Chapter 4-Part 4

He looked hurt.  “Aw, no, come on mate, you just sat down!”

Viska put a hand up.  “No, I really can’t.  But, look, I came over here to repay you for your hospitality that night, right?  Tell me what room you’re in over at The Aegis and I’ll have a bottle of the finest schnapps waiting for you.”  The finest inn in Winghem boasted a turn-down service, only a minimal amount of bodily fluid staining the furniture, and little else in the way of excellence.

“Actually I’m not staying there, we we’re all about to head back to the barge to enjoy a little music and a steam bath.  You have to come, man.  You have to.”  He turned to the rest of the ladies lounged around the room.  “Girls, girls, tell Selnick he’s got to come back to the boat with us, eh?”

Immediately the entourage of tramps began to whimper and pout about his departure.  The one on his lap caressed his cheek and begged him to join the group.  His blood boiled and he imagined steam leaking from his ears and nostrils.  That of course set him to giggling; he rose from his seat with a forlorn smile and grabbed his cane.  “Ok, ok I will talk to my captain.  That’s all I can promise.  You’ll either see me at the dock,” he pointed at David as he stepped through the curtains, “or at least see that schnapps waiting for you.”

“Hey, you tell that son of a bitch that the Family requires your service, eh?” David called after him.

Viska threw up a playful wave and glanced at the little girl with her downturned face for but a moment before walking over to the bar.  The smile was gone now…only the hollow, determined scowl of an angry man who’s decided to do something rash and unthinkable remained.  He slapped a hundred mark down on the oak next to his abandoned plate and left.  He barely heard the bartender’s confused, “Thank you.”

Outside he quickly checked his pocket watch as he strode down the now lamp-lit street towards The Winking Lady.  He wagered he had a little over three hours before departure…plenty of time.  He stopped at a grocer two blocks down and bought the most expensive bottle of pink champagne he saw; the man behind the counter tried to be pleasant but the scowl plastered on Viska’s face only meant trouble.

“How goes it this evening?” he asked with concerned worry in his voice.

“Bugger off.”  He tossed another hundred mark on the counter and moved on. 

It was full dark and the town was hauntingly lit by the streetlamps and glowing window signs up and down the main circle when he finally arrived at The Winking Lady.  The spire was especially beautiful, with a spiral of tiny lights winding up the great staircase and deck lamps dotting some of the swaying airships; soon the fog would make visibility poor, and the brutally cold wind would keep most people indoors next to their boiler vents, but the view was pleasing nonetheless.  Viska quietly slipped around the back of the establishment and spotted the huge boiler humming and churning against the wall.  As he neared, the vents noisily shot steam up into the air to drift away and dissipate.  The pressure gauge showed the needle still dancing around normal levels with an internal temperature far below dangerous.

He could hear laughter inside the building, along with the warble of some working girl singing into an ampliphone.  He couldn’t quite make out the song, but it sounded an awful lot like You’re Past Due.  Glasses clinked; whistles and catcalls were constant.  He opened up the maintenance panel and eyed the dutifully turning gears.  Poor things, they weren’t doing anything wrong. 

He took a look at his cane; it was certainly thin enough to do the trick.  He took aim and rammed it in between the two biggest gears, grunting as he struggled to wriggle it as deep as possible.  The gears immediately halted with a slight squeal.  He started humming along with the tune inside as he closed the front panel; the cane protruded enough to keep it from latching.  He tapped the pressure gauge with his finger as the needle started to move away from the safe zone and the internal temperature began to rise. 

It wouldn’t explode.  No, these newer models were designed to force vent if the gauge read too high–a well-designed safety measure for folks on holiday.  But Viska had better plans for all that pressure…Magnus would answer for his destruction of innocence.

His pace quickened as he made for the dock stairs.  Another look at his watch put his remaining time at just over two hours.  The wind was picking up and the street traffic was sparse.  As he neared the bottom step he felt the distinct tickle of tiny raindrops in his hair.  He climbed his way up past some arriving merchants on their way down and several Cogbots hauling large crates.  He passed the Royal Barge at Dock 6 and wound up, and up, and up to docks 17 and 18.  He peered off the jetty at 17, taking care not to drop the champagne; directly below and a good seventy-five feet down was the Barge’s cream colored envelope swaying in the biting wind.  The lights of Winghem twinkled and were barely visible in the clouds of steam covering the town.  The rain had picked up during his climb, soaking his vest and silk shirt; matting his blond tangles to his forehead and sideburns.  Without any second thoughts he grabbed the end of a spare mooring line tethered to a bollard off the gangplank of the clipper docked there and tossed it over the edge of the pier.  He watched it tumble down, down, down, unwind and finally snap to a stop just above the deck of the Barge.  With all the grace of an acrobat Viska dropped off the side of the pier and nimbly grabbed the soaking wet, thick rope with one hand–clutching the bottle of champagne in the other.

The notion that a mere slip of the fingers could send him plummeting to his death was of no concern.  His heart would stop before he hit the ground anyhow.  Would he even scream?  Or would the whole affair of his life thus far make him erupt into laughter before the end?  None of that mattered.  The boorish David, the brothel owner with a penchant for the untouched, the little girl being violated; those were the forces driving The Mad Jester.

The wind and the icy cold rain battered the rope, and the man dangling from it.  With ease, he wrapped his legs around the line and began a slow, steady slide from Dock 17 to the Barge below.  The friction burned his palm at times, but he hardly noticed the searing pain.  The rain stung his eyes and his vest was soaked and heavy, but the pure, angry disgust never drained from his face.  As he neared the boat, he spotted David’s only guards all the way at the other end of the jetty.  Their backs were to the ship, and both of them huddled together under a small lean-to meant to shelter crates of food or fine silks in stormy weather.  At the very bottom of the rope, Viska started swinging back and forth, trying to build up enough momentum to propel a nice leap onto the deck.  The wind made it difficult, blowing him in every direction like some giant pendulum.  Finally he swung back, forward, and then let go; gracefully somersaulting through the air to land with a near silent thunk on the deck.  He swept his hair out of his eyes, adjusted his vest, and rolled up his sleeves.  Blood stains would only look incriminating and less than fashionable.  He let out a small giggle of utter madness and headed for the stairs leading below.

Chapter 4-Part 3

There were several taverns and dilapidated wine holes to be found in Winghem, all of which served the finest ales and spirits from all over the known world.  For all its grimy, dreary mediocrity, Winghem was first and foremost a town full of merchants, and with merchants came a steady intake of all things exotic and luxurious.  Money flowed through the rocky, pot-holed streets and alleys like a river, yet the tide always led to the pocket of a man or woman with unsavory morals and spending practices.  At its core, Kingdom law held no sway over the inner clockwork of the town.  The Magistrate was on the take with the more criminally minded business owners and Glimmer dealers; the lawmen were typically young, inexperienced and naïve.  As long as Corland received legitimate reports every month detailing that all was well, the Royalty was content to simply leave it at that.

With the increased level of organized illicit activity, however, came the logical increase in public safety.  Murder wasn’t tolerated, neither was robbery.  Anything that might skew those reports or raise eyebrows and invite unwanted visits from Royal bureaucrats was kept strictly to a minimum.  They had a very profitable racket to run, why let someone screw it up?

Viska whistled all the way to the Bolt and Bodkin alehouse.  A place where the vomit was almost never cleaned up and the smell of stale piss drifted from the toilet room day and night.  The special on the menu never changed: slow roasted badland brown potato bathed in honey maple reduction.  The badland browns…some were as big as a cat, but more flavorful at smaller sizes.  The food was well liked but the ale was just weak…weak yellow water, it almost seemed.  Word was the bartender made the mistake of sleeping with the wives of both the merchants who sold all the good drink.  Truth or not, the customers usually stuck to a strong tea instead.

He let out another slight cackle as he stepped through the open double doors.  The large room smelled rancid, as always; though the last time he’d visited there had been more bloodstains on the floor.  The torches around the walls were few, most likely to keep the patrons from getting a good look at the subpar ale.  The piano music was a brisk tune, upbeat and full of good fun.  Viska sidled up onto a barstool and hummed along.  He ordered the finest white ale in the establishment and a small plate of salted root jerky.

