FREE FICTION

This month’s free short story is a historical sword and sorcery tale, featuring Alexandre Dumas. “The Black Pullet” combines my interest in Napoleonic history with my love of the occult. It was first published on my Patreon a few years back, and I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. I hope you enjoy the story – and if you do, be sure to drop a buck in my Ko-Fi link at the bottom of the page.

Now, without further ado, on to our feature presentation…“The Black Pullet.


Alexandre Dumas, sitting on a low wall, tamped down his pipe and traded wary glares with the black hen. “Are you sure about this?” he rumbled. His voice, even when pitched low, rolled across the rubble-strewn plaza like the crash of a cavalry charge. He had stripped off his blue coat as the cool of evening had given way to the heat of day, and had tossed aside his hat, with its Revolutionary cockade. Sweat gleamed on his dark skin, and he used the end of his tri-coloured sash to mop his throat and the back of his neck.  

“I am almost a hundred percent certain, yes,” de Marigny said as he stroked the hen, which cocked its sharp skull and gave Dumas a glare. It was handsome as birds went, but if he had been a superstitious sort, he might’ve said it had something of the devil in it. Then, the same had been said of him, more than once. The Austrians called him ‘Schwarzer Teufel’ but only after he’d scaled a glacier to get at them.

He shaded his eyes and peered up at the sun. Sometimes, he missed the Alps. The mountains had been as cold as the devil’s left testicle, but he’d been his own man, there, despite the demotion. Bonaparte had done him a favour, though he hadn’t known it at the time. He was of equal rank with Bonaparte here in Egypt, but in some ways he was even more under the Corsican’s thumb than he had been while commanding a single squad of dragoons. In Cairo, he commanded workmen, rather than soldiers. And where was the glory in that?

He examined the latter as he tamped down his pipe. They were a mixture of locals, prisoners and soldiers on punishment detail, and all of them glared, with varying degrees of hostility, at the squad of dragoons that had escorted de Marigny here, on Citizen Pousseilgue’s orders. Bonaparte had made the former financial advisor and inveterate spy the French representative on the puppet-divan he’d set up to rule Cairo. Like many of the Corsican’s decisions since they’d reached Egypt, Dumas was fairly certain it would come back to bite him in his narrow ass. Pousseilgue was as corrupt as any Bedouin. Still, nothing motivated a man like that faster than the thought of gold, sitting unclaimed. 

At the thought of the gold, he glanced at the house he’d been supervising the repairs to. It had belonged to a Mameluke grandee, and someone on the Corsican’s staff wanted it for a billet. The previous owner had fled with Cairo’s fall, which meant his property was forfeit to the Republic. Dumas didn’t mind, though the labour grated somewhat on his soul. It kept him out of the officer’s mess and away from the grumbling and muttering of the other officers. The Corsican already despised him, ‘Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol’ or not. The workmen had found a quantity of gold and precious gems in the house, cached in different spots throughout the structure, and Dumas knew that where there was a bit of glitter, there was likely gold aplenty. It was just a matter of finding it.

And so he’d reported to Bonaparte, hoping to ingratiate himself with the Corsican enough to get his long-delayed transfer papers signed. He missed his wife, and his children, and France. He loathed Bonaparte, and his arrogant need to emulate Alexander. More, he despised the imperial tone the expedition had taken. He’d come to Egypt to free its people from their tyrannical overlords, not to install new tyrants. At least the Mamelukes had been Muslims. The Egyptians had little enough other than their god, and no matter how hard he tried, Bonaparte’s attempt to usurp Allah was doomed to failure. There was no honour to be had in this endeavour.

Dumas sucked on his teeth for a moment, his pipe resting forgotten in one brawny fist. The hen blinked and twitched and he snorted. “I am an educated man, Citizen de Marigny, despite what you may have assumed. This business of pullets and black velvet boxes smacks of the superstitions of Saint-Domingue, rather than the product of science.”

“Superstition has much to teach us, General,” de Marigny said, frowning. The savant was a lean man, and burnt brown by the unforgiving Egyptian sun. “Sorcery is simply scientific process which has yet to be fathomed, as the Comte d’Erlette stated in the Cultes des Goules.” He paused and peered at Dumas through the blue-tinted spectacles he wore. “Have you, by chance, read that work?”

