Monday, February 2, 2015

And Now a Word from the Author

(Many apologies to all who've been reading this serial novel. It's been months since I posted the prior chapter, and likely will be some months until I can resume. Trust that I will indeed resume: I enjoy the adventures of Holly and Vonken too much to abandon them! However, my focus is currently on another work, a comic horror novel tentatively titled Wendigogo. I intend to devote my free time to that, until or unless I feel compelled to switch back to Autumnheart, or until the other manuscript is at least one draft complete.

Many thanks to everyone reading this! Do please send me critiques or any thoughts on this story; I'll take them into account as I resume writing it...which shall be as soon as I can, promise!)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

22. Party Crasher

Vonken felt the rumbling of the trains passing overhead more than he heard them, since a sharp blow to his right ear still had it ringing, hours later. Or perhaps it was only minutes. Or days. He was fairly sure they’d beaten him unconscious at least once, waking him again by splashing a glass of horrible moonshine in his face. At least that should prevent any infections. From the lingering sting of it, the stuff had to be ninety percent alcohol. Everything hurt. He questioned his decision to grow flesh from his former body to clothe the metal skeleton of this one; surely being a brain in a construct’s formidable body would have saved him a great deal of pain.

Lappeus circled the chair. Vonken didn’t try to track his orbit, dully expecting another hit at any second. His wrists were chafing in the gauntlets. He couldn’t tell whether his hands were still in them. His legs had progressed past numbness to irregular, shooting pains, although he mused that might also be as a result of Turk kicking them earlier. No doubt there are extensive records somewhere of how much abuse a man’s body can withstand and still survive. Idly, he decided it would be a fine idea to look those up sometime. Strictly for scientific comparison. As he blurrily observed Lappeus strolling in front of him once more, Vonken licked cracked lips and offered: “During the Inquisition, whole villages of my faith were subjected to the iron boot, the thumbscrews, and the auto-da-fé unless they converted to the Church of the torturers.”

“’Zat so,” the former Sheriff drawled. He pulled a fresh cigar from a vest pocket, clipped the end off with a silver-plated cutter in the form of a mountain lion’s head, and stood with it still in one hand, watching Vonken thoughtfully.

“More were slaughtered by your Church than were ever given over to the lions in Rome for martyrdom.”

Lappeus chuckled, and drew a match sharply across the gauntlet on Vonken’s left hand to light it. He sucked a long pull from his cigar before tossing the still-lit match between Vonken’s feet; it flared nastily in the dried puddle of urine there before sputtering out. “You reckon yourself a Pre-churched martyr, that it?”

Mitchell snorted a laugh, watching while reclining in an old Confederate camp sling-chair. Turk wasn’t present; Vonken assumed that he’d become bored when his pounding of the Coldspark’s flesh brought unsatisfactory results, and wandered up streetside for a drink or five. “In that I am equally persecuted, and innocent, yes,” he croaked at Lappeus.

“I have always felt that we Christians had enough in common with you Pre-churched types, that if y’all would just open your hearts more, you’d see the error of your ways and join us. Ain’t had nothin’ ‘gainst you all, up ‘til the Cataclysm,” Lappeus said. He came closer; Vonken raised his head enough to meet that cool, dead gaze. “But do you know what them Senators were debatin’, right there in Old D.C, the very day those rocks fell on ‘em?”

“Wasn’t it a bill to harshly punish the White Knights, just for ridding themselves of the unwholesome influence of the heathens?” Sam Mitchell asked. He took produced a pocketwatch and polished it with a soft cloth. The lanternlight caught the cross and flame engraved on the watchcase. Vonken wasn’t at all surprised.

Lappeus nodded, gesturing grandly with cigar and cutter. “That’s right, Sam. See, Doc, your people, whom you seem so quick to defend, were bad enough during the War of Northern Aggression, helpin’ darkies run away from their lawful owners. But what was really insult on top of injury...” He very calmly leaned in and snipped off one waxed moustache-curl from Vonken’s face, the cold metal brushing his cheek. “...was how after the war, these brazen heathens started settin’ up their temples in damn near every city big enough to have ten of ‘em together. Just like they were good citizens or somethin’.” Snip. The other curl fell. Vonken never took his gaze from Lappeus’.

“Naturally, the true God-fearing people tried to rid themselves of that filth,” Mitchell said. His tone was one of mild outrage, as though addressing a jury who certainly must excuse his client for taking radical measures in self-defense.

Lappeus nodded, turning briefly to smile at his colleague. “Well, naturally! But they were law-abidin’ folk, tryin’ to turn the other cheek. Why, all they did was burn down those temples and kindly ask the heathens to leave town! Yet that high-an’-mighty Congress took it upon themselves to chastise those brave knights. Can you believe that? They was gonna make it a felony crime to uphold our values in our own towns!” He puffed on the cigar, shaking his head. “’Pride goeth before a fall.’ The very hour those men were arguing over what never should’ve even been a topic of debate, those flaming rocks come screamin’ out of the sky and exploded the very Capitol.”

“That’s not what happened,” Vonken said. This is pointless, why are you arguing? To forestall the next round of beatings? You have no energy, there’s nothing to draw... His inner anger stilled, as he realized that as long as he was able to focus without fists in his face, he did indeed have something from which to draw power. His nerves trembled, but he made himself calm enough to latch onto the cores of these two loathsome men. Slowly, trickles of living energy crept across the blood-spattered floor, seeping up his limbs. He gritted his teeth once to stifle the urge to suck it all into himself; even the most stupid cattle would notice if they suddenly felt drained. Talk. Keep talking. Make him keep talking instead of hitting. “I was there. In Maryland. The day the Cataclysm began.”

Lappeus sneered. “So I’ve heard. I also heard everyone else died.”

“Not everyone else. Everyone who could, fled. I went to the Capital. I and a news courier. The telegraph was down...someone had to warn them.” His throat felt too dry to continue for long.

“It’s too bad they didn’t consider what damnation they were bringing down on us all before the fire swept across the country worse than Sherman and his dogs!” Lappeus snapped.

“It’s a shame that so many of them were unwilling to believe the word of scientists!” Vonken countered. “Did you know that two days before the first rays of the comet shattered over us, an astronomer had observed its approach and sent word to the Congress, the President, and other scientists of his acquaintance? He was dismissed as a crank, a hoax, by men like you!”

Lappeus grinned. “I’m truly flattered, but you’re mistaken, Doctor: I’ve never been much for politics.”

“Neither were most of them, but the comparison I’m making is that they were, like you, heartless, professional gamblers. They risked the safety of thousands, and lost. D.C. and all the large Eastern cities might have been evacuated in time, had that astronomer’s warning been heeded,” Vonken said, and broke into a coughing fit. The smoke, hour after hour in this cellar, had scratched his nose and throat raw.

“Stop trying to divert me,” Lappeus growled. “Sam, this bastard’s worse’n you!”

Mitchell chuckled, taking a swig from an open bottle of something far nicer than moonshine. “Doctor, there’s scarcely any point in blaming the dead. We seem to keep dancing around the real bone of contention here. I can see how tired you are, how much just speaking hurts you right now. Why continue to withhold the truth from us, out of some misguided pride for your Pre-churched ancestors? We have nothing against you practicing your twisted, blasphemous religion far, far from here...isn’t that right, Jim?”

Lappeus smiled, as though his previous bigotry were all play-acting. “I suppose, Sam...if it weren’t for the fact that this particular heathen is also a goddamn ‘spark witch.”

“You cannot seriously hold to such superstition,” Vonken wheezed. Gently, gently, he coaxed a continual, flowing thread of energy from both men. He might possibly be able to build up enough of a charge to stun them. What then? These blasted manacles... Still, it was the only plan he had.

“I don’t know and don’t care how you sorcery bastards do what you do, but I do not think you were spared from death because you’re all such saintly people,” Lappeus replied, deliberately blowing a cloud into Vonken’s aching eyes.

Vonken struggled for a voice. “Are you...trying to equate...Coldsparks with those you deem heathen? That includes a hell of a lot of people now, Lappeus! How many turned from your religion to found their own after the Cataclysm?” He glared at Villard’s enforcer. “How many cults are there now, just in Concordia? A dozen? Twenty? What about the Coldsparks whom many of your people worship as saints?”

“Not my people,” Lappeus drawled. Mitchell snorted again.

“Oh, of course. You belong to the Temple of the Golden Fleece. As evidenced by the number of people your saloons and whorehouses shear on a nightly basis. Forgive my mistake.” Vonken feared for a moment he’d pushed too far, but the former sheriff’s expression was one of amused contempt. For the time being, he seemed content to smoke and trade barbs. It wasn’t as though Vonken was going anywhere.

“Speaking of the witch, when’s ours going to finally poke his head in?” Mitchell sighed.

Lappeus resumed pacing, sucking smoke. “Blasted monsters o’ the Deep only know. He lags much more, I’ll send Turk after him.” He turned to regard Vonken coldly. “Since Turk’s arguments still can’t convince you to just talk to us, your friend Letriver’s gonna take a crack at it. I imagine he knows a few magic tricks that go beyond a fist and a boot.”

Vonken purposely kept his eyes on Lappeus, though he was aware of the Dustcrafted container atop his clothing on a bench across the room. The other men had simply set it among the gadgets Vonken had in his pockets, taking it for some sort of medical instrument; Letriver would feel the power seething in that tiny cylinder at once. Might not be much time. He gauged the energy he’d siphoned off them so far: maybe enough to blast them unconscious, if both were close enough...if he could also snap the bonds around this chair...if he could run for the river, just a few yards from the station... “Do you hold to this nonsense about witches?” he asked Mitchell.

The lawyer shrugged. “You heathens have always had a reputation for studying things the Good Book specifically forbids. Whether or not witchcraft was possible before, you have to admit that your Coldspark abilities do smack more than a little of unwholesome gifts.”

“I regard what happened to me as far more curse than gift,” Vonken argued hoarsely. “You said some foolishness about knights earlier. I’m disappointed to think that the son of a democratic senator would now be advocating some sort of Medieval hierarchy.”

As he’d hoped, Mitchell swung his feet to the floor and approached, straightening his fine waistcoat. The lawyer pulled out his pocketwatch again, dangling it in front of Vonken’s nose. The plating should conduct aetherfire quite well. Even more fortunate, Lappeus closed in, cigar-cutter in hand. Focus on the metals...ready...aim...

