((Please note–even though I’m posting this now, the events described don’t actually occur until Friday night/Saturday.))
Bookworm sat in the ground floor area of the turret room of her home, mostly absorbed in her book, though occasionally letting her gaze drift to the windows, lost in thought. Lamplight glowed on the pages of her book, and shed a soft light on the pavement directly outside the window. It was the sort of peaceful evening she’d come to treasure, here in her out-of-the-way corner near Piermont Landing.
During one of her contemplative gazes, though, her focus suddenly sharpened. Was that a flicker of movement she’d seen? The movement came again, and Bookworm saw an urchin-sized figure, though she couldn’t tell who it was. It waved frantically at her, obviously anxious to catch her attention. Setting aside her book, she quickly went to the door, opened it, and stepped out onto the front stoop.
The boy ran up to her. She knew she’d seen him with the other urchins from time to time, though she didn’t know his name. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Oh, miss,” he panted. “Oh, I’ve ‘ad *sech* a fright!”
“It’ll be all right,” Bookworm said firmly, putting a calming hand on his shoulder. “Just take a deep breath, and tell me what happened.”
He took a breath as instructed, sighed it out, and began more calmly. “I were walkin’ back to the Imperial Theatre from the Bu–err, from Gadget’s store, when I ‘ears somethin’ comin’ from the alley by the Steamworks. I went in to investigate, like, and alla sudden, I see this strange person standin’ at the end of the alley. It were all black, see, and ‘ad these strange tentacle-things comin’ out its back.”
Bookworm stiffened at this familiar description. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes, miss!” the boy exclaimed. “Dunno if it saw me or not, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I ran away as fast as I could! An’ then I remembered ‘earin’ ’bout somethin’ like that last summer, an’ ‘ow it were you as ‘ad a ‘and in catchin’ it, like. So I run ‘ere to tell you ’bout it.”
“You did right,” Bookworm said. “Do you have someplace you can stay, away from that area?”
“Oh, sure, miss.” The boy sounded more confident now that he’d told his story. “I’ll go to the urchins’ place by Mr. Goode’s store.”
“Good lad,” Book replied. “You can leave this to me.”
The urchin nodded and waved, then trotted up the street, while Bookworm turned and went inside.
It was unfortunate that Bookworm didn’t watch the boy’s departure longer. If she had, she would have seen that he didn’t, in fact, head toward the urchins’ hideout. Instead, he retraced his steps back to the alley by Kahruvel Steamworks. Glancing around, he saw several figures standing in the shadows, and dashed over to them.
“I told ‘er what you said to tell ‘er,” he said.
“And did she believe you?” one figure, dressed in a strange black outfit, asked.
“Course she did,” he stated stoutly, drawing himself up in pride.
“Good boy.” The man tossed a coin toward the boy, who caught it neatly and swiftly stowed it somewhere about his person. “Off with you, now.”
“Can’t I stay and watch the joke?” he pleaded.
The figure took a step toward him. Only one, but something in the stride and posture made the lad reconsider his request, and he scurried away.
The dark figure turned to the others gathered behind him. “You know what to do,” he said. “Get into position.”
Bookworm paused in the entranceway of her home, carefully considering what she’d heard. If the Slenderman apparition really had returned, the weapons she had would be useless. Her best defenses would be stealth, and then speed, and neither rifle nor gun could be helpful with either. She left them by the door, and instead strapped a knife on her upper thigh, hidden by her skirt, but accessible through a slit in the skirt. She contemplated changing her clothing, but decided she didn’t want to take the time. Thankfully, the dress she was wearing wasn’t too confining, so she’d be able to run if she had to.
She made her way swiftly through Wheatstone Waterway, though she paused near where Grendel Footman had rebuilt his lab. Should she see if he was home? She thought a moment, then shook her head. Better to confirm the reappearance first. Turning away, she hurried into the Canal district, and then Babbage Square. Making her way past the Church of the Builder, and past Kahruvel Steamworks, she cautiously approached the alley entrance. Hearing nothing, she inched her way along the dark path.
Finally, she came to a halt in the shadows, staring ahead. Sure enough, there was the black figure the urchin had described, looking like that terrible apparition. But, as Bookworm stared at it from the shadows, she grew more and more certain that something wasn’t right. The proportions of the figure were wrong, the tentacles on the back didn’t move correctly, and the whole thing looked more…solid than it ought. Frowning, she decided to try something she hadn’t attempted before. She lowered the mental shields Zachary Somerset had trained her to create, and carefully–very, very carefully–tried to use her mind to probe the area of the figure.
