I did indeed see darkest Africa, and right from the beginning at that since Colonel James arrived at one on the morning to roust me from my nice, warm straw-pile. Clearly Guardian had warned him that waking me up could be a bit dangerous, especially if I happened to be having a nightmare or something. But it happened that my dreams were pleasant and my slumber sound, so that I didn’t even cuff the walking-stick he used to prod my shoulder out of his hand. “Grar?” I asked even before my speech-spells could settle themselves back in. “Urgle?”
“Good morning, Chris,” he greeted me from the near darkness. While somewhere nearby a smallish kerosene lantern hissed and glowed, it was on the outside of the blankets that Salatiel had once again hung so carefully around me whether I really wanted them or not. “It’s almost time, the sorcerers think.”
I nodded and rolled to my feet, then shook the straw out of my fur. "“I was sort of hoping we wouldn’t have to this in the middle of the night.”
“So were the rest of our friends. But the spell will be ready when it’s ready and there’s nothing to be done about it, or so they tell me.” He looked around my stall. “Is there anything you want to bring along? Or anything I can help you with to get ready?”
“No,” I answered. I’d considered asking someone to carry a book for me, but I’d also need my reading-stand. It was pretty heavy, being built for sturdiness over portability. I looked at my trough. “Should I take my last drink here?”
“It’s up to you,” the colonel answered. “Guardian made sure there’s a clean bucket ready for you at the hotel, though. In case you’d like to top off.”
I nodded. “I’ll do it there, then. This water is awful-- I haven’t complained, but I won’t miss it, either.” I looked around the stable one last time. “In fact, I won’t miss much of anything about this place. Except for Shilli and Salatiel, that is. They took good care of me. I hate to leave without saying good-bye.”
A few minutes later Colonel James and I were standing side by side just outside the warehouse, which was lit up nearly as well as Forest Park had been back at the fair. But this time the light was from dozens of yellowish kerosene flames, and the stink of burning rock oil filled the air. I sniffed at it and frowned-- all in all, I preferred Edisons. “I thought this mission was supposed to be secret,” I complained, gesturing with my nose at the lit-up windows. “Every German in town will know something’s going on.”
The colonel smiled. “It’s been like this every night,” he answered. “The lamps never go out for a minute. Plus, I’m told everything’s warded tight as can be.” He laid his hand on my head. “I’m wearing a charm that allows me limited access. But I was told you’d have to stay outside. They apologize for that, but Guardian told me to let you know you can’t fir through the front door anyway, and the cargo doors in back look like they haven’t worked in twenty years.”
I nodded and magic-shrugged-- this was the sort of thing a Kodiak either grew accustomed to or went mad. “At least it’s nice out,” I observed.
“Very,” Colonel James observed. Then he sat on a railing. “This place has a perfect climate-- I live in San Diego, and it’s enough to make me jealous.” He sighed. “I’ll let them know we’re here. Then I’ll be back out to keep you company.”
The colonel returned less than five minutes later, carrying a large bucket full of much better water than I’d ‘enjoyed’ at the stable and accompanied by Guardian. She looked me up and down critically as I forced down all the fluid I could carry. “I’ve got your harness,” she said at last. “When you’re finished, let’s see how well it fits.”
I raised my dripping muzzle, curious as could be, and stepped away from it to give her plenty of room. I’d been wondering about the matter ever since she’d first brought the subject up. The Guild had several times discussed making a custom harness for me. There were many good arguments in favor. If it were colored bright-orange, for example, the universal color that designated an otherwise ordinary-looking animal as a Familiar, it might make my true identity more obvious to trigger-happy ursaphobe idiots. It would also allow me to carry things about without help or using my mouth, which might sometimes be convenient even if I couldn’t load or unload them myself. But most importantly of all, if I had a harness of my own and routinely wore it then I could ‘pull’ the same way Bob and Eric did to generate magical energy at a moment’s notice. While I was mostly in favor of the idea, Shaper had in the end asked me to do without because he was afraid that my ability to generate magic might be inferred if I were seen wearing it. “It could be absolutely crucial that no one else know about that,” he’d explained. “It’s a clear violation of what we previously considered to be hard and fast rules. So… The world being the way it is these days, the fewer clues we offer outsiders the better.” The discussions had also revealed that a custom-made Kodiak harness would have to be crafted by a master harness-maker and would probably take multiple attempts and hundreds of dollars to get right. Yet, Guardian was claiming to have put something together in her very limited spare time.
“Raise your head high,” she urged. “And spread your legs. We have to hurry, in case I have to make alterations.”
I nodded and complied as best I could, even though with my head craned backwards I couldn’t see very well. “Is it made of leather?” I asked.
“Heh!” she laughed. "Not exactly. We’re memebers of the sorcerer’s guild, after all. Not the saddle and tackmakers.” Then she turned to Colonel James. "Take this, will you? Then help me drape it over his back.”
Sure enough, though I sniffed and sniffed the only leather I could smell came from Colonel James’s boots and belt and such.
“Like this?” he asked, though I couldn’t feel any weight at all."
“Please.” Then she muttered under breath for a moment, and I heard the distinctive cracks of three of Grandmother’s charms being broken to release stored power. My eyes widened-- of course! I was being fitted with a magical harness! No wonder I couldn’t feel anything!
“How does that feel?” Guardian demanded of me.
“Like nothing at all,” I answered. “I mean that literally-- is something really there?”
“That depends on how you define ‘real’,” she answered. Then she turned back to the colonel. “You’re included in the spell too, so you can access whatever you might need without our help. Can you feel it?”
He nodded. “It’s… Like an invisible rope.”
“Then it’s working perfectly. Anything you tie to it ought to vanish as well.” She nodded at my now-empty water bucket. “Try that as a test.”
"Can I lower my head yet?"I asked as he worked. “My neck hurts.”
"“Yes,” Guardian replied. Then she smiled. “Sorry.”
I turned to watch the bucket. I could feel it just fine, pressing against my ribs. And sure enough, just as he finished up it disappeared.
“Excellent!” Guardian declared. She tousled my ears and tugged at an invisible fitting on my chest. “Can you feel that?”
“Yes,” I answered. “And now I can feel the bucket hanging too, though the fur dulls it a lot. But… I can pull awfully hard! Are you sure…”
“The harder you pull the stronger it gets and the better it spreads the load,” she reassured me. Then she patted my flank. “We’re going to ask you to carry some of our gear, if you don’t mind. Not big, heavy stuff-- there’s none of that anyway since we’re traveling light, and we want you able to fight and move around freely at need. But… Some water bottles. Plus a few things we don’t want other folks knowing about.”
I nodded and magic-smiled. “I’ll be the best pack-horse I can for you.”
“Thank you, Chris. As I said, you won’t be carrying much. We’re going to keep things light and simple.” She smiled. “Most of what we need we can carry in our robes.”
I nodded, having long ago figured out that the reason mages so loved their traditional garment. You could carry an entire medicine chest’s worth of powders and amulets in the things, and no one else was any the wiser. “It’ll be my pleasure.”
“Great!” Just then a bright blue flash poured through the old warehouse’s windows, followed by second. Then Orchestrater, a Belgian mage I’d barely met, began to chant. He sounded terribly tired; this was supposed to be an unusually large and complex spell, and given his specialty he was probably working hardest of all. “I really ought to go back inside, Chris. Things are starting to liven up now, so I don’t think it’ll be long. Everyone already knows that you can’t fit through the door, so we’re leaving from right here. Don’t wander off!”
“I won’t!” I promised.
As promised, the wait wasn’t a long one. Temper and a few other apprentices appeared a few moments later, carrying little bundles of this and that which Colonel James then lashed to my harness. His rifle— a brand-new Springfield he was inordinately proud of— went last of all. It wasn’t much of a load, and balanced so well when he was finished that I was hardly aware of it at all. “Well,” he said, patting the stock of his now invisible weapon. “That about does it. You make a passably good jughead, I must say. Especially considering you’re actually a bear.”
“Heh!” I replied, coloring a bit under my fur. Not many people ever grew comfortable enough with someone like me to joke about their animal nature. Instead they employed euphemisms and danced around the subject so thoroughly that in some ways it was worse than dealing with a deliberate insult. “If you think I’ve got that much potential, maybe when we get back you should trap yourself a couple real Kodiaks and break them to harness. Then the Army could use them to pull artillery, maybe.”
“Heh!” he snorted. “That’ll be the day.” He tousled my ears, and then we waited in companionable silence as Orchestrator droned on and the flashes of color grew brighter and brighter.
