Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 17: Teamwork
Although she despaired, Abigail felt it was still her duty to help Rebecca. So she told Rebecca all about what had happened the previous night, from when she had gone up to her room at the Burning Dog until the shade of Asenath Shattuck had shown her the image of William Maverick as the man responsible for the Taryan demons. Asenath had given Abigail enough power to revive her magical abilities. Abigail was then able to banish the Taryan demons herself.
Once that was done, Abigail considered her position. No doubt there was a hunt on for “Fanny O’Rourke” as a suspect in Libby Shaney’s death. So Abigail had to cease being Fanny, and become Abigail once again. To do that, she would have to change her appearance. Abigail sent Patty back to the Double Eagle to pick up the one proper set of clothes for Abigail there. While she was away, Abigail removed the dye from her hair in a nearby stream. Asenath even helped Abigail partially heal her damaged wrist and knee with magic.
When she returned with the clothing, Patty told Abigail about Rebecca’s note to her. Once she was dressed again as herself, Abigail sent Patty back to the Double Eagle and ventured forth to contact Rebecca.
As has been said before, Abigail was a professional. She began narrating her story feeling guilty and useless. Telling it to another person gave her the chance to evaluate what had happened dispassionately. She knew she had made several mistakes, and owed her survival as much to luck as skill. Still, she had discovered who was behind their problems, she had escaped a trap, and she had reached her partner. She knew William Maverick’s abilities well, Rebecca was right about that. He was definitely more powerful than she was. But power is not everything. Intelligence, skill, knowledge, and even how quickly one reacts to events all matter as well. William had been fired three years ago. What he had been doing since then, Abigail did not know, but she doubted he had been developing and exercising his talents as rigorously as magicians in the Office of Occult Affairs did. And there was whatever help Rebecca could offer, worries about that walking stick be damned!
Ironically, as she was raising her own morale, Abigail was lowering Rebecca’s. Rebecca compared her conduct to what Abigail had done, and found herself wanting. She could not read thoughts, she could not take down someone who physically assaulted her, she did not know what a Taryan demon was, and it had never occurred to her to ask Asenath for help apart from information. To top it all off, she did not know what to do with Abigail now.
Abigail did not even notice. She had rallied, and now was set on crafting a plan for the future. “Rebecca,” she said, “you are more powerful than William Maverick is. Once we bring the two of you together, you should be able to defeat him, probably alone, certainly with my help. The problem is that he will be able to detect your magical field and evade you long before you detect his. He can do the same to me, but with less of a margin. So I am more likely to find him than you are. Still, I can’t defeat him on my own.” Even as Abigail said that, she began trying to think of ways she might be able to defeat Maverick. “We need to adapt our strategy accordingly if we are to ‘smoke him out,’ as you say.”
Just as Rebecca had helped Abigail, so now Abigail’s words rallied Rebecca. There was work to be done, and she could play a useful role. She started to offer a suggestion, and then realized it depended on things she had not told Abigail. So she explained to Abigail the results of her interrogation of her brother Jeremiah, concluding by saying, “So Maverick not only killed the postmaster, but he has also been the magician attacking me, and almost certainly has killed some mill hands as well.”
“Then there must be traces of his magic, either ones I missed at the Burning Dog or at the mill,” Abigail declared. She thought a bit. “I should get spruced up and then go in my official capacity to both places. If there is any active magic left in either place, I may be able to trace him from it.”
“And I should continue meeting the prominent people in town,” Rebecca replied. “Only this time I will be watching for this Maverick’s magic. I have no desire to have someone shoot at me again,” she added with a laugh.
“We should meet tonight someplace to compare results and plan our next steps,” said Abigail.
“There’s the Devil’s Acre. It’s where the postmaster was killed. Probably not much in the way of magic left there from him, though.”
Abigail pondered that. Ritually killing multiple victims in the same location was a source of powerful magic. William Maverick would know that from his training. So she replied to Rebecca, “Good idea. It’s possible he may have also killed some of the mill hands there, in which case there should be more magical traces of him.” Abigail sighed. “Tracing him from his magic will be difficult. But if he has visited this Devil’s Acre several times, he may have left physical traces of himself, maybe even dropped something. With that, I can find him for certain.”
