The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|This dead body was a disgusting thing. It was like wearing a heavy garment made entirely of spoiled meat. It was quite strong, and pain was not an issue, but the decaying nerves were sluggish, so that reactions were slow and movements clumsy. It was quite frustrating. The senses, too, were less than satisfactory. She could hear well enough, but her vision was cloudy, as if the eyes were covered with cataracts. Her fingers were quite numb, so that manipulating objects was haphazard at best. And, of course, channeling the Earthpower was far more difficult than it had ever been, though that was partly due to the weakness of this Earth’s hold on life.
As she trudged along over the sand by Trevor’s side, she couldn’t help regretting what she had done to the Burnleys and their little boy. She firmly reminded herself that this was war, and her battle with Myrddin was partly to protect them and their way of life from his insane lust for power. Should they fail to defeat the evil one, the things that Lily had done to the Burnleys would seem kind.
Still, the thought of Little Pete inside that awful corpse with the broken arrow shaft protruding from its chest filled her with sorrow and no little shame. If she could do such a thing to an innocent little boy, how was she any better than Myrddin?
Because I am doing what I do in order to help them, she answered herself, but even in her own mind, the defense seemed flimsy. How many evil acts could be committed for a worthy cause before that cause itself became just another evil?
She needed to stop thinking about this. What was done was done. She could never undo it, never make it unhappen, but she might possibly repair the damage. But first, she needed to halt the evil one who made all of this necessary.
Her senses were assuredly much diminished, but she could still detect the faint signature of a power source somewhere up ahead. If they were to survive at all, much less return home, they must find someone who knew where they in fact were.
They were entering the ruins of some ancient city. The buildings were large, or had once been large, but they had been obliterated by some force that had shattered even the steel support members. Something that powerful would have a massive signature; she was confident that whatever it was no longer existed. In this world, at least.
Something did, though. This world was not dead, not by a long shot. In fact, as they entered a plaza, what might once have been a thriving marketplace with colorful banners, strolling minstrels, jugglers and other sorts of entertainers, hoping to earn a coin or two from the crowd of people buying and selling the things that they grew, or made, or dug out of the ground, she could sense life all around her. She saw nothing, however, but wasteland.
Even dead, the market reminded her of their childhood home in Germany, on festival days, when Frau Golden would take Trevor and her down into the village in the valley below Castle Ambrosia. The Frau would be all business, going about the shopping, ordering the victuals and supplies for the castle, while she and her brother gaped at the sights and sounds of the market, and if she felt that she had done well in her shopping, Frau Golden would often buy them a hot strudel from one of the vendors. Lily could still remember the taste of the flaky, buttery crust and the hot, sweet fruit within. Often it had been apples, but sometimes she had gotten cherry, or even blueberry.
But this place was dead, like the body she wore, and the memory of sweetness soured, spoiled, decayed, while all around her group, little sparks of energy were separating themselves from the wreckage and surrounding them.
There were dozens of them, each one completely different from every other. They looked cobbled together from bits and pieces of scrap. Some had wheels, others had segmented metal belts that ran over smaller wheels. These crept over the hills of rubble with ease. Still others scuttled along on insect-like metal legs. They all looked ancient; their parts were dirty, with the exception of the swivel-mounted black panels adorning some of them, which, no matter how they maneuvered, twisted or turned, they kept angled constantly toward the sun. Those were kept spotlessly clean. The eye-like lights that were trained on her and her friends stuttered and blinked on most of them, but the ones equipped with black panels had eyes that stayed steadily lit. Those lights really did seem like eyes- windows onto strange machine intelligences, starved for energy, insane with hunger.
Trevor’s guns barked, and two of the machines tumbled backward. Immediately those nearest the stricken ones converged upon them and began to disassemble them. They fought with one anotherv over the choicest parts, like a pack of scavengers over the tastiest bits of carrion.
Heath and Sally both drew their weapons and began to fire upon them as well, but there were a great many of them, and some were quite agile. Before long, these were in a position to threaten them.
