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Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 06:13 PM
Jonathon Worthington, Strangelight Investigator
Case #17: The Mystery of the Giggling Gobber



Chapter 1



**********************************************
To: My esteemed colleagues of the Strangelight Workshop

I sincerely regret that once more I must refuse your request for a face to face meeting. While I remain deeply dedicated to the organization and wish to allay your fears at the earliest opportunity, an unexpected emergency demands my immediate attention. Please accept my humble apologies over this matter, but I simply cannot spare the time required to travel back to Ceryl at this juncture.

Yours in earnest inquiry,
Lord Jonathon Worthington, Associate Investigator
**********************************************

I glanced over my handiwork and grunted in tired satisfaction. This was the fourth draft of the letter, and the writing was finally legible. In the other three cases a sudden spasm had caused me to slash the pen across the cheap parchment like a hullgrinder through a skiff, and I was sweating with the effort to keep my hand steady this time.

“Finished, sir?” Orsch asked, allowing a note of impatience to creep into his placid deep voice.

“Yes, I believe I am. The sickness may have robbed my body of its strength, but for the moment my mind remains clear. Are you certain that this is the correct course of action?”

Orsch declined to answer as he reached over, his massive fingers gently dusting the document with sand to speed the ink’s drying. He deftly rolled the letter up and slid it into a sturdy leather carrying case before reaching out the open window of our rented hovel and depositing it in the waiting courier’s hands along with several crowns. The boy, not more than fifteen years old, looked on in awe for a moment before a warning rumble from my companion sped him on his way to the train.

I couldn’t blame the boy for staring, even though I knew it made Orsch uncomfortable. Ogruns were rare enough in this part of the countryside, and his style of dress certainly did not help. A jaunty bowler hat sat atop his broad head, pulled low to meet the wide leather strap of the goggles that he was so fond of wearing. His heavy woolen coat was tailored to fit his naturally massive frame, and the vest and white shirt underneath were perfectly in keeping with his dark trousers. His scuffed traveling boots spoiled the debonair effect somewhat, but there was no doubt that, even for an ogrun, Orsch was a unique sight.

My own style of dress was a twin of his, although I avoided wearing any sort of goggles or other apparatus on my person for health reasons. Due to the delicate constitution I’d been born with, any prolonged contact with mechanikal creations would result in a severe allergic reaction that would incapacitate me for hours; my trusty forgelock pistol was the pinnacle of technology my body would tolerate. Some of the people we encountered mistook my poor health as a sign of weakness, and my pale complexion and slight build led them to underestimate me. Although I lacked Orsch’s obvious size and strength I did not share his propensity for pacifism nor his distaste for violence. The worn grip of my pistol peeked out from where I’d hung my coat on a rickety chair; even though it held only a single bullet I was a crack shot with it, as many hooligans had discovered in the past.

“I do believe it is time for your treatment, sir,” Orsch said, motioning to the warped mirror on the opposite wall. While it had all the accuracy of carnival glass, it was sufficiently reflective to see that he was right. My skin was darkening even as I watched, and as my true complexion emerged so too did the scarlet tattoos that covered my face and body. Without instruction Orsch moved to close the window and draw the tattered drapes closed, handing over the last of the ointment from our bags after I was safe from scrutiny.

I dipped my fingers into the foul-smelling jar and managed to scrape enough out to cover my face and hands, noting with annoyance that I’d have to be careful to keep my shirt buttoned fully up to the collar to hide the rest of my skin. It was deep summer in Cygnar, and while the heat never seemed to bother Orsch I lacked his indomitable ogrun fortitude and cursed the necessity of the long-sleeved coats and shirts that hid my affliction.

“Language, young master,” Orsch chastised me. He was right, of course. He always was. While the damnable sickness had robbed me of most of my long term memories, Orsch had a mind quite unlike any other ogrun, and in addition to continually schooling me on manners he attempted to keep my cognitive functions sharp with frequent and unexpected lessons. My companion was endlessly fascinated by the intricacies of human thought and science, from steam engines to engineering to the philosophical differences between Morrowans and Menites. But those interests paled beside his true love: the occult.

Since ogruns lacked the spark to manipulate the arcane most were content to leave it to the smaller races, preferring instead to either follow their natural warlike tendencies into mercenary work or, in rarer cases, pursue a life of worship to their nature god. But Orsch considered such vocations beneath him. In all of our travels I’d never met another ogrun with the deep and unquenchable hunger for the occult that Orsch possessed. Perhaps that was why he had volunteered to accompany me from my family’s household, since the curse of my bloodline guaranteed that if there was supernatural trouble to be had I would damn well be drawn into it.

Truth be told I didn’t even remember first meeting him. The sickness had robbed me of many things and restricted my activities greatly, but nothing was as annoying or disruptive as the blank space in my mind where my past should have rested. My memory only stretched as far back as the last couple of years, and I worried about losing more of it as each day passed. Orsch tells me that once I was able to remember events five years ago, but that each month shortens my recall more and more. The truly terrifying aspect is that I cannot feel the loss of the memories or even tell that they once existed; they slip away like thieves in the night, leaving not a trace of their passing.

“Are you sure we can’t just meet with them, even once? They’re not being unreasonable to request to meet with one of their most successful operatives; it can’t help but raise their suspicions that I continually make excuses to avoid them.”

“No, sir, I am afraid that is quite out of the question. The other investigators that comprise the Strangelight Workshop must, as a simple matter of deductive logic, have devices that allow them to see through all forms of obfuscation. The concoction would prove woefully ineffective against such things. And may I remind you that I was against associating yourself with the organization to begin with?”

“You may not,” I answered irritably. When I’d first heard of the Strangelight Workshop a year and a half ago I’d hoped that they might possess a clue to the strange affliction that damned my family line to this sad fate and how I might reverse or stop it. They were hard to find, even harder to contact, but after a reluctant Orsch lent his considerable arcane knowledge to me I managed to impress them, convincing those who ran the Workshop that I’d be a valuable asset out in the field. While I’d been unsuccessful in my attempts to winnow anything useful out of them, I soon discovered that I quite enjoyed the assignments they sent me on. It gave me an opportunity to turn my curse to others’ benefit, and while it wouldn’t allow me to avoid my fate it at least consoled me on the road to that forgetful oblivion.

“Any word from Father?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

“Of course not, sir. You really must stop dwelling on your family. They weep for you, but they know your destiny must be either fulfilled or averted before your return. It is better for all parties involved that you do not contact them.”

It was the same answer he always gave me. Although I could not recall them Orsch assured me that my family was a moderately wealthy one in southern Cygnar, and that they had more sense than to get caught up in the hostilities in the region between the Menites and the rest of the country. I found my inability to remember them quite disturbing, and despite their existence being nothing more than a hollow concept to me I felt compelled to ask after them from time to time. Although the manifestation of the curse meant I had to be distanced from the rest of the bloodline they were still kind enough to send regular dispatches through various couriers with enough money to fund our travels, for which I was grateful. But never was there a note, not a scrap, no worried script asking after me; just a series of silk purses containing various amounts of crowns that were usually sufficient to purchase the necessities of life until the next purse came.

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 06:14 PM
This time it had been a little less than we needed, and our accommodations as a result suffered. Orsch refused to let our standards of hygiene and dress slip despite the troubles, but the living situation was unavoidable. It had proven to be less of a worry than I?d first imagined, as we were kept busy climbing through ancient Orgoth ruins from dawn until late at night, searching for a local legend. Farmers spoke with hushed terror about spectral banshee that appeared in the ruins, chanting incomprehensible words, trapped eternally in some sort of ritual. The Workshop had feared something dire in the works and dispatched me; indeed, upon my arrival the illness had reared its ugly head, a sure sign of baneful magic in the area. But despite weeks of fruitless searching and progressively growing sicker the entity continued to elude us. The last few days I?d fallen unconscious from my affliction, and when I finally awoke from fevered dreams Orsch had been there, as always, tending to me. I don?t know if we somehow dislodged whatever artifact was causing the disturbance, but the ghostly specter had disappeared, and my improving health confirmed that whatever haunted the area had fled.

The problem now was that the special alchemical mixture I used to hide my affliction was nearly gone. I?d been horrified upon awakening to see that the bloody tattoos that heralded the curse?s arrival were burning their way out of my darkened skin, blazing for the world to see. A day and several applications later the skin on my face and hands had returned to its normal pallid state, but it wouldn?t last long unless we procured more of the substance.

?You?re sure that the mucker that created this gunk is willing to make more??

Orsch winced. ?Please, sir, do not use that terminology. It is below your station to speak in such a way. In answer to your question, yes, there is no doubt he will cooperate. He has served the Worthington family in this capacity for two generations, and although his time is closing he should maintain enough of his mind to be of use one last time. But he requires our assistance before he will reciprocate. A thoroughly despicable maneuver on his part, but one that we must accede to out of necessity.?

?He?ll help us or we?ll hoist his guts up the mast on a slaughter-hook, am I right, mate??

I clapped my hands over my mouth with shock. The disapproving look from Orsch was unnecessary; I could only stammer an apology and blame my recent bout of illness for speaking like an unschooled country lout. Orsch went to the front of the inn to inform them of our departure, his chilly demeanor reprimanding me in a fashion words could never match.

To occupy my obviously failing mind I packed my few belongings into our luggage, and sat heavily on the sagging excuse for a bed, which moaned dangerously and threatened to jab me with rusty springs. As I sat contemplating my recent descent into the speech patterns of a field hand the light sounds of tiny silver bells jangling against each other came from outside the window. I squinted through the worn drapes, trying to make out the source of the sound, and discerned a silhouette in the afternoon sun. The curves were obviously female, and the woman seemed to know she was being watched. Gently a nailed finger began tapping against the glass, and a lascivious laugh sent tingles up my spine with a thousand unspoken promises. As the lush silhouette leaned in against the window, I noticed that something was dreadfully wrong with her head, a deformed mass atop the otherwise lovely-looking shadow.

I drew closer to the window, although I didn?t remember getting up from the bed. The light took on an unnatural cast to it as I approached the drapes, floating across the floor without taking steps. My hands reached out of their own accord for the drapes while luscious lips pressed up against the pane, and as my fingers closed around the curtains I could just make out whispered words from those lovely lips, a phrase repeated softly again and again.

?Don?t trust him.?

I threw back the drapes to behold my mysterious visitor, and a lancing headache bored through my brain as the dazzling sunlight hit my eyes. Confused, I sat up on the bed and saw that Orsch had slid the drapes back from the window to let in the dying sunlight. Fighting back my disorientation, I realized I must have fallen asleep and dreamt the mysterious figure.

?Is something amiss, sir?? Orsch asked, his voice still cold. Looking up into the emotionless goggles he wore, at the hard grey of his monstrous inhuman face, the words died in my throat and I remembered the warning of the phantasm: don?t trust him.

?Nothing ? nothing?s wrong, Orsch. Just bad dreams, a remnant of the sickness most likely. Nothing more,? I stammered, suddenly afraid of my loyal companion. Despite every ounce of logic I possessed screaming that this was Orsch, the faithful ogrun that had taken care of me for the last two years, I couldn?t bring myself to tell him what I?d seen. It felt so real, so different than the fever dreams, but there had been no woman, no warning, and no reason to mistrust the creature that had tended to me for longer than I could remember.

Preoccupied with the details of our travel arrangements, Orsch accepted my answer without second thought, gathering our bags under his massive arms with no visible sign of effort and inching out of the room sideways, careful to avoid wrecking the doorjamb with his shoulders. I took one last look around the room, as was my habit, making sure that nothing had been left behind. I went to the window to pull the drapes closed out of courtesy to the next occupant, and my blood turned to ice in my veins.

Barely visible in the fading sunlight on the window pane, unseen by Orsch in his haste, was an imprint of a kiss, captured delicately in the tiny cracks in the glass.




***

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 07:58 PM
Chapter 2



The coach that Orsch had procured for us was a peculiar one, and we were only able to afford it due to the well-timed delivery of yet another silk purse, this one containing more coin than we?d become accustomed to. Given the necessity for speed Orsch reluctantly parted with nearly half the purse to hire the services of Landship Caravans to speed us away along the Twelve Day Road before the short line track carried back word to Ceryl of my refusal to meet with my suspicious colleagues yet again.

Despite the misleading name, we bounced along not in a seagoing vessel that used otherworldly magic to traverse the land, but rather a large coach with bad suspension pulled by a decommissioned warjack with a cracked cortex that was fit only for hauling duties. Yet the price was worth it, for our motive power suffered neither exhaustion nor thirst, and although it was missing an arm and smelt of burning oil the speed it had once possessed on the battlefield remained intact. Sadly the pace of our transportation also made the thin threadbare cushions in the seats all the more noticeable, and I spent most of the trip with Orsch holding me down so that I did not bounce up and crack my head against the roof of the coach.

It was with immense relief that I felt the coach begin to slow at midday. The half-completed tracks of a new section of the Caspian Railway?s latest project lay to the south, cutting across the country in a more direct path than the road itself. While the ongoing hostilities between Cygnar and the rest of Immoren was a terrible bother to our investigations, what with regularly having to yield train space to military units and the rising costs of ammunition and supplies, the wars had fueled a much needed burst of industry to support it. With the vocal support of the royal court the railways were laying down track as fast as the iron could be shaped and shipped, striving to connect Ceryl with Bainsmarket and its own system of tracks. The Free Order of the Golden Crucible was keeping a hand in the contracts, and it was well known that they had already arranged for a short line to split off to a series of mines southwest of Demonhead Pass to support their current operations there. The refueling depots were already well under construction along the line in anticipation of the rail, and it was due to this fortuitous fact that we were able to count on an uninterrupted supply of fuel for our unconventional steed.

?By Morrow, I need this break!? I exclaimed, leaping out before the coach had come to a complete stop. I nearly twisted my ankle as reward for my foolishness, but after several hours trapped in a small box with the warjack?s exhaust washing over us I was ready for a little fresh air. In the distance I could see that work was proceeding apace on the new bridge that was necessary for the tracks to span the Guilder?s Run river, and I strained to make out the tiny black dots of the men laboring away on it. A coppery taste rose up like bile from my mouth, and I spat out a globule of blood into the settling dust of the road. Without warning my vision sharpened beyond anything I was used to, and I could pick out the rail workers five miles away in agonizing detail, from the discoloration of their teeth down to the dirty pores of their skin. I stumbled from the unexpected influx of the painfully clear sight, spitting more blood out as it rose up in the back of my throat, closing my eyes to try and block out the invasive details.

?That is disgusting and uncalled for, sir,? Orsch reprimanded me from behind as he exited the coach. I dared to open my eyes slightly and realized that I could see the individual threads woven together that made up his coat, the coarse intertwined hairs on the back of his grey-skinned hands, and a thousand other inconsequential yet magnified details about his body and dress. His expression softened when he saw me stumbling around like a drunkard, dribbling blood down my chin. Placing a massive reassuring hand on my back to straighten me he produced a handkerchief to dab the blood away. The slight scent of Orsch?s cologne on the cloth prompted a violent wave of nausea and my gorge rose.

?What ? what?s wrong with me?? I managed to choke out before bending over double and gushing a brief crimson torrent onto my best shoes, watching each individual droplet as it splattered away, noting splatter trajectories as my shoes bore the brunt of my sickness.
Then just as suddenly, my vision returned to normal, the world shrinking back to the comforting pedestrian detail that people take for granted. The road spun underneath my feet, and Orsch managed to catch me as I collapsed.

?You just need fresh air, sir, nothing to be concerned about,? he said, his voice steady and crisp. ?The fumes from the trip must have overpowered you.?

I dimly felt Orsch carry me to a nearby elm and prop me up on the trunk. He took off his bowler hat and fanned me with it, and the breeze from it actually helped restore my senses to some extent.

The coach driver barely spared us a glance as he checked the tackle connecting the coach to the ?jack before moving on to supervise the two men that shoveled coal into the machine?s idling furnace. He was careful to step around the puddle of muddy blood I?d left in the roadway, steadfastly ignoring my condition. As far as the uncouth lout was concerned we?d either be on the coach or not when the stop was done; as he?d already been paid, and as such our presence was no longer required.

?Is there an outbreak of the paranormal nearby, sir?? Orsch asked, peering around as he adjusted the lenses on his goggles. They were able to detect many spectra of the arcane, but I knew he?d find nothing this day. The fits I had when approaching supernatural emanations were different than what I was suffering from currently.

?Not that,? I coughed, bringing up less blood, grateful that the painful minutiae of the world remained hidden from me. ?It must have been a passing seizure, another damnable symptom of the curse?s progression. Lift me up, my friend, we must return to the coach before that oaf manages to leave us here.?

Orsch hesitated, and I saw real concern pass over his face. I felt ashamed I?d ever doubted his loyalty or intentions because of a fever dream, and resolved to allow no such thoughts to find harbor in my mind again. Despite his hesitancy I convinced him to return us to the coach. We were able to secure our seats again before the disappointed driver reluctantly tugged on the cabling that served as reins and directed the half-blind ?jack to turn back onto the road.

The remaining hours passed uneventfully, and despite my unexpected exsanguination and the jostling of the trip I felt better by the time the coach pulled to a stop at our destination. The driver had pushed hard, to the limits of both his endurance and ours, and despite his manners I gave him a few extra crowns for his reluctant cooperation. Rather than thank us he slunk off sullenly to find lodging against the coming night, mumbling derogatory insults under his breath. Orsch gathered our luggage under his lengthy arms and we left the driver to his misanthropic thoughts.

What greeted us at the temporary encampment was no more hospitable than the driver. While the nobles of Ceryl were eager to help the Golden Crucible exploit the mineral resources found in the area they were significantly less concerned about housing the necessary workers in civilized accommodations. To describe the enormous collection of tents and rough dwellings that sheltered the inhabitants as a town was an insult to the word. They hadn?t even bothered to name it, and on the local maps it was merely marked as ?Outpost Five.?

?Are you sure that the alchemist we?re looking for is around here??

?Undoubtedly. The individual in question is a connoisseur of volatile materials, and highly sought after for work of this nature. It is only logical that he would be among those assigned to this operation, for although he is not employed by the Golden Crucible directly due to certain archaic policies, they have used him as an outside contractor for many years. He is one of the primary reasons the Smokehouse in Ceryl is so prolific in their manufacture of blasting powder, albeit at the cost of several laboratories that have detonated by his experimentations. Therefore, logically, this is his most likely location.?

Orsch sat our luggage down for a moment and pulled out a neatly folded letter out of his jacket. The handwriting that covered it looked like a demented child?s. My companion offered me the note. ?And he sent this missive telling us to meet him here.?

??You want stuff. Me want favor. You come Outpost Five, or you no get stuff,?? I read aloud from the letter. ?Are you sure this is the man that can help us??

?Not a man, sir,? Orsch corrected, folding up the letter and lifting our cases again. ?A goblin, or ?gobber? in the common parlance. One that is quite old, and who uses the widely held view that he is an idiot to mask his genius so that he may work unmolested. He was contracted and paid in advance to keep us supplied with the masking cream, as per your family?s normal arrangements in these matters; the fact that he is extorting a favor from us is reprehensible.?

?Orsch, are you actually angry??

?Do I look angry, sir??

?I can never tell.?

?Then I am not.?

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 07:58 PM
I snorted at the inscrutable giant. The sound of a whistle in the distance indicated a shift change, and a crowd of exhausted grimy men returned to the tents, their drawn faces and stooped bodies speaking of their labor and pain. A separate flow of men walked against them, these only slightly more rested, although just as dirty and pallid. Far off I saw the mounds of earth from their efforts hiding the current operations, but the sound of detonations as they blasted through the bedrock indicated industry well under way. The miners would use pick and shovel, explosives and acid, whatever was required to cut through the earth and tap into the deep mineral formations that ran from here to deep under Demonhead Pass.

Bluish black smoke crept out of the tents from those who had just finished their shifts, the result of cheap hooaga and other burning intoxicants. Doubtless liquor that could peel the skin off a gentleman?s nose would be present as well, and I did not wish to be here when the laborers found the bottom of those bottles. While I held nothing against such men I oftentimes found myself an easy target for their drunken carousing, and I had no wish to shoot anyone tonight.

?I suggest we start our search for the miscreant there,? Orsch said, nodding up the slope and away from the tent city. Overlooking the temporary dwellings there were several hastily constructed wood buildings, and farther beyond those the ruins of a decrepit manor stood where the noble family of this land must have once lived. As we hiked up the hill to the buildings I was able to discern a wrought iron fence in the distance, recently repaired, that separated the rickety new buildings from their antique neighbor.

?Now why do you suppose they maintain such a thing?? I wondered aloud to Orsch, pointing it out.

?Considering what we have encountered before, sir, I do not think it is outside the bounds of probability that this is the source of the favor our alchemist demands. Do you feel the stir of Urcaen in the area??

I closed my eyes and latched my fingers onto his sleeve, letting Orsch guide my footsteps as we continued climbing, and reached out with my senses. My guts churned with worry over what I would encounter; my reaction was never pleasant when the spectral world was involved. But the only thing I felt was a vague stirring of shadows, such as haunted most of Immoren, a vague unease left over from the Orgoth occupation that salted the land wherever we went. Under the earth the dead lay from an ancient battle, perhaps more here than in other places, but as far as I could tell they were not stirring. A metallic taste crept into my mouth, not blood, but rather as if I?d been suckling on a rusted nail. Regardless of the odd sensation, there was no indication of an unusually high level of activity in the area, for which I was glad. I?d already ruined my best shoes and flecked a good silk shirt with blood from earlier, I had no wish to sweat and vomit the rest of my clothes into oblivion.

When I opened my eyes again we were halfway up the hill, and a man had come out onto the porch of the nearest building. Although dusk and the gas lanterns behind him conspired to throw his face into shadows he was waving happily at us, calling out a barely intelligible welcome.

?Hallo out there!? called the man as we approached. Now that we were closer I could see he was missing his left arm below the elbow, and that he was far past any kind of physical labor in years, although he wore a workman?s overalls and had the permanently sun-baked face of a man who?d spent his life outdoors. His unkempt white hair had receded into a semicircle around his head, and the bushy mustache he sported grew wild and untrimmed, the ends reaching down past his jaw. Despite his age he seemed spry, and the joy with which he greeted us reminded me of a child on their birthday.

?Finally, yer here!? he exclaimed as we stepped onto the porch. I was sweaty and my breathing was labored from the gentle slope, but the old man ignored my sullen attitude and grabbed my hand with his remaining one, pumping it without mercy.

?Yes, we are here,? Orsch agreed suspiciously as the man led us inside. ?You were expecting us??

?Course I was spectin? you, Master Pylus says ?listen here, Bailey, you got yourself some serious trouble, so we gonna send you some serious help? and I says ?yessir, you knows we ?preciate it, the boys are gonna be awfully grateful you got their best in?trests at heart,? so he says-?

?Excuse me, Mr. Bailey?? I interrupted.

?Foreman Bailey round the boys, if you please, sirrahs. Although I ain?t one to stand on formal?ties, it?s important you use the title when they?re about, makes ?em feel right taken care of, like a father even.?

?Yes, quite. Am I to understand that Master Pylus of the Free Order of the Golden Crucible informed you of our scheduled arrival??

?Of course, sirrah. He says to me, ?Bailey?, he says, ?Bailey we got to make sure them boys are taken care of, else we ain?t gonna have none left by the end of the week, so I?m gonna send you a couple of them Strangelight fellers right quick to take care of your ghost,? and I says-?

?How did you ascertain that we were from the Strangelight Workshop?? interjected Orsch, dropping our luggage to the ground with a heavy thump and making the old man start from the sudden noise.

?Well, sure as Morrow?s word you fancy boys ain?t here to ask for minin? jobs, and I figured ? wait, so you ain?t sent from Ceryl?? The constant stream of words paused, and the old foreman scratched his stubbly chin with a look of suspicion in his eyes.

?Yes, we have come directly from there on the Landship coach,? I confirmed hastily, eager to verify our identities. Obviously he?d been expecting someone else from the Workshop, and it could work to our favor if we were quick enough with our business before the real team showed up. Orsch reached inside his coat without prompting and produced one of our cards, a set I?d had printed up a year ago on a whim, handy little bits of completely unauthorized rubbish that had served us well when trying to convince local authorities we weren?t tomb robbing, but rather laying the dead back to rest or other such supernatural bother. So far our superiors either hadn?t heard of the ploy, or tacitly approved. Either way, the cheap cardstock gave the proper impression to people, and saved a lot of questions.

??Lord Jonathon Worthington, Strangelight Investigator, Field Agent Second Class,?? Bailey read from the card, squinting at the lettering underneath my name and title. ?Unexplained Fen ? fena ??

?Phenomenon,? Orsch prompted. ?Unexplained Phenomenon Explained and Purged.?

?Purged? That means gotten rid of, right? By Morrow, that?s what we been needin? round here!? Bailey exclaimed with visible relief.

?What is the nature of the problem?? I asked him, trying to penetrate his excitement and get to the heart of the matter. We had a limited timeframe to find the alchemist, and the sooner that the foreman was done with his inevitable explanation the sooner we could brush him off, find our contact, and be on our way.
Inwardly I began to calculate the average time for a message to be sent from the Smokehouse to the Workshop headquarters in Ceryl, accounting for both the inquirer?s status within the city and the interest in this operation, and estimated the deployment time assuming a competent team was on hand along with the necessary materials. It wasn?t good. We needed to hurry, or the long-postponed meeting with my fellow investigators would be thrust upon us quite unexpectedly. Given Orsch?s assertion that my disease would be discovered quickly by them and that I?d become another mystery to be solved or imprisoned, I was none too eager to meet my colleagues.

?Well, I?ll tells you, the thing about that big house up yonder-?

A blood-curdling inhuman shriek interrupted him as he pointed up to the ruined mansion, and Foreman Bailey went white. The scream of pure agony lasted only for a few moments before fading away; leaving only the worried shouting down in the tent city and our own shocked silence in its wake.

?Morrow?s word, you boys are just a little too late. C?mon, and you can see our problems with your own eyes.?

As Bailey led the way up the hill Orsch asked, ?What was that horrific noise? Is that the nature of the disturbance you were describing??

Bailey nodded his head dully, his eyes glassing over with fear as we approached the wrought iron gate, pulling out a ring of keys from his pocket.

?Keep your courage handy, boys, this ain?t gonna be pretty. There?s been another that done got themselves dead.?




***

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:03 PM
Chapter 3



The setting sun’s last rays provided little warmth, and the breeze that blew steadily from the north promised a cold night. As we passed through the wrought iron gate a chill that had nothing to do with the weather crawled up my spine, and the metallic taste rose in my mouth again, stronger than ever. It was unlike the normal sensations the curse imparted upon me when we were in the company of the supernatural, but there was an unmistakable presence in the ramshackle mansion that was causing it.

“You were indicating this place is the nexus of your current otherworldly troubles?” I prompted the foreman, regretting it immediately. The words rang hollow across the overgrown grounds, as if the very air itself sullenly resented our intrusion.

“A’yup,” whispered Bailey, peering around nervously as we approached the mansion. The deepening shadows of dusk were doing nothing to dispel the eerie feeling that hung around it like a pall. “The boys and I went and patched up the ol’ fence, as much to keep folks out than in, but somehow a poor mucker always wanders up here and gets more’n he bargained for. Don’t make no sense either, sirrah. The boys all know this place gots the creeps; it took triple hazard pay and some mighty fine threats to get ‘em to work this close the first time.”

Indeed, I wondered myself how any soul would be tempted to visit the mansion. What rose up before us bore the rotting hand of many a year untended, a dark and foreboding place that promised naught but a bad end, with shadows deeper than the approaching night filling its interior. When it was in its prime the two-story sprawling mansion must have been a sight to behold, from the mighty veranda to the four turrets that sat at each corner of the house, emulating the squat military castles of the Thousand Cities era. How long had it stood sturdy against rain, flame, and blood, each in its own season? It was impossible to tell, but my instincts sang out that it had witnessed centuries from its lonely hilltop.

“The family that done lived there were a terror, or so’s I heard from the local biddies. Long bloodline, all the way back to the beginnings, and it were whispered that they got some of that demon Orgoth blood mixed in ‘em, and that they kept on keeping on with the bad ol’ ways.”

“They were collaborators in the occupation? How did they maintain control of these lands after the rebellion?”

Bailey shrugged uneasily. “There been more’n a fair share of folks that wanted ‘em done away with, that’s for sure, but nothing ever stuck when push came to shove. Till ‘bout fifty years ago, when they were burnt out by their own sharecroppers. Seems one too many mysterious disappearances happened round these parts and the good folks finally got themselves fed up with it. But the flame didn’t take, so they had to up and drag ‘em out. Tales say that there tree was the one that they hung ‘em from, and that the crows were too a’feared to even come peck at them as the family rotted.”

He pointed at the sole tree in the expansive grounds, a twisted and massive oak that seemed to defy anything else to grow in its presence. There were no bodies to be seen in the fading light, but it was easy enough to imagine a family of fiends hanging dead from its grim branches. The house showed more of their mutual history than the tree, bearing scorch marks on its walls where the mob had tried and failed to burn it down. Without a doubt the entire edifice should have fallen to complete ruin by now, yet there it stood, defiantly intact.

“A suitable tale of woe to inflame the imaginations of your workforce and to keep looting at a minimum, I am sure,” Orsch dryly observed.

“It’s more than a bit of head fancy,” Bailey retorted. “I’ve had good boys disappear here, with nothing left of them but abandoned cots and family that’ll never see them again.”

“How can you be sure they were murdered, or that they even visited this place? Is it not far more logical that they merely absconded in the night, for one reason or another?”

“None of my boys would do that; we treat everyone right kindly round here. Every time a mucker disappears there’s these screams up here, and then crazy laughter echoing down the hill. We don’t figure that anybody taking off in the night decides to stop on by here and have themselves a good screamin’ fit. Ain’t no one that wants to go in there to check for their bodies, so we can’t even give them a right funeral.”

“You hear laughter from the mansion when the murders occur?” I asked.

“Not ‘zactly. I ain’t got the words for it. Like an insane feller’s having nails hammered into his head and he’s right tickled by the experience.”

“So why aren’t we hearing it now?”

Bailey shifted uneasily. “I don’t rightly know; truth be told that’s got me more uneasy than the thought of someone else disappearing. Maybe the spooks didn’t get enough meat this time; maybe they’ll be coming down the hill for more of my boys.”

“A poltergeist? Hardly,” I snorted before I could catch myself. Bailey eyed me coldly for it. “I apologize, but we have dealt with such specters before, and I can assure you that whatever troubles this place is not occult in origin.” What I left unsaid was the violent vomiting that would precede such an encounter due to my reaction in the presence of the supernatural. I didn’t like revealing my magical malady to anyone else.

“Then how do you account for that, sirrah?” Bailey asked acridly.

A high pitched keening had begun, at first at the edge of our hearing, but rising in crescendo to an ear-splitting screech in the span of a few seconds. I clapped my hands to my ears to try and shut out the noise, as did Bailey, but Orsch simply stood there, as if the sound was of no consequence. Eventually the shriek tapered off to a manic giggling that bordered on weeping.

“And that’s it for me, boys. Night’s comin’ and I’m a’goin. You knows the problem, you seen the place, now its yer baby,” Bailey said, turning on his heel and hurrying past us back down the trail.

“Wait, aren’t you coming with us?” I called out to his rapidly retreating back.

“I ain’t dumb; you fellers were sent out here to take care of this here problem. So good luck with that, and I’ll wire yer families when you don’t come back to tell ‘em the bad news.”

And then he was gone, the rattle of his keys in the gate sending a chill up my spine. He’d locked us in; or rather, he’d locked his murderous mystery in, and we were ancillary causalities. I really couldn’t blame the poor man for his cowardice. The twisted giggling kept going, varying neither in volume nor pitch after the first outburst, and the light of day had been replaced by the gloom of dusk. But whatever had screamed was still speaking to us from the shadows, after a fashion. It was time to discover the source.

“This is ridiculous,” Orsch huffed, refusing to walk any closer to the mansion. “You realize I could merely break the gate open and we would be free of this place.”

“No, it is our duty to investigate this,” I replied, futilely searching for any trace of movement behind the dark shattered windows that stared out across the ruined veranda. There was no sign of spectral activity, and no way to discern where the manic giggling emanated from.

“If I may, sir, this is merely your hobby, and a time-consuming one at that. We must locate the alchemist immediately, or risk exposure of your condition to the locals. Given that miners are not burdened with an overabundance of education it is quite likely they would burn you as a witch were the markings to become visible. In addition, we know without a shadow of a doubt that other Strangelight agents are being deployed to this locale, and we must avoid them at all costs.”

“You worry too much, Orsch. Besides, these people need our help. The other agents aren’t here yet; we are. Should we tuck our tails between our legs and flee, perhaps allowing more to die while the others make their journey?”

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:04 PM
“To be blunt, sir, yes, yes we should,” Orsch answered coldly. “We do not travel the countryside to right the arcane wrongs of the world; ours is a much simpler task that you continue to complicate. We must find the cure for your affliction before the disease completely takes you. And as generations before you have discovered, the cure lies in the curse itself. You grow sicker the closer we come to your restoration; the presence of the solution is anathema to the disease. And we very nearly have it, sir. Your body continues to adjust itself, and each site we visit provides valuable insight to our next destination.”

“Damn it all to Urcaen, Orsch, you always say that. But where has it got those generations before me? You claim they found their cures; why is it always different? Why must child after child of my family seek a different answer to the same question, again and again?”

“It is the nature of the curse, sir. It mutates, it changes, based on the unknown whims of the magical currents in the world.”

“So I’m supposed to ignore the plight of others that we could feasibly help to pursue my own selfish goals? How many lives are worth mine, Orsch? What’s the tally in your head?”

“I am not sworn to them; I am sworn to you. My oath is not tied to their well-being. It is to yours. And this distraction endangers you. The delay could be deadly. You seem to be in the mood for inquiries, so allow me to posit this to you, sir. What will happen if the blood markings completely overtake you? Do I need to remind you of the monsters that have been birthed of your ancestry in the past when certain predecessors failed to find their solution in time?”

I didn’t reply, choosing instead to step defiantly onto the veranda, the wooden boards creaking dangerously beneath my scuffed boots. Orsch didn’t need to remind me of the price of failure; the stories he’d told me haunted me every night. The end result when the disease took final control was hideous. Just as the cure varied, so too did the result of the curse. The creatures spawned from such a catastrophe only shared one disturbing similarity: they all murdered innocents before they could be put down.

But I couldn’t do it. Orsch might be right about my foolishness, but even in my desperate state I couldn’t turn my back on people in need of help. And secretly, deep down, I knew there was another facet to this, one that my faithful companion wouldn’t understand. He had all his memories; mine were nothing but a grey fog, taunting me in the dark. Their lack had spawned in me a terrible hunger to know the world, to grasp and hold onto its mysteries, knowing that even as I did so more of the past would slip away. How had those that came before me been able to endure that burning curiosity, that insatiable need to understand? I couldn’t ask them; I remembered nothing of my family save what Orsch had told me, and the secrets of how they’d overcome the temptations of knowledge remained a mystery to me.

The feel of the wood sagging beneath Orsch’s heavy tread bore mute witness to the ogrun’s resignation. He’d followed me into foolish pursuits before, and apparently he was willing to again. I didn’t have to see the disapproving scowl he now wore to feel its presence. The weight of it settled on me, a mute condemnation of my choice. Orsch would accompany me, but he did not agree with me. It was enough.

Orsch reached into a hidden a pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a portable Jameson bulls-eye lantern. The tiny mechanikal device made my fingers itch at the thought of touching it, but Orsch was under no such restriction in the use of technology, and I felt grateful as he rolled the thumb striker and lit the wick. Another flick of his thumb opened the forward shutter, and the bluish white light of the alchemical flame spilled its wan light out. The Jameson had a limited fuel supply, an hour at most, and its light was far from sufficient, but it was infinitely better than wandering around in the dark blindly. While Orsch had no need of the light due to his ogrun heritage I was not similarly gifted, and it was a mark of his concern for me that he always had devices like it on hand.

The heavy wooden doors were locked, but the years had resulted in a brittle contact between the hinges and the frame. A heavy shove from the two of us knocked one of them free. I tried to hold onto the door as it tumbled back, but the angle was too odd to get any real leverage against its weight. The sound of the oak door crashing down was deafening, and we both held out breath as clouds of dust and cobwebs billowed out from the impact. So much for stealth. If there was anything in the mansion, it knew full well that we had arrived.

The insane giggling continued. Orsch panned the light around the interior, holding a handkerchief to his mouth to block the worst of the dust from being inhaled, as did I. Before us the expansive foyer was eerily untouched, save for the years of filth we’d disturbed. Valuable vases sat on moldering tables along the walls, covered in cobwebs. No looter had ever dared to enter the mansion, which spoke more of the local superstitions than of any true supernatural presence. In a perverse twist of human imagination a legend oftentimes carried more weight than a monster. It was easier to grasp a banshee, or a grymkin nest, or a thousand other disturbances that all obeyed their own strange rules, than it was to quantify something that refused to reveal itself properly. There was no terror greater than the threat of the unknown.

This mansion and its victims, however, represented a true mystery to me. The sickness refused to manifest itself, and even the slight nausea I felt was more from the dust in the air than any supernatural presence. According to the foreman many had lost their lives here. Could bandits or thieves be using the local superstitions to hide their illicit activities? It was possible, and we’d encountered such a situation before, but not this close to a burgeoning tent city and hundreds of witnesses. If this was another fake haunting, then those who perpetrated it had both bravado and savagery in equal quantity. Dragging brawny miners up here to murder to reinforce the fear the locals had of this place seemed like an extremely dangerous plan, one that was unlikely to produce the desired results. The dispatch of a Strangelight team would only be the start of the troubles; once this place was declared free of otherworldly presences more mundane and dangerous forces would be deployed by the authorities to clean out the dangers of the mansion.

A massive staircase dominated the foyer, with two smaller flights on either side flowing together into a landing with a wider set of steps going the opposite direction up above our heads. The effect was both impressive and private, disallowing visitors even superficial glances at the second story of the house and its occupants. In its prime the foyer would have been a stark and foreboding place, gruff in its reception of outsiders; even now it projected an aura of menace, draped as it was in the vestments of fifty years of neglect. Although bereft of the touch of Urcaen the foyer was able to effectively frighten any intruders, myself included.

Now that we were inside the disturbing laughter was louder, and we were able to better discern its location. The noise bounced dully off the warped walls, reflected from the top of the staircase. Without a word between us Orsch and I swiftly scaled the right-hand stairway, risking neck and limb from a fall in the inadequate light in an attempt to regain the element of surprise. We reached the landing and turned to behold the object of terror that had sent Bailey scurrying back to the dubious safety of his offices. My breath caught in fear as the Jameson’s faint light played across the source of the laughter.

Giggling manically at us from the top of the wide stairs was the severed head of an elderly dead gobber, his lifeless mouth hanging slack as he shrieked out an insane cacophony.




***

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:05 PM
Chapter 4



“This is … unfortunate,” Orsch opined, taking the steps two at a time easily to inspect the ghoulishly giggling head further.

“I’m sure that poor fellow would agree,” I nodded, following in his wake. Being so near to the severed head made me shudder, and I wrinkled my nose at the putrid-smelling blood that ran down the brass pole upon which it was mounted. The gobber had been very old, missing part of one ear and showing deep age lines along skin that bore more than its fair share of blemishes. Too bad he hadn’t been able to see a natural end to his years.

“You misunderstand me, sir. We are the ones experiencing an ill turn of events. This decapitated individual was a goblin named Gekananhegalog. He was the alchemist we sought.”

“Of course he was,” I sighed. “Somehow, I’m not surprised. But why is his head doing that; more to the point, how can we quiet it, before we begin to emulate it? There is no agent of the spiritual world at work here. I am at a loss as to the cause or the solution.”

“As I have told you before, one must look beyond the obvious, beyond what others expect you to see. Direct your attention here, but do not touch.”

Orsch pointed down at the brass post; under the Jameson’s wan light it took my crude human senses a few moments to recognize what his eyes had picked out immediately. The post was thicker than my fist; an intricate series of tiny gears comprised its innards, each whispering against its neighbor, encased within a thin support structure. Together they turned a slender wax cylinder, upon which several tiny needles carved an increasingly complex pattern, the angle and pressure of the needles changing every pass to create designs of differing depths in the hard wax. While the gears had been placed expertly to work with each other and the cylinder in perfect harmony the craftsmanship of the parts that comprised them were crude and rough, even to an untrained observer such as myself.

The object was obviously mechanikal in nature, which precluded further personal investigation. But I’d seen something like it before, a year ago in a traveling carnival of mechanikal wonders. A beautiful woman had sung into a large horn while a large wax cylinder spun, needles carving into it, before the device was reversed and the lady’s voice came from the machine itself. Despite the scratchy and rather tinny effect it was quite obvious that the device had somehow managed to capture the singer’s voice in the wax cylinder much as a scribe captures words on parchment, able to be played back again and again, which an applauding crowd had demanded.

“Grammatatron,” I breathed in amazement.

“It is obviously derived from that design, sir,” Orsch agreed. “However, it is just as clear that this particular creation has been adapted for a much less savory purpose. Witness where the connectors terminate.”

There was no taint of magic on the mechanikal device, but it still managed to make me feel nauseous when I realized the horrible truth. What had been achieved by a modified tuning fork in the carnival device was here accomplished by a series of thin brass rods that led from the needles directly up into the ragged neck of the corpse’s head. I squinted at what I’d first taken to be an overly large blemish on the back of the gobber’s cranium. Rather than some sort of birthmark the dark patch revealed itself to be a missing section of skull, carved neatly away. The exposed brain had a multitude of rods leading up through the neck and into the pinkish matter itself, ending in cruel hooks that were latched on to different sections. The surrounding tissue was undamaged, indicating that the mutilator had previous experience in the operation, a horrifying concept. The rods worked the hooked sections of wrinkled cortices vigorously back and forth, threatening both the integrity of the brain itself as well as my capability to retain the supper I’d eaten an hour earlier.

“A grammatatron is designed to record and replay sound,” I said with a dry mouth, striving to not be sick. “But there is no horn here, no auditory collection receptacle. Is it playing back this poor gobber’s final screams? If so, then the device is malfunctioning. I doubt our deceased alchemist friend went into Urcaen giggling about his fate.”

Orsch squatted next to me, bringing his massive head level with the gobber’s and handing me the Jameson absent-mindedly. Despite the hives that immediately began to blemish my hand and the burning sensation from the contact I said nothing, gladly trading the pain of holding the mechanikal lantern for the dubious comfort its light provided. I placed my handkerchief over my mouth and tried to think of anything else while holding the light as steady as possible on the head. Orsch adjusted the lenses on his goggles, taking the lenses through a kaleidoscope of colors, and grunted at what he saw. My companion prodded the brass brain rods experimentally with his finger, disrupting their movement slightly and rupturing one of the delicate rows of wrinkled tissue, but the insane giggling just kept going and going, and I feared soon I would join in with the mad laughter if we could not silence it.

“The sound appears to be more of a side effect of whatever the device is doing rather than its intended purpose, sir.” With a decisive movement Orsch plucked the wax cylinder from the back of the shaft, ending the morbid giggling from the severed head at the same time. The silence felt like Morrow’s blessing to my ears. The gears whispered to a stop, as did the rods in the gobber’s brain. “We interrupted the fiend who did this; I believe we should depart with this evidence before the murderer musters his courage and return to add two more victims to his macabre choir.”

As I hastened to agree a new sound reached my ears, low and dangerous. I waved my companion to silence. There was no way to tell how long the noise had been present, for the screeching giggles from the gobber head had masked all but the loudest of speech. I swept the Jameson across the room, straining to find the source, desperate to find it.

Again the hoarse moaning came, and this time I heard the shuffling of heavy feet accompanying it. Down the dark dusty hall something approached, larger than a man, ungainly, plodding forward with malicious will towards us. The warped floorboards groaned under the thing’s weight, and the occasional misstep of the hulking form sent more dust into the air as it tore apart the paneling lining the hallway with its unsteady bulk. As the creature emerged from the shadows into the Jameson’s light Orsch stepped in front of me protectively, his hands raised in comical fists. My friend was not a fighter, and I had no wish for him to battle the monstrosity before us.