After the first bite he realized with a giggle how funny it might be to set fire to the building and help everyone get out safely at the same time–before stabbing them all in the neck, of course.

The silly thoughts turned somber when he suddenly caught sight of someone he hadn’t noticed when he came in.  Behind a slightly parted pair of sheer curtains, back in the private party room, sitting in a plush, cushioned booth surrounded by empty bottles and tiny beakers of Glimmer was a man well known around the Kingdom of Corland.  Viska was certain that the chuckling, fawning women surrounding him on every side knew exactly who he was as well.  He couldn’t quite make out the conversation, but the fellow’s lips moved a bit before he threw back a shot of something and most of his company burst into laughter.  Oh yes…this man was very well known.  He was no stranger to bad press, and worse reputation.  His constant displays of public intoxication were the stuff of legend.  To his own family he was nothing more than a cumbersome thorn in their collective foot.  David, Cousin to King Janus and Princess Lorna; son of their Uncle Mordechai and Nephew to the late King Leorian III.  Viska had wondered why the Royal barge was docked at the spire.

Most of David’s group was enjoying the evening.  Some snorted Glimmer by the tiny spoonful, others kissed his neck or whispered things in his ear that made him grin and take another shot from his bottle of dark liquid.  Most, but not all, seemed to think there was absolutely no better way to spend their night–the young girl on his lap, likely no older than thirteen, didn’t seem to think it was fun at all.  She was blond, with hair done up in short pigtails.  Pale skinned, with nothing but  sad, hollow fear on her face.  David would take a drink and try to kiss her, she would shy away but relent after stern looks from the rest of the group.

Viska took a violent bite of his jerky, chomping down hard on the chewy morsel.  The little girl had grey eyes.  Under normal circumstances he might not have spared a second look at the private room in the back.  Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  Under normal circumstances he probably would’ve already shot the bartender for making food that was simply too damn good before setting the whole place on fire; but, under present circumstances, he would refrain from causing any trouble.  Man, he really liked fire.

She had grey eyes, like him.  That made things a little difficult to tolerate.

The law was loose in The Crevices, but it was simply nonexistent out in the wastes of the badlands of the North.  Farms and small towns were routinely raided by pirates or nomads, the food and money pillaged and the children taken and sold to slavers from the Freeholds, or far to the East, beyond the serenity of Greenhaven.  Most weren’t hurt–being sold to wealthy, albeit infirm, buyers who simply needed a hand tending to the garden or moving furniture.  Many, though, especially the girls…many weren’t so lucky.  Viska knew about all this because he’d seen it happen.  But no…no, no, this was not the time to dwell.  This was not the time to remember.

He had no idea who exactly this little one belonged to–even David wasn’t brazen enough to purchase a slave–but the disgust and resignation in her expression made his blood boil  He downed his ale in several furious, dripping gulps; his eyes never leaving the smug, despicable, spoiled, chubby and pimpled little prick in the back room.

“Yeah, that’s David back there,” the bartender had wandered over, polishing a glass.  Obviously Viska’s heated stare hadn’t gone unnoticed.  “I saw the Barge headed in earlier.  I think we all did.  Got everyone’s knickers all knotted.  Never good for business when Royalty comes ‘round ‘ere.”  Viska didn’t even turn to acknowledge the man.  “’Course that rule don’t apply to the young master over there.  It was smiles all around when we saw his arse comin’ down the stairs.  Drinkin’ all the good wine and eatin’ all the good food and snorting every shiny bottle he sees, eh?”

Viska didn’t avert his gaze, but said, “He’s got a slave in there.”

“I saw that too.”

“She’s a child.  And an orphan.”

“That’s usually how they come, don’t they?  Trust me; I don’t much like it myself.”

“Looking the other way to keep your reputation?”

He put down the glass and threw the towel over his shoulder.  “Lookin’ the other way to keep my place open.  Makin’ waves with the Royal Family ain’t exactly good for your health ‘round these parts, if you catch my meanin’.”

“I do.”

“And I’d think twice before goin’ and tellin’ any lawmen about this if I was you, mate, savvy?”  With that he walked away, off to fill some other fellow’s order and bring fresh pints around the room.  Viska quietly finished his jerky, grabbed his cane and put on his best smile as he walked to the curtains.  The bartender looked confused but made no move to stop him.

He brushed the draperies open and stepped into the room, asking, “David?  Is it really David?”

His entourage, even the little slave, all turned their heads at once to the grinning newcomer.  Laughter died and smiles left.  The Royal drunk himself set down a full shot glass and said with quiet anger, “Woah, mate, woah, what are you doing just barging in here?  This is a private party, couldn’t you tell?”

Viska cackled.  Several of the women cringed at the sound.  “I knew it!  Oh you know you remember me, right?  Gods I can’t believe it’s really you!”

David frowned with his mouth open in deep thought.  He appeared to be racking his memory for the deranged face before him.  “You?  I…I don’t know you.  Please leave.”

Viska sat down in the chair across from him and his little blonde slave, who dared not look at the guest whatsoever.  “You’re still fucking hilarious, mate,” he said.  “It’s Selnick.  I was at the tavern that night you got into the fistfight with the Constable?  That was amazing.”  The story wasn’t hard for anyone living in Corland to recall.  One evening, two years ago, the feckless idiot had gotten completely smashed at a bar in the Leisure District.  The crowd inside did nothing but cheer him on as he bought round after round for the thankful patrons.  The bartender was only too happy to oblige, but mentioned that he would stop serving at midnight.  David slammed the man’s head down on the bar and told him that he would stop serving when the Family was good and ready to let him.  The law got involved, and it all ended rather messily.

“Selnick?” David mumbled, nodding.  Slowly, a half smile grew on his plump lips.  Viska was lying through his teeth, of course; but David was so drunk that night he wouldn’t know any better.  “Yeah.  Yeah, mate I remember.”

“Yeah?” he laughed.  “Yes!  You.  Are.  A.  Legend.  And I never thought I’d get a chance to meet you again and at least maybe…buy you a bloody drink, my friend.  And here you are, in the fucking flesh.”

David raised his shot glass.  “In the fucking flesh, with some fucking flesh, my good man.”  He downed it and slammed the glass on the table.

The group chuckled nervously and began to relax a bit.  One of the ladies even took a seat on Viska’s lap.  It took every ounce of focus to hold his pleasant smile and keep from reaching for his dagger.  The weight of this vile creature, this whore, the feel of her soft blue taffeta dress against his skin made his feelings turn dark, and bloody.  The knowledge that they all clearly condoned the treatment of this little blonde on David’s lap was nearly more than he could handle; their visible disappointment at her refusal to let him have his way with her spoke volumes about their involvement with her “training.”  Viska made a mental note to kill this one first.  “There we are!” he said.  “That’s right everyone, don’t stop your fun because of stupid little me, come on now.”  He wrapped an arm around her waist and poured himself a shot in David’s own glass.  They all relaxed as Viska swallowed his drink–turned out to be the driest, most watered down bourbon he’d ever had.  Conversations resumed.  Giggles and drinks flowed.  One girl even reached for the Glimmer on the table between them.  He looked David in the eyes and saw them swimming in red, wet glaze.  He was good and sloshed, not to mention his heart was most likely racing from all the Glimmer he’d been sucking up his nose.  “So she’s cute,” Viska pointed at the pigtailed innocent, “how exactly did you get her back here?”

“A gift from Old Magnus, down at the Winking Lady,” David slurred.  “About time, too.  Bastard knows I pour more coin into his establishment in one night than most of his clients do in a month.”

“Old Magnus has slaves?  And this young?  I’ve heard of the daily special but he’s been holding out on us, it seems.”

“Nah, mate.  Just this one.  This lot here,” he indicated the women around him, “came in just two days ago from Tesper with her.  This party wasn’t cheap, let me tell you.”  He laughed and slapped the wooden table.  Spittle coated his lips as he calmed down.  “But this little one,” he tried to suckle at her neck, grabbing her throat to hold her still.  “She was a freebie.”

“Big spenders reap what they sow, eh?”  Viska poured another shot and raised his glass.

David laughed again.  “I like you…Selnick, right?”

