by J.J. Dupre
A Steampunk version of The Frog Prince. Part One of The S.T.E.A.M. Chronicles.
|There was the familiar rapping of knuckles on my bedroom door, and before I could cover myself with my robe, my sister entered. She hardly noticed my state of undress, but out of some shred of decency that still remained in her, she turned away.
"Father has a task for you," said Bridget, in the hollow voice she had adopted since the death of our eldest sister, Adelaide. The wars had ended a decade ago, but she still couldn't seem to shake herself from the trance that fell upon her the day we received the news. I hated seeing her this way.
"Tell him I'll come when I'm decent, for God's sake," I hissed, pulling my robe around me. She was already on her way out before I could finish speaking.
I know it wasn't polite to take such a tone with her, but her weakness to Adelaide's death disgusted me. I admit, I once had trouble accepting that Addie's airship had gone down into the Atlantic. I could still see her bellowing commands as she crossed the deck in quick strides, her whip kissing the clouds before cracking against the backs of the Modified Beasts who scrubbed the deck clean of blood and gristle. I had admired Adelaide, and so had Bridget, but now we only had each other.
Living with father without Addie was a nightmare. He mourned her every day, and rarely spoke to me unless absolutely necessary. I suppose I reminded him of her; my dark tresses fell past my waist in waves that could make the ocean jealous. My eyes shone like jade stones polished by the tide. Father and Bridget were blonde and brown-eyed; Addie and I were the spitting image of our mother, who was away on "business". She had been saying that since I was a child. I wished that her letters would just tell the truth- she was never coming back.
I couldn't blame her. The house was in shambles.
I quickly dressed, tightening my corset laces enough to look passable. Had I been a commoner, I could have done without such a pointless garment, but Bridget was always the first to remind me, "Father is the President of S.T.E.A.M. You must make him proud, Olivia." This simple fact- father heading the largest industrial plant in all of New Mainland- meant that I couldn't get away with a damn thing. It was an outrage, being forced to dress like the high class women and attend parties where girls couldn't be in the same room as the men, while our house was in shambles. Figuratively and literally.
I made my way out of my room, pulling my dress down over my head. It didn't matter if I was half dressed in the halls; the maids had left when father stopped paying them, though we had the money to keep them employed. How embarrassing it was living in a grand Victorian on the main street of the city while father let the place fall to pieces. I took the stairs two at a time, and each one wailed in protest, threatening to give away and deliver me to the basement below. The banister trembled and groaned, and I dared not trust it to keep me balanced. I took my skirts in each fist and lifted them well above my knees to avoid tripping. The doorman, Edgar, was used to this display of bare feet and shins, and nodded to acknowledge me. "Your father is in-"
"His study," I huffed as I reached the last step. "Yes, Edgar, thank you."
Edgar was a nice man. When Addie died and mother left, he stole me one afternoon after my music lessons and took me to the circus to watch the Modified Beasts. I was cheered up by the dancing bears who sang patriotic songs, and the juggling bird-man who could swallow fire. The Ringmaster had even reminded me of Addie, with his sleek, buckled boots and his gold-trimmed coattails, and the way he barked orders at the Anthropomorphic slaves.
I dragged my fingers along the dilapidated piano as I passed, grimacing at the dust that had collected on my old friend. Had father taken care of it, it could have been quite the conversation piece; not many people in New Mainland had seen a piano before. As I approached the French doors to father's study, he was emerging with a tray of moldy tea cups.
"Just cleaning up," he grumbled, "Have a seat inside, Olivia." He kept his head bowed so all I could see was his thinning gray hair, and I wanted to smack the tray out of his hands and force him to look at me.
But I simply said, "Yes, father," and did as I was told. I sank into the threadbare chair before his desk, scratching the faded blue velvet upholstery with my thumbnail, until he returned. I sat up straighter and awaited my task as he sat before me and immediately busied himself shuffling papers on his desk.
"Olivia," he said at last. "Bridget is unwell, as you know."
"Ha!" I exclaimed before I could stop myself. "She's hardly unwell, father." I had regretted my outburst, until I saw his cheeks flame with rage. Look at me, I willed. Look. At. Me.
"Ever since Adelaide's...passing," he continued, forcing his voice to remain clam, "Bridget has had an especially difficult time. So I find myself faced with very limited options at the moment." He opened the small cupboard beneath his desk and retrieved a small, round parcel. I couldn't begin to guess what it was. The item concealed inside was roughly the size of an apple, and apparently quite heavy, judging by the way he held it cupped in both hands. "I know you too well, Olivia."
I started. I was sure that I heard a hint of fondness in his voice.
"Your curiosity will be your downfall," he mused, rolling the parcel in his hands. "That is why I am going to show you." He had me pegged, alright. I was now on the edge of my seat. For one, this was the most he had spoken to me in months, and second, my curiosity really was ebbing away at my concentration. Without further ado, which wasn't in his nature anyway, he unfolded a little flap of the paper. The wrapping fell open like a blooming flower to reveal a solid-gold sphere.
