by Nick Johnson
First chapter of steampunk work. Book in portfolio.
“Time to start the day, I guess,” he said to no one in particular. He stood up and scratched under his chin at the four days of growth that was becoming more salt and pepper than just pepper. Kicking dirt onto the last coals he looked across the hill top to make sure the caravan was going to be ready to move soon. They had camped in the center of the old cobble stone road, once a marvel of the age and now a neglected wagon path that cut its way through a wheat field, they marked the old road on their maps, it made travel easier even if it was in poor shape. The harvest ready wheat that rippled with the breeze chasing the sun that morning, angled down the sides of the hill in all directions, making it a defensible location and a good place to camp.
Seeing steam release from the track pistons showed that Moon had gotten the Kya up to temperature and ready to haul. Behind the Kya and her three iron wagons, the rest of the caravan, the traders and craftsmen, were harnessing horses and lashing down canvass, except for the last wagon, a deep red hard covered wagon with a team of black horses that made up the caravan’s single gypsy contingency with carved wood signs hanging from its edges proclaiming ‘fortunes read’, ‘dreams revealed’, and ‘herbs and potions’. Sitting up front with reigns in hand was Madame Estra herself, ready to go before everyone else, again. Wasting the time before they moved on for the day by flipping through her cards and occasionally unwrapping and eating a piece of taffy from a box that sat next to her on the saddle board. In the year she had traveled with Hannibal he had yet to see her make or trade for said taffy and he was confident that have her wagon must have been half filled with it at the rate she consumed it. She saw Hannibal looking and blew him a kiss because she knew it bothered him. Estra was the kind of woman Hannibal saw as being too good looking for their own good. More than once a wife had taken to beating her husband for staring too long and it wasn’t good for business, but blood had never been spilt and she brought in more than her share of the monies needed to keep his procession on the move. Sometimes he wondered if she did it just to get under his skin, if she did, it worked wonderfully.
Everything seemed to be coming along well enough and Hannibal worked his neck in a circle to loosen the stiffness that seemed to have set in the past few months, while putting his mind to the day's business. Time to collect the traps.
Whistling, he waited for Moon’s big grey head, smoked goggles and ritual braids and all, to pop out of the Kya’s top hatch that sat to the side of his steering chair and between the great triangles of her hinged metal tracks. Moon’s head appeared with one of Neesa’s sweet rolls between his teeth. Shading his eyes with one of his three fingered hands regardless of the smoked glass of the goggles, Moon’s race, being native to the underland of the northern mountains and with eyes that could see in pitch black but blinded by candlelight, he preferred staying inside the innerworkings of Kya during the day, where he could seal himself behind sunless metal hatches.
“Grab the belcher,” Hannibal said and then started down the hill with a tin cup in one hand and his pistol in the other, setting a pace that would allow his partner to easily catch. Moon climbed out of the hatch and pulled the belcher, a metal cone with hand grip under its front rim and another where the tapered end joined a metal box, it entire length covered in etchings and scroll work, from its swivel mount above the left tread. Moon’s form was half again the height of a man and the fine grey hair that covered his body, besides saving him from burning under the sun, made him seem devoid of color. His arms were cover in heavy leather sleeves with scaled metal plates sewn along the outside and around his waist was a high leather belt with multiple buckles and a pair of hooks over the hips from which hung a pair of heavy hammers. The sleeves and belt gave a modest amount of protection, from the heat of the boiler and edge of a blade, but left his chest and its two massive bone plates free from confinement. Standing free of the enclosed space of Kya’s interior, Moon raised his muzzle and inhaled. His chest plates pivoted from their outside edge as his chest cavity expanded, his lungs filled like two great bellows. His race was often called metal singers. Masters of mining and forge work, they also possessed three sets if vocal cords. Underground their calls could be heard for miles down the stretches of tunnel and the three distinct pitches allowed them to measure distance from each other. Their race was also that of fire. Every metal singer had the ability to heat things and the belcher worked to focus that.
Catching something foul in the air, Moon sneezed, shook his head in an attempt to clear it from his nose and followed after Hannibal.
