|Icarus Swift, Natural Philosopher
Author: Michael Panush PM
It is the Age of Reason and young Felix Hawthorne is the apprentice to Icarus Swift, the last of the wizards known as Natural Philosophers. Along with Icarus's pet bear and homunculus manservant, they'll travel across the world and magic will follow them.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure/Supernatural - Chapters: 7 - Words: 68,784 - Reviews: 16 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 01-15-10 - Published: 12-05-09 - Status: Complete - id: 2748731
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Icarus Swift and the Night-Elves
The coach ride to Plump's End kept Felix Hawthorne awake for most of the long night. The carriage rolled and rattled under him like some quivering animal, and every wink of peace was snatched from him when the dirt road tossed some craggy pit or raised hillock in the coach's path. Felix's wide, dark eyes flashed frequently around the large, empty interior of the coach, and he shivered every time the shadows danced and shifted.
It was morning when the carriage reached its destination and finally rolled to a halt. Mist surrounded Plump's End like a funerary shroud, clinging to all the small buildings and the dirt roads. Felix stood in the dark of the coach, folding his hands as the coachman pulled open the door and extended the step. "Here we are, young master," he said. "Plump's End! Bit of a journey, eh?"
"Y-yes," Felix agreed hesitantly. He reached a hand into the pocket of his dark frock coat and withdrew a pouch of coins. It was all the money he had in the world. "Coachman, s-sir?" he asked. "Could you p-please point me to the inn?"
"Just ahead of you, lad," the coachman said. "The Fox and Rooster." He held out his hand and Felix set the pouch in it. "Meeting someone there?"
"Y-yes. I am to be apprenticed, and I shall meet my master in that inn. I am twelve years of age, you see and--" Felix stepped out of the coach, but his short legs missed the step. He tumbled down and landed in the mud, spraying his pale face, dark hair, waistcoat and stockings with earth.
The coachman laughed and hauled Felix up. He looked down at the boy and Felix knew he was noting the boy's features -- small for his age and pale, with a thin pointed nose, straight black hair the color of coal, and curiously large ears which seemed to end in narrow points, like the tips of spears. Felix felt redness creeping into his cheeks.
"Hope your apprenticeship don't require no nimble acts, eh lad?" The coachman clutched his wide belly and laughed at his jesting. "What trade does your master practice, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Natural Philosophy," Felix said. "Alchemy. Necromancy. Sorcery. Prognostication. M-magic." His voice grew fainter with each word, and he saw the coachman turn away and pull down his tricorne. "Well, goodbye, sir," Felix called. "And thank you!"
"Aye, lad." The coachman muttered, already pulling himself to the perch. He cracked his whip, and the coach and four rattled down the muddy street of Plump's End, leaving Felix alone in front of the inn on that frosty morning.
Felix brushed the mud from his waistcoat, breeches and stockings as he walked to the door. He moved slowly, as if he when he raised a foot, he was unsure where it would come down, and the act of walking itself was something strange and alien to him. The boy looked up at the inn, a two-story structure with a sagging roof and peeling paint, squatting in the mud of the small town.
There were no people on the streets of Plump's End, and the doors of the cottages and shops were double-bolted and shut, as if a plague of thieves had befallen the city. Every so often, a cold scream burst forth from some closed window with the force and suddenness of a geyser's spout, and made Felix shudder.
He got to the door of the inn and rapped on it several times. On the forth, the innkeeper slammed open the door with such ferocity that Felix tumbled backwards, and if not for his outstretched hands, he would have landed in the mud again. Instead, he came to his feet, and wrung his hands as he looked at the pockmarked face of the innkeeper. The fellow had red circles under his eyes, and swayed unsteadily on his feet like some newly awakened somnambulist.
"What you want?" he drawled.
"Pardon me, s-sir, but is there a Dr. Swift in residence?" Felix inquired.
"Aye, and a pox on his ragged hide!" the innkeeper muttered, beckoning Felix to come inside. Nervously, the boy shuffled inside the Fox and Rooster, and stood in the shadows behind the innkeeper. The owner of the Fox and Rooster pointed to a wooden stairwell that led to the second story. "Third room down, boy," the innkeeper said. "Follow the smell of gin and piss!"
"Um, y-yes," Felix agreed. "Thank you, sir." He headed up the stairwell, wincing as the aged steps creaked under each step. He reached the hallway and walked forward, passing the first door and then the second. The acrid scent of alcoholic spirits crept into his nose and he sniffed and turned away.