And she felt…nothing.
Bookworm was sure, now, that this was not the fearsome Slenderman of last year. With her shields down, she should have felt something. Feeling angry, she stepped out of the shadows, advancing a couple steps. The figure focused on her.
“You’re not the Slenderman,” she said sternly. “You’re not even a ghost. Who *are* you?”
“Tsk, tsk, my girl,” replied a terribly familiar voice. “Don’t tell me my disguise has fooled you yet again.” The figure reached up and drew off a black silk mask, revealing the face of Dr. Obolensky.
“You!” Bookworm automatically made a move for her gun, before remembering–and cursing inwardly–that she didn’t have it. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I had to get your attention somehow,” the doctor replied smoothly.
“Surely there are easier ways of doing that.”
“True. But most would not be as fun.” Bookworm shuddered a bit at his smile as he said this, but she noticed that he was making no move toward her. That must mean…She listened intently, and heard a quiet shuffle. Someone was behind her, and was probably moving forward to grab her.
“Your idea of ‘fun’ hardly matches mine,” she replied, keeping her eyes on Dr. Obolensky, but keeping her ears attentive for more sounds behind her, even as she took a step backward.
Dr. Obolensky smiled even wider. “Let’s just see about that.”
“Yes,” Bookworm said, even as she took another step back, one that should, she judged, put her in the right position. “Let’s.” She ducked down and whirled simultaneously, feeling, more than seeing, arms closing above her head. She squatted on one leg, keeping her right leg extended out, and swept it around, knocking the legs of the man behind her out from underneath him. He fell heavily.
Bookworm leaped back to her feet, hearing an exclamation behind her. She jumped forward and stomped down–hard–on the man’s stomach to incapacitate him for a moment. Glancing down even as she drove herself forward to run past, she saw the face of Mr. Nom, the one who had manhandled her during the Oiling Festival incident. A grin of satisfaction at getting a bit of her own back crossed her face, even as she dashed down the alley.
Her mind was whirling, trying to figure out where she could go. City Hall seemed closest–hopefully someone would be there. But even as she ran, she saw another obstacle in front of her. An irregular pile of crates were taking up half of the width of the alley, and another large, rough-looking man took up nearly the rest. She took in the jumbled pile, and smiled inwardly. ‘You’ll have to do better than that,’ she thought.
As she approached the obstacles, she slowed just a touch, then leaped up to the top of a crate. She continued jumping up the pile like a mountain goat, blessing Mariah’s continual physical training that made this relatively easy. The other man tried to make a grab for her, but she lashed her leg out, her heel catching him in the temple and sending him reeling back. She reached the top of the pile and leaped outward, ready to hit the ground running.
Only then did she see the net descending on her from the rooftop above.
She had no way to avoid it. As the weighted net enveloped her, she scrabbled through her skirts, frantically trying to work her knife out before she became too entangled. She freed it just as she hit the ground, and even as she helplessly rolled, tightening the net around her, she began sawing away at the strands.
Though the net was weighted on the edges, the rope itself wasn’t thick, and her knife cut through strand after strand. Bookworm began to hope that she might be able to cut her way free before Dr. Obolensky’s henchmen reached her–especially if they thought her helpless, and took their time approaching. She did her best to keep her efforts hidden, but as she heard the sound of Dr. Obolensky’s chopper topper approach, an errant beam of light flashed off her blade.
“Fools!” she heard him rasp. “She’s got a knife!”
Book ripped and tore at the net. The hole was almost big enough…almost big enough… But then a rough hand grabbed her shoulder and rolled her onto her back. Mr. Nom, still wheezing some from her blow to his stomach, stepped hard on her wrist, forcing her fingers to uncurl from the hilt of the knife. She cried out breathlessly in pain, then inhaled, ready to scream out for help. But before she could, Mr. Nom grabbed a rifle from his back and drove it toward her head.
Bookworm had just enough time to think, ‘Oh, not again,’ before the butt of the rifle made blinding contact with her temple.
Bookworm groaned, feeling the pain in her wrist as she crawled back to consciousness. Why did it hurt so much…
“Ahh, awake at last, my dear?”