“We can find him,” Rebecca amended.
To that, Abigail gave a nod. “I should head back to town.” She got up and took a few limping steps.
Rebecca’s own condition made her quick to notice a limp in others. Before Abigail could go any farther, Rebecca said to her, “You are limping worse than I do, Abigail. Why don’t you take my horse? You can ride it back to the Double Eagle and use my room to clean up.”
Abigail shook her head. “We don’t want people to know we are working together.”
Rebecca replied, “Who cares anymore about that? This Maverick must already know who we are. And before you bring it up, I’m used to walking with my stick. Even if I could lend it to you, you would not be able to use it as well.”
Although there was something about Rebecca’s reasoning that troubled her, Abigail accepted. She had learned to ride a horse with any kind of saddle, or even bareback, on her trip out to Arizona Territory investigating magical controversies connected with James Reavis’s land grant. The English saddle on Rebecca’s horse was no challenge to her, even in a dress. Abigail mounted the horse with ease, and rode off to the Double Eagle in town.
Rebecca had coped with her damaged leg for so long that she rarely thought much about it. However, she felt a pang of envy seeing Abigail mount and ride off so smartly. Rebecca wondered whether she would trade her life and her magic for a life when she had never been pushed out of that tree, for a life where her leg would be whole. After a moment, she dismissed the notion as foolish. She could not trade away her magic for so little.
Despite dismissing the idea, Rebecca’s thoughts kept returning to that hypothetical trade-off as she walked the two miles back to town. She realized that she had worried most about losing her magic, her magic that she had voluntarily not used for almost a decade. How was it now that magic was so important to her? Had it even been so in the long years of disuse?
Magic is part of me, she thought to herself, as much as my scars and my leg. Back when I was visiting him in his home in Stockbridge, Henry said to me, “Stop regretting what you have lost, make use of what you have, and find more of what you need.” I lost my books, but I never lost my magic, and it is the latter which is more important. And at first I valued Abigail only because I thought she could restore to me my lost books, instead of seeing how I would need her more for herself. You were right, Henry, as usual. It is not what we were, what we may have lost, but what we are and what we are becoming that matters.
Abigail and Rebecca met again that evening after very full days. Abigail had started her day by sending Patty to Jeremiah’s store with a message explaining why “Fanny O’Rourke” would not be returning. That accomplished, Abigail had started her own rounds by visiting the town’s deputy sheriff, Ben Murphy, to reestablish her official presence in the town and to find out if there was any information he could add that would help in hunting William Maverick. She was momentarily taken aback when Murphy asked her to accompany him in his investigation of the murder of Libby Shaney at the Burning Dog! Recognizing this would give her a good chance to explore the Burning Dog in an official capacity, she agreed.
Abigail judged it one of the oddest moments in her life to walk into what had been her room at the Burning Dog and see Libby’s body on her bed, still frozen in the same position she had been standing in when she died the previous night, knife still held in her right hand. Sheriff Murphy was visibly upset at the sight of the body, and did not advance more than a step into the room. Abigail looked at the body, said something vague about rigor mortis, and then used a bit of magic to unfreeze the body and make it fall back flat on the bed. The sound of the knife dropping out of Libby’s hand and hitting the floor caused Murphy to cry out in alarm. But once he saw Libby’s dead body was now behaving as a corpse should, Murphy was so relieved that he willingly acceded to Abigail’s requests to inspect the public areas of the Burning Dog, and, later, the parts of the mill in which Libby had worked.
Rebecca had spent the day visiting the homes of the town’s selectmen and two of the major shareholders in the mill. She had used magic to stop one of the selectmen before he attempted to attack her. And she was disquieted to notice that quite a few people were giving her a wide berth as she walked down the streets in town.
Despite their day’s explorations, the results were meager. Rebecca naturally found traces of Maverick’s magic on the selectman who had been prepared to kill her, and Abigail had found traces of old magic in the mill. These traces confirmed that one man, William Maverick, was behind all of their problems. However, these traces offered no clue on how to find him.
