The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Little Pete missed Frisky. He wondered what his friend was doing out there in the dark. He was scared for him, but he knew that Frisky wasn’t afraid. It was never dark for him. He had a lantern built right into his eyes!
He had learned a real lot since he and Frisky became friends. The mech-toy was really alive, and it taught him all about how ‘lectricity worked to give things power, and how machines could be built to do just about anything you wanted them to. He could do lots of stuff now that he didn’t even know about yesterday. He never knew there was so much to know!
If only he wasn’t so tired… He felt like he needed to pull more energy from the power place all the time, just to stay where he was. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to keep going for much longer, and that made him sad, ‘cause he wanted to play with his friend forever and ever.
For the first time in his life, Little Pete couldn’t turn to Mommy and Daddy for help. They couldn’t help him; he knew more about what was happening here in this strange world than they did, and that scared him, too.
Plus, whenever he got close to them or Mister Trevor now, he felt like biting them! He had visions of eating them all up! That thought made him hungry, and the hunger made him sick. How could he even think of stuff like that?
When Frisky wasn’t around, like now, he felt like crying every single minute. He looked at his hands; they were turning black, and the skin was breaking open at all of the joints. He stank worse than ever, and so did Mister Breaf, who he now understood was somehow Aunt Lily, and that Aunt Lily had been pretending to be Frisky. They were both stuck inside some awful dead bodies! He was a monster!
He knew too much, and it was all way too scary. He wished he was home in his own bed, with the blankets pulled up over his head, and the only smells were the fire in the hearth, the leftover smells of the good dinner he and his family had just eaten, and his own clean body. He wished that the only things he knew about were the games he liked to play around the farm, and the foods he liked, and the ones he didn’t, and the sureness that every single night his Daddy would come home from town and they would all be together and safe in their own home.
He wished Frisky would come back.
The valley up the slope was dark and silent but for the burbling noise of the stream. The magic campfire that Frisky made for them was warm, but Pete couldn’t feel it. He was getting more and more numb all the time. He knew so much more than he did, but it was getting harder and harder to think, too.
This whole adventure that the first Frisky, his Aunt Lily, had taken him on was way too scary. He wanted to go home. But he wanted his new friend to go with him.
That would be real nice, he thought. Frisky would just love his house! They could play hide and go seek all around the farm, and they could have the smithy to build their mechs and stuff in. Mommy and Daddy would love all the things they could do to help around the farm. Frisky would be one of the family. He sure wished they could all go back there right now.
He was thinking up new games to play with Frisky when they went to the Piebald with Mommy, when Mister Breaf- Aunt Lily- cried out.
“Attack! We are attacked!”
Little Pete spun around. A whole army of the mean toys was swarming over the cliff-edge. Aunt Lily was running back toward them, trying to weave her little knot of blue light, but she couldn’t seem to make the light stay on long enough to do it.
Mommy and Daddy and Mister Trevor were up in a flash and shooting at the things, but there were so many of them! They were hitting lots of them, but this time, the mechs had learned their lesson. They didn’t stop to eat their friends; they just kept coming.
Pete ran to the mech-wagon and popped open the lid. He rummaged inside it until he found a power cell and some other parts. He set to work as fast as his numb fingers would let him. He scolded himself for daydreaming the way he was. Frisky had told him what to do in case more mechs came, and he had been too busy feeling sorry for himself to do it. Now, he had to work fast, or they might all be mech-fuel.
He just hoped he could remember what Frisky had said.
* * *
Lily went down beneath a machine with foreleg pincers and hind legs like a frog’s that hopped thirty feet from the cliff’s edge. While running to her at top speed, Trevor put a silver bullet through its thorax, and its red eyes went dark. He gained her side and ripped the inert mech off of her back and heaved its heavy metal carcass at a thing with a dozen or so squid-like metal tentacles. They collided with a satisfying crash. Trevor drew his guns and began firing again, as Sally and Heath came up to join him.
“Where’s Pete?” he yelled. Trevor didn’t want to lose track of the boy again.
“He’s back by that wagon, fiddlin’ with something,” Heath answered without pausing in his methodical aiming and firing. Trevor had shared out the remainder of the ammunition from his saddlebags after the last battle. They were making every bullet count; when these were gone, there would be no more.
The swarm of metal monsters was flowing up over the cliff’s edge, and filled their little valley from side to side. Luckily, the sides were steep enough that the things could only come at them from one direction this time. The last attack had been a full-blown every-mech-for-itself sort of attack, with no real organized plan other than to overwhelm them from all sides with superior numbers.
