“Did you die?” said Bastet, the goddess’ green eyes bright and wide as she listened, rapt with attention, although apparently not much critical thought.
“Is she serious, kid?” I asked, frowning at the kid, who was currently bringing in a plate with some toast for me, and a tuna-fish sandwich for Bastet. He shrugged, and I sighed. “Yeah, I died. The batallion fell, Horus was summoned, the Nazis won, and that’s why we’re all speaking German and why we mummified Hitler. Danke schon, junker,” I said to Horace as he started shredding the toast for me. I pecked at it. “No, I didn’t die. Hawks, eagles, falcons, they’re all ambush predators. The trick is to feel them coming. And as I previously mentioned, I’m good at the smoke thing.”
The asshole’s eyes must have been insanely good. The smoke rising from the destroyed tanks was creating a thick cloud of cover. To see me through that, the giant bastard had to have second sight.
He wasn’t the only one. As I mentioned, I am a natural capnomancer. I saw the twists and eddies in the smoke, and my brain worked at double-time. My already lightning-fast reflexes, designed to let me slalom through trees at 60 miles an hour, went into overtime. I dove, flared my wings, spiralled up, and over the descending apocalypse of feathers and talons.
“Nice try, asshole! Bet that one gets all the chicks!”
The eagle did an unthinkably complicated maneuver in mid-air, turning to face me, those brilliant eyes boring into me.
Eagles, as a rule, are not intelligent birds. Most predators are not intelligent. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they’re downright stupid-
I dodged to one side as Bastet lunged at me, fluttering up into the air. “As I have just demonstrated,” I said, landing on the table again as she glared balefully at me.
Eagles are no exception to this. Flying down at high speeds and killing something a third your size doesn’t require imagination, or brilliance. It just requires using what nature gave you. There’s no spark that you’d find in a human’s eye, or even a pigeon’s.
This eagle had the spark. And it looked pissed at me for not dying like I was supposed to.
The men below raised their guns, and fired. The M1 Garand barked as soldiers fired, trying to keep the eagle off of me. I appreciated the thought, but frankly, the addition of hot lead to the situation was not making things any simpler or calmer. The two of us danced and spun in the air, and the eagle was as good as I was at dodging the bullets, despite being five times my size, and easily twenty times my weight. The two of us danced a complicated spin, using the air.
The thing was, eagles, hawks, falcons, they’re all ambush predators. They take down their prey with one sudden, brutal blow. If that first one misses, they’re at a significant disadvantage. This one didn’t seem to realize it. I decided to educate him, and dove.
The men cried out in despair at first as I fell, probably thinking I’d taken a bad hit. When I flared my wings and flew between them, they cheered. They raised their guns, swinging at the eagle as it followed me, trying to knock the big brute out of the sky. The efforts were wasted, but it meant I was gaining speed. More, I had to move around a lot less weight. The eagle could dive and glide fast. But when it came to pumping those wings, to blitzing across the countryside without the aid of gravity, I left it in the dust.
All the same, this eagle was determined. It followed me hard and fast through the lines of men, keeping up with my hardest turns and my most brutal maneuvers. It wasn’t going to give me a second to breathe, and the sun was hanging on the horizon. I had to do something reckless. Something daring.
I spotted one of the tanks. I darted for it, my breast burning with the exertion, the intense flapping leaving my whole body aching with exertion. I wasn’t quite done yet, though. I flew forward, feeling the heat almost great enough to singe, and spread my wings wide. I rose into the sky on the pillar of hot air. The eagle let out a sharp, gull-like cry of pleasure, following me, its wings flaring. Larger, more designed to gather the heat, sending it rocketing towards me.
I folded my wings to my side, pulled my body in tight, and hurtled downwards like a falcon.
For most birds, this would be suicide. Like throwing a lightbulb at a rottweiler, it might hurt the dog, but it’d hurt the lightbulb a lot more. My body was a delicate bundle of sticks, compared to the huge and muscular eagle. But I was special.
