There are a thousand respectful rituals that humans honor in the face of death. It’s just about the most horrific thing in the universe, after all. So horrible that few of us wish it even upon our worst enemies, much less our good friends and colleagues. It’s bad enough to have to face the mortality of a person one cares about even after a long illness or extreme age has served as preparation for the inevitable, but a sudden, unexpected death in the bright sunshine of a beautiful day is a thousand times worse. So we’ve developed customs to deal with the eventuality; simple, unthinking things we can say and do in order to deceive ourselves into believing that we’re somehow taking meaningful action, or that our ministrations can in some way continue to matter to the deceased who we suddenly appreciate much we really cared for. Things like removing our hats and bowing our heads and gathering in a respectful semicircle around the deceased the moment the immediate danger has passed.
Sadly, like most human customs, all of these are predicated on the idea that everyone has a human body and is wearing human garb and can make fully human motions and actions. I was as shocked and hurt as the rest at Hone’s death. Perhaps even more so because, with the possible exception of Impetus— who also seemed quite comfortable in his company, though I had no idea why— I probably felt closer to him than anyone else present. Yet I had no hat to remove, and while I could and did lumber over to join the semicircle from behind and bow my head, the effect was very different coming from a bear’s body than a man’s.
At least the mages had been around Familiars enough to understand my situation; Impetus roused himself enough to nod soberly in acknowledgement of my attempt at propriety, Guardian did the same, and Healer went so far as to smile weakly and place his hand between my ears…
…only to pull it instantly away, covered in blood. “Christopher!” he declared, turning and really looking at me for the first time. “You’re hurt!”
“Huh?” I asked; while I’d felt a little burning here and there at the height of my charge, it hadn’t felt like enough to worry about.
“Lie down!” Healer ordered. “Right here and— No! Step into the shade first. I won’t want you moving about for a good long while, and you’re far too heavy to carry.”
I blinked at that— too heavy to carry? How bad was it, anyway? I turned around to examine my left side…
…only to discover that it looked like a handful of searing-hot and irregularly-spaced claws had raked me long and deep, burning and slicing both.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Healer declared, following my eyes. “You’re going to be fine.” He forced a reassuring smile…
… and I forced one back. After all, he’d treated for me burns before, and I knew from personal experience that he was capable of telling even the most outrageous whoppers if he thought it’d serve the best interests of his patients.
I had to walk around Hone’s corpse to get to a good lying-down spot, so I took the opportunity to pause at his feet for a moment and offer my respects, my own wounds be damned. “He was a great man among his own people,” I said aloud. “And a great friend to the rest of us as well.” I felt a tear tug at my left eye— poor Temper! He was absolutely devoted to the old man, I knew. Heart and soul. He’d be devastated! “The Baron was very kind to me.”
“Yes,” Guardian said. “Of course he was! But come lie down, Christopher. Right away! The Baron would understand perfectly. The rest of us will… Take care of what needs to be done here.”
I decided I owed Hone more than that. So I stood there with my head bowed for another few seconds regardless. Only then did I do as I was told. “Come along, Christopher,” Healer said, forcing another smile. “Is there much pain?”
“None at all,” I reported honestly. “Or as little as doesn’t matter. A slight tingling.” I frowned. “In fact, if anything I’m sort of numb. I barely felt it happen, and even less now.”
“How about your head?” Colonel James demanded. He’d apparently nominated himself Healer’s assistant and already had a pouch full of dressings in his hands and at the ready.
“Was it cut too?” I asked.
The colonel looked meaningfully at Healer after I said that, and suddenly a wave of weakness wobbled through me. It was probably all my imagination, but still… It felt good to lie down.
“You were very brave, Chris,” Guardian said as I settled my head and rolled so as to offer Healer the best access possible. “We should’ve said so before. You did exactly the right thing and in no way was it your fault that… that…”
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault, I don’t think,” I answered. “Except whoever set that awful thing up in the first place, I mean. Hone was right— we were as ready as anyone anywhere could have been. Tell Impetus I said so, if you don’t mind. He’s probably feeling even worse, now that he knows I’m hurt too.”
“I heard,” Impetus declared, though from behind me where I couldn’t see him. “And thank you. But in retrospect, we made a thousand mistakes.”
“Unavoidable ones,” Guardian declared. “Chris is right. It was no one’s fault. I’d probably do the same things all over, knowing what I knew then.
“I…” Then Impetus changed the subject. “We should care for Hone quickly, in this heat.”
“Yes,” Healer agreed. “You should.” Clearly he wanted to work in privacy. “Colonel, would you stay and assist? I’ll be casting, I fear. Quite openly and intently. May I have your oath of secrecy?”
“Most freely given,” he answered. ‘I’ve been so trusted before and consider it a great honor.”
“Good,” Healer replied. “I fear this is going to hurt Chris a lot more than it is us before all is said and done, you see. Someone is going to have to hold his head, and as polite and well-mannered and good-intentioned as he is, I don’t envy anyone the job.”
“He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Colonel James reassured him. Or perhaps it was himself he was reassuring. He looked me in the eye. “Would you?”
I felt myself magic-blush. Sure enough, I was feeling weaker by the minute. Something was badly wrong after all. “I… Not on purpose, Colonel. But… I’m not feeling at all well.”
“Right,” Healer agreed. He poked and prodded some more, looking at my face for a reaction. But if anything I was feeling number than ever— and now on the back of my head too. Then he forced another smile and tried to look brave and confident. “We’e going to take care of everything, no problem.” Then he turned to James. “Go get my tan-colored bag from Chris’s harness. That’s the big one. Don’t try to open it for me— it’s warded, and rather nastily at that. And…
I’m not going to dwell too much on the next few days, except to say that they were full of excreta and sputum and blood and pus and vomit, all of which are generated in far larger quantities by a kodiak’s body than that of an equally-afflicted human. And I was gravely afflicted, there was no doubting that. My wounds wouldn’t have been so bad if they weren’t also poisoned, Healer explained during that first awful night, when both he and I were resting and everyone else imagined that I was asleep. “I recognized what’d happened the moment I realized he wasn’t feeling any significant pain,” he told Impetus as he sat next to our campfire, totally exhausted. He took another sip of coffee from his ridiculous little cup. “In all honesty, if a trained and prepared expert hadn’t been standing practically right beside him when it happened, he’d have been dead in minutes. This sort of thing has happened before, you see.”
“Where?” Impetus asked. “And when?”
Healer took another sip of coffee. “We all expected to encounter a Pit on this expedition. Even before we left home, we expected to. So naturally I studied up on Pit-related medicine.” He gestured towards me. “Sometimes, when a Pit is particularly intense, its Demons leave painless wounds. While it hasn’t happened often enough for there to have been any systematic research, or for that matter under circumstances that would even permit any real research at all, I took note of the phenomenon and prepared accordingly.” He frowned. “I suspect that whatever it is kills the nerve tissue first, and that’s why there’s no pain.”
Guardian nodded. “So, he’s going to be all right?”
Healer sighed and drained his cup before replying. “My dear colleague… On the one hand, I was indeed prepared and ready. I’d thought things out well ahead of time, and considered at length exactly what incantations and remedies might hold the most promise. The good news is that they’ve indeed had a positive effect.” Then he sighed and stood. “The bad is that Chris has already lived longer than anyone else ever poisoned in this way.” He shook his head. “Usually they die and then decompose at a highly accelerated rate— that’s actually why I encouraged you to take care of poor Hone in such a rush, though I didn’t want to explain in front of the boy. And before I take too much credit for Chris’s still being with us so far, be aware that for all I know it may be as much because he’s a bear Familiar as anything I’ve done for him.” Then his voice broke a little. “Just know that whatever happens, I’ve given my absolute all. I’ve already drained nearly every charm I’ve got access to here. My bolt is very nearly shot. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should return to his side.”
There was a long, shocked silence. Exactly how long I don’t know, because I passed out again before it ended.
