The electricity that had brought life back to the station vanished as it flickered violently, and then replaced again with emergency power. In the maintenance shafts Doctor Gammis found his footing with the coaching of Mariah. He breathed heavily as he shivered and sweated profusely. Bookworm helped soothe the man then wondered aloud, “What just happened?”
Gammis was too exhausted and terrified to respond, but Jeffrey gave a simplistic explanation, “The place is unstable. We’re lucky it hasn’t exploded.”
“It does this often?!” Book couldn’t understand how anyone was insane enough to work here, let alone attempt a hostile takeover.
“Every few days, but the last time it shook like that was the Progress attack,” Jeffrey responded quietly. “There had been a shoot out.”
“We ha-have to hu-hurry!” Doctor Gammis squeaked as he started up the ladder again. “Unsupervised the angels reactions will only grow more erratic!” Bookworm agreed as she ascended the rungs with renewed purpose.
“Sweet Science, what was that?!” Avariel turned about searching for the source of the disturbance. She stomped her hoof on one of the Progress soldiers she had just incapacitated. The floor was littered with soldiers who had blocked access to the elevators. Loki shrugged in response looking about nervously. “Drat! I’d need Bunny here to verify it but that was no ordinary earthquake!”
“It was the cloud angel,” Strifeclaw replied with a quiet confidence. It had been years since they had experienced that form of aetheric presence, but it was a memory they held dear to them. Something felt wrong this time, but the familiar knew the direction for the source, “It’s this way.”
Avariel prodded Beryl with her horn roughly, eliciting an angry yowl from the cat, “What was that for!?”
“You’re a very useful feline to have around, Kitty!” Doctor Falcon replied with a bubbly grin. She had just confirmed a few of her suspicions about Beryl with that light prodding. “Lead the way!”
Tepic steadied himself carefully as he regained his bearings. He was close to the source of that seismic distrubance. He had skinned his knees from the fall, but he had suffered worse injuries on this journey. The fox stood up and continued to the angel knowing for certain that caused the sudden quake. When the emergency lighting returned he could tell something had changed. Something terrible had happened ahead of him.
Tepic crept forward wondering where all the guards had gone. He was suspecting a trap, but he soon discovered why this hallway required no other patrol. Loud footsteps resounded down the hall as a massive construct paced the halls rapidly. It was a giant mechanical bull-man with exposed metallic pieces, two green horns, and an uncovered artificial red eye.
Tepic appreciated the incomplete workmanship with widened eyes as he involuntarily compared it to Miss Avariel. He was sure the Doctor was the superior creation, but he bet she would love to meet this behemoth. If it was friendly, which he suspected was unlikely.
He could not fight a clockwork that size, but the fox had a few tricks. If the minotaur was patrolling the corridors rather than staying in one place there were other routes to the chamber. The vulpine hid himself and tossed broken glass towards the construct. It hit the metallic floor and shattered.
The noise got the clockworks attention and he came lumbering down the passage slowly. Tepic discreetly ran off to find another route while the automata was distracted. Hopefully it would think the glass had fallen due to the earthquake.
John found Hartschlägel’s handiwork sprawled across the floor as he made his way to the main stairwells. Scientists, soldiers, Brothers, everyone was on the ground recovering from the attack except for the giant local men and women. The Shores-people were still standing, despite signs they had suffered from the effects. Red eyes and the smell of regurgitation on their breath was clear.
The situation was less terrible than it would have been if the equipment hadn’t suddenly exploded. He did not know how that happened, but he would research cloud angels and aether dampeners when he returned to Babbage.
Captain Dekkar greeted Wright’s return gruffly, “We’ve about beaten them if they’re going to kill their own men to stop us. This floor is ours.”
Wright was uncertain Hartschlägel had been following orders, but it was possible, “Any casualties?”
“None from the toxin yet,” the mayor responded with gritted teeth. “Your Captain went on a mission to take down Dupyre while we pressed the assault. The enemy retreated to the upper levels and broke the walkways to buy themselves time. We’re regrouping here for the moment.”
