A Conversion of Crows – B. Morris Allen

A Conversion of Crows – B. Morris Allen

It moved forward in a crawl, jagged angles flowing over soil and stone alike, dawn shaping shadow and sun into beaks and talons that moved relentless toward her boot and over it. With a touch of her finger, the fern curled in on itself, withdrawing crags and fangs into a soft ribbon of green and grey whose silhouette curled round her foot like a friendly snake.

“Sawtooth, my ass,” she murmured. “You could cut something like I could break a Bactrin spell.” She stroked the fern with a gentle hand to take the sting out of her words. Around her, the shadows of trees stretched dark fingers down the slope toward the west and the sea.

Kared let go the fern, watched it shake its dew onto her last wax tablet. The tablet was almost full, its hard surface carved with as many tiny notes as she could contrive with a pointy piece of rock.

“Time to buy a new stylus,” she said, as she always did, as if, in this decaying age, what still called itself a town could boast enough literates to justify a trade in writing implements for careless researchers. Down the slope, beyond the cliff, a wave crashed and then slithered away. Like hope, like dreams.

“Like breakfast,” she said, and gathered up her tools before creaking to her feet. Chewy toasted mushrooms and crunchy, earthy root-nodes. Maybe soggy, toasted nodes and chewy, earthy mushrooms for variety.

“Maybe some solid results for variety,” she muttered. The marking stone in her left hand felt as cool as ever, putting the lie to the ancient Bactrin magic she knew was there. That had to be there.

“It’s there,” she told the stone, putting it back in the soft bag around her neck. “It’s there, or I’ll be a factor’s sub-clerk. Literally. You wouldn’t like that, would you?” The stone made no answer, seemingly content in being one of two pieces of Bactrin magic she had that still worked. There weren’t many around. Not much of anything worked anymore. She’d had the stone from her father – the only functioning artifact the man had ever found in his decades as an antiquarian and junk seller. “It’ll find magic,” he’d told her. “Never fails. Keep it close.” And unlike her father, it had never failed her.

Her other charm was a heat-trap, a swirl of driftwood the shape of a curved hand that gathered warmth during the day, and released it to cook her mushrooms at dawn. Or root-nodes. It worked only within a half-day’s walk or so of a Bactrin site – about her present distance from town. So there must be other sites close by. She’d traded more for it than she cared to think about, just to have a piece of functional magic to give meaning to her quest.

“Some day, you’ll answer me,” she told the silent marking stone as she headed back up slope to a flattish spot shaded by pines. Above the trees, a dark bird barked at the rising sun.

“Laugh all you want. It’s worked before.” In the city, when she’d convinced three wealthy patrons to fund this ludicrous expedition. When she’d argued that patterns of leaf growth could form a visual indicator of Bactrin ritual sites. That she’d establish a baseline with her marking stone, defining fine gradations of warmth that corresponded to the footprints of magic, and to the density of fern pinnae.

“And the depth of bullshit they grow on.” Out here, on the rocky coast, where Bactrin sites were said to be as common as slugs, her stone hadn’t warmed once, and her funds had grown as thin as her results. Likely her patrons didn’t care; for all she knew, she was no more than a conversation piece. In these days, discussion of research was worth far more than the thing itself.

Back at camp, the inevitable slugs had crawled all over her stores-bag, but only a few had gotten in to spread their trails over already-slimy planks of mushroom, cut from tree trunks just the night before.

“You’re like students,” she said, scraping them gently off into the leaf mold. “Crawling all over someone else’s work for flavor, instead of doing your own.” Which had nothing to do with that disastrous interview at what passed for a university. Nothing at all.

“And you,” she said, flicking a large yellow slug out of her heat-trap, “you’re just suicidal.” She rubbed away some of the slime, then bowed to the heat-trap, set it back in its little hollow of pebbles, and made a ritual pass. A comforting heat flowed out of it, and she quickly reached for her long skewer-twigs and poked them through the mushrooms. Heat was scarce in this rainforest, and not to be wasted.