He put the empty shot down and smiled.  “That’d be me!”  David offered him one of the small, glowing beakers and a tiny spoon.  Viska shook his head.  “Bad heart.  I take pills to keep my chest steady.”

“Rotten luck.”  He dug out a tiny smudge of the glowing stuff and snorted it.  He shook his head violently for a moment, grunting in momentary pain.  “So we met that night?  Back in the city?”

“You were probably way too drunk to remember me.  I held the bartender down while you poured wine all over his head.”

“No, no, man I remember.”  He took yet another shot.  “That got Janus’ arsehole tied up in knots, I can tell you.  My father actually kept me in the bloody dungeon for three days.”

“I’d have kept you down there for a month, with how bad you made them all look.”  They both had a laugh at that.  The whore on Viska’s lap poured him another drink before digging out some Glimmer for herself.  He drank the bourbon and then shook his head.  “I’ve got to be out early tomorrow with a shipment of gears, my friend, that’s it for me.”

Chapter 4-Part 2

Quentin remembered his first conversation with Pratt; remembered asking him who he was before he died, how he died, if he was married…all of that.  Pratt had shrugged and written, “Nobody knew.”  It was commonplace after the first great Awakening for the dead to be casketed with an identification tag if an identity was known.  The instances of a Slender waking up with absolutely no way to know who they had been or not being recognized by someone who knew them were few and very far between.  Pratt didn’t even have a name when he rose; he picked one off the side of a discarded box of lye soap.  It was bad enough to see most of their kind reduced to nothing more than hired help; seeing this poor boy with no past, no reputation and no real opportunities beyond the next bastard willing to throw him a couple of coppers for a swept floor was just depressing. 

Quentin nodded at Milosz.  “This little sprite still treating you ok?” he asked Pratt.

He wrote, “Sure.”  But Quentin could see in his eyes that that might not be the case.

“We need the big box, boy,” Milosz said as he shoved the sack into Pratt’s hands.  “The one up above the brass lifter intakes.”  The dead lad nodded and shuffled out into the yard with Quentin and the Gnome following close behind.

“So everything coming along?” Milosz asked, his leg brace squealing as he limped.

“With what?” Quentin replied sourly.

“The plan.  Griss.  Is he…ready to move?”  They passed by gargantuan, old and rusted durasteel engines choked with weeds.  A newer engine sat on cinderblocks nearby, the casing in pieces on the ground and bolts littered in the dirt.  An open tool chest was its only companion at the moment.  Certain “other” bits of “inventory” were either covered by canvas sheets or locked up tight in big padlocked chests.

“I thought I told you not to bother with the details.”  Quentin glanced up to see more skiffs passing by, and more cargo ships drifting towards the spire.  Steam clouds floated everywhere.  A gust of wind blew through the yard and made him shiver.

“Yes, of course.  I just…should I be getting ready?  Is there anything you…need me to do?”

“First you want out, and now you want to help?” Quentin chuckled.  “This,” he said simply.  “Repair my ship.  Perform repairs for any others who might sail through these parts in The General’s employ.  Keep an eye open and your mouth shut.  That is all we need from you.  That’s what we’re paying you to do.”

“Alright…yes,” the small man looked disappointed.  Whether he was trying to score points with The General or truly desired to simply stay on his good side wasn’t apparent.  Either way, Quentin couldn’t stand the simpering.  There was little time for it, and it meant nothing coming from a man who was most likely treating his undead assistant with very little respect.  “Get a move on, boy!” Milosz shouted.  “This isn’t exactly a standard transaction!  Is that chalkboard weighing you down?”

And suddenly the feeling went from general dislike to outright disgust.

Pratt shuffled a bit faster, his footing suffered slightly from the effort.  Finally they came to a high shelf full of parts up against the back fence.  Quentin had to hand it to Milosz, he was brazen.  The neighboring shop’s upper windows looked right down into the yard.  Anything out of the ordinary being lugged back here could be easily seen and reported if anyone in there felt inclined.  Then again, this was The Crevices.  There was a good chance the neighbors all had their own secrets to keep from the law.  Hell, the law out here had its own secrets to keep.  And the good folks, the ones with a right mind and healthy consciences, few as they were; they learned early on to keep their noses out of anyone else’s dealings.

Pratt gingerly climbed a ladder up to the top shelf where a large, albeit inconspicuous wooden crate sat gathering dust.  He lifted the lid, opened the sack and looked down at Milosz, who read from the list of parts Quentin had outlined.  With all the care of a penitent Holy Man the boy pulled each shiny, lustrous, Infused alloy part out of the crate and gently placed them in the sack before closing the lid and coming back down.

“Thank you, Pratt.  I trust everything is still there?” Quentin asked, sparing a look at Milosz.

“Honestly, why would I even dare?”  The Gnome shook his head, indignant.

Pratt handed Milosz the sack and nodded.  He scribbled, “Yes.  I check every day.”

Quentin smiled again.  “I’m sure that you do.”

“No, boy,” Milosz handed the sack back to Pratt.  “I’m not feeling well enough to make the climb today with all that weight on my back.  You’re carrying it.”

Quentin pursed his lips.  The whole scene wasn’t right.  Milosz was small, and needed help carrying heavy things on occasion, there was no question there.  But the boy was frail, wasted and gangly.  He had no business hauling airship parts around all day.  His arms were apt to fall off, literally.  And the insults…he nearly asked for the bag himself; then thought better of it.  It was bad enough that this kid was dead, mute and without morale; there was no need to make him look weak in front of this officious little shit on top of that.

They all left and headed back to the Fortunate in near silence as dusk slowly settled over Winghem; Pratt obviously struggling with the weight of the sack and Milosz making rude comments about time and wasting it.  Quentin hoped that Viska was staying out of trouble as they crossed the main thoroughfare towards the winding docks.

“I hope you have a lantern,” Milosz said, looking around at the fading light.

As they came upon the first stair Quentin said, “I want to her to be fixed and ready to leave in three hours.  Can you do it?”

“Please,” the Gnome said, starting up the stairs ahead of them.  “I wasn’t given the Royal Merit Award for repair by shoving my thumb up my arse all day.”  Pratt followed him with the sack, and the three of them began the arduous ascent up into the murky twilight.

 

 

*           *           *

 

 

Viska strolled through Winghem whistling a tune and tipping his head gleefully at every person that passed him by.  When he left the ship–sans face paint, of course–he decided against a coat and gloves and instead chose an opulent walking cane with a handle knob fashioned to look like an evil clown’s head; complete with oversized, fanged grin, bulbous honking nose and downturned bushy eyebrows.

Oh how little the masses knew about the demon that sauntered among them.  How ignorant of the thoughts that raced through his head at each scent of perfume and each sight of a well-made suit; thoughts of violation, thoughts of anger; beatings, rape, theft, murder, fruit, fashion and culinary delights.

It was hard to behave, though he knew he must–General’s orders.  He would’ve liked nothing more than to slit that stupid pilot’s throat and be done with him and this foul town.  He was thinking he might just do it anyway, and call it a tragic accident when they got back to base.  But, unfortunately, the little prick was right about needing a good pilot to make it back smoothly.  And the shredded turbine might earn him more than a slight chastising.  He just needed a little air; a brisk jaunt around town.  Not hard considering the main street was one giant circle.  The thought made him giggle a bit as he walked, attracting some strange looks from some equally strange looking people.  Circles were silly shapes.

He looked up into the fog high above the town; the grey, dull light was slowly starting to fade from the day.  No matter, Quentin said before they docked they’d have at least 5 hours to play around.  Not that Viska really wanted to be there that long, but he certainly had time for a little mischief.  But no…no mischief…he was going to behave; maybe just a drink or two, and then right back to the boat.

Chapter 4-Part 1

The filthy town of Winghem was built around the base of a massive spire of stone.  At the bottom it was nearly three hundred feet wide, at the top it was no bigger than a dinner plate.  From the air it looked like a huge fang jutting out of the fog.  On a clear day many more of these teeth could be seen dotting the range for miles to the North and South, but none as tall as Winghem’s.  A great spiral staircase had been carved out of the very rock, starting at the ground and winding nearly all the way to the sharp peak; wooden docks jutted from the stairs every hundred feet to accommodate the many tourists, wayfarers, merchants and various important people passing through The Crevices; some on their way to Corland, others East and over the border into Greenhaven.

