The three adventurers knew that Yang could not keep pace with the army of beasts charging towards Aquila IX. The chef had been propelled only by fear and a desire to help, and pushed his body past his limits. Bronchitis had onset and would only get worse. They couldn’t ask him to push himself any harder than he had while saving their lives. Especially after Beryl had come close to taking it away themselves.
The way the companions looked to their feline companion had changed. There was apprehension and nervousness they had not seen before. Beryl tried to ignore it as they focused on the current situation.
The bloody ravine was now full of abandoned supplies sprayed with icy blood. Their best hope was one of the mobile cannons not covered by snow and rock. It could protect them from the elements while they traveled. Beryl pointed with their sword, the crimson liquid frozen on their blade, “Do you think you can operate that thing, Loki?” The impressionable lad looked at the rapier uncomfortably but nodded. Beryl sighed and cleaned it with a fallen shred of brown coat.
“Shouldn’t take much ter get ‘er goin’!” The urchins expression shifted slightly as they reached for their recovered tool kit. Loki had been hoping to aquire a mobile cannon. He had grand plans for them later, drawn on a napkin he hoped survived that brute Hartschlägel.
“Good,” Beryl turned towards a peak further away. “We need to conserve strength. There’s a downed airship that needs repairs.”
“An airship too?” Loki almost beamed at the opportunity, but the nightmare was still fresh on his mind. Everywhere he looked was a sad reminder of the horror that had transpired. “Sooner we’s oughta here the better!”
Beryl hoped distance from this place would help Loki come to terms with what happened. While the urchin tried to discover how the cannon operated, the former nurse went to aid Yang who was still sitting in the snow. His labored breathing sounded strained as he rubbed his aching throat. “How do you know where an airship landed?” His commonly apologetic tone replaced with a pained whisper, “What do you remember of…what you did?”
The hurt in Yangs eyes was aimed at the tragedy before them. Despite being enemies the chef would not have wished that fate upon anyone. The cook hoped that Beryl would not recall what she did to them, or Yang himself. Being unaware or possessed would make it easier for the ill man to cope and forgive.
Don’t ask that question unless you truly want to know the answer, Beryl could not bring themselves to speak it though. Instead they tried another approach, “The same way I know you need to stop talking. You’re only aggravating the infections. Pantomime or get something to write in the snow.”
Yang sighed quietly and noted how his question had been deflected. He followed the advice and let his voice rest. Both he and Beryl searched the debris for a stick or pole. They soon found a suitable stick thick and long enough for him to use and the mobile cannon was ready to move.
Unfortunately, Loki was too small to see out of the window and crashed forward blindly into a rock stalling the machine. After the sound of metal crunching against stone Loki let out a maniacal chuckle, “Oi! We’s runnin’! Ahp onboar everyone!”
Wright continued his subtle questioning of Doctor Resh on his creation of the spider creature Itsy, while attempting to mask his disapproval, but the scientist eventually caught his tone. “I take it you don’t approve of my field of study, Mr?”
“Mr. Wright, and no I don’t,” the wolf replied with crossed arms. “Real doctors should never bring more monsters into this world. It has enough.”
“You’re right,” Resh replied quietly. “The world has enough monsters. That’s not what I created.” Wright was about to retort until Resh continued, “Itsy was always friendly until Hartschlägel interfered. Until then she never had a reason to be dangerous. I…my own children played with her.”
Wright paused as he considered the new information. He remained skeptical, “You made her dangerous for someone not trying to create a monster.”
“Yes, we surprised even ourselves with that.” Resh admitted. “We only intended to create an arachnid that could impress their will onto a similar creature. The more we discover about their abilities the better we can fight the Koudra. Our experiment was more successful and…aware than we anticipated. Doctor Hart-”
A loudspeaker in the cells interrupted the gentlemen and woke most of the other prisoners. Imprisoned men, women, and children wandered to their cell doors. Bookworm’s deaf ear allowed her to sleep through the initial static, but Sister Pankirst shook her.
