After recent events I never imagined I’d actually be happy to see a bunch of Germans ever again, but by that fourth morning I was so bored out of my skull, and physically feeling so much better to boot, that I actually did a little four-footed dance of joy when the first askari appeared over the horizon. “They’ve come!” I cried out happily. “They’re almost here!”
“Right,” Guardian agreed a bit listlessly from over her eternally-boiling cauldron. My appetite had returned with a vengeance, and feeding a half-starved kodiak is a lot of work for anyone. Still, my friend was usually far more chipper than that— it was another bad sign. My lumbering, slow-motion happy-dance ceased at once.
“I guess we ought to load up,” I said more to fill the awkward silence than anything else. Since I wasn’t serving as a pack animal anymore, Guardian would perforce be doing practically all the actual work.
She raised her eyes only long enough to glance at the horizon. “We still have at least an hour, more likely an hour and a half. There’s no need to hurry.” She nodded at the pot she was tending. “Might as well feed you this first.”
I nodded, then sniffed and drooled a little. It was the last of the dried salmon, which I’d developed a sudden, overwhelming craving for. And, to the best of my knowledge, I wouldn’t find any more of the stuff in the entire southern hemisphere. So, no. I had no intention of letting it go to waste.
“It’s good that you’re feeling so much better,” Guardian observed as, after one last stir, she removed the kettle from the fire and placed in on the parched soil to cool. I could hardly wait! “Healer will be pleased.”
It wasn’t easy, given that I was so hungry and the fish smelled so good. But, somehow, I managed to wrench my attention away from the stuff. “Guardian… Are you okay?”
She blinked. “I feel perfectly fine. Why?”
“I…” You’re not yourself, I wanted to say. But after what she’d been through, that would’ve been cruel beyond measure. “I’m just worried, is all. You’ve been so quiet.”
“I’ve got a lot to think about.” Then she forced a smile and walked over to scratch my ears. “But you’re a good friend to be concerned, Chris. Thank you! I… Don’t think I could face the future without friends like you.”
I leaned into the caress, then pressed close up against her side. “Please,” I urged her. “Don’t give in without a fight. Mother will come up with something. I’m sure of it.”
She smiled again; this time it was a bit more genuine. “I’d feel a little better if it were Midnight saying that, I must admit. But thank you all the same.” Her eyes sparkled with the first genuine merriment I’d seen in days. “For what it’s worth… It’s cold comfort, but our historical studies indicate that it takes multiple exposures for the effects to become… intolerable.”
I nodded, though once again I didn’t say out loud what I— and Guardian— must be thinking. How could any loss of warmth and decency and fundamental humanity be considered “tolerable”? But… I sniffed at the fish and my mouth watered. It wasn’t something I could ignore for very long, under the circumstances.
Guardian laughed aloud. “You’re a famished teenaged kodiak still in his growth spurt, Chris. For heaven’s sake, go eat! I understand perfectly.
And eat I did, inhaling mouthful after succulent mouthful of heavenly bliss as Guardian trudged about packing some things in my former saddlebags and leaving others for the hyenas to bicker over. In the process she came across Hone’s things, which Impetus had respectfully wrapped in his seared and bloodied robe along with a lock of hair for his next of kin. For a moment she hung her head, then stuffed the bundle way down into the bottom of the bag. “Keep an extra-sharp eye on this one as much as you can, Chris,” she asked. “And I’ll do the same.”
I nodded, not having to be told why. Temper, if no one else, would treasure his memories of Hone for the rest of his life. It being impractical to return his mortal remains, the Baron’s possessions would have to do in their stead. As sympathetic as I was to the Herero and their plight, I’d be eternally damned before seeing such precious relics stolen and reduced to mere loot. “Of course.”
My food bucket was a large one, and it wasn’t my first of the day. I’d slowed down considerably by the time I finished, so that the wagon and its escort of askaris was nearly on top of us by the time I was licking the bottom. A few hundred yards out, the officer in charge galloped ahead to greet us. Like most ordinary, non-magical people who hadn’t been around Familiars much, he stared at me for a moment. Then he directed his all-too-willing horse in a wide arc to avoid too close an approach. “Good morning, ma’am,” he greeted Guardian after dismounting, removing his long-feathered hat, and bowing with a flourish in the old-fashioned style. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Guardian, an American national?”
She nodded formally, returning the bow rather than curtseying and thus flustering the officer a bit. “You do.”
“”Good,” he replied after stuttering a moment. He turned and gaped at me again, then realized he was being impolite and and returned his gaze firmly to Guardian. “I’m Major Karl von Liebnitz, of His Imperial Majesty’s colonial service. My men and I are here to escort you to the nearest rail line, where you’re to be reunited with a French medical mage.”
She nodded coldly. “That’s very kind of you, major. Thank you.”
He bowed again. “It is nothing, of course.” He smiled slightly. “I have a cousin who lives in Texas. He says your nation is rich and beautiful beyond compare.”
In theory, the rules of polite discourse required that Guardian find something good to say about Germany in return. However, that was probably asking too much of her just then. “I’m pleased to hear that he thinks so, sir. Perhaps someday you too may emigrate.”
The officer smiled. “Not likely. A family estate in Prussia awaits my return.” Then he turned to me. “I fear I don’t… I mean… I’m told he’s not dangerous? Actually still mostly human, deep down inside?”
“Pretty much,” I said aloud, allowing the bear-gruffness to reveal itself considerably more than usual. No, I had nothing personal against Major von Liebnitz, and as a rule I tried to be extra-patient with ordinary, well-meaning people who honestly didn’t understand my situation. But now that I’d eaten so much I was suddenly tired and achy again. Yes, I was healing fast. I’d very nearly died, however, and the recovery was far from complete. “I promise not to bite anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m fully housebroken as well, and very proud of the fact. Guardian has even promised to teach me to dance someday so I can perform in circuses. Won’t that be something?”
