tagNonHumanArcanum - Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 01

Arcanum - Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 01

byDragonCobolt©

June 3rd 1885

Somewhere above The Stonewall Mountains

If there was a sound more appropriate for calculating the lifting capacity of an ellipsoid roughly eight hundred feet in length than the music from a string quartet, I was not sure what it might be. I scratched away with a ballpoint pen I had purchased in Caladon from its inventor. He had gone on at length about the reservoir of ink within and how long it could go before being needing a refilling. But what had impressed me was the fact that it could write on nearly any surface. Including, for instance, a cocktail napkin. The barkeep had looked at me as if I was speaking elvish when I had asked if he had had any paper.

"What's this here?"

The voice - thick and blustery - drew my attention. My brows furrowed and I looked over my shoulder, then down at the gnomish gentleman who had stepped up to the bar where I was hunched and scribbling. The gnome looked up at me through thick rimmed spectacles and was gripping onto the suspenders underneath his rustic smoking jacket as if they were the only things keeping him rooted to the carpeted floor. Behind him loomed the ominous and incongruous combination of a servants black and white finery and the iron hard muscle and greenish complexion of a truly immense half-ogre. The combination of gnome and half-ogre bodyguard was so common as to be nearly a cliché, but I will tell you this: A cliché remains effective when well used.

And the low, threatening expression on the half-ogre's face was quite well used.

"I beg your pardon, my good sir?" I asked the gnome.

The gnome seemed to become more rancorous from politeness than he might have been if I had spat in his face and strangled him with his own necktie. "What exactly are you doing here at the bar, half-orc?" he asked. "Do you even have a ticket?"

I sighed, then made to reach into my smoking jacket. The half-ogre clenched his fists and growled and I tensed, momentarily. A single wrong move might end my so far rather delightful voyage with a stoved in nose-bone and my brains dribbling out of my ears. I thanked whatever gods were listening that I had stowed my revolver in my room, as it meant there was nothing more threatening in my jacket than the rumpled ticket that I produced once they saw I was not carrying a weapon.

The ticket, embossed with the Industrial Council's cog and the flag of the United Kingdom, was rumpled because I had grabbed it off the poker table before flinging myself through the window of the Roseborough Inn. The fellow who had wagered it had clearly believed it was impossible that a half-orc could draw royal flush without cheating and my argument that the odds were merely one in six hundred and forty nine thousand seven hundred and forty had been less than persuasive. The gnomish gentleman eyed the ticket, then harrumphed.

"I see," he said. "I was not aware that any half-orc would be so adventurous and intelligent, to set foot upon the newest Wonder of Our Age." I could hear the capital letters. I smiled, then picked up the drink I had ordered before. I sipped as the quartet in the corner of the ball room started up their next set - a sprightly number that was something someone could actually dance too. When I set my drink down, I sighed, feeling the pleasant burn of the cheapest whiskey that was available sandpapered its way down my throat.

Hey, I wanted a drink. But no one else here could tell what I was drinking, so why bother reaching beyond what my scant few coins could manage?

"Well, Mr..." I paused.

"Castleburger. Godfrey Castleburger," the gnome offered.

I inclined my head. "Well, Mr Castleburger-"

"Senator Castleburger," he corrected.

I pursed my lips fractionally. Of course he had left the senator out. I repressed the first response that wanted to spring to my lips and carefully said: "Senator Castleburger. I could hardly pass up a chance to be suspended beneath three hundred tons of flammable gasses." I sipped my drink. "What red blooded man wouldn't?"

Senator Castleburger scoffed. "Ah, I see, you've been listening to the fear mongers aboard this fine airship." He slapped his palm against his chest with a sound not unlike a drum being struck. Gnomes tended to being scrawny, unlike halflings or dwarves, and Castleburger was no exception. His stature and his posture reminded me of nothing more or less than a greyhound that had learned to walk on his hind legs, followed by an introduction to the Academy of Posh Gits, which he graduated from.

With honors.

"The IFS Zephyr is completely safe," he said. "Why, each section of the flight balloon is separately sealed within its own ingeniously designed self-repairing bubble of canvased fabric. There are spare hydrogen stores within the ship, in pressurized forms, themselves contained within the hardiest armor and the sturdiest tanks that the United Kingdom could devise. What is more, even if the impossible were to happen and every single section of the balloon was to be perforated the dozens of times that it would require for them to lose lift, the propellers can be angled downward, to allow us to land safely, whether we came down in University Court or...or...or...the Isle of Thanos!"

