Chapter 15: Back in 1896, part II
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
Charles was having a nightmare. He was walking, always walking. He was tired, more and more tired with every step. He wanted to rest, ever so much. But he had to keep walking.
And then he came to. Not woke up, much to his surprise. He was walking for real, not dreaming at all. He wanted so much to sit down and sleep. But his training reasserted itself. Where was he? What had happened to him? It was dark all around him, pitch dark. He came to a stop, and tried to get some sense of where he was. He sniffed. Water. Foul air. Dirt and rock underfoot. He was in the mine.
Light struck his eyes as a lantern was opened. He turned and squinted at it, cursed himself for a fool for ruining his night vision at a stroke, and then shielded his eyes to see who was holding the lantern. It was a man, a tall man, a miner, clothes worn and not very clean. Neither was the miner. Charles looked twice, and smiled. It was Abigail underneath that grime, Abigail with her hair cut short and in clothes she had bought off a miner in town. Charles remembered their plan and looked at himself. He was similarly attired. He looked back to Abigail. “What happened to me?”
Abigail said, “Estevez was not as unprepared as we had hoped. There was a spell on the entrance of the mine that brought anyone who passed into the mine under his control.”
Charles grunted in disgust. He had underestimated his foe. Estevez had been ready for spies, probably on account of the Pinkertons. But they’d still managed to get inside, so Estevez couldn’t have been that well prepared. He looked about and had second thoughts. “There’s no one else here, is there? Seems like we’re walking into a trap.”
Abigail gave a short laugh. “The silver that shields him also means he can’t actively control people who aren’t near him in the mine. He knows I’m here, have no doubt. But he doesn’t know where we are, any more than we know where he is.”
“Well, I don’t know where we are, either. Let’s go find this soul-eater and end his career.”
After several seconds, Abigail replied, “Charles, there’s something I need to mention. This mine . . . I’ve always been afraid of enclosed spaces, but I can usually handle it. But I haven’t been in a mine before, and this mine . . . even my magic doesn’t go very far. If I freeze up, Charles, don’t hesitate to do whatever is necessary to get me going again.”
Charles tried to build up Abigail’s confidence by being matter-of-fact. “The miners have experience building these tunnels, Abigail. Something would have to damage the supports and beams to bring down the roof on us.”
Abigail did not respond directly. She looked about at the mine’s walls and ceilings, trying to understand what Charles had just said. Once she had some idea of how the roof of the tunnel was supported, she fell in with the plan they had worked out beforehand. “I’m going to make us effectively invisible to anyone else.” A short pause followed while she cast a prepared spell, then she said, “This way,” and headed off down the tunnel.
The two agents went looking for miners and their families, to see where they were going in the mine. They tried to stay out of the direct path of people, for Abigail’s spell would fail if someone walked directly into them. It wasn’t a real invisibility spell, just a spell that would cause people to ignore them and forget about them. But after only a quarter hour, Abigail dropped the spell as unnecessary. The miners were too thoroughly under control of the soul-eater, and the ones they were encountering were wasted and pale. With the power she saved, she began removing Estevez’s spell from the affected men, and using a touch of magic herself to order the miners to take their families and leave the mines. At the very least, some innocents would be saved. At best, Estevez would be weakened and would have to confront them soon.
Charles Horner had taken the lantern, and kept a careful watch over Abigail when she worked on the miners. He had armed himself with silver bullets, though Abigail was uncertain of their effectiveness against the soul-eater. He wished there was something more he could do. Well, it had been his idea to disguise themselves as miners to get into the mine. That much had worked.
It was after they had been in the mine for about an hour that they happened upon a large open chamber. Charles lifted up the lantern to see more of it, and was stunned by what he saw. To judge from her sudden intake of breath, so was Abagail.
The chamber was circular. It shone, for every surface was covered by silver. At first, neither Abigail nor Charles could guess the size of the chamber, it seemed so large and out of place down in the bowels of the earth, but they eventually figured it to be forty feet in diameter. And in the chamber were scores of people, possibly more than one hundred. Most were standing, some had fallen. But all were silent, stationary, and glassy-eyed.
Charles turned to Abigail. “Have they lost their souls?”
Abigail walked forward, touched one. She shook her head. “The soul-eater has drained this one of much of his soul, but it isn’t gone yet. The rest seem to be in a similar state.” She turned to Charles. “We have to get these people out of here. But . . . but . . . there are so many, they are so far gone . . .” It seemed an impossible task to Abigail. Then her determination came to the fore, and she came up with an idea of what to do. “Can you lead them out, Charles? To make this work, I need them to follow someone.”
Charles was not sure this was a good idea. “I don’t know the way out.”
