A Tale of Alchemical-Romance
“Well, what about him?” Ms. Hildebrandt Drakenfaust asked her companion in her precise Swiss accent, as she gestured with her glass.
Her companion, Lady Samantha Abigail Meredith Twisthall, twelfth Viscountess Twisthall, stole a glance across the first-class lounge of the Air Ship Sabrina; she coughed slightly to disguise the snort of derision that tried to escape as she looked at the gentleman-in-question, and pretended to be listening hard to the string quartet.
“Colonel Walrus-face? No, one look in his eyes would tell you that he is a war-hero. Noble and worthy, but haunted by the faces of all the men he has killed, and, no doubt, his long-lost love. Hardly suitable material for a husband, can you imagine the long silences over dinner, besides he must be at least thirty years too old for me. No Hilde, he’s not for me, I’m afraid,” she said, her upper-class English accent tinged with hints of Cymric singsong vowels and a smattering of Teutonic gutturals still lingering from the trip.
“It is true, I hardly believe he would survive the wedding night,” Hildebrandt whispered, and took the stare it prompted, delighting in the mixture of mock outrage and amusement, “so what about him then?”
“Mr. Top-hat, or for that matter Mr. Bowler sat with him.”
“Honestly? Well, Mr. Top-hat is obviously a barrister and Mr. Bowler his clerk. I cannot honestly imagine being married to someone who ranks in the Autumn Court; they see only the worst of people. Even beyond that though, look at that face. A face as long as that can so rarely smile, and he has the look of one haunted by a great many childhood illnesses and probably night-terrors. Yes, I imagine him plagued by phobias and neuroses. Why he probably writes horror stories for a hobby, and grim, I imagine, they would be, no — I think not. As for the clerk: well, perhaps, he is a solicitor, for he has some intelligence, but that hair, the bowler hat is a necessary distraction of course, or he would find himself being stared at as some sort of lunatic, and of course he is a colonial, probably one of the old Dutch, perhaps New Jorvic.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Hildebrandt gasped, unbelieving.
“Actually, I heard him speaking at the bar, his companion is Sir Phillip L Howard, Lawyer to the Bar of the Autumn Court and from the New England colony, and he is a Mr. Long, clerk to the same, I heard his tall friend call him Frank. I ask you, what sort of a name is Frank Long?” Lady Twisthall explained
“I think that may count as cheating, okay we’ll put your two lawyers aside, does anyone catch your fancy?”
“I must admit I am intrigued by him,” Lady Samantha pointed with her glass, “Admiral Talbot. He seems young, debonair — adventurous even.”
“Admiral Talbot?” Hildebrandt glanced around, taking in the man and noting his two Great-Dane-headed Talbot companions. “Oh, I see. Him I know. He is young, and adventurous. He is a mercenary commander in fact, I can’t tell you the true story of the hat, but I’m told an English Admiral gave it him when he was just a boy, something to do with a shipwreck, or pirates, in the Indian Ocean. I happened to ask the purser about his companions, Lieutenant Turk James Grandanois Talbot and Lieutenant Flora Philip Grandanois Talbot, they are also mercenaries, English Talbots originally now carrying Swiss passports, both are armed, and are highly respected members of the Theriocephalic League, of course.”
“Of course, and did your conversation with the purser reveal the commander’s name?”
“Francis or Franz, I think, and some English surname, Robertson — or something. I was warned he was trouble, and to keep you clear of him.”
Lady Samantha sighed, “Of course you were. Well then, what about Lord Thor over there, he has a proud and defiant look, very muscular, what can you tell me of him?”
“I don’t… Oh! No, no, he is not for you milady. That is Baron Evan Johnson,” Hildebrandt dropped to a whisper, “also called Knight Errant Ifan Jones, he is a spy, although whether for, or against, the Crown is a bit of a mystery to those not engaged as spies themselves.”
“Oh, well now you just intrigue me Hildebrandt, do you imply that you are a spy?”
“No my lady, I am your bodyguard, as such I make it my business to know of, but not to know, such people. Perhaps, you may find greater diversion with the gentleman across the table from him, he is not known to me.”
“Who Lord Hairy-Corpulence?” Lady Samantha asked shocked.
“Yes, I suppose,” Hildebrandt laughed.
“I think not, his body aside, if such a thing could be moved aside; he has far too much interest in gripping that briefcase. If whatever is so important that one cannot let go of it, or place it with the purser, well, let us just say that: unless it is the heart of his true love, or his wife’s lover, is not the property of a spontaneous lover, and we’ll leave it at that.”
“Him then, behind Lord Corpulence?” Hildebrandt asked.
“Lord Hairy-Corpulence, who Lord Messy-hair or Lord Stick-insect?”
“Well, both your nicknames answer my question rather too fully,” Hildebrandt laughed again, “but I actually meant the one that you’ll probably call Lord Pith-Helmet.”
“Him? Really Hildebrandt? No, I rather think not. He’s a professor, although I must confess I cannot remember with which college, nor can I remember his name properly, Sentimental? Pedimental? Something like that — have you noticed his servant? Rumours are he made that himself, as he kept losing human servants.”
“What the short, ginger-haired man with the Mechanimal eye sat beside him eating a banana? Oh my! Is that actually an Orang-utan in a dinner jacket?”
“It is. The man is a card-carrying eccentric, explorer and inventor, owns a manor near Brighton somewhere. I wish I could remember his name,” Lady Twisthall vexed.
“But we’ve established it’s something mental,” Hildebrandt smiled.
Lady Samantha laughed, nodding.
“Perhaps Lord Cavendish?” Hildebrandt indicated the famously ‘rather-dashing-boffin’ (as the papers styled him) in his thirties.