From inside the Kya’s hatch, Pilth, one of the mated pair of Fey that traveled with Hannibal, the other being Neesa, the caravan’s cook and resident artist, flew out carrying a locking wrench twice as long as he and six times the weight. The metal singers race magic was that of fire. The Fey’s magic was that of air. The Fey could remove the weight of something when they touched it, which allowed them to carry themselves and a great amount of weight on a small pair of gossamer wings. Possessing human features with a earthy tint to their colorings and sharpened edges to their bone structure, the Fey were considered an attractive race by humans. Every children's story portraid them as both kind and mysterious. If someone had asked Hannibal his thoughts on such matters he would added a few choice words to the description.
“That’s fine. I’ll do it all myself. I don’t mind,” Pilth called after the form of Moon, disappearing over the hillside and into the ocean of yellow wheat, “It’s not like getting this metal beast underway is any kind of trouble. Ol’Pilth will take care of it. Ol’Pilth does everything.”
“What are you whining about now?,” Neesa had flown over top of the boiler tank that sat across the back of the Kya and watched her mate as he yelled after Moon and Hannibal. If the Fey were generally attractive, Neesa was that and more. With a skin color that shifted through tones depending on her mood and a keen sense of the little details that made simple beauty down right stunning. Hannibal had once told Moon that it was proof the fates were laughing at them, that Neesa had been stuck with a mate like Pilth, having made sure Pilth had been within ear shot when he said it.
“Mind your own business woman,” Pilth said.
Fey were born as a mated pair. Regardless of the distance, if a boy was born, the next baby born to fey parents, anywhere in the world, would be a girl and the two of them would be matched together for their lives. It may take years, but the two of them would find each other and from then on would always be found in the company of the other. Rare in the lands of man, it was a common belief that if one died the other died at the same moment. Although, destined by magic or the will of Fey gods, to be bound to each other for their wholes lives, it didn’t mean they always enjoyed each other’s company.
“I’m sorry. I thought I heard a rabbit pup that had been separated from its mother’s tit, but no –just you. Whineing. Again,’ Neesa said. She turned wagged her behind in the fashion she knew would aggravate him and then dropped behind the boiler and off to the business of getting the caravan underway.
“Rabbit’s tit my arse,” Pilth said and threw the wrench in her direction. Regaining its mass the moment it left his hands, it made a slow arch before striking the boiler and leaving a dent in its surface before failing down to where the boiler met the ceiling of the engineering compartment. Seeing the dent, something Hannibal would be none too pleased about, Pilth thought it would be best if he removed himself from the immediate area. A bird could have dropped something. A large bird carrying something very heavy. Pilth started after Moon and thought about the best way to look innocent when Nessa appeared over the Boiler again.
“I’m so telling.”
Pilth flew down the hill side in what someone watching may have thought of as a very angry manner. It was possible to fly angry.
Hannibal had stopped at the bottom of the slow hill a few hundred yards from where they had camped and a second smaller hill began its rise, forming a shallow revine between the two. It had been a good place for a trap, with the two hills channeling movement.
Hannibal stood at the edge of a beaten circle. In front of him the ghoul had fought to pull it arms from the teeth of the bear trap that was chained to a three foot metal stake and in working itself in all directions had smashed down the surrounding stalks. It was pulling against the chain, straining to reach Hannibal with its teeth.
