The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Sally watched the thing - Heath said it looked like a crab, but she thought it was more like a spider - that her son had named Frisky. It crawled around fast as lightning, its eight legs kicking up sand, while Pete laughed and shuffled along across the dunes. The thing gave her the creeping willies. Pete claimed that it had saved him from the other ‘toys’, as he called them, especially the Big Bad Toy, the one that had been sitting on the path near him. He said that the Big Bad Toy would have eaten him if it hadn’t been for Frisky. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to trust it.
She had to admit that Frisky and Pete had been real helpful so far as scouts. They found the easiest paths through the dunes, always avoiding the deep ruts that scarred the desert across their path and directing them to those best suited to their needs.
Pete was happier than he’d been since before Trevor Ambrosius walked through their door. He seemed to be able to talk to the thing, and it to him. He understood its squeaks and squeals, and it seemed to understand everything that he said to it, even though the rest of them could barely get it to acknowledge their existence. Except maybe by drawing a gun and pointing it in the thing’s direction. It understood that, right enough. Nobody had threatened it since Trevor had done when it first woke up after Pete brought it back to life.
Sally wondered why she disliked the thing so much. Was it that she really thought it was a danger to her son? Or was it because she was jealous of how he didn’t seem to need her as much now that it was around? She hated to think that she would begrudge her son a good friend just because she had to share his attention with him… it.
Grumbling to herself - out of the corner of her eye, she saw Heath give her a look - she lifted her gaze to the mountain range on the northern horizon, beyond the ranks of rolling dunes. They had been sitting there since they had topped a rise around mid-morning. Apparently that was where they were headed. They had better find a supply of fresh water soon, though, or they would be dropping dead before they ever left this desert.
Not that it was all that hot. She had figured that a place like this would be scorching hot, like Death Valley, but except for the fact that there wasn’t a living thing anywhere - well, other than the machines they had encountered in the ruined city, if you could count them as living - the place was about the same as Rattler’s Fang. The temperature was warm, but not stifling, and the air was dry, not sticky with humidity. She and Heath and Trevor were suffering, though. They needed water. The revenant bodies that Lily and Pete were in apparently didn’t need food or drink. Lily had made a comment about how their appetites were similar to the machines’. Sally didn’t know what she meant, for sure, but it didn’t sound too good.
Pete had asked Frisky to find water for us, and the little creature had blinked, squealed and skittered around in circles for a minute, then took off like a shot over the dunes. Sally thought Pete would start crying when the thing left so fast, but he didn’t. He just started walking in the same direction. Since that direction was north, the rest of them had no problem with following.
An hour or so later, Frisky had returned, as fast as he had left. He ran around Pete’s feet a few times, squealing excitedly.
“Frisky found water,” said Pete. “He wants us to follow him.” And so they had followed. And followed. And then followed some more. Now, her feet were tired, her mouth was parched, there was still no water anywhere in sight, and she hated that little mechanical spider with every strand of her heart.
“Pete,” she croaked, “is the water very much farther?”
“I don’t know, Mommy,” the big revenant answered in its coarse, husky voice. “I’ll ask Frisky.”
He didn’t ask the spider out loud, he just looked at its white eye-light for a minute, and the thing started squealing. When it was done, Pete turned back to her and said, “We’re almost there, Mommy. Just a little bit farther.”
“You know, Sal,” Heath said, a wry grin on his face, “you kinda sound like Little Pete did on our last trip down to Denver.”
Sally was too miffed to reply, but she had been thinking the same thing herself. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? She walked on in silence, mortified.
True to his word, they reached the stream a short time later. The bank, however, was covered with the tracks of various sorts of machines: wheel ruts, the parallel waffled stripes left by tracks, and various kinds of footprints.
“Do you figure these were made by the herd of mechs we’ve already met,” asked Heath of nobody in particular, but everyone in general, “or are there more of the damn things waiting to ambush us up ahead somewhere?”
Nobody had an answer for him, but Pete said, “Frisky says there’s lots of mechs out here in the wild, Daddy, but most of ‘em is running out of juice.”
“Oh,” Sally put in, “so they’re all nice and hungry. Well, good, then. That’s real good.” Pete, who wasn’t much for sarcasm yet, just nodded and smiled.
The water was clean and cold, but it tasted flat, lifeless, just like everything else in this world. Pete told them that this stream ran down from the mountains, and so they could follow it the rest of the way. That was good, since they didn’t have anything to carry water in.
After a short break for a drink and a nibble on some hard tack - in neither of which the revenants shared - they continued on upstream. The sun was about to set by the time they reached the foothills.
The mountains rose steeply before them. The stream emerged from a valley somewhere above, pouring over a series of sharp cliffs and tumbling down a slope over and around a jumble of scree, to empty into a deep basin, on the shore of which they stood.
Frisky went wild, running around more quickly and squealing louder and even more shrilly than usual. He went to Pete, shined his light into Pete’s eyes, flashing and blinking, squeaking and stuttering, and then abruptly turned and sped off upslope.
Annoyed by the antics of the little spider, Sally asked grumpily, “Where is he off to?”
Little Pete shrugged and smiled his sweet smile, which, unbelievably, Sally was beginning to get used to on the dead man’s face. “He says we’re almost home. He went to tell his Daddy we’re coming.”
Pete headed up the slope after Frisky, and as had become their habit, they followed after him.
Trevor came up beside her and said, “Do you know what he’s talking about? Who is Frisky’s Daddy?”
“I’m sure I don’t have the faintest notion, Mr. Ambrosius,” she replied irritably. “I suppose we’re about to meet Daddy Long Legs and all the other little spiders.”
“I was only asking,” said the gunslinger, and veered off toward the safety of his sister. Heath replaced him, and took her hand in his. Wisely, he kept quiet.
