The original plan for National Novel Writing Month, before Streloc Accursed invaded my brain, was to start on Zergansk, the third book in my Smog & Mirrors dieselpunk series. I wrote a tiny chunk of it as prep-work about a month ago. This would be an early scene, possibly even the prologue, featuring a Chielsovak cavalry colonel and the no-longer-mortal Professor Aximund, the sorceress who would feature in both the ‘Elizabethan’ and ‘First World War’ parallel plotlines of the story.

It’s all very first draft.

 


 

‘Stop calling it necromancy. It’s not necromancy.’

‘You’re raising an army of the dead. I call that necromancy.’

‘I used to ride a pony when I was a girl,’ Aximund snapped, ‘and that thing you’re sitting on looks to the untrained eye like a pony. If I call it that, does it become a pony, or is it still a horse?’

‘Too philosophical for me, sister,’ Colonel Turlikov said, patting the side of Champion’s muscular neck, ‘but I take your point.’

‘And don’t call me ‘sister’. I’m not your sister. I’m old enough to be your grandmother several times over.’

Turlikov stroked his grey beard. Aximund appeared to him as a woman in her mid-60’s, or maybe a well-preserved early 70’s. A respectable, handsome woman, well-dressed and composed. ‘You don’t look it, professor.’

‘You haven’t the faintest idea what I look like, Mikal. Pray to all your gods that I never show you.’

He didn’t mind not having to call her ‘sister’. He wasn’t a collectivist, although he’d swear blind he was if someone accused him of ideological backsliding. After the revolution knocked him down to trooper, every rung back up the promotional ladder had required him to convince the Committee or its representatives of his dedication to the egalitarian ideals of Chielsovak collectivism. Without the revolution, he’d probably have been a general by now, possibly even on the tsar’s personal staff. Instead, he’d spent the fourteen years since the revolution reclaiming his old rank. For his final promotion back to the command of a regiment of horse, they had made him expound for almost an hour to the People’s Revolutionary Committee annual convention on the virtues of the redistribution of land from the landlords to collective ownership.

He lit his pipe and gave it a suck. The embers in the cup glowed red. ‘So what is it?’ he asked as Aximund dismounted her own horse and started pacing around the graveyard.

‘What’s what?’ Aximund asked, not turning back to address him.

‘If it’s not necromancy, what is it?’

‘If you must categorise it, it’s demonology.’

‘That sounds so much less unsavoury.’

‘I don’t care for your moralistic prejudices, colonel. No form of magic is good or evil.’

‘No?’

Aximund turned and fixed him with a glare as sharp as razorblades. He swallowed. ‘Name an intrinsically good school of magic.’

‘Druidism. Harmony with nature, the cycle of life, fertile fields and all that.’

‘As recently as the Middle Ages, druids in Brigantia and Laurentin made their fields fertile by sprinkling the blood of a human sacrifice over the blade of the plowshare. How did they used to save a woman and her baby in a complicated birth? By taking a volunteer and swapping it. His death for their lives. The cycle.’

‘I remember reading a story about a knight sacrificing himself for his lady and firstborn son.’

‘In reality it was usually some old, decrepit, senile relative whose value to the community was spent. Someone your age, typically.’

‘Thank you,’ he said drily. ‘Again, I see your point. What’s good about demonology then?’

‘Nothing. You’re missing my point. Magic is. Good and evil are just labels that mortals use to validate their own prejudices and preferences. If it’s something that benefits you or that you enjoy, it’s good. If it harms you or offends your sense of propriety, its bad.’

He bristled his moustache at that. ‘Then what’s this then? What’s body-snatching? Is that just a thing that happens, without any moral weighting whatsoever?’

To her credit, she paused before answering, ‘The ultimate goal, the capture of Zergansk, makes this necessary. No less unpleasant, but necessary.’

‘I think it’s obscene.’

‘More obscene or less obscene than sending a thousand live bodies to attack the enemy, in full knowledge that many of them will die, and many more will be maimed?’

‘That’s different,’ he protested. ‘That’s war. They’re heroes, risking their lives for their country. The courage, the bravery, the nobility…’ He faltered and remembered the aftermath of his last charge, and the sound of dying men and horses. The annihilation of the 15th Horse Guards. ‘Less,’ he admitted.

Aximund nodded, and didn’t press the point. The relaxation of her frown suggested she’d heard the tremor that had slipped into Turlikov’s voice. Maybe she wasn’t an ice-blooded monster after all.

He sat in his saddle, smoking his pipe, while Aximund walked the perimeter of the cemetery. His knowledge of magic, as the professor had just made a point of demonstrating, was shaky to the point of barely existent, so he resolved to watch and learn. Not because he’d ever want to cast a spell, but because he was interested on an intellectual, theoretical level.

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