It didn’t take long. Soon the incantations faded away to silence and the flashes ceased. Then the door opened and the apprentices came filing out again, carrying big black tarps. Without a word being spoken they spread them out all around us. so that any potential prying eyes would be excluded. Next Healer, Hone, Guardian and Lord Impetus filed out in what almost amounted to a procession, heads bowed and arms folded with their hands up their opposite sleeves. It would’ve seemed almost religious, save that Impetus had his hood thrown back was was wearing a ridiculous-looking kapok insulated safari hat on his head. “Are you two quite prepared?” he asked the colonel and I.”
“We are,” he answered for us both.
He nodded towards the door and Orchestrator emerged, mumbling to himself and concentrating so intently on something that he had to be led through the door. My eyes widened— he was absolutely glowing with power, so brightly that I had to turn away. “Then let us begin,” Impetus declared. He turned to Orchestrator. “You may proceed, my brother. You have all of our thanks for your efforts.”
Orchestrator nodded, clearly only passingly aware of his surroundings. Then he spread his arms…
…and suddenly we were elsewhere.
On warm summer nights in Pennsylvania, crickets chirp and cicadas whirr and there’s a sense of warm, moist life in every breath of air. Not so on the edge of the Kalahari; there the immediate impression is of one of death.
That’s doubly true when the air reeks of decaying corpses.
“Well,” Impetus observed in a whisper, within seconds of arrival. “I think we’ve found our massacre. Hit it dead center, I’d guess.”
Colonel James sniffed audibly, then sighed. “There’s plenty of them, all right.”
Suddenly I wished I hadn’t drunk so much water; my guts worked and heaved and had I still been human I don’t think I could’ve held the sick in. Bears, fortunately, have strong stomachs. “This is… I didn’t…”
“Battlefields always smell like this, Chris,” the colonel replied. “Or at least a few days later, they do. It’s just not often mentioned in the history books.” He looked down, then took a couple steps forward in the darkness. “Here’s one.”
“And another,” Hone observed. “A young man, armed with a spear.”
I stepped over and looked down at one of the dead Herero. He was lying face down, and there were five gaping exit wounds in his back. Little bits of shattered bone carried along with the slugs glowed in the starlight. At least he probably hadn’t suffered much.
Soon we realized we were standing among dozens of corpses, almost all armed with primitive weapons. “They’re all facing the same direction,” Colonel Lames observed. “It was an organized charge.” He pointed up a slope. “They were headed that way. Uphill.”
“Then let’s go,” I suggested, leading off. The corpses were starting to give me the willies, even though deep down I’d expected to run into them sooner or later. You didn’t get a Pit without corpses, after all. None of the rest argued, rather to my surprise. We had to pick our way among the bodies at first, but eventually came to a line of hastily-thrown together entrenchments right at the brow of the hill. Where once we’d had to step around bodies, now empty cartridge casings jingled and jangled at our feet.
“This was their firing line, sure enough,” the colonel explained. “You see how they had time to dig in? It was an ambush of some kind.” He pointed off to the left and right. “See how this hill sort of forms a horseshoe? I bet the firing line runs all along it, so they could create a beaten zone covered on three sides.” He sighed. “Poor bastards never had a chance. That’s most likely why they charged— it probably looked to them like the only chance they had. The Indians usually reacted exactly the same way, if they were cornered.” Then his face wrinkled up. “But… There’s no way to corner them out here. Nothing but empty space for miles and miles.” He pointed out towards where the dead natives lay, so thick in places they were stacked three deep. “So why didn’t they just fall back?”
“We’ll have to go look, eventually” Impetus said eventually, after a long silence. “But… Colonel, you just took a long ride with the askaris, did you not? Yet, they said nothing about this.”
He nodded. “That strikes me as odd, too. From their point of view it’s a huge victory. So why not be proud of it?” He shook his head. “The natives really did revolt, after all. Those massacre sites they showed me were authentic enough.”
Impetus frowned. “On the surface our hosts are being nothing but cooperative. And yet…” He shook his head and sighed. “I can’t speak for the rest of the party, but I have no great desire to go stumbling around those corpses again until daylight. I suggest we further investigate the German lines until dawn.”
It was wasted time, mostly, but no one complained. At one point Hone had stepped in something pretty awful, and try though he might he couldn’t wipe the odor from his sandaled foot. Colonel James was was able to work out the bones of the position. “There was artillery back here, by god!” he declared at one point, when we came across two large emplacements. “No wonder the poor bastards charged; it must’ve been tearing them to pieces. And look!” He pointed at another patch of ground not far away where the ground was bloodstained at regular intervals. “It didn’t quite all go the German way. This is the aid station, right here near the guns in the most secure area.” He sighed. “The askaris claim that the locals have guns, or at least some of them do. Hunting rifles and such.”
“So, Colonel,” Guardian asked. “You think they Germans shelled something and by doing so provoked the rest into charging into a trap?”
He nodded again. “Pretty much, yes.”
I frowned. “But what could they have shelled, that…” Even as I spoke the truth suddenly came to me. “Oh, no.”
Impetus frowned. Clearly he’d figured it out as well. The mage looked to the east; already the horizon was turning pink. “They’ll have shelled a campsite— a refugee camp really, packed with thousands of women and children. It’s the only logical explanation. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have be so many men nearby, nor would they have been so desperate. We’ll wait until full daylight.”
It might’ve been better some ways if we hadn’t. The flies came with the dawn, great black masses of them so thick that it was impossible to keep them out of your mouth and nose. The bodies were even more decayed than they’d seemed in the darkness; their skin visibly pulsed and shifted as the maggots coursed through the semiliquid stuff underneath. We skirted the worst of it, but there were still outliers here and there.
“These men died like lions, defending their families,” Colonel James said. He was choked up a little, or maybe it was just the stink. “Not a coward in the bunch.”
“How many, do you think?” Impetus asked. “I’m sorry, but we need an estimate in order to properly forecast the Pit.”
“Maybe five thousand in all,” the colonel offered, after a moment’s consideration. “Not counting the wounded they presumably dragged away.”
Just then, I noticed something. It was an upright stick, maybe a foot or two high. Something black was attached to the top and flapping idly in the light breeze. “Look,” I said, pointing with a forepaw. “Over there!”
Everyone stopped, and the colonel got out his binoculars. “I… Have no idea,” he said eventually, handing the glasses to Impetus. “Some sort of magical device, perhaps?”
Impetus used the glasses. Then he handed them to Healer. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“Never,” he answered after his own long look. Then he passed them to Guardian, who in turn passed them to Hone. “Perhaps I should investigate?” the Baron suggested.
Impetus frowned. “Be careful.”
Then Hone did something very odd. He drew his sword, smiled at me…
…and vanished. Or nearly vanished, at least; there was a slight shimmer in the morning air, and you could see the grass parting as he passed.
My jaw dropped, and I turned to Impetus. “I… But…”
He smiled his cold smile. “The Oriental tradition of magic is not our tradition, Christopher. There, it’s more a warrior-craft than an academic one. While on some levels their magic is crude or perhaps even primitive in comparison with modern western practice, they’re remarkably clever at spycraft and with edged weapons.”
“They were still a warrior-based feudal society when the magic returned, you see,” Guardian explained. “So that’s what their mages focused on.”
I nodded and watched as Hone steadily approached the post, moving slower and slower as he drew near. Then he circled it, edged even closer…
…and a spiderweb of blood-red sparks erupted towards him. Something flashed— his sword?— and most of the energy bounced away. Not all, however; Hone’s invisibility spell failed and he fell flat on his back. Instantly Impetus flowed into action. He reached out and made a tugging motion; as he did Hone was pulled maybe ten feet further back. The thing flared again, and once more the Baron’s sword deflected most of the charge. Guardian stepped forward with a ball of white-hot fire in each hand, but Impetus warned her back. “No, we must examine it!”
“Damn!” she murmured, extinguishing the flames. I blinked up at her— it was the first time I’d ever heard her curse.
Then Hone parried another lightning bolt and leapt to his feet. This time instead of sneaking he ducked down low, dashed in, and chopped the gadget down with one stroke of his blade. It sputtered and died, but for several long minutes he stood over it like a fallen soldier, chest heaving, eyes wide and ready for anything.
“It’s dead,” Healer said at last. He was looking at it through an ornately-engraved telescope tube that had no lenses. “Completely inert.”
Guardian relaxed slightly, but Impetus and Hone remained wary— clearly they were less trusting than their younger companions. Finally the Baron stepped forward and prodded it a couple times with his sword. Only then was he satisfied enough to turn his head. “Yes,” he agreed. “I think it’s safe now.”
