The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|“Where do you think we are?” Trevor kept his voice low, to avoid disturbing the Burnleys and their son, all of whom were sleeping soundly. They must have been exhausted, Trevor thought. He was, too. The weakness of the energy within this planet was certainly connected to his own fatigue. Never before had he been deprived of the natural bounty of Earthpower. It was quite unnerving.
“As I said to Heath, I don’t know,” answered the dead man with the spirit of his sister residing within, “but I have a guess or two.” The revenant smiled, and Trevor saw Lily’s face in the expression. “As, I’m sure, do you.”
“Yes, well,” Trevor stalled, to try and put his own thoughts in order, “I suppose I do. For example, we might have been cast far into the future, when the world is approaching its death.”
“An interesting thought,” replied Lily, “but not, I think, the most likely explanation. Time travel, if it is possible at all, has ever been beyond the scope of even the most powerful mages.”
“True. What’s your theory, then?”
“Well, do you remember what Mother and Father told us about the Schism?”
“Yes… the humans were multiplying too quickly, learning too much, too fast. The magical races went into exile to avoid having to fight a war with them for possession of the Earth.”
“That’s right, but where did they go?”
“The Elves had something to do with it, I think…”
“One particular Elf, actually, along with the Council of Elders, using the Nixies’ intrinsic form of magic.”
“Yes!” A light blinked on in his head and illuminated the memory. “Stellarson… Fyndil Stellarson. He and the Nixies found another Earth in a parallel dimension. It was empty of life, and… You think that’s where we are?”
“Yes. If you’ll remember, Father told us that the Dark races hated the idea, not only because they wanted to fight, and force the humans back into their traditional role as prey, but because the new world was so much weaker than ours. They felt that their power – all our power – would be too much diminished.”
“I get it. But why would we have ended up here?
The revenant’s shoulders rose momentarily in a shrug, and Lily said, “The Nixies’ magic is unique; none of the other races can duplicate its effects. The dimensional barriers are too strong to be easily breached. However, I believe that the Schism spell has left a weakness in the barrier between those two particular realms. Perhaps a single individual might not be able to penetrate it, but the combined energies released in our battle with Myrddin might well have been equal to the task.”
“That’s fine, then,” Trevor said. “A good theory. But, what do we do about staying alive, now that we’re here? Not to mention getting back to our own world before Myrddin manages to enslave it?”
“A good question,” Lily said with a sigh that sent an odor of rotten meat to his nostrils. “I suppose we must try to find the Living Continent the Elders created, and enlist the aid of the exiles. Perhaps Fyndil Stellarson himself knows how we may cross back.”
“Oh, you’re just full of good ideas, aren’t you?” Trevor thought of trying to journey through this wasteland with no food and no water looking for a magical continent that might be anywhere, and was most probably inaccessible from where they were, on foot at least. ”Besides, didn’t Stellarson sacrifice himself along with the rest of the Elders to create the continent?”
“Again, I don’t know. Perhaps. I would welcome any better suggestion, brother dear.”
“No doubt you would, Lily,” he said to the dead man. “If I have any, you’ll be the first to know.” He looked at her chest. “By the way, are those my saddlebags you’re wearing?”
“Oh,” she said, looking down at herself in surprise, “I hadn’t noticed.” She took the heavy bag from her shoulder and handed it to Trevor. “Here you are.”
He took them from her and looked inside. Yes, they were his, all right; they were filled with boxes of silver bullets. Also, there were a few wafers of hard tack and some jerky. Not much for three, provided the two revenants required no sustenance, but a bit of nourishment, anyway.
He looked over at his sleeping friends. “When they awake, I believe the Burnleys are going to be rather thirsty.” He held out his hands to his undead sister. “Shall we dowse for water?”
* * *
When Sally awoke, the storm had blown over. She, Heath, and the dead thing that had been Dave Dudey, a regular at the Piebald, that now had her son’s spirit inside it, were snuggled together in a perfectly circular crater in the sand. The sky above was blue and clear. Next to her, Heath stirred and sat up. His movement made Little Pete flinch. He wasn’t sleeping; she didn’t think revenants needed to sleep. But little boys did, and the quiet time in close contact with his parents was good for him. The poor little fella was scared to death; what toddler wouldn’t be, who had been through all that he had, and then found himself wearing a dead man’s body, and getting punched in the face by his own father?