            It was harvest season, and that of course brought with it the deep, piercing chill that would only get worse as winter approached.  Merchants and traders traveling the rocky roads that snaked their way through the barren dales, rivulets and dreary dead valleys pulled their coats and cloaks tight around them; the fashionable coachman’s hats and leather caps favored by the commoner replaced with thick scarves and woolen caps that covered the ears and cheap copper goggles to keep the eyes protected in a harsh wind.  Airship crews from warmer climes donned their thickest clothing as they disembarked and yet often still found themselves in a seedy tailor shop hours later buying another layer of gloves at twice the average price.

            The Fortunate was docked as low as Quentin could get her.  Well below the near constant layer of fog that haunted The Crevices in colder months, but high enough from the town to not be noticed by any Kingdom lawmen that might have gotten word of an old clipper with a strange looking exhaust port on the run from dragon riders. 

As soon as Dolovitch rigged the mooring line and dropped the gangplank, a local customs official in a faded Royal uniform came trudging up the pier breathlessly, asking about their business and lading papers.  After showing him their well written and convincing fake manifest and identifications, he was on his way back to the stairs to climb towards several other arrivals drifting in to dock.  His labored panting could be heard even as he disappeared into the fog.  First order of business was to tell Dolovitch where the Doctor’s office was.  After watching the giant of a man shuffle away down the stone steps, he ducked below deck.

Viska’s cabin door was closed, as usual.  Music could barely be heard inside; soft, dulcet piano notes and sad, lengthy violin cries.  He must have been listening to his record player.

Quentin gave several knocks.  “Viska,” he said.  “I’m going to see Milosz soon.  If you’re headed out, I suggest warm clothes and losing the makeup.”  He received a non-committal grunt in return before heading down to the engine room to get a better look at the shredded turbine exhaust.

He emerged twenty minutes later to find the ship empty.  He hoped that Viska had heeded his word.  The last thing they needed was a town in chaos at the sight of an infamous mass killer strolling around.  He went to his spacious cabin, traded his purple captain’s jacket for a layered, soft, thick coat of brown wool, slipped on a matching pair of gloves and headed back up to the deck.

Echoes of merchants and criers peddling their wares in the street or calling out the latest news wafted up the spire and just barely reached his ears.  He leaned over the starboard railing and strained to hear, but didn’t catch anything about fugitives, or suspicious ships or even The Mad Jester.  He breathed a sigh of relief and checked his watch yet again.  They had only been there for nearly an hour, but already Quentin felt the butterflies of unease flitting around his belly. 

Corland was certainly not going to give up the pursuit; doubly so now that his brilliant colleague had murdered one of their best and brightest.  Worse, there was the dragon to think about, a female of that size was a prized thing indeed.  Her death alone was enough to warrant a manhunt to the ends of the planet and beyond.  If he thought about it for more than a few moments the image of Adkins icing over and falling out of the sky filled his vision and made him short of breath.  The man was dead.  Dead.  Quentin knew many more certainly would be once The General started his takeover, but he never intended to actually…be there to watch, or see it all.  He was a pilot, pilots stuck to the sky, where they were needed.

The bite of a sudden gust of wind was enough to make him wince, even with the added layers; but through the chill, the warmth of steam was a constant as nearby ships vented boilers or ballast tanks, sending hot clouds every which way as the wind played its tricks.  He sighed deep and headed down the pier to the stone steps.

The descent was arduous; the wind was fickle, the traffic on the stairs was bothersome, and his paranoia made him see appraising looks in every face that passed him on the way down.  He passed spacious niches carved into the spire to shelter desks or cabinets as well as a few full of crates and barrels.  Other customs officials sat in some scribbling furiously in ledgers or taking inventory.  His hands were shoved deep in his pockets as the air grew colder near the bottom of the spire, his breath puffed out in clouds of steam.  As he neared the ground, he noticed a curious sight at one of the lower jetties: the Royal barge, polished and swaying in the wind with flapping Royal pennants draped over each railing and gunwale.  Her cream colored envelope went with the purple trim of the hull.  Quentin of course took pause.  What was it doing here?  How many of the Family were on it?  Was Janus himself onboard?  Are they looking for us right now?  He realized that the ship had to have left Corland well before the Fortunate did to beat them to Winghem–if, in fact, that was even where it was coming from.  And if the goal was catching murderers, the Royal barge wouldn’t be the ship they took to do it.  He shook off the fear and moved on.

When he finally reached the town proper, he took a good look around at the rabble and cast-offs that made their way up and down the broad cobbled street.  Several men stumbled out of a tavern across the way, drunk and up to no good by the sound of their raucous yelling.  A well-dressed woman criss-crossed the road over and over, nearly bumping into people as they passed; she didn’t think anyone noticed, but Quentin sure did.  She was picking pockets.  She must’ve done four or five before heading up the street and around the spire.  He spotted the Doctor’s office not far off, just down a side street that branched away from the circular thoroughfare, like a spoke on a wheel.  The town was all brick and mortar, some with faded red stone and others with a smudgy grey.  Most of the architecture was reminiscent of Corland, with all the oriel windows and high cantilevered balconies.  There was a bit of Elvish influence to be found around the spire, however; several streets were lined with nothing but the squat, square wooden huts the Greenhaven sylvan tribes were known for.

He took a left from the stairs and set off down the sidewalk.  He passed a group of jugglers on a corner, hooting and hollering as they tossed flaming knives between them.  He passed several brothels, each more disease ridden and unkempt than the last.  Cogbots walked the streets carrying crates on their shoulders and dragging hand wagons full of everything from soap to canvas behind them.  Skiffs darted overhead; no doubt some young thrill seekers off to pull tricks and stunts in the canyons nearby.  The town was alive, and pulsed with energy, albeit infected.  Another crier–or perhaps the same one from before–stood up on a platform outside the parcel delivery station and started reading from a bulletin, in as loud a voice as he could manage, about some outpost raids along the Freehold border.  Nothing new, really; the Conflict was decades gone, but not all the Free Men down South honored the terms of their surrender.  He passed cart vendors doling out fried pickles and candied mint leaves for a few coppers as well as ramshackle restaurants belching smoke from their chimneys; sweet, as well as savory smells spilling out of the windows to drive hungry men mad.  In the throng of street traffic going and coming, he spotted one Orc merchant sitting atop a large wagon being pulled by what had to be the oldest dragon he’d ever seen.

Finally he turned away from the spire down another side street and came to Milosz’s place; another drab, grey brick shop with one notable difference from the rest of the town: the large, fenced-in scrap yard behind it.  Heaps and heaps of old metal airship parts littered the ground back there, from whole steam engines to cogs and gears of every size and caliber imaginable.  Milosz owned the only airship maintenance workshop in Winghem–the only workshop in The Crevices, really–and he was well aware of that fact.  He charged ungodly amounts for minor upkeep and part replacement and almost always fixed problems that didn’t desperately need fixing just to squeeze more out of the unlucky sons of bitches that happened to pop a valve or screw in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He routinely did business with pirates, hiding their stolen goods in exchange for ship parts.  He was a nice enough fellow, to be sure, but definitely not one to be taken lightly.

The small bell above the door jingled as Quentin stepped inside.  The shop itself was very small; taken up by a few armchairs for waiting customers and a rack or two of old books and newspapers with dates stretching back several years.  The back office and storage room took the majority of the ground level.  It was dark, the shades were drawn; the boiler in the storage room made gurgling noises and the few lanterns around the room flickered dimly.  Milosz stood behind the counter, writing numbers in a ledger and reading more from several pages of parchment next to him.  He didn’t bother looking up as he said, “Welcome.  What can I do for you?” in a dull, monotone, bored voice.

“Yes, sir,” he replied pleasantly.  “I need a big wooden box, probably about,” he held up his hands to show dimension, “yay wide and two feet tall at the most.”  Milosz stopped writing and raised his head slowly.  The look on his face was not amused.  Quentin peered over the counter.  “Oh perfect, you’re standing on one, I’ll take it.”

“You’re not…funny,” Milosz shoved the parchment into the ledger and closed it forcefully.  Most Gnomes didn’t mind a jibe here and there at their expense, but Milosz was about as humorless as a garbage can.