“See this symbol?” Mitchell asked. “That noble cross stands for a Knighthood freaks of nature such as you should learn to respect, because once we’ve purged Concordia of—“

“What the hell – get away from him!” Stout, stumpy Letriver moved surprisingly fast, flinging a shield of yellow aetherfire between Vonken and his interrogators even while stumbling across the room. They jumped back a step, turning angry looks to the Watch’s official freak of nature. Vonken strained, but didn’t have enough power to crack the gauntlets over his hands; green sparks chased up and down his body, causing the ordinary men to back away farther, with no other effect. He couldn’t touch them through Letriver’s shield. It lit up the cellar brightly, making Vonken wince and shut his eyes. “You idiots, he’s been draining you!”

Eyes incredulous and then glowering turned on Vonken. Lappeus snapped at Letriver: “Well, goddamnit, he wants power, let him have some then!”

The Watch Coldspark blinked dumbly at his boss, but then caught the meaning. In an awkward swoop of his arms, he gathered in the energy of the barrier and hurled it at Vonken. Pain rocked Vonken’s head back, stifled his scream. Jittering power wracked his body. Letriver stopped after a few seconds, leaving Vonken gasping. Unwanted tears slipped from his eyes.

If I live, you will not, Vonken swore. But there was nothing he could do. His limbs spasmed, the feet of the chair thumping against the floor.

“’Bout time you got here,” Lappeus growled.

“I was all the way in the mountains! With my family!” Letriver protested. He wiped his forehead with a sleeve. “Didn’t they tell you I was on holiday?”

“You are at the service of the city twenty-four hours a day, every day,” Lappeus said. “Don’t worry, just get the information we need outta this stubborn son of a bitch and you can toddle back to your tenderfoot camp-out!” Vonken struggled to focus his vision; afterimages blurred his eyes although the aetherglow had faded in the room. He saw Letriver wasn’t really paying attention to Lappeus, instead looking around the cellar with a frown.

No. Blast, no. Don’t touch it, you idiot; you have no idea how dangerous –

“It’s here,” Letriver said.

Lappeus kept going a moment. “I swear, if there’s one thing I goddamn hate about dealin’ with you City Watch sissies—what?”

“It’s here. The Ultra-dust!” Letriver viewed the other two with clear contempt. “You’ve been doing...that to him all night, and all along the thing you’re looking for is right here!” He strode to the bench, pointing. Vonken’s hope withered on the vine.

Mitchell gave Lappeus a look of astonishment, then began to grin. Lappeus’ cold mask never changed. “Show me,” he commanded. Letriver pawed through Vonken’s clothing, knocking a delicate vial of eyedrops and the smoked-lensed goggles to the dirty floor. He plucked the reconfigured optical cylinder from the pile, eyes wide as he held it up for all to see.

Lappeus cautiously came closer. “That? You’re sure? I thought it was a rock, or special Dust or somethin’.”

“It’s not the instrument; there’s incredible power crammed inside it,” Letriver explained. He played with the optical cylinder, turning it in his sweaty hands, captivated.

“Don’t open it, you ass!” Vonken gasped, immediately berating himself. What are you doing? Be silent! Unleashing that energy might be your only chance! He didn’t know if he could stay conscious through another onslaught of that agony, but if he could, and if the screaming raw aether waylaid his unready tormentors...

Letriver paused, fingering the switch that would open the lens. “Hmm. Sheriff, do you recognize this contraption?” He turned it toward Lappeus.

The older man flinched. Only a split-second reaction, but Vonken saw it. The optical array resembled a pistol just enough to make Lappeus wary. “Watch where you point that, you Dust-monkey!” He drew closer, peering at it. “I’ll be. That does look remarkably similar to a metal eyeball, now that you mention it.”

“He must’ve killed Russell for this,” Letriver guessed. He turned the apparatus over to squint at the closed lens.

Mitchell gave Vonken a disgusted look. “You murdered a man for his prosthetic eye? That is beyond despicable, Doctor!”

Vonken shook his head weakly. “ damned fools...that’s not what...”

A commotion outside the heavy, barred door to the cellar drew everyone’s attention. “Well, Turk’s come back just in time to administer some justice,” Mitchell crowed, but Lappeus frowned. He reached into his coat as the door slammed wide open, the bolt forced and suddenly glowing red-hot. A man wielding a gun slumped in with the door, unconscious, and Holly Autumnson stepped over him without breaking her stride.

Vonken’s heart did a strangled two-step. Her clothing was mismatched and torn, her hair lifted from her shoulders as though a breeze flew with her, and the fury in her eyes was matched by the angry glow surrounding her raised hands. She was magnificent, an avenging angel...and so utterly foolish that he felt sick at seeing her here. “Oh god no,” he whispered.

Lappeus’ gun hand was steady and his reflexes still swift, despite his age.

Holly saw the open end of the six-shooter, aimed straight at her forehead. She hesitated, and spotted Vonken. Her eyes widened. Vonken was too afraid for her to concern himself with his state of bruised indecency. “Get out of here,” he wheezed. Mitchell stared at her, wary of the visible energy burning from her hands, the fearsome glow surrounding her whole form. He edged closer to Lappeus. Letriver simply gaped, stock-still, the optical cylinder loosely gripped in one hand. Holly’s eyes shifted back to Lappeus, and she scowled.

“Miss Autumnson, ain’t it?” Lappeus said. His voice was quiet, the drawl of a gambler who’s had to back up his straight flush with a gun more than once. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance. Woulda been nicer if anyone’d told me you were a witch too.”

Letriver shook the cylinder at Holly. “She’, there’s something wrong here! She’s not a Coldspark...”

“Well that’s not the heady glow of love lighting her up, you idiot,” Mitchell snapped. He gestured beseechingly at Lappeus. “Christ, Jim, would you just shoot them both? Obviously he killed Villard’s soldiers, and this girl’s just as guilty if she’s burst in here after him!”

“Shut the hell up, Sam. There’s more goin’ on here,” Lappeus growled, never taking his eyes from Holly. Mitchell looked affronted, but fell silent. Holly noticed the Element’s cage in Letriver’s hands. She looked back at Vonken, her hands still raised as if to shove everyone out of her way. Her gaze was hard, purposeful, and everything he absolutely did not want to see in her at this moment. He shook his head. No! No, my dear, no, it’s too risky –

“I suggest you lower your –“ Lappeus began.

Holly grabbed Letriver and swung him as if beginning a wild reel on a ballroom floor; Lappeus instinctively moved, trying to place her in his sights again. Letriver yelped in pain, swatting at her burning hands, feet stumbling. Mitchell cursed, fumbling for his own pistol in his waistcoat, but he’d left it by the sling chair. Holly planted her feet, slung Letriver at Mitchell, and snatched the cylinder from his burned hand. “Shield, goddamnit!” Lappeus  roared, sidestepping the two, bringing his gun to bear on Holly again as Vonken strained to reach into that fiery core, to break free, to stop her... Letriver whimpered, but thrust his hands outward, yellow coldfire springing from them to protect Lappeus. The gun fired. Vonken shouted, his voice cracking: “Nooo!”

Holly wrenched open the lens.

Hell exploded in Vonken’s brain.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

21. Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?

A puff of cigar smoke brought Vonken awake, coughing. The grey, drooping moustache and sharp grey eyes of James Lappeus drew back a bit, his expression impassive. “Have a swell nap there?” Lappeus drawled. He took another drag on the cigar, and again, needlessly, expelled a foul cloud in Vonken’s face. Vonken turned his head, instinctively moving to wave away the smoke, but discovered his hands were still bound in the aetheric damping gloves. He’d been lashed to the chair he sat in for good measure, thick hemp cords numbing all sensation below his elbows and ankles. “Mornin’, sunshine,” Lappeus said.

Vonken didn’t bother to reply. His eyes focused finally, though pain throbbed behind them. He took a slow, attentive survey of his surroundings. Not City Jail. Not the Courthouse, either. He’d made a few trips to both, to heal, or to register a patent. Well-mortared bricks made featureless walls in a wide but low-ceilinged space; blocky columns interrupted the gloomy view in regular rows. Underground. A cellar somewhere. Too big to be a private home. He noticed a couple of barrel kegs in one far corner, but there didn’t seem to be enough of them to indicate he might be below one of the saloons he knew Lappeus owned. Then he realized none of the men sitting around on storage crates or rickety old chairs were uniformed as police officers. Oh, joy. So this is all off the books. I could be anywhere.

One of the men, stoutly middle-aged but still sporting a wild head of curly hair, suddenly grinned at him, and Vonken saw the family resemblance to infamous old Jim Turk. Lappeus, one of Turk’s sons, and oh damn and that John Mitchell’s son Sam? It’s a damned rogues’ gallery of the Old City! Lappeus put a foot on the chair arm, leaning it back a few inches, no doubt emphasizing how helpless Vonken currently was. Vonken didn’t flinch. “Such esteemed company all assembled for my benefit? How flattering,” he said.

Lappeus smiled. “I believe you already know Sam Mitchell here, finest lawyer in Concordia. He’s your counsel, to make sure this here’s all fine and square.”

The Senator’s son made a mock-bow, and took a swig from a silver flask. Vonken sneered. “How reassuring. So I’m to commit suicide in my cell before trial, am I?”

“Trial? What makes you think you deserve a trial?” Lappeus asked, dropping Vonken’s chair so roughly that his teeth jarred. “Don’t you know sabotaging the Northern Pacific Airways Company is a treasonable offence, subject to summary execution?”

It would be useless to protest. Vonken glared at Villard’s curs, and tried to wriggle one hand free of the heavy gauntlets which prevented him from building a charge of greenfire. A rumbling sound grew, more steady than thunder, and plaster shook down from the crude ceiling. The station. Damn and hell, I’m under the station. With trains coming and I could scream my loudest and no one would ever know. Wonderful. Whatever extra energy Holly had shot through him had dissipated, and he felt a broad-range expulsion of power would do little to—Holly! Have they harmed her? He didn’t dare ask about her; if they didn’t already suspect her, any mention surely would only drag her into further danger. As long as she stays at home, the wards will protect her for at least another week before they begin to degrade...surely she’s busy tending to the child. Safe for now.

He wasn’t sure how he was going to survive the night to assist her.

The crack of a gloved fist caught him off-guard; his head rocked back, he bit his tongue and tasted copper. Lappeus straightened once more, shaking the sting out of his hand. “Now then,” the former chief of police said amicably, “why don’t you start by telling me how you killed two of our illustrious Founder’s servants during the conduction of their civic duty.” Vonken worked his jaw painfully; not broken, but only thanks to the ‘spark-welded steel he’d carefully constructed. Hopefully Lappeus hurt as much from the blow. Cigar smoke puffed through the room, much as the coalsmoke from the steam engines did through the rail station above them. “Tell me everything, and I can promise you I’ll just shoot you.” He lifted the edge of his coat to reveal the six-shooter in its hip holster. “Anytime you answer wrong, though, Frank Turk over there ain’t gonna like it. And Frank hits harder than his ol’ prizefighter pop, if you can believe it!” The men all chuckled. Turk cracked his knuckles and grinned.

