The Native Star: Prologue

Charleston, South Carolina
July 15, 1865

Five loud, hard, sharp crashes. Someone was knocking—no, not knocking, rather pounding—at the door of Mr. Everdene Baugh’s house on Church Street.

It was well past midnight. A violent tempest of birdshot rain and screaming wind—the biggest storm to hit Charleston in a decade—was raging outside. Anarchy and insolence, Baugh fumed as he fumbled his way down the dark, narrow stairs, wool-stockinged feet sliding on bare wood. Every day he was unpleasantly surprised at how much closer to savagery the world had drifted.

Baugh threw open his door with the intention of telling the pounders to go to Hell and exactly how to get there. But when he saw that it was a detachment of Union soldiers on his doorstep, their rifles gleaming, the words froze in his mouth. Before the soldiers stood a hulking officer with dripping muttonchops who seemed hardly to notice the rain sluicing down on him from the broken gutters above.

“Captain John Caul,” the man introduced himself curtly, not bothering to touch the brim of his hat. “You’re Baugh, of E. W. Baugh & Company?”

Baugh clutched the edge of the door, knuckles white. Sherman’s bloody march was only a few months in the past. The ashes of Columbia had barely cooled, and the once-fertile fields of South Carolina were barren, ruined by the despoiling northern Warlock squadrons who had sown every field with black sorcerer’s salt. And since Lincoln’s assassination, the Yankee garrisons had been itching for blood.

Baugh prayed they weren’t here for his.

“Your firm operated a warehouse before the recent conflicts,” Caul said. His voice was strangely flat, as if he was attempting to make each word balance precisely with the next. “I have been informed that you might be willing to let it. I’ve come on behalf of an associate who wishes a viewing.”

“You want me to take you ’round to see the warehouse?” Baugh blinked in astonishment. “But . . . but it’s . . .”

“. . . haunted,” Caul finished for him, with a distinct sneer. “Yes. I know all about that. Get dressed. My associate is waiting.”

The walk to the warehouse was brief but no less unpleasant for being so. The driving rain was cold and stinging, and Baugh had to lean forward against the hard wind to make headway. Better, though, to lean forward into the wind than back against the rifle that one of Caul’s men was jabbing between his shoulder blades.

When they reached the warehouse, Baugh saw a black carriage waiting in the street. Caul’s associate.

“It’ll be just a moment,” Baugh said apologetically as he went to the great rusting padlock. He unlocked it carefully; then, when no one was looking, he placed his hand on the door’s wooden frame.

“Ghost,” he whispered. “It’s me.”

There was a soft, cool exhalation from within the building, a distant moaning of recognition.

Feeling the presence of his ghost cheered Baugh immeasurably. The ghost was the most useful sorcellement he’d ever purchased. During the recent unpleasantness, its talent for striking terror into the hearts of the living had been the only thing that kept the Union armies from commandeering his warehouse. Baugh glanced back at the ruffians in blue who’d escorted him here. It would be awfully satisfying to instruct the ghost to send them packing, too.

However, Captain Caul had used the word “let.” And the word “let” implied money. And Baugh, like every other hungry Confederate son, very much needed money.

“Your services won’t be required,” he whispered, patting the door frame tenderly. “Not yet, anyway. But stand ready in case I need you.” A creaking sound of understanding and compliance came in reply.

If these Yankees wanted to let his warehouse, he’d take their money. Otherwise he’d call his haunt down on them quicker than rain off a tin roof.

Baugh made a great show of removing the padlock, as if he’d been fiddling with it the whole time. Only when the doors of the warehouse were opened did Caul’s associate, a man in a shining beaver top hat, suffer himself to be handed down from his carriage by a soggy sergeant.

And it was not until they were inside, and one of Caul’s soldiers had kindled a lamp, that Baugh got a good look at the mysterious stranger. The man’s limbs seemed to have been molded precisely to fit his elegantly tailored chamois trousers and fashionably cut coat. His fingers sparkled with gem-set gold rings, he wore a neat Vandyke, and his eyes were an alarming shade of peacock blue.

“Monsieur Rene,” Caul said. “Comte d’Artaud.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Baugh said. Artaud didn’t even look in his direction. Instead, the Frenchman walked around the building slowly, hands loosely clasped behind his back. He looked up at the cobwebbed rafters, then at the dirty windows. He squinted at a sudden flash of lightning.

“How large is this warehouse?” he asked, his accent pleasantly elliptical.

Baugh threw out his chest proudly. “Why, it’s the only warehouse hereabouts rigged up with an extradimensional enchantment . . . I had it done before the war. The warehouse is five thousand square feet on the outside, eighty thousand on the inside. I paid dearly for that . . .” He paused. “Not that I’d pass the cost along—”

“A very useful enchantment,” came a voice from behind him. Baugh startled. Caul was standing right at his shoulder. How had the big man crept up on him like that? The Captain was staring down at him, eyes flat and still as those of a corpse.

“Very . . . very useful.” Baugh licked his lips. “The Warlock who sold it to me was a traveling fellow, from Boston.” How he wanted to get out from under those horrible eyes! “He . . . sold me quite a few little witcheries.”

“Yes,” Caul said. “I’ve heard.”

“Here, Captain.” Artaud was pointing to a spot on the floor. Caul snapped fingers at his men, and two of them hurried out into the storm. They returned carrying a huge iron-banded chest, which they set near the place Artaud had indicated. One of them handed Caul a crowbar.

