The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|“Trevorus? Is it truly you?” The old man stepped forward and pulled Trevor into an embrace. With his back turned to her, Sally couldn’t see his face, but the look on the gunslinger’s was one for the history books. Anger, joy, pain and fear chased each other around his handsome, if dirty, features. “I cannot believe it. How did… Wait. You mentioned your sister. Liliana? Where is she?”
“This way, quickly.”
Trevor turned and led his father over to where the body of Huey Breaf lay, looking deader than ever.
“What in the universe…? First the boy, and now… This is Liliana?”
“Father, it’s a very long story, and I would love to tell it to you, but for now, please, Lily’s spirit is housed within the form of this revenant, and she is fast slipping away.”
“Of course.” The white-haired man knelt beside the corpse and wove a complicated knot of blue light. He let it sink into the body, and shuddered with whatever he received from it. Gently, he laid a hand on the chest and the other on the forehead. He closed his eyes and murmured a constant flow of what sounded to Sally like babble, as the blue energy flowed from him to the revenant.
At last, he broke the connection and sat back on his heels, breathing deeply. When he opened his eyes, the sadness in them had grown deeper.
“Ah, Liliana… how you have suffered.”
“Myrddin lives, father.”
“So… we failed.”
“So have we, thus far, at least.” Trevor looked down at the sleeping face of the dead man in whom his sister lived. “Will she survive?”
“For the moment. We must get her up to the castle, quickly. Morgana was always a better hand with revenants than I.”
“Mother is here, too, then?”
“Yes, my boy. It seems we both have tales to tell.” He got to his feet. “Come. Let’s go and tell them in a friendlier place.”
Frisky and Pete had been hard at work on the mech-wagon. Using parts from the General and the other dead mechs, they had the little transport up and running. Trevor lifted Lily’s unconscious form and placed it gently atop the wagon’s box.
“I’ll get up there and ride with her, to make sure she doesn’t fall off,” Sally offered. She climbed up and settled in next to her friend. She was still mad as hell at her, but they could deal with that later, after they were all safely home again and that damned Myrddin had been put down once and for all.
The ride was bumpy but uneventful. It was a good thing that Sally had decided to ride with Lily, though, or she would have fallen on several occasions on the journey up through the narrow, zigzagging cleft in the rock. The darkness was pushed back a bit by the ball of soft, warm orange light that floated about in the air above them, illuminating the path ahead. Trevor’s father had conjured it for them. The beauty of the thing fascinated Sally. She watched it gamboling above her head, and thought how envious she was of these wizards. She wished she could do some of the things they could do.
But the beautiful mage-light could not keep her attention as they came around the final bend in the path and the granite slope slid aside like a curtain to reveal the most wonderful building she had ever seen.
Heath stopped with a gasp. “It’s the same.”
“What?” she asked.
“It’s the same damn castle as Myrddin’s,” he answered. “’Ceptin’ for the color, anyways. His’n was black as coal.”
It was a grand castle of creamy white stone with conical-roofed towers that had iron rods atop their points, and tall, narrow windows beneath gables. Balconies girdled several of them. The towers thrust up into the sky from a central keep with outthrust ramparts that had crenellated top edges, where defenders could stand and shoot at attacking soldiers. There were no defenders there now, though. What she saw were mechs, dozens of them, climbing all over the castle. It looked as though they were cleaning the stone. Here and there, she saw more mech crews actually repairing damage, probably from the sandstorm a couple of days earlier.
Around the keep was a thick wall with towers of its own, spaced evenly all around. There were square ones at the corners that had more crenellated ramparts, and a big, fat round one at the front with a witch’s hat roof like the slimmer ones higher up. In the base of this tower was a tall, arched entryway with doors thrown open wide, drawbridge lowered, and a heavy, spike-bottomed iron portcullis hanging down like fangs inside the peak of the arch.
Despite this toothy opening, the castle looked safe and inviting to her. As she rode across the drawbridge, the deep chasm below meant nothing to her but more safety. When she entered the maw of the gateway, passed through the bastion and emerged into the bailey, a great heaviness lifted from her, and she breathed a deep, cleansing breath.
Behind her, the portcullis ratcheted down until its fangs planted firmly into the sockets meant to receive them, the heavy gates, both inner and outer, closed with a resounding boom, and she could hear the chains of the drawbridge’s winch pulling it up against the outer wall, to form yet another heavy barrier to entry. They were as safe as it was possible to be in this strange world, of that she was certain.
Trevor and Heath took Lily from the roof of the wagon, while Sally climbed down to stand on the cobblestone pavement. As soon as she was clear, Frisky directed a crew of the castle mechs in unloading and carting the salvaged parts away; she assumed they were bound for some workshop somewhere.