He paused outside of the door. The man within was to be his master for the next several years of his life, and would be family, friend and teacher to him all at once. Felix gulped, scratched his ears and summoned up all the courage within him, and knocked softly on the door.
"Satan's Spit!" The voice within was deep and dark, with the icy superiority of the true aristocrat. "Who disturbs me at this cursed hour of the cruel morning?"
"It is Felix, sir!" Felix replied. "Felix Hawthorne, sir. Your apprentice, just arrived from Witting-on-the-Sea." He paused and bit his lip. "Um, may I come in?"
"Oh, if you must."
Felix pushed open the door. The room within looked like it was the victim of a storm. The table and chairs lay broken into splinters on the ground. The bed was torn and feathers from the pillow lay on the floor. Spider web cracks coated the wide windows. A single, gaunt man sat on the end of the bed, dressed only in shorts, and holding a tall of bottle of dark liquid in his long hands.
He looked up at Felix, and the boy stared through a mane of unkempt dark hair into eyes that burned like balefire. The bottle fell to the floor with a clatter.
"Dr. Swift?" Felix asked. "I-Icarus Swift?"
"Who else?" replied Master Doctor Icarus Swift, the celebrated natural philosopher. He came shakily to his feet and walked to the corner of the room. Felix noticed his pronounced limp, and saw that his left leg ended in a clubfoot. Swift grabbed an ebony cane and leaned on it with both hands, before laying his slim form back in the bed. "So, you'd be Felix Hawthorne, eh? My apprentice? Ready to pit your short life against the foulest dangers in all of creation, in my blessed service? "
Felix stared at him in surprise, his mind racing to find the right words. "Y-yes," he finally said.
Icarus snorted. "Tiamat's Teeth! They sent me a simpleton, it seems." He leaned back in bed, yawning deeply. "Well, Master Hawthorne, if that is your true name, you may begin your apprenticeship with a truly formidable task – take yonder stinking chamber pot from this room and empty it into the muck outside. Stay downstairs. I'll join you presently."
"Sir?" Felix asked. He looked in the corner of the room and saw the chamber pot, overflowing with foulness. "Isn't that—"
"Step to it, boy!" Icarus barked, so suddenly that it made Felix dash across the room. The boy grabbed the chamber pot with shaking hands, and walked from the room. As soon as the door swung shut behind him, Felix breathed a sigh of relief. He looked away from the brass chamber pot as he carried it gingerly down the stairs, and twice the jar nearly slipped from his hands.
After what seemed an eternity on the steps and the floor of the inn, Felix stepped outside the Fox and Rooster and upended the chamber pot, letting the filth ooze away into the mud. "It will be well," he whispered to himself. "Cruel men are many, and you've dealt with them before." He sighed and leaned against the wall of the inn, when he noticed several men walking towards him, moving through the mist towards the inn.
"Oh dear," Felix said, straightening his collar and trying again to scrape more mud from the sleeves of his jacket. He looked up and saw four men, alike in portliness and fine dress, standing in front of him. Each wore a spotless periwig, powdered until they fairly gleamed in the growing sunlight.
The largest of the men raised his cane and pointed at Felix's chest. "Here now. You're the magician's boy, aren't you?"
"I suppose so," Felix agreed. The boy noticed all of them swayed on their feet, and had red circles around their tired eyes. Their fine clothes marked them as the leading citizens in Plump's End.
"Then fetch him hither, for he has much to answer to." The portly fellow scratched his nose with a stubby finger. "Three days have we paid him to put an end to this damnable plague of nightmares and yet our dreams are still beset by unearthly terrors!"
"A plague of nightmares…" Felix whispered, remembering the screams he heard as he walked into the town. "That's rather…odd." He smiled nervously at the town elders. "Well, sirs, Master Doctor Swift told me he would be down presently."
"And so I am." The words came from the doorway of the inn, and Felix turned to see his new master limping towards them. A silken white shirt and black cloak had been thrown around his shoulders, and a rapier swung from his belt, but Icarus Swift seemed as disheveled and shabby as if he had just rolled out from his bed. He leaned on his ebony cane, and Felix noted the strange glassy orb which topped the stave, composed of some lustrous black metal that shined even in the dim sunlight. Dr. Swift regarded the quartet of town fathers. "And how may I serve you, esteemed gentlemen?"