Lady Samantha rolled her eyes, “That man has more hobbies than is natural in five men, what with all the hunting, shooting, riding, painting, photography, magick and science — I ask you, is there room left for being a good husband?”
“Why only you could find fault with such a man, but I must confess, since you didn’t mention the musicianship, inventing, drinking, gambling, or womanising, I think you are probably correct.”
“Now, who do you think they are?” Lady Samantha pointed at a pair of men deep in a discussion at a table, one was incredibly tall, the other was also quite tall, but proximity to his companion gave him a short appearance.
The taller man suddenly broke off his conversation and looked around the room, briefly staring back with piercing dark eyes. His companion also turned, following the gaze and passed some comment that caused his companions silver and black beard to twist around a wry grin. The man raised a glass in an obvious toast across the lounge, which Lady Samantha acknowledged with a blush and a nod.
“Ah, well if Colonel Walrus-face is too old for you, then both those gentlemen are doubly so. The shorter man is the Earl of Whitstable; his rather elegant companion is the Duke of Tufnell Park.”
Lady Twisthall gasped and leant closer to her companion, “That’s the Duke of Tufnell?! The Demon-hunter?”
“Both he and the Earl would deny that last part, if you asked. He is, of course, one of the most powerful mages in all of Europa. It is a matter of record that he was offered the thrones of both Norway and Sweden, during the war,” Hildebrandt noted.
“Lady Twisthall?” a new voice interrupted the conversation, and both women turned to seek the speaker.
“Your grace, how delightfully unexpected to see you, I wasn’t aware you were on board,” Lady Samantha smiled, looking up at the Lord Edric Sylva the third, Sixteenth Duke of Pengwern, and her nearest neighbour as the aristocracy measure things, she made to stand.
“Please, no need to stand, may we join you?” the Duke indicated his wife standing coldly behind him, “we are returning from Munich, and would be rather glad of some familiar company.”
“Of course, please join us, Hildebrandt?”
Hildebrandt stood at once, and moved the chairs back for the Duke and Duchess to sit. The elderly Duke collapsed into the seat with a long drawn out sigh. His wife glided into position with nothing more than a curt nod to Lady Twisthall, once the two nobles were seated Hildebrandt moved to take position by her mistress’ left shoulder.
“How did you find Zurich and the concert you were attending? I hope you found it better than this quartet,” the Duke asked.
“Beautiful, of course,” Lady Samantha answered, “Though I have seen better weather on previous visits. The concert was everything I had hoped, but then the Swiss appreciate music in a way that I think the English could learn from.”
“I have often said the same. The Germans too, I feel, are also our superiors in that regard, regrettably. Perhaps I may try and do something about that,” he smiled.
“Well, I for one, Your Grace, would be grateful, although I suspect that my maid would rather the English had some failings, so that her own people may enjoy some aspect of superiority,” Lady Samantha joked.
The Duke laughed. “Indeed, Ms Drakenfaust, is this so?”
“My Lord Duke, the Swiss are a humble people, we acknowledge the German’s as the greatest composers, the Italians as the greatest musicians and sculptors, and the French as the greatest lyricists and painters,” Hildebrandt answered carefully.
“And the English?” Lady Mary snapped, suddenly coming to life.
“Your Grace, the English are the finest playwrights and magicians, upon that, all of Europa agrees. For my own part, I enjoy your music, these strained strings aside, and your art, in each regard you are clearly the second best of Europe, perhaps with your husband’s guidance your country may become truly the first of all nations,” Hildebrandt responded politely.
“Ha! A truly diplomatic answer, Ms. Drakenfaust, but I think you seek to flatter our country. The commoners have little love of art or music; have you heard the music they play to each other, and those horrible things that have appeared in the popular charts? Quite ghastly, at least this Quartet seems to understand real music, even if they cannot quite manage to play it. No, I think we have a long way to go before we would rival any Europeans in those regards. Perhaps, when I go to parliament I may have some quiet words with members of the Dawn and Summer Courts and see if we might promote the arts in the education of the masses. A little educated appreciation may do much to quieten the rabble,” the Duke declared.
“My Lord Duke, are the rumours true then?” Lady Samantha asked.
“Rumours, my dear?” the Duke sat forward, obviously intrigued. “What rumours would that be?”
“Zurich was ablaze with talk that Your Grace is to be made either Speaker for the Crown, First Lord of the Treasury or Speaker for the Noon Court before the year’s end.”
The Duke looked slightly uncomfortable for a moment before he laughed pleasantly, “My word, don’t things get about, I suppose there is no harm in you knowing that I have been offered all of those positions.”
“Will you be visiting our son upon your return to Pengwernshire?” the Duchess suddenly asked.
Lady Samantha did her best to hide the discomfort that clouded her face, “I have not yet made any firm plans, in that regard.”
“Then you will refuse his proposal?” the Duchess asked sharply.
“Come Mary, don’t pressure Lady Samantha. Her and young Edric’s engagement is a matter between them,” the Duke smiled, before adding, “Though I would say you two would be a fine match.”
“Thank you, my Lord Duke. No offence to your family, or yourselves, but I remain undecided in this regard. The Marquis has many fine qualities, and I was, of course, honoured by his proposal, but I do not yet love your son as he loves me, and such a match is rarely one of happiness to both parties.”
“Well, I for one think he made the right choice to offer his hand to one so wise. Give him time and he will win you over, I’m sure,” the Duke smoothed, as his wife glowered terribly, the Duke then looked briefly around the room, “Goodness, if I’m not mistaken that’s Tufnell over there. Mary, we must go and ask him how his trip to Hungary went, if you will excuse us Lady Twisthall.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” she said and stood as they rose from the table and made their way across the lounge.
Hildebrandt returned to the seat the Duke had vacated, “That could have gone better, no?”