She went over to where Pete stood, his head tilted back as far as it could go, staring up at the tall castle towers.
“Mommy… it’s so tall! I’ve never seen anything like it before. Not even in Denver!”
She put her arm around his shoulders, and gave him a squeeze. “Pete, honey, I don’t think there’s anything like this in the whole United States of America.”
Pete’s eyes were drawn to the pointed archway that was the entrance of the main keep, where someone had just opened the polished, many-paneled wooden door and stepped out onto the wide steps of creamy marble to meet the men carrying the unconscious revenant.
She was tall and strong; her hair was long, deep black, and bound at the nape of her neck with an intricately wrought band of pearls that matched the wide necklace that lay across her breast. Her dress had a bodice of deepest blue, and its gauzy skirts swept the marble around her slipper-clad feet. Her cheeks were high and slightly flushed with pink, while the remainder of her skin was alabaster white. Her eyes… her eyes were orbs of solid white that matched perfectly the pearls she wore.
“Merlin?” She stepped further out and Merlinus Ambrosius hurried up the steps to her.
“Morgana, my love,” he said, as he took her hands in his and kissed her cheek, “I have the most incredible news, but it is of mixed character. Our children have come to visit!”
Trevor and Heath had reached the steps with their burden, and Trevor spoke. “Mother, you are as beautiful as my memories of you.”
The woman drew in a gasp of recognition, and Merlin led her down the steps, where her hands reached out for her son, slid over his chest, his shoulders, his throat, and gently traced the contours of his features. After she had thoroughly explored his face, Morgana LeFey Ambrosius embraced her son and wept.
But she quickly stemmed the flow of tears. “Merlin, you said your news was of mixed character. If this is the good, what then, is the bad? Liliana?”
“Aye, love. Our daughter is here in spirit at least. She is trapped within this revenant. I have not yet heard the full story, but we must wait for that until you have examined her and done what you can to stabilize her condition.”
Morgana found Lily in the arms of her brother, and touched her lightly for only a moment.
“There is no time to lose. Bring her inside.”
* * *
He couldn't stop staring at his mother's eyes. Instead of the deep, almost midnight blue he remembered, a color brought back clearly to his mind by the velvet bodice of her dress, they were orbs of iridescent nacre, like living pearls nestled behind her eyelids. That she was blind was evident, but how had it come to pass? Father seemed to be hale enough, perhaps even stronger than he was in the days of Trevor's youth. Had she been thus afflicted when the battle with Myrddin had gone awry?
She stood beside the bed where Lily's revenant body lay insensate, her hands gently resting on its chest and forehead. Tiny drops of perspiration beaded her brow. Were it not for the small vertical crease between her eyebrows, one might not notice that she was frowning with the effort she was expending on the attempt to preserve her daughter's life, for her skin was so smooth. In fact, she looked to Trevor to be not a single day older than she had been on the last day of their lives together.
A little gasp escaped her lips. Her voice no more than a whisper, she called out to his father. "Merlin, come. Lend me your strength. I fear I am losing her."
Merlinus stepped up to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. The azure glow that surrounded Morgana spread to envelop him as well. The crease between her brows grew a bit more pronounced as she concentrated more intently.
"This body..." her voice was so low that Trevor could barely make out what she was saying. He didn't think she was speaking to be heard, anyway. "The power Myrddin invested has been almost totally consumed. The dead tissues are nearly all inert once more. Just a small pocket deep inside the brain is all that is left. It is there that her spirit strives to hang on."
"Can you not," asked Merlin, "simply cast a new dead-raising spell?"
"Ordinarily, that would be simple," she whispered distractedly. "But the new spell would wipe out the dependent spirit within, and the new revenant would be the mindless thing that raised corpses usually are. Lily would be gone."
"What?" Trevor's startled reply, though it was voiced quietly, sounded almost as loud as a shout by comparison. He didn't care. "But then, what can be done to save her?"
"While she remains inside this man's body," she said, and he had to strain to hear her, "nothing."
"No," he gasped. "She cannot die, Mother. Her body awaits her back in the other world. Together we can heal Myrddin's poison, I know it."
"This body can no longer hold her spirit, my son."
"Then let my body hold it," he said in desperation. She must not die because of his failure to believe in her. "I shall kill myself this very moment. Give my body to Lily."
Merlin lifted his hand from Morgana's shoulder, and the glow around him winked out. "Nonsense. No one will be killing themselves. I have an idea; one that may save your sister without the need for further death." he asked Morgana: "Can you hold her for a bit longer, my dear?"
She nodded once. "Now that you have bolstered my strength, yes. But not for long."