I arched an eyebrow. "So, you'd go so far as to claim that this ship is unsinkable?" I asked.

"Well, we're an airship, not a sailing ship, but...yes!" Senator Castleburger said.

Which was when the quartet's music was shattered by a horrible chatter chatter chatter noise, the shattering of glass, the screams of men and women, and twin buzzing roars. The half-ogre bodyguard of Senator Castleburger pushed the elderly gnome to the ground then knelt over him as he had been trained. I sighed, downed my drink, and crumpled up my napkin of equations.

"But of course," I said, dryly.

I started towards the door leading out of the ballroom as several crewmen, resplendent in their red jackets and tall hats, shouted for everyone to remain calm. The screaming did not abate. In the narrow corridor, I braced both hands against the walls, to keep myself from skidding away as the Zephyr started to cant crazily to the left. Or was that the port? Either way, it made heading up the stairs to my chambers on the fourth deck tricky. I had to brace my feet against the insides of the stairs and use the banisters to keep myself from pitching forward.

That chatter chatter noise again. But this time, I was able to see their effects and could piece together the source: The ceiling piffed as holes exploded through thin wood and thinner steel. Sparks and wooden chips showered onto my shoulders and head. I lifted my arm and crouched down low and the holes passed me by, without tracing a line through my soft flesh. I shook myself and looked up at the holes.

A name came to mind. I had read of it in The Tarantian, boasting of the United Kingdom's newest weapons.

"A machined gun?" I whispered.

And then the Zephyr shuddered and rocked. My nose flared and I scented smoke. Flames. I shuddered and resumed my movements, trying to keep my feet while the slewing grew more and more intense. I had to scramble over a ledge made of what had once been a wall to reach the corridor that led, hypothetically, to my room. I saw an elven man in a suit of leather armor, clutching a still faintly luminescent longbow. He had been shot four times through the chest and head, his brains oozing upon the floor. I shook my head, scrambling past the sad scene. "Sorry, old boy," I whispered, then came to my door.

I put my hands to my pockets, and realized that somewhere in the confusion, I had lost the key. Another explosion rocked the ship and I heard the massive propellers groan and sputter and die. Then the chattering started again. I flung myself down as best as I could. Wood splinters sprayed across my back. I looked up and saw that the lock to my door had burst apart.

"My thanks," I muttered, then crawled into my room. I knew that it was essentially a talismanic gesture, but I wished to hit the ground holding my revolver.

I succeeded in this task admirably.

***

I opened my eyes to a splitting headache and a sense of miraculous awe. I was alive. Yes, my spine felt as if it had been worked over by a dwarven masseuse and my head felt as if the entire human population of the United Kingdom had stepped on it on their way to the train station, but I was alive. I shifted in the small hollow of wreckage that had formed around me and craned my head about to try and get a bead on where I was. It seemed that my room had crumpled upon impact with the ground, forming a perfect cylinder around me that had spared me all save for the bumping and the scraping.

I checked my pockets, then looked around myself once more. There was my luggage. It had been compacted almost entirely, save for a single corner of a suitcase. The leather had been torn open and I saw the pouch I kept my bullets in stuck out of the hole. I snatched it and frowned as I heard the ominous creak of metal around me. I scrambled away and out of the tunnel of metal, finding my feet were now whisked out from under me by a cascade of loose debris under my feet. I tumbled, fell, and swore all the way down a roughly pyramidal shape of metal. When I hit the dirt and the brambles beyond, I stood with a slow groan.

My jacket was torn positively to ribbons.

"Perfect," I said.

I took stock of the surrounding area. The airship had come down in the Stonewall mountains, but fortunately, it had struck a relatively clear part of the foothills. The massive heap of scrap metal and shattered wood - burning here and there - was all that was left of the greatest wonder the world had ever seen. I could spy a few bits of engine casing that were intact about half a mile away, one of which had a propeller that spun in starts as whatever dying energies within the housing flared and kicked, like a corpse in the snow.

"Help...help me, please..."