“Awaken prisoners! This is Doctor Hartschlägel with wondrous news!” The scientists winced knowing that what was to come would bring pain. They cradled wounds the doctor had inflicted over the course of their imprisonment. The locals of Wuldram-Shores, held in another area for the larger monsters, had endured much during their incarceration but stood ready. “Your hosts have declared this a night for revelry and celebration! Today the Resistance has fallen. The Mayor has been captured, and your pitiful escape plan betrayed.”
The men and women of Wuldram Shores stiffened, many grabbing their cell bars meant to hold creatures far more terrible than them as they squeezed the thick metal. “You have heard me correctly. There will be no rescue, but there is plenty of time for you to be re-educated.”
“Your first lesson is that there is no hope. You will remain here as my victims until your eventual death at my hands. Your guards are well armed and most are made of metal. Clockworks and turrets filled with sedatives are only part of what make escape impossible. If you were hoping that one of us would mistakenly grant you an opportunity to strike with a makeshift weapon, you have miscalculated. We have procedures to keep abominations in place that can kill a man in a breath. We don’t enter a cell until after you are already incapacitated with sedative darts or debilitating shocks.”
Bookworm strained to listen, holding a hand to her good ear. She silently cursed at the news. Most of her hidden weapons were taken, even the ones in her corset, but she still had the one in her boot heel.
“I do not need to enter your cells to discipline you either,” Hartschlägel gloated happily. “We control your air supply and I can flood it with whatever I want.” A secondary ventilation system activated flooding the rooms of the giants with a noxious agent that made their lungs burn. The one in Itsy’s chamber pumped black pepper into the cell tormenting the occupants eyes and noses. Bookworm covered her mouth as she caught a nasty sulfuric smell and gagged.
“I wanted to import bees again just for this special day, but we will have to make do with what we have available. I want you to know that as with all my victims, your beatings shall continue until my mood has improved,” Hartschlägel paused as he imagined the prisoners writhing. “As my celebration was cut short this evening that could take all night.”
Safely on the other side of a glass barrier two men sat at their workstation watching the suffering prisoners without sharing their discomfort. Their job was to monitor their human prisoners and those without explicit knowledge of the facility. The Builders, the scientists children, the heroes Bookworm and Doohan, and the pirate Mariah Lanfier. Idly, the younger fellow asked his elder, “Who do you think will throw up first?”
“The kids always go first,” he replied with a shrug. “I’d hate to be the guy who has to clean it u-”
There was a short knock at the door followed by a muffled call, “Maintenance.”
“Speak of the devils,” The older monitor stood up and moved to the mechanical entryway. The younger man hovered near a large red switch outlined with yellow tape. “Right, name and number?”
“Jeffrey Cortman,” was the exasperated reply. “And you know I don’t know the number.”
The older man sighed as he recognized the lads voice. He was sure the boy could have learned his number if he had ever put any effort into memorizing it. He should have been thrown in a cell beside the other giants out of spite. “We don’t need our trash taken out. They’ll need you in the cells in a moment though.”
“So I heard,” Jeffrey said. They could still hear Hartschlägel over the intercom. “Anyways, got a message for you from Doc Dupe. They’re celebrating the victory over the Resistance in the dining room. You can get a slice of cake.”
“Doctor Dupyre.” The older man said before throwing up his hands knowing the boy would never pronounce it correctly. The younger monitor was interested in the offer of cake though. He abandoned his chair and asked his elder if they would like a plate when he returned.
The door was barely cracking open when Jeffrey charged inside and attacked both of the men. This surprise attack was a shock only to the younger guard. The older gentleman was only angry at himself for being caught flat-footed.
Tepic followed immediately after looking for some way he could help, and was disappointed Jeffrey had left no one for him. He stood on the fallen mens chests to make sure they were not playing possum. Doctor Gammis entered more timidly. “G-Ge-Get the keys! W-we sh-should be able t-to unlock th-the cells!”
“I already got them, you turn off the turrets,” Jeffrey said as he motioned Gammis to shut the door. “We just have to wait till Heart Scalpel has moved on.”
