The German Imperial Army had been marching through Brussels for twenty-nine hours when the mandarin duck flew into Imke Tison’s apartment, landed beside her breakfast, and tapped an SOS on the china with a webbed foot. Imke offered the duck, her former mentor Monsieur Pilo, whom she hadn’t seen since the invasion began, chalk and slate. He snatched her cigarette instead.
After a long drag, Pilo took the chalk in his bill and wrote: “Bind hex.”
“A soul binding?” Imke said.
He pointed one wing toward the street.
Imke tucked Monsieur Pilo under one arm and ran out the door. Beneath the rising August sun, German infantrymen marched in an endless grey column down the Boulevard Waterloo. The lockstep precision sounded to Imke like the churning gears of a vast, hungry machine.
Pilo honked and nipped to direct Imke through the city. As she dashed around a corner, she ran into a cart piled high with what looked like the contents of an entire home. Dirty Flemish refugees formed a defensive ring around the cart. The sight of them, exhausted and terrified, shook Imke. The last time she had seen her parents had been beside such a cart, though these people had saved more of their belongings than her parents had escaped with. But unlike these refugees, her parents had only stayed in the city long enough to deliver seven-year-old Imke to the Fellowship before they had pushed their cart back out into Flanders, never to see their daughter again. Imke found herself touching her right temple, where a lock of her hair had turned snow white on the night her family fled their farm.
“Anything you can spare?” said the dirty matriarch, her gaze lingering on Monsieur Pilo.
Imke drew Pilo in closer, mumbled an apology to the woman, and squeezed past the cart.
Scraps of song echoed from the Boulevard, “Der Hohenfriedberger” sung in clear, young voices. Imke ran beneath large posters that had been pasted to the walls of the city mere hours before the occupation. Surrender. There was to be no resistance. Brussels was an open city. The Kaiser’s city.
Pilo led her to his apartment. Using the key he’d given her not long after his transformation, she let herself in. The housekeeper must have fled on one of the first trains out of the city. August heat trapped the stink of duck shit and cigarettes. Pilo nosed through the arcane tomes scattered about the place, tomes that should have been in La Tour Noire. Imke, desperate for air, unbuttoned her suffocating jacket and leaned out the south-facing windows, which offered a bird’s-eye view of the Boulevard Waterloo.
An Ottoman cavalry unit moved down that great concourse, at least one thousand centaurs, lances held over their right shoulders as if they were off to a tournament to joust with French cavaliers. The thunder of their steel-shod hooves sent the city’s songbirds into worried murmurations.
Pilo pecked at her ankle. He had dragged over an old tome, open to a page of dense script titled “Rise, Ye veils, and Revealeth”. If he was right about the soul binding, all Imke had to do was cast this spell to identify it.
“I’m a researcher, Monsieur,” Imke said, repeating the excuses she’d been giving him since before he had been transformed into a mandarin duck. “You know how I feel about performing magic.”
Pilo bit her. With a yelp, Imke lifted the book. She hadn’t performed any magic since she’d cast the series of spells necessary to qualify as a Yeoman Fellow. Magic terrified her. It was an uncontrollable force, a whole planet of magma, and she was the volcano through which it wanted to pass. When he noticed she wasn’t reading yet, he hissed and came in for another peck.
“Give me a minute,” she said.
Soul binding was foulest black magic, prohibited by both the Fellowshipand by city’s new arcane overseers, the German Zaubererkorps. If the German sorcerers were to discover that the souls of their soldiers were being bound by some rogue necromancer, Imke shuddered at what they might to do her city.
Imke read through the “Rise, Ye Veils, and Revealeth” incantation on the page Monsieur Pilo had opened for her. The spell was tricky, but not beyond her. All she had to do was cast it, confirm Pilo’s suspicions, and bring the matter to the Head Fellow. Then she could return to her research.
She struck a match, lit his cigarette, and began to recite the incantation.
The tome was written in a strange dialect of the Ur-tongue—Minoan, she suspected—but she had no trouble with the pronunciation. Each word dipped into the source of her power and drew streams of arcane energy into the world. For the first half of the incantation, it was as if she were in her exams again, her power contained, exact, but as she moved into the second half, she slipped. A bubble of energy pulsed through the delicate streams she was drawing forth, then another.
As she incanted the last stanza, she knew she’d drawn too much. The scent of cloves filled the apartment. Her sense of time stretched out: the metronome precision of the centaur unit slowing until minutes passed between hoof-falls. From high overhead, a metal cone the size of a church bell screamed toward Brussels. With the certainty of dream-logic, she knew this was an artillery shell, one of the huge ones that had so devastated the forts at Liège. She also knew the shell was a vision brought on by the bungled Revealeth spell. An omen tracing a terrible parabola across the sky. Soon the dream-shell would burst and it would turn the centaurs and Brusseleers and Flemish refugees and her and Monsieur Pilo to horsemeat.
The duck latched onto her ankle. She swore and took control of the overflowing streams of magic. Time resumed. The dream-shell vanished. Duck-shit and stale tobacco replaced the scent of cloves. But her vision hadn’t entirely returned to normal.