“I stopped reading fairy stories when I learned what women were, and how swords worked,” Dumas said, lighting his pipe. He eyed the scrimshawed grip of the flintlock pistol holstered haphazardly on de Marigny’s waist, and the profusion of amulets and holy symbols that dangled from the man’s neck. The savant wore a loose burnoose over his grimy trousers and waistcoat as a concession to the sun. Dumas thought perhaps that the savant should have invested in some form of head covering as well, given his insistence that a black hen would locate the remainder of the gold that Dumas had been charged with recovering for the glory of the Republic.

The thought elicited some amusement in him—a black pullet, to lead a black cockerel. That was what they called him, behind his back, his fellow generals. The Black Rooster, hot-tempered and puff-crested. The amusement faded, as he wondered whether Bonaparte had had the same thought. The Corsican had made no bones of his distaste for Dumas, who was triply damned as far as the former was concerned—the son of a Saint-Domingue slave, heir to a title, and tall. Worse, he did not worship at the altar of Bonaparte, as Murat and the others did. The Revolution had freed all the sons and daughters of France from the need to bend knee to any deity, but too many of his peers seemed willing to fall over themselves to raise a skinny-shanked Corsican to the pedestal formerly occupied by the Papal rear.

When men lack gods, they invent their own, he thought. Murat and the others had Bonaparte. The latter had ambition. All were slaves, just as much as Dumas had been. The hen flapped its wings, nearly knocking de Marigny’s spectacles askew. Dumas grinned around the stem of his pipe. “She seems quite eager. Did you learn of this scientific sorcery of yours in this book of ghouls?”

“I learned of it here, actually,” de Marigny said, as he tried to settle the hen. It snapped its beak at him, and he yelped and stuck a bloody finger in his mouth. “I did a service for a—ah—philosopher of my acquaintance and in return he taught me several methods for mineral divination, among other things.”

“And who is this philosopher?”

“Ah—dead, I’m afraid,” de Marigny said.

Something in the way he said it pricked Dumas’ curiosity. He gazed solemnly at de Marigny for a moment, and then grunted and pushed himself to his feet. “Fine, let’s get this farce over with, shall we?” He left his coat and hat where they were, but picked up his sword and belted the sheath about his waist.

The savant made a face, but nodded. Holding the hen’s beak closed, he pulled the struggling bird close and whispered to it. Then he deposited it onto the ground with a flourish. The bird gave a hop, and a flap, and stared up at Dumas. He returned the look. The hen gave an ear-splitting squawk and then started towards the house at a quick trot, flapping its wings occasionally. The savant waved off the dragoons, as they made to follow. “If we find it, we’ll call out, eh? Too many hens spoil the meal,” he said. None of Dumas’ workers offered to join him. He didn’t blame them. The house had that effect on men, he had learned. The Egyptians avoided even its shadow, and contorted themselves awkwardly to slink around its edges, when the sun was high. Those he could induce to enter, did so reluctantly and never for very long.

“You don’t sound as eager to fill the Republic’s coffers as I expected of a man of your reputation, General,” de Marigny said as they followed the pullet into the house. The structure was in bad shape—the walls had been, by and large, blown out into the street, and the roof had been shattered and burnt. Inside, it was ruin, reeking of sulphur and smoke, everything burned black by the force of the explosion that had claimed its integrity. The former owner had secreted a store of gunpowder in the house sometime prior to the French entrance into the city, and tried to reduce his home to a smoking ruin. For what reason, Dumas couldn’t fathom.  The Mamelukes were brave—terribly, foolishly brave; most had left their wealth where it was, on the assumption that they would return to claim it.

They’d scotched that idea, however, and broken the Mamelukes. A slight smile creased his face as he thought of the Battle of the Pyramids, as some were calling it. There’d been no pyramids that he could see, but plenty of Mamelukes. Thousands of the feisty bastards had been waiting on them as they marched towards Cairo, covered in sparkling armor, enhanced with gold and gems, over brightly colored embroidered silk jackets, armed with pistols, blunderbusses, daggers and those damnable swords, curved and perfectly balanced, atop their snorting stallions.