I struck the eagle hard, and fast, and something snapped in the eagle’s chest. The bird let out a sharp cry of pain that was almost human, and the sun set, as I felt my whole body ache with the pain. Something had snapped in me, too. I spread my wings, and searing pain left me nearly blacking out. The sun set, and my vision tightened to a narrow band around me, full of darkness and fear.
There was a swish of wind, and a low, feminine voice with a very distinct German accent spoke. “Good flight, herr. We will have to finish it another time.”
I tumbled down through the air with bad grace, and landed on the sand, feeling my whole body ache. I’d broken in half a dozen places. I was special, but not invincible. It didn’t feel like I’d pierced any vital organs, but I ached like hell.
“Jesus. Did you see that? The pigeon dive-bombed that fucking Kraut eagle. Damn it. Is it dead?”
A man approached me. I heard his boots scraping through the soft, still-hot sand. I raised a wing, and cooed softly.
“It’s alive. It’s still alive!”
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the cheers began. Word from outside. One of the pigeons making it past the lines of defenses. The hope of salvation.
It beat the hell out of any pill I’d ever taken, and I could feel my bones reknitting as I fluttered up to my feet, looking the man directly in the eye.
“Where’s your commanding officer, kid?”
The man gaped, but at the moment, he was in a bad way. This company had clearly seen hell. They were not in a place to judge these things. He simply nodded mutely, and pointed.
“Mind if I ride on your shoulder? I just flew in from headquarters, and boy, are my arms tired.”
The ride on the kid’s shoulder was heaven itself. Even with the warmth of the men’s regard, their sudden hope on seeing me outmaneuver the eagle and reach the safety of the encampment, my body was in no small amount of pain. Having someone else bear the weight, just for a little while, did worlds for my morale.
The command tent, on the other hand, did nothing.
There are two categories of men. In fact, there are billions; Humans like nothing so much as dividing thing into categories, because broad generalizations are usually as good as specific information. But there are two broad generalizations of men who are facing death. There’s the kind who get loud, who talk, who joke, or who compulsively command, or who otherwise try to drown out the voice in their head telling them that the end is nigh. And there’s the kind who get quiet, either because they’re stunned by the enormity of it all, or because they can’t believe it’s happening, or because they’re resigned to death, or because they are saving all of their energy for one last, heroic effort to preserve their own lives.
The commander was the former. A stream of men came in with complaints. He balanced them with grace, controlling the shrinking world he could, trying to stave off death until dawn. The man sitting in the corner, smoking cigarette after cigarette, seemed the latter. He smoked the cigarettes like he breathed nicotine, and from the look of the man, he just might.
The third was playing the bagpipes loudly, and very badly. He seemed to defy categorization entirely, and wore a sword on one hip, and a large wooden staff over his shoulder.
“What news?” asked the commander, sharply. He waved at one of the adjutants, and most of the men in the place left, leaving only the four of us.
“General Patton sends his regards.”
The reaction of the three men told me worlds. The commander gaped, open-mouthed and visibly shocked. The smoking man narrowed his eyes, and muttered something dark as he made a warding gesture. And the man with the bagpipes stopped playing them, let them hang from a strap over his shoulder, and produced a crust of bread from his pocket. “Here, birdy,” he said, crumbling it up.
“Is now the time?” said the commander, eying the man.
“Trick like that, the bird damn well deserves a bit of bread. Both the talking, and the flying through the lines. Eagle didn’t get this one?”
“It tried,” I said, and the man laughed. He extended the bread crust to me, and I gulped it down hungrily, lifting my head to the commander. “I’m sorry to say, I’m not the vanguard of an avenging army. Not yet, anyway. What’s the status?”
“Bad,” said the commander. “We are down significantly on manpower. The Nazis proved to have invested far more in this ridiculous boondoggle than such a long shot deserved.”
“Their risk is consummate to the gain they may have,” said the smoking man, his eyes on a folder in his lap. I was fairly sure it hadn’t been there before.
“How long do you have?” I asked.