The major’s mouth fell open, then he turned bright crimson. “Sir, I… I mean…”
I sighed, then lowered my head. Did you have to actually be the one to cast a necromantic spell to suffer a lessening, I wondered? Or might merely being close at hand when it happened be enough to transform someone into a mean-spirited son of a bitch? “Forgive me,” I said, head still low. “I’m still not at all well, you see. And in some degree of pain.”
He nodded and, with apparent sincerity, smiled. “Of course, sir. Your scars are… Impressive. And quite obviously still fresh as well. We were told to bring our heaviest wagon, and to make your ride as comfortable as possible. Your injuries were reported to be grave, and I see now that this was no exaggeration.”
I nodded and forced a magic-smile. “Thank you.”
His eyes lit up; apparently the expression-spell worked as well as ever. Pretty much everyone did that the first time they read such purely human emotion on an animal’s face. “It will be our pleasure. And, I can see, an opportunity to learn much as well.” He turned to Guardian. “We can leave as soon as you’re ready, ma’am. Can we assist you in breaking camp?”
It was a long, slow journey back to civilization. I was still far too weak to walk great distances, and the wagon, while it probably indeed was the largest and heaviest available, wasn’t quite up to its task. Its wheels and axles broke several times each and every day, slowing our progress to a crawl. But what made Major von Liebnitz really want to tear his hair out, however, was how shy the horses were of me. They plunged and snorted and protested whenever I came close, and it required the cruelest of whippings to persuade them to cooperate. I’d aways had trouble with horses— how could they possibly know, after all, that deep down inside I was just another human-type person? But this time it was a lot worse. Either African horses raised by Germans were extra-afraid of bears, or… or…
…maybe they could sense the stink of necromancy on me.
The train was a lot better, even though it was pretty primitive as well. This far down the line there were no real passenger cars— what few humans needed to be moved travelled sitting on haybales in boxcars with the doors locked open for ventilation. Overall it was a pleasant journey— the climate improved dramatically once we climbed out of the Kalahari Basin, and I finally got to see a more pleasant side of Africa as well— herds of zebras and different sorts of antelopes and even once a dusky female lion in the act of making her stalk. Major von Liebnitz and a couple of his men accompanied us all the way. Once he went so far as to have the train stopped so that I could get out and stretch my legs near a beautiful little creek where a troop of baboons had just been playing. He proved to be a very kind and considerate ‘escort’. In fact, once he got used to me he seemed to actively treasure the experience of being around someone so out of the ordinary. He worked hard at being likable, in other words, and part of me very much wanted to like him in return. And yet…
How could I, after seeing so many dead Herero and what’d been done to them? Did the major know? If so, did he perhaps approve? Had he perhaps even been an active participant in the slaughter? I couldn’t exactly outright ask him about that sort of thing, and so could never fully relax and allow our potential friendship to take what otherwise might’ve been its natural course. Guardian treated him with an equal degree of polite frost, and he was probably left with the impression that Americans, or at least American magic-users, were all cold, unapproachable prigs. What a miserable mess the world was!
Eventually we arrived at Luderlitz, a small coastal town with a remarkably pleasant climate. The Germans maintained a significant garrison there, and with it a small hospital to care for the troops. Healer had long since arrived, and he was indeed pleased with my progress. “You look wonderful, Chris! And Colonel James is improving as well! He sends his greetings, though unfortunately he remains unable to leave his bed.” His eyes sparkled, full of life as always. “I’ve had an extra-large room with a reinforced floor set up for you. But, it appears you hardly need it!”
That turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration. I was still far from my best, and once or twice I spent a day or two just lying about and concentrating all my energies upon repairing myself. Plus, Healer had to fix my scars so that the fur would grow properly again. The job was a lot easier this time, since he’d already bespelled so much of me after the Baltimore thing. But it was a long, slow process regardless. We had plenty of time to work with in any event; the major’s last act before returning to his normal duties was to inform Guardian and I that, like the rest of our little group, we weren’t to leave German territory without permission— there was to be an official inquiry into the entire affair.
On another level, however, the local Germans couldn’t have been any nicer. One of them— a blacksmith and the unofficial local fix-it man— designed and made a book-holder for me so I could at least pass the time reading, and in all honesty it worked even better than the ones made by the Guild’s specialists back in Pennsylvania. It was smaller and lighter as well, and folded for easy traveling. The troops smiled and waved whenever I was out and about, and invited me to their beer hall. And the townspeople, hearing I was sick, sent gifts of fresh milk and even, once they heard how much I craved them, delicious little freshwater fish that came from I couldn’t guess where. I desperately wanted to like them, in much the same way as I’d wanted to like Major von Liebnitz. But then I’d remember the Herero who’d died such agonizing deaths digging their futile well, or even see one of them strike and curse a servant in harsh, ear-assaulting German, and that would be that.
It was the book-holder that brought me into contact with Dr. Fischer, a young anthropologist visiting the colonies to study the mixing of races. Books were precious things in German Southwest Africa, and I burned through the things all too quickly while lying around with little else to do. He was kind enough to share his personal collection even though I had nothing to offer in return, and I spent many hours poring over his old texts. “Call me Eugen,” he insisted early in his third visit, though I never did. Dr. Fischer was very much a professor, and most of the time he instinctually reverted to treating me as his student. “Today I have a collection of old Norse legends for you; it’s one of my favorites. And… What did you think of the paper on Nordic versus African skull-structure?”