"We have paid you, sir, and paid you well!" The portly fellow pointed accusingly at Swift. "And what have you done these three days, but suck down spirits and chase our womenfolk! The nightmares persist, burning into the mind of every man, women and squalling babe in Plump's End." He paused and a shudder made his fat stomach quake. "Why, just a few moments ago I was in the throes of a terrible dream, when my deceased wife, god rest her soul, came up from the grave with maggots crawling in her eyes…"
"How dreadful," Swift said evenly. "Well, gentlemen, know that I intend to do everything in my power to end this foul manifestation of night terrors, and now that my apprentice has arrived, the salvation of Plump's End may commence." He tapped his cane into the mud. "My carriage will arrive shortly, and then we shall go…" He paused. "What was the name of those picturesque little ruins outside of your fair city?"
"The Bloody Stones, sir," the town elder replied. "And many a druid's dagger was reddened there in the old days, in heathen rituals that gloried the stars, and the moon and the death-hungry, pagan gods."
Master Doctor Swift nodded. "Yes, the Bloody Stones." He looked down at Felix. "What was your name again, boy?"
"Felix Hawthorne, sir."
"Ah, yes. So you said. I still don't quite believe you." Icarus Swift looked up and dragged his cane in the dirt, forcing Felix to step back. "Our coach draws near."
Felix looked up and saw a rickety vehicle of pitted and cracked wood rolling towards them on uneven wheels, and pulled by a pair of donkeys. Every plank of the carriage seemed taken from a different previous vehicle, and once it must have been a flurry of colors before time had dulled them all into muted shades.
The coachman stood huddled on the perch, a stout fellow completely wrapped in a great coat, a tricorne held low over his head. The coach came to a stop, and the coachman turned to stare at the natural philosopher and his apprentice. Felix gasped when he saw the man's head, which was a dome of dark earth coated in green moss, with a pair of shining ovoid stones serving as eyes. "What is that thing?" he whispered.
"That is Mr. Greenfellow, my coachman and manservant." Swift's good humor seemed to have vanished. "Pan's Piss, boy! Am I to grow old and die while you stand there gawking?! Into the coach, and make haste!" He looked back to the town elders as Felix scrambled into the rickety coach. "Return to your homes, gentlemen and fear not – the nightmares will ride no longer."
Once inside, Felix crawled into the rear bench and then to the corner, where he sat and waited. "It won't be that bad," he told himself. "Swift seems decent enough, I suppose, and—" It was very dark inside of the carriage, but Felix saw some menacing shape stir in the blackness in front of him. Something sat on the bench in front of him. Felix's eyes adapted to the darkness and he leaned forward. "Hello?" he asked.
A roar answered his query. An ursine face, with a pink tongue lolling between curved fangs, brown fur, and gleaming eyes lunged forward, looking like it could devour the world. "Admiral, no!" Swift's harsh words stopped the bear's advance, and it settled back into the seat. Icarus Swift entered the carriage and sat next to it. The natural philosopher rested a thin-fingered hand on the bear's head, scratching behind its ears. "Do not eat the boy, Admiral. He may yet prove useful."
"The bear…is yours?" Felix asked.
"My truest friend." Swift's voice went soft as he stroked Admiral's furry back. The bear rested its pointed head in his lap, and emitted a pleased noise somewhere between a snarl and a purr. "He alone loves without reservation, serves without call for reward, and capriciousness and villainy are as alien from his heart as the stars of the firmament from the earth." He looked up at his apprentice and his eyes darkened as the carriage rattled away.
Felix was nearly knocked from his seat by the sudden movement, but he grabbed the edges of the bench and held fast, if only to keep from slipping closer to Admiral's jaws. "He is a, well, a grand animal, sir."
"Indeed." Swift rested one hand on Admiral's furry head, and the other on his malformed leg. "Tell me, Felix Hawthorne, how came you to wish to be my apprentice? What spurred you to send your letters to me, offering your service?"
"In truth, sir, it was my parents' idea," Felix admitted. "Though I did agree. We saw a pamphlet, extolling your skills as an occultist – An Account of a Natural Philosopher of Great Skill and Virtue, was the title. I must admit, I read it several times."