The Kalahari Desert is a miserable place for a sick kodiak bear. It’s not so much the heat and the dryness, or at least it wasn’t in my case. My cooling spells still worked just fine, we had more water-charms than we perhaps needed, and the loamy soil didn’t make all that unsatisfactory a sickbed. But the sunlight was just awful! When I opened my eyes it felt as if nails were being driven into my eyeballs, and when I tried to sleep it leaked through the sealed lids and kept me miserably awake hour after endless hour. There was no plumbing, so that even though my friends dutifully carried my diseased waste and secretions and such to be buried in a faraway sanitary hole, they still reeked to high heaven to a nose as sensitive as mine, so that I lived in a miasma of filth. While no one had ever designed a proper ursine bedpan and I’d felt the lack before, it was even worse out here where there weren’t even any poor substitutes to be had. And the flies… Oh the endless, sanity-eating flies! Swarms of the things bedeviled me all day long, some of them biting and stinging while others merely carried the stench of the decaying corpses and waste-piles they’d surely visited— or even emerged from— not so very long before. When I was unconscious the awful things would crawl right into my mouth and up my nose and even more private places. It was the flies I raved about when things were worst. “Away!” I’d moan. “Keep them away! If they lay their death-eggs I’ll swell up and rot in the sun like… like… like…”
I won’t lie. It was absolutely awful. So awful, in fact, that not once but twice in my delirium I clawed Colonel James to the bone, and also once bit him so hard on the arm that the bone cracked. Healer ended up caring for him almost as much as me. But he refused to abandon his post, and for that I shall be forever grateful.
It was on the morning of the fourth day that push finally came to shove. I was beginning to recover a little by then, though there was still no way that I was going to get up and walk any great distance. Or maybe not even just a step or two. At least I was pretty solid on who and what and where I was most of the time, if still a little doubtful regarding why and how I’d gotten there. Still, even magically-packed supplies don’t last forever in the middle of the Kalahari and a crisis was slowly developing.
“…must make some sort of move soon,” Impetus said to the rest late that afternoon, while standing in a place that he fondly but mistakenly assumed was well out of earshot. Just because bear ears aren’t as famous or physically prominent as cat and dog and especially rabbit ears doesn’t mean they aren’t every bit as effective. “I’ve long ago accepted that our expedition is in essence a failure, but now…” He stole a look my way. “Christopher is gravely wounded and the food is running low.” He lowered his eyes. “I think it’s time that we spilt up. Healer should remain here with his patient and most of what’s left to eat. The rest of us…” He hesitated slightly, hating to speak the actual words of surrender. “Well, we ought to go seek help wherever we can find it, I suppose. Even if it’s the Germans.
“I reluctantly agree,” Healer said, also glancing back my way. “Christopher is made of very tough stuff, or he’d never have survived as long as he has. He’s improving, yes. But only enough that I think it’ll be safe to move him soon, in the largest, most gently-riding ambulance we can find.” He sighed. “We may still lose him regardless.”
“I’m a junior partner here,” Colonel James said. “But for what it’s worth, my country sees Christopher as a national asset just as any other nation would. Yes, we were willing to risk him on a mission of potential benefit to the entire world, just as France and Britain and, sadly, Japan risked their own best and brightest.” He hung his head for a moment in respect for the departed Hone. “But that doesn’t mean we hold his life cheap. He needs to be saved if at all possible.”
Impetus nodded. “I agree, except that I feel he must be saved simply because he’s proven himself an extraordinary young man of remarkable character. But I cannot deny that he’s a national asset as well, and so it’s fair to also regard him as such.” He turned to Guardian. “What do you think?”
She frowned. “On the one hand, you three are absolutely correct in everything you’ve said. Besides, I’m rather… Close, you might say. Close to Christopher, as well. And yet…” She looked off towards the horizon. “We’ll have to walk— the crow-wards are obviously some sort of casting-in-progress, and apporting out of the middle of an active spell is far too dangerous to risk, even if we don’t care about giving away our presence anymore.” She shook her head. “We can’t afford to under-rate those wards again. The first time we came across one, it was already dangerous. The second time, even though we’d learned from the experience and appreciated the danger, it killed one and very nearly a second member of our party.”
Impetus frowned. “We planned poorly. It was my fault.”
Guardian shook her head. “With all due respect, my Lord, it was not.” Her frown intensified. “We all underestimated the danger together. Something clearly changed, where no change was anticipated.” She paused and met Impetus’s eyes. “The ward clearly grew more powerful. Will the rest of them develop more new and unexpected capabilities as well? What if over the past several days their effective range has increased, for example. Could we survive a third encounter, especially with a ward that’s more powerful still?”
“Or perhaps just this specific one was more powerful,” Healer pointed out. “It may’ve been unique. Or… They may all be different. Two samples isn’t enough to establish a rule.”
“That’s perfectly logical,” Guardian replied. “Yet… You spoke of Hertzian waves, my Lord. Aren’t those a form of energy?”
“Well,” he said. “Yes. Of course.”
Guardian nodded. “You spoke of resonance and symbolism related to… I believe the proper term is ‘wavelength’?”
Impetus blinked, then bowed slightly. “You know much of physics, for a female. I mean only admiration when I say that— no offense is meant.”
Guardian smiled slightly. “I know who your daughter is and how much you love and respect her, so no offense is taken.” She bowed slightly back, where most ladies would’ve curtsied. “Anyway… We were speaking of energy and resonance.” She swept her arm in the direction we’d come from, where one presumably many massacres had taken place. “Enormous amounts of Power were unleashed all across this region, via the blackest sort of murder. Yet no Pit has yet formed. Would you care to speculate as to why?”
“Because it wasn’t murder after all, obviously,” Impetus replied. “The natives died in an illegal rebellion against duly established authority. We’ve already determined that.”
“Have we?” Guardian asked. She sighed and shook her head. “I fear I cannot agree. No one with an open heart and an honest soul can see what we’ve seen and not know deep down in the deepest recesses of their heart that they’re witness to murder of the most repulsive sort. Though I suspect yours will end up being the official explanation.”
Impetus’s features hardened for a moment, then eased. “I respectfully disagree, ma’am. But… I find that I’m eager to hear more regardless.”
Guardian nodded and gathered her robe closer about her— it was something she sometimes did when she was nervous or a bit uncertain of herself. “I… Fear we’re seeing something far worse that a Pit, my Lord. What if the crow-wards were set up to gather and absorb the death-energy of an entire people? Cold-bloodedly and in advance, with careful forethought and planning? To store the Power away, instead of allowing it to find its natural expression in the form of a Pit? And then we stumbled into the middle of the network as it gathered more and more energy?
Impetus’s eyebrows narrowed, and Healer’s mouth fell open. “It would fit, in a way,” the Frenchman said. “After all, we know that Chris’s wounds show some of the same characteristics as those associated with the most intense sorts of Pits.”
“If you don’t accept that explanation,” the colonel mused, “then you still have to some mighty fancy explaining to do as to why all the predictions of a Pit forming here were wrong.”
Impetus scowled. “It’s pure speculation.”
“Oh, yes!” Guardian replied. “Absolutely. Nothing but. However… It also fits the facts as we know them.”
Healer smiled for a moment, then his face went slack again. “I… You…” Then he pointed a finger at Guardian. “You… You’re American Guild. The only Guild known to have dabbled in death magic. Are you… Have you…”
She frowned and put her hands on her hips. “Does the French Guild perchance have any military secrets, brother sorcerer? Perhaps more of them and held far longer and gained less openly than anything we may or may not have?”
Healer colored and turned away.
Impetus shook his head. “We can’t squabble out here in the middle of nowhere like this.” He turned to Guardian. “Our three nations are all at peace and good friends. Is there something you need to tell us?”
Her eyes flashed. “I’m a fire mage— we all know that. And not a particularly advanced one at that. If I didn’t happen to be so close to Chris on a personal level— who’s the real reason you sought an American presence on this expedition in the first place and we all know it— then I’d not even be here. Why would I be entrusted with such important knowledge when it’s not even within my primary field of study?”
“Because you’re a well-regarded up-and-comer who’s certain to become very important in your nation’s military magic program even though you hate the idea,” Impetus replied, his voice cold and certain. He nodded at Colonel James. “Just as he’s a future general certain to serve in the same field, though he’s far less distressed at the prospect. Why else were you two chosen for preliminary discussions aboard ship regarding the development a modern military-magic branch for your nation?”
Guardian’s eyes flashed, and Colonel James scowled most fiercely. That was supposed to be as secret as secret could be! “How… I mean…”
Impetus waved him off. “We all of us represent competing nations with competing interests,” he explained. “The question is, will we mindlessly argue with each other or will we cooperate?”