Spanning the entire width of the Boulevard Waterloo, like a vast hide stretched for tanning, hung a taunt membrane of scintillating green necromancy. Every centaur marched through the membrane; and as each one came out the other side, their soul was bound to whomever had cast the hex.
Monsieur Pilo let out a desperate honk.
“This is an abomination,” Imke said, scooping him up again. “We’ll go to the Head Fellow. She’ll know how to end it.”
“Stop that, Pilo!” Imke shouted at the duck as he swooped through the rafters of the Trithemius Library. Pilo ignored her and dive-bombed a white-bearded German officer who was loading books onto a cart. Until recently, the Library had housed the most prestigious collection of occult literature this side of the Bosphorus. Most of the collection had departed with the other members of the Fellowship as they fled Brussels, but the white-bearded officer had been looting those volumes that remained when Imke and Pilo found him.
“Please, Monsieur Pilo,” the officer said in broken French. “I am only doing as I was told.”
Imke was not surprised the bearded German knew Pilo’s name. Everyone knew of the Neanderthal mandarin. Two years ago, Pilo had traveled to a cave system near Aquitaine to decipher petroglyphs painted by a long-dead neanderthal. The archaeologists scoffed at Pilo’s claim that the red-ochre images were in fact a primitive conjuration ritual. Thaumaturgy was as far beyond a neanderthal as calculus was beyond a rhesus, they insisted. Pilo had only partially proven them wrong. The glyphs were arcane, but they were a transubstantiation ritual, not a conjuration. Neanderthals could indeed perform magic, and for a reason no one including Imke could understand or reverse, they liked to transform themselves into mandarin ducks.
The door to the library creaked open, admitting a diminutive Bavarian officer in a hauptmann’s horse-hair hat who appraised the scene with calm precision, then turned to the hulking fusiliers who followed him, and said: “Seize that bird.”
The fusiliers jumped and grasped at Pilo, who swooped away from their clumsy attempts, veering back down to peck an ear or throw off a felt cap. One of the fusiliers, a man so young his moustache looked like little more than golden down pasted by sweat to his upper lip, unslung his rifle and fired. Imke screamed in surprise, while Pilo flew into the upper rafters of the library.
“I said seize him, fusilier,” the Hauptmann said. “Not shoot him.”
Another person stepped into the library, this one much taller than the Hauptmann. Magda Vandroogenbroeck, Head Fellow of the Arcane Fellowship of Magicians, Conjurers and Astralnauts, Brussels Chapter, looking as ancient as the Ur-tongue itself, fixed her gaze on the bird perched above. To call the Head Fellow severe would be an understatement; many an apprentice had claimed she could paralyze them with a glance.
“Come down, Monsieur Pilo,” the Head Fellow said. “Now.”
While he fluttered down from the rafters, the Head Fellow’s fingers moved in quick, stuttering gestures at her side where Imke could see them. In the secret sign-language of the Fellowship, she said: What is this?
Came to discuss urgency, Imke signed back, trying to remember the right gestures. Duck angry. Book stealing.
The Head Fellow blinked twice at that, then turned her attention to the Bavarian officer in the ridiculous horse-hair hat. “Hauptmann von Lepske, if you would be so kind as to ask your men to stop shooting at my Fellows?”
“The duck was assaulting my officer,” said the Hauptmann.
“Your officer was stealing,” Imke said, as the white-haired German pressed his fingers to a duck-nipped ear. “The terms of the surrender clearly said there would be no looting.”
The Hauptmann had a magician’s eyes: they were bright and blue and much too young for the pale wrinkled flesh in which they sat. “Count von der Goltz has authorized a two-hundred million franc levy on the city to fund the transition of power.” He gestured toward the book cart. “Consider this part of the Fellowship’s contribution.”
Pilo hissed and advanced on the Hauptmann.
What urgency? the Head Fellow signed. Like the Hauptmann, she too had eyes much too young for the paper-thin flesh that surrounded them. Though she appeared to be a woman well past her hundredth year, she was only fifty-three.
Soul bind, Imke signed. All soldiers. Still active.
The Hauptmann laughed as Monsieur Pilo fanned out the red and green crest at the back of his head and pecked at the Hauptmann’s boot.
“Senior Fellow Pilo,” the Hauptmann said, the laughter never leaving his voice. “Show a little more respect! As your apprentice noted, the terms of the surrender are clear. If a single German soldier is attacked, then his attacker and every male member of the attacker’s household is to be shot. I could have you killed for the blood you’ve drawn, and your apprentice put into bondage.”
“Imke Tison is a Yeoman,” the Head Fellow said. “She passed the tests and is a full member of the Fellowship.”
The Hauptmann whirled on her, his huge hat flopping to one side as he did. “The point is I could give you and your baby-faced Yeoman over to my soldiers for their sport for the crime your duck committed.” He straightened the hat. “But I quite enjoyed the lecture you and Monsieur Pilo gave at the conference in Prague five years ago, so as a professional courtesy, I will forgive this one trespass. Now if this matter is settled, may we continue our transition planning?”
Need breaking spell, Imke signed. Stop binding.
The Head Fellow considered Imke for a long moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “Not yet, Hauptmann. I believe my Fellows have something they need to share with us. Fellow Tison, what has brought you to La Tour Noire this morning?”
