The owl was making soft hooting sounds and raising and dropping her wings fitfully. Her bright orange eyes were filming over with pain. There was a gathering red stain in the snow around the Skraeling; even in the fog-thick dimness, Lee could see that the man was going to die.
“Reckon my bullet must have hit an artery,” he said. “Let go my sleeve and I’ll make a tourniquet.”
“No!” said the Skraeling harshly. “I am glad to die! I shall have the martyr’s palm! You will not deprive me of that!”
“Then die if you want to. Just tell me this—”
But he never had the chance to complete his question, because with a bleak little shiver the owl dæmon disappeared. The Skraeling’s soul was gone. Lee had once seen a painting in which a saint of the Church was shown being attacked by assassins. While they bludgeoned his dying body, the saint’s dæmon was borne upward by cherubs and offered a spray of palm, the badge of a martyr. The Skraeling’s face now bore the same expression as the saint’s in the picture: an ecstatic straining toward oblivion. Lee dropped him in distaste.
Hester clicked her tongue.
“Shoulda reckoned he’d send a message,” she said. “Take his ring.”
“What the hell for? We ain’t thieves, are we?”
“No, we’re renegades,” she said. “Not by our choice, but by his malice. Once the Church learns about this, we’re done for anyway. Take every advantage we can in the meantime. Go on, take the ring and stow it away, and mebbe we can use it.”
Lee saw the sense, and took the ring off the dead man’s finger. Peering into the gloom, he saw that the path was edged by a steep drop into rocky darkness, and he rolled the Skraeling’s body over. It fell for a long time before he heard any impact. Lee had never enjoyed violence, and he hated killing, although he’d had to do it three times before.
“No sense in thinking that,” said Hester. “He didn’t give us a choice, and we didn’t shoot to kill. Damn it, Lee, he wanted to die. These people are insane.”
“I guess you’re right,” he said, and put the pistol away.
At the foot of the path they found the driver, with the dogs harnessed and ready to move.
“Tell me, Umaq,” Lee said as they set off back to the fish-packing station, “you ever hear of a man called Grumman?”
“Oh, sure,” said the driver. “Everybody know Dr. Grumman.”
“Did you know he had a Tartar name?”
“Not Tartar. You mean Jopari? Not Tartar.”
“What happened to him? Is he dead?”
“You ask me that, I have to say I don’t know. So you never know the truth from me.”
“I see. So who can I ask?”
“You better ask his tribe. Better go to Yenisei, ask them.”
“His tribe . . . you mean the people who initiated him? Who drilled his skull?”
“Yes. You better ask them. Maybe he not dead, maybe he is. Maybe neither dead nor alive.”
“How can he be neither dead nor alive?”
“In spirit world. Maybe he in spirit world. Already I say too much. Say no more now.”
And he did not.
But when they returned to the station, Lee went at once to the docks and looked for a ship that could give him passage to the mouth of the Yenisei.
Meanwhile, the witches were searching too. The Latvian queen, Ruta Skadi, flew with Serafina Pekkala’s company for many days and nights, through fog and whirlwind, over regions devastated by flood or landslide. It was certain that they were in a world none of them had known before, with strange winds, strange scents in the air, great unknown birds that attacked them on sight and had to be driven off with volleys of arrows; and when they found land to rest on, the very plants were strange.
Still, some of those plants were edible, and they found rabbits that made a tasty meal, and there was no shortage of water. It might have been a good land to live in, but for the spectral forms that drifted like mist over the grasslands and congregated near streams and low-lying water. In some lights they were hardly there at all, just visible as a drifting quality in the light, a rhythmic evanescence, like veils of transparency turning before a mirror. The witches had never seen anything like them before, and mistrusted them at once.
“Are they alive, do you think, Serafina Pekkala?” said Ruta Skadi as the witches circled high above a group of the things that stood motionless at the edge of a tract of forest.
“Alive or dead, they’re full of malice,” Serafina replied. “I can feel that from here. And unless I knew what weapon could harm them, I wouldn’t want to go closer than this.”
The Specters seemed to be earthbound, without the power of flight, luckily for the witches. Later that day, they saw what the Specters could do.
It happened at a river crossing, where a dusty road went over a low stone bridge beside a stand of trees. The late afternoon sun slanted across the grassland, drawing an intense green out of the ground and a dusty gold out of the air, and in that rich oblique light the witches saw a band of travelers making for the bridge, some on foot, some in horse-drawn carts, two of them riding horses. Serafina caught her breath: these people had no dæmons, and yet they seemed alive. She was about to fly down and look more closely when she heard a cry of alarm.
It came from the rider on the leading horse. He was pointing at the trees, and as the witches looked down, they saw a stream of those spectral forms pouring across the grass, seeming to flow with no effort toward the people, their prey.
The people scattered. Serafina was shocked to see the leading rider turn tail at once and gallop away, without staying to help his comrades, and the second rider did the same, escaping as fast as he could in another direction.
“Fly lower and watch, sisters,” Serafina told her companions. “But don’t interfere till I command.”
They saw that the little band contained children as well, some riding in the carts, some walking beside them. And it was clear that the children couldn’t see the Specters, and the Specters weren’t interested in them; they made instead for the adults. One old woman seated on a cart held two little children on her lap, and Ruta Skadi was angered by her cowardice: because she tried to hide behind them, and thrust them out toward the Specter that approached her, as if offering them up to save her own life.
The children pulled free of the old woman and jumped down from the cart, and now, like the other children around them, ran to and fro in fright, or stood and clung together weeping as the Specters attacked the adults. The old woman in the cart was soon enveloped in a transparent shimmer that moved busily, working and feeding in some invisible way that made Ruta Skadi sick to watch. The same fate befell every adult in the party apart from the two who had fled on their horses.
Fascinated and stunned, Serafina Pekkala flew down even closer. There was a father with his child who had tried to ford the river to get away, but a Specter had caught up with them, and as the child clung to the father’s back, crying, the man slowed down and stood waist-deep in the water, arrested and helpless.
What was happening to him? Serafina hovered above the water a few feet away, gazing horrified. She had heard from travelers in her own world of the legend of the vampire, and she thought of that as she watched the Specter busy gorging on—something, some quality the man had, his soul, his dæmon, perhaps; for in this world, evidently, dæmons were inside, not outside. His arms slackened under the child’s thighs, and the child fell into the water behind him and grabbed vainly at his hand, gasping, crying, but the man only turned his head slowly and looked down with perfect indifference at his little son drowning beside him.
That was too much for Serafina. She swooped lower and plucked the child from the water, and as she did so, Ruta Skadi cried out: “Be careful, sister! Behind you—”
And Serafina felt just for a moment a hideous dullness at the edge of her heart, and reached out and up for Ruta Skadi’s hand, which pulled her away from the danger. They flew higher, the child screaming and clinging to her waist with sharp fingers, and Serafina saw the Specter behind her, a drift of mist swirling on the water, casting about for its lost prey. Ruta Skadi shot an arrow into the heart of it, with no effect at all.
Serafina put the child down on the riverbank, seeing that it was in no danger from the Specters, and they retreated to the air again. The little band of travelers had halted for good now; the horses cropped the grass or shook their heads at flies, the children were howling or clutching one another and watching from a distance, and every adult had fallen still. Their eyes were open; some were standing, though most had sat down; and a terrible stillness hung over them. As the last of the Specters drifted away, sated, Serafina flew down and alighted in front of a woman sitting on the grass, a strong, healthy-looking woman whose cheeks were red and whose fair hair was glossy.