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. “No...you 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’s...no, 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.