“Truly? Two ambushes?” Art demanded of the universe at large. “It defies reason!”
“To speak nothing of probability,” Nelline sounded as though she might swoon.
Heavy, clanking footsteps scraped across the stone floor toward them.
“Magae Comelissa will be returning with me to Mekeigos, there to answer to Annemnos Aesymnetes for her crimes. You will turn over to me the formulae, and then you and Trank will likely remain undiscovered until Master Namboro has occasion to check this warehouse for rats.” The clanking stopped just in front of Art, and the lights in front of them died, revealing a magichanical suit of armor more sophisticated than the Victus they’d left behind.
A suit with the face of a man.
A face time had not loved. Art knew the man to be a handful of years his junior, but a lifetime of harsh work and bitterness showed in the lines carved deep into his skin, in the taut stretch of skin over bone, and in the fanatic’s eyes blazing out of his skull.
His suit was an odd creation fashioned to imitate a cuirassier’s steel coat of centuries previous. If, perhaps, such a warrior were nearly seven feet tall with clawed hands and feet.
The metaphor needed work, perhaps.
Interestingly, the suit looked incomplete: Art could see his boots and the cuffs of his trousers through the shining rods and linkages. In the same way, his shirtsleeved arms thrust into a bizarre marriage of blacksmith gloves and the contents of a mechanist’s toolbox. Art was nearly certain he could see a drill bit in the mess. Vapor puffed quietly from a small, hooded tube jutting from the massive assembly on the man’s back.
At a word from the suited man, two more similarly attired men dropped from the shadows to land behind them. These two had more the look of thugs than zealots, and their suits weren’t nearly as sophisticated as the first man’s.
“Well-a-day,” Art said, keeping the fury and, yes, fear he felt, out of his voice. “Mallar, see you: it’s our old friend, Markos Antarkos, here to greet us. Unfortunate in that whole rhyming name thing, old boy,” Art slowed his usual speaking tone to a low drawl and was rewarded when his adversary ground his teeth. He sensed Mallar tightening in preparation for action. “By the by, Markos, what formulae? The lovely Nelline mentioned something of the sort earlier, but for the life of me I don’t have the first clue what you’re mouthing about.”
Tool ends folded back, leaving a bare – if armored – glove, as Markos took another hissing, heavy step forward. The glove shot out, and Art braced himself for the blow. Instead of impacting on his chest, the thing closed over the front of his coat and jerked him into the air.
“You stole revolutionary magical formulae from the office of Dottore Atrianni, unbeliever,” Markos grated out. Even at arm-length, Art could smell the remnants of the Mekeigan’s lunch, which had been heavy on garlic. “You then slunk away and stole Don Marrenti’s favorite-”
“He’s got others, he shouldn’t miss one.”
The over-powered agent shook Art, rattling his teeth.
“-favorite auto-carriage, created great mayhem in the Doge’s city, and finally conspired with an Enemy of Mekeigos-”
“I am not!” Indignation flared in Nelline’s voice.
“You are now, Serra!” Markos glared at her past Art’s shoulder.
“It’s not what it looks like?” Insouciance dripped from Art’s words, and he was gratified at the fury burning in the Mekeigan’s dark eyes. “Besides, dear fellow, you still haven’t told me what I’m supposed to have stolen. Mallar and I simply had a bit of a chat with the Dottore – old friends: you know how it is – and then departed. The only thing taken, the tea in our bellies.”
“I took a pastry for later,” Mallar confessed.
“And you will be beaten for it, foul villein, within an inch of your life,” Art retorted, “but later, as these fine gentlemen are of delicate constitution, and the blood might well send them earth-ward in a faint.”
“Blood!” Nelline’s blurted word drew all eyes.
“That’s hardly the sort of language a lady should be using, don’t you think?” Art quipped. “Despite our rather desperate straits.”
Ignoring him, she pointed at a device on Markos’ left gauntlet. An inward curving blade rode alongside the Mekeigan’s forearm, mounted to his suit by a set of curving rails and shining rods. It reminded Art of nothing so much as a claw from some monstrous, steel cat. It was also smeared with dried blood. Markos’ eyes flicked a glance at the cruelly sharp weapon.
