An End to the War and a Friendship
I have just seen the Professor off by train back to the University. We are not currently on speaking terms and I do not know if we will speak again soon. He leaves with enough collected information to write a dozen papers and I do not doubt he is already penning one as I write this missive. Myself, I am reluctant to relate the details of the resolution, because the knowledge I must impart to make sense of it is dangerous in the wrong hands. I will conquer my fears and trust in you, my readers. Most knowledge is dangerous in some way, I suppose.
The Professor and I resolved that the best method of putting an end to the conflict was to make a copy of the totem, both physically and aetherically, and to allow it to fall into the hands of the boggart tribes by clever ruse. The primary difficulty in achieving the first step was acquiring possession of the totem long enough to make a copy. Professor Welterschmidt possessed the rites and materials necessary to make a copy of the aetheric fingerprint of the object, but as we had never seen it, we had no idea what physical materials would be needed to construct it.
After a late night of scheming, Welterschmidt stated the conclusion on both our minds. “We must acquire the totem. There is little chance the entity will part with it willingly. So we must steal it, at least temporarily.”
“I reluctantly agree,” I said. “But there are numerous obstacles to your suggestion, Herr Professor. First, we must locate the totem. Second, acquiring the possession of an entity that controls an army of sharp-eyed birds cannot be, in any sense of the word, easy. Stealing it may send her into such a fury that they attack the boggarts, believing they to be the thieves and not us.”
Welterschmidt nodded grimly. “To stop this war, we must convince both sides that they have what they wish. If we take the totem then it is certain that both sides will do combat. We can control when this happens to lessen the impact on good citizens of the City. After midnight, perhaps. Bird and boggart will do battle while we fabricate a copy of the object. Once complete, we allow the birds to recapture the true object, and the boggarts the facsimile.
“Finding the totem will be simple. First, we find the Bird Queen. As an object of power, it will not be far from her presence. To find the Bird Queen, we simply find where birds congregate.” He made it sound simple enough.
I wish I had been cleverer. I so wish I would have come to some other course of action. Unfortunately, I agreed to the Professor’s plan, and we set about it.
The urchins knew where to find the Bird Queen. The first young boy I spoke with, after nipping his coin away, directed us to the ruined fountain the urchins refer to as The Big Drink. A shallow depression lined with well-worn stones, it bubbles with spring water throughout the year. Nestled somewhat far within the confines of the park, it provides an easy source of clean drinking water to both the urchins and the more wild natives of the park. I worry about the healthiness of the water,. While it contains spring water, the black clouds made by the City’s many factories rain down a bitter, stinging acid in the fall, wilting plants and poisoning rain barrels and the like. The gathered trees may provide some shelter to the pool. Or perhaps some old magics from the time of the noble faeries keeps the water pure, and my worries are unfounded.
Nevertheless, it seemed that the Bird Queen had set up court at the Big Drink. The urchins no longer attempted to drink from the waters. The birds had taken over the area entirely, and swooped and pecked at any intruder. At this news, the Professor and I shared a knowing glance. The Queen had gathered her army to protect the totem.
We made our way through the park well after sundown the following evening. It was easy enough to discern the direction of the fountain even in the darkness under a cloudy, moons-shielded sky. The sound was like that of the crowd at a cricket match. A low hushed rumble that became as loud as the steamworks below the City as we approached. Birds of every species flocked in the trees overhead. I had hoped that they would recognize myself and let us pass, and this was true. They watched, but they did strike.
Our plan, hastily conceived, required that the Professor and myself distract the Queen while the Professor’s manservant and bound imp searched the area for the totem. The Professor had tuned their aetheric vibrations low enough that they were nearly invisible to all but the keenest eyes, and even if they were seen, they could hopefully escape with the totem in their possession before the birds could raise an alarm. Birds, we reasoned, are dumb, simple animals. It was the Queen with which we concerned ourselves.