At first the mages made Colonel James and I keep our distance. But eventually they waved us over, and I got my first good look at… whatever it was.
“That’s a human bone,” Healer said, pointing at the ‘stake’ that Hone’s sword had sliced so decisively in two. “A tibia. Preserved and dried. Not from the dead here.”
“Yes,” Colonel James agreed. “I see.”
“And that’s a dead crow on top,” Guardian added. Her lip curled in revulsion. “A carrion bird.”
“Necromancy.” Impetus scowled, and a thundercloud formed on his brow. “Death magic. Exactly what kind, I’m not qualified to say.” He turned to Guardian. “Only you Yanks have ever delved into it. Legally, I mean.”
Guardian nodded. “In order to close the Johnstown Pit.” Then she sighed and studied the charm more closely. “Our project-team didn’t use anything at all like this. At least not that I ever saw.”
“I’m not surprised. After all, you were trying to close a Pit.” He sighed and shook his head.
“Not make a weapon out of it.”
The mages spent the next hour or so debating Impetus’s rather bold statement. While the magical nature of the ward was unquestionable, the motivations behind its placement were less obvious. “Maybe it was only there to prevent the dead from being looted?” Healer suggested. “After all, it wasn’t particularly powerful.”
“Powerful enough to kill anyone who approached save a fully-prepared mage, and there were no warnings of any kind posted anywhere. Besides, I don’t believe for a minute that warding was it’s prime purpose,” Impetus retorted. “When’s the last time you saw a ward made from a dead carrion bird? It’s necromancy, I tell you— pure and simple and utterly revolting.”
And so the discussions went, around and around and around, as everyone second-guessed everyone else. “There’s just not enough hard data,” Guardian finally declared. “We don’t know enough yet. Everything is still purely theoretical at this point.” She pointed at the crow-ward. “There’s not a single glyph carved into that thing. Even if we brought it back and waved it in the German’s faces, they could deny everything.”
“Almost certainly it was monitored,” Hone agreed. “Someone somewhere already knows we’ve found and destroyed it. Whoever it is will be prepared with a thousand plausible denials.”
It wasn’t my way, usually, to enter into mage’s discussions without being invited. But something seemed very wrong to me. “So we don’t know who made the ward or exactly what it was doing,” I said. “Well… What does it matter?” I gestured at the field full of dead natives— maybe five thousand of them. “Compared with that, I mean. Is there any doubt at all that the Germans are responsible?”
There was a long, awkward silence. “Christopher,” Healer began. “You must understand…“
“They were in revolt,” Impetus agreed. “You have to make allowances for the terrible position a native revolt puts a colonial nation in.”
I looked at Guardian, who shrugged. “I don’t like it either. But… Africa is a nasty, dirty place filled with ignorant, brutal people. Eventually there’ll be towns and railroads and schools and churches here, and that’ll be good for everyone. In the meantime… Sometimes bad things happen.”
Colonel James placed his hand on my head. “No one in high places much cares about what happens to rebellious natives, is what they’re trying to say. I…” He sighed and looked down. “I… This is happening all over Africa, son, to one extent or another. All over the world, really, and it’s been happening for a very long time now. Yes, it’s ugly to look at. But it’s nothing special, that the Germans need to be especially ashamed of.”
“They’re being used as slaves!” I said. “Forced to work, being beaten and cheated and abused! And now wiped out entirely!”
“”They’re dirty and ignorant,” Impetus explained, his tone that of a parent instructing a small child. “Uncivilized.” He gestured out at the reeking field. “Brave, certainly. No one questions that. And it’s very poor form to shell a refugee camp, as we suspect was done here. But the bravery of the natives can only serve to make things worse for them. Why they have such difficulty accepting what’s obviously in their own best interests, I’ve never understood. And according to everything I’ve read on the subject, these Hottentots are the worst of the worst. Laziest and stupidest of all.”
My mouth dropped open. “I… I mean…” I was so angry I was speechless!
Impetus frowned. “The boy is to a degree right, though. We’ll bring the ward back to Windhoek with us for proper analysis— there’s nothing further to be accomplished here and now along those lines, in the absence of proper equipment. So let’s document the battlefield before moving on, and the shelling incident as well. Who knows? We are investigating a potential Pit, after all.”
The refugee camp wasn’t as bad as the battlefield, at least in terms of sheer quantity of murder. For quality, though, it was the clear winner. “Krupp shells, I bet,” Colonel James declared, picking up one of the few splinters that seemed somehow not to have ended up resting in human flesh. “We’ll bring this back for study— maybe we can match it up.”
I nodded but made no comment, having learned my lesson earlier. We’d only found firing positions for two guns, but apparently that’d been plenty. While there weren’t all that many bodies about, most of them were ripped and torn in obscene ways, their guts spilled and rapidly blackening in the sun. The ground was scuffed and torn around their extremities in many cases, offering mute testimony to their death agonies. Death by bullet, it seemed, was a relatively clean and painless proposition compared to death by shell. But worst of all, where all the other corpses had been armed males who’d died facing the enemy, the only grown men here had snowy-white hair. Practically all the corpses were those of women and children.
The colonel scowled. “This is disgusting,” he muttered, probably not meaning for me to overhear him. “Why they keep…” Then he noticed me looking at him, recalled my overly-sensitive ears, and went silent.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop.” The mages were all standing in a cluster about a hundred yards away, arguing about something we weren’t cleared to know about. Somehow they’d never quite brought themselves to actually enter the ruined camp. Instead they merely looked on from a distance and pontificated.
“I know,” he replied. Then he sighed aloud, shaking his head. “I’ve seen this sort of thing before, though never on such a large scale. When I was a young officer I just went where I was told and did as I was ordered and tried not to think too much. But then I realized that some of the orders…” He shook his head again, and removed his hat in a gesture of respect. “I never hated the Indians, you see. Nor these people. Yet I swore an oath, and…” He shook his head again.
“The whole world is full of bloody murderers,” I answered. “And no one seems to know it it but you and me.”
“I’m tempted sometimes to blame greedy people at the top. But in the end, it’s everyone who wants to make a buck or come out on top of someone else. The poor people are every bit as quick to take advantage of another’s weakness as the rich. Maybe even more so.” He shook his head again. “Does might really make right after all? I begin to wonder.”
I looked at a nearby dead boy not all that much younger than me. He at least had died quickly— nearly decapitated. Mercifully, I supposed. “I… I’m ashamed to be part of the human race.”
The colonel frowned. “Maybe you’re not, if you want to get technical about it. Which I wouldn’t blame you a bit for doing just now.” He sighed. “The tracks lead out into the desert.”
I nodded— the trail was clear, being marked in all too many places with blood. “They’re going to try and hide. Scavenge off the land, like Indians.”
“Yes,” he answered. But his voice was flat and dead. “Chris, I…”
My ears perked. There was something in his voice, but I wasn’t quite sure what. “Yes?”
“Nothing,” he replied after a long hesitation. His tone was firmer now, more certain. “I’m probably wrong, after all. At least I certainly hope I am. I mean, who knows this country better than the natives?”
We spent the rest of that hot, endless day trekking ever-deeper into the Kalahari, pursuing the natives. Our party made much better time than the infant- and wounded-laden refugees; in fact, we passed no less than three places where they’d clearly made camp for the night. The human members of the party had been chosen for the mission at least in part due to their hiking prowess, and so long as my cooling spells kept working I was hardly going to be the one to slow things down. Every so often we came across another crow-ward thingie, usually placed on what little high ground there was and always within line of sight of another. Sometimes we found one or more dead natives lying close by them, presumably struck dead without warning by the same red lightning that’d attacked Hone. But Impetus decided that we ought to simply let them be. “We already have our sample,” he said. “Better not to interfere any further with something we don’t understand.” The others nodded soberly, and as much as I was growing to hate whoever was responsible for this entire affair even I was forced to agree. Clearly they were part of some sort of large-scale spell, one that’d taken a lot of on-the ground manpower to set up and would probably require a similar effort to safely dismantle. Who knew what might happen if it were disturbed too much? Sometimes we stopped to set off a water charm, and all of us drank deep and thirstily. The Kalahari wasn’t just hot and flat and featureless; there was a fine, dusty grit in the air that wormed its way into my fur and between my teeth and under my tongue and behind my eyeballs and in every other unpleasant part of my body. All in all, it was fair to say that I was thoroughly unimpressed so far with Africa.
We also from time to time spotted patrols of askaris. Because they were mounted and because Hone had taken measures that rendered us all considerably more difficult to see, we invariably detected them long before they noticed us. At first Healer thought they must be specifically searching for our group, since we’d disturbed the ward. But Colonel James shook his head. “That’s a routine patrol line, pure and simple. They’re after any natives who might be trying to work their way back towards Windhoek. That’s all.”