“I’m the only lawful citizen in this room,” Vonken countered. He knew there was little point to protesting; they were going to beat upon him no matter what. He might as well earn it. “You’re holding me illegally and I demand a fair hearing, not this dead-man’s court!”

Lappeus looked regretful. “Wrong answer.” He puffed away as a massive shadow blocked the lamplight.

Holy demons of the Deep, that bastard is twice the size of a dune shark, Vonken thought.

As it turned out, Turk also knew that soft organs hurt a lot more than bones.


The velocipede seemed almost a thinking creature, the way it slipped around the corners of warehouses and mostly avoided the carts of marketmen setting out from the wharves. Holly clenched the handles, her legs straining to clamp tight to the saddle, yet she felt air whisk through her skirts every time the ‘pede clattered over a curb. The smoothness of its gait had vanished when they hit the cobbles of the southside streets. She felt relief for a moment as the construct veered into the dirt of Wharfside streets, then yelped and yanked the steering handles hard left to narrowly miss a washerwoman tottering along with a high-piled basket upon her head. Startled curses briefly chased after Holly. It certainly wasn’t the worst language she’d heard so far this morning.

She felt lost among the tall warehouses, taking corners at random, breathless, until a flicker of red paint flashed past. Holly gritted her teeth and leaned hard instinctively, forcing the velocipede into a screeching about-face, metal segments scraping each other as it did its best to comply. She nearly bowled over the handles, her bottom flying up and landing painfully again, but stayed on the construct. She kicked its sides again. “Hi, hiii!” The hundred legs skittered for purchase, found it, and launched them back the way they’d come. She was ready this time, and turned with far more aplomb – and less pain.

There! That horrible crab factory! The velocipede galloped to the corner; Holly glanced up nervously, and saw the boards nailed over what had been a window. The ‘pede swung around the building, and immediately Holly saw the clinic...and realized how fast she was going.

“Stop! Stop! Whoooaa!” It hadn’t occurred to her she’d have to get off this foolhardy thing at some point. She’d never even ridden a horse at a gallop, and the ‘pede undulated swiftly enough to give any thoroughbred a good race. Struggling to stay on, she yanked back the steering, but nothing happened. “Whooooaaaa!” she cried. It’s Vonken’s creature, how would he stop it, Dutch he uses Dutch— “Ho!”

Segments of scrap iron sheared into one another, the seat of the ‘pede buckling upward, flinging Holly off. She held to the left handlebar another instant, painfully whipping her whole body around before she let go, ending up sprawled on her back in the dirt a few feet past the clinic door. Metal clanked and groaned but didn’t, thankfully, collapse atop her; the ‘pede shuddered and settled, stretching its segments out, quivering finally like a giant worm in its final throes. She could only hope it wasn’t damaged, not with a child’s life in the balance. Holly forced herself up, though she glimpsed lines of blood on her legs and across her right palm. She stumbled to the door and pounded upon it, desperation renewing her strength. “Vonken!”

The door opened, but only the nurse-construct stared back at Holly. Its green-glowing eyesockets unnerved her, but it backed away, humbly gesturing for her to enter. Holly took in the small room at a glance: neat, shining metal shelves, the examination table, the tidy cabinets. No green-coated doctor. “Where is he? Is he out on rounds?” Holly demanded. The nurse paused, then shook its head. “He must come at once! Can’t you summon him somehow?”

The construct rolled to a stop by a shelf. Holly followed, though for a second she thought she heard whispers. She looked around, seeing no one else, feeling dizzy and sick. What a fine kettle, if you so badly injured yourself that you can’t bear the return journey, Mikael’s voice scolded in her head. She blinked at the mud trickling down her brow. She had to wipe it away in irritation when the trickle wouldn’t stop, and saw red smeared on her hand. The nurse was gesturing at her. What did it want? It pointed to a blinking bulb of greenfire. “I don’t understand,” Holly said, and fumbled for a handkerchief. There didn’t seem to be any in her pockets. The nurse creaked closer, reaching for her head; Holly batted its arm away. “I’m fine, it was only a tumble. I demand you summon Dr Vonken at once! Betsy...she’s...she needs...”

“Betsy? What’s happened?”

The voice was too high-pitched for the doctor. Holly turned, confused, to find a raggedy boy with dirty brown hair staring at her. She vaguely recognized him; his name clicked into her memory when she saw the round-cheeked blond girl hiding behind him. “Jeremy?”

“Told you it was that lady,” the boy said to his little sister. He swung back to Holly. “What’s happened to Betsy?”

“She’s...not well,” Holly said. “Why isn’t Vonken here? Where is he?”

“Dunno, Miss,” Jeremy replied, looking at the blinking bulb on the wall. “Nurse Ratchet done sent for him hours ago when we came in, but he ain’t come yet. We had to scatter last night when Big Leo found our new digs.”

 “That summons him?” Holly looked at the odd little light again; the construct nodded, and again reached for her head. Holly stepped back, feeling none too steady. “Then why hasn’t he come?”

“Dunno, Miss. Hey, you oughta let Nurse here take a look at that cut on your head...and all them other ones too,” Jeremy advised, his eyes widening as he studied her. “What’d you do, fight through the Watch to get here?”

“Fell off a velocipede. I’m fine; please stop that!” She slapped away the questing metal fingers of the nurse again. “That girl is going to die if Vonken doesn’t come immediately!”

Jeremy’s sister burst into tears. Holly paused, feeling guilty, then mustered her thoughts. “If he’s not here, where else would he be? The hospital? Where does he live?”

“Further down by the river, in an old bank, but you can’t go out there!” Jeremy protested as Holly turned to go.

“I most certainly can.”

“But Big Leo’s out there!” Holly scowled at the boy, but he darted ahead of her to the door and peeked around it. “Look, that’s him, foolin’ with your bug right now.”

“My bug? My bug!” Holly pushed the door fully open and strode out. The enormous ogre poking at the downed velocipede glanced at her, then slowly straightened with a dumbfounded expression at the bloodstreaked woman in torn skirts and wild dark hair, bearing down on him like a mother hawk. “You! Get away from that machine!”

The man must have built Celtic stone rings in a previous life; he flexed arms thick as battering rams as he planted his fists on his sides, and grinned at her. The sight of jagged, yellowed teeth wasn’t nearly as hideous as the stench wafting from his unwashed body. “Looka you, wench! Some Johnny smack you around on your knees? How’s about you let me protect you?”

Holly didn’t pause to consider what he might be implying; she marched right around the brute and swung one leg over the saddle, then realized she was sitting backward. She ignored a hefty chortle while she turned herself around, and woozily kicked her heels against the velocipede’s sides. “Be off with you before I summon the Watch,” she told the ogre, then called to the wide-eyed children peeping from the cracked-open clinic door. “Which way to Vonken’s home?”

The ogre leaned in, placing a hand upon the head of the velocipede. Metal keened under the pressure. “I heard that pansy had a doxy ‘round here. You best find a new daddy, pumpkin,” the brute said, a chortle rumbling through him and shaking the ‘pede. The portable quarantine chose that moment to flash its warning X above her head, drawing Big Leo’s piggish eyes away from her bosom.

Furious, Holly slapped at the hamhock of a hand. It was like hitting the firm hide of a boar. “Take your hand off my vehicle, and stand aside, cretin!”

Instead, Big Leo ran his other hand down Holly’s arm. The quarantine X kept flashing, but the brute either didn’t understand or didn’t care what it signified. “Your doc ain’t gonna look after you no more, sweetling. Not since they dragged him off for a li’l chat! You wanna find him now, best go check the sewer ‘neath the station.”

Holly barely heard his words through a miasma of nausea and growing rage. Past him, she could see two small, horrified faces in the clinic doorway. Big Leo grinned, still fondling her arm, making the quarantine warning glow strongly. Holly hoped he’d contract the disease, and quickly. “Now how’s about we go have a li’l chat ourselves? I won’t smack you around none, I promise...though you gonna be walkin’ like a trail rider for a week!” His grip suddenly clamped around her wrist.

Crimson blurred her vision. Holly released the welling fire in one hard shove. “Go to hell, you mongrel!” Big Leo’s fingers wrenched at her wrist another second, and then he flew backward as though battered by a hurricane gust. The clinic walls trembled when he smashed into one, then building and man were still. Holly kept screaming at him. “You disgusting, hideous, unwashed ape! How dare you lay a hand on me! That girl will die if you don’t get out of my way right now!”

“Oh Deep Ones,” Jeremy gulped. He raised his voice enough to catch Holly’s attention as she drew a breath, pain ringing in her ears, redfire coursing through her hands. “Uh, Miss? Miss, I think he’s about out of your way for sure...”

Holly blinked. Her eyelids felt sticky. Dazed, she sat still until the nurse-construct rolled from the clinic, and a metal pincer-hand offered her a clean cloth smelling of pure alcohol. Holly stared at it, realized wiping away the blood might help her see, and accepted the cloth. It stung across her forehead, and she cursed, but her purpose flared forth again now that obstacles had been cleared. Jeremy ventured out far enough to peer on tiptoes at the crumpled, unmoving bulk in the dirt. “Holy Damn, Miss...”

She found her voice, though her throat felt raw. Had she been yelling? She had a vague memory of yelling. Why does everything hurt so? “Vonken. I have to find –“

“If they’ve got him under the station, Miss, that ain’t...” Jeremy paused, swallowed hard, and started over. “I mean, if you’re one’a them ‘spark people like the doc, maybe you can...”

“Station? What does that mean, under the station?” Holly asked, and tapped the velocipede with her heels. It wriggled weakly, segments clicking and clanking into their approximate places along the spine. Clearly the rough ride had done it harm; she hoped it could still speed her along. How much time has passed? I could already be too late. “How could he be under the station?”

“That’s where they take folks what kick up too much of a fuss,” Jeremy said, anxiously watching her hands for some reason. “Old Sheriff’s got a special room down there. They...they toss the bodies out a chute at high tide. Everybody knows about it.”

“I’m not everybody,” Holly snapped. She kicked the sides of the velocipede hard. “Hi! Hiii!” It turned with an ear-stabbing shriek of metal on metal, but at least it turned, and began its awkward undulation, slowly mounting speed. Holly turned it toward the heart of the city. She’d never heard of a secret room beneath the Northern Pacific & Greater Concordia Railway and Steam Station, but at least she knew where the damned place was, having seen off Mikael on journeys from there.