“Yes but I’m clearly your favorite customer, eh?”

“Truly.”

Quentin leaned on the counter.  “It’s good to see you again, Milosz.  You’ve grown.”

Absolute silence.

“Ah, well, you’re not in the mood for jokes, I can see.”

“What do you want, Quentin?”

He straightened up, all business, and knocked on the counter.  “The new turbine.  We had an issue on the way back from Corland.”

Now he had Milosz’ interest.  The Gnome took his tiny spectacles off and set them next to the ledger.  “An issue?  Like a busted valve issue?  Or a get-across-the-border-as-quickly-as-possible issue?  I’m not about to have riders or lawmen busting down my door, am I?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about the details, man.  Why so jumpy?  You’re safe.  For now.”

“What does that even mean?”  His eyes spoke of irritation and fear.  “You know, when I agreed to do this kind of work for you and your–”

“When you agreed to do this kind of work, you were promised a fortune.  I remember the way your eyes lit up when I set the deposit on the counter.  You couldn’t wait to get started.  And when I came through here two weeks ago, you jumped at the opportunity to actually do the job we asked for.”

“Yes, but these days–”

“We were told you weren’t afraid to get your hands messy.  Were we mistaken?  I mean come on; you hide Glimmer for Wenright Blackhull under a damned sheet out there.”  He pointed to the open door that led into the scrap yard.  Milosz blinked, stunned and speechless; Quentin felt a twinge of joy from this muted reaction and had to stifle a grin.  “Yeah, we know about all of that.  So, listen; I don’t want to be in town any longer than I have to be.  My employer doesn’t appreciate delays.  I need a couple of bits for the exhaust fan.”  He pulled a small notepad from his coat, tore out a blank page and pushed it across the counter to Milosz.  “Write this down, friend: two A-61 blades.  A new filter belt,” the gnome started scribbling; a bead of sweat ran down his cheek, Quentin saw, “and I’d say maybe five heavy fastener bolts.  There is a rather large hole in the deck as well, but I have enough spare planks in the hold to make a suitable patch.”

“Alright,” Milosz said, “that it?”

“That’ll be enough to get the turbine up and running.  Not indefinite, of course, but enough to get back to base.  I’m hoping everything I left here is still available?”

He put his pen down and slipped the paper into his shirt pocket.  “Implying that I might’ve attempted to sell some of it?”

That was exactly what Quentin was implying.  “Of course not, my dear man.  Accidents happen, that’s all.”  Anyone who dealt with Blackhull was lying half the time, and bending the truth the rest.  “Inventory gets mixed up…something falls into the wrong box…”

“I value my life,” he hopped down from his box with a grunt; the top of his bald head was now barely visible above the counter.  “I’m not daft.”  He reached up, snatched the ledger off the countertop and took it to a small safe in the back office.  He limped the whole way on a prosthetic copper leg; the gears around the bracing making funny sounds as they struggled to do their job.  After shoving the book in the safe he reached down, spitting curses, and tightened a loose bolt near his calf.

 “You’ve got a funny way of showing it, knowing some of the people who come through here.”  Quentin stepped around the counter, absently glancing over some of the various framed licenses and excellence awards tacked to the dingy, peeling walls.

He grabbed a cloth sack from a pile near the back door.  “Eh, even the scum I deal with can’t come close to a Royal assassin.  Once they get the order, it doesn’t matter where you hide.  Dealin’ with you lot’s going to get me killed, I swear.”

“Dealing with us is going to get you rich.  I do hate repeating myself.”

            Milosz turned from the door to yell, “PRATT!  Got an order here!”

            There came an immediate shuffling of footsteps upstairs followed by the distinct clunk of heavy boots descending the staircase.  Quentin had wondered where Pratt was, assuming he was pursuing his own ends at the market or perhaps taking a brisk stroll around the spire. 

A corpse shambled into view from the hallway–male, young but not quite a youth.  His eyes were bright, but glazed and sickly looking; his coveralls were three sizes too big for his skeletal form.  His skin, rotten and black in places, was a ghostly shade of ice blue and his hair was a tangled brown mess.  His mouth and lower jaw in general were covered by a happy looking kerchief complete with a vivid floral pattern and yellow sunbursts; this, of course, was to distract the outside world from noticing that he had no mouth…or jaw.  He wore a small chalkboard on a rope around his neck, complete with a tiny piece of chalk dangling by a string.  Instead of waving, or giving a simple nod of the head, Pratt grabbed the board and wrote, “Hello Quentin!” on it in near perfect script.

Quentin smiled warmly.  He might have had little love for Milosz and his ilk, but Pratt was different.  Like a curious, kind little boy lost and stumbling amidst a sea of bad circumstances and evil men.  “Hello Pratt,” he said, holding a hand out to the Slender lad, who shook it with a grip as strong and cold as Freehold winter.  “You’re looking well.  Not a day over seventeen.”

His shoulders heaved and a slight wheezing laugh came from his kerchief.  More scratching of chalk, “Likewise,” he wrote.

Chapter 3-Part 7

“A dragon rider?” Tick asked skeptically.  “Might it be a little conspicuous flying around the countryside with a damned dragon rider?”  True, she hadn’t really given much thought to how it might look to the average bystander.  Zephora’s size alone might draw unwanted attention.

“Perhaps; with any luck, this ship will be carrying our two assailants and this Quentin fellow.  Then we may finally have something substantial to go on.”

“So we wait?” Frobert said, nonplussed.

“Well it’s not as if we would have left this evening anyhow.”

“And why not?”

As if in answer there was another knock at the doors.  Lorna expected to see Adkins standing outside, or maybe even Griff with more news from the docks.  What she saw instead as RG swung them open, was her brother.  “That’s why,” she mumbled under her breath.

RG turned from the door to address the group, “His Royal Majesty, Janus IV of the Noble House of Corland.  King of the realm and–“

“Please, please, Zero Zero,” Janus said in his deep, pleasant voice.  He patted the Cogbot on the back and stepped into the room.  “Save the formalities for court.”

Out of those seated at the table, only Elpha rose to put a fist over her chest and offer a bow of the head to the King as he entered.  “My dear Shadow, please don’t get up,” he said, clasping her shoulder and gesturing to her chair with his disarming smile.  She bowed her head again and sat back down.

Lorna sighed quietly and crossed her arms.  He told her that morning that he was planning a party for the team.  Not so much a party but a farewell dinner.  She had crossly told him the gesture was a bad idea.  They bickered over breakfast; he in his condescending way and her in typical blunt fashion.  Uncle Mordechai as always sided with Janus, saying it might be the last feast any of them ever had.  She countered that it might not be prudent to remind them of that.  Since Uncle Willam was still abed, she lost the debate fairly quickly.

The small crown on his head reflected the lantern light in a majestic manner as he stepped around the table to her side–it was a wreath of brass gears, shiny and nearly silver.  As he moved the illusion of their motion was trickery to the eye.  Court had ended hours ago, and his attire reflected relaxation; or perhaps it reflected apathy, she knew he was very aware that he might be dead in two weeks so it was hard to tell.  His cream colored shirt was open halfway down his chest, the sleeves rolled up to the elbow; his slacks were handsomely tailored and were the deep, dark purple of Corland’s colors; the fine silk shimmered in the low light as he walked.  His frame was thin, as was hers, despite his love of ale and gubba melon salad.

“I am, of course, pleased to see you all here,” he said, absently scratching one long, brown sideburn.  “If my sister failed to say it enough, I will repeat a gracious thank you for your efforts.  I did, however,” he turned to Lorna in confusion, “hear you say five would be here.  Was I mistaken?”

She said, “Adkins will be along shortly.  Duty called.”

“Ah,” he clasped his hands together.  “Well, I’m here to say thank you, as I did, and to invite you all to dinner this evening.  I’m sure you must have many questions for me, and I of course want to answer them for you.  Permit me, at least, to do so after a meal and a glass of whiskey.”  He chuckled.  His eyes seemed a bit bleary; red-rimmed and glossy.  Clearly he had taken a glass of wine or two…or four, with lunch.

“I’ve got a question for you,” Frobert said.  Janus turned to him, all smiles and raised brows.  “How many Janus’s does it take to screw in a boiler fuse?”

