The cab ride to the Geinodes Club is not my best time ever. There’s no chance in any of the hells that I’d be admitted in through the Solar Entrance, looking as I do, and so I tell the driver to take me to the Lunatic Fringe, and step on it. He obliges, hands fidgeting nervously as if I’d just confirmed his worst fear about his new passenger. There’s a mirror hanging across from where I’m slumped in the back, and I get a chance to take a look at what the cat dragged in.
Hells, Darkleaf was right about one thing: I do look like shit. Naked from the waist up, covered in suspicious-looking filth that’s started to streak off my body from the rain, and sporting a fairly obvious weapon strapped to my now-sleeveless wrist, all I can do is send thanks to God for clouding this guy’s judgment long enough for him to let me in his cab. As he cracks the lightning reins over the elemental engines and motivates the cab to a bone-jolting start across the cobblestones, I grimace and continue my inspection.
All the bad I’m seeing isn’t just because I’m dirty and had a hyper-intelligent calamari rework all my internal plumbing. I’ve been living hard. I’m too skinny--Ieander, when was the last time I actually had a meal made from something resembling food?--and my face is starting to look hollow. The bags underneath my eyes say that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I was a teenager. I’m several months overdue for a haircut. At least it’s all still there, and the same nut-brown it’s always been... frankly, I would have thought I’d have a few grey hairs by now. I mean, I’m almost thirty.
Life’s been crazy, lately. I’d blame the war, but it was crazy before the war, and that’s been on for at least two years now. Asking “what the hell happened?” is a game my brain likes to play just to hurt me, but I haven’t got the energy for it tonight. Still, there was a time, not so long ago, when I was at least an OK-looking guy. I wasn’t having chamber maids calling me “dreamy”, maybe, but looking in the mirror didn’t make me wince.
It’s not the job--or at least, it never used to be. Striking down an avatar of the Crawling Ones, or even a trumped-up drug lord with delusions of adequacy... you feel righteous. Burning the corpses of kids who’d just died in the name of a ridiculous war that we deserve to lose?
Not so much.
Maybe it is the job. Nobody ever said being a justicar of the Divine Will would be easy.
“Crazy night!” tries the cabbie. He’s got an accent that I mark as probably River District... he’s one hundred percent Noldonite, that’s for sure.
“You have no idea,” I grimace. I’m not really looking to get sucked into a conversation, here... but I probably don’t have any choice, knowing Noldon cabbies, and maybe a little human contact wouldn’t automatically end in tragedy.
“Yeah, I saw you, and I said to myself, ‘Self, are you gonna let that poor guy get picked up by the Lightning Rods for a Decency Violation? That’d just be wrong.’ Hard to argue with that kinda logic.” He grins at me. “So here you are.”
I smile back, meaning it. “I appreciate it. A run-in with the coppers is the last thing I want tonight, I promise you.”
“You get caught in one of them fires, burning ship and whatsit?” he asks, falling into cadence. It doesn’t matter what I say; he’ll just riff off of it and keep me talking for the ten or so minutes it’ll take to get us to the Fringe.
“Nah,” I say, forcing myself to look at least a little bit relaxed, “I caused them.”
“Oh, really?” he says. “I had an uncle, liked to start fires. Real quiet guy, but man, you just never know, eh?”
“You sure don’t.”
“You ever heard of a place called the Mitterheim Academy for Studious Youth?” he continues, not missing a beat.
“Mitter--are you telling me your uncle was Crazy Rastick?” This does perk me up. “The Alchemicals lector who burned the place to a matchstick?”
“Yeah, totally--though we don’t call him that in the family! How’d you know Len?” In his mirror, the cabbie gives me another cautious look. Friends of Crazy Rastick probably weren’t the kind of people you’d wish were in the back of your cab.
“Scholarship boy. Class of ‘twenty-six,” I grin, and watch the tension ebb out of his shoulders. “That was my third year.” I laugh. “I was in Thaumaturgical Engineering, and I’d just managed to get the sprocket off of the hex wheel I’d been taking apart.”
“Ooh,” he winces. “Bad timing.”
“Bad timing, nothing! I looked up for half a second and my not-so-stiff-upper-lip-after-all lab partner dropped the containment chant. That bastard wheel went caroming straight out of the classroom and down the hall! Last I could tell, it was headed towards the Parazoology Lab.”
