Serpent Daughter – Snippet 12

“I’ve browbeaten the Electors into raising taxes,” Thomas said. “Then I borrowed against future tax receipts to be able to spend the money now, and I am recruiting the army which I shall use to raze Cahokia to the flat plain of the Cahokian Bottom. But you said that if I got you bodies, Grandfather, you could make soldiers of them. Here are two bodies, and as we agreed, more are being produced in Pittsburgh and Youngstown.”

“Thousands more,” Temple Franklin said. “Of various scales.”

“I would understand this army you speak of, Grandfather,” Thomas said. “I would see.”

 The naked child Cromwell nodded. And thou hast brought this live man, too.

“I assume you intend a sacrifice,” Franklin said. “This fellow is a pickpocket and a cutpurse. He won’t be missed.”

“None of us will be missed,” Thomas murmured, “save for a few moments, and excepting only those of us who build things of eternal worth.”

Cromwell nodded. Help me lay these creatures upon the floor.

Franklin hesitated, but Thomas did not. Urging on his advisor, he stretched the wooden mannequin out upon the hard floor, then laid the second figure out as well, so the two rested side by side, separated by two feet of open floor. The gray wet clay stuck to his hands as he worked, and he wiped them off on a dry rag sitting on one of the tables.

The man tied to the chair struggled. He was blond, young and strong, with big shoulders and strong arms. By rights a man with that physique should be working or fighting, not stealing coins in the street. Thomas scowled at the shirker. The blond man strained at his ropes and groaned, stretching his head toward Thomas like a dog asking to be scratched behind the ears.

How literal a sacrifice did Cromwell and Franklin mean?

While he had been distracted, Cromwell had drawn a large circle on the floor with chalk, enclosing himself and both models within it.

No, not quite. There was a small gap in the circle still.

Before I finish the seal, Cromwell said, lay the sacrifice in the middle.

“What’s his name?” Thomas asked.

“Benjamin Trumbull,” Franklin said.

Thomas raised an eyebrow at him and nodded his head.

“Good,” Franklin said. “If we are going to take the life of a man, we should know his name. Benjamin Trumbull. Former apprentice blacksmith, but broke his articles and took to thievery as a way to live. Also pandering, allegedly, and maybe even a little road-agenting.”

Trumbull groaned.

Excellent, Cromwell said. Thou hast spoken truly, Franklin, son of Franklin.

Franklin snorted contentedly and grabbed Trumbull’s ankles. Thomas put his hands under the man’s armpits, and together they hoisted him into position, between the two models.

Trumbull wriggled, but couldn’t escape.

Thomas stepped back and stood at ease, hands clasped behind his back. Franklin sat.

Cromwell chanted. Thomas knew more languages than most, but still could neither understand the words nor even identify the tongue. The Necromancer closed his circle and then added numerous additional markings — Thomas recognized astrological signs and seals along with Hebrew characters, but couldn’t add any of it up into a coherent sum.

With a start, he realized that the light was gone.

Stepping to the window, he looked through the glass and saw hints of the city street outside: the outline of a tree, the silhouette of a man, the steady back and forth of things floating in the harbor. But he saw no light and no sun. The street looked as if the sun had simply been taken away.

A thick gurgling sound made Thomas turn again. Trumbull lay between the two models still, thrashing in his bonds. Blood sprayed in jets from his throat with the dying beats of his heart, spraying the mannequin, spraying the clay man, spraying Cromwell.

Franklin pulled his eyes from the spectacle to look coolly at Thomas, then returned to watching.

Thomas made himself watch, too. He had seen death before, on the field and in the hospital. He’d killed his own sister, after torturing her into giving away the location of her daughter Sarah.

He wasn’t repulsed by Trumbull’s death, he was . . . bored?

Cromwell was speaking again, and he addressed a shadow that hovered over the corpse. Squinting to focus, Thomas saw that the shadow resembled nothing so much as a squid. The extremities that dangled down toward the dead man at first made it appear that the smoky shadow-squid had emerged from Trumbull’s slit throat, but as he looked closer, Thomas saw that the dangling protrusions weren’t tentacles, but tongues, dangling from something that resembled a levitating skull.

The tongues dangled into Trumbull’s mortal wound, and were drinking from it.

Cromwell’s address rose in pitch and volume. Franklin’s breath hissed in and out between his teeth.

A second shadow appeared, of the same shape as the first. Thomas forced himself not to step backward. Cromwell raised his hands, scattered chalk dust though the dusky shapes, and for a brief moment, they appeared solid.

They were not red. Thomas had imagined that demons would be red, but instead they were a bright pink, the pink of the lips and tongue of a newborn baby, an obscene pink that would be unsurprising as the color of some internal organ. They were covered with eyes, whose visible sockets drooped as if they were melting, and whose lidless gaze stared in all directions. From the outside of their bell-shaped hulks, a viscous white slime dripped, raising acrid smoke where it dropped onto the wood of the floor.

In the split second during which it was visible, one of the monsters emitted a sound like a purring cat.

Trumbull was still trembling.

“Delightful,” Franklin murmured.

Thomas only smiled.

Then the chalk dust dissipated and the creatures became darkness again.

And sank into the models.

Thomas had the distinct impression that the clay model’s mouth yawned open to receive the creature being put into it, but it had to have been a trick of the light, because when he blinked, the sculpture appeared unchanged.

Trumbull lay still.

Cromwell stepped back. Thomas had grown accustomed to seeing his Mentor, his guardian spirit, in the body of this child, but the sight of the naked youth with blood covering its arms up the elbows, and chalk caked into that blood, struck him in the moment as bizarre.

“Is it finished?” Thomas asked.

Rise, Cromwell said.

The models stood. The wooden puppet rattled as it moved, but the creature of clay was virtually silent. If anything, Thomas imaged he could hear a very faint squishing sound as the creature’s limbs worked.

“These will fight, I take it?” Franklin nodded satisfaction.

They can be made to answer the orders of any battlefield commander, or relentlessly pursue any objective. They will not fire a gun with any skill, but they will swing a sword or stab with a pike.

“This fellow, though.” Thomas grinned, tapping the wooden model on the chest as if he were a private who had earned special recognition during inspection. “Don’t make him look too much like me. It wouldn’t do for my commanders to start taking their orders from a blockhead.”

He chuckled drily at his own joke.

Cromwell laughed along, a dry rasp. No, it wouldn’t. But the greater threat of that is from the other. This automaton of clay is sometimes called a Mocker.

“Surely I have a stronger jaw than the clay man,” Thomas joked, but his attempt at a smile fell completely flat; the Mocker’s face was changing.

So were its limbs, and its proportions. It took nearly a minute for the entire transformation to be completed, but when it was done, a tall, blond, muscular man stood before him. Benjamin Trumbull.

Thomas checked; Trumbull lay dead on the ground before him, and Trumbull stood in his presence, a ready grin on his face.

“He still smells like mud,” Franklin said.

“This will do,” Thomas said. “This will do nicely.”