The ‘pede was still faster than carriage travel. She held on grimly, indifferent to the red glow around her fingers, hoping she’d be in time to prevent not one but two deaths.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

20. On the Cleanliness of Conscience

She wasn’t certain what awoke her, but when Holly stirred herself enough to listen to the silence of the house, she couldn’t shake the notion that an earthquake had traveled through the bricks and boards, leaving her trembling. Peering at the fireplace, she chided herself: Of course you’re shivering. The coals are burnt out. --Betsy! Worry for her charge propelled up and across the threshold of the turret bedroom, slippers left behind in her haste. The hearth held only held cooling bits of ash, the room chilled and damp. Holly berated herself for not remembering to set a clock to awaken her at midnight, and checked Betsy’s forehead.

The girl’s breath seemed shallow, and halting; her skin was cool and moist. Alarmed, Holly turned up the wick on the bedside lamp. A chill sweat covered Betsy’s brow, her hair slick against her skin. Holly pressed a dry washcloth over her face, but Betsy only mumbled in her sleep. But she seemed better today! She fought a rising sense of despair, and made herself focus on laying out new logs in the fireplace the way Vonken had done. She remembered to sweep aside the ash, tucked dry twigs underneath, and in a few minutes had a small tongue of flame licking the logs. Perhaps something in his bag? A quick rummage through the doctor’s satchel produced several bottles labeled in an elegant, bold script. Camphor, no, not helpful... Tincture of valerian? Colocynthus aqua? She shook her head, understanding the Latin but not the purpose of the remedy. Frustrated, she read the label of each bottle and vial, finally finding one noted as Citrus zingiber, tinc. Xtra. She knew that one; their family doctor in years past had often prescribed it for seasonal colds. Well, Vonken gave her something citrus earlier; perhaps this was it. It couldn’t hurt, and I don’t know what else to do.

She lifted the tiny, limp body until Betsy was more or less sitting upright, and brushed her hair from her forehead. “Duckling? Betsy? Wake up, need a little medicine,” she said, trying to keep anxiety from her voice. The girl’s eyelids fluttered, but her gaze was unfocused.

“All...rise,” Betsy whispered, sounding as scratchy inside as the burlap sacks she’d had for shoes. Poor little one...was she in court for something? Perhaps to see an older brother sentenced for some petty crime? Holly winced at the thought, but could conceive of no other reason why a girl not yet seven years old would have heard a bailiff proclaim the entry of a judge. “We all...rise...”

“Sweetling, please drink a bit of this.” Holly coaxed a spoonful of the tincture between Betsy’s lips, and tilted her chin a bit until the child swallowed, coughed, and swallowed again. Dabbing her mouth, Holly saw blood on the cloth. Oh god. No, no, you were doing better! You were healing! It’s this room, it’s too cold – this whole cursed city is too damp and chill! Holly left the bedside to urge the crackling flames higher, fanning them with the hem of her shift. Warmer, I must get her warmer! She pulled the heavy goosedown comforter off her own bed and lugged it to the child’s room, arranging it atop the bed until she was sure no cold air could possibly seep in any crevice. Betsy nestled under once more, her breathing calming. Holly listened, but couldn’t determine whether her respiration sounded more or less clogged.

I should’ve woken earlier...should’ve checked on her again before now...she was fine when I pulled the bath for the Pilot! Realizing she hadn’t seen nor heard anything from that quarter yet, she reluctantly left Betsy’s room to look into the bath. The soupy slime in the tub and floating bits of what seemed to be pale, soaked, torn cloth made her recoil. What in all the Depths is that? Dried, lumpy scum, like hardened seafoam, marked a trail into the hallway. Holly stepped around it, lighting one of the twin krakenoil lamps by the sink. He left his clothes? Is he rollicking around my home nude as a dolphin? She looked into the murky water filling what had been a sparkling, spacious bathtub, repulsed by what appeared to be snakeskin draped over the lip. Is he...shedding? Becoming more monstrous? Will there be a point at which humanity is so alien to him he turns feral, dangerous? She thought of the extra limbs, the malformed mouth. No...not malformed, not for a kraken.

Shuddering, she looked around quickly, but the traces of the Pilot’s presence seemed hours old; no telling where he might be right now. Drawing closer to the filthy tub, she reminded herself there was no one else to clean it. If I demanded he scrub up after himself he’d likely only make it worse! Taking a deep breath through her mouth to avoid the foul odor drifting up from the slurry, she carefully rolled up her sleeves. As swiftly as she could, she plunged her hand in, unstopped the drain, and backed away with a sniff of disgust, slime clinging to her fingers. She trembled while turning on the sink tap. Ice-cold water gurgled out, and she washed her hand and arm thoroughly, not allowing herself to speculate on what the slippery, soapy substance might be now glugging down the tub drain.

What does happen to the Pilots? Didn’t Mikael cover that in his book? She recalled the transformation only vaguely, though she remembered Mikael nattering on about that and other disturbing aspects of krakendom often, while he was writing it. If this Pilot is going to become a threat, he must leave; I don’t care what else he knows about the wreck of the expedition! She calmed, however, drying her skin and considering the matter. I was asleep, and he didn’t bother me. Betsy is worse...but surely that’s the consumption? Would he be immune to the disease? Could being in the vicinity of that awful rock have caused this decline in her? I should summon Vonken... But what could the surgeon do? He’d stated repeatedly he didn’t believe the child would live.

Uncertainty dogged her. She paced from Betsy’s room, where the hearth spread warmth again finally; to the foot of the attic stairs, silent as the grave; to the library. She picked a book on wasting diseases from the reading desk, and opened it to the section on White Plague. The words told her nothing more than what she’d read a day ago, when she’d pulled this volume from the shelf in hopes of gleaning some hint of successful treatment beyond what Vonken knew. She had no idea whether she should fetch the doctor, whether he might even be at his clinic at this late hour, whether his automatron-nurse could be of any help.

Frustrated, she turned her scurrying thoughts to the other problem, since she knew of nothing else she could accomplish where the progress of the consumption was concerned. It seemed all that could be done, was. She shied away from the nagging sense that she should have tended the fire earlier, never allowed the room to grow cold. She opened Mikael’s book on kraken and flipped impatiently through it. Absorption of oils...slow process, estimated to culminate over a twenty-five year period by most biologists...well, that’s not helpful. Clearly, the element from the Crater had greatly accelerated the process, to judge from what she’d seen of the Pilot’s grotesque form, but this didn’t tell her whether she ought to fear him. Where is he? Tracking more sea-slime around my home? I’ll probably have to throw out those carpets...ugh. She glanced out the library doorway to the attic stairs, loathe to venture up to see what had become of her bizarre guest. She returned her gaze to the book, flipping pages and squinting at the fine typeface in the extensive tome. A dull ache throbbed in slow waves behind her eyes. Tea. I need tea. Then tackle all this afresh. There must be answers here.

She’d finished spooning the leaves into a strainer, the kettle heating on the warming stove, before she noticed the back entry was unlocked. “Oh hell,” she muttered, tiptoeing to the door and creaking it open to peer outside. Flecks of that same seafoam substance clung to the doorframe. Has he simply left? Oh no. What about Villard’s spies? The dark hillside beyond the wan reach of the kitchen lamplight revealed nothing. Have they already reported to him that a Krakenpilot is staying here? What if they’ve taken him, or killed him? Will they try to come inside? She shut the door hastily and bolted it. Wait. The wards. Are the wards yet up? Taking a deep breath, she opened the door once again and checked. The faintest shimmer caught the light, tremulous as cobwebbing, just a step down from the back stoop. Presumably, only a skilled Coldspark would be able to breach that. Holly shut the door once more, considering what best to do.

Why would he have gone outside? Did he crave the embrace of the sea? He didn’t seem agitated earlier... The effluvia left in the bathtub, however, suggested the Pilot might be even less capable of rational, human thought than before. Would Villard’s man have followed him? Certainly, if he’d seen him. Does that mean the house is unwatched at present? What if the Pilot doesn’t return? There could be more to the expedition story.

She fretted for several minutes until the screech of the kettle startled her. She poured water into the teapot, and by the time she’d snugged down the porcelain lid to hold in the heat, she’d decided on a course of action. She hurried upstairs, gathered up a basket of bloodstained cloths from Betsy’s room, and checked again on the child. Betsy slept restlessly, rolling her head from side to side, moaning low through closed lips. Holly cleansed and blotted her forehead, but she felt neither chilled nor feverish. At least the room had warmed, and the comforter seemed to be serving its purpose. In tending to the child, Holly suddenly realized she’d misplaced the contagion mask Vonken had given her. Serves you right...should never have let the fire die out.

She ventured out the back door a few minutes later bearing the soiled cloths, a bullseye lantern filled with krakenoil, a small spade, and a poker from the kitchen stove. If anyone was watching the house, surely disposing of White Plague-contaminated things from a quarantined home would be enough to ensure her safety. She lit the lantern, casting its circle around the rear of the house. A careful look into the tall ash and elm closest to the back walkway revealed not so much as a sleepy bird. Past those, the firs swayed and whispered in a high breeze, then fell silent right as Holly turned the lantern in their direction, trees caught gossiping. Her resolve faltered, but she took a moment to tug the rubber galoshes higher over her shins, a careful eye on the forest the whole while. Nothing moved.

She picked her way along the bricks of the rear walkway, pretending to seek a soft patch of dirt by thrusting the poker down here and there along the way. She didn’t find any traces of the odd foam, but in looking occasionally at the earth she noticed some odd though an enormous snake had slithered by while she slept inside. Another worried glance around the treetops showed only leaves and soft dark needles. She followed the strange marks in the dirt, seeing dead grass pressed flat; whatever came this way hadn’t been concerned about being followed. The first chunk of ripped flesh stopped her, but it wasn’t until the lantern beam caught the gleam of a pewter gun-stock that she understood she was looking at what was left of a man.

Holly turned away, sickened. Oh my god. Like the red-eyed man in the attic. More bits of crimson-soaked clothing, a whole finger torn from a hand, a heavy shoe...with a stump of a foot protruding. Holly gagged, and put one hand against the nearest tree trunk to steady herself, but jerked it away wet. The whole trunk shone rust-red when she turned the lamp upon it. Oh all the gods of the deep and the light, what has the monster done? The answer was obvious. And when the spy doesn’t check in with Villard? What then? Has he already sent someone to take this man’s place? Wouldn’t they have cleaned this horror up, to avoid questions from me? Where in all ugly hell is the Pilot?

