John Wright woke up groggily, something he had not done in decades, to a massive cell covered with web residue. His head ached worse than any hangover back when he could still experience them. He groaned as he gripped his head muttering to himself, ‘Blasted dampeners! I actually think I felt myself aging again…’ He let out another involuntary grunt as he sat up eyes closed to the light, ‘Yes, I am definitely aging again.’
Under different circumstances he might have considered that a blessing. That was the last thing he wanted in enemy territory.
“You’re awake?” A man’s voice asked behind him. It was a simple british accent that bore no malice in it. He sounded more concerned. Wright turned to his fellow prisoner and found that the enormous cell covered in webbing that had deflated. It was him and several other prisoners sharing the room. They were all wearing ugly orange shirts and brown pants.
“I’m awake.” John was still shirtless exposing his wound from when Hartschlägel had struck him. The tear had closed while he was asleep but it had left the blood matted to his fur. Being transported from the arena to here had given his body time to repair some damage at least. Everything remained sore, but he could move and breathe easier again. “Where are we?”
“This was the home of one of my friends and creations,” The prisoner replied as he gestured to the webbing. “I say it was a home because after Doctor Hartschlägel arrived nearly all pretense was abandoned. I only got them out of here days before Progress attacked. Where are my manners. My name is Dr. Resh but just Resh is fine. I am a genetic specialist.”
“Resh then,” Wright would not take the prisoner at his word. After Doctor Gammis and watching Progress operate he assumed the man could be a spy. He might get information if he acted unsuspicious toward the imprisoned geneticist. “I take it you created the spiders that attacked New Babbage?”
“Attacked New Babbage?” Resh jumped slightly taken by surprise by the assertion. “Why would they be in New Babbage? I arranged a train to send them to Aquila VI and then to Marikesh by airship.”
“They wound up in Babbage,” Wright remembered inspecting the railcar with Beryl. The webbing there seemed sturdier than the melted residue on the walls here, but he also recalled the bodies. “They attacked several children and killed innocent bystanders.”
“Now I know you’re mistaken,” Resh replied resolutely as he crossed his arms stubbornly. “Itsy would never attack an innocent and the other spiders follow her guidance.”
Wright bared his teeth at the man’s denial. Gammis had said much the same thing, but Wright had examined the bodies wrapped in webbing and perused the autopsy reports. Calling him out on these facts would likely dry up any further information. “That is a handy trick getting them to follow her will.”
“We created her in a way it comes naturally, though we had been trying to recreate the effects by studying a Koudra cub.” Resh said dismissively as he inspected Wright’s wound more closely. “We never have recreated it artificially through a machine, but they both possess some ability to influence the minds and hearts of similar creatures.”
Loki took a step back from their possessed ally Beryl who held Yang Moreau by the throat. Beryl’s glowing orange eyes shifted down to what Loki was holding. The feline dropped Yang to the ground where he sucked in air through his increasingly damage larynx. Loki yelped as Beryl neared him, “Oi! It’s me Beryl! Yer friend!”
The cat grabbed their sword from Loki and unsheathed it, leaving the frightened boy unharmed. They had no words to say, and moved as if the Koudra spirit not only possessed their tiny form but infused it. As if the wind carried them they closed on the brown-coated men.
The brown coated fighters were looking outwards from the circle, they had not expected an attack from within. People were screaming and shooting everywhere and it bled into the background as they fired trying to keep the looming monsters at bay. Beryl pounced from soldier to soldier with inhuman speed swinging their blade and incapacitating them, their weapons, and leaving them alive on the ground to be fresh meat for the monsters closing in.
When the men had fallen, the sword bearing cat abandoning their friends to the mercy of the Koudra as they crossed the divide. Silence soon fell among the poor souls on the other side.
Loki and Yang pressed against the side of the cannon horrified by Beryl’s action, which had sentenced them to be fodder for the ravenous monsters surrounding them. The beasts descended on their bleeding prey ignoring their terrified protests as they fed. Some lifted the men in their large hands like they were tiny dolls and consumed them feverishly.
