Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 22
“Priests. Shoot me now.”
“Madam Director! Madam Director!”
In her sleep, the shouting came from a crowd of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most influential, applauding her as she stood in the deep well of a theater. Notwithstanding Schmidt had brought order to the Ohio by applying the necessary amount of brutality and nothing more, and in that order there had flourished trade and prosperity. She deserved the accolades, as well as her inclusion on the Imperial honors list, and the new building for moral and economic philosophy Harvard was going to name for her.
Schäfer was shouting. He wasn’t touching her, he knew better than that, but he stood over her cot and shouted.
“I’m awake.” Schmidt sat up, throwing aside the wool blanket. The vigorous action, plus the sudden assault of frozen air on her calves, brought her to full wakefulness.
The brazier that had started the night with a merry orange fire now cradled an armful of dusty red embers.
“It’s Dadgayadoh!” Was Schäfer sobbing? In the darkness, she couldn’t see his face.
“What has Dadgayadoh done?” The Haudenosaunee was a dependable man and a hard worker. Schmidt was surprised to hear a complaint, much less a hysterical one. She stepped into cort-du-roy britches, tucking in her long nightshirt and groping in the darkness to find her coat again.
“He’s been killed!”
Schmidt grabbed the brace of loaded pistols from beneath her cot. She had liked to mock her former wizard Luman Walters for sleeping with loaded guns, but only because he thought it kept away evil spirits.
She slept with loaded guns for much more prosaic reasons.
Like the death of one of her better traders.
She pushed through the canvas flaps into the frozen corner of earth bounded by her tent, the Parletts’, and a supply tent, and then into the tent of the three quintuplets. Schäfer followed close on her heels. Had Dadgayadoh died defending an attack on her communication link with Philadelphia?
Dadgayadoh lay on his back, half-covered by furs and wool blankets. He held his hands in front of his eyes, twisted into claws with his fingers forward, as if some beast had leaped on him, attempting to bite his face.
In one hand he held the shredded remains of a beaded Haudenosaunee amulet.
His mouth was open in an expression of fear. There was no blood on him, no sign of any visible injury.
Piled about him like stacked wood were the bodies of Captain Mohuntubby and his soldiers. Schmidt prodded the captain with a pistol grip and was rewarded with a sleeping groan. The soldiers were asleep–ensorcelled? The company trader was dead.
No sign of the Parlett children.
The day before, Dadgayadoh had come to her to report the strange behavior of Robert Hooke, circling the city of Cahokia with wooden crosses. Was this death punishment for his spying?
After sunset, she had noted that mobile corpses shambled along the line of crosses.
“Find Hooke,” she said, but she already guessed where he was. “Get everyone up. Find the Parletts.” She raced out.
Just beyond the edge of her camp glowed a blasphemous light. It was wrong, backward. It was black, and though her eyes saw the black glow where Robert Hooke’s largest cross stood on a low mound of earth, her mind could not quite process it.
She felt as if she were seeing a hole in the world. The fabric of the cosmos had split, and something shining and terrible lay on the other side.
The black light didn’t wake the camp. Or had the camp been spelled into sleep?
Why was she awake?
She cocked the pistols and approached.
“Hooke!” she shouted.
A figure in the black light turned toward her. She heard a sound as it moved, or an anti-sound, in the same way that the darkness was an anti-light. She could make out the pale face and the white, black-rimmed eyes of Robert Hooke, and then she heard his dry laughter in her mind.
I bid thee good morning, Director.
“You killed Dadgayadoh. I’ll have you answer for that.”
He would not sleep, and he tried to stop me. As thou wouldst have done, as even Thomas would have. And I am one who will do the necessary thing.
And thou, Madam Director?
She now saw beyond him. Two of the Parletts stood at the foot of the mound, mouths open in shock, eyes rolling back in their sockets.
She shot the Sorcerer in the chest with both pistols. He staggered and collapsed back against the large cross, but when he stood again he was laughing.
I begin now, foolish woman. Out of charity I warn thee, that if thou steppest on this mound during my operation, thou diest. Nevertheless, do thou as seest fit.