“What on Earth were they doing here?” Lady Samantha whispered.
“Returning from Munich, I believe the Duke covered that,” Hildebrandt grinned.
“Oh god, what an absolute arse I must have made of myself. I almost died when she asked if I was planning to visit her son, what was I supposed to answer — ‘No, he’s a creepy, little turd of a man and I’d rather die alone than face another moment of his company?’”
“Isn’t that what you said?” Hildebrandt laughed.
“Shut up. Oh please,” Lady Twisthall begged, “let them stay over there talking to Tufnell.”
They did join the Duke and Earl at their table, though Lady Samantha was completely aware of the Duchess’ pointed face glancing back at her table. When a steward entered a few moments later and declared that the Observation Deck was now opening, she breathed a sigh of relief and rose.
“Come Hildebrandt, I think I might like to see the view,” she announced, perhaps a little too loudly, before leaving.
The companions passed along the corridor until they reached the heavy furs and goggles hanging from the walls near the doors that opened upon the deck. Their silent tension began to ease, as they each swaddled themselves in the luxurious furs. Hildebrandt pulled her own pair of goggles from somewhere beneath her skirts and handed Lady Samantha a pair from the wall. They giggled at each other before opening the door and stepping out into the cool, noon air.
The air was frigid, leaving icy fingers of frost across the metal of the bulwarks and patterned the deck with a crisp hoar.
Lady Samantha stopped to stare up at the huge masts, topped with the gently rotating metal parasol affairs that the ship hung from. Her mage senses reached out, and she watched the planetary colours as they streamed and twisted through the various alchemically purified blades, pulling on some, pushing on others, and she listened to the soft, choral song that the ship sang as her master pilot teased her controls. She watched the golden blades flap slightly, and the solar note grew in strength upon the deck, captured less by the blades, and the ship began to descend.
“Hildebrandt, are ship’s Captain’s mages?” she wondered aloud.
“Some are, but the pilots aren’t, they’re remarkable good astrologers. I once dated a pilot in Basel, incredibly talented man, always seemed to know what the right thing—” Hildebrandt answered, then paused and looked sharply at her employer. “My lady, are you still husband shopping?”
“No,” Lady Samantha started, and then stopped, mulling her thoughts over, “Well… perhaps, tell me more of your air pilot,”
Giggling girlishly and slipping occasionally the two — more friends, than employer and bodyguard — clutched at each other as they worked their way towards the gunwales.
Hildebrandt expounding upon her pilot’s many amazing talents, and unbelievable physical attributes.
They reached the edge of the deck and for the first time looked upon something other than the deep blue of the heavens.
“— sore, which is why you should try before you buy. Oh my!”
The women stared out over the incredible vista. Below them fluffy, white clouds cast deep shadows onto the sea. Ahead, on the rich green of crop fields, the same clouds became enormous floating sheep grazing on the hilltops. Just visible, along the interface between the sea and the rolling downs, were the sharp flashes of the white cliffs.
Lady Samantha craned to look around, “Look there, a little off the stern, you can see France. Oh and look, the moon is just rising. Hildebrandt, you can see, the crescent is just like a shark’s fin.”
The ship was dropping quite quickly towards the coastline ahead, but Lady Samantha lifted her eyes from the scene to glance back towards the rotating, parasol, flashing in the sunlight, she shielded her goggles and felt once again the surge of vision and song. The silver blades, tipped over more steeply now, the entire parasol twisted slightly into a new alignment, and the passengers felt the powerful surge forwards, as the pilot now pushed off the risen moon. The gold rotors tweaked slightly and the ship ceased descending. AS Sabrina was down in amongst the clouds, and it seemed as though they were great islands rising from a slowly rolling jigsaw sea of green and yellow.
The warmer, thicker air at this lower altitude had tempted more passengers onto the deck and most were not wearing the thick furs or goggles now.
Hildebrandt pushed her goggles up onto her hair and shrugged off the thick fur. She then took Lady Samantha’s goggles and coat over her arm as they stared across the fields and now patchy woodland.
“It really is amazingly beautiful,” breathed Lady Samantha.
“Indeed it is. Please, forgive my interruption, ladies.”
Lady Samantha turned, gracefully, but with one hand gripping the rail behind her. Hildebrandt turned less elegantly, and her right arm slipped beneath the coats as well, seeking out one of her many concealed weapons. She did not relax when she saw it was the Duke of Tufnell Park and a group of several first-class loungers, although Lady Samantha seemed more than slightly relieved not to find the Duke of Pengwern amongst their number.
“Why, my Lord Duke, only your esteemed company could make such a view better. To what do I owe such an honour?” Lady Samantha politely responded.
“Forgive me Lady Twisthall, I was speaking with the Duke of Pengwern, and I mentioned that I found it unlikely that two beautiful women would be travelling unprotected across Europe by air. To my great surprise, the Duke informed me that you and your companion had nothing to fear from Commoner or Noble. Only then did he tell me who you were. May I say, it is an honour to meet you, and your charming bodyguard, Ms Drakenfaust. I did ask Edric to introduce me to you both, but he refused remarking you would be quite approachable without him, and would not have an attack of the vapours over such a thing as a lack of introductions,” he conversed amiably and refreshingly frankly, although his frankness was obviously raising eyebrows in the group behind.
“I see. Well, Your Grace, I can understand his reticence, and since you have been so frank with me allow me to amuse you with my own bluntness. Her Grace the Duchess and I do not see eye to eye over the benefits of my marrying her son. Who is, of course, the apple of his mother’s eye, and bears no relation to a piglet biting an apple, nor can she understand the strong desire to make cider that I feel in his presence.”
This drew embarrassed laughs from the crowd behind him.