Impetus was skeptical at first. “Why would they push their patrols all the way out here?” he asked. “It’d take fewer men to watch a shorter line closer to home.”
Colonel James frowned. “I think I may know,” he said. “But please, let me keep my peace. I’m not certain yet, and it’s much harder to unsay things than to maintain a diplomatic silence in the first place.”
Impetus’s eyebrows rose at that; apparently he wasn’t accustomed to wielding anything less than absolute authority over the mundane. “Very well,” he finally agreed. “Have it your way.”
It was almost dark when we finally caught up with the natives; they’d made camp in a slight declivity, one of the few features we’d seen in the flat, endless terrain. I smelled them long before we saw them, and so we were able to at least partly prepare ourselves…
For the sight of more thousands of bodies, laying here and there in still little family groups.
“Shit,” the colonel muttered. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Impetus frowned. “What are those piles of dirt??
“They were digging for water,” Colonel James explained. “They all died of thirst, I bet. Every last one of them. This is worse country than the Mojave, remember. Even dryer.” He pointed at the piled earth. “They were driven into the desert by the askaris— every time they tried to turn back they met a patrol and were forced back. So, they walked as far as they could. Then when they found this low spot they tried to dig for water. God knows they gave it their best.” He pointed back towards Windhoek. “That’s why the patrol lines are so far forward— to cut the natives off from any possible access to water.” He shook his head. “So, we killed the buffalo and the Germans shut off the water. It’s all the same in the end. Though… I think this may’ve been crueler.”
I blinked— the dirt-piles were huge. How deep had they dug in the hot sun, clawing at the soil without proper tools in search of water that simply wasn’t there, and already dying of thirst before they even began? Thirty feet? Forty? My eyes teared up.
“The authorities have decided once and for all that they can’t work with them,” the colonel continued, his fists balling. “Their labor isn’t worth the trouble. This isn’t the first revolt, you see.”
“They won’t be good little slaves,” I added. “And accept their beatings and poverty with abject obedience. So… They’re killing them all to make more room for more colonists.” I turned to face the colonel. “They’re doing this all over the place, I bet.”
He patted my head. “By now it’s probably already over. Or at least very nearly. We took an awfully long time getting here. There was one delay after another.”
“But…” Guardian sputtered. “But…”
“Trains,” I reminded her. “Trains, churches, hospitals. Schools.” Then I gestured at where an ocean of dead children lay close alongside their dead mothers, covered with masses of greedy black flies. God, how quickly I’d grown to hate the flies, with all my heart and soul! “Bad things happen along the way, of course.”
Her jaw dropped, and for an instant her eyes flashed in dangerous fire-mage anger. Then it was if someone let all the air of her; her shoulders slumped and she looked away. “I… I… I…” Soon she was weeping.
I sighed and rubbed up against her leg. “It’s all right,” I said eventually. “You didn’t understand how cruel people can be to each other, was all. You don’t see how they’re suffering until someone rubs your nose in it. No one seems to. I still haven’t figured out why.”
They’re not strong enough, is all, my inner voice whispered in my ear. Almost no one’s strong enough to look true evil in the eye and not either run away screaming or tell themselves reassuring lies about how it’s really not all that bad after all. Which is part of why that tiny handful who can stare right back are so incredibly precious.
I blinked and perked my ears, but the voice said no more.
Meanwhile, Impetus had entered the dead camp. He strode about this way and that, poking and prodding the corpses with his his staff. “I don’t…” he said. “I mean…”
The rest of us followed, though I really didn’t want to. “These people have done nothing wrong!” I protested, not so much to the mages as to the world at large.
“Indeed,” Hone agreed. He frowned and shook his head. “This is… dishonorable in the extreme.” He turned to Impetus. “Simple warfare doesn’t form a Pit, my Lord. While we still don’t know exactly why, perhaps it’s because the intent isn’t quite the same as murder. But… This?”
Impetus poked an old man in the chest with his staff; the contact released some sort of internal pressure, causing the corpse to burble up a mouthful of something watery and red and absolutely awful-smelling. He frowned. “They were in rebellion!”
“America was born in rebellion,” James pointed out. “Yet no Pit was formed.”
“And there were clear pre-indications of one here,” I reminded everyone. “Otherwise none of us would’ve come so far in the first place.”
Healer frowned and folded his arms. “This is clearly a colonial police action, not an atrocity. While the methods employed to restore order are perhaps more extreme that ought to have been employed, there’s no question that they were entirely lawful.”
“Like the Indian wars?” Colonel James asked softly.
“Yes!’ Healer declared, nodding perhaps a bit too emphatically. “Exactly. The natives resorted to violence first. As is almost always the case.”
The colonel sighed, letting his eyes wander from corpse to corpse. “Who says there were no Pits created by the Indian Wars?”
Guardian frowned. “Pits are spectacular and terrifying manifestations of magic. Sort of hard to miss. Yet there are no reports.”
The colonel smiled gently. “My father was a sergeant at Wounded Knee. I was eleven.”
Guardian’s frown intensified. “That’s all just unsubstantiated rumor. No one’s ever found any evidence of an actual Pit anywhere near there. Besides… Yes, it was a terribly one-sided battle, and something that should never have been allowed to happen. But all the records say the Indians fired first.”
The colonel’s smile widened. “It may or may not be true that there’s no actual physical evidence of a Pit; I’m not qualified to say. But my father spent most of a long, cold South Dakota winter patrolling for Demons, and he and his men shot three. Dad reported it all, but not a word made it upstairs. You see, military men are as aware as anyone that a Pit’s formation implies systematic wickedness, and everyone involved had a vested interest in at least appearing to have clean hands.” His eyes grew distant. “It was my first massacre, and I wish it’d been my last. No one wants to put a firm number on the dead, but I’d guess a hundred and fifty.”
“No authenticated Pit has ever formed for less than two hundred and seven, all dying more or less together and of the same cause,” Hone observed.
“And the fewer the dead the lower the Pit’s intensity and the shorter its life,” Colonel James agreed. “Again, you don’t have to be a mage to know that. So…” He shrugged. “Maybe a tiny, ephemeral Pit formed after all, and only lasted a few weeks. One so small its remains have never been found. Dad says the Demons were always found in a very small area. ”
“Or perhaps your father’s men fired at shadows in the darkness and called them Demons,” Impetus observed. “And no Pit was ever formed in the first place because nothing of a fundamentally evil nature ever happened there at all.”
“Perhaps,” Colonel James replied. “Though if you’d known my father you might well find him more credible.” He sighed. “All right, then. Let’s approach the matter from another angle.” He gestured at the rotting bodies lying all around us. “You say this is a legitimate, ethical act of colonial warfare. Fine, let’s assume you’re right. Yet the apportation spell that brought us here was keyed to the location of an emerging Pit, no?”
“Well, yes,” Healer admitted.
“In fact, we were so certain that a Pit was forming here that notoriously-overworked mages converged from all over the word to try and stave it off.” He gestured around is again. “So… These people’s deaths clearly aren’t the cause of it all— it’s pure coincidence that their corpses happen to be piled right here, at the very same place that all our indications led us to. These women and children were killed legally and ethically, according to the proper usages of the laws of war, because they revolted against their legal and just masters, and therefore can’t possibly be the real source of the problem.” He smiled again. “So, let’s go find the other pile of bodies that must surely be stacked up around here somewhere!”
Guardian had brought her Kodak Brownie along on our little expedition. She’d bought the happy little camera in St. Louis especially for the Fair, and now it was a bit surreal to see it in her hands again as she snapped picture after picture of the macabre scene, documenting the corpses, the futile wells, the pathetic little bundles of possessions… All in all I preferred to remember magic-smiling extra-big for her in front of the Ferris Wheel, or while sitting at nice shady table in the Japanese Pavilion. But now that was spoiled, probably forever. From now on, whenever I saw a Brownie it’d be flies, corpses and stink that filled my mind.
It was late when Guardian finished taking her photos, and we put off making camp until well after dark even though we really shouldn’t have. This wasn’t just to allow her long enough to do a proper job, but also because, without anyone having to say a word, we hiked a couple more miles— all of it upwind— before settling in. By the time we had our fire lit and beans and rice cooking for everyone the stars were long out. We sat and stared wordlessly into the fire as we ate.
“Well,” Healer finally said into the darkness. He was drinking Parisian coffee from a tiny, eggshell-thin china cup; it would’ve appeared ridiculous out in the middle of the Kalahari in the hands of anyone but a fully-robed French mage. “What shall we do tomorrow?”
