The Orphans

by Scott Hawver 6 months ago in fantasy

Like Clockwork

The Orphans

1)Their World as They Knew It (Tick)

Grandeur City was the center of The Civilization. This city was not only the political and cultural center but also, more importantly, the industrial center. Over a hundred and fifty years ago it was nothing but another city state among all the other city states on the North Continent. What changed do you ask? Well quite frankly it was clockwork.

Now granted there were examples of clockwork magery going back to times of antiquity, but they were examples of individual mages who, although very talented, were limited. No one knew why nowhere in the world of Zahn could one make machines, other than the simplest of lever and pulley machines, work without magical intervention. Now with the right mix of magic and engineering one could make the most amazing machines.

Of the earliest examples of Clockwork were the clockwork sentinels that still guarded the empress of The Civilization. They were imperial family heirlooms that were handed down from generational ruler to generational ruler for more than a thousand years. Yet, no one knew who created these magnificent and quite intimidating machines.

Around 150 years ago the Viceroy of Grandeur City, Viceroy Camden III, was himself a mage with a talent for clockworks. One day while walking about the city he happened to see a small girl playing with a makeshift steam engine that, at the heart of it, was a simple pinwheel that was being spun by the steam coming off her mother's kettle. When he asked her how she made the pinwheel and the pulley system that she connected to it she showed him.

Seeing her explain the engineering feat that she had accomplished the Viceroy began to realize that the key to clockworks was to begin training the talented at a young age. Also looking at the young girl's apparatus he also realized that another key to clockworks was concentrating the magic to a master cog. From that point forward he sought out from all the families who were known to be talented those children that were clockwork inclined in their talents. He also discovered that steam could be a powerful driver for these mechanical wonders.

Ever since that day, nobility and gentry would have their children tested, as a matter of form, on or before their fifth birthday to see if they were inclined. Even the yeoman class of people could spend the ten silver Talons to have their children tested. Once a child was determined to be talented, they would attend anywhere from 6 to 12 years of Higher Learning School. From there they would then vie to go to The Clockwork Academy. Even if a HLS graduate was not accepted to the Academy they had an opportunity to begin apprenticeship with a master or baring that they could take their place somewhere in one of the many great factories that built machines that had united and expanded The Civilization.

2)Ouihan (Tock)

Ouihan was tinkering with his spring semester final project for his second year at Halinar's. HLS. Ouihan had come to have his place at this most prestigious HLS not by the normal paths.

First of all, Ouihan wasn't nobility or gentry of any kind. He wasn't even yeoman class. He was in fact a street orphan. No one knew, least of all Ouihan, who his parents were. There were many holes in Ouihan's memory. His earliest memories were when he was five wandering the street. He did remember being taking in by a street tinker who had a cart. The kindly old man fed and sheltered Ouihan in return for help with his many gadget repairs that he had done for pennies at a time.

One day, about four years ago Ouihan found the old tinker had passed on in the night so he tried to run the cart by himself, but an enforcer saw him and arrested him. He tried to explain his plight and demonstrate that he could carry on the old man's work, but the enforcer would have nothing of that. Especially since Empress Victoria II had put out an order to clean up the streets of riffraff.

The judge on the other hand took pity on Ouihan and ordered that the tinker cart be sold and the proceeds, minus court costs would pay for Ouihan to go to State School for Delinquents.

The School Master noticed right off that Ouihan wasn't a normal boy. He could read and write Common and Sayer's Script fluently. He even had a working knowledge in all four of the runic languages. When he was asked who taught him, he didn't know. He just knew these things as far back as he could remember. The other thing that was unusual about Ouihan was the fact that he could pick up any gadget and fix it without any difficulty.

After two years of State School he was ready to graduate with enough of an education to either be sold as an apprentice or to a factory as a worker. However, instead of that happening some anonymous benefactor sponsored Ouihan's appointment to Halinar's.

So far in the last two years Ouihan seemed to be excelling at everything that was put in front of him. He never found out who his mysterious benefactor was, so he resigned himself to letting it be one of the many mysteries in his life. Since he was considered a ward of the state, he had to stay in school even during summer break when all his classmates returned to their families. He wouldn't be allowed to be on his own for at least six more years since he was only 12.

Conceivably he could petition the courts for emancipation when he turned 16, however, it was unlikely since he was a street orphan and not an orphan that was gentry or better who had means to provide for himself.

Meanwhile he tinkered with his final project for spring semester. Even though he already received his grade for the project, that being an A+, he wasn't satisfied. Early on he found out that when performing an assigned project to the best of his abilities he would receive a failing grade for failing to follow direction, so he finished every project he had within the guidelines given him. Afterwards he would then perfect the projects and add them to his covey.

“Gidget please bring me a number four Spanner's wrench?”

The strange looking octagonal box sitting on the floor next to him sprung to life and sprouted legs from six of the eight side panels. It then skittered across the floor toward a tool chest on the far wall. Out of the top of the octagonal box a claw on a telescopic arm reached up into the chest, grabbed a wrench then skittered back over to Ouihan and gave the wrench to him.

“Thanks, Gidge.” He said distractedly as he used the wrench to make a final adjustment.

Gidget was something that Ouihan made in his spare time with discarded and sometimes damaged gears and sprockets that laid around the workshop. Since he knew that the shop master would not be pleased with his use of materials, he restricted his side projects to discards. Gidget was his most successful. He also had to keep Gidget secret because the shop master and the professors frowned on unauthorized projects. Since Gidget was only about four inches across she was easy to hide.

Also being that Ouihan didn't really fit in, because of his poor background, with any of his classmates, Gidget was his only real friend.

Ouihan made his final adjustments to his project, a simple clock, then he set the time and started the pendulum swinging, “Now you won't need counterweights to run.” He said to himself as he created a perpetual motion clock.

The janitor, old man Farley, pushed his cart into the workshop to do his evening cleanup. He looked at Ouihan and said, “Young Master Ouihan, you are still at work as usual? Why don't you go and play Cricket or something with the other boys?”

Ouihan shook his head and said, “You know what happened the last time I tried to play with the others. Besides Mr. Farley, I like doing this.” he surreptitiously scooped up Gidget and put her into his school bag while he put the rest of his tool kit up. He then returned the borrowed tools to the main tool chest and rearranged the rest of the tools in the chest according to the way that the shop master demanded that they be. None of the other boys were so conscientious and most often just threw the tools back in haphazardly. Since the shop master didn't discipline the other, more entitled boys Ouihan usually ended up with the demerits at the end of the day. Weather he was the last to leave or not. So, he decided early to always be the last to leave so he could make sure the chest was up to snuff.

“Can I help you with the shop Mr. Farley.”

“No, no Master Ouihan I've got it. You run along now. Remember to stay away from Master Featherly. I think he still smarts from the last time he tried to put you in your place.”

“Yes sir, I will, if he stays away from me.”

As Ouihan left Mr. Farley shook his head. Ouihan was the only one who called him sir or even by his name. Mostly the boys here would just say to him, “Hey janitor. Clean this up.” or some such. He had high hopes for Ouihan.

3)Enters the Villain (Tick)

High Lord James XVI Baron of Calador and the Lowlands sat by door awaiting admittance. He was wondering why Her Eminent Empress Victoria II had summoned him. He was a vocal opponent of her policies of late. He had been in opposition of her ascendancy to Empress seven years before. She was only 14 at the time, too young in his opinion as well as others, when she petitioned the Grand Council of The Civilization to take her place as ruling empress. The year prior Regent Reginald XVIII was unceremoniously impeached by the Grand Council and later executed. Regent Reginald had acted as regent since Victoria's mother and father died in an airship accident when she was four. For the following year the Grand Council acted in regency until Empress Victoria II insisted on her own ascendancy. The Barron Calador had enjoyed a slight majority of control over the Council until then and he thought that he would have no problem opposing her ascendancy, however, two of his “allied” lords had changed their minds and chose to vote her in. Of course, since then those two lords had met with “unfortunate” fatal accidents. Had the vote been taken a year later the council, and by extension he, would have retained regency until she turned 18 and they would be unable to oppose it. He felt confident that had that had happened he would have been able to impose certain laws and other limitations on The Empress and remained Defacto-ruler of The Civilization. And had she proved to be resistant then, well there were solutions to that as well. Why not? He had solved the problem of her parent's 17 years ago.

As it were, he had had to maneuver carefully for the last 7 years to continue to push forward his agenda. As the empress had begun her reign, she had been still unsure of herself and nascent to the political arena that was Calador's forte he was still able to enjoy relative freedom in his planning.

Recently, however, she had begun to impose policies that were beginning to undo many of his carefully laid plans. She had turned back many “liberal” policies that had ensured that greater control would be retained by The Council.

Although he remained confident that he would get his way in the end he was still a little apprehensive about this summons.

Meanwhile, he sat in an anti-chamber just outside the Empress' office on Her Eminence's Airship Monarch awaiting her pleasure.

After an intolerable amount of time the inner door opened, and General Magnus stepped out. He turned and looked down at the baron, nodded his head curtly with a grunt then turned and left. Even though the general had met with the minimal standards of protocol in giving the baron respect his manner was decidedly rude in the baron's opinion. General Magnus was gentry, common blooded and so finds himself in this exalted position by shear happenstance. Baron Calador had his younger brother Marcus groomed for Commander General of The Grand Army of The Civilization.

But Calador decided to not call the general on his rudeness since he obviously enjoyed the Empress' favor at the moment. That would be impolitic for the time being. After all generals lived dangerous lives being up in the front with their soldiers and such. So, it would be no problem for Calador to arrange an “accident”.

