The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|While his twin pistols were blazing away, shooting holes through the nasty little machines, Trevor kept an eye on Lily. She was weaving a spell that he almost recognized, but she was making changes to it that altered it quite a bit. If he had had the attention to spare, he might have been able to understand what she was about to attempt. As it was, he could only spare her a glance now and then.
Despite the bullets that he and Heath and Sally were putting into the things, and the fact that every hit meant that another two or three machines would stop to salvage spare parts from the wounded, the little monsters were still advancing. Maybe if they hadn’t needed to reload their weapons after every six rounds, they might have had a chance. They staggered their reloads in order to keep up a steady fire, but even so the things were getting closer. It wouldn’t be long before they were overwhelmed.
Most of the machines were slow, easy targets. But some of them were quick and agile. They were smart, too, using the slower ones for cover as they maneuvered around, looking for a way in. They were so close now that he and Trevor and Sally were a triangle, shoulder to shoulder, with Lily in the middle.
Suddenly, he realized that Little Pete was missing. Where the hell had he gone off to? He didn’t think any of the others had noticed yet. There wasn’t time to worry about him, though; right at the moment, one of the damned spider-like machines slipped through while Sally was reloading and Trevor was busy trying to cover his half of her field of fire. It leaped onto Trevor’s left sleeve and wrapped its sharp-tipped legs around it. Its eye glowed deep green. A high-pitched whirring noise came from beneath the thing, and Trevor felt a searing pain. The thing bit into his forearm! It was eating him!
The green light in its eye waxed brighter as it began to consume his body. Apparently, it had some way to convert flesh into energy almost instantly.
Sally began firing again, and Trevor brought his right-hand weapon over and shot the thing point-blank through the eye. He squinted as the glass orb exploded into tiny shards and went dark. The thing was blinded, but not disabled; the eating continued. Trevor fired again, this time into the machine’s main carapace, with much better effect. The whining stopped, and so did the eating, but the thing was still firmly attached to his arm. He had no time to try and remove it, though. More were coming.
Then there was a flash of blue, a subtle ripple of energy, and all of the machines simply stopped in their tracks. All of their eyes blinked out. Lily’s spell was quite effective, he thought. He’d have to ask her what she had done. He turned and opened his mouth to ask about Little Pete, when three things happened at once. One was a howl that rose up from out beyond the pile of wreckage. It sounded an awful lot like the sound Little Pete made when he was crying through the revenant’s voice box. The second was a sudden drop in the energy of the planet’s life force, which Trevor felt through his connection. The third was Lily, who also dropped, senseless, to the pavement.
“Lily!” He crouched beside the deathly still revenant body she inhabited, and yelled to Heath and Sally, “Little Pete must have wandered off before the attack. I heard him cry out. It came from that direction.” He pointed with the arm not burdened with a dead metal spider. “Go to him!” They went.
Trevor tried to draw enough energy to weave a Healing spell. There was not enough energy to do very much, but he cast the weave, weak as it was, into her, using it to try and sense her spirit, to identify what was wrong.
The instant the weave sank into the revenant’s chest, such an intense feeling of corruption washed over him that Trevor nearly vomited. The dead flesh was no longer held in stasis; decay had resumed in its nerves and muscles. Though it still obeyed the impulses driven through the magically reinforced pathways by the spirit Lily had pressed upon it, thus usurping control of the mindless thing, it was failing fast. The magic leftover from Myrddin’s animation spell was trickling away; only the energy that Lily’s spirit supplied to it kept it functioning. This, too, was waning, as the decay of the brain progressed, and Lily’s life retreated from the advance of returning death.
The same thing, Trevor realized, must be happening to Little Pete. Lily had the advantage of understanding, but that little boy was trapped in a situation so strange it must threaten his ability to cope. This had to end, and quickly, or even if they made it back and were able to restore him to his body, he might return to it insane.
At last, the flow of Earthpower quickened once more, returning to its previous level. A moment later, like a breath of fresh air in the middle of a charnel pit, Lily’s spirit touched his, and together, they rose back up to the world of consciousness.
“Hello, Trevor,” she murmured.
“Welcome back, dear sister,” he replied.
“You have a new piece of jewelry, I see.”
He lifted the metal spider and displayed it like a new bracelet. “Do you like it? It’s the latest fashion in Paris, you know.”
“Like so many of the latest Paris fashions, it seems a bit overdone to me.”
“In that case, I shall cast it off to the hangers-on,” he said, smiling. “Just as soon as I can lay hands on the proper tools.”
Though they were both awkward, she because of her dead body, and he because of his injured, spider-bound arm, he helped his sister to regain her feet. Then the Earthpower abruptly drained away again, and they almost fell back down.
They managed to maintain their balance, and Trevor held onto Lily for a long moment, until the power normalized once more. Lily looked around, concern on her revenant’s blunt features.