Impetus frowned. “The spell is the key to everything,” he said at last.
“Yes,” Hone agreed. Then he frowned. “I too think it must be some form of necromancy.”
Guardian licked her lips. “I… Yes, the carrion bird. I think it’s a clear indicator.”
Impetus frowned, but pressed her no further. At least we Americans had an unquestionably legitimate reason for being familiar with such an unwholesome field, and had made no secret of our intentions to do so. “The wards, or charms, or whatever they are… They’re very simple made, at least in the material sense. Though of course we still have no idea of how much complex the underlying spells are, or how much power was used in enchanting them. But in physical terms, given an adequate supply of bones and crows they can be made in unlimited numbers.”
“We were never out of sight of one,” Healer agreed. “Not for a moment. The whole region must be blanketed with them.”
Impetus nodded and was silent for a long moment. “I think they’re creating a sort of field,” he said eventually. “One that absorbs the magical energy of death and abomination.”
Healer sipped at his coffee with an audible slurp. “That would explain why no Pit as yet has formed; the energy is being diverted elsewhere. My guess is that we’re seeing the last stages of this… slaughter.” He frowned. “No, that word isn’t half strong enough for what’s happening here. We need another, I fear.”
Impetus shrugged; clearly, he was prepared to leave the new-word-coining business to others. “If we’re correct, then hundreds or even thousands of square miles might be staked out.”
There was another long silence. “There has to be a boundary,” Guardian finally said. “Or even corners, maybe. But at least a boundary, even the posted area is circular. Maybe the wards along the edges will be different somehow?”
“Maybe,” Impetus said. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps tomorrow, then, we should seek out an edge. It’s the most constructive idea I’ve heard so far. Are there any other suggestions?”
“No,” Hone finally said, after everyone else sat silent for a time. “It’s a bad plan, yes. But I have no better to offer.”
“Nor I,” Healer agreed. He turned to Colonel James. “And you?”
He shook his head wordlessly. He’d barely spoken since we’d left the dead camp, communing with his own inner demons.
“How about you, Chris?” Guardian asked, just as Impetus was inhaling to tell us to douse the fire and climb into our bedrolls.
My mouth worked silently, first once and then a second time. “I…Uh… No. But thanks for asking.”
She smiled, prettily if wearily. “Thank you,” answered. “For more than you know.”
The Kalahari proved unexpectedly chilly at night; not outright cold, but cool enough that Guardian needed a couple blankets. Or she would’ve if she hadn’t chosen to curl up close against my back instead. “After all,” she pointed out, “the only thing warmer than a bearskin rug is a living bear.”
I smiled and squirmed closer; we’d done this a few times before while hiking and camping out. While some extra-prudish types might’ve raised their eyebrows, most of them hadn’t ever spent much time around mages and their Familiars. I was probably about as pleasant and snuggly to sleep with as a jumbo-sized dog, and on my end of the equation I probably felt very much the same way the dog did about the matter. Yet no one ever questioned a woman sleeping with her dog, now did they? Familiars aren’t immune to romance and certain universal needs, no— not any more than mages are. But in certain things our change of species was about as complete as could be, and this was one of them. “I’ll try not to roll over on you again.”
She laughed— that’d happened the very first night, and her screams had woken everything with functioning ears within half a mile. Since then, she’d worked out a way to use a pointed stick wedged into the ground to discourage such nocturnal antics on my part. “Please don’t,” she agreed. “It’s no fun at all.” Then she sighed. “Chris, I…”
I already knew what she was going to say. “It’s all right. We don’t need to talk about it.”
She shook her head and blew out the candle. “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t for you. It’s for me.” I didn’t answer, so she sighed and went on. “I… What we saw today…”
“It was wrong,” I agreed. “Out and out evil. All the way to the core.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I…” I felt her shake her head in the darkness. “How could I… How could anyone…”
I frowned, unable to find the right words. “It’s… a sickness, I think. Of the mind and soul. One humans are especially prone to. We… sort of form groups, then all agree among ourselves that our own group must of course be the very best group of them all. Most of the time we’re not especially nasty about it, but it affects how we see the world and make our decisions. If we’re better than anyone else, we tell ourselves, then our tastes are the most most refined, what we want is what’s most important and the choices we make must always be the best ones possible. It’s self-reinforcing, because it swells our egos and when that happens we tend to like it— like it altogether too much, actually. If you also happen to be far and away the strongest and richest group, that just makes it worse.” I shrugged, but not very hard because Guardian was pressed so tight up against me. “We see the universe and everyone in it subjectively, not objectively. The way it suits us best to see it, in other words, not the way it really is. Baron Attache had the worst case I’ve ever seen. After experiencing him, it’s pretty obvious in others.”
“And I thought that way too,” Guardian admitted. “Probably still do, I suppose.” She sighed and snugged up even closer. “I never even dreamed until today that I might be a self-righteous jingoist. Yet I clearly was. Or still am. Whatever.”
I frowned again. “I wouldn’t have called you a jingoist— there’s no point in being that hard on yourself. I mean… This entire situation is all messed up, ethically-speaking. You were right when you said that hospitals and schools and such are good things. In fact, it speaks well of you that you want others to have them too. But…” I shook my head. “What good are schools to dead children?”
“Building the bones of a civilization isn’t cheap,” she pointed out. “In fact, maintaining colonies at all isn’t cheap- don’t get me started on how much the Philippines are costing us in terms of blood and treasure alike. We’ll never break even! Is it too much to expect the natives to be grateful for the gifts we’re giving them?”
“Like Krupp shells?” I asked.
There was a long, long silence. “Point taken. There has to be a better way.”
‘Yes,” I agreed. “There very much does. But… I have to admit that I don’t know yet what it is either. I mean, it’s not like the natives were getting anywhere on their own.”
I felt Guardian’s face rub my shoulder-hump. “Nor do I. Is it even possible for an advanced civilization and a primitive one to coexist in peace and equity? I’m not all certain that it is. But… You know what, Chris?”
‘What?” I asked, stifling a yawn. It’s been a very long, tiring day.
“The very first thing they teach you in mage school is that ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. We’re born knowing nothing, and once upon a time mankind as a whole knew nothing. Every tiny step forward, every single advancement we’ve made, required first of all, before anything else, that we admit our ignorance and our errors. Yes, we’ve made a little progress since then, but there’s much more left to be learned than has already been learned. It’s terrifying, really, how absolute our ignorance still is.” She sighed. “This isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved tomorrow, or even the next day or the day after that. Nor is it one where what you and I think matters very much. And yet…” She pressed her face into my fur again, and just maybe kissed me. “I think today maybe we’ve taken that first step forward. Or at least maybe I have, with your help. Now I at least understand that I was wrong, which is what makes all future progress possible. You’re a good person, Chris. Perhaps the finest and truest I’ve ever known.”
I shrugged again. “I’m just a kid who also happens to be a bear.
“No, you’re not any ordinary kid anymore than you’re an ordinary bear. Don’t play coy with me— I was the one who found your star markings, as you may perhaps remember. We still haven’t seen anything else like them since.” I felt her head rise in the darkness, as she looked me over with perhaps new eyes. “You seem to have this… unerring ability to perceive what’s right and wrong in a given situation, even more clearly than most adults. It’s like… You don’t fall victim to the same fallacies that the rest of us do. Then, you act on your knowledge whenever you can, no matter the cost. That’s not at all normal, especially at your age.” She sighed and lowered her head back down. “I don’t know, Chris. It’s late, and we’re both plenty tired. But… Don’t think I haven’t noticed how special you are, from your very first day with us.”
I smiled into the darkness. “That’s very nice of you, to say that.”
“It’s true, and if you don’t know it yet deep down in your heart then you’re not half as wise as I thought. There’s something guiding you, I think. And while figuring out what it is might be a terribly important thing for everyone everywhere, I haven’t even a clue as to where to begin. Again, I admit my appalling ignorance.” Then she snugged one last time. “Goodnight, Chris. See you in the morning. Maybe we can solve the rest of the universe’s mysteries then, over some nice hot tea.”
Yes, my voice agreed. Goodnight, Chris. Sleep long and well. But first ponder this: You do in fact seem to have an unerring instinct for what’s right and wrong— or at least for what’s fair and just, which is very nearly the same thing— don’t you? Or at least a nearly unerring one, for you are indeed mortal and therefore imperfect. What other phenomenon also judges right and wrong with such objective certainty? What other single thing in this rich, diverse universe also reveals the evil in the hearts of men and manifests it for all to see, no matter how they may strive to conceal it? What singular, unique, unmatched phenomenon judges human hearts and reveals the truth for all to see?