There was a long, cold silence. “France holds many military magic secrets,” Healer finally admitted. “Some of them, as a Healer, I feel we we should long ago have shared. I used some of this knowledge in Christopher’s initial treatment even though I could be severely disciplined for doing so.” He frowned. “I admit this freely, and respect the right of other nations to hold secrets as well. Including the United States. This is the nature of the world we live in, unfortunately.”
Impetus nodded. “My country also holds deep, dark military magic secrets. And I too respect the right of the United States to do the same. But… If you know anything that might aid us… Please. For Christopher’s sake, if no other.”
Her eyes went cold and hard, then she nodded. “Will you swear on our Brotherhood— which technically may be broken on the International level but which I still very strongly feel exists among us here and now as individuals— that you’ll keep this confidential?”
The two mages frowned, then both shook their heads. “I’m sorry,” Healer replied. “But I cannot. Imagine the position I’d be in!”
“Nor I,” Impetus replied. “For all the same reasons. Though, I must say that considering the matter from that perspective has at least helped me appreciate the difficulties of the situation you’re currently in.” He bowed again.
Guardian frowned. “Let’s just say, then, that I suspect carrion birds are indeed a very strong indicator of necromancy. It’s even remotely possible that dead ones arrayed over a wide region like those we’ve seen might be used to drain death-derived Power from…. Something. Though of course no one’s ever attempted such a thing in real life, most especially not for the entirely ethical and honorable purpose of closing an active, dangerous Pit.”
“Of course,” Impetus agreed, meeting Healer’s eye for an instant. He bowed again. “It’s also impossible for parts of the rigging of a sailing ship— purchased long ago from British naval stores during emergency repairs after a storm— to be enchanted in such a way that they can be used for spying. Such, as, say, to listen in on what otherwise might be highly confidential considerations held in the cabin of a vessel at sea.”
“And no other Healer-mage could ever possibly determine how I excised most of the sepsis in Christopher’s battle wounds by modifying a common water-charm. They could never puzzle out how I did it, just from knowing that much and examining Christopher’s wounds carefully once they’re fully healed. Not ever!”
Guardian looked very surprised for a moment. Then she looked from face, blinked, and laughed. “All right, then. Thank you very, very much. But don’t expect me to share any more. If there actually were any more to share, that is.”
“Of course not,” Impetus replied with a bow. “Any more than shall we. If we’d ever shared anything with each other in the first place, that is.” His eyes twinkled for the first time in days. “And now… You’ve indeed made a compelling case that the wards are probably more powerful than ever. So we shall avoid them by a wider margin. But… I fear we still must go for help.”
“Absolutely,” Guardian agreed. “I never meant to argue that part. I just wanted to make sure everyone was aware that it may not be easy as it sounds.”
“At the very least we’ll have to walk much further than planned, zigzagging around them.” Impetus frowned. “Then, if no one objects we’ll spend the rest of the day preparing and leave before dawn tomorrow.”
Healer let me sleep in late the next morning, so that I wasn’t able to tell everyone else goodbye and wish them a safe journey. But I’d been fairly awake and aware during dinner the night before, and had even managed to eat and hold down some portable soup. Healer seemed to consider that a very good sign, so we had a happy little time together. Impetus told me he was going to nominate me for a Guild medal for trying to save Hone, though it’d have to be issued through the American Guild only since the worldwide organization had disbanded. I already had a couple similar medals tucked away in my top dresser drawer so I told him he really didn’t need to bother. “Don’t be so quick to turn them down,” Colonel James urged me. “It’s a matter of duty, you see. They’re not issued for your benefit, but rather to inspire others.”
I thought about that after dinner, though not for very long because I was still weak and thus fell asleep quickly. I was still having bizarre sick-fever dreams illustrated in wild, not-real colors— that night I was tormented by a green-pink Baron Attache, who kept ripping Hone’s too-decayed corpse from the soil and causing it to invisibly walk about stealing little copies of Midnight, all of which mewled and bawled in terror. I kept trying to warn everyone, but nobody listened and then I was fighting Hone in a Pit and feeling my talons rip through flesh that was only partly there and was all liquidy and stank and splashed when I clawed at it. Then red lightning burned, burned, burned my flesh before it went icy numb. “This isn’t going very well!” the little Midnights declared again and again. “We have a very bad feeling about it!” Then a schoolmarm Demon with a broom attacked me from behind, and though I tried and tried I couldn’t kill Hone because he was already dead and there were angry decaying natives all around us and Hone’s cruel sword bit deep and hard and true and…
I woke up with the sun spearing deep into my eyes, as usual. They burned and ached from the eternal brightness. I sighed and covered them with my paws. That helped, yes. But it was awkward as could be; all too soon my muscles would be crying out for me to shift them into a less unnatural position. So instead of trying to go back to sleep and return to my nightmares I sighed and, bit by bit, unmasked myself and prepared for a new day.
“Good morning, sleepyhead!” Healer greeted me almost immediately. He was drinking coffee again, and smoking a long, thin cigarette that smelled extra-bad. “How are you feeling?”
I hadn’t risen to my feet and walked in over half a week, my mouth was dry and tasted bad, I felt vaguely nauseous, my eyes ached and were half-crusted over, my nose was dusted with grit so that I’d soon have to sneeze and thus reactivate the painful wounds in my side and the back of my head, and already there were clouds of awful, madding flies buzzing everywhere around me. “Fine,” I replied dutifully.
“Good!” Healer declared with a smile. He knew full well I was lying, but at least appreciated the underlying intent. “Will you feel up to breakfast soon?”
“Maybe,” I answered, thinking about the many long, barren days and nights that still waited ahead of me. First the mages would have to walk who knew how far to get out of the ward-field. Then they’d have to find help, and a big wagon, and… I frowned. It could be a week or more before I was shut of this wretched place. If they make it at all, I tried not to mentally add. “I can’t wait to get out of here. Out of Africa entirely, I mean,” I muttered instead of offering a sensible answer. Then, inevitably, I sneezed and jolted my unhealed wounds. Oh, how it hurt! Then I did it again and again, like I always did immediately after waking up with my head resting on the desert floor. Did real kodiaks have to put up with the same thing every morning, I wondered? Or was the Kalahari soil just that much more unpleasant than Alaska’s? Certainly the rest of Africa was. Or at least everything I’d seen of it. “I… Think I hate this place.”
Healer nodded soberly, noting the pain that I was trying so hard to hide. “I’d have repaired the nerves last if I could’ve,” he said. “I regret that my art isn’t yet nearly so advanced as I might sometimes wish.”
I magic-shrugged, which also hurt but not nearly so much. “Thank you for saving my life again,” I said eventually. “I should’ve thanked you days ago.”
“And thank you for saving mine,” Healer replied, bowing from the neck. “Which quite possibly you did. That… Thing. It was intensifying by the second. While I suspect that once Hone was dead and out of the way— and he didn’t die until well after your attack was over, I’ll add— Impetus and Guardian would’ve made short work of it. But then again…” He shrugged. “Perhaps they might not’ve. It was, as I said, intensifying.” He smiled and stubbed out his cigarette. “At any rate you were very brave and spared us from the… How do you say it? The finding-out. And at great personal cost at that.” His face sobered. “I’ll be seconding the recommendation for your medal. Guardian cannot, because she’s your friend. But I know for a fact that she would if it were permissable.”
I felt myself blush a little. “It wasn’t exactly something I thought about. If I had…”
Healer smiled. “If you had, you’d have done exactly the same and, in my book, at least, it would’ve been braver still.” He reached out and tugged gently at my left ear. “I know you far too well to think otherwise.”
Our camp always had a large, healthy fire going— given that Guardian was a member of our party this was hardly a problem, and apparently whatever she’d arranged remained effective in her absence. So it took Healer no time at all to boil up a half-bucket or so of portable soup. What explorers did before the stuff was first invented, I couldn’t imagine. Then he dipped out a cup for himself and passed the rest to me. I dug in, then realized that maybe I was being a bit piggish. “Are you sure you don’t want a little more?” I asked. “I mean… I’d hardly miss such a little bit.”