* * *
Lily trudged up the slope, working her way through the jumble of rocks toward the first of the cliff edges on the way to the deep canyon from which the stream flowed. The sound of falling water and the resulting mist in the air was rather refreshing for the living members of their party, though it did little for Lily.
She didn’t say anything to Trevor, because she didn’t want to worry him, but her body was deteriorating rapidly. The pathways that carried her commands to its limbs were becoming more resistant to the messages she sent, and so each movement required more energy to execute. The reserve of spell energy left over from Myrddin’s original dead-raising was almost depleted; all of the maintenance of the body was left to her, and the trickle of Earthpower she received was insufficient to the task. This body would not long remain capable of containing her spirit.
Soon, she would die.
“Pete?” Sally spoke to her son, who was leading them all, since his ability to communicate with the little machine allowed him to know where he was going. “Are you all right, honey?”
“Yes, Mommy,” Little Pete replied, though his voice was faint, and tinged with annoyance. It sounded to Lily as if the boy was cranky. “I’m all right.”
Little Pete, too, was flagging. His movements were rapidly becoming more sluggish. He, of course, did not know what was happening to him. No doubt it felt as if he were merely tired, but like most children his age, he would never admit such a thing. Heath and Sally, though, had the parental instinct; they could tell their boy was struggling to keep going. They both moved in close to him, to be there if he needed help. Their closeness touched Lily, and sparked regret in her for the boy’s namesake, her own dear Peter, and for things that never were, but might have been.
For Pete’s sake more than her own, Lily hoped that they would find help up ahead.
The power source that she had detected back at their arrival point was much stronger, now that they were so close. She had some small hope of tapping into it somehow, reinforcing her hold on this body, and Little Pete’s hold upon his. If they did not reach their destination soon, however, it would be too late.
Little Pete was not the only one who had assistance from loved ones. Trevor was at her side, his hand on her elbow, helping her to negotiate the more difficult sections of their ascent. Her numb foot slipped on a wet rock and she would have fallen, perhaps tumbled down the slope who knew how far, but her brother was there, his sure hand supporting her, as he had done throughout their lives before coming to America. He felt badly, she knew, about their estrangement since St. Louis, but he did not understand. She did not begrudge him his desire to live a more normal life; in fact, she shared it. Had she not been so certain of Myrddin’s continued existence, she would have done the same. But her need to follow her instincts had led her to Rattler’s Fang, and there she had met the love of her life. She could not regret that, even in the face of all the suffering she now underwent.
The thought of her love brought Lily’s mind back to her worry: did Peter escape from the labyrinth? Was his spirit safe now in the afterlife? Whatever awaited mortals beyond the veil of death, she knew that for a soul of Peter’s quality, it must be far preferable than to be trapped eternally in her spell.
And what of Myrddin? Had she been successful in exchanging his spirit for Peter’s? Or was he still free, and even now moving to conquer her home world? She had much to live for, if only to satisfy her curiosity. She certainly did not want to die here, in another plane of existence, without even knowing the fate of her own.
She resolved that she would simply not die. And if she did not, then neither would Little Pete. This resolve strengthened her stride, and she moved just a little faster up the mountain.
They followed a narrow path up the even steeper ascent beyond the slope of scree, zigzagging through switchbacks across the face of the slope. It was a longer, but less difficult route. At last they crested the cliff and looked back into a shadowed valley that ran up between two tall peaks. It was nearly dark now, and they were forced to stop and prepare camp.
Little Pete took the artificial campfire that Frisky made out of the mech-wagon that had been following them all day. He set it up near the bank of the stream, and they all settled in to soak up its warmth. Of Frisky himself there was no sign. Pete stood looking up the valley for a very long time before finally coming to sit with the rest of them.
Trevor passed around the jerky and hard tack, and the three living people nibbled distractedly at their shares. Lily watched them eat, and schooled herself to indifference. She did not want to think about the only alternative source of power open to her revenant body. She glanced at Little Pete, who, even though he had joined them by the fire, was still looking off into the darkness up the valley. She was glad that he was so distracted, or despite the seemingly stronger connection he had with the local Eartheart, his own hunger might cause him to betray the secret she kept in order to allay the fears of the others, especially Heath and Sally.
If they knew that she and Pete could energize their revenant bodies by consuming living flesh, who knew what sorts of difficulties might arise?
“Do you think we ought to set a watch?” Sally looked around at each of them. “There sure were a lot of tracks back at the stream bank. I’ve been feeling electric eyes on me all day long.”
Trevor was already flat on his back, his bowler hat down over his eyes. His chest rose and fell in a slow, steady rhythm. Heath unbent his long legs and started to get up, but Lily forestalled him.
“No, no, Heath. You need your rest. Little Pete and I will keep the watch, won’t we, dear?” Pete just kept looking up into the dark valley. “He wants to keep a watch out for Frisky anyway,” she said to his parents. “Please, get some rest.”
“All right, then, Miss Lily,” said Heath. “If you’re sure.”
“Of course, dear,” she said, smiling. “Don’t worry; if I see eyes in the darkness, you will be among the first to know.”
Since Pete had his eyes glued uphill, Lily got up and strolled down along the bank of the stream until she could look out over the wasteland they had traversed. The moon was rising in the east; its cool, bluish light painted the wrinkled vista of dunes, making it look, through the milky haze of cataracts on the eyes of her dead host, like a bolt of cloth rolled carelessly across the sewing table of the gods. She sat down on a large, relatively smooth rock beside the stream, and gazed at the wide horizon, her mind a world away.
She failed to notice that, closer in, on the slope of broken rock below her, a swarm of candle-like points of light were moving slowly upward.