It had once been a man, or rather, several men. The stitching across the flayed flesh combined the bodies of at least two people, perhaps more, bound together into an amalgam that stood at least nine feet high and five to six feet wide. The thing possessed a comically large upper body with an oversized right arm, muscles intertwined and naked to the air, working in a dread fashion far more efficiently than nature had ever intended. Ragged patches of skin hung from the thing’s form like obscene clothing, dangling and shredded at the ends. Its internal organs lay exposed through the jagged rib cage, a curious vulnerability to them, pulsing with a sickening rhythm that kept the creature shambling forward. Throughout the abomination the Jameson’s light picked out more of the brass rods serving as artificial tendons, dozens of them, perhaps hundreds, all jerking in time to some infernal clockwork, keeping the mass of muscle and bone mobile, complimented by a rudimentary system of hydraulics that served where bone and muscle had failed in the thing’s construction. The worst part of the creature was what passed as its head, relatively tiny in comparison to the mass of hunchbacked muscle that it sprouted from. Empty sockets seeped corpse fluids that ran into the empty crater where a nose should be, and the fleshy jaw hung slack below, the mandible missing along with any form of muscle control, a gurgling moan being produced from it much as the gobber’s head had screamed its laughter.

I remembered my pistol’s comforting presence too late, and the abomination lunged for us with a speed belied by its size, the shuffling gait transforming into a bull rush in the blink of an eye as it raised the massive arm to strike. It swung a clumsy fist of exposed bone at Orsch and he tried to dodge the blow. I fell backwards, drawing the forgelock from my coat, clinging desperately to the Jameson as I scrambled to clear the way for my companion to move, but it was too late. He was tangled up by how close I’d been standing behind him and was unable to completely avoid being hit as he twisted away from the thing’s attack. The abomination struck a glancing blow to his left collarbone and chest with a sickening crunch, sending Orsch spinning through the rickety banister of the landing to plummet down to the floor below. He uttered no sound from the impact when he hit, and I feared the worst.

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:06 PM
Showing no satisfaction at defeating its first enemy, the abomination continued towards me, raising its fist again to crush my puny frame, unnatural heat radiating off it in waves. My arm was surprisingly steady as I aimed the forgelock at nearly pointblank range and pulled the trigger. The familiar smell of powder igniting bolstered me as the ball roared out from the pistol and directly into the creature’s skull, centered beautifully even in my haste. The thing rocked unsteadily as lead and tissue erupted out the back of its skull and into the mass of its muscled hunchback, and for a moment I thought that my shot had downed it.

But the abomination remained upright, the ragged remains of its skull hanging precariously from its neck like a burst fruit on the vine. My hands shook in horror, and I dropped the Jameson as I scrabbled back along the floor. Miraculously the lantern remained lit without spilling out and setting fire to the house, and in its skewed beam I witnessed the creature start towards me again. My shot seemed to have at least deprived the creature of its ghastly senses, for it thrashed around with its giant fist, easily crushing wood and plaster of the surrounding walls, blindly seeking its prey. Gathering my wits, I realized that staying in the hallway itself would do nothing but assure my death; still, it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to turn my eyes away from the abomination as it bore down on me and seek an escape route in the darkness behind me.

Blindly I ran down the hall, straining to see as I twisted locked doorknobs and shouldered against debris-blocked doors to no avail, growing more desperate at each denial. I’d almost given up hope before a surprisingly sturdy door at the end of the hallway on my left opened to my frantic efforts. I slipped inside, closing it firmly behind me. I held no hope that the door, no matter how resilient, could stop the abomination. But it might give me time to reload my pistol and find another way around the creature. I was nimble enough to scale down from any window to the ground outside and circle back to the foyer for my friend. I could not, I would not, leave Orsch lying on the floor below. Whoever the fiend was that had created the monstrosity bearing down on me would not have my loyal companion for his next experiment.

Pale moonlight filtered down from a dirty skylight above me, casting my sanctuary in an otherworldly light. My plan of absconding through a window was immediately abandoned, for the walls here had been completely covered in decayed bookshelves, with no space given over to outside light save for the unreachable skylight. Even I were able to scale one of the antiquated pieces of furniture I’d be unable to touch the cracked glass above.

I managed to discern the titles on the spines of some of the rotting books on the shelves as I crouched in the corner, reloading my pistol. The subject matter ranged from mundane treatises on farming to obscure languages that I couldn’t hope to translate without Orsch’s help.

There was nothing I could do to save either of us. I huddled there waiting, listening to the abomination methodically tear the hall apart in its blind search for me, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the ghostly moonlight. Soon I was able to see that the only other furniture in the large room consisted of several moldy armchairs, a broken down couch, and various candelabras placed around them for ease of reading. As my gaze settled on them I realized I’d smelt something familiar when I’d entered the room.

The candles had been extinguished recently.

Goosebumps ran up my arms at the implications. How close had I come to stumbling upon the abomination’s creator, relaxing after a hard day of villainy? I scanned the nearest texts again, trying to find some dark tome bound in flesh or other such occult nonsense that would explain the monstrosity’s existence and how to stop it, but to no avail.

The creature’s heavy tread paused at the door to the room. With no escape route available I had no choice but to take aim at where the abomination would burst through. Despite my failure to stop it before, I was sure that it must have a weak spot somewhere. Perhaps its exposed organs? There was no way to know for sure, but I’d only have one shot to find out before it was upon me. I reached out with my senses, prepared for the nausea of arcane contact, but again I found the touch of the supernatural absent; whatever the creature was, no spirit had a hand in its creation. For once I found myself missing the sickness, for I was unable to track the thing’s actions now that it had stopped.

I don’t know how long I knelt there, holding my breath, frightened to make any sound at all, waiting for the creature to burst through the door. It seemed to stand there for an eternity, as if undecided on whether to breach its master’s library or not. Did it have orders to never enter this room? Likely, as the abomination had proven dexterity was not one of its gifts. But would that restriction prove sufficient to prevent it from scouring the master’s library when an intruder was so obviously present?

The question was rendered moot by a loud crash below. The monstrosity turned away from the door, its heavy tread receding as it pursued another interloper. I could only assume that Orsch had regained consciousness and was now creating a distraction to facilitate my escape, and I whispered Morrow’s blessings on him as I took advantage of his initiative. I steeled my courage and sprinted for the door; I’d have mere seconds to try and pass the monstrosity in the hall and escape.

Fear brought me up short at the door, and I paused long enough to peek out into the hallway. The abomination lumbered towards the flight of stairs, my presence forgotten for the moment. The abandoned Jameson still burned where it had fallen, having survived the beast’s shuffling pursuit, and as the creature passed through its light I was surprised to see implanted into its back a cast iron stove that had been modified along with other components into a primitive boiler. The flesh was blackened around where it touched the metal, and despite the absence of any light from the contraption the sweltering wave of heat that washed over the hall assured me that the boiler was indeed lit. The body of the flesh construct had shielded us from the worst of the temperature when we’d first encountered the abomination, but now it was clear to me where the motive power of the mutilated creature was located.

Despite the knowledge I was unable to draw a steady bead on the boiler due to the abomination’s erratic movement as it pursued its new target. Cursing so obscenely that it surprised even me I followed it as the creature began its unsteady descent down the stairs, desperate to be sure my only shot would fell the evil thing. The construct was halfway down the flight and turning at the switchback landing before I was able to acquire a decent angle, and by then it was too late. I couldn’t assure that the ball would penetrate the flesh from its front enough to reach the boiler where it lay protected by the hunchbacked muscle; I’d have to wait until it cleared the line of sight below me to have any kind of a shot. I was reduced to warning Orsch to flee, but as I turned and leaned over the other side of the landing the words died on my lips.

My friend still lay on the ground floor of the foyer, unconscious or worse from the blow and his fall, pieces of the railing scattered around him. His bowler hat had been lost in the fall, and its absence only served to make him appear even more naked and defenseless against the monster descending the stairs. The door we’d knocked off its hinges lay nearby his prone form, but now its twin was also missing from the frame. At the base of the stairs four steel globes lay in a square formation, their surfaces pockmarked with a dizzying array of emerald lights that flashed in a confusing pattern. Cabling connected them together before trailing back through the entrance, and I could only assume that whoever had removed the other door was also responsible for their presence.

The creature didn’t hesitate as it lumbered through the square formed by the cables, exposing its back to me again. I took careful aim on the thing’s boiler, squinting against the glare from the glowing steel orbs that my target was moving through, but before I could pull the trigger the hairs on my arm rose and a teeth-aching hum filled the room.

The abomination and I both howled in pain as my world went dark in a blinding flash of light.




***

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:07 PM
Chapter 5



Panic seized my heart when I awoke to the darkness, the insane laughter echoing in my ears from my nightmare. The lack of sight was complete and stifling, and my first instinct was to scream out in terror. Deciding that simply wouldn?t do, I restrained my primal impulses, albeit at quite an effort. As I waited for my ragged breathing to calm down again I took stock of the situation.

I was blind. That fact alone prompted a tidal wave of fear that I struggled to repress. But I was also still alive; a not inconsiderable advantage over the alternative. As the panic receded I realized I was also no longer in the dilapidated mansion, or rather I was most likely in the fiend?s laboratory sequestered somewhere within the house, awaiting my turn under the knife. My head rested on a makeshift pillow, and the board beneath me, while lacking padding, also lacked splinters and warping. The air was free of dust and pleasantly cool on my bare chest.

A new fear struck me.

Slowly my hands crept up from my sides and confirmed that, yes, someone had indeed sliced open my shirt, and currently my skin was exposed for the entire world to see. While the masking cream?s effects hopefully still lingered on my hands and face I knew without a doubt that the same wasn?t true of the rest of my body. My chest had been a dark mahogany brown for several days now, and the dull scarlet of the bloody diseased markings would be quite stark against such a canvas.

Someone else now knew my secret.

The sound of scissors working nearby caught my breath, but I couldn?t control my dreadful curiosity. If the flash of light had been enough to blind me, what other effect might it have had on my face? I had to know how bad it was. Slowly I moved my hands up, afraid of what I?d find, afraid that the owner of the scissors would notice and return to disembowel me to make yet another abomination. Yet the scissors did not waver in their task, and I was relieved to find that cotton met my touch, not a ragged landscape where my face should have been. Careful to make no sudden moves that would attract attention, I drew the cloth away.

The dim light I saw made me nearly weep in relief. What I?d taken for blindness was merely a compress laid across my eyes. I had trouble focusing, but I could clearly hear someone talking to himself nearby, his high-pitched chattering voice never pausing for more than a moment. Flickering lanterns burned merrily from the support beams of the large field tent despite the slivers of daylight shining through the small gaps in the heavy cloth walls of the makeshift structure. Through the haze of my returning sight I was able to discern that near where I rested the entrance flap had been drawn closed, but I glimpsed the welcome sight of Outpost Five illuminated by the morning sun on the other side.

?Left cut, right cut, up down and all around, secrets to be had, secrets be sad, they want to be known,? murmured the tiny voice behind the scissors.

I shook my head, trying to focus, unsure now if I were awake or not. Orsch lay splayed across several crates; his shirt was sliced open and over him leaned a gobber not more than two feet tall wearing comically oversized apothecary garb and holding a scalpel.

My pistol was in my hand. I didn?t remember pulling it out of my coat. For that matter, I didn?t know where my coat even was. Without looking I knew the weapon was loaded by the slight difference in weight, by the smell, by a sense I couldn?t even name. It didn?t matter. I raised it and pointed the barrel straight at the gobber?s head, silently debating the ethics of shooting someone in the back that was the size of a child.

Orsch was quite unconscious and with his shirt slit open I saw his massive barrel chest revealed for the first time ever. While I?d appreciated his tendency to dress conservatively, I?d never thought to inquire why, when so many of his ilk were content to brashly pose shirtless and worse, even when their physiques didn?t justify it.

Long surgical scars were spaced evenly just below Orsch?s collarbones, an old network of cuts that mirrored each other. The scars angled down to meet at the center of his chest before continuing down to his navel in a pattern reminiscent of an autopsy. The little gobber poked at the puckered skin for a moment with a clawed finger, but didn?t seem especially interested in harming my friend. The pistol wavered in my hand, my resolve slipping; I?d never been one for needless violence, and so far Orsch hadn?t been harmed.

?Boggles at the goggles,? the gobber whispered excitedly, scampering up Orsch?s chest to his head. In his odd joy the little creature?s attentions were completely focused on the ogrun; so far he had yet to notice my wakened presence. The pistol came up again in response to his movement, but my head was still clouded after the blinding flash in the mansion, and my hand shook with the primal relief of a man who?d been spared a horrific death. I dared not fire with the gobber so close to Orsch?s head with my unsteady aim. I cleared my throat noisily to get the creature?s attention, trying to hide the trembling of my hand.

?Up and about, why not speak out, no scare Titan, Titan friend!? screeched the gobber, bolting to the other side of Orsch?s prone form and using the massive ogrun as cover against my threat.

?What,? I rasped out, then stopped and cleared my throat again. It felt like I?d swallowed a feline and it was trying to claw its way through my esophagus. ?What are you doing??

?Explore more, must know why glow didn?t burn him at the turn,? replied the gobber. ?You easy peasey, lemon squeezy, the runes deflected, infected, ingested. Not same for him, grim left him in place. Put gun away, Titan friend, so you not end.?

?Titan, is it? Please, for the love of Morrow, stop the rhyming speech. It?s making my headache worse. And move away from Orsch, if you don?t mind.?

?No, no, flow eyes this way, gunman must see, secrets safe with me,? Titan gibbered, moving his hands gently up to Orsch?s goggles again. Before I could object he?d hooked a claw under the leather strap and pulled it away from Orsch?s face.

Or at least he tried to. With confusion I saw that the skin came up with the leather, distending that area without releasing its contact point. Titan nodded at my surprised look before digging the nail into the skin attached to the goggles. Beads of crimson blood welled up, and I threatened the gobber once more with my forgelock.

?Step away from my friend, or I will be forced to use this.?

?See, see, under the sea of skin begin the mystery of your friend?s history,? babbled Titan, and with a rising sense of unease I understood what he meant. Where he?d cut through the skin he?d managed to lift the goggles a bit, and underneath I saw, if only for a moment, pulsing veins and muscles where there should have been pallid flesh.

The goggles had been surgically grafted to Orsch?s face.

A massive hand moved faster than I could follow and lifted Titan up by his neck as my ogrun companion sat up without warning, blood leaking from where the gobber had cut into the bond betwixt goggles and skin.

?That hurts more than you think, little one,? Orsch growled, shaking the gobber while he held the little creature face to face. ?Explain what you were doing. Now.?

Titan?s green skin was turning an unhealthy shade of purple from suffocation.

?If you expect him to answer, perhaps you should afford him the luxury of oxygen,? I suggested. Orsch turned his head towards me, a mixture of relief and shame crossing his normally taciturn features.

?It is good to see that you are well, sir. However, I do not believe your firearm will be necessary against this nuisance; nor am I particularly comfortable with your accuracy with that shaking hand. Please stop pointing it at me.?

?Oh, of course, sorry,? I apologized, gratefully letting my hand drop. I eased the forgelock?s hammer back down, making sure it didn?t snap forward and cause the thin ceramic charge to break and mix the red and black blasting powders, thereby shooting myself straight in the foot with the lead ball packed down in the barrel. It was embarrassing enough that my secret had been discovered by Titan; there was no reason to entertain him further by blowing my toe off.

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:08 PM
Orsch eased his grip on the little gobber’s throat, and Titan managed to wheeze out, “Me … no harm, fix, fix … you, good as … new …”

“He might have a point,” I admitted. “I’d figured my peepers were done for when them shiny things blew up. And you didn’t look none too healthy for wear when you lost your legs and tumbled from the deck, mate.”

“Sir …”

“I know, I know,” I said, putting a hand up to forestall his concern, concentrating on suppressing my base speech patterns. I hated it when the disease caused this. It was one of the signs that the alchemical concoction was not just fading from my skin. I relied on it for hiding more than just the markings; the masking cream was able to suppress many of the other effects as well, including the apparent degradation of my intelligence. “Let him go, Orsch. The gobber poses no threat to us; I am, of course, assuming that your scars are from an incident in your past. Am I correct in this?”

Orsch dropped Titan with a start, clutching his ruined shirt closed. “My apologies, sir, I did not realize that I was indecent.”

The gobber scampered off to a safe corner, watching us with suspicious eyes as he massaged his throat. I cast around the tent until I found what I’d suspected was present: my suitcase, the seals broken but with the clothing inside untouched. I pulled out a fresh shirt and tossed my pistol into the satchel to allay Titan’s fear.

“Any perceived lack of decency on your part is easily equaled by my own, Orsch. I may not remember the accident that led to your scars, but it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to look down on you for having them. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m just happy that whatever incident you were in that birthed those injuries did not kill you as well,” I said, pulling my shirt on over my head.

There was a lengthy pause before my friend responded. “Yes, sir. I understand. However, I do not wish to dwell on the past, and these are an unfortunate reminder of times gone by that are best left forgotten. May I ask that you locate clothes for me as well before another discovers my secret shame?”

It was a simple enough request, as his luggage had been placed next to my own. I flipped his valise open, pulled out a shirt large enough to serve as a dressing gown for me, and tossed it to him. It bothered me somewhat that the seals on our bags had been broken, but it was grimly humorous that for the first time there was nothing in them to warrant the fear of being searched. Our luggage wasn’t always so benign. Occasionally we’d transport dangerous artifacts away from sites where the innocent could fall prey to them before sending them on to the Strangelight Workshop. If nothing else there was always the possibility that someone would discover my masking cream and begin to suspect me. This was the first time that I’d found an advantage to being out of my precious mixture.

Our activities within the tent did not go unnoticed, and when the entrance flap was pulled back an older gentleman entered. His features were distinctly Caspian, with bushy white sideburns and beard immaculately maintained over his sun-darkened skin. Alert green eyes danced around the room, missing nothing, making me glad that I’d managed to don my shirt before the man’s entrance. His clothes were rumpled and slightly dusty but otherwise well-made and cut in the latest conservative fashion, indicating a breeding on par with my own if not slightly better.

“Ah, excellent, I thought I heard you chaps moving around,” he smiled. “I admit I had my doubts, but when Bailey vouched for little Titan there I allowed him to attempt to heal you. It’s good to see that my faith was not misplaced.”

“He’s not the doctor for Outpost Five?” I asked, watching the stranger closely. Something about him brought my guard up, despite his friendly demeanor.

“Goodness, no, who would let a goblin tend to a camp this large? When we brought you back down from the mansion his master saw to you, but sadly he was called away about an hour ago to an emergency. There’s been a massive explosion in the mine; rumors are spreading like wildfire through the camp that several people died and that the injured cannot be moved for fear of their lives.”

“And you are …” I trailed off expectantly.

“Oh, my apologies, old boy, where are my manners? My name is Bernard Lochlin, recently arrived from Ceryl by way of a slower coach than your own.”

“What the forgetful old codger meant to say was that he’s ‘Lord’ Bernard Lochlin,” corrected the Rhulic female that followed him into the tent. While short of stature and rather plain looking, the dwarven woman had fiery red hair and I could almost feel the force of her personality as she fixed me with a challenging glare. “And don’t you be forgetting the Lord part, neither. Much as he tries to avoid it, Lord Lochlin is to be respected and deferred to, especially by the likes of you lot.”

“Now, now, Maggie, please. These lads have just recovered from a rather nasty shock, and as I understand it the boy here is equal in title, so there’s really no need to be so disagreeable,” Lord Lochlin said sheepishly.

“Damn your wrinkly hide, it’s their own bloody fault they got zapped; what kind of idiot stands next to a Hypercapacitor Spectral Containment Device and expects nothing to happen? That one’s lucky the little green git could save his sight, and that fancy ogrun there shouldn’t have taken a nap by the HSCD. Don’t go asking me to feel sorry for their idiot natures; I’ve got enough on my plate just holding sympathy for an old goat who forgets to demand the respect he’s due.”

“Stop doing that,” Lord Lochlin chastised her gently. “It’s just rude, my dear. Besides, I’m not here in that capacity, so it does not matter if they address me by my title or not.”

“If you’re not here as a landholder, then why are you at Outpost Five?” I interjected, stymieing Maggie’s objections to Lord Lochlin’s plea for civility.

“We were dispatched out of Ceryl at the behest of the Golden Crucible to take care of the poltergeist here,” Lord Lochlin explained. “Although they didn’t tell us they had already sent a team to deal with the problem. To be honest I feel quite superfluous now.”

“You are from the Strangelight Workshop?” Orsch interjected, barely hiding the suspicion on his voice. I didn’t need any more cue than that to hold my own tongue and watch what I said around them. My secret had already been exposed once today; I had no wish to reveal the nature of my curse to fellow investigators that would take me into custody as just another arcane mystery to be solved.

“Of course, dear boy, and although we haven’t had the pleasure of officially being introduced yet I know you are as well. Foreman Bailey informed us of your identities, and I’ve heard good things about you and your companion. Although I must admit, Jonathon, I am curious as to why you do not visit Ceryl when it is so close at hand. Beyond the accolades due to you I’m sure the Workshop would be happy to equip you with the latest in spectral detection and nullification mechanika. If you don’t mind me saying so, lads, you seem woefully under equipped.”

“We were on our way to Ceryl when we heard about the haunting here,” I lied. “It didn’t seem right to just leave these poor men to fend off deadly forces they know nothing about while I take my leave in the city.”

Maggie snorted. “Fat lot of good you’ve done so far; likely as not you would’ve been killed if we hadn’t frightened that bloody horror off.”

“I beg your pardon, madam,” I responded heatedly, straightening my back with insulted pride. “In point of fact I was about to neutralize the abomination when your thrice-cursed device blinded me. What precisely were you trying to accomplish with that contraption? For I can assure you, it was quite ineffective.”

“Why you snot-nosed overblown half-bred son of a …”

“Maggie!” Lord Lochlin stopped her. “Perhaps you should wait outside for now, my dear. Young Jonathon is looking rather under the weather still, and I’m sure Titan must be eager to check on their conditions to make sure there have been no ill effects from exposure to our equipment.”

“Yes, yes, make sure they healthy like horse of course,” piped up the little gobber from where he’d been lurking.

Mercykiller
11-23-2009, 08:08 PM
Maggie shot me a look that made me want to reach for the pistol again. Then she turned and stormed out of the tent.

?I really must apologize for Maggie. She?s not one to take to people from the start, but I?m sure in time you?ll see she?s a sweet, dear woman.?

?Indeed,? Orsch replied dryly.

Lord Lochlin cocked his head at the ogrun, clearly not sure how to take the comment and tone.

?Regardless, I?m sure you lads need to get sorted before you feel up for breakfast and a discussion on the haunting. Maggie and I will be waiting outside; I?m sure it?s dreadful, but Bailey assures us that the cook in this camp can make food that won?t turn our stomachs before lunch. Oh, and Jonathon? Do remember to wash up, especially your hands. I know you?ve had a rough night, but remember that cleanliness is piousness in the eyes of Morrow.?

Confused, I looked down while Lord Lochlin left us to finish dressing in peace. The skin on the back of my hands had begun to darken, visibly deepening in hue as I watched. Bloody red tattoos welled up from under the skin as the shade spread through my fingers to their tips, and in a few moments my hands had completely changed to a darker hue with the tattoos spiraling down from my hands to the tips of my fingers.

?Pretty itty bitty secret,? Titan observed, staring at my newly changed hands with a childish sense of wonderment.

?Keep your tongue still about this,? I warned him, digging into my luggage and pulling out a pair of soft black leather gloves. Orsch growled low in his throat to emphasize the point. He didn?t let it show on his face but I knew that my friend had seen my hands, and the change worried him.

?No worry, no hurry, Titan?s memory if asked be blurry,? the gobber promised.

I grunted in response, lost in thought. I wasn?t worried about Titan revealing my secret; for whatever reason he?d obviously decided to play along with the obfuscation of my condition. But in less than a day it wouldn?t matter any more. I?d run low on the masking cream before and I knew what was coming. Without my alchemical medicine, there was no hope left, and I?d have to work quickly to solve Outpost Five?s problems before I became useless to them.

Without a way to delay it my family?s curse would take me before the dawn of another day.




***

Mercykiller
01-16-2010, 03:14 PM
Chapter 6




The camp was buzzing like an angry hive. It was a testament to the fortitude of the miners that even those who had barely collapsed into cots from the night shift gathered themselves up and lent their own efforts so willingly to the rescue efforts. Their stalwart nature touched a chord within me, and I was left with regret that I had no skill or strength to contribute to their noble endeavors.

Instead I found myself sitting opposite of Lord Lochlin and his assistant in a nearly-deserted mess tent, prodding what might have been eggs at some time in the ancient past with a bent fork. The cooks that manned the chow line looked anxious, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty, as if our presence was keeping them away from the disaster site. From the dirty and bloody men who passed through the tent for a quick bite to eat I was able to glean that the explosion had been quite serious, and that an entire crew was still trapped down in the mines. No one knew if any of the men had survived; all the others could do was pray to Morrow while they bent their backs towards the excavation efforts. Orsch had excused himself after barely touching his own breakfast to lend his strength to their efforts, despite the objections of all present that he was still recovering from the night’s dangers. Knowing his propensity for avoiding the sweat and grime of physical labor it surprised me that he would do such a thing but I applauded his effort all the same.

“Don’t worry, lad, these men are the salt of the earth,” Lord Lochlin assured me. “They won’t give up on their friends until either their picks or their backs break.”

“I feel a tad bit useless. What fear can these men feel for a phantom that strikes at them singularly when they can lose all of their lives so easily? The threat of the supernatural must pale to them when compared to the dangers of their daily tasks.”

“Nonsense!” the senior lord harrumphed. “I’ve seen the strongest sailors in Five Fingers, men that could best a warjack in an arm wrestling contest and boast all the while, reduced to a bawling child when faced with such things. Never underestimate the terror that the hidden monsters of the world foster in the sturdiest of hearts. These men are used to the rigors of their menial lives; they take the everyday dangers for granted. But the nightmares of the arcane are ethereal, and men accustomed to grappling with their problems in the very real physical sense are often terrified of such intangible threats. Never doubt that you provide these men a service they cannot do without. A single malevolent spirit can do more damage to this camp’s morale than a dozen cave-ins.”

I gave up trying to separate the eggs from the plate and set my fork aside, carefully weighing what I was about to say. “What if it isn’t a supernatural event plaguing this area?”

“There’s no chance of that, lad,” Lord Lochlin shook his head emphatically. “We detected a spike of incredible proportions in the local phantasmal background emanations as we approached the camp. It literally blew out one of the sensing tubes; such was the power that was exuded! Other than the haunting what else could be the source of such a massive distortion in the Urcaen-Caen boundaries?”

It didn’t make any sense. I knew for a fact that there was no specter haunting the mansion on the hill. The curse would have let me know in no uncertain terms that there was the taint of the supernatural in the area, and as yet it had not even stirred. Was it possible that the affliction was changing, evolving somehow? While I would be grateful for the departure of the crippling nausea and cold shakes the prospect held a more permanent dangers. Without the ill effects that accompanied my brushes with the arcane it would make tracking down my cure that much more difficult. In the short term it would mean respite; but for my life it meant a rather nasty end much sooner than I’d prefer.

Mistaking my ruminations for disbelief, Maggie hit the table angrily, making the utensils and plates dance. “Fine, then, be that way! Why don’t you go check for yourself? I just finished repairing the sensing tubes this morning; come on, put your copper where your mouth is!” The sudden and unprovoked outburst caught me by surprise, and I simply stared at her in response, my mouth sadly agape in wonderment at the flare of her temper.

“Maggie, calm down, he was not questioning your competence. There is no need to be rude to young master Worthington.” Instead of answering him the Rhulic woman shot me a dark look and stormed out of the mess tent. Lord Lochlin sighed heavily.

“I can’t explain her reactions; all I can offer is my sincere apologies for her rudeness. Something about you just seems to rub her the wrong way. I haven’t seen her like this since we faced off with a particularly nasty and elusive phenomenon haunting one of the King’s summer retreats. Perhaps it is the proximity of the supernatural disturbance; I often wonder if such things irritate her on an unseen level, grit beneath her skin as it were. The closer we get to the arcane the angrier it makes her.”

My face went pale as I realized the truth. Of course she was furious at me; if she could sense the supernatural on a primal level, and their machines had detected a surge in this area when I was so sure the mansion was bereft of such things, there could only be one source for it.

Me.

Or more accurately, it was the curse. Orsch was right; I had been a fool to tempt fate and to secretly hope for a meeting with other investigators. The baneful magic that coursed through my blood must be what they were detecting. It would explain the irrational dislike Maggie had for me. No, not dislike. Seething hatred. I’d never experienced such an immediate negative reaction from anyone before. It was as if she could see the marks festering within my flesh and knew me for the hidden monster I was. Soon enough the source of her discomfort would be visible to all and she would be vindicated in her instinctual hatred.

“Perhaps we should check your apparatus to quell her temper,” I suggested against all common sense.

“Capital idea, lad. Maggie is always pleased to demonstrate her technical acumen. She worked hard to craft our unique equipment over the years, and I must say that without her genius we would have never been able to contain so many threats. If I might offer the suggestion, ask her every question you can think of about the mechanika. It might put her back into sorts if she’s able to strut around a little.”

As we picked our way through the chaos of Outpost Five I ruminated on my foolish suggestion. It was the height of idiocy to tempt fate in such a way, but I had to know for sure. Could their equipment detect the curse lurking within my skin, and possibly track it? If so then there’d be no place in all of Immoren to hide when I was finally discovered. In its own way it was perversely comforting to know that soon the charade would be over.

A wail of sorrow and loss cut across the encampment from our destination and lent speed to our heels. Politely pushing our way through the gruff and tired men we came upon a clearing where two coaches and their respective mounts had been tethered. Given the amount of equipment scattered haphazardly on the ground and its condition Maggie’s cry of anguish and rage was understandable. There were enough strange devices littering the ground to steal a bodger’s fancy for a month, impressive in both their complexity and quantity. Here an intricately wired gauntlet lay disconnected from a smashed mechanikal backpack, the cables between them lying like a nest of waiting metal snakes, there one of the orbs that had blinded me lay on its side next to a strange rectangular slab of corroded metal whose streaks moved lazily under my gaze, dozens of almost recognizable devices lying side by side with the inventions of a madman’s fever dream. Individually the mechanika Maggie had modified and created for the Strangelight Workshop’s work would have been impressive; taken together they were a monument of her dedication to the organization and Lord Lochlin. Despite the array of differing designs the devices now shared a rather unfortunate similarity.

They had all been sabotaged.

Even to my untrained eye it was apparent that the mechanika had been disabled quite effectively. Gears and cabling that should have been properly housed within the dented confines of the devices were strewn upon the ground while broken alchemically-treated glass glittered in the trampled mud of the clearing. An array of shattered tubes appeared to be the origin of the glass, and at the moment Maggie was intent on finishing the job. She was screaming in anger, tears running down her face, as she swung a heavy wrench into the remnants of her beloved sensing tubes.

Mercykiller
01-16-2010, 03:14 PM
“Maggie, what are you doing?” Lord Lochlin asked, alarmed and cautiously advancing on her with his hands outstretched. The only answer Maggie gave was a massive sob, before dropping the wrench dejectedly and collapsing to her knees, hands aimlessly wandering over the strewn mechanika guts around her.

“What kind of monster would destroy such beauty?” she managed to heave out between sobs. “Well they can’t have it! I won’t let them! It’s by my hand they be made, and it’s by my ... my …”

A fresh series of sobs burst forth, and Lord Lochlin knelt next to her, paying no heed to the ruination of his expensive trousers as he gently patted Maggie’s back and murmured wordless comfort to her. In the midst of her despair the Rhulic woman had decided to finish the wanton vandalism begun by the mysterious ruffian; it was the self-destructive tendency common to all geniuses, the cannibalism of the mind that turns in on itself in the artist’s darkest hour. Despite her instinctive hatred of me I felt my heart go out to Maggie. She sat amongst the ruins of her mechanikal children, wondrous creations that must have taken her years to design and build.

“Pardon me, sir, but is everything all right?” rumbled Orsch’s deep bass from behind me. I turned to see my ogrun friend approaching with a pick slung uneasily across his shoulders, an ill fit that was at odds with his stiff-necked stature. He’d taken his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves but the dirt that stained his vest and pants were inconsequential, and a terrible certainty rose up in me that he had not spent the last half hour digging out trapped miners as he had promised. I drew him behind the coaches, leaving a distracted Lord Lochlin to try and console the fiery-haired dwarf woman.

“Did you do this?” I demanded angrily, barely able to keep my voice to a whisper.

Orsch merely stared back at me, nonplussed. “Did I do what, sir? Preserve your secret in the face of staggering incompetence and suicidal tendencies on your part? Assure you the freedom to seek out your cure before the cursed disease claims your life? Refuse to allow you to throw your future away due to a childish inability to walk away from a mystery?”

“Answer the question,” I growled through clenched teeth.

“I believe I just did.”

Maggie’s sobs had receded to a soft whimper on the other side of the coaches, but they echoed louder in my ears than ever. Orsch had done what he always did, what he was sworn to do: he had protected me. But this time it had cost someone else a great deal. A cold weight grew in my stomach as I realized something very important about my friend: he didn’t care. Not about the people of Outpost Five, not about the ruination he’d brought to an inventor that had seen her precious mechanika destroyed. I had always thought his cold demeanor to be merely an artifact of his duty and determination, a shroud concealing his heart against the world. But I’d been wrong. He truly, utterly, and completely did not give a damn about anyone else other than me. It was both touching and chilling.

I spoke carefully and distinctly, enunciating each word with a force that surprised me. “Never. Again. Do you understand me?”

Emotionless goggles stared back at me. Orsch understood. Whether he would obey or not was the real question.

A querulous voice broke the stalemate and interrupted Maggie’s sobs.

“Is it here? Did you steal it? Where is it, damn you!” came the drunkenly slurred words.

We emerged from behind the coaches to find the disheveled driver of the Landship transport clutching a bottle of cheap whiskey and gesturing wildly at Maggie and Lord Lochlin. He stumbled around the scattered remnants of Maggie’s inventions, kicking them over and cursing. It was apparent that he’d not slept yet and a night of carousing had taken its toll. He continued to mutter incomprehensible comments as he pawed through the mechanika.

“Pardon me, sir, but that is quite rude of you,” I said, approaching him cautiously as Orsch circled around behind. “I can assure you that neither Lord Lochlin nor his assistant are thieves in any way, shape, or form. Perhaps you just misplaced your … um, what exactly was stolen from you?”

“They took his brain!” the driver howled. “Cut it right out! Clanker never did nothing to nobody!”

Orsch stepped forward and pinned the man’s arms easily, lifting the driver’s saggy frame up while wrinkling his nose at the alcoholic fumes every word brought. Maggie picked her wrench back up, eyes blazing at being accused of thievery, and I could see the situation was going to spiral rapidly out of control.

“Was there a murder? Someone was killed and his brain taken?” Lord Lochlin asked, his investigative instincts piqued by the man’s claims.

“Damn right he was kill’t! Stole his bloody cortex, you damn junkers, why did you … he was a good jack, protected me even when I couldn’t put him back together right, he didn’t deserve …” The driver’s testament to Clanker’s worthiness was interrupted by a bout of vomiting. Orsch dropped him with a look of disgust on his face, backing away rapidly.

“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Lord Lochlin asked me, ignoring the man who continued to angrily babble.

“He does indeed own such a machine,” I confirmed. “His coach uses a decommissioned warjack to pull it. Perhaps we should check on the veracity of his statement. It could be the same vandal that destroyed your equipment.” I settled an accusatory glare on Orsch as we followed the swaying driver to the nearby clearing where the Landship coach was berthed.

As soon as we saw the warjack the driver had called Clanker it was obvious he’d been telling the truth. The upper access hatch had been pried open with no thought to subtlety and the housing that normally would protect the cortex of the ‘jack was lying nearby. I’d seen Orsch demonstrate the strength of his species on several occasions against possessed armor so it came as somewhat of a surprise to find the housing and the hatch bore multiple tool marks scarring the locks and metal around them. A pry bar and hammer had been used, and the slight nod from Orsch confirmed it for me when I looked incredulously from the jack to him. No ogrun would have required tools to force the hatch.

Orsch hadn’t stolen the cortex.

“Why, why would anyone in this camp want to steal a cortex?” Maggie asked through her dying sniffles, voicing the question that hung over all of us. Although laborjacks were used down in the mines their cortexes would be simple things, sufficient for the job. If any of them needed replacing the camp had more than adequate repair facilities, and a warjack’s much more advanced brain would be an ill-fit in such menial servitors. It stood to reason as well that Clanker’s cortex was fatally flawed in some way; otherwise he would have been refurbished and sent back to the frontlines in this time of war. What use was such a thing in this environment to anyone when there was no profit to its theft?

“The blighter that did this’ll feel my boot up their arse when I catch them!” promised the inebriated driver.

“Is this really any of our concern?” Orsch asked bluntly, folding his arms across his chest.

Before I could take him to task about his indifferent response to the man’s plight we were rather rudely interrupted by warning claxons sounding from the direction of the mines. The press of men throughout the camp suddenly shifted direction; where before the general tide of workers had been towards the mine to assist digging their brethren out there was now a ripple of fear that turned the laborers on their heels. Anxiety spread like a virus amongst the miners, and in the confusion I caught the arm of one of the foremen I recognized from the mess tent.

“What’s going on? Was there another explosion?”

“I wish it were that simple,” he said, mopping his sweaty brow with a dirty work rag. “We knows how to handle them accidents; hell, we understand what we signed up for there. But we done broke through a few minutes ago and what we found wasn’t nothing no one expected.”

“The trapped men are dead then?”

“Aye, but not like how we thought. A few fellers went in, found trails of blood and followed them down, then came out screaming bout what they saw. None of us ain’t going down there no more; it was bad enough when it was just that there mansion, but this is too much.”

“There’s a ghost in that damn mine and it aims to kill us all.”



***

Lamarkii
01-19-2010, 09:52 AM
Just wanted to let you know that I'm really enjoying the story so far. I didn't realize from your description of Orsch that the goggles were permantly attached to his face. Am I reading that wrong?

Lamarkii

Mercykiller
01-19-2010, 10:39 AM
Glad you're enjoying it! You are correct, the goggles are surgically grafted to his face. Titan had a fun time poking at them last chapter ;)

Parintachin
01-19-2010, 12:24 PM
I really enjoy the mood in this - linked my GM to this story and told him: This is what I'd love (o:

Mercykiller
02-03-2010, 05:15 PM
Chapter 7



Misery always has a smell; this time its constituents were blood, coal, dirt, and the metallic taint of alchemical explosives.

The scent of death hung side by side with the stench of despair, fouling the mouth of the mine. Rails ran out of the darkness within, and the carts that lay upturned nearby bespoke the hasty departure of those who had been laboring within the man-made cave. Piles of rock lay near the exit in disorderly piles, the fruits of excavation, but the actual cave-in was much farther down according to those we questioned. Despite their impressive size the rough men and ogrun kept a wary distance from the mouth of the mine. Cheap whiskey was already making its rounds amongst them, offering a burning salve to their fears and a temporary boost of bravado. Choking dust hung suspended in the air, saturating the area and creating an unwelcoming haze. Hasty fortifications had been erected at a slight distance in a semicircle around the entrance with toppled equipment, dross rock cast off from the processing site, and anything else the men could lay hands on. Several miners squatted behind the makeshift cover clutching a varied assortment of worn but functional firearms. The combination of liquor and guns foretold ill consequences, and monster or not I suspected more deaths were due before the day was done.

“What the devil do they think they’re doing?” Lord Lochlin demanded of Bailey, pointing at the gunmen.

“Defending themselves, sirrah,” the foreman shot back, the tone of his voice betraying his impatience with what he considered the idiocy of city men. “You think they want to wait fer the critter to come and get them all peaceful like in their beds?”

“What exactly are they going to do that against something that nary a bullet will stop?” Maggie replied angrily, stepping in front of Lord Lochlin as if to strike the foreman for the man’s impertinence. “Do you think any phantom will give a stone’s care to your little barricades and bravado? Liquored-up fools shooting at anything that moves is just going to get someone killed without touching the real problem.”

“T’ain’t no one left in there,” Bailey said stubbornly. “If letting a few rounds loose down into the dark makes the boys feel better I ain’t about to stop them.”

“I would really rather prefer they did no such thing; I’m in no particular mood to be shot today.”

My quiet objection interrupted the brewing argument between the foreman and the other Strangelight investigators. They turned to me with varying expressions on their faces; Bailey and Maggie were fuming over my interjection, but there was suspicious look from Lord Lochlin. I could feel Orsch’s disapproving glare on the back of my neck, but I’d caught sight of something earlier that forced my hand.

“I believe young master Worthington has a plan,” the elder noble said, inclining his head towards me to continue.

“Indeed I do. Orsch and I will descend into the mine to face this arcane aberration and destroy it once and for all. The rest of you will stay here; if we do not return to the surface seek further help and equipment from Ceryl.”

“Now wait just a moment, you’re not the only ones …” Lord Lochlin objected.

“You and Maggie must not accompany us,” I interrupted him. The firm certainty in my voice gave him pause long enough to drive my point home. “Maggie needs to repair your equipment, and to be frank it is foolish to risk all of our lives in such a manner.”

“Indeed it is!” the senior lord harrumphed. “Why is it you insist on throwing yours away so quickly then?”

I lowered my voice so that it would not carry and motioned them closer. “Because something must be seen to be done. I mean no disrespect to your men, Foreman Bailey, but what will happen if night takes us and the creature remains untouched in your mine?”

The old man scrunched up his face, angry red blotches that had been forming fading away as a pall took him and he nodded in understanding. “It won’t be a pretty thing, that I can tell you. The boys have been a might jumpy for weeks, and then the accident and the critter running around down there has just about done their nerves in. They’re good men, but there’s only so much any man can take a’fore doing something about it, whether right or wrong.”

I spoke carefully but forcefully, brooking no argument. “The miners have been murdered again and again, losing men every week to the shadows. They see two teams of experts show up, led by well-dressed and manicured nobles claiming to have the answers. Then matters get worse, not better. One of us must descend into the darkness, sir. One of us must be seen to share their burdens, or the night and whiskey will turn us into false prophets, a target for those frustrated with their powerlessness. You were correct in your earlier assessment: men such as these are not used to being unable to grapple with their fear. We must give them hope.”

“Even if it is false?” Orsch asked bitterly from behind me.

“Especially if it is,” Lord Lochlin answered in my stead, nodding his head reluctantly. “Jonathon is right; we must accede to the facts of the situation. However, I disagree with his choice. Maggie and I should descend into the mines; while much of our equipment was destroyed we still possess more experience in these matters. And as morbid as it sounds, young Worthington, you have much more life ahead of you than I. I’ll not see you waste it so easily, my boy.”

“No, sir, this is how it must be. Think for a moment. There is little to no chance that Orsch and I can stop what lurks in the mines. We all know that. Who then has the best chance of convincing Ceryl, of convincing the Workshop itself, to send resources to deal with this problem? The associate investigator no one’s ever met in person, whose presence is little more than progress reports and confiscated materials arriving via post, or the senior Lord who I am sure has made personal and professional acquaintances throughout the city’s power structure? Which of us do you think can drum up the necessary resources to deal with this situation properly?”

Lord Lochlin begrudgingly agreed. Of course it was all merely a justification on my part; in truth I did not want to enter the mines for such noble reasons as heroism or self-sacrifice. No, there was another matter that necessitated such a descent, one that I’d caught sight of in a shaving mirror as we passed a workman’s tent earlier. I nervously tugged my high collar a little straighter, hoping to hide the creeping tint as it ascended my neck. I was slowly turning a darker shade due to the disease; soon the bloody tattoos would mar my face, making it impossible to hide what I was. I had to get into the mines before my affliction was revealed to all those around us.

“And what are we supposed to do while you’re off playing hero?” Maggie retorted angrily. “Sit on our thumbs and hope the local yokels don’t get trigger-happy?”

Even she looked slightly confused at her sullen hostility, but I held her no grudge. If the supernatural did irritate her on some instinctual level I feared that this would be the height of our working relationship; my very presence nearby would always act as grit in her gears. Luckily I had a task that I thought might distract the inventive mechanik.

“Actually, I’ve been wondering what happened to the wax cylinder that Orsch pulled from a device in the mansion. In your rescue efforts did you find anything clutched in his hand?”

“Aye,” Maggie said with surprise at the sudden change of subject, unbuckling a small leather satchel from her belt. It looked depressingly compact. “But it was shattered by his careless grip. I’ve got bits and pieces in here, if you can even call them that.”

When she shook the contents out in her hand my heart dropped in disappointment. I’d hoped that the cylinder was able to survive Orsch’s plummet at least partially intact, for within its grooves I felt the answer to the abomination and its hidden master could be found. But the bits and pieces in Maggie’s palm were clearly unrecoverable; no amount of work would be able to put the delicately spiraled rod back together again. Even through her unreasoning anger at me Maggie frowned at my disappointment.