“With dawn, they will likely overrun us. They arrived just barely after we did, and set up the cordon you see outside. Most of our pigeon flock was decimated by that gods-damned eagle,” said the commander. He looked up, and at me, clearly still somewhat shocked by the fact that I could talk, and too close to death to question it. “If you flew through the night…”
“I don’t think that it’d have a chance,” I said, softly. “I could make the flight, and be out of sight of the eagle. Their night time vision isn’t great. But to make it and get forces here in time to make a difference…”
“Damn,” he said, softly. “We shall fight, hold out-”
A young man opened the tent flap, stepping in. The commander looked up sharply, biting back the words. “This is an extremely secret meeting, private-”
A second man swept into the room behind him. He was tall, and broad-shouldered, notably so. Patton was a big man, and this man would’ve had a couple of inches on him. He was dressed in a sandy brown uniform, but all of us would’ve recognized him for what he was immediately. Krauts were the only ones who went in for those godawful scars. “Greetings, Commander Blake.”
“He came under a white flag of truce,” said the young man, his face showing great fear and hope, too.
“To discuss the terms of your surrender,” said the Nazi, smiling, his English shockingly good. “None of us here want unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Well,” said the man with the sword, grinning as he rested his hand lightly on the basket-shaped hilt. “I don’t know about that.”
“Settle down, John,” said the smoking man. “He’d kill us all.”
“Well, hearing that just makes the temptation all the sweeter,” said John, grinning, though he didn’t strike quite yet.
“Surrender,” said the commander, softly.
“Your men will be treated well. Erwin Rommel’s army will be given command of the prisoners, including any…” At this, the man sneered, and with a scar like that, the sneer became a thing of dark horror. “Judenrat. I am assured that they will be extended the finest support. Perhaps they will even survive the end of this war; that man misses the entire point of what we are doing.”
“Surrender.” There was something like longing in the commander’s eyes, but his gaze went to the smoking man. The smoking man took a long puff from his cigarette, and lowered it.
“No surrender,” he said, quite solemnly. His accent was as neutral and toneless as any I’d heard. There was something odd about it.
“Are you certain?” asked the German, looking disquietingly eager. “Many men will die. On both sides. Far more on your side, naturally, but the thought of spilling my men’s blood needlessly- Well, it rankles. If you could be sensible-”
At this, the man with the sword, who had spent the last ten seconds breathing into the bagpipes, began to play them at a volume that came nothing short of assault. I’ll be damned if I could tell what the song is- all bagpipe music sounds fundamentally the same to me. The moment he finished, the German opened his mouth to make some second offer, and John interrupted him with another furious melody. After perhaps three refrains, the Nazi sighed.
“I will take this as your argument.” He turned away.
“Do you know what you are doing, Otto?” asked the smoking man, softly. “What you intend to bring into the world? Why?”
“The Norse gods have proven… recalcitrant. The Almighty has turned his face from his world. We have left the realm of what is desirable, what is wanted, and have entered the realm of need.”
“You want to destroy the Jews that much, do you?” asked the Commander, head tilted to one side.
“It is not the Jews who we intend to go to war against,” said Otto. “It is not an ideal solution. But you must set a thief to catch a thief, yes?”
“And how, exactly, do you expect to make a god do your bidding?” asked the smoking man, his voice soft and pointed. “You’ll be burned in your own arrogance, and the rest of us will burn with you.”
“Oh, we know a secret,” said Otto, grinning. “Something the god will want to know very badly indeed. It will make us the very best of friends. Now, if you have not come to your senses sufficient to surrender-” Otto raised a hand as John lifted the bagpipes threateningly to his mouth. “I will take my leave. We will attack at dawn. And please, do feel free to keep sending the gutter birds. My eagle has relished the chase. They were very well trained, for vermin.”
The man walked out, with all the serenity of a man who believed he was in no danger whatsoever. That rankled, and I could tell by the way that John thoughtfully touched the hilt of his sword that I was not the only one vexed by the Nazi.
“So,” I said, in the silence that followed. “They’ve got the relic thing, yeah? The one they need to summon a god?”
“Yes,” said the smoking man. “No reports on what it looks like.”
“So, if we got hold of that, they’d lose.”
“They would still wipe us out to a man, but yes. Without a god, Rommel’s campaign is doomed,” said the commander, wiping his forehead.