I magic-blushed; the paper had explained how the relatively long, narrow Nordic skulls reflected the intellectual superiority of the peoples of the north, because this head-configuration offered more room for the development of the all-important high-reasoning frontal lobes compared to the especially broad, wide African ones that constrained them. It all seemed perfectly logical on paper, taken within its limits. But… “It was an interesting read, all right. I wonder, though… Have you collected any actual data to back it up?”
His eyebrows rose. “Data? I’ve measured hundreds of skulls personally! And that’s just a fraction of the overall sample cited. Though… I fear I can’t take credit for making the initial observation.”
I shook my head. “No, sir. That’s not what I mean. What I’m asking is, how do you know Africans are less intelligent than Nordics?”
He snorted. “Young man! We invented science, logic, engineering… Everything good and decent in the world! While these people have…” His lip curled in disgust. “Stagnated. Given all of eternity, they’ve still gotten nowhere.”
My eyes narrowed. “And yet… I have an American negro friend. A Familiar, like me. He—“
“A schwartz?” Dr. Fischer demanded. “Your Guild has made a schwartz a Familiar?”
I blinked as if surprised. “Why wouldn’t we? He carried the appropriate Marks, after all!”
Fisher shook his head. “And what sort of dark, primitive magic does he generate?”
I smiled. “Freddie’s apprenticed to our lead mathematical mage, sir. He’s a tremendous math whiz, even without magical assistance.” I let my smile fade. “Though of course his ability couldn’t reveal itself until he was taught to read and write. Since then, well… According to my last letter from home, he and Calculator were working with some sort of binary counting-method that’s way over my head with someone from Harvard. And Frederick’s not merely acting as a magical reservoir for the others, either. Though he’s not up there with the other two yet, he’s actually helping to develop the theory itself. The term ‘natural genius’ is being thrown around, in fact. Or so his friends claim; Freddie himself is way too modest to claim anything like that.” My forehead wrinkled. “And you know what? When he was still human, his head was even wider and broader than that of most negroes.”
Dr. Fischer scowled. “I’d like very much to study this… Exceptional individual. But I’ll never get the chance, I suppose. How unfortunate!” Then he abruptly dismissed himself, kindly leaving me the book of Norse legends despite my obvious ingratitude and disloyalty to my own race.
It wasn’t bad, actually. Certainly far more pleasant than Dr. Fischer himself.
Guardian took an in interest in Dr. Fischer as well. While she was physically undamaged from her ordeal and in could in theory return home at any time, Healer had encouraged her to spend a little time recovering as well. While I wasn’t privy to everything that went on— as was entirely right and proper— Healer spent nearly as much time with her as he did with the colonel and I, and I suspect he was working every bit as diligently to treat her spiritual wounds as he was our physical ones. They often walked together in the evening, and once disappeared entirely for several days, Healer having remanded the colonel and I to the care of a German military doctor. They came back with glowing skin, bright eyes, and for the first time in weeks I heard Guardian laugh and giggle like the young girl it was all too easy forget that she actually still was.
“I don’t like that Dr. Fischer at all,” she declared one evening just after I’d finished the Nordic book and was telling her about it. By then I was almost fully recovered— all that was still left to be done was some final cosmetic work. “I keep hearing the most awful things about him.”
My eyebrows rose. While I was well-liked among the local population, I wasn’t exactly in a position to swap a lot of juicy gossip either. “Really?”
She frowned and crossed her arms. “I… Healer and I…” She blushed. “We took a little holiday together.”
I nodded and smiled. “Yes. And I for one am glad you did.”
Her color deepened. “Well… At any rate, I learned to sail when I was a little girl, and his father was a fisherman on the Loire. So he likes being around boats, too. We rented a little sloop and… Went exploring.”
I nodded. “Sounds like fun!”
“Oh, it was! But… There’s an island out there. Shark Island.” She looked down and balled her fists. “Chris… That spell I cast. It…”
“You don’t have to talk about it,” I interrupted. “Nor explain anything about it to me. Not now, or ever again.”
She shook her head. “I… Thank you, but I must. You see… Ever since then, I can feel certain things.” Her eyes closed. “Death. Suffering. Dying. When it’s intense enough.”
“That’s… Hardly a gift.”
“No, it’s not.” She sighed. “Anyway… Shark Island reeks of it, Chris. And so does Dr. Fischer— in fact, there’s something about him that, well… I can’t even put a name to it, it’s so disgusting. But vapid, sort of— only potentially present, like some sort of portent.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t like him at all, and I’m glad to hear that you won’t be reading any more of his books. I don’t believe in censorship, but nothing from him can be good for you. I doubt that anything associated with him can ever be good for anyone.”
“I don’t think they hurt me any. There are holes in the reasoning behind most of the really awful ones that you could run a freight train through; why an intelligent man like him doesn’t see them, I can’t imagine.” Then I sighed. “You think there’s more necromancy going on out there, don’t you? And that he’s involved somehow.”
“If Fischer’s involved it’s only on the extreme periphery— he’s not a mage, and that sort of thing isn’t so easily shared with the mundane. But… Yes, I think there’s something terrible going on out there. It’s not nearly as powerful as what we saw out in the desert, mind you. But equally dark.”
I nodded. “That’s very interesting.” Then, on the surface at least, I changed the subject. “Have you heard anything about when we’ll be able to go home? Or at least back to join the others in Windhoek?” Not that I was particularly eager to see Windhoek again. But if it were the first stop on the journey back to Pennsylvania, well… Maybe it might be a welcome sight after all.