Healer smiled and patted his waistline. “A few days of short rations will be good for me, Chris. Besides… I have some… hardtack, I think it’s called in your country. Hardtack, to dip in the soup for dinner. But don’t worry! We also still have plenty of dried blueberries and beef for you. Even some salmon, for a special treat when you’re ready.”
My mouth should’ve watered, but instead a wave of nausea surged through me. “Not… Anytime soon,” I answered, suddenly losing my appetite. Though at least I was nearly finished. It was the most I’d downed in ages.
“Perhaps not,” Healer replied. “But the day will come, and when it does…” Then he frowned and stood up, looking into the distance.
My ears perked, but I heard nothing. “What?”
“I’m not certain,” he replied. “But…” He squinted and shaded his eyes, then went to get the telescope-thing from his pack.
I might or might not’ve been able to rise to my feet; certainly the matter was doubtful enough that I wasn’t going to undertake the effort lightly. But I was able to lift my head and use my ears to scan the horizon. My first pass picked up nothing, as did my second. But then…
…I heard the sound of distant, continuous thunder, in exactly the same direction Healer was again staring.
“What is it?” I asked. “I can hear thunder, if that helps any.”
Healer frowned, peering through his tube. Then, with deliberate calm, he lowered his gadget. “Chris,” he said slowly. “Is there any chance at all that you can get up and walk? More than a just few steps, I mean? Even moving very slowly. Answer honestly, now. I have preparations to make, and your answer is very important.”
I gulped. “No, sir. I was just thinking about that myself, and… Probably not.”
He nodded, again with forced calm. “I see. Thank you for being frank with me.” Then he turned and dug deep into the saddlebags I hadn’t worn in days.
“Please,” I said. “Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“Of course,” he answered, pulling the colonel’s Colt .45 out and, very awkwardly, checking the load. “Just give me a moment first.” I gulped at the sight. At a certain level it was absurd to see a fully-Robed mage reaching for a sixgun in a time of peril. After all, battles between kinetic mages and fire-mages and ice-sorcerers and all the rest were stuff of legends. But medical mages? They didn’t inflict damage. They repaired it. Healer was helpless enough that the colonel had left his handgun with us in case a lion or pack of hyenas happened along, and given Healer a crash course in how to properly use it. Soberly he half-cocked the hammer and spun the cylinder, then carefully lined it up so the hammer would safely rest on an empty chamber, just as I’d watched him be instructed to do. He was calm enough, yes.
But he also forgot to lower the hammer. “I… Uh,” I said, pawing at where the weapon’s grip protruded ridiculously from his robe’s side pocket. “Uh…”
He blinked, removed the gun, and made things right. “Oh. Thank you.”
I nodded back. “No problem. But…”
Now he was gathering up everything that would burn and tossing it on Guardian’s fire. It flamed high, unnaturally so, at the glut of fuel. Meanwhile the thunder grew ever-louder. “Yes,” he said as he worked. “I… What you’re hearing is…” He frowned, seeking the right words. “It’s ordinary thunder, in a way. But the lightning bolts are all bright red. And… That’s the direction the rest of the party headed this morning.”
“I… I see.” Now I was forcing myself to match Healer’s calm. “Did you… I mean…”
He shook his head. “I presume they’re still alive and fighting, or there wouldn’t be any lightning. But… Christopher, it’s moving this way. Rather quickly, in fact. I can only assume the others are making a fighting retreat of it.”
My ears went flat. “Is there… I mean…”
He shook his head. “You’re an invalid, Chris. Your great strength has always been your bear-body, coupled to a courageous heart. If you were Sworn, then perhaps… But no, it’s much too late for that.” He sighed. “In truth I’ve built up the fire hoping that Guardian can perhaps use it for something, assuming she makes it this far. And now I’m gathering up what few charms we have left here, including the dribs and drabs left from my medical kit, so that the others can drain their Power. Otherwise…” He half-drew the Colt, then returned it to his pocket. “I fear this is all I have.”
I nodded slowly. “I might be able to get up and move a little.”
He shook his head. “Save your energy for a crucial moment. I should never even have asked. It was… A fond hope, was all.”
I frowned and craned my neck extra-hard. Sure enough, now I could see the evil red flashes flickering on the desert floor. A particularly loud peal of thunder roared out, and Healer turned to look at the horizon again. Now it was close enough for human ears. “Is there any sign of them?”
Healer shook his head. “Only the lightning itself. It’s approaching so quickly that I think they must be flying. That’s a terribly dangerous thing to do in the middle of an active casting, you know. Anything could happen.” He shuddered.
I nodded and thought, hard and furiously. But… What could I do? Healer was right— unSworn, and not even rated as an apprentice-level mage, all I was good for was physical strength and, once harnessed, maybe generating Power. And I was too weak for that as well.
Healer returned to his work with a vengeance. Our water-charms were stored in four separate sawdust-filled boxes, to absorb shock and reduce the impact of potential accidents. We still had plenty of them, but… Would throwing water at the wards faze them? I couldn’t see how. Nor was there any significant amount of Power to be derived from them. And yet… I didn’t have any better ideas, now did I?
The lightning grew brighter and brighter, and Healer switched back to tossing things in the fire, even our camp-gear. He also ripped branches off the big bush that’d shaded us so well and so loyally for all the days I’d been sick. Out of everything I’d seen and experienced in Africa the brave little bush was the only item I’d found a warm spot in my heart for, and now it was being ripped to shreds! The fire burst up unnaturally high; apparently even green, moist wood was excellent fuel for a magicked fire.
Then the ground began to shake in time with the thunder and the lightning grew powerful enough to cast shadows even in the bright desert sunlight. I still didn’t have a direct view of the struggle, but… Sometimes now the flashes were yellow-white instead of red. Guardian’s work, perhaps? I opened my mouth to ask Healer, but he was already looking through his scope again. “They’re all three still alive,” he reported. “Flying and falling back, as we speculated. Two are carrying the third; presumable that’s the colonel. He…” He frowned and twisted the empty tube. “He appears to be wounded. Badly. But he still has his rifle. And the Power!” He lowered his tube. “I’ve never seen anything like it! The whole horizon appears to be bespelled. Everywhere I look, Power is flowing in unimaginable quantities.
My jaw dropped. “That reminds me of… I mean… I’ve been in a Pit.”
He nodded. “I’ve heard reports of what it’s like.” He nodded at the horizon. “Power and its effects everywhere, they claim, but less organized and concentrated than this.” He shook his head and lowered his tube. “We have perhaps three or four more minutes.” He broke a water-charm into a bucket. “We’re still far out in the desert, Christopher, battle or no. I suggest we drink what we can while we’re able.”
I was still slurping up the cool, fresh goodness of magicked water when the wind finally kicked up and began circling uncertainly all around us. First it gusted from my left, then the right as the sun was first dimmed and then blotted out almost entirely. Dust filled the air, choking thick clouds of the stuff that, in mere seconds rendered the remains of my bucket undrinkable. Meanwhile the crimson lighting flashed across the sky in evil-looking ripples that built and reversed upon themselves before coalescing into powerful ground strikes— how my three friends could possibly remain alive under such an onslaught was beyond me. They were were quite clearly the target; the bolts were focused on a target either on the ground or just above it.
A point that was rapidly approaching.
Healer had by then cut away the shrub almost entirely, leaving me a good view of the fireworks. If I squinted just right I could, just barely, make out the three figures suspended in the air. They appeared to have their backs to me, but it was hard to tell because a huge disk of something dark and solid-looking was moving back and forth above and in front of them. The lighting seemed drawn to it somehow; perhaps it was some sort of magic shield. A particularly large and powerful bolt struck as I watched, and a small bite appeared in the disc’s edge. Whatever it was, it clearly wouldn’t last forever. Meanwhile Guardian— it had to be her— was throwing fireball after fireball towards the ground perilously near their feet, where they exploded in the yellowish-white flashes I’d noted earlier. She looked like a human volcano erupting downwards— it was difficult even to imagine the scale of the destruction she must be leaving in her wake. Yet the sky was still darkening and the wind rising and the bloody flashes rising steadily higher in the sky.