“What was it, then?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” I admitted. “It was part of a macabre device that was connected to the decapitated head of a gobber named Gekananhegalog in the mansion.”

“Hang on a second,” Bailey said gruffly. “You mean ol’ Gek’s dead?”

“You knew him?”

Mercykiller
02-03-2010, 05:18 PM
The foreman nodded grimly. ?Yeah, Gek was the chief alchemist on our demolition crew. It were his job to make sure that all them explosives were mixed right. Damn it all to Urcaen, the boys must?ve tried to do without him when he didn?t show up fer his shift yesterday. That?s why the mix was all off; that?s why they done gone and blown themselves up! Poor little Titan, someone?s gonna need to go find him and tell the kid his grandpappy?s been kill?t. He was out here apprenticing with Gek to learn his family?s trade. Titan was a quick little tadpole at it too; hell, he might be the only one that knows enough to get us back on our feet after this ghost business is sorted out.?

?He seems a little small, even for his species. Is it some manner of insult to call him that??

Foreman Bailey gave a short barking laugh. ?Not really, his full name is Titananhegalog, but the first three letters weren?t exactly the most flattering fer the little tadpole, so I made the boys round here use a bit more of his name than fer a normal gobber. Kid?s been a help, and he didn?t deserve the kind of teasing he?d faced in Ceryl over it. Course I?m not even sure he noticed none too much; Gek?s whole family all kindly put their nose to the grindstone and never looked up. Only way for their kind to really ignore what?s tossed at them I suppose.?

?Perhaps you should locate Titan and put him under protective guard. I suspect the device Gek was attached to was intended to wrench knowledge from his mind, much in the same way that a grammatatron captures sounds from the air,? I theorized. ?If his family is known for their alchemical knowledge, and we shattered the cylinder that was stealing Gek?s expertise, it?s only logical to assume that Titan would be the next target.?

Bailey nodded and stepped away with a worried look, shouting for men to find Titan and keep him safe.

?How does this relate to the haunting?? Lord Lochlin looked confused. ?What use could a specter have for such information, and how would it even retain enough capacity for rational thought to devise such a plan??

?As I?ve told you before, I do not believe there is a haunting here. There is a flesh and blood madman behind this. I?m sure of it. And he?s using the cover of the phantom, perhaps even generating the events himself, to conceal his activities.?

?But the abomination that attacked you??

??was not a spectral manifestation,? I finished for him. ?It was horrible, it was disgusting, but it was real. Something constructed it with physical hands, stitching and weaving the skin and muscle together, using brass and copper where bone was insufficient. That thing was more like a Cryxian construct that any arcane remnant of the past.?

Lord Lochlin moved closer and dropped his voice to barely above a whisper, looking nervously around to make sure no one else could hear him. ?Servants of Toruk? This far inland? Do you really think this could be the start of some type of invasion??

I shook my head. ?No, I said it was similar. The dark arts aren?t limited to the Dragon?s children, no matter how we wish they were. I suspect there is some mad necromancer duplicating their works though. The construct was rough, it?s boiler likely that of the mansion itself, and seemed made of locally available components, whereas the flesh ?? I trailed off, a horrible realization dawning on me. I swallowed hard at the thought, but it made sense. ?I believe we now know why the miners have been disappearing.?

In the queasy silence that followed we heard Bailey?s shouted orders become a little more frantic, and without discussing it we all held our silence about the fate of his men as he rejoined our little group. He?d looked worried before, but now the old foreman?s wrinkles were deepened by concern that struck closer to home.

?We can?t find Titan.?

No one spoke for a moment, and I saw Bailey?s shoulders sag. His voice had restrained emotion in it, and I realized he felt a great deal of affection for the gobber and his family. ?The little tadpole, he was like a kid brother to most of the boys. Always getting into stuff, but always thinking, asking questions of the boys, learning their trades. He was kinda our mascot down here; little bugger could make you laugh along with him on damn near anything. Do you ? do you think ? the house ???

I nodded my head sadly. ?The stolen cortex, the explosion in the mines, they?re all just a little convenient I think.?

?Don?t forget our smashed equipment!? Maggie chimed in, irritated at having her personal disaster not included.

I stared at the unrepentant Orsch across from me. ?Yes, of course. That too. Taken individually it could be chalked up to routine thievery or vandalism; together I believe it points to the same party responsible for the ghastly troubles here. And given that we disrupted the thievery of Gek?s own knowledge ? I?m sorry, Bailey.?

The foreman shook his head in denial. ?Don?t you be sorry. Don?t. Cause that means you think Titan has got a spot with his grandpappy, and that ain?t what?s happened. It just ain?t.?

?Can you convince a few of your men to check the mansion, just in case it is?? I asked gently.

?Fer Titan, they?ll go. But the tadpole?s all right. He?s gotta be.? There was a forlorn hope in his voice, knowledge that he was denying the inevitable. But he still gathered several of the firearm-toting miners and formed a determined group that pushed their way through the milling crowds towards the distant house on the hill.

?How close do you think they will get before they hear his head giggling from within?? Orsch asked innocently, earning withering glares from the rest of us. He shrugged, unconcerned, and adjusted the lapels on his jacket as he put it on.

?Shall we go, sir? I believe our doom lies below, and you do seem ever so eager to meet it. No need to keep death waiting.?

I wasn?t feeling particularly fond of my companion at that moment, but he was right. The itching at my neck, the warmth moving up my face, could only mean that my time was running out. And despite my gloomy predictions to Lord Lochlin I did think that Orsch and I had a chance at besting whatever foul force resided within the mines. Much like the mansion I felt no supernatural taint to the area, and in its advanced stage my disease would have instantly reacted to any flare of the arcane nearby. If what awaited us below was anything like what we had faced in the dilapidated mansion then there was some chance of victory, no matter how small. Only the interference of Maggie?s mechanika containment spheres had kept me from taking down the monster in the house; if it had a brother in the mines the creature would not be so lucky.

A thought struck me as we approached the crumbling entrance: it wasn?t likely to be the thing crawling in the dark that would kill us. Scores of men had already lost their lives to the mine?s dangers today; what were two more that possessed none of the physical acumen of the laborers that had already fallen victim to the unstable tunnels? Still, I had little choice. I dared not reveal my affliction to the frightened miners, nor could I live with myself if I followed Orsch?s suggestions and turned my back on those who needed my help in their most desperate hour. The only choice I could in good conscience make looked to be suicide to the others, and I could not reasonably disagree with their assessment. Despite all of that, I held hope that we could overcome whatever lay ahead. I pulled my pistol from the inside of my jacket, checked its load, and prepared to face whatever lurked ahead.

?Hang on a second you two!? Maggie called out, and I groaned inside. What now? Another diatribe, more venom? She surprised me when the Rhulic woman ran up, forcing a smile, and passed over a pair of goggles to me and a cube covered in interlocking gears to Orsch. I tried to be gracious as I gingerly took the goggles, holding them away from me by their leather strap. From the burning sensation in my fingers I knew them to be mechanikal, and my skin prickled in protest at the thought of placing them over my eyes.

?Those?ll let you see in the dark as well as your ogrun,? Maggie said, confirming my suspicion on the goggles? purpose. ?Whoever smashed our gear missed what was in my luggage in the coach, so you two don?t have to go entirely unprepared. The box is something I was working on, a more compact spectral containment enclosure, although I?ll be damned if I know it?ll work. Extend the arc vanes and stand back whenever you find the spirit. Best of luck to you lads; you?re going to need it.?

She shuffled uncomfortably, her emotional distaste for me warring with her intellect, which surely must be fighting to see me in a positive light based on my actions. I nodded appreciatively; although there was no chance I?d be using the goggles I understood and respected the self-will necessary for her to overcome her unwilling hatred of me to grant us the last of her beloved mechanika. I wondered briefly if Orsch had the decency to feel bad about what he?d done when presented with such a gift from the woman whose creations he had destroyed. Sadly, I knew the answer without asking.

?Be safe down there, Lord Worthington,? Lord Lochlin intoned, standing rigid and bowing in respect. It was a farewell, a salute, from one noble to another, a gesture of respect for a colleague condemned to the gallows by his own hand. I nodded stiffly in response, turning away from the light of the day and the questionable safety of the camp towards the abyssal darkness of the unstable mine.

As we descended into the earth I wondered if I would ever see daylight again.


***

Lamarkii
02-05-2010, 09:42 AM
Another great installment. I've been asuming that the case #17 is just part of the title and theat there aren't 16 previous stories buried somewhere on the site. Is there anything else on this duo out there, maybe with more on the affliction?

Lamarkii

Mercykiller
02-05-2010, 11:22 AM
Thanks! There is indeed nothing more written about the dynamic duo anywhere else; I wanted to give the feel of a serial meets an arcane Sherlock Holmes, i.e. "join us next week when we find out if Dr. Dastardly can beat the hero on Episode 624: Escape From Generic Monster Island!" and to give the impression of quite a bit of history preceding their current adventure. But I also wanted to break with those particular genres in that the "adventure" isn't exactly canned or predisposed to their victory. However, if after their current predicament they survive to have other adventures then you can be assured there will be a Case #18 ... assuming they make it out of this alive. Which my characters can never rely on ;)

Before it's all said and done many of the mysteries will be revealed, I promise ... although there's no assurances all of them will be :D

There'll be a new chapter Monday, and every Monday afterwards until the current case is put to rest ... or the heroes are. *insert much mustachio twirling and deeply disturbing chortles*

Mercykiller
02-08-2010, 10:35 AM
Chapter 8




?Damn it to the depths, mate, stop swinging yer bow into the tumbler!?

?Sir, your speech pattern ??

?Yes, I am quite aware of it, just slow down if you please,? I responded irritably.

Not ten feet in a sudden turn and the dust had conspired to eliminate most of the ambient light in the mine, leaving me clutching Orsch?s coattails like a child as I stumbled through the dark. The useless goggles lay discarded near the entrance; due to my allergic reaction to mechanika they would have blinded me as surely as the inky blackness of the tunnel. To spare Maggie?s feelings we?d retrieve them on our sojourn back to the light, assuming we survived whatever was down here. Unfortunately due to her generosity I?d not been able to request even a lantern, so I?d been reduced to cursing with an increasingly rough demeanor over the better part of an hour as I tripped over rock and rail. I knew that an electric light system ran across the ceilings of the mine utilizing the latest in Cygnaran transmission techniques, but I also knew that after the explosion it had been shut down for fear of released gases igniting from a spark in any compromised lines. It was cold comfort that I?d likely not have been allowed the lantern in the first place, but every minute we descended further I felt more vulnerable, more exposed due to my blindness. Not for the first time I missed the Jameson lantern that I?d lost in the altercation at the ruined mansion; it?s design would have made it largely safe from igniting gasses, and it?s blue-white beam would have been a godsend in the stygian confines.

Orsch?s voice showed none of the irritation I was feeling at our slothful pace; indeed, he was more than happy to delay as much as he could, and oftentimes it seemed that he was overly cautious with his footing, deliberately slowing us further. The rails running throughout the depths of the mine were evenly spaced for the carts, and by following them we stayed to the main corridors. Bereft of sight my hearing tried to compensate, and I strained to discern the sounds of the creature, anticipating the attack at every breath. Crumbling rock and creaking support beams worried me, and more than once we?d been forced to stop and use our handkerchiefs to shield our lungs against the rush of a dust cloud that had been disrupted from deeper in. It didn?t matter whether it was the creature or the instability creating the disturbances; either one was a dangerous end.

Without warning my skin prickled, as if a cold blast of air had passed by. An overwhelming sense that the shadows were stalking us shook me, and I fumbled with my pistol, almost dropping it. I nearly discharged it in blind panic when Orsch stopped suddenly and I ran into the back of his massive form.

?What do you see?? I whispered desperately. Visions of gore covered abominations, legion in number, shambled through my imagination and into the caves. A sickening fancy struck me as I thought of my own flesh woven into the fell creations, arms and legs subsumed into an ocean of horror, brass rods twitching beneath my skin and forcing a jerky marionette pace. The coppery tang of blood intermixed with gagging sulphur filled my nostrils, and it took a moment to separate my nightmare from reality as I realized the scent was not part of any dream.

It was real.

?We are at the site of the accident,? Orsch stated flatly. ?Sir, I must urge you once more to reconsider this course of action. It is not wise to tarry here.?

?I?ve never labored under that accolade; I fear not the departure of a quality that was never present. Now describe what you see.?

A lengthy pause preceded an irritated sigh of capitulation from the large ogrun. ?Rubble. Broken beams. A cave-in resulting from an overly large detonation. There really is very little to describe of a mine collapse that is not contained in the words themselves.?

?And the bodies? What condition are they in.?

Another lengthy pause.

?There are no bodies.?

?Then where is that scent coming from ? oh ??

Blood without bodies. I didn?t need my sight to understand what that meant. I crouched down, removing one of my gloves to utilize my sense of touch, and ran my fingers through the sticky mud. Rubbing it between my fingers I concentrated on it, noting how it was still tacky but drying. There was plenty of blood here; it had saturated the ground. It meant death, perhaps with more victims than could be explained by a mere accident. So where were the bodies? And what had killed them if not the explosion or cave-in? The miners had shouted fearfully about a monster, yet none of them could actually describe it. Perhaps that specific knowledge rested solely within the reach of the dead; the living, by definition, had not born witness to the horror.

Cursing my lack of sight I strained to hear anything amiss, to feel any change in air currents that might indicate something dire approaching. But I remained dumb to the world. Impulsively I raised my mud and blood covered fingers to my nose, taking in the scent, trying to utilize any tool I could, frustrated at my uselessness. Without thinking about it I let my tongue dart out and tasted the sample. The realization of what I?d done had no time to repulse me before my vision exploded.

Streaks of crimson ran across the darkness of my world, scarlet waterfalls of pain streaking across my sight like a fiery sky. The sudden influx of unexpected sensation knocked me back into the bloody mud, and the cacophony of skewed sight only increased. It felt as if my mind were about to burst out through my eyes, and distantly I could hear a worried Orsch calling out to me, picking me up off the ground as I convulsed. I shut my eyes tight against the pain, and almost immediately the influx tapered off to a mercifully muted vortex of red lines and shades.

With trepidation I peeked out a few seconds later, and after a momentary sense of disorientation the world righted itself into a series of crimson lines. I opened my eyes wider and realized with a start that I could see everything around me in outlines of pulsing red, as if there was no color but black and the edges of objects radiated scarlet. Orsch sat me down carefully on an upturned mine cart, murmuring comforting nothings as if to a child, his frame highlighted as a ruby phantom without substance. Warmth flowed down my cheeks; the smell of fresh blood was overpowering. The coppery taste in the back of my throat caused me to cough uncontrollably for a moment.

?The curse is progressing, sir, and this filthy air is not helping matters any,? Orsch rumbled, towering over me. He produced a clean handkerchief from his vest, taking no notice of my eyes following his movements. It struck me that he didn?t realize I could see what he was doing in the pitch black darkness, and I sat, silent and perplexed, as he reached into another pocket and produced a small vial. ?Just one moment, let me find something to filter out the dust for you.?

He uncorked the vial and a sickly sweet smell sprang from within. I was speechless as he turned the bottle upside down while holding the handkerchief tight against it, dousing it with a considerable amount of the mysterious liquid. There was a pit in my stomach of worry and fear. I recognized the scent. I?d taken it to be some sort of cologne the last time it had been present on Orsch?s handkerchief, but the reality was far more sinister.

Orsch was trying to drug me.

Bloody bile rose up in the back of my throat, remembering the incident during our recent Landship trip, where his ?help? had caused me to vomit gore and collapse. It wasn?t the first time such a thing had occurred, but I?d always chalked it up to a symptom the disease, an unfortunate side effect of the magical affliction. I?d been very wrong. Orsch had purposely made me sick. Whatever the strange vial contained had made me ill, time and time again.

My ogrun companion put the bottle away and came towards me with the handkerchief outstretched, making comforting noises. He was thrice my size and could easily overpower me if it came down to it. But Orsch didn?t know that I was able to see, and he remained blissfully unaware that I?d witnessed his betrayal. As the crimson outline of my supposed bodyguard approached I feigned blindness, ?falling? from the unstable cart back into the mud, looking around desperately as if I were helpless and frightened. I used the cover of my false panic to pass my hand across the pulsing outline of my pistol. With a grace that surprised both of us I twisted around Orsch?s outstretched hand as he reached in to drug me, using my free arm to lock his long enough to slither underneath his grasp, springing off his thick thigh and using the leverage to scamper nimbly up his sturdy back before shoving the barrel of the forgelock into his temple. He held perfectly still when he heard the distinctive click as I cocked the hammer to fire.

?You can see in the dark.? It was a statement from the massive ogrun, not a question.

?Indeed.?

?And what do you believe you have you seen?? Orsch asked, his voice betraying no emotion. It was unnerving to have him respond so calmly, and the pistol felt small and ineffective against such a giant. Would the bullet pierce his thick skull even at point blank range? Would I be able to pull the trigger against my only friend, the ogrun that had tended me since my memories began? But of course that begged the real question: was he my friend, or my enemy?

?I saw enough to know that you, not the cursed disease, are responsible for my sickness. If there even is a curse. How many times have you made me ill? And why, for the love of Morrow, why? I thought you were my friend.?

Mercykiller
02-08-2010, 10:35 AM
A heavy sigh rumbled through his frame. ?I am, sir. All that I have done has been for your benefit.?

?Making me puke blood over the decks is yer version of being a good mate, eh, you lily-livered backstabbing swine?? I drawled out angrily before I could control myself.

?Can you not hear the degradation in your speech patterns; feel the dulling of your mind itself? It is true, I have never revealed the methods I use to preserve what life you have left to you, but I have my reasons. Exsanguination is a rather nasty affair, but regular bloodletting is the only thing that keeps the disease from completely overtaking you. This is a tried and true method of dampening the curse?s symptoms in your family.?

I desperately wanted to believe him. But I couldn?t. The answer was rolling off his tongue too easily. It sounded like a rehearsed lie. Was it? There was no way to tell without contacting my family, but only Orsch knew how to do that, and he was hardly an objective party to the query of whether my companion had turned against me or not.

?Do you not feel it, sir? That warmth is the blood running down your cheeks; your eyes are naught but two ruby orbs in the dark, filled to overflowing with your own lifeblood. The dark hue has completely overtaken you, and the tattoos have welled up across your face. Please, let me attend to my duties before you are lost to us.?

?Give me your hand mirror,? I demanded. Slowly he reached inside his jacket, making sure to not jostle my arm or the finger on the trigger. If nothing else I was comforted by the fact that Orsch thought the bullet could kill him; I remained unconvinced.

Orsch held the ancient hand mirror we?d used once against a vain specter up so that I might see my reflection. But the crimson vision granted by the disease failed me; all I saw was the bloody shape of it on a field of black. I was unable to perceive colors, textures, reflections, or anything else beyond a pulsing crimson outline of the world. I?d have to take his word about my current appearance, and my faith in Orsch?s honesty was currently nonexistent. I made a disgusted sound at the dilemma and he put the mirror away.

?How long will we wait here, sir, before you believe me? I have time eternal to dally. Unfortunately, you do not.?

?I don?t feel sick; in fact, I feel better than I can ever remember. And this power, this way of seeing. If you bleed me, I?ll lose it, will I not??

Orsch almost nodded, but the pistol?s barrel convinced him otherwise. ?Yes. Don?t you see? That is the trap, the pitfall others of your family have fallen into. The closer the curse comes to killing you, the more exhilarated and powerful you will feel.?

?But you?ve only exsanguinated me on a few occasions; how then am I still alive??

?The alchemical concoction Gek supplied to us repressed the effects as well as the appearance of the disease. It is not merely for your social life that I urged you to continue the regimen of its application.?

A queasy realization struck me. ?It was always you, though, wasn?t it? You?ve been keeping me as an invalid for the last two years. It?s not been the curse that caused my illness, nearly crippling me in my search for a cure. It was you.?

?Of course,? Orsch replied without hesitation or shame. ?I will not apologize for keeping you alive by any means available to me. You must understand this simple fact: the longer you stay in your current state the faster you hasten your demise.?

?I don?t believe you.? I wanted to though. It made sense, and his argument gave me an avenue where I could forgive my friend. But I needed to be sure, needed to know. The whispered words of the female apparition from the last town haunted me, echoing louder in my head with each new betrayal I?d discovered from Orsch: ?don?t trust him.?

There was no reason to anymore. He?d lied to me, he?d proven that he could lie to anyone?s face without blinking, and his recent actions against Maggie?s equipment revealed his capability for destruction when he felt justified. But at the same time Orsch had always acted in my best interests as far as I could tell, and no matter how brutish his methods the ogrun had never wavered in what he saw as his duty to me.

A deep and painful howling echoed down the corridors of the mine from a side passage, throwing my thoughts into disorder. In my zeal to stop Orsch from drugging me the beast that prowled the darkened tunnels had slipped my mind. I looked down to the ground where the miners? bodies should have been and saw it through my new eyes. Streaks of blood glowed solid in a way that nothing else had, pulsing in their entirety where I?d only expected to see outlines. I was easily able to separate the churned mud and the blood of the dead, and it was child?s play for me to determine that all of the corpses had been dragged down the same side tunnel recently.

Another throttled howl announced that the creature, whatever its origin, was due to return. It smelled fresh bodies; it smelled us. I still clung to Orsch?s back, caught within a web of deception as I tried to rationalize why I shouldn?t trust him even as my heart forgave his betrayal. My intellect fought with my emotions, and I despised the battle itself.

?Toss the bottle away,? I ordered him, coming to a decision.

?No, sir. I will not.?

I dug the barrel deeper into his temple, hating myself. ?Do it or I?ll shoot you.?

?No, sir. You will not. It is not your nature. As disappointed in me as you obviously are, you know that I would never betray you. Everything I do is for your survival; as it always has been. As it always will be.?

I couldn?t dispute that. But I could use it.

With a smooth movement that surprised me in its grace I pulled the pistol away and leapt backwards, barely avoid his huge hands as he swung around to grab me. One of his rare smiles spread across Orsch?s wide face, all the grimmer for the circumstances.

?Come, sir. Do not be difficult. I must stifle your illness before the creature returns so that we may flee. There is nothing you can do for the people in this camp; the time has come to think of your own life.? Another throaty bellow from the monster, much closer this time, enunciated his point.

?Indeed it is,? I answered solemnly, and I raised the pistol once more. This time the forgelock was not pointed at Orsch?s head.

It was pointed at mine.

?I will not live like that any longer, Orsch. Break the vial, or I will shoot myself here and now. Better a clean death than an invalid?s life; Urcaen will be a mercy compared to unending sickness.?

Orsch?s cold smile disappeared, and he stood there for a long moment, scrutinizing me through his emotionless goggles. After what seemed like an eternity he nodded slowly and pulled the vial out of his coat. Heavy shuffling footsteps down the hall announced the approach of the creature, and with my enhanced senses I could smell it around the corner. Blood and coal and a greasy undertone of something wicked, suffering made solid in form and purpose. Orsch heard it as well, but ignored the approaching danger as he uncorked the vial and poured its remaining contents into the bloody mud. After a moment?s hesitation the treated handkerchief followed, and he ground it in with his boot heel as a show of compliance.

?You realize you will die soon. It is now inevitable,? he said sadly.

?Death is always inevitable,? I responded. ?That I can choose my manner and time is a blessing from Morrow, and one I?d rather face with all my faculties intact, rather than sick and huddled in the corner.?

Orsch nodded in understanding. Not acceptance, just understanding. It was good enough for me. I lowered the forgelock from my head and motioned him closer. It was good to have my friend stand next to me once more, and despite the blood that wept from my eyes in sluggish rivers I felt better than I ever had before.

Through the pulsing outline of the wall I saw something moving with my sanguine vision, a malformed shape that pulsed with unnatural life, that glowed much as the blood of its victims. Orsch picked up one of the discarded pickaxes from a nearby pile, its oversized head and handle crafted for workers of his species and making for an intimidating weapon.

?Are you ready, sir??

I nodded.

?Then let death come. We face it together.?

Death obliged.




******

Lamarkii
02-09-2010, 09:13 AM
Outstanding. Even if they win, they lose as he won't be able to leave the mine in the state he's in. The change in vision, based on reds/blood was a good touch. Not quiet low light or dark vision, but with a little twist. Looking forward to next week's installment.

Lamarkii

Mercykiller
02-14-2010, 11:34 PM
Chapter 9




When the scarlet form cleared the switchback and turned towards me I was blinded by a beam of bluish white light that streamed from the misshapen giant. I stumbled back, cursing, raising my hands to shield my overly sensitive eyes as the pitch black of the cave was violated by the illumination. The newfound dexterity I?d been blessed with proved insufficient to keep me upright as my heels caught the cart rails and sent me flailing backwards, but by its grace I was able to save my skull from being split open on the rock wall as I impacted. Disoriented from the unexpected glare I scrabbled to regain my footing, expecting the killing blow to descend on me at any moment.

Orsch charged forward into the light, and I surmised his goggles must have provided a protection against the blinding effect that my own sanguine vision did not. My companion gave no battle cry, only the grunt of effort as he swung the pickaxe with all his might at the creature. A sickening sound of flesh giving way to the heavy bladed head met his efforts, but the light did not fall. A moment later it flickered and I felt the rush of air as the monster lifted Orsch up and threw him into the far wall of the mine. Orsch struck a support beam with a splintering crash, and I feared that his spine had taken the brunt of the impact. Despite my misgivings my companion stumbled back to his feet, using the wall and shattered wooden strut for balance. But the spots that still danced in my eyes did not obscure the copious amounts of blood I now saw glowing under his clothes with my thrice-damned vision.

The cone of light swung towards me, and I closed my eyes tight against the blinding radiance. Surprise gripped me as I discovered that I could see the crimson shape of the monster clearly still. The startled realization that the strange blood sight required no use of my eyes nearly cost me my life as the creature reached for me with an arm far larger than it should have been, its fingers the size of my forearms. I leapt to the side nimbly, and as it clumsily groped for me I realized that this wasn?t an undiscovered horror that had murdered the miners and harvested their bodies for its mysterious master.

It was the abomination from the mansion.

I couldn?t imagine how the thing had managed to sneak into the mine without arousing alarms throughout the camp, but there was no denying its identity. Had I been able to see normally recognition would have been instantaneous; truly it was difficult to imagine the tattered remnants of shredded skin hanging from the woven muscled frame could be mistaken for anything else. Under the auspices of the sanguine vision though the abomination pulsed in even more sickening detail. I could clearly see the borders where one man?s flesh had been woven into another?s, and the blank spots peppering it throughout would be the presence of the infernal mechanika that kept it moving, bronze and copper pulleys, gears, and bars. The stench of its homemade furnace was overpowering, and I was finally able to identify the greasy evil that lay as its undertone.

The abomination was using necrotite as its fuel this time.

But how had the creature?s creator gotten access to the hellish coal? Lord Lochlin?s fear that Cryx were operating in the area seemed more valid now, but it just didn?t make any sense. Had the Nightmare Kingdom been conducting operations locally I would expect there to be more death, and far more corruption. While I?d never had the unfortunate luck to encounter any of the denizens of the Dragon?s empire I?d heard some fairly horrific stories that led me to believe that the presence of Toruk?s undead servants would have a far more deleterious impact on the land and its creatures. Tales of the destruction wrought by his forces swirled in my mind, and it was difficult to imagine they would be as subtle as this monster?s master in their designs or their murderous tendencies.

As if in confirmation of its improved fuel source the creature swung its oversized arm back towards me faster than at the mansion, and only my curse-granted dexterity saved me from the abomination?s grasp. It was difficult to dodge the monster?s hand with my arm covering my eyes but I couldn?t take the chance of being blinded once more. Again and again I danced away from the fast but clumsy attacks, unable to steady myself for even a moment to fire the pistol I desperately clutched in my other hand. The light from the center of the hulking mass tracked my every movement, and horror chilled my blood when I saw the source.

In the dilapidated mansion I?d managed to deprive the creature of its senses by destroying its head; since then, its master had found a replacement. The abomination?s new head was smaller than its original and its giant mass did nothing to alleviate the absurdity of the size differential. Tiny sharp teeth ringed the slack jaw of the face, and from within it the cone of light illuminated the creature?s path, as if it were regurgitating the beam. I almost expected to hear insane giggling bubble up from the radiant depths, and thanked Morrow for the small mercy that it did not.

The abomination used Gek?s decapitated head as its own.

Although everything was still edged in pulsing red my normal vision had cleared to the point where it was possible to recognize the old gobber?s head lit from within like some kind of obscene jack-o?-lantern. Light poured out through his jaws, forced open permanently by bronze bars holding the lower mandible in position. The cataract-ridden eyes were backlit by the hellish glow, and my stomach turned as they twitched, their blind gaze tracking my movements.

I was so morbidly fascinated with the incorporation of the dead gobber?s head into the abomination that my concentration faltered, and in the split second I hesitated due to disgusted wonderment the abomination had me. As I leapt it caught hold of my foot, giving a gurgled cry of triumph as it swung me around like a cat by the tail. Despite the dizzying speed I was able to keep my bearings, a feat that would have amazed me if I had been in safer circumstances. Rock walls whisked by my head by scant inches as the abomination spun me around, and I had only a moment to be amazed my brains had not been dashed out against them before Orsch lowered his shoulder and barreled into us.

The creature?s grip slackened just enough for me to slither out of the way as Orsch drove it back into the wall, but his surprising assault was not enough to overpower the abomination for long. It pushed back, hard, and sent my companion staggering backwards. The abomination gave a garbled cry of irritation and rushed at Orsch, its size dwarfing the ogrun, the flesh and metal working together to form a deadly onslaught. But in its haste it gave me an opening, and I was easily able to draw a bead on its back.

I raised the forgelock and took aim at my target, trying to judge the shot so that I might down the monster and leave my friend alive. It wasn?t the lead ball itself that endangered Orsch, for my aim was better with the sanguine vision than I was used to. No, what worried me was the result of my marksmanship. But in the end there was no real choice.

The pistol roared, its normally meek report echoing back from the claustrophobic walls as I fired, and the shot flew straight and true. Although my sanguine vision refused to fill in the space below the skin of its lower back I knew by the cavity shape that the abomination?s boiler lurked there, relatively unprotected and assuredly under massive pressure from the necrotite fuel burning in its furnace.

There was no time to call out a warning to Orsch and I was barely able to throw myself flat before my shot penetrated the vulnerable boiler, causing a catastrophic depressurization that converted its water supply into an explosive force that rocked the mineshaft with its detonation.

Scalding steam flashed across my back and neck, soaking my coat and blistering my skin with its heat as it passed. The pain blossomed and then subsided just as quickly, and I understood just how bad that meant my injuries were. Chunks of the abomination?s flesh showered me, sizzling droplets of its blood spraying the area, and it was a long moment before I could work up the courage to look up and check on Orsch.

The force of the abomination?s explosion had thrown him back towards the rubble that choked the shaft, and I held my breath as I searched for movement. Agony greeted me as I struggled upright, and my sanguine vision was useless as the entire mine was now soaked in the destroyed abomination?s blood. Everything glowed an eerie red to me, and it was difficult to make out the outlines of the world.

?Orsch?? I managed to croak out. My voice was hoarse and raw, the heated air having scalded my throat from its passing. I?d forgotten to hold my breath at the culmination my foolhardy plan.

Silence greeted me.

?Orsch, are you all right?? The pain was excruciating when I spoke, but worry drove me to keep calling out.

Mercykiller
02-14-2010, 11:35 PM
The rubble shifted slightly, and I heard weak coughing.

?I warned you that this was a bad idea,? complained the debris.

Despite the pain I managed to croak out the ogrun?s name again joyfully. Walking was a feat unto itself, but somehow I managed to hobble over to where his voice had come from. Amidst the bloody chunks of monster and crumbled rocks he lay, partially covered by a minor collapse and the gore of the creature?s remains. As I struggled to help free him of the rubble I found he had survived the explosion with relatively little injury. The bulk of the abomination had shielded him from the brunt of the damage. I winced for him though as he calmly pulled a tiny broken bronze piston out of his cheek, bringing fresh blood with it as he did so. The shrapnel from the creature riddled his clothes along with the remains, but for the most part Orsch had managed to survive without any major wounds. The shock quickly passed for him, and he noticed how I was favoring my back as I moved.

?Sir, are you injured??

I winced away from his concern. ?It?s nothing; don?t worry about it.?

?Do not be ridiculous. I can see that you are not well. Allow me to tend you.?

?With what?? I croaked sarcastically. ?Other than peeling my jacket off to let dirt into the blisters I?m not sure what you expect to do.?

?You require immediate medical attention. We must leave.?

?Looking like this?? I rasped angrily, pointing to my face. I could still feel the slow seeping river of blood that my eyes wept, the pulsing of the scarlet tattoos under my skin. How I hadn?t run out of blood just from my eyes was a morbid mystery to me.

Orsch remained stubbornly silent. I knew he was only concerned about my safety, but how could I ever face Lord Lochlin and the others aboveground like this? He knew as well as I what would happen if the other Strangelight investigators were to see me in such a state.

A sickly glow drew my attention to a ghoulish remnant nearby. Gek?s head had been blown free of the obliterated body during the explosion, and it lay nearby, partially crushed and rather pathetic in its own way. I reached out with my toe and flipped the head over as carefully as I could, my curiosity getting the better of caution even now. Scales ran across parts of the face that I didn?t remember seeing before, and there were slight horny protrusions. Gek?s skin tone was a darker and more disgusting green than I remembered, backlit by the flickering bluish white light. I?d thought the beam of light from within his mouth to be the result of the boiler, yet the head retained its unsettling ability to generate the dying glow. Gek?s lower jaw was missing now, and without it I could easily see the source of the illumination that the abomination had used to hunt with.

The battered and barely recognizable shape of our lost Jameson lantern flickered once more within the confines of the ruined head before finally sputtering out entirely.

?He?s taunting us,? I growled.

?Who??

?The fiend responsible for all of this,? I muttered in return, indicating the mine, the mansion, the entire situation with a sharp nod of my head that cost me dearly. Every movement brought fresh pain, and it was a slow ordeal to reload my forgelock.

?Do not be absurd, sir.? Orsch didn?t sound convinced of his own objection.

I didn?t bother dignifying his denial. We both knew it was true. Without asking if he was coming or not I started down the switchback the creature had emerged from.

?Do you know where we are going?? Orsch asked with resignation, knowing it was useless to argue with me now.

?Yes.?

My companion didn?t press me for further details, nor was I in a particularly loquacious mood with my burnt throat. Were I able to, I would have pointed out the trails of blood that led away from where the creature had dragged the bodies of the miners. To others it might have been indistinguishable by now in the churned earth, but the path glowed crimson and clear to my cursed sight.

As we followed the trail walking steadily became a little easier for me, although the pain became increasingly more acute as well. It was not long before the blood led us out of the more well-used corridors of the mine and into areas where track had not been laid yet.

?It appears as if they only recently blasted through this wall,? Orsch observed. The tunnel took a sudden sharp turn upwards where he indicated the fresh excavation, and even with my limited vision it was clear that there was a different sort of construction at work beyond the opening. Whereas the mine was sparse and utilitarian the tunnel that spiraled upwards from where we stood had the feel of something ancient and ornate, something that had been made by inhuman hands long ago. To our left it spiraled upwards and to our other side it descended even deeper into the ground.

?They appear to have broken through to something much older,? I whispered, as much out of fear as pain. There was precious little I could see; while the disease allowed me to see the living and the dead with a fair amount of accuracy it apparently was less discerning about rock and metal. ?What do you see? Something seems wrong with this tunnel.?

?Indeed. I recognize this stonework. There are faded runes covering the stones, as well as friezes of rather horrific things. We should return to the camp posthaste.?

?Why? Who made this tunnel??

Orsch turned his gaze down at me, and I could feel him measuring me, weighing what he saw and how much to say. Finally reaching a conclusion he looked away with a small shrug and grudgingly answered.

?The Orgoth.?

My imagination ran rampant with dark speculation about the nature and the age of the corridor the miners had accidentally opened. Did they release something buried deep under the earth, something even the demon-worshipping Orgoth were loath to let run free? Or had they found some hidden enclave, a six centuries old bastion of evil that had been left behind to rot like a cancer? The need to know, to understand why and how, drove me on to more foolish decisions.

?Let?s find out where it goes.?

A heavy sigh from behind and the scrape of a recovered pickaxe told me that Orsch knew it was useless to argue. He?d fought putting me in danger every step of the way, but we were in too deep now and he knew it. We?d passed the point of no return on a storm-wracked ocean, and the only safety we?d see now lay on the other shore.

The blood trail led inexorably up the winding Orgoth corridor, and a creeping suspicion rose up as to our destination. Our senses were honed to a knife?s edge, searching and seeking the sounds that would announce another abomination, another horror sent from the nightmares to claim us. The shadows felt like they watched us. I could feel their hunger, their need. But nothing attacked. We walked upwards, winding in an arcane pattern I could feel under my skin.

Then we heard the screaming and weeping.

It was faint at first, as if from the bottom of a deep pit, but as we trudged up the corridor it became louder, more insistent. A constant wailing of terror and pain that enflamed the heart with sympathy, that movement of the soul when you wish there was something you could do, anything, to end the sufferer?s torment. Soon enough we were able to hear the ghastly pleas for mercy and death, and our footsteps slowed out of dread as we rounded the last corner with weapons ready. With a sickening lurch I realized the trap we?d fallen into. The abomination hadn?t snuck into the mine; it had used the Orgoth tunnel to drag victims back to its master?s lair.

We were in the cellar of the ruined mansion on the hill.

Mercykiller
02-14-2010, 11:36 PM
The room before us was as old as the corridor itself, but unlike the tunnel its true purpose had been hidden from prying eyes in its heyday. Empty wine racks and ale barrels around us spoke of the disguise the cellar had once used, but the innocuous objects were smashed and discarded now, shoved to the side to make room. With the thick layer of obscuring dirt swept away arcane sigils and patterns carved into the stone floor had been revealed, confirming the dark predilections of the nobility that once called this place home. An alchemical laboratory and crude machine shop had been set up in careful accordance with the inscriptions below, but our eyes were drawn to what hung from the overhead support beams.

Screaming and pleading, the living bodies of Bailey and his search party danced on meat hooks that had been driven through their arms and backs, the chains that suspended them jangling a gruesome rhythm as they struggled.

They should have been dead from blood loss, and one man actually had a hook piercing up from underneath his jaw with its tip poking out the back of his head. But they weren?t. I couldn?t imagine the hell they were in now, jerking spastically on the hooks and chains like a ghoulish sideshow. Muted runes glowed along the hooks, and there was little doubt that they were the things keeping the men alive in that perpetual agony, dangling there, sides of beef waiting for their turn at the butcher?s table.

The curse took me suddenly and violently, the nearby presence of the arcane hooks causing a series of dry heaves that drove me to my knees with the ferocity of the effect. I struggled to stay conscious, to fight through the pain of my burns and the violent reaction of my disease to the presence of the supernatural artifacts. I was terrified I?d wake up on one of those hooks, screaming as my flesh was flayed for another abomination, never released from the torment.

My futile efforts elicited a high pitched shriek of laughter from the mastermind behind the madness, standing there with cleaver and spanner under the twitching men, ready for fresh victims. We had been expected, and like good little sheep we had walked right into the slaughter. My sanguine sight went dark, and I fell to my knees retching blood as the curse took its toll.

The last thing I heard before I fell unconscious was Titan, giggling uncontrollably with maniacal happiness.


*****

Lamarkii
02-16-2010, 08:38 AM
A nice little twist. Titan has the skills to build the mechanika but I'll be interested in seeing how he got the fuel for his beast. The corruption was clear with Gak and I'm wondering whether that occured while he was alive or something that developed once he was made part of the beast.

Really enjoy the writing style and the use of words. The narrator uses an upper crust more erudite turn of phrade and use of words. A good fit for the type of character.

Mercykiller
02-22-2010, 09:50 AM
Chapter 10






Claws raked across my face gently, almost lovingly.

?Wakey, wakey, time for breaky,? giggled Titan.

There was precious little light to see by when I opened my eyes; the crimson outlines that had allowed vision in the dark were gone. Titan?s own eyes caught the faint light like a cat?s, and they widened in joy when he saw I?d awakened. I tried to sit up only to discover that I?d been strapped down with leather restraints to an archaic surgical table, shirtless and frightened but otherwise unharmed. My back burned not from the scalded flesh, but rather from the contact with the table itself, whose mechanikal nature was apparent given my allergic reaction to it. Welts seared my back, but all the same I gave thanks to Morrow that I hadn?t been hooked to the ceiling like Bailey and his men. Above me I could yet hear their muffled moaning and see bodies jerking in their dance of agony. For whatever reason Titan?s victims had stopped screaming for the time being; I did not wish to speculate as to why.

Titan scratched my cheek with a clawed finger, bringing fresh blood to the surface. ?Where sigils, where runes? No hidey answers, bad boy, no joy.? With a devilish look Titan reached behind him and I gritted my teeth, expecting a bone saw, a hammer, a wrench, or any number of other torturous tools.

Instead he put an old gas lantern on my chest and turned up the flame.

Above me Bailey and his men writhed at the edge of the light, their chains jangling in a hypnotic rhythm. My stomach churned with repressed disgust at what I saw. During the time I?d been unconscious several had been flayed down to their bones and many had various organs missing from gaping cavities in a ghastly display of butchery. Yet still they lived, held aloft by the damnable Orgoth hooks. Two of the men were missing entirely, and I refused to speculate on their fate. Titan must have gotten tired of the screaming from the remainder of the rescue party, for their lips had been sewn shut, and the poor devils were only able to groan in constant agony. Bailey, the formerly one-armed foreman, was now missing all of his limbs, and the fresh stumps twitched pitifully in their absence. I was appalled at the half-living state the hooks kept him and his men in; death would doubtlessly be a welcome relief. Despite the proximity of the arcane hooks the disease did not strike me down, but judging from the dissected state of the men above I?d been unconscious for a substantial length of time. How long had I writhed senseless as the magic tortured me? It was small comfort that the disease had receded enough to allow consciousness again; before Titan was done I suspected I?d count my awakening as a curse rather than a mercy.

?Why so difficult?? Titan pouted, raking his claw across my bare midriff. ?Need flay to get skin to grin again?? I?d had trouble understanding the gobber before, but his speech had become more fragmented, perhaps almost as much as his mind.

My head remained unsecured, so I was able to lift it enough to view my upper body. I was surprised to see that while my skin retained the dark hue from the disease the bloody tattoos had receded once more. I could feel them lurking though, twisting deep in my muscle. It took a moment to focus my sight beyond my own plight to where Orsch lay bound nearby.

Although there was a dreadful vacancy on the Orgoth hooks above the chains that restrained my unconscious companion were not attached to any malevolent artifacts; however their quantity and distribution left little doubt he was just as helpless as I. He too had been stripped of his shirt and jacket, leaving his pallid grey flesh exposed with its Y-shaped scar tissue, the arms of which marred the space below his collarbones before merging into a single long slash that ran down the length of his torso. While his bowler hat was missing Orsch?s goggles remained steadfastly in place. It was surprising that Titan hadn?t tried to cut them off yet. The little gobber had been fascinated by the fact that they were surgically grafted to my companion; truth be told, it was a mystery that intrigued me as well. While Orsch had sustained no visible injury yet it was certain that the fiendish gobber had grim plans for us both. That my friend had been so easily caught and imprisoned baffled me. Had Titan subdued him using alchemical means, or were there things lurking in the shadows that the gobber controlled against which even an ogrun was powerless?

Titan clambered down from the table and took the lantern with him, hitting an unseen foot pedal that swung the table upright and made me queasy with the sudden movement. Badly-maintained gears squealed in protest as the table lurched forward to follow Titan across the room towards Orsch like a loyal dog at its master?s heels. The jerky progress of the device corresponded to the ingrained runes in the floor and led me to believe that there was some sort of clockwork mechanism connecting the two. Titan?s lantern highlighted the various alchemical apparatus and mechanikal bits and bobs doubtlessly stolen over time from the work camp strewn about his laboratory. A short flight of stone steps beyond that led up to a warped oaken door and presumably into the mansion itself. Fractured steps and the ill-fit of the door within its frame, rattling loosely at every change in air current, told me that the abomination had passed that way before. The ruined mansion had never been meant to accommodate a creature that dwarfed even ogrun in size.