Lorna quickly shoved her brother aside saying, “Ok, well I think we should all get settled and regroup this evening.  Frobert, we have arranged quarters for you, RG will be happy to escort you.  Tick, I assume you will be staying aboard your boat?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Very well.  Thank you all for your attention.  We’ll meet again at sundown in the great hall.  RG, could you please send for Griff once you’ve finished getting our User settled?”

Chairs scraped and gears clicked and clanked as they all made to leave; all except Frobert.  RG stood waiting for him just outside the door.  Janus said, “Oh, and I’m sure it’s already been said, but it would be preferable if you all stayed within the Keep and its grounds while you linger here.”

“You don’t trust us, bucko?” Tick said, grinning.

Janus laughed, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean there aren’t people trying to kill me.”

He nodded.  “Good to see you again, you old bastard,” he said as he left the room.

Janus called after him, “Likewise, you little white pixie.”

Elpha waved Lorna over to her near the door.  Clearly she didn’t want Janus overhearing what she had to say.  “I’ll be home for dinner, child.  But right now I’m going to do what I should have been doing as soon as that message flew through the window.”

Lorna considered her words a moment before shaking her head, “Mozer, just stay here, there’s no need.  I’ve been over this whole thing a thousand times.  Really, there’s nothing to find.”

She smiled; the light twinkling devilishly in her eyes.  “Little one, I taught you everything I know.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a thing or two since you left me.” 

Lorna couldn’t help but smile back.  Of course the old woman was right.  She wanted nothing more than to nod, grab her hand and tell her godspeed.  Although…“It is dangerous out there,” she said.  “Frobert was nearly killed just hours ago.  I can’t bear the thought of the same thing happening to you.  Plus, you heard the King.”

“Please, Janus couldn’t stop me any more than you can.  And do you really think I don’t know how to deal with danger?  Or are you simply saying an old woman like me has no chance in a tussle?”

Lorna lowered her head, slightly ashamed.  This woman had been her mentor and she deserved a chance to help in whatever way she saw fit.  “You’ll be back for dinner?” she asked.

“Have some faith, child.”  She gripped Lorna’s hand briefly before slipping out the door without making a sound.

“What was that about?” Janus asked as he strolled over to her.

“She…” she thought of a lie quickly, “needed undergarments for the evening.  She wanted to know if I had any to spare.”

“Oh,” he shuffled his feet awkwardly.  “I hope I didn’t interrupt your meeting…”

“No.  No we were just about to discuss night arrangements.  It was good of you to come.”  That enough was true.  He insisted that he’d already planned to be at the briefing when she mentioned the message it might send to the group if he wasn’t.  Up close and face to face, she could see he really did look like hell.  She knew how badly all of this mess was affecting him; having heard from Dr. Everett that he was now suffering nightmares and headaches only served to worry her more.  She looked him in the eyes and asked, “Are you feeling alright?”

He took the crown off, ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.  “I’ll be much better once this is over, Lorn.  I really will.”  He looked over at the table; at Frobert still sitting on his lid.  He lowered his voice, saying, “Is he going to be a problem?  He’s the User, right?”

Lorna made another mental note to remind her brother at some point that most Gnomes hated his guts.  She thought about how much fun she was sure to have trying to convince him to let them on the council.  “Yes, and no, he won’t be a problem.  Just…try not to do much talking with him, eh?”

He nodded.  Frobert had taken a photograph of a little girl out of his vest pocket; he caressed the innocent face smiling out at him.  Janus set the crown back on his head and said, “I’ve got to go help prepare.  I’ll be in the kitchens if you need me.”

“We need to leave first thing tomorrow.  For all our sakes, don’t tap 7 casks of Ferrus Red and insist that everyone ‘keep the party going’, ok?” 

“That was only one time.  One time.”

“The answer,” Frobert said suddenly.  He pushed the chair away from the table and slid down from his perch, “is one–when he’s in charge everything is screwed.”  He didn’t even look for a reaction or wait for an answer; he simply donned his hat and left with RG clanking along close behind.

Janus furled his brow as his eyes followed the tiny man out the door.  “What the hell is his problem?”

How could she accurately describe Frobert’s singular and lasting hate towards him?  How could she put into words the misery and loathing he felt towards their family every day of his life and somehow make a convincing argument for Morvus’ invitation and acceptance into the Council of Unity?  Lorna put an arm around her brother’s shoulder.  “I suggest we take a walk.  Come on then.”  She led him out of the room.  “I need to have a talk with you about the Council.”

 

 

End of Chapter

Chapter 3-Part 6

“So you just…pushed the angry snake outta the house and now he’s come back with some friends,” Tick said.

            “So to speak,” Lorna replied.  “He clearly had no intention of keeping our agreement.  One can only assume what he’s managed to perfect, or put together in the past six years, with what he knows.  The formulas were so complex; the alloy painstakingly difficult to produce even in the base form he and my brother were able to scrape together.”

            Elpha said, “It begs the question of how?  How was he able to not only recreate but perfect the technique without a scrap of notes in only six years?  And where exactly was he getting Bolide samples?”

            “Something must’ve gotten out with him, a tiny bit of parchment maybe,” Lorna said, then shaking her head, “It’s not important.  Not long after he was sent away, there was a breakout at Gorman Island.  Grissimo’s two mad convicts found a way out through the catacombs under the prison.  The guards found the body of one, brutally stabbed to death high on a cliff.  The other was nowhere to be seen.”

            “I personally combed over every inch of land he might’ve stepped on if he’d swam for it,” Elpha added with a wag of her finger.  “Nothing.  Not a footprint, not even a wet blade of grass.  He either drowned, or somehow swam the bay north and around the City.”

            “Or someone with a boat plucked him up outta the water,” Tick said.

            “Water craft are exceedingly rare these days, even at night someone would’ve noticed a boat in the water so far away from the docks.”

            Lorna had their attention, but she was wasting time.  “The name listed as missing was a false one, thanks to us.  And the original death certificates Grissimo had forged for his experiments were lost.  We didn’t even have a name to go on, just the knowledge that he was very dangerous.”

            “Then I’d assume he found his way back to his maker somehow,” Tick said.        

Lorna’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment momentarily as she dug around in another pocket.  She pulled out a faded photograph of a gentleman in full Air Corps dress and laid it on the table next to the other pages. 

The eyes peering out from the picture were heavy and full of wisdom; the long uniform jacket of deep purple resplendent with medals of every shape and size.  One hand was neatly tucked into a pocket while the other held a simple tobacco pipe near his shaven face.  The wide matching hat was standard for any brass in the Corps, yet looked unusually regal and somehow overtly striking on his head.  He was, in every sense of the word, exactly what one would expect the best of the best to look like in Corland’s military leadership.

“Normally,” she struggled to find the next words.  “Normally in briefings like this…the walls would be covered in maps, pictures, various documents related to the matter at hand.”  She lowered her head.  “I have none of these things, save this photograph, and a whole mess of wasted time back in my quarters.  This is the man threatening us.  This is the man intent on breaking down our gates and laying waste to our peace, our livelihood and our very way of life.”  She lifted her head and met their eyes, even turning to nod at RG.  “I don’t know where he is.  I don’t know where he’ll be coming from.  I don’t even know what weapons he’ll be armed with.  I have but two short weeks to stop him, and I need your help.  All of you.  He didn’t outright say it, but he’ll kill the Royalty.  He’ll kill my brother; he’ll kill the rest of my family.  And when he’s finally taken the throne for himself he’ll force the injections on everyone–men, women and children, and rule the maddened husks left over.  I’m sorry I couldn’t have been clearer with my requests to meet, but obviously my brother wishes to avoid a panic if possible.”

“Rubbish, girl,” Elpha said with a hurt look.  “Why didn’t you come to me on day one?”

“My brother expressly forbade–“

“To hell with Janus, little one.  You were my ward, once.  I’ve always considered us friends.  I could’ve helped in some way.”

“Fewer coats on the job…” Lorna said, more than a bit shamefully.  Elpha had every right to feel hurt.  She was the epitome of a master spy.  Whatever stones Lorna had turned, doubtless the Shadow would’ve found even more.  She felt a stinging anger toward her brother; his paranoia might’ve cost the Kingdom valuable time, if not lives.