"Hecate's Tears!" Master Doctor Swift snarled. "Swill from the scribbling quill of some Grub Street hack no doubt." He paused, and seemed immersed in the folds and weaving of his dark cloak. "And your parents thought me a good master? A sorcerer who some say counts the devil amongst his friends?" He smiled cruelly. "They did not like you, I think. Your parents, I mean."
"Well, Master Doctor, they had five other children to care for, and I was always a little, well, different and apart from everyone else in our village." Felix smiled nervously, though the memories burned. "I'm sure they thought it a fine profession, for one of my temperament."
"A runt, you mean." Icarus Swift did not meet Felix's gaze. "An odd little anomaly, fit for nothing but to be sent away, as soon as the mewling whelp is of age, and to be forgotten and never spoken of."
Felix shivered and gripped the edges of the bench with white knuckles. Fear and anger battled within him. Anger succeeded. "I will not stand to be insulted, Master Doctor Swift!" he cried, loud enough to make Admiral raise his shaggy head. "Even if I am your apprentice, you have no need to call me names or make rude jests at my expense!" He stood up, and balled his hands into fists.
Swift shrugged. "Such spirit!" he muttered. He raised his cane, and poked Felix's chest with the edge, gently pushing him back down. "Well, extinguish those fires, young Felix. And try and rest. We've a long way until we reach the stones, and I promise you will we not sleep at night."
"The nightmares?" Felix asked and Icarus Swift nodded. "Pardon, sir," Felix continued. "But was your slumber troubled? While you slept in Plump's End, that is."
Icarus merely smiled. "I have been in the throes of terrors every night of my life since boyhood," he said. "And my days have fared little better. Think on that, Felix, and I'll let you know when we arrive." His manner softened, and he said nothing more the rest of the journey. Felix leaned back in the coach, and despite the road's rattle, his fatigue soon got the better of him and he slipped into sleep.
When he awoke, it was the late afternoon, and the carriage stood at the side of the road, in a field surrounded by thick woods. In the center of the field, like arrow points fired down from the heavens and fixed in their target, rested the Bloody Stones. Felix stepped carefully out of the carriage and walked towards the tall, standing stones. He noticed Mr. Greenfellow, the mysterious coachman, standing in front of the carriage as still as the standing stones he faced, while the two donkeys grazed peacefully in the field.
Felix approached the coachman. "Mr. Greenfellow?" he asked.
The coachman turned to stare at him and again Felix Hawthorne saw that mossy face, featureless but for a pair of oval stones, like mockeries of eyes. Greenfellow's arms and legs were like pillars, and the sleeves of his greatcoat and ends of his trousers hid whatever passed for limbs.
Though taken aback by Greenfellow's appearance, Felix's manners had not left him. "Good afternoon, sir. Could you please show me to Dr. Swift?"
Mr. Greenfellow raised a round arm, and pointed to the stones. Felix thanked him and walked across the field, his buckled shoes sliding through the dew-topped grass. He reached the stones and saw Admiral resting on his haunches in the shadows of the standing stones, while Icarus Swift was hard at work drawing a circle in the dirt with his staff.
Swift looked up and nodded to Felix. "Ah, my loyal apprentice!" He pointed to the circle. "A battle is coming, boy, and there are certain rules that must be followed if we wish to survive long enough to earn our pay. Chief amongst those is that this circle will be our greatest guardian, and we must not leave it." His tone of malevolence had vanished.
Felix nodded. "Do not leave the circle," he repeated. "Yes, sir."
"Now, you will see things tonight that will frighten you to the marrow of your bones, but you must not panic and let terror rule you. As long as we stay in the circle, and follow our plan, no harm will befall us and our foes will be dispatched before sunrise."
"Master Doctor, what are our foes?"
"Elves, boy. Night-Elves." Icarus returned to the circle, dragging his cane deeply into the dark earth. "They are the Children of the Earth, the Fair Folk, who called the world home in the many years before Adam. Now they dwell in the mounds, and ponds and glens, and bring only their trickery and devilment to the race of man." Icarus stared at Felix, like he was searching the boy's face for some wart or blemish. "And the Night-Elves, who ride sleepers along roads of fear, are the worst of their whole hidden kingdom."
"Oh." Felix looked at the tall gray stones, each one jagged, etched with runes, and wrapped round with vines that curled and weaved like searching serpents. Five they were, reaching out of the dirt like the fingers of a buried hand. "How may I help?"
