The sealed maintenance hatches proved problematic, but they finally emerged from the tunnels with a sighs of relief. Jeffrey had to squeeze through first, stepping on previously smashed clockwork and incapacitated men. “Someone left quite the mess here. One of yours Captain ‘Earworm?”
Bookworm would not look a gift horse in the mouth and, she thought with a grin, perhaps it was Avariel. She had not seen her down below. “Must be tough to clean it all. How extensive are these underground tunnels? This place is massive.”
Doctor Gammis breathed heavily, taking long pauses in his sentences. Either stuttering or pausing, Book wondered if the scientist ever spoke with confidence. “The…cave system stretches through….the Hildskal mountains. The scientists of old….utilized them to-”
Bookworm shrugged the information aside, she intended that as a rhetorical question. She focused on completing her mission. “Where would Doctor Dupyre be found?”
“Right now?” Gammis blinked as he considered the possibilities. The more he thought about it the less certain he became. He shouted, “Anywhere! Things must be chaos between the breakout, Koudra, and the angel! Who knows where Dupyre could be now?!”
The clockworks below them were immobile without legs or arms attached, but some still functioned. “Doctor. Hangar.”
Jeffrey nodded, “I can get you there quick from here.” Bookworm grinned, things were clicking into place.
“But the angel!” Gammis cried. “Defeating Dupyre won’t mean anything if we all explode!”
Bookworm grimaced slightly, but she knew there would be a catch. She could not ask Doctor Gammis to go alone and she needed Jeffrey to show her the way. She made a quick decision, “Mariah, can you escort Dr. Gammis to the reactor?”
“Give me a second to borrow a coat,” she replied and grabbed one of the unconscious men and stole his white Progress coat.
“Before you head out Doc,” Jeffrey turned to the smaller balding man. “What are the chances of a promotion after this?”
“Promotion?!” Gammis spluttered and coughed in shock. “You…you can’t believe we’ll all have a job after this is over?!”
“Well, I will,” Jeffrey replied cheekily. “Someone’s gotta clean this mess.”
The Doctor stared at him flatly, then looked to Bookworm and shrugged, “…I concede…you have a point.”
“So while you still have your job, make me head of maintenance.” Jeffrey grinned. “You know he’s being arrested.”
“Very well,” the scientist agreed. Mariah was almost ready to depart in the new coat. “I, Doctor Winston Gammis, formally promote you to Chief Maintenance Supervisor.”
“Good. Now I won’t have to clean the mess myself.” Jeffrey kicked at the broken clockworks and men littering the floor. “I’ll get these prisoners to do it.”
John Wright ascended the emergency ladder swiftly with the top floor as his target to emerge. The location disappointed the wolf after his efforts because it led him to the lowest level of the main hall where he and Avariel first entered Aquila IX. He could feel the heat radiating from the building outside where it sounded like a blaze engulfed the structure.
He did not want to go through the same winding tunnels knowing they would lead him back down slowly. The wolf reversed course to the previous opening far below him and opened that hatchway. He found himself in a deserted hall except for broken metal and glass, but he heard sounds of a clear struggle. Loki shouted encouragement to Professor Avariel as she fought with another construct. Wright assumed it must be Mephistophicles.
Wright crept to the battle around the corner and noted he was behind the massive minotaur. He could see that Avariel was discharging electric shocks directly into the automata but with reduced effect. Wright had noted his lingering headaches and assumed he could not transform at the moment. Fortunately, the wolf had the element of surprise and that exposed knee joint would still be a liability.
John lowered his pack and sword, needing to move quietly and quickly. He then darted down the hall and jumped for the back of the lumbering clockworks leg.
“Cor!” Loki exclaimed completely surprised by Mr. Wright’s surprise appearance. He reached for the clockworks knee as the urchin cheered him onwards, “Rip ‘er up!”
Mephistopheles was less concerned by the sudden attack. His green horns glowed as his leg let off an electric shock that rejected Wright’s paw. John reached back involuntarily, but the determined wolf set his eyebrows to try again. This time he’d rip the joint out whatever tried to stop him, but the minotaur grabbed him and scooped the struggling warrior off and pinned him to the ground.
Avariel stopped her charge out of concern for Wright who struggled underneath the incredible weight and strength of the mechanical bull-man, “Don’t you dare hurt Wulfy!”
The clockwork evaluated its next option, quietly processing the data it had accrued. His opponent would not remain down without excessive force. He was barred from doing that without a set number of parameters being fulfilled. Multiple sneak attacks were one of the parameters.
The construct stared down at Wright and snorted as it raised its mechanical foot and stomped down roughly on his leg. The wolf howled as the bones below the knee broke in multiple places as the faux minotaur stomped repeatedly.
“Wulfy!” Avariel shouted as she charged forward and tackled Mephistopheles, impaling him with her horn as Loki ran to aid Mr. Wright.
The stubborn wolf staved off unconsciousness despite the agony stemming from his crushed leg. Ordinarily he could have recovered from such an attack, but the field made that a pipe dream. He clutched his broken shin as he tried to feel the damage. His bones were splintered in too many ways for him to count.
Loki seeing his friend suffering wished that he had more catnip or cigars to offer, though catnip had no effect on wolves Loki realized. All he had to offer were the last sedatives darts. Knowing how badly Wright needed them, he didn’t tell the wolf what he was doing as the urchin quietly pricked his friend with the needles.
The wolf’s eyes widened as he pushed Loki off, but the deed was already done. He slumped to the ground and entered a forced and un-restful slumber.