Abigail pointed. And it was as if a thread of light spun out from her finger, rolling out of the silver room and away down one of the tunnels into darkness. “Follow that, Charles. They will follow you. And take the lantern with you. Remember not to go out of the mine yourself, though. And when you’ve seen the first of them out of the mine, come back. Now I need to concentrate.” Abigail stood there trying to do something she normally would not have tried: convince perhaps a hundred people whose very selves were on the verge of being extinguished to play a game of “follow the leader,” with Charles being their leader. The only advantage she had was they were so weak, it required relatively little magical power to affect them. One by one they began rising, moving, lining up behind Charles Horner, who picked up the lantern and followed the thin thread of light that ran out of the hall.
After the unnatural brilliance of the silver room, the close confines of the dark tunnels oppressed Charles. He developed a new appreciation for Abigail’s claustrophobia. It didn’t help that the scores of people behind him created a continuous sound of footsteps. It was creepy. But he kept to his task. It was slow work, for the inmates of the silver chamber were weak and could walk only slowly. Even so, it was only fifteen minutes before Charles reached the mouth of the mine. The moment he saw one of the victims cross its mouth, with the others trailing behind, he turned and started back as quickly as he could in the other direction, to join Abigail and help her find Estevez . . . if they had not already met in his absence.
Abigail had taken surprisingly little time to revive them all. Five minutes after the first victim had trailed after Charles, the last one left the chamber. She had expected the soul-eater to appear before she had finished, for certainly he must have felt the loss of so many souls. But he had not appeared. So now she had to decide whether to hunt for him herself, or wait for Charles’s return.
She had no light — it had not been necessary while she was concentrating on her magic — so she uttered the briefest of incantations and a ball of dim light appeared directly in front of her. And then she took a step back in shock, because by the light of the ball she could see Alfonso Estevez y Rodriguez standing just beyond. He must have felt what was happening and entered the chamber while she was concentrating on reviving the miners and their families. Abigail had wanted to confront him and destroy him, but she had been taken by surprise and was not ready. She made to turn and run, to gain time and distance to prepare herself. But before she had taken two steps, Estevez leaped forward, extinguishing the light.
Abigail felt two powerful hands grabbing her by the shoulders, pushing her down. Before she knew it, her legs had buckled, and she fell to her hands and knees. But the pressure didn’t relent, and she could not hold herself up. She fell flat on the floor of the room, banging her chin in the process. And the powerful grip of Estevez held her there.
She felt the breath of the soul-eater on her face, and then his voice in her ear. “I’m glad you decided to come visit me, Miss Abigail Lane. I’ve been looking for a new host for a long time. And now that you’ve weakened yourself, I don’t think you’ll be able to stop me from eating your soul, and taking up residence in your body. Estevez has been a good host, but his body would last only a few more years. Yours will last for several decades. I will so enjoy using it to eat the souls of all your friends and family.”
Abigail realized she had been trapped. Or had she? Was the soul-eater making this all up, and just seizing an opportunity? Abigail dismissed the question as unimportant right then. It was more important for her to figure out how to survive. And then she felt the cold pull of the soul-eater, as it tried to pull the material of her soul from her body and consume it. But Abigail was a professionally-trained magician, in many ways the first in this country. She called upon everything she had learned to anchor her soul to her body, to hinder and delay the soul-eater. Abigail knew that the soul-eater worked by weakening the soul, turning parts of it against itself, demoralizing it, until its victim’s soul could offer no further resistance. And then the creature fed. So she acted accordingly, striving to keep her soul together. More importantly, she set her mind to coldly and carefully study how the soul-eater was trying to destroy her. For knowledge is itself a form of power, and without it power can prove to be fragile and ineffective.
The soul-eater found Abigail’s soul difficult to attack. Far from weakening her as it had intended, its little speech had hardened her determination not to yield to it. And it, too, had been weakened, probably more than it realized, by Abigail’s removal of many of its victims. Abigail’s soul was buffeted by blows, but none was strong enough to break her. She was engaging in a short bout of self-congratulation when the soul-eater decided on another approach: it let go of her shoulders, reached over, and broke her left arm.
Abigail couldn’t help the scream that emerged from her lips. The pain was bad enough. However, it was the knowledge that the pain gave the soul-eater an opening into her soul that really frightened her. But she was gratified by the answer her scream received. A light blazed out, illuminating the entire chamber, and then thunderous sounds filled the air. For Charles Horner had come on the run when he heard Abigail scream, and his immediate response was to shoot the creature looming over her.
With every shot, the creature screamed, a sound so hideous that it almost knocked Charles off his feet the first time. But he steadied his arms and silver bullets continued to find their mark. Two, three, four, five, six, and with each hit the creature screamed and fell back. Charles dropped his empty revolver and reached for the other. But the creature was faster. It screamed again, this time in rage, and rose up, charging Horner. Horner had just yanked out the second revolver when the creature slammed into him, knocking the gun and lantern from his grasp and sending him crashing to the floor with the creature on top of him.