The Chamberlain automaton, which was of a set with the protective heirloom sentinels, stepped into the still open door and said in a deep artificial voice, “Her Eminence will see you now your lordship.”

Calador could not get over the unnaturalness of these automatons and their voices. It always reminded him of bees buzzing through a grate or screen at a distance.

As Calador entered the office he saw the empress with her back to him on the balcony overlooking the passing countryside. Her visage reminded him of the statue of her ancestor, Arkan I who had invaded the Northern Continent from the Southern Continent over a thousand years ago. She had his wide nose and full lips and almond shaped eyes. Her, very dark, skin and full figure also showed her Southern Continental heritage. He was reminded again that The Civilization had an alien family ruling over it and had been since the beginning. This was something else that he sought to remedy.

The office was hexagonal in shape and the balcony was opposite the door that he had entered. Standing in every corner, looking like ornamental suits of armor, were the six automaton sentinels that have protected the Imperial family for the last thousand or so years and all those generations.

Seeing her with her back to him, a brief temptation crossed his mind that it would be easy to remedy the situation right now. However, the thought passed quickly when all six of the sentinels shifted their position taking a more “on guard” stance and turned their helmeted heads toward him in unison. He didn't doubt that they could sense his animosity toward the Empress.

Without turning her head, the Empress said, “How does these days find Calador?”

“Well, Your Eminence.”

“That is good. It would grieve us to have to find a replacement for you. We are sorry to interrupt your busy schedule James. We know that you have an agenda to keep and in these busy times one finds it hard to keep their agendas.”

He mentally parsed what she said while he said, “I serve at your pleasure Your Eminence.”

She turned her head and looked him in his eyes, narrowed hers and said, “Do you now?”

“Has Your Eminence found reason to be displeased with Calador?” said mildly keeping a polite smile on his face and placing his hand on the center of his chest and bowing slightly.

She turned fully and asked sharply, “Do you serve at Our pleasure or for your own interests James?”

He didn't fail to notice that she had twice addressed him in the familiar leaving his titles off. He felt that she was baiting him. He mentally forced himself to remain calm and said mildly, “I would hope that they are one in the same thing Your Eminence.”

“Are they now?” she said doubtfully.

“If Your Eminence would enlighten me as to how Calador had displeased you Calador will seek to remedy this.”

“We just found out that our orders to care for the homeless in the cities, especially Grandeur City, have been turned into mass arrests and enslavement of them! Is it possible that you misunderstood our intent to care for even the poorest of our subjects?!”

“It is possible that Your Eminence has been misinformed. Yes, there have been some arrests and imprisonments, however, there are a large number of criminals in that population...”

“Misinformed?! Really?!” she took a step toward him and although she was a good six inches shorter than him, she seemed to tower over him by her sheer presence. He found it easy to imagine her ancestor's influence on her. He also was reminded that she was very intelligent in her own right. She had mastered both Clockworks and Alchemy by the time she turned thirteen. She was also said to be adept in other realms of magery as well.

He reevaluated his opinion of academics, as he always thought that she was. Apparently not all academics are naive and easily maneuvered by their lack of real-world experience. “Your Eminence, if you will please advise me on how I can correct any mistakes made?”

“Worry not about that James, we have taken that particular project out of the purview of the council. We only hope that you have not done too much damage that cannot be repaired. What we summoned you here for today is to remind you that when we made that directive four years ago, we were very specific about how the children were to be handled. Is it possible that you did not understand our instructions?”

“Empress, you do understand that the council acts as a counterweight to imperial power. It is not your purview to simply order the council. The council only need to carry out your wishes within the limitations of practicality.”

“Practicality? Do you dare to question our ability to understand the limits of practicality before we give our orders?” she did not raise her voice much more than a single decibel but her presence and projection of her voice had the same effect had she screamed it into his ear. Needless to say, he winced at that.

“Empress, you do understand this is not the time of your forefathers. You need the council to properly administer an empire the size of The Civilization.”

“A fact that you never fail to remind us on James. Something you fail to realize Baron Calador, the Charters direct what the council can and cannot do as it does The Imperial. When we give directives and missives that are not specific then we trust the council to administer those within the limitations of practicality. When we give specific directives then you will administer them to letter of the orders. Our we clear?!”

“Crystal Your Eminence.” he said with a low bow.”

“Good. One other thing. Considering this we have ordered the Imperial Comptroller to audit the dealings of the Grand Council for the last seven years. We are curious how many other orders of ours that have been... misunderstood.” She then turned back to the balcony then said, “We trust that you will cooperate with his investigations.” she then waved her hand in dismissal.

Calador bowed and turned and left. He stormed past the Chamberlain Automaton who was barely able to slide the inner door open for him. After he passed through the anti-chamber and into the corridor, he started formulating his next plans. He needed to remedy much now. The Imperial Comptroller couldn't be allowed to see all the books for the last seven years. That would end with Calador taking the thirteen steps into the termination machine. That mustn't happen.

Empress Victoria II Arkanti stood alone on her balcony trying to calm herself. She realized that by telling Calador about the audit she had set things into motion that she had to stay ahead of.

Once she was sufficiently calmed, she smiled and said, “Go ahead and report Cal.”

Captain Calvin Cooper of Her Eminence's Special Service stepped out from behind the curtain that were between the glass sliding doors to the balcony and said, “Your Eminence will be happy to hear that I have some leads on finding him.”

“So, he did not get put in prison as we feared?”

“No, Your Eminence. I believe that he was sent to State School. From there the trail grows murky but I will be following my leads as soon as we arrive in Grandeur City. That is of course after I see to your safe return to the palace.”

“No Cal, those arrangements are well in hand. You just see to your leads. Time grows short before the prophecy comes to fruition. He must be found and enlisted to our aid before he is found and used by our enemies. We do not believe that Calador is aware of the prophecy, but we cannot trust that for a certainty. If he is discovered by the likes of Calador he may take advantage of his powers and potential or he may simply kill the boy and end our chances and our reign.”

She then turned to him and said, “Cal in earnest, you are the only one that I trust in this matter. I know that you will not fail me.”

Cal didn't miss the familiar speech and said, “Yes Vicky. I will spare no effort. By hook or crook, I will find him. And if I need to, I will end Calador as well.”

She smiled warmly and said, “I know you will. However, Calador is not the only threat from the council that I face. Also, there are other forces at work here. Dark forces that I have yet fully discerned. Whatever happens Cal I want you to know that I am thankful for whatever happy accident that brought you from your world to ours those long years ago.”

“Even though you tried to execute me back then?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Well you did just appear in my changing room. What was I supposed to do?” she winked “Luckily whatever brought you from your world to ours made you immortal.”

“That still didn't make the termination machine any more pleasant. Even not knowing I was immortal when I stepped into the machine was trauma enough.” he smiled to take the sting out of his words.

She put her hand on his and said, “Well I am glad that things have turned out the way they did. I am only saddened that it is your destiny to return to your world someday. I only wish I knew when that day was. It may be long after I am sleeping with my ancestors. The Glass Darkly is hard to read on such details.

He placed his other hand on hers and said, “Well until that day comes it will be my pleasure to continue to serve you and yours. In my world I was nothing but an old broken-down soldier. Here I am able to make a difference. Even have an adventure or two while I'm at it. That and certain associations I have had I will cherish til my dying day.”

He got a serious look on his face and asked, “In earnest Your Eminence, why did you notify Calador of the audit?”

“It is the right thing to do. We will not cower in any way shape or form regarding doing what is right. He may choose to maneuver, skulk and whatever other skullduggery that he may but we will not.”

“I understand. Know this Your Eminence, if I find out that he is moving against you or is a real threat to your safety I will end him.”

“Yes, we know. And you will not ask our permission to do so, will you?”

He only answered with the slightest of nods. Then his face took on a whimsical look to it and he said, “Your Eminence could always send me to the termination machine again.” he then bowed and kissed her hand.

“Cal we are so pleased to have you in our service and not that of our adversaries.” she had genuine warmth in her smile. For the last five years Cal had become something of a father figure to her since her own father had been killed when she was quite young.

4)Empress in Durance Vile (Tock)

HEAS Monarch made its final approach to Grandeur City's main airship port. The Monarch was the largest airship ever built. She measured 800 feet long with a beam of 100 feet and overall height of 200 feet. She boasted a broadside of 240 8-inch steam cannons with 10 ten-inch-long guns interspersed in. Suspended on her bottom she had a squadron of 16 Raptor Fighter Aircraft and four 10-person shuttle airships.

She had eight steam powered six bladed propeller engines situated along her hull that were on swivel type arms to ensure maneuverability. She had four lifter gas chambers that ran the length of the hull but were protected by the outer hull.

Lifter gas, when properly excited by electricity, had an altitude range from 500 feet to 10,000 feet. Since the minimal altitude was 500 feet the airship port was demarcated by several 500-foot towers that allowed for the airships to dock. Once docked the ships were moored on several points along the hull by huge five-inch-wide cables. Then eight enormous steam powered winches were employed to pull the ships down to the ground to bays that locked the ships in place. Once locked down it was safe to turn off the electricity to the lifter gas.

As The Monarch went through the hour-long docking process an honor guard formed up along the main ramp where the eight legged steam driven carriage was prepositioned to await Her Eminent Empress for her ride back to the palace.

Unnoticed to the waiting crowd several technicians and other officials who had need to attend their duties and not wait for the whole process of docking left HEAS Monarch at the dock point on the tower and proceeded down either the steps or the clockwork elevator in the tower. Among those individuals was Captain Cooper who had important business to attend to. Also, among the few that left the ship early was a group of four figures in pilgrim robes.