She nodded. “Yes, I just received a wire— in fact, that’s why I came to visit in the first place, was to let you know. Washington and Paris have been trying to work out a deal with the Germans. They’ve been a little reluctant, yes. But you were granted full diplomatic immunity in advance and Lord Impetus is already back with the rest of the Investigating Committee, which is now energetically reminding the Germans that its members were in fact granted legal permission to investigate here. In other words, the diplomatic waters have been muddied up enough that the Germans seem to have dropped the idea of a formal inquiry and are going to let us go. Straight home, in fact, since the Investigating Committee, having found no Pit after all, is about to dissolve itself anyway”
“Hooray!” I declared, bouncing up off my forepaws in joy.
“Hooray!” Guardian agreed. “Since the French have ships and bases a lot closer at hand than we do, they’re going to take care of getting all four of us at least as far as France. Eventually, that is. When a ship happens to be going that direction anyway.”
I nodded and thought things over for a minute. While the colonel was clearly going to be out of action for some time time to come, well… “It sounds like we still have some time to kill.”
“We do,” Guardian agreed. “Several weeks at least, I’d guess. I hope you can find enough books to read.”
I shrugged. “I hope so too, yes. But… How about we do something even better?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Like?”
“Take a little trip out to Shark Island,” I suggested. “A private one, I mean. Just you and me and Healer. The kind where you don’t bother asking for permission in advance.”
It wouldn’t have been possible if our gear from the first expedition wasn’t still ready to hand. But we still had some water charms, a few last servings of portable soup, our walking boots…
…and most importantly of all, my magic-harness and Baron Hone’s sword. At first Healer snorted at the very idea when I suggested that perhaps one of them might be able to use the sword. But Guardian didn’t agree. “It’s an unusual sort of magic, yes,” she replied. “I watched him demonstrate it several times however— he even showed the process to me in detail for me once back in France, when no one else seemed to want to speak to him.” She frowned. “That poor, poor man. We all underestimated him. Even me.” Sure enough, even on her first try she half-vanished into a shadowy mass, and while her skill level never even came close to that of the departed Baron, soon she too was able to make herself much more difficult to see.
For my own part, by then I was actually eager for a little serious exercise. The three of us developed the habit of disappearing into the wilds together for long ‘picnics’, during which my harness was tied to a tree or a boulder or something while I tugged as hard as I could and Guardian and Healer crafted charms to capture the Power my exertions released. These charms weren’t nearly as good or stable as those Mother made; they didn’t capture Power as effectively and “leaked” something awful. But I was a good strong source, and that made up for a lot. Soon Guardian had at least a small magical arsenal built up again, and as a sort of side-benefit Healer was able to get Colonel James get back to rights a little sooner as well. Soon he was even up and walking again, though still far too weak to accompany us. Therefore, for his own protection, we told him nothing.
After that, it was no problem at all for Healer to rent the little sloop again. This time all three of us departed from the little quay together. The boat’s owner smiled and waved as Healer tugged at the sheets and Guardian manned the tiller. Then suddenly everything lined itself up just-so, the little vessel seemed almost to come to life under my paws, and we were dancing over the wavelets and out to sea.
Shark Island wasn’t at all far off the coast; in order to mislead anyone who might be watching Guardian pointed our bows in almost the opposite direction, towards the pleasant little sand cay the others had visited before. But once well out of the sight of prying eyes she altered course and we began a long, brisk tack out to sea. “We’re going to close the shore after dark,” she explained. “And land on the seaward side. Visitors are probably less expected there.”
I blinked. It was getting late already, and… “Isn’t that sort of dangerous? Even for experienced, well-prepared sailors, I mean.”
She smiled. “I am experienced— trust me.”
“And I’m well-prepared,” Healer added, removing the lensless-telescope gadget from his pocket. “I’ll be able to see just fine. Even though there’s no moon tonight.”
I nodded at that and quit worrying. In fact, I quit worrying so effectively that the rest of the voyage was more a pleasure cruise than anything else. The little boat bobbed and soared across the long ocean swell in a far livelier manner than Bancroft ever had during my first sea voyage. There was definitely something magic about boats, I decided. Especially sailboats, on pleasant, sunny afternoons.
The sunset was glorious; Guardian used its last light to double-check her navigation, then swing us back in towards the coast and, if her calculations were correct, Shark Island. We were running before the wind now, a bone in our teeth and the water gurgling audibly under our keel. Around ten o’clock or so Healer spotted land and assured us that our navigation was spot-on. “The charts show a place where there’s deep water close inshore, right up against the island,” he explained. “We can tie the boat up there and no one one’s liable to notice it.”
I blinked again at that. “How can you hide anything this big?”
Guardian and Healer both smiled in the darkness. “My father was once a fisherman,” he explained. “In France, at that time at least, the word meant almost the same thing as ‘smuggler’. Trust me— I intend to employ one of his best tricks.”
By midnight I could smell the land, and not long after see it as well despite the intense darkness, looming up in star-obscuring mass. “There’s a sort of dogleg shaped inlet here,” Healer explained. “Too small for a vessel of any real size, but plenty big enough for us. On one side the land rises sharply— it’s practically a cliff-face. Because of this the coast is very steep-to. We’ll anchor so close inshore that our bowsprit will practically scrape the rocks.”
Guardian nodded. “This is lonely country, still right on the ragged edge of civilization. We won’t be visible from out to sea due to the dogleg. Or from the cliff above us either, because anyone standing up there will look right over the top of us. Yes, we might conceivably be seen from across the cay. But that’s all tidal flat over there, nothing but soft mud and nastiness. Who’s likely to be out taking a pleasure-hike in that? The only thing we really have to worry about is if someone were to sail right in here with us. What are the odds on any given day, especially when we’ve already rented one of the only boats in the area even able to enter the place?”
I smiled. “Perfect.”