Bookworm froze. The voice, the words, the pain in her wrist–all were the same as when Dr. Obolensky had captured her during the Oiling Festival last year. Was she actually still in the basement of his observatory? Had everything–*everything*–since then been some kind of strange, compressed dream?
Her eyes flew open, and as she took in her surroundings, she nearly sighed in relief, despite her situation. She *wasn’t* in Dr. Obolensky’s observatory, so the past year *had* happened. Which was good, as she knew she might well need everything she’d learned during that time to survive.
The room she was in was dim, and made dimmer, she now saw, by the fact that she was in a giant globe. Peering through the glass, she saw a figure sitting in an upholstered chair. The figure placed a bookmark inside a book it was holding, closed the book, stood up, and took a few steps closer. Bookworm stood up, even as she saw the familiar, hated visage of Dr. Obolensky.
You recover quite quickly, Miss Hienrichs,” he said. “I take it your recent turn towards exercise has done you well?”
Bookworm rubbed her aching temple. “Was that *really* necessary?”
” Well, no,” the doctor replied with a smile. “But I suspect you would have been disappointed if I just rigged your front door with a net gun.”
She eyed Dr. Obolensky, opened her mouth, then let it out in a sigh, realizing she had no answer to that. Or, at least, no answer that she wanted to face just at the moment. Instead, she asked, ” So what is the reason this time? Is it revenge for what I did to you at the ball last month?”
“Well, perhaps a bit. I was rather peeved. Not with the whole tossing me into the cage thing, you understand, but you went about it all the wrong way. But still, small steps, and all that.”
Bookworm raised an eyebrow. ” I wasn’t aware that there’s a correct and incorrect way to incarcerate a villain.”
“Of course! There are correct and incorrect ways of doing *everything*, Miss Hienrichs.”
Bookworm shot Dr. Obolensky a puzzled glance. She was feeling out of her depth with such words–she couldn’t at all understand what he meant by such things.
Dr. Obolensky tsked and shook his head. ” I think your newfound physical skills have made you forget common courtesy. You barreled into me like a drunken wildebeest, while a proper lady hero would have simply tripped me, and made a horrible pun about it. If there were such a thing as a proper lady hero, of course.” He paused, and sighed. “Still, one must make do.”
” Courtesy?” she said indignantly. “After you’ve knocked me out–yet *again*, I might add–and sealed me in this globe?”
“I’m being quite courteous! You have books, there’s no oil dripping onto you….and it’s highly unlikely that ball will fill with itching gas. I simply need you, and your growing circle of hooligans, out of the way while I go about my business.”
Book looked at him keenly. “Your business? What have you got planned now, you cad?”
He nodded. “Yes! Much better, that’s the sort of thing.” Setting down his book, he strode over to the globe, standing right in front of her and clearing his throat.
“Those lay-about socialites have annoyed me with their music and dancing for the last time!” His eyes lit up and he waved his hands about as he continued. “You may have foiled my plans to launch them all to the moon….and those rockets may be unstable…..but they *still* have enough explosive power to destroy that den of drunkards and gadabouts!”
Bookworm gasped, even as he continued. “While you are busy reading that lovely selection of my novels, and your friends are searching for you, I will be adding a few final touches, to turn those rockets into the biggest bomb Babbage has ever before beheld! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” He threw back his head as he laughed maniacally.
“You fiend!” Bookworm paled, and put a hand to her throat.
Dr. Obolensky nodded. “Yes, yes, that sort of thing, excellent! And really, they’re quite good, even if I do say so myself.”
“How can you do such a dastardly thing? And to such a fine woman as Mrs. Fabre?!”
“Oh, come now, she’s harmless enough on the surface, but she brings out the worst in you rabble! Bad music, incompetent dancing….you lot should be stamping your feet to a jug band somewhere in a barn!”
Bookworm suddenly paused, then looked at him more keenly. “And how can events there disturb you all the way over in your observatory?”
“Of course they disturb me!” he replied heatedly. “The very fact that they exist disturbs me! Plus, there is that whole revenge thing.”
“You would secede from New Babbage, yet dictate to us our pursuits?” Bookworm said, frowning.
“Of course! You expect me to sit back in my lair and drink cocoa?”
Bookworm placed her hands on her hips, glaring at him. “You cad. The citizens of New Babbage will stop you–you’ll see!”