Imke gazed in apprehension at the Germans with whom they shared the library. With a quick gesture, the Hauptmann dismissed his two fusiliers and the duck-bit officer. Clearly, the Head Fellow and the Hauptmann had some history, but Imke was still nervous as she beckoned the Hauptmann, the Head Fellow, and a simmering Pilo into one of the library’s reading rooms. There, Imke took out the slate and chalk. While Pilo sketched, she described what they’d seen.
To the untrained eye, the hex appeared to be several harmless wards—vermin banes, gentle repose, a ward against nightmare—but when Imke performed the Revealeth ritual, she had seen its true nature. Pilo completed his handiwork: he’d drawn a cross-section of the Boulevard, with the hex stretched across its entire width. Two corners of the hex were pinned on the upper floors of buildings on opposites sides of that great street, while the other two corners were pinned in opposing cellars, forming an invisible sheet through which everyone using the Boulevard must pass.
“How many soldiers have marched through Brussels since the occupation began?” the Head Fellow said.
The Hauptmann didn’t seem to hear her. He brushed at the lapels of his uniform as if it had been soiled. “My men and I marched along that route last night. I sensed something was amiss.”
“Two hundred thousand souls. At least. Imagine the sorcery one could perform with that many souls for fuel.
Pilo honked and drew a crude skull on the slate.
“Not until they die,” Imke said. “The hex binds their souls, yes, but whomever created this hex can only claim each bound soul at the moment of death.”
“Those soldiers march to the front,” the Hauptmann said. His gloved fingers worried at the edge of the table. “This is an act of war, Head Fellow. I would be within my rights to execute half the city for this affront.”
The Head Fellow spoke in measured tones. “Necromancy is as abhorrent to us as it is the Zaubererkorps. To even be admitted as an apprentice, our members must vow to only ever spend their own life to power their art. Whoever cast this blasphemy is no Fellow.”
Pilo hissed again, though not at the Hauptmann this time.
Imke knew what upset him. “They might not be a Fellow, but this is no hedge magician. The illusion they used to conceal the binding is the kind we learn in First Year.”
The Head Fellow swore. “One of our failed apprentices, perhaps? Your soldiers have not been kind to the people of Flanders.”
The Hauptman’s ancient skin twisted into a mockery of a smile. “Nothing they didn’t deserve. If this is the work of a failed apprentice, then a Yeoman and a diminished Senior Fellow should be enough to undo it. Tison, Pilo, have the hex removed by noon, then find whoever cast this abomination and bring them to me.”
“With respect,” Imke said. “I am a researcher, not an active practitioner. I’m not the right Fellow for this task.”
The Hauptmann slapped his palm on the table as if he’d heard a great joke. “I would have my subordinate whipped if they refused an order like that.”
“We are civilians,” the Head Fellow said. “We don’t whip anyone. If Yeoman Tison wants to refuse, she is within her rights to do so. However, the three of us are all that remains of the Fellowship in Brussels, and I must supervise the collection of the levy.”
Silence fell in the little reading room. Imke felt panic rising at the thought of again opening herself to the sea of incandescent magic.
“I will send two of my soldiers to help, should any locals prove troublesome,” the Hauptmann said.
“You must also find the animaquary,” the Head Fellow said, apparently taking Imke’s silence as acquiescence. “The object they’ve prepared to contain the bound souls. We can destroy it here.”
“We don’t be destroying anything,” the Hauptmann said. “The animaquary is the property of the Zaubererkorps. We will keep it for further study.”
The refusal Imke was still trying to formulate died on her tongue when she realized what the Hauptmann really wanted. Once the soldiers began to die, the animaquary would contain incredible power.
He must not have it, the Head Fellow signed to Imke.
“As you command, Hauptmann Von Lepske,” Imke said.
Aurochs pulled artillery wagons down the Boulevard Waterloo. Imke sympathized with the great shaggy beasts as they endured the whippings from their drivers, the August heat, and the immense weight of their cargo, for she too carried the fate of the city on her shoulders. If Imke didn’t bring down the binding hex, the Hauptmann might order these very guns turned on the city she so loved.
“I still think this is a mistake,” Imke said to Pilo, who was smoking a cigarette in the crook of her arm. “I’ve spent the past two years trying to decipher neanderthal petroglyphs. All I have to show for it is the bit at the end that makes your transformation irreversible. I don’t see how that will help in annulling a soul binding.”
Pilo squirmed out of Imke’s arms and flew up to alight on the eave above a boarded-up confectionary. One corner of the soul binding was pinned on the upper floor of the closed shop.
“I don’t see any magic,” said one of the two soldiers who escorted Imke; he was the moustachioed young man who had tried to shoot Pilo.
“It is well disguised,” she said. “But keep your focus on the uppermost window of the confectionary and you will see it.”
A moment later, the soldier gasped. One couldn’t look at the binding directly, but if Imke focused on the building instead, she could see a faint shimmer in her peripheral vision that could be mistaken for heat rising off August cobblestones.
Imke led her escorts to the back of the shop, careful not to go anywhere near the binding, where Pilo fluttered down to meet them. Another group of refugees crowded into the courtyard at the rear of the confectionary. They stank of smoke and horse manure, and all of them watched Imke and her German escorts with the huge eyes of cornered animals.