But the Koudra did not consume the flesh alone. Howling they called on the denizens of the forest to join them. The abnormally giant creatures of the Hildskal mountains came forth slowly to join in the banquet. Bunnies, bears, wolves, the yeti, even the large squirrels joined in their feast while Yang and Loki watched helpless and sickened. Loki heaved and almost lost the apples Pankirst had allowed him for dinner.
When the men were consumed and there was no one else the beasts turned towards Loki and Yang breathing heavily on the frigid wind. Beryl emerged from their pack, eyes still glowing orange and red as they looked to Loki and spoke with an echoing voice unlike their own. “You have nothing to fear little Loki. The Koudra are the allies of nature. They even share their spoils with the animals under their protection. They know your kind is no ally of man.”
Beryl’s rapier dripped blood onto the snow as they pointed it at Yang Moreau. “You they are not sure about. You are being judged now. If you wish to live you must respond: What are you, Yang Moreau? Are you human? Are you an ally to humans?”
Yang blanched as he to choose between renouncing his humanity and his life. He paused for a moment as he thought about his response. Loki, sensing that his friend was considering the question, but a hand to the chef’s mouth. “Wha’ areya daf’?! ‘Course he ain’t human! Jes’ look at ‘em!”
“One does not have to be human to be their ally,” Beryl replied under the influence of the monsters. The same control they appeared to possess over the animals. “To condone the perversions they inflict upon all that live here. With whom do you give your allegiance?”
Yang tried to answer truthfully and intelligently despite his fear and aching throat, “I am the ally of anyone that would call me friend, regardless of species.” His hoarse voice seemed to reach the Koudra through the snow though he had to gasp it.
“That is not good enough, Yang Moreau. This is your final chance.” Beryl’s voice sounded more themselves than a moment before. They lowered their sword slowly, “I will ask one last question that may spare your life. Are you the ally of Progress, or the ally of Nature?”
“I am no ally of Progress!” Yang said resolutely standing firm. “Progress attacked us! Even if they had not I would count myself an ally of Nature.” Unlike most Babbagers he actually meant that.
The Koudra did not take Mr. Moreau at his word. The eldest and largest among them leaned closely sniffing at Yang for the corrupting touch of Humanity. Frozen blood matted its fur as it smelled him and Yang tried not to cower before it. He knew they hungered for human flesh. The beast could have swallowed him with one bite, but the elder snorted.
Beryl was the one who translated their will, “He hears the truth in your words, and smells nature and the sea within your soul with no hint of Progress. You are free to join their meals.”
Yangs eyes widened as he recalled the legends for how these fell beasts could be born and at the meal he had just witnessed. “I thank you for the offer.” He thought it best not to mention he was declining, but something had turned the heads of the collective pack of creatures.
On the road to Aquila IX that had been blocked by an avalanche a small Koudra bearing a scar on its chest was calling to the elders. The beasts howled into the moonlight and rushed off into the darkness. The animals followed them leaving only Yang and Loki with Beryl standing beside them to explain what had just transpired. “That little one is the child that attacked Avariel Falcon. It is saying that the barrier has fallen. They will attack the wound in the land caused by the humans and consume them.”
“No!” Loki shouted with mounting horror at what was about to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting station. “We canna, le’ tha’ ‘appen! Tepic an our friends went in there!”
“Yes. Tepic and Wright might be spared but the humans won’t survive the assault.” Beryl sounded more lucid with time. The influence of the Koudra had overridden their awakening senses when the enforcer had been removed, but were beginning to display their own will again. Distance would also aid them. They heard the call, felt the desire to fight among them, to be one with nature, but they could refuse now.
Unfortunately, their returning awareness was less obvious to her companions. Yang slapped her with his flat hand trying to restore her sanity. Hissing they turned back, rubbing their cheek, “What was that for?!”
“I’m sorry Beryl…forgive me but you need to get control!” The chef had his hand raised for another slap, but the cat assured them they were fine now. The exhausted cook relaxed and sat into the snow. This adventure was going to be the death of him. He hoped he could speak again one day straining his voice as he was now. “Good. Because we must help them.”