Since Halinar's HLS' classes were finished for the semester and its students were on summer break, Ouihan was able to go out and watch the parade that honored the Empress' return from the war front. Since he wasn't able to get out of his morning chores, he was only able to get out and stand to the back of the already gathered crowd that was already ten persons deep.

He tried his best to find an ideal vantage point to see the parade, but it was difficult. Finally, he decided to go over to one of the many telegraph towers that ran along Imperial Avenue and climb up it. On his way to the tower he had to dodge in and out of the already thickening crowd along the avenue. During one of those dodges he accidentally ran into an individual who was dressed in black pilgrim robes who was in the middle of a group of three others similarly dressed individuals.

“Pardon me...” He realized that the pilgrim was female, so he quickly said, “Ma'am.”

The pilgrim in the front turned to grab him but stopped suddenly when he looked at him. Ouihan couldn't help but notice that there was something mechanical in the way that the front pilgrim moved. He looked at the dark area that was the front opening of the pilgrim hood but couldn't discern a face. He then looked at the pilgrim that he ran into and saw she had dark skin and very dark almond shaped eyes. She had a very stunned look in those eyes as she saw how the front pilgrim reacted to Ouihan.

Ouihan heard her start to say something when suddenly four men stepped out of the crowd dressed in black long coats and black plate armor. One of them held up a device of some kind that resembled a four-inch diameter ball held by an eagle claw held up by a foot-long handle. A blue arc of electricity flew out from this device toward the female pilgrim that Ouihan had bumped into. He instinctively stepped between her and the device taking the full blast of the arc. For Ouihan everything went black.

Empress Victoria II took a second to realize that the boy who bumped into her wasn't part of the group that was attacking. Before she could do anything about it the officer who was accompanying her swept her unceremoniously off her feet and began to carry her down the street to the nearest safe house. The front sentinel plowed a path through the crowd in front while the back sentinel, running full speed backwards, interjected itself between the attackers and her.

The four attackers tried to pursue her and her entourage for about fifty feet before they decided to turn off into an alleyway and make good their escape.

The officer and the sentinels carried the Empress down two blocks then turned off to a side street then took several left and right turns down alleyways and foot paths until they came to a rather run-down looking house. Instead of going up the steps to the front door they went around back and down six steps to a basement door. The heavy iron door seemed to open automatically to allow them in then slam and bolt shut behind them. They proceeded down a short corridor to another heavy iron door that repeated the behavior of the first door. They entered what resembled the inside of a vault with another iron door to the back.

Once they entered the vault Empress Victoria II said, “Major you can put us down now. We can walk the rest of the way!”

“Yes, Your Eminence.” Major Thomas Gladly said but he made no move to put her down but continued to carry her through the final door into a rather luxuriant looking room where he put her down onto a couch.

The Empress closed her eyes and bit back the rebuke that she wanted to say realizing that Major Gladly was one of her most trusted and dedicated officers. She finally said, “Thank you Major.”

“Your welcome Your Eminence.” he then bowed.

The two sentinels took position on either side of the couch in full guard mode.

Major Gladly walked over to a cabinet on the far wall, opened it to reveal a telegraph device. He hit a couple of toggle switches and began tapping in code.

Victoria II said, “Major please see if you can have someone go look to that brave boy who saved us?”

“Yes, Your Eminence,” he continued to tap.

Street life, being as it was in all cities had its own pulse, ebbs, flows and even economy. Even though efforts had been taken to eradicate street life it still persisted. It can be argued that had the original plan been followed street life would have been at least minimized if not out and out eradicated. However, since Calador had insisted on performing mass arrests, imprisonments and enslavement then blamed it on the Empress, street life rebelled in its own quiet and hidden ways. Less on the surface and more underground.

Street life also had a way of recognizing one of its own. While Ouihan laid there on the sidewalk midst the chaos that came about from the failed assassination attempt, denizens of Grandeur City's street life recognized Ouihan, despite his school uniform, as formerly one of its own. So, while enforcers tried to clear the crowd and reestablish order. Someone scooped up his unconscious body took him underground.

When Ouihan first woke up the only thing he saw were grates passing overhead at regular intervals. He heard the din of screams and shouts steadily growing fainter. Other than that, he heard a steady splashing sound and the occasional chitter and squeak of funk rodents. He also heard labored breaths of someone carrying a burden and running. He also detected the dank smell that he recognized as the drainage system that he had to hide out in when he was younger.

He tried to lift his head to get a look at who was carrying him, but everything went black again.

When he came to again, he was in some kind of chamber that, although dank, did not smell as bad and felt drier than the drainage system usually felt. He saw pipes, valves and grates. The chamber was well lit by a single light orb suspended from the ceiling. He also saw crates and piles of gears, springs, cogs and other clockwork laying around in, to the untrained eyes, in disorder. He was able to see the order in the apparent chaos.

He heard hushed voices from another nearby chamber. Even though the voices were hushed he detected an argumentative tone to them.

As his eyes cleared and he could focus better he saw a half open waterproof hatch with a turn wheel to lock it down in the center. The oval door swung open more and a girl walked through it. She looked to be his own age with brown hair, grimy but pale skin and dressed in patchwork clothes. She had a utility belt on with all kinds of tools and other accouterments hanging off of it. Her skirt was leather and was uneven in length that at the longest point reached her right knee. The shortest point only reached down to the midpoint of her left thigh. She wore knee high boots with brass buttons up the side. On her forehead she wore a pair of workman goggles with several different size and strength magnifying glasses on swing arms.

“...so, you decided to bring him here Brother?!”

“But Sister, he head hit and me know nowhere else. He one of us.”

“Not in those clothes he's not.”

She looked at Ouihan and realized that he was looking back at her blinking his eyes.

“Oh great! He's awake!” she said sourly.

A behemoth of a boy, with considerable effort, ducked through the same hatch she had just entered and exclaimed, “Goody!”

Ouihan held up his hands at his shoulder level, palms facing toward the girl which was street cant for peace and said, “No worry I won't tell of your hidey-hole.” he carefully used street speak and not proper common.

She looked at him skeptically but nodded and said, “Well you speak the speak but do ya walk the walk?”

He decided to be honest and said, “Not for four years now. I was swept up from Nor Park Ring by hassers and sent to state. I step up to Halinar's two year now. Name is Ouihan. I used to hang with Tinker Man.”

The large boy said, “We've been hiding from hassers since sweep up usselves. I'm Brother, and tha's Sister.” he pointed to himself then her.

As Brother straitened up, he looked to stand about six foot, but he had a boyish look to his face that made him seem to look like he was about sixteen himself.

“Well you were street but now no more. Time you went back!” Sister said forcefully.

“Sure.” Ouihan started to stand up but got lightheaded and sat back down. He felt a burned spot on his chest and looked down to see that his school uniform had an inch-wide scorch mark on it and his skin was reddened underneath.

“See Sister, he was hit by a scorcher but still breaths. I saw it meself. Look like shadow man done did scorch him.”

“Tha's nonsense. Shadow men don't come to Gran City anymore. Hassers will sweep em up.”

“If shadow men after Wehan we must hide im.”

“Slack jaw if shadow men after Ouihan then more importantly we need to rid ourselves of him or he'll bring ruination to us all.”

“I say we lot it wit da others.” Brother said stubbornly. “We guise him while we hide him. Least till we know why shadow men try to scorch him. Besides you promise you won't call me dat again.”

Sister closed her eyes then said, “Alright, we lot it with the others. Sorry Brother I didn't mean it.” She turned to Ouihan and said, “If you are gonna stay then you need to street yourself up. There are scrap clothes in those boxes over there. Don't mess with anything else. I got gadgets a working on here.” turned and left back through the hatch.

Brother straitened himself up, hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and looked pleased with himself.

Ouihan said, “Thanks Brother for helping me. Looks like you and Sister take care of each other.”

“Yessir we do. Worry not if she didn't like ya some she wouldn't have let ya stay. Now s'guise yourself.”

Major Gladly was listening to the reply from his urgent message and looked frustrated. He turned to Empress Victoria II and said, “Your Eminence Grand Guard says to sit tight for a while. They said that the Imperial carriage was also attacked, and your double was hurt badly. Several other Imperial assets were attacked as well, and no one is available to extract us just yet.”

“How did they know that we were traveling undercover? No one knew our route except us, and Captain Cooper. I know that he did not reveal it.” she looked at Major Gladly and said, “Seize him!”

The sentinels reached out quickly and grabbed his shoulders and pushed him into a chair.

Major Gladly looked stunned and said, “How do you know it was not Cooper? Every man has a price. Calador could have found his!” as if as an afterthought, “Your Eminence.”

She stepped over to Gladly, looked him in the eyes narrowing her own and said, “We just know.” with imperial certainty. She then looked around the room and asked, “If you want to avoid the termination machine you will tell us how long we have until they arrive.”

Major Gladly insisted, “Your Eminence I did not betray you!”

She looked at the telegraph and saw that one of the toggles was switched to the general network and not HQ and said, “Why does everyone underestimate us. We are not some hopeless royal who has not been properly instructed on things.” She turned back to Major Gladly, “Captain Cooper taught us much since he has been in our confidence. Sadly, he felt it was important that we learn judicious skepticism. If you were talking to Headquarters, you would have set the toggle to HQ. So, we will ask this one more time. How long do we have?”

He looked her in the eyes and said, “Seconds.”

She said to the sentinels, “Bring him!” and she turned and went to the back door to the vault that was hidden behind a bookcase. She knew that even the major wasn't aware of the back door. Cal made sure that only certain people were educated about the safe rooms that he established several years ago. The door opened to a corridor that terminated into a shaft with a ladder going up and another going down.

The door no sooner closed when they heard an explosion on the other side and felt the floor shake with the force of the blast.