“Well, that would certainly explain his reluctance, and having met the boy, I can completely understand your position. Although, I do hear good things of him from the Colleges… Ha-hmm! — but I fear I am allowing myself to be drawn off the point,” he laughed, his eyes sparkling with delight.
“Ah, yes Your Grace, is it a bet or a demonstration?”
He roared with laughter.
“You have me already, am I really so transparent?” he asked.
“No, not at all, Your Grace. This is not unfamiliar territory for me. As you know, I and my magick are quite famous,” Lady Samantha purred, “so since you have interrupted me, with such —shall we say — presumptuousness, for a parlour trick, would you do me the honour of telling me, is it a bet or a demonstration that you are after. Bear in mind, Your Grace, that I would be within my rights to challenge yourself, for all that it might cost you; a fact that undoubtedly occurred to the Duke of Pengwern when he set you on this path.”
“I see, again forgive my presumptuousness, it was a bet, but I will leave you ladies be,” the Duke said.
“Oh no, not so quick, my Lord Duke, you have not had my answer yet, but one more question first, what was the wager?” Lady Samantha actually placed her hand upon his arm, to stop him from stepping away.
“The wager? Why Cavendish bet Bromyard that even though you are both of a rank, he would not even be able to complete his casting against you. Bromyard, for his part, believes such a thing cannot be possible, as you did not attend a true school, but were only assessed and sent home.”
“No, my Lord Duke, I referred to the terms of the wager, not the circumstances, which are in my experience always the same,” Lady Samantha directed an eyebrow to arch imperiously, it was a look she had practised for long hours in a mirror, she was quite good at it.
“Oh, forgive me, wasting your time with such nonsense, they bet their colours,” the Duke flustered.
“Not at all Your Grace, why I believe you have been touched by the hand of the Duke of Pengwern. He, or his good wife, has placed this idea in all your heads as a message to me. I do not believe you would have behaved so otherwise, and the Duke, as all of his line, is a master of manipulation. I believe it will be better to allow your bet to play. Of course, the Duke may have intended instead to cause the Viscount Bromyard some loss of title, in his challenge with me, so I will waive that requirement of the duel, if you are amenable.”
“Of course, why the idea is ridiculous, anyway,” Lord Messy-hair responded, nice to have a name to go with the mental description.
“Do you require a second?” the Duke asked, gesturing towards Cavendish.
“No, my Lord Duke, she does not, if you wouldn’t mind,” Hildebrandt grinned handing him the furs.
“Oh, of course, and Bromyard’s second?”
The man shook his head gruffly and Hildebrandt stepped back and took back the coats.
“No damage to the ship, agreed? Direct strikes only,” Lady Twisthall asked.
“Of course, as you say, wouldn’t do to kill a couple of Duke’s over a bet,” Viscount Bromyard bumbled.
“Then in your own time, sir,” Lady Samantha said, her neck and shoulder muscles tensed suddenly into sharp relief and then relaxed, vanishing beneath her perfect skin once more.
Bromyard eyed her suspiciously, “I can’t do this, she is clearly not capable of stopping my magic, and she hasn’t even taken a proper stance.”
Lady Samantha sighed and changed her position, “Well, I was trying to go easy on you, but if you insist on being a fool, here have your rope, do you recognise this stance?”
“Yes, why that’s Hoffman’s press, damnably tricky defence to get right, are you sure?”
“Oh, come on Bromyard, she has selected her defence, you must attack, or forfeit.”
“Oh very well, but I think this is a joke in incredibly poor taste,” he moved to cast.
He drew on elemental fire from the sun and elemental air from all about them. Compressing the energy within himself, he felt it change, become lightning within his body, he moved to the second phase, compressing, and accelerating the energy, making it whirl within himself. He eased the power up along his arms and held it in his fingertips, crackling in space. Then he moved, drawing back him arm as though to throw it at Lady Samantha.
She turned her heel slightly and raised her hand, two fingers moving upward, and then she paused.
Lightning suddenly erupted across Lord Bromyard, as he was halfway through his throw. He twitched and danced in the throes of the full force of his own ability, before she deliberately completed the press and extinguished his magick. The press of counter-magick swelled across the deck, engulfing the spectators.
“My word,” the Duke of Tufnell Park exclaimed.
Lady Samantha, dropped the stance, but magick did not flood back in.
“How are you maintaining that?” Lord Cavendish asked astonished.
“I’m not. Hildebrandt!” Lady Samantha called.
Hildebrandt threw the furs to the ground and stepped beside her employer, her hands were each carrying a machine-musket that she pointed about the deck with, before suddenly moving both up.
“Sky-kraken!” she yelled as her muskets spat fire at something moving over the masts.
A tentacle whipped in under the parasol and scooped Viscount Bromyard from the deck.
Another pair of tentacles snaked in from the other side. There was a disorientating pulse of Psycho-electricity. Passengers fell to the deck, stunned, but smiling, some giggling at their own dizziness.
The Duke of Tufnell Park, obviously confused, raised his arms in a first casting position.
Lady Samantha drew breath to cry out to him, but had it knocked from her as Hildebrandt suddenly grabbed her around the waist and dragged her back. Machine-muskets blazed up at the tentacles as they snatched through the air where she had just been and snagged the confused Duke.
He yelled incoherently as the translucent limb dragged him across the deck, through the air, and up beyond the slowly rotating metallic parasol.
Hildebrandt half-carried, half-dragged Lady Samantha back, across the deck, towards the stern and the lifeboats.
The ship shuddered and Hildebrandt staggered, pitching them both forward onto the rolling deck. Lady Samantha slid along the smooth wooden planking, until she was able to grab hold of one of the high-tensile Orichalcum cables that secured the mast to the hull. She wrapped her arms and legs about the huge metal winch assembly and held on tight, struggling to regain her breath. Hildebrandt, slid slowly down the pitching deck until she manage to grab hold of a doorway just as the door swung open and spilled forth two men.