Bookworm would have prefered Mariah as her backup, but Jeffrey did not steer her the wrong way. Soon they had arrived at the catwalk leading into the hangar. Jeffrey indicated the way, “Doc Dupe should be inside if the clockwork was right.”
Bookworm nodded, but she would need someone to watch her back and prevent anyone following her. Reluctantly, she asked Jeffrey, “Can you make sure no one gets through?”
“Hold the fort, you mean?” The giant-lad asked. He shrugged as he made sure he still had his cigars. “Should be easy. You have something personal against the Doc?” The question caught her by surprise. “You keep smiling. You’re either enjoying yourself or have beef with Dupe. ”
Had she been smiling? She hadn’t even noticed, but she supposed she missed the adventure. Still she had good reasons for what she was doing beyond personal satisfaction, “I don’t intend to let him get away, Jeffrey. Not with everything he’s stolen from Aquila IX. From what I’ve seen this technology is too dangerous.”
“If you say so, Captain,” Jeffrey nodded vaguely as she ran down the catwalk leaving him alone to block the way. She hoped the lad was up to the herculean task. He would be standing between everyone and their safe evacuation. Could he endure what would be coming? She had to hope for the best and move forward.
“Oh dear!” Gammis clutched his head in stark terror suddenly, interrupting their journey to the reactor room. “Captain Bookworm is going to kill me!”
“There are multiple reasons she already possesses to harm you,” Not that she would, Mariah thought privately. “Why worry about it now?”
“I…I…I may have…forgotten…to warn her…about the ca-capabilities of Dupyre’s gauntlets?” Gammis laughed nervously and Mariah let out a long sigh and rubbed her temples. Bookworm wouldn’t get the chance to kill him at this rate. Mariah would do it for her.
The crossbow-bolt flew swift and true, and Tepic turned trying to sidestep out of its way using his small size. He had dodged bolts before, but never in a reality field and even he did not understand how much that affected his reflexes and movements.
He could have no more fully dodge the bolt than he would have dodged a speeding bullet. Tepic grunted as the projectile entered his side just above the hip. He fell over cursing hunters and dogs under his breath as the husky bowled him over and mauled the urchins right trousers and leg.
Tepic yelled, he did not know if the room was shaking or himself. He needed to get rid of the arrow, as the dog ripped into him he was tearing the first wound worse. The fox dropped the gun to pull it out, knowing he should have pushed it through, but thankfully the hunter had been more interested in a silver point than barbs.
When it was free the urchin swung his knife at the large husky and sliced the nose deeply. The mutt wined and stepped back nursing its wound as it retreated slightly. Tepic rolled gingerly as his side felt like it was on fire above the hipbone, and his right leg protested sharply. His thick trousers had protected his leg somewhat, but he was still bleeding and the pants themselves were ruined.
“Me finest trousers,” Tepic lamented as he dropped the knife and pulled out the snare with his free hand. He waited for the dog to attack him again, which it did snapping its powerful jaws for his arms this time. The urchin threw the cord over the dogs mouth and slid it shut. The large husky tried to bat it away with its large paws but Tepic secured it and kept wrapping as he kicked at the canine with his good leg.
Tepic sent the dog, wounded mouth sealed shut, retreating to its master. The hunter helped his animal, while Tepic reached into his bag. He struggled to his feet while he searched but found his right side hobbled. He tested a step but it was impossible to walk without every muscle and tendon in his leg protesting.
All of these wounds would heal in a few weeks, if he survived, but with the hunter closing in on him with the crossbow reloaded even Tepic was wondering how he would manage that miracle. He grabbed the sling and stone and dropped his pack as he started to swing them.
“You are beaten, boy,” Leisig stated with grim sorrow as he examined his enemy. Tepics face was still covered in dried blood, and the boy could no longer stand upright as he put more weight on his left leg. “Put down weapons and surrender. I have hurt you enough tonight.”
Tepic could see the reluctance in the older mans gaze, but the lad was resolute as he swung the sling faster and faster. “I’d rather yer shoot me than abandon me princypulls…princesiples.”
“I offer you life boy!” The hunter stressed the importance of his next decision. “What good are principles in death?!”
“Reckon that’s the kind of backwards thinking should have expected from yer blokes,” Tepic continued to swing his sling, the only difference was his eyes narrowed watching his advesaries. They would attack at once again, and he had only one rock ready. The hunter raised his bow slightly and the dog moved forward. “Nothing matters ter yer lot. Everything gets trampled in the ‘Name of Progress’, right?”
He hit a nerve that time as Leisig aimed the crossbow and whistled. Tepic let loose the stone striking the husky on the nose making it fall back whimpering. The lad then fell over as he tried to dodge again but his side protested.
The hunter had not fired. He had waited until Tepic had fallen in his desperate attempt to move. He closed on the child and stood over him bolt ready and trigger-finger poised. He steeled himself to permanently end the bloodied boys suffering.
The boy stared at him with one eye open defiantly, his jawline set in a snarl, “So…yer ready ter murder in the ‘Name of Progress’, foxhunter?”
Leisig paused as he realized the weight of the sin he was about to commit. He lowered his bow and grit his teeth in shame that he had tried to rationalize his actions. He would not abandon his morals and murder a young boy. Not for Progress. Not for anyone. He had to turn away from himself in disgust.
“Speak to angel for yourself. You will make right decision,” He walked away, whistling for his dog who followed his master confused and demoralized. Leisig had one more dog to retrieve before he made his way to the hangar.
The boy would see for himself why no kind hand before him had ever released the creature, but if the boy chose poorly the hunter intended to be on an airship heading far away.