The door to the confectionary was boarded over.
“Remove these,” Imke said to her escorts in German.
“Collaborator,” one of the refugees said in Flemish. The speaker was an old woman clutching a wicker basket just like the one Imke’s mother used to collect kindling. She leaned across the nearly empty basket and spat on the cobblestones between them.
“We are on official business sanctioned by the Burgomaster,” Imke said. “This is for the good of the city.”
“Give us the duck,” one of the other refugees said, a man in his late fifties too old to fight but holding a hoe as if he planned to take on the entire German Imperial Army with it. “The children haven’t had anything to eat for days.”
Pilo hissed at the refugee. Imke scooped him up and joined the soldiers, who had finished prying off the boards.
“See that we are not disturbed,” she said.
On the upper level, the only light came from gaps in the boards that had been hammered over the windows. Dust danced in those blades of light, and the walls of the buildings shook with the weight of the passing guns. The entire floor had been used as storage for the shop below, but the shelves had been cleared of sugar and flour and tins of sweets in haste, and were now all bare in the near dark.
Pilo pecked at Imke until she lit him a cigarette.
“Those can’t be good for you,” she said. He made a dismissive honk and waddled beneath luminescent glyphs painted on the ceiling near the outer wall.
To the untrained eye, the glyphs were a vermin-bane. Though Imke could not see the forbidden characters yet, they radiated foul necromancy.
Pilo hissed in alarm. Imke felt it too. A presence in the far corner of the room. All the blood ran out of Imke’s legs, replaced by ice. Plaster crumbled out of the wall, and the wood of the shelves began to warp, making terrible popping and crunching sounds as it expanded outward.
Pilo nipped her ankle, but Imke barely felt it. As the wall bulged further outward, taking on the rough outlines of a man, Imke fell into memory. She was a child staring out the window of their farmhouse at the torchlit faces of her neighbours. They cursed her and her family as they advanced with their fire and their lamp oil. Her mother’s panicked packing. Father’s hands shaking as he took the musket down from above the hearth. A great swelling of magic in her belly that would give the neighbours all the more reason to burn her for a witch.
Plaster and wood and brick shaped like a German soldier stepped free of the wall. A soul, a part of Imke knew, enslaved by whomever had bound it. The soldier worked the bolt on the long piece of wood in the form of a rifle. That wild, uncontrolled magic still rose in Imke. She thought of the crop circle she’d made as a child that had drawn their neighbours to her home—she had flattened every fence, farm animal, and piece of foliage for a mile around—and now she pictured the same here in Brussels.
Pilo flew up and pecked her between the eyes. It was a gesture he’d done so many times when he was a man; one stubby finger tapping against her skull.
“You control your magic,” she could hear him saying. “It does not control you.”
She raised the warding glyph moments before the rubble-soldier fired. The impact still knocked her over, but the glyph had taken the worst of it. Pilo darted at the soldier as it fixed a foot-long nail as a bayonet. Imke rose to one knee.
“Beware all ye who hide in darkness,” she said, the old recitation starting as a whisper. “For I wield the light eternal. I speak the Ur-tongue. I see with blinded eyes.” With each word, she felt herself leaving that frightened child behind. “To oppose me is to stand before the flood.”
The rubble-soldier raised his rifle, ready to impale. The Ur-tongue poured out of Imke, syllables she had memorized years ago that came back to her with perfect recall. For the Banishment of Constructs and Other Aberrations. The magic poured through her, molten and consuming, but she held onto the streams, shaped the scalding tendrils to her will.
Stone and timber crumpled into a pile where the soldier had stood. Pilo skittered away to avoid being buried.
Imke released the magic and dropped, gasping, to the ground beside Pilo. She felt scoured out. “Are you alright?”
He stretched out one wing, then another, seemed satisfied with the result, then waddled over and nudged her with his shoulder. Another gesture from his human days. One of the first spells she’d ever successfully completed, a simple transubstantiation that turned a stone into a cabbage, had elicited that exact same response.
But this was no time for wet-eyed reminiscence. Imke straightened, her joints aching, and said: “Come, Monsieur, we have work to do.”
Before she spoke the words of the Revealeth spell, Imke took a moment, seeing the words in her mind. She was more careful as she spoke the Minoan-inflected verses, and this time she knew she’d done it right.
The vermin-bane melted away, leaving only the soul binding glyph etched onto the ceiling. Imke drew a pentagram and circle in chalk on the floor beneath the glyph and stepped into the circle. Still raw from defeating the rubble-man, she took hold of the magic again. She recited the breaking spell the Head Fellow had shown her. Jagged syllables of the Ur-tongue poured out of her, and with it, the magic consumed the minutes and hours of her life. The glyphs resisted, fought to survive the onslaught of her breaking, so she poured more of herself into the task.
She expected more when the invocation finished, but the soul binding simply belched oily smoke for an instant before disappearing. Out on the Boulevard, the binding would be a triangle now, one corner pinned in the lower level of the Carmelite Church two buildings away. Once it was removed, the soldiers and Brusseleers and refugees would be safe. Imke and Pilo could clear the other two corners of the binding at their leisure.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Imke said, kneeling down before him. “You ready for three more of those?”