While the mushrooms cooked, she dipped her last two root-nodes in a pail of water to clear the slug slime off. Browned by exposure and light, the two-day old nodes were unappetizing, and their surfaces felt mushy. “Beggars can’t…” They didn’t smell good, either. “…eat sludge,” she said, digging out a knife and paring away the soft outer layer of the nodes. “There you go, slugs,” she said, throwing the trimmings as far as she could down slope. “Don’t say I didn’t share.”

She couldn’t eat sludge. She wasn’t that hungry – yet. Crow, though. That was starting to look a lot more palatable.

A gust of wind overhead triggered a squawk and a flutter of wings.

“Metaphorically,” she called to whatever was up there, turning a mushroom whose skewer was starting to blacken. “Don’t be disgusting.” She took a bite of node, prodded a mushroom sceptically. Breakfast was bad enough already.

As dawn crept reluctantly up through the branches of pine and hemlock and cast its rosy glow on leaf mold and worm-castings, Kared inventoried supplies. “Food,” she said, “none. Easy enough to find, if you count nodes and fungus as food.” With her latest meal settling uneasy in her belly, she’d begun to have doubts. “Water, more than anyone could ever want.” Mostly in the form of damp, in her sleeping roll, her socks, her clammy undershirt. Sometimes in the form of rain that passed right through her lean-to and straight into her bones. “Results, five tablets full, all negative.” Five weeks of searching, five weeks of failure. “Bactrin sites, none.” Not one. Which ought really to count as a result of its own.

“Not one,” she frowned. “Not one.” She turned the idea over in her head. Not one sign of ancient Bactria, in a region known for Bactrin ruins, a region posited as one of the possible origins of the long-gone Bactrin empire. Not one flicker of Bactrin magic in a landscape littered with its symbols and traces. “And slugs.”

A lot of slugs, in fact. Tiny brown-striped ones, big yellow ones, mottled-black medium ones. All with frilly edges and slimy, creamy-pale foot-mouths. Crawling over everything in sight. Could any landscape possibly support so many slugs? What did they eat, anyway, with their endlessly walking mouths always in motion? A thrill of excitement slithered up her spine. Could there be something here? Could the key lie not in ferns, but in slugs? The gastropodian empire of Bactria, undiscovered until one woman, one brave, slightly damp woman, opened her mind to the possible, and saw what lay all around her?

She peered out against the rising eastern sun, the dark western slope down to the sea, the pines all around, listened to the caw of crows, or maybe ravens, or rooks. Big black birds, anyway. Lots of them. More than the landscape could support. She let her chin sink back onto the cold of her sweater. Unless they ate slugs, of course. No wonder they sounded so angry. Lots of trees, too. They gave something for the crows to perch on. Plenty of ferns, for that matter, densely leaved or sparsely. All undoubtedly quite natural. Very pleasing to the Bactrin psyche.

“That can be my result,” she mumbled. “Ancient Bactrin mages, practitioners of magic, progenitors of progress – fans of slugs, trees, and big black birds. And wet,” she sighed, as wind or bird shifted an evergreen above her, and a drip ran down her neck.

Not quite the ‘easy way to find new Bactrin sites’ method she’d promised her patrons, of course. And why didn’t it work? It should. “It really should,” she told a passing slug. He (She? It? How did slugs reproduce?) cocked a bendy tentacle at her, but didn’t pause in his headlong race to a nearby tree.

The marking stone grew warm in the presence of Bactrin magic. It did work. She’d tested it every week at ritual sites all over that moldy little coastal town where she transcribed her notes to paper (and dried her clothes, and bathed in warm water).

Back inland, there had been a subtle but marked increase in foliage density in the vicinity of Bactrin sites. Marked enough that people remarked on how green sites were, but subtle enough that no one had studied it. Perfect for an enterprising, un-colleged researcher wanting to make a name for herself. The correlation had held up at known sites up the north coast, as well. Ferns with fifteen percent longer fronds, all the way down their fractal shapes. Hemlocks with ten percent more leaves, painstakingly counted, one by dripping one.

Ergo (which was clearly a university-worthy word), the stone should grow warm in areas of dense foliage, and that should indicate a Bactrin site. Except that here, at the posited epicenter of Bactrin ritual history, the foliage was dense, and the magic non-existent.

Ergo, she grimaced, her theory was crap.

“Cra-a-ap,” echoed a crow.