We glided in every bit as silently as planned, bouncing gently off a single rock just before dropping anchor. Then I was harnessed up and loaded— there wasn’t nearly so much to carry this time. “Are you entirely ready?” Healer asked. He was staying behind to mind the boat and dream up convincing-sounding explanations if push came to shove. “Is there anything else I can do?”
“I don’t think so,” Guardian replied after meeting my eyes for an instant. Her hand found the hilt of Hone’s sword, then released it. She should’ve looked ridiculous with the outlandish thing buckled around her waist, but somehow didn’t. Then she grabbed my collar and pulled her seldom-used wand out of her robe’s sleeve. “Ready?”
I nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”
“All right then,” she replied. Then she pointed the wand downwards and began twirling it rapidly. Soon I felt nothing but air under all four paws. “Let’s go!”
I hated flying. Or to be more correct about the matter, I hated magic-flying— for all I knew zeppelins and balloons were an altogether more pleasant experience. But magic-flying felt… Uncertain. Dangerous. Even vaguely unnatural somehow, though no necromancy was involved. Most of my fellow Familiars thought it funny that I hated it so; Frederick considered flying a great treat, something to be eagerly anticipated weeks ahead of time. And birds like Cynthia of course thought I was just being silly. But they weren’t the ones who’d be splashed all over the landscape if something went wrong, either. Bob and Eric hated magic-flying too, so maybe it was simply a function of physical size.
At any rate, it didn’t take long to see why the little cay we’d anchored in had never been improved into a full-fledged harobor; the only overland accesses to it consisted either of flat, fresh mud or a nearly-sheer slope forty or fifty feet high in places. What would be the point in opening up a second access point to such a tiny, insignificant island, and a costly one at that?
Our plan was to fly around at random in the concealing darkness until either we came across something worth investigating or else Guardian grew too tired to continue. If we did find something interesting, however, we were prepared to find a hiding place and watch it all day, then leave the following night.
As it happened, it didn’t take us long to locate what we were looking for. Despite all Guardian’s magic, it was my nose that located it first. “Wait!” I said. “Stop us right here.”
“What is it?” she asked. By now she was riding me like a horse— that way she could release my collar and have at least one hand free for other things.
“I smell something.” I sniffed again. “We should go straight upwind.”
“What is it?” she asked, nudging me with her knees until we were both faced in the proper direction.
“Bodies,” I replied. “Like in the desert. Not nearly so many, but…” My lips curled in disgust. “Very much unburied and ripe.”
She leaned forward and spread out her one free arm, as if in supplication. “Yes,” she agreed. “I can feel it too, now. Good job!”
Guardian eased us down to treetop height, then moved us slowly into the breeze. The thread of scent grew richer and more certain by the second, until it was so overwhelming that even human noses could surely detect it. Meanwhile Guardian held one of the crude charms she and Healer had crafted during our “picnics” out in front of her; from time to time it glowed a little on one or the other edge. Or at least it seemed to glow, sort of; somehow, I felt like the image was being created directly in my mind, not the more usual means via light striking my eyes. “There are a few wards,” she explained. “But not many, and none of them particularly strong. They’re all the kind that can be activated by a non-mage and set up to monitor a certain area. They’re also all pointed inwards, like in a prison. Or, maybe some sort of camp. And… While I feel much death and suffering, I sense no other magic here.” She shook her head. “We may be on a wild goose chase after all, Chris.”
I magic-frowned. “We’ve come this far, and it’s almost dawn. Let’s find a good place to watch from and wait it out. Even if this place isn’t about necromancy, it’s still bad for the natives. I can feel it in my bones.”
“Chris, we’re not here to…” Then she clamped her mouth shut. “Damn,” she muttered. “I never know anymore if I’m being cold-hearted or just employing good sense.”
“We can do this,” I urged her. “You’re good with Hone’s sword.” I squinted into the darkness, then pointed with a clumsy forepaw. “Look! See that extra-dark area near the fence? Or at least I think that’s the fence. Anyway, that’s bound to be heavy brush or something— good cover! We can spend the day there, snug as a bug in a rug.”
After a long moment, she nodded. “You’re probably right. After all, we’ve come this far. And not everything foul in this world revolves around necromancy. Or even magic at all, for that matter.”
Sure enough, the dark area was thick, tangled brush, mostly something equipped with thorns. They barely bothered me but drove Guardian nuts until finally, driven by the constant assaults on her unfurred flesh, she muttered a spell and the stems all went smooth. We had over an hour to settle in before there was much in the way of daylight; Guardian layered spell after spell over us, most of them based on Hone’s sword, until we probably could’ve been a herd of trumpeting elephants and no one would’ve noticed us. Then she strapped a pair of inefficient, Power-wasting magical binoculars over each of our heads and we settled in to watch.
Sure enough, as things grew steadily brighter we could see that we’d found ourselves ringside seats just outside a primitive prison camp of some kind. There was barbed wire festooned all around it, and rifle-equipped men in German Colonial Service uniforms sat high up in sentry-towers, waiting for someone to try and escape. Just as dawn broke and the sun first peeped over the horizon a whistle blew and, very abruptly, the camp burst into life.
It was as if someone had stirred an anthill. A small jack-booted sergeant raced from barracks to barracks. “Appel!” he’d shout, banging on the door. “Appel!” Then he’s move onto the next, and the next. Meanwhile half-naked Herero and, presumably, Khoi men raced about with frightened eyes, shivering in the cold. They were dressed for the Kalahari, I suddenly realized, not the rather chilly and therefore much more comfortable— for me!— climate of Shark Island. And rail-thin to boot— starving, actually. They hugged themselves and clutched their rags close as, in obvious misery, they stood in ranks to be counted. Then two last Herero emerged, carrying a third. Or, rather, the corpse of a third. Unless, of course, the Herero slept with their eyes wide open and staring.