It seemed to be made of segments that somehow slid into one another, like a puzzle. Before I could even ask, he said, "Yes, it does open, and what it contains is very valuable. Within this sphere is the very essence of our time-related experiments in the S.T.E.A.M. Laboratories."
"Conductive Phazeril," I recited from memory, "the basic compound of the Time-Relapse Theory."
"Yes," he said, with a hint of wonder. "Very potent agent, Conductive Phazeril, and fatal should you consume this in any way. It is in liquid-form, which has never been tested on a human subject."
I frowned. "I thought the spies have been taking liquid capsules for months."
"Not at this concentration." He began carefully wrapping the golden sphere in its paper. "It was too unstable, and although we are certain it has been perfected, the stability is still unknown. You must be very careful not to lose this or consume it on your way today."
I hated that- how he had no qualms sending me on a dangerous "task", but he treated me like a child. "I'm not going to drink the stuff, father. And if by chance I unwrap the ball, figure out how to open it, and swallow the contents by accident, I will have time to correct the incident before it ever began." I fixed a smug grin on my face, but he shook his head.
"We do not know the stability of this concentration, Olivia. I do not know that you will have time to fold time backwards to a point that ensures your safety. The Anthropomorphic men in the tests barely had control over it before it claimed them."
I scoffed. "Beasts? How can you study the effect of something this important on them?" I felt my voice rising with anger before I could stop it. "This could change the whole course of history-"
"This could bring Adelaide back!"
"I will not hear of it, Olivia!" He slammed his fists on the desk and looked up, but not at me. He looked over my shoulder at the portrait of Adelaide in her Captain's uniform. Tears clouded his eyes as he composed himself. "You will take this sphere to the outskirts of New Mainland, to the old textile mill in Queensbury."
He took a deep breath and placed one hand over his- no doubt- palpitating heart. "You will enter through the back lot of the mill and make your way up the utility stairs to the platform beneath the smokestacks."
He used the edge of his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow, then he sighed and slumped into his chair. "There you will wait for my associate, Professor Johnathan Conroy."
I swallowed the lump in my throat and coughed softly into my elbow. "How will I know him?"
"The odds of encountering another individual out in Queensbury are slim, but he is known for being quite eccentric." He knit his eyebrows together in a deep frown. "They tell me he recently recovered from some condition... Something about exposure to high levels of iron. Did something to his skin..."
Ah, there it was. My father was becoming more distant by the minute, and I knew his speech would only become more fragmented as he tried to avoid speaking to me. I stood, smoothing my skirts like a well-mannered girl. When I reached for the parcel, he almost turned away completely before he realized what I had my hand out for. He placed the parcel in my hand carefully, and to my surprise, it was light as air.
"One more thing," he murmured. "Take the train to Queensbury... Dangerous roads. Let no one see it."
"Yes," I said politely, hiding my disdain for both him and the train. I would have to lace the corset all the way like a proper brat. I sighed. "When shall you expect me to leave?"
"And when shall you expect me to return?"
"When you no longer carry it."
I nod my head, though he could not see me. "I intend to be home by supper, but then, we don't have supper anymore." I glared at the back of his head. "You fired the cook!"
I left him then, storming out of his office. The French doors slammed behind me hard enough to shake the glass panels. I wanted to pound on the keys of the piano as I passed it, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I stopped at the foot of the stairs, breathing hard. Edgar cleared his throat. "Miss Olivia?"
I swallowed my anger. "Edgar?"
He nudged a leather bag with his foot. "Your father had Bridget set this out for you. I suppose he intended for you to take it on your journey today."
"Yes, Edgar, thank you." I delivered this response in a way that was curt and impolite, but Edgar was a doorman, after all. He was quite used to it.
The train to Queensbury was horrid, to say the least. It was always hot in the cars, but as we passed the S.T.E.A.M. Laboratories, I dared not open the window. The place had a reputation for stinking up the outskirts of the city. Queensbury itself had been a nice place once, even in the Biotech Warfare Age that had just passed. As the world turned a new page and reformed itself for the new era, The Age of Restoration, people abandoned Queensbury for the bigger, bustling cities. The ruins of old factories and mills littered the suburban territories, and the countryside was dotted with the remains of farms.
The train pulled into the Queensbury station, and I stepped out onto a platform in the middle of a barren field. I was both comforted and unnerved by the fact that I was the only passenger to leave the train. At least I didn’t have to worry about being followed.
I knew Queensbury well enough. What looked like three poles far out west were actually the smokestacks of the textile where I was to meet Professor Johnathan Conroy. Being alone at last, I felt that it was safe to examine the contents of the bag.
I dropped to my knees on the platform and unclasped the gold-plated hooks that held it closed. Inside, I found only three things, aside from the golden sphere wrapped safely in its paper and a piece of cloth for extra protection: a small wooden box, a sealed letter, and- thank heavens!- a pair of leather pants. I used my thumbnail to cut the wax seal and unfolded the note. I was immediately disappointed, but it was revealing nonetheless:
Dear Miss Ashdown,
In the box, you will find something that is only to be used if absolutely necessary. Send my regards to the Professor.