“But we cannot find it,” said the smoking man, sighing. “No idea what it may look like-”
“Does it glow incredibly brightly?”
All three humans stared at me.
“I saw something like that while I was flying. A really bright place in the German camp.”
“A demon,” muttered the smoking man, frowning. John gave him a surprised look.
“Come off it. He’s not a bad chap, and he did come all this way to give us word.”
“A technical term,” said the smoking man, waving a hand. “Not a moral judgement. Some are capable of such things- seeing the magic that lies in things. The man carried it into this very room- Who could imagine what he was thinking?” He took a slow puff on the cigarette, his eyes glowing as they reflected the cherry-red tip. Then he breathed out. “A raid. Small numbers, enter their camp. Could you carry the relic to Patton if you found it, bird?”
“Easy. But what about everyone here?”
“To pull off the ruse properly, we will have to die. All of us.” The man sighed, and stubbed out the cigarette on his own palm without any apparent sign of being bothered by it. “The pigeon carries it away, we die heroically, the Germans do not realize they have been fooled until they believe victory is within reach. A dark god goes where it is safe: into American hands.”
I nodded. “Who on the mission, then?”
“You, myself, and the Lieutenant Colonel,” said the smoking man, nodding at John, who grinned, and pulled the staff off of his back, taking out a fine string, hooking it to one end and then the other. “Still a good shot with that?”
“Most reliable silenced weapon there is,” said John, winking as he grabbed a large leather cylinder off of the ground. He paused for a moment, and eyed me. “Any chance I could borrow a feather, birdy?”
“It’s Joe to you.” I frowned. “Sure, help yourself.” I lifted a wing. He carefully tugged a feather, and it came loose easily. He winked, and pulled out what I recognized as an arrow. The man was walking around with a bow.
“We must set off as soon as possible. Captain Steinberg?”
The commander had been quiet until now. He looked up, head tilted to one side. “Yes, sir?”
“We shall return.” He stood up, and walked to the door, casting a brief look at John and I. I hopped onto John’s shoulder, and the man began walking after the smoking man, inspecting an arrow and tying the feather to it.
“Hey, I suspect that you’re going to tell me it’s none of my business,” I said, softly, as we left the camp, moving low and crouching close to the sand, eyes sharp for sentries, “but how exactly do you know everything you do? And what are a Lieutenant Colonel and whatever you are doing with an armored company?”
“The Lieutenant Colonel is here because he enjoys beating new people, and I am here because I am the resident expert on these phenomena. The mere fact that you are aware of this mission puts you at a level of intelligence which clears you to know my nature.” He looked over his shoulder. “I cannot use specifics, you understand. But I am a part of the government. A part that is aware of the existence of demons, gods, and the other miscellaneous bric-a-brac of a world that is too dark. We endeavor to harness the forces that inhabit the night for the good of humanity in general, and the United States in particular.”
I noticed that Horace’s expression had gotten very thoughtful. “Did I say something, kid?”
“No. Just, I think I know them. Go on.”
“Mister Otto, there, has some very unpleasant plans,” said the smoking man- who was, admittedly, no longer smoking, but hadn’t given me better to work with.
“The gods have become quiescent. They no longer interfere in the world. Even the exceptions, like Amaterasu, are content to remain relatively quiet, more of a threat than an actual danger. Otto wishes to wake up one of the sleeping gods, in the hopes of striking a bargain. This is unimaginably dangerous. If we are lucky, the god will be intact, and merely megalomaniacal and arrogant beyond belief. He may decide to destroy one or both sides of this conflict, and while the United States is working on a project to counteract these forces, it will not be ready for some years.” He shook his head. “If we are unlucky, he will be something altogether more terrifying, and will make us all wish we had died.”
“What the fuck are the Krauts this nervous about that they’re risking a mutual destruction?” I asked, softly, as we approached the camp.
“The war is not going well for Germany. The invasion of Russia failed them catastrophically, they are being driven back. They still hold Europe, but they are desperate for an advantage. But yes, I agree, this is… strikingly desperate,” said the smoking man, frowning as he kept forward. “Perhaps they wish to destroy the world if they fail. Or perhaps… Well, it is no concern.” He narrowed his eyes at the light. “Where is this light?”