Despairing, she looked in every direction, lifting the lantern high as she could, but saw no sign of the Pilot. After discovering this messy feast, she didn’t think she ever wished to see the hideous creature again. Let Vonken track him down, if he wishes to continue  his interrogation! I’m done with this awful business! She could hardly bear to view the scattered carnage. At least, the head seemed to have been consumed or carried off entire...

Shuddering, Holly set down the lantern and struck the small garden spade into the dirt. Wait. This ground is so rocky...there’s no chance I’ll be able to dig deep enough to bury this without some stray dog digging it up! But I can’t let it lay... Her eye halted upon the lantern.

She was fortunate; she’d saved the bloodsoiled rags for last. As she doused one in oil and tossed it upon the small blaze, twigs snapped nearby. Holly whirled, raising the poker. “Who’s there?” She feared the return of the Pilot. Instead, the portly form and bewhiskered face of Chadwick Atherton stepped into the ring of lanternlight.

“Hullo, dear. What’s all this?” Her neighbor shaded his eyes, peering at the small firepit she’d scratched into the dirt.

“Mr Atherton. Hello,” she said, hoping she’d found every last bit of the late Company man and consigned it to the flames already. Only the gunstock and boot had been flung far back into the woods. After this, the stove poker was certainly not welcome back in the kitchen.

Atherton rubbed his bushy beard, giving her a puzzled look. “Bit late to be burning trash, isn’t it? I saw the light through the trees, and worried your house might be catching fire!”

She waved him back from the basket of rags just as he was bending to examine it. “Oh, please be careful! Those are tainted with consumptive blood.” He straightened up swiftly, startled. She hooked a cloth with the poker, dribbled oil from the lamp on it, and cast it into the fire.

“My dear...I had no inkling...” Atherton’s expression was one of pity, making Holly feel guilty.

Nothing but a sympathy bouquet since Mikael died; I’d thought they didn’t care for me overmuch...yet he’s come to help. “Oh, not I. I’ve taken in a street child...she had no family to care for her. The house is under quarantine by order of the Surgeon General,” she explained.

Atherton nodded slowly, unsure of his response. Holly saw a preponderance of white hairs in his beard; she wondered whether his age was encroaching on him, or if some anxiety for his business had hastened this elderly appearance. She explained further, “I...had to wait until the child was sleeping soundly, to spend a few minutes away from her, and dispose of these.” Plausible, surely. “I ought to have asked the doctor to place a seal of quarantine on the back door as well as the front, but as I have so few tradesmen coming to the house these days, it simply didn’t occur to me. Thank you for thinking to check on my safety, sir.” Atherton looked well turned-out even at this early hour of the morning. He could afford excellent fashions; he owned several textile-houses. Factories such as the one which had turned Betsy out on the street, too young to entrust to the machines yet.

Factories, she suddenly remembered, which her father had mentioned more than once, near the end of his life, when he bemoaned his decision not to sell out to the Northern Pacific when he’d had an offer. Chadwick Atherton had subsumed his industry to the Company. Didn’t his workshops sew all the uniforms for the Company now?

“No bother at all, wanted to be sure you were all right. Gerty worries about you, up here on your own, you know,” Atherton said. He continued to watch from a few paces distant. “Are you certain you’re taking enough precautions, my dear?”

“The doctor assured me fire will destroy any lingering contagion; you needn’t fear that the smoke will spread the disease,” Holly replied, checking the direction of the wind. It blew very faintly toward the west, into the trees. She glanced southwest, where she knew the Atherton’s house was...somewhere, past the thick firs, just over the hump of the hillside. She couldn’t see any lights.

How did he see the fire? The flame was low to the ground, eating up the rags. Her nose had deadened to the scent of cooking meat; she could only hope the smell had dissipated before Atherton walked up. Too dark to see the smoke. Unlikely he could see the fire from his windows. Why is he here? “It’s been far too long since we’ve had a visit,” she said, tamping down the shiver in her breast. “How is Mrs Atherton?”

“Oh, quite well, thank you,” Atherton replied, appearing discomfited. Holly repeated the oil-soaking and fire-feeding of another bloody cloth, her deliberate movements holding Atherton’s gaze. “I’ll tell her you asked after her. Yes, yes, it certainly has been too long, you’re right. Been so busy, stepping up work in the uniform productions, you know...ahem, erhumm.” He cleared his throat for several seconds. Holly thought of what Vonken had said: I’ve seen the factories in the north assembling what looked very like a battalion... No matter what the armaments, surely more men would be needed to deploy them. Men who needed uniforms, to carry the colorful glory of the Northern Pacific Company forward. “White Plague, you say? A street child? How very Christian of you.” Atherton nodded as he said this, though his eyes bespoke doubt. “Charity is surely the best use of your time, I should think, with your brother gone.” Holly clearly heard the unspoken assumption that she was unsuited for respectable marriage. She knew Atherton disapproved of female education beyond what was needed to manage a household of servants. She wondered if the rest of the Hillside Ladies’ Association also thought her fit only for charitable spinsterhood.

She couldn’t quite keep the heat from her tone. “I’ve found that, oddly enough, Mikael’s death has opened a number of interesting avenues for me. I’m not certain what I shall do next. However, I find it strange that so many working-class children are uncared for by the alleged philanthropic organizations in this city.” She angrily tossed the last sick-rag on the flames. “She might or might not survive. She was living in squalor, in Wharfside.”

“How very sad,” Atherton murmured, watching her. “Well. I hope you and she will be safe enough here... Have you heard about the burglars who’ve been seen roaming the neighborhood? Terrible, terrible. The Watch has increased their patrols, you know.”

“I’m sure not the foolhardiest robber would dare enter a house under quarantine.”

“Just so, yes, naturally. Still, it never hurts to be cautious. Would you like me to take a look around the property for you, my dear?”

Holly almost wished the nosy old man would find some scrap of a belt, or knuckle of a finger. “Not necessary, Mr Atherton. Thank you for your concern.”

Atherton looked at the house as if debating risking a peek inside. “Are you sure you’re managing well enough, dear? I could – I could send Mathilda over, to help with the cooking and washing-up! I believe she went through a bout of White Plague some years back...yes, yes; her husband, I believe, succumbed, but she survived.Very hardy, she is: Polish stock, you know. She’d be the perfect –“

“Mr Atherton, I am under strictest orders from the doctor not to permit anyone into the house at present. I do thank you. Good night.” She smiled thinly at him, and used the poker to push loose earth over the guttering flames. Atherton stood there a moment more, at a loss for words. Finally he nodded, and turned away. Holly continued to tamp out the fire, watching him recede down the pathway. She slipped to the corner of the house, in its shadow, to see him hesitate at the apex of the drive, staring up at the brightly glowing quarantine warning in the air before the front door. Finally he walked down the driveway. Holly wondered if he had a televox machine at home; if his first act upon his return to the fine manse next door would be to call the Sheriff, or some other representative of the Northern Pacific Airways & Transportation Company. Perhaps even Villard himself.

She didn’t notice she was shaking until her hand slipped on the latch to the kitchen door. Inside, she doused the lantern. Her pot of tea sat lukewarm on the counter. She washed her hands, poured a cup, and drank it black. The bitterness calmed her somewhat. It tasted ordinary. Nothing else this night could be called that.

Betsy slept, so motionless that Holly put her hand below the girl’s nostrils to feel the feeble respiration. At least she’s asleep. Dear god, what if that monster had decided to sup on her instead? Angry again at her negligence, Holly swept from the room in a swirl of skirts, ignoring the dirt her galoshes tracked across the rugs. Likely have to replace them all anyway. Wherever the Pilot is, hope he never comes back. Hopefully, once out of the protective ward guarding the house, the fiend wouldn’t be able to re-enter. But Vonken said the Krakenpilots are so full of Dust-energy, they can absorb even his most powerful blasts, didn’t he? Think how much it took to subdue the Pilot this past morning! And if he’s become even more krakenish since...

Troubled, she looked through Mikael’s treatise again, but saw only the most cursory paragraphs concerning kraken and Dust, mostly focused on the effects of the Cataclysm on the original sea-dwelling animals. He had more than this. I know he did. Reams of notes he said the Zoology Society insisted be cut. I remember him complaining about their interference with the publication! Where are they, where are they...

One drawer of the desk was stuck. When she wrenched it open in frustration, papers burst out everywhere. “Damn it to the Crater!” Growling curses at her late sibling’s lack of neatness, she gathered up the pages. Several references to kraken met her eye. She shuffled through the papers, her eyes skimming through the familiar handwriting, then laid them all out on the desk. They were completely out of order, not even numbered. Of course not. Damn you, Mikael. She set her cold cup of tea on the desk, and grimly began to read.

Two hours later, in the first dim grey of dawn, hacking coughs from the turret bedroom brought her running. Betsy spewed a bluish fluid from her mouth. Alarmed, Holly sat her up, held a basin to her lips, noted the flush on the child’s cheeks and the coolness of her skin despite the heat beneath the blankets. She coaxed the girl to drink a little water, and when the fit seemed over, laid her on her side. Betsy swooned, her breathing shallow, giving not even a flutter of her lashes when Holly repeatedly spoke her name.

Holly no longer cared about the people spying on the house, or whether the Pilot lurked in the woods nearby, or what Henry Villard was up to at this moment. She wasn’t sure when Vonken’s mechanical nurse was scheduled to visit. She needed help now. “I’ll be right back, duckling, I’m going to fetch the doctor,” she promised. Betsy didn’t seem to hear her. Holly threw on a coat over the plain skirt she’d donned to burn the rags, not caring about mourning clothing. She snatched up the silver coin Vonken had left her. She thought to buckle on the portable quarantine ward the doctor had given her to avoid anyone interfering with her purpose, and strode out of the house in urgent hope of finding some cab plying the road at this early hour.

She passed the velocipede before she noticed it. She stopped. The segmented, metal construct uncurled at her touch like a pillbug. It was larger than she’d supposed, with huge faceted glass eyes set low to the ground to avoid large rocks and obstacles. The saddle-piece was fashioned for a taller person than herself, not surprising given the common proscription against women riders. But there’s no actual law against it. She swung herself up, gripping the handles tightly when the construct quivered. She had no idea how to direct it. She looked down, saw plates positioned just below where her feet hung, and gave them an experimental kick as she’d seen men do astride horses. To her relief, the velocipede crawled forward. She turned the handles set before the saddle, somewhat clumsily, and the construct veered toward the front gate at the bottom of the drive as she’d wished. This will be faster, much faster, she thought. She was in too much panic to feel giddy at how many simultaneous social niceties she was flaunting.