“Look out!” Healer urged, pointing behind us. He dropped flat to the ground…
…and I turned my head to see not one, not two, but perhaps half a dozen crow-wards come racing towards us across the desert, heading full-speed for the battle with dead wings flapping and human leg-bones nearly dragging in the sand. I ducked my head down— it was all I had time for— and one of them passed so low over my back that I almost felt the leg-bone drag through my fur.
“What?” I sputtered once they were past. “I mean, how…”
“Guardian was right,” Healer replied, climbing back to his feet. “While we sat here for all these empty days, the wards not only grew stronger but developed entirely new capabilities as well.” He shook his head. “Now, apparently, they swarm.”
I licked my lips nervously as the lightning rippled across the sky in the most impressive display yet, then gathered itself and speared down in one single, brilliantly-hateful bolt. The shield shifted to counter it…
…but an even larger “bite” appeared in the other side.
Healer shook his head. “I… I don’t…” Then he turned to me. “Are you a Christian, Christopher?”
“I was once,” I answered. “But… Not anymore, I think.”
He nodded. “I fully understand and respect your doubts. They’re shared, after all, by many of those I respect most. I, however, am still a believer.” And with that he fell to his knees, closed his eyes, and began to pray.
I gulped at the sight, then looked about me uncertainly. The sun was now mostly a fond memory, the lightning was almost dead overhead and perhaps even beyond, and off to the right a gaggle of another dozen or so crow-wards was off to join the fray.
Inner Voice, I asked myself. Are you God?
But the only answer was silence. I looked over at Healer, who now somehow managed to carry a beatific smile on his face. Christianity was at least good for comfort in extremis, it appeared. Too bad I couldn’t say the same for my Inner Voice.
Then the sorcerers were finally close enough that I could make out details. Colonel James was indeed sorely wounded— there was a black-edged wound across his back not terribly unlike the ones I’d suffered in my own side and head, though much smaller. But it was bleeding something awful and while he did in fact still have his rifle, it was dangling uselessly from his shoulder and his head was lolling unconscious or perhaps worse. Meanwhile Impetus was waving and gesturing like a madman, manipulating what I could now see was a huge lump of desert soil that he was using to protect the little group. Or more a lump of molten soil, really; it was red-hot with built-up head and energy from bing hit so many times, and even as I watched another thundercracking bolt struck home and splattered part of the thing away. Impetus gestured, trying to gather up the bits and glom them back on, but he only caught part of them before another bolt ripped his attention away. Thus a new ‘bite” appeared the shield. Meanwhile Guardian was blasting away with everything she bad, covered by Impetus’s shield. But the wards racing after them— and there were dozens if not a couple hundred of the awful things— danced and bounced gleefully in a confusing swarm even when not being targeted, so that perhaps one in ten of her fireballs found a target.
And that, clearly, was not enough. Not with the wards constantly reinforcing themselves, and Impetus’s shield steadily growing smaller and smaller.
I gulped, or tried to. My mouth was too dry, however. Voice? I asked internally. Voice?
But there was only cold silence.
By now they were only a few hundred yards away. Healer crossed himself one last time, then stood and smiled. “It’s been a good life,” he said. “Remarkably so. And it’s also been an honor to know you, Chris.”
“And you as well,” I replied, staggering to my feet. It wasn’t at all easy, but I didn’t want to die lying crippled and helpless. While I couldn’t stand very long, if I was reading the situation properly that probably wouldn’t matter.
He nodded, then drew the Colt and cocked it.
“They don’t hurt at all,” I reassured him. “The red lightning bolts I mean. Not for more than a second or so.”
He nodded gravely. “Thank you. That’s… Good to know.”
I looked around behind us, to make sure there were no more wards approaching. If another came as close as the others had before, perhaps I could bat one one of them out of the sky. But as near as I could tell in the shadows there were no more. What a pity, that I’d had a chance to strike at least a small blow but had reacted too slowly. Well, that was done and over with now. Just like everything else pretty much was.
The blood lightning sizzled and snapped, the thunder boomed and shook the ground, the wind backed and shifted in cold, unnatural swirls that animated spectral dust-demons and lifted them skywards. The air reeked of the desert dust; it carried a metallic tang and the faintest whiff of things long-dead and rotting. Suddenly I thought of Gwendolyn, the rich girl who’d thrown away all the world to become a carrion bird Familiar for what she hoped, but tragically couldn’t be certain, might be the good of mankind. Had her life become like this, I wondered? Filled with death and imminent death, and ever focused on the End of All Things? We’d danced together once, I remembered, on our last day as humans. I’d been terribly awkward and nervous, of course, being only fourteen. But she’d… Seen something more. And now, in retrospect, that moment had indeed carried a certain kind of faint, blossoming power in my heart. Not Power power, like that which currently flickered so red and bright and deadly over my head. This was subtler and softer and of a different nature altogether. And yet… Yet… Yet…
There had been sparks, I suddenly understood out in the middle of the Kalahari, with Death laughing in my face. Far too late, I realized what had almost but not quite happened, and which now could never happen, and how much poorer a place the universe was for it.
At least the wind had driven the flies to cover. I was to be spared them in my final moments, at least. Though the ultimate victory would of course be theirs. After all, that was the natural order, to which I was as subject as anything else that lived, magical being or no.
Guardian and Impetus were retreating directly towards us; it couldn’t have been an accident and I presumed they had good reason for doing so. They were moving about as fast as a horse could gallop. The lighting didn’t let up for a moment, and therefore Impetus wasn’t granted even the slightest respite. A veritable sea of crow-wards followed them, like a swarm of winged, oversized army ants. Guardian was roasting them as quickly as she could hit them, yes— one died in a brilliant yellow-white flare even as Healer raised the Colt and, his hand visibly wobbling, attempted to aim. He fired into the mass…
…and, predictably, nothing happened. It was a clean miss. He cocked and fired, again and then a third time as the range closed. The third round evoked a brilliant red flash very similar to that created by the colonel’s rifle, back when Hone had died. The fourth missed as well…
…and he fired the fifth and last just as Impetus’s shield slid in close overhead, protecting us under its umbrella. Now the lightning was snapping and arcing and twisting like tortured snakes all around us, trying to work it’s way around the ever-diminishing lump of now white-hot soil that was all that stood between us and extinction. Healer calmly began to reload, though he had to know as well as I did that he’d never liv to finish the job. By now the shield was too small and hot, the lighting too powerful and frequent for there to be much of a future for any of us. Impetus was sweating like a pig, his eyes desperate as he juggled the ever-diminishing sphere back and forth against an ever-increasing number of attacks, mumbling incantations like a babbling lunatic. Meanwhile the wards were moving to surround us and Guardian…
Had ceased throwing fireballs?
My jaw dropped as I watched her touch delicately down on the sand, next to her magicked fire that still blazed tall and high. She looked around her and yanked her hood back, allowing her wild, sweaty hair free play in the breeze. Then she turned to Healer and I. “Lay down!” she ordered. “Right now! On your bellies!”
My jaw fell even further. I’d just struggled so terribly hard to rise up and die on my feet like a man! But Healer obeyed without hesitation, allowing the box of .45 cartridges to go flying everywhere in the process, and rather grumpily I did the same.
Then Guardian reached into her robe…
…and pulled out one of the most awful things I’d ever seen, a charm so repulsive I could barely stand to look at it. It was made from the lower part of a human skull, with both rows of teeth crudely filed to flesh-eating points. Who would desecrate a corpse so? Gibbets of still-decaying muscle and flesh dangled from the thing, and even shreds of what I though might be rotting skin. Was this what she’d spent so much of her time nursemaiding across the Atlantic and beyond, to the point of exhaustion? And tied to it were….
…buzzard feathers that of their own volition spread themselves wide, radiating Power so strongly that I could feel it like heat on the skin of my face! And just like that, I knew where the feathers had to have come come from. Only one place— poor Gwen!
“Kha-lina!” Guardian declared, raising the skull high above her head like an unsacred totem. With her head thrown back, face stained flickering blood-red by the deadly bolts that now rained down more quickly and powerfully than ever, she walked in a small circle around us all, drawing a line in the dust with her toe as she did so. “Kha-lina ama agarn anaton!” The words were harsh and vulgar, and totally unlike those of any spell I’d ever heard cast before. “Khahar na dext! Min bookhar aht anem Maht!”