The first through the door and onto the rolling deck was a short, dark-haired man, with eyes like dark caves on a stormy night, beneath a brown mountain peak of a flying helmet. He smiled at Hildebrandt as she gripped the doorway, and she thought she caught sight of primitive people lighting fires in those caves as they began dancing and painting on the walls.
He helped her to her feet, while his taller, lighter-haired, but similarly helmeted, companion raced up the slope of the deck trying to draw a bead on the Sky-kraken with a large Tesla Corporation plasma rifle.
“Lady Samantha,” she gasped, pointing out across the pitching deck and the screaming first-class passengers.
The man glanced across at the huge cleat, with the Viscountess wrapped around it, and looked up at the tentacle’s and the metallic disc of the Kraken’s upper body and pulled two ornate brass-coloured toneloques from his thick felt coat.
“Lady Samantha, is it? Well, we’ll see her alright, we will, don’t you never mind,” he said with a Cymric accent, and raced off across the deck firing precisely tuned and aimed sever-shots at any tentacles that dared cross his path.
“JT, I need to get a clean shot at the disc,” his tall companion called out in the well-rounded vowels of the nobility, he kept pumping the charging handle on the gun while holding it pressed into his shoulder.
“Just take the shot, Abe,” the Cymraeg man cried back, and raised his sever-locks to cut a tentacle from the air between Abe and the disc.
Abe pulled the trigger and filled the air with an ozone smell and the feeling before a storm. The small ball of plasma shot up through the rigging and a gap in between the flight vanes to strike the silvery disc that made up the main body of the Sky-kraken.
The disc jerked suddenly to the side, whipping tentacles across the decks and causing the Sky-kraken to whistle a hauntingly hollow howl.
Abe twisted the rifle on his shoulder, pumping the charging handle twice as he did so, and sighted with the gun almost upside down, on the slightly more clearly exposed Sky-kraken disc.
Hildebrandt could see that the metallic disc was central to the Sky-kraken’s translucent flesh, the tentacles dangling from the edges and the centre of the disc.
The plasma rifle fired again, this time Hildebrandt got a good look at the impact of the shot, which aggressively flicked the metallic disc inside the creature down and into the windows of the first-class lounge.
The ship trembled with the impact, and they all stared forward at the tentacles writhing in the air, before they caught, looped about, and began tugging on the stays and mast, trying to drag the body free.
Abe threw the plasma rifle to JT; he drew his sabre and raced across the deck, as the bow started sinking quickly. He stopped by the pale, clinging, and gasping form of Lady Twisthall and seemed to stab down at her.
Hildebrandt cried out, “No!” and shook herself out of her shock, just in time to realise that the sabre had run through Lady Samantha’s corsetry, severing the laces. Lady Samantha Twisthall gasped great gulps of air.
“Milady,” he bowed, swatting a pseudopodic tentacle aside with the sabre.
She smiled up at him, bracing herself to stand now, as her colour returned somewhat to normal, she breathes up at him “Viscountess Samantha Abi—”
“Introductions will have to wait, I’m afraid, Viscountess. JT get the ladies clear — I think I made it angry,” he shouted, and ducked under a thick bundle of pseudopodia as they crackled with Psycho-electric lightning, through the air, “and electric!”
JT dashed across the deck and placed his hand out for Lady Samantha to grab. He led her back towards Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt meanwhile, had pulled a Schrapnellkanone from beneath her voluminous skirts and laid suppression fire through the air about Abe’s shoulders.
He acknowledged her assistance with a sword salute and then turned and began hacking his way towards the first-class lounge. Tentacles rose to block his way, he slashed calmly at the largest, while the stream of scrap metal fluttered by him, tearing at the others.
The Sky-kraken heaved its great disc body around the front of the ship, struggling to separate itself from the twisted metal and glass. Ripples of blue light coursed through the tentacles, pulsing up into the main body, which twitched and jerked, with a loud creaking and crashing, from the lounge.
Now the disc shaped body had shaken itself free, it ululated a harrowing whistle, before it surged forward, beneath the flight-vanes, and shot tentacles and Psycho-electric wrath back at the figures clinging to the spinning and lurching deck.
The Psycho-electric blast laid the two women out flat, both collapsing grinning, and moaning like fools as they went. JT struggled to support them both, and eased them back to the deck. He straightened and turned with a smooth motion, shouldering the plasma rifle as he pulled the trigger.
The mechanism gave a slight buzz.
“Bugger!” he yelled, pumping the charging handle wildly.
He had just relit the firing light when a tentacle whipped across the deck and snagged his feet. His helmet smacked hard into the wood, and he was glad of the leather and fur padding as he slid down the pitched deck.
More of the finest pseudopods, almost gossamer thin hairs, filled the air behind him, tasting, and reaching toward the two women. JT managed to pull out a sever-lock and clear the air around the hallucinating women a little. Then he turned the toneloque on the tentacle that had his feet, he worked the hammer twice and managed to get it to let go.
Finally, he stood free. Looking about the deck around him, he couldn’t see the women, or Abe. He pumped the plasma rifle again and began climbing the rigging, looking for a shot at the disc of the Sky-kraken. He dangled upside down from one of the cable stays on the mizzenmast, and took casual aim towards the floating disc.
The rifle flashed and ozone danced from it as it fired. The electromagnetic fields of the shot gripped the metallic disc in the Sky-kraken’s body and slammed it diagonally down into the first-class lounge again.
The Sky-kraken’s keening wail shook the fabric of his soul, was he alone facing this thing now?