She remembered to tuck the hem of her skirt between her legs to keep it from flying up, kicked the metal sides so that they rang sharply, and yelled “Yah! Yah there!” By the bottom of the drive, the ‘pede was moving at a faster clip than a trotting horse. She yanked the handles roughly to the right, onto the street, and gave it another two heel-kicks. And then she clung to the handles as the metal bug undulated, its hundred feet thumping the cobbles in perfect coordination, racing toward the confluence of the rivers and the clinic where she hoped Vonken would be. She couldn’t spare an instant to look at the cart-merchants who gawped at her flying past. Speed was everything.

If Betsy died, Holly felt sure it would be her fault. She’d never been responsible for anyone’s life but her own, and only lately that; she would never forgive herself for this death. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

19. The Guests Are Met, the Feast Is Set

Ridley lay in the salt bath until well past moonrise. Barely a sliver of the Lady of Tides showed above the trees. Out in the deeps, the great lords would be ending their council. Momentous plans had been decided, confirmed, celebrated; the ocean echoed with the dying cries of lesser life after the great feast. Ridley wriggled unhappily in the confines of the enameled tub. Ah, to be glidin’ under the brine, in the court of the great lords! Dearie, show me, let me see that afore I join you. Just once before I cast off, let me swim alongside the Unrisen and hear their battle songs... He sighed. So many wondrous things, his lover had revealed to him; things no ordinary men could fathom, nightmares and phantasias alike. And here I wallow in this bloody tiny tub. Mr Fogchaser, you’ve come down in station, ye have. He looked toward the closed bathroom door, listened to the quiet house. Not for long, though. Not for long.

He uncurled a mass of tentacles from his midsection. The unappealing tan and pink of old skin had almost all turned to the slick, tough grey-brown of krakenflesh. Multiple arms reached from the tub, lashing around a towel bar, the washbasin fixtures, the water line to the commode tank. He pulled himself upright, and noticed his fingers had fused. Soon they would be paddles, like the sensitive appendages of his Dearie. Ridley flapped the useless-looking bits of flesh; softened bones bent without pain. He giggled.

The only thing which distressed him was that if he was turning into his idol, it wasn’t accompanied by an appreciable increase in mass or size. Perhaps that would come, though, once he was fully kraken, shed of this increasingly awkward humanity. He peered down at his legs in the dark room. Mikael’s sister had left him a candle, and he’d let it burn out of politeness to her, but he was happier once it guttered into a puddle of wax. Almost got no legs left! Now these’ll be some true sea legs, oh aye! Experimentally, he slithered one of the limp, thicker limbs over the edge of the tub. It no longer slapped flat to the floor as his feet had, but wobbled a bit, slippery on the tiles. He swung several of the main tentacles after it, and found a vaguely upright balance. The lady had left clean towels in a pile for his use. He didn’t bother. Dripping, he picked up his ragged tunic from the floor. Such silly business, that coverin’ up. The mass of writhing limbs now spread down from his chest, like a hothouse plant shooting out roots to sop up every precious ounce of water, and now the details of his lower anatomy were impossible to discern.

He’d been pleasantly surprised when the lady of the house had asked him if he wished a bath. She in turn had seemed taken aback when he asked for cold, salty water to drench his itching body. He’d scrubbed off the dried sweat and skin, delighted at the gleaming sleekness revealed when he sluiced water through upturned arms, tiny suckers gasping in appreciation of the brine. Good woman, ‘at is, ain’t she Dearie? Mikael was right to send us here. Got rid of ‘at rock, and found Little Sister!

Sobered immediately, Ridley wondered how the child was. He’d peered into her room earlier, and tried working up his courage to go in, but Mikael’s sister had intercepted him, distracted him with the bath. If she’s not better...if she’s still not well...oh Dearie, I’m no sawbones to make her live! I gave her the magic rock, just like you said, but she’s not sproutin’ lovely arms like me...oh, what if she’s ill? Worried, he shuffled around the bathroom. His ungainly leg-arms slipped, and he knocked over a brass plant stand holding a struggling fern, but two of his new limbs whipped out to catch it before it crashed without him even having to direct them. Aye, an’ if ye weren’t such an oafish git, ye’d never have need to whip around such! Now go and see, go and see!

Apprehensive, he eased open the door and crossed the upper hallway. In the flickering light of a krakenoil lamp mounted high on the wall, his shadow bobbled and glided like a strange craft sailing choppy seas. The runner carpet slowed him a bit, and he considered ripping it from its tacks, then remembered he was a guest. He continued, chafing inwardly when the woven India-wool stuck to the larger suckers on what had been his legs.

From the next room, he heard the dreams of the fire-sorceress. He stopped, though his conscience scolded him for the delay. The lady of the house dreamt of fire, fire chasing over the rocks and trees and fields, a sweeping wave of crimson blazing across the entire continent, leaving charred black earth in its swift wake. Ridley understood she dreamt of herself, but even so, he had to jump out of the way when her thoughts shifted to this house, and for a moment the doorframe seemed to blaze up in a swirl of smoke that turned to maple leaves. Ridley blinked, pulling himself out of her sleeping mind. Dearie had warned him he’d hear all that noise, the constant jabber of human thought. He hadn’t realized he could be sucked into the maelstrom of their dreams.

He heard her moan, and through the crack between door and jamb he saw a flash of raven-wing blackness as she turned in her sleep and her hair flowed from her brow, a river of mourning satin, of oil on the water. Observing the shifting currents of her thoughts with more caution, Ridley saw the curtain of fire slam into a storm of emerald lightning. Rain burst out, the torrents sizzling on the burnt ground. Wind funneled fire and water into a spout of fury. Ridley watched a moment longer, curious, while the crackling aether and searing flames swirled into a dance, a balance, unlikely harmony. The dreamer sighed, and burrowed farther under the heavy quilts.

Turning away, Ridley carefully entered the turret room. Absolute stillness filled the atmosphere here. The Pilot paused, suddenly cast back to days of stifling nothingness pressing upon his ship, out in the Sargasso. Unease washed through him. His limbs squelched on the rug, the boards beneath creaking like an anxious ship becalmed in evil waters. Hunger growled in his empty guts.

She sat motionless, pillows stacked behind her tiny frame, covers drawn up but eyes wide. Ridley found himself holding his breath. The gleam of streetlamps reached faintly around the edges of the shutters, and she watched this shambling collection of far too many serpentine arms totter toward her. She didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. Ridley listened with that inner sense, but he couldn’t hear a single thought from her. Oh lud, is she dead? Is that a bonny corpse lookin’ so strange at me? Heart pounding, he inched closer and closer, hardly daring to look at her. When he finally halted right beside her, and worriedly bent over her to check for the heat of a breath in that tiny, belabored ribcage, the child suddenly turned her head up to stare straight into his night-broadened eyes. He blew out a sigh of relief. Oh thank the deepest lords of the darkest seas! The tiny fingers around his mouth twisted upward in a happy grin. His stomach rumbled again, embarrassing him.

Little Sister looked him slowly up and down. He saw her hands twisted in the sheet, clutching it tightly against herself. A shiver passed through her. The fire had died to glowing coals. Alive, she’s alive, now at last I can worship you right proper, Little Sister! Ridley slithered himself onto the bed; the girl drew her legs up under the covers, away from him. He gently reached a tentacle toward her face, wanting to touch that soft hair, to caress that pale cheek.

She shivered again. “I’m hungry,” she said.

Love expanded his torso, suffused his heart. He withdrew the tentacle, brought it to his lips, and bit off the tip of it. Ichor oozed onto the quilt. He offered the still-squirming bit of flesh to the child. She recoiled, then snapped forward, gulping down the morsel. Ridley chuckled. “Oh now, go easy! Be a bit nasty if you choked, wouldn’t it now?”

She merely stared at him, hunger plain in her eyes. Reverently, Ridley used his sharp beak to tear bits from two of his tentacles, and fed them to his Little Sister piece by piece until she lay back in the bed, sated. Only then did she give him a faint smile. Ridley stroked her hair, wetting it against her head. “You rest now, sisser,” he crooned softly. “We’ll rise soon. We’ll all rise.”

She said nothing, but turned over and snuggled into her pillow. Very soon the gentle movements of the blankets over her told him she slept. Ridley quietly stole from the room, wanting some chow himself. Could eat a bloody whale, I could! Crab broth, crab tidbits, naught but crab for days, ain’t there any proper grub hereabouts? He paid no mind to the smears his bite-shortened appendages left along the baseboards as he put his earhole to the walls, seeking the mind he’d heard earlier this evening. Ah ha. There ya be, fockin’ ugly bastich!

Easing down the staircase proved to be more difficult than he’d anticipated; every step, it seemed, groaned and creaked under his humid weight, though to his mind he was little better than a monster in miniature. Once at the back door, it was a simple matter to unlatch it and creep down the kitchen stoop. A shimmer of coldfire in the air clung to him as he passed through it; he shook himself once thoroughly, and a flash of aetherlight went flying with every miniscule droplet of oily water from his skin. Past the ward, Ridley sought the mind he’d noticed while lazing in his bath. The spy posted by Villard to watch Autumn Hill tonight leaned against a tree in the shadows of a thick copse, inattentive, his pistol sheathed. In the jumble of bored reminiscences through the man’s last trip to the Oro Fino Saloon, and idle comparisons of the painted dancers at that establishment to the less fancy whores aboard the steamboat brothel, Ridley saw repeated references to the Company.

An owl perched in the branches overhead heard the snapping, the gurgling voice failing to form a scream, the muffled, repeated crunching as the Pilot ate a hearty supper. The noise frightened any nearby prey, and in annoyance, the owl beat its silent wings and soared away in search of a more private hunting ground.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

18. I’ve Been Wrong Before

She wouldn’t look while he sliced the aetheric lens from the eyesocket of the corpse. If you hadn’t been in such a rush, Vonken scolded himself, you’d already have done this. Waste of a perfectly good opthalic augment, tossing it down here. He’d considered hacking up the body and burning it in the large krakenoil-fueled furnace when he’d dragged Blinky down here, but the telltale black smoke might have been noticed puffing from the chimney. Fortunately, the house had an old coal scuttle; he’d hoped the dusty pile of unused lumps would help the smell a bit. By the time he reburied the body in the scuttle, lens bloody on a worktable, he was covered in coal dust and assorted cadaver effluvia. “Tsk,” he murmured, gathered his energy and focused it on his gloves first. There wasn’t much he could do about the soot-stains, but the other material crackled as it froze. He flexed his fingers and shook his hands rapidly, and icy bits of unpleasantness hit the earthen cellar floor like sleet.