He nuzzled for her cigarettes.
“I suppose you’ve earned it.”
In the light of the match, Pilo let out a honk of surprise. He reached one wing up to touch her left temple. The hair there felt strange, yet also familiar. She held up a lock and saw to her dismay that it had turned as white as the bolt at her right temple. How much of her life had she traded for the power she had just wielded. Days? A week? More? The match burnt down to her fingers. She let out a yelp as she dropped it, and was about to light another when a great commotion erupted at the base of the building. People yelling in Flemish, an anguished wail, and angry German responses.
The morning brilliance blinded her as she ran out the door. She reached a hand up to shade her eyes, but before her vision could adjust, somebody tackled her to the ground. The woman stank of unwashed underclothes and ash. Arthritic fingers clawed at Imke.
“Collaborator!” she screamed. “Did you help them burn my orchard? Did you?”
Pilo honked in rage. The other refugees were shouting and begging for food.
Imke tried to push the crone away. “I didn’t touch your orchard.”
“Five beautiful trees,” she said, her breath rancid. “Chopped down in the fullness of their fruit. You did it, collaborator. You cut down my trees!”
The fusilier with the golden moustache threw the crone off. She landed beside her empty kindling basket, weeping. Pilo flew over to reprimand the old woman.
Imke was about to thank the fusilier when he snatched Pilo out of the air and, with a quick twist, broke the duck’s neck.
“Here,” the soldier said in stunted Flemish. “Feed your children.”
He threw Pilo’s body to the refugees.
Imke heard herself shouting incoherent pleas as the refugees fought over Pilo. Bright green and orange feathers drifted above the scrum. Her friend, her teacher. And these monsters were tearing him to pieces.
That childish rage flared in Imke. She couldn’t bottle it, not this time, but she could channel the streams of magma. She spoke the Ur-tongue. An old spell, the first that came to mind. Precise and controlled. All her fury poured into it. As she finished the last syllable, the fusilier and the refugees tearing at Pilo disappeared. Only the old crone and the other soldier remained. Empty clothing fell into heaps on the cobblestones. Nesting at the centre of each bundle was a leafy green head of cabbage. Eleven, Imke counted. Eleven piles of clothing, eleven heads of cabbage.
At this, the old crone cackled in delight.
Imke fell to her knees, staring in horror at what she’d just done. In her mind, she leafed through all the spells she’d ever read, looking for anything that could undo this—some of the cabbages were much smaller than the others—when the other soldier drove his rifle into the back of her skull.
As she fell, a dozen pieces of kindling appeared in the old woman’s wicker basket. No, Imke realized. Not a dozen.
Iron-shod boots marching on cobblestones. The sound a terrible storm washing away the peace of one hundred years. Imke smelled sun-warmed brick and the stink of the woman who had attacked her. Her eyes were covered in rough fabric, her arms bound behind her. She reached for her magic, but it was as if a great stone floor had been built between her and the depths from which she drew her power.
“I don’t think we have long, Imke,” the Head Fellow said from somewhere nearby.
In the darkness behind the blindfold, Imke watched Monsieur Pilo’s body tumble end-over-end toward the starving refugees. The rage that had gripped her then found her now, and she was glad that she couldn’t reach her magic.
“Oh Madame,” Imke said, choking on the words. “I did something unforgivable.”
“Unforgivable only in that you were so inefficient in your sorcery,” said Hauptmann von Lepske in his perfect German. “You’ve aged two years in the span of an hour, Fellow Tison. Is this how you teach magic, Vandroogenbroeck? It is no wonder your country fell so easily.”
“Damn you, von Lepske,” the Head Fellow hissed, and she began to incant.
“Tutt, tutt,” said the Hauptmann, as if scolding a child. “I’ve etched a circle of negation around you both. There will be no vegetable surprises here. If you have any last words, don’t waste them on the Ur-tongue.”
Rough hands lifted Imke to her feet. They pressed her back to a brick wall, the very walls of La Tour Noire, she was sure. The Head Fellow was positioned arm-to-arm beside her.
“This isn’t right, Hauptmann,” the Head Fellow said. “One of our Fellowship was murdered. Imke was only defending herself.”
“By turning a soldier and a dozen refugees into cabbage?”
“Bring them here and I will turn them back. Please, Ernst. Extend me another courtesy.”
“It is too late for that,” the Hauptmann said. “I went to the scene of the crime. All evidence of the partisan attack had been harvested. No doubt my fusilier and your refugees have already been stewed.”
Imke let out a sob, realizing now what was to come. “Head Fellow Vandroogenbroeck had nothing to do with this, Hauptmann. I was the one who cast the spell. Only me.”
“Quiet, girl,” he said. “By the authority granted to me as a representative of Count Von Der Goltz, I hereby sentence you both to death by firing squad for the killing of Fusilier Borke.”
“Please, sir,” Imke said. “I found the apprentice who cast the binding.” She thought of the basket filling up with kindling; those had been the souls of the people she had vegetated. The old woman who carried the basket must have cast the binding. “At least defer my punishment until we have stopped her.”
“Justice cannot be deferred,” the Hauptmann said, raising his sabre. “May God have mercy on your souls.”
“No,” Imke shouted, but she was drowned out by the thunder of the fusillade.