It seemed my father couldn’t even manage a sentimental letter. Miss Ashdown? I crumpled the note in my fist and retrieved the box. It was constructed of heavy mahogany, with decorative brass corners and a small latch. I unhooked it and carefully opened the lid.
Inside was a brand new Multi-Shot Dynapiercer- a top-quality pistol that fired three bullets from separate barrels. The design was very much like a shotgun, only the barrels fired in unison. It wasn’t particularly pretty, a bulky handgun constructed of iron, but Dynapiercers were sought after for their range and durability.
A round of ammunition was nestled in the velvet cushioning, the nine bullets plated in titanium. Technically, this would only allow me three shots, but it did three times the damage of the pre-war pistols. I couldn’t help but marvel at the gift, but at the same time, it worried me that father thought to send it.
I closed the box, latched it, and replaced it in the bag. Drawing out the leather workman’s pants, I wasted no time pulling my dress over my head- without bothering to check for onlookers. I stripped out of the layers of uncomfortable skirts and crammed them into the bag in a wad of fabric.
The workman’s pants were the perfect size, and I was able to tuck my corset into them to keep the lace from snagging on the overgrown corn stalks of the field that awaited me. I moved through the rows of corn with ease, thankful that Edgar had suggestively set out a pair of boots before I left. Within ten minutes, I had reached the other side of the field, and the town was laid out before me. Queensbury only had a few general stores and a pharmacy on this end of town, and now it had all been abandoned.
I didn’t bother investigating the empty buildings as I passed. Looters had taken everything of value, and I desperately wanted to meet this Professor Conroy and get rid of the Conductive Phazeril sphere. It honestly terrified me that my father would send me into the middle of nowhere with something so valuable, and supply me with a firearm. What was he up to?
I hitched the bag higher up my shoulder and hurried on. The last train would be coming through Queensbury by nightfall, and I certainly did not want to miss that.
When I reached the mill, I did as my father said and made my way to the back parking lot. There was a hole in the fence that I fit through with ease, and I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing skirts. The smokestacks loomed ahead, dark and ominous against the overcast sky. Finding the maintenance platform was easy enough. The rusted stairs swung and rattled as I ascended, but I swallowed my fear and continued. I walked to the base of the largest smokestack, avoiding areas of the platform that appeared corroded with rust. I had reached the meeting place.
I slumped against the base of the stack with the bag in my lap. All I could do now was wait.
Hours passed, or maybe they were only minutes. I hoped not- I was growing impatient.
I retrieved the wrapped parcel from the bag and rolled the sphere in my hands, then gently tossed it from one hand to the other, amazed by the weightlessness of the parcel. I did this for a while, leaning back against the stack, watching the vast gray expanse of sky.
Suddenly, I heard distant voices. I caught the sphere out of the air and faced the east, where I had come from. I could see the road that connected Queensbury to my hometown of Heightman. A strange figure was fast approaching, leading several guards and Androids into the town square.
Curious, I stood and peered around the stack, hoping they wouldn't see me. Was this Professor Conroy? Had he gotten into trouble? But... Why would he be coming from Heightman? Father hadn't said where Professor Conroy was coming from, but it didn't make sense to send me an hour away by train to meet someone who was coming from Heightman.
As the refugee neared the mill, I noted the way he moved.
He was quick and agile, taking great leaps and bounds. I gasped a quiet "Huh!" of surprise when his impossibly long legs stretched over an abandoned newsstand.
The roiling clouds in the sky parted briefly. As if Heaven itself wanted me to see the truth, a patch of sunlight illuminated the town square, and I saw him for what he was; a Modified Beast. A disgusting, slimy toad standing upright like a man.
And worse, he wore a tight black uniform of leather armor plates that allowed him to run with ease- a black satchel secured over his shoulder was loosing papers as her fled. It was obvious he was a thief. I shivered and ducked around the smokestack, praying they wouldn‘t head in my direction.
Thinking quickly, I decided to abandon my post for better cover. If he came around the back of the mill, he'd surely see me. I fumbled with the handles of the bag, stuffing my skirts back inside, when suddenly the parcel slipped from my hands.
"No!" I half-screamed.
Everything stood still, and in bittersweet slow motion, I tried to catch the sphere out of the air. My fingertips only just managed to grip the paper wrapping. It unfurled effortlessly and sent the sphere into a dizzying fall.
It spun through the air, landing on the platform with a distinct crack.
"No, no, no!" I cried as the segments of it fell away like puzzle pieces. A liquid substance the color of the sun- in hue and in brilliant radiance- pooled in the curved segments of the sphere. It was so light, it almost appeared to resist gravity, and it gave off the faint aroma of lemons.