Dr. Obolensky chortled. “Ah, see, perfect! Perfect!” Then he straightened, returning glare for glare. “Those incompetent fools will never find you. And while they’re running about, I will destroy Piermont Landing! And there’s nothing you can do about it! Nothing! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!” He paused, then continued in a more conversational tone, “I do so enjoy the acoustics in here, don’t you agree?”
“Ha! They just ring in your downfall!” Book said.
“No, no, you have to save that one for when we have a fight in a bell tower, Miss Hienrichs,” he replied, shaking his head. “Now, then, I must be off. A few more bombs buried in the foundations surely won’t be amiss.” He nodded and tipped his hat to her, and walked out of the tiny circle of light that surrounded the globe.
Bookworm approached the glass, watching him go, ready to yell out a parting shot, but then caught sight of her reflection. She peered closer, seeing dark marks on her face, creating a moustache and monocle. With a gasp, she scrubbed at her face with her hand. When her hand came away clean, she licked her fingers and tried again. But only a tiny bit of black dotted her fingers. ‘Terrific,’ she thought, sighing and giving up on the attempt for now.
A sudden thought sent her scrambling to remove her right boot. Twisting the heel, she revealed the hidden gap within it and shook out a small, folded knife. ‘Nothing I can do about it, indeed,’ she thought, lacing her boot up again. She unfolded the knife, revealing its diamond-tipped blade, and set to work on the glass.
Half an hour later, with little to show for her work, she gave up, nearly throwing down the knife in frustration. “It must be some sort of reinforced glass,” she said to herself. “I really *must* stop underestimating him.” She looked at the knife in her hand, then sat down to remove her boot again and replace the knife in its hiding place. No sense in keeping it in sight, in case Dr. Obolensky or one of his minions came back.
Still sitting, she glanced over at the row of books Dr. Obolensky had left inside the globe. She reached out to them, but then pause, her hand hovering over them, remembering his comment about itching gas. Might he have done something to the books instead, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist? She chewed her lip for a moment, then gritted her teeth and grabbed one of the books, silently damning the consequences. She opened it and began reading, hoping that she wouldn’t get too far into it before being interrupted by rescuers.
Mariah Lanfier paced the front room of the house, beginning to feel anxious. She’d woken briefly last night, hearing Bookworm leave the house, and had gone back to sleep, assuming it was militia business. But now it was nearly noon, and Bookworm had neither returned, nor sent word. Something about this was not feeling right.
She started slightly at a rap at the front door. Dashing to the windows of the turret room, she looked back toward the door. A figure was there–not a human, but a small flying automaton, hovering above the stoop. With a sinking heart, she moved to the door, calling out, “I’ll get it, Mrs. Pritchard.”
Opening the door, she saw, at eye level, a small face, complete with moustache and monocle. An envelope was propped up in front of it. Mariah took and opened the envelope, took out the single sheet, and read it carefully.
‘As you have likely surmised, I currently have Miss Bookworm Hienrichs in my custody. If you wish her safe return, you and the citizens of New Babbage must meet my price. Look for Miss Hienrichs’ contribution to City Hall, and there you will receive your instructions.’
Mariah crumpled the paper in her hands in her anger, then suddenly straightened it out again, realizing there was smaller print at the bottom.
‘P.S. The automaton will self-destruct one minute after delivering this missive.’
Mariah’s gaze flew to the automaton in front of her, only now seeing that the balloon part was actually a bomb–one with a fuse attached. “Oh, sh–” She dove behind the door, hearing first, “I regret nothing!” and then a “FWOOM!” behind her. A lone piece of machinery rattled to the floor of the entrance hall. The rest of the automaton, as a peek around the door revealed, was now a smoking pile of rubble on the front step.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” Mrs. Pritchard cried, running to her from the dining room.
“I’m fine,” Mariah replied, standing up. “But Miss Bookworm is not. Get my weapons.” With a silent nod, Mrs. Pritchard dashed upstairs.
As she strapped on her weapons, Mariah wondered about what course of action to take. Much as she wanted to storm Dr. Obolensky’s citadel immediately, that was exactly the wrong thing to do–the sort of unthinking thing Miss Bookworm had done in her early days of confrontations with him. She stood in the doorway, and looked again at the note.
‘You and the citizens of New Babbage must meet my price.’
Very well. Alert the citizens first, and–hopefully–gain all the help she needed.