“The Dottore had to be persuaded to recant his lies that he’d freely given this filthy-”
“I bathe,” Art protested, and was shaken for his pains.
“-thief a lockbox containing the formulae. This filth-”
“You’re repeating yourself,” Art interjected. Mallar grunted a laugh, and Art was shaken. Again.
“-does murder and worse and thinks he can get away with it because he’s clever. I will not have it!”
At such a close vantage, Art saw the veins pounding in Markos’ temples. Flecks of foam dotted his fury-reddened face around his generous lips, and Art smiled inwardly.
“Not just because I’m clever, old man,” he said in his most urbane tone, relishing the moment. “I’m also quite charming, you know.”
For an instant, he though he’d gone too far. Markos’ left eye twitched in a manner most disturbing, and the wicked claw on his free hand slid in and out of its cage seemingly independent of conscious control. Art wondered distantly if his blood was to shortly join the Dottore’s.
“But- but you couldn’t have been there! I watched them leave the Dottore’s apartments, and nobody went in until I did.”
At Nelline’s confused interjection the berserker madness faded from Markos’ eyes. Art thanked the gods as a few of the knots in his gut untied themselves.
“Magae,” scorn weighted Markos’ rough voice, “you of all people should know of what magichanica is capable. Ascending the wall to Atrianni’s window is simple when you rely not upon your own strength, but upon that of forged steel and magical formulae.” He drove his free hand into the side of the crate next to him with the sound of rending wood and a shower of splinters. He withdrew it with another crack and held it up before him. Slivers clung to the congealing blood along the claw and caught the light.
“You, you killed the Dottore? Because he gave formulae to Captain Caelish?”
A note in Nelline’s voice set alarm bells ringing in Art’s mind. Whomever the good Dottore had been to Markos, he’d obviously been someone else entirely to Nelline Comelissa, Magae of Mekeigos. The skin between Art’s shoulder-blades crawled, and he wished he could see the petite woman’s face. Unfortunately, the grip Markos maintained on his coat prevented him from turning his head that far.
Markos turned a surprised expression on Nelline.
“Why, no, Magae. The Dottore killed himself. When he chose to betray the will of Annemnos Aesymnetes, Atrianni proclaimed the necessity of his death to the universe.” The Mekeigan agent sounded genuinely perplexed by Nelline’s surprise. “That I was chosen to be the instrument of that will is an accident of circumstances, though I’d never shirk my duty.” He glared at Art, who assayed an insolent shrug.
Inwardly, Art was stunned. When they’d left Atrianni, the man had been calm, even relaxed. When Nelline informed them of his death, he’d been shocked. When Markos had admitted to wielding the knife, and then in the same breath absolved himself of any culpability in the gruesome death of a man not even a citizen of his own city, Art’s slow temper had started to burn. Even now he found himself looking over his enemy for a weakness to exploit.
It was truly a pity the magichanical suit came with a steel codpiece.
“You killed Dottore Atrianni because he sold formulae to the Republic.” Nelline’s calm – almost serene – tone set Art’s guts to knotting in a way Markos’ threats never could. A soft scuff of a shoe told him Mallar was trying to put as much distance between himself and the rest of them as he could.
“Magae,” he explained slowly, as though to a child, “the man killed himself when he chose against Mekeigos. Much like this fool. That it is my duty to be the tool in both their deaths is not my doing, but neither will I go against the requirements laid upon me. In the same way, you will return to face the punishment for your crimes.”
“Menigarius was still a young man,” Nelline’s voice sank nearly to a whisper, and every instinct honed over years of reading marks told Art he needed to be far away. “There was every reason to expect great advances from him for years to come. There were even noises he’d been invited to study at Kortas Ruhk.”
“Serra,” Impatience rippled through Markos’ tone. “When an individual acts against the demands of Mekeigos as the epitome of true governance, that individual must be held up as an example. We do not belong to ourselves, but exist for the furtherance of all. You don’t seem to understand-”
“No! You don’t understand!”
The actinic flash gave Markos no time to prepare; Nelline’s Power cracked, sending the Mekeigan fanatic flying backward to crash into and through one of the pillars holding up the ceiling, despite his massive suit. Fortunately for Art, the magae’s tame lightning jolted Markos hands open, dropping the Welfraian to the floor with no more injury than some distressing tears in his favorite coat.