"Trevor, come with me, quickly." Merlin turned and strode out of the room, gesturing to Frisky as he went. The mech skittered along after the wizard, and Pete, his constant companion, accompanied him. Leaving Sally with Morgana and Lily, Heath trotted after his son. Trevor followed them all. They traversed several hallways, the first of which he recognized as the wing where their quarters had been when they were children, descended an equal number of staircases, and then followed a winding passage that led down, always down, to the deepest rooms in the castle: the Earthfont complex.
"The entire castle was transported here," Merlin said, as he walked at speed through the passage, "after the Power inversion, a sort of short-circuit, to use the parlance of the mechs, caused by our plunge into the Earthblood while fully empowered and engaged with the attacking energy of Myrddin himself. We believe that it sits on the exact same spot, here in the exiles' world."
"What makes you think that?" He and Lily had come up with the same answer back in the desert, but he wanted to hear his father's reasoning. They were in search of evidence, after all.
"Except for the lack of any life beyond the mechanical service mechs you've already met, the landscape is as it was, Trevor. The Earthfont sits in exactly the same place, though it is far weaker than our own. We believe that the castle was transported across the same 'trail' through the dimensional barrier that was blazed by the Schism itself."
"The entire castle? Incredible."
"I agree, son. The dimensional barrier has always been something that only the Nixies have been able to cross." They emerged into the Earthfont chamber, turned right and began to follow the curving silver wall around the edge of the bubbling pool of lava in the chamber's center. "But I believe that the massive Schism spell, cast with the use of Nixie magic, has created a slightly more permeable membrane between these two particular planes of existence." He stopped in front of another corridor leading off from the Earthfont chamber, and whispered some instructions to Frisky, who squealed excitedly and, with Pete in tow, immediately scurried off further along the curving wall and turned into yet another passage. Merlin led Trevor and Heath into the passage in front of which he had paused, and increased his pace. "In fact, I believe that the Elders anticipated this, and took steps to prevent the mortals from taking advantage of it, with an enhancement that specifically bars non-magical folk from crossing. Which, we think, is why," he paused as he reached a door, and grasped its handle, "this happened."
He opened the door and led them into a small, dark chamber lit only by the strange container positioned at its center.
“What in Sam Hill is that?” Heath blurted, and then flashed Trevor an embarrassed look and fell silent once more. He gave the sheriff a little shrug and turned his eyes back to the thing they were approaching.
It was glass, or appeared to be, though its transparent surface had a shimmering quality, as if it were underwater, reflecting the movement of light passing through the undulating waves on the surface above it. Its shape was rectangular, like an aquarium, or perhaps a crystal coffin out of some fairy tale.
Within it, however, was no beautiful princess, trapped in some sorcerous slumber. Its form was vaguely human, most of the time, at least, though it seemed to flow into other approximations of living creatures – a deer, a wolf, a rabbit, a bear, among others, all in their natural attitudes of repose – and slip back to its more human shape between each.
Its shapes were the aspect most like anything alive, however, for it was composed entirely of what looked to be the very stuff of magic: the power-charged lava the Faerie-folk called Earthblood.
“As you may recall, Trevorus,” his father continued, as they approached the containment unit, “when we were preparing to remain behind while the rest of our magical brethren went into exile, we staffed the castle with servants hired from the mundane folk of the village. They served us well, most of them, but when Myrddin breached our defenses, they all abandoned the castle and left us to our fate. All of them but one.”
“Do you mean,” Trevor’s heartbeat sped and his breath came in short, rapid gasps as he realized what his father was saying, “that this… thing… is Frau Golden?”
“When your mother and I pulled ourselves back out of the Earthfont, we were both not only unharmed, but energized to a degree that we had never before experienced; so much so, that we failed to notice certain differences in the Earthfont itself. We felt strong, son, and it seemed that Myrddin had been completely eradicated. We could find no trace of him or of his dark magic. We thought we had won.”
He stood silent for a moment, staring at the amorphous thing in the container. “It wasn’t long before we found that our victory, as we thought it, had not come without a price. We went outside to retrieve you and your sister from the nearby mountaintop, only to discover that all life around the castle seemed to have been eradicated along with Myrddin.
“We could not understand what had happened. Riding my favorite stallion, Brightspeed, I went out to scout the vicinity, hoping to find that the damage was confined to the area immediately around the castle. Morgana went back inside to look for clues at the Earthfont itself.
“I discovered the desert and the ruined city situated exactly where the village had been. I was quite mystified; the buildings were not at all consistent with what I knew to be the construction methods and materials used by our liegemen. I was on my knees examining a metal artifact, a fascinating hinged rectangle with an array of lettered buttons within, when the feral mechs attacked. They killed Brightspeed before I could react; he was overwhelmed by a swarm of them with a speed and suddenness that I could not believe. I quickly found that chéis a déenlos was effective against them. Many were in total disarray, but others were quite well organized and determined to take me, despite my ability to blast them to bits.