No, there on the forward deck, he spotted his friend, leaping over recumbent passengers and firing his flame-loques’ great jets of fire into the beast’s translucent flesh.
The Sky-kraken didn’t put up with that for long, a thick pseudopod wrapped around Abe’s waist, lifted him from the deck. Despite the flaming wounds he inflicted upon the tentacle, it uncoiled as though intending to toss him from the ship. It may have succeeded too if the suddenly uncoiling pseudopodia had not slammed themselves and Abe into the forward mast.
The force of the blow sounded his toneloques again. The barrels resonated and kicked forth cones of flame that neither party was expecting.
The tentacle seemed confused, dropping the stunned Alchemist, as it gripped the mast and began tugging upon the exposed control rods and mechanical parts it found.
The forward mast crunched alarmingly and shed a few flight-vanes, which fluttered upward towards the sun.
“Oh well, that’s just perfect, that is,” said JT, getting up to run toward Abe and the splintering mast.
He danced past the writhing tentacles, and shrugged off the pulses of Psycho-electric energy, glad the helmets had worked against that.
He noticed the change in the thrumming of the rotors. The ship was in trouble, the forward mast was no longer providing enough lift, and the rear two masts were struggling to support the weight of the ship and the Sky-kraken.
He found Abe, dazed but still conscious, at the base of the forward mast. His leather flying-helmet was ripped and torn, showing the tin foil he had experimentally placed beneath.
“Time for a break now, is it?” JT asked.
“I was thinking… Say, did you get the women into a lifeboat?”
“Err? Not in so many words. No, more, sort of, got caught, dragged across the deck, fighting for my life, kind of thing, really, proper horror show, it was. What a woman though, she’d keep anyone safe, she would.”
“Should have known better than to send a Welsh—” Abe grumbled.
“Sorry,” Abe finished, and pulled his toneloques free, one was dented and quite beyond repair without recasting.
The other looked serviceable enough. He cocked the hammer and fired at the tentacles, as they wrecked the control mechanism above him. The tentacles balled up and smashed down on the deck as he leapt aside. “Back, back, get the women to the bridge. Throw me the Tesla rifle.”
JT tossed the gun, and began to climb past the debris up the deck, severing tentacles with his toneloques as he went.
Abe turned, working the charging lever on the rifle. He used it to slam the struggling Sky-kraken, and some lose bits of Orichalcum, deeper into the remains of the first-class lounge once more. Sabrina rocked and creaked, and the Sky-kraken wailed.
He backed slowly away, pumping the handle again. Luck, rather than sense, kept him away from the thrashing tentacles as he picked his way backward up the deck.
He glanced up at the remaining flight mechanism, assessing the damage with his engineer’s eye. Captain Doran was struggling to keep Sabrina in the air, she was twisting, and bucking as the bent flight-vanes caught the celestial harmonies in ragged discords. Abe groaned thinking what his father would say about the damaged ship.
“Damn fool errand,” he muttered in a sour impression of his father, “for a damn fool!”
He used the flame-loque to burn a tentacle that was getting a little too close for comfort, and then made a dash up the canted deck to clamber up a horribly tilted ladder. The ship shuddered again, and drew his attention, beyond his suddenly dangling feet, down the mainmast, toward the ruined first-class lounge, the Sky-kraken, and the foremast.
Tentacles wrapped around the mast completely and the Sky-kraken heaved upon it, trying in some vague and uncoordinated way to pull its disc-shaped body from out of the ship. The pseudopods flailing, gripped control rods along the mast, and twisted and pulled on them in horrible ways. The flight-vanes flapped and shook, sometimes pulling, sometimes pushing on the keel of the ship.
Through it all, the Sky-kraken kept throwing shocking, pulsating waves of mind-numbing Psycho-electricity across the bows. Dangling by one arm Abe was able to get a bead on the disc with the rifle, and rammed the thing back into the bow with a thud that rang along the keel.
The beast released its hold on the mast, pulling its tentacles back to grab at closer metal. The ship bucked as pseudopods untangled from control rods, flapping flight-vanes wildly. The shock threw the rifle free of Abe’s hand and caused him to drop a rung on the ladder as his feet swung out into space. He swung a foot for the rifle’s strap as it dropped past his knee, but only managed to kick the gun into a wild spin as it dropped.
“Damn, that wasn’t cheap either,” he clucked, and then spun around trying to get his hand and feet back on the ladder.
It took a couple of goes before he’d managed to get good hold again. He scrambled up the ladder and pulled open the door on the catwalk at the top.
JT lay sprawled on the floor with the two women collapsed around him.
“Properly thinking you weren’t going to make it, I was, and I wasn’t relishing the thought of telling your Da’ neither,” JT grinned.
“What are you playing at? I told you to get them to the bridge.”
“How strong do you think I am? Hoiking two ladies up a canted deck on a sinking ship, I was, and what were you at? Taking the bleeding scenic route, wasn’t you?” JT grinned and thumped the larger man on the arm. “I got the ladies this far. I’ll get them some foil hats and wake them up, now in a minute. Better you keep us in the air, sort of thing.”
Abe ran up to the bridge, the stairs being at less of an angle than normal, forced him to duck at the top.
“Captain, I think it might be time to abandon ship,” he said as he relieved the man on the wheel.
“Aye-aye, Master Darby! Sound the evacuation,” Captain Doran ordered as he stepped back from the wheel.
“Captain, the passengers — they are scattered throughout the ship and unconscious, or delirious, you and the crew are all wearing our patented Faraday Flying Caps and are protected. Otherwise, this ship would already be on the ground, as happened to the Wyre. You will have to clear the ship of the passengers, with chutes, and lifeboats. I’ll try and keep us up and over some water,” Abe ordered as he turned the wheel and pulled back, and kicked at a couple of levers, the engines groaned under the new load he placed on them, “and get JT up here I need an engineer.”