Hundreds of birds taking flight at once. A sound like a bag of groceries falling to the floor. Imke couldn’t understand why her heart still beat. Was this another vision? Was this death? The air was hot and tinged with gunsmoke, blood and piss.
Gloved hands removed her blindfold. She blinked in the August sun. The Head Fellow lay to her left. They had shot her beneath one of the Burgomaster’s posters: “Brussels, Open City. Offer No Resistance.” Both the wall and the poster were stained with her blood. Twenty paces away, the soldiers were checking their rifles. Starlings roiled in a great black cloud across the sky.
“Head Fellow,” someone said.
Two fusiliers dragged the Head Fellow’s body by the ankles toward a cart. All that knowledge, all that power, lost to the world when they needed it most.
“The Head Fellow is gone,” Imke heard herself say.
The Hauptmann took her chin in his gloved hands and turned her face so she was looking into his too-young eyes in that ancient, weathered face. “You are the most senior Fellow remaining in the city, so the post is yours.”
Imke flinched away from him. “There must be an election.”
“Consider your appointment provisional!” the Hauptmann snapped. “I have spared your life, Head Fellow. Show me a little gratitude. Attacking the fusilier wasn’t wrong—he murdered a man we both respected—but justice wasn’t yours to exact. With this, I have returned balance to our relationship. But I want you to remember your place. Defer to the authority of the Kaiser. You will not get a second opportunity to walk away from the firing squad. Do you understand?”
He looked up at her, demanding an answer. All Imke could manage was a nod.
“Good. Now, I understand we have some necromancy to annul. As you are short-handed, I will assist you in completing this task. Shall we?”
He indicated back toward the Boulevard. The marching song was unintelligible from this distance. Imke took out her slate. Much of the map Pilo had drawn was smudged beyond recognition, but it helped to hold it, to have this thing that had so connected her and her mentor.
“Here,” she said, pointing to the Carmelite Church. “Our next stop must be here.”
The Hauptmann put a silver whistle to his lips and blew, though it made no sound. Hooves rang on the cobblestones. When Imke saw the unicorn canter into the courtyard, it was all she could do to stop herself from weeping. It was a mare the same brilliant white as the horse-hair plume atop the Hauptmann’s hat. When it knelt before him, she felt sick. Nothing so beautiful should debase herself before such filth, yet the creature did not flinch as he climbed onto her back.
He extended a gloved hand to her. When she hesitated, he said: “There is much I can teach you, Head Fellow. You are powerful, of that I have no doubt, but your methods are sloppy. Inefficient. As we unravel this binding, I will teach some German precision.” He waited, his hand out. “Don’t make me ask again.”
Repressing a shiver of revulsion, she took his hand and climbed onto the unicorn.
As they rode, Imke choked down her bile. In the space of an hour, she had watched both her mentor and the head of her order killed, and she had committed an atrocity. For the first half of that ride, clutching to the perfumed coattails of the man who had ordered the Head Fellow’s death, Imke wished she too had been shot. But as they rode through the city, passing hundreds of refugees who did a poor job of hiding their fear and hatred, Imke’s loathing found a better target. The Hauptmann. He wanted the animaquary and the power of the hundreds of thousands of souls it would gather.
He must not have it, the Head Fellow had told her. So Imke wouldn’t let him have it. As penance for those she’d killed, she swore she’d stop him.
They dismounted before the Carmelite Church. Another blast of the Hauptmann’s silent silver whistle sent the unicorn back to the dream-realm it called home. A unit of bergmonch marched on the Boulevard Waterloo. Twice the height of any man, they wore vestments cut from the same grey cloth as the rest of the army. Walking in pairs, they carried massive cannons between them and did not sing.
Brusseleers and refugees waited in a long queue near the church, at the end of which a silent nun handed out bread. Once Imke was done with the Hauptmann, she would leave this place, go somewhere where she couldn’t hurt anyone again.
Imke spotted the old woman in the line, her basket of kindling on the ground before her. A dozen twigs filled the basket, every one of them a captured soul.
Leave here, Imke signed to the woman, hoping there was enough left of the old crone that she remembered her early lessons.
Surprise shone in the woman’s mad eyes. Her fingers moved slowly on the rim of the basket, and a smile twisted her chapped lips. Hate now them also yes?
Orchard will grow again, Imke signed.
“There a problem?” the Hauptmann said, as he reached the doors of the church.
Imke shook her head, and made a final, desperate gesture toward the crone. Please go.
The silent nun tried to bar the Hauptmann from entering, but the soldiers moved her out of the way. He posted a pair of soldiers to guard the door and two more inside the cavernous nave to keep watch while they descended into the crypt.
Imke followed the Hauptmann and another pair of soldiers into the stone-walled chamber. Dust rained from the ceiling onto a dozen stone coffins in time with the marching bergmonch outside The stink of damp rot filled the place, and the only light came from the Hauptmann’s sword, which he held aloft, the blade spilling a gentle white luminescence.
One of the soldiers, a young man of no more than eighteen, crossed himself.
“Easy, boys,” the Hauptmann said to the soldiers. “Nothing here can harm us.”