The gobber had made good use of his access to the apothecary?s tent, and an assortment of unguents and cloth dressings lay scattered haphazardly around the lab. Next to Orsch a threadbare canvas tarp covered something huge, easily twice the size of my helpless companion. The mysterious object quivered and jerked under the covering in a rather disturbing fashion. I could only assume it was the descendant of the abomination I?d destroyed in the mine. Titan patted the side of the tarp with affection and it responded to his touch by quieting its agitation. The little gobber rooted through the disorganized pile of medical supplies beside it before pulling out a jar that bore no markings and released an evil smell when opened.

?You miss stealthy stuff, you miss hidey, but hidey no good, no way to play. See Titan for truth as he see you; then maybe you let skin win, yes?? The gobber smeared the brown substance across his face with clawed hands, rubbing it in vigorously before wiping it off moments later. The change was extraordinary. Where before he?d appeared as nothing more than a normal goblin he now had scales covering wide sections of his skin, and what I?d taken as warts before were in fact horny protuberances lining his jaw and brow. When I?d seen the corruption in Gek it had been less pronounced and easy to dismiss, but there was no doubt now.

Titan was blighted.

He was one of the Cryx, a servant of the Nightmare Empire. His family must have been using the same ointment as they?d supplied to me to shroud their true nature from the world. It was small wonder that the unguent had been so effective at repressing my own disease if its original purpose had been to hide the Dragon?s blight from prying eyes.

?See? Help Titan now, yes??

?Are you insane?? I sputtered, aghast at his temerity. ?Why would I ever help a Cryxian agent??

Amazingly the little gobber looked insulted by my accusation. ?Not been Toruk?s gobbers for years, fears him, balked at being stalked. So we play the same hidey game, same, same, no peepers peeping at what under surface. We play day by day the same way, you and me, see??

?I?m nothing like you,? I spat. Titan looked solemnly at me in pity for a moment before erupting into a peal of all too familiar giggling that rose to a terrifying shriek that bounced off the moldy stone walls.

?It was you! That was your laughter that we heard coming from the mansion,? I realized. ?Your device caught your voice on the wax cylinder like a grammatatron, repeating the sound as a byproduct while it spun in its true intended task. But why did you kill Gek??

Mercykiller
02-22-2010, 09:50 AM
Titan sneered condescendingly at me. ?Gek got smart parts, and Titan crave to save the thinking. More, more use though! Recording Gek thoughts, but also changing Gek into what needed, bars and pistons in right positions. He try use Titan for brain core but Titan more smarter when it count. Turn other way around, Gek not see it coming, his trap for you become mine, trap for me become he, but you mess things up. Break brain drain, make Titan find other. Now you here, like Gek?s plan, need man for plan he says, the bleed to feed to Junior.?

?Gek refused to send us more of the ointment to lure us here??

Titan danced around the tarp like a demented child eager to show off a new toy. ?Yes, yes, Gek know stuff run out and you come seek to stay hidey. Need your skin to grin to finish Junior. Work good, junior big, help make gobbers strong! See, see what come, sum of pain, all pain for Titan?s gain!? The little fiend pulled hard at the edge of the cover and revealed his great work.

I had been somewhat correct when I postulated that the experiment beneath the tarp was a new abomination; but I?d also been dreadfully wrong. What lay across the other surgical table at an angle was clearly based on the first warped construct, but whereas the twisted and woven flesh of the original abomination had been vulnerable to attack the new creature, Junior, had no such weakness. Rusted but serviceable iron plates had been bolted into the flesh itself, perhaps into the very bone that provided the monster?s structure. Tortured flesh shuddered underneath the individual riveted plates, visible through the open seams like magma under a cracked and cooling crust. I could hear the clicking of the bronze rods underneath the armor as it twitched the flesh, forcing it to move to the rhythm of an undoubtedly better-protected boiler, and the whole mass shuddered as if in the throes of death. The vulnerable head area had been entirely encased by an iron cowl, a strip of glass providing a view port for the eyes inside. There was only one problem, an absence that made me shudder with dread.

There was no actual head in the armored helm yet.

Bloody bandages littered the floor around the construct, indicating that the abominations needed time and care to heal after each stage of construction. Judging by the fresh stitching on the chest below the cowl it appeared as if Junior had only recently been finished. I shuddered to think of how many men had died to Gek and Titan?s brutal experiments, at the multitudes of people who lost their lives to the gobbers? insanity. It was clear that they?d recently arrived at a point in their mad plans where greater source material had been required. They?d needed to ramp up their harvesting of the miners as they came closer to completing their macabre masterpiece, and unable to rely on ?accidental? deaths to supply their growing needs had used the local legends to give fear substance inside the mansion, simultaneously covering their real work and keeping curious interlopers at bay. The ghosts of the despicable nobles who had terrorized this land were a convenient explanation for the escalating number of deaths and guaranteed that the mansion would be regarded as unhallowed ground.

?Pretty, pretty, couldn?t make it in city, out here supplies and tries, days turn weeks turn months, Skitter Thralls all that work before big boy bring joy, now time move on to last stage, plan at ripe age,? giggled Titan, patting the armored abomination fondly like a proud father. He pointed at the freshly stitched chest. ?See new head place below face? Need second brain to train body to move right, supposed to be Gek but you break with fumbling, bumbling, rumbling down the stairs. Reverse vortex from cortex instead, better than Gek anyway, experience flowing through this and that way.?

?You were going to put Gek?s brain in there?? I asked, repulsed. Titan eagerly nodded his head for me to continue with my postulations. ?So ? you stole the Landship jack?s cortex instead and put it in there? You need two brains for your abomination??

?Yes, yes, you not so dumb, just numb to big thinking. Dance not lumber, cheer not slumber. Now you help again, make skin grin, give in, give in!?

?I do not know what you want of me, but it is of no consequence,? I stated coldly, wishing I had my pistol in hand. The empty space in the armored cowl of the abomination taunted me, and it was too easy to imagine either mine or Orsch?s head occupying the vacancy. ?I do not intend to help you in any way, shape, or form. Ever.?

?What want is easy to give, let you live and leave to flee. Only need to see pattern, watch the blood flow, see the blood go, copy and trace to give Junior grace.?

?You mean you want to see the bloody tattoos from the disease?? I realized with a start that jerked me out my rebellious mood. ?But why? They?re just the side effects of my family?s curse. What possible use could they have to you??

?No, not curse, gift, gift that lift my dead to life, the living?s strife!? Titan screeched, rather irritated at me. ?Stupid man forget the sigils, forget survival, but Gek remember runes of dooms, Gek teach Titan, Titan teach everyone else with pain and death and stealing last breath. Seal the deal, call the skin again, bring bleed and get freed, both freed, only one need bleed.?

The gobber was insane; he believed that the bloody tattoos that heralded the disease were some sort of arcane sign. It was as if he claimed that the future could be divined from the boils of a man dying from the plague. Yet he was also offering an attractive payment for the sacrifice of nothing: freedom for myself and Orsch if he could study the random markings from the curse. It would allow us to get help before he killed more, to bring the appropriate authorities and force to bear to end his mad experiments. But how was I to call back the disease to its height to fulfill his strange demand? The dark hue of my skin indicated that the curse lingered just out of sight, but I?d never willingly invited it to claim me before.

After a time of wracking my brain for the answer and vainly trying to push the bloody tattoos to the surface, I realized it was impossible to cause the disease to rise by will alone. It was like trying to catch a cold by wishing for one. ?I?m sorry; I cannot accede to your demands. The markings come as they will, regardless of my desires.?

?Liar, liar, burn heart in fire!? shrieked Titan, jumping up and down in frustration at my noncompliance. He calmed quickly enough though, and a nasty grin spread on his blotchy greenish face once more. ?Maybe need blood to call blood, yes??

?You intend to injure me then??

The crafty look on the little gobber?s face made my heart pound faster as he shook his head and drew closer to Orsch. ?No, no, need you intact to call skin grin back. But maybe hurt friend bring end to stubborn trend.? My resultant pleas for leniency fell on deaf ears as Titan thoughtfully studied how best to butcher my companion.

The shadows stirred and birthed horrific castoff experiments that responded to the gobber?s unspoken commands. The parade of grotesque servitors were a ghastly assortment of discarded body parts that served as his assistants, here three legs sewn together into a stool-like creature that Titan clambered atop to reach Orsch, there a hand with a half dozen fingers too many skittering across the floor gripping a filthy scalpel and a singular eye where the wrist should be directing it, a dizzying multitude of dreadful entities stitched together from spare parts and animated by tiny clockwork mechanisms that belched sickly black clouds from miniature smokestacks. I lost count of how many aberrations crept along the floor at their master?s behest, bringing him hook and blade, acid and strangely glowing vials, all the various accoutrements he would need to torture Orsch to death. Titan looked back at me, scalpel in hand, as if to say ?you can stop this at any time.? I shuddered in revulsion when one of his grisly servitors brushed my leg, and seized on a sudden thought as it puffed by with its greasy tainted smoke drifting up from its tiny furnace.

?Necrotite!? I blurted out, desperate for any distraction to delay Orsch?s fate, reminded of the hellish coal Titan was using to power his creations now. I had to keep the gobber talking, wrapped up in the explanation of his own arrogant genius. ?How did you get hold of necrotite if you aren?t Cryx?? Titan ignored me for the moment, turning back to Orsch and uncapping a small glass vial under the ogrun?s nose. Orsch shuddered, his head jerking up from the rude wakening, silent for the moment as he struggled to gain his bearings.

?Easy find fuel here,? Titan mumbled without pausing in his task, lifting the scalpel up to the lantern and running his thumb across the edge. Putrid greenish black blood, the color of the necrotite itself, rose to the surface from the cut, and he grunted in satisfaction at his tool?s condition. ?Human hurt each other many year here, drench ground with sound of scream, pain drain down to the burn rock, twist with kiss of death. Necrotite give better burn, stronger, faster, longing laster.?

Mercykiller
02-22-2010, 09:51 AM
My attempt at verbal distraction failed to slow the gobber, and with a sweeping flourish he sliced the scalpel across Orsch?s chest, cutting deep into the old scar tissue that marred the skin below his left collarbone. Orsch howled in pain, startling me with the intensity of his reaction at the wound. Nodding in satisfaction Titan took a pair of rib spreaders and inserted the tool into the bleeding incision, wrenching the bone and muscle apart with a callous disregard for his victim. My companion struggled against the chains, but every movement brought a fresh surge of blood from the seeping wound and a wider grin from the maniacal gobber. With a satisfied chortle Titan heaved on the handles one last time, splitting the wound wide open and stepping back to allow me to see the result. The crude insults I hurled at him died on my lips as I saw what lay in my friend?s chest, hidden just under the scar.

It was a human brain.

I couldn?t believe my eyes, but there was no doubting what I saw. A second brain, grey and vulnerable and much too small to be Orsch?s by natural right, had been surgically implanted into the ogrun. Cables and veins were attached to a slimy sheath surrounding it that Titan had cut through, feeding back into his chest, letting the brain live like a parasite nestled between the lungs and ribs of the ogrun. I?d had the misfortune to view more than one man?s cranial matter before while combating the most vicious of poltergeists and the brain resting in my friend?s chest was undoubtedly of human origin. Wordlessly Titan nodded and grinned at me as he tapped the other side of Orsch?s chest while my friend howled in agony at the violation. Looking at the position of the ancillary brain I realized what Titan was indicating.

?Yet another one? Two extra brains?? I gasped incredously.

?You want see to believe?? Titan asked with false innocence, having to nearly shout to be heard over my friend?s screams. He mocked me, making short sharp movements towards the unharmed section of scar tissue with the scalpel, as if to imply I had a choice in the matter. I couldn?t hear him giggling at me due to the heartbreaking cacophony from Orsch, but I could see the little fiend?s mouth moving, feel the derisive snickers skittering over my skin like one of his twisted servitors, raking my heart with his callous laughter.

The rage came fast and hard, and the world flashed crimson as the curse took hold. I felt the heat of my anger radiating through the bloody tattoos as they welled up through my flesh; Titan?s laughing face was highlighted in excruciating detail with edges of blood and my fist wanted nothing more than to crash into it. Muscles flared in my slight frame, and I strained against the leather restraints with savage intent. But my theatrics were all for naught; I did not possess the strength to free myself.

?Sir, do not ? react to ?? Orsch managed to rasp out in the midst of his pain before Titan irritably hit the exposed ancillary brain with a clenched fist. Orsch?s eyes rolled back in his head at the abusive concussion, and he fell into a blessed unconscious stupor. The cellar was frighteningly silent with the sudden disappearance of his tortured screams, save for the moaning of the damned mounted on the hooks above. That Titan knew how to incapacitate Orsch so quickly explained his capture of my friend, although not where he had gleaned such information.

?I?ll hoist ya up on one of yer own slaughter-hooks, ya slimy git,? I promised Titan through gritted teeth, allowing the vulgar nature of the curse to take hold of me. I felt disquieted though that I?d so aptly named the Orgoth artifacts; indeed, it was fitting enough to be their true appellation.

Titan didn?t rise to my taunt and merely giggled as he directed his disgusting living tripod back towards the armored abomination. The skittering servitors worked feverishly at controls in the shadows, bringing Bailey down from the ceiling on his hook and swinging the poor man next to the insidious gobber using a series of pulleys that controlled the chains. Titan retrieved an empty syringe from his ghoulish assistants and plunged it into Bailey?s chest, ignoring the man?s muffled screams as he drew the plunger back, stealing his victim?s lifeblood before pulling the syringe free. He then attached a hose with a hollow drill bit to the tip of the syringe before pushing on the plunger, forcing the blood through the hose and into the grooves of the drill?s head. One of his servitors, an ogrun lower jaw that moved using a series of grasping toes like a demented caterpillar, gripped the stone floor with half its insectile body as the other half worked the bellows pedal that provided motive power to the drill. The gobber cackled in triumph as he inserted the bloody drill into the cracks between the armor plating on his creation, carving into its flesh the runes he saw on my skin, stopping frequently to check his work against whatever arcane secrets he thought were displayed on my visage. The sounds of the drill bit eating into flesh even as it injected new blood were sickening, and I struggled against my bindings to end both it and him, but to no avail.

The warped door that led up to the mansion flew open and slammed against the wall, startling all those present. My heart leapt with joy at the possibility that Lord Lochlin and the others had heard Orsch?s torment and responded in full force. I could only pray to Morrow that they had brought sufficient strength to overcome the mad gobber and his servitors.

Hope died when I saw the door swing lazily back towards its frame; there was no one in sight. Its unexpected activity was likely the result of a sudden gust of wind endemic to such ill-maintained buildings. There was no one there, nothing to save us. But then Titan suddenly screamed in fear, the sweetest shriek I?d heard from him yet.

Chaos descended into the cellar.





******

Mercykiller
03-01-2010, 01:12 PM
Chapter 11




Despite the absence of any kind of perceivable threat our fiendish captor had retreated away from the stairs, screeching curses. I’d come to expect insanity from the blighted gobber, but screaming angrily at thin air was a new development in his dementia.

“No!” Titan shrieked at the emptiness, like a child denied a treat. “You no get him, wait too late, Titan kill him you try, no, no, me deny!” As if confirming their master’s proclamation of ownership several of his disgusting servitors skittered up my bound legs and body. I dared not look down at the horrible things that grasped me, tugging and creeping up with terrible intent. When they reached my face with their putrid caress I lost what composure I still possessed and cried out in terrified loathing, shaking my head as best I could to dislodge them. One particularly vile skitter thrall wrapped the length of piston-reinforced intestine that served as its snakelike body around my throat and constricted tightly with a series of deadly clicks from the iron joints. It didn’t quite choke me to death, but I sensed it sat ready for its master’s whim to do so. I was powerless to do anything other than watch the events unfold before me.

Although no physical forces clambered through the ruined doorway to challenge Titan the gobber acted as if an assailant had invaded his sanctum. Indeed, despite the evidence of my own eyes I felt something, a familiar presence, but not in any sort of comforting way. By looking away from the area I could detect a slight shimmer out of the corner of my blood-drenched eyes, as if the haze of a summer’s heat had taken on a life of its own. Invisible enemies then; perhaps a specter of a victim come to take its revenge on the blighted gobber that had murdered it? Retribution was a powerful motivation used to cling to the material world by angry souls, and there was ample evidence that such deeds were done here as to give the most hardened criminal nightmares. I’d witnessed stranger things in my time, and if such supernatural justice was demanded I for one could think of no better target for it than the mad gobber.

Titan continued to shout at whatever it was, carrying on a one-sided argument that lent credence to the half-seen shimmer’s existence. Servitors swarmed from the corners at his agitation, undead mockeries of life composed of a variety of human organs, limbs, and eyes interwoven with crude mechanika. The phantom that Titan railed against swept through the skitter thralls like a hurricane laced with razors, scattering the disgusting things across the cellar, their unnatural lives cut short as surely as if an axe had been laid to them.

I gritted my teeth in expectation of death; violent spirits were notoriously indiscriminate in their murders, born as they were from rage and the need for vengeance. It was as likely to take my life as the gobber’s. The apparition’s ethereal gaze washed over my body like icy water, and suddenly I knew in my heart that this was the death that had stalked me across Immoren; this was what Orsch had feared would find me. That sense of familiarity as if from a nightmare forgotten a hundred times, coupled with an odd prickling in the back of my mind, lent credence to the strange notion that this thing was connected to me in some obscure fashion. Deep within my breast my soul called out to the phantom as a plague-stricken man calls out for the executioner’s axe, welcoming it as the end of torment and the peace of the grave. The ghost had not come for Titan.

It had come for me.

Vainly I wished that I had kept Maggie’s spectral trap rather than giving it to Orsch, no matter how my arcane allergy would have reacted to the mechanika. The device rested useless in the inner pocket of his heavy woolen coat, wherever it had been discarded by Titan. Having expended my supply of terror for the moment I was left with numb wonderment as the invisible entity carved a path towards me, slicing through more of the gobber’s disgusting handiwork as they swarmed to block its path. Apparently Titan was not as limited as I though, for his beady eyes tracked the specter’s progress without pause or question.

“Burn rock, furnace lock, valves give, Junior live!” the gobber howled to his remaining creations. The skitter thralls raced to fulfill his commands, clambering over the armored abomination like misshapen spiders and making unseen adjustments to their gargantuan brother. Junior shuddered and twitched violently. By virtue of the sanguine vision I was able to peer through the armor and flesh to the boiler nestled deep inside its back as it roared from a sudden injection of necrotite into its furnace. Although I was unfamiliar with the inner workings of warjacks and other such constructs I knew enough of steam engines to understand that the abomination was awakening to its true power. While Titan had been unable to imbue it with infernal grace due to the specter’s interruption Junior would still have more than enough power to murder all those present were it to rise. What puzzled me was how he could think the flesh and iron machine would be effective against the dangers of the furious poltergeist.

Still shouting orders to his grisly assistants Titan scrambled up the armored abomination’s chest, grunting with effort as he swung the empty head back. I was astonished to see a small hollow recessed into the flesh, a space that no amount of crowns could have enticed me to reach into. Multiple tendons with smaller versions of the vicious Orgoth slaughter-hooks at their ends littered the interior, a disgusting mass of thin pinkish tendrils. The gobber moved the cords aside carefully and actually began to wriggle his way into the hollow.

It beggared the imagination, but I realized that Titan meant to pilot the abomination.

What I’d thought of as a helmet was actually a protective hatch of muscle and iron that could be dogged from within to protect Titan from attack. But there were no controls that I could see, no dials or levers or knobs by which to direct the construct. Screeching with defiance Titan pulled the hatch down and sealed it with an audible click, leaving only his evil yellow eyes peeking out through the glass strip with malevolent glee and rage intertwined. Peering through the creature’s flesh I saw his outline actually stabbing the hooked strands of muscle tissue into himself, quite literally harnessing his own body to the abomination.

The leather straps fell back as a few of the servitors freed the armored abomination while its boiler built up to full power. It had never occurred to me that the gobber had been crafting anything more than a monster; now I understood that the abomination was tangentially based on the steam armor the Khadorans used for war, massive constructs designed to allow a man to wield the power of a warjack while the pilot remained safe from enemy retaliation encased within the thick armor. But Titan had followed his mad vision beyond the northerners’ designs, and if he had been able to grant it the grace he boasted then it would serve a purpose beyond mere battle. I realized that the little gobber was making an ambitious gambit for a stature beyond what he’d been born with.

The armored abomination was Titan’s new body.

Yet as amazing as the conclusion was I was distracted from its implications by a more immediate danger when the whirlwind of the poltergeist’s wrath reached me. I felt the whisper of spectral steel as it slashed across my body, but rather than opening my muscle and bone the swift strikes dislodged the disgusting servitors that clung to me with an impressive display of precision, severing the intestinal horror strangling me without so much as nicking my throat. Furthering my amazement was the discovery that the ghost had chosen to slice through my bindings as well, and I raised unharmed arms before me in unbelieving relief.

Then the phantom was upon me.

Fear and surprise warred in me as my arms were forced back down by what felt like a pair of delicate hands. My muscles refused to struggle against the specter’s grip, and I nearly fainted in shock when soft lips were pressed to mine, full and lush as those of a spring maiden. The scents of the ocean washed over me intermingled with those of blood and corruption, and I thought only of the spray against the bow of a mighty ship, the storms of Meredius gathering over the black sea. Laughter beckoned me from deep within the forbidding clouds and the dark waters of the ocean, a deep maniacal joy that knew both the fire of life and the bittersweet taste of death. As the specter pulled back I realized that I was laughing, as insanely as Titan could ever dream of. My right hand burned from something that had been pressed into it, and words lilted down softly from those intangible tempting lips, uttered by the voice I’d heard before in my fever dreams planting suspicions and half truths in my heart.

“A gift for my beloved,” she whispered in my ear, and the sensation of the words made my skin prickle in anticipation of things both great and terrible. I knew her, without any doubt; the poltergeist was the mysterious specter that had warned me not to trust Orsch. Death had come to me with words of false caution, trying to turn me against my friend, and now she had me in her clutches, helpless; yet still I lived.

Mercykiller
03-01-2010, 01:13 PM
The pressure on my arms disappeared, and with it the sense of the phantom?s presence. I knew not whether she lingered nearby or had passed on to Urcaen, but there had been an unspoken promise in her tone of a grim return. I had been spared once more, but only at her pleasure and whim. Whether I dreaded or pined for her reappearance I could not say. Yet in the poltergeist?s absence I had a token to remember her by.

It felt as if I gripped hot coals when I brought up the weapon she had given me. That it was some sort of pistol was undeniable, for it bore the basic structure common to all such firearms. But there any similarity to those crude cousins ended, for the craftsmanship of this gun bespoke the weeks, perhaps months or even years, that a true artist of the craft had spent fashioning it. The wood of the grip and the frame was ancient, easily hundreds of years old, deep and rich as the treasury of a king. That it was mechnanikally augmented under the thin brass plating adorning it was unquestioned, for the weapon blistered my hand mercilessly. Yet still I held onto it, for it was at home in my grasp even as it pained me. Three small brass studs were slightly indented into the handgrip, cold against my burning palm, but their purpose remained a mystery to me, for they were neither rivets nor fastenings of any kind. A wicked gunblade clung to the underside of the frame and extended a few inches beyond the single barrel to allow for melee engagements, integrated in such a way as to actually house the trigger at the base and giving the weapon an elegant triangular appearance beyond the grip. Although the blade would have thrown off the aim of any other gun the heft on this one was perfectly matched to the barrel, the balance making my trusty forgelock feel like a clumsy blunderbuss in comparison. I spun it around the bladed trigger guard and back to my palm without faltering, as smoothly as one would control their own limbs, without conscious thought or hesitation. The gunblade passed within a hair of my hand without slicing into it, although I knew with an eerie certainty that it hungered for blood.

There was a malevolent sense of intelligence to the weapon, and beyond such unprovable instincts there was one feature that gave lie to any claim of normalcy in its design. The barrel had been etched with arcane markings, a confusing array of intricate patterns that appeared to actually have blood flowing within them, as if marked upon a living creature. It chilled me to recognize the design.

They were the same inscriptions as the bloody tattoos of the curse.

Could Titan have been right then? Did what I?d thought of as only random slash marks and spirals on my body have some sort of arcane significance? It seemed plausible enough now; if the patterns on my body had been duplicated in this weapon that suggested that they weren?t random, that there was rhyme and reason to their structure and their meanings were known to others. It was difficult to believe that Orsch would have been ignorant of the arcane knowledge, given his encyclopedic recollection of such things. His insistence that I hide the markings at all costs lent lie to any denials he could have uttered in his defense.

What wasn?t he telling me about the disease?

My ruminations on the nature of the strange pistol and its relation to my curse were cut short at the sound of stone cracking underneath the armored abomination?s tread as Titan lumbered forward to subdue me. I was barely able to roll off the table and to the side before a massive metal and flesh hand smashed through it, peppering me with jagged splinters from the resultant destruction. While he might still need me alive to harvest the secrets of my disease it was obvious Titan was having difficulty judging the strength of the ungainly construct?s attacks. The malevolent spirit that coursed through the pistol demanded to fire on the abomination, craved its destruction with empathic insistence, but I knew better than to give in to its wishes. While the weapon was of a heavier caliber and doubtlessly more powerful than my forgelock it would prove woefully insufficient to penetrate the thick iron armor that protected Titan?s new body from harm. The method by which I?d dispatched its predecessor could not be utilized again, for as I danced around another clumsy blow to its rear I saw that my earlier sanguine vision had been correct. The boiler was well and truly buried in the thing?s flesh, protected by several layers of iron and muscle from any threat. It would take large-bore naval cannons to penetrate the abomination?s armor.

I had but a single shot and I dared not waste it. Although I did not know how I had come to possess the knowledge there was a certainty in my heart that the pistol was primed and ready to fire, much as I?d known of my forgelock?s readiness before; alongside it also was the thought that there were no reloads at hand. Even were I to locate my old pistol its silk-wrapped charges and ammunition would prove too diminutive to supply the needs of the heavier weapon.

Briefly I pondered fleeing, for the door to the mansion still hung open at the head of the stairs. But Orsch hanging unconscious from the chains with his scar gaping and the muffled moaning above from those left on the Orgoth slaughter-hooks reminded me of my duty to Titan?s victims. I could not, would not, abandon my friends to the gobber?s further mutilations.

Since Titan had been interrupted before he could grant his creation the boon of my bloody tattoos it lacked anything resembling agility. As he swung its arms I could see the unfinished flesh groaning under the strain of the heavy armor plating, the mechanika-enhanced muscle protesting the weight that had been bolted to it. While its predecessor had not been dexterous by any measure of the word, with the iron slowing it this version was nearly comical in its efforts. Even with the necrotite fuel that belched fumes out of its stacks granting it more strength than any untainted coal the construct was having a difficult time staying upright, let alone catching me. But its clumsiness gave me no comfort; eventually I would tire of dodging the constant attacks, and it would only take a glancing blow from one of its iron fists to incapacitate me. Adding to the likelihood of that result was the constant interference of the remaining skitter thralls that sought to entangle my legs, pursuing me through the shadows cast by the lone lantern. Those that were able leapt for my arms and face, and I felt a vicious glee spread through the pistol and into me when I swung the gunblade at the attacking thralls. They flew apart as the blade cleaved through them, their spilt blood supped upon by the weapon with a greedy joy. At first I feared fouling the barrel as I stabbed and hacked at the servitors, but the pistol remained spotless no matter how much blood and flesh it tore apart.

I knew the weapon for an unholy thing by its feasting. Yet I did not throw it down, did not reject it. Despite its burning touch the pistol felt as if it belonged in my hand, and it was all too easy to justify it as my only hope, my only salvation. The bloody marks upon my darkened skin sang to the artifact, and it responded in kind.

While I couldn?t hear Titan?s giggling through the mass of his monstrous creation I could see his evil beady gaze dancing with joy as he attacked again and again, laying waste to his laboratory without care as he tried to capture me. The little fiend knew as well as I that no man could keep evading the abomination?s grasp forever. Even paragons of endurance had their limits, and although the pistol urged me on I had never been counted as a man accustomed to such exercise. Cold sweat covered me, and my stomach had begun growling audibly; there was no way to tell how long I?d been trapped down here without food or water, but whatever reserves of strength I retained were rapidly deserting me. Despite the unnatural dexterity the arcane disease had granted me I would fail to evade Titan?s efforts soon enough.

Frustration brought forth a series of astonishingly creative curses from my mouth; the runed pistol grew excited at my worsening condition and mood, and my anger and aggravation awakened a greater hunger within it. The bloody tattoos throbbed, pushing out of my body, actually weeping blood in the same fashion as the trickle from my crimson-coated eyes. It felt as if the disease was actually going to burst through my skin into the world with a life of its own.

The trio of inset brass studs in the grip of the pistol shot out and into my palm before bursting out through the back of the hand holding the pistol in a spray of blood. I screamed in pain at the tiny barbs I felt lining the shafts of the dull spikes as they caught the meat of my hand, and my howl of agony turned to one of terror as I felt them actually begin feasting upon my blood and flesh like a living parasite.

My perception was wrenched away from my eyes by the weapon as it fed on me, and my mind was actually forced down into the pistol itself. I swung the damnable thing and there was the sensation that my sight came not from my physical body but from the barrel of the gun itself; the world had become a series of trajectories and death, viewed as a firearm hunting its target. I saw the gaps between the iron plates of the abomination, saw their vulnerability, watched how each swing lent itself to wider openings in the armor; distantly I could feel my face smile.

Mercykiller
03-01-2010, 01:13 PM
A shifting series of bullet paths appeared to me as a map under the abomination?s flesh, a crosshatched accumulation of pulsing crimson lines charting how the round would ricochet internally off the very armor meant to protect the creature and thus destroy it. Briefly I was afraid that no pistol could ever generate enough force to send a bullet along such a destructive course; surely it would become lodged in the mass, doing little damage. It was difficult to imagine the force required to keep going through the dense muscle tissue. But I had no other choice.

I tarried for a moment longer, feigning exhaustion, and Titan eagerly attacked with a victorious gleam to his eyes. The opening I?d seen before revealed itself again, a gap in the sturdy iron plates underneath the abomination?s arm as it reached for me. I prayed to Morrow that it would work and pulled the trigger.

My sanguine sight fled as the pistol roared like a mighty beast. The recoil was incredible, nearly breaking my arm, and I would have lost the weapon had it not been impaled to my hand. I felt the scarlet tattoos across my body recede rapidly, felt my very lifeblood channeled into the gun as it exsanguinated me for its hellish power, the flash from its muzzle carrying a bloody tint that lit the room. Although I couldn?t see the bullet I knew the unholy force that propelled it was far greater than any normal pistol could generate, and the effects as it tore into the flesh between the armored plates was astonishing.

The muffled whine of the bullet ricocheting off the interior of the armored plates as it tore through the abomination?s body was barely audible, but its effects were immediate and obvious. Blood fountained from a dozen places, and pieces of flesh actually fell loose from their own weight as the bullet continued to shred the creature from the inside, losing none of its supernaturally-imbued momentum as it crisscrossed its own path a dozen times, two dozen, more, following the course I?d laid for it without fail even as it fragmented and spread further damage. First one arm fell off, and then the other, as the connecting tendons were severed. My shot wasn?t just destroying the abomination from the inside out; it was pulping it, and the iron armor?s weight was inadvertently helping to pull the construct apart. Stitching ripped free, as did pistons and gears, scattering the constituent parts across the cellar as the abomination literally fell apart. The abomination twitched once, twice, and then toppled over, its shredded muscles ruined beyond the support of any mechanika.

Pain seized me as the grip?s spikes retracted back from my injured hand with a painful ripping, and I followed the abomination to the ground, my knees giving out from under me, almost passing out from blood loss and shock. The pistol clattered uselessly away from my slack grip, its metal dull, sated by what it had stolen from me.

I could hear Titan now through the ruined mess of his creation. There was no laughter coming from him this time. The iron cowl of the destroyed abomination shuddered as he shoved against the hatch that sealed him in, struggling until finally it popped free. Titan wore a dangerous snarl on his face, eyes narrowed with malice, teeth bared in promise. I?d destroyed his new body; there was little doubt he?d carve me up to help build another.

And there was nothing I could do to stop him.

The shadows bulged near me; although I saw nothing beyond a slight shimmer at the edge of my awareness Titan?s face rapidly lost its hold on fury, and terror crept up in its place. He began to scream entreaties, begging, pleading, and losing all composure and self-control, crying out as he turned to flee.

?No, no take Titan, no! Titan appeases, pleases, Titan sorry, sad, bad Titan, no, no make go, not take Titan back, noooooooo!?

His cries turned into wordless shrieks as he was swept up, feet scrabbling uselessly above the cracked stone floor, struggling against the phantom?s grasp. Titan?s futile efforts to escape continued as he flew up the stairs against his will and out the door that led back into the mansion above, his blotchy green face contorted with pure terror. I heard him screaming for a few seconds more, but it soon faded away, leaving only the sounds of the remaining skitter thralls as they carried out their master?s final command.

They moved in the dark, scrabbling, coming closer as I lay there helpless. I didn?t care; it was over. I?d done it. Titan?s abominations were no more, and he was gone as well. No matter what happened now, the murders would stop. Outpost Five was safe, and the gobbers that had haunted the tent city were gone, either dead or, in Titan?s case, surely wishing for death before his ordeal was done.

I giggled once, weakly, and passed out.



******

Lamarkii
03-02-2010, 08:54 AM
Hopefully that isn't the end of the story. Way too many loose ends that the readers will politely demand be answered. Top on my list are the invisible woman, the hellish magelock with a taste of its wielder's blood, and an ogrun with sewn on googles and three brains. Great writing as usual.

Lamarkii

Mercykiller
03-02-2010, 12:47 PM
I can assure you there's one more chapter to Case #17. Although I cannot guarantee the answers to everything, nor would I want to. Also keep in mind that sometimes answers lead to even deeper questions ...

EDIT: I hope you do not curse my name when it is done ;)

Mercykiller
03-08-2010, 01:51 PM
Chapter 12




Fingers crawled over my chest, probing, poking, and I bolted up with a startled cry.

“Calm down, lad, it’s all right!”

My eyes darted around like a rabbit caught in the trap, confused and disoriented, trying to find a way out. Nightmares mixed with reality, and for a moment I wondered if any of it had happened at all. Around me heavy canvas walls had shadows cast on them by the lanterns hung from support posts, bringing with them a familiar if confusing realization; I was in Outpost Five’s apothecary tent. Did I not descend into the mines and face such things as made grown men weep? Had it all been a fever dream brought on by the disease?

Raising my hands to my face dispelled any such ridiculous notions. The dark tint of the curse remained, coloring me a rich mahogany that looked less and less out of place as I grew accustomed to it. Freshly-forming scar tissue on my right palm and the back of the hand marked where the trio of studs had shot out of the pistol grip and harpooned me. Due to the exotic weapon’s exsanguination the blood tattoos had receded once more, although I could still feel them twisting within my muscles like a nest of serpents awaiting release. How long until they rose once more, threatening to reveal the truth to the world and call death to claim me? For there was little doubt in my mind that she stalked me even now, invisible, waiting in the shadows like the breath of an abusive lover long gone for whom the heart still pines despite the protestations of the mind. Death had touched her lips to mine and found the fruit not yet ripe on the vine. Yet the harvest was inevitable.

“Do you recognize me, Jonathon?” Lord Lochlin asked with worry, careful to not make any sudden movements to startle me further. He and I were the sole occupants of the tent. Rather than risk my voice I nodded to answer his question.

Without betraying any further expression Lord Lochlin handed me a shaving mirror, inviting me to gaze upon myself. I’d hoped that I could explain my skin’s chromatic aberration by virtue of Titan’s interference, but my eyes complicated that matter somewhat. While the blood no longer filled my vision it had left behind a mark of its passing: my irises glinted scarlet in the half-light of the tent like a monster out of the fairy tales. To pass in normal society now I would be forced to wear tinted goggles like Orsch’s. The alternative was to risk accusations of witchcraft or worse.

“Care to regale me with a tale that explains all I have seen this last night?” the senior lord asked dryly.

“I’m not quite sure what happened …” I began, the lies falling too easily from my lips. But whereas Lord Lochlin had accepted my word before, I saw from his stance and the slight shake of his head that my veracity was in doubt now.

“Please, Jonathon, I am not a fool. But I would be a friend, if you allow. While there are many things about you that I mistrust your heart is not counted among them.”

“How much do you know?” I sounded as a criminal suspicious of the law, a man who would try to weasel out of the truth at any opportunity. It made me sick at the thought.

Lord Lochlin sighed heavily. “To know and to suspect are two different things. First then, I bow to your exemplary qualities: bravery, a concern for others, and a quick wit that allows you to respond rapidly to situations. The monarch of all is your heart; that your intentions are benign I have no doubt.” I could hear the hesitation in his voice.

“But you have reservations?”

“Deceit is your watchword; you trust no one other than your companion. You lie about your intentions, even when honorable, as well as your heritage and designs. Truth is anathema to your lips. What I have seen has convinced me you conceal a terrible secret.” He nodded down at an ungainly series of transparent tubes sticking out of a mass of mechanika that sat on the floor nearby. It was attached to a backpack to allow for transport, and the device birthed a series of cables leading to a pair of goggles that lay attached to one of the shoulder straps. Whosoever put on that eyewear would be blind, for the cables terminated where lenses should be; in their place were plugs of iron and brass.

“A temporameter,” Lord Lochlin responded to my puzzled glance. “In the time that you were missing Maggie managed to piece it back together; it told an interesting story when activated. The device reveals shades and events of the past in an area, and although reception was grainy at best we discovered the culprits behind the theft and vandalism.”

My throat was dry with dread. “What did it show?”

“Titan, stealing the cortex of the Landship coach. The temporameter is incapable of recovering sound, and the damage it had sustained rendered the world without detail. But the little gobber’s silhouette was unmistakable. At the site of the vandalism however there was a much larger, yet just as distinctive, form.”

“Orsch,” I admitted with a heavy heart.

“Indeed. His first targets were those devices we use to locate the supernatural; by his actions I know the nature of your lies. Despite his size your companion would have fallen quickly to Maggie’s righteous fury had he been present at our unsettling discovery. Even now he keeps his distance from her, a wise choice for what it’s worth.”

Hope surged in my chest. “Orsch?”

Lord Lochlin nodded. “Yes, he is alive, and his unique anatomy is safe from discovery, despite his grievous crimes against Maggie’s mechanika. As livid as she was over his vandalism she shares my principles; we could not take advantage of the two of you in your helpless states.”

“You were the ones that rescued us.” It was a statement, rather than a question.

“Of course we were. Who else would investigate when the mansion suddenly began to spew forth sounds of battle and agony? Tracking the noise we discovered a hidden passage sitting ajar in the upstairs library, which in turn led down one of the turrets to the hidden cellar. We found you both, dispatched the oddities pestering you, and nursed you back to health while concealing your deformity as best we could from the miners. As a young man I served my time in the Cygnar military as a field medic, and sadly those skills have proven useful more than once during our service to the Workshop. Stitching Orsch’s chest up was a relatively painless matter; freeing Bailey and his men less so.”

“Bailey, is he …” I left the word unspoken, yet saw the answer in Lord Lochlin’s eyes.

“His injuries were too severe, as were those of his men. They had been parted out like junked laborjacks, their limbs and organs harvested. The only mercy I could offer was removing them from the tainted hooks that held them in torment and allowing death to take them.”

Lord Lochlin bowed his head in memory of the men and I did the same, allowing for a moment of silence for the departed.

“That brings us back to your litany of falsehoods,” he said as he looked back up, an edge to his voice. “The temporameter showed us well enough what happened, although in addition to its hurried and ramshackle repairs there was a strange sort of static that fouled exact readings.”

“So why are we not bound in chains and returned to Ceryl?” I asked sullenly, tired of the accusations. It hurt worse because they were true; the other investigators had justified issue with our treatment of them.

“Do you think so little of us, Jonathon?” Lord Lochlin asked in mild disgust, shaking his head. “Even before the temporameter’s tale a simpleton could see what you and Orsch had been through, the feat you must have accomplished while we sat quivering in camp. I may not know exactly how you did it, but there is little doubt that you stopped a great evil as it was birthed. Shall I then strike at you in the moment of weakness and revelation? Instead of condemnation the men drink and sing your praises in the camp even now. You remain the hero you proved yourself to be this past night.”

Mercykiller
03-08-2010, 01:52 PM
I hung my head in shame at the pained tone he had. Once more the suspicions planted in my breast by Orsch had proven to be false. Despite my abnormalities, despite Orsch?s crimes against them, Lord Lochlin and Maggie had not turned us over to the Strangelight Workshop, had in fact saved us and kept us hidden from those in the camp that would have burned us as witches. That I rested alone in the tent unbound was proof enough of Lord Lochlin?s intentions. My face burning from shame, I decided that enough was enough. Here was a man who sought my trust, who I could confide in. He stood before me now as a hurt and angry friend, wounded by my lies. Lord Lochlin deserved better treatment than I had rendered unto him; he deserved my honesty.

So I told him the truth.

All of it.

Lord Lochlin listened impassively as I recounted the curse upon my family, the last two years of searching, and my reasons for avoiding contact with my learned peers. At the end of my tale he shook his head sadly. ?You allowed a trusted advisor to play upon ignorant fear to rule your actions, lad. The Strangelight Workshop is not some secretive agency of the crown, set upon the unusual entities of the world as a supernatural Inquisition. Only the malign do we face and combat; in all other cases we study, we learn, we help those wondrous and terrible things we encounter. We could have helped you.?

I noted the past tense with a regretful pang. ?Could have??

Lord Lochlin nodded sadly. ?Too many lies, my young friend. I know not what other secrets you and your companion hide, but there is a point past where everything you say is suspect. I could let your claims to nobility pass without comment as you did not trade upon it. Even the laughable assertion that you entrusted artifacts into our care I let pass. But there has been too much deceit. I know not what is real and what is not when you speak.?

My head was pounding, and the claims of the senior lord finally penetrated through my confusion and embarrassment. ?Wait, you said the Workshop never received any of the relics I sent along? Surely you?re mistaken. I?ve personally posted no less than four confiscated artifacts of extreme potency to the custodianship of those in Ceryl as well as half a dozen minor triflings that would prove deadly in the wrong hands. Are you claiming that they did not arrive??

?The Strangelight Workshop has received nothing from you other than reports. Ever.?

?What of my family? I may not remember them, but surely-?

Lord Lochlin cut me off. ?Do you not think that the noble families of an area knew one another, that I am not aware of every single personage that may lay claim to title within a hundred miles of Caspia? Morrow?s word, lad, do you know important and well-documented those royal ties are??

?I don?t understand.?

Lord Lochlin sighed heavily with regret.

?Your family does not exist.?

His certainty hit me like a warjack?s fist, and I nearly passed out from shock as my head reeled from the revelation. I?d known Orsch lied about a great many things, but this was one beyond them all. My remembered life, my heritage, even the roots of the curse, they all led back to this one thing: my family. For two years I?d sought the cure to the arcane disease, as I?d been told that others before me had. For two years I?d pined for the love and acceptance of a family that I knew without a doubt waited for me to return, strove to prove myself a worthy member of their ranks and blood, and wished for the return to my homeland and my memories. I wanted to refute Lord Lochlin, to deny his accusations, to disbelieve him. But regardless of my wishes the truth rang in his words, in his stance, in Orsch?s denials and evasions every time I inquired after my family or visiting them. I knew the horrible truth now.

My entire life was a lie.

Pity permeated Lord Lochlin?s words as he sadly shook his head at my shocked expression. ?You truly did not know, did you? All of your lies; now I understand why you thought they were necessary. I forgive you them. But it would seem you have a more pressing issue now to attend to.?

?Orsch,? I muttered, anger beginning to rise above self-pity. There was a growl in my voice, a snarl of promise. I hopped off the table, swayed for a moment from dizziness, and then made for the exit. Lord Lochlin?s hand on my arm gave me pause.

?Don?t forget your pistol.? He pointed to a heavy leather satchel that sat on the ground nearby. I could feel the deadly artifact calling out to me from within as my attention turned towards it, a subtle entreaty mixed with terrible promise.

?Perhaps I should actually send it to the Workshop, a proof that I do not seek to capture and use such things,? I protested weakly, fighting against the allure of the concealed weapon. Lord Lochlin shook his head.