Icarus handed Felix his staff. "Continue forging the circle. I have other work to do." Felix took the staff, knelt down, and continued to piece the circle together. He looked over his shoulder, and saw Icarus Swift setting out a number of objects into the dirt. One was his rapier, and Felix now saw curious, spiraling runes etched into the blade. The other was a lump of stone, big enough to be held by two hands, and the third were a pair of long-barreled pistols, which Icarus loaded carefully.
"What is the purpose of those?" Felix asked, after a few minutes of working in silence. His curiosity had got the better of him.
"Iron," Master Doctor Swift answered. "I will set iron stones in the dirt, and this stone, this lodestone, will magnetize them, and fill the very air with the cold currents. Iron ball will fill these pistols, and the rapier's blade is of the same substance, though laced with silver if other certain demonic entities are encountered."
"Oh." Felix returned to his digging. "And if I may ask one more question, sir?"
"Pan's Piss! Have you nothing inside of you but these tiresome queries?" Icarus sighed. "Very well. I suppose I cannot fault your curiosity. Ask."
"What is Mr. Greenfellow?"
Swift nodded. "A fair question, young Felix. He is a homunculus, a creature of dirt, herbs, blood and other substances, given life through the application of certain otherworldly agencies. He is the Great Work of my great grandfather, the Magus Perseus Swift, who worked in the time of Queen Bess and was known throughout the world for his skill in Natural Philosophy."
"Amazing," Felix whispered, staring again at the stoic, stationary Greenfellow. "You must count yourself lucky, sir, to be of such a great line."
"Rot!" Icarus hissed. "I count myself a fool, for pursuing these arts in the modern age. The natural philosophers of the past, Agrippa, Paracelsus, Dee and Kelley, they could carve men from fog, and made dwellings on the Moon. I am little more than some supernatural custodian." He shrugged. "Alas, but such is my lot. Back to work now, boy, for the hour grows late and the sun dim."
Felix returned to his digging and soon completed the circle. Though his hands were dirty and his back ached, there was more work to be done. Under Dr. Swift's instruction, he dug small holes in the edges of the circle, and set into them small rods of iron. Above them the sun continued on its course, and the shadows grew in size and strength.
When Felix had finished burying the last of the iron rods, he looked up and found that darkness had fallen over the fields. The shapes of the trees beyond were like billows of smoke, and the stars gleamed down like the baleful eyes of lurking demons, surrounding a moon as white as bone.
Icarus Swift sat down in the middle of the circle, and motioned Felix to join him. The boy did so, sitting in the dirt next to his master, and near the crouching Admiral. Even Mr. Greenfellow walked down from the field, and took his place with the others.
A cold wind blew down form the heavens and made the trees swing to and fro as it whistled through the Bloody Stones. Master Doctor Swift came to his feet and drew out his rapier and cane. He dug the cane into the ground and held the rapier up, so that moonlight glinted off of the blade. From the woods came a chorus of high-pitched shrieks, like the wailing of souls trapped in Hell.
"Dr. Swift?" Felix asked. "What is happening now?"
"I said no more questions, you wooden-headed boy!" Swift hissed. "But if you must know – the Night-Elves are here."
They came from the forest then, each mounted on a powerful Night-Mare that ran across the dirt on legs of living shadow. Their steeds were wrapped round in cobwebs crawling with spiders, and maggots, worms and crawling things seethed under their dark skin. On the back of the Night-Mares, dwarfed by the size of their horses, were the Night-Elves themselves. They were wretched little impish creatures, hairless with pitch black skin, round noses and deep set, glaring eyes. They waved their long, simian arms, wiggled their pointed ears, and snapped the air with their pointed teeth.
Felix wanted to run from them, and he stood up and moved to the edge of the circle. He would have left it, had not Swift's strong arm grabbed his shoulder. "Hold your position, Felix Hawthorne!" Icarus Swift bellowed. "If you flee, it will not go well for you!"
The Night-Mares rode amongst the stones, and their riders laughed and hooted like a flock of cackling birds. The Night-Elves leapt from their horses and leapt to the ground, where they somersaulted and cavorted, dancing jigs and reels with such wild abandon that Felix thought they would collapse from dizziness.
Icarus Swift waited until they were all present, and then he drew out the lodestone. "These fiends are the cause of the nightmare-plague," he explained. "I know not why they chose Plump's End, but there is no understanding the whims of the Fair Folk." He tossed down the stone. "Only their weaknesses are known."