I blinked in the darkness and thought about it. Not governments, certainly, or any religion that I knew of. Not anything of or by the hand of man— even gentle, good Guardian had just proven to be as blind in some ways as…
Then suddenly my heart was icy and I was gasping so hard for air that I was amazed my sleeping-partner failed to notice. For I knew with utterly cold certainty of what my Voice spoke, and… No! No, no, no!
Yet… Could it… Could I… Could my innermost nature somehow, some way…
…share anything at all in common with that of a Pit?
The next morning we rose bright and early and mostly rather stiff and sore to boot. I was the only one entirely immune from morning pains, being accustomed to sleeping on the ground. Guardian didn’t suffer too much either, nor did Healer. Both of them were still relatively quite young. But Hone and Impetus were both well over a century in age— in fact, Impetus’s own daughter had taken the American side in the Revolutionary War, which made him closer to two centuries in age than one. While mages cease aging visibly about the time they go fully gray and don’t tend to be in the least bit sparing when applying health and healing spells to themselves, the years still somehow seem to take a toll in certain ways. Nor was Colonel James exactly enjoying the full bloom of youth himself. Thus Guardian and Healer dealt with most of the camp chores like cooking and dishwashing and such while our three more distinguished types sat and sipped coffee and rubbed the sleep from their eyes and stared blearily at each other in the ever-increasing desert heat. I sat with them, of course. But in my case it wasn’t a matter of age; it was because I wasn’t really able to help much. “I…” I finally said into the silence. Familiars weren’t supposed to ask a lot of questions unless it was something they really needed to know, as magical knowledge could be terribly dangerous stuff if allowed to spread out of control. Then I remembered how Guardian had once pointed out that teenagers could get away with much that no adult could. “Excuse me, but I’m not sure if this is Held knowledge or not. How do Pits know what is and isn’t evil?”
Impetus’s eyes narrowed, and I was quite certain that were it up to him I’d have received no answer, especially with James sitting right there with us. But Hone was more forthcoming. “No one knows,” he said eventually. “Unless some Guild or another is holding the knowledge privately for reasons of their own.” He looked at Impetus speculatively, then at Colonel James.
The colonel took the hint. “Excuse me,” he said formally. “I’ll go take a little walk for a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Impetus said with a formal bow. Then, once the cavalry officer was well of of earshot, he continued where he’d left off. “No, not that I know of, friend Hone,” he replied with his first smile of the day, though it was a slight one. Then he nodded towards where Healer and Guardian were laboring over a steaming pot. It was an improbably large one for such a small party— I ate and drank as much or more than the rest combined. “If anyone knows anything it’s the Americans, due to the Johnstown thing.” He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t mind their research so much; it’s for a good cause, after all. And while I suspect they’re not sharing quite everything, well… Who would, in today’s world? But this German magic, if that’s indeed what it is…” He nodded towards the saddlebag that contained the crow-device. Soon enough I’d be carrying it again. “I don’t like what’s shaping up here at all.” He frowned and removed his pipe, then began stuffing it with black, evil-smelling tobacco.
I magic-frowned and pawed at the ground a time or two before speaking again— somehow, it helped me think. “Sir… Why is necromancy considered so especially evil? I mean… What a mage like Guardian or you could do to people if you took a mind to is pretty awful too, isn’t it? Why is necromancy so much worse?”
Impetus lit his pipe and took a long satisfying puff, then stared off into the distance. “I suppose it does no harm for you to know, Christopher. Though I’d be grateful if you promised not to spread the information any further. It’s only fair in a way that you should be informed about this sort of thing, in fact, given the places you’ve been and the things you’ve done.” He smiled again; this time there was a bit of genuine warmth behind it. “I’ve said before that I think you’re a remarkably brave young man, and a credit to the Guild.”
“Nearly all of us think so,” Hone agreed. “Not just any Familiar would be trusted to come along on a mission like this one.”
I magic blushed, but said nothing.
Hone looked at Impetus and raised his eyebrows. “Please,” Impetus replied to the implied question. “Go ahead.”
The Baron nodded and began. “You know, Christopher, that all magic requires a source of energy, or Power, to drive it.”
I nodded; this was public knowledge.
“Power can come from many places, all of them by no coincidence at all symbolic. Workhorse Familiars, for example, can generate large amounts of Power. Your American Guild includes two very fine examples of the breed.” He bowed slightly. “Please believe me when I tell you that they are the envy of many of the world’s Guilds. They aren’t the strongest, but such teamwork!”
I smiled and nodded. Bob and Eric were very much aware of how unusual and important they were.
“Power can come from other places as well. A trained mage can generate a certain amount by virtue of sheer willpower, though not a lot more than is consumed in coordinating other, greater resources. We can perform a few low-consumption spells like, say, finding water or predicting fires without tapping external sources, and some of these are highly useful. But for the big, important stuff, Power must be consumed.”
“Power,” Impetus added, “is closely associated with living things, especially humans. While tiny traces of magic can be found in certain other advanced mammals, only recently have we developed spells and indicators delicate enough to detect it. It may be that there’s Power in all living things— it’s a perfectly reasonable theory. But for now, we just don’t know.”
Hone nodded. “This is why we have magical charms in which to store energy, and why they’re among the most important spells ever developed. In many ways, they’re the key to all forms of advanced spellcasting.” He bowed slightly. “It was the British Guild who made the first breakthroughs, in the earliest days of the Return. Europe has been leading the field ever since. Though…” He smiled gently. “We are not only grateful students, but quick ones as well.”
I smiled back, and so did Impetus. It wasn’t just Western magical theory that the Japanese were mastering at breakneck speeds. My navy books, in particular, claimed that Japan was advancing by incredible leaps and bounds in ship design and construction, and related industries. And what major industries weren’t at least distantly related to building warships?
“Anyway,” Hone continued. “We spellcasters are ever-thirsty for Power. Magic has an unlimited number useful applications, or so it sometimes seems. There are always more ore bodies to be located, more apportations that need to be made, more sick to heal… Therefore there’s never enough Power to go around.” His smile slipped. “This is why we have Familars in the first place. Forcing children to choose so young to live their lives as animals and in at least some senses slaves is after all a throughly wretched practice for any civilized culture to indulge in.” He bowed his head slightly to me in… apology? “But what choice have we, when we can accomplish so much more with you than without you?”
I frowned a bit, but said nothing. While I kept hearing about important Familiars were, for the most part I’d actually not seen a lot of hard evidence. Except for what I heard from classmates, I supposed. They had to sit inside magical chalkmarks scrawled on casting-room floors all the time, they claimed, usually without really understanding what it was all about. There was also the wagon-pulling, I reminded myself.
“Anyway,” Impetus said. “Magic is limited more by a lack of Power than any other single factor. That’s also part of why Guild-heads are so often charm makers— Power-charms are overwhelmingly important in the greater scheme of things.”
I nodded again. Mother had been head of the American Guild until very recently, and her specialty was charms and talismans.
“Now, if Power is the biggest limiting factor in magic, and humans are a powerful source of Power…” He sighed, suddenly no longer smiling. “Necromancy means, literally, death magic. The death of any human, you see, releases more magic that any other known source.”
“How much more?” I asked.
“That’s deeply Held knowledge,” Hone said, frowning slightly. “For excellent reasons.”
“But… It’s a great amount,” Impetus said. “Enough that…” He licked his lips, seeking words. “Imagine a great fire, Christopher. A whole city burning, like you so bravely saved Baltimore from doing.” He smiled again, and I blushed. “Anyway, picture a fire burning in a city so vast that for practical purposes it has no limit.”
Hone nodded. “That’s a good comparison. A great conflagration! The larger it gets, the hotter it gets. And the hotter it gets, the faster it spreads. Until at the center even the bricks burn.”
“You can do that sort of thing with Power and necromancy. Or at least in theory you can. The more you kill the more Power you have available to kill more with.” He shuddered in physical revulsion. “It would create a sort of vortex of death that might spread no one knows how far.”
“Research into the entire field is banned,” Hone added. “Or almost completely banned, at least. America openly announced that they were breaking the embargo in an attempt to shut down the Johnstown Pit, and the world accepted it. Even if in some places a bit reluctantly. After all, who knows where the next Pit might emerge, and who else might benefit from knowing how to close it? Besides, your Guild was trusted, in part because back then it’d renounced war magic.”