“Jeez!” Guardian whispered under her breath. “You were right. We did need to see this, magic or no.” Her Brownie snapped again and again.
There was much show of counting and recounting, then the men were marched off to… perform forced labor somewhere, perhaps? The two men who’d carried the third bent over him and tried to close his eyes, but the guard shouted something harsh and reached for a sort of riding crop or whip very much like the one Mr. Grunewald had so freely employed back in the stables at Windhoek, but much larger. And that was all it took; with grotesquely fawning gestures the two joined the others and headed off to work.
Without the binocular-thingies, I’d never have known they were weeping.
After that not much happened for a couple hours. Some native women arrived from a part of the camp we were unable to see, and began what was obviously clean-up type work. If anything they were even hungrier and worse-dressed for the climate than the men, and the guards even freer with their whips. Once I saw a woman whipped prostrate for attempting to reach into the trash-barrel she was carrying, presumably in search of scraps of food. Then, once on the ground, the whipping continued until she was a bloody mess. No one helped her get up or did anything to bind her wounds; instead, she was forced to pick up the container once again and proceed as if nothing had ever happened.
It was almost noon when a familiar figure arrived. It was Dr. Fischer. Back in town, everyone knew that he spent much of his time out on the island but no one seemed able to say exactly what he did while there. Now, we were at last finding out. Striding arrogantly across the prison yard, he followed another sergeant to where the morning’s corpse still lay, eyes staring blankly upwards. “Caliper!” he snapped at the native carrying his scientific gear in an oversized bundle balanced on his head. Instantly the requested instrument appeared, and soon Fischer was taking skull measurements and scrawling them down in a little notebook. Then he snapped it shut and spoke to the sergeant. “Yes,” he said. “He’s a good representative sample of this most recent band. They came from further north than most, and represent a unique subtype that ought to be included in our observations. Therefore you were correct— I do indeed want him for Berlin. Thank you, and prepare the specimen for shipment immediately.”
“Yes, sir!” the sergeant replied, snapping to attention but not saluting, Fischer after all not being a military officer.
“What on earth?” Guardian asked in a whisper, turning to me. “Specimen?Berlin?”
I magic-shrugged and, being unable to do much else, went back to watching. For a long time nothing at all happened— Germans and natives alike walked around the corpse as if it wasn’t there. Then, a work-crew of four women appeared, followed by a whip-bearing private. “This one,” he directed, pointing at the corpse. “Immediately. Before he spoils and stinks the place up too much.”
One of them visibly swayed. “Oh, Jimuni” she wailed. “Oh, my poor—“
The whip came down hard and fast on the protestor. “This one,” the private repeated. “Immediately. Before he spoils.”
“I’m here for you,” one of the other women declared, reaching around the first’s shoulders and helping support her. Now the tears were flowing free. “We’ll all here for you, together.”
“Before he spoils,” the private repeated a third time, raising the whip. “How stupid can your kind possibly be, I sometimes wonder. Then I discover new depths. Do you not hear me giving orders?”
“Ja,” the eldest woman declared. Her eyes burned like dark coals; if necromancy could be fueled by sheer hatred rather than death the guard wouldn’t have lasted five seconds. “We hear you. Before he spoils.” The she turned to the others. “Come, sisters. We must.”
The women then each took a limb, and without any grace or dignity at all dragged the corpse directly towards us, where a large, flat workbench made of heavy and strangely dark-colored timbers awaited it. Blood-darkened timbers, I suddenly realized, as the women arranged the body just so…
…and, using pieces of broken glass, sawed off the head.
“Oh my poor brother!” the weeping women shrieked again as the watery, already-smelly blood gushed and flowed. But this time she didn’t even slow in her work. The whip was much too close at hand for that.
First the head was placed in a fly-covered barrel. It was absolutely crawling with the disgusting things, I suddenly realized— what I’d thought was merely a black stain actually moved and surged as the evil corpse-loving creatures capered and buzzed and crawled about in corruptive ecstasy. Then the women each removed another stinking and more decayed head from the barrel, plopped it down on the bench alongside the headless body, and bent to their labor.
“Carefully, now!” the guard demanded as the women worked their shards of glass, separating the eyeballs and palates and liquefying brains and long leathery gibbets of maggot-loosened flesh that’d once been feeling, caring human faces from the skulls and tossing them over their shoulders into the grass for the many-legged things lurking there to feast upon. “These heads are going to be studied by important people! Learned, high-quality people! No scratches allowed in the bone!”
“No scratches,” the skeletal, freezing women agreed one by one. “None, master! Not a one!”
Guardian and I both vomited, of course— not just once but several times. We had no choice but to remain there all afternoon, though by tacit agreement we removed our binoculars and gave up all attempts at surveillance despite the risks we’d taken to place ourselves in such a perfect spot. Perhaps we’d just absorbed too much darkness by then, had seen so much awfulness that there just wasn’t room for anymore. Then through the most wretched luck possible the wind shifted so that we found ourselves caught downwind of the horror, not only surrounded by the stink but also forced to listen to the wicked snick, snick, snick of slicing glass and the quiet sobs of the hopelessly damned.
Until finally, after an eternity, the men came staggering back from whatever killing labor they’d been employed on all day, the reeking, slime-covered women were rounded up and herded away, and once more night fell on Darkest Africa.
(Almost Two Months Later)
“So,” Cynthia said as she waddled alongside me in the courtyard of Devard Castle. It was still winter in Pennsylvania, and her breath created little puffs of steam in the air just above her bill. “The expedition was a failure, then. Which is good news overall, isn’t it? I mean, no new Pit is a good thing for everyone.”