By and large, ghouls were stupid. Most of the time, a ghoul would just attack the bait with its mouth and the half circles of the trap would catch it around the neck. The best situation being it having its neck snapped or the spinal cord severed by one of the traps sharpened metal teeth. This one, apparently had held on to a little more of what it used to be, and had used its hands. The trap had closed just below the elbows. Its left arm had been broken with both bones breaking through it leathery skin and the lower arm now flopping violently about as it tried to pull its way free. Even with its arms pinned between the metal jaws, the ghoul had eaten the rabbit carcass he had placed as bait. Ghouls were attracted to the smell of blood and by placing baited traps around their camp it reduced the chance of one attacking in the night, guards or not. Zombies were different. If ghouls were stupid, zombies were, sometimes, literally, brainless. They were attracted to the living. Hannibal didn’t understand the rhyme or reason of it, but a zombie could sense a living person from miles away and through everything between the two. The easiest way to deal with a zombie was place a hole between you and it. The hole wins everytime. Zombies are also less durable. Ghouls are dried out, leathery wretches that were made to terrorize. Zombies only lasted a few weeks –a month in the best conditions, which was a few degrees above freezing and open flat spaces where they wouldn’t break themselves apart against tree limbs and rocks and the such. Of course the second draw back could be over come with a little direction. If you ever saw a mass of zombies walking with a purpose, it meant an acolyte was nearby. That was a different fish altogether.
Hannibal stood watching the ghoul as it pulled against the stake and chain trying to close the distance between its mouth and his face. Another day and it would pull its arms apart to get itself free. It was a dead thing so it wasn’t going to bleed to death and its lungs had stopped working –the only sound it made was the click of its teeth coming together.
Pilth had caught up to them and landed on Moon’s shoulder who was standing just off of Hannibal's position. He covered his mouth and nose with a small square of cloth pulled from his overalls.
“Here I thought I would be missing something,” Pilth said, “By Orn, why do they have to smell so bad.”
“It’s new,’ Hannibal said, ‘Hasn’t been out here very long. Its insides are still rotting. That’s the smell. Another month and you wouldn’t smell it until it was on top of you and then only musty and old.”
Moon let out a whistle and a grunt. The three sets of vocal chords giving the question both complexity and subtlety.
“Hard to say,” Hannibal replied, “They don’t travel very fast. Only moving as far as the next meal. Means a good chance an Acolyte is working the area.” Hannibal sipped from his cup and found the coffee was now both bitter and cold. Dumping the cup he raised his pistol. The end of the barrel sat inches from the ghoul’s forehead and he watched as it continued straining to reach him –teeth clicking. Its only drive was to feed. Hannibal stared at it and wondered who the person had been. Someone’s son. Someone’s father? He stared at the corpse eater and looked for a piece of his wife in it, then the thin metal lines under his hand flared with the Spark and it traveled and collected in the cocked hammer. The metal itself began glowing -first black-red then red then orange, with the potential energy of Hannibal’s will. Worried he would see his wife in it if he kept staring, the Martyr Hannibal pulled the trigger and the hammer carried the Spark to the powdered Will of Orn sandwiched between the cap, the ball and the bee’s wax stopper. Fire erupted from the end of the barrel as the ball exited and passed through three inches of air before passing through ten inches of dead skin, bone and tissue and exiting in a rotten spray before burying itself in the dirt if the wheat field.
The kick had thrown Hannibal’s arm up and back and he stood with the pistol next to his ear as he watched its body was pulled behind what was left of its skull. The force was enough to tear the skin that was holding the remains of its left arm in the trap and the arm was thrown out into the standing wheat. As the body laid there, the legs kept twitching. Even with its brain destroyed, the animating magic would take time to bleed out –replacing blood as its life source.
“Collect the trap,’ Hannibal said, ‘then burn it. I’ll pick up the others. Since you’re here Pilth –pull the winds and keep the fire from destroying more of their crop then nessasary. Don’t forget the arm.” Hannibal holstered his pistol and set out for the next trap they had set along a stream bed.
“Teaches me to tag along,” Pilth said as Moon began prying the jaws of the trap open. His strength allowing him to do what a man would need the leverage of an iron bar for. After the trap, chain and tethering spike, worked back and forth by Moon's great strength until the soil released it, was collected and safe from damage, Moon would hold the belcher with its cone pointed towards what was left of the ghoul. Expanding his chest bellows, he would sing to the metal box attached to the cone and fire would engulf the remains. Pilth prepared to pull the winds in and up –the innate Fey magic that didn’t require the focusing metal of the humans, hovering over Moon’s shoulder.
“Pilth,’ Hannibal called before he was out of ear shot, ’We’ll talk about the dent in the boiler tank when you get back.”