Pure Conductive Phazeril, my father's obsession, his company's greatest achievement- and now half of it was wasted on a patch of concrete under a dilapidated textile mill in Queensbury.
"Oh, god. Oh, damn it all!" Panic set the bile in my stomach boiling up my throat. My face felt frozen against the autumn wind with a fresh sheen of sweat and my knees began to wobble. Father was going to kill me, I just knew it.
"You'll never take me!"
Half dazed, having forgotten about the Beast and the guards, I threw a quick look over my shoulder in surprise at the terrifying closeness of his voice. The Toad was running up the stairs on the platform, his amphibian legs giving him the privilege of taking them five at a time. I quickly- and as carefully as I could with my hands shaking like a leaf- picked up the pieces of the sphere that still held small traces of Conductive Phazeril.
I knew it was too late to find cover. I'd never make it to a better hiding spot before the Toad discovered me, but I had to protect this secret material. I had to make my father proud of me, especially now. This was everything. How could I go home and face him only to have to sob out the truth? At least he might grace me with eye contact while he chokes the very life out of me...
I assumed I had at least a few precious seconds to duck around the stack and preserve those precious drops. It turns out I was too late for that, too.
"Why, 'ello there, lady of Queensbury!"
I shuddered and began to feel faint. Taking deliberate, careful steps, I turned around to face him. There wasn't much else I could, although I did consider hurling myself off the platform. At least then my death would be quick...
His body was plump, and impossibly large when compared to his long, slender legs and his wiry arms. His grass-green skin glistened with a sweat as thick as mucus, which he licked from his lips with his grotesque tongue. In a moment of sheer surrealism that I still question to this day, he stood at attention and gave a low bow, despite the approaching footsteps of the Queen's men.
When he straightened himself, he was beaming from one side of his large, pudgy face to the other, giving his head the appearance that it had been sliced in half. His globular saffron eyes took me in as he saluted me. "Jack Lore, at your service! Ready when you are, Miss!"
Utterly baffled, I fought to find the words to form a response to his absurd implication. So many things were going through my head at once. "W- what?" Not my most eloquent. I must admit, and it did neither of us any favors.
His saluting arm went limp as yarn and slapped against his thigh. His mouth turned into an almost comical frown and his pupils expanded to the very rim of his eyes in an instant. "Didn't your father tell you what we must do?"
"He didn't tell me a damn thing! He sent me here to meet a Professor Johnathan Conroy and I'm supposed to-"
"Yes, yes!" he half wailed, waving his three-fingered hands in distress, "Find Conroy, give him the Phazeril, but there's been a slight change of plans!"
The guards were a mere dozen stairs from reaching the platform and they were blocking our only way down. We were trapped. "Where is Johnathan Conroy?" I yelled.
"He's about a mile from here, lying face-down in a field with a knife in his back. You have to give me the Phazeril so I can take it back to Headquarters!"
I clutched the make-shift bowl of Phazeril to my chest. "I- I can't." I really couldn't. "My father didn't tell me an alternative plan in the event of Conroy's death... Oh, god, he's dead? Really dead?"
"Well, pretty dead, anyway, and if it's all the same to you, I'd like to avoid that fate for ourselves. Sorry for the lack of manners, Miss, but we have to go now!"
His yellow eyes turned to slits as he reached for the knife at his belt. In my haste to hide the Phazeril, I spun too quickly. The substance slid like oil within the curved segment and sloshed over my thumb and a good portion of my wrist. I held my breath, and my whole world came to a grinding halt.
"Very potent agent, Conductive Phazeril, and fatal should you consume this in any way..."
The guards were suddenly there and the Toad turned his back to me, brandishing his pathetic knife against two trained Royal guards and their solid-steel Android companions. God, what a fool, I thought, but at least I'll be entertained while this rubbish kills me.
And with that, darkness consumed me.
Sinct. I was sure I heard the sound of an arrow piercing flesh. Sinct. Sinct.
I heard rattling metal and the dark world that enshrouded me swayed with the rhythm of the sea. My eyes flew open in panic, but I was blind to the world around me. Pain, hot and fierce, shot from my thumb to my elbow. My arm felt as if it were splitting open, and I was sure my bones were splintering into the meat. I couldn’t even scream; I made small sad sounds and in my head, I begged for death. I begged for this nightmare to end as quickly as it had begun.
“Stay with me, Miss!” Sinct. The Toad’s voice was directly in my ear, and I still heard the distinct sound of arrows being loosed. “You are not going to like this one bit. Bear with me, now… Whoop!”
The rocking and swaying ended abruptly, and for a moment I was sure death had taken me. Then my stomach did that horrible contracting and expanding that one feels when falling, and I realized that’s exactly what we were doing. The Toad had thrown me over his shoulder in my unconscious state and leapt from the platform.
We hit the ground hard, not surprisingly. He dropped me as we both rolled, and when I forced my eyes open again, the sky was a dizzying stretch of boiling gray shapes that went on forever. Disoriented, I could almost be convinced that I was standing with my back to an earthen wall with nothing below me and nothing to either side; I could step forth and fall forever into the gray area where nothing would matter.