“It took me a long time to return, for I was forced to walk and fight off attacks the entire way. The nature of the attacks, and their coordination, led me to understand that they were being directed by a single intelligence, but I did not discover its identity until I befriended one of them.”
“Let me guess: Frisky.”
“What? Oh, is that what the boy calls it? An apt enough name, I suppose. I simply refer to it as Number One. I was finally convinced that we were no longer in the world where we had been, but I had no idea where we were, or by what mechanism we had arrived here.”
A hitherto invisible door opened across the chamber, and Frisky entered with Little Pete. Pete was pushing a wheeled gurney on which lay what Trevor could only describe as a suit of armor, cast in the shape of a woman’s body, and in such detail as to cause Heath to avert his eyes. Trevor glanced at him with a smile, and then returned his eyes to the armor. If the body was wrought with exquisite detail, the same could not be said of the face. It possessed a pair of the glass eye-lights that the mechs used, and a disc-shaped panel with a sieve-like screen where the mouth would have been. Wide, shallow cones on ball-joints were mounted on either side of the head, where the ears of a person would have been. This, too, was a type of fixture he had seen on mechs.
“When I arrived back at the castle, I found that Morgana had discovered another casualty of our imagined victory over Myrddin.” He indicated the continually morphing lava sculpture in the container. “She had barely re-entered the Main Hall when she discovered this thing, running mindlessly to and fro, and, putty-like, bashing itself flat against the walls. Then rebounding, it morphed into another shape, say a deer, and ran four-legged headlong into the opposite wall, where it was smashed flat again, only to rebound into another shape, a bull, say, and run back across the room for another crash.
“Morgana tried to stop it, to contain it inside a shield, but the power of the thing was incredible. It smashed her shield as if it were a champagne flute. The power backlash knocked Morgana senseless. It was in that condition that I discovered her.”
“Was that how she…” Trevor hesitated, hating to voice the fact, “was blinded?”
“No, my boy,” said Merlin, “as I said, she was merely stunned. I revived her, and together we went hunting the creature.” He spoke to Frisky, “Number One, transfer the morphling, please.”
The little mech scurried away and began drawing hoses about, connecting them to receptacles in the base of the container, and in the side of the suit’s torso. It manipulated some controls on the suit and Trevor heard a soft hum. The substance of the morphling began to drain out of the container, apparently being pumped into the suit.
“We found it in the castle kitchens, still bouncing about, but in there it was inadvertently destroying cooking vessels and implements with every collision. It took the both of us, even with our enhanced abilities, to construct a shield capable of containing it.
“We brought it here, near the Earthfont, so that we could draw directly upon its power to maintain the containment. When we had tied off the weaves, Morgana insisted on trying to Heal, or at least to diagnose the cause of the poor thing’s obvious suffering.
“I had my reservations, what with the power it displayed, but finally I agreed, and lent my strength to bolster her weave. At first she sensed nothing but a torrent of pure energy seething inside the constantly changing shape, but then, she touched a familiar presence. Being linked with her, I caught some sense of what she saw, and even I was aghast. It was Trudi Golden, or some remnant of her spirit, but there seemed to be only raw emotion, without any mind to regulate it. Horror, rage, guilt, all of the things she must have been feeling most strongly at the moment of the Earthfont’s power inversion.
“The instant we recognized her, some base instinct must have noticed our presence and lashed out with all the power the morphling possessed. The backlash seared into us, but Morgana bore the brunt of it. Her eyes were destroyed, burned completely from their sockets. I fashioned the pearls that now fill the holes in her face, more to soothe my own horror than to provide her any real service.”
“Oh, father… I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Your mother enjoys realms of vision that we cannot know. She doesn’t need me to lead her about, you know. That’s simply my own need to serve her. She can sense the world around us far better than I can. If anything, her Healing sight is better now than it ever was before. Which is a damned good thing, considering.”
“Considering what, father?” The last of the lava creature oozed into a drain-like orifice at the base of the containment unit that had previously been hidden by its bulk. Frisky tapped another set of controls, and then he and Pete disconnected the hoses.
“Isn’t it obvious? That thing is the only creature available here, either living or dead, that does not, as far as we can tell, already have a controlling spirit inside.” The boy and his mech friend wheeled the gurney toward the door by which Trevor and Merlin had entered. They turned away from the now-empty containment unit and followed. “To save our Lily, we must try to place her spirit into the Morphling.”