“It would seem that you were expendable Major since we very much doubt that anyone would have survived such a blast in the safe room.” she said over her shoulder not slowing her pace.

Major Gladly paled.

Captain Cooper had been in the lobby of Halinar's HLS, following up on a lead, when he heard the commotion on the street outside. He ran out to see the chaos. Three things he could discern from the chaos with his trained eyes. First, he saw a boy laying on the sidewalk with smoke coming out of his chest like he had just been arc lighted. Second, he saw three people in pilgrim robes running away down the street, one man carries a fourth, toward what he knew to be a safe house. Third he saw four people in black coats following the pilgrim robed group for about a block before peeling off into an alley. He did a quick mental triage. He couldn't help the boy who was likely dead from the arc light or scorcher, which was the slang word for it. He knew that among the pilgrims was his Empress and she was headed appropriately to the nearest safe room that he had established. So, he decided to follow the shadow men in the black coats.

He reached under his black duster coat and drew his bolt gun and began to chase the Shadowmen.

Shadowmen belong to an assassin's guild that were said to be the best of the best. If one had Shadowmen on one's tail their life span was usually measured in seconds to minutes.

Cal followed the trail of the shadow men down the alley then a left turn down a side street to run parallel to Empress Victoria's route to the safe room. He could discern from their path that they somehow knew where the safe room was.

“This does not bode well.” he said to himself as he took another turn to try to get ahead of them.

He stepped out into an alley right in front of the four shadow men firing his bolt gun which fired small two-inch-long metal crossbow bolts out of the wind-up clockwork pistol at fully automatic fire mowing down the first two.

The third man leveled his arc light at him, and Cal said to himself, “Ooh this is gonna hurt.” as the blue energy hit him dead center of his chest.

He fell to the ground and his body convulsed. He felt like he was hit in the chest with a sledgehammer and he couldn't control his body's actions and functions. He helplessly watched the two remaining Shadowmen run past him as he tried to compose himself.

After a few minutes he stopped convulsing and he shakily got himself up, looked down at his silk vest and said, “Damn I just bought that.” as he gingerly touched the scorched hole in his vest and shirt.

He ignored the state of his underwear and tried to follow the shadow men.

He arrived moments after the explosive charge had blew in the vault door of the safe room. He was very angry at this point, thinking that he failed the Empress, so he stepped up behind the two remaining Shadowmen and shot one in the back of the head with his bolt gun sending five bolts into his skull. He kneed the other man into the base of his spine then he used his bolt gun to knock him out. He then investigated the safe room to see no sign of the Empress and her entourage.

“That's my girl.” he said proudly as he bent down and grabbed the remaining shadow man by his epaulets shoved him into one of the chairs in the room and proceeded to manacle him to it.

He closed the outer iron door behind him and then quickly went through the pockets and clothes of the shadowman finding several devices and implements of death and mayhem.

He also found a black capsule that he knew to be a suicide pill. He carefully put all the gear on a coffee table, and he went over to a wet bar and poured himself a whiskey.

When he saw the man start to stir, he said, “Wakey wakey eggs and bakey.” he then slapped him on the cheek, grabbed his chin and shook his head to wake him up faster.

“Wha... what?” he said groggily.

Cal stepped back and took out his bolt gun, reloaded and rewound it, “You tried to kill someone who is near and dear to my heart. I think you now realize how unhealthy that is for you.”

The shadow man tried to move but found out that he was quite securely shackled to the armchair. He then looked up at Cal with narrowed eyes and said, “Don't matter what you do to me, I'm not telling you anything. You'll just waste time while my brothers kill her...” he looked at Cal a little closer and asked, “say I scorched you. How come you're still alive?”

“Not the first time I've been scorched ole boy. I'm the one asking questions here.” He re-holstered his pistol then reached into an inner pocket in his duster and took out a small black leather case about eight inches by four. He unzipped the case and opened it up to reveal four metal and glass syringes. Two had green liquid in them. One had blue liquid and the last had red. “Do you really think that I'm going to question you with such crude things as thumb screws, bamboo under the fingernails or red-hot pincers? Oh no ole boy, what I have planned for you is far less pleasant.”

5)Enters the Heroes and Heroines (Tick)

Empress Victoria II proceeded down the lower tunnel system with her entourage with one sentinel keeping pace with her and the other, with its hand clasped firmly on his bicep, bringing Major Gladly along.

Major Gladly was not a small man. He stood six foot two and was very muscular. Strong enough to carry the Empress, who was not a small woman, close to a half a mile to the safe room. Yet, the sentinel led him along like he was a small child in the grip of a much stronger adult.

The Empress had the tunnel network memorized so she decided to return to the surface via a valve room that was just outside the Imperial Avenue district. From there she would make her way back to the palace or at least another safe room.

While she quickly walked, she asked Gladly, “What was your price Major? We trusted you with our life. You have no idea how deep this betrayal cuts.”

Major Gladly said nothing. He just was dragged along refusing to make eye contact with her.

She just shrugged and continued down the dimly lit corridor looking for the appropriate ladder up.

Ouihan was ushered into a larger chamber next to the room he had been brought to by Brother. The light was dim and Ouihan could only make out silhouettes of the other 'children'. That they were all children or teenagers he had no doubt by their sizes and manners.

Many were lounging about on pallets and couches made from piles of cloth and other sundry items. Sister stepped out of the shadows and said, “Brother thinks that we should shelter this boy who is not, but once was, one of us. I already told yuz what happened. Brother said his piece too.” She turned to Ouihan and said, “Do you have anything to say for yourself before we lot you?”

Ouihan made the 'peace' sign in street cant again then he made a fist with his right hand with the back of his hand facing out and he grabbed his right wrist with his left hand which was street cant for 'unity' or 'brotherhood' then he said, “My name Ouihan. Sister is right that I was street but no more. Hassers swept me to state four years ago. But in my heart street is all I ever knew. I don't know why but Shadowmen tried to scorch me. All I ask is a place to cool my heels until I can figure out why. If you say no, I will understand. But before you do know that I can gadget work to earn my grub if need be. I don't expect a free ride.”

One of the larger shadows, a young man by the sound of his voice, spoke up asking, “Were you the boy who used to stay with Tinker man of Nor Park Ring?”

“Yes.”

“I remember you.” he stepped out of the shadows and turned to the others, “I hear that he sold out the old man so he could go to school...”

“I did no such thing, he died and the hassers arrested me two days later! Judge man sold Tinker man's cart and sent me to state!”

“Jus saying what I heard, tha's all.” the young man said making the peace sign.

Brother stepped between the young man and Ouihan and said, “Scrapper you always start trouble. I believe em and I say again we should protect em.”

Scrapper smirked at Brother and stepped up to him with a menacing air.

Sister stepped between them and although Scrapper was head and shoulders taller than her, she pushed him back. It kind of looked like a small Terrier trying to stand between a Mastiff and a Sheep Dog wanting to fight. Scrapper continued to stare Brother down over Sister's head. After a long tense moment, he looked down at Sister, smirked again and said, “Whatever!” turned and when back to where he was lounging in the shadows.

Sister let out a long breath then said, “Okay anybody else have anything to say? Alright let's lot.”

Brother took off his cap and passed it around. Everyone dropped either a white or black stone. After the hat went around the room Brother took the cap and went over to a drum in the middle of the room. He poured the stones out and Sister started to count the white and black stones.

“Seven white and seven black.” Sister said then looked around the room then said, “I recon tha the final lot's mine. Before I lot, I think I'll ask those of you who lot black, how would ya feel if ya need help and we decided to not.” she then turned to Ouihan and said, “Alright Ouihan you can stay. But only until we can figure out why shadowman is after ya. Or, if ya become a threat to rest of us. Ya understand?”

“Yes Sister. I don't want to be a threat to you. Thank you for letting me stay.”

Sister then pointed to the room Ouihan had just come out of and said, “Now go street yourself up.”

Ouihan turned and walked back to the hatch. From what he could tell the room had only two hatches in it, unless there was another hidden in the shadows, and the other hatch was just over to his right not ten feet from the valve room he woke up in. For some reason this occurred to him and he was wondering why as he heard the a crash right behind him and he turned to see a three foot by three foot metal plate on the floor had flipped open and a large black robed figure quickly hurtled up from some passage under the floor.

The kids in the room scattered and most dove for cover behind boxes, drums or some other objects. Sister tried to dart past the robed figure toward the hatch, but its hand jetted out and grabbed her by her hair.

Brother hauled of and punched it but there was just a hollow sounding thud as he hit the head. There was a cracking sound from his hand.

The robed figure's other hand grabbed Brother by the throat and Ouihan could hear Brother making choking sounds. Ouihan yelled, “Stop it now! Let them go!”

The robed figure turned its head toward Ouihan and stopped moving for a couple of seconds then released Brother and Sister.

From the passageway right behind the sentinel another, much shorter robed figure climbed up into the room.

Ouihan recognized her as the woman he ran into on the street during the attack. She looked at the sentinel then turned her head to look at Ouihan, and asked, “Did you just stop our sentinel?!”

“I dunno. I just ordered them, and they obeyed.” he said uncertainly.

She kept eye contact with him for a few more moments then looked at the others in the room. She then sighed and said, “We mean you no harm but what are you doing here?”

Sister stood up from where she unceremoniously was dropped to the floor and said, “Says you your highness. Your hassers... I mean enforcers have been meaning us harm for some time now.” she showed no sign of intimidation by the fact that she obviously knew that she stood in the presence of the Empress.