He looked up to find disgust contorting her face. Vonken burst into a chortle. “Well? You don’t expect me to perform delicate Dustcrafting in a contaminated state, do you?”

Holly swallowed, and her voice sounded thick. “You buried him in the coal-scuttle?”

Vonken shrugged, and began sweeping slow arcs of coldfire down the front of his surgeon’s tunic, allowing the smears of blood and putridity to freeze and crumble from him. “The ground’s nearly rock in Hillside. It was either that or cremation.”

“Deep Ones and all destruction take it...” Holly turned away, one hand blocking her nostrils. She’d made the mistake of removing the plague-mask to sip some tea on their way through the kitchen.

“If you have any lavender-water, soak a kerchief and tie it over your nose and mouth.”

She shook her head. “That would only be worse. I’d never be able to stand the flower again.”

Vonken grinned. “As you like. Bring another lamp over.” He came to the worktable, picked up the lens with its dangling wires and tiny Dust-powered gear-adjustors, and turned it in both hands. “Hm. This looks like Trevier’s work.” He set about cleaning it with gentle brushes of his fingertips, his energy crackling over the shiny brass.

Holly joined him, unhappily. She checked the bowl of the lamp, adjusted the wick and produced a tin of matches from a skirt pocket. Vonken flinched at the flare, looking away and blinking rapidly until he could bear the increased light. “Now, let’s see...miniature Teslaic coil, wire? Very swell. Villard must have paid for this lovely little gadget.”

“What happened to your eyes?” Holly asked. Her gaze was fixed on his face, ignoring his tinkering. He found it difficult to look at her.


“They don’t appear damaged.”

Vonken snorted softly. “Luckily, they were still usable, else I’d have lenses like this instead, and not by choice.” He leaned over the table, peering closely at the edges of the lens case. “Variable-focal point. Very nice. Almost like a natural eye.”

“I like yours better,” Holly murmured. Vonken blinked up at her, surprised at the contemplative expression she wore. Immediately she recovered herself, her tone reverting to a practical one. “You’re saying this man wasn’t wearing this...this Dust-powered monocle because he’d lost an eye? That this alteration was deliberate?”

“I’m not an optical specialist, but I saw nothing wrong with the socket. No scarring that would indicate a war wound. I’d be willing to wager my best work that Villard brought Dr Trevier down from Vancouver for this.” He glanced up from the aetheric engine mount to see her frown. “Our illustrious Founder once asked me to build new legs for someone. Offered me a small fortune if I could clothe tireless metal rods and springs in flesh, so that the prosthesis wouldn’t be apparent. It sounded like an interesting challenge. I was ready to agree until I saw the patient.” He returned to gently easing the engine mount out of the coil of wiring connecting it to the lens body. “There was nothing wrong with him. Villard wanted me to butcher and augment him, for some reason known only to himself.”

“But this Dr Trevier...”

“I stayed with Trevier once, three years ago, at a conference of the Order of Krampf.” Vonken grimaced, exerting the tiniest spark of greenfire to persuade the solder closing the back of the engine mount to melt and open itself. “He has quite a nice cottage. Only thirty rooms or so.”


She watched him in silence. Vonken removed the panel he’d been working on, and held the matchbox-sized Dust-engine close to his face to see inside the gearworks. Hmm. As I thought: designed to be waterproof, airproof. That might work. If I reconnect the wires to itself, to create a Faraday cage of the casing...


Mildly startled, he looked over at her. Holly’s downcast eyes seemed focused upon the optic cylinder, still upon the table. “Yes?”

“What does that cord connect to?”

The heartlink. Blast, does this woman ever let go of a problem once she’s sunk her teeth into it? He hesitated. She didn’t look at him, standing motionless, the element still in her grasp although she rested the back of her hand upon the dirty table. A smudge of coal showed on the tip of her upturned nose, where she’d tried to rub an itch. Her hair lay loose and dark over her shoulders, gleaming against the dull black linen of the mourning dress in the lamplight. She seemed tired; she wasn’t even trying to maintain that stiff posture he’d become used to seeing.

“It keeps me tethered to my body. My...original body.”

She considered this. He realized his shoulders were tensed, and consciously eased the muscles. “Flesh of your flesh,” she murmured.


Holly raised her eyes to his, searching his face. He wasn’t sure what to project to her: indifference? arrogance?


“You...built yourself a new body...out of your original one,” she said, thinking it through. He gave her a nod. “Metal bones. A heart that beats with Dust-energy.” He nodded again; she frowned. “Why? I presume your body was failing...dying?...but if you could grow new flesh as one might a...a colony of mushrooms...why a false heart?”

“Mushrooms!” He snorted, the spell of uncertain trust broken. “I much prefer the analogy of a new tree grown from a cutting.”

“But how? Why? Why not make a construct to hold your soul, if such a thing is even possible – or make a duplicate of yourself, identical in every measure?”

He sighed. This is not a conversation I ever want to have, my dear. “Because no one has fathomed how to separate the soul from the body and yet keep its physical connections intact, and I haven’t been able to work out how to get the organs right! I was damned lucky to have made Ratchet as dexterous as I did well before I realized I was going to have to rely on her to transplant my brain and eyes!” Holly stared at him, shocked. Vonken returned his attention to the Dust-engine box, fighting back the shame and anger blooming in his thoughts. Stop that. Focus. Emotion distracts. Calm down and focus; this is far more important than how much of an abomination she finds you. He took a deep breath, released it slowly, and studied the space inside the box. Too small. But what if I rearranged the gears, reattached it to the optic cylinder, removed that middle lens, welded over the front and—

“What happens when your heart stops?” Holly asked softly. “Your old heart, I mean.”

Vonken held himself still. He felt nervous sparks of aether traveling down his arm, and forced it to subside. He said nothing. The hesitation hung over their heads a long while. Prodding himself into motion again, Vonken worked up a sparking needle formed of Dust-energy from the tip of his index finger. “I will have to draw upon you now, my dear. If you could remain as still as possible, and allow me access, this should flow very smoothly, all right?” Holly nodded, drawing her shoulders up. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt the urge to flash a smile at her; he hoped it appeared confident. Letting his eyes unfocus, he reached out in his thoughts, sensing the deep well of power within her. He touched it, felt the ripples course through the room.

Dear God, but she’s a bonfire. Must be careful. Her own natural energy was vastly overwhelmed by the element’s pulsing heart; the two sources merged while she held the crystal in her soft, sturdy palm, and he dipped into that well cautiously, afraid of being sucked in and drowned. Slowly, he siphoned from her, felt his heart stutter a moment as power slipped swiftly through him, and directed it up his arm, hand, finger, ‘til the needle of energy was too bright for him to regard. Taking shallow breaths, maintaining his thread with her, he inserted the needle into the gearbox and began rearranging its components, careful not to damage the tiny wires. One by one, he cleared the gold threads from the bundle of false nerves which fed into the aetheric optical generator, snaking them around the edges so that each one would form a contact point between the element and the inner wall of the box. He hollowed out the lens cylinder’s gears, melting them into a shutter, and wired that to the switch on the outside which had controlled the focal point for the inner lens. Holly watched him silently, intently. What if she could be taught to manipulate her power? Imagine what a skilled Dustcrafter she might be then! Normally he didn’t like to be observed while crafting anything; he suspected he looked silly. He had to consciously retract the tip of his tongue when he realized it was sticking out of one corner of his mouth. When he was satisfied with the lens mount, he used a little more of that filtered elemental energy to weld the lens cylinder back to the gearbox. He took a deep breath.

“All comes the hard part.” He drew in his coldfire, and gestured at her hand. “We need to put that vicious little rock into this cage, and seal it shut.”

Holly frowned. “And that’s difficult? You seem adept at making the metal flow however you wish it.” Her eyes widened in comprehension. “But I’ll have to let go of the rock...”

“And I’ll be knocked a nasty loop again,” Vonken finished. “So. I’m hoping the case itself will begin to function as I’ve designed the moment the element touches the inside of it...but I’ll need to be able to aim at the edges in order to weld the backpiece in place, and contain it fully. I think if I –“

“I have it,” Holly said, advancing around the worktable. She took his right hand in hers, and poised the crystal to drop into the hole. It looked as though it would barely fit; she might have to shove it. “Here, be ready to slap on the panel.”

“What are you...”

“I’ve been watching,” she said firmly. “I understand. Ready? On three. One...two...”



She slapped the element into the box. Vonken felt agony shooting through him the instant it left contact with her flesh, and staggered, but Holly smacked the panel piece over the hole and touched his finger to the seam. “Now! Now, Darius!”

He groaned, his body spasming as he felt her energy wash through him, lava sweeping his own colder power out through his pores. She held his hand in place with surprisingly strong, lithe fingers, and he struggled to do what was needed. His heart jittered. Suddenly her hand was upon it, squeezing it gently, keeping it pumping, keeping him conscious. He sucked in a frightened breath, aimed at the seam, and traced it around the back of the cobbled-together cage. Entwined crimson and emerald sparks sizzled, and the metal fused. He tried to halt the flow of energy, but Holly was still caught up in it, her brow furrowed, holding him in place. “Holly!” he grunted, but wasn’t sure she could even hear him. A high whine built in the cellar. Her glow enveloped him, making him gasp; she still had his heart in her hand, once again reaching through his body as though he were a pool in a creek and the pumping engine a stone in its bed. “Stop!” he cried, his nerves searing, muscles contracting and making his whole frame buck and twitch. She couldn’t hear him. The noise of their strange coupling drowned everything out, the sound of a steam boiler on the verge of explosion.

Vonken wrenched her hand out of his chest, yanked her close and pressed his lips to hers, desperately forcing his greenfire from his mouth to hers to create a feedback loop and short her out. Holly grabbed his arms, shocked, her hips slamming against him as the power wracked her a moment. With a pop that made their ears ring, heartfire and coldfire smacked into each other at the point of their kiss, and abruptly sparked. Holly squealed, flailing backwards; Vonken grabbed her by the waist as he also fell, and she ended up sprawled atop him, both of them breathless on the floor.

She blinked rapidly at him, her chest heaving. He felt barely able to think. They panted, inches apart, stunned. Vonken forced a hoarse croak from his mouth. “’re ever do that again, my dear...I shall have to!”