?No. I know not of your true history, but the pistol is reminiscent of a magelock, mystical weapons bound to gun mages. This one has been twisted and warped in unexpected ways. We were able to analyze it to some extent while you were unconscious; the runes covering it are a primal and very powerful series of Orgoth sigils, unseen since the time of their demonic rule. That alone would push me to destroy or confiscate it as I have the slaughter-hooks, but another discovery stays my hand. Despite the state of our damaged equipment Maggie managed to detect an irrefutable bond between the weapon and you. I fear for your life were you to part with it now. Whatever the pistol?s true nature it has been tied to you with a deeper link than any magelock has ever demonstrated. That it is an instrument of evil I have no doubt; but for now it cannot be isolated from you. Yet with it in your possession it will be difficult to argue with the Workshop to assist you, for we are not in the habit of suffering such wicked magic to move amongst us freely.?

?So I cannot be rid of it, and thus cannot call upon the Workshop?s resources because of it,? I sighed.

?Correct.? There was a grim finality to his tone.

?Then I only have one other source for information and assistance. And he damn well better tell me the truth this time.?

I found Orsch standing at edge of the gate that cordoned off the dilapidated mansion from the rest of Outpost Five. His bowler hat was pulled down tight against the wind, and although the wind tugged at his heavy wool coat the ogrun showed no sign that he noticed. We stood there together wordlessly for a little while, staring up at the mansion on the hill where the men were setting demolition charges. Lord Lochlin had ordered that the house would suffer the same fate as the Orgoth tunnels below, a cleansing fire that any Menite would approve of. It was a gesture to embolden the miners more than to remove any further danger. Lord Lochlin suspected something worse lurked below, and I was forced to concur. Such tunnel construction was not undertaken on an idle whim. Would the Smokehouse in Ceryl listen to his recommendation to shut down the mine before something worse was discovered and awakened? Somehow I didn?t think that the avarice of those involved would heed the senior investigator?s warning.

?Ask me,? Orsch sighed, breaking the reverie. ?Let us finish this before it begins; I am tired of the suspicious looks, of the mistrust. Although Lochlin saved our lives he may have doomed our souls with his insight and inquiries. Regardless of anything he said, there is one thing that you must believe, sir: I would never do anything to endanger you.?

?Then why did you lie to me?? I was barely able to keep my voice from breaking.

?I was ordered to by my korune.? The admission that he had been feeding me mistruths for my entire waking life was both shocking and vaguely comforting in its frankness.

Mercykiller
03-08-2010, 01:52 PM
?What? I thought you didn?t believe in that sort of nonsense!?

Orsch rumbled dangerously, a throaty objection to my disrespect. ?All ogrun, even the most despicable ones, believe in and obey their korune. The honor that ties us to those oaths is the heart of what it means to be an ogrun. It is as much a part of us as our lungs, our legs, our-?

?Extra brains?? I cut in acridly. Orsch flinched, but didn?t elaborate on his unusual anatomy, refusing to rise to my taunt.

?What are you? Were you born or made?? I pressed.

Orsch refused to answer, and stared at the mansion in rebellious silence.

?This master of yours, the one you swore your allegiance to, ordered you to lie to me about my past, my condition, even the existence of my family?? I shouted, unable to contain my emotions. Orsch?s shoulders slumped, my barbed questions finding their mark. Within the words rested a deeper and more disturbing query, one that he feared for me to ask: are you my ally, or are you my enemy?

?I was surprised Lochlin waited so long to contradict your birthright,? Orsch admitted. ?It is unfortunate; I quite enjoyed that particular falsehood, and it did you no harm to conduct yourself as a noble would.?

?No harm?? I asked incredulously. ?You made me think I had a real family, parents and brothers and sisters who loved me and longed for my return, people who cared for me even in the midst of the pain and loneliness of our travels; now I find them false! What have you left me in the wake of your lies??

?Calm yourself, sir,? Orsch cautioned. ?The marks will rise up once more if you let your temper loose. Death cheers eagerly each time they bleed through. One day they will no longer disappear; you hasten that transformation with each outbreak.?

Despite my justified anger at him I heard the ring of truth to his words, and took a moment to compose myself before continuing. ?So what is this so-called family curse of mine, then? You lied about its origin; therefore you must also be lying about the path to the cure. How do I rid myself of it??

Orsch shook his head sadly. ?You can not. The curse is as much a part of you now as my oath is for me.?

It took a few moments to calm my throbbing rage before continuing. The sanguine marks yearned to be free upon my skin once more, and in the satchel I carried the demon weapon whispered to me with promises of power and freedom, truth through destruction. I could not, I would not, give in to either.

?Why did you do this to me??

?Pardon, sir?? Orsch said, surprised. ?I did no such thing. I merely serve and protect you in your travels; I am not the architect of your life.?

?Then who is??

Orsch squared his shoulders and stared up at the doomed mansion, massive jaw set stubbornly. ?I can not say. My oath binds me. But you must believe this, sir: my only concern is your safety.?

?Wait; if the curse cannot be purged, then why have you been so insistent that we discover and investigate arcane disturbances? It isn?t out of any sense of charity to those suffering the ill attention of the spirit world.?

?I have already answered that question, sir: to protect you. Death cannot find you when she cannot track you, and such sites and artifacts as we uncover help to shield you from her attention.?

?You mean the mystical artifacts that never make it to the Workshop? What happened to those items I directed you to send to Ceryl? Why does Lord Lochlin know nothing of such deliveries??

I could see Orsch grinding his teeth in frustration as he carefully tried to walk the line between telling me the truth and breaking his oath to the mysterious manipulator that he was sworn to. I would have felt sympathy for him if I hadn?t been so tired of being lied to.

?They kept us free, sir. I can say nothing of their fate beyond that.?

I pinched the bridge of my nose hard, trying my best to not let my temper rise at the vagueness of my companion?s answers. I knew without asking that he would not leave me, even were I to demand it. His master had decreed that Orsch would follow and protect me; my wishes on the matter were irrelevant. There was little doubt that even were I to flee in the night the ogrun would spare neither effort nor expense to track me down. My only hope to discover the truth was to find a way around his oath, a question that his korune had not sworn him to secrecy on, but the effort of verbally jousting with him was quickly becoming too much for me. I was exhausted from our shared ordeals, and part of me just wanted to believe the lies again and continue our lives as before. But that time was past; once revealed, the secrets could never be buried again.

?Damn your oath, just tell me the truth!? I cried out in frustration, startling the workers coming out of the mansion with my shout. They moved to give us a wide berth as they evacuated the area in preparation for demolition. We were far enough away to not fear the results of the explosion, not that I would have moved at that moment for all the crowns in the king?s treasury.

?Who has done this to me?? I demanded of Orsch, grabbing his lapels and yanking his head down to my level. He did not fight me, and I found myself shaking the giant in a frustrated frenzy. I felt the curse throbbing within me, offering me ways to elicit the answer from the ogrun with blood and torment; so tempting, but so wrong. Orsch?s impassive goggles regarded me with something akin to sympathy, meeting my gaze and staring into my crimson irises. I could feel him fighting with his oath, knew without a doubt that despite his stoic nature he warred within, his desire to yield to my demands at odds with his korune?s orders. The ground shook as the first charges were set off in the Orgoth tunnels beneath the mansion, heaving the ground as the miners collapsed them in the vain hope it would seal the evil away forever.

Behind me I could feel the blast of hot air as the explosives in the mansion itself were detonated in a controlled series. The blooming fireball of the unhallowed structure?s destruction was reflected in each of the lenses of Orsch?s goggles like the eyes of a demon. Orsch?s face was a battleground of emotions, his oath at odds with itself, for his silence was causing an angry frustration that threatened my life, the very life he was sworn to protect.

The light from the explosions cast Orsch in a hellish hue as I screamed at him above the noise, demanding answers. Who had cursed me to walk Immoren only a step beyond death, who had stolen my memories and replaced them with lies and pain?

?Tell me the truth!? I demanded, my voice hoarse with rage, crimson lining my vision. ?Who is your lord, your korune, the man to whom you swore this damnable oath? Who is the fiend responsible for destroying my life??

He answered softly, his voice barely audible above the explosions that lit the night sky.

?You are, sir.?







*****************



Case #17: CLOSED



*****************

Mercykiller
03-08-2010, 02:07 PM
Thank you for reading! Join us next time for:

Jonathon Worthington, Strangelight Investigator
Case #18: The Mystery of the Purloined Past



****

Now before everyone gets too excited, while I may have Case #18 plotted out and such, it promises to be as long as Case #17 (nearly half a novel; over 40k words!). While I do immensely enjoy the story, the characters, and of course the Iron Kingdoms themselves, Case #17 took several months to write. As a struggling writer I've got to turn my attentions towards other potentially paying projects as I beg for that elusive boon known as "published" ;) What that means is that the next few months will be eaten up by a second novel of mine being written (the first still makes its rounds, hat in hand, but nary a nibble). Does that mean I'll never return to write more about Jonathon and Orsch? Not at all! I'd love to write Case #18. In fact, I would jump at the chance to write more stories set in the Iron Kingdoms (yes, that's a blatant fishing attempt to Doug and company hehe). But I hope folks understand that in the absence of being able to sell these stories potentially publishable works have to take precedence over my own love affair with the IK.

I hope everyone enjoyed Case #17, and that the questions that remained unanswered were more tempting than frustrating. If the year goes well, who knows, I might even write #18 sooner than later ;)

Lamarkii
03-09-2010, 10:11 AM
Mercykiller,

You tempt us with the ought that we're actually going to get some answers, but in return only more questions. Carping aside, another great read. I'm sorry to hear that it'll be some time before something new, but I can clearly understand both the primary need (get published) and the ammount of work it takes to write these. Good luck with the novels.

Lamarkii

Mercykiller
03-09-2010, 11:35 AM
Now be fair, I answered plenty of things ... just not as you expected :p. I do wish to reveal everything (every writer has that urge to share by their very nature) but I also don't want to cheat people out of the ride by putting a neat little bow on it just yet. That would be rather out of place with the story after all *evil chuckle*.

Thanks for the well wishes, I can certainly use them. A very nice gift that this story has given me is the knowledge that more than a handful of people have actually read it and (hopefully) enjoyed it. As a writer that's the greatest triumph I can hope for, and it's a warm glow that keeps my tapping away at the keys. Thank you all for reading, and please, if you have any comments/criticisms on the story I'd love to hear them! Writers need three things: coffee, whiskey, and feedback :D .

thesavage
04-20-2010, 05:54 PM
I just read it. Really well done! Can't wait for the next one. I'm excited to find out exactly what his curse is.

Just out of curiosity, were you at all inspired by Planescape: Torment? I noticed some similar elements in the story. "Don't trust the skull."

Man, I gotta play that game again. I hope it works on Windows 7.

Mercykiller
04-21-2010, 02:23 PM
Glad you enjoyed it! While I do vaguely remember Planescape Torment I can definitely say it was not an inspiration for Orsch; or rather, it was no more inspiration than the other accumulated bits and bobs of memory that makes up a writer's mind already ;)

There's good news on the Case #18 front as well, in that my current project is now over a quarter done and ahead of schedule. With a bit of luck and a lot of coffee I might be done with it before the end of summer and able to return for another case file.

eButch rocks!.
06-08-2010, 05:12 PM
Mercykiller, your IK writing impresses me as much as your stormhammer blog. That is to say, you are an amazing writer. And if you don't get published with you writing skills, I will call divine interference from the dread-lord of all book fans!.

supercancel
07-12-2010, 02:03 AM
Very Excellent story!! I hope you get published, I'll kep an eye out and support your talent!

Mercykiller
04-01-2011, 05:30 PM
I strongly suggest that anyone who has not read Case #17 above do so before reading Case #18 below :)







Jonathon Worthington, Strangelight Investigator



Case #18: The Mystery of the Purloined Past






Chapter 1




I was quite drunk.

Never before had I imbibed such a sheer quantity of alcohol. Well, perhaps a few times lately, although this was proving to be a rather potent mix of foul vapors compared to most. That it was of such low quality rendered it an even more unpleasant experience. But such was my lot in life tonight.

?Play this one, mucker!? slurred my rather pungent companion, pushing a grubby score up onto the upright?s stand. Through the haze it took me a moment to recognize the longshoreman I?d been plying for information earlier. Pity. I?d rather been hoping I?d been questioning another of the Five Finger?s raucous ladies of the night again. Given enough spirits of the earthly kind they could be viewed in a haze that made them seem almost alluring. Still, the coarse laughter held camaraderie in it, so I let a lazy smile spread across my face as the notes swam across my eyes. My fingers moved of their own accord across the stained keys, and the badly-tuned piano screeched once more as I tried to tempt something resembling music from it.

?Oh the girl from Caspia came down the hill, down the hill, down on Bill,? roared my companion as other drunken voices joined in. Apparently I?d been graced with a rather known crowd favorite. I felt the barroom pulse with its own drunken life and allowed myself to be carried away on it.

?She loved him, loved him, loved his swill, loved old Bill, enough to kill, poor old Bill,? roared the crowd in approval, lending their own inebriated voices to my companion?s. I seemed to be singing along as well, albeit more as a slurred humming imitation rather than using actual words. It felt as if I was trapped in a ship being lashed by the enormous waves of the Meridius, a dark storm the size of a mountain that swept my tiny boat back and forth, side to side. The urge to vomit rose up and subsided with the same violent waves as my fancy, and idly I wondered if I?d be able to hold onto tonight?s supper any better than the previous excursions. As the man next to me would say, it looked to be long odds on a short race.

?The girl from Caspia stabbed poor Bill, stabbed poor Bill, he broke her will, lucky old Bill,? the crowd continued, apparently uncaring that I was barely keeping pace with their bellows. I narrowed my eyes and tried to force the notes on the page to stop dancing out of time with the music, missing the next several verses and only getting a vague idea of what the girl from Caspia discovered old Bill doing with a Menite Scruntuator of questionable morals, an event that preceded the aforementioned attempt at murder. Given the descriptive verses that followed I began to truly regret lacking such vital information, and resolved that I simply must visit this tavern again tomorrow and solve the mystery.

A heavy hand laid itself on my shoulder like an unwelcome spider, and I turned to shoo it away. Rather than spindly legs five thick grey fingers greeted me like sausages far past freshness but lacking in the spoilt smell one would expect. The sausage-spider tried to drag me away, and I shooed with all my drunken might to no avail.

?It is time to go, sir,? rumbled the hand?s owner.

I squinted through the haze of alcoholic fumes up at my oldest and, up until recently, most trusted companion. Orsch was an ogrun of considerable size and strength, although thoroughly lacking in the brutish manners common to most of his species. He stood straight as a board, no expression on his stony face, dressed immaculately in black pressed trousers, bowler, short coat and white shirt. The goggles that were surgically grafted to his face hid his eyes, but I?d known him long enough to read the tiny annoyed twitches in his body and face. I sighed like a petulant child at his admonition. He was correct, of course, but I was rather enjoying resisting the ogrun?s influence these days.

?Oi, shove off, you stiff mucker!? burbled the erstwhile drunken longshoreman who?d been singing, crushing me against his side in a one-armed bear hug. ?This poofter plays better n? this pianer deserves! Pull the stick out your arse, grab a pint, and have a time with us!? The tavern rumbled with the slurred cheers of his mates and more than one grumbled threat. I?d been quite the source of entertainment tonight and no one wanted to call a halt to it yet.

Orsch said nothing. He stood there, silent and uncompromising as a mountain. Not a muscle flinched, not a word escaped him. And yet his nothingness filled the room, silencing the drunks, the bartender, my playing; even my heart seemed afraid to beat loudly. Time stretched to eternity.

There were no further challenges as Orsch hauled me unceremoniously off the piano stool and out into the night.

The rancid air hit me like a cold slap. Salt tinged the mingled scent of sewage and fish, lending it a nauseating quality that stirred something else inside me other than the volatile combination of my dinner and cheap spirits. The smell wafted on the edge of familiarity, teasing in its own disgustingly unique nature. There was something of my past in that stench, an echo at the bottom of a well, deceptively close yet so far away.

?Did you discover your answer tonight, sir?? Orsch inquired in a bored tone. Beneath his facade there was the hint of anxiety, a tremor at the edge of his voice that no one else could have caught.

?Not yet,? I slurred, leaning against the ogrun, using him as a sturdy wall while a wave of nausea swept over me.

It passed soon enough, but I had to admit that perhaps tonight I had been a little too enthusiastic about fitting in with the patrons of the dockside taverns. To be fair though it was impossible for anyone without substantial coin to not be at least a little tipsy at all times in Five Fingers. Since the city was built on a series of islands the Orgoth had leveled down to bedrock there was no recourse for the inevitable effluence of the population; the same source of so-called fresh water was also the repository for all of the waste of well over a hundred thousand people. It was more than a little revolting, really. As a result of their lack of plumbing the wide variety of distilled spirits produced across the islands were the only viable source of liquid refreshment; even the weak but fruity sangre common to the area could knock a man down if he quenched his thirst overmuch.

?Ready to tell me the truth yet?? I asked him. It wasn?t quite a taunt, and not quite begging either, but both wormed their way into how I posed the question.

Orsch refused to rise to the bait.

Six months ago I had discovered my entire life was a lie. Once I?d thought of myself as a lordling and Orsch my devoted servant, cursed to pick through the arcane detritus of Immoren in search of a cure for a family affliction that caused both memory loss and sickness. Looking back at those days I could scarcely believe I?d been so naïve; but at the time Orsch had a ready answer for every question, and there were always enough crowns in our purse to provide for our modest nomadic life. We had traveled throughout the land unearthing relics both paltry and powerful before sending them back to the Strangelight Workshop in Ceryl for study.

Or rather I thought we had. None of the items had ever arrived in Ceryl according to Lord Lochlin, the only other investigator aware of my unique circumstances. Since the others at the Strangelight Workshop could easily detect the mystical anomalies in my body I had used every excuse I could think of to avoid actually meeting any of them, leading to somewhat strained relations with them through my correspondences. That I babbled on in my letters about Orgoth relics that I had sent which never arrived had done nothing to assuage their rightful suspicions about me.

Orsch knew the truth; he as much admitted it when he informed me that I was the architect of my own woes. But the ogrun had stubbornly refused to say more on the subject since the night we had defeated the gobber Titan and his macabre creations. That night death had come for me with a whisper, and yet I was inexplicably spared her final kiss. Perhaps it was that brush with my end that had prompted the admission from my ogrun servant, but I could not pry any more from him in the months since.

Mercykiller
04-01-2011, 05:31 PM
I?d stopped my hunt for the relics as a result. Despite postal entreaties by the Strangelight Workshop to return to my task the work seemed hollow to me now. That Orsch had been diverting the dangerous artifacts to some mysterious fence had done nothing to spur my interest to hunt for the items. Petulance was the rule of the day as he tried to set me back on the path I?d traveled before, an unending quest that led me to artifacts by the resonance of my very blood. I still felt the thrum at the edge of my senses, the queasy feeling that drew me towards the sites of supernatural disturbance. But without the alchemical concoction Orsch had convinced me to use for two years the ?sickness? I?d suffered from receded, allowing me to fight the arcane pull that I felt towards the haunted locales of Immoren.

?Would sir care for a hanky?? Orsch asked dryly as nausea took me by surprise and I ruined my shoes. Thoughts of the sickness had disagreed with the alcoholic spirits I?d imbibed and produced a predictable reaction. I laughed to spite Orsch, and used my coat sleeve to wipe the sick from my lips, leaving a trail of brown stage makeup along the length of the rumpled fabric. Orsch frowned and tapped my coat pocket in reminder.

?Yes, yes, I know,? I grumbled, pulling out the small tin of makeup. Despite the sickness it had brought on sometimes I actually missed the gunk that Gekananhegalog had made for me. It had been much more resilient to rubbing off. Judging by Orsch?s response the dark scarlet tattoos that ran deep within my mahogany skin were showing again. In a city rumored to hide Thamarites and Cryxian infiltrators under every rock there were too many questions to be answered if someone saw the considerable set of crimson arcane markings that covered my face and body. As terrible as I was at blending in with the dockworkers and sailors in this district of the Captain?s Island I would be even more noticeable walking around with such bloodwork on my face.

Not that there was much danger in someone recognizing me. Where before I had sported a pale, almost ghostly skin tone, without Gek?s alchemical medication my skin had turned a deep rich brown. I?d always thought of the shade as a symptom of the supposed disease I suffered from, but now I was fairly sure it was my natural coloration. In addition to that we had never been to the port city before. Despite having had business in the area several times, we had always turned back inland before reaching the end of the Dragon?s Tongue River due to one apparently unrelated circumstance or another. To the best of my knowledge I had never visited this haven of villainy before.

All of which made it quite curious that I knew the city as well as I did.

In the normal course of events a traveler could be expected to become lost within the tangle of the interconnected islands that comprised the city of Five Fingers. The streets were matters of convenience rather than design, with many buildings ascending five or six stories high not out of planning but necessity. Rarely had the proper precautions been taken when expanding upwards, with hovel upon hovel being the order of the day. I suspected that the Rigs, the impossible web of ropes, ship debris, and other salvage that spanned the city from above, were the only reason some of the unstable structures hadn?t fallen over entirely. The gobbers that called the Rigs home were largely ignored by the general populace, but in my opinion they were as responsible for keeping the rickety buildings they?d anchored to aloft as any human builder?s ingenuity. But whether it was at ground level or higher Five Fingers provided a confusing enigma for any newcomer to grapple with.

And I had been able to navigate much of its topography blind-drunk without incident.

?Good enough?? I asked my companion, having dabbed the theater makeup into place. I was no expert at such things but after half a year at it I was confident even my inebriation would prove no real barrier to my attempts at hiding the tattoos. Of course with the level of alcohol running through my system I was confident of quite a few things that were likely not as true as I believed.

?Chalky,? Orsch stated with a distinct air of disapproval. ?But sufficient. We should return to our room before your sweating washes your elementary efforts away.?

I wanted to argue with him, but Orsch was right. After drinking I had the terrible habit of breaking out into a torrential sweat, after which I?d feel much better but look much worse. A sopping wet forehead made for a poor canvas for the makeup. He helped me stumble down Channel Lane, our destination the small but functional room we?d rented out above a net mender?s shop.

A bank of thick fog had come in, a dangerous but common foe in the islands, and our steps sounded too hollow on the stone street. We were alone for the moment, a rare privilege in the city. To the right of the lane small common houses still contained patrons, and would throughout the night, but for the most part the honest people that comprised a surprisingly large portion of the populace had settled into their slumbers. Through the thick fog the merrymaking of the determined sailors on shore leave sounded tinny and small, as if from another world, and for a moment my senses reeled from the delusion I?d somehow slipped into Urcaen. It felt as if I walked among a shadow land of incorporeal phantoms, their muted voices echoing the world of mortals, with nothing real around me save for the certainty of death.

The sense of otherworldly oddness was complimented by the sounds of waves breaking upon the shore to our left. It was all too easy to imagine untold horrors clawing their way ashore from the King?s Finger Channel, their bloated bodies rank with decay, seeking their vengeance upon their murderers. Given how many bodies actually lay hidden weighted down within the waterways of Five Fingers it was not a wholly unrealistic fancy. Beyond the waves I could almost sense the shifting tides that contributed to the dangerous and violent currents that ran east between the Drowned Isle and Hullgrinder islands. Only a madman or a fool would try those waters at this time of night; that I knew such a thing was simultaneously irritating and fascinating. I?d never even been on a boat, so how then was I aware of such hazards?

Orsch did nothing to dispel my doubts and fears as he helped me stumble through the fog-ridden night. He stared impassively ahead, his face set in its traditional stony disinterest. Here was an ogrun that violated most of the common markers of his species, an ogrun who cared not for bloodshed or physical activity, a creature who looked down upon the vast majority of humans he met as barely cogent animals.

Then again, I wasn?t even sure Orsch still qualified as a true ogrun. He had been surgically altered by someone, possibly by me in a forgotten life, and there were horrors aplenty resting in his scarred chest. What was he, in truth? For that matter, what was I? Those questions had driven me to act against his wishes for the last few months, to directly challenge and defy the loyalty he proclaimed for me. As much as I appreciated the ogrun?s companionship there was no doubt in my mind that he knew the answers that would set me free. That he continued to defy my inquiries cast all of his actions in a sinister light that I would not, could not, tolerate. One way or the other, we would have to settle things between us soon.

My treacherous musings were interrupted by the realization that we were being followed.

At first I scoffed at the feeling, assuming it was the phantasm that threatened my life on an almost nightly basis. Often enough I?d sensed the actual personification of my death stalking me, watching me, waiting until the right time to take my life. It wasn?t a simple trick of an overactive imagination; unlike others in this world my death had manifested itself in a thing, an apparition, which had against all logic saved my life when Titan had turned his devilish attentions to me. Was death so jealous that she was offended another would try to take her rightful prey? I?d spent as much time contemplating her baffling attentions as I had my own hidden past.

She had followed me to Five Fingers, although her murderous presence had waxed and waned as the tides. Death was waiting for something, and the longer I lingered in the city the more I felt a sense of frustration from my invisible stalker. Perversely it amused me to confound both Orsch and death at the same time. In truth the petty revenge I enjoyed was the primary reason I?d dallied so long in the city. There was a certain sense of satisfaction in irritating both the corporeal and incorporeal forces that were so intently interested in my life.

Mercykiller
04-01-2011, 05:32 PM
Tonight death was close at hand again. She had waited for me to stumble out of the tavern, following languidly on our heels as Orsch led me to our room. She wouldn?t kill me this time either; she was still waiting on something, some kind of event or sign I could not fathom. I had almost begun to grow bored with her presence; for all the fear I?d first felt at her appearance death was proving rather lackluster in her duties towards me.

But my phantom death was not the one that stepped out of the fog with a blade in hand.

The man was unshaven with long tangled black hair, his face pockmarked with old illness, his clothes ragged and unkempt. He bore the piercings, tattoos, and ritual scarring of a native of the Scharde isles. I?d seen a few of his kind around the docks before, mainly expatriates from the Cryxian island empire supposedly seeking a new life on the mainland. Given the proximity of Five Fingers to the nearby Nightmare Isles it made a natural port for those escaping the undead lords? rule. But many whispered that no matter how far a man might flee once he entered the service of the Dragonfather there was no escape from his bidding. Individual humans might be beneath his notice but Toruk was worshipped as a god among the poor unfortunates that inhabited his island kingdom. It would be difficult for any man to turn his back on a living god, no matter how evil the deity.

Somehow I doubted that our ambusher wanted to discuss the finer points of theology. He crept closer, his posture aggressive, never saying a word, sword ready to gut us.

I burst out in a fit of drunken giggles, which made him pause.

He cocked a bushy eyebrow at me, as if questioning my sanity. I could only respond by looking first at him then at Orsch. True, the Scharde pirate was no dandy, standing at a solid six feet tall with a barrel chest, but the ogrun towered over the man at eight feet tall and outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds or more of pure muscle. No sane brigand, even an armed one, would ever willingly try to engage an ogrun in solo combat; such an action could only be described as suicidal.

Belatedly my drunken mind realized the foolishness of assumptions when a loop of rope was thrown over Orsch?s head from behind. With a grunt several fog-shrouded figures pulled from behind, tightening the noose around Orsch?s neck and toppling the ogrun like a stubborn stump. They dragged him back and out of sight as my companion struggled. Muffled sounds of combat came from the depths of the fog as Orsch struggled to make an accounting of himself, but I?d seen the surprised look of panic on his face when he?d been taken. He hadn?t been armed, and there was no telling how many attackers Orsch was fighting as he choked to death.

I was on my own.

The brigand I face grinned through rotten teeth and glided towards me, a silent confidence in his step. I could feel the small holdout pistol up my sleeve take on the weight of my hopes, but I had to draw the man in closer. It only had the capacity to fire a single shot, and although I was adept at using firearms the diminutive pistol was not the most accurate weapon in the world even when I was sober.

?Let?s make this nice and easy,? the man muttered, reaching for a set of crude manacles that hung on his belt. I realized that these men were not just after our possessions.

They were slavers.

The scarred man moved faster than I?d expected in my inebriated state, and I barely had time to drop the pistol from my sleeve to my palm before he hit me in the chest with his shoulder, sending us both tumbling down in a heap to the cold street. He rolled with a practiced ease to straddle me, one of my wrists already clamped in a manacle, but he paused when he felt the tiny pistol?s barrel under his chin as I brought my free hand up.

?I might be a bit drunk, lad,? I slurred, falling into a rhythm of speech that had haunted me in my most stressful moments, the words rough on my tongue and swirling in my head. ?But even falling down I can hit a lubber?s hull when I got a muzzle against it.?

The ragged pirate looked down in shock, eyes widening in unmistakable recognition.

?Toruk?s teeth!? he swore loudly, blinking his eyes as if he doubted their accuracy. ?It?s you!?

Then he screamed.




*******************

lordofnecropolis
04-03-2011, 12:09 PM
So excited to see this story continuing. :D

iknowinternet
04-05-2011, 03:18 PM
Still not entirely done reading what you have so far, but after even three chapters I have to say that this is utterly fantastic.
Not only is it compelling and fun, the writing style is just incredible.
THIS is the new high-water mark for fan fiction on this forum. Hell, for fan fiction in general.

Plus, I am a sucker for everything Strangelight!

Mercykiller
04-05-2011, 10:38 PM
Glad to see folks enjoying it!

Despite its posting date Case #18 is no April Fool's joke; I just found it amusing to post something 'real' on a day known for misled expectations ;)

I don't know precisely how often it'll be updated, as I use the Strangelight stories as breaks from the other work (still got one book in the crock-pot and editing another for sending out), but I can promise it will not be abandoned/shelved/etc. If you haven't seen an update for a while it just means I'm out there, baffling some poor editor's head with my latest experiment!

iknowinternet
04-07-2011, 05:51 PM
Just finished Case #17.

Dear lord. I hope beyond hope that your talent is discovered soon, and I seriously think Doug and Co. would be complete and utter morons (sorry guys) not to hire you to write IK fiction. I would gladly buy a copy of every one released.

As an amateur writer myself (how often do I have to say that to convince myself?), it does my heart good to see this kind of dedication and creativity in a place where I least expected it. I am consistently amazed by the Fan Fiction forums here, and that is something I never thought I would say.

Hats off, sir. You win the forum.

Bald Menite
05-14-2011, 08:50 PM
Wow, really impressed.

equilshift
05-26-2011, 08:16 AM
Mercykiller, if you are still out there, I hope your books are going well so that you can quickly return to giving us MOAR STRANGELIGHT!

Mercykiller
05-26-2011, 10:42 AM
Heh, sorry guys, I know it's been a month and a half since I posted a chapter :( Dealing with RL junk/another move/brother's wedding/family/Stormhammer/etc. and trying to edit one book while working on another has eaten quite a bit of my time. I hate to leave folks hanging, but fear not, the chapters are in my head (the entire case file is), waiting for their turn on the screen. I'm going to try and get one done before I have to go on my June trip, but it's hectic and I don't want to give you a sub-par rushed chapter. The best I can promise is that I will not leave you with a story half-told ;)

iknowinternet
05-26-2011, 02:54 PM
Take all the time you need, but I would love to see all of the Case Files you have planned! Eventually.

equilshift
05-26-2011, 03:04 PM
The best I can promise is that I will not leave you with a story half-told ;)

Hey, no problem, that is all I needed to hear. The truth is, there are about 3 stories I am really digging on these forums, and they are about the only 'for fun' reading I can do these days, so I get a bit desperate when you guys don't give me high quality material... for free...

Anyway, I understand the trouble with the moves, mine is stopping me from playing my WM tonight :(

scorpius007
06-03-2011, 08:53 AM
Love this story and all things related to the Stormhammer project :D Eager to see what's next!
Also thank you for giving me an alternative to the horses to pull my gun carriage

Mercykiller
08-10-2012, 11:02 AM
Chapter 2


The brigand?s death-scream was cut short as hot blood sprayed out from his throat all over me, fountaining from a jagged hole that erupted from his larynx.

Spectral steel whispered close to my fingers without opening them, causing me to yank my hand back from his chin with a yelp of fright. As the dead weight of the man slumped forward, choking me with both his mass and the torrential flow of blood soaking me, a part of my mind took note of the blood-outlined shape of a blade tip sliding out of the brigand?s neck. An irritated flick that sprayed crimson droplets over the hard ground removed the bloody shape from my vision, rendering the weapon invisible again. A familiar shiver of pure cold dread spread through my body. I had encountered this phantasm before, and fear surged in my heart as I realized I had become too accustomed to her presence to feel the proper trepidation at her pursuit. I?d been too sloppy. She would punish me for that transgression.

Death had once more taken a direct hand in my fate.

Terror spread across my soul as I struggled to roll the dead man off of me. His heart continued to pump uselessly, covering me in his life?s blood as the vital muscle slowly realized its owner was deceased. I stared around wildly, taking stock of my situation, trying to see that which by its very nature could not be seen.

Dark whispers thrummed in the air, promising to fulfill my darkest and most sinful nightmares before the night claimed my cold corpse. The fog-shrouded streets echoed with Orsch?s unseen struggles. Shapes I prayed were other brigands haunted the periphery of my vision.

I felt the scarlet tattoos surge, and as I looked down with disgust I understood why: my body was feasting. Before my eyes the blood soaking my clothes was drawn inwards by an unholy force, channeled into the arcane crimson marks that had risen to sate their terrible hunger. My body shed the last remnants of the stage makeup like a snake slithering out of old skin to reveal the terrible glory of the arcane markings that ran over my flesh. The corpse atop me pressed down with less weight, and with a sickened certainty I knew that were I to look closer I would discover that the crimson tattoos were leeching the remaining blood out of the dead man. The world quavered between the night and my sanguinary vision as the strange affliction attempted to take my sight and replace it with the ghoulish blood-sight I had not used since back at Outpost Five.

Managing to wriggle out from under the desiccating corpse I felt another voice join the whispers of death, a stronger one that called more insistently in a language made more of dark desire than of words. From across the distance I sensed the demonic pistol that had been stashed in our rooms, a mile away and uselessly out of reach. Remembering the damage it had done to Titan?s abominations made me briefly yearn for its power in my hands now, no matter the cost.

Before I could leash my desires I felt the metal of the tiny holdout pistol in my hand warp with a sickening weight. The smell of blood lay heavy in the air as I looked down, knowing what I would find even before I did. Where before the fairly innocuous and sadly ineffective holdout pistol had rested there was now a large triangular fiend of a weapon, related to the previous pistol in the same way that a minnow is related to a monstrous hullgrinder. Orgoth sigils were carved into the barrel and the triangular gunblade that ran underneath from grip to barrel end, the symbols ancient, evil mirrors to the same scarlet tattoos that adorned my own body now. The three brass studs waited expectantly in the smooth wooden grip, cold and eager against my palm. I knew well enough their purpose: to bleed me for a shot powerful enough to make the Dragonfather dance to his grave.

I had summoned the demon pistol to my hand, twisting the little holdout weapon into something far worse.

The runed pistol lunged against the boundaries of my mind like a hungry dog at the end of its leash, straining to be let loose and to bring in the red harvest that struggled in the shadows around us. I knew that allowing such a beast to run free willingly would cost me a little more of my soul each time I let loose the chain. For every life the demon pistol took I would hunger for more until its dark urges consumed me, bending me to its terrible will. But I could still feel death haunting the area, swirling around me, unwilling to engage me while I held the very weapon she had granted me six months before. There was a price to pay for denying her the prize of my life once more. If I bled myself by allowing the weapon to drink of my lifeblood through the grip it was possible the demon within could locate my assailant. Even if I managed to triangulate death?s position I sensed the pistol would consume a part of my soul to utilize its abilities. Could I so willingly fling myself into damnation, even for so essential a goal as destroying that which sought my own life?

The sound of Orsch?s struggles in the shadows began to flag as the rope did its work.

?So be it,? I whispered, allowing the weapon access to my mind. I would not let my friend expire when I had the means to save him. But even my noble intentions would not allow me to trigger the studs in the grip of the weapon to shoot out and pierce my flesh. That was something I would only accede to as a last resort.

Ghostly darkness disappeared in a flash of scarlet as the blood ran into my eyes, granting me the vision of the monstrous pistol. Instead of a blanket of fog obscuring inky darkness the world was rendered in lines of flashing red, outlined much as the blade?s tip had been in the brigand?s throat. The world pulsed in scarlet, revealing its secrets to me.

Yet still I could not see death.

?Yes,? she murmured, taunting me, so close, yet still unseen. ?Let the weapon take you. Come back to me, my love.?

?Foul creature, face me in truth!? I roared in challenge. I recognized the taunt as an attempt to trick me into utilizing the exsanguination studs, one that I refused to fall for. The pistol seemed to weigh less as I raised it, sweeping it back and forth as I strained to reach through its own perceptions to find death before she could strike. A dizzying sensation rocked me back on my heels as my very sight seemed to relocate to the barrel of the demon weapon, yet it availed me for naught. It seemed that the phantasm that taunted me was immune to all attempts to locate it.

A whispered kiss passed over my cheek, lingering for a moment to allow a too-real tongue tip to dab at the bloody tattoos pulsing over my face. I spun with a coarse curse, but all I found was the laughing wind as death retreated away from me.

?Delicious,? she murmured, a throaty growl summoning the baser emotions from my flesh in response. Visions of nights that would make Thamar blush flitted across my mind, more real than any fever dream and twice as tempting. I felt the silky smoothness of death?s skin, the paleness of the same, tempting me like the light of the moons to lust that blotted out all conscious thought for a moment. I shook my head, pushing aside such carnal temptations, but the bittersweet feeling of loss rushing in to fill the void was almost as bad.

?You are almost done, my love,? she whispered, close enough that I smelled dead roses and a sickly underlying scent of rot from her gentle breath. ?Soon.?

?Maybe so,? I rasped, my voice husky with the desires of the flesh. I had to focus: this unseen temptress was death incarnate, and she meant to claim my life. ?But not tonight.?

?No,? she laughed softly. The sound sent goosebumps shooting up my arms, tickling the edge of my enhanced sanguine senses. ?But you are not who I have come to claim this eve.?

I stalked towards the direction of death?s voice, swinging the gunblade ahead to try and find spectral flesh to cut. With an instinctual act of will I cleared the layer of blood from my eyes, banishing my sanguinary sight. Yet still my deadly mistress refused to appear. ?If not I, then who? Answer me, apparition!?

Taunting laughter faded as death?s presence receded; but a worrisome inner voice assured me that she had not quit the field of battle quite yet this night. I stood shivering against the bite of the wind while the alcohol sweated itself out of me, vaguely wishing I?d brought my longcoat. Death had not come for me, and I was vaguely jealous that her attentions had fallen upon another despite the idiocy of the self-destructive sentiment. But who? Surely not the rough brigand who she had claimed with all of the solemnity of a pig at the slaughter. No, death was far more intimate with those she truly desired. The whispered mistress stretched forth her invisible hands for those of worth, mighty souls that she could drag screaming back to Urcaen.

A choking sound drew my attention back to the fog-shrouded darkness. My crimson eyes widened with comprehension as the sounds of a dying struggle floated across the night air.

Orsch.

She had come for Orsch.

My roared battle cry as I rushed to my forgotten friend?s aid echoed back with a pathetically high pitch from the fog. Laughter greeted my vocal declaration, and I could not honestly blame them. Between the cheap liquor in my system and the horrors of the bloody tattoos it was surprising I still possessed the presence of mind to challenge our assailants, let alone harm them. In my impotent anger I felt the warmth of blood well up once more into my eyes, casting the world into a stark series of pulsating crimson lines that obeyed the obfuscation of neither fog nor darkness, using the mocking mirth of the unseen strangers to fuel the infernal engine that flamed alight within my heart.

Before me the blood-sight revealed three ruffians, hard of countenance and smelling rankly of the sea and desperation. Two of them were sweating at the rope they had looped around Orsch?s throat. Whether they had planned it beforehand or were the fortunate receivers of happenstance the brigands had managed to heave the rope over a rotting beam of a decrepit structure, using it as a primitive pulley system to quite literally keep Orsch on his toes and unable to gain leverage. The giant grey ogrun had been hoisted up by his neck in a makeshift gallows that threatened to strangle him with his own weight, his feet desperately scraping across the earth.

Mercykiller
08-10-2012, 11:02 AM
The third ragged man of the motley crew had pulled a wicked blade from its sheath to threaten my companion. While the weapon was pitted with rust and corrosion it still held a deadly edge that my sanguinary sight picked out in brighter detail. Within my mind I felt the demonic pistol howl in the wordless rage of a predator that has found another carnivore encroaching on its territory.

“Let him go,” I snarled in a pitiable imitation of threat, sweat and blood mingling as the alcohol overheated me in the otherwise cold air. My body fought both the arcane markings and my own poor decision making from earlier. I could only imagine the farcical nature of my appearance to these rough and ready men. If they considered Orsch an easy target then my pathetic appearance would serve as nothing more than a moment’s jest.

Imagine my surprise then when the scornful laughter cut off as quickly as if the men had been garroted. Through my unnatural sanguinary sight I saw their blood grow heated and their pulse quicken. The horrific weapon in my hand shrieked triumphantly in my mind.

The other predators recognized that they had become prey.

Such was the level of noise in my head from the demonic pistol that I saw the men’s mouths move without hearing them, watched as the one with the blade let it tumble to the ground in supplication while falling to his knees with what I could only assume was a plea for his life. I shook my head to clear it of the arcane pistol’s influence, but even as it receded in my mind to simmer in its bubbling hate once more I felt death rush forward from the shadows and press against my back, whispering throaty entreaties to murder those who stood before me.

She wanted it all: Orsch, these men, my soul. Death was jealous that these mortals held my attention for even a moment, and she petulantly demanded their lives to appease her. The specter’s seductive greed seeped into my bones as her invisible fingers steadied my aim. I didn’t remember raising my pistol or sighting along its barrel, but the gunblade was pointed at each of our assailants in a steady tempo that kept them all under its dread threat without giving any one man time to react to what was coming. I barely noticed that she had also counted Orsch among the potential targets as the barrel paused for a moment on him among the aiming rhythm. In the corner of my mind a rational voice screamed out to turn the pistol instead on death, that her soft curves against my back offered a once in a lifetime chance to locate and murder the very doom that had stalked me across Immoren. But that part of me seemed so small and inconsequential. Instead I found myself leaning back with hungry need into the phantasm whose fingers guided my forearm in the soft staccato rhythm that threatened to end the lives of the weak creatures that thought they could threaten me and live. The whispers assured me that Orsch belonged to their number, just another petty animal that plotted my downfall. All would suffer, all would die.

The cowardly brigand’s companions were slower to succumb to the strange terror washing over their friend. That they would have to release a very angry ogrun from their power to wreak vengeance upon them likely colored their decision to retain their hold on the rope. But the situation was quickly becoming untenable for them. Without the assistance of the unencumbered member of their group the two ruffians were left at my mercy while they struggled to maintain control over my dying friend. Orsch’s struggles began to slow, his feet dancing slower as his numb hands fell away from the rope around his throat. The pistol surged its voice with the specter’s within my head, bellowing that none would be spared, that Orsch deserved the same fate as the others.

Mercy found no grip on my heart as I watched my friend die.

The hellish weapon I carried had but one bullet, but as the need to murder my foes surged forward raw lines of pulsing force connected ricochet angles of all those present into a deadly web that would terminate all of those present as surely as I had killed Titan’s abominable creation in the basement of the mansion at Outpost Five.

I forced my thoughts to rise up in protest, forcing a recalculation of the path away from Orsch’s skull. He had lied to me, still lied to me, but he was my friend, my trusted companion no matter how often he betrayed that trust. And I’d rip my own mind apart before I shot the helpless ogrun with the demonic weapon.

Bitter amusement from the phantasm rippled across my mind, but within it was the tilt of a head bowed in reluctant acquiescence. The hungry weapon fought me before a whispered kiss from the specter at my back tickled the nape of my neck and sent a surge of raw willpower against the weapon’s influence. Sullenly the demonic intelligence of the pistol obeyed, shifting the ballistic trajectories accordingly. The brass exsanguination studs lay cold against my palm without activating; I’d have no need for their sacrificial boost of power to kill mere mortals.

I was just able to hear the final pleas of the desperate brigands as I pulled the trigger. Time paused for a moment as I felt the demon within the weapon surge against the bulwark of my desires. Yet I did not falter in my will, and as such the moments sped up again when the weapon roared forth a streak of blood-tinged fire.

The ruffians died in terror, their fate sealed even as I pulled the trigger. Bone fragments from the skull of the man on his knees fractured the bullet into twin fragments that flew straight and true into the hearts of the two brigands holding Orsch’s rope before they fractured once more, rebounding on the back ribs of the dying men and tearing out through their flesh before shredding the noose around my friend’s neck without even nicking him. Despite the sheer mass of the men the arcane shot lost neither power nor fury before its task was done. Orsch fell gasping to the ground, his already unnatural grey skin nearly bloodless under my altered sight.