“There. Smallish tent, two guards. They must be trying to keep it subtle.” I indicated a tent with one raised wing- To the others, it would look just like the others. To me, it stood out bright and shining among the tents.
“Think you can handle it, Colonel?” asked the smoking man. John nodded slowly as he drew two arrows. “Don’t show off. Just take the one on the right on my mark.”
“What shall the mark be?” asked John, an eyebrow raised.
“The one on the left dropping with a cut throat.” The smoking man disappeared into the night. John held one arrow in a reverse grip, the other nocked on the bow. He pulled back with a barely audible grunt, and closed one eye, sighting.
The Kraut on the left dropped, clutching at his throat. The one on the right turned, and the arrow seemed to appear as though by magic from his spine. He dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, not making a noise.
The third Kraut came around the tent, and had just enough time to go for a whistle around his neck before a second arrow appeared in his right eye-socket. My eyes were better, more capable of discerning fast movement than a human’s. I still hadn’t noticed John spinning the arrow in his hand, nocking it, and sending it at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound.
“Damn,” said John, frowning. “I was aiming for the left eye.”
“Really?” I asked, unable to keep the slight awe out of my voice.
“No,” he said, and chuckled as he scurried forward through the sand. I flapped after him, watching as he grabbed the bodies with the smoking man, and dragged them into the tent.
“Good god,” I said, studying the interior. “Look at that. One of the murals, depicting Anubis weighing the heart of a pharaoh. I’d say… twelfth dynasty.”
“Really?” said John, surprised. “You can tell?”
“God no. The Egyptians didn’t evolve much over the course of three thousand years of artwork. But it’s a beautiful piece.” I tilted my head, looking at another. “And here- Osiris, Isis, and Horus, in gold and lapis lazuli. These belong in a museum.”
“One suspects the Germans agreed,” said the smoking man. “You know Egyptian mythology?”
“No. But I know art.” I alighted atop the stone slab where the mural had been painted, and nodded my beak towards the corner. “In the lockbox.”
The smoking man crouched down, and worked open the box.
“This eye. This is the crux of their plan, yeah?”
“Yes,” said the smoking man.
“What about the ley line? Any chance they can still do something unpleasant with it?”
“Unlikely. When they discover that the eye is no longer here, they will have little use for the conduit. It is not a place of mortal magic.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I said, frowning.
“My current working theory is that it is not so much a matter of power flowing through this place. It’s about familiarity. Somewhere that was comforting to Horus. The process of returning to life may be… traumatic, to the god. Providing this familiar location may help the god keep it together.” The smoking man shrugged. “Perhaps I’m completely off, but there is no well of power here that I can detect that would justify Otto’s obsession.”
“What I’m getting from this, though, is that the really important thing is the eye,” I said.
“To the point that, say, if they knew I was running off with it, they’d put everything they have into chasing me, because if it gets away from them, they’re screwed. And they’d be leaving a maimed force to limp home. Lot of our boys out there would live through this, who might not otherwise.”
The smoking man looked up, his expression cold as stone. “If their deaths buy you even the smallest chance of success, Captain, I will spend them. And spend them gladly.”
“I can outrun that eagle. I can outrun the entire goddamn Kraut force. With respect, sir,” I added, because while they probably couldn’t court martial me, they could sure as hell cut my bird seed ration.
“You’re willing to bet the future of democracy on that? Willing to bet the freedom of America that you’re fast enough that you can do this with them aware that you’re making the run? For a handful of men? Because I am not, and it’s my call.”
“Sir,” I said, softly. “War’s not about spending lives.”
“That is precisely what war is about, Captain.”
“That’s what politicians think. And sometimes officers get their heads mixed up, they start thinking they’re politicians.” I defecated on the sand, showing precisely what I thought of politicians, and officers who forgot what they were. “For a soldier, war’s about surviving something shitty that’s been done to you. War’s about making it through. It’s about coming home. For an officer, a real goddamn officer, it’s about making sure the men under your command survive, and as many others as you can manage. It’s not about dying, and it’s not about killing, bless General Patton’s heart. It’s all about saving people. That’s why America’s in this damn war.”