Instantly, the Night-Elves ceased their capering. As one they turned to the circle and ran forward, screeching and hacking through the air with their claws. Felix heard his own terrified voice join the cacophony, and he struggled not to look too closely into the eyes of the Elves. Admiral came to his feet and roared, while only the stolid Mr. Greenfellow seemed unaffected.
"Easy, boy!" Swift shouted to Felix, still holding the lodestone. "They can't pierce the circle. We are quite safe!" He pointed his rapier towards the Elves, which now rolled and twitched on the ground, shrieking in utmost pain. "And see how the iron drives them mad? It is aught that is harmful to them – the cold hand of man's will forced into their very souls!"
"Yes, sir!" Felix agreed. Then he chanced to look up. "Master Doctor S-swift?" he whispered. "I think we're in trouble."
Four strange beasts were winging their way through the clear sky, carrying between them a litter made of human bones and cobwebs crawling with spiders. The creatures that carried the litter were madman's chimeras, with the horned heads of goats, the leathery wings of bats, and the many, bristling legs of certain tropical spiders. But these horrors were nothing compared to what stood in the litter, resting in a parody of regal poise.
"By St. Cyprian's Bones!" Dr. Swift whispered, and Felix heard fear for the first time in his master's voice. "The Night-King!"
It was the indeed the King of the Night, and of cold, and darkness -- all things that made children cry for their mothers and fear to take hold in the hearts of men. The strange monarch stood a head taller than a normal man, his body of the same inky skin as the smaller Elves, though a cape of cobwebs was draped over his lumpy, distorted body. A pair of curling antlers, twisting and intersecting like the roots of ancient trees, grew above his tall, pointed ears. Though his eyes were hollow sockets wrapped in cobwebs and alive with wriggling grubs and crawling spiders, he still carried a sneer of command.
"Mortals!" The Night-King's voice came down like a wind, chilling Felix to his bones and making his teeth chatter wildly. "What do you here? Why do you bother my children so?" He held a human leg bone like a scepter, and indicated the wailing, pained Night-Elves with a wide wave.
Icarus raised the lodestone. "They've been terrorizing a nearby town, Night-King! The Fair Folk, the Sidhe, should not harry man in such ways!"
"You should not presume to command us." The Night-King leaned down and glared at Master Doctor Swift. His mouth opened and worms crawled out of it, slithering down his nostrils and eye sockets like perverse, moving jewelry.
Felix's breath was caught in his throat. He looked to his master, and saw that even the Natural Philosopher seemed frightened. Admiral let out a mournful roar and curled up on the ground, covering his shaggy head with his paws.
But Icarus did not back down. He held up the lodestone and looked the Night-King right in his eyes. "I hold iron," he said.
"Do you?" The Night-King hurled down his scepter. It came down like a white lightning bolt, striking the lodestone and shattering it into a thousand tiny pieces. The blow knocked Icarus to the ground, and he looked up at the dark sky. Felix ran to help him up, while the Night-Elves around the Bloody Stones ceased their writhing. Admiral growled at them and they tittered back. But they held their place.
"Sir?" Felix asked, panic in his voice. "Sir, the iron is gone!"
"I can see that, you simpleton!" Dr. Swift muttered. "But it matters not. As long as we remain this circle, we cannot be harmed." He bent down and drew out his flintlock pistols, cocking one and placing another in his belt. "And there are ways to defeat even the King of these elves. His true name, once spoken, should render him powerless and susceptible to our commands."
The Night-King laughed, a sound like the hacking call of a raven, repeated endlessly. "You would know my name, mortal? A pathetic conjurer such as yourself? The very idea is… mirthful." He leaned forward on the end of his litter, kicking his talon-tipped feet in the air. "As for your circle, I cannot break it. I do not need to."
Something grabbed Felix's leg. He looked down and saw a skeletal hand had broken through the dirt, with more behind. The victims of the long vanished druids had returned, dozens of them rising up from under the ground to drag Icarus, Felix, Admiral and Greenfellow to Hell. Their bones were brown, broken and jagged, and their skulls were gray with dust and cracked like a fallen eggshell. But they had the strength of the dead, and Felix toppled to the ground, feeling more pointed fingers of skeletal hands clutching at him.