The pain had spread to my shoulder and was slowly infiltrating my chest and neck. My tears were filling my ears as I sobbed, heaving my pleas for death from my throat with no control. I didn’t know what would happen if the Conductive Phazeril reached my brain, but by that point I was no longer afraid of dying, because surely it had to be better than this.
The Toad’s face was looming over me, and it seemed so funny, a large green face hanging in the sky. That inhuman mouth moved so fast it was a blur of toothless pink. His eyes were large and beautiful, brimmed with tears and sweat. A long iron dart protruded from his shoulder with another to match on the other side, like obscene wings. A splash of ruby pearls ran down his chin and hit me in the mouth, and the sharp tinge of copper on my tongue was unnerving for some reason, but I couldn’t place my finger on why.
I couldn’t hear his words, but I wasn’t entirely deaf; I heard music.
Brilliant yellow light spread across my face as the clouds broke apart once more. In the glare of the afternoon sun, my vision was obscured in heavenly beauty. And I saw her face appear.
My mother, sitting at the grand piano looking at me where I sat on the floor by her side. Her hands arced beautifully when she played, and I was mesmerized by the dance of her fingers on the ivory. They played an old folk song, “Song Of The Sea”. It had been our favorite, and I loved the way the song reminded me of the ocean itself; trembling and climbing higher and higher, then cascading down in a perfect melody, ebbing away like the tide.
The floor beneath my shins was polished and gleaming, and there were no cobwebs stretching from the piano stool to the floor from neglect. I knew this was many years ago, when I was barely six years old. I knew this was before Adelaide’s death and my mother’s departure. This was before my father stopped looking me in the eye, and before Bridget lost her mind.
This was when our home was grand and there were dinner parties with corporation presidents and politicians and professors. This was when my life was sweet and luxurious and my family was a rock that all of New Mainland respected.
I held this memory fondly in my mental vault, visiting it in my dreams from time to time. This was the day that mother began paying for my music lessons due to our shared love for that song. It was the happiest memory I had.
The Conductive Phazeril had seeped to my head, and now I knew my time was running short. I would have only a few precious moments to choose a memory from my own timeline and take myself back to a point before all of this. I now had a new option instead of dying.
I had the power that many men had given their lives for- I had the power of time itself. I was time itself. In that pivotal moment, the balance of the world and all the history that had taken place during my lifetime was in my hands. I could allow myself to die in a field, or I could go back and change the course of my life and set back the fate of the world.
“Dear god, woman, take us back! The mission is forfeit. Take us anywhere!” Sinct. Sinct. Sinct.
Hot, wet fingers grasped my face and I felt a crushing weight on my stomach. The Toad had straddled me and gripped my face in his hands, shaking me violently. As he rattled me, my mother and that beautiful song faded and a new memory surfaced.
Anthony Pearson, Adelaide’s right-hand man, was sitting on my mother’s couch with a saucer and cup of tea shaking in his hand. Perched on his lap were Adelaide’s Airship Captain's hat, and a small wooden box that contained a medal of honor.- the Queen’s crest in bronze with a red nightingale carrying a tiny sapphire star in its beak, At the sight of it, my father had dropped to his knees and wept with no shame.
Bridget, hiding around the corner of the doorway, watched him break down, and I saw her slipping away at the sight of him. She was never the same after that. My mother sat beside Anthony with her own tea in hand- the cup and saucer never uttered a whisper of porcelain in distress. She held her head high while my father was reduced to a ruined man.
And all I could think was how proud I was of Adelaide; even in death she had earned the respect of the Queen, and had saved New Mainland from an incoming attack from the western border before sinking into the ocean. She had piloted her vessel into the enemy’s commanding ship and given her very life with her last order.
Anthony gripped my shoulders before he left and knelt down to my level. “Remember what your sister gave for this country, and when the time is right, you do the same, Olivia. For her.”
His face melted into the dazzling sunlight, just as a dark shadow fell over me. The Toad had collapsed on my chest, his mouth lolling open beside my ear. From his back sprouted a forest of arrows, and bitter red blood pooled in the hollow of my neck.
I didn’t have the energy to be thoroughly disgusted and roll him off of me, but the mere sight of him sent me tumbling back into my memories.
Mother straightened my uniform and rolled the sleeves back down. “The Academy is strict, darling. You have to wear the uniform according to code, lest you be cast out and sent back to that ungodly nest of heathens in the city.”
“What’s wrong with Beasts, mother? Why do they try to be like us?”
She laughed and touched her throat, a gesture I often caught myself doing unknowingly. “Because, dear, look at us! We are superior, and we are the best of the superior, under the Queen and her men. Of course they want to be us.” She tucked a stray tress of hair behind my ear, but it fell back into place as if it had life of its own.