“You return, Roundbottom. War comes and you have done nothing to stop it. We are not pleased,” the Queen’s chorus said when we met her standing in the grove near the fountain stones.
“I’m not a bloody diplomat, I’m a naturalist,” I said, taking an aggressive tone that does not come naturally to me. I struck upon the idea of initiating an argument, which would draw both the Queen’s attention and her minions. “I even recruited my associates in this matter, and we have found no easy solution.
“I have come to inform you that I have not a single idea how to stop the boggarts from attacking. Perhaps you should simply give the object back if you wish to avoid a war.” My suggestion was met with a hail of bird guano and screeches of the likes I hope to never hear again. Even Professor Welterschmidt seemed taken aback by the response for some reason.
“We will not turn over to the foul beasts what is Ours, Roundbottom. Never! We would rather every one of Us die than see the boggarts have it again.”
“Then that’s what you will get,” I said. “And how many innocents will be caught in the crossfire, do you suppose, Your Majesty? How many innocent creatures will be killed in the boggart frenzy that is to come? I have read the stories of older wars, and they are gruesome events.”
In the distance, an even greater cry went up. I looked quickly to Professor Welterschmidt. He nodded, and motioned for me to continue to distract the queen. Her attention was drawn to the sound, but my shouting drew her eyes back to me.
“You have provided no proof to me that the item is even your rightful possession. The boggarts claim it is not. You claim it is. Who am I to believe? One might trust you because of your cautiousness in the matter, while the boggarts have short tempers and are already spreading destruction. But this is in their nature, and they cannot be held responsible for it. So I wonder—have you manipulated me into cleaning up your dastardly deeds?”
She sneered at this. “This history of this dispute is older than your species, Roundbottom. It goes back to the dawn of this world. You doubt Us that this object is Ours? It was paid for properly, and belongs to us. We shall produce the contract!”
I glanced to the professor. He seemed as confused as I. “The, er, the contract?”
A trio of crows hopped forward with a leather scroll case. They dropped it at our feet. Professor Welterschmidt hastened to pick it up and I produced a match with which to read the words.
The words were meaningless to us at first glance. The characters and symbols were not any that I had ever seen, no r I suspect had Professor Welterschmidt. But their meaning became clear through some method of fey magics. It was indeed a contract, between the birds and the boggarts. The boggarts were to build the totem, and in exchange, the birds would serve three hundred years as their mindless beasts, acting as the messengers and watchers for the boggarts.
The implications of this document, which, alas, I cannot reproduce here, were so deeply profound that I know I need not explain it to you.
The contract did not outline what the totem’s purpose was, but we could guess. As Professor Welterschmidt’s imp bounded from the darkness, carrying a small, wooden carving of a bird at rest, the court of the Bird Queen began to scream and take flight. When the carving was passed from the imp into the professor’s hand, the Bird Queen vanished. The birds attacked haphazardly, swooping and clawing. I have several wounds that I fear may become infected if I do not secure an honest source of tinctures soon. But the organization, the intelligence that I had nearly overlooked in my singled-minded focus on the Queen, vanished. They were merely birds again, and while vicious, they were not capable of doing true harm.
We fled back to my laboratory. Professor Welterschmidt laughed the whole way like a school boy. “Astonishing! Simply astonishing. An aetheric mind net, with physical world manifestations, tied to a simple foci, with such intense aetheric vibrations, I can nearly sense them without instrumentation!”
“Speak plainly, Professor,” I begged.
“Bird Queen does not rule the birds. The Bird Queen is the birds. My grammar is sometimes bad I know, but this is the correct way to say it in your language, yes?”
“Yes,” I said, slowly beginning to understand. I had thought that the Queen spoke in the royal We. I had thought that she spoke through the birds as a method of her power. But the Queen was a ruse! She was some kind of manifestation created by the birds using the totem.