“Now for you,” I managed to say. Despite the exhaustion that was washing through me I knew without a doubt that I still had enough horrific energy left from the pistol’s feast earlier to cut through any ghost that dared remain in my vicinity.

But I couldn’t move.

“Not quite yet, my love,” death murmured gently. Another teasing kiss brushed across my neck, but the shudder that accompanied it this time was of dread, not desire. I fought against her influence, against my own body that resisted my commands to turn and gut my invisible stalker. It was all to no avail.

I stood as still as stone while her presence faded back into the night, taking with it her strange power to paralyze me.

Orsch lay barely alive on the ground at my feet. Hellish hunger and temptations thrummed through the weapon I held into my bones, and the bloody lines of the world intensified as the pistol attempted to claim its due. My friend was hurt, weak; the proximity of such easy prey tormented the demon in the rune-inscribed gun. So helpless, so vulnerable.

Instead of succumbing to the wicked weapon I gritted my teeth, reaching into my pocket and pulled out a chemically treated handkerchief. As much as I hated the method Orsch had used to defuse my rising blood-born abilities when I was still ignorant of the affliction’s true power exsanguination remained the only sure way to quiet the demonic tattoos once they had risen on my flesh. I had to force the tattoos to recede once more to quiet my flesh and the weapon. With a groan that matched the ogrun’s I covered my nose and mouth with the innocent-seeming square of cloth.

My sanguinary sight fled as I violently vomited blood across the ground, falling to my hands and knees while I bled myself dry of the stolen power from the victim the pistol had supped upon earlier. I felt the scarlet tattoos recede back into my flesh to lie hissing once more within my muscles, hidden from the world but waiting for their moment to strike again. The foul presence of the demon within the pistol howled as I shut it away inside my mind. It thrashed toothlessly against the barriers I’d built up in my mind against its influence, toothless now that the blood was no longer flowing over my sigil-etched skin.

“Sir,” Orsch managed to wheeze out. “You … should really … change out of your good shirt before … vomiting blood.”

I looked across the gory mud at him, both of us touched by death and left near-broken by the encounter. Slowly a pained smile slid across his features, mirroring my own tired grin. It was one of the rare displays of emotion I’d been privileged to witness from my friend. He could barely breathe, barely was alive, barely capable of speech itself.

So I threw back my head and laughed defiantly at the empty night for both of us.


***********

Mercykiller
08-10-2012, 11:12 AM
An update! (Obviously lol)

The last year has been rather hectic in terms of life, leading to a hell of a gap between chapters. Just as I recovered from minor medical problems (nothing serious, just a type of pill that made writing somewhat difficult) I got offered a contract for my GEARTEETH (http://www.sraelkin.com/) trilogy. The last few months were spent feverishly working on getting it ready for prime-time, which culminated in the book being released yesterday for all the world to see. Since I write most of my best stuff as first-person it makes changing personas mid-stream somewhat difficult, hence I wanted the first book done before I returned to Jonathon. But here's the good news: now I'm back to old Jonny :p The current plan is to finish off Case 18, releasing a chapter every Friday until the story is told. Although I've got the outlines and first chapter of the next paying book started I made a promise to all of you that I wouldn't leave this story to die, and I'm a man of my word. You guys have waited patiently, and I won't force you to wait any longer. So Jonathon now gets priority until Case 18 is done!

I'll of course continue posting the chapters here, but I've also got my own website set up (www.sraelkin.com (http://www.sraelkin.com)) without a word limit and such so that each chapter is all on the same page without post interruptions. But I started Jonathon here and it'll always go up at the same time here.

Anyway, hope you guys enjoy the new chapter, and with a little luck and a lot of smacking my head around the chapters will fall out weekly on Fridays :D

EDIT: For those who might have missed it, there's a new chapter above this post ;)

EDIT2: This week there's been a huge and unexpected family emergency; despite my fresh-born promise I doubt there'll be a new Jonanthon chapter until next week. Apologies.

Mercykiller
08-24-2012, 06:39 AM
(As always the chapter and other writings without page breaks are up on my website, www.sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com))


Chapter 3


“Ouch.”

I pulled back the dirty cotton cloth I’d been using to apply the salve from Orsch’s neck. Despite being the size of an oak tree’s trunk he’d proved as vulnerable to the hangman’s noose as anyone else. It was vaguely discomforting, as I had always regarded my companion as an unassailable mountain of knowledge and flesh.

“Is it painful?”

The big grey ogrun just stared at me for a moment before slightly shaking his head.

“Then what’s wrong?”

“I determined that you were expecting some sort of reaction to the discomfort of the wounds and your ministrations.”

“But did it actually hurt?”

Dead silence.

“So you make protests for pain that you don’t feel?”

“Apologies, sir. I misjudged the situation.”

A thought occurred to me. “Orsch, do you mean to imply that you don’t actually feel pain.”

More silence greeted me.

“Damn it all to Urcaen, why won’t you answer me?”

“I … I have. Sir.”

Realization dawned on me. He was trying to tell me something in the wake of the attack, something important. Orsch just could not express his concerns directly.

Months ago during the incident at Outpost Five my companion had revealed that his korune, the titular lord many ogrun would swear honor-bound service to, had instructed him to protect me from both outside forces and the truth of my own existence. I had been enraged, driven into him with words heavier than blows, and he had nearly broken his vow by revealing the identity of the fiend that had limited him so cruelly: me. Somewhere beyond the murk where my memories ended I had been someone else, perhaps even something else if the arcane tattoos were any indication. Orsch had sacrificed much to reveal all that he had to me, and these last few months I had flogged him mercilessly for more information. But an ogrun’s honor bound them as tighter that a dragon’s coils.

As I went back to dabbing at the deep bruising on Orsch’s neck I noticed he was quivering slightly, as if from an oncoming cold. While I had never witnessed any illness touch my companion it made sense that the damp night air combined with trauma would trigger any latent viruses that were lingering in his system. Still, it was odd that he did not show any external signs beyond the quivering. When I heard him grating his teeth together my rather dim mind finally caught on: he wasn’t sick.

Orsch was being silenced.

The big grey ogrun was desperately attempting to communicate an idea to me, something he thought was vital enough to endanger his vow of silence. Why couldn’t he just tell me then? I knew that the korune bind-vows were important to ogrun, perhaps even essential to their society, but surely they were allowed to break a promise to their sworn lord when they deemed it necessary. Why then was Orsch torturing himself by not giving words to the idea plaguing him?

Briefly I paused with the medicated cloth at his collar-line. Below the white linen shirt I knew his odd scars began in earnest, a Y-cut that had opened up his chest enough to allow for the insertion of twin human brains nestled up against his lungs like tumors. Somehow my companion’s body had been rewired to not only accept the extra cerebellums as part of its natural makeup but to also give his own mind access to the extra brains’ capacity, allowing his intellect and memory to far exceed those of his more brutish brethren. But the reason for such a modification as well as the author of it remained as much a mystery to me as my own concealed past. For all I knew I’d been the butcher that had cut open my friend’s chest and modified him to suit a hidden purpose.

The idea struck me like a slap. Perhaps it was not merely an archaic vow that kept Orsch’s tongue in check. If a man possessed the mental acumen to install extra working brains into an ogrun’s chest then who was to say that such a creature could not also install commands and taboos into those same cerebellums? Blocking the transmission of certain information would likely prove an elementary task for such a brilliant butcher as that. It made me nauseous, but the logic was impeccable.

Orsch wasn’t being obstinate; he quite literally could not tell me what I wanted to know.

A gentle yet insistent knock at the door interrupted my silent ruminations. I’d barely taken two steps towards it before the warped and stained door swung open and revealed our landlady, Mrs. Hazelknot. She was eighty if she as a day, half-blind and three-quarters deaf, neither of which kept her from being one of the best net-menders on the docks. Her limitations led to a constant state of delusion about the cleanliness of both her establishment and her patrons, but she was an honest sort that still retained enough mental acuity to avoid inquiries from paying renters. In return we did our best to ignore the constant retching smell of old fish that wafted up from the docks and permeated the walls of the rickety building. Much like the other shacks that made up this section of town if it weren’t for the Rigs above (particularly thick over the relatively small two story building) we would quickly find ourselves on the ground with bits of rotted wood piercing our hides.

“Supper’s on the table when you want it, boys!” she called out cheerfully, stepping into the room before I could stop her. Mrs. Hazelknot carried her normal armament of a feather duster missing most of its feathers, using it to randomly swipe at walls, floors, and the occasional person who lacked the insight to move away during her cleaning attempts. Sadly those attempts barely stirred the ingrained dirt of the rooms, but one could hardly blame her for that in her limited sensory state.

Orsch glanced over at the rays of sunlight creeping in under the crooked window shutters. “Actually that would be breakfast, I believe.”

“Oh you youngsters, always confusing the simplest of things,” the old lady cackled, taking a random swipe in Orsch’s direction with her ragged duster. “Next you’ll be telling me that you ain’t diamond smugglers from Ord out here for your pleasures!”

“Actually –“

“You’re absolutely correct, Mrs. Hazelknot,” I spoke up, interrupting Orsch. He stared stonily at me for a moment before turning his goggled eyes pointedly away. If there was anything the ogrun hated more than someone continuously getting their facts wrong it was being cut short as he was correcting what he saw as rampant ignorance in the populace around him. The fact that he would have as much luck teaching the senile old lady to fly as getting her to recognize what day it was didn’t seem to ever stop him from trying.

“Ha!” she shouted with glee, turning her cleaning attentions to our ramshackle dresser and footlocker. “I knew I’d find you out! So do you boys want any lunch or not? Eggs are getting cold and if I see any of you try putting hotsauce on them again I’ll crack you upside the head with a rusty harpoon.”

Mrs. Hazelknot’s enthusiastic cleaning knocked a small satchel off the footlocker, spilling its contents to the floor. Orsch looked over at the noise with a bored air before suddenly lunging forward, causing the bed to nearly break apart under his weight.

“Morrow save me, what do you think you’re doing?” our landlady squawked as Orsch picked her up unceremoniously and deposited her back at the door. “I know your kind, mister, all hands and promises until the morning comes! You keep those hamhocks to yourself, youngster!”

Mercykiller
08-24-2012, 06:40 AM
I tried to stifle a chuckle, but it died in my throat as I saw Orsch hurriedly stuffing an item back into his satchel. I couldn’t get a good look at it, but it had been mechanikal in nature and unknown to me. That was a combination I could not allow to pass without comment.

“We’ll be down momentarily, ma’am,” I assured her, ushering Mrs. Hazelknot out of the tiny room.

“You just watch yourself, young man,” she warned, pitching her voice low and conspiratorial. “I’ve know his kind before. They might seem friendly, and they’ll claim to deal with you square, but in the end he’ll turn on you sure as the tide.”

I stared at the old woman with a confused look on my face. She reached up and patted me on the cheek.

“You’re a good mucker, just like my boys were. They didn’t deserve none of what they got at the ogrun’ hands.”

Being the extraordinary conversationalist and investigator that I am, it took me no time at all to formulate the proper response that encapsulated both my confusion and need for more information.

“What?”

A stunning and incisive observational comment, if I do say so myself.

“His people,” Mrs. Hazelknot whispered, nodding her head at Orsch as he fussed with his satchel. “Sold my boys tainted steel. After they took the swords they went off their rockers, killed a lot of muckers that weren’t asking for it. Constables had to put them down, but I don’t blame the law. I blame them.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. Older people did tend to hold their hatreds closer to the heart, and ogrun certainly faced more than their fair share of ire from humans, but I had never heard of such charges being leveled against them. While they were accomplished metalworkers the ogrun race lacked the ability to utilize magic, which precluded crafting such dread weapons as Mrs. Hazelknot was describing. The spark of sorcery was noteworthy in its absence among the giant race of people; even the smallest of gobbers had the potential to tap into otherworldly power denied to the ogrun.

“You watch that greyback of yours, boy. No matter how much he powders his cheeks it don’t make him any less despicable than any other shark. We all know there ain’t no such thing as a reformed one.”

Mrs. Hazelknot laid her finger alongside her nose, a curious habit of the Five Fingers’ folk common among the criminal class for indicating a shared secret; nodded knowingly at me, and turned away to call out to our neighboring boarder that dinner-lunch-breakfast was served. I was rather disquieted by her rampant bigotry towards ogrun. Obviously the allure of coin spent for the tiny room had overcome her hidden disgust for my companion. Either that or it had taken her several months to get a clear view of the giant grey tenant she had taken in. Her peculiar fixation on Orsch’s skin color bothered me more than her general distaste for his species though. As with many other things Orsch’s coloration was unusual for his species; in fact in all of our travels I had never seen another one of his kind that displayed any pigmentation outside of matching human tones. Mrs. Hazelknot’s assertion that the grey skin was a result of makeup application was patently false, but it did make me wonder how and why she had arrived at that conclusion. Was Orsch even more of a rarity among his kind than I had presumed?

I shook my head to clear it of thought about my friend’s pigmentation; I would not allow another’s prejudices to influence me, no matter how strange they struck me. Briefly I considered accompanying her downstairs, for no matter how she acted towards my companion or what she labeled the meal Mrs. Hazelknot was a superlative cook. Sadly I concluded that Orsch’s secretive actions bore further inquiry.

“Show me the item you are attempting to hide,” I ordered him as I shut the door. Once more I astonished myself with the subtle twists and turns of my investigative techniques. On reflection perhaps my regular nightly roams among the taverns of the docks had become a little too regular, and both my tone and intellect were suffering for it.

Orsch sighed heavily. Rather than argue he opened the satchel again and pulled out the device he’d been so keen on keeping safe from scrutiny.

I let it rest in my companion’s hand without attempting to touch it. The device was obviously mechanikal in nature, and while I no longer suffered most of the ill effects of the curse and Orsch’s revolting medications arcanely-augmented machinery still caused a variety of effects ranging from unease to actual physical pain when I came into contact with them.

It took a moment for me to identify the item as the spectral containment trap that Cora had pressed into our possession back at Outpost Five. The device had originally been intended to combat incorporeal creatures, which had rendered it useless against Titan and his all too real abominations. In the months since then I’d considered trying to use it against the phantasm of death that stalked me, but my intuition screamed out that it would be a bad idea every time I contemplated it. So the device had rested without fanfare at the bottom of our traveling trunk, waiting for a time when we once more ventured into the world of Urcaen-blighted mysteries. Or rather, I thought it had.

Orsch had been quite busy in modifying the device, likely during my nightly jaunts into alcoholism. Where before it had consisted of a relatively complex series of interlocking gears the containment cube had now been augmented with a secondary device, much rougher in its construction, which incorporated several crystals of varying shades into the structure. Some of the gears were locked up by the addition while others spun free. Its stability was questionable at best; Orsch may have been reacting accordingly to it being jostled out of the satchel when he leapt into action. I couldn’t imagine the cube was very stable in its current form.

“I see you’ve done a few modifications on Cora’s design. I’m not sure she would approve.”

“Undoubtedly I would face physical violence for altering it in such a way. It was a risk outweighed by the alternative.”

“Which was what?”

Orsch stared at me with those blank goggles of his, jaw set. I knew the nearly-imperceptible emotions displayed on my friend’s stoic face well enough to determine he was carefully considering his words. Was that impulse driven by the compunctions I suspect had been hidden within his surgical modifications? Or was he attempting to hide the truth from me once again to avoid incriminating himself?

“Tell me, Orsch. You know I have little patience for your dissembling these days.”

A relieved look spread across my companion’s face. I had freed him of any vow-born obligation he felt to keep the information from me by stating my request as an order. Orsch held up the modified containment cube between us. I could feel an odd sort of energy coming off it. Under my skin a thousand spiders crawled with an uneven cadence, the unpleasant sensation causing me to draw back. Orsch nodded at my unconscious reaction, balancing the modified cube carefully in his palm as if he were afraid even a strong breeze might disrupt it.

“This device is why you are still alive, sir.”


**************

The Purifier
08-29-2012, 07:51 PM
Wow. Words have just pretty much failed me, and that's a rare occurrence for me I'll tell you. As a newcomer to this forum I've just torn through this thread in one sitting and now I'm itching for the next instalment. This is a supremely well thought out and crafted piece of art, and you have my thanks for sharing it with us. On the strength of reading this I've also ordered your book, which sounds, if anything, even more impressive. Many congratulations on excellent work, and once again my thanks.

The Purifier

Weaselcreature
08-30-2012, 10:04 AM
Just wanted to chime in here: I just stumbled on this thread a couple days ago and just finished Case #17. Wow! I really enjoyed it and am now ending this post to dive into #18.

Mercykiller
08-31-2012, 12:22 PM
@The Purifier: Thanks! I really appreciate it :D If you enjoy the book please let your friends know as well; as a struggling novelist getting the word out is the hardest part. I'm pretty sure I can reel folks in once they get a taste, it's just getting the word out to people in the first place that's difficult.

@Weaselcreature: I'm glad you enjoyed it, that's the payoff for a writer above anything else. We want folks to go 'damn, that was a pretty good time I just had in my head' ;)

It's Friday, folks, so here it is: new chapter being posted below!

Mercykiller
08-31-2012, 12:30 PM
(As always, this chapter and other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories without page breaks are up on my website, www.sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/))


Chapter 4


I sighed heavily and resisted the urge to poke the cube with my finger.

“Truthfully, is that the best lie you can come up with?”

Orsch cocked his head to the side slightly and shook it. “I apologize, sir, but I am not quite sure what you mean.”

“You expect me to believe that a device you have glued a few crystals and extra gears to is some sort of life-giving mechanika that keeps death at bay? That the containment cube Cora designed to entrap spectral phenomenon is somehow assisting my own body in maintaining its vital functions while being hidden in a bag in our room? Is that honestly what you are trying to convince me of?”

“Of course, sir.”

I barked a short, derisive laugh, and mimicked his tone. “Of course. Why would I even contemplate you’d give me another answer? That you still expect me to believe all that you tell me without question after the secrets you have withheld is either a testament to your low opinion of my intellect or an example of your own extraordinary capabilities of self-delusional justification.”

Orsch stiffened and turned away with the cube.

“No, wait, please don’t take away my source of all life and goodness,” I said with a flat dryness. “No. No. Don’t hide my heart away.”

“I must admit, I had forgotten how cruel you could be, sir,” the big ogrun said softly.

Guilt penetrated my heart like a shard of ice; I’d known how harsh my words were, but in the midst of the comment I’d felt vindicated in using them to combat his subterfuge. But now that they were out they felt mean, small, a petty attempt to hurt him for not telling me the truth. Yet that was how he had kept me in line before: making me feel ashamed for doubting him even as my companion had lied to me and poisoned me to keep the bloody curse under control. It was an old trick, used one too many times.

“Orsch, may I see the device more closely?” I kept my voice steady, threading an apologetic tone into the request. He had no way of knowing I was insincere.

The ogrun hesitated a moment, then turned back around. He held the device out to me. “Please be very careful with it, sir. Your existence depends upon it. If you must doubt me then do so about other matters; this is far too critical to take lightly.”

“Indeed it is,” I murmured in agreement, taking the cube out of his gentle grasp. A thousand ants raced up my hand and through my body like a brief electric shock, causing my teeth to snap together as my muscles tensed. The strange feeling pulsed within my blood for a moment before subsiding into a background throb that threatened to give me a headache. “How does it work? You’re so insistent that it’s important, yet I’m fairly certain that my heart will continue beating, my lungs continue breathing, without its effects on me.”

“I am sorry, sir, but I cannot say.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I muttered bitterly. “Can you at least give me a hint? Perhaps a parlor game where I guess at the number of syllables in your current lie? Or would you rather construct an elaborate word puzzle that has the answer hidden within it? What particular game must you and I play for me to get another hidden answer out of you?”

“Sir, it is not as simple as that.”

“Allow me to straighten the bow then, mate,” I snarled, letting my baser instincts rise up along with the language change. An evil grin slid across my face as I raised the modified cube up above my head before throwing it down to the floor with all of my might. Orsch let out a pained cry as the fragile device struck the wooden floorboards with a satisfying crunch, its delicate form warping as gears and crystals broke and flew off. A rather unspectacular puff of light and sound popped out of the containment cube, and with a dying whine I felt the ants crawling under my skin recede as the mechanika’s clockwork workings sputtered to a permanent halt.

“There, that free up your rudder some?” I asked with the grin etched on my lips.

Orsch sagged back into his little cot as if he’d had the air let out of him. The grey ogrun’s shoulders slumped forward in defeat, and the rebellious spite I’d begun to build up evaporated like mist in the morning, taking with it the coarse language.

“You do not know what you have done, sir.”

“Then tell me,” I replied, not bothering to hide the desperate sound of my entreaty. “I’m bright enough to understand there are certain things your very physiology prevent you from communicating. But that particular device was created long after the speech blocks were placed in your modified physiology. Surely you can talk freely about such a thing?”

“It does not matter now,” Orsch said sadly. “You have doomed yourself. Death will find you before the night is out.”

His words sent chills up my spine. I resisted the urge to go to our rickety shutters and throw them open to stare out blindly into the night. I couldn’t be precisely sure how much darkness was left out there, but I knew we were not long past midnight. If death was still out there she would have plenty of time to uncover my location before the dawn. But why did that matter? She had easily found me several times. My phantasmal stalker had whispered in my ear earlier this night; why then would she suddenly feel a desire to seek me out for our inevitably terminal confrontation?

“You have never shown much interest in music, sir, other than that dreadful job you do on the dock pianos. I have always found that rather odd, given the cultural upbringing we attempted to instill in you.”

Orsch’s sudden change of topic startled me. He was staring at those same warped shutters that tempted me, his empty goggles seeming to pierce them with his gaze as he scanned through the night. For all I knew that was precisely what he was doing; my companion held many secrets close to his chest, and I had no inkling of what, if anything, the mechanikal lenses were capable of.

“While I, like most ogrun, have no talent in that arena myself, I have studied musical theory extensively in my spare time.”

Another lie. But it was an obvious one. Orsch might have some base knowledge of the subject, as he did with everything we encountered, but I had never witnessed him show any appreciable interest in the field of music beyond that of any other activity he passively catalogued. His luggage was not weighed down with sheets of musical notation, nor did he discuss the latest in artists or instruments. There was only one reason he would engage in such obvious falsehoods: he was attempting to circumvent some arcane restriction that hindered his veracity even now. In return I restrained my urge to interrupt him.

“Are you aware of how harmonies intertwine in an orchestral configuration? It really is quite fascinating. Different instruments, all playing their part, all weaving in and out of a composition to create something uniquely stronger and more complete than its parts. In many ways it resembles the oddities of magical energies. There are harmonies, and resonances, and occasionally even a symphony of energy that can overwhelm the world with its power.

“But even the most talented of musicians must first tune his instrument. Can you imagine a violinist who fails to rosin his bow, who then plucks the strings without first making sure they are at the precise tautness to produce the sound he is after? Now expand that to the other members of his orchestra, all clanging together in a discordant cacophony. Such a harsh violation of the senses would make one wish to expire. If a practitioner of the sorcererous arts made such an elementary mistake though the results would be far more explosive.”

Mercykiller
08-31-2012, 12:30 PM
He paused, and looked at me expectantly. I was unable to comprehend what he sought, and so I was reduced to shrugging with a rather dim look on my face. Orsch sighed heavily and continued.

“It is the harmony, you see. The musicians must maintain their instruments so that each can play his proper part in the symphony. A new instrument requires the greatest amount of preparation, as it has never been tuned to the vagaries of its environment and the skill of its player. If a musician fails in this base duty it will ruin the symphony, no matter how skilled the conductor or other participants. The noise will be discordant, clashing, destroying any and all chance of producing something worthy of being called music.”

“And so it is with magic,” I finished for him. “What you’re saying is that arcane implements, spells, what have you, they also have to be tuned to the harmony of the user and purpose, so to speak.”

“Precisely.”

“It isn’t a new concept to me, Orsch. Why go to such lengths to construct the analogy?”

“Imagine for a moment that you have an incredibly complex instrument, essential to the symphony. Without it there will never be music produced. But to tune this particularly valuable resource you must first transport it to various sites and let specific notes sink into its wood and strings, altering its basic makeup, warping it to its ultimate purpose. Furthermore, let us assume the conductor of the symphony can hear the notes of the evolving instrument across time and space, listening for that pitch perfect moment when the musician should come home with his altered implement. What could possibly delay the summons of such a finely-tuned instrument once it was ready to play its part? Only the hints of a discordant resonance, a clashing note marring the perfection necessary for a mighty symphony that could change the world would be enough to forestall the instrument’s return.”

He was stretching the analogy to its limit, but I understood what he was driving at. The most powerful artifacts we had encountered in our travels were each in their own time forged out of time and blood and specific situations. Given that much we had encountered was birthed of the demonic Orgoth occupation I had little wish to contemplate the construction or intended purpose of those same relics. Despite their evils each in their own way had been a finely tuned instrument, eminently well-suited to their task; without the proper preparation of the instruments though anyone using them would have experienced rather fatal consequences. But why was Orsch trying so hard to shroud his words, making allusion to the power of arcane energies and the necessary preparations without directly referencing the altered containment cube …

The idea hit me hard enough to knock a colossal down.

“When we were going around from case to case, recovering malign relics and combating the supernatural … I was being tuned? The markings that cover me, the sanguine curse, the mechanika intolerance, all of it was planned in advance?”

Orsch said nothing. He was still as a statue, whether due to the commands written into his very flesh or out of some sort of expectant encouragement. So I finished the logical train of thought.

“I’m the instrument you’re talking about.”

My companion shuddered as he fought the limitations placed on him, but he managed a slight nod.

“Then the modified device you constructed, what was it for?”

Various twitches and ticks ran across Orsch’s face. After a moment he managed to bring it under control by returning to his analogy. “If a musician did not wish to return, yet would be compelled to by his superior upon discovery of his instrument’s suitability, he would have to find a way to spoil the resultant sounds the conductor was listening for. Much as a tuning fork is used to verify the sanctity of musical notes a flawed one could produce a resonance that clashed with the sounds in its vicinity. Thus anyone listening to the resultant noise would conclude that the instrument was still deeply flawed.”

I toed the pieces of the destroyed device. “So this interrupted or otherwise altered my resonance, my chord, and made the conductor believe I was still unready, not quite finished in my alterations. But once the interference is destroyed, once whoever altered me knows I’m ready …”

Orsch nodded. “The conductor will demand the musician return with the instrument. Or hunt them both down. In either situation it becomes more a matter of timing than a question of escape; discovery and recovery is a certainty once the veil is torn away.”

“Enough. I understand.”

My companion rose, his head brushing the ceiling. “Do you, sir? Do you have any comprehension of what you have done?”

Despite his grim tone, I couldn’t help but smile again. This grin though wasn’t insane, or mean, or petty. It was the smile of relief, of a man who knows the wait for the gallows is nearly done.

“Of course I know what I’ve done. I’ve ended the torturous wait you expected me to endure, the long drawn-out death rattle we both knew was coming. You would have me scurry like a frightened rat across the land, using magical disturbances and your own alterations of mechanika to hide myself from the fate that stalks me. But that is no life. It has been no life. While I value your friendship and what you were trying to do that doesn’t change the fact I know nothing of who I am or why we were altered this way. Simple survival may be enough for you, as you obviously think it is for me. But it isn’t. I’m tired, Orsch. Even if the truth breaks me down and bleeds me dry, at least I’ll know where I stand in this world. I’m not sorry for what I’ve done.”

I felt at ease as I crossed the room and threw open the shutters to the deep night, inviting that which had hunted me to come and claim her prize.

“Death is finally coming for me, and she’s long overdue.”


*************************

Mercykiller
09-07-2012, 02:15 PM
(As always, this chapter and other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories without page breaks are up on my website, www.sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/))


Chapter 5


Death was late.

It was actually quite irritating. I?d stood at the window for hours, waiting, hoping. The end was near. Of course I would not simply roll over and accept my fate, but finally, after six months of dallying in Five Fingers, I was going to have some sort of resolution to the curse that had plagued me since my memory began.

When the dawn came it was an unwelcome respite from my vigil at the window. I was tired and stiff, and rather cranky at having stayed up all night awaiting a courtesan that never arrived. Orsch had remained sitting on his bed, still as a statue, and I couldn?t tell whether he had nodded off or not during the wait. Regardless, it became apparent that he was currently awake when I stretched with a yawn and he immediately rose to assist me.

?Sir, you really must rest.?

?She didn?t come,? I complained. ?Not a whisper, not a shadow. You said she would come.?

Orsch shrugged. ?The nocturnal activities of your personal reaper are not within my scope of expertise; I assumed she would immediately appear once her prize was ready. That she has not should be counted as a blessing, not an irritation.?

?Says you, mate,? I drawled, my eyes heavy with sleep. The threadbare sheets over my lumpy bed never looked so inviting.

?I will stand the watch as you sleep, sir,? Orsch said as he reached under his own cot and slid out a small case. I struggled to stay awake even as I burrowed down into the bed, observing my companion while he opened the mysterious valise. During our time in Five Fingers I had often left him alone in the room while I prowled the dock bars, nary a care to what his boredom drove the ogrun to do to alleviate the downtime. However, I found I had reason to question those lost hours when he pulled the knife out.

As weapons went it was rather unassuming, slender with tiny runes carved painstakingly across the blade. The weapon, a dagger made for a human grip, seemed tiny as my friend carefully sighted the dawn?s streaming light down along its blade. Inside the case I saw etching tools, a whetstone, and a silk cloth that Orsch pulled out to run along the blade.

?You?ve been playing at metalworking?? I asked, my voice a slumber-damped mumble.

?Not as such; more like alterations. If you like when you awaken I can show you a much larger project I have hired the local smith to assist me in forging. It is far more impressive than this little ritual blade.?

?So why have it then?? I managed to ask.

Orsch knelt on the floor, careful to brush at the boards before assuming a contemplative position on the stained wood. ?It is a necessary tool for the tasks to come, sir. You will understand, in time.?

If I said anything in response I lost it mid-sentence as I slipped off to sleep. It had been a very long day and night, and my body was simply too tired to continue.

There was no way to tell how long I was out, and my dreams were more akin to nightmares. Images and sounds mashed together with old memories and visions of things that had never happened, and throughout all of them Orsch kept reappearing, still kneeling with the blade over his thigh or being polished by the silk. Pain laced my dreams, never quite waking me up, but burning through every odd permutation that my sleeping mind twisted through. But in the timeless depths of sleep the agony continued, intensified, and finally I could take no more. I awoke gasping, with a scream on my lips. But the nightmare had just begun.

Orsch was cutting into my left arm with his ritual dagger.

It took my addled mind a moment to take it all in and respond. Orsch had me propped up against the wall with a blood-soaked towel under my forearm, hacking and hewing away at my flesh like a drunken butcher. The scarlet tattoos had risen in response to my injury, and their appearance seemed to drive my companion into frenzy as he stabbed the blade down into my arm, cutting through tattoo and flesh down to the bone underneath. Orsch?s bowler had fallen to the side during his exertions, leaving his forehead curiously naked and gleaming with perspiration. The veins in his arms and neck stood out in strained attention, and his white linen shirt was soaked through with both my blood and his sweat. My fugue state cleared rapidly as Orsch scraped against the bone again. The pain intensified and cut through all other thoughts.

?Mutiny!? I heard myself scream. ?Get off me, you thrice-cursed *****?s son!?

Orsch?s hand paused in his erstwhile butchering, quivering with strain as he attempted to defy my direct order and continue cutting. While he was thus frozen I managed to get my feet drawn up and between us. I kicked hard with both, and although the ogrun outweighed me by several hundred pounds it was enough to topple him away and off the bed.

I didn?t bother with recriminations or demanding an explanation. My arm was in sheer agony, and still bleeding. There was no way to tell how much blood I?d already lost from my mangled forearm, but the lightness in my head threatened to render me unconscious and vulnerable once more to Orsch?s traitorous ministrations if I stopped fighting.

The giant grey ogrun rose hesitantly to a crouch, the ritual dagger held out between us. Given that he could snap me over his knee like a broom handle I found it comical Orsch felt he needed the knife to threaten me.

?Sir, please return to the bed. I must complete the task at hand.?

?To what, save me?? I slurred, the room spinning. The blood loss was worrisome, and I struggled to stay awake.

?Precisely, sir.?

I laughed weakly while I grabbed at my own satchel, the one containing the demon-born pistol in it. The malign intelligence within the weapon surged forth into my consciousness as I reached in and drew out the dread gun, pointing it at Orsch. The ogrun stopped advancing immediately, eyeing the gun with his emotionless goggles. But with my left arm still bleeding the pistol fought me, its dark urges threatening to overwhelm any control I had left. It demanded to be fed, and my blood was the temptation of choice, so warm, so readily available. The cold brass studs in the grip twitched of their own accord as the weapon struggled to use them to bleed me further.

?You?ll excuse me if I don?t believe you got my best interests at heart, mate,? I coughed, waving the demonic pistol at Orsch. ?How?s about you hang on to this for me to prove your good intentions.?

The demon within the weapon screamed in frustration as I threw the pistol at Orsch. For a moment the terrible thing paused in mid-air, as if it were going to fly back into my hand by its own accord. But I pushed the demon?s whispers out of my head and concentrated on ridding myself of the weapon. Its arrested flight resumed with a sudden force, and Orsch was barely able to dodge to the side in the confined space before the gunblade slammed into the wall, embedding itself halfway through.

While he was thus distracted I stumbled towards the closed shutters, pushing them open and letting in the glaring light of the afternoon sun. Orsch shrank back instinctively from the sudden illumination for a moment, giving me time to clamber out onto the window?s narrow ledge.

But where was I to go? I was weakening quickly, and even if I managed to fall from the second story to the street without breaking something vital it would be child?s play for Orsch to retrieve me within a matter of mere moments. Although the Five Fingers was not precisely lawless, thanks to the influence of the High Captains that oversaw the city, the chances of finding some sort of constable before my companion whisked me back up to our room was negligible.

I stumbled on the rotting ledge as the world spun and nearly fainted. The only thing that saved me from a dull tumble to the street below was a heavy length of rope that helped anchor the house itself into the web of the Rigs that ran above.

Mercykiller
09-07-2012, 02:16 PM
It would be altogether too generous to claim the life-saving idea occurred immediately, but given my state it arrived as soon as it was able.

The Rigs.

There was no other choice. The web-like contraption of ramshackle buildings, ship parts, and ropes the gobbers had set up throughout the Five Fingers for their personal use was unsafe, unsound, and altogether dangerous even for the little creatures themselves. But it was also the only place in the city that an ogrun weighing at least four hundred pounds could not follow.

My head felt too light, and I giggled with the blood loss as I swung myself up by way of the rope into the Rigs above the boardinghouse. It took several tries to manage it, but I was encouraged by the massive grey hand of my companion reaching out through the window and nearly snaring me. Orsch flailed around silently, not wishing to draw more attention to the spectacle than necessary, but I was already high enough into the tangle of ropes and wood to avoid his seeking grasp.

The woven claptrap groaned dangerously under my weight as I struggled up through it. While I knew that in some parts of the city the rigging network could support a full-grown man in armor here it was at a minimum strength, presumably to keep burly drunken sailors from the nearby taverns at bay. Never in my life had I ever been so thankful that my frame was so relatively light and short compared to other people; more than once I’d lamented my lack of physical presence, yet today it allowed for a route of egress that my heavier companion could not use. While the light-headed giggles threatened slipping on a blood-slicked rope reminded me I was still leaking vital fluids at an alarming rate, forcing me to organize my thoughts to stay alive.

I raised my left arm up, amazed that Orsch had somehow missed the tendons and major arteries during his strange bout of butchery. I was getting colder, and while the flow of blood from the grievous injuries had slowed with clotting I’d lost far too much. Due to the sanguinary curse I suspected I carried around more blood on hand than most normal people of my size, but I’d been deprived of a substantial amount and it was taking its toll.

Although the Rigs shifted dangerously under my weight I lay back, too tired and drained to go on. Orsch couldn’t reach me up here to finish the task, but I suspected that it didn’t matter. Time and nature would take its course without his further assistance, rendering me unable to save my own life. At least I felt no pain, just a dull throbbing from my arm.

My maudlin thoughts were interrupted by a searing pain and the smell of meat roasting.

I gave a weak cry and turned my head towards the offending limb, the same one that had been mauled by my ‘loyal’ companion. A haze seeped into the environment and made me cough; despite my increasing confusion I realized that it was no illusion of smoke that permeated the air, but rather the real thing. My burning arm was covered in the smoke and when I tried to draw it back from the blue-black cloud unseen clawed fingers held me tight. Panic set in as the cloud of smoky claws refused to let go of my injured forearm and the burning sensation worsened.

“Stop moving around so much, sweet-cheeks,” a raspy voice coughed within the cloud. “Unless you want more of you to bake than is strictly necessary. If you’re into that, well, hold your destriers until we’re back at my place.”

The cloud of smoke began to dissipate, as did the burning on my hand. In its place I saw the biggest gobber I’d ever laid eyes on, nearly four feet tall. She wore a blue skirt tightly-bound at her knees with a matching shirt, hanging upside-down from a rig line by a pair of odd boots while smoking a hooaga that put out far more smoke than I’d have thought possible. At least I hoped it was a ‘she;’ being non-mammalian gobbers oftentimes had to tell people their particular preferred pronoun. Fake eyelashes had been carefully glued into place around her gold-green flecked eyes. She used these to a horrifying effect by batting them playfully at me.

“Well doesn’t a girl get a simple ‘thank you’ for saving a man’s life these days?” she cooed. Or rather, I assumed the phlegm-choked sound from uncountable years of smoking the coarse cigars was meant to be a coo.

“Uh … thank you?” I stuttered out. Had I simply lost too much blood? The vision of the oversized gobber swinging around right-side up without ever letting go of my hand in her clawed fingers was surreal enough to make me doubt the accuracy of my senses. When she smiled with a dozen pointed teeth I noticed she’d carefully applied some type of lip paint to her scaly mouth. I began to hope that I was still trapped in a nightmare.

“Lord Worthington,” rumbled Orsch from below with warning. I looked down to see he had managed to fit one of his shoulders and a large arm out of our room’s window and was currently gesturing for me to return. “Please step away from the harlot. We have things to discuss.”

The gobber female hissed down at my companion like an angry cat, giving me a disturbing view of even more pointed teeth.

“Get your own man, ogrun!”

Oh, my. This was not good. I wasn’t even sure which part of the tableau bothered me the most. But the situation was quickly spiraling farther down into the pit than I’d imagined to begin with. When the gobber woman squeezed my trapped hand with her claws though I was quickly reminded of the worst offender to my health wasn’t the scaled female. She released her grip and allowed me to draw back the mangled arm Orsch had been cutting into. The bleeding had been stopped by the simple expediency of cauterization. Cigar burns covered my skin with ash clinging to the wounds, but at least I wasn’t in danger of dying immediately. It was an ugly wound though, covering at least half my forearm and part of my wrist. The hooaga’s scars would be horrific, assuming I lived long enough to heal properly.

Wordlessly I held my abused arm up towards Orsch.

“That was for your own good, sir.”

The gobber female laughed before I could. After a moment I joined her in the bitter tone of a man who has just been told he was stabbed ‘for his own good.’

“Sir, please. You must return to the room and allow me to finish.”

“Or,” the gobber countered, drawing the word out with what I hoped wasn’t a seductive growl. “You could always climb higher with me away from the lunatic with the knife. I’ve got a shop not far from here where we can get some alone time, sweet-cheeks.”

I tried not to make the shudder visible. The predatory look she was giving me was akin to finding out the alligator that bumped your boat wants to court you. Vigorously. It was not an attractive offer, in any sense of the word. But, as the pain burning in my arm reminded me, the scaled woman had helped me, whereas Orsch had attempted to fillet my appendage. A hurried look west over the rooftops showed me that I’d slept the day away, and soon the sun would sink below the horizon. Although the Captain’s Isle had a measure of relative security compared to the other islands in the Five Fingers it was still a rough and ready place that did not reward fools who wandered its streets aimlessly in the dead of night. Despite my eagerness to have the entire mess of my life untangled one way or the other I did not wish to greet death shivering by the side of the road with nary a weapon or friend at my side.

That left only one choice.

I sighed heavily, and the gobber female grinned wider. “I have to admit, your offer is far more tempting than the alternative, Miss …”

“Liloganentang, but you can call me Lil for short,” the gobber replied, batting her too-large eyes with the fake lashes at me.

She giggled in a disturbing way, grabbing my uninjured right hand and pulling at me with her claws, showing me where to put my feet on the ropes of the Rigs to not fall as we began our ascent. I looked over my shoulder at the stoic Orsch, still waiting with his hand out as if he could entreat me to return and allow his knife to finish. Death finding me weakened in a gutter, an insane ogrun who thought slicing me up was how to keep me alive, or a smitten gobber woman with all the sultry appeal of an upturned pail of wet garbage. Those were my choices.

This was going to be a very long night.



**************

scorpius007
09-12-2012, 06:13 AM
ah still need to catch up on this story but just wanted to say that yer book so far (about half done) is quite awesome. :D

Mercykiller
09-12-2012, 06:28 AM
I'm glad you're enjoying it! I did quite a bit of research on the historical bits, which was actually quite fun. I've got a big rail-fan in my house in the form of my wife, who's also a docent at the California State Railroad Museum, and she led me to a little-known section of the museum with maps of the area in 1890, floorplans, etc. that were invaluable (and inspirational). Although the idea for GEARTEETH started off as simple 'steampunk werewolves' it led me to how cool flying trains would be, and Tesla, and thus Double Ts and salvation cities were born lol.

I'm maintaining a pretty steady pace of a Jonathon every Friday here and on my site; anyone who saw my name post and thought 'yay another chapter!' it's coming on Friday. Promise :)

ForsakenPoptart
09-14-2012, 09:01 AM
*taps foot impatiently*

...COME ON MAN, IT'S FRIDAY.

I NEED MORE.


:p

Mercykiller
09-14-2012, 09:41 AM
Working, but this'll be a 'late Friday' update ;)

Mercykiller
09-14-2012, 04:29 PM
(As always, this chapter and other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories without post breaks are up on my website, sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/))


Chapter 6


Lil had to assist me several times on the tricky ropes as we ascended higher into the clustered rigging. I was so dizzy with blood loss that I was almost able to ignore the small pinches on my bottom she snuck in. Almost. I didn't dare try and swat her hand away. Assuming the goblin woman didn't just let me fall to my death for denying her, I was just as likely to unbalance myself and fall screaming as I was to dissuade the amorous creature. And so I endured her attentions, feeling more like a barmaid near closing time on the docks than a powerful arcane instrument pursued by shadowy unknown forces. For the first time I rather missed that.

"Please stop," I slurred, irritated that even my speech was affected by the dizziness plaguing my head.

"Can't stop now, sweet-cheeks," Lil said, sneaking another pinch in while placing my foot in a hidden loop under an innocuous floor plank and taking a long draw on the hooaga she was smoking. The choking fumes tickled my nose with their sickly-sweet cloud, although thankfully the cloud wasn't as heavy as when we'd faced down Orsch. I gave a wheezing cough and nearly put my foot in a different loop before she slapped it back towards the correct placement. "Careful there, we set this area up to hang any muckers trying to chase us up this way. Step wrong and you'll find out how quickly a piece of seemingly random rope becomes a noose."

"Isn't that a bit ... paranoid? Surely gobbers aren't that despised in Five Fingers; after all, your people practically built the entire rigging system."

Lil shined me a crooked grin full of dagger-like teeth, and then spit to the side of her cigar and the ropes. Idly I took note of the heavy stains on her teeth from what must be constant smoking. How she had not burned down the highly-flammable Rigs was a mystery to me, as was the tolerance of her fellows for her flammable habit. "Oh sure, they love them some gobbers all right. But I'm a bogrin, sweet-cheeks. Whole different kettle of fish for them to stew over."

Wonderful. The bogrin were to goblins what cannibalistic hillbillies were to a Caspian, if those same backwoods folk also grew more muscular and larger than their city-bred cousins. Orsch and I had encountered bogrin a few times during our adventures, and to a creature they were always savage and bloodthirsty. Although we had faced far worse we still never underestimated the little monsters; I'd once seen a tribe of them obliterate a swamp horror that had mutated it into something even more terrible and hungry after eating an Orgoth relic. The bogrin emulated dragonfish, swarming the much larger creature with crude spears tipped with potent venom and bringing it down. We had barely escaped with our own skins intact afterwards, although the bogrin had done their best to prevent our egress as we had confiscated the offending relic that spawned the incident.