“Yes, Master Darby, sir,” Captain Doran saluted, and turned to the ship’s horn, “All stations, sweep the passengers to safety, boats and chutes, men… Oh! — and keep the tin foil hats on, boys.”
The captain then saluted him again and slid down off the bridge.
Abe reached up over his head, moved some levers there, and pushed forward on the wheel. The ship ceased shuddering as it found a new balance point, still nose heavy, but now flying true on the rear masts.
“Build in a vacuum bulb for safety, I said. Nooo, they said, it’ll fly right enough without it,” JT muttered as he clambered into the bridge and began running his hands over the engine controls. “What have they done to you, Milady, eh? Oh, you poor thing, practically discordant, you are.”
“That’s better,” Abe smiled, as the tone of the engine shifted to a more pleasant thrum, and the wheel eased back, lifting the prow slightly more.
“Fifteen minutes I was away, and they’ve messed her up. I need to get down there and see what they done. Have you got her, for that, like?”
“Well, unless something changes,” he glanced at the ship’s clock, “We’ve got four minutes until hour of Saturn starts, you better get.”
Abe flipped switches and trimmed levers across the bridge, teasing the wheel, and feeling the feedback. On instinct alone, he nursed the crippled cloud-cutter over the river. The keel lifted slightly with the extra harmonics from the Luna rays, reflected up from the water below. Abe began to ease off the solar lift slightly, drifting down, closer to the river.
The engines suddenly growled and the bow dipped suddenly. He struggled to compensate, too busy flying to watch, as the Sky-kraken heaved itself once more from the passenger lounge and dragged itself out towards the mast. The beast was pulsing with strange greens, oranges, and reds deep within its translucent flesh.
“Damn she’s distressed, what’s doing that?” JT’s voice suddenly whistled from a speaking tube.
“Will you never learn to blow first?” Abe answered taking a moment to look out at the deck. “The Sky-kraken’s wrapped itself around the foremast, and looks really angry again.”
“Well, you do keep pissing everyone off, you do, it’s like a hobby, or something. Is it because we’re descending?”
“Could be, we’re still going down,” Abe shouted back.
“Righto, have you tried stopping us going down?” JT asked, “or do you want to shift over to the saturnine key first?”
“Still another minute until the change,” Abe hollered at the speaking tube.
He batted levers and dragged back on the wheel. He spun it to the left slightly, as he twisted the column to the right. He twisted a collar on the control column then, and released the controls on the foremast. The flight-vanes fluttered madly, each one tugging or pushing separately on the masthead.
The ship sang as it rose, buoyed up by the Luna harmonics of the water beneath the keel, and pushed forward by the moon behind, and for a moment, Abe held the course.
He glanced at the clock and blanched, “JT! Change for Saturn, in five, four, three—”
“I’m on my own down here! — Just swap the whole register on your own, JT. It’s a five-man job, not five seconds, it is,” JT grumbled back up from the engine room.
Then suddenly the clock ticked over from hour of the moon to hour of Saturn, and the ship dropped, struggling to hold itself up. The harmonic from the river was fading, dying out and dark Saturn was clawing at the horizon, dampening the solar energy and the lunar lift.
“Now! Now! JT, Saturn’s hour!” Abe yelled.
The engines shut down.
The ship creaked under the locked flight-vanes, and then began to fall.
Abe watched the Sky-kraken as it flailed in the wind beneath the remains of the foremast; it pulsed with sickening colours and flopped about limply in the wind. Then it changed colour entirely and Abe blinked hard as he thought he saw it slip through the shattered remains at the prow of the ship, releasing its trapped disc and tentacles easily. Like a ghost slipping away.
Suddenly the engines roared back to life, singing a darker, more melancholy key.
Abe flared into life, in time with the engine noise, spinning the collar to let the saturnine flight-vanes catch the planet’s lift, which immediately arrested the fall again. He quickly trimmed off the lunar vanes, and maximised the solar lift, which was also now dragging them west as well as up. He finely feathered the venereal and mercurial vanes, letting them catch the slight tug from the near the sun as well. Then he brought in the jovials, balancing them off against the planet through the Earth. Finally, he moved back to the saturnine controls, rebalanced the vanes, and the ship settled once more into its crippled nose-down glide toward the river.
The Sky-kraken was suddenly back, grabbing hold of the foremast, or was it sucked in and grabbed by the engine harmonics? It whistled mournfully, and swung itself up from the foremast, trying to climb up the ship. Tentacles wrapped around the cables that stayed the mizzenmast.
Abe suddenly swept his hand across the switches, and flipped the venereal and mercurial vanes on the rear mast. The stern began to fall, pressing off the two planets near the sun, and he spun the column controls for the mizzenmast, hanging the ship’s mass on the middle mast while pushing down with the rear.
The ship was going down faster, but now the Sky-kraken was trying to get back over the bow, releasing its grip on the mizzenmast. The animal was obviously distressed by coming so low in the atmosphere, and it flared green and orange as it shook. Again, it seemed to slip through the matter that trapped it, as it flew up, towards the flight-vanes.
A crunch rang through the ship, and sounded the keel, like a bell. The foremast suddenly broke in two, the parasol, with its fluttering vanes shooting off up into the clouds, with the Sky-kraken riding up with it.
“We’re below cloud,” Abe called out.
“From the noise I fair thought we’d crashed already, I did.”
“Oh that, no that was the foremast going, and the Sky-kraken with it.”
“Oh, but that means we failed then, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but… Oh no, JT those two ladies, they didn’t make it to the lifeboats!”
“How can you tell, Abe?”