“Thanks. Needed that.” She poured as much sarcasm into the words as she thought they would carry, and sent them floating logily up to the canopy and its unseen critics.

Without a theory, she was either weird slug-forest lady, or unemployed clerk. Neither appealed. A return to her father’s emporium of faked or broken magic trinkets appealed even less.

“No,” she told the slug, which had squidged remarkably far away, “it’s deluded scholar girl for me.”

If the theory was right, something else was wrong. Maybe the standard foliage density was different at this part of the coast. It was a comforting thought, and she spent the hours until lunch happily, then unhappily, then despondently, checking figures. They looked right. She’d measured densities all over the area, and compared with figures at the nearest confirmed Bactrin site. Everything suggested that, unless the entire headland was a site, her morning exploration should have turned up a class A ritual location. Even if the entire headland were a site, this morning’s should have been an even better one. Class AA.

She skipped lunch and ate an early dinner of warm mushroom before turning in. Tomorrow was the end. She’d go back to the city, apologize to the patrons, admit defeat. Then… then she’d decide.

She woke before dawn, when the light gave the western clouds an appealing flush of peach, but the forest floor was dark and mysterious. The trees creaked and swayed in the morning wind, but no one else moved on the loam. Except crows. And slugs. The triumvirate of a Bactrin dawn – green leaves, black birds, brown slugs. Except pines didn’t have… leaves. Pines didn’t have leaves! They had needles. Long, green needles. Needles that were square or flat or round in cross-section, that grew in short clusters or long ones, thin ones or fat. Clusters that she had ignored.

“Because I’m an idiot,” she said happily, scraping a wax tablet smoothish in readiness for discovery. “Becau-au-au-au-ause, I-I-I-I’m an I-i-i-i-dio-o-o-ot.” It made a nice little song. A song of success.

Where to start? In a known location, of course, one where Bactrin traces were unlikely. Back in town, then, probably. She looked down at her tablet, imperfectly smoothed. She could have kept the data after all. She was an idiot. But a happy one. When was this one from? She unsmudged the upper corner as well as she could. Two days ago. Two days… not a good day, then. Lots of squatting and leaf-counting in a day-long drizzle. Like most of the others.

“How do you live with it?” she asked the crows. The slugs, well they were moist already, weren’t they?

“Awk,” answered an unseen voice. There always seemed to be crows around, but then with all these slugs to eat, there would be.

“I should imagine it is awkward.” But not for her. She’d be heading to town, to transcribe her tablets, dry her clothes, and gather new data. One final splurge of funds, and let the journey back to the city take care of itself.

Two weeks of needle counting gave plenty of results. Mostly a hatred for root-nodes, fungus of any kind, and even of the tiny black berries just coming into season.

“Pretty soon, I’ll be able to eat my own fungus,” she said to the everpresent crow voices, and thinking of the unsavory places a fungus might be growing. “If I can find it in the haystack.” Her new needlic expertise had led to ever-thinner and more pointed jokes as the desired results failed to appear. Another day or two, and she’d have to give up again, and head back to town in disgust, dismay, and other distressing words.

Her camp this morning was on the same slope where she’d come to her exciting, entrancing, and utterly wrong epiphany about needles. Her marking stone had failed to warm even once out here, though it had worked very nicely in town. And though, like probably every other coastal village, the locals claimed the territory was the birthplace of Bactrin civilization.

“Before they found their power, probably.” She put her table and pointy stone back into her rucksack, and put the marking stone, useless as it was, back into its little neck bag. “Back when all of Bactria consisted of shiny wet things. No wonder they developed magic.”

Below her, the surf sounded with a muted crash and the whoosh of receding foam. There should be a little cove down there. She remembered there’d been an easing of the slope. Maybe there was a way down, a way to where she could soothe her sorrows with the sound of the ocean. Maybe be comforted by a passing whale.

“Ahrk,” said a crow. “Craw,” agreed another. They were even more numerous than before, it seemed, but then the weather was nicer too. Even the dawn light reflecting from the ocean cloudbank felt warmer, its peach and gold tones washing the dark forest with calming light.

She made her way down the slope, holding tight to bushes as she grew closer to the edge, looking for the easy slope she’d spied a fortnight ago.