These contraptions seemed to be electrically powered; she had always thought that the flow of electricity was a form of natural lightning, and the modern experimenters had proven her correct. She wondered if there might be some way that she could disrupt the flow of that power. Lily drew upon the trickle of Earthpower available through her connection with the Heart of the World, and began to weave a variation on the chéis a déenlos, the spell of lightning. She needed something that would be less intense than the normal spell, in order to conserve her strength. Despite the fumbling of her numb fingers, she finished her weave and cast it upward.
The knot soared up a dozen feet, then silently detonated in a flash of blue light. The spell was not nearly as impressive as the standard bolt of lightning; there was no thunderclap, no streak of blinding light or explosive impact. But all around them, the machines simply stopped moving, and the light in their eyes went dark.
Lily smiled in triumph, but suddenly she felt dizzy, the world swayed around her, and she swooned.
* * *
Little Pete didn’t feel right. Nothing was like it was supposed to be. He couldn’t remember just how it got like this. He was riding on Frisky, and they were charging at the pretty orange fountain, where Mommy and Mister Trevor were standing on a pattern of glowing lines. They were wrapped up in blue light, fighting that bad man in the hood. Frisky stepped on the swirly lines and called out for Pete, but not him, not Little Pete. He thought maybe she meant Uncle Pete, who he was named after.
Then there was a bright light, and then he was lost in a storm. He couldn’t see a thing, but he heard Daddy’s voice and went toward it. He bumped into Daddy, and Mommy was there, too, and somebody else, and they all fell down, but Little Pete didn’t care, ‘cause he had found his Mommy and Daddy, and he knew they would make everything all right.
He tried to talk to them, but Little Pete couldn’t talk too good. It was like he had a sore throat, but there wasn’t no soreness. Daddy and Mommy acted like they didn’t know him, and then… and then Daddy hit him, right in the face!
Little Pete cried, not because it hurt - it didn’t, not really - but because he was so surprised and scared. Mister Breaf, who never even talked to Little Pete before, held him and said nice things to him while he cried. Then Mommy came, and Daddy did, too, and he even said he was sorry for hitting him. Then they all took a nap. Little Pete was still scared and couldn’t sleep, but it was nice to snuggle with Mommy and Daddy even so. It helped him to calm down.
While they napped, he inspected his new body. It was scary; not like his real body at all. It was big and smelled funny, like the maggoty mouse he found one day in the barn. It wasn’t as bad as that, though; maybe it was because his new nose didn’t work that good. He had a piece of wood sticking out of his chest, too; when he wiggled it, it didn’t hurt, but he felt something moving deep inside of him.
Then it was time to get up and go for a walk. All of a sudden, Little Pete was a big boy. He couldn’t get used to being so tall. He was as tall as Daddy, and even taller than Mommy! He was big, but his arms and legs didn’t work the way they should. He couldn’t feel stuff the way he always could before. He couldn’t even see that good. It was like he had sleepy-stuff in his eyes all the time. Plus, he was always stumbling and almost falling down, ‘cause his feet were kinda numb.
He missed Frisky. Where had she gone? She went away and left him alone. He was so happy when she came to him. At first, he was having fun with Mister Trevor, pretending to ride a pony while he bounced Little Pete on his knee. He didn’t know just how it happened, but somewhere along the line, Mister Trevor’s knee had gone away and Little Pete was riding Frisky, his own painted piebald pony, only Frisky wasn’t made out of wood anymore; she was real! Best of all, she talked to him!
She told him stories about castles and magic, and princes and princesses and she made them so real he could see them in his head, just like he was really there, having adventures with Prince Trevorus and his sister Liliana.
It was so much fun, Little Pete didn’t even think twice when she asked him to ride her up to the castle. Maybe he should have told Mommy and Daddy first, but they were both gone. Only Miss Millie was there, in Aunt Lily’s old room at the Piebald. Frisky said it would be all right, though, so off they went.
Now, Frisky was gone and Little Pete wasn’t so little anymore. His chest hitched with a sob before he could push the urge to cry back down deep. He looked around for something to take his mind off of his troubles.
They were in an old, broken-down town, and Mommy and Daddy and everybody was looking up at some old statue with a busted arm. Little Pete thought that was boring, so he wandered off a ways, looking for something more fun.
He walked across the big, empty space the statue stood in, and went on down a narrow path between piles of broken rock. The sky was clear and blue, like the storm was never here, and the air was cool. It didn’t smell of anything, though; he could tell that even with his new, not-so-good sniffer. There was no smell of flowers or grass or anything. The air was just… air.
He saw something shiny flash in the sun up ahead. He picked up his pace a little, wondering what it was. When he got to the pile of trash where he thought it was, he climbed up onto the chunks of rock and metal, looking for something that was smooth enough to flash the light at him like it had. He didn’t see anything but dull, gritty rocks and pieces of metal that looked like old horseshoes left out in the weather too long. There was nothing that could have reflected the sun like what he had seen.
He stood up straight and looked around. A couple of piles further on, that same flash of light caught his eye. Maybe he was mistaken about where the thing had been. He climbed down and went on to look at that pile.
Again he climbed. Again, there was nothing to be found. What in tarnation was happening? He looked back around the way he had come; he had gone further than he thought.
Then he heard gunfire. There must be trouble! Something was trying to hurt Mommy and Daddy! He scrambled down to the path and headed back at a shambling run. As he came around a bend, he saw the strangest sight his eyes - either these or the ones he was born with - had ever seen.
It looked something like one of them tin wind-up toys he saw once in a shop when his Mommy and Daddy had taken him to Denver. It was a pretty thing, sort of, with little legs like a bug, maybe six or eight of them, and a shiny glass eye that flashed snow white when it looked at him. It had a black plate mounted on its back that turned around whenever it did, and always stayed facing the same direction. Pete looked up, and realized that the black plate always faced the sun. The little bug could run real fast, too. He just bet it was the thing he had seen flashing. It was playing hide and go seek with him!
Now it was right in front of him on the path, and it was making little squeaky noises at him. Little Pete got a picture in his head, and he knew that the toy didn’t want him to go any farther. The little metal bug scampered back and forth across the path like it was scared worse than he was.
“What’s the matter, little bug?” he asked it, stopping even though he itched to run on past. “Why don’t you want me to go back to my Mommy and Daddy? They’re in trouble!”
The little thing squeaked and scampered. And Pete couldn’t make any more sense out of it. He was getting ready to run on toward the sound of gunshots, when the reason for the toy’s warnings crept over the hills on both sides of him. A lot more of the toys, every one of them different from his - he already thought of the frisky little bug as his - and every one of them was real scary, too. These things weren’t toys. They were wolves.
Pete’s little friend turned toward the mean machines, and the noises it was making sounded real mad. It was protecting him! The bad toys kept coming anyway.
One of them came on ahead of the others. It was bigger and had more parts that looked like it had taken them from other toys and attached them to itself, including a pair of long metal arms with sharp-looking pinchers on their ends. When it saw him looking at them, it snapped them. Snick-snick-snick! It had a whole bunch of glass eyes that moved around, looking in all directions, but most of them were looking right at Pete. He could feel the hunger in them.
It had big, fat wheels made out of some kind of black stuff that kinda looked like leather, but not really. There were three of them on each side of the thing, and the wheels rolled right over rocks and anything else that got in the toy’s way, even another one of the bad toys that couldn’t get out of the way quick enough. It rolled over the smaller toy, and broke one of its legs. After the Big Bad Toy rolled on past, still coming toward Pete, some of the others attacked the one with the broken leg. They tore it apart and took its pieces and started attaching them to themselves. A fight broke out over the thing’s eye, but Pete didn’t have the attention to spare to watch any more. The Big Bad Toy was almost upon him. The others, at least, had stopped. He guessed they were going to wait and see what the Big Bad Toy left for them.
Pete’s new friend charged the Big Bad Toy, even though it was way bigger. It dodged past the pinchers, fast as lightning, and poked a hole in one of the wheels. There was a sharp pop and a hiss like a snake. With a happy squeal, Pete’s friend was away again, just barely escaping the Big Bad Toy’s angry – snick-snick! - pinchers.
The Big Bad Toy was limping. The wheel his friend had poked was kind of flat, and couldn’t hold its weight. It was really mad, now, and Pete’s friend was no longer between it and Pete. It put on a burst of speed and came at him, pinchers snapping.
Pete managed to get hold of its arms, but it was strong. It pressed toward him, the pinchers snapping together closer and closer to Pete’s face. He pushed back with all the strength and weight of this big body, but it was no use. The Big Bad Toy was way stronger than him.
One of the pinchers was reaching for his neck when His friend leaped onto the Big Bad Toy from behind, its little bug-legs slashing and tearing at the stuff in and amongst the Big Bad Toy’s eyes. Eyes began to go dark.
The Big Bad Toy suddenly lost interest in Pete. It yanked its pinchers out of his grip and turned them right around backwards to take hold of Pete’s friend. Both of them snatched it and lifted it up off of the tangle of black ropes and things that made a nest for the eyes.
Pete’s friend squealed, and this time, Pete knew it was with pain. For the first time, Pete’s fear left him, and he got mad. He stuck his hands into that nest of stuff and started yanking out handfuls of the black ropes. One after another, he pulled off the tin cans that held the glass eyes, and threw them as far as he could. Some of the other toys ran off after them. Sparks flew, and Pete got burned more than once, but he didn’t care. The Big Bad Toy was pulling at his friend; it looked like it might pull him right apart!
Deep inside the nest of eyes, Pete found something round and hot. It burned his fingers when he touched it, but the way the Big Bad Toy jerked and tried to roll away told Pete that this was something important. He grabbed it with both hands and pulled. The Big Bad toy started bucking, trying to shake Pete loose, but he held on, and twisted the hot ball, yanked at it, jerked it back and forth.
With every motion, the Big Bad Toy jumped and jerked.
At last, it decided that Pete was the real danger, and it threw Pete’s little friend far and high. Then its pinchers took hold of Pete. One had him by his left arm, and the other started bashing him. Pete tucked his head down and kept yanking at the hot ball. Even with his lousy nose, he could smell the skin of his fingers burning.
The ball was getting looser. The Big Bad Toy’s pincher was squeezing Pete’s arm, and he felt it begin to cut into his skin, but he didn’t care. It didn’t hurt much. He just wanted to rip this ball out. Then the other pincher hit him hard on the back of the head. Pete saw white sparks and nearly let go. The Big Bad Toy must have felt his hold loosen, ‘cause it hauled off and whacked him in the head again. This time, it was able to pull Pete’s left arm away from the ball. He only had hold of it with his right hand now. The Big Bad Toy whacked him in the head again. It was too much. Pete was going to let go. He couldn’t hold on any longer.
Then there was another pop and a hiss, and another, and the Big Bad Toy leaned over way far to one side. It left off whacking him, and even let go of his arm. Pete’s friend was back! It was poking all the Big Bad Toy’s wheels! The pinchers were chasing after it, wild with anger, but Pete’s friend was way too fast for it, now that three of its wheels were flat.
Pete grabbed the hot ball again. This was it. He set his feet on the Big Bad Toy’s outer shell and focused all of his energy into his hands and arms and gave one last mighty yank.
The ball tore free with a loud crackle and a flare of light, and Pete toppled backward onto the path. The ball was steaming in his hands. It was black and some of the little black ropes were clinging to it like hairs.
Next thing he knew, his little friend was next to him, scampering around and squealing happily and flashing its white eye-light. Pete laughed.
“Hey, little fella. You sure are a frisky one, ain’t you?”
But it wasn’t happy for long. The other toys were moving in, now. Pete’s energy was spent; he wasn’t going to be fighting again any time soon. His little friend would be torn apart, and then so would he. They would eat him up, and his body would be fuel for theirs.
There was a flash of blue light. Pete felt a shimmer, like a ripple in a pond, only there wasn’t any water. The ripple went through everything. All the toys fell down dead.
Pete’s friend died, too.