He’s nodding his head, slowly but picking up steam. “The coppers said that a bunch of salamanders got loose, but they didn’t know how. Probably coulda contained the mess, except there were a bunch of lizards running around breathing fire all over.” It’s his turn to laugh. “Maybe they shoulda locked you up, and not my Uncle Len!”
“He did start it,” I point out. “It was that crazy laugh of his as he went running down the hallway that distracted me in the first place.”
“Eh, I never liked Len that much, anyways. He always thought he was just a little too clever.” He stops himself just a second too late. “Er, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”
I snort, and wave him off. “Look at me; how do you think my fancy education wound up for me? Half-naked in the back of a cab, covered in squid guts, hoping like hell a crazy old bastard who hung out with my dad will stitch up my innards because I’m too full of myself to go asking for--ah, never mind; it didn’t work out is all I’m saying.”
I clam up for a minute, fuming at myself and gritting my teeth as something clenches again inside me. Bizarrely, he doesn’t fill the silence, and I stare out the window into the rain.
The sky is pelting to match my mood, and my breath fogs the pane. I see the halo of gaslights as we pull under them; they cast a green aspect over everything as the thaumiol combusts. More traditional, reddish fires flicker in the distance, and my mouth turns down at the evidence of my handiwork.
Not my handiwork, the logical part of my brain interjects. Someone else rigged those charges. Whoever filled those soldiers full of bug figured he’d spread them as widely as possible.
You were there, the rest of me responds, filled with gloomy certitude. You missed something. You could have stopped it. There was a time when you would have stopped it.
I wipe the fog off the window and let my brain duel with itself, taking as much of me out for a scenic drive through the middle-city of Noldon as I can manage. In the green glow of the gaslights, streets that by day would be lined by severe black awnings over arches of grey stone take on a pallor of malice. Shadows bend at weird angles, the result of too much magic being burned up in a small space. You get used to it, mostly, but nights like tonight, it’ll send a shiver right down your spine to see one of them lengthen for no reason, and twist at you like it’s hungry.
The hum of the two elemental engines deepens as the driver navigates us carefully down the winding Cafdan’s Way toward the edge of Industry. The Way hisses snakelike down the Damsels’ Drop, a charmingly-named monster of a hill that used to be the trendy place for unmarried lasses of the ripe old age of twenty to toss themselves down to their destinies. There was some idiot story about one such old maid who found her charming prince when she slipped and fell down it; nobody remembers that she died just after they kissed, presumably from her head being screwed on backwards thanks to her trip. Times may have changed, but stories are sticky. These days, the bodies that you’ll find at the bottom of the Drop will be no less broken, but that’s what you get when you screw around with the Captains of Industry.
The long, cylindrical engines at the front of the cab that took over for horses at some point in my great-grandfather’s day thrum even lower, and the air elemental bound to the cab’s base fidgets restlessly, jolting me a bit. Even though nobody’s had to actually ride over rough cobblestones on wheels since I-don’t-know-when, every now and then the elementals get a little testy and like to inform you just how much they love being forced to stare at their stony opposites all day and all night. I tap the cabbie’s window in irritation; just because we’re almost there is no reason to relax on the elemental’s thaumiol feed and leave me jangling.
Violently, his face mashes into the thick glass plate that separates us, pounded in by an invisible hammer. His eyes are pitch black, no whites at all, and he moans deep. His hands flop up to the window and claw at the glass, like he’s trying to dig through it at me.
“Fell-thorn...” he intones, “we see you...”
My skin crawls, trying to get away from the possessed driver as best it can. “God damn you,” I cry out. “Leave him alone!”
In response, he smashes his face into the glass pane, and then again. Blood gushing over his lips, he groans, “We see you!”
Something jerks. We’re on a hill that’s nothing but curves all the way down, and nobody’s driving.
“Hoi!” comes the call from ahead of us. “Fat Lonnie! I hear you ain’t paid your dues recently, and you want to be coming down to Industry?” I can hear the incredulous voice shaking its head. “Best be slowing up a bit so we can chat proper, yeah?”
The Captains. When we don’t stop, this cab is going to get riddled with gunshot.
“Fat Lonnie” is busy braining himself on the thick glass that separates us, oblivious to the commands of the thugs ahead. The window is smeared with blood: I can’t see how many of them there are. I feel Jorngnir vibrating in its arm-sheath, ready to taste flesh again tonight. I start to move my arm in response, ready to drop the blade into my palm, but by Ieander, I’m tired. Hasn’t there been enough blood spilled tonight? Haven’t I been party to enough death?