Empress Victoria II closed her eyes and seemed to deflate some then said, “Yes my child, we...I have just recently become aware of how my orders have been used to make you, all of you to suffer. For that you have our apologies.” she then looked back at Ouihan, “We owe you our thanks for saving our life today. We are delighted that you are still alive.”

By this time the other sentinel had hauled Major Gladly into the room from the underground passage. She looked at the Major and said, “This man has betrayed us. Can we beseech you to help us secure him until he can be brought to justice?”

Sister continued to look evenly at her and said, “I think I can rig up something. But what's in it for us?”

Empress Victoria II looked her strait in the eyes and said, “If you help me in this crisis I will grant you anything that is within my power to grant.” she then removed her hood so that everyone in the room could see who she was.

Ouihan finally recognized her and dropped down to his knee as did Brother. Scrapper cautiously stepped out from behind the beam that he was hiding behind and paused for a moment, apparently thinking about how he can take advantage. After him the rest of the children came out from hiding.

Victoria II looked around the room and asked, “Where are your parents, children?”

Sister said defiantly, “We have none. We're all orphans here. We’re the children of the street. We have banded together to hide from your hassers, slavers and other street thugs. I'm Sister and that's Brother...” she proceeded to introduce the rest of the orphans.

“Again, we are grieved as to how our orders have caused you pain. We intended something different, but others had taken advantage of our desires. However, we... I am responsible for your pain so even if you do not help us, we will make whatever amends we can.”

Ouihan said, “So the Shadowmen weren't after me, they were after you Your Eminence?”

“Yes, but we believe that you are one that we have been looking for. Are you the one who was staying with Edmund Coorie, or as he was known on the street as Tinker Man?”

Ouihan looked at her with a puzzled look on his face and said tentatively, “Yes, I am. How did you know?”

“We will explain later in private.” she then turned to Sister, “It would seem that you are their leader are you not?”

“We lot everything important. But yes, they often look to me for important decisions.” Sister said still maintaining steady eye contact. Meanwhile the rest of the children had fallen to a knee.

“How old are you child?”

“Dunno, Brother thinks I'm around 12 and he's around 16. He had taken care of me since I was an infant. Our parents died from the black flu right after I was born. So, we figure it to be 12 years now since the last big black flu plague.”

Victoria II looked thoughtful and said, “That sounds about right. It could not have been easy for you. Can we...can I count on your help?”

Sister looked thoughtful then said, “Yes you can.” she then started to fall to her knee.

Victoria II stopped her, “You need not bow down to me. Or at least not until this is over. I am thinking that we must avoid drawing attention to ourselves...myself until this is over. The rest of you rise as well.”

She looked around the room appraising every one of the children present then said, “Gather round children and we'll plan our next move...”

6)The Tarnished Paladin (Tock)

Captain Calvin Cooper was born in the year 1965AD in a small city in upstate New York, on another world in another reality. In this reality that he now inhabits there are only four continents and magic is real not some legend or slight of hand pallor trick.

In his world and time, he lived a normal life and became a soldier then an officer. He retired as an Army Intelligence officer after thirty years at the rank of captain. He had his share of adventures but for the most part he had been very jaded and disillusioned.

Several years before he had somehow found his way to this other reality. The first person he met in this reality was Crown Princess Victoria II Arkanti who ordered him arrested immediately for being in her dressing room where he had appeared.

Soon after the Regent ordered his execution by the Termination Machine which was a machine that quite literally sucked the life out of you. He can attest that the sensation was very unpleasant. However, for some reason his life would not leave him. He later found out that he was immortal.

During his trial and subsequent sentencing Victoria had gotten to know him and realized that he was not at fault for being where he was. She was unable to override her regent's sentence at that point. However, after the failed execution she convinced her regent to commute his sentence and she then enlisted Cal to her Special Service. This was also the time that Calador and the Council were moving against the regent.

Victoria II saw what was happening and began to move and consolidate her power. As a matter of fact, Cal was instrumental in swinging the council's vote in her favor when she petitioned for ascension.

Between then and now, Victoria and he had become very close. He began to regard her as a daughter that he never had, and he liked to believe that he was some sort or father figure to her.

She had often referred to him as her secret paladin, but he knew that if he were even close to be a paladin, he would be a tarnished one at best. His reasoning being that there wasn't anything he wouldn't do to protect Vicky.

He was thinking about this as he washed his hands looking at the drooling and twitching 'shadowman' strapped to the chair. The information that he got from the assassin was useful to a degree. There wouldn't be enough evidence to arrest and convict High Lord James XVI Baron of Calador of treason because men like him are always careful enough to keep at least three levels of separation between them and their plots. But then again arrest and conviction weren't really on Cal's agenda now.

What he found out from his interrogation of the assassin was that the backup plan was the public assassination of the Empress' body double and then an announcement that there was a move to put an impostor on the throne. Meanwhile, there are teams stationed between their target and the palace to prevent her from getting there safely.

He eyed the telegraph device considering whether or not to reach out for and update but decided against that. He had other ways to find out what was going on. He did realized that if what the 'shadowman' said was true, and he had little doubt that it was due to the alchemical agents he used, then by this point the Imperial Guard has been effectively taken out of the picture and the Council Guard will be in charge of further investigations and security around the palace.

So that left him with a dilemma. How to secure his witness and how to see to Empress Victoria's safety. So, he left the safe room, leaving behind the prisoner for the time being and went through the back door and down into the passage system. He needed to exit up onto the streets at the right point and make the right contact. He took the time to change into fresh clothing and restock his supply of bolts from stores that he had strategically placed in the safe room. He had such stores in all the safe rooms.

Once he was up on the street, he made his way to a certain bookstore. As he entered the store, he saw that the shop keeper was with a customer, so he acted like he was browsing.

Once the customer finished her business with the proprietor and she left Cal went up to him and started to speak but a couple other men walked into the shop. Without seeming to notice the two, who looked not like avid readers, he said to the proprietor, “I was wondering if you would be interested in buying or selling on consignment this book?” he then reached into his hip pocket of his duster and retrieved a small, rather old looking, book and put it on the counter.

The shop keeper took the book and leafed through it briefly and nodded, “I have a regular customer who was looking for this very book.” he then flashed a glance at the two other 'patrons' in the store and went on, “If you leave me your contact info I'll be glad to arrange a sale.”

Cal took a fountain pen out of his pocket and scribbled an address on a piece of paper and slid it across the counter to the shop keeper then retrieved the book, inconspicuously leaving the fountain pen on the counter. He then said, “Please if you can, I am in a bit of a hurry to get what I can for it.” he replaced the book into his pocket and smiled and left the store.

He saw that one of the other 'customers' followed him out while the other stayed behind. Cal walked down the street about a block and a half and turned down an alley. The other man followed, all the while walking slightly faster and catching up to Cal. Cal walked about halfway down the alley then stopped and turned around to look directly at the following man.

The thug reached behind his back under his vest and pulled out a rather nasty looking long knife and said, “I'll have that book now chap.”

“I doubt that you can read, let alone be able to appreciate such a sophisticated book.”

“I'll be the judge of that mate.”

Cal shrugged and reached into his pocket and took out a brown package and tossed it to the man. The package made it about three quarters the way to the other man and exploded into a shower of sparks temporarily blinding him. By the time he was able to recover his sight Cal had dodged down the alley turned to the left. He then stopped short as he ran directly into the other thug who had an identical knife out that his partner had.

“Wow what a wicked knife you have there. Where might I get one?”

The thug smiled a crooked tooth smile and said, “Here have mine.” and he stabbed at Cal's gut.

Cal sidestepped to his right and half a step back causing the thug to reach out to his left and be slightly off balance. Cal then grabbed the man's wrist, sweeping his arm up and over his head. He then ducked down and pulled the thug forward thrusting the thug’s knife into the other thug's chest who was just rounding the corner. Then Cal stepped back to look at his handy work.

Both thugs looked rather surprised. Cal looked pleased.

As the stabbed thug slowly fell backwards off his partner's blade, Cal leveled his bolt gun at eye level to the other thug, “Looks like you took a knife to a gun fight ole boy.” he then pulled the trigger.

He quickly went through the pockets of the thugs and other than the usual tools and paraphernalia of mayhem. The only thing out of the normal was the slip of paper that he had put his information on at the book shop. Since his fountain pen wasn't among the items, he was certain that his message was going forward to his intended destination.

He also found another piece of paper with a list of addresses on it. He recognized those addresses at a glance as the list of safe houses that he had set up for the Empress. This caused him no less consternation. Only three people knew the complete list of safe houses. Himself, the Empress and finally, Major Gladly, the Empress' personal bodyguard.

He suddenly felt like time was getting away from him. He felt like he was desperately behind the curve. His mind raced as to what to do next and where to go. All his carefully laid out plans were shot. He took two hurried steps forward but then he realized that he had no idea where he was headed. He stopped, closed his eyes and took a long breath and forced himself to relax and think. If he was going to be her tarnished paladin, then he had to keep his head about him.

High Lord James XVI Baron of Calador sat at his desk looking through the reports that his secretary had collated and neatly stacked in order of understood protocol. His desk appeared exactly as one would expect for someone of his exalted position, made out of hand carved exotic woods from faraway lands and that probably cost an average man's salary of ten years.

For the most part the desk was clutter free and everything had a place, and everything was in its place save a couple of sundry items that were related to the stack of reports that he was going through. Standing in front of the Baron's desk was a nondescript looking man dressed in a long black button up coat, top hat wearing darkly smoked glasses. He also wore elbow high gauntlet gloves with black buttons up one side. Both hands rested on the top of a cane that was standing directly in front of him. The cane's head was a hooded bust of Death carved into some sort of black crystal. Despite his lack of frilly adornments, he looked elegant and above all the simple folk that occupy the world.