Lil grinned wider at the look of fright in my eyes.

"Don't worry about it, love. We city bogrin don't take bites out of strangers. Much. Well, in your case I might make an exception."

She cackled in glee, and I smiled uneasily in response, trying to mask my disquiet. Lil certainly didn't look like any other bogrin I'd ever met; she wore the civilized clothing with ease and comfort. While displaying a section of mottled skin in what I hoped wasn't a seductive manner I took note that she had a bandolier of cigars serving as a garter, which was odd as she wore no stockings that needed the support. I sternly reprimanded my mind for the horrific thoughts that followed that observation. The scaled woman was sure to provide enough fodder for unease as the night wore on without any assistance from my own traitorous fears.

To give Lil credit, though, she tamped down on her overbearing urges as we reached a section of the rigging that was trickier than most. Instead of making me fight to keep my demure nature intact the bogrin woman concentrated on helping my increasingly clumsy limbs find the correct handholds and footholds to progress safely. My conscious mind had begun to skip like a rock over water, losing incremental half-seconds as a blackout threatened. If we failed to arrive at our destination in a timely manner I was going to pass out from the blood loss, and no amount of pinches from my guide would wake me.

Fortunately we arrived at a relatively stable rope bridge with planks sturdy enough to hold me with only a minimal chance of falling to a screaming death. Lil murmured encouragingly in her raspy voice as I dragged my feet across the planks in a shamble that vaguely resembled walking. Placing one foot in front of the other had become a momentous task that took up the lion's share of my attention. It was about a minute later when a note of relief crept into my guide's words and I looked up from my perilous footing.

The bridge terminated at a ramshackle shack with a roughly-painted sign tacked to its front that read Little Sins. The bogrin woman beamed with pride and presented the hovel with a flourish.

"There she is, sweet-cheeks! My shop!"

Sluggish as it was my brain screamed out a few choice warnings, not the least of which involved the word 'sin' paired with Lil's unhealthy interest in me.

"Perhaps there's another place that we could go," I objected halfheartedly. The truth was though that I didn't want to take another step, even if it did mean fending off the advances of a smitten reptilian admirer for the rest of the night.

"Nonsense! I've got plenty of room for both of us. Especially if we cuddle up tight."

I looked longingly over the side of the rope bridge. It was about five stories down to the ground. Not that high, really. I might survive the impact.

Lil had me, and she knew it. The scaled woman shooed me into her shop, and I instantly breathed a sigh of relief in the pungent air. Rather than the selection of demented carnal toys and other accoutrements my mind had conjured up there were drying leaves of various plants used in the production of inhaled narcotics, as well as a huge display case of cigars of every size, shape, and color. Some of the hooagas looked large enough to give Orsch trouble, while others were so dainty and tightly-wrapped as to qualify as ladylike, given the right circumstances. Lil had even used a layering of the larger plant leaves to create a curtain of sorts that cordoned off a small part of the one-room shack for what I assumed was living quarters.

"Welcome to the finest hooaga shop in all of Five Fingers!" Lil boasted proudly.

While my brain was not working at full steam I did find myself shaking my head in wonder as I slumped down against a wall tiredly. Looking around I saw several smoldering coals sputtering lazily in iron censers, drying the narcotic leaves used to construct the cigars as well as warming the shop against the night's chill. Fire was a constant and very real danger to the denizens of the Rigs; their homes were so vulnerable to its ravages that arsonists were regarded as mass-murderers and dealt with as such. How then had the justifiably paranoid population of the rigging system allowed a hooaga shop to be set up here? What was next, a Rhulic forge stoking the coals, or a nice community bonfire to bring the neighborhood together in the spirit of idiocy?

Lil noticed my worried glances and smirked knowingly at me.

"Don't worry that pretty little head of yours, love. These tender little things pose about as much danger as a sleeping kitten."

At my look of incredulity she shrugged lightly and held out her hand. "Babies! Come to mama!"

The tug of arcane forces turned my stomach as the coals flared into life. Tiny flames erupted from the smoldering censers, leaping free into the air and dancing like will o' wisps towards Lil's outstretched hand. There they coalesced into a larger flame that sat a couple of inches above her palm without burning it.

"How are you doing this?" I asked, feigning ignorance.

The sick feeling told me it was sorcery, but this was a type I had not seen before. I'd once witnessed a troll shaman toss fireballs from his outstretched hands after we violated a sacred moot to retrieve a troublesome artifact, and there existed plenty of military paraphernalia in the Protectorate of Menoth that utilized mechanikal flame generation for a variety of destructive acts. But I'd never seen anyone command fire in such a sedate way. Despite the heat from the flame it felt comforting, not dangerous. That in itself was a serious hazard; grow too accustomed to handling deadly forces and you begin to take unnecessary risks as you forget the dangers involved. It was a lesson that I'd been taught in a painful fashion from past investigations.

Mercykiller
09-14-2012, 04:29 PM
“It’s all in what you feed them, sweet-cheeks,” Lil said, pulling out a small leather pouch from the inside of her shirt’s top.

Holding the leather in her teeth Lil reached in and withdrew a selection of ground tobacco that gave off a heady aroma. With a flick of her fingers she tossed the mixture into the flame, which flashed briefly to green and blue before settling into a purplish-yellow glow that cast an unearthly luminosity across the hooaga shop. With a loving murmur she tossed the flame back into the air, whereupon it immediately split into the half dozen individual sparks again. The flickers of fire flew across the room in different directions to settle back into their original censers. The coals flared briefly with the return of their lost flames before settling back into cherry-red glows, although occasionally a spark of purple would snap, as if unconsumed fuel had somehow been transported back to them.

“It was not so long ago that you would have been burnt at the stake for such witchcraft,” I said, shaking my head. “Fire-born sorcery is dangerous and unpredictable when not guided by mechanika.”

Lil laughed, a sharp and ugly thing that somehow held no menace. “I told you, it’s not the flame making the muckers clap.”

“Then what is?”

The bogrin woman took a long draw on her cigar before blowing it out. The heavy blue-black smoke swirled around her head, refusing to dissipate. As she exhaled again and again the cloud grew heavier, weaving in on itself until the smoke covered her like a cocoon. I watched, fascinated, as it swirled around in an undulating shroud that obscured her completely. Pulsing like a living thing it began to take on her shape and features; soon a perfect copy of the bogrin woman stood before me. The smoke-woman floated away from Lil of its own accord, maintaining its form and revealing my host again. Lil grinned mischievously as she sized up her cloudy twin with an approving nod.

“Do you like her?” Lil giggled. I attempted to grow wary, but at this point I was lucky to hold onto consciousness so I settled for staring dully ahead. “She likes you. In fact, I think she wants a kiss, sweet-cheeks.”

The smoky apparition drifted across the shack towards me, Lil’s hungry smile frozen on its face. Weakly I raised a hand to stop it, the wounded one with the ugly burns, but there was nothing I could do. The smoke drifted around my forearm, enveloping it and bringing a sense of blessed relief. Puzzled, I pulled my maimed limb out of the smoke and was surprised to see the skin whole again. There was fresh pink tissue where the burns had been. Under the skin there was a curious absence, a hole in my being, and it took my sluggish mind a moment to recognize why. The scarlet tattoos of my affliction were always with me, lurking deep within skin and bone even when they were not visible, twisting through my entire body. But there was a break in the pattern now, a mauled section that had been cut out entirely.

My left forearm was free of the runes.

I stared at my arm dully, not comprehending. Movement from the smoke-creature made me look up. The cloud was moving closer, pressing against me. My skin crawled as the hazy construct whispered over me, covering me. I gasped as the smoke forced its way into my nose and mouth, the sickly-sweet taste and smell overwhelming my senses. I shuddered, and my back went rigid against the wall. Muscles spasmed throughout my body as foreign energy coursed into them. My languid mind lit up with a thousand sparks as the smoke invaded my throat and lungs. The experience was dizzying, violating. But soon I could reason again, could question and think. It was as if I’d regained a portion of the vitality I’d lost, and as the last of the smoke flowed into my lungs the mutilated arm returned to the foreground of my mind.

Addled thoughts warred with each other as I raised the freshly-healed limb before me. Why was the pattern broken there? That answer was obvious, and simple enough: the wound Orsch had inflicted with his ritualistic dagger had disrupted the arcane tattoo imprinted into me. My ogrun companion had cut deeply, into the bone itself in some places, risking my life for an urgent task the nature of which he refused to reveal. Had Orsch known exactly what he was doing? That he was desecrating the very arcane instrument he’d been tuning? Of course he did. He had to. If there was any state Orsch was incapable of existing in it was that of ignorance. He’d been fighting his own implanted instructions in order to mutilate me; that explained why he was haggard and strained when I woke up. Despite the lunacy of the thought, had he been telling the truth in that he’d been trying to help me by butchering my arm? But what could such a brutal field surgery possibly accomplish?

I was distracted from my ruminations as Lil moved closer to one of the censers she’d fed earlier. She cast a quick surreptitious glance my direction, but I was careful to keep my eyes glazed and unfocused, as if her smoke construct still had me in the throes of revitalization. Apparently satisfied that I was distracted by the experience the bogrin woman murmured something unintelligible. The glowing coal flared, releasing a dancing flame to her palm. Purple flashes threaded through the orange-yellow tongue of living fire as Lil carefully moved it to a new receptacle, a small iron lantern that she carefully turned around to shine out the north window of the shop. I noticed a tiny mirror mounted on a post in the distance pick up the light like a shimmering star, and other glitters answered in turn throughout the rigging. For a moment it seemed like a perfectly innocent, if slightly odd, habit of my host. But my eyes narrowed in suspicion as I watched the reflected flickering across the way. There was a recognizable and repeated pattern to it. Although I could not discern precisely what it was meant to convey there was an inescapable conclusion to her activities.

Lil was sending out a coded message.

I coughed and blinked my eyes, shaking my head as if the fugue brought on by the smoke was just beginning to clear. The bogrin turned around with a disconcerting smile, batting her fake eyelashes. But I wasn’t a fool. She’d been trying to throw me off with her constant unwanted attention. And it had worked, at least for a time.

“Feel better?” she asked.

Nodding, I coughed again, spitting up a little ash. “An amazing display of medicinal magic, Lil. Thank you.”

She snorted in response. “Not really. That was just one of the old home remedies any good smoldress knows. We’re taught that one at our mother’s knee.”

“Still, I was lucky that it was someone who knew such exotic techniques who found me,” I insisted. My voice went dry and deadpan. “I mean, what are the odds I would encounter precisely the smoldress I needed as I fled from an altercation with my companion? It’s extraordinary. Truly an example of divine intervention, don’t you think?”

Lil’s smile was a watery and weak as I rose up from the floor. The newfound vitality from her smoke magic wasn’t as fulfilling as sleep or food, but it was sufficient for my purposes. I walked slowly over to Lil. Although she was the largest bogrin I’d ever seen I still had a good foot and a half of height on her, and as I approached the scaly woman I stared down at her with my red-tinted irises, using my somewhat sinister appearance as best I could. Between the dried blood on my clothes from my encounter with Orsch and the steady knowing gaze I could see Lil was uneasy.

“What’s wrong, Lil? Surely you can’t be worried that I’m questioning our incredibly fortuitous meeting, or your exact reasons for spying on me?”

Lil’s scaly green skin shifted colors slightly, an instinctual bogrin reaction as she tried to blend into the background.

“I wasn’t … I’m not spying on you,” she stammered.

I leaned down to where my eyes were level with hers. “Sure you weren’t. Sweet-cheeks.”

Without breaking eye contact I reached over to the pulsing lantern and turned it away from the window.

“There, that’s better, isn’t it? I’m sure your employer won’t mind.”

Lil swallowed nervously and took a long draw off her stubby hooaga. Before she could exhale I reached out and snatched the cigar out of her lips. A panicked look ran across her face as she exhaled. The blue-black smoke curled over me, numbing my face, but without more to back it up the cloud of cigar smoke was unable to debilitate me.

“Nice try,” I nodded, tossing the cigar down to the floor and grinding it out with my heel.

Mercykiller
09-14-2012, 04:30 PM
“It’s not what you think.”

“Of course it is. I’m not quite as stupid as you seem to think I am.”

Shame crept across Lil’s features, but a stubborn light flared in her eyes. “You sure about that, love? Do you think I was trying to hurt you by tending to your injuries? How many times would you have died in the last half hour if I’d wanted you to?”

She had a point. My resolve faltered somewhat, but I rallied it.

“Obviously you weren’t paid to kill me, only to spy on me.”

It was Lil’s turn to dip into sarcasm. “Oh, obviously. That’s why I invigorated you just now. After all, how many interesting things are you going to do while slumped in a heap in the corner? A girl wants her entertainment, after all.”

The rebelliousness took me off-guard. There was a hurt tone to Lil’s words that made me tilt my head in confusion.

“But you didn’t deny you were spying on me!”

Lil threw her clawed hands in the air in frustration. “That’s because I was! I know you got the looks, sweet-cheeks, but you should really get some brains to go with that beauty.”

Her frank admission took some of the wind out of my sails. She gave a sharp nod of her head and pushed past me towards the leaf-curtain in the back.

“I save your life, bring you back to my place, offer you the finest pleasures of scent and sense, and you have the nerve, the sheer gall, to accuse me of spying!” she grumbled.

“But … but you just admitted you did,” I said lamely.

“True, but the way you’re talking to me! What kind of man are you to be so rough with a lady?”

I just stared at her, dumbfounded. She was angry at me for getting angry about her subterfuge.

“If you’re so hot and bothered about it, here!” she screeched, yanking down the tobacco-leaf curtain.

Behind fragrant screen was a small alcove, largely taken up by a bodged-together contraption that looked like a giant copper circle set upright, crusted with interconnecting gears and pistons around its perimeter. A small furnace beneath provided power to the odd machine, and my skin crawled a little with its proximity. Whatever purpose it served, the device was clearly a piece of arcane mechanika.

“Satisfied yet?” Lil asked sharply, her temper still firmly in control of her. “What, you’re speechless? You? The missing scholar of Ceryl, who uses five-crown words to prove he ain’t what he is, to distance himself from his heritage?”

I stared at the machine dumbfounded and tried to work out what Lil wanted me to say. My head was still buzzing from the activities of the night, and I was finding it difficult to formulate a response, or even to keep track of her rant. I was forced to settle for a tried and true response that had served me well over the years: a noncommittal sound somewhere between a questioning grunt and a sigh of frustration.

“Oh, still not fulfilled in a meaningful way? You want to see how I knew all about you?”

“Um. Actually … yes. Please.”

The change in my tone mollified Lil somewhat, but she was still grumbling about my manners as she pulled another hooaga out of her garter. She cupped her hand over the tip with a struck match and puffed. Lil eyed me with a mixture of emotions, drawing on the cigar heavily before exhaling more smoke than I expected.

As the sour-sweet cloud curled around us Lil shouldered her way past me to spin a dial on the furnace while flipping a couple of switches on the side. With practiced deftness she adjusted various knobs on the copper circle’s edge. As she dialed in the settings the smoke she was exhaling began to gather in clumpy clouds around the circle, pulled in as surely as driftwood on the tide. Lil stepped away after finishing one last adjustment, her mood visibly improving as she showed off her device.

“Are you ready for this?” she grinned with her dagger teeth.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, at least not without eliciting another outburst, so I settled for nodding. Lil flipped one last switch and stepped back. The machine shuddered violently before emitting a low-pitched hum, one that Lil matched deep in her throat. The smoke that clung to the circle was drawn into the center, flattening and smoothing out into a perfectly blank section of solidified air. It quivered, and I saw shapes in it. As the flattened cloud continued to tremble the shapes began to resolve themselves. I saw a human male, about my height, dark skin with a disheveled shirt and pants spattered with blood. Next to him was a smaller humanoid with large ears, dagger-like teeth, and a disturbing similarity to Lil. A room began to materialize, and although there was no color beyond the blue-black of the smoke itself I could clearly see details forming.

The smoke was reflecting our images like a mirror.

“How?” I breathed in wonderment.

Lil ignored me and hummed louder, deliberately taking in long draws from her hooaga and blowing more smoke into the copper circle. Our reflected images wavered, rippled like water, before reforming into another set of familiar features in a familiar room.

Orsch was staring back at us.

I stepped back away from the smoke mirror with a startled sound, but Lil’s clawed hand on my arm stopped me.

“He can’t see us,” she whispered hoarsely, her voice raw from the effort with her cigar.

The image rippled again, rotating slowly around as if Orsch was looking away, and I knew that she was right. Orsch hadn’t been staring at us, but rather another person in our room above the net mending shop. As the picture continued to change I realized it was the smoke mirror that was altering its perspective, and that Orsch had not changed his position. His mouth moved as if he was speaking, and distantly I heard the words as if from the bottom of a well.

“Cannot … time …”

Without prompting, Lil concentrated, bringing the words more into focus as the smoke mirror rotated towards Orsch’s visitor.

I nearly shouted in frustration as the blue-black smoke wavered in and out of focus. The person Orsch was talking to refused to resolve into a visible set of features. Instead we were treated to a cloudy silhouette of a curvaceous woman, one with a malformed head that looked monstrous in relation to the perfect shape of her outlined body. A chill ran up my spine as I recognized the shape.

It was my phantasmal stalker, my personal reaper.

“… not your … listen …” she whispered from the smoke mirror. Although I was frustrated I couldn’t see her, excitement still rose up in me. I had never been able to hear death before when she had not wished it.

“Can you make it any clearer, Lil?”

The bogrin woman grunted, her gold-green eyes narrowing in concentration. Suddenly the words came through as clear as dawn. Orsch sighed heavily and nodded his head to my invisible reaper in acquiescence. His words stabbed through my heart like an icy dagger as they rang clearly in the small shop.

“I am forced to agree. Due to his recent behavior we are left with no other option than to murder Lord Jonathon Worthington.”




************************

ForsakenPoptart
09-15-2012, 08:52 AM
Ok- a cigar as a magical focus is just brilliant.

Mercykiller
09-15-2012, 11:57 AM
Thanks FP :) I had to go back and edit a word, as apparently you can't **** a gun or your head according to the forum's word filters. The poor roosters are so disappointed :p

Mercykiller
09-20-2012, 03:31 PM
Apologies folks, but there's been another death in my family, preventing me from concentrating this week. I'll try to make it up to you guys next week, but for this one I'm too distracted to put more words together than this sentence.

stevenart74
09-21-2012, 04:54 AM
Saddened to hear this, let's the Mourning have it course until only fond memories of Your departed will stay with a beloved remembrance...

Always think first to Your kin and anything else second.....

ForsakenPoptart
09-21-2012, 08:49 AM
Sorry to hear, buddy- real life always comes first. I'll raise my glass to the departed tonight. Take care of yourself and your loved ones, and let us know if you need anything. You've given a lot to this community, we're only too happy to give a little back!

Mercykiller
09-28-2012, 11:36 AM
I appreciate it, guys :) It's been a rough time with both of my remaining grandparents passing within a month of each other, but we've made it through with great family support. Hard work is the best way to honor my departed family, so I put nose back to the grindstone and as a result there's a new chapter today ;)

I've also been very honored this week to get a glowing review of my novel, GEARTEETH, from The Paranormal Librarian (http://paranormallibrarian.blogspot.com/), as well as featured in the spotlight on the Fantasy Book Critic (http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2012/09/spotlight-on-some-recent-sff-titles-of.html)! Based on his sage advice I'm also replacing the tiny book excerpt on my site with a much beefier sample: the entire Chapter 1 of the book :) I've got to format it before putting it up on the site, but I'll let you folks know when it's up and readable.

All right, enough of all that, time for a new chapter!

Mercykiller
09-28-2012, 11:38 AM
(As always, this chapter and the other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories are featured without post breaks up on my website, sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/))



Chapter 7


Death’s mocking laughter at Orsch’s proclamation was disturbing in more ways than one.

“Now? You choose this moment to finally come around to where you should have been the entire time?” she chuckled. Her voice was deep and extravagant, like rich chocolate from the finest nobleman’s pantry. “Where was this dedication to completing your task an hour ago? A week ago? Six months ago?”

“The situation has changed,” Orsch replied stiffly. “He has refused to see reason. There is no further point in masking his arcane signature from you.”

A sharp intake of breath preceded a snake-like hiss of anger. “You did what? How dare you! This is just … how long has he been ready?”

The hint of a smile played across Orsch’s smoke-rendered features. “Six months, eight days, twenty two hours. The actions of your diminutive conscript forced his sanguine alterations to mature more rapidly than I had predicted.”

“You had no intention of bringing him back to us … to me.” The quavering note in my phantasmal reaper’s voice almost made me pity her. There was a sound of loss and longing buried within the anger of her statement. But this was a creature that sought to murder me; any sympathy I felt for her disappointment was fleeting and irrelevant. The fly does not pity the spider for losing its meal when the fly escapes.

“Of course not. Lord Worthington did not wish to return to his former life; he agreed to the procedure for that very reason.”

“Stop calling him that!” the obscured woman shrieked.

Orsch regarded her with his emotionless goggles. “It is his name. He chose it, as he has chosen this path. It was not for you to decide my korune’s fate; you were foolish to believe he would submit willingly to the sacrificial rites. From the beginning we have both manipulated you to achieve his rebirth.”

There was the sound of a sword clearing its sheath, and the specter advanced on my companion. While her form remained indistinct, a distortion thrust forward towards Orsch that could only be a sword in the phantasm’s hand. The ogrun didn’t bother to dodge, nor did he try and defend himself in any way. The tip of the undefined sword stopped a hair’s-breadth away from Orsch’s face, its tip shaking with the anger of the woman holding it. There remained little doubt that the immaterial phantasm that had pursued me was no immaterial lost soul given substance by grief and etheric forces; no, only a flesh and blood living woman could be so irritated at my ogrun companion without killing him. Specters had neither the self-control nor the self-awareness to experience and restrain the types of emotions the obscured woman was demonstrating.

“A loyal servant to the end, eh slave? Yet you give him up now, agree to the predestined finale. Is that the action of a servant looking after his master?”

Orsch’s jaw tensed in repressed irritation. “Lord Worthington’s stubborn insistence on remaining in Five Fingers has begun to erode the safeguards entrenched within his mind. His determination to unlock the mysteries of his past have rendered a complete shattering of the preferred persona inevitable. While focused outwards he could have remained in his current state indefinitely; but his very insistence on the truth will bring this matter to an end sooner rather than later.”

“I wasn’t just your stubbornness keeping him away, was it? He never planned on returning, never wished to see me again,” The sword quavered with each word, and a portion of my heart ached in response to the specter’s pain-laced words. They were raw emotion, a desperate plea in the darkness when a child is left alone. Yet at the same time the cry was laced with razor-blades, an edge that threatened to cut the soul with its insanity.

“Of course not.”

The sword tip dropped from Orsch’s face, the spectral woman’s arm having lost the will to hold it. “Of course not,” she echoed hollowly.

Emotions that I hadn’t known I possessed welled up within me, through me, a sense of caring and heartache that reflected the words of the woman in the smoke mirror. I reached out my fingertips to the blue-black cloud that was her distorted features and misshapen head, letting my hand brush against the magic. It sent an unpleasant tingle up my arm.

“I’m sorry, my love,” I whispered, the words falling from my lips before I realized what they were.

The woman’s head whirled towards me, and an electric shock shot up my arm from where I’d touched the mirror, causing me to fall backwards. In the obscure mass of her face two eyes blazed orange fire like miniature suns, staring out of the smoke as if she could actually see me.

“What the hells do you think you’re doing, you stupid mucker?” Lil hissed around the hooaga still clenched tightly in her teeth. The bogrin woman’s eyes were closed in concentration, her face covered in a fine sheen of sweat from effort. A small trickle of blood leaked out of her nostril, its scarlet clashing with her mottled green skin.

“Can … can she see me?” I asked in terrified wonderment, staring up at the smoke mirror’s reflection of the phantom woman. The twin suns that were her eyes swept around the room as if trying to pick me out, yet their gaze passed over me without pausing.

“Where is he?” the indistinct image of death shrieked. “Where have you hidden him? I heard him, I felt him! He’s here, right now!”

Orsch’s own image stared at her coldly, unperturbed, as if she was a raving lunatic. “I am sure I have no idea. Are you well? Do you require some sort of medical assistance? We two are the only entities within the confines of this room.”

“You’re lying!” the woman screamed in frustrated rage. While I could not discern her features through the distortion there was no doubt of the insane anger lacing her words. Was this maniacal creature truly the woman for whom I’d just felt a surge of empathy for?

“How did she notice me?” I whispered to Lil, fearful to raise my voice or my head and thus attract notice from the smoke mirror.

“If some stupid mucker sticks a finger in your face, invisible or not, wouldn’t you notice it?” Lil grunted without opening her eyes. Although she’d not been able to see my foolish action her connection to the smoke mirror must have provided a secondary form of sight. “Of all the stupid things to do …”

Before my brain could process her words into intelligible concepts the twin suns of death’s eyes swept over to Orsch again in their furious luminescence. “I know he is here! If you will not reveal him, then he will do so himself!”

Orsch shrugged. “It is your time you waste. But the longer you play at this childish game the farther he is able to run, assuming that the other agent of our lord does not capture him first. With each moment that passes your escaped acolyte comes closer to locating Lord Worthington. Despite our previous disagreements on my korune’s fate that particular outcome is one that neither of us can allow.”

“No, no, you’re just stalling for him!” the phantom woman screeched in frustration. “He’s nearby; I can feel him. Come, ‘Lord Worthington;’ reveal yourself!”

Dread washed through me at her summons. As death had adequately demonstrated the night before she was quite capable of commanding my actions, whether it was forcing me to freeze in place or the irritating symptom of being unable to perceive her clearly when apparently the rest of the world could. The certainty welled up that I was going to run out into the night calling out, an obedient lamb to the slaughter. Expectation made my heart heavy as I readied myself for doom.

Nothing happened. Despite all of my fears I did not rush through the door screaming for death to bring me home to her cold embrace.

Mercykiller
09-28-2012, 11:39 AM
A slight sensation tingled in my damaged left arm, like an old injury long forgotten that the winter’s chill summons back to complain. But just like any other minor ache I was able to push the sensation back easily enough, ignoring it.

Understanding flooded through me as I raised my forearm up, staring at the scar tissue. Orsch had been going against instructions writ into his own flesh when he carved into mine, forcing himself to the limits of his incredible endurance as he pitted the sworn loyalty to me against the inhibitions that constrained him. How long had it taken to discover the formulae he’d carved into his ritual dagger; how long to inscribe the instrument? Six months of inactivity would have been time enough, I’d wager. With my reckless smashing of the interference apparatus he’d been forced to act.

Lacking any other way to save my life Orsch had elected to free me in the only way he knew how.

The big grey ogrun had not been lying: Orsch had been cutting into me for my own good. He’d disrupted the arcane pattern of the scarlet tattoos, or at least the section that allowed the invisible woman to manipulate my actions. If I’d not interrupted his work, how much more of the curse could he have freed me from? Would he be able to remove more of the curse if I returned? But then, if Orsch had been acting in my best interests as he’d claimed, then why now did he accede to the stalker’s command that they murder me? There were still too many unanswered questions to blindly pardon my companion’s recent activities. If nothing else though, I owed my friend the freedom from death’s control I currently enjoyed.

The obscured woman continued ranting and commanding me to appear, but I sat on the old wooden floor of Little Sins smirking in self-satisfied relief. My will was my own again; she was unable to compel me.

“You about done with your peep show yet, sweet-cheeks?” Lil asked, the intense strain on her face worsening as her other nostril began dribbling blood as well.

As much as I wanted to let the bogrin lady shut down her smoke mirror, I realized there were still too many unanswered questions. “I’m sorry, but can you keep the device functioning a little longer?”

Lil managed a weak smile. “For you, love, anything. But you owe me for this one.”

I suppressed a shudder at the implications inherent in her words. No matter the price she demanded though, I’d never get another chance like this to spy on death and Orsch speaking so candidly about me. I couldn’t afford to waste the opportunity.

“Your wasted efforts are becoming farcical, and more than a little sad, Aria,” Orsch rumbled. “My master is not present. While I retain my ability to dissemble to anyone else, you know that I am not capable of lying to you.”

Aria. Death, my personal doom, had a name, and it was somehow both familiar and beautiful to my ears.

The obscured woman’s giggle was bitter with an edge of mania as she turned back to Orsch. “Except that’s not really true, is it? While direct falsehoods may be out of the question you have always been adept at dancing around the truth with misdirection and half-born lies. You’ve found ways around your compulsions. For that crime he will punish you after I strip his soul bare of the lie in control of it now.”

Orsch’s dry, mocking laughter caused Aria’s eyes to blaze with fiery incandescence once more.

“I will find him, slave! And I will kill him!”

Her dread gaze swept more slowly across the room pictured within the smoke mirror, apparently taking in every detail. As her eyes turned around back towards us I could feel the mystical power the shrouded woman was exerting. It was extraordinary in its intensity, and her image in the smoke mirror reflected that with the burning eyes. Despite her intent though I fully expected her gaze to once more pass me by without note; but it was with a growing sense of terror that I realized the clouded image’s eyes had come to a stop, staring straight at me.

Aria could see me.

“Lil!” I shouted in warning as Aria hissed in triumph.

“There you are, my love!” the distorted woman howled psychotically, raising her sword once more. “You are mine! I claim you!”

My blood ran cold and time seemed to slow down as terror took hold of me. I’d assumed the smoke mirror was a one-way device used for spying on unsuspecting victims, harmless to the user, a voyeuristic window into other people’s lives.

I was wrong.

Aria thrust her sword forward, stabbing at what must have seemed like empty air from her side of the mirror. I quelled my fears with the thought that it was an amazingly useless gesture, a rebellious impulse from a frustrated killer who could not harm me. I should have realized that such assumptions of safety were never warranted in my life.

Both Lil and her smoke mirror screamed in agonized harmony as the tip of Aria’s sword pierced the clouded surface of the device and drove relentlessly towards my head.




*********************************

Mercykiller
09-28-2012, 02:11 PM
All righty, folks, Chapter 1 of my steampunk-werewolf novel, GEARTEETH, is now up as a free sample on my site (www.sraelkin.com (http://www.sraelkin.com/))!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled IK story (new chapter above, or as I think of it "heeeeeeere's Jonny!" ... terrible, I know, but I couldn't resist :p ).

Mercykiller
10-05-2012, 11:12 AM
It's Friday, so heeeeeere's Jonny (yes, that is a thing I will do now. Maybe.)!

But first a slight shout-out, if you're going to the Steamstock festival in Richmond, CA this weekend (steampunk music and arts) feel free to wave at me, as the family's heading there for the wife's birthday present :) I'll be the guy with the tied-back mohawk wearing a GEARTEETH overshirt (taking a page from the awesome Pressganger shirts I decided to make myself into a walking billboard lol).

Enough of that, here's the chapter!

Mercykiller
10-05-2012, 11:13 AM
(As always, this chapter and the other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories are featured without post breaks up on my website, sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/))




Chapter 8


The blue-black smoke bulged outwards from the copper ring, disrupting the rest of the scene we were spying on as it all swirled together into an obscure mess. The cloud gathered together into a foot of solid sword blade that pushed its way out like a shark against a flimsy fishing net. Despite the disruption of the scrying ritual I didn’t think we were in any real danger; it was nothing more than smoke after all, no matter how it was shaped.

Lil did not share my comforting ignorance. The smoldress desperately called out several crude phrases in her native language before throwing the stub of the cigar she was smoking to the ground and grinding it out with her bare foot’s heel. She spun the controls around the copper circle’s circumference before fanning the smoke mirror with her stubby little arms, screaming incoherently at it the whole time, apparently trying to get the cigar vapors she’d been controlling to disperse.

The cloud held on stubbornly to its sword-shape for a moment longer as the mechanika portion of the smoke mirror cycled down with a whine. But without Lil maintaining it there was no way for the sorcery to remain focused. I couldn’t imagine the reason for her panic; it was just smoke after all!

A very real and very deadly section of sword coalesced from the cloud and fell to the floor at my feet with a thud.

Unlike when Aria had held it before, I had no trouble seeing the sword now; no distortion of sight or sense hid its presence from me. It was a finely-wrought blade, elegant that had savage runes etched down its length, with a razor-sharp tip and a wicked line of sawteeth sweeping back opposite the slightly curved cutting edge. There was at least a foot of steel lying on the floor of the shop, severed at its mid-point from the rest of the sword with a cut so clean and perfect as to defy belief.

“She … she could have come through the smoke mirror?” I managed to ask.

Lil was panting with exertion, nose bleeding at a steady pace. It was second nature for me to pull out my handkerchief and offer it to her, which she gratefully took and used to staunch the crimson dribble. “Well, what did you expect? If someone thumps your noggin through a window you’d smack back too, wouldn’t you?”

I’d never encountered a valid form of scrying before, as all who I’d met who claimed to possess such abilities had been charlatans of one variety or another, so I didn’t have any valid basis to judge Lil’s utterance on. But if what she was saying was true then the bogrin’s device had not simply allowed us to spy on the actions of other people.

It had opened a portal through the fabric of reality.

“Do you have any idea how insanely dangerous that was?” I breathed with terrible wonderment. I toed the steel sword section away from me and carefully rose to my feet, my eyes locked on the bodged-together apparatus that shaped Lil’s smoke magic into a form of sorcery that threatened our very souls. “What you’ve created here is essentially a teleportation portal. No one who uses such magic survives for long.”

Lil waved an unconcerned hand

“Works fine,” she mumbled, exhaustion clearly beginning to take its toll on her. “Once I had an Infernal start chatting me up through it, but we came to a nodding arrangement.”

“Which was?” I asked, my heart beating a little more rapidly. Infernals were creatures more alien than the Orgoth, hungry entities that lived in the mists between worlds, beyond even the afterlife of Urcaen. They had a great and terrible fascination with the souls of mortals. Only the most depraved and desperate of sorcerers ever dealt with them, and not a single one of them escaped the clutches of the ethereal beings in the end. Any attempts to traverse the world by transporting matter or man through teleportation brought the creatures swarming like dragonfish to bleeding prey; only the dragonfish were much more likely to at least leave bones behind when they were done.

“I told you: we nodded at each other. Talked about the weather, that sort of thing. Nothing to worry your pretty little head about, sweet-cheeks,” Lil grinned mischievously, recovering some of her fire. “Point is, long as I don’t try and do anything more than watch they won’t either. At least they haven’t so far.”

“They? More than one?”

Lil leaned her head back with the handkerchief to stem the nosebleed, her words muffled but still comprehensible. “Eh, who can tell? Swirly, mysterious, tall, all of them with that hungry glint in their hollow eyes. I’ve got enough trouble telling you humans apart from each other without trying to do it to incorporeal critters. Besides, I might like my eye-candy tall, but seven feet and above are just a little too much for even me.”

Despite her blithe assurances my head was whirling with all of the implications. Somehow Lil had discovered a way to open stable portals through her smoke mirror; Aria’s severed sword blade on the floor proved that. If there was one thing I was certain of it was the alien hostility and intent that such creatures as the Infernals bore for the mortals of Immoren. Would Aria’s blade penetrating the perimeter of the smoke mirror’s surface summon the ire of the mysterious beings? It was hard to say. As inscrutable as the bloodthirsty Orgoth and their worshipped demons had been they bore no mystery when compared to the impenetrable secrets of the Infernals. Was my very soul in danger simply by witnessing such an event? There was so little information available, even to the Strangelight Workshop, that my wildest speculations were just as likely truth as imagination.

Unfortunately I had more earthly concerns to attend to. Lil’s trick with the hooaga smoke had successfully distracted me for a good half hour or more, encouraging me to tarry in the vain hope that I could unravel Orsch and Aria’s secrets. While the experience had proved somewhat enlightening the solid answers I sought remained free of my grasp, like early morning dew under the summer’s heat. The answers glistened within reach, yet disappeared as soon as the light sought to reveal them.

I bowed from the waist to Lil, vaguely wishing I had a hat or some other sort of accessory to accentuate the gesture.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Liloganentang, but I do not wish to trouble you further tonight.”

Lil brought her head back forward, scarlet blood blotched throughout my handkerchief. “You can’t. It’s dark out, and dangerous.”

I shook my head with a certain feeling of sadness, pulling out the goggles that would hide my blood-red irises from the sight of innocent passersby. The tinted lenses would prove quite limiting in the night, and more than a little dangerous, but I was far preferable to bump into a barrel than to have a simple-minded member of the citizenry send up the cry of ‘witchcraft’ upon seeing the color of my eyes.

“You are quite correct, but we both know I don’t have much choice now. I’ve not forgotten that you signaled your employer about my presence.”

Lil looked down with a guilty shake of her head. “Not quite. I wasn’t ringing the dinner bell; he doesn’t know you’re here. I was contracted to spy on you, to wait for you to display your bloody tattoos and jot down the patterns.”

“You … saw them?” My stomach was clenched with worry.

“Course I did. For a solid two months I’ve been peeping on you, waiting, wondering if you had the scribbles on you I was told about. I’d just about given up all hope of seeing anything. But you finally manage to satisfy me when you let loose last night. Now if I could only convince you to try again in my cot we’d have something to take our minds off things …”

“Please, no. Just stop.”

Lil grinned crookedly, but there was a hint of disappointment in her dagger-like smile. “Suit yourself. You know I’m considered quite the looker by gobbers and bogrin.”

“I’m sure.”

“There’s even been a couple of humans and this one albino troll …”

“That’s quite enough of that,” I said firmly, cutting her off as much out of fear for my sanity as exasperation at her stalling tactic. “To return to the subject at hand: you have seen the tattoos.”

“Sure did. I’m just lucky it was with the mirror; I was so worried about you during the fight that I couldn’t think straight. You’ve got fine features, so delicate in their own way.”

“Yes, I’ve been told I’m quite the looker,” I drawled with exaggerated patience. “Please stop trying to distract me. I assure you it won’t work. If you weren’t able to discern the patterns during the fight, then your task is still not accomplished, correct?”

“Not quite, sweet-cheeks. The smoke mirror can capture images and sounds, at least for a little while. It was easy enough after you were safe to view the events again at a snail’s pace, copying down what was needed.”

An idea occurred to me. The brigands that assaulted us had said something, a plea that in the throes of Aria’s supernatural wiles I’d been unable to comprehend. But the look of recognition on the dead blackguards’ faces haunted me. Had that been why my personal reaper had stepped in and clouded my mind when the demonic pistol’s influence had waned? Was there some critical piece of information Aria had been attempting to obscure during the attack? I had killed those men after they’d thrown down their arms, succumbing to the bloodlust of the whispers even as they attempted to surrender. While it was true that Orsch would have died had I not acted there was no question of what I was. I’d murdered three men the night before, and my heart hadn’t weighed itself down with the deed. What did that say about me? If there was something, anything, that could mitigate that sick certainty of my own villainy I needed to know it.

“If you viewed it after the fact then could you summon the event back once more for my own edification? I have certain questions that I might be able to answer from a different perspective.”

Lil shook her head. “Sorry, lovely. Even if I could bring back the echoes of last night it’d be a bad idea after what happened with the sword blade. There’s no telling what kind of attention that little breach brought us.”

It was a sobering thought. When faced with such consequences for my curiosity there was no helping it; the brigands’ final words were lost along with their lives, as was any absolution I could seek for the deed.

“I trust you have all that you need from me, then?”

Mercykiller
10-05-2012, 11:13 AM
“Not really,” Lil smirked, wiggling her eyebrow ridges. “Listen, you still owe me, and I can’t just let you go off out into the cold night without some warm company.”

“Yes, you can. And you will. I’m very tired, Lil. I don’t feel like tearing your shop apart to look for the drawings of my tattoo markings, nor do I care to meet whoever contracted you to spy on me; pursuit of the first would likely assure the second. I weary of secrets, of hiding I know not what from the murky shadows of I know not whom. If one of my unasked-for admirers is satisfied with what you have gleaned from your scrying, then they are welcome to it. One less stalker is one more step towards witnessing another sunrise.”

“And if he isn’t convinced? What if he keeps coming after you?”

I sighed, unable to summon even a shrug. “Then things are as they have always been. Likely as not I won’t even notice a difference.”

“What about … us?”

Awkward silence stretched in the shop. Crushing the remnants of hope on Lil’s scaly face was a cruel decision, but also an unavoidable one. My predilections did not lean towards cross-species romances; putting lipstick on a gobber did not rouse my passions. As I struggled to phrase the rejection in such a way as to allow her to maintain some measure of dignity the smoldering embers in the censers around the room suddenly flared a bright yellow-green, casting our faces in a ghastly hue.

Raw fear washed over Lil’s face. She whispered something, her eyes becoming unfocused. In response the burning coals flared sickly green again.

“What’s wrong, Lil?” I croaked, my throat dry with her infectious fear. The bogrin woman mumbled something and shuddered, her eyes locking on mine.

“I said ‘run.’ He’s coming.”

“Who?”

Lil stared at me like I was an idiot. “Who do you think? My employer!”

Dread warred with curiosity. Who was the unknown voyeur that had taken such an interest in my body’s arcane ornamentation? What did he plan to do with the supposedly dangerous formulae scrawled across my skin like a child’s scribbles? No, I chastised myself, that didn’t matter. I didn’t know what I carried within my flesh, and I’d be damned if I allowed myself to be conscripted into defending a mystery I wasn’t privy to. A nagging thought about power and the responsibilities inherent in such rose up, but I ruthlessly pushed it back down. I refused to be a pawn of shadowy forces again. That was over.

“From which direction will he be approaching? Can you get me out of the Rigs in time?”

“Not a chance, sweet-cheeks. Those coals flaring means he’s a bit closer than I’d have liked.”

Despite the urgency in her voice, I stood my ground. “How is this not precisely how you planned, Lil? Surely you can’t be having second thoughts about handing me over. Is it my masculine charms, are they so overpowering?” I didn’t even try to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

The bogrin woman blinked slowly, a hurt look on her face like I’d just taken a running swing at her head. “You’re one hell of a piece of work, mucker. Can’t you trust anyone for more than a few minutes? I never planned on turning you over to him. I was hired to watch, not to kidnap; the only reason I stepped in when I did is I’m all a’quiver over those charms you mentioned and your mate was cutting your goods to the bone. You’re just lucky they look good in those tight breeches.”

I had an overwhelming urge to invest in baggy pants for my future apparel.

“If you didn’t mean to capture me, if you don’t seek to remand me into your employer’s grasp, then why signal him in the first place?”

Lil looked at me like I’d just asked if fire was still hot.

“You’re pretty, but damn you’re stupid. I was telling him I quit!” she hissed. “You might think it was nutty, but I was hoping we’d get some private time, that I could … well, you know. Haven’t you ever lost your head over a looker before?”

The conversation had once more taken a turn down an alley I desperately wished to avoid.

“And that is where I believe we should finish our conversation,” I said with a strangled voice. Her constant compliments after I’d asked her to cease made me incredibly uncomfortable. “Please show me the way out. Now.”

Despite her prior insistence that I flee my abrupt tone rankled Lil, and her eyes narrowed in hurt anger. One of the fake eyelashes tumbled free as she did; the absurdity of it all made me stifle an inappropriate guffaw that threatened to bubble forth. Although it was completely unintentional my smothered amusement only incensed the bogrin further. Lil slapped the back of her hand to her forehead in a mock salute as she threw open a trapdoor in the floor of the shop.

“Yes, sir, Captain, sir!” she hissed, throwing off the mocking salute again. She threw the bloody handkerchief at me in irritation. I flinched back as if she’d physically struck me, absent-mindedly folding the soiled linen up and tucking it into my pocket. “Your portal awaits, oh precious and proud Captain!”

I felt dizzy as Lil’s clawed hands ushered me unkindly towards the trapdoor. A thought battered upon my mind like a prisoner who the gallows were calling home.

“What did you just call me?”

“Oh, my precious, befuddled skipper,” Lil rumbled, moving around behind me and placing a bare foot on my backside. “I think it’s time you abandon ship!”

As my brain stumbled over something important Lil’s kick sent me head over heels into the dark square of the open hole. I tumbled for only a half second before my body came to a sudden jerking halt among a spider web of ropes that arrested my fall.

Below me a five story drop leered.

I was under Little Sins, in the patchwork lines and ropes that held the hooaga shop steady in its place. The street was a long way down, through a tangle of rigging and dark shapes backlit by the lanterns at ground level. For a moment I panicked at the height and the multitude of tangling ropes I’d landed in, thrashing like a confused fish pulled from the water. But a strange calm flooded through me as I jerked around, and my feet and hands found purchase on the rigging of their own accord. Amazed at my unconscious dexterity I managed to right myself in the tangle, one foot finding and twisting a loop of rope around itself to create a foothold to keep me steady while my hands deftly worked in concert to allow me to hang below the cigar shop in relative safety and security. When I’d stumbled and nearly fallen during my escape from Orsch I’d been dizzy from blood loss and clumsy in my sluggish state of mind. It had never occurred to me that without the detriment of being nearly dead I’d be able to navigate the Rigs without assistance.