Suddenly the air grew colder, even frigid. The lighting bolts, by then sputtering like a Maxim gun, faded away to nothing and died. Everything grew still and quiet, and the darkness grew more and more intense. “Hide your faces,” Guardian advised us. “For your lives! Even you, my Lord.”
He nodded, tossed the shield aside, and then lowered both Colonel James and himself to the ground alongside where Healer already lay. He turned the colonel belly-down, then did the same and hid his face. As did I— clearly whatever this evil magic might be, it was nothing to toy with.
“Kal na nator,” Guardian finished once we were settled in. “Kal na nator! Kal na nator! Kal na…. nator!”
Then… The wind blew daggers of ice, roaring in my ears. The earth shook, and shook, and shook. Worst of all, things were unleashed, horrible, wretched undead things that’d never quite fully existed and therefore couldn’t ever quite be made not to exist either, but which would forever haunt nameless, inconceivable places in a sort of half-botched attempt at Creation, their very semi-existence reproaching their incompetent God for all the rest of eternity. The things swirled round and round outside the line scratched by Guardian’s toe— I could feel then scream and roar mere inches away, deep in my magical soul. They danced and capered and grew more and more and ever-more powerful, greedily sucking up Power like vampires in a blood-bank, driven to feed until their bellies were swollen like ticks. They were death, my soul warned me. Even deadlier than the most powerful of red lighting— where they passed not even microbes would remain alive.
“Kal et karina alch!” Guardian commanded after what felt like an eternity. By then the air reeked of human terror, and probably ursine as well; not even haughty Impetus was immune when confronted with… with… “Kal et! Kal et! Kal et!”
Slowly, with extreme reluctance, whatever sort of Eaters Guardian had unleashed retreated to whatever awful half-plane they’d been summoned from, venting their eternal rage and hatred every inch of the way. You could feel them twist and fight to stay and eat the Power out of every living thing there was and had ever been and ever would be— I could sense somehow that time didn’t matter to them as it does to us, or even causation and logic. But Guardian’s hold on them was secure enough; soon the ground was stable again, the desert sun was boring painfully through my sealed eyelids, the air was calm and rapidly warming, and the fabric of reality once again firm and solid.
“Okay,” Guardian finally said. “It’s safe for the rest of you now.”
Slowly I opened my eyes, blinking in the brightness. The clouds were gone ,the lightning was gone, the wards were scattered bits of bone and feather, and the previously meteor-hot shield Impetus had wielded so long and so effectively was now a fire-blackened lump of cold, congealed stone. Healer was already tending to Colonel James, though his face was pale and his motions robotic. Impetus, perhaps due to his great age, recovered more slowly. First he sat up and blinked, his eyes having as much difficulty adjusting as my own. Then, with great dignity he rose to his feet and made a great show of tugging his robe back into order. When finished, with the greatest of dignity he strode to where Guardian stood with her head low, her hair slick with sweat, and tears streaming from her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “So terribly sorry.”
But Impetus was unmoved. “You filthy bitch!” he declared. Then he cuffed her across the face, hard. “God damn you and your entire self-sanctimonious country with you!”
“Be easy on her, my Lord,” Healer urged without slowing in the slightest— now he had a water charm in his right hand and was making furtive passes with his left. “She did what she had to do. And if you think about it calmly, you’ll not only realize it’s so but be grateful.”
Impetus was trembling with rage now; he towered over Guardian’s slight, shivering frame like an avenging god, clearly eager to strike again and again. Then, with an obvious exertion of willpower, he turned his back on her and stalked away. “I’ll be grateful when hell freezes over!” he declared. “That language is never to be spoken! Not by anyone, anywhere! Under any circumstances! I’d gladly have died rather than hear it!”
“Clearly some German somewhere is speaking it as well,” Healer countered. “And they didn’t openly admt that they were dallying with it or learn how to exploit it by doing something good and decent like closing a Pit, either. Instead, they were trying to harness it for… Well, I don’t know exactly what yet, I’ll admit. But nothing proper, I’m quite certain.” He nodded towards Guardian. “I understand how your feelings ran away with you, sir. I… Am not feeling particularly well disposed towards Americans in general at the moment either, I must admit. But I recognize, sir, that these are mere gut reactions, not well-reasoned opinions worthy of a scientific mind. You owe Guardian an apology. And perhaps Christopher as well.”
Impetus balled his fists and bared his teeth like a savage animal. “Good sir, allow me to assure you in the strongest possible…” Then it was is if someone let the air out of him. “You’re right, of course. Entirely and completely. I… I…” He turned to Guardian— now a trickle of blood was flowing down her chin. Her shoulders were trembling as well, and the tears flowing freely. “I…” He took a step towards her, but she flinched away. “I…” Then he scowled and turned to me. “Christopher, I…”
“Apology accepted,” I said, my own voice bare and cold as, once again, I rolled and heaved and staggered to my feet. “Now go away and leave us alone for a while, my Lord. Please. Perhaps Guardian will speak to you later.”
“i…” he repeated. “That language, you see. And that spell…” But he could see that not only wasn’t I really listening, but had no desire whatsoever to hear another word from his mouth.
“Go away,” I growled, more menacingly than I meant to. “Right now. Come back later, yes. But for now, leaves us alone.”
“Err…” He looked back and forth from me to Healer to the weeping Guardian, then turned his back and walked. “I’ll go examine the destroyed wards, then.”
Guardian was indeed distraught; despite the way I swayed and stumbled as I lumbered towards her she didn’t take a single step in my direction to shorten my journey. “It’s all right,” I reassured her in a low voice as soon as I was close enough to be private. “He was just frightened, was all. Terribly so— he reeks of it.” I nosed at her robe. “We all were.”
She shook her head, then suddenly fell to her knees and hugged my neck for all she was worth. “Oh, Chris! The wretched thing I just did! It was so awful. He’s right, you know. I can never… Not for the rest of my life will I ever…” Then she was sobbing in earnest, both arms wrapped tight around me. It went on and on and on; whatever was paining her ran both true and deep. Meanwhile Healer worked steadily on the colonel’s wounded back, burning through one water charm after another.
“Will he make it?” I finally asked.
Healer shrugged, not raising his eyes. Clearly, he wasn’t ready to look at Guardian again quite yet. “I doubt it. The poison had a long time to penetrate. He should already be gone, in fact. Yet his heart stubbornly continues to beat, so there is hope.”
“His wound was a fluke,” Guardian offered, looking up from her tears for the first time. “We were passing a ward, at what we thought was more than a safe distance. Then once it was well behind us the thing it apparently rushed up when we weren’t looking. The bolt was aimed at Impetus, but Colonel James shoved him out of the way. It struck the muzzle of his rifle— which was slung— and then was transmitted down the barrel to his back.”
Healer nodded, still looking fixedly down and unwilling to meet her gaze. “I see. It was attenuated then, most likely. That explains much.”
She nodded. “I fireballed the ward, and we thought that was the end of that. But then more came, and more, and more. Soon I understand that… I mean… It was the only way.”
Healer still didn’t look up. “I accept this,” he replied. “As I’ve already said. And yet…” He sighed. “I too would rather have died than have such means employed to save me. Though…” He shook his head. “In truth, our deaths would’ve accomplished nothing. The knowledge clearly exists and therefore cannot be unlearned. Our world being as it is, this makes its unleashing inevitable. In fact…” He sighed. “You are ahead of the Germans after all?”
“Who knows?” she replied. “The field is as wide as magic itself. We appear to be pursuing the matter from entirely different angles. Certainly I’ve never seen anything like those wards before. So, perhaps it’s apples and oranges.”
He nodded. “Yes— very different angles. And for very different purposes. As I keep forcibly reminding myself.” He shook his head and sighed. “Humanity must be cursed, to live in a universe where such things are even possible. For, if something is possible, then eventually we shall accomplish it regardless of whether it’s wise or not.”
I looked at Guardian. Her eyes were still red and swollen, her hair crusted with dried sweat, her skin unnaturally pale. And, her lip was swelling rapidly. “Please,” I said. “Will someone tell me what just happened?”
She turned to Healer, who shrugged. “He’s your responsibility,” he said. “Not France’s.”
She nodded and looked down again. “Chris,” she began. “All of this is very dark and secret as can be. Even more importantly, it’s good that it’s secret. Mages who share what I’m about to tell you are subject to the death penalty; this is the only purely Guild crime that can get you hung. If I tell you, you’ll be subject to the penalty as well.”