Holly stared at him. He managed a weak grin, feeling absolutely stomped flat. Good lord...are you really becoming aware of the position of her thighs upon you? Blast it, man, a little dignity here! Unfortunately, Holly also suddenly felt what he did, and scrambled up, hauling herself to unsteady feet by grabbing the worktable’s edge. When he was able to do the same, he noticed a definite reddish hue remained on her cheeks...and down her neck...and into the décolletage which had become a bit more exposed in their tumble... He averted his gaze, and realized he didn’t feel stabbing pain in his skull anymore. “Oh, thank every negligent angel, this may have worked!”

Holly looked from him to the table, and flushed pink again. “Oh – the container! Really? don’t feel ill?”

Vonken shook his head, straightening his tunic, attempting to regain some composure and to chill certain parts of his anatomy. Holly also adjusted her clothing, her fingers quick and precise, and immediately turned all her attention to their craftwork. “The element is safely contained, then? Will that hold it indefinitely?”

“It ought to,” Vonken said, tentatively touching a finger to the metal. He could feel the thrumming of the cage, the power of the crystal channeled into keeping its own prison of aetheric energy coursing through the metal of the fused gearbox and cylinder. “And when I’ve devised some manner of testing it, all I need do is unlock this switch...” He indicated the tiny button on the side of the optic case. “In theory, that will release a focused beam of its power.”

“In theory,” Holly repeated, giving him a doubting look.

Vonken shrugged, still short of breath. “Well, nothing’s certain but death and Dust.”

“Hmf.” They both stared at the little instrument which now held the most destructive thing known to man. The silence in the cellar after the painful whine of resonant power felt like cool rain to his spirit. “Well...good. Now what?” she asked.

Vonken sighed. “Well, now, with your permission, Miss Autumnson, I will take my leave, and take this little box of death with me.”

“Hell yes, get it out of my house!” Holly visibly relaxed, relief settling over her. “I heartily wish you’d take that as well.” She tossed her head at the coal scuttle. One pale hand stuck up from the black briquettes.

Her hair, mussed around her temples, caught a ray of lamplight, and Vonken was entranced by its shifting hues of ebony. Shaking himself out of the odd reverie, he chuckled. “As do I. I hate wasting anything. I’m sure there are some hungry salmon in the river who’d appreciate him.”

Holly scrunched up her nose. “I find your sense of humor inappropriate, Dr Vonken.”

It felt somehow disappointing to him that she’d reverted to using his title, but then again, perhaps resuming some measure of formality after they’d just...ended up in a far too compromising position for a young woman of her standing...was for the best. Vonken gave a light shrug, his nerves calming. “Take it as you will. And now I’ll take this evil from your doorstep, my dear.” He gingerly picked up the container; it felt solid enough. In truth, the shock of power which had melted the metal seemed to have done so thorough a job it was unlikely the apparatus could be cut open easily again. That’s probably not a bad thing. He tucked it into a pocket of his tunic. “Well. Miss Autumnson. Always lovely to stop by.” He gave her a mock half-bow.

She snorted, brushing coal dust from her hands ineffectually. “You’ll be back tomorrow?”

“Of course...though I may be some time. I’ll send a construct over in the morning to assist you in any errands you may need; I noticed your pantry was a bit thinly stocked.”

“Oh...thank you. But will come back?”

“I will.” They ascended the cellar stairs. Holly bolted the door behind them when they emerged in the darkened kitchen. “Our friend upstairs will need to be dealt with somehow. I hope, now that he’s not carrying this thing inside himself, he might calm down further and be able to tell us more about the expedition. Any detail he recalls might be useful to us.” She didn’t seem pleased, but she gave him a nod. For now, the Pilot would have to stay.

Holly walked with him to the front hall. “What are we going to do about Villard? Can...can Mikael be avenged?”

Vonken considered his reply carefully. “I would very much like to see his entire empire fall, although I wonder what might rise in its place. However, I take not a little smug comfort in knowing his desire to possess the element has been thwarted. I’ve seen the factories in the north assembling what looked very like a battalion of cannon. Dust-cannon. If he was able to power them with this stuff somehow...”

Holly laughed hollowly. “You speak as if there’s anything left for him to conquer.”

Vonken shook his head. “We can’t be the only region to have recovered. The Cataclysm was irregular, sporadic, and indifferent; there may very well be other aggregates of humanity left in other parts of the country – the world, for that matter, besides Columbia Pacifica. I believe Villard believes there are, and he’d very much like to rule them as well. The man’s hunger is Napoleonic.”

Her lips set in a grim line. “Then it’s your job to determine how to use this thing against him.”

Vonken wasn’t sure about that. “Perhaps. At the very least, I intend to keep it out of his hands, and try to find the best way to use it.” He gazed at her straight, austere shoulders, such a contrast to her delicate features. And that tiny body can channel such power...power enough to stop a charging kraken, if only she knew how to employ it. “Perhaps...we already know a way,” he murmured.

She stared at him a second, then blushed. “Be careful.”

“I will. You as well. Keep that plague-mask on, just in case, and lock your doors. I don’t think the Pilot is any danger now, but...” He didn’t want to frighten her, merely caution her, so he let the thought trail off. “Well. Thank you for an exceptionally interesting visit, my dear. Please make sure you eat, and rest enough. Dustcrafting can be draining.” Yet this time, he felt quite the opposite of drained. He paused, remembering his medical kit still upstairs. “May as well leave my bag here; I have another at the clinic. I’ll –“

Suddenly she was on tiptoe, her hands on his shoulders, her lips brushing his moustache. Surprised, Vonken allowed the kiss, not daring to fully return it. She dropped her heels, her dark eyes locked on his. He had no idea what to say, how to feel, though warmth rushed through his chest. She took a step back. “I’m sorry about...about grabbing your heart,” she said. “I thought if I could hold your steady, maybe I could help you direct the light at the instrument.”

The light? She sees it as light? That fantastical melding of two energies, that collision of Dustpowers, was just a beam from a lantern to her? He stared at her. She flushed, continuing: “That is...I knew I couldn’t make the aether work the way I wanted, but perhaps together we...”

Vonken gently pulled her close again, and bent his head for a very soft kiss. “Oh,” Holly mumbled, then allowed his tongue past her lips. She tasted of cinnamon and aether, fire and something else. Something he hadn’t sampled in a long time. He savored her, tasting, his hands slipping along her arms, down her sides, ‘til he held her by the waist, lightly. Her breath tickled his moustache. Then she pulled away, though slowly. What was that like, for her, that astounding coupling of energy? Did her heart slam through her ribs? Did she feel the coolness of my power washing her like a spring rain, as her own sent winter bonfires through my limbs? Was she also...also aroused?

He didn’t quite dare ask her.

He stepped back, and they released each other. Awkwardly, Vonken touched his fingers to his brow in a salute. “Until tomorrow, Miss Autumnson.”

She actually curtsied at him. “Doctor.” She opened the front door, holding it for him to walk through. He nearly forgot to mumble the password for the ward. He heard the tumblers click into place as he stepped down to the drive, and looked back. Her distorted shadow played on the cloister window beside the door a moment, then vanished further inside. She’ll be safe now. He walked down the driveway in a fog, unable to clear his thoughts enough to plan a sound strategy for beginning experiments upon the element, and was some yards along the street before he realized he’d left his velocipede behind. He hesitated, then decided he felt more than vigorous enough to walk home. Besides, the evening chill rising from the rivers served to dampen the fire smouldering in his body...

He was crossing into midtown when he heard the clanking sound of a patrol. Irritated, he slipped into a side street, waiting for the metal chicken, as the street children jeeringly called it, to pass by. It didn’t. It halted opposite him, blowing a gust of black smoke. Did they spot me? Blast and damn. He regularly broke the curfew, but tonight of all nights he didn’t feel confident about a confrontation. He turned to cut through the side street, but hadn’t even gone three steps when one of the City Watch stepped from the shadow of a tavern, blocking his path. A twinge shot up his spine. Killing Hammer had been unpleasant but necessary; tangling murderously with the Watch might have worse consequences, especially if anyone witnessed it. Vonken backtracked, picking up his pace, hearing the boots of the Watchman ringing out on the cobbles.

He darted into the main road, recalling the top speed of the patrol constructs was not typically matched by much maneuverability; if he zigzagged, and took the next narrow alley, he could –

A thick, tall figure stepped in his way, and an arm like steel slammed into Vonken’s chest. “Whooof!” he gasped, knocked off balance. The man lunged at him, grabbing his left arm and twisting it behind his back; he summoned a burst of coldfire, but another Watchman appeared suddenly on his right and clapped a tapered, fingerless gauntlet over one of his hands, then the other, so swiftly Vonken could barely twist aside. His energy crackled harmlessly inside the aetheric dampers. Furious, Vonken struggled; a billyclub thwacked the back of his knees. It would have downed a normal man. It hurt, but Vonken kept his feet. Another Watchman dropped from the belly-hatch of the patrol construct, running over to help restrain him, and the tall man let go. He reached into an inner pocket, brought out a cigar, and lit it with an elegant flint-strike. “Down him,” the man drawled.

“Sons of bitches, unhand me! This is assault!” Vonken snarled, trying to throw the men away from his shoulders, his hands linked behind his back. Power swelled within his chest, and he braced himself to unleash it as a crude blast, meaning to knock them aside and run for it. Get to the workshop – the ‘cog can bite through – A cannonball of power hit him squarely in the chest. His heart stuttered. He tumbled, ending up on his back, arms pinned beneath him, gasping, pain singing in every bone. Letriver emerged from the shadows, his face a mask of smugness.

“Well, hell, Letriver, that the best you can do? I was wanting him out for awhile,” the burly man said. His voice was deep, authoritative, and unconcerned. Through his pain, Vonken recognized him.

“ know goddamned well...this is illegal!” Vonken wheezed. The former sheriff and current head of security for the Northern Pacific Company regarded him mildly, puffing on his cigar. The smoke blended unhealthily with the vapor rising off the river.

“Bring him.” Lappeus turned, grabbed a handhold on the construct, and swung himself up to the back platform. He hooked one arm securely around the banner-pole there, and watched his men in the street as the patrol clanker rose and lumbered off. Vonken coughed, trying to judge whether he had enough residual energy to blast these jackasses across the damned river when they tried to touch him again. Letriver approached, hands raised, aetheric orange sparks at the ready.

“You fucking bastard,” Vonken spat.

Letriver smiled. “Pretty words, from a Pre-churched blasphemer.”

“Release me at once or you’ll see some fucking blasphe—“

He never completed the curse; Letriver hurled a ball of energy right at his head. Pain seared through his eyesockets into his skull, and then fire sucked him down with a roar.