Above me the bogrin stared down her too-large cat’s eyes, glinting gold in the shadows. A match flared as she lit a fresh hooaga.

“There, see? I knew you’d get the hang of it,” Lil laughed softly, without a trace of mirth. It occurred to me that in the moment she literally kicked me out of her shop she hadn’t known whether the rigging would catch me or not. Apparently the bloom was off the rose of our cringing love.

“Why did you call me that?” I asked, before she could close the lid of the trapdoor.

“What?”

“You taunted me with the title ‘Captain.’ Why?”

Lil squinted down at me suspiciously, as if she wondered whether I was teasing her. My earnest confusion must have convinced her, as the bogrin sighed heavily and pulled back her anger a little.

“It was what they were calling you, sweet-cheeks.”

“Who?”

Lil shrugged as she closed the hidden door on me. “Those men. The ones you killed last night. They were begging you to spare them, babbling something about how it wasn’t their fault.”

As my scaled savior clicked the trapdoor back into place, cutting me off from the impending arrival of her mysterious employer, my mind shifted back to the night before. Despite Aria’s interference during the attack the words came back clearly now, the shapes of the men’s mouths as they pleaded for their lives, the sounds of their begging.

A heavy certainty settled over me. The patterns of speech when my mind had wandered, the knowledge I possessed of Five Fingers, the very ability I was currently using to keep myself upright and secure in the tangled rigging. Nautical terms and thoughts tossed out without a second’s contemplation, Orsch’s monolithic objections to taking us near to the coast on our investigations. Those brigands hadn’t just been random brutes who had assaulted us in the night. I’d known them in another life.

The men that I'd murdered were the crew of a ship.

And I was their captain.




*****************************************

Mercykiller
10-05-2012, 03:39 PM
Ack, just realized that for some reason my brain skipped a beat and put "Aria" in the second to last line instead of "I". Changes things substantially ;) Apologies for the minor edit lol.

EDIT2: And just to make this post somewhat more entertaining, here's a picture of my own personal back-billboard for Steamstock :p

http://sraelkin.com/images/GTshirt.jpg

Mercykiller
10-12-2012, 11:59 AM
(As always, this chapter and the other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories are featured without post breaks up on my website, sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/))



Chapter 9


Tinted goggles were a poor choice of accessory in the deepening night.

The Rigs would have been a nightmare to maneuver through during the day for a ground-lubber like myself, but at night it became an impossible tangle of lines and debris backlit by the torches and lanterns on the ground. I t was difficult to tell where the individual ropes lay, and even judging the distance between two lines that looked close to each other could result in a very long fall with a very messy end.

With an irritated sigh I yanked the goggles off, but it did little to help the situation. The ropes under Little Sins were slick with accumulated soot and ash from countless clouds of hooaga smoke; unlike the other paths of entry the lines were rarely if ever used, and the buildup had been accumulating for untold years. My frustration with the little inconveniences was making me more enraged by the minute, but it wasn’t the difficult climb ahead that was truly bothering me.

I’d discovered more of my history, who I had been before the blood tattoos, and just like before it was less fulfilling than I’d hoped. Every time that I managed to dredge up a section of my past there was naught but pain and disappointment waiting. Perhaps Orsch had been right after all. Maybe I would have been happier dwelling in ignorance, traveling the land for the rest of my days as he lied to me about our lives. At least we’d been doing some good for the world as investigators for the Workshop, even if it was against Orsch’s constant exhortations about prioritizing self-interest over assisting others. The ogrun had little in the way of a moral compass, which likely was more a comment on my previous incarnation than any personal failing of his. A sworn servant was as likely to follow his korune’s example as not in attitude and ethics, and if Orsch’s behavior was any metric then I’d been quite an unpleasant fellow indeed.

It was a pointless exercise in thought. If my current personality was truly a construct of some sort and fated to destruction, as Orsch believed, then I’d discover who I really was all too soon. For now I was left to muddle through life as best I could, and tonight that meant finding a safe haven in a very unfriendly town with no coin or resources, all while Aria and Orsch hunted me through the darkness.

The sounds of two sets of clawed feet skittering across the floorboards above brought me out of my maudlin reverie. While one of the people in the shop was obviously Lil the newcomer could only be her mysterious employer. I froze in place, barely daring to breathe for fear of being heard. Muffled voices, high-pitched and angry, rose up and down in argument. I strained to make out what they were saying, but the floor was too thick and the sounds of the city as it wound down from the day’s labors were too raucous to allow for easy eavesdropping. Instead, I concentrated on the noise of the movement above. From the distribution of weight and the clicking sound of unshod claws rattling against the floor there was little doubt after a moment that Lil’s visitor was another of the little folk, either a gobber or bogrin, and one significantly smaller than herself. What possible reason could one of her species have for engaging Lil to spy on me?

My answer came in the form of maniacal giggling.

The blood froze in my veins as a gobber’s insane high-pitched laughter cut through the floorboards above. I nearly lost my grip on the ropes of the rigging as my mind was thrust back to the mining town of Outpost Five and the nightmare scene under the dilapidated mansion there. Visions assaulted me of men flailing helplessly on Orgoth slaughter-hooks as their bodies were ruthlessly mauled to provide the materials for an abomination of flesh and iron. Another peal of laughter that was far too familiar for comfort pierced the night air and caused the panic to well up within me.

Lil’s employer was Titan, the giggling gobber that had descended into blighted madness and murdered his family and friends at Outpost Five.

One part of my mind split itself off from the primary mass, allowing a cold and calculating version of me to observe that it all made sense. Before Aria had kidnapped the insane little bastard Titan had been obsessed with using the blood runes carved into my body to animate his monstrous new body, to give it the dexterity and grace that his own demented genius could not. Who else would even know of the existence of a bogrin smoldress in Five Fingers, let alone contract the woman to keep an eye on me? Lil had revealed that she’d been watching me for two months; that, combined with Orsch’s chiding comment to Aria about her escaped acolyte, could only mean that the demented little Titan had been in the city for a while, watching and waiting for me to summon the bloody tattoos back so that he could finish his dread work. But it would be useless for him; I’d destroyed his new body, the one he’d called Junior, back at Outpost Five.

Hadn’t I?

The question was deemed quite irrelevant by the majority of my mind. While the analytical portion was calmly assessing the situation the screaming coward in me just wanted to get away from the insane gobber and his torturous plans as fast as possible.

I let go of the rigging I’d been clinging to and fell about five feet through the air before my flailing hands found purchase on a line I’d mistakenly believed to be much closer than that. My arms were nearly wrenched out of the socket by the sudden cessation of my fall. The scabs and scar tissue on my left arm opened up from the impact, and blood ran freely down to drip into the darkness below as I tried to keep from falling any further. There was a strange sensation of my attention splitting into several shards, and for an odd moment I was completely aware of my blood mingling with several rivulets of water below, following the stone gutters down to the ocean’s shore where filth was shunted directly into the open water. Pain cleared my mind to some extent though, bringing both the intellectual and emotional halves back into alignment and cutting off the odd visions. I concentrated on my wounded arm, using the sharp pain to keep myself focused on a single goal.

I had to get the hell out of here.

The sounds of Titan yelling shrilly at Lil above lent a sense of encouragement to my desperate attempts to solve my current dilemma. Blood dripped in a lazy flow down from my arm, and far away I felt the needful cry of the demon pistol for my wound. Nodding, I knew what must be done. I’d managed to defeat Titan’s Junior only with the aid of the evil relic, and so I must have it again. I concentrated, attempting to call it into my hand as I had the night before when I’d faced and murdered brigands from my old life. The weapon had come easily enough then, and once more I had blood to offer it. With the pistol’s aid I might even be able to end the threat of Titan once and for all. So, despite the danger to my soul, I called out for the weapon, held out my hand as I strained to summon it to me.

Nothing happened.

The pistol roared in my mind, straining, attempting to answer my call. But tonight I did not hold another weapon as I had during the first attack, and with dawning fear I realized that without another gun in my hand I could not manifest the demon pistol at my location. The weapon had not merely appeared when I’d needed it; the artifact had possessed and twisted the original forgelock I’d owned into its own demon form. Without a sacrifice of a similar object the demon pistol could not traverse the distance, could not come to my aid.

It was time to run.

But without any way to see the lines I was as likely to hang myself as to escape; Lil’s warning about the traps the inhabitants of the Rigs set for unwary visitors rang clearly in my memory. There was one trick I could use to combat the darkness, and although I was loathe to use it there was precious little choice left. Concentrating, I focused on the warm blood leaking from my wounds, turning my disgust into revelry, and reaching down for a power I’d normally push away in horror.

The world became awash in pulsing lines of scarlet as blood filled my eyes, turning them into twin ruby orbs of dread. Crimson tattoos rose up from the depths of my muscle to my skin, and while the pattern felt distinctly odd and broken where Orsch had mangled me the sanguinary sight was unaffected.

With the world laid out in an easily plotted series of throbbing red outlines it was child’s play to maneuver through the rigging. With such ease of travel I was now able to eschew the ground entirely, relying instead on a combination of my own unconscious knowledge of the Rigs and climbing skill along with the unholy sight granted to me by the dread sigils on my skin to stay safe and unseen as I swung, clawed, and otherwise clambered through the rigging lines and debris above the Captain’s Isle. Soon I’d left the hooaga shop and its occupants far behind me, striking out north towards the Spiritgrav district purely on whim. But the island was rather squat and rectangular in a directional sense, its size running more to the east and west, and I’d soon run out of rigging to traverse.

The Spiritgrav district was fairly safe and secure, or rather as much as neighborhoods in Five Fingers could be. Between steamjack factories, warehouses, and various industrial enterprises the High Captains had a vested interest in keeping the district relatively clean and functional. I’d passed over most of the slumbering shops below without a thought, but I was forced to turn to another direction now. The north side of the island was actually the lip of a huge cliff, one with a rather curious monument to the assault on the Orgoth during the rebellion six hundred years ago.

Mighty Colossals had been deployed by the humans against the demon-worshipping oppressors, giants that dwarfed any warjack in use by the Iron Kingdoms today. One of the mighty behemoths had been crippled in the attack as it was climbing up the north cliff, and as I descended from the Rigs and leaned over the edge I could just see the shattered top of the fallen giant. It still clung tenaciously to the side of the cliff, even after all these years, but corrosion and time were working against it. In my sanguinary sight the old hundred-foot tall husk looked strangely vibrant, perhaps a remnant of the massive arcane working that had been required to animate the giants. Briefly I considered attempting to make my way down to hide within its iron hide, but I immediately dismissed the idea. Even were I able to safely descend into its ancient embrace there was no telling how much damage the years had inflicted to its stability. Better to wander the streets of the city at midnight than dislodge the ten story high husk and have it bury me in the crashing waves below.

A guardsmen saw me as I returned to the comforting tangle of the Rigs, but he was unable to even call out a challenge before the night had swallowed me once more. Trusting my instinct to guide me I struck out west, staying near to the north cliffs out of some sort of familiar habit. Below me the city’s denizens stirred, their night still young and full of sin yet to come. But I could not, would not, join them. Even if I could find a tavern where the promise of coin would suffice my presence had become a danger to all those around me. While I hoped Titan would be satisfied with Lil’s illustrations of my arcane markings I was under no such illusion about Orsch and Aria. Only my capture would still their hunt, and I had no wish to expose strangers to their tender mercies by shielding myself with the ignorant. Each of my pursuers, in their own way, would lay low any poor passerby that happened to interfere in their search for me. Taverns of blood-stained dead were not what would keep me safe this night.

My impulses steered me further west and north towards another set of docks, and I smiled grimly. Given what I’d seen of my old crew and suspected about myself there was little chance I’d find anything familiar in the region. The Captain’s Prow district was fairly upscale, and the ships docking at this section were carefully chosen by bribe and cargo, jockeying for the choice spots with ocean trading vessels that braved the stormy Meredius from the faraway lands of Zu and other, even more exotic, locales.

Mercykiller
10-12-2012, 12:00 PM
But there was peace to be had, after a fashion, as well as a strange sort of sanctuary. From the Rigs I was able to observe a building where the nightly carousing of the city did not touch, a warehouse of sorts that my muddled mind recognized as the Ocean Funeral Morgue. It was a rather fancy name for what amounted to a place to store dead bodies on ice until enough had accumulated to warrant a funeral ship to ferry them into the deep ocean. With the lack of real soil in the islands the choice of corpse disposal was either weigh down bodies and consign them to the depths of the Meredius or be subjected to the stench of burning death from cremation. Given the choice and expense involved, the dead were much more likely to find crabs nibbling on their toes than flames licking their flesh.

As I lightly dropped to the warehouse’s roof I breathed a sigh of relief. The living generally avoided such places, and because my frequent encounters with the realm of Urcaen had numbed me to the instinctual fear of dead bodies this would serve as a wonderful hiding place until morning. There might be a few city guard at the periphery, and perhaps even a religious practitioner or two in the area to guard the bodies against defilement, but for the most part it was as private and secure a haven as a vagrant could ask for.

Careful to not draw attention to myself, I dropped down from the rigging above the roof and swung in a top window without much trouble. The last thing I wanted to do was to alert the few guardsmen in the area that I was taking up temporary residence. But to keep myself safe I had to take note of their locations, so I was forced to seek them out discretely or risk discovery when I took to sleep.

The morgue was fairly packed to the brim with the dead, and the odd scent of death arrested with ice and cloying balms assaulted my senses as I made my way down the neatly laid isles of corpses. Although the late fall air helped contribute to the suppression of rot and decay it was plainly obvious that a funeral ship was long past due to carry the dead to their watery rest in the deep ocean. I nodded in understanding as I let my sanguinary sight drop back to normal and saw that a medium sized ship had indeed been drawn into the confines of the warehouse-morgue by way of a small channel that led out into the open sea. I stifled a grunt of amusement at the gallows humor of the ship’s name: the Crimson Harvest.

For a city-sponsored funerary ship the craft before me was in a rather odd state of disrepair. Its sails were patched, the wood was ill-tended to, ropes were left uncoiled and hanging where they’d been last used, and the overall sad state of the Crimson Harvest spoke of a lack of respect and pride by an undisciplined crew for their ship. From somewhere within me the captain I’d once been growled in irritated anger, a basic sense of umbrage at the sight of the ill-kept ship making me sneer in contempt. A strange urge to lash the crew for their abandonment of duty rose up, one that I was rather disturbed by. While naval discipline was important the joy that thrilled within the secret part of me was troubling to whom I was now. The thoughts confirmed a disturbing suspicion of mine: I had not been a good man. There was little doubt in my heart that I’d been the kind of captain that men dread to sail with.

“Oi, let’s get this shipment aboard,” ordered a voice that was far too close for my comfort. I sank down deeper into the shadows of the warehouse, summoning the blood-stained vision once more to gain an advantage over my unseen neighbor.

With a small amount of effort I was able to adjust the sanguinary sight to highlight the living in preference to the dead; the nature of the unholy power in my flesh eagerly sought the warm blood of fresh victims and hastened to obey my wishes.

Five men of varying degrees of sneering laziness were working at loading the Crimson Harvest with a cargo of bodies. They worked in a system of shirking duty where the larger would intimidate the smaller into taking the lion’s share of work, but despite their best efforts all five were forced in one fashion or another to contribute to the task as they hauled their grim cargo on deck for their unseen shipmates to take possession of.

Two guardsmen stood nearby, snickering and offering unhelpful advice about each body as the crew worked to load the ship. Strangely, I didn’t see any priests or other funerary attendants in evidence, and the lanterns were burning low, sputtering light that was barely sufficient for the men to work by. One of the five visible brigands split apart from the work to count out a few coins that he reluctantly placed in the lead guardsman’s hand. With that bribe, I dismissed all concepts of decency and recognized the crew of the Crimson Harvest for what they were.

Body-snatchers.

The ghouls that stole bodies from morgues and graveyards were the lowest scum of the criminal underworld, men and women who dealt in the flesh of their fellow humans for the unsavory pleasures of necromancers and cannibals. Suddenly an unsettling memory of shipping lanes, prices, relative safety of ports, and other unwelcome facts flooded my mind before I could fight them back. I felt nauseous as a certainty washed over me: I was no better than the brigands I was watching. Only one who had engaged in such despicable behavior would possess the sort of intimate knowledge of the business that my memories showed me.

Perhaps I should let Orsch and Aria kill me if that life was what I had to look forward to returning to.

At the thought of my ogrun companion more memories forced themselves to the foreground, battling against my failing will as segments of my previous life unfolded in my mind. There were jagged images crowding my imagination, fragmented events that I’d been privy to. Orsch, bellowing and lustful with blood on his tusks, his grey skin stained black from head to toe with the blood of our enemies. An attack on a merchant ship, slaughtering those who resisted and enslaving the survivors. An encounter with a Cygnaran warship as it pursued us across open water, only to draw it into a trap where we obliterated it. An Ordic privateer that suffered the same fate, a pair of slow Khadoran warships that we had harried like hounds until they sank. Ports and harbors so decadent as to make Five Fingers appear as a bastion of humane virtue. Sin in every form, in ways too evil to face. Laughter, drink, coin, paid for with the death and enslavement of innocents. All with the same crew, the same set of men bolstered by the most depraved recruits when death took her accounting in battle. Men whose faces I knew, pirates of the lowest sort, the crudest, most vulgar, most violent. Blackguards who were working the dock in front of me now, who I knew were below decks sorting out the stolen corpses for some nefarious purpose. Oh yes, despite my most fervent wishes, I knew these men and their task all too well.

The Crimson Harvest was my ship, and these were my crew.





*******************************************

Mercykiller
10-20-2012, 07:54 AM
(As always, this chapter and the other Jonathon Worthington and Stormhammer Brigade stories are featured without post breaks up on my website, sraelkin.com (http://sraelkin.com/) ... and was up while maintenance caused me to miss yesterday's window lol)




Chapter 10


The memories flowed of their own accord, intruding upon my senses as I studied at the Crimson Harvest and her crew with my sanguinary sight.

“Get those bodies loaded, we got a schedule to keep!”

That was my former bosun, Jannis, once a bear of a Khard. He’d been one of the surviving crew of the Khadoran vessels we’d destroyed, a born turncoat who executed his fellow survivors to prove his worth to me. His backstabbing ways had been paired with a surprising efficiency at directing the crew; despite my natural distrust of the traitor he’d proven his worth again and again. The years had not been kind to him, and much of his muscle had turned to flab. The scarlet vision responded to my thought, actually peering within the confines of his flesh for a moment and separating muscle and fat with tiny pulsing lines indicating the best trajectories for bullet or blade to penetrate vital organs. I shook my head to clear the nauseous analysis, temporarily dismissing the blood-soaked sight to instead strain my eyes against the shadows. My fragile sanity needed a respite from the terrible powers I commanded.

Passing by my hiding spot in the shadows was a man who had lost his claim to mental stability long ago: Advocate Bertran. A devout Thamarite with a penchant for knives, Bertran claimed as his portion of raiding spoils the lives of innocents to sacrifice to the Dark Twin. Although I vaguely recalled the crew having a prohibition against worship of Thamar, it had been an open secret of sorts, and no one had said anything about missing prisoners when the man had been so keen to trade his share of the booty for blood. He was quiet, unassuming, the picture of a stooped father figure you’d expect to see wearing the robes of Morrow and smiling benevolently through his thick glasses. Bertran’s short gray hair had receded into a tuft that only added to his fatherly demeanor, putting all who met him at immediate ease and off-guard. He was one of the most dangerous men I’d ever known.

Two of the other crew working on the docks barely tickled my memory, part of the forgettable cannon fodder that lived and died in relative obscurity under the ship’s sails. How they had survived the last two years I did not know, but the whispers of my mind said it was by chance rather than any skills they might claim to possess.

The fifth man on the docks was quite recognizable to me though: he was the lowest ranking member of the crew, despite his abilities, and always would be. Tattoos barely darker than his own mahogany skin shone around ritual scarring, the markings clearly identifying him as a native of the Scharde Isles. As bulky as a cantankerous laborjack, and half as pleasant, the shirtless man was a mountain of muscle and attitude, and the two years I’d been gone had changed none of that. Vague flashes of fierce, violent arguments flashed through my mind, mutinies led by him and put down with clockwork regularity. I shook my head in wonderment. Although it was difficult to clarify the sequence of events in my mind it appeared the man, Kerne, had rebelled on several occasions and tried to murder me. For some reason I let him live each time, adding to his collection of facial scars with my blade to denote each failure, which only drove him deeper into frenzy as he tried again and again to lead a successful mutiny.

With a jolt I realized the scarification procedure for denoting a traitor was two angled slashes with a third perpendicular across them. That thought opened up others, and before I knew what was happening I found myself interpreting the marks across Kerne’s body, reading his life’s story in the damaged skin. He was the second in his clan, and the scars told how he had followed his leader and slaughtered their small community of people, bathing in their blood to take the power of the murdered. The two killers were as brothers, bonded by death rather than any familial ties, but Kerne grew jealous, turning on his clanmate to try and wrest power for himself. His life was forfeit with the betrayal, but Kerne continued to serve as an excellent reminder that no one was to be trusted. It didn’t hurt that with him alive the source of all mutinies was easier to track. But I didn’t need Kerne’s scars to tell me his story. I remembered it from witnessing it firsthand.

I’d been his clan leader.

Looking down at the dark scarlet tattoos that pulsed within my own mahogany skin I realized the truth: in cleansing my past to allow for the arcane imprint I’d cleared the historical slate of my flesh as well. My own clan-scars were lost to time, never to be recovered. While it was disconcerting, the idea bothered me less than I thought it should. It was an odd twinning sensation, as if separate parts of me violently disagreed on the importance of the fact. I knew that the scars telling my life story were sacred to my clan, but as I did not even remember the community’s name, much less its former location, the loss seemed far less significant than the suppression of my personal memories.

“Oi, we should give the blighter’s body over to the bloody tadpole as well,” Kerne grumbled under his breath as he muscled the burlap-wrapped corpses off a nearby pile. Bertran hissed at him to be silent, but Kerne was too head-strong to listen to anyone. “Never thought I’d let this clear of me teeth, but I kindly miss my bastard skull-brother. Ain’t worth it to fight Jannis for this wreck; his blood’s got no beef to it. At least when the Deadeye had the helm we weren’t reduced to mucker-work like this.”

“What was that, Kerne?” Jannis snarled, stalking over as he caught the sound of the big man’s complaining.

As large as Jannis fancied himself to be, his weight was more fat whereas Kerne was nothing but muscle and attitude. A half head taller, Kerne looked down at the flabby bosun with a bored expression that was all too familiar to me. Kerne was an odd one in that he was only excited to kill and conquer when specific conditions were met, usually involving the chance to kill me. Normally he languished in an apathetic state that I suspected was some sort of delayed guilt for what we had done to our clan. Although his blade had been as bloody as mine I sensed that somewhere inside Kerne his soul had been broken by our deeds. That mine had not spoke clearly about the quality of character my former life had possessed. Could any amount of reconditioning, magical or otherwise, clear my mind and thoughts of such things? I’d killed before the mists of memory had begun to clear; did the situations always warrant it? Many deeds of the last two and half years demanded an answer that I did not have.

There was no escaping a simple fact. Orsch had been right: my past was dangerous to me, and it had been a mistake to seek out my memories.

Kerne was slow to respond to Jannis’s surly attitude, but I could see the storm beginning to brew behind my old skull-brother’s eyes. Before he could act on it, however, Bertran slipped up behind Kerne and pressed a knife into his ribs in warning. The balding Advocate smiled sweetly at the panicked look on Kerne’s face, pushing up the glasses on his nose with his free hand.

“Now, now, my child, let’s not interfere in the business deal too much here. I must say, if you’ll pardon me, that the coin we get from this grave work will pad our purses nicely. You do agree, don’t you? I really must insist that you do.”

Jannis pointedly turned his back on Kerne, who shook his head in disgust and turned back to work. Bertran slipped his dagger back up his sleeve, patted Kerne’s shoulder with almost fatherly pity laced with an empty apology, and bent to help the big man with a particularly large corpse.

“It ain’t right, I say,” Kerne kept grumbling, although low enough for Jannis to miss. “When the captain was here we weren’t reduced to working for no gobber. Going from sacking merchant ships to running errands on an insane ******’s orders? It just ain’t right.”

My blood froze in my veins. It was obvious that the Crimson Harvest had fallen on hard times, but they weren’t stealing bodies for just any random maniac in the night who’d offered them coin. There was only one individual that Kerne could be talking about: Titan. But why did he need so many bodies? Was the diminutive madman building another abomination, another Junior? It didn’t make sense. Titan had not sacrificed the whole of Outpost Five to build his iron and flesh monstrosity; there had been relatively few victims, and although they’d died horrifically and been defiled he hadn’t required the services of an entire ship to carry mass cargos of the dead to him. Judging by the familiar interactions of the crew and the guardsmen this wasn’t the first load they’d picked up either. What new project of the insane gobber’s would require so many dead bodies?

My macabre ruminations were interrupted when one of the other dockworkers cried out for Jannis, pointing to the end of the sheltered pier. At first I could not tell what the ragged brigand had noticed; I called up my sanguinary sight, but even with it the shadowed entryway appeared clear of any intruders. There was a slight shimmer in the air though as a figure I could not perceive drew closer. I felt my heart drop in fear at the familiar presence of my untiring invisible stalker.

Aria.

Lacking my inability to see her, the rest of the crew on the dock dropped the bodies they’d been carrying and drew rusty and nicked blades from their belts and scabbards. The corrupt guardsmen stared aghast at the shimmering outline of the luscious woman with the deformed head, bringing their halberds to bear with a startled challenge.

Mocking laughter like the corrupt sweetness of overripe fruit bubbled out from Aria’s phantasmal form, visibly shaking every man present.

“Oh, my, now this is just too amusing!” she smirked.

“What are you doing here, witch?” Jannis managed to croak in challenge. His pitted short sword was shaking in obvious terror, and although the men on the dock outnumbered Aria seven to one, along with unseen reinforcements in the ship itself, the phantasmal woman didn’t seem to notice the odds were stacked against her. Apparently, neither did the crew, as they seemed frightened beyond reason.

“Calm yourself, little bosun,” Aria mocked. “I’m not here to bring you back into the fold; why would we want such useless thugs in our ranks again? You’re too cowardly to even call yourself ‘captain,’ even though you lead these degenerates. It really is too bad the Deadeye was so protective of you. With a little work your crew would have served as much better thralls than pirates.”

“Listen to the little tramp, acting like she’s anything without the captain,” sneered Jannis, trying to work up his courage. By the weak laughter from those on the dock and the ship it was obvious he was not succeeding. Even Kerne was flushed and fearful, an unusual reaction for my skull-brother.

“Now, now, there’s no call to be rude,” Aria hissed. “I’ll let you walk away with one of your legs intact if you accommodate my demand. All you have to do is to relinquish Captain Elliot to me.”

Jannis looked at her with a confused and fearful expression. “What do you mean? We ain’t seen the captain for years, not since you took him away from us. He abandoned us to this life; we’d likely stick a blade in his gut as tip our hat to the Deadeye.”

The shimmering form of Aria advanced on the men, who shrank back as she approached. “Don’t lie to me, scum. Orsch may have hidden him from me for a while, but I can still feel the magic I carved into his body. It calls to me, as he once did. My love is here. Produce him, or your cargo will grow heavier with fresh death.”

Mercykiller
10-20-2012, 07:55 AM
She’d tracked me here; apparently she could track me anywhere. There was no escape from my own personal death. And if half the thoughts that buzzed around inside my skull were true, I was not fit to mingle with decent people anyway. As much as I was loathe to admit it, Aria’s frank questioning of the dirty pirates confirmed that they were my old crew. I was still more confused than certain about many of the memories bleeding through the mystic blocks placed in my mind, but there was one thing I felt through the fragmented barricades: loyalty. These were still my men, even if they hated me for abandoning them. I had no clear reason in my mind why I’d done so, but that didn’t change the feeling of responsibility that gripped me now. Somehow I knew that I’d protected the men from Aria’s temper before, sheltered them against the storm of her psychotic rages. Despite their current employer I owed them at least that much again. I would not let her kill them for knowledge they did not possess. They were far from innocent, but once they’d been loyal to me. If I was going to face her, however, I needed a weapon.

Bertran was the closest man to me, and fortunately his natural proclivities had taken over when Aria appeared. Instead of drawing the badly-maintained pistol stuck through his tattered cloth belt the Thamarite had pulled out two finely balanced knives, holding them by their tips as he prepared to throw them at the looming threat of the angry woman.

“Pardon me, Bertran,” I said, grinning, as I slipped up behind him. The poor old man almost jumped out of his skin in fright as I slid past him, pulling the pistol from his belt. His nearly sliced one of my ears off with a quick flick of a knife, but I managed to dodge his instinctive defensive reaction without losing my grin or my looks.

“Captain!” he breathed, a sense of child-like wonderment across his wrinkled features as he recognized me. “You’re alive!”

“Of course he is, you old fool,” Aria barked from the end of the dock.

I bowed slightly to Aria in greeting as I brought the pistol to bear on her shimmering form. Although I couldn’t see her exact features there was still enough of her present that it was a sufficient threat. Rather than reacting as such though the invisible woman laughed merrily, making every man on the dock shudder.

“Show yourself, Aria.”

“Oh please, my love, please don’t even pretend that you think you can hurt me,” she snickered, her invisible form advancing despite my entreaty. “Orsch may have defiled one segment of the sigils on you, but he could not touch that which was worked into the essence of your very being by your own lust. Even if you wished to harm me, which I don’t believe, you could not. There is no part of you that can be cut off or mutilated that would allow such a foolish action.”

I sensed the truth in her words. But there was more than one way to force her to back down. There was another life I could threaten to force her cooperation.

Smiling, I placed the barrel of the stolen pistol to my temple.

“Interesting,” Aria breathed, pausing in her advance. “Although I fear you won’t like how this little bluff of yours will play out. What makes you think I care if you live or die, my love?”

“You need me, what’s been done to me. You can’t stop talking about how much you love me, how we were oh so close before.”

“Um, Captain,” Bertran interjected. “It seems to me that you’re not quite recalling your relationship with the young miss here very accurately. She was, ah, very … temperamental.”

Some of my bluster faltered slightly. “Oh?”

Jannis nodded quickly in agreement, shuffling farther away from Aria’s shimmering form. “Sure as the tide, Captain. Your little strumpet was as quick with her blade as her body with you. We’d lay odds occasionally on whether you’d come out of your cabin singing soprano or not e’rytime you bedded down.”

“Ah.”

“Oi, don’t let the cowards cool your fire-belly, brother,” Kerne spat in disgust. “You controlled her well enough, better than the ship at least. I would have taken them both from you eventually; it is my place to kill you, not hers. She’s nothing more than spoils to be passed down. The trollop’s never been a threat to you like I was.”

“No one ever controlled me, brute,” Aria hissed, icy anger in her voice. “Tell yourself whatever lies you need to hold your manhood intact, but if you ever tried to touch me I’d open you up and let my sisters play with the remains. My love is already dead, and he knows that. Better he return to my arms to have his demise mean something than to die on my blade now.”

“But that’s not true, is it?” I interjected. “You’ve had the chance to kill me before, and always found a reason not to. You still love me in your own twisted way, don’t you?”

Aria hissed in anger, but I held up a finger in warning as my thumb pulled the pin back on the stolen pistol. She held herself back, her voice turning from icy anger to warm honey.

“You don’t want to do that, my love. You want to put the weapon down and return to my arms. There is no place else, no thought else, than my words.”

I felt the tug in her enchantment as she attempted to manipulate the arcane tattoos marking me. Aria was trying to force me to obey, to surrender, but Orsch had done his work well. I was easily able to resist the artificial urges. Instead, I smiled with a taunting quirk to my grin, eliciting another hiss of cold rage from Aria while I kept the pistol pointed at my head.

“It really is rude to remain hidden, Aria. Should I not be able to finally witness my former lover properly?”

Bertran and the others looked at me with confusion on their faces, obviously unaware that I could not perceive Aria as they could. Instead of refusing me and forcing a tedious stand-off, Aria laughed with that sickly-sweet tone again.

“As you wish. My love.”

I felt my eyes twitch as magic flowed around me, through me, the scarlet tattoos obeying Aria’s whispered incantation. Her form shimmered, gaining substance as her phantasmal outline began to solidify. Without the interference of the spells laid on me my eyes were adjusting to the darkness of the warehouse, picking out the details as Aria was finally revealed to me.

Aria wore a revealing outfit of leather and chain mail, expressing her cleavage and generous curves in a promise that any man would kill his brother to claim. As my eyes followed her form I realized her head was not truly deformed, not the hideous countenance I’d expected from her shimmering outline. Instead she had porcelain skin, soft and perfect, with dark green eyes that glittered with joyous malice as she watched my reaction with a devilish smile on her ruby lips. But all of her features were not so perfect, nor was it all human.

Spiraling elegantly out from her head were twin horns, twisted lengths of bone that somehow enhanced her unearthly beauty rather than detracting from it. One of the horns had been broken off to half its length, the fractured end capped with gold jewelry inset with emeralds that brought out Aria’s eyes. Despite the loveliness of her figure I could not stop staring at the twin horns. I knew of her kind, and the implications brought a stomach-churning dread and certainty.

Aria was a Satyxis.

Hers were a race of blighted women dedicated to Toruk, the Dragonfather, the lord of the Nightmare Empire, bane of all life. The realization brought suspicions and truths crashing to the foreground, crowding out thought as they clamored for my attention.

The Crimson Harvest had sailed under the banner of another fleet two years ago, a dread fleet that raided coastal towns and shipping lanes for bodies as well as loot. Visions of butchery and a town called Blackwater rose up. It was home.

Another fact demanded my attention: there was no such thing as grey-skinned ogruns. In my previous vision I’d mistaken the blood coating Orsch as tinting him, but in truth his natural coloration had been a deep black tone, a common skin color among the blighted ogrun of the Scharde Isles. No, his skin had only faded to the grey after the necrotechs had modified him, killing and resurrecting my companion during the painful process of altering him into an appropriate guardian-thrall for my new life.

There was no way to deny it anymore. Memories flooded through the broken remnants of my mind as the truth overwhelmed me. I was not a good man, not an investigator of the Strangelight Workshop, and my destiny was far darker than I’d ever thought it could be. Evil ran through my veins as thick as blood, undeniable and cancerous to all those I had come in contact with.

I was an agent of the Cryxian Empire.




************************************************** **

Mercykiller
10-21-2012, 01:24 PM
As an aside from the story, Death, Books, and Tea have a guest post up by yours truly on the nature of horror and steampunk ... check it out! http://deathbooksandtea.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/guest-post-how-some-folks-view-scenes.html

EDIT: There's also a chance to win two copies of GEARTEETH in the giveaway as well ;)

stevenart74
10-23-2012, 12:29 AM
As usual the quality of Your fiction is astounding and full of awesomeness and the depth of the characters is quite excellent and well detailed...

I suspected that Aria was a Satyxis Sorceress-Pirate from her first very appearance in Outpost Five "Boss Battle" (the "Malformed Head" was almost a giveaway for Me) but I thought that Johnathan was some kind of hapless Cygnaran Arcane-Ship Officer caught in the middle of Cryxian Machinations and not a "Toruk's Jason Bourne" and the rising glimpses of his past mischievousness were masterfully depicted by You (especially considering that the "Actual Personality" is quite likable and symphathethic) and are the "Literary Touchstones" of truly a great writer...

I have some little questions about the entireness of Your works, if You don't mind (i hope to not unduly clog Your threads):

1°) Is Your professional novel "Gearteeth" distributed even outside the U.S.A./Canadian literary circuit ? I ask because here in Europe (and also My country of Italy, where unfortunately the number of people able to read WELL the "Language of Shakespeare" are decreasing rather than increasing...!!) there is quite a diffusion of novels and booklet even by junior authors not so well-known by the "Reading Mass" and almost all of the greatest city bookshops have a section dedicated about literary works (especially Adventure and Fantasy novelizations) written in English...

I asked around some of the biggest bookshops around here but neither Your novel, nor the Editor are known to them (there are still many other book-retailer lines I have to ask...) but perhaps I questioned in the wrong circuits...

2°) As the Iron Kingdoms Roleplaying Game is worldwide rising and soon will be considered an "R.P.G. Best-Seller" have You considered to eventually portray the characters of Your I.K. fan-fiction as N.P.C. useful for the game? Not only all the characters of this "Strangelight Investigators Adventuring Company" will be quite well suited to a Spy/Occultis Campaign, but the proper depiction of the "Heretical Cyryss-Skynet Faction" of the "Stormhammer Brigade" would be an awesome collection of enemies (or improbable allies of convenience...) for Warcaster-centered Games...

Also the "Storm King" could be an incredibly complex "Hidden Benefactor" rather than a "Main Villain" for a group of P.C. researching and exploring the hidden crypts of forgotten knowledge...

3°) Would You like to have some "Graphical Interpretation" of the character of Your I.K.-Fiction ? I believe that I could produce quickly some conceptual sketches of all the main characters should You decide this will be O.K. for any needs that You would eventually have about this "Intellectual Property"...

Aniway keep up with this incredibly marvelous work.....

Mercykiller
10-23-2012, 08:47 AM
Thanks for all the kind words! I'm just glad to reveal a few of the secrets I've been sitting on for years; it was hard to keep everything under my hat (even my wife doesn't know the reveals until she reads the chapters lol). It's always a fine line to dance between 'foreshadowing' and 'too obvious' hehe. And question away! I'd much rather folks post than not. Compliments and coffee are what keep writers going! In answer to your specific questions:

(1) Right now GEARTEETH is only available in e-book form (i.e. Kindle/Nook/all e-reader formats as well as PDF for those who just want it on their computer). The publisher is a small one, and as per normal with her company I'll 'earn' print when I hit the '500 sold' mark (after that it'll go in print form to major stores like Barnes and Noble). There's links on my website about where to buy the book on Amazon and the publisher's site (I'm always careful about linking things here out of respect for Privateer's boards and rules). On the plus side that should mean that it's available anywhere in the world to you, albeit without the joy of print. Eventually that will change though; I just have to hope the book does well enough in its electronic format. I've been working hard to try and beg for as many reviews as possible on blogs and papers (if anyone reading this wants to write a blog or tell your friends about the book you'd have my extreme gratitude lol). As a first-time published author it's difficult to get eyeballs on the story, so it's been rather rough going. But the story won't hit an expiration date so I just have to gird myself for the long haul and keep working :)

(2) I've actually been thinking of writing up the stats for Jonathon and Orsch after this case file is done. For obvious reasons I couldn't really stat them out or reveal their full gamut of powers while the secrets were still hidden, but I promise by the end of Case 18 we'll be able to (there's still a few more hidden things to come). Given that the seed for this story was "a job application for Privateer Press" (I prefer to show someone that I can write rather than tell them lol) it was designed to integrate as seamlessly as possible with the world; as a result many of the abilities (such as Jonathon's sanguinary sight) are fairly easy translations over. While I didn't entice PP with the story it will still be easy to stat the actors out after all is said and done. If GMs and players want to incorporate either the characters here or the Stormhammer Brigade into their adventures I'd grow cherry-red in embarrassed joy :) The finest feeling for an author is to craft an idea folks enjoy enough to take beyond the pages. You're right about Vidrir too, he would make a powerful and interesting employer for a group of adventurers to go places where he cannot in his mad quest to claim 'his' kingdom; the Stormhammer are not a subtle branch of infiltrators that blend in :p

(3) Absolutely! Go for it! After all was said and done I'd actually contemplated converting a couple of Warmachine minis over for the fun of it, but my mini table is groaning under the weight of unfinished conversions and paintjobs already lol. As for intellectual property, well, the world itself is PP's. While I created the characters they'd be nothing without the Iron Kingdoms to run around in; as far as I'm concerned as long as nothing you do violates PP's own copyright/etc. then I'd be honored to have Jonathon and company illustrated anywhere and anywhen. After all, this story, for all its twists and turns, is still just one big old piece of fanfic in the end ;)

stevenart74
10-25-2012, 05:00 AM
Excellent, all Your kind answers are what I hoped and expected...

1°-Bis) I will try to entice some of My acquaintances of the meager Italian "Steampunk Literary Fan-World" (that fancy themselves as "Amateur Sci-Fi Critics and Professional Reviewers of Foreign Literature"...their words, not mine !!) to give a try to Your excellent Novel, so maybe something good will come from this for You...

2°-Bis) I will open soon BOTH a "Mercykiller I.K.R.P.G. Conversion" Thread in this Sub-Forum or the R.P.G one AND a Graphic Concept Roughs one in the Fan-Art Subforum to not spam this one, but I have to ask some questions about how properly represent some preliminary sketches of Your "Fan-Art I.P."...

I°: The couple of "Sorceress+Gunslinger" that save "Franken-Butcher" in the middle of the first chapters of "Stormhammer Brigade" (wounding the narrating Trencher Sergeant soon to be converted into a "Stormtech Doom Reaver"...) and later "Re-Calibrating" the Irusk-Stryker "T-800" are Your conversion of Lady Ayana and Master Holt as Droid Replicants...??

II°: Vidrir "The Storm King" is Your version of the "Limited Edition" Miniature of "Alternative Reality Storm-Vinter" of many years' ago P.P.-sponsored Convention Game, with the "Cybernetic Nexus-Key" instead of the missin eyepatch...??

III°: Lil the Bogrin "Mistress of Little Sins" is somehow graphically inspired by the "Goblinoid Femme Fatale" of the old movie "Gremlins 2"...??

3°) As previously said in the Fan Art section I will soon link some drawings of what I think are rough concepts of this fanfic, starting with Jonathon (should I regard its "Alternate Sanguine Form" like some I.K. Version of "Prince of Persia" Dark Prince ???), Orsch (and what I understood about its Necromechanikal Implants) and Aria (it will be a veritable effort to represent a Satyxis Sorceress-Queen as different as possible from Skarre...) and later any other important characters...

Anyway I (as many other) can't wait to see the next installement of the "Misadventures of the Strangelight Workshop Detective".....

Mercykiller
10-25-2012, 08:03 AM
(1 and 2) Here's hoping, and /blush ;)

(I) Aiyana and Holt: Bastian and Katanyaa are indeed Aiyana and Holt; truth be told there isn't going to be much conversion past painting their eyes completely chrome. They're just such incredible models on their own! I'd thought about trying to make Katanyaa's hair like fiber-optic cables, but I wasn't sure it'd look right.

(II) Actually the Storm King is simply eVlad without his shoulderpads of doom on an eNemo base, along with sword like the Storm Reavers and shoulders with electrical thingies. I sculpted the face plate on him with a tiny bit of putty. I also screwed myself somewhat as eventually I'll build Drago, but I have to change the eyepatch to be on the other side of the head for the jack /headdesk

(III) Precisely! The idea of a bogrin that was attracted to humans in a city where most things could be had was a disturbing and funny thing that grabbed my brain. It was a fun challenge to balance her comedic passes at Jonathon with a sense of sadness that her 'quest' was so futile.

(3) Jonathon still dresses like an upper-class gentleman of Cygnar, but with dark skin interlaced with sanguine tattoos for his face and hands and a set of goggles to hide his red-tinted irises. Short waist coat, pressed pants, that sort of thing. If I convert a mini for him I'd likely be hard-pressed to find one without a trenchcoat; I considered the Gun Mage Adept, but the head is all wrong as are the clothes. Orsch will actually be easier, although I can't quite reveal the mini I'll be converting without story spoilers. For now he's a larger version of Jonathon, with goggles and a bowler hat as well as grey flesh. As he's passed for two years in Cygnar as a 'semi-normal' ogrun you can assume any necromechanikal enhancements are hidden and not obvious. Aria's pretty much as you described her, although don't forget one horn is broken off halfway up with a gold cap and subdued jewelry off it. Looking forward to seeing what you do with it!

Working on the next installment right now, and trying to get ahead a bit so I'm prepped for Nanowrimo next month.

ForsakenPoptart
10-25-2012, 08:58 AM
Actually, it sounds as though Watts from the Black 13th would be a perfect model to start from for the young master Worthington- he's small and skinny, and the pose ain't half bad. It'd be especially comical standing next to an Ogrun model (Bokur or OAC come to mind) given how big they are.