“I know, dear, I know; fewer coats on the job…fewer turncoats.  Trust no one and what have you.  I taught you that.  You know I don’t blame you.  Just tell us what we need to do.”

Lorna nodded.  She was determined not to let her resolve falter.  “Tick, you have the fastest ship in the world.  Whatever we plan on doing, or wherever we plan on going, we’ll need to get there quickly.  You owe my brother a favor, and I’m calling it in.”  She hoped the dash of flattery was enough to persuade the cocky bastard.

Tick wasted no time in giving her a slow, deliberate nod.  “Your family and mine have a bit of history.  Who am I to shit on that?”  The history between his father and hers was apparently not enough to keep him from trying to smuggle two hundred pounds of Glimmer into the city, but quibbling over the past was pointless.

“Elpha,” she continued, “we are both skilled in the deadly arts, but you will always stand above me.  An extra pair of stealthy hands and your…talents for camouflage can only help.”

“My boys will miss my cooking, I’m sure.”  After her semi-retirement from the intelligence game, she refused the lands and titles offered to her, and instead chose a modest suite in the Keep’s barracks, right above the bunkhouse for new recruits.  Shadow’s bean and parsley stew became the envy of even the most seasoned of veterans stationed elsewhere.  She also washed uniforms, made beds, straightened gig lines and mended shirts; truly a mother for them that were orphans before enlistment.

“Frobert,” Lorna turned to the Gnome seated atop his wooden lid, who still wore a skeptical look, “my brother was right in saying we needed a User.  This whole thing began over magic; magic may just be the key to ending it.  Needless to say your expertise in the arcane is absolutely necessary.”

Frobert’s mouth opened slightly, his lips began to form a word before he closed them and exhaled heavily.  His hand went into his vest pocket and didn’t come back out.  “I’ll do what I can,” he said finally.

She turned to RG with a profound feeling of awe at the notion of addressing him as simply part of the team and not a device with a purpose.  “And RG,” she smiled at him and gave a slight tilt of the head.  The Cogbot hisssed and took a step away from the wall.  “Yesterday you were Unit Zero Zero, this afternoon you chose your own name.  You’re truly a wonder, a curiosity in the best way possible.  I know my brother already made it clear to you that you were to assist us in this task, but after hearing you voice your own opinions–as well as your own wants–I’m inclined to ask you myself.”  She walked over to him and looked right into his shiny, bulb eyes.  “You’re not a servile piece of equipment, and you deserve to be given a choice.  What say you?”

RG’s sturdy, solid head rotated nearly backwards, then snapped back around.  Clicks and hums and another venting made their noises before he finally said with a degree of confidence, “My programming dictates that His Majesty’s wishes are to be carried out without question or hesitation.  And yet…I…desire?”  He took a long pause.  “I desire…I want…to help.  I want to help everyone.  I want everyone to be safe.”

“You’re a better man than half the assholes I’ve ever known,” Tick said.

“I am unsure if that is meant to be taken as a compliment, Mr. Lundrin.”

The table burst into laughter.

Lorna got up on tiptoe and gave the metal man a quaint but loving kiss on what could be considered his cheek.  “You’ve served His Majesty well, and have always been a humble, kind spirit to the entire Family.  Thank you,” she said to him.  She made a mental note to have a long conversation with both her brother and the engineers in charge of RG’s assembly; the desire to know how they managed to come up with such advanced programming was bordering on disturbing.

Turning back to the table, she said to the rest, “It goes without saying, but you all need to know that we may not come home from this; that we may succeed, but at the cost of one or all of our lives.  Do you all accept this?”

Almost in unison they nodded, even RG.  The pride she felt at that moment was overwhelming.  She smiled before going on, “As I said, I have no idea where to begin.  The borders have all been quiet, neighboring cities, kingdoms, tribes…all with nothing to report.  It seems almost like fate’s intervention that Frobert showed up here today beaten and bruised.  Grissimo apparently has eyes all over the city.  Two of his vermin tried to recruit him this afternoon.  He refused and they nearly killed him.” 

“Little man, big balls.”  Tick gave him another small salute.

“One does not need a bigger than average manhood to know his own worth pales in comparison to a Kingdom full of people,” Frobert said.  Despite his obsessive loathing towards the Royalty, Lorna found she had a massive amount of respect for the small man.

“Thanks to this brush with the gods, we now have two names to mull over,” Lorna said.  “If you wouldn’t mind, Frobert, could you give us a description of your attackers and the names you heard?”

He shrugged, obviously unsure if he could contribute anything substantial.  “One was a blond man, most likely past his thirtieth year.  Crazy, wild eyes.  Grey eyes.”

“A badlands fella,” Tick nodded, pointing to his own pair.

Frobert nodded in return while continuing, “Hair was messy, unwashed; he had long, thick sideburns.  He was impeccably dressed though, they both were.  Unusually red lips…and not wearing lipstick.  I never got his name.  The other man, however.”  He paused, then shook his head.  “The other bloke was huge.  I don’t mean huge like you are all huge to me.  I mean massive.  He had a Freehold accent and looked old enough to be in the Conflict.  Fists like hairy, pink boulders.  Bowler hat.  Went by the name Dolovitch.  When the crazy fellow left he mentioned someone named Quentin.  Quentin, I think, was their ride out of the city.”

“I know this Dolovitch,” Elpha said.  “It’s a bit hard for someone like me to miss him.  I’ve seen him all over the city.  His face looks like it’s been carved out of mossy rock?”

Frobert laughed softly.  “That’s certainly a fine metaphor.  He was ugly; had lots of stubble.”

“Yes…yes.  It seems lousy to say it now, but I could tell there was something off about him.”

“That does seem lousy.”

Lorna said, “Tick, anything ring a bell?  You run in…certain circles.”

“If you’re implying that just because I engage in somewhat illicit acts of smuggling or thievery that I should somehow have connections with Corland’s seedy unmentionables…you’re absolutely right.  But I don’t know these guys.  And there’re at least seven Quentins involved in shady dealins from here to the Orc Nation.”

“Damn,” she mumbled.  “Though, hiring crime lords and criminals does seem beneath Grissimo’s ego.”  The General in the photograph gave a clear picture of his sense of honor.  The pose, the uniform, even the pipe spoke volumes about the value he placed on reputation.

“Then what’s our first move?” Frobert asked.

“As pressed for time as we are, I still believe it prudent to wait for our sixth member as well as any further reports regarding this assault before going any further.”

Tick asked, “Well where is he?  Or is it a she?  It’s a she, isn’t it?”  If eyes could smile, his would have been grinning.

“Wing Admiral Nelson Adkins.  He is, at the moment, in pursuit of an airship.  And if he mounted up, that ship must be very important indeed.”  Lorna remembered the first time she laid eyes on Adkins’ dragon; a massive, titan of a female.  She could out-fly, out-flame and out-eat every other mount in the stable.  Zephora, he’d named her, after the goddess…and when she flew, the whole city looked up in awe.

Chapter 3-Part 5

Tick nodded and stared at the table.  Silence reigned the room for several moments before Elpha said, “Well, you are a pirate, lad.”

            Tick smiled.  “Somehow it’s a kindness comin’ from you, y’old crone.”  The old woman pinched his cheek with a grin.

            “Now, back to the matter at hand,” Lorna continued.  “Infusion.  It’s a technique my brother and The General developed during their time spent researching The Bolide years ago; after Grissimo’s retirement from the Corps. They were able to liquefy shards of it.  Concentrate it.  Smelt it with molten copper.  The result was an alloy that might’ve changed the world forever.”  She looked over at RG.  “His Majesty built Unit Zero Zero with it.”  Frobert was staring at the Cogbot with obvious interest now.  “Had planned to build more; but it simply wasn’t perfected.  Mass production was a long way off…a long way and a great many coins.”

            “Hold on a minute, you’re tellin’ me Bolide shards have been in this city for years?” Tick asked with more than a slight twinge of anger in his voice.

            “In small quantities the shards pose no threat.  Janus makes sure to only keep a set amount in the laboratory at any given time.  Nobody in the Keep has suffered any ill effects, and as far as we know the city remains unaffected as well.”