Abigail was also troubled by her partner’s behavior. Limping herself, she had noticed Ben Murphy’s limp all the more readily, and had used magic to find out what had happened to him. She was horrified to discover that Rebecca had beaten him. To Abigail, Rebecca seemed to be oscillating between occasional furies and a generally mild temperament. Not knowing about what she was like as a child, Abigail had to consider this yet another sign that the dragon, or whatever the spirit was in that walking stick, was gradually taking over Rebecca. She worried that Rebecca might soon be in a constant state of fury.
Yet Rebecca seemed full of good spirits and not fury as they walked toward the Devil’s Acre that evening. Far from being depressed by the results of the day, Rebecca felt they were closing in on this William Maverick, reducing the scope of his operations and frustrating the plots he had already laid. She regaled Abigail with gossip from the day’s conversations.
Abigail was so preoccupied with her own thoughts, and with paying attention to Rebecca’s chatter, that she didn’t notice the Devil’s Acre until they were almost on top of it. But there was no mistaking it as they approached it. Abigail could see a turbulent layer of magic infesting a wooded area ahead. As they got closer, Abigail could see that it was not only the magic that made the area unusual. The lot was triangular, bounded by roads and low stone walls on all sides. Within were old growth trees, great trunks with broad canopies of leaves that probably shut out the sky during the day, and in the summer twilight made the grove look much darker than the nearby woods and fields. Once they drew up to it, Abigail pointed, “This is it, I presume. But just what is it?”
Rebecca looked at the woods, trying to feel the magic. (She could not see it the same way as Abigail did.) She turned to Abigail and said, “The story goes that this land was never cleared, and that its successive owners all came to a bad end when they tried to use the lot. Officially, it’s reverted back to common land. Supposedly Asenath Shattuck used it for witches’ Sabbaths, but that is just a legend. No one knows quite why there is evil magic on the lot. It’s safe enough to walk through, but you don’t want to stay in it. I was almost killed here a decade ago. Tripped on my dress when it was snagged by fallen branches, which is why I wear these clothes when I know I might have to do serious magic.” Rebecca was wearing her Oneida-derived outfit again.
Abigail had wondered about Rebecca’s peculiar outfit, but had forborn to ask about it. Now that she had an explanation, she could see the virtue in such an outfit, and considered sewing one for herself.
Rebecca waved her hands toward the grove and then pulled them back. “The magic feels a bit stronger than when I was here last. I don’t know if that’s normal or not. Since I’ve been in it before, let me step into the lot first to take its measure.”
Rebecca took about a dozen steps off the road into the lot and put her hand up to one of the big oak trees. Abigail was just about to follow, when Rebecca suddenly turned and cried out, “Get back, Abigail!”
A moment later, the Devil’s Acre erupted with magic. That was the only way Abigail could think to describe it. Magical power surged out of the ground in as many as a dozen spots, lighting up the Devil’s Acre with a blood-red supernatural light as they all hurled themselves against Rebecca Maxwell. Abigail could see they were demons, specifically those ghoulish spirits that thrive on human sacrifices. For there to be that many, William Maverick must have sacrificed most of the missing mill hands here, as well as the postmaster. Abigail could see two of the demons strike Rebecca before the glare from all of the eruptions forced her to shield her eyes.
In a matter of moments, before Abigail could do anything, it was all over. The demons were gone. The magic in the Devil’s Acre, while still there, was much less powerful than before. And there was no sign of Rebecca.
Abigail strode into the Devil’s Acre, first to where she had last seen Rebecca, then to cover the lot systematically. Nothing tried to attack her. But there was no sign of Rebecca. She stepped back to the very point where Rebecca was standing, and even at the risk of demonic attack opened herself up to find any trace of Rebecca. There was none. Even if Rebecca had died, there should still be a trace of her. What had happened to Rebecca? Where was she?
Rebecca was asking herself the same questions. She was having grave difficulty seeing where she was. It was as if she were cross-eyed and seeing two images. Unlike looking cross-eyed, the two images weren’t the same, and didn’t even seem to be to the same scale. She could see Abigail and an eerie twin of Abigail. And for once she could actually see magic. She could see just how far it extended in the Devil’s Acre. She could see the residual energies of the demons that had attacked her. In fact, she noticed, she could see through trees, which looked mysteriously transparent. Weirder still, she could see into the ground, and make out some of the network of roots to the magic in the Devil’s Acre.