This time, they seemed far more coordinated. Yes, there was the usual wave of cannon fodder that came at them, forcing them to expend their ammunition, but there was also an identical pair of spider-like mechs that stood off, one to either side of the cliff, watching. Trevor was convinced that these two were directing the movements of the others. On the basis of that hunch, he took aim at the one on the right and fired. His shot knocked it over the edge.
As if suddenly deprived of volition, half of the swarm stopped dead in its tracks. A moment later, the others stopped, too. With a few deft moves, Trevor took the opportunity to reload. When he was finished, the others followed his example. Then they stood staring at the army of machines arrayed before them, their multicolored eye-lights gleaming in the gloom. There was movement at the rear; the last of them appeared over the cliff edge, joined ranks with the rest, and fell motionless. The stillness was complete, with the exception of a few salvage mechs dragging their dead and disabled off to be disassembled.
It seemed that his guess had been proven correct. He looked for the other controller, but it had ducked behind a rock. That one, at least, knew its danger.
Lily came up beside him. “Thank you, brother, for saving my life. Again.”
“Think nothing of it, sis. Do you think you could repeat your little trick from last time?”
“I cannot. This body is wearing out, I’m afraid.”
“Can you teach me the weave? It’s a variation of the lightning spell, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. I have decided to call it the Lodestone. I may be able to talk you through it, if the machines allow us enough of a respite.”
At that moment, a steel talon reached up over the cliff edge and dug its sharp, pointed tip into the granite like a pickaxe into soft lime. A moment later, a second appeared and followed suit. Then a third appeared to their left, and a fourth to their right, and a huge, metal body slowly hove into view, pushed from behind by four more of the deadly-looking appendages. The mech had legs like a spider, and a body that was plated on the front with what looked to be thick, most likely bulletproof, steel. It had several of the sunlight-gathering plates they had seen on others, but, since it was dark, these were retracted onto the rear of its shell. Several devices of various sizes and shapes adorned its body, and a couple of craters of approximately the same size indented the upper left and right surfaces of its shell. The purpose of these became clear as the second control-spider suddenly dashed out of hiding and leaped aboard the big one, then settled into the crater nearest it, tucking its legs beneath it. The crater on the opposite side, obviously, would have received its twin, the one Trevor had shot. The parent-thing was the size of an ox; its eyes were red, and peered out from within a protective compartment with slits that ran around the entire circumference of its flattened spheroid body. At its very top, in a specially adapted cradle, sat a six-wheeled mech with a nest of wires and swiveling eye-lights on top. It was the very mech that Little Pete had fought; the one he had called the Big Bad Toy. Rumors of its death had apparently been somewhat exaggerated. Its multiple eyes looked quite malevolent.
Its two manipulators were socketed into the giant mech’s shell. As they watched, hatches opened along the shell’s outermost edge, to either side of the front armor plating, and long, many-jointed hands emerged, followed by long arms with universal joints every two feet or so. When they had fully appeared, Trevor estimated their length at around ten feet. It grasped one of the smaller spider-legged mechs in its left hand and held it pinned to the ground. Its struggles were beneath the big mech’s notice. The fingers of the hands were tipped with bulbous pods. Each pod on the right hand opened to reveal a different kind of implement for battle or siege work: a cutting torch quickly severed one of the trapped mech’s legs, a saw with a spinning circular blade severed a second just as quickly, a chisel that moved in a reciprocating fashion so fast that it blurred plunged into the little mech’s hard steel body, to the staccato pounding of metal on metal. Its struggles ceased, and the Big Bad Toy tossed it back over the cliff. There were other tools it hadn’t used, too, with functions that Trevor could not identify, but that looked wickedly effective nonetheless. This was a machine built for war. It controlled all of the others in this army.
“It looks like the General has arrived,” he murmured to Lily. She didn’t respond; she was looking back at Little Pete, who sat on the ground next to the mech-wagon, the parts in his hands forgotten as he stared at the Big Bad Toy. It, too, had risen from the dead.
“Speakin’ of generals,” said Heath, “when Santa Anna rode up to the Alamo, Davy Crockett and the rest of the boys were in a hell of a lot better a position than we are. Any notions on strategy?”
“Well,” Trevor replied thoughtfully, “we can either run like hell up the valley in the dark, or we can shoot up the rest of our ammunition, and then run like hell up the valley in the dark.”
Sally asked the obvious question. “How many shots you got left?”
“Just what’s in my guns,” Trevor said. “You?”
“Another reload after this’n,” she said.
“Me, too,” Heath added.
“Lily? The weave?”
She turned back to him and opened her mouth, but if she spoke, he didn’t hear her over the mech army’s shrill war cries.