“We ‘as gotta ge’ tha’r!” Loki nodded in agreement. “We gotta ge’ inna Aquilla IX ‘fore they do!”
Tepic felt a splash of ice cold water strike him in the face. He woke up gasping through his mouth, and wincing at his smashed nose. said quietly couldn’t breathe properly out of it and his voice would likely sound nasal for a few weeks. Tepic gripped it as he realized how badly it was throbbing. He remembered getting captured only vaguely, which meant he was in a jail cell.
“Mornin,” Jeffrey said calmly as he towered over the fox child, in what was more likely a supply closet.
The startled Tepic backed away reaching for his razor, only to find that his pockets had been emptied. He still had his hat and fists though, but after his initial panic he wondered what good they would do against the giant-lad.
“Easy fox,” Jeffrey tossed his pack with Bunny, Tepics gun, and most of his treasures next to the smaller boy. “I’m not here to hurtcha. Here’s your junk back.”
Tepic’s mouth hung open at Jeffrey’s unexpected show of generosity and rudeness. With a nasaly protest he cried, “Oi! ‘Fese ain’ junnk! ‘Fese ‘ess ‘Freasures!”
“If you say so, fox-boy,” Jeffrey shrugged. “Pack up your treasures then.” He returned to another figure sharing the supply closet. Tepic recognized the nervous and sad form of Doctor Winston Gammis.
The urchin narrowed his eyes suspiciously at what the two of them were doing together. Gammis was the scientist who had started this whole mess, and Tepic had known Jeffrey’s villainous grandfather. Captain Bookworm had killed that man years ago. The urchin suspected his grandson would betray the heroine, neither of them could be trusted in Tepic’s book.
“Hello,” Gammis said quietly. He seemed devastated by something that implied a heavy loss to the fox. His fearful stutter was gone, replaced only by long pauses between words. “Tepic Harlequin isn’t it? Is..is it true? Did they…did Hartschlägel destroy the Cathedral…with Father Walstrand inside?”
“He wha?!” Tepic tried to speak without using his nose, but it was a task. “Cor, mustav’ been affer I scarpered. Is ‘oki an’ ‘ang awright?” Tepic would have asked about Beryl, but as a heroine he assumed it would take more than a collapsing building to kill her.
“No…they were captured by Hartschlägel,” Gammis didn’t have the heart to tell the young boy about Beryl Strifeclaw’s fate. Reduced to a vegetative state by the ruffian who called himself a scientist. “We are the…the last of the Resistance. Doctor Dupyre is celebrating his….victory. This….this will be our only chance…to get everyone out alive. If you could remain here-”
Tepic shouted something rude at the doctor. “Fere’ ain’ no weigh’ I’s leabin’ yer two wif’ Cappin’ Book alone!”
Jeffrey nodded and pointed at the enraged fox with his thumb, “You really expected the kid who snuck past Sister Pain and into Aquila IX to sit back while we rescue everyone? He must want to help the Captains as much as we do.”
“Err…yer mean yer ain’t betrayin’ Cappin’ ‘Enricks?” Tepic looked at Jeffrey shocked. He smiled despite how that hurt his nose, “Cor, yer ain’ nuffin’ like yer granpa!”
“Captain Earworm?” Jeffrey asked as he scratched at his chin confused. “Why would I betray my country over a woman I don’t know from a tavern wench?”
“Err, no ‘reasen!” Tepic said dodging the question. Gammis however seemed even more surprised than Tepic had been.
“Didn’t you read the report? It clearly stated Captain Heinrichs killed your Grandfather, Henry Cortman!” Tepic inwardly groaned at the scientists interference. Was he trying to get Miss Book murdered?
“She did?” Jeffrey raised an eyebrow and then shrugged, “Well it’s not like I knew him either. He could have been a hopeless drunk for all I know. Let’s get on with this before we’re caught.”
Tepic silently appreciated the lads clear if simple thought process. Gammis sighed and approached the urchin boy slowly. After a moment he reached for his nose and asked, “May I set that? ”
Tepic winced but nodded and tried not to scream too loudly as the doctor reopened his airway.