The Baron had finished reading through the stack of reports and leaned back into his chair simultaneously pushing the stack away from himself, smiled and said, “Splendid. Everything is going as planned for the most part. So far anyway.”

He then pressed a button on the ornate panel to the left side of his desk and after a moment his secretary stepped into the office and said, “Sir?”

The Baron just waved his hand in a dismissal way signifying that he wanted the reports to be taken away.

The secretary, a short well if economically dressed, balding and harried looking man, wordlessly gathered up the papers and sundry items and left.

The Baron waited until the door was closed to his office then said, “Well Alexander, how soon do you expect to have that bitch in hand?”

Alexander lifted his left hand and tipped down stylistically his glasses and said, “Ah Baron, that should be in hand already. I am still waiting for my team to report back. I have the best men available on this, um shall we say, project.”

The Baron didn't miss the slight qualifying of terms, “Best men available?”

“Well Baron, as it was, we had to expend ten thousand gold sovereigns to convince the good Major of our plan. I do not think we could have, at any price, convinced Captain Cooper to join our cause.”

“Good man that Cooper. Although a bit unorthodox.” the Baron said nodding, “Well there are ways to convince the terminally honorable types.”

“Sir, I have two very good men seeing to that as well.”

“Splendid!” Baron James clapped his hands together and then he reached for the button on the console, “Let us have a celebratory drink.”

“Thank you, no milord, but I will not be drinking until I have all the details in hand. Forgive me but even though I'm optimistic I am aware that things may go wrong. I wish to have my wits about me to take care of such situations.”

“Well suit yourself.” his finger paused next to the button, then he shrugged and said, “Perhaps you're right. Maybe we should both keep our wits about us until we have that bitch and her captain dead.”

“If you will excuse me Milord, I have other details to attend to.”

“Right of course Alexander.”

Alexander bowed and left via a side, hidden, exit.

Alexander was met by a small looking man dressed in black scrub clothes who looked like any other factory worker or other yeoman as soon as he left the Bailey Building which was The Council's office building that was situated across from the Palace. The small man handed Alexander a small slip of paper and then nervously held his flop hat in both of his hands.

Alexander looked at the slip of paper then closed his eyes and got a very pained look on his face. He then started to walk quickly down the street away from the Bailey. He made his way to a rather posh looking “Gentleman's Club” halfway down the block and entered the front doors into the lobby. The door man quickly opened the doors for him, smiling at him but no one could miss the sheer terror in the door man's eyes.

Alexander didn't pay him any mind as he stormed past the reception desk and up the stairs that had a sign marked “Private Only”. He climbed the grand stairway up to a corridor then down to the last office on the far end of the corridor. One of the pairs of rather large, bulbous and intimidating automatons standing on either side of the door opened it for him as he stormed past.

He entered the outer office and the secretary stood to his feet looking very nervous.

Alexander said without pausing on his way into the inner office, “Send them in.”

“Yes sir.”

The inner office was, by contrast, very simple and efficient looking. Good quality furniture but not ostentatious. He went around and sat down at the desk's simple but comfortable looking chair. Located centered on the blotter was a ledger that he opened, with a pencil he made a notation.

Two men entered the office rather hesitantly. One was a tall and large man wearing a bowler hat, black jacket, dark gray slacks and turtleneck sweater. In contrast he wore bright red suspenders. The other man was rather short in stature but still well built. He wore a black with gray pinstripe suit, white shirt, black bow tie and black billed hat.

The shorter man started to speak but stopped when Alexander held up his right hand while he continued to enter a notation in the book with his left. While he wrote both the men seemed to fidget and look around uncomfortably.

After a few minutes Alexander finished his notation then closed the book, looked up and said, “Please explain to me how such a well laid plan could go array?”

The short man said, “Well sir, it would seem that Captain Cooper had been in the neighborhood where the ambush took place. He took out half of Team A before he was hit by a scorcher. Somehow he survived the scorcher and went after the rest of the team.”

“So, you're saying that we had a run of bad luck?” Alexander asked sternly.

“Well yes sir.”

“I do not believe in luck.” Alexander said shaking his head. He then stood and turned his back to the two men and looked out the window. “Everett, how long have you been my Street Bull?”

“Three years sir.”

“In that time have you seen me accept such an excuse?”

“Never sir.”

Alexander nodded again and asked, “So why should I start now?”

“Well sir the operation hasn't been a total loss. The emp...um target is still in play. We have all approaches to the palace watched by our best people. The Agar brothers are on to Cooper so he should be eliminated presently.”

“You had better hope. Otherwise I would be very disappointed and have replace you as Street Bull.”

“Understood sir.”

Alexander continued to stand by the window and didn't say anything more. After a few seconds of silence, the two men bowed slightly and turned to leave the office.

Alexander asked over his shoulder, “By the way, why was the initial hit unsuccessful?”

“Well sir, our spotter said that a schoolboy stepped in between the scorcher and the Emp...um target.”

“Well I assume that the boy won't make that mistake again.”

“Yes sir, I suppose not.”

Alexander then waved his hand in a dismissal and the two men left.

7)A Matter of Clockworks and Time (Tick)

The underground covey that the orphans had set aside for their abode was a flurry of business, every resource and supply had been inventoried by Sister and The Empress. The children were each given their assignments and were busy about their preparations.

Ouihan was tinkering with a bunch of gears and sundry items that were in a discard box in the room that he awoke in not long before.

Sister looked at him and said, “Whatcha doing there Ouihan?”

“These are still usable. I think that I can gadget a few tools that we may need out of this.”

“They are all tweaked and buggered. Nothing can be done with em.”

Ouihan reached into his school bag and took out Gidget. Set her down and said, “Gidge, fetch me that Dwayne Spanner from over on the bench in the other room.”

Gidget sprung to life and scurried through the hatch to the other room. Ouihan smiled and said, “I made Gidget from tweaked and buggered parts such as this.”

There was a cacophony of shouts and shrieks from the other room then in a minute Gidget came skittering back into the room carrying the heavy looking spanner followed immediately by Scrapper yelling, “Hey I was using that! What the hell is that thing!”

Sister just smirked and said, “You were probably just using it for a hammer as usual Scrapper. Leave it be.”

Scrapper looked at Ouihan with a poisonous look but didn't make eye contact with Sister. He then shook his head and turned around and went back into the other room grumbling under his breath.

Empress Victoria II who was working on a project of her own was watching this whole thing play out with interest said, “I would keep an eye on that young man if I were you.”

“Oh, Scrapper is harmless. He, like the rest of us, acts like a tough instead of opening hisself up to get hurt. In the end he always does right by the rest of us.”

“None the less I think he bears watching.” Victoria said judiciously.

“Respects ma'am but I always do. Only one I trust unconditionally is Brother. So, I keep an eye on him but also I do so with you as well your M'nence.”

“We understand. You and I are the same believe it or not. I rule The Civilization whereas you rule this under street kingdom. We both have had little reason to trust others you and me. However, you and I also have in common that we have one person we trust implicitly. You trust Brother, I have someone that I trust. The more I think about it, we could use his help now. I suspect that he's out there right now looking for me. Perhaps we should have your people out there looking for him.”

Sister looked thoughtful for a moment then called out, “Mousy, can you come here please?”

A couple of seconds later a smallish scrap of a girl dressed in rags and smudged face came running into the room. She looked to be about seven or eight years old. Her hair brown, long and matted looking.

Sister said, “Your M'nence, please describe your man and Mousy here will spread the word to look out for him.”

After Victoria II described Cooper, Mousy nodded and went running off to the street. Victoria II watched her leave thoughtfully. She looked at Sister and said, “Perhaps we should also employ your network of eyes and ears on the street to get more information on what our enemies are doing?”

“Already ahead of ya, Your M'nence. I had Mousy head out earlier to get a feel from the street. I made sure that she didn't mention that you were with us, you understand.”

“Of course. How very wise of you.”

Ouihan looked from the Empress to Sister, shrugged and went back to work.

Victoria II looked at him and said, “Let us discuss your part in all this my friend...”

Next to the Royal Palace stands a huge pyramidal structure. Within this structure is a large apparatus with moving globes, gears, winding screws and other clockworks. No one alive knows how it works but it seems to gather power from that pyramid. The pyramid gathers the essence and energies from the surrounding world by some very arcane means.

Inside the maze of gears and other devices are several winding staircases and catwalks that lead from the entrance of the pyramid up to the very heart of the machine. The Glass Darkly.

The Glass Darkly is a piece of meteoric crystal that some accomplished mage, some 500 years ago, built the pyramid around in order to see the future. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, the Glass Darkly only works for certain individuals such as Empress Victoria II. The Glass Darkly not only communicates with visions of the future but also conveys feelings as well. The sooth given are rarely clear and certain but there is usually enough meaning conveyed, given enough wisdom, to help the user understand the future.

About five years before these events, Victoria II had stood before the Glass Darkly and received a foretelling of a time of turmoil and possible ruin of The Civilization that can only be undone by a boy who is a decedent of Wingdama Aling who was the very clockworks mage that built the sentinels for the royal family. Wingdama Aling who appeared to be from the Eastern Continent was actually from another world and reality. No one alive knew his real name or from what world or reality he came from. All that was known of him was that he had a talent for clockwork unlike any have seen before or since. He had lived in this world for some 300 or more years before one day he disappeared. It is said that he simply went home.

Like Cal, Wingdama was immortal. Legends had it that in the 300 plus years that he lived in this reality he only had one child. Although longed lived none of his decedents were reported to have inherited his immortality.