Dumas looked down at his own sword, with its graceful curve and the ornate pommel, shaped like the clenched claw of an eagle. He’d taken it from its owner, after his own had broken on the man’s skull. The Mamelukes had hurled themselves at the French squares, each man an Achilles in his own mind. And maybe they had been, for a time. Dumas could still taste the sand and blood, and feel the reverberations of his sabre as it connected with his opponent’s curved sword.

Blade to blade, they had danced under the hot sun, trading blows that would have sent weaker men staggering. It had been the first time that Dumas had met a man who could stand toe-to-toe with him, and he recalled it fondly as he tapped a loose rhythm on the pommel of his trophy. It had been glorious. For a moment, just a moment, he had not been a soldier, a subordinate, but a warrior. Men would remember that battle, and the clash of old and new, beneath the eyes of the ancient. Too, they would remember Dumas, or so he hoped.

“Did you hear me, General?” de Marigny said. Dumas blinked and shook his head, banishing the daydream of sand and silk and slaughter. Ash crunched beneath his boot-heels. He looked about, taking in the blackened skeleton of the house. The hen trotted just ahead of him, pecking through the ash and scratching at the floor, like any other chicken. 

“Yes,” he said. “I simply chose not to answer.” His years serving the Republic, and the various Committees, had taught him that it was best to be wary. He wouldn’t put it past the Corsican to arrange an accident. It would undoubtedly amuse him to report that his Horatius had perished in a ramshackle house, a victim of a broken neck or a fallen beam. Or maybe he would ambush him and sell him to the Bedouin, to end his life as he’d begun it, in slavery. The only thing that Bonaparte enjoyed more than winning was inflicting ignominy on his enemies, after all. At the thought, Dumas could not repress a shudder. Even after all he’d accomplished, he still dreamed sometimes of the day his own father had sold him, to buy passage to France. A man could live without glory and honour, but not freedom.

“Do you fear I’ll report you to Bonaparte’s spies?”

“I fear neither spy nor savant,” Dumas said. “I simply choose not to answer seditious questions.” He peered at de Marigny and added, “Perhaps it is you who should worry. Bonaparte grows bored with his pet scientists, as he grows bored with everyone whose services he no longer requires.”

The savant smiled, as if Dumas had said something funny. “Not me, General. Bonaparte chose me. I did not choose him. Nor has my use ended, unlike that of some others I could name.” Dumas ignored the smile and the jibe, and looked about him. There were only a few columns of light, jabbing through the collapsed sections of the roof. The rest of the ruin was in darkness, which wasn’t unusual, given how the house was angled. He’d noticed it early in the reconstruction efforts—the house was at odds with its closest neighbours, as if it sat on an unseen slope. From a distance, and from the right spot, the house looked as if it were leaning forward, like a man falling asleep. Up close, the effect was even more disturbing.

The columns of light flickered, as if something had flown between the sun and his eyes. Dumas froze, listening. He heard a rustle, and was reminded of hens stirring in a henhouse. He looked down. The pullet stared up at him. No, not at him—past him, he realized. Its eyes were fixed on a point somewhere above his head, where a series of charred beams intersected. Unconsciously, Dumas looked up. He saw nothing, save motes of char that drifted down, as if loosened by a stray breeze. He looked down, and found de Marigny examining him as intently as he had been examining the beams. The savant blinked and looked away as Dumas’ gaze fell on him. “It was a unique structure, was it not? Even now, in its current sad state of repair, you can see it. It is somehow larger within than it appears from the street. It contains infinities, you might say,” the savant said, not looking at him.

“I might, but I doubt it,” Dumas said. Then, bluntly, “The architect was either drunk or mad, or both.”

“One of those, almost certainly,” de Marigny said. He frowned. “Madness can take many forms, including an excess of clarity as opposed to confusion.” He looked at Dumas. “They say that you planned to murder Bonaparte in the desert.”

Dumas said nothing. His palm dropped the pommel of his blade. “Who says that? Name him, and I’ll challenge him this very night,” Dumas said softly.

 “Peace, peace General, I meant no disrespect,” de Marigny said quickly. He made a placating gesture. His eyes were shrewd, behind his spectacles. “It was a rumour, nothing more.”

“Rumours can kill a man, as surely as blade or bullet,” Dumas growled.