Art blinked to focus his much-abused eyes and snaked his hand inside his coat for his repeater. As he spun, he heard a grunt from Mallar, and a more muted crack of Power from Nelline, accompanied by a slightly less-blinding flash of light.
As his vision cleared, Art took in the chaos before him. One suited thug lay crumpled in the shattered wreckage of yet another crate. The foot-long splinter standing out of one eye suggested he wasn’t likely to be interfering further. Nelline stared at him in horror, oblivious to the rest of the world.
Mallar knelt on hands and knees, blood dripping from his face matching that on the gauntlet of the remaining henchman. The henchman, face a mask of battle-rage and fear, swung one claw-suited foot back and aimed a kick at the kneeling man’s head.
Art’s arm swung up without conscious volition, and his repeater bucked in his grip without him registering the bark as it fired. Sparks flew as his bullet spanged off the thug’s steel hat, snapping his head to one side and replacing his furious expression with one of shock. The inches-long claws on his suited foot whistled as they whipped just past Mallar’s groggy face.
“Hah,” Art crowed.
The suited thug crouched and extended one arm in front of him. Steam hissed, gears whined and metal slats fanned out to snap into a circular shield of overlapping blades, which he held in front of his head. Art snapped off another pair of shots, and his heart sank as the heavy slugs ricocheted off the barrier.
The thug, emboldened by Art’s impotence, rose to his feet and extended a blade from his other arm nearly identical to the one Markos had used on Atrianni. He advanced again on Mallar, blade cocked back to strike, shield interposed between himself and Art.
A vision of the immediate future flashed in front of Art’s eyes. With Trank dead and unable to provide timely antidote, the quiet poison flowing through Art’s veins would awaken, and life would become truly hellish. He had no desire to experience that again.
Art cursed and dropped his trusty pistol. A quick stride and a lunge sent him careening into Trank. He wrapped his arms around his still-dazed partner and rolled, pulling the two of them out of range of the cruel blade, albeit momentarily.
An inconveniently placed crate met Art’s skull with a sound impressively like a leather-wrapped stone hitting a hollow log. The sound carried on for a goodly while somewhere between Art’s ears as he disinterestedly watched Markos’ remaining associate move toward them.
The man’s clanking steps echoed mutedly somewhere in the distance as Art tried with detached desperation to flog his thoughts into a semblance of coherence. The Mekeigan agent’s eyes assumed a killer’s disinterest as he raised his bladed gauntlet and inspected the single claw.
Art’s stunned mind watched with absent horror as a fiery gleam limned the suited agent with an orange glow. The low hum of his suit’s compact boiler rose into a demon’s hellish shriek, and the calm detachment in the agent’s face turned to horror as he began to claw at his back.
A split-second later, the agent’s scream joined that of his suit in hideous dissonance. The suit’s howl rose until it was a barely audible whine that set Art’s teeth buzzing in his skull. The stink of hot metal mixed with burning wool and pork assaulted his nostrils, and Art had just enough presence of mind to turn his head away. A thunderous roar deafened him and he felt a hand of force push him against the floor.
When Art returned to himself, he looked up to see what was assuredly a portion of the Mekeigan thug’s suited foot embedded by the claws in the crate near his head. Impressed by the violence, and a little nauseated, he rolled over to see a scorched spot on the stone floor and no sign of Nelline.
Art rolled to hands and knees and heaved himself to his feet. After hauling Mallar up to join him, he looked around for the missing magae and his dropped pistol. The latter he discovered a few steps away. He sighed as he examined it; the fall had bent the front sight out of alignment. He growled in irritation, even as his hands went through the automatic routine of reloading and holstering the weapon.
A sharp oath and the smell of wood smoke jerked Art’s head up. Fragments of exploded magichanica sent flames licking over seasoned wood crates throughout the expansive warehouse. Art’s pulse pounded in time to the thudding pain in his head.
“Cap’n, we’ve got no more’n a few ticks before this whole place is a giant bonfire.”
“Inferno, Mallar,” Art corrected. “Or conflagration. But giant bonfire? What shall I do with you?”