“Ow.” The undergrowth here blocked the light, and there seemed to be extra roots to trip on. She’d kicked at least three on the way down, their dark, serpentine forms hard to be sure of against shadowed loam. They were remarkably hard for roots, but then the unseen is always more of an obstacle than the visible.

There – the slope began to ease, somewhere beyond that tangle of bushes to the right. She turned that way, spying the dark forms of crows beyond the branches that now gave hints of the ocean and sky beyond.

She kicked another branch, and fell headlong into thick, moist humus. Above her, the crows laughed their raucous laugh, while, just a noselength away, a bright yellow monster slug waved antennae quizzically.

“That does it!” she growled, struggling to her knees. “I’m coming down for a little meditation, damn it. A little soulsearching, you bastard.” She turned to face the offending root. “Is that too…”

It wasn’t a root. At the side of a wide bush, its edges raised up where she’d kicked it, was a wide snake. Its surface was scuffed, the coating of moss ragged and torn to show white stone beneath, and the characteristic curves of Bactrin ritual. Not a snake, perhaps. Maybe a slug. She giggled. A giant white stone slug, hand-made in Bactria. Proof positive of ritual magic if she’d ever seen it. The biggest Bactrin item she’d ever seen. Literally at her feet. Hidden by dense foliage.

Her hand flew to the marking stone, in its little bag. With an item of this size, she was surprised she couldn’t feel it through the cloth. It should be burning. With trembling fingers, she tipped it out onto her palm, ready to drop it if the heat proved too great.

It was cold. Body-temperature, technically. Not burning. Not hot. Not even warm, really. Not indicating magic of any sort. Yet here it was – proof positive of a Bactrin presence on the headland.

Was she wrong (again)? Was the slug no more than an artifact? Artistic, but without magic? Bactrin relics that had survived this long were invariably magic. Yet perhaps here, in the mooted Bactrin birthplace, a rare stone item might have lain undisturbed for the ages since its creation.

She reached out for the slug, taking its weighty solidity in her hands. She peeled away the moss and dirt that covered it, noting in the back of her mind that the crows were even more raucous than usual. The slug was the length of her forearm, with gentle curves and the unmistakeable lines of Bactrin workmanship. The slug’s broad mantle formed a graceful oval near a head marked by smooth nubs of tentacles. It was beautiful, and she caressed its surface as she cleaned the surface to show a milky quartz, with inclusions hinting at internal organs that made the whole even more alluring.

“Awk.” The call came from directly overhead. “Crawk,” came another, to the left, and “Rowk,” another to the right. Abruptly, she realized that the soothing whoosh of the surf had been replaced by a cacophony of caws, and the clear dawn air by a chaos of crows. On all sides, branches bent with black bodies. Beady eyes eyed her as heads cocked to one side and the other, and sharp talons flexed while long, strong beaks jabbed hungrily at the air.

“Oh, shit,” she said. “Oh. Shit.” Black heads nodded in agreement.

“Okay,” she said, wishing both that she weren’t still on her knees, and that the bushes were thicker. “Okay. I don’t know what set you off, but I apologize. Okay? I’m sorry. Really, really sorry.” She shifted the stone slug to one hand, and used the other to struggle to a squat. “Tell you what. I’m just going to put this guy away,” she wriggled her bag around and slid the slug into it, “and then I’m going to get out of your way.” As she stood, the noise increased, and more crows landed, until the branches around her looked like they were covered with some dark, evil fruit. Above her, she could hear the flutter of wings, and she could feel the draft from black wings flapping by.

“No,” she agreed, squatting again. The birds quieted marginally. “No getting up. I was tired anyway. Nothing wrong with a good crawl, though, is there?” She put theory into practice, and was brought short by a flash of wings and talons flitting past her nose. “No crawling. Slithering, maybe?” As she lowered herself to the forest floor, she noted a line of slugs before her. They were of all colors and sizes. Quite attractive, really, if somewhat on the threatening side in terms of sheer number. She raised back to her knees just as a giant yellow slug led the line toward her.

Above her, the crows sat or fluttered, quiet except for the occasional raw cry. The slugs stayed where they were.