The wheezy, reedy voice was piercingly clear, even over the rumble and roar of flames. I looked about myself, then saw the source of the voice: A small figure, pinned beneath a chunk of interlaced metal. I sprang forward, then gritted my teeth. My muscles were not exceptional for a half-orc, but they served more than enough to shift the metal and toss it aside. Beneath, I saw the countenance of a gnome. Not the Senator - this poor fellow had none of his haughty airs, nor his sneer. Even when he saw my green skin and smallish tusks, the gnome merely nodded.

I knelt down next to him. He reached out from the rubble and took my hand. "Thank you, my friend," he whispered, his eyes unfocused and wandering. I opened my mouth, about to correct him. But then he cut me off, his voice growing intense. "You must find the boy!" He lifted his head and coughed, his eyes narrowing as he looked up at me. "Find the boy and give him back his ring..." A wracking great cough shook his slight body and blood flecked along his lips. "He will know what needs to be done..."

"What-" I started.

"Listen, listen to me." He leaned up more, despite the great pain that this caused him. His hand tightened on mine, frightfully strong. "We had to do it. He did unspeakable things to us. We had no choice. We...we had to do what he said. There are so few of us left, the work...it is almost finished. And then...the evil..." His head shook and his eyes widened. I wondered what he saw then. His breath was coming in shorter and shorter gasps. "You can't imagine. He's coming back to destroy everything. Everything and everyone. Please...just find the boy. Tell him that I escaped, that I came to warn...he will know what to...do..."

He trailed off, his hand going slack on mine. I wondered if he had passed - but then heard him draw one last breath. He whispered "It's all up to you, my friend. It's...all up..."

He trailed off again.

This time, he did not draw breath again.

I frowned. "Sorry, old boy," I said, quietly. "But I have not the foggiest clue who you are."

I reached into the old gnome's jacket, then rummaged about. I came away with but three items. The first was a small, elegantly styled ring. The interior had a small G and a small B inscribed upon it. A name, without a doubt. I shook my head and tucked the ring away, safely. I did not try it on - I had read more than a few tales in the pulp magazines about what happened to foolish adventurers who put on any old ring given them, even those passed to them by dying old men with dire portents of the end of the world.

The second item was a small matchbook - lacking all save one match - that came from the very inn that I had started my journey in. I cast my mind back. I did remember, now that I thought of it, a gnome who had bustled out of the smoking room before the poker game had flown apart quite spectacularly. I tucked the matchbook away. Any proof that this fellow had come from somewhere was to be worth while.

The third item was a passport, signed in the name of the King of Caladon, allowing the gnome to travel from Caladon itself to the United Kingdom's capital, Tarant. The name upon the passport was Preston Radcliffe.

So. I had a battered smoking jacket, a handful of revolver bullets, my pistol, a mysterious warning about some 'great evil' and no idea where exactly I was in a mountain range. "I had wanted adventure, but this is ridiculous," I muttered under my breath. Tucking my pistol into my belt and wishing I had a holster, I turned and found myself looking at a robed figure.

The robed figure stood upon a small pile of metal debris, clutching a staff to their chest. Their hood had been drawn up, casting their face in shadow. I froze. I had been so absorbed by the gnome's dying words that I hadn't even heard this fellow sneaking up on me. My eyes darted to the staff, but I saw no sign of magick flaring about it. That did not entirely swear off the chance that this was some powerful wizard. Those cropped up when mysterious rings were involved, didn't they?

Slowly, my hand drifted down to my revolver and I narrowed my eyes at the figure.

"I...can't...believe it!" the figure said, their voice high and youthful. Or, considering their height, feminine. They reached up and removed all doubt by whipping their hood back to reveal a woman's face and brunette hair. The appearance of a chipmunk was the first comparison that sprang to mind. It was not even meant as an insult - the woman was round cheeked and animated, with eyes that seemed to dart all over, with an intense excitement. It was quite a comely look, if not what one might call classically beautiful. She flung her arms wide, holding her staff in one hand and started to scramble down off her pile of debris. "I mean...you! And the zeppelin! And the fire!" She gestured at a burning chunk of wood nearby. "And the altar says that...that...do you have any idea what any of this means!?"