Wright nodded to himself as he considered ways to join the Heinrichs. He wanted a word with Dupyre after the arena. He looked to the nearby elevator, “I reckon those are out of order, but is there a ladder in the elevator shaft?”
“You would have to ask someone who worked here,” Dekkar shrugged. A cursory study of the workers left doubts they would be in a mood to answer. John shifted his pack and went to search the elevators himself. The latch was not difficult to find.
With Avariel leading the charge Beryl only had to show her the way while Loki was granted the opportunity to ride on Avariels back. The urchin was giddy with excitement as they charged forward smashing clockworks. “We’s ga’s ‘em on th’ run neow!”
Their guide was less certain of their victory. They had lost track of the angel, as if a wall had sprung up between them and the imprisoned creature. They still knew the direction but the feeling was gone. Their fears were confirmed the closer they got to the center. “Why is there a reality enforcer near the cloud angel?”
The scientist came to a sudden halt, unable to believe what she had just heard. “What?! Aether dampeners here! Why is an aetheric station covered in them?! They’re supposed to be providing aetheric energy not suppressing it! Besides those won’t stop a cloud angel!” Doctor Falcon snorted sourly as she stomped her hooves, “This is the real reason Dr. Gammis could never keep power running fluidly!” She stressed his title in an unflattering manner. The professor hoped she encountered the traitor at the reactor. “Freak storms are one thing, but activating dampeners to keep deer beasts out and prisoners in check within was the true culprit!”
“There will be plenty of time to lecture him later,” Beryl replied with mounting exasperation as they closed on their destination. “You and Bookworm can take turns until his brain melts out of his ears.”
“That might overdo it,” Avariel pondered how difficult such a nasty extreme would be to clean. “Maybe a lecture assisted by electric shocks and unicorn prodding.”
“Ouf,” Loki grunted, glad it would not be him on the receiving end. He wondered where the clockworks and guards had gone. They had not seen anyone for several minutes.
The absence had been noted by the other companions, but the answer came to them swiftly as the clockwork known as Mephistophicles turned the corner and snorted at them. “Doctor Falcon. We meet again.”
“You again!? I don’t have time for this! If I bow will you let me go!?” Avariel asked hopefully. Without his creator there to encourage him perhaps she could reason with the construct. “I have to get to the cloud angel and free it before it kills us all!”
“You shall not pass,” Mephistophicles responded as he planted himself in the center of the hallway between the three and the corridors beyond. “Dr. Dupyre’s orders were clear.”
“It would be wise to dismount, Master Loki,” Avariel advised quietly to the urchin, who climbed down at her direction. She wanted another opportunity to prove herself against the minotaur, but his timing was inconvenient. Doctor Falcon turned to Beryl and prodded them with her horn, eliciting a second angry yowl in response, “Hero Kitty, I need you to do something heroic and save the angel while I’m distracted! Turn off the dampners!”
“Wrong cat! I’m not a-” Beryl was interrupted as the clockwork stomped towards them menacingly. It stared at Avariel with its half finished red eye and snorted. The Professor charged forward leaving Strifeclaw with no way to argue.
“We were supposed to bow!” Meph shouted as Avariel closed on him ready to finish what she had started.
Tepic found the atmosphere oppressive as he cautiously inspected the room ahead. He drew his pistol and prepared a wire up his sleeve. With his razor ready, he rushed to the double doors and waited with bated breath. He peeked inside finding the room shaped like a large circular stadium, with glass floors and a familiar turbine in the center.
Tepic had no inkling that hours before Bookworm and Dekkar had encountered Doctor Dupyre in this same room. He saw the large dramatic red curtain which seemed like the place a villain would hide himself, or the prison for the angel.
The urchin raised his gun and made his way forward. He was not ready to believe Progress had entrusted only one clockwork to protect the cloud angel.
“You could not stay away,” Leisig the Hunter called out, but his voice didn’t come from the red drapes. He was standing near one machine listening to the loud headache inducing hum filling the room with his dog. Tepic pointed his pistol at the man whose crossbow was armed but not aimed. The older man looked at Tepic with sorrow in his gaze. The dog stared at the gun being held at his master. “Put down, or he will attack. Is fiercely loyal and knows not your weapon is unloaded.”