“I think it’s worth the shot,” said John, his arms crossed. “We don’t have to make it easy for them to know what’s happening. Sow a little confusion, give Jerry a good knee right in the bollocks, leave him reeling and confused, give our little chap here time to make good his escape, and then make it clear that they’ve gotten hoodwinked. They won’t have time to launch a dedicated assault. They’ll have to break off and pursue.”
“And the eagle?”
“I caught a bit of that flight with the binoculars,” said John, grinning toothily. “If that eagle goes after the Captain again, I suspect that it will find itself on the receiving end of the Captain’s Yank Can-Do Spirit, and I pity the Jerry bird who has to deal with that.”
“You will almost certainly die in the attempt to sow confusion, Colonel,” said the smoking man, his arms crossed. “You will not save your life by doing this.”
“God, I hope not. Hate to be accused of cowardice.” John grinned. “How about you? You willing to put your neck on the line?”
The man turned his head to the side. “You two can attempt what you want. I can’t die in the course of a botched commando raid. Give me twenty seconds before you start trouble.”
“Good luck, you slimy bastard,” said John, nodding his head. The smoking man nodded back, and gave me a brief look.
“Go fuck yourself,” I said.
The man chuckled softly, and crouched back down. He popped open the safe, and produced what looked rather like a petrified grape. He held it out, and I opened my beak. He pulled it back. “No. Not in your mouth. There cannot be the slightest chance of you swallowing this.”
“What would happen?”
“From everything we’ve gathered, it would summon the god. Traumatically. Unpleasantly. You would lose your mind, the god would lose his mind, everyone would probably die.”
“Got it.” I raised one of my feet, a small length of chain hanging from an anklet. “Got something to hold it in?”
After a moment’s searching, John produced a small pouch from one of the dead Krauts’ pockets. He attached it to the chain, slid the eye in, and frowned. “Not too heavy, is it, Captain?”
“Nah.” I flapped my wings experimentally, hopping up. The weight of the capsule, and the weight of the lives I was trying to save, and the lives I was risking.
“Well-“ began John, and frowned as he turned around. The smoking man had disappeared without a trace.
“What the hell was his name, anyway?”
“Damned if I know,” said John, as he lifted the bagpipes up. “I’m counting that as ten seconds. Eleven, twelve- You might want to run, too.”
“Nah. Want to make sure they know I’ve got it.”
“Brave.” He chuckled, and blew into the bagpipe, inflating it. Then he began to play it.
I’m more of a visual art enthusiast than aural. Music doesn’t do much for me. This instrument was like the torture of a particularly large and unruly tomcat, and for that reason alone, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I spread my wings wide, and took off through the flap just as a pair of Kraut soldiers rushed in. One of them turned his head to follow me, mouth wide, staring as I flew past him, trailing the pouch. The other one was very busy at the moment, getting skewered by John’s broadsword, the madman laughing wildly as he kept the bagpipe going with one hand, fighting with the other. I’d never forget the sound of a man laughing while playing the bagpipe.
I flashed out into the night, and heard the scream just behind me. It was goddamn impossible, but then, so was a pigeon talking. The eagle descended on me at a breakneck pace, and tried very vigorously to break my neck. I dodged, and flitted out over the desert.
This was not a swift, vicious dogfight. This was endurance. I had a natural advantage here; My species had been bred to fly great distances, at high speeds. Eagles were bred by nature, who was much less skilled at the job. By the time that we had left the sands and were flying over the hills, she had disappeared from sight in the distance behind me. I assumed, anyway.
Silent as an owl, she hit me from above, her talons digging in around my wings. I let out a coo of pain as her talons tightened around me, and readied myself to do something very desperate.
“Do not change, you madman. I am not going to kill you,” said the eagle. I considered changing anyway. Taking human form, grabbing her, and falling to both our deaths. It was a chance, at least.
“Give me one good reason.”
“I am from The Order of Set. I am here to save the world.”