“Survive more fights, I expect, sir.” No sign of the pain he must be feeling showed on Trank’s face. Art shrugged, unwilling to concede the point, despite the obvious truth of it.
“Where’s the magae,” he asked instead.
“Here,” came the thready reply from behind him.
Nelline tottered out from behind a large crate. Exhaustion etched deep lines in her too-pale face, adding years to her appearance. The fracas had completely disheveled her dark hair, and her hands shook as she approached them on unsteady feet.
“Serra Comelissa,” Mallar said, bowing deeply. When she looked at him in stunned surprise, he explained. “You saved all our lives with your Power.”
“Oh.” Surprise, horror and pride mingled in her countenance. “Thank you?”
“No, Nelline,” Art said. “Thank you. I doubt we could have overcome the Mekeigan agents on our own. Truly, we’re more simple messengers than stalwart warriors. Without your astonishing abilities, we’d undoubtedly have died here today.”
“Which we still might,” Mallar muttered.
“Oh,” Nelline repeated, responding to Art. “I, I suppose I’ve killed three men today. The hardest part was adapting the formulae to avoid scorching the flesh from my hands. I can see how there may be some changes in applied magichanical metallurgy in the days to come. I’m not certain whether I’m horrified by my actions, or by the thought that I’m glad such horrible people are dead.”
She patted her sides, as though looking for something. Her bright tone and absent expression concerned Art. “I really do need to write these changes down before I forget them.”
At the last word, Nelline’s green eyes rolled up in her head and she pitched forward in a faint. Art lunged forward to catch her before she could fall to the hard stone floor, and swept her small form up into his arms.
“Thought she’d never shut up,” Mallar’s concerned tone belied his harsh words. He looked about at the no-longer-minor flames chewing through the well-seasoned wood. “Time to go, Cap’n?”
“Time and long since, rapscallion.”
The two men headed back the way they’d entered, and arrived at the parked Victus in short order. Art nodded, and Mallar leaned in to hit the starter button on the magnificent contraption. The low hum of the boiler rose in a howl unpleasantly similar to the exploded suit’s, and the two Andrine agents jerked back in alarm. A muffled cough sounded under the Victus’ engine hood, and dark smoke rose from the vents.
“On foot, then, it seems,” Art wasn’t as nonplussed as he sounded. He admitted to himself he was having enormous fun.
The third of the doors leading from the room opened onto a lobby and then to the street. A few seconds with his set of tools, and Mallar had the door open. Art charged into the street, delighted to see a pair of the Doge’s guards walking along the other side of the road.
“Fire!” Art’s shout had the desired effect of drawing all eyes to himself. “Fire in the warehouse! Namboro and Sons promises a month’s wage to all who extinguish it!”
The lie, couched in fear with a touch of desperation and projected in an upper-class Altierestan accent, spread through the crowd much like the fire in the building behind them. Soon, a special chaos ruled the street, and Art was pleased to see the Doge’s men scamper off in search of reinforcements.
“And now, my dearly detested comrade,” he told Mallar, “we simply walk away.”
The two agents strolled down a convenient alley.
“What about the magae, Cap’n?” Mallar indicated the unconscious woman in Art’s arms. His tone left no doubt that he was concerned about Nelline’s fate. “Don’t seem right to leave her in the street.”
“And no more shall we. The safe-house should have an easily alterable cover identity for her. I imagine a Mekeigan magae deemed an Enemy of the State could find employment nearly anywhere else. We can make the offer when she wakes up. Until then, we go to the safe-house. We’ll pick up our new covers, a change of clothes, and airship tickets home. When we reach the aerodrome, we can purchase one for her, if she’s amenable.”
“And if she’s not?”
“Burn that bridge when we come to it, I expect.”
Mallar looked over his shoulder at the rising pall of smoke from the warehouse.
“Bit unfortunate turn of phrase, there, Cap’n. Namboro may not want to help us in the future.”
Art looked over his shoulder as a squad the Doge’s guards thundered past. He shrugged.
“Who knows? Perhaps they’ll manage to put out the fire.”
*I know I’m supposed to put links up. I don’t have time this morning, as Saturday mornings are actually pretty busy around the Dave household.*