Since Victoria had seen Ouihan survive the normally un-survivable Arc Light hit that was intended for her it confirmed in her mind that he was indeed a descendant of Wingdama and that he had inherited Wingdama's immortality. She wasn't sure that that would be the case. Suspected but was unsure.

One of the reasons that the Arc Light was used by the Shadow Men so extensively was because that it was almost always fatal. The only reported previous cases of someone surviving an Arc Light hit were because of the immortality of the individual. Specifically, Captain Calvin Cooper for case in point. Of course, as Victoria was explaining this to Ouihan and Sister she omitted this fact keeping Cal's immortality secret.

After listening to the Empress' explanation Ouihan looked on in stunned silence. Sister on the other hand looked on with keen interest. After Victoria finished her explanation of Ouihan’s importance Sister asked, “Meaning no disrespect Your M'nence but why have you included me into this revelation?”

“Because child I also have reason to believe that you are also part of the prophesy. As always with the Glass Darkly, the visions are seldom clear, however, I saw an army of street children being part of Ouihan's rise to power. Weather for good or ill will depend upon Ouihan and his free will.” she then turned to Ouihan and said, “So it is up to you son. Will you help me save The Civilization?”

Ehawee was another street orphan who belonged to the 'club' of orphans who were currently allied to the Empress. Ehawee was a descendent of people who came from the Western Continent in search of better ways of life that The Civilization had offered. Ehawee meant 'Laughing Maiden' in her ancestral language but her name was the antithesis of who she was. Rarely could one find anyone more serious and sober. She was tasked by Mousy to not only gather information on what was happening on the street but also to find one Captain Cooper on behalf of their club's guest.

At thirteen she was very sharp and street wise. Her dark almond shape eyes missed very little. Her hearing was better than most, so she was able to discern details of speech even among a crowd. Her bronze colored skin gave her an exotic look that was her only detriment to street life. It was always best to be not noticed. So, she also learned to dress in such a way to conceal her exotic looks. So, looking at her one would think that she was a boy from the Eastern Continent which were more common here in Grandeur City.

She sat in one of her usual spots to haunt and beg just outside of Little East district of Grandeur City. She was just on the end of Empress Victoria I Plaza that was always crowded with Yeoman, Gentry and occasional Noble types doing their shopping. She knew the limits of how far she could go into the plaza that was 'Acceptable' to the shop keepers, enforcers and clientele. About thirty feet away from her she saw a man who looked like the man described to her by Mousy, so she focused to listen to what he was saying to a shop keeper.

She made out that he was saying, “...any word on my lady?”

The shopkeeper said, “No Cap... um Cal. So far all we have heard is that she is dead in the Imperial Carriage.”

“We both know that to not be true. Alright...” he seemed to distractedly look in Ehawee's direction.

She realized that she was staring too intently at him, so she pretended to look away as if she were just looking at the crowd for someone to beg from.

He looked at her for a few seconds more then said to shopkeeper, “I'll check back with you later. You know how to pass the word if you hear anything.” He then turned and walked away from the shopkeeper and Ehawee.

Ehawee got up and followed at a discreet distance. She could see that he appeared to be keeping an awareness of what was going on around him, so she faded back further away from him trying to keep cover from other members in the crowd.

At one point when she was trying to cover herself from observation she looked up and saw that he had disappeared. She looked around trying to find a clue as to where he had gone but couldn't tell. So, she turned back and headed back to her regular territory. She turned down an alley to take a short cut when she turned right into him. Before she could turn and run his hand shot out lightning fast and grabbed her on her collar and he yanked her around the corner into a small recessed area that was out of sight of both the street and most of the alleyway as well.

She yelled, “Hey now lemme go!” and she kicked him in the right shin.

He got a look in his eyes that made her go still. She had seen that cold hard look before. She knew that this man was very dangerous, so she froze in real fear.

“What do we have here? You are good at tailing. I've seen few better. Unfortunately for you I'm good at picking out details in a crowd. So, unless you can give me good reason for not breaking your neck and leaving you in my wake...”

She was told what to say once she found him even though it meant nothing to her, she said, “Vicky is looking for you!” she said with real fear in her voice because she believed he wasn't bluffing her. The look in his eyes was the same look that her father had in his eyes when he killed her mother and brother. Sheer cold killer. She only hoped that he was indeed the one that she was looking for.

His eyes shifted from cold, hard and deadly to having real concern in them and he asked, “Where is she?!” and he shook her collar to punctuate his urgency. When he did her Peaky Blinders, hat fell off revealing her long black hair. Strangely he didn't appear to be surprised that she was indeed a she but he did change his stance a little as if distracted by her hair, then he softened his look even more and let go of her collar and he bent over and picked up her cap and handed it to her. Looked around to make sure no one was watching and said, “I'll tell you what little lady, lemme buy you some food and we can find a quiet place and talk.”

8)An Army of a Thousand Nightmares (Tock)

Johann stood frozen like he had all those many days since he took the 13 steps. His understanding was that when he was to be executed by the Termination Machine his life force would be released into the ether and whatever fate awaited him. He, as most people, didn't realize that High Lord James XVI Baron of Calador had clandestinely ordered that the terminated’ s life force would be trapped in spirit jars then released to him and his staff for use.

Now the time he spent in the spirit jar wasn't awful, though brief. It seemed nebulous and detached. Dream like. However, once his essence was transferred into the current automaton shell was when his hell began.

Through experimentation and other trial and error a certain clockwork mage by the name of Curiouosa, who worked for Lord Calador, was able to duplicate the automaton sentinels. No one before could figure out how to power or give life force to these intricate machines. Curiouosa had experimented with animal life force and was able to get some limited results, however, once he was given permission to experiment with a human life force, he was able to finally near duplicate the magnificent sentinels. Although Curiouosa knew that the original creator of the sentinels didn't use life force, this was the only way he could get a working sentinel.

Now Johann stood in a large room frozen into the cold machine still very aware of his surroundings. Unable to move or express himself. For a brief time, when he was first placed into this machine, he was able to move as his shell was put through a function check. Yet he had no control over his movements.

So now he stood. Among an army of like automatons frozen yet his awareness, mind and memory still functioned. No sleep, no rest and no control.

All he can do is let his mind wander and relive his life and his memories. The one thing that kept torturing his mind was that despite the norm, he was indeed innocent of the murder that had earned him execution. He had plead guilty only to spare his daughter who had murdered her noble lover who beat and tortured her. Had she not killed him she herself would be dead.

Despite many changes to the legal codes that the Empress had been slowly introducing over the last couple of years there were still two legal systems. One for nobility and one for everyone else. So rather than see his own beloved daughter die undeservedly he confessed to the killing.

As his mind went around and around for those many days since his walk up the 13 steps, he began to become aware of something. Slowly he began to realize that if he tried and focused his will, he could feel his cold metal joints. This, although unpleasant, offered a mite of hope because with feeling then maybe control. So periodically he would take a time away from his spinning memories to focus on a different joint or appendage and feel the cold.

These expeditions of feeling to his new body took a lot out of him. But it was still better than his tortured thoughts, for that way laid madness. So, on one of his many explorations of his new body he focused with all his thought and hopes upon his right pinkie. Then, could it be, it moved?

He schooled himself to calm. He focused again, this time tying for more control and not some random movement. Sure, enough he was able to move his right pinkie to halfway of maximum extension. Then back and forth to various positions between maximum contraction back to maximum extension. The cold of his joint and arm was almost unbearable but still better than his tortured thoughts.

“Alright,” he told himself, “Now for the ring finger...”

Major General Kikola Ukahn, commander of the First Amazonian Legion of The Grand Army of The Civilization, stood at the head of her Legion alongside the many other legions that were called to form up on the immense parade ground to the rear of the Royal Palace. Her Legion's Sargent Major, Ukala Ukahn, her first cousin, stood at her customary post to her left and behind by a pace.

The First Amazonian was one of four “Home” legions that were responsible for the defense of Grandeur City and the Empress. Since the announcement of the attempt on Her Eminence's life earlier that day she had ordered her legion, as did the other legion commanders, to stand too and be prepared to do whatever it was they needed to restore order or do whatever they needed to support Her Eminence. While they were gathering intelligence in their headquarters and preparing marching orders for all possible contingencies, they received orders from the Grand Council to form up in mass formation and await an announcement from Lord James XVI the President of The Grand Council. So, they spent the last two hours changing from battle dress to burgundy parade dress uniforms. This was a waste of time in her opinion. Then they spent an hour waiting on the pleasure of High Lord James XVI in the hot sun.

Finally, Commander General Magnus came up to the microphone and the Command Sargent Major of The Grand Army of The Civilization called all to attention. General Magnus stood quiet for a moment with a very grim look on his face and finally said, “Please stand too for His Excellency, High Lord James XVI of Calador, President of The Grand Council!”

He then stepped back and turned and saluted Lord Calador who then stepped forward without even a sideways glance at General Magnus, took a moment to look out at the legions that were standing at attention. After a long moment he said, “It saddens me to announce that Her Eminence Empress Victoria II Arkanti, Empress of The Civilization, High Queen of the Northern Continent, High Lady of House Arkanti, Keeper of the Flame of Reason and wielder of the Glass Darkly, has succumbed to her injuries received earlier today when unknown forces attacked her Imperial Carriage.”

Even though disciplined, there was an undercurrent gasp that could be felt more than heard among the standing legions. General Ukahn glanced quickly to her cousin Ukala to see that she looked as if she was physically struck but righted herself quickly.

Lord Calador went on, “There is evidence that this attack was directed by our ally, until today, the Southern Continental Kingdom of Ugalla. Since the majority of the Grand Imperial Army are involved in the Western Campaign yours are the only legions available to answer this attack.”