“Where is everyone?”
“Little Pete,” he answered, “appears to have wandered off while we were otherwise occupied. I heard him call out, and sent the Burnleys off in search of him. That way.” He pointed again.
“Oh, dear,” Lily said, with concern in her strange voice, “I do hope he’s all right.”
“The cry I heard was not one of pain.” He paused, then added after a second thought, “Not of physical pain, anyway.”
“I fear for the child’s sanity,” she said, and started off in the direction Trevor had indicated.
“I was just thinking the very same thing, Lily.” He set off after her. “The very same.”
* * *
Guns out and ready, Heath and Sally rushed down the narrow path between the piles of rubble toward the sound of Little Pete’s crying. He glanced over at Sally, and his heart went out to her. There was a determined look on her beautiful face, but Heath could tell that just beneath it, she was almost crazy with fear for Little Pete. He knew how she felt, of course. Just like her, Heath was scared half to death. Not for himself, really, but for his family. Which was pretty much all he had.
He almost tripped over one of the dead machines; as he hopped over it and stumbled a couple of steps before regaining his balance, he resolved to keep his eyes on where he was going. The sound of Pete’s voice was louder, now. In fact, it was too loud: the cry of a giant with a broken heart.
They came round a bend and stopped dead. Ahead, the path narrowed even further, bounded on both sides by tall piles of wreckage. A large crowd of dead machines was gathered around on the slopes and path. It looked to Heath like there might be more of them here than there were attacking them in the plaza. At the very center of the cluster, in an open area maybe twenty feet across, a real big one sat on flattened wheels with a tangled nest of what looked to be telegraph wires sticking up out of its metal body. Kneeling on the pavement beyond it was Dave Dudey’s undead body. Heath’s son was still alive inside of it, and he was wailing like he had lost his best friend.
He and Sally both stood there, hesitating, wanting to go and comfort their son, but one thing kept them back: the blue glow that pulsed around him. It was like the magic glow that Lily and Trevor showed when they worked their spells, but it throbbed brighter than anything they had ever shown, even back in their own world. It kept a slow, steady beat, like the heart of the giant whose cries Pete was voicing. Every pulse seemed to vibrate the whole landscape.
“Pete! Little Pete,” Sally called. She tried to step closer, but the blue power was like a big balloon, pushing her back. “Pete, honey, it’s Mommy and Daddy!”
If Pete heard her, he gave no sign. He just went on looking down at a little spider-machine that sat on the ground between his knees. Then Heath saw that Pete held a black ball in his hand. The ball had a bunch of those wires hanging off of it, too, like it might have come out of the nest on that big machine.
As they watched, Pete opened up a panel on the little spider, or maybe it looked more like a crab. He reached inside and pulled out another ball, this one smaller than the one Pete held. He looked at the two of them for a long moment, like he was figuring out how they worked, or something. Heath didn’t know how Pete could even hope to understand those strange contraptions, but after a bit, he set the big ball down next to him and started to disconnect wires from the little one. When they were all disconnected, he held the little ball in his left hand and picked up the big one with his right. He gripped them tightly in his hands, held them side by side in front of him and concentrated on them. It looked like that pulsing blue power flowed from Pete’s hands into the balls, and a bolt of blue lightning jumped from the little one to the big one. The lightning crackled and jittered for a minute or two, then blinked out. After he finished doing that, he swayed for a moment, as if the effort had made him dizzy. He recovered quickly, though. He set the little ball aside and started to connect the big ball’s wires to the little crab machine. When he had connected them all, he set the ball carefully inside the crab’s shell and closed the hatch.
Then, he laid both of his hands on the shell. Pete had been wailing through all of this, like he despaired of anything he did bringing back his friend. For that was what Heath realized his son was doing: trying to revive the dead machine. Now, though, Pete stopped crying. He wrinkled his brow and concentrated on the little crab-thing in front of him. Gripping the shell tightly, he sent the throbbing blue power into it.
He paused, swaying, and looked at the thing expectantly. Nothing happened. Another sob escaped him, and he laid hands on it again. Again the power flowed.
Lily and Trevor came up beside them. Trevor seemed very upset.
“What is he doing?” The gunslinger’s tone of voice was angry, and Heath took offense. Though he didn’t understand it any more than Trevor did, he defended his son.
“Looks like he’s trying to bring that one back to life.”
“But, look at the power he’s using! Do you know, Lily almost died just now, for lack of that power?”
“Now, Trevor,” Lily said, “that’s not quite true.”
“But, he’s wasting the power! We might need it before we’re through.”
“That may be,” said Sally, “and I understand your concern, Mr. Ambrosius, but just what do you intend to do about it?” She pushed against the bubble of blue power surrounding Pete, and stumbled back a step as it pushed back.
Trevor’s eyes widened, and he reached out a hand to test the shield. “Incredible.”
“The child is powerful, Trevor, dear,” Lily said, with a touch of pride in her voice that made Heath smile a bit. “Did I not tell you so?”
The machine was still motionless, dead. It seemed Little Pete was getting annoyed. He grabbed hold of the crab-thing and sent a third rush of power into it. His eyes rolled up into his head as he poured energy into its metal body. Pete’s body began to convulse, the muscular spasms shaking him and the machine like they were both a couple of toys in the hands of a giant, invisible Baby Pete.
Pete held onto the crab, fighting to feed it every ounce of energy he could, but finally there was a loud report, and Pete was thrown backward, to land on his back on the pavement several feet away.
The blue shield winked out, and they all rushed to Little Pete’s side. Heath got there first, knelt, and raised his boy’s head into his lap. Sally was right there beside him, tears running down her face. “Oh, Pete, sweetie…” she murmured, her mouth close to his ear, “why’d you go and do such a thing?”
Pete didn’t answer, of course; he just lay there with his eyes rolled up into his head. Lily settled down next to Sally and took Pete’s hand.
“He lives,” she said, almost immediately. “His spirit still dwells within. He is simply withdrawn. Sorrow fills him.”
Then Trevor’s voice, in a nervous sort of tone that Heath thought was real unlike him, said, “Well, if he’s sorry for this little monster, he needn’t be. It’s alive.”
Heath looked around. There stood Trevor, his guns trained on the little crab, which stood on its legs, its white eye-light swiveling back and forth from the gunslinger to Little Pete.
“Don’t shoot it, Trevor,” Lily told him. “Let it approach the child.”
Trevor holstered his weapons, but kept his hands ready to draw. The machine, seeming to realize its danger, crawled slowly toward the group around Little Pete. It skirted Sally and Lily, and came up next to Heath. The thing’s eye tracked from one of them to another, then settled on Pete. The light in it brightened, and it lifted a metal foot to touch Pete gently on the shoulder.
Immediately, Pete blinked a few times, and his eyes rolled back down. He looked into Heath’s eyes for an instant, smiled, then turned his head toward the machine.
“Hi, Frisky,” he said with a smile that melted Heath’s heart. “I just knew I could fix you.”
The little crab let out a squeal so filled with joy that nobody who heard it could fail to recognize it for the celebration it was. Frisky showed that he deserved his name; he scampered all around, doing a skittery dance up and down the piles of rubble. He hopped like a frog from dead machine to dead machine, and his squeals were a musical accompaniment to the dance that suited it better than any orchestra could have done. Pete sat up to watch, and his laughter renewed them all.
That night, they camped in the plaza. With Pete’s help, Frisky made them a sort of campfire from the glass part of one of the machines’ eyes, an orange one, hooked up to a black ball by a few wires. The thing glowed with the light of a fire, and threw off enough heat to keep them comfortable in the fast-cooling air.
Little Pete and Frisky went around cannibalizing the dead machines for spare parts and power cells. Or, that was what Pete told them. Heath didn’t know a power cell from a wagon wheel. They piled various wheels, legs, eyes, the ball with wires and a variety of other things in the open space before them. They assembled a sort of wagon, with a squarish body taken from one machine and a pair of the belt-like tracks from another, and various other parts from their pile. When they had finished, Pete touched something inside a small shell at the front of the box.
There was a quiet whir, and Pete said, “Okay, Frisky, see if it does what you tell it to.”
Frisky’s eye flashed and fluttered, and the wagon crawled forward a ways, turned around and came back to where it started, its tracks leaving scrapes on the broken pavement. Heath guessed that it worked the way it was supposed to, because they commenced to loading their collection of parts into the wagon’s square body.
As they settled in to rest, Pete came over to Trevor, with Frisky close by his side.
“Hey Mister Trevor.”
“Hello, Pete,” the gunslinger said, as he settled himself next to his sister.
“How are you feeling, dear?” Lily asked.
“I’m good, Aunt Lily,” the boy responded with a grin. “Me and Frisky are collecting stuff.”
“That’s good, dear. I’m sure it will all be very useful.”
“Yep. Frisky says we can make lots of things to help us.” He turned back to Trevor. “Mister Trevor, do you want that mech?”
Trevor frowned. “What?”
“That mech. The one on your arm. Frisky says it’s a good one, and we could use it to make other good stuff.”
Trevor held up the spider. “You mean this? Oh, no, Pete. I’ve no use for it. You may have it, with my compliments, if only you can get it off.”
With eye-flashes and squeaks that only Pete could understand, Frisky told him how to open the shell of the critter and unlock its legs, one by one, so that the thing could be removed. They took it away and took it apart.
After that, Trevor used one of those knots of his to heal the nasty wound the thing had made in his forearm, and they all settled in to rest.
When they resumed their northward trek the next morning, they had a new scout, and their little boy was bigger inside, as well as out.