I shrugged. “What I’ve already seen and felt… If I were to talk about it, that’d probably be enough have me executed already. Right?”
She nodded. “I fear so.”
“Then I might as well know the rest. I mean, what’s the downside?”
For an instant she smiled. Then the expression faded. “Chris, magic came back into the world in about 1760. Impetus and Mother were among the first to realize it, when his experiments with gravity and momentum began to obtain strange results and she traced it to a deck of tarot cards they were playing with during the evening to amuse themselves. Correct?”
I nodded. “Everyone knows that. Plus, there were early indications in Italy and Hungary, too. No one’s really sure who was first. It was a gradual realization, like.”
She nodded. “We now know there was magic long ago as well, because some of the spells recorded on ancient tablets and such still work. It arose well after the pyramids were built, then suddenly died out long enough before the rise of Athens that by then they thought it a mere myth. But for a very long time, there wasn’t any. No one knows why.”
I nodded again. “They taught us that even in Catholic schools.”
“It’s true,” she replied. “All of it. But… Incomplete.”
My ears perked. “Huh?”
“The real truth is that magic never entirely faded out,” she explained. “It weakened greatly, yes. And almost no one ever used it, as a result. It wasn’t worth the effort.” She frowned. “You see, Chris… Necromancy was still effective. Weak and inconsistent, yes. But we believe it never quite completely died out, even during the weakest eras.”
“You had to be half-mad to use it,” Healer added. Apparently he was finished with the colonel; now he took a seat on the other side of my head. “Not only because it was erratic and inconsistent, but also because the effects were so weak that casting spells took weeks and months of continuous chanting and effort.”
“Because the results were so meager, society as a whole tended to believe that magic accomplished nothing at all,” Guardian continued. “Oh, there were always a handful of the faithful, willing to risk what they sincerely believed to be utter damnation in order to buy a weak, intermittent charm or spell that often failed to have any effect at all. Enough that a few borderline-lunatics hung on at the fringes of things, hiding in remote caves from the outraged mobs and surviving on handouts and illicit charm sales.” She licked her lips. “There were “black” witch doctors in most primitive tribes too, Christopher. They were less effective, even, than the European necromancers. But, every once in a great while a spell worked for them too, at least a little. Enough to keep the tradition going.”
Healer and Guardian looked at each other for a moment. Then her face fell. “Please. I cannot. Not after…”
He nodded at her. “Of course. I understand entirely.” Then he turned back to me. “Chris… There are two important things I must tell you next. Each of them, alone, is of little significance.Yet, taken together, they are enormously significant. Do you understand?
“Right,” I agreed again, even though by then I was a bit baffled.
“First… We sorcerers take our Art seriously, as you know. Magic is enormously valuable in a million different ways, from mundane economic matters to scientific research to being an important clue as to the ultimate nature and purpose of the universe.” He smiled slightly. “Given this, and the fact that we know non-necromantic magic vanished entirely for so long, we’ve worked diligently to find out why. Our efforts have been unsuccessful. But that doesn’t mean we’ve learned nothing at all about the past.” He smiled. “Through intense scrying under the most difficult conditions possible, we’ve discovered that during those same short few years when magic faded to nothing… Well, civilization as we know it very nearly ceased to exist.”
I felt my mouth fall open. “Really?”
“For a long time we though that it was merely because magic was so tightly integrated into the economy. But… Chris, recently we’ve established that civilization collapsed first.”
My forehead wrinkled. “I… How… But…”
He shook his head. “We just don’t know. There’s only one clue.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Corpses,” Guardian answered, crossing her arms and shivering. “Thousands and thousands of what look to us like deliberately-murdered corpses. All, we think, from that same short era. Or so our scries indicate.”
I thought about that a while. “Okay,” I said eventually. “That’s scary enough. Now, what’s the second important fact you mentioned?”
“The spellbooks,” Healer replied. “Dozens of necromantic spellbooks have been found over the years, hidden away in dry wells, bricked up in castle walls, stuffed in the backs of caves… Mostly they’re full of arrant nonsense— that’s part of why the spells were so ineffective. We shouldn’t imagine they were stupid because of this— when incantations work only intermittently, I suppose it’s easy to come to false conclusions. Indeed, it was a miracle that anything ever worked at all! But…” He frowned. “Christopher, they’re all written in the same language, no matter where they’re found or how old they are. A language that seems universal and never changes over time.” He looked down. “The one you heard spoken earlier.”
“So,” I said after a long moment. “You think they all originate from the same source?”
He nodded. “There’s not even any regional variation to speak of, except in that the ‘grammar’ is a bit different here and there and the differences reflect the structure of the local languages. Or so I was taught— this is far outside my field.”
“In other words,” Guardian finally said. “It all seems to emanate from a common source.”
“A continuous, unchanging source,” Healer added. “Where any other sort of magic works in any language we may choose. At this point, I fear, the issue can hardly help but become… Mystical.”
I nodded slowly, though the fur on the back of my neck was rising again. “So, necromantic magic is enormously powerful. So powerful, based on what I’ve seen, that in practice the only way to counter it is with more necromancy. While this Power derives from death, the spells must be spoken in a sort of universally-known language that comes from… Places unknown.”
Healer nodded. “That’s all correct, at least as far as the French Guild knows.” He turned expectantly to Guardian.
“Oh,” she said with a sigh. “There’s more, and he French Guild is fully aware of it, I’m sure. He’s just too polite to say it aloud, after… after…”
My eyebrows rose. “What?”
She looked me dead in the eye, for the first time since the big fight. “For one thing, no matter how they’re formulated or tweaked, necromantic spells can never be used for anything but harming or destroying things. They’re weapons, pure and simple. Even in closing the Pit, we attacked and destroyed it.”
I winced. All that Power, and no way to use it for anything good! Healer was right— what a cursed universe we lived in! “And?”
She looked down, and another tear trickled down her chin. “Using necromancy is always and invariably corrupting,” she said, her voice soft and vulnerable. “It… For lack of a better way to put it, Chris…
…it eats one’s soul.”
And so we found ourselves back in almost exactly the same situation we’d been in for days— stuck in the middle of the Kalahari with a party member too badly wounded to move, and with supplies running lower than ever. The only thing that’d really changed, so far as routine existence went, was that our nice shade-making bush was now merely a charred, murdered stump. Somehow, the fact that such a lavish ocean of energy and effort had been poured out with no other effect than to make our universe an even deader and poorer place seemed rather profound. There was a lesson in there somewhere, for those with the wit to perceive it.
But would the individuals that really mattered learn anything when they heard our story? I rather doubted it— they weren’t the ones now stuck parboiling in the sun, anymore than they’d been the ones whose labor and villages and lives were stolen to power and pay for it all. At the realization I felt sick again, and this time it had little or nothing to do with being struck by blood-lightning.
Fortunately, we weren’t marooned out in the middle of nowhere much longer. Shortly after most abjectly apologizing to Guardian, Impetus predicted that such immense magical discharges wouldn’t go undetected, even so far from civilization. He was proved right, too. Just before dusk a party of flying mages came zooming along the path the big battle had followed, stopping here and there to examine places where the fighting had been particularly harsh. “Are they our friends?” Healer asked. “Or Germans?”
“Does it matter?” Guardian asked in a voice as weary as time. Then, after giving the others a moment to object, she shot a single fireball high into the sky. The others, whoever they were, replied in kind. And in less than an hour…
…the German mages, over a dozen of them, stood in a circle around us. What happened, they of course all wanted to know. What are you doing out here? What happened, to release so much energy?
“Apparently Power was being stored in an accumulating-field of wards,” Impetus replied for us all, his head high and haughty in a way that for once I deeply approved of. No mage in all the world was more respected than he, and his presence was our best assurance of good treatment. Yes, I too had been promised diplomatic immunity. But if I vanished without a trace in the Kalahari, well… Diplomatic immunity was no protection against a family of lions confronted with a strange, rival predator. So long as such a convenient explanation was readily to hand, nothing could truly be certain. “There were no warnings posted. I don’t suppose any of you know anything about this?”