“The fact is, they are not us, Liv. They may walk like us, and speak like us- to the best of their ability- but they are animals pretending to be human. An insult to the achievements of humanity, nothing more. Now hurry and gather your books, you mustn’t be late!”
A splash of red bathed the memory in a bloody hue and swept it away as if it were an oil painting touched by turpentine. The Toad had lifted his head with his last bit of energy as another arrow was sunk into his back. The guards were mere feet away.
“P-please, Olivia. Please… Please… Take us away… Away.”
I could no longer feel my body, just a low thrumming as if I were a string on a harp being plucked repeatedly. I felt so saturated with power that I hardly noticed that the brilliant glowing that had served as the canvas for my memories had been emanating from my own eyes.
I didn’t want to die, and I felt the Phazeril reaching its peak. It was either going to kill me, or leave me at the mercy of the Royal Guard, and I didn’t have the slightest clue how to explain why I was in Queensbury with the substance without overthrowing my father’s corporate empire. I would not fail him. I couldn’t.
But I needed answers, and the only thing who might have the answers was the Toad leaking his life force on my chest, sputtering blood into my ear as he pleaded for life.
“When and where?” I asked, hoping he understood the question.
He sighed and his breath shook in his throat in a chilling death rattle. “Brineside. Recent as possible. Doctor Smith… Poseidon’s Eye.”
I closed my eyes and trapped the radiance pouring out of me in my own head. Brineside, the city at the northern coast of New Mainland, home to the ships that imported and exported goods. Home to the thieves and pirates, the prostitutes and drunkards. The festering wound of New Mainland that couldn’t be cured unless the Queen cut it loose, yet it was too vital a port for such drastic measures.
I had never been to Brineside, of course, but I had been close. I whispered, “Atlantica, Sunday past. Best I can do.”
The feeble voice, the hoarseness of restrained breath. Death was so close to us both. “That’ll do.”
And there I saw myself, sitting atop a hill in Atlantica, a county that bordered Brineside on the same stretch of coastline. From my vantage point on the hill, I could look out to the east and see Fallen Field, where New Mainland buried their dead. The Ashdown mausoleum was visible even from the hill. But to the north was Brineside, close enough to smell the salt of the sea and the sweat of the men on the docks.
I didn’t know what I was doing, but the Phazeril knew what I wanted. The hilltop became clearer, looming ahead. The Toad was bound to me by a force unseen as we were stretched and shaken in the sheer violence of the journey. My perspective changed, and the hilltop was suddenly below us as we fell with frightening speed.
I began to feel the wind in my hair as the bright light faded and I was staring at the hill in reality, amazed at the idea that we had been lying in the dirt of Queensbury only seconds beforehand, and now here we were, on the other side of the small country of New Mainland, descending upon a hilltop in Atlantica with the salty sea breeze carrying us to the earth.
But something was wrong.
The iron arrows protruding from the Toad’s back were still apparently there when they shouldn’t have been. I had folded back time nearly a fortnight. His wounds had not yet had the chance to happen, yet there were nearly a dozen arrows protruding from his back and shoulders, and his head drooped pathetically against my shoulder.
The Phazeril lost its grip on us and about ten feet from the ground, we were in free-fall. With every ounce of reflex in me, I rolled so he’d land on top of me, saving what precious life he had left in him. With a horrid thud we landed in a patch of thistles.
We were two weeks earlier and a hundred miles away, but the events in Queensbury would still determine everything. I would only have one chance to know what kind of trouble my father was really in. The tables had turned- I was going to live and Jack Lore, the Toad thief, was going to die.
I was going to have to save him.
My voice was hoarse and I was having trouble breathing with his weight against me. I didn’t dare to shove him off, for fear of rolling him onto his back. I carefully freed my arms, the left one still throbbing. To my absolute horror, the limb was swollen to twice its normal size. My blouse sleeve had come apart at the seams and hung in tatters from my shoulder. The veins crawling from my fingertips to my forehead protruded like snakes, glowing vivid yellow.
I laid there staring at the disfigured arm, revolted by the sight of it and the shock of seeing my perfect skin stretched and bloated out of proportion. I was wrenched from my bewilderment when the Toad groaned slightly. His time was running out.
With every ounce of inner strength I had, I put aside my fear and placed a hand on each of his shoulders. I pushed him down my body and used my legs to push myself back until his head rested on my stomach and I could sit up. I crawled backwards like a crab until my legs were free, then I fell back in exhaustion.
“Olivia.” He could barely breathe, but he forced the shallow breath to form my name.
“I’m here,” I stated, trying to uphold my articulate speech, though it was nearly impossible.
“Poseidon… Smith.” I realized he was lying in a pool of blood. The grass was smeared with it, and- sadly- so was I. The front of my corset was stained crimson and my chest and face were dotted with the blood that had accented his plead for life in Queensbury. I wasn’t sure how he could still be conscious.
“Yes,” I nodded, though he could not see me. “Doctor Smith of the Poseidon’s Eye. A vessel off port, I presume?”