“Right,” she said, more to drown out the sound of her frantic heart than to communicate. “No standing, no crawling. No slithering.” She looked at the slugs. “But you were fine earlier. You’ve been fine for weeks. Other than eating my food, and did I grudge you any? No? I shared!” A righteous indignation began to take over from fear. “I shared, you ungrateful little bastards.” She felt carefully in her back. Wax tablets, pointy stone, stone slug. No food. She looked at the bush beside her. There, one little black berry just forming. She stretched an arm, plucked it. With careful aim, she bounced it off the yellow slug captain. “Share that.” The slug gave a squishy wince of retracted tentacles, but made no other move. Behind him, the berry rested between a glossy brown slug and a smaller, smoother one.

“That’s all I’ve got.” She could jump the slugs, but then the birds would attack. She could throw the pointy stone, but that would account for maybe one bird. She could throw the stone slug, and … The stone slug. It was ridiculous.

She dug it out of her bag, watched carefully by beady black eyes and long tentacles. “Seriously? Look, I agree it’s nicely made, but it is made. From stone. I’m not kidnapping anyone. This is not a real slug.” The tentacles watched. “Okay, look I’ll put it back, okay?” Maybe come back at night, when the crows were sleeping. She lay the slug back down in the little niche it had left in the soil. Had the head faced this way, or that? No, the other way, so that the tail fit nicely, just there.

“Okay? Satisfied?” It was ridiculous, challenging slugs, but … but they were dispersing. And above her, the flutter of wings suggested a similar diminution in the crow ranks. Maybe if she waited until they were gone, she could just grab the slug and run for it. Up this slope, down the next, and over and over for the half-day trek into town. She gave up on the idea just as a particularly weighty bird settled onto a nearby hemlock, its canny eyes watching closely.

“Right,” she told it. “Mystery solved. This artifact is obviously a sophisticated crow caller.” Or a guard. A boundary. A marker. A marker that didn’t touch her marking stone. But clearly magic.

But marking what? She’d covered the forest pretty thoroughly, traipsing up and down in her search for ferns and needles. What was left?

A crash of surf brought the answer. The cove. This eased slope leading down toward the water. Perhaps not luck at all, but a familiar byway. Familiar to slugs and crows, and … Bactrin ancients?

Only one way to find out. Careful not to touch the slug, she turned back toward the water. She tried a slow, tentative crawl, and looked back to the giant crow on his branch. He cocked his head quizzically, but made no sound.

After a few ‘steps’ and no further reaction – and no sign of slugs – she debated rising to her feet, but she could hear that the water was near, and on all fours she’d be less likely to step off a cliff hidden by underbrush.

Another few moments of cautious crawling brought her to the edge – a dank, muddy slope leading down the edge of the low-ish cliff – a slope that might once have been a stairway, or might still be one beneath the muck. And at the bottom, the soft beige sand of a beach untroubled by any but the highest tides.

She stood to slip and slide carefully down the old stairway, grasping at the roots and vines and stone that decorated its landward surface. Above, a few languid seagulls soared heedless overhead.

The beach was a beach. Light, soft sand above the tideline, compact, dark sand below. The usual assortment of driftwood, seaweed, and broken shells. But at the back, and to the sides, narrow, sea-wrought crevices that crawled back to vanish into sand. Except that a little ways in, the sand ended at the base of rough stone steps leading up. Not into darkness, but into light.

She chose one of the central caves – one along the very back of the little cove. The entrance was wider, and there, beneath an ancient crust of dead barnacles, was what might have been a carving of a starfish, with just one arm thrusting up from beneath the sand.

The light inside had a silvery, nacreous quality to it that shone soft and pleasant on the stone. It emanated from stylized birds carve on ceilings and walls, their white backs turned to the passage as if they flew forever upside down. She touched one, its smooth outline low on the rough rock wall. For a moment she imagined she flew low above windblown cliffs, or perched on a warm branch, or pecked at something bright on dark soil. Then she was back in the cold, damp tunnel, and the carving just a carving.

She climbed the steps, their centers bowed and smoothed by years of feet, their surfaces rimed with ancient salt. Tunnels led off to left and right and down, all lit with cloudy silver carvings, all shrouded with the dust of centuries. At every turning, she chose the upward path, until she felt she climbed deep into the heart of the headland, somewhere close beneath its crest. There, at the terminus of half a dozen stony stairs, she found the Bactrin.