Mr. Greenfellow swung his massive arms down against the bones, shattering them and allowing Felix to roll free. Greenfellow's arms moved liked windmills, each blow obliterating the aged bones of the living skeletons. Another hand grabbed Felix' arm, but it was Icarus, urging the boy from the circle.
"Move, Felix!" Icarus shouted, dropping his staff as he limped away. He pulled Felix to the edge of the circle, Admiral running close behind.
"But the circle—"
"Forget the bloody circle!" Icarus cried. "We're dead if we stay here, you daft runt! We'll go to the woods! We can meet the fiends there!" He stepped out of the circle, and Felix followed him. Behind them, Mr. Greenfellow continued to batter the skeletons, but more and more of the corpses emerged from the dirt, until Greenfellow was swallowed up by a tide of bone.
Master Doctor Icarus Swift and Felix Hawthorne ran past the Bloody Stones, Admiral loping along next to them. The Night-Elves leaped up to claw at them, laughing impishly as they danced about. The Night-Mares reared up, snorting and waving their shadow-clad legs. Icarus held his rapier in one hand and the pistol in the other, and he struck out wildly with the iron blade. He leaned on Felix, and the boy realized that the clubfooted natural philosopher depended on his apprentice to help him run.
"Almost there, Dr. Swift!" Felix cried, clutching Icarus's arm and dragging him along. A Night-Elf danced in front of them, and Swift split the beast's head down the middle with his sword. Black dust poured from the wound, and the Elf reeled away, squealing. Another Nigh-Elf danced forward, but a swipe of Admiral's claws dispatched it.
They had left the standing stones and then ran over the open field towards the shelter of the dark woods when a fierce wind struck them. Felix bent his head down and tried to stay upright. It was one of the Night-King's terrible, malformed servants, swooping down to destroy them. The beast opened its goat's mouth and reached forward with its pointed, segmented legs.
"Back to dust with you," Icarus said, leveling his pistol and firing a shot into its open mouth. The iron ball erupted from the back of the flyer's mouth in a shower of black dust, and it fell backwards onto the grass. Icarus, Felix and Admiral ran past it, Icarus sliding the empty pistol in his coat and drawing his fresh gun.
They reached the trees, and only then did Icarus stop running and lean against a stately oak, gasping for breath and wiping his head with the sleeve of his silken shirt. "Satan's spit!" he hissed. He looked up at Felix. "Run, boy. The Night-King will be on us in seconds, and there is no time to spare! Run, and take dear Admiral with you!"
"What?" Felix asked. "But I thought you knew his name and could banish him?"
"No mortal may know my name." The Night-King's voice made Felix and Icarus look up. The lord of the Elves stood crouched on the lower bough of the tree like some grotesque bird of prey. He leapt down, his ragged cloak fluttering about him and stood before Icarus Swift. He raised a clawed hand and held it near the Master Doctor's defiant face. The Night-King paused. "No mortal may know my name – and still draws breath!"
"I call you Dawn-Hater, and Shadows-In-The-Moonlight, and Child-Snatcher, and Slumber-Haunter! And with those names I bind you and burn you!" Icarus cried. He spat out the titles like they were foul oaths to be uttered in some ribald alehouse.
The Night-King paused. "Four of my names, you have spoken," he said slowly. Then, his face split in a malicious grin. "I have a thousand more." He dove forward, claws poised to rend Icarus Swift to bloody pieces. Admiral charged forward, roaring to help his master. The Night-King merely struck his hand against the bear and sent the tame beast flying backwards.
Felix watched as the Night-King wrapped a clawed hand around Icarus's neck. Every inch of him was shaking with fear, and he could not run, or help, or even cry out. He closed his eyes to block out the awful image, but another one burst into his mind, like a dam within his head had been shattered and the wild waters were rushing forth.
He saw a round face looking down at him, green-skinned and grinning merrily. He saw the open bedroom window of his family's cottage, when the wood was newly cut and the garden outside was naught but new seeds in the dirt. The window was open and then he was looking up from a cradle, and the green face vanished in a buzzing of wings.
Suddenly, names started flowing into his mind. He stepped forward, grabbing his aching forehead as terrible titles erupted from inside his very soul, an atavistic explosion that echoed through his brain. He looked up at the Night-King and his eyes narrowed on his pale face. His master would not die on this night.