“I have a very good memory for documents,” the Professor said. “I wasn’t able to read the contract in its entirety before my imp returned, and in my haste to escape, I am afraid I lost it. But I remember it well enough. The ancient birds made a deal around the time the Englunders settled this world. I imagine they could see how their world was changing. They were not smart, but smart enough. Even the crows in our world can use tools and sometimes learn to speak human words, yes? So they made a bargain with the boggarts, trading their servitude in exchange for a powerful artifact that would allow them to pool their minds together.”
I groaned. “Scientifically impossible.”
“Nevertheless, they did so,” said Professor Welterschmidt. “You saw the Bird Queen yourself. And the moment I possessed the totem, she ceased to exist, and the birds became dumber. You saw it, I know you did, Doctor!”
I nodded hesitantly. “That is what it seemed.”
“We cannot give this object back to the birds or the boggarts, regardless of the contract,” Professor Welterschmidt said, speaking quickly, his eyes gone mad with an ambition I had never seen before. “It must be studied, picked apart. To learn how to use aetheric spirits to form a web of energies between minds, so that their collective strengths could be amplified—imagine what this could do? It is like your informatitron, Doctor, and the aetheric web between the worlds that it uses to transmit information. Only this web is between minds. Imagine what we could do with that knowledge?”
I could imagine all too well. A single man, harmless. But when men gathered and put their minds to it, they accomplished many things, and few of them good.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “We proceed with our plan as set forth earlier. We have no right to take possession of this object, Finneas. We’ve caused immeasurable harm already. Let us set things right now. We possess the highest facilities of thinking, and we are moral beings, which I cannot say is true about the boggarts or the birds. Nevertheless, we must do the right thing. The power is astonishing, yes. So astonishing that I do not quite believe it. Learn what you can tonight, and then we must return it to its rightful owners.”
The professor stared at me for a long moment, then sighed and nodded. “You were always the more level-headed of us, Julius. You are right. Let us gather our materials and create our fake.”
Miss Watkins was roused by messenger from her sleep and summoned to our sides, having the greater artistic skills among us. Please—in the crisis, I ask you to let slip the scandal of two men working beside a young woman in the dead of night. She was put to work carving the physical object, and did a fine job of replicating its form. She cast aside three or four failures before making one that met her high standards, but we finished a mere hour before dawn. The sky was already rosy on the horizon. Outside my window, from the park, I could hear countless birds, and above it all, the war chants of the boggarts. War had begun. The birds would be slaughtered, without their totem and their Queen. I imagined a total ecosystem collapse in the wake, and it terrified me. It would ruin my life’s work. I could not allow that to happen.
Once the carving was complete, Professor Welterschmidt ushered us out of the laboratory, claiming that the aetheric tuning was too dangerous to allow us to witness it. “I have seen these devices tear open the very fabric of space, revealing the terrible things that dwell between the worlds. I know how to deal with such dangerous, Doctor, but you do not. Give me privacy. Do not enter no matter what you hear. I will exit when the work is done.”
Hours passed, and all manner of horrible sounds emanated from the door to my laboratory. Even now, there is an acrid smell in the air that I cannot be rid of. It is for this reason, and many others, that I do not deal in the supernatural elements. When Professor Welterschmidt exited finally, just before the breakfast bell, he looked to ten years older. We gasped.
“Do not worry. When I regain my strength, the effect will fade,” he croaked in a hoarse voice. He produced two carvings, nearly indistinguishable. “This is the original,” he hefted his left hand. “This is the copy. I must rest now. Doctor, I trust you can put an end to this without me?”
“I am accompanying you,” said Miss Watkins in that firm tone that meant no amount of argument on my part would change her stubborn mind. So we departed with haste, and made our way to the Park, which had become the scene of a terrible battlefield. Dead and injured birds and boggarts littered the ground among the newly fallen autumn leaves. Here and there, I saw the carcasses of innocent fey—brown moth pixies, maned sprites. Collateral damage, as they say? My heart felt heavy.