It was when Abigail apparently walked right through her that Rebecca realized what had happened. She was on the plane of magic. Strangely, she was on the plane of magic as herself, by herself, not as part of the dragon as she had been ever since they were bound together. In fact, it took only another moment for her to realize she was physically on the plane of magic, and still carrying her walking stick. This was yet another unprecedented experience. “If I have too many more unprecedented experiences, I’ll become one myself,” Rebecca remarked to herself with a laugh.
She did not know how she had got here in this condition, but knowing what had happened to her made it easier to understand exactly what she was seeing. The shadowy Abigail and trees were in the material world. The eerie twin was Abigail’s magical power, which Rebecca noticed was even taller than Abigail’s physically tall self. And the odd field of power at Rebecca’s feet was not the ground, but the base magic that resided in the Devil’s Acre.
Thanks to the logic of the magical plane, Rebecca could see Asenath Shattuck and her derelict farm, to which she felt a friendly connection, almost as if it were only a few yards away. In contrast, the town and whatever malevolent magic this Maverick had constructed seemed so far away, a hazy network.
Wondering what else she might see, Rebecca turned around. And found herself looking directly into the face of a dragon.
With delight, wonder, and puzzlement, Rebecca realized it was her dragon. The head looked like a living animated version of the walking stick’s head, complete to the whiskers that moved with the dragon’s breath. Apart from the golden eyes, the dragon was all brown, chestnut brown, the color of Rebecca’s hair before they had been bound together. It was huge, its fearsome face over ten feet wide and much, much longer, and its body so big that Rebecca could not see any more than its forelegs. Then, as if it had heard her wish to see all of it, the dragon shrank down until it looked about the size of a horse, a large horse, if a horse were to have a very long serpentine body. Rebecca could now see its body and even longer tail, covered in scales and looking wet, smelling of earth and sea water with just a touch of brimstone. The foreparts swelled and shrank with the dragon’s breathing. The tail never rested, but slowly swung back and forth in great curves. The dragon’s wings were folded back against its body, but twitched constantly, as if waiting to be unfurled.
All in all, it looked exactly like Rebecca expected it to look. Sure that it was hers, Rebecca naturally asked, “Why am I here as myself, not as part of you?”
In all her time bonded with it, the dragon had never spoken to her. Then again, she had never been face-to-face with it like this. Rebecca wasn’t sure it could speak. But it did. “We cannot be one while you are here physically.” Had the situation not already been so extraordinary, Rebecca would have been amused, for the dragon spoke with her voice.
“I presume I have you to thank for being here at all,” Rebecca said to the dragon.
“It was one way to serve our needs and desires,” replied the dragon.
Rebecca wondered what desires the dragon had. That naturally led to wondering what she might do here on the plane of magic.
However, before she could contemplate the possibilities in detail, the dragon spoke again. “You cannot remain here, Rebecca.”
“Consider what you breathe.”
I’m on the plane of magic, thought Rebecca. Therefore I must be breathing magical air, air infused with magic. That magic will work its way into my body. And while I don’t know exactly what that will do, I suspect it will make it hard to return to the material plane. Aloud she said to the dragon, “Then I must find a way to return.”
The dragon replied, “I will provide you a way back. Climb on me.”
Rebecca looked rather dubiously at the dragon’s body. It looked too slick and wet for her to mount successfully, even without regard for her damaged leg. Still, she trusted the dragon. She walked past its forelegs to where it had lowered its scaly body on whatever corresponded to the ground in this plane, and climbed on the dragon’s back just ahead of its wings. Despite its appearance, Rebecca found its body to be dry and warm. Moreover, the dragon’s body seemed to shape itself underneath her until they fit together perfectly, as if they were one. Rebecca fancied she could even feel the great wings, as if they were her own, as they unfolded and as the dragon took to the air.
It had not occurred to Rebecca that her return to the material world would involve travel. She had expected to be returned to the Devil’s Acre, so she could explain what happened to Abigail and then continue their investigations. So she asked the dragon, “I am not returning to the Devil’s Acre?”
The dragon replied, “No. We are needed elsewhere.”
“Where are we going?”
End of chapter seventeen