“Even if a self-sustaining spell were never developed— something which I believe is entirely achievable, mind you!— harvesting Power from death would be, well…” Impetus shook his head. “Corrupting, is the best word I can think of. Almost unimaginably corrupting to everything that makes human society work. The stuff is simply too valuable and useful, and therefore the temptation too great. Imagine a battlefield where Power gathered from the death of enemy soldiers is used to help kill even more soldiers. Even if the process isn’t efficient enough to be self-sustaining, imagine how horrible things might become!”
“It would be inhuman,” Hone agreed, face now very sober. “Disgusting. Repellant. Dishonorable in the extreme.”
“So,” I said softly. “Death liberates Power in great quantity. Research into the subject is largely forbidden, for fear of what it might unleash and the damage it might do to society. And death on a massive scale also creates a Pit.”
“But only when the deaths are in essence murders of one form or another,” Impetus added. “Why this is, we don’t yet understand at all.”
“So, mass-murder,” I agreed. Then I thought on what my voice had whispered in my ear the night before. “So, who exactly decides what’s murder and what’s not, and how?”
Hone smiled again. “You,” he said gently, “are far from the first thoughtful person to ask that question.”
“And what have we found in the way of answers?” I asked.
Impetus sighed and knocked the ashes from his pipe. “Absolutely nothing,” he said.
“But if we ever do figure it out,” Hone added, “you can be certain that it’ll end up being the most closely Held secret of all.”
I have to admit that I started out feeling pretty good that morning as we marched ever-further into the Kalahari. Over breakfast we’d decided that if the staked-out region was in fact some sort of necromantic spell, then its nearest boundary probably was somewhere off in that direction. The Kalahari was after all a dry, dry place, and the natives wouldn’t be equipped with plenty of water charms like we were. Therefore they could only walk so far, even if they didn’t stop to try and dig a well. At any rate, there was a certain spring in my step that I didn’t often experience. Part of it was perhaps that at least I hadn’t woken up in the stable again— it was easily the most miserable, awful place I’d ever had to take lodgings in. Another factor was probably the weather; so long as one had plenty of cooling spells, the desert was a pleasant place for a morning’s hike. The before-breakfast discussion I’d had with the mages helped as well. Mages were notoriously tight-lipped, and by then I’d been around the Guild long enough to appreciate that there was excellent reason for this. While only a tiny handful of humanity was gifted with the inexplicable “knack” that allowed them to spellcast, that same handful was no better— and no worse— morally and ethically than the rest of the human race. The Guild-structure had been created to keep useful magical knowledge out of unscrupulous hands, and so far it’d done a pretty good job. It was unusual in the extreme for mages to share anything they didn’t really have to with anyone, even a Familiar like me. In other words, Hone and Impetus had shown an incredible level of trust and esteem in opening up even slightly with me, and my heart was still aglow from the experience.
But, most of all, I was happy because it was approaching noon and I hadn’t yet come across a single rotting corpse.
“…ought to stop for lunch soon,” Guardian was complaining as we strode along towards the ever-receding horizon. She’d had to get up in the middle of the night to maintain the spells on the special charms she was carrying; no one had noticed but me, and that was only because of the cold spot that’d been generated in the middle of my back. Dark shadows were developing below her eyes; whatever the things were, caring for them was half-killing her. “I’m a good walker, but this is getting ridiculous. How does my Lord do it?”
I nodded in silent agreement. Impetus was setting a truly demanding pace, and Healer was beginning to lag behind. He was in good shape, yes. But he was also a medical mage who spent almost all his waking hours attending patients, not wandering endless swathes of what was at best poorly-explored terrain. Colonel James was of course a military man, and thus expected to remain fit as part of his profession. The same could be said for Hone, probably, though I didn’t entirely understand either his culture or his proper role in it yet. But Impetus was a wonder! Where did he get his energy, I wondered? Did the English have better anti-geriatric spells than everyone else, too? He just kept right on plowing ahead, hour after hour, barely breaking a sweat. Was he a machine, I began to wonder? Not made of flesh and blood after all? Then it finally hit me. Impetus was a kinetic mage. Presumably that included his own arms and legs. “It’s a spell,” I explained to Guardian. “It has to be.”
“Ah!” she murmured, finally making the connection herself. “Of course!” Then she laughed and shook her head. “How stupid and stubborn can I be— I’ve been trying to outwalk a spell, and a past-master’s level spell at that!” Then she raised her voice. “My Lord?”
Impetus stopped dead. “Yes, Guardian?”
“I fear… Isn’t it about time for a beak?”
He blinked and looked around him; apparently he’d been daydreaming. “Ah! Of course! My apologies.” Then he smiled. “Perhaps we should take an early lunch?”
“Perhaps,” Guardian agreed, her stretched patience only slightly revealed in her voice. She pointed towards a sort of large shrub, a rare thing in the Kalahari. It was tall enough to provide us a bit of shade, if we sat down. “That looks like a good spot to me.”
“Excellent choice!” Impetus agreed. Except for a couple small sweat-patches on his robe, he seemed fresh as a daisy.
Soon all of us except Healer and Guardian were all resting together. We stared dully off into the distance, most of us fixated on a crow-ward sullenly standing maybe twenty or thirty yards from the bush. Far enough away for it not to attack us, we’d learned from experience, but close enough to allow examination in some detail. Guardian was off taking care of something private, and our medical mage was fussing with a bucket and a water-charm; this one had apparently developed a hairline crack and he was muttering spells to make sure it was still safe to use. Hone and the colonel had been kind of enough to unhitch my harness so I could lie down in comfort as well, and currently my chin was resting on the light, sandy Kalahari earth. Even I was a bit tired after so much walking over the past couple days— I could only imagine how Guardian must feel.
“…wonder how many hundreds, if not thousands, of those things there must be out here,” Hone was saying, staring at the crow-ward. “I mean, how terribly much labor someone must’ve invested!”
Impetus frowned and crossed his arms. He was smoking his pipe again. “I… You know I have a hobby, don’t you?”
“I’d call it more of a passion,” Hone replied. “Physics.”
Impetus smiled. “I admit it takes up most of my life these days. Anyway…” His smile faded. “Are you familiar with Hertzian waves?”
“I fear not,” Hone replied.
“Marconi, then? He’s the one who’s best harnessed them so far.”
“Tesla too!” I pointed out. “He demonstrated them at the World’s Fair!”
“Tesla too,” Impetus agreed. Then his smile faded and he turned once again to stare at the crow-ward. “I don’t want to get too technical. But… Hertzian waves are known to induce a detectable electric current in an ungrounded metal rod. That’s how Marconi uses them to send signals across long distances without wires. You can interrupt the waves— switch them off and on at the source in Morse code.” His frown intensified. “Have you noticed anything unusual about those crow-wings?”
Hone shook his head. “No.”
“They’re all exactly the same span.” He pointed at the nearby ward. “Look closely. The very tips of the feathers are trimmed a bit. So were the ones on the specimen you collected. But those, even more so. I’ll wager the original bird was a bit larger than this one and the effective wingspan is now exactly the same.”
Hone blinked. “But… Why would that matter to anything? I fail to detect any appropriate symbolism.”
“With Hertzian waves, the length of the rod is crucial. There’s a sort of resonance effect— I don’t understand it entirely myself, it not being my primary field of interest.” He frowned. “And yet, something deep down inside me wants to connect the two.”
I frowned as the two mages sat silently staring at the ward for a time. “In that case,” Hone said eventually, “I suppose that it’s necessary to collect another specimen. So that we can compare them.”
“I fear so,” Impetus agreed.
“I’ll take care of it,” Hone replied. He rubbed his belly. “But after lunch, if you don’t mind. My reflexes are better on a full stomach.”
We ate more beans and rice, this time filled out with bits of dried beef or, in Hone’s case, some kind of extra-smelly fish. He offered samples to everyone, once he realized how curious we were. But I was the only one who liked it. Then, once we were done, Impetus filled the rest in about his Hertzian wave theory.
“I suppose it’s possible,” Guardian allowed after chewing things over for a bit. “I mean… We’re learning new things all the time. New knowledge reveals new symbolism, no?”
Healer frowned and examined the crow-ward through his lenses-telescope thing again for about the thousandth time. ‘I don’t know much about electromagnetism,” he said. “But… I don’t like the look of this at all, my Lord. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, mind you.”
“Is this ward substantially different from the last?” Hone asked. Already he was rolling up the sleeves on his cloak and preparing for battle.
“Yes and no,” Healer replied, squinting harder than ever. “The inner workings are obscured, just like they were before. So I can’t see much more than you can. But, it feels different somehow.” He lowered the scope and frowned. “Healers are trained to rely even more heavily on intuition than other mages. This affects our judgment when we move beyond our own field of specialty, and usually not for the better. Perhaps I’m imagining things.” He shrugged in a very Gallic way.