I have said Abigail was a professional magician, and she was, thoroughly professional. Over her many years in the Office, she had developed an entire library of spells which she had rehearsed because they could only be used at certain moments that might arrive without notice. Apart from her unyielding self, they were the last weapons in her magical armory. Among those spells was one she could use only when a magical enemy was distracted, because otherwise it simply would not work. It was a spell to reverse the magic of her opponent, and in that moment, Abigail unleashed it on the soul-eater.
When Abigail’s spell reversed the soul-eater’s magic, it turned upon the creature. It had wanted to rip Abigail’s soul from her body; now its magic tried to rip the soul-eater itself from its body. Abigail had wanted to stay in her body, so the soul-eater had used a great deal of energy to try to pry it from her. But as it had told her, it actually wanted to discard the body of the magician Estevez. So when Abigail’s spell reversed the soul-eater’s magic, the magic easily ripped the soul-eater from the body of Estevez, weakening the soul-eater and tearing at it. Abigail could feel the soul-eater flee the room, with its own magic trying to destroy it.
She carefully sat up, hurting her broken arm only twice in the process. Other than that, she felt fine. Apparently reversing the soul-eater’s spell had actually returned much of her normal energy to her. She had not expected that; it was a welcome bonus. She carefully raised herself to her feet, this time hurting her broken arm only once more. “Charles?”
A voice came over from where she assumed the tunnel back to the surface began. “I’m fine, apart from a bump on the head and this fellow sinking his teeth into my shoulder. How about you?”
“Broken arm, but I can get out of here. And we need to, soon. That thing may come back.”
“All right, hold on.” She heard Charles stir, searching about on the floor, and then a grunt. A few moments later the lantern went on, showing Charles sitting on the floor near the tunnel mouth to the entrance. He got up, picked up the lantern, and came over to Abigail in a jaunty walk. Abigail was very happy to see him looking so cheerful, until she saw the bloodstains on his shirt where the thing had bit him.
They started to head out, but Charles hesitated, looked around the chamber. “Estevez knocked my loaded revolver out of my hands. But I don’t see it here.”
Abigail shook her head. “We need to get out of here now, Charles. And the soul-eater isn’t physical anymore.”
Charles didn’t like to leave one of his weapons behind. Among other things, they were now unarmed. But he accepted Abigail’s judgment, and headed toward the tunnel leading them back to the entrance. As they headed out of the silver room, they passed the body of Estevez. Abigail noticed that Estevez’s neck was broken. She didn’t ask Charles about it.
Charles was horrified to see the shape Abigail was in, with one arm dangling at her side, her clothes filthy, and several bruises on her face. He didn’t say anything when she stopped about every ten paces to rest for a few seconds. But he was disappointed. Abigail’s words implied the thing was still alive, and now they were running out of the mine without finishing it off. He decided he had to say something and so began, “You say the thing is still alive . . .”
Abigail interrupted him in a strained voice. “I’m working as fast as I can, Charles. But I have to tackle them all for it to work.”
Charles decided to shut up. Abigail was up to something, and sounded as if she were best left alone.
They finally got to the entrance to the mine. It was now the hour before dawn, and they could see the sky beginning to light up in the east. Some of the miners were still milling around, wondering what to do. Abigail looked at them, spoke crossly to Horner. “Get them clear of the mine entrance, Charles, at least fifty feet away and not in its direct line.”
Charles did as he was bid. It didn’t take long. He saw Abigail limp by and take up a position on a small rise nearby, and joined her.
She looked back at the mine. As much to herself as to Charles, she said, “It’s still in the mine. Now it’s doomed.”
Charles decided he needed a clue. “What are you going to do, Abigail?”
She turned to him, face still dirty, but with a smile on her face. “I’m going to drop the mountain on top of it, Charles.” She saw him look at her incredulously. “Well, not exactly. Literally doing that would be well beyond my power. You know how you told me the tunnels couldn’t cave in unless the supports and beams gave way? I was weakening them with magic on our way out. Now watch.” And she turned toward the mine and gestured with her good arm.
Nothing seemed to happen for about ten seconds, and then a wind of stale air blew out of the mine, to be followed by dust and dirt. And then before his eyes, Charles saw the entrance just break up and collapse. When the dust cleared, the slope had collapsed, and mine entrance had been obliterated.
Abigail spoke. “Several hundred feet of silver-bearing rock filling up the mine and separating the soul-eater from the open air. Now all we have to do is go back to town and I can use magic to convince everyone that the mine should be abandoned.”
Charles added, “And see to our wounds, and then maybe a nice trip to, oh, I don’t know, maybe Denver to get a decent bath. But is it dead, Abigail?”
Abigail stuck out her lower lip. “We deprived it of much of its prey, it’s trapped with hundreds of feet between it and the surface, and it’s badly injured. It will die eventually.” She paused, and then in an undertone added, “At least I hope so.”