He did not stir in response, and I was struck with new horror- had I just witnessed death? I had never seen a dead thing before. Especially not a Beast. But as I contemplated whether or not I should try to rouse him, his back arced up and he let out a slight sigh. “Off port. Go.”
I climbed to my feet on shaking legs and did just that. I couldn’t let myself think about the fact that I was running through waist-high grass on the outskirts of Atlantica when only moments before, I had been at the mill. It was utterly fascinating, but it made my head spin with fear, and wonder, and questions- so many questions.
I ignored the pain in my calves and the intense burning of my labored breaths. By some miracle- and probably countless hours of posture training- I managed not to loose my footing as I soared down the hill towards Atlantica. Brineside was a short run from the last port of Atlantica, but I’d have to take a shortcut to avoid being seen by guards.
I made it down to the very edge of the town, where a few locals were strolling along the boardwalk. Running in the sand proved to be absolutely torturous on my strained muscles, but I ran beneath the boardwalk, running the length of the beach.
Halfway to the border of Atlantica, I stopped, throwing myself against a support beam in favor of collapsing in the sand. I looked up through the slots between the boards of the pier, tears pouring down my face. I was soaked with blood and sweat, my legs screamed for relief, and there was the soft yellow glow that I could not ignore. My arm illuminated the dank water and sludge at my feet.
I gave in to the demands of my legs and fell to my knees. My chest heaved with sobs and I had never felt so small and alone. Jack Lore was going to die up on the hill, and here I was wallowing in his blood and the briny, polluted water. I would never fully understand what had happened, and how the day had gone so horribly wrong.
Why hadn’t I simply questioned my father when he demanded this of me? He might not have graced me with an answer, but he also might have. I didn’t even think to ask him what to do if Professor Conroy didn’t show up. I had simply accepted the task and believed it would be simple.
A meeting in secret to deliver a substance with the ability to change the entire world was not a simple thing, and I had been so stupid. Just hours before this, I was in my bed under silk sheets and the down comforter, sleeping under a mahogany headboard in a room with a silver chandelier and heavy velvet curtains.
My arm thudded softly, almost humming with energy. It suddenly lit up like a flash of lightning and I was blinded by the dazzling sunlight coming from my eyes, whiting out the rest of the world. I shrieked and fell back in the wet sand, blind to the world. My memories came back to haunt me once more.
I was staring at the piano, and something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite understand what it was. I pulled out the stool and sat with my hands waiting over the keys, but nothing happened. I stared into the place where my music book should have been, but all that I saw was my own face reflected in the varnish.
I was fourteen, the year was 1853, and this was the day that my Father took away the last thing I had left to love.
Devastated, I ran, my bare feet pounding on the dulled hardwood floors. I flung open the doors to his study, and found Bridget sitting behind his desk with a stack of letters in her hand. They were from our mother, I knew by the pink stationary. One of the pastel pink envelopes was crackling in the fireplace. The edges curled and blew up the chimney, her looping cursive lies lost forever.
“Where is it, Bridge?” I sobbed. “Where is my book? Mother gave that to me!”
She glanced at me over the rim of her reading glasses and said, simply, “Gone.”
“What do you mean?” I bawled. “Where has he put it?”
“It’s gone, Olivia. It hasn’t been put anywhere. It’s just gone.” And with that, she tossed another letter into the raging fire.
On sweaty feet I raced back to the piano, jerked the stool across the floor, and heaved myself onto the cushion. Wiping tears from my cheeks, I took a deep breath and tried to steady myself. My bottom lip trembled as I held my hands over the keys. My eyes brimmed with tears.
I could hear “Song of the Sea” so clearly in my head, even as I relived the memory, but I could not put my fingers to the ivory. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to play the song I had adored all my life. With my hands shaking above the keys, my chest heaved with sobs, and I felt a part of me dying.
“Miss Asdown?” It was Edgar peering around the corner. His fingers traced the curling seam of the wallpaper as it peeled free from the plaster. “I’m so sorry, child. I tried to speak on your behalf, but he wouldn‘t hear it.”
Anger so sharp, unlike anything I’d ever felt, crashed and broke over my chest like a wave beating me from the inside out. My mouth contorted against my will, and hot tears of rage poured from me. The sheer violence of the storm brewing within me was too much to contain, and it was all aimed directly at Edgar.
“You are worthless.”
I did not even raise my voice. I didn’t have to- so much nastiness and vile contempt was held in that one word, that to speak it satisfied the rage in me. Silence fall over us- the eye of the storm, so to speak.
For the second time in my life, I watched a grown man cry. But Edgar did not break down like my Father had the day Addie died. He simply stood in the doorway with his eyes brimming over. He took a shy step towards me.
I stared at him, part of me daring him to move another inch, and another part of me begging to be held and comforted- to be forgiven. He stepped closer and brought his hand up, then lowered it, uncertainty showing in his eyes. I said nothing, but the silent battle between what I wanted and what I needed was excruciating.