My knife catches him in the soft spot just under his chin...
“... we see youuu...” Blood-flecked teeth show in a rictus smile. “... and we see her...”
My lips curl back as I alternately blanch, and then rage. “You motherfuckers. I will kill you.” I shift, preparing myself; Jorngnir flashes, and the glass pane separating us shatters. Fat Lonnie surges through it... right into my waiting headlock.
“... but I’m not killing him,” I finish.
The possessed cabbie squirms in my grip, but I’m in the zone now; I’m switched on. Pain fades away. Jorngnir guides itself under my hand, maneuvering itself easily through the tight space with a mind of its own, and I smash out the back window of the cab with another effortless swipe of the ancient blade. I drag Lonnie through it as I hear cries ahead to slow down, and then another:
“Hey, what the--?”
Lonnie is laughing now, bubbling deep in his throat, but he isn’t fighting me. Not sure if that’s a good or bad sign. He just laughs.
The crack of gun blasts tearing into the cab splits the night, and I throw myself down on top of him. The cab is still jerking forward, but the Captains have flanked it, still firing--but one has definitely spotted the two of us, and is waving at his buddies, bringing his own gun to bear. There’s no cover anywhere in sight, just a steep embankment on one side, and a steep drop on the other.
But there is a pissed-off air elemental sitting underneath that cab, and I’d cut the thaumiol line powering its containment circle as we were making our exit.
There’s a sound like a thunderclap as the elemental blasts out of its bindings underneath the cab. A compression wave hits us and we go skidding across the cobbles; I’ve got Lonnie’s ears covered and I’m howling, praying my own eardrums don’t burst. Wind whips around us furiously; all I hear is a high-pitched whine in my ears from the blast. I roll to one side, just in time to watch the cab come smashing back to the road from a height of at least thirty feet. Its splinters are caught by the cyclone of the elemental’s form, slicing through the air like daggers. The elemental engines, freed from the cab, take off like cannon-shot: one slams itself into the bluff in a blinding flash of electrical discharge; the other spirals dizzily off into the air, until I lose track of it somewhere over the river.
Only two of the Captains are in sight, thrown a dozen feet away from where they stood. Neither is moving. The other two are probably on their way to the bottom of the Drop right now. The elemental, though...
The funnel drifts to and fro, flinging more debris every which way. I work my way to my feet, putting myself between it and Lonnie. Jorngnir is in my hand, fully extended to halberd-size; I don’t know when that happened, but it feels good. I feel the thing’s eyeless gaze turn to me.
“You’re pissed, and I get that,” I shout through the gale, “but you’re free. I got you there, and this man’s with me. Bugger off, and you can stay that way. Stick around, or make one move towards us, and we’ll both find out how well I remember Basic Elemental Binding.”
It wavers. It’s a moderate-sized elemental, and on my best day, maybe. Right now, it would be all I could do to escape it with my life, and no way am I getting Lonnie out of here too. Still, it’s hesitating...
I dredge my memories, and start the words to a basic binding chant.
There’s another howl, and pieces of cab come flying at me. I hit the deck as Jorngnir deflects the first of them. A few splinters pepper me, but the elemental isn’t pressing the attack; they sting, but nothing more. When I roll to my feet, polearm braced in front of me, the funnel cloud is gone, and the only sound is the ringing in my ears.
I look to the two remaining Captains. The gang members are stirring now, but won’t be going far anytime soon. I take a half-step towards them to end them with steel before they can recover, but stop.
No. This isn’t divine justice. This isn’t the war front. They’re gang toughs; leave them for the coppers.
Jorngnir doesn’t like it, but I grit my teeth, and thumb the control to shrink it down to dagger-size. Its form wavers, hesitating for a moment--its ancient magics want blood, and resist Corwinne’s gadgetry--but after a moment, the Butcher’s Blade complies.
Good. God knows, I don’t need another fight tonight.
A sound behind me; I spin around. Lonnie is at the edge of the road, his too-black eyes staring at me. “Trying to save him?” asks the thing behind those eyes.
Then it throws him off of the Drop.
My legs are moving before his question even hangs in the air. As I fling myself into empty space, I can hear Corwinne’s voice lilt through my mind: “We’ve talked about this...”