“Oh, I know, believe me,” de Marigny said. “A man can only die on the battlefield once. In Cairo, he can die a thousand times before lunch.”

Dumas smiled. But before he could speak, the hen squawked. The savant sniffed. “Ah, she’s found the spot.” The hen was stalking in a circle, head bobbing, its talons scraping strange patterns into the ash that coated the floor. Dumas sank to his haunches and shooed the pullet away. It didn’t go far. It flapped its wings and glared about challengingly. Carefully, he examined the floor. With a start, he realized that the hen’s scratching had made a perfect square. He looked at the bird, which seemed to meet his gaze mockingly. Dumas shook his head and looked back down at the floor. It was stone, and there was no crease or line to mark an opening or loose slab. He knocked on the stone with his knuckles, half-expecting to hear the echo of a hollow space, but it was solid. “There is nothing here,” he said.

“No,” de Marigny said, “Not yet.”

Dumas was about to reply, when a soft susurrus interrupted him. He stiffened as he heard the whirr of wings. More char drifted down, like a faint black snow. Something moved above him, but always at the edge of his vision. He could hear the snap of pinions and the rustle of leather. It put him in mind of rooks and bats squabbling for roosting space. “What is that?” he hissed. He peered up at the beams again, hunting for the source of the noise.

He had hunted wolves, as a young man. Once, he had cornered one of the beasts in a ruined church near Villers-Cotterets. It had crouched unmoving in the overgrown sacristy, and he had swept his gaze across it several times before it had tensed to spring, alerting him to its presence. He felt the same now as he had then. Something was above him.  Something was swooping and crawling through the shadows that had congealed in the upper reaches of the ruin. Bats, perhaps, he thought. But where were they?

“I wondered if you would hear them,” de Marigny said. Dumas looked at him as he rummaged around in his burnoose, hunting for something.

“Hear what? What is that?”

“The black winged ones,” de Marigny said. “Ah, here we are.” He held up a thin, flat lens of glass, edged in gold. As he extended it towards a stray beam of light, Dumas saw that it was scored with hundreds of thin lines and shapes, and for a moment, it put him in mind of an orrery or compass. Then the light caught it, and the thought was replaced by another, more urgent one, as the world lurched suddenly. Dumas felt momentarily sick, as if he were on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. The heat of the day was wrenched from the air all at once, and the background noise of the city went with it, drawn elsewhere. It was as if someone had drawn a veil over the world.

And then, he saw them. They clung to the beams and high places, squirming and shifting. He had the impression of leathery wings, and centipede like bodies and then he looked away, fighting to control the sudden rush of bile that rose thick and hot into his throat. Disgusted and horrified, Dumas sprang to his feet and drew his blade.

“No!” de Marigny snapped, grabbing Dumas’ wrist. The savant’s grip was shockingly strong. Dumas made to shake him off, but he heard a wheezing shriek and something with too many teeth, set into a mouth like an open blossom, struck at him, wings flapping. Before he could bring his blade up, de Marigny thrust a hand past him. An amulet dangled from the savant’s clenched fingers and the thing gave a tinny hiss and retreated in a flurry of wing-beats.

“What—?” Dumas began.

“It always pays to bring the proper papers, when travelling abroad,” de Marigny said. “They won’t harm you, General, not unless I will it, and I most certainly do not. Now, watch your feet.” Dumas, mouth dry, looked down. In the patch of stone at his feet, he saw an aperture that had not been there moments earlier. Startled, he realized that it perfectly matched the dimensions of the square that the pullet had scratched out on the floor.  It looked old, far older than the house itself, and it lacked the precision of something carved by the tools of men.  A strange smell rose upwards to wash over him and he pressed the edge of his sash over his nose and mouth.

“What in the name of the devil is that?” he croaked.

“That? That is what we are looking for, General,” de Marigny said, almost gently. “The treasure hidden at the heart of this ruin; the treasure Bonaparte desires, though he would never admit it to any save me.” He lowered his amulet and licked his lips as he peered down into the aperture. The odour emanating from it didn’t seem to bother him.

“Is this why he brought you to Egypt?” Dumas said slowly. “Before, you said you learned things from a philosopher in Cairo—was this one of those things?”

The savant’s smile was ghastly in the weird light. His grip tightened on his amulets. The winged horrors stirred restlessly, and the air was filled with the soft fluttering of wings. The pullet clucked morosely. “After you, General,” he said. He gestured, and Dumas saw that there were steps leading down into the darkness. He hadn’t noticed them before. Perhaps they hadn’t been there. Dumas gripped his sword, considering. De Marigny shook his amulet and the black-winged ones began to stir. Wings flapped and stingers clattered. He picked up the pullet and stroked it. Then, with a single swift motion, he broke the bird’s neck before it could squawk and he tossed the body into the air.

“I insist,” de Marigny said, softly as feathers drifted down and the black-winged ones fell to. Dumas didn’t watch. He had killed chickens before, and dogs, and foxes and men, but something about that moment of casual cruelty set his stomach to churning. He turned and started down. Dumas took the steps slowly. The heat of the day had been replaced by a damp chill, and he shivered slightly as he descended. The smell grew stronger and his breath frosted the air. How could it be so cold here?

“There is no heat here, no light—no true light, at any rate,” de Marigny said from behind him, as if he’d read Dumas’ mind. He was following, but slowly, warily. “We are in a crack in the wall between one world and the next. Useful things, cracks; they are invariably the perfect place to hide those things which you do not wish found.” He chuckled. “Of course, if the person you’re hiding them from knows that there’s something to look for, it’s all becomes rather moot.”

“This isn’t about gems and gold, is it?” Dumas said.

“No,” de Marigny said. “It is about empire.”

Dumas paused at the bottom of the steps. A flat stone floor, like the ground in the tidal caves he’d played in as a boy, and rough-hewn walls met his gaze. There were wooden benches and shelves lining the walls, groaning with mouldy tomes and dusty clay urns. Canopic jars, akin to the sort he’d seen tomb-robbers bartering in the Cairo market, were sharing shelf space with strange idols, and a dismantled skeleton occupied a flat table, all save for the skull, which hung from a web of thin, golden chains attached to the low ceiling. The skull rotated gently as if in a breeze. The pages of the tomes rustled and the dust stirred. He turned to meet de Marigny’s placid gaze. Behind him, he heard a sound like the stirring of sand, or the crackle of flames.

“It hasn’t changed a bit,” the savant said.

“You have been here before,” Dumas said. “What is going on here? Answer me, or—”

De Marigny’s hand flashed to his waist and he plucked the pistol from his sash and cocked it. “You want an answer? Fine—turn around. Turn around I say!” the savant barked.

Dumas did. The sound had grown louder. Something like black smoke billowed from the skull that dangled in the centre of the room. It struck the floor in a silent splash and rose up in undulating waves. Dumas’ mouth was dry, and his heart hammered in his chest. For the first time in a long time, he felt fear. “What is that?”

“He that causes despair,” de Marigny said, ‘He who lies in wait on the straightest of ways, the whisperer in darkness and the shambler in the shadows.” He laughed. “It’s a worm in the apple, and a scorpion in the boot. I brought the hen to find the door, and the cockerel to slay the watch-dog,” de Marigny said. He descended, pistol aimed at Dumas’ heart. Dumas stepped onto the floor. “Draw your talon, General. Draw your talon and strike, lest you be for the stew-pot.”

            The black mass slithered forward, winnowing between the tables and shelves. Dumas caught a glimpse of things that might have been eyes or teeth, and then it was boiling towards him, like smoke caught in a flue, faster than he could track. Without thinking, he lunged forward, slashing out with his blade. It carved a silvery arc through the mass, and the stones echoed with a groan that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

It rose up and coiled about him, and in his head, he saw-what? Faces, and images, of another place and another time, broken shards of memories yet to be which slithered across his consciousness, showing him his sad fate. He saw a Sicilian prison cell, and felt the damp that would creep into his bones and drain his strength. He shuddered in the phantom coils and struck at it with his blade and fists, dispersing it like smoke. 

The serpentine shape gave way to something else, lupine perhaps or feline. It flung itself at him again, and he ducked aside, catching its side with his sword. It lashed out wildly, and he was sent staggering by a blow that left red, oozing marks across his chest. Pain seared through him as he absently touched the wound, and he gasped and stepped back as it came for him again, its shape billowing and puffing out like pollen on the wind. 

It became a rat, a bat, a falcon, and a horse, growing wings and hooves and lashing, scorpion-like tails as it whirled about him. With every blow, more shards of not-memory pierced his mind. He saw himself returned at last to France, and he saw his titles and honours stripped from him by an emperor grown fat on adulation. He saw his children grow up penniless and his friends turn their backs on him to pursue rank and glory. He gave back before the smoke and the horrors it brought even as he hacked at it, his blows becoming wilder and more frantic. It spun about him like a dust-devil, coming at him from every direction at once, clawing at his determination, at his courage, with its hateful whispers.

It told him that he would die in bed. That he would be forgotten, but that Bonaparte would be remembered forever. Dumas would have no statues, and he would be lost to history’s shadow.The words hammered at him, harder than any blow he’d ever received.His back touched the wall of the chamber and he slashed out, bisecting it as it galloped towards him. It dissipated and reformed, taking the shape of a man, a Mameluke, in swirling robes and jangling mail, with a sword in one hand.

He spat blood as it swung its blade challengingly. The images faded and he shook his head to clear it, and as he did so, he smiled. For though it had shown him terrible things, it had not shown him the one thing he feared most. “No glory, eh,” he croaked. “No honour, you say? How will they take these things from me? I am Dumas. I scaled the Alps and climbed the Pyramids. I have fought kings and popes and knights. I was born a slave and I will die a free man, whatever else they do to me. Come,” he growled, gesturing. “Come!”

The smoky blade slashed at him and Dumas roared and stamped forward, cutting at the apparition’s head. His blade chopped down through its own, into its head and passed through the entirety of its body before striking the stone floor in a shower of sparks.

At the sound of metal striking stone, the smoky mass seemed to quail, and his mind began to clear. Dumas, thinking quickly, swung his blade out and struck the wall. He’d heard it said, though he could not say where, that demons could not stand the sound of silver bells. His sword was neither a bell nor silver, but it seemed to be having a similar effect. He didn’t pause to question the why of it. Instead, he swatted the floor before him, and the mass squirmed backwards. Dumas grinned mirthlessly. He followed it, striking the floor every so often to drive it before him, like a hunter driving a fox. It retreated back the way it had come, and he bellowed at it to hurry it along. It slid away from him and slithered upwards back into the skull, which shook, as if in fear.

“You beat it,” de Marigny said. “I hoped you would.” Dumas turned with a retort on his lips. The savant still held his pistol however, and the retort died on Dumas’ lips. “You were correct, General. I have been here before. I learned much at the feet of the Mohammedan sorcerer who owned this residence, but not, alas, as much as I wished. He drove me out, when I questioned him once too often. He had the art to make himself a caliph, or greater, even, but he was content to be rich and fat, and idle. Demons brought him gold and women and wine, when they could have brought him kingdoms. He hoarded eldritch wisdoms the way a miser hoards coins—any one of which could elevate a man to a king.”

“Is that what you promised the Corsican, then?” Dumas asked. “We weren’t after gold, were we? Bonaparte sent you here to find this place, so that he might add devils to his arsenal.”

“Devils, djinn, diabolical texts—it’s all science by another name,” de Marigny murmured. “He wants to be emperor, you know.” His eyes flashed strangely behind his spectacles.

Dumas grunted. “It doesn’t require sorcery to see that.”

“No, it doesn’t. But what he wants, and what I want are two different things,” de Marigny said. He stepped off of the stairs and into the chamber.  The skull twitched in its bindings. Dumas could hear the scrape and shuffle of the winged things as they crept and fluttered about the opening above. The hen hadn’t lasted long. “He wanted you dead, you know. He leapt at the opportunity, when I requested your participation. I told him you would die fighting the shambler in the shadows. You would be another sacrifice, like the pullet. But I lied.”

“Why?”

“Bonaparte is…not trustworthy,” de Marigny said. “His only loyalty is to his own ambition.” Dumas burst out laughing, and the savant frowned. “You know that is so, as well as I!” he snarled. “He would take my secrets for his, as soon as I had done as he’d wished.” He shrugged. “And at any rate, the people of this arid land would not follow him, no matter how many devils I afflict them with. He is not the leader they want. He is too sly, too haughty, too…”

“White,” Dumas offered. He wiped blood from his face. “In the desert, the Bedouin thought I was Bonaparte. So too did the Mamelukes. They were quite disappointed when they found out otherwise.” 

The savant licked his lips. “I offer you a chance, general. I can make you a king, here. A true king. Egypt could be again what it once was, between us. I have watched you, and listened to tales of your heroism. Here, now, you could be what you were always intended to be, what men like Bonaparte have ever kept from you.”

“And what do you get out of it?”

“I? I get a king, and a kingdom,” de Marigny said. He circled Dumas, the pistol never wavering. “The wealth of Egypt to fund my researches, a continent of secrets to plunder at my will,  and all this here, in this crooked house, which should have been mine, had not my master been so short-sighted.” The savant smiled thinly. “Think about it, General. Your wife a queen, your children royalty, a land to mould in your image and Bonaparte humbled before you.”

“Why me?”

“Why not you? The best general, the best man, the hero of Tyrol and the hero of the Pyramids…a worthy king, that man.” The savant looked around, as if nervous. “Consider it, General, but be quick. We do not have much time. We must be out of this chamber before the sun sets, otherwise we may not leave at all.” He held up the thin disk of scratched glass he had used to transport them to this twilight world, as if for emphasis. “Consider my offer, but swiftly!”

And Dumas did. He thought about it. And as he thought, he saw the deadly shadow begin to creep from its skull once more, like a wary cat. He heard the rustle of abominable wings above him. He thought about what the shadow had showed him, about what might await him. It was a bad death, that.

Then, he thought about why he had come to Egypt. He thought about why he’d fought, and bled. Bonaparte might have forgotten the Republic and its values the minute he set foot on foreign shores, but Dumas had not, and never would. He looked at de Marigny. “I came to free Egypt. Not to conquer it.”

The savant grimaced. He raised his pistol. “Then I will have to take my chances with the Corsican. I will not be denied my due.”

“No, you will not,” Dumas said. Faster than de Marigny could fire, Dumas flicked the tip of his blade up, and hooked the amulet around the savant’s neck, tearing it free. It clattered across the floor, into the shadows.

The sound of wings grew loud in the chamber and de Marigny’s eyes widened behind his spectacles. “No!” he screeched. He made to fire at Dumas, but was distracted by the flock of winged things that burst into the chamber. He twisted around as the creatures swirled about him like leaves caught in a strong wind and his pistol barked. Dumas ducked low and snatched up the disk of glass from where de Marigny had dropped it in his panic, gripping it tightly. He hurled himself towards the stairs, bounding up them as the flying creatures flooded into the chamber, hissing and clattering. De Marigny screamed, but Dumas did not look back.

Sword in hand, he exploded out of the aperture and stumbled back the way they had come. More of the winged devils were waiting for him, mandibles clacking as they slithered from their perches and swooped towards him. He could see other shapes, fouler and larger, moving through the shadows. Without the protection of de Marigny’s amulet, he was fair game. He needed to leave, and quickly. Hastily, he sought out a watery drizzle of pale not-quite sunlight, and thrust the disk of glass into it, tilting it as de Marigny had, so that all of the strange scratches caught the light.

For a moment, he feared it wouldn’t work. Then, heat and sound crashed down on him, and he was back in Cairo, de Marigny’s final scream still echoing in his ears.  He looked around, breathing heavily, his blood still running down his sweaty limbs, his clothes torn. He wondered how he would explain de Marigny’s disappearance. Then, he wondered whether or not his survival would encourage the Corsican to send him home at last, or resort to more earthly means in dispatching him. His grip on his sword tightened.

He looked down at the floor, where the aperture had been. A crack, de Marigny had called it. He looked up, and thought he caught a subtle movement in the shadows. He doubted de Marigny had made it to the amulet in time. He would see this place torn down before the next morning, and any ghosts or devils in its corners sent running. Whatever else happened, whatever else became of him, he was free to do that much, at least.

He looked down at the glass disk in his hand. He dropped it and tread on it, grinding it into powder. Bonaparte would have to earn his empire the hard way, without the help of sorcery, or Alexander Dumas.

Then, without a backwards glance, he went out to meet his fate. 


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