“Perhaps,” Impetus agreed, his eyes narrowing. “And perhaps not. I’ll admit that the hair on the back of my neck had been rising a bit lately myself. Now I consider the sensation most emphatically confirmed.” He turned to Hone. “We’re a long way from help out here, my friend. Perhaps we attempt too much?”
Hone smiled and adjusted his sword belt. ‘We’re a fire mage, a master kinetic mage and a samurai sorcerer-warrior, with a veteran cavalryman of long experience and a kodiak bear Familiar of known ferocity and bravery in immediate support, and with one of the world’s leading Healers standing right beside us in case of difficulties. My Lord, if we’re not properly prepared here and now, then who ever will be?”
Impetus frowned. “You make an excellent point, Hone. And I mean no reflection on your skills. But…”
Hone smiled. “We came here to take risks. Besides, I’m fascinated by this Hertzian wave theory of yours.” He drew his sword and spread his legs into a combat stance. “Are we quite ready?”
Impetus’s frown intensified, then he looked at Guardian. “Perhaps you and I should stand closer together, for mutual support?
Guardian nodded and moved as requested. As she did so she opened the front of her robe, not wide enough to reveal anything but just enough to slip a hand inside. Then she made several preparatory passes and her eyes turned hard. My jaw dropped a bit at that— she’d cast a half-spell, something only rarely done because it consumed precious Power that would be wasted if the rest of the incantation were never required. Apparently her hackles had been raised as well. “I’m ready.”
Impetus nodded, then made several passes of his own. A thin haze of dust rose from the ground all around us as he did so, and I wondered what was up. Meanwhile the colonel had unslung his rifle, and I stretched and took a few loosening-up paces so as to be ready in the unlikely event that teeth and claws might prove useful. “Shield Healer,” Hone suggested. “He’s the most vulnerable of us all.”
“Right,” I agreed, moving a few paces to position myself between Healer and the ward. Now, whatever it was would have to penetrate many hundreds of pounds of bear-meat to get to him. It was probably the most useful thing I could do.
Hone nodded. “Good, Christopher! Very good!” Then he looked around one last time. ‘Everyone is in place, I think?”
“You may fire when ready, Gridley,” Guardian added.
Hone’s forehead wrinkled for an instant, then his translator spell must’ve explained the expression. “Ah! Then let us hope we’re as fortunate as your Commodore Dewey.” He bowed formally…
…and then disappeared just like before, leaving only a vague shimmer in the air and his footprints on the desert floor to show that he’d ever been present at all.
Hone had moved slowly and carefully the first time he’d captured us a crow-ward. It’d stung him regardless, and clearly he’d not forgotten the experience. This time he moved with excruciating stealth. It took him at least fifteen minutes to close the first ten yards, then another fifteen to cover five yards more. Meanwhile the rest of us stood ready, Impetus and Guardian poised to complete their already-begun spells, the colonel with his rifle held ready— though not shouldered and aimed, as it was far too heavy for that— and me with my lip perpetually curled in a half-snarl that was hopefully ursinely intimidating. Hone’s footsteps were as light as a slow-motion dancer’s; even though I knew he was there and what he was about, it was almost impossible for me to track his exact position. Even the scent of his fishy lunch had vanished— it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. While I didn’t know a lot about Japan, I’d learned while at their consulate in France during my tea-visit that a samurai was sort of Japan’s version of a medieval knight, though with some key differences I didn’t really understand yet. But… Did Japanese knights sneak? It didn’t seem very knightly to me, at least not in the way I understood the term. And yet, he was very, very good at it. Maybe he had other unexpected skills as well?
Oddly enough, it was Healer who gave the first warning. “It’s turning!” he warned.”To face him!”
I raised my eyes back to the ward— I’d been admiring’s Hone’s stalk, though apparently my attention should’ve been elsewhere. Had it turned? If so, it was only by a tiny amount.
“It moved!” Healer repeated as Hone froze dead in his tracks. “I swear it!”
“I… Saw nothing.” Guardian said. Meanwhile Colonel James shook his head wordlessly, and so did I.
“Perhaps it fluttered in a puff of wind?” Impetus asked. Clearly he’d seen nothing either.
“It moved,” Healer said, his voice confident and certain. “In a pivot, though only a few degrees. And the air’s dead calm.”
There was a long, silence. “It is pointed directly at him,” James agreed. Then he shrugged. “Could be pure chance.” Meanwhile Hone stood frozen like a statue.
Impetus frowned and thought furiously for a few seconds. “The Baron was right,” he said to us. “We’ll never be better prepared than we are right here and now.” Then he raised his voice. “Hone, it may or may not have moved— we can’t be sure. So use your own judgement. But whatever you do, be careful!”
Hone didn’t in any way acknowledge his Lordship. For another long moment he remained frozen, and for a moment I thought he was going to back off. Perhaps he’d detected motion too? Finally he raised his right foot an excruciatingly slow inch— you could see it in the dead grass.
And the wings dew themselves inwards ever so slightly.
“Hone!” Impetus warned. But the Baron had already seen it; now his foot was reaching backwards. It was too late, though. The sickly-red lightning flared, this time much brighter and more intensely than before. Hone’s sword sliced sideways in a blur-like parry, and once again most of the energy wasted itself on the already-dead Kalahari. This time the original burst was far more powerful, however, and thus the similarly-small portion that made it past the counterstroke was far more potent.
“Aaaaah!” Hone cried in agony, for once needing to translation spell to make himself understood. His flesh flowed and blackened wherever the hissing bolts struck. Impetus reached out with the magical fingertips of one arm to yank him back, while with the other he ripped hundreds, maybe even thousands of small clods and sticks and roots and other hard objects out of the soil and held them ready to fling like a hail of Maxim bullets once his line of fire was clear. Meanwhile, once again Guardian’s hands were suddenly full of white-hot fire.
My jaw dropped as Impetus tugged at the writhing Hone not once, but again and again to no effect. Now the fire was wrapped around him, and his screams were awful as his robe burned and the evil-hued electrical arcs plunged deep into his flesh like a viper’s fangs, over and over again. He gestured and spelled; sometimes for a second or two he even managed to divert the attack and retreat a step or two backwards. But never for long enough or far enough. The lightning kept coming and coming, more powerfully by the second rather than less. Meanwhile Impetus dropped his projectiles and, abandoning his counterattack, clawed at Hone with both hands. He managed to yank the Baron a few more feet towards freedom before the bolts wrapped around Hone stymied further progress. Yes, he was a bit further away from the ward…
…but apparently not far enough to allow clearance for whatever nastiness Guardian held ready. “More space!” she cried. “I need more space to work with!”
The colonel’s rifle fired, and something flamed up big and red near the heart of the ward. Whatever the thing was, it apparently had no liking for hot, high-velocity lead. But it didn’t particularly seem to mind it, either, as the lightning didn’t weaken a bit. The baron writhed and screamed, now apparently entirely helpless in its grasp. The air reeked of his charred flesh and his sword lay at his feet; my guess was that his hands were by now too devastated to grasp it.
And that was that. For better or for worse, and also before I could gather enough common sense to talk myself out of it, I growled and galloped directly towards the center of the flashing fire. I didn’t have a long enough run to develop as much momentum as I’d have liked; only a few increasingly long strides, so that I was still accelerating when I got there. But I was lucky, and it was enough. Guided by white-hot anger instead of cool, collected reason— I hated the very sight of a crow-ward at a visceral level, and the red fire trebly, even quadruply so— instead of trying to free Hone I raced heedlessly into the very heart of the inferno. It didn’t react to me quickly enough, and that was it’s downfall. While a few bolts struck home, between the rage pouring through me and my thick ruddy fur I barely even felt them. With a single swipe of my right forepaw I slashed the miserable thing into flinders. Then, half-mad with pain and rage, I stomped and clawed and tore at the remains until nothing was left but a few scattered black feathers, all the while howling and bawling and gnashing my teeth like, well… An enraged kodiak, I suppose. Usually Guardian would come and hug me around the neck and attend to my wounds and generally help me calm myself after an episode like that, when I was even more a bear than usual. But this time I had to fend for myself, gradually huffing and snorting the rage away and angrily pacing back and forth until my human side was fully back in command. Finally I sighed and, a bit shamefacedly, turned back to face the rest and apologize for having made such a beast of myself for so long.
But the words died on my lips. For the rest of the party was gathered in a respectful half-circle around the fallen Hone. All of them had removed their hats. And, worst of all, Healer wasn’t doing anything at all to care for him.