Imke approached the soul binding where it had been etched onto the wall. The glyph was disguised as a curse on those who would disturb the dead. Imke wondered if the mad old woman had seen the irony in that.
“Juvenile work,” the Hauptmann said. “This shouldn’t take more than a minute. Show me how the Fellowship prepares its Yeomen.”
A lump rose in Imke’s throat when she took out the chalk, but she forced it down and began to trace the pentagram and circle on the stone floor beneath the glyph. There was no room for error here. The Hauptmann’s young eyes in that ancient face watched her every move. To deviate at all would condemn more of her countrymen. So she pictured Monsieur Pilo there beside her. Though he was human in her imagination, he had green and orange mandarin feathers in the brim of his hat, and he could only speak in honks and hisses. With him there with her, she could control her magic.
“With your leave, I’ll begin the invocation?” she said. Be docile, she thought. Be meek. Be conquered. And be ready to act.
The Hauptmann waved her toward the pentagram. As she stepped into the circle, the church echoed with three quick gunshots, then silence. Shouting from above, another volley, a sound like a small avalanche.
“Is this your doing?” the Hauptmann said.
“You’ve been with me this whole time,” Imke said.
“Begin the breaking,” he said. “If this is the failed apprentice, I’ll put an end to them. Be ready, boys”
But he didn’t need to warn the soldiers who stood with them; both already trained their rifles at the simple wooden door that sealed the crypt. It began to rattle in its hinges, as if a steam engine was trying to shake it to pieces, then the vibrations ended as quickly as they’d begun. The two soldiers exchanged terrified glances.
The quiet that followed was broken only by dual incantations from Imke and the Hauptmann, and the ceaseless march of the army above.
“Show yourself!” the Hauptmann shouted.
The door exploded inward as if struck by an artillery shell. Vicious lengths of shattered oak impaled both soldiers, but the largest chunk was aimed at the Hauptmann. The heavy timber should have crushed him, but he held his sabre before him, and the door splintered when it touched the sabre’s point.
The crone stepped in through the doorway, dragging her basket with her.
“You,” she said to the Hauptmann. “You burned my orchard.”
She whipped one of the pieces of kindling out of the basket and snapped it in two. Imke recoiled, sickened at the violation the crone performed so casually. The soul she’d just shattered released a roiling torrent of raw magical energy, and with a few hurried syllables, the crone wrestled that energy into the stone floor.
A soldier made of rubble began to crawl up from the stone and soil beneath, but the Hauptmann kicked it with his polished boots, and the rubble-soldier fell to pieces before it could be born.
The Hauptmann laughed in derision. “All that power, and the best you can do with it is summon a bodengeist?” He made a fist with his free hand, and the stones that had been trying to form into a man flew across the crypt and slammed into the crone, knocking her off her feet.
Imke stuttered in her incantation.
“Keep working, Head Fellow,” the Hauptmann said, not looking behind him. “I’ll handle this hedge-witch.”
The crone moved faster than seemed possible for her ancient, wrecked body. She broke another stick. Tendrils of pale smoke flowed from her fingertips into each of the stone coffins that filled the crypt. Bones moved within, and the lids of the coffins began to slide open.
“Five beautiful trees,” the crone said. “In the fullness of their fruit.”
The Hauptmann raised his sabre with both hands and uttered three short syllables. Every coffin slammed closed. When he brought down the sabre with a swift cut, vines grew up from the stone floor, enveloping the coffins and sealing them shut. Imke marvelled at his precision.
“Trees?” the Hauptmann said. “Surely you haven’t done all this for a few spindly pear trees.” The crone hissed and cursed him, and the Hauptmann laughed. “You don’t remember, do you? Whatever ungodly amount of yourself you spent on the binding burned it out of your ill-trained mind. Perhaps I can remedy that.”
He pointed his sabre at her and sang an ancient lullaby. The crone, who had been ready to break another twig, fell onto her side and pressed her gnarled hands to her mouth. The sound that came out of her silenced Imke. It wasn’t weeping; this was a woman’s soul being torn to pieces.
“Not pear trees then,” the Hauptmann said. “Where were your sons stationed? Liège? Namur?”
He took a step toward the crone, so intent on her that he didn’t notice that Imke had changed her incantation. She took up the slate on which a few lines of Pilo’s map still remained.
“Liège,” the crone said through her tears. “I brought each of them into this world—five beautiful boys—and in a single day—one wretched day—your army took them all from me.”
“An unfathomable loss, Madame,” the Hauptmann said, raising his sword. “Let me send you to them.”
Imke poured magic into the slate as the Hauptmann brought down his blade. The slate flew like it was fired from a siege gun, glowing with the red heat of her fury. It struck the Hauptmann square in the back, knocking him across the crypt and into the far wall.
She ran to the crone, but it was too late. The Hauptmann’s sabre was embedded halfway through her neck. Those eyes, no longer mad, were still weeping as the light went out of them. The stick she’d been holding fell from her fingers.
Imke let out a scream. The church shook with her rage.
“Perhaps I do not give the Fellowship enough credit,” the Hauptmann said. He’d hit the wall with enough force to knock him senseless, but he simply brushed the dust off his uniform and held up his hand. His sabre made a whistling sound as it soared back across the room to its master. “That caught me quite by surprise.”