"I call you Wind-In-The-Branches!" he shouted, and the Night-King turned to stare at him. "And I call you Chill-At-Midnight! I call you Pricker-of-Flesh and Nightshade-Grower! Star-Killer, Light-Taker, He-Who-Lurks-Forever-Behind-Closed-Doors!" The names boiled out of him like steam from a heated cauldron. "All of these, I call you, and more besides!"
The Night-King tossed Icarus aside and ran to him. "Traitor!" the Night-King roared, and his mouth opened like a snake's, becoming wide as a tunnel. He had a hundred tongues, each of them a writhing, scaly serpent. "Traitor to the Sidhe and the Fair Folk! I will rip the meat from your bones, and crush you under my heel, and even then you will not die!" He grabbed Felix's arms and held the boy up. Felix's trance left him, and once more he was a normal boy, now looking into the face of his doom. "But first I will swallow you and you will know torment unending!"
Felix tried to think of something to say. "I hope you choke on me," he finally whispered.
"Then I'll be sure to chew, traitor," the Night-King replied. He lunged forward.
But before he could toss Felix into his gullet, Icarus Swift came to his feet. Swift drew the pistol from his belt and aimed it at the Night-King. "Unhand my apprentice," he said, and fired, blasting an iron ball through the back of the Night-King's horned head.
Instantly, the Night-King let Felix fall to the ground. The Night-King tumbled backwards, and black dust poured in torrents from the wound. He gave Felix a final hateful glare before the wound spread and he was nothing but piles of the black dust, which caught the wind and flew away.
Icarus Swift helped Felix to his feet. Admiral came traipsing back from the woods, growling and disheveled, but otherwise unharmed. Wordlessly, they walked from the forest and saw the other Night-Elves had followed the fate of their king, turning into piles of dark dust. A pile of motionless bones lay between the Standing Stones, and Mr. Greenfellow was already forcing his way out.
"What did he mean?" Felix suddenly asked. "He called me 'traitor.' And how did I know his names?"
"Hmmm." Icarus paused. "Let me see your hands, Felix." He took Felix's hands and gently turned them over. He looked at the palms. They were red and Felix was suddenly aware of how sore and pained they were. "Yes," Dr. Swift said, and his voice was gentle. "A delayed reaction, from handling iron. You have experienced it before?"
"Sometimes…" Felix admitted. "I always thought it was some sickness." He looked up at Icarus. "Master Doctor, what am I?"
"Some call your people changelings," Icarus said. "The Fair Folk will steal away a human babe and leave a member of their own race to be raised in its stead. That creature was you, and though you have lived amongst men, and built up a resistance to iron, you are Sidhe at your core." He nodded gravely. "Perhaps that is why you found little kinship amongst your family and fellow villagers, and why I saw something strange in you from the moment my eyes settled upon your pale face and curious ears."
"Yes…" Felix agreed. He suddenly sat down in the grass. The revelation washed over him and he didn't know what to think. He had always been a bit of an outsider, unsure of what to say, how to act, and what to do. Now it made sense. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and stared up at Icarus Swift. Mr. Greenfellow had walked over to join his master, and Admiral squatted at his feet. "What should I do?" he asked.
"I don't know," Icarus muttered. "You may leave my service, if you wish. I'll pay for you to return to Witling-On-The-Sea, or passage to any destination you may choose." He looked down at his boots. "I am a bastard, you know," he said suddenly. "The product of a union between my father and a housemaid. My grandfather raised me, and raised me harshly. I am no true heir to the Swift legacy, and the Great Work of the true Natural Philosophers."
"No," Felix suddenly said. He looked up at Icarus and came to his feet. "You saved my life. You blasted that frightful devil in the head and destroyed him."
"I removed him from existence, but he will return," Swift explained. "Such as him can never die."
"The fact remains, you saved my life. And though your manner is rough, I suppose there are far worse masters than you." Felix rubbed the palms of his hands together, trying to stop their itching. "I will be a human, or as human as one of my kind can be. And I will be your apprentice."
Icarus Swift nodded. "Then let us repair to the carriage and hasten back to Plump's End and our reward. I have some ointment in the carriage that may soothe those wounds. Hurry now, boy. I will not waste time waiting on you."
The Natural Philosopher and his apprentice, accompanied by the silent homunculus and the tame bear walked past the standing stones and returned to their carriage, just as the sun was emerging over the hills, and night's shadow faded away.