“How yer know it ain’t loaded now?” Tepic inquired as he slowly lowered his pistol though he kept his other weapons ready.
“Please, am not here for banter,” The hunter raised his hand in a halting gesture. He seemed even more grizzled and tired than the last time Tepic encountered him. “Initially, I hunt you because you were wily and cunning. It was thrill to pursue a formidably intelligent creature. An entertaining test of skill.”
“Oh? Glad I were givin yer a bit of amusement!” Tepic grinned. Under normal circumstances he would never be chummy with foxhunters, which was the most unnatural thing the lad could conceive. But nothing in the Hildskal Mountains was following the natural order. Aggressive squirrels, killer bunnies trying to eat foxes, and if Jeffrey and Dr. Gammis could join the right side, why not a bleedin’ hunter?
“Now is different. You knew about angel and did not heed warnings,” Leisig continued as he took a few steps closer to the urchin. The boy raised his weapons again as a reminder. “I rushed here to prevent release of creature that would condemn us to death in your ignorance. This is warning. Turn around and never look back. We will not pursue.”
Tepic heard the warning, but he was not ready to give up. “Is yer honest in yer huntin, mate?” The question caught the aging fellow off guard. “Hunt fer need, kill quick and clean, fer the sake of the beast yer hunting?”
“I am an honest hunter, and slayer,” Leisig responded, and gestured to Tepics own form. The urchins nose was bloody, but he was still alive. “I do not kill all I capture.”
“Them as yer capture, do yer treat with care an’ compassion?” Tepic stressed while meeting his foes gaze clearly.
“I know what you are doing, boy.” The hunter hissed and shook his head. “I cannot allow this creature to go free.”
“Why not?!” Tepic demanded while huffing, unable to understand what was so difficult. “Yer knows it’s wrong! I can see yer knows it! Help me and take yer chances as I does! Yer know its the right thing ter do!”
“Because the right thing is not always the right thing!” Leisig shouted, and Tepic felt a shift in the air from behind the curtain. The suppressed force had stirred slightly. “You do not understand. This is not natural cloud angel! Those are gone!”
Tepic blinked for a moment, but the crossbow wielder wasn’t finished. “The scientists of the old empire lost everything! Power, prestige, convenience, everything afforded by exploiting angels! They became desperate! They took fluids or residue, anything they could find! Science had already created Moreau of dogs, cats, foxes! Why not angels that granted them power?!”
Tepic inwardly hissed as he remembered Moriarty. Knowing the extent of the doctors atrocity made the urchin cling to the hope that this one could be saved. “So yer made it, that don’t make no difference! I knows lots of folk as were made, an yer treat em right, they is folk like any other!”
“One hundred years abuse too late, boy!” Leisig desperately tried to make Tepic understand that. “They infused a child driven mad by procedure! The scientists prepared trap, tormented its mind during change, kept in line! All it knows is suffering!” Leisig noted Tepics mounting fury at the doctors of the fallen empire. “Most of us feel as you do child, but if angel gets free it will unleash wrath on everyone. All life. That is all it was raised to know. We dare not kill it. We dare not set it free. We only hope to keep it contained. That is all that can be done,” He whistled and his dog came to his side making Tepic more anxious. “If you try to release it, we will be forced to stop you.”
Tepic examined the situation in silence as he considered the impassioned plea from the hunter. He accepted that the man believed his words were true, but the lad shook his head resolutely. He was not leaving, “Sometimes yer gotta do the right thing, no matter what happens, cus yer don’t an yer as bad as all them nutters as has been hurtin’ the poor creature all this time…”
“Sometimes, Man must sacrifice principle and do something more than what they want. Make tough choice,” He leveled his crossbow at Tepic who suddenly felt very cold. “Leaving it imprisoned seems wrong. May be unforgivable. It is only right choice we have.” He whistled to his dog to charge as he fired.
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