Just as we entered the brambles, a boggart war party spotted us from their perch high in a tree. They screamed their war cries and scrambled to attack, throwing their tiny spears whose sting I know all too well I shielded Miss Watkins as best I could, and we made to flee. I “accidentally” dropped the fake totem to the ground, and we ran at full speed. The sound of tiny cheering behind us, and the absence of a continuing attack, signified that the first part of our plan had worked.
Weary, nearly exhausted, we made our way to the fountain. With the Queen herself gone, I had no idea how to return the totem to its owners. Miss Watkins suggested that any bird might take it and restore the entity into existence. We walked for half an hour before finding a small sparrow bird resting, ragged-feathered, atop a bramble bush. We approached cautiously. I brandished the totem from my pocket, and the bird’s eyes seemed to brighten perceptively. I made a show of sitting the totem on the ground. The little bird hopped to the ground, up to the totem, and touched it.
“Oh dear,” Miss Watkins said. “Are you sure you kept them straight?”
In truth, I was not, and my sudden fear was that I had failed miserably. But Miss Watkins inspected the carving closely.
“This is one of my discards! Cleaned up a bit, yes, but—“
“That bloody son of a—“ Miss Watkins began to say before I shouted an obscenity of my own that I won’t account. It is to Miss Watkins’ credit that she did not blush too brightly at the sound and forgave me the faux pas. We both realized immediately that we too had been duped.
“When does the first train for the University leave?” I asked. Miss Watkins always knows such bits of trivia.
“Twenty minutes,” she said, checking her pocket watch. “How far away from King Victor Station are we?”
“Half an hour at least at a brisk walk,” I said.
“Then we shall have to run,” Miss Watkins said with a hint of reservation.
“In public?” I asked, aghast.
“I am afraid so,” Miss Watkins said, lacing her boots tightly. “We must make sacrifices at times, Doctor.”
And so we ran. We ran until I felt as if my lungs might either collapse or explode, and could not make up their minds which would be the most expedient method of ending the torture. I thanked whatever old fey gods were watching out for us when we found that the 11:30 train had been delayed due to damage on the tracks. It seems that a young boy leading an army of boggarts had sabotaged the line for reasons unknown.
Mr. Wiggins, on a matter completely unrelated, I believe something of yours will be arriving on the 9:30 train from the City tomorrow morning. My regards to you and your lovely wife.
So to our tale. So it was that we found Professor Welterschmidt waiting for the train impatiently, pacing back and forth as his manservant spirit stood holding his luggage. Miss Watkins marched straight up to the spirit, threw open the trunk, and began to root around inside!
“Sir, I have half-a-mind to give you a thrashing,” I said, barely containing my temper.
“Fair play, Julius. Fair play,” Welterschmidt said wearily. He could see that his gambit has failed.
“I have it,” Miss Watkins said. She turned to Professor Welterschmidt and struck him firmly across the cheek. I wanted to do more, but the years of our friendship checked my hand.
With that, my most astounding Foundation director turned and walked away. I followed, leaving Professor Welterschmidt to contemplate his misdeeds, waiting for a train which I am told will not arrive until next Tuesday…
The totem was given to a pigeon a few blocks away. It expressed its thanks, and rode away on the shoulder of the Bird Queen. She said nothing to me, only glared in a way similar to the above capture.
So the birds appear to be laying low for now. I hear strange stories of unusual behavior at the breakfast table in the boarding house, but nothing too obvious. Their heightened intelligence is likely to draw attention some day.
The boggart hostilities have ceased. In fact, no one has seen a boggart in the days since. I wonder if anyone has heard regarding the state of one Mr. Morstimply? In the aftermath, I have not been able to investigate that matter as I would like.
So. Things are restored. To an unnatural state, perhaps. To think that I was so enamored with the intelligence of the boggarts. The birds, however, present a much more interesting and difficult situation.
Two things are certain. I shall never look at a bird the same way again, and I will not be presenting these findings to the Adventurer’s Club any time in the near future.