He straightened himself and looked me in the eye, and for the first time, I saw him as something more than one of the many servants who had come and gone from our home. Edgar was a man, not a plank who stood by the door awaiting company that no longer came. Edgar had a heart, and tears to cry, and- surprisingly- kindness for someone like me who had overlooked and under-appreciated him for nearly twenty years.
“You don’t need the music sheets, Olivia.” It was informal of him to use my first name, but in that moment, we were both raw human beings on the same level, and status did not mean a damn thing. “It’ll come back to you, when you learn how to let it.”
As he turned his back to me and shuffled to his post at the door, the Phazeril brought me back to Atlantica. I was on my back with the gentle waves lapping at my body. My breath hitched in my throat at the sight of a pair of crystal-blue eyes looking down at me.
A young boy was knelt beside me, not even alarmed in the slightest at the glowing radiance pouring from my saturated veins. His face was oily and he had a smear of soot beneath his left eye. His cheeks were plump with youth and his lips were still pink like a baby’s. He couldn’t have been older than five. I rolled up onto my elbow and gaped at him, speechless. I saw a glint of steel behind him in the shadows, and then more faces emerged from the dark.
A gang of a dozen children, all dressed in rags and coated in the grime of the pier, fanned out behind the eldest boy who held the knife.
“Told you, Ben,” the little blue-eyed boy said. “She’s got gold in her.”
The leader, who looked to be about twelve, licked the blade of his knife. The metal glinted again as it slid back into the leather sheath at his hip. “You stupid or something, Gus?” he asked, pinching the younger boy’s ear and lifting him to his feet.
“Stop that!” I shrieked. Trembling, I sat up on my knees and tried to stand, but failed. My legs simply gave out and I plopped back into the wet sand and coal residue from the steamboats chugging along the coastline. As my senses returned to me, I was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of coal and sewage emanating from the children.
“What’d you get yourself into, lady?” asked Ben. He reached into the stretched-out neck of his shirt and hooked a leather cord around his thumb. He drew it out to show me a blue vial hanging from the cord. “Smith’s Cure-All ought to take care of it, whatever it is. Give you a deal on it if-”
“Smith’s?” I almost yelled. “Doctor Smith of Brineside?”
The boy dropped the pendant down the neck of his shirt and hopped back, drawing his knife in a smooth motion. The others did the same in unison, each wielding a weapon.
“Who’s askin’?” Ben’s eyes shone with malice.
I huffed. “I am, you little cretin! There’s an emergency and I need him at once!”
“What kind of emergency?”
“A serious one!” I shrieked, forcing myself to my feet. I was a full head taller than him, and I was determined- outnumbered and unarmed as I was- not to be foiled by a gang of children. “Listen, you brats. My name is Olivia Ashdown and I need the assistance of Doctor Smith at once.” I threw my head back and stuck my chest out, forcing myself to look as tall as possible.
And oh, what a sight I must have been, covered in blood and the scum of the sea, with my shirt torn to shreds and that grotesque golden arm the size of a man’s. But the boys only exchanged sideways glances.
“’Livia who?” asked Ben.
My eyes flamed with offense. “Ashdown. As in the daughter of Geoffrey Ashdown! You may have heard of S.T.E.A.M. It’s only the most productive corporation in New Mainland!”
“Oh, yeah,” Ben nodded. “What’s that stand for, anyway?”
“I don’t have time for this! Look, there’s a Toad, Jack Lore. He’s up on the hill-”
The way they reacted to the sound of Jack’s name was as if I had spoken an incantation. Their cherub faces were stern as grown men’s, their shoulders back, ready for a fight. “Where?” Ben asked.
“Th-the hill overlooking Fallen Field.”
He jerked his head and half the gang was off in a sprint, running through the shallows. The water was rising as the night approached, but the boys appeared to glide across the surface. They were out of sight within a handful of seconds.
Ben started off at a jog towards Brineside without another word. “Wait!” I called. “How will they get him to Brineside? He’s badly injured and- Benjamin! Young man, do wait!”
I was stumbling and falling, and could barely move enough to keep within twenty paces of him. He stopped and turned around, then rolled his eyes and twisted his mouth in disgust. “Hold still, lady.”
I stopped and the other children gathered on either side of me. Ben nodded again, and I felt a sharp prick in my right thigh, then another in my left. Little Gus darted around my legs and ran to Ben’s side. He clutched a small hypodermic needle in his hand. “What the hell was that? Have you drugged me?” I cried.
My legs felt warm and numb, and the sensation spread quickly to my feet. It traveled up to my ribs and I began to grow tired. “What… What have you done?” I asked, as my eyelids became too heavy to keep open. I knew I had fallen only because of the soft impact as I hit the sand. I felt no pain, only a deep, comforting sleep washing over me.
“You’ll be alright, Miss Ashdown,” said one of the children. A tiny, cold hand caressed my forehead. “We’ll take care of you.”
(Part 2 coming soon...)