I let my hand drift away from my revolver. Despite the situation, I found myself smiling. "No, I-"

"You speak!" the woman squeaked. Then, slapping her palm over her face. "Of course you speak, what am I a blathering idiot!?" I was about to offer my observations on that point when the woman inhaled sharply and pointed at me. "Wait! What did you say? Maybe, uh, maybe I should be writing this down..." She started to fumble in her robes, dropping her staff in her excitement.

As the staff clattered to the ground, I put my hands on my hips. "My lady, I, uh, I'm not entirely sure I follow..."

She wrung her hands, giving up the hunt for pen and parchment. I blinked, then put my hand into my pocket, pulling out the ballpoint pen. She looked at it as if she had never seen a pen before. And considering the inventor claiming to have only patented it two weeks before, it was entirely possible. "I...am at a loss here!" She chuckled, looking rueful. "I don't know what to do. Uh, I mean, you are the...of course you are, I mean, you do know who you are, right?" She bit her lip, then groaned and put her palms over her face.

"Of course you do, what sort of brainless, half-baked question is that for the uh..." She dragged her palms down along her face, drawing it taut before releasing it. "...what...do you call yourself?"

I smirked. "Rayburn." I held out my hand. "Rayburn Cog. At your service."

The girl gaped at me. She looked at my hand. Then looked at me. I blinked and slowly lowered my hand. I wasn't sure if I was being snubbed or not.

"Oh." She grabbed my hand and pumped it so vigorously I swore she was about to rip it out of my socket. "Please forgive me, I'm making a bloody mess of this whole affair. My name is Virginia, sir. And I'm new to the Panarii religion, er, your religion and I, oh, wait! Wait!" She stopped the pumping and her speech, then knelt on the ground. Her knees settled and then she clasped her hands before her, bowing her head low. "I, uh, hereby dedicate my, uh, no, commit my life to the Living One! I, Virginia, am at your service. Sir!"

Ah. Good, I thought. She's utterly gone round the bend. Completely hysterical. Lunatic. And I'm alone in the mountains with her.

Slowly, I lifted my palms, raising my eyebrows. "Virginia, you say? I, uh, I don't think I'm who you're looking for."

Virginia scoffed. "Yes, yes, of course, you see...you're him." She chuckled, then started to stand. She brushed off her knees. "You're the uh reincarnation of er, whose his name? I can never remember...and I'm always getting him mixed up with the other fellow." She waved her hands in a measuring gesture, shrugging nervously. "The, uh, the bad one. You, well, you know how old elven names all sound the same, heh? Right?"

She smiled at me, sheepishly.

I found the only thing I could muster was an 'uh-huh.'

Virginia tried to rally. "Well, right, uh, give me a moment. You see, the Panarii, the religion that's formed around the things that he said, I mean, that you said." She pointed at me, then flung up her hands, her sleeves fluttering. "Oh forget it, lets start at the beginning!...this beginning. Since there's a lot that came before this. You, sir, are the reincarnation of a powerful elf, who the Panarri worship, and whose name is..."

"Wait!" I held up my hands. My green hands. "I'm supposed to be an elf? Whose named, what, the Thraxios the Exceedingly Orcish?"

Virginia barely repressed a giggle. "N-No, uh, right...the name, uh..." She screwed her eyes shut. "Wait! Wait!" She lifted her hands, as if bracing against a wall. "I remember! It's written in the scriptures. 'The Living One will live again on wings of fire!" Or, uh, no, wait, I think it was 'reborn' on wings of fire." Her arms fell and she groaned. "Oh, blood and ashes, why do elves always have to be so damned cryptic!?"

"It gives them something to do, I suppose?" I suggested, reaching out and clapping my hand to her robed shoulder. "Listen, ma'am-"

"Virginia, please. Sir. Living One." She bowed to me so hard and so eagerly that she nearly butted my in the jaw with her head. "Listen, I know this sounds ridiculous, what with you being a half-orc." She stopped, her face going completely pale. "Not that there's anything wrong with you being a half-orc! I had many half-orc friends! Growing up! I mean, half-orcs are just like regular folk! I mean..." She screwed her eyes shut again.

I closed my eyes and counted to five. At the very least, Virginia here was trying. That went farther than it should have, considering the hand that I had been dealt at birth. And so, I forced a smile onto my face. "Lets focus on getting out of here."

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