I magic-smiled, albeit a bit weakly. Guardian and I had been home for almost two weeks now, absorbing the friendly faces, familiar sights, and good food like a desert plant sucking up moisture after a seven-year drought. At first it hadn’t been easy, coming home. Everything had felt strange and cold and distant. Even the two long ocean voyages and a quick weekend trip to Paris with Healer serving as our personal guide hadn’t done much to shake the gloom of Africa off of either Guardian or I. “I guess it’s a good thing that it failed after all,” I agreed. “When you put it like that.”
“At least you got to see a lion actually out hunting!” Frederick observed. He was seldom seen around Devard these days; in fact, we’d set up our little reunion around his schedule because it was tighter than anyone else’s. More and more, the little cottontail was spending his time up in Boston were he, along with his master, could meet in person with the Harvard professors he was collaborating with. Sometimes Midnight teased him about being good at multiplication. “I shorely do wish you could tell us more about it all.”
“We all have secrets to keep, I fear,” I replied. The fact was that, based on our preliminary report, Shaper had sent individual telegrams to both Guardian and I even before we left Africa informing us that Guild and government alike would very much appreciate it if we “showed the utmost discretion” regarding our African adventures, and in essence said as little as possible to anyone about the entire affair. It wasn’t quite an order, but it may as well’ve been. In an unguarded moment I’d mentioned seeing the lion from a train, and of course Frederick was still eager to hear more.
“Yeah,” he replied, lowering his ears in disappointment. “I reckon we do.”
“I’m just glad you’re both back home safe and sound,” Midnight said. “I…. Uh….” Then he shut his mouth and changed the subject— clearly he either knew something about or had experienced magical Insights regarding our adventures, but had been ordered to keep his own mouth shut as well. Of all my friends, only he seemed to have the faintest idea of what my “exciting adventure in Africa” had really been like. “I’m just glad we’re all able to be here together to welcome you back, if a bit belatedly. We missed you, Chris.”
I smiled, this time meaning it. It wasn’t quite all of us, of course— Kimball was off doing his naval things, Tim was perched in a casting room at that very moment unable to leave, and Gwen… Well, we rarely even spoke of her these days. But still… My classmates and I, we had something very special indeed going between us. Rare and precious, even. “Thank you for arranging everything, Midnight. You’re very considerate. For a cat, that is.”
“Mrrrow!” he declared in mock indignation, and we all smiled. It felt terribly good to smile, and I suddenly realized how long it’d been. Since before Windhoek, maybe?
“Seriously,” I said, stopping right in the middle of the path and meeting my classmate’s eyes one by one. “Thank you.”
“It’s all right,” Cynthia replied. “I… We…” She looked helplessly at Midnight, who scowled.
“Look,” he eventually said. “By now everyone at Devard has figured out that something went terribly wrong for you and Guardian both over there.” He sighed. “It’s written all over your faces, and in every move you make. We know you can’t talk about it, just like you’re eventually going to figure out that I can’t talk about it either. But… We wanted to let you know that we care regardless. If there’s anything you need, we’re all here. Call us anytime. For you, we’ll even spoil a casting-session if we have to. And our masters have been warned accordingly.”
I sighed. Sometimes I grew terribly, terribly tired of playing the big, tough bear all the time. Yet, clearly someone had to. “Thank you. But… I can say this much, I think. Be extra-kind to Guardian. And, please go out of your way to forgive her anything and everything from now on. She’s earned it and more. I… I mean… Compared to her, I had a cakewalk. And that’s all I think I can say.”
My friends all looked at each other for a moment, then turned back to me. “I have a strong feeling that we should thank you,” Midnight eventually said for them all. “As we’ve thanked you many times before.”
I forced a magic-smile. “Thank me for what? I got to see Africa and France both, after all, while all of you stayed home and worked to pay for it all. So, I should be the grateful one!”
They looked at each other again. “There’s a big conference in Shaper’s office tonight,” Midnight observed. His ears lowered. “Four men from Washington have already arrived for it. You’ll be there, I suppose?”
My smile slipped. “Yes. And…” I licked my lips. “I’m hoping it’ll be finally be over after that.”
Midnight shook his head. “It’ll never be over for you. Whatever it was that you saw and did over there, I mean. All the rest of us can do is try and help you live with the consequences any way we possibly can.”
Cynthia nodded. “Any fool can see that, Chris. I just… Just…” A tiny tear dripped from each beady little goose-eye. “I can feel how badly you hurt. The more social-spell castings I’m part of, the more I can sense your pain. And… And…” She shook her head and spread her snowy wings. “I have to go away for a little while now, Chris. But I’m always here for you!” Then in a rustle of feathers she was gone and an awkward silence ensued.
“Eric and Bob are worried ‘bout you too,” Freddie said eventually. “They don’t want to seem pushy, but they’d do anything to help.” He lowered his head. “I’m afraid I’ve got to catch a train to Boston.”
I smiled, thinking about how Freddie and I had first met, at the train station. Back then, they hadn’t let him ride or even sit in the station with the white passengers. Yet now that he was a wealthy and important Familiar with urgent business waiting for him at Harvard, well… He traveled first-class everywhere he went now, and why not? Even wearing the body of an animal and with an accent that instantly revealed who and what he’d so recently been, nowadays he traveled first class and received top-tier service. What would Dr. Fischer think of that?
Perhaps someday the Herero might travel first-class as well? Or at least the descendants of those few that survived? And everyone else everywhere, who could afford the fare?
“I’m glad you were able to come, Freddie,” I said, lowering my chin onto my friend’s back in what passed for a kodiak’s gentle caress. “Thank you more than you’ll probably ever know.”
“It weren’t nothing,” he replied, his ear-linings turning dark pink. Among us all, only he didn’t need to magic-blush. “Thank you. For everything.” Then he dashed off under the shrubbery and was gone.
Which left Midnight and I, strolling alone through the gathering shadows. “It’s not going to go the way you’d like it to tonight, you know. At the conference.”
I nodded silently. “That’s no surprise.”
“I’ve been at all the meetings,” he continued. “So I can tell them how I feel about things.” He sighed. “I was actually tempted to lie, for the first time ever. Because…”
“They’re not going to lift a finger, are they?” I asked. “To help the Herero, I mean.”
Midnight bared his teeth and hissed before replying. “No. Well… I can’t go quite that far. They’re going to ask some of the larger church organizations to send food and some missionaries, and a few of the big papers have been tipped off that there’s a big story waiting for them down there. But… Mostly no. It’s the British and the French. They have colonies too. And they want to be able run them as they see fit, without interference from Washington or anywhere else. They live in glass houses, you see. Just as we do, I suppose, when you get right down to it.” He shook his head. “I also don’t think they entirely believe you about how bad it was, Chris. Neither you nor Guardian, not even with the photographs and Colonel James backing you up. Which he is, by the way, despite the damage it’s doing to his career. I feel like you’ve made an especially valuable friend there.”
I nodded and filed that little tidbit away. Yes, I’d already been pretty certain that Colonel James was everything he seemed— good, clean and honest. But what was the benefit of having an oracle as a friend if you didn’t take special note of his pronouncements? “I don’t blame them for not believing us,” I replied after a time. “I wouldn’t believe us either, if I hadn’t been there. And smelled the bodies, instead of just seeing neat, clean fly-free photographs of them.”
There was another long silence. “I saw them, Chris. In my nightmares. And…” He shuddered. “The Germans deny all connections with those wards you found. In fact, they claim they never existed at all— they demand physical proof, of which there isn’t any. Impetus’s samples vanished while he was in German custody. They’re also calling for an international investigation into our own necromancy program. While it’s well-intentioned, they acknowledge, they claim it’s a threat to the stability of the entire world and needs to be shut down.”
“But we’re not going to, of course. Are we?”
“Publicly, Shaper has solemnly sworn on a stack of bibles that it was mothballed long ago, immediately after closing the Johnstown Pit. Privately…” Midnight shrugged. “What would you do, if you were in his shoes and knew the Germans were lying? Or in the French and British shoes, for that matter? I’m sworn not to talk about what I hear in meetings, Chris. Please don’t push me when you don’t have to.” Then he frowned. “The Germans also keep pointing to how bad things are getting in the Belgian Congo. And you know what? They’re right. It’s turning into a slaughterhouse too. Soon the situation may be as bad there as in German Southwest Africa.
“I’m sorry I asked you something I shouldn’t have,” I grumbled. Then I sighed. “This is just awful, all of it. And there’s no stopping it. Because it’s too good for too many people.”
Midnight frowned again. “I… Can feel the future. It’s what I do. What I am, even, every bit as much as I’m a cat.” He sighed. “I… Can’t see it in detail. Never could, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s all painted in shades of might-be and sort-of-feels-like. And yet… What happened in Africa. It was clearly a turning point. Something dark and twisted and awful beyond human understanding was planted there, something that should never be allowed to sprout and grow. It’s a devil’s brew, the most perfectly ruinous mix possible. Germany has been headed for a bad place for a long time now, but up until the Herero thing it was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sort of bad place. Like Napoleon. But now…” He shook his head. “It’s a long way off, and still may not happen at all. Yet if it does…” He shuddered. “It might be the end of everything.”
I thought about Midnight’s words for a moment, and the collapse of civilization that’d taken place the last time there’d been magic in the world. “And yet, you say, tonight at the conference they’re going to do nothing, or next to nothing, about any of it.”
“Isn’t it awful?” Midnight asked. “And yet… To be honest, I don’t see what more they can do. Realistically, I mean.”
I shook my head and sighed. “I can’t think of anything either, I suppose. Not that might actually work or people would actually listen to. I… Maybe it’s just not time yet.” Then I had a new thought, and frowned. “Midnight… I gather you’ve read our reports in full?”
“I’ve listened to them being discussed over and over for hours at a time, and quoted at length. If I missed anything, it probably wasn’t important. Why?”
“There was a man I mentioned— a certain Dr. Fischer. I’m no oracle, my friend. But… I didn’t like him from the moment I met him, and it only got worse from there. It was more than just a passing feeling— I think it might’ve been magical. Can you… I mean… Did you…”
Then my voice trailed away and I stopped dead in my tracks. For now Midnight stood with his back arched, back-fur raised high, fangs bared and claws slicing deep into the path. “Ssssss!” he hissed, eyes narrowing into slits. “Ssssssss!”
“Easy!” I said, backing away from my suddenly enraged friend. “What… I mean…”
“Sssssss!” he replied, eyes deadly and feral. Then he shook his head as if recovering from a physical blow and, slowly, returned to normal. “I…” He looked up at me, still panting so hard he could barely speak. “My god!” he whispered. “I never… I mean…”
“What was it?” I asked. “What did you see?”
“Hell,” he replied. “Or something as near to it as makes no difference. And… I suspect that’s all— or maybe even a little more— than I should tell you. In fact, I’m suddenly quite certain of it. Just as I’m equally certain that Shaper needs to hear about this immediately.”
I blinked. “But…”
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning to go so that now he was speaking over his shoulder. “Really I am. But I have a feeling you’re better off not knowing too much about some things, Chris. And….” He magic-smiled. “Another thing I’m quite certain of is that you’re going to play a big part in what’s to come. You’re the most important of us all, Chris.
“Because of who and what you are, perhaps we can have a meaningful future after all.”
Thank you for reading this far!