Before Baugh could say a word, Caul thrust one end of the bar between two floorboards, prying them up with a creak of iron nails and a scream of pine. Caul set the boards aside, and he and the Frenchman peered down into darkness, where the building’s foundations were sunk in the murky swamp of the delta.

“What are you doing!” Baugh cried. But neither Caul nor Artaud answered, and since no further destruction seemed forthcoming, Baugh said nothing more. He did, however, move closer for a better look.

Artaud opened the iron-banded chest and withdrew a narrow cherry-wood box, the kind that might hold a billiard cue. Within it, seated in velvet, lay five long tubes of silver, gradating from the circumference of a child’s wrist to that of a lady’s pinky. Four were designed to telescope out into longer sections; the Frenchman pulled these out and began screwing them together.

While Artaud did this, the captain reached into the iron-banded chest and strained to remove a final object, wide as a washtub and tall as a tea table. Caul kicked the chest closed and set the object on top of it. It was a machine of polished steel and glass. On each side it had a large flywheel with a bulbous wooden crank handle.

Artaud had finished connecting the silver tubes, and now had a long, flexible pole. He threaded this through the hole in the floor thin-end first, letting it slide through his fingers until it hit the mud with a distant plip. He twisted the pole until it was well seated. Then he took the fifth piece from the cherry-wood box and fitted it onto the pole’s end. This piece was different from the others; it was a kind of cap, with a long, cloth-wrapped cord sprouting from its terminating end. Artaud connected the cord to the machine, then gestured to two of Caul’s soldiers, who began vigorously cranking the machine. The machine came alive with a warbling hum—a slightly irregular sound that rose and fell with the minutely varying speed of the men’s exertions.

“What are you . . .”

The Frenchman threw his hand up curtly, stopping the words in Baugh’s mouth. He was peering at an enameled gauge that was domed with blown glass and inscribed with beautifully scrolled French indicators. He stared at it for some time before making a sound of disgust.

“It is hopeless!” he muttered, glaring at Caul. “Your Boston man said the readings were unprecedented!”

“So they must have been,” Caul said. “Try again.”

“Non,” Artaud snapped. “Your scout was an idiot. There is nothing here.”

He seized the pole as if he meant to wrench it out of the ground. But the instant his skin touched the metal, a flash of ice-blue light crackled like a thousand tiny Chinese firecrackers, knocking him across the room. He landed with a thud. He did not move for a moment, but then he groaned and stirred.

Horrified, Baugh rushed to help Artaud to his feet. A thick lock of brilliantined hair flopped across his forehead and his cheek was streaked with grime—but oddly enough, the Frenchman was grinning broadly.

“What could have happened?” Baugh stammered, brushing dust from Artaud’s coat. “Some kind of lightning bolt, perhaps? These storms—”

“No, no,” Artaud said, waving away Baugh’s fussings. He smoothed back his hair, then straightened his collar. “Thank you, my dear sir. We’ve seen all we need to see.”

Baugh’s heart sunk at the finality with which the words were spoken.

“Then you won’t be wanting the place?”

Artaud fixed his gaze on Baugh, and Baugh almost screamed. The Frenchman’s eyes had gone completely black from iris to lid. It was like looking into an open grave. Fumbling backward, Baugh found that Caul was right behind him. The big man grabbed him, held him.

“On the contrary.” Artaud’s black eyes were dull as wells of tar. “We’ll take it immediately.”

“Ghost!” Baugh choked. “Ghost, help me!”

Before the words had left his lips, a spectral form began to coalesce. Greasy ectoplasm dripped from the walls—a miasma that made the warehouse glow with a sickly yellow light. It grew until it was a vast figure, vaguely human in form, with a distended head and long spindly limbs. It opened its black mouth and began to shriek—a sound that was the pure distillation of death and torture, terror and misery, sorrow and despair.

Even Baugh, who owned the ghost, found it terrifying.

Caul, however, did not. Shoving Baugh toward one of his men, he strode toward the atrocity. His impassive face was illuminated by the haunt’s shifting yellow glow. Pulling a two-chambered glass pendant from beneath his collar, Caul thrust it toward the ghost. He began speaking in guttural cadences that resounded against the walls, beating against the howling of the ghost like a base drum contending with a steam siren. He spoke louder, and knives of light shone in the air, threads and wires of gleaming red and black that tangled around the ghost, slicing it into shining blobs of ectoplasm that fell from the air to sizzle and quiver on the floor like spat mucus. The ghost’s shrieks grew fainter and fainter. Finally, they faded away entirely.

“Ghost?” Baugh called softly.

“It has served its purpose.” Caul turned to look at Baugh. “The Warlock from Boston—the one who sold you the ghost—he was one of mine. He put down wards against fire and flood, too.” Caul paused. “We commandeered this warehouse long before the war, Baugh. You just never knew it.”

Caul walked slowly toward him, his hand going to his belt.

“Now, one final sacrifice is required of you.” He drew a long silver knife that gleamed in the half-light of the lanterns. “To exorcise the haunt completely, I must have the blood of its master.”

Caul gave him no chance to scream. The knife’s cold edge flashed up, then down. His own blood, spraying cherry-red in a flash of lightning, was the last thing Baugh saw.