Then Schmidt saw the third Parlett boy. He was naked and tied to the cross, head downward. His mouth was open in the attitude of a scream–
no, all three of them had their mouths open as if to scream.
No, they were screaming. Schmidt couldn’t hear a sound, but they were screaming at the tops of their lungs.
Hooke faced the cross. Schmidt now saw that the cross was the source of the black light, the tear in the cosmos. Come thou, Lord Protector! Hooke shrieked. Manifest and strike down the hopes of thine enemies!
The black light erupted into fire. The flames shot up from the ground in a wall and raced away from the cross in two directions. Schmidt narrowly missed being struck by the fire and she fell back.
She dropped the useless pistols. “Schäfer! Mohuntubby!”
The Cherokee officer stumbled toward her at the head of a ragged file of men. They looked baffled and embarrassed. Schäfer followed.
The wall of black fire curved away from Notwithstanding Schmidt as it ran. It curved, she realized, as if to surround Cahokia. Following the line of ash Dadgayadoh had told her about?
She took a step back.
The fire enclosed a corner of the company’s camp. Mules and horses caught within it brayed and whinnied in consternation, and men came running from their tents. Dismay painted their faces, but they lived.
Schmidt almost forgot Hooke for a moment, watching the fire race. It moved in both directions around the besieged city.
And then the plants within the circle of black fire began to die.
Schmidt saw it first in a young pine tree, just two paces within the circle. Its needles turned brown, curled, and then fell to the ground, first one or two and then a steady stream and finally in a single brown avalanche.
A white oak tree, already leafless from the winter, split in two with a loud CRACK!
She turned her gaze to the city.
The leaves fell from the Treewall in a storm of green. Thinking she saw a second light, Schmidt stepped through the wall of black fire–
it didn’t hurt.
Once within the strange veil, she could see that a blue light emanated from the city. Had she never noticed it before? It must be new. But that light streamed out from the trees of the Treewall as if they were bleeding.
As if they were maples, being tapped for their sugar.
Thin streams of blue light arced over frozen ground until they struck the wall of black fire. Along the nearer sections of the wall, Schmidt could see that the blue light intersected the fire at the sites of the smaller upside-down crosses.
No, the blue light didn’t intersect. It entered, and was absorbed.
The black fire rose higher into the night sky. With her rational mind, Schmidt didn’t understand how she could even see the dark flames, but she did.
Enter thou this worthy vessel! Hooke wailed.
The Parlett on the cross writhed. His two feet were riveted to the upright timber with a single nail, with further spikes pinning him to the crossbar through each palm and also each wrist. He wasn’t twisting to try to get away.
He moved as if something was behind him, pushing to pass him.
Or perhaps it was inside him, and wanted to get out.
Hooke knelt and gripped the Parlett boy’s head with one hand behind his neck. That put Hooke’s forearm alongside the boy’s cheek and his open, howling mouth. With a black flake of obsidian, Hooke slit his own wrist.
Black ichor burst from the dead flesh and poured into the Parlett boy’s mouth.
The screaming became a choking, the writhing and violent convulsion.
The other two Parletts fell to their knees and began vomiting black blood.
What was happening in Philadelphia?
“Arrest that man!” Mohuntubby shouted. Not waiting for his soldiers, he leaped forward, drawing his sword–
A flare of black light struck Mohuntubby in his charge and knocked him and all his men flat on their backs in the snow.
Hooke stood and gripped the vertical timber of the cross in both his hands.
I give thee, Lord Protector, this tribute of life!
Arching his back, he snapped the cross. The Parlett boy fell to the ground, his face as white as the snow on which he lay. His two brothers collapsed as well.
The fire flickered, as if under a strong gust of wind.
Hooke moved slowly. He seemed tired. Producing two smaller pieces of wood and a strip of leather thong from inside his tattered coat, he formed a smaller upside-down cross and pushed it down into the earth beside the large one.
The black flames stopped wavering.
This barrier will limit the power of the witch queen, Hooke said. The black slime dripping down his forearm trickled along his long yellow nails and stained the snow. Among other things, we shall not see again this trick of the eldritch spring. Thou must instruct the men of the company not to interfere with my markers.