            “As far as you know,” Frobert said.  “When were you planning on sharing this with the people?”

            “The scholars assured us that everything was fine,” she said with finality.  “My brother would never have kept up his studies if he knew it would hurt someone.”

            Elpha cut in, “We’re a bit late to the party to start the nitpicking, boys.  I see no green skin…no tusks on either of you, no great excess of moles or warts–let the woman speak.”

            Lorna continued, “The alloy…depending on the strength of the Bolide concentrate used to smelt it, was completely impervious to arcane manipulation.”

            “It can’t be burned…it can’t be frozen…and it never levitates,” Frobert said.  Clearly, he was putting the pieces together.  “Is that why you told me I couldn’t melt you, RG?”

            The Cogbot, who had been standing silent this whole time, vented his boiler and turned his head to the group with loud clicks in his joints.  “Correct.  It would have been pointless.”

            “Likewise,” Lorna said, “if one was to use a weaker concentration, the metal was found to actually retain power directed at it.  Frozen ingots remained blocks of ice for days.  If heated they were smoldering red even when doused with water.  When made to float…” she trailed off, letting imagination run rampant.

            “They stayed in the air,” Tick finished, looking lost in momentary wonderment.  “You’re right, that would’ve changed everything.”

            “Again…imperfect; the effects were temporary, and sometimes erratic.  Research was becoming costly and the Orcs were finding it harder to mine shard samples for us.”

            “But you think The General has figured it all out,” Elpha said simply.  For all her talent and history in deception and subtlety, the worry on her face was plain and stark.

            “He’s had six years and all the grandiose delusions in the world to finish what he started.”  Lorna cleared her throat.  “You see he began to wonder just how all this could be applied to people.”

“I’m starting to see where this is headed,” Frobert said.

            “These dilutions…these varying strengths of liquid Bolide, he wanted to know what it might do to a person.  My brother of course told him that we already knew what the Bolide did to people when they were exposed to it.  Grissimo told him the Orcs were a special case living so close to the impact sites.  He kept insisting that a direct injection of the solution into the body of a living creature might produce arcane ability where none was present before.”

            “Ho-ly shit…” Tick nearly whispered.  “You mean he–“

            “My brother said absolutely not.  But that didn’t stop him.  After a heated argument with Janus he had all his materials and equipment moved into his quarters.  He told the scholars that all his findings would still be public and available for logging.  Then he started conducting experiments in secret…after hours.”

            “Gods…” Frobert breathed.

            “The gods had nothing to do with his work,” Elpha said.

            “He started with animals,” Lorna continued wearily.  “Lizards, small young dragons, cats.  Given how many little carcasses we found in that grave he dug near his farmhouse, he must’ve killed close to 70 of them before he moved on to something bigger.”  She took another deep breath and let it out slowly.

            Elpha filled the silence, saying, “I found his log after he was arrested.  Not the log he was showing to the scholars, his personal log.  So many different strains of solution, so many formulas…not one amounted to much more than a dead animal or a lead on a more promising dosage, resulting in another dead animal.”

            “He knew soon enough that he’d have to take it to the next level,” Lorna said.  “And that’s what the press never told you.  They never told you that he did.”  Of course the Corland Daily came knocking with pen and paper in hand, waiting eagerly for some kind of clarification on just what had been going on in the bowels of the Keep to have such a highly regarded war hero arrested.  As soon as Grissimo had been cuffed and taken away, the Family held a meeting to discuss what would and would not be said about the affair.

            Tick said, “I was a might young to be interested in papers and news and such.  But it was hard not to hear folks talk about the psychopath torturin’ animals in his lab.  You’re sayin’ he…tried this on people too?”

            “Why in the hell would you people lie about that?” Frobert added angrily, looking at Elpha and Lorna both.

            Lorna sounded slightly desperate.  “You have to understand, he did what he did with people for nearly a week before anyone took notice of the screams.  The Royal Guard?  The Keep staff?  My brother?  They had no clue.  Do you have any idea how that would’ve made the Family look?  And not only that, but how many questions people would’ve asked about what it was he was trying to accomplish; or where this research all started?”

            “How the hell did he get people in there without bein’ noticed for a week?” Tick asked.

            “One night he took a ferry to Gorman Island, used his rank to stroll right past the guards into the prison and take two men from the condemned section.  Said he needed subjects to test a new serum on.  He flashed a smile at the warden and swore he’d have them back by the next morning.  He came back here, disguised them both in Royal colors and took them down to his lab without so much as a questioning look from anyone at the airdock.”

            Elpha said, “The next day the warden received a message signed by Grissimo informing him that the two men had died during the testing.  Two death certificates were included for city records—all official and stamped with the Royal seal–but the condemned men had no family to speak of that might miss them or care enough to ask what happened.”

            Frobert shook his head.  “So you hid this from us all; the gruesome tests, the fact that Bolide shards have been in our collective laps for years…because you were afraid you would look bad?”

            “Some things are simply better left unsaid and forgotten,” Elpha said to him.  “What I wouldn’t give to forget some of the things I know, including this.  It was evil, nothing but pure insanity.”

            Tick scoffed.  “You go playin’ gods, one of ‘em is apt to get a bit pissed.  His Royal Highness and Grissimo should’ve thought twice before crackin’ open that box in the first place.”

            “That’s beside the point, Tick,” Lorna said.

            “Oh it surely is not, m’lady.  Man gave us the machine; the gods gave us the magic.”  He shook his head.  “You don’t fuck with that rock.  It doesn’t belong to us.”

            “I know what the Holy Men say,” Lorna spoke with patience.

            “Well your brother should’ve listened.  Now two men and all those animals are dead, a crazy bastard wants to wipe this whole city out and it still sounds like you don’t get the idea.”

            Lorna looked down, biting her lip.  “They didn’t die.”

            “Pardon?”

            She looked right into his blazing grey eyes; the hardened look on his face and the mean scar compelling the truth from her.  “The two prisoners…they didn’t die.”

            Silence from all three.  Elpha was of course familiar with the story yet had nothing to add, it seemed.  Tick and Frobert simply sat with jaws agape, blinking furiously.

            “So it worked then?” Frobert said.

            “No.  He kept them in a large closet, fed them, did his best to make them comfortable.  Each day that passed was a victory for him, given that he would always wake to find them alive and hungry each morning.  Given what he recorded, the screaming must’ve started midweek.”

            Elpha cut in, almost sadly, “That’s when the concentrations became exceedingly strong.”

            “And yet he was seeing very little results to indicate his theory was correct.  By week’s end he was getting despondent.  They possessed absolutely no more arcane ability then they did when he pulled them out of Gorman’s.  The morning of the day they were found their minds had…broke…from the pain.”

            “They had gone mad,” Elpha said.  That was a far better way to describe it.

            “Yes.  Their muffled shrieks were finally heard by someone on the cleaning staff.  And the rest is known.”  She knew that wasn’t the truth, and it gnawed at her the moment those words crossed her lips.  Frobert had been right in saying that secrecy was no way to start a team effort.  Guilt would be worse.  “Well…I guess not all of it.”

            “Again with the half-truths,” Frobert said, giving her a dismissive gesture and folding his arms.

            “He was caught, and your brother had him banished,” Tick said.  “What else don’t we know?”

            “We…I mean the Family…we offered him banishment instead of outright execution in exchange for indefinite secrecy.  We burned all of his notes, all of his formulas, anything and everything he’d worked on concerning Infusion.  We sent the two prisoners back to Gorman’s–under different names and charges of course–and we took the General to the Northern border.  We had hoped that would be the end of it.”

            Frobert pointed at RG.  “Clearly not every set of notes was destroyed,” he said.

            “I said we burned his work.  Not Janus’.”

            Frobert chuckled.  “So this wasn’t about safety or the best interest of the people, it was about not letting a madman take any credit for the invention.”

            “I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but yes.”

            “This just keeps getting better and better,” he said sarcastically.

            “Judge all you like, but I think the people would feel better about the alloy if they didn’t know such a monster helped birth it.”

            Another venting from RG as he turned to them again.  “In fairness, the design for my body existed long before The General’s expulsion,” he said.  “Production on prototypes of my head had already begun when all this unpleasantness occurred.”

            “Our taxes at work,” Frobert mused.