Not the Bactrin themselves, though stone chairs piled with dust and petrified fabric suggested what once might have been. The center of the chamber held a massive stone table, its edges smoothed and polished to a gentle curve. Its surface, once blown clear of dust and scraped clear of as much limestone as would easily come off, was a map. Recognizably a map of what was left of the current Republic, or the Empire before it, or the Many Kingdoms before that, or of any of a host of nations that had inhabited the physical space between mountains and sea. Some of the rivers had moved. One mountain marked on the map was a blunt caldera now. But overall the land was the same. And from this location on the coast, from this very headland, perhaps this very chamber, a fine net of shining lines branched out and out and out, to hundreds, thousands of tiny points of quartz embedded in the dark granite of the table.

Some of the points were dark, most dim, one or two glowing with a faint spark of silver light. Where a line was dark, all the points along it were the same. A few of the dim points, she recognized as being approximately in the location of the city, some possibly in the nearby town. Others might be in the vicinity of Bactrin sites she’d heard of. Others were unknown. One bright spot was near her own birthplace, in a gorge known for its fearsome haunts and apparitions.

A map. She sank, weak-kneed, onto one of the stone seats, realizing late that the uncomfortable bumpy surface might well be the fossilized bone dust of a Bactrin ancient. Too late for either of them to care. She rested her head against the stone table, feeling the fine point of a quartz node press into her skin, letting it mark her if it wished to.

A map. She had wanted to develop a method for finding Bactrin sites by counting leaves. Instead she had found Bactria itself.

Belated, she fumbled weakly for her marking stone, shook it out onto the table. It was cool, unmoved by stronger evidence of Bactrin magic than even the wildest storyteller had ever dreamed of.

“Ha!” Her bitter laugh echoed around the stone chamber. Not a magic finder at all, but a … a what? She looked out over the map and its branching lines, its dense foliage of crystal, all coming back, in the end, to a central point – this central point, the source, the wellspring of mysterious Bactrin power. And that was it, she realized. The map was a map of links. The stone was a link marker, a link finder. And here, on this headland, at the very heart of Bactrin power, there were no links to be found, nothing to mark. For here, somewhere, perhaps in this chamber was the power itself, still flowing, still linked, to the edges of the Republic and far beyond, to the Bactrin world that had been.

She emerged, eventually, to the call of hunger. Even Bactrin magic did not run to food stores preserved for ages, it seemed, though she had found storerooms and vaults and dormitories and laboratories and halls great and small, chambers for every conceivable purpose and use. Marvels by the hundred, and even, with a joy that sent her to her knees, a library of sorts – a moulder of dust and lime, with here and there a wall carving or stone tablet or jumbled pile of crystal sheets and shards. Drawings, letters, all in scripts she failed to recognize, but permissive of study, and perhaps, somewhere in this treasurehouse, a translation into some ancestor of an ancestor of a dead language that was still known – a key to the wisdom of the ancients.

She stepped out of a tunnel onto soft sand and the glow of dawn. Above her, a scatter of crows swooped raggedly back and forth, their dark, glossy feathers gathering light as they must have done for ages, light that shone soft on hidden passages, for a people that had gone. Below them, the slugs no doubt did something similarly extraordinary.

“Or maybe they’re just slugs.” She smiled and waved to a passing crow. “It’s not all magic, after all.”

Some of it, she knew, as she climbed back up muddy steps, would be hard work. Most of it, perhaps. But if she played her cards right, there could be magic again. If she could find the right people, the right minds, people who cared about knowledge and right and progress rather than wealth and power. They would be few, no doubt. Perhaps the Bactrin themselves had not qualified.

Above the slope, she climbed the slope toward her camp, untroubled by crows or slugs. Today, she would eat and gather her thoughts and rest and think. Tomorrow at dawn, she would take her first steps toward the new day. And if she failed, if she chose the wrong people? She shrugged, and looked west to the rosy glow of a reflected dawn. If she failed, then there would be another dawn, and another, and another, until, some day, the world got it right.

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