“I won’t let you have their souls,” Imke said, standing between the Hauptmann and the basket full of kindling. “That much power can never be yours.”
The Hauptmann laughed as he stepped toward her. “Then try to stop me.”
The blade flew at her in a blinding spray of light. She only had an instant to draw up a ward. The impact knocked her backward, but she stayed on her feet. Every spell she’d ever read leafed by in her mind’s eye: she picked one she thought he might not anticipate.
The floor around the Hauptmann turned to liquid stone, and he sank up to his shoulders. But even as the stone solidified around him, he spoke the Ur-tongue, and his body melted into gauzy smoke that flowed out of the tomb she’d made for him, reforming into a man a few paces away.
“Creative,” he said. “But you are being too gentle. This is a duel, Imke. Only one of us will walk back into the light.”
He drove the point of the sabre into the ground, and the blade emerged under her left foot, driving up through her boot in a gout of blood. Imke screamed and fell to the flagstones beside the dead crone. Her foot was pinned as if she were a beetle on display. He barked one of his little giggles and left his sabre driven into the stone while he walked toward her.
“That was entertaining,” he said. “I’ll give you that.”
Imke tried to reach the slate, which lay a few paces ahead of her, but every movement sent bolts of agony coursing through her. She collapsed against the stones once more. As she tried to push herself upright, her hand closed over the piece of kindling the crone had been holding.
When she swung the stick around, the Hauptmann paused, a look of true worry on his face for the first time since she’d met him.
“The Fellowship abhors necromancy,” he said.
“There is no more Fellowship,” she said.
She snapped the stick in two. For a moment, as the soul’s energy poured into the crypt, she could see a human form in the maelstrom. Someone’s son. But the shape disappeared as Imke took hold of the chaos. She spoke a few quick words of the Ur-tongue and poured the soul’s energy into the Hauptmann.
He writhed in agony. His mouth and nose stretched out into a snout, the bones snapping and creaking like old floor boards. Already his fingers were shrinking, twisting, turning to useless claws. Coarse white hairs punched out along his jaw and neck and he let out a shrill, animal scream. The stink of an old attic filled the crypt, his shrinking head slipped beneath the neck of his jacket, and he collapsed to the stone floor. The white horse-hair hat landed upright on top of empty grey fabric.
Imke trembled for a moment in the sudden stillness of the crypt, then emptied the contents of her stomach across the flagstones. When the retching stopped, she pulled her foot off the Hauptmann’s blade. The sight of all that blood threatened to set her retching again, so she spoke quick words of healing and leaned up against a coffin to catch her breath.
As the army thundered by above, the Hauptmann’s horse-hair hat wobbled once, twice, and then a pink, whiskered nose emerged from beneath the brim.
“That’s quite enough,” Imke said.
She lifted another twig from the crone’s basket and snapped it in two.
Imke felt nauseated in the crone’s clothing. She’d kept her dress and jacket on beneath the filthy rags, but that had been a mistake.
Four carts of books sat in the courtyard outside La Tour Noire, all that remained of the Fellowship’s once great library. One of the German officers who had collected the books was marching over to her, lecturing in broken Flemish that she was not allowed here.
Imke snapped one of the twigs. The nausea sharpened, but she didn’t retch, which was good. If she were to be an effective necromancer, she couldn’t go around throwing up each time she performed black magic.
Every single German in the courtyard collapsed into separate piles of empty uniforms, and from each one of those piles, a starling took flight. They flew confused and alarmed, some flying straight into the wall still stained with the Head Fellow’s blood, but others flew with ease. The natural starlings who called the tower home squawked in protest at these new arrivals.
Most of the books were useless, but a few contained magics that Imke might need. She put them in a sack, then she undressed. She tossed her skirt and jacket onto the carts, then tore down the blood-stained Open City poster and used it to set the carts aflame. She pushed each burning cart into La Tour Noire.
With smoke rising behind her, she dragged the basket out of the courtyard, but it had grown heavier. Dozens of sticks materialized in the basket every few seconds. The German Imperial Army must have made it to the front.
The silver whistle she’d taken from the Hauptmann’s empty uniform was warm to the touch. She wiped it off before bringing it to her lips. When the unicorn cantered toward her, she knew that it would be impossible to move through the occupied territories astride such a conspicuous beast. A quick snap of a twig, and the unicorn transformed into a mule with a snow white tail.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the beast, who snorted in alarm. “But the transformation is permanent. An old trick I learned from a neanderthal.”
She tied the basket to the mule’s back and took out the little metal cage she’d shaped from the Hauptmann’s sword. Within it, a snow-white rat with brilliant blue eyes chewed at the silver enclosure.
“I know you intended me to learn German precision,” she said, as she tied the silver cage above the filling basket “But you’ve taught me something much more valuable: Belgian rage. It is a lesson I intend to teach your armies.”
The Hauptmann rat squeaked in protest.
When she reached the Boulevard Waterloo, a collection of baggage carts being pulled by grumpy aurochs was trudging through the city. After they passed, only a hot wind filled the great thoroughfare. Brusseleers and refugees took tentative steps out onto the cobblestones to reclaim their city.
Imke waited until the afternoon heat passed, then followed the army out into no man’s land.