She didn’t know if she could ever forgive Lily for using him this way. It was bad enough that she had put her and Heath into her plans without their permission, or even their knowledge, but to use a little boy… She had deceived him, made him think she was his own magical pony, Frisky, for goodness sake! Then she had taken him out of his body, so that she could use his strength to go and face her enemy, without a care in the world for his welfare. And now, he might die in this awful corpse, with the broken-off shaft of a Comanche arrow sticking out of his chest! She was so mad she could just spit!
Heath gave her a sympathetic look and a peck on the forehead. “I know just how you feel, Sal,” he murmured into her ear, as he looked down at Dave’s head on her lap. “I don’t think there’s much we can do about it, though. Not yet, anyway. We need them to get us back home, and get Little Pete back into his own body. After that… hell, let’s face it. There ain’t much we can do even then, except maybe to just get shed of ‘em.”
“How could she do this, Heath?” Tears might have flowed into her eyes if she hadn’t been so parched. “I thought Lily was our friend.”
“I know, Sally. So did I.” He shrugged, and looked thoughtfully at the gunslinger and the Huey-revenant, and that little wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows. She loved it when he did that. It was a frown, yes, but just a little one, and not a mean one at all- just thoughtful. His thoughtfulness was the main thing that had attracted her to him. Well… that, and his cute little rear end.
“I ain’t makin’ excuses for ‘em, you understand,” he said, “but I guess I can see how a family vendetta can make a person blind to some of the things they do. ‘Specially if they figure it’s for the good of the folks they’re using.”
“Maybe,” she replied, “using people who are old enough to make their own choices. But when it’s our little boy they’re using, it just makes my blood boil.”
“I know just what you mean, Sal.”
She was going to go on, but Trevor stood up and came over to them. The gunslinger was still all duded up in his gambler’s outfit, but he was filthy. There was dirt ground into every bit of him, clothes and skin and all. She looked at herself, and admitted that she looked no better.
“Hello Heath, Ma’am. I hope you got some rest.”
“I guess we did,” Sally replied shortly. “Now, how do you plan to get us back home?”
“A fair question,” he said, smiling his charming smile, “but one that I can’t answer with any degree of certainty. We have some ideas, but they depend upon whether certain assumptions are true. In order to discover the answer, we must travel.”
“Travel where?” Heath asked.
“Toward a very faint echo, the only power source we can find that isn’t at the center of this planet.” He turned and pointed a finger at the northern horizon. “That way.”
They didn’t have any camp to strike, so a few minutes later they were trudging north across seemingly endless dunes of lifeless sand. Little Pete had been reluctant to get up; she thought that he was pretending he was at home in his own bed, and that none of this was happening. She could understand the attraction of something like that. Finally, though, she’d coaxed him up and they set out.
Pete was at her left, where she could help him negotiate the shifting sand, and Heath was on his far side, doing the same. Trevor and Huey-Lily were ahead of them. Lily had tried to talk with Sally at first, but Sally was so livid with anger, she couldn’t manage more than a syllable or two at a time, without busting out crying, or more likely, shouting. Neither one of those options would help them to get home, though, so she swallowed her anger, even if it did choke her going back down.
The sun was high by the time they found the first ruins. They walked down off of a pretty tall dune and onto what was once a paved street. It was still real flat, except for where it had cracked up and broken into little chunks of gray-black stuff that was as hard as rock, but wasn’t rock. Along the edges of the street were the sheared-off foundations of buildings with great big piles of rubble inside them, as if the big buildings had simply crumbled into head-sized chunks of rock, or iron, or masonry or whatever, and fallen in on themselves.
“People call Rattler’s Fang a ghost town,” Heath said, “but it looks like Denver compared to this.”
He was right. This place was probably bigger than Denver when it was in its heyday, but now it felt like nothing more than a graveyard.
Trevor slowed down as they entered the town. He looked around cautiously, while Heath, a hand on his gun, did the same thing. They moved in among the ruined buildings.
Sally was glad that it was full daylight; this place was eerie enough without darkness. She had the constant feeling that she was being watched from somewhere, but she could see no observers, no matter which way she turned.
They came into an open plaza, with what looked like it might have been a fountain standing in its center. There was a low, circular wall with a sunken bowl inside it, at the center of which was a sculpture, a broken statue of a woman in long robes. Her arm, once upraised with a flaming torch in hand, had broken off and lay in the tub at her feet. On the pedestal beneath her were inscribed four words: Observation, Cogitation, Manipulation, Acquisition. Sally had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but the staring eyes of the statue sent a shiver through her.
Then, a shout from Trevor brought her gaze around.
From the ruins all around the plaza, an army of mechanical monsters was slowly converging on them.