The Germans all looked awkwardly at each other. “No,” their leader finally replied. “Of course not.” Then his eyes narrowed. “Have you the permission of the German government to wander our sovereign territory at will, and unescorted?”
Impetus raised his chin even higher. “We’re part of a properly-credentialed international investigation committee, as you well know. And… We’re investigating.”
“That of course is no reply to my question,” the oldest German replied. Then he looked down and sighed. “This incident will clearly rise far above the heads of everyone present, my Lord.” He gestured first at the colonel, then me. “My name is Baron Maker. Some of your party are hurt. May we offer assistance?”
Impetus nodded. “Thank you, sir. Two of us are gravely injured, and cannot walk out under their own power. At first we were unable to apport or fly them out due to the presence of the ward-field I mentoned. And now, after our recent struggle to survive we lack the Power to transport them ourselves.”
“And what an immense struggle it was! That much, at least, I must give you. How I wish I could’ve witnessed it.” The German smiled. “We’re civilized men, sir. Of course we’ll transport them for you. And the healthy as well, in the name of of the comity of nations.” He bowed deeply, and I fought the urge to ask hm precisely how merciful and civilized and comity-loving he and his fellow Germans had been while cold-bloodedly attempting to profit from the organized slaughter of tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Herero. He nodded at a mage dressed in a green robe. “Unfortunately, however, we’ll have to move your Familiar by wagon. Only a few minutes ago, young Transporter here determined that the recent discharges in this area were of such tremendous scope that they’ve left a sort of after-image. It won’t be safe to apport from anywhere near this place for months, if not years. And his body-mass is too great to fly over such a large distance.”
Healer frowned. “Both of my patients are still gravely ill, and require my personal attention. We can’t separate them.”
Baron Maker frowned. “Transporter is young, but highly competent. I wouldn’t ignore his opinion, if I were you.” He folded his arms. “We can fly your wounded officer out immediately, but the Familiar must wait for a wagon.”
Healer frowned, then looked speculatively at me. “Chris, the colonel is still in the utmost danger. Getting him to a real hospital is the best thing we can possibly do. Yet, you’re all too susceptible to a relapse yourself.”
I nodded. “It’s a risk I’ll have to accept.”
Healer smiled. “Brave Chris!” Then he turned to the Germans. “You must take us to the nearest available facilty, so that Christopher can rejoin us and resume treatment with the least delay possible.”
Baron Maker frowned and stroked at his chin. “On the surface, that’s a completely reasonable request. However… The place I wish to take you. It’s… Not open to the public. You’re a medical mage, sir. In fact, your most excellent reputation precedes you.” He bowed slightly. “And medical mages practicing their profession are by tradition granted the widest possible freedoms.” His eyes narrowed. “In exchange for this, it’s equally traditional that medical mages mind their own business and don’t attempt to interfere in… Shall we call them affairs of state? Even when the medical mage’s nation and the host country are not on the best of terms, it’s traditional that they not interfere.” His face went cold. “Will you be a good, properly-behaved guest, Healer?”
Healer’s face went frosty. “Of course, sir. My honor is every bit as unstained as yours.”
Baron Maker bowed again. “Forgive me for even asking— circumstances required it. Please be aware that certain civil authorities will be of the opinion that I’ve exceeded my authority in this matter even though I have your word.” Then he turned to his men. “Speaker, please arrange for a wagon to come as quickly as possible for the Familiar. The rest of you… Get ready for a long, dark flight. We have far to go, carrying a patient who may not have much time.”
We spent four more endless days in the desert, waiting for the wagon to arrive. Baron Maker was kind enough to leave Guardian and I with plenty of water charms and a tarpaulin we could rig for shade. Since there were only the two of us left to feed, the original expedition’s food supplies were perfectly adequate. Despite Healer’s fears I suffered no relapse; indeed, I seemed to recover more quickly than ever now that the crow-wards were dead and gone. While Guardian feared lions and hyenas during the dark hours, I never so much as even scented one and my own presence might’ve been the reason why. My companion benefitted from the enforced rest as well; for the first time in weeks she was relieved of the responsibility of renewing the spells on the hideous half-skull charm that’d saved our lives so decisively every few hours. At first she slept so long and deeply despite the hot sun that I was for a time worried that her magics might’ve gone wrong and she was under the influence of some sort of curse.
We spent the first day cleaning and reorganizing our camp, and most of the second creating an improvised chess set and attempting to play. But the pieces were too confusing to keep proper track of, and as a result we both made so many silly mistakes that the games were no fun and we gave it up as a bad job. So…
…on the third day, even though Guardian wasn’t really ready yet, we talked.
“…don’t know how I can ever show my face to anyone ever again,” my friend complained as we lay side by side in the shade. She’d finally given into necessity and cast a cooling spell on herself, as the combined heat and emotional drain was proving too much for her. So, neither of us were too terribly uncomfortable despite the awful climate. “I shouldn’t have… I mean…”
I sighed and edged a bit closer. “Guardian, I…” Then I shook my head and began again. “You did what you had to do. It was pretty awful, yes. Even though I don’t understand what happened in precise detail, that much was obvious. Yet, you’d never have been given that charm in the first place if Shaper hadn’t thought you might actually need to use it. I mean… Even Impetus eventually agreed, once he got over the shock.”
She frowned at the mention of his Lordship, but her words were directed elsewhere. “Shaper! I hardly recognize him anymore, since he got involved in politics. I mean… He yearns for that cabinet seat like an infant for its mother’s breast. Political power and rubbing elbows with Teddy are all the man can even think about anymore. I… I… I…” Then, very suddenly, she looked frightened. “Christopher! What an awful thing I was just saying, and about a man who’s done so much for me! I… Am I…”
Necromancy eats the soul, I heard my Inner Voice whisper. Even when wielded by the good and with the most benevolent of intentions. And yet, it still must sometimes be done, and the terrible, terrible cost borne by the best and bravest.
My jaw dropped. Was this… I meant… Poor, poor Guardian! My mouth opened and closed, not once but several times as I sought the proper words. Yet, no matter how I tried I couldn’t find them. So I placed my head in her lap instead.
“Oh, Chris!” she wept. “I’m ruined! What an awful old crone I’m to become! And that’s not… I mean… I never wanted…”
“Perhaps,” I was finally able to say. “But you’ve got an awful long way to go before then. And… There’s always Mother. She made the skull charm, didn’t she? If so, then perhaps she can make another to heal you.”
“I…I created those half-things, Chris. They’ll suffer for ever and ever and ever, cursing me until the end of time. I played god, and now must pay the price. How can anyone ‘fix’ that? I’ll carry it on my conscience for the rest of eternity.”
“You had to,” I reaffirmed. “For everyone’s good everywhere. If you hadn’t, the Germans would’ve harvested all that Power and used it for heaven knows what. Or hell, more likely. Anyway… You had to. You did what you did because they did what they did. Our lives— even our souls— don’t matter a whit compared to that. It was the German mages who set it all up. They didn’t have to do what they did, now did they? So it’s all their fault! Not yours.”
Guardian shook her head. “I bet they’d claim they were forced into it, too. I was reading in the French papers before we apported to Windhoek about how in Berlin they believe that the nations of Europe are closing in on them from all sides because they’re jealous of their growing industrial and military strength and economic influence. I bet Baron Maker and his friends subscribe to that theory a hundred percent. And who can blame them, from their point of view?” She shrugged. “We’re all just pathetic little bundles of all-too-mortal and all-too-imperfect flesh, every one of us. Trying to live together as best we can and failing so miserably it’d be funny except it hurts so much.”
She wept for hours after that, while I laid there and thought dark thoughts about Pits that just had to erupt in the most awkward of all places, so that the American Guild would be embarrassed into finding a way to close it even at the cost of sampling forbidden fruit, and another nation’s Guild so arrogant and proud in its newfound unity and strength that its elite no longer knew either discretion or humility, and was apparently rapidly forgetting mercy and kindness as well. What was going to happen, I wondered, when the inevitable fight that I was beginning to understand all of this was inevitably leading to broke out, and in the ensuing maelstrom we were all forced to forget mercy and kindness and burn away bits of our souls over and over and over again until all that was left of any of us was greed and envy and cold calculation?
The end of civilization, perhaps?
And, what was my role in it all to be?
Would my soul be eaten too?