Hartschlägel had apparently deactivated the vents, but he was not finished yet. “Yes, we at Progress hope that your stay here will be as swift and painless as gangrene. But where are my manners. I haven’t told the clockwork toy the fate we intend for it! The little horse has been blissfully sheltered from the torments you have shared.”
“Doctor Dupyre is an accomplished roboticist and could easily clear her memory units or physically replace them with blank alternatives. He has done this in the past with Babbage clanks. He will give this piece of machinery you call a friend new purpose serving Progress! It will always think that it has served Progress! After all, it is only a machine!” The scientist paused to let her companions dwell on this uncomfortable reality. Doctor Falcon aiding their hated enemies. “If by some chance her design utilizes methods he has not seen before that will be even better! He can reverse engineer her entire body and use it as a learning tool.”
Tepic Harlequin bristled as the villain taunted his victims. Forced to serve these blokes was a fate worse than death for poor Miss Avariel. He bared his teeth back into a snarl and reached for his razor again. I’d like ter hogtie that one in the sewers as a treat fer Thomas.
The urchin searched the room for some way he could help his friends now. Spying the red switch with the yellow tape Tepic wondered what would happen if he pulled it. “Oi,” He called back to Jeffrey and Gammis. “What’s this thing do?”
Gammis straightened nervously and his eyes widened, “D-d-d-d-d-don’t!”
“That’s the escape alarm,” Jeffrey explain calmly as he searched his pockets for another cigar. He only had two left and saved them for later. “If we pull that every soldier on the base will come running to subdue us.”
Tepic backed away from the lever, that was the last thing they needed, but jumped and yelped in terror as a red light flashed and an alarm resounded throughout the base. Gammis nearly fainted as he grabbed his heart and leapt about, Jeffrey glared at Tepic, “What did you do that for!?”
Tepic waved his arms innocently and gestured to the unmoved lever, “I didn’t touch it!”
Jeffrey noticed the lever remained untouched, but that left the question of who or what set off the alert. Gammis began to shake as he realized this was not the alarm for a prisoner escape. “Oh Great and Merciful Builder, preserve us!!”
The revelrie had come to an abrupt end after Dupyre confronted Hartschlägel. Most of the men had dispersed to find merriment elsewhere and the villain himself had returned to his room with his clockwork guards to protect his slumber. He had only removed his flower before the alert occurred. As always the noise and activity caused the station to shudder lightly and the lights to flicker warningly.
He met Whitesmith and Decagon in the hallway as they moved towards their destination. There was no mistaking the commotion was coming from above. An announcement ran throughout the base warning them that the Koudra were on the attack with every fell beast that dwelled in these mountains.
Dupyre cursed as he looked to Whitesmith, “I thought someone was fixing the aetheric dampeners!”
“The damage was too extensive for the repair crew, especially since over half their number had been attacked by Dr. Falcon and her wolf friend.” Whitesmith reported as she walked beside him. “We can’t fight these monsters inside the building and they’ll eventually tear it down eventually. The men need your orders to proceed-”
“Damnit Whitesmith, I’m a Doctor not a General!” Dupyre countered as he reached the secret hangar. Already the pirates were scrambling to their airships to take on the Koudra from the air. “Leave Admiral Decagon to the defense. He has the head for it.”
“Oui,” Decagon smiled confidently for the other two. “I thought up a battle plan for this eventuality. The others know what to do.”
“And do you think your strategy will work, Admiral?” Dupyre asked, while Whitesmith added, “Do not underestimate these opponents like you did the heroes. Do you know how dangerous they are?”
“We do mademoiselle. The Koudra are stronger than us, faster than us, and perhaps smarter than us. They can mimic humans and control the beasts of the forest so they will confuse us while they swarm with overwhelming numbers. We will also have to avoid guns, but the flamethrowers and sedative guns will have to be employed sparingly.”
“That sounds hopeless,” Whitesmith narrowed her eyes. “I never pegged you for a martyr, Admiral Decagon. Why are you still going out there?”
“We still have the aerial advantage madam, and will be in the best position to flee if all is lost.” The pirate flashed a toothy grin to the woman. “Besides, we may get lucky.”