“I can see one of them clinging to the remains of the rails. Cables took half the rails with the mast, JT, and they must have been right next to it,” Abe looked around flipping switches and shoving levers.
He couldn’t see any of the crew, anywhere. He turned and stared over his shoulder at the fluffy parachutes and lifeboats scattered through the sky behind them. “Huh, what do you know, we’re the last ones aboard, again.”
“Alright, I’m on my way, keep your hair on,” JT called up, obviously thinking at least one-step ahead of Abe.
Abe found that without the front mast the ship was much more stable and he risked dropping the bow a little and rolled the hull so the women dangled towards the decks, rather than over the river a few hundred feet below. He kept one eye on the two women as they clung on for dear life, and the other he used to keep over the centre of the river.
He saw JT climb out of a hatchway on the high side of the deck. JT stood and took in the situation before he began climbing the rigging, trying to get level with the women.
Abe twisted the wheel then, to follow the valley. The ship sagged in the air, losing height, and the women tipped a little out from the deck. Then he rolled the whole thing the other way, as the river twisted the narrow valley the other way. JT waved from halfway up the rigging.
“What are you playing at?” he signed in Alchemist’s cant.
Abe waved a downward pointing hand in a quick snaking motion and shrugged.
JT shook his head and pointed ahead, where the bow was slowly sinking still.
Abe rolled the ship around, and brought the bow up, bringing JT and the women back on a plane and slewing the ship almost sideways above the river. The narrow valley widened ahead, where dark hints of smog clutched at the air on the horizon, not far away now.
JT realised the ship was now as stable as it ever was going to be, and scrambled along rigging, until he was able to catch Hildebrandt’s eye.
She rolled her eyes at his unasked question, but dangled by one hand to try waving in some complicated way at Lady Samantha.
The Viscountess Twisthall was obviously having a lot more trouble than Hildebrandt hanging on. Her whole frame shook with the effort, and there was no way for Hildebrandt to reach her without risking breaking the railings to which they both clung.
JT aimed himself as best he could across the gap, and pulled the cord on the front of his flight jacket. The back of the jacket dropped down to cover his legs and revealed a sleek Orichalcum device beneath. His right hand moved into his pocket and twisted the throttle.
Inside the backpack, there was a pure alchemical tone, like a struck tuning fork. A flame flashed inside the device heating several needles of the alchemical metal Aurichalcum. That alchemically purified gold transferred the heat instantly from the heated needles to all Aurichalcum nearby. Vents on the top of the backpack suddenly gasped air, and with a roar heated it instantly in a now white-hot Aurichalcum wire mesh. The sudden explosion of hot air was directed down, through carefully tuned plumbing, until the roar exploded out from the trumpet mouthed pipes with a brass band’s tootling charm.
There was a crack from somewhere behind JT and he turned his head in alarm, to see splinters shatter from the rear mast, and one of the solar flight-vanes fluttered away in the light. The ship lurched suddenly as it began sinking more quickly.
The brassy mercurial chord snatched the backpack and JT out from the rigging towards the dangling women, but he passed over them and the railing as the ship jerked and fell.
JT jack-knifed in the air and came down under Hildebrandt, she yelled something at him, but it was drowned out by the backpack. He glanced back at the mast, now splintering from the stresses of balancing the ship, and caught a glimpse of Abe’s running form springing from the bridge. Ignoring Hildebrandt’s protests, he gripped her waist and drove her up higher on the railing. Then he cut back, dropping down to Lady Samantha who he reached just as her grip failed.
Her hand flapped in the air for only a moment before he caught her wrist.
He eased her up again, across the railing as he heard the brass roar of Abe’s jetpack begin.
Sabrina lurched again.
The rear mast snapped free and the ship rocked beneath them all. The railing bent further from the ship and all three clung on for dear life. JT gripped hold of Lady Samantha tightly, and watched helpless as Hildebrandt was thrown out into space, falling towards the river. He didn’t think, he let go of the Viscountess and threw himself after her bodyguard.
The jetpack screamed as he dove after her, and then passed her, as she opened a parachute. He swooped around and lifted again, the jetpack growling at the edge of discord in complaint at the manoeuvre. He saw Hildebrandt grin at him as he drew up level with her and reduced the thrust to match her descent as glanced back towards the stricken twisting ship.
Lady Samantha was gone.
He glanced about wildly, trying to locate her in the air. Hildebrandt waved and pointed down, beneath them. Drifting below was Abe carrying Lady Samantha in his arms as they headed for a coaching Inn. JT looked back at Hildebrandt who was trying to guide her parachute to follow them, and saw the hull of the
stricken ship dropping behind her.
Falling fast it hit the river with a terrible noise. Discordant chimes filled the air, as the alchemically tuned flight-vanes twisted and bent in the cataclysm. The alchemical noises caused strange waves to ripple across the river out from the explosion, forming square and triangular shapes in the water.
His jetpack whimpered — its tones drowned out by the clashing chimes and humming water, and with that, he was falling.
He fell about ten feet and then caught on something, turning upside down. He twisted to make out Hildebrandt grimly gripping his left ankle as her parachute struggled with his additional weight. She abandoned trying to make the road, and instead doubled back over the river for a soft splashdown.
She dropped him face-first in the shallows and buoyed up back toward the bank.
JT spluttered out of the muddy water, and struggled to his feet in the knee-deep mud.
He turned and watched the sinking wreck of the AS Sabrina as it rolled in the current away from him, and then gave a long groaning sigh, before struggling up the mud-slicked banks and back to work.
Ironmaster & Other Tales Available NowI hope you enjoyed that extract, and want to read more. You can find “Ironmaster & Other Tales” in your favourite online ebookstores, or buy it direct from Lulu in ebook or paperback.