence. As long as I avoided the Iron Land, I could stave off the madness the world of men injected into my blood. I’d managed to escape the fate shared by my mother and brother—a descent into madness that took hold of every member of our family when we turned sixteen—but I’d be safe only as long as I stayed away from the one place I’d ever thought of as home. If I went back, the clock would begin ticking again. I’d had less than a week when I left. Every minute I spent there shortened the span of my sanity.

But how long could I stay away? How long until the people who wanted me to pay for what I’d done in Lovecraft caught up and hauled me back there? Once they did, I’d be gone. I’d be as crazy as my mother, poisoned by the city.

If my mother was still alive.

I couldn’t think through this circle of frantic worry anymore. It was practically all I’d thought about since the night I’d run away with Dean, my friends Cal and Bethina and my brother, Conrad. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t silence the voice: Eventually, they’ll take you back there.

Dean dropped his cigarette butt and stomped on it, then collected the filter and tucked it away. He was adept at moving through a place and leaving no trace. Dean was a lot of things.

His arm went around me and pulled me close. “It’s gonna be all right, Aoife. We’re gonna get out the other side of this, somehow.”

Sixteen years of listening to how I should act like a proper lady tugged at me—I should have told him to take his arm off me, but I moved closer instead. Dean smelled like Dean, like tobacco and old leather and that boy smell of sweat and hair grease. He was practically the only familiar thing in this place, and I was clinging to him with all my might. “You can’t possibly know that,” I mumbled into his jacket, sliding my arms inside and feeling the warmth of his skin and his body.

“No,” Dean agreed. “But men are supposed to say things like that to the womenfolk. Right?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “I’m not very good at being womenfolk.”

“I promise, then,” Dean said. “From me to you: nothing is going to happen to you while I’m around.” He pressed his face against my hair, stirring up the already unruly nest of crow’s-feather black atop my head. All the Graysons had black hair and gray eyes; even my mother’s fair hair and complexion hadn’t changed that.

My mother, whom I’d abandoned in Lovecraft. When I’d left Lovecraft in shambles, burning and destroyed because of what I’d done to its Engine, the heart that drove the city, I’d promised to come back for her. That was before I’d realized the scale of what had happened. Rip out the heart of something and it will die. I’d been a fool, and I’d listened to the wrong whispers, and now my mother could be dead and Lovecraft was a wasteland.

“Dean, what am I going to do?” I whispered. “I can’t go back there.”

He sighed. “Princess, I haven’t the faintest idea what’s coming next. But you’ll think of something. You always do.” He planted a kiss on my hairline and straightened. “You’re the brains of this operation, remember?”

The sun was almost up, and the silver line was turning blue and gold. Sunrises were different here in the Mists, the unknowable land between lands, the thin place where things that didn’t like the light hid. The sun never shone, not really. It was a dull silver flame rather than a fireball. Just another strange piece of this strange land we’d all fallen into.

I could admit it, alone with Dean.

I was lost, and I had no idea how to find my way home. And now, I didn’t even know where home might lie.

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