General Ukahn knew from the intelligence gathered in the time up to present that there were no indications that the assassination attempt/attack was from a foreign source. As a matter of fact, the preponderance of the evidence indicated that only domestic entities were involved in the attack. Her mind raced to consider all the implications of this. Meanwhile Lord Calador continued, “Since there is no clear heir to the Imperial at this time The Grand Council will assume regency until an appropriate heir can be vetted and take legal ascendance.” she realized that this too was a lie. By law the Empress must designate an heir apparent immediately upon taking the throne. The Council only had a say if the heir apparent was underage and then they could only decide on approving regency. “It is our duty to order the Home Legions to return to your quarters and prepare to march south on the marrow. You are to attack and seize the Ugalla holdings in the Palentia Peninsula! Worry not about your primary mission of protecting the Imperial City of Grandeur. I have ordered The Grand Council to take charge of the Enforcer Legion to be militarized and equipped accordingly! Extraordinary times requires extraordinary measures.”

She felt that this was wrong on so many levels. She glanced again at her cousin who had a look of serious incredulity on her face.

The Amazonian Legion was manned almost entirely of the female descendants of the army that followed the great Arkan I who sailed his armada across the Channel of Despair a thousand years ago to bring civilization to the Northern Continent.

Ironically as the Northern Continent became more civilized the Southern Continent fell into chaos. The Ugalla Kingdom, Arkan's country of origin, had remained the soul surviving kingdom in the Southern Continent. As Arkan I started the growth of The Civilization he maintained an alliance with his homeland. As a concession with his former king he granted the Ugalla Kingdom the city of Landing and the Palentia Peninsula.

Since then The Civilization and the Ugalla have had the strongest of alliances. Through many of war, famine and other disasters the two empires thrived because of this alliance. Now High Lord Calador has announced the betrayal of this thousand-year-old alliance.

But who is betraying who?

Major General Kikola Ukahn felt in her very soul that the Ugalla weren't responsible for this attack. Which left what? At this point she wished with her whole heart that Empress Victoria II had survived the assassin's attack. Barring that, it was up to her and her legion to save the Empire and the Ugalla. But how? She couldn't just disobey orders and not be then arrested. So, when General Magnus dismissed the legions she ordered the Legion Sargent Major to assume command and prepare the First Amazonian Legion for war, have a Commanders Call in one hour and then she went over to The Grand Army's Headquarters to be briefed by her commander, General Magnus.

When she arrived at General Magnus' office she was prepared to ask some blunt questions, however, when she got there she not only saw the three other legion commanders waiting but also a man in black long button up coat and top hat waiting for her.

General Magnus said, “Generals, may I introduce you to Mr. Smith. He is the liaison to High Lord Calador's office. There will be liaisons assigned to each of your headquarters' staff. They are to be given the same level of respect that you would High Lord Calador himself.” he then turned to Mr. Smith and said, “Mr. Smith.”

Mr. Smith cleared his throat and said in an ironically high-pitched voice, “Because of our long standing relationship with the Kingdom of Ugalla, we fear that some of our officers and soldiers may betray The Civilization in favor of the Ugalla.”

Major General Kikola Ukahn said sharply, “Mr. Smith I resent what you're implying. I have the utmost confidence in my officers and soldiers to obey all lawful orders!”

Mr. Smith smirked and said in the most condescending tone, “I pray that you are correct miss, but we cannot...”

“It's General, Mr. Smith! She has quite deservedly obtained the rank and all respect that goes with it!” General Magnus said firmly in command voice.

Mr. Smith shrugged and said, quite unconvincingly, “My apologies General,” with a small bow, “but as I was saying, we hope and pray that our soldier's loyalties are without diversion, however, we cannot be sure of that and thus we must take precautions. That is why we will have a liaison assigned to every level of command down to company command. These liaisons will have the authority to assume command of their assigned units if they detect the slightest sign of disloyalty.” he then looked at General Kikola Ukahn with almost a leer, “That also includes yourselves the legion commanders.”

General Magnus cleared his throat and said, “Now that that has been established, let us get down to the business at hand. We must be about following our lawful orders through the proper chain of command...” he went on to lay out the plan of march. As General Magnus droned on with the orders and plan of march, Kikola payed attention on a cursory level, however, her primary focus was busy parsing General Magnus' emphasis on the words 'CHAIN OF COMMAND' and 'LAWFUL ORDERS'.

Johann was up to moving his whole left hand when the lights in the cavernous room he was standing in came on. This was the first time that he saw the extent of the 'army' that he was part of. At least in front of him there were hundreds. He didn't dare to turn his head to see how many were behind him because two men in work clothes were walking into the room over on his right side.

The men were in the middle of a conversation as they came in, “...I dunno about you but I get the creeps every time I come in here.”

“That's because you're a coward Beeves. Look at the bright side. As long as these monsters are fighting for our lard, we don't have to.”

“Liam I am no coward, but there is that.” Beeves conceded.

The two men went over to a large chest over by the wall and opened it up and started pulling out robes, “Anyway our lard wants fifty of these blokes to be d'guised and stood up at strategical places near palace in case something goes wrong.”

“I thought everything was going good. I heard it myself tha the Empress is dead. Not that I had any problem with her ta gin with.”

“Don't let our Lard or Mr. Alexander hear ya say that.”

“I know, I know, Liam. But tis true.”

“Ya take da Lard's talon so ya do what he says.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Jus saying tha's all.”

While they were talking, they were moving among the mechanical monsters and were disguising them. Johann stood absolutely still, when they came to him the man named Beeves put pilgrim robes over him.

After fifty of the automatons were dressed in various garb the man named Liam stood over to their right side and mumbled, “Now what was that word again? Oh yeah. Activate!”

Johann felt his mechanical body come to life like it did when he was briefly given a function test those many days ago after having his essence put into his new body. However, it was different this time. He could feel every nuance of his body and even knew that he could control himself.

Liam went on, “Alright, only the fifty that we have dressed follow miself and Beeves.”

Johann felt himself turn to face Liam and Beeves.

After a couple of hours of Liam and Beeves stationing the last of the automatons at strategic positions along the approaches to the palace and each given instructions on what to watch for, Beeves turned to Liam and said, “I know we took fifty out but I only remember stationing forty nine.”

“You don't know how to count Beeves. Leave the counting to those of us that are smarter than you...”

9)All of Us Mechanical Monsters (Tick)

Johann stood in the shadows below the window where he used to live. He knew he couldn't go back but that didn't ease the ache in his heart or whatever it was that he was using for a heart these days. He continued to watch the window when a young girl, who was covered with dirt and soot, carefully peeked around the corner that he was hiding and said, “Whacha doing here Mister?”

Johann turned his head and pulled his pilgrim hood further over his face and said, “Nothing, now go away!” This was the first time that he heard his new voice. It sounded mechanical and distant. Almost sinister.

The little girl defiantly stepped forward and reached up and pushed Johann's hood away, “Say Mister, you one of those sentinels that protect the M'press?”

Johann reached up and pulled his hood back in place and yelled, “No! I'm something else! Now Go away!”

She wasn't deterred at all. She held out her hand and said, “I'm Mousy, what's your name?”

Johann looked at her startled. This young girl appeared so frank, open and honest. Without realizing it he reached out and gently took her hand and said, “I'm Johann... Well I used to be Johann Schmidt.” he pointed up to the window he was looking at and said, “I used to live up there.”

Mousy looked thoughtful and said, “I heard of ya. Ya the one who went up the 13 for killing some lard or nuther.”

“Yes, that's me. So now you need to get away from me cause I'm dangerous.”

She just gently pushed his hood back and said, “No you're not. Not to me anyway.” she held her hand out again and said, “Come with me. I can take you somewhere you can hide.”

He didn't know why but he couldn't help but take her hand and follow her. She took him to a city service hatch for the drainage system. He followed her down a wrought iron spiral staircase down to a long dank smelling hallway with a trench filled with water in the middle of it.

She led him down one corridor then another into a maze of such like tunnels. She appeared to know exactly where she was going. He realized that even if he tried, he couldn't find his way back out for the life of him.

Finally, she stopped in front of a storm hatch and said, “Wait here Johann. I'll be right back.”

She went in and she closed the hatch behind her. While standing there in the dark dank tunnel he came to the realization that even in the dark he could see everything around him clearly.

Empress Victoria II and Sister were inventorying the gadgets and other resources that they had available when Mousy came into the room and whispered something into Sister's ear.

Sister looked perplexed and practically yelled, “And you brought it here!”

Mousy looked undeterred said, “Yes, because I think HE can be useful.”

Sister closed her eyes and her continence appeared to be that of a woman far older than her 12 years. She kept her eyes closed for a few seconds then finally opened her eyes and nodded and said to Victoria II, “Your M'nence should see this.” she then turned back to Mousy and said, “Bring it in.”

Mousy turned and left then after a couple of minutes she returned leading an automaton that looked almost exactly like one of the Empress' sentinels. However, there were subtle differences noticeable.

Victoria II stood up and was visibly shocked by this new development.

Johann felt his hand reach out suddenly and he knew that it was some sort of residue of original programming that was compelling him to kill the Empress. With all his will he fought the impulse freezing his hand halfway up. His whole body began to quake with the obvious battle of will that was going on.

Ouihan, who was sitting nearby working on a project, instinctively stood up and stepped in between Johann and the Empress.

Johann, while fighting the impulse to kill the Empress, saw Ouihan step in front of him and he felt this click inside his mechanical head and the impulse went away as fast as it came. He suddenly felt another, strange compulsion to obey this young boy whatever he said to do.

Johann and one of the sentinels sat back to back with their armored skulls opened up on top revealing their clockwork brains. Thousands of tