“I thought it’d only take a few days.”
Major Colquhoun Grant shielded his eyes against the sunlight streaming through the broken boards in the walls of the windmill. He could just see the magician, huddled in the furthest, darkest corner of the narrow walkway. He was hugging his knees, swigging occasionally from a half-empty bottle of spirits. His face was pale, drawn, and there was a glinting, wild kind of light in his eyes which Grant did not like at all. Strange resembled nothing so much as a cornered animal, miserable and ill but still dangerous in its desperation.
“The spell,” Strange said in reply to Grant’s unasked question. He motioned with the bottle towards the Neapolitans, shambling about on the other side of the windmill. Their dead limbs uncoordinated, their dead eyes unfocused, they bumped into the walls or one another as they walked in circles, purposeless, muttering. Grant heard snatches of their running monologues: reminiscences of the last moments of their lives, pieces of popular Italian ballads, names: of wives, sweethearts, mothers, children. A shiver ran through the major despite himself and he turned away from the corpses and back towards Strange, from one miserable sight to another.
“I thought it would end in and of itself, you see,” Strange continued. “I thought its effects would only be temporary. For even with magic, how can a-- a-- how can dead flesh continue to perambulate, and speak and-- remember?” The magician took another long gulp of the liquor. “What have I done, Grant?”
“Your duty,” Grant replied firmly, but Strange only laughed: an odd, hollow sound.
“Oh yes. My duty.” His tone was bitter, hard like chipped stone. “I have perverted the laws of God and nature for-- for what? A few cannon? Well, good. At least Wellington is happy.”
Grant bit down on his tongue, stopping himself before he corrected the omission of Wellington’s title. Strange was in no mood to look favorably upon His Lordship at this moment. Instead Grant climbed upon a nearby crate and hauled himself up upon the walkway to sit beside Strange. The magician flinched slightly at his nearness, as if the past few days shut up in the windmill with the corpses had caused him to forget that any other living beings existed.
“You did what you were asked to do, Merlin,” Grant said quietly. “Sometimes that is all one can do in war.”
“But that is the very thing of it, Grant. It was not what I was asked to do. I was asked to find some Neapolitans. Wellington never said I had to resurrect some dead ones.” Strange’s eyes flashed brightly in the shadows as he peered at Grant. “What I did I did because-- because, God forgive me, I wanted to.”
Grant shook his head. “I don’t understand you, Merlin. Why should you want to?”
“Because it is magic that belongs to the Raven King. Because it is magic the like of which has not been done since he left England. I wanted to do it because-- because I wanted to know if I could. I wanted to know if I were truly a capable enough magician to do the kinds of things he had done.”
“And now?” Grant asked, genuinely curious. “You succeeded. Does that not please you?”
Strange hesitated. “I thought that it would. But instead I find-- It rather frightens me instead.”
Without thinking, Grant reached out and laid a hand on the magician’s shoulder. He wanted to comfort Strange, wanted to give him something solid and warm and living to lean upon. But Strange twitched at the touch and batted Grant’s hand away.
“Listen to me, Grant,” Strange said in a hoarse, rather high-pitched whisper. “For your own sake heed my words. I know that out of the goodness of your heart you are here, offering me your friendship. But you would be better off running as far away from me as you can go. I tell you this because I care for you. I have learned something about myself in these last few days. I have learned that I am a dangerous man. And anyone who gets close to me – and everyone who is already close to me – I am very much afraid I will end up destroying you all.”
Grant wanted to deny this, wanted to say something to discourage Strange from thinking such bleak and desperate thoughts. But he found that his mouth was dry and he could not say a word. There was a creaking over their heads, and a kind of sharp, high-pitched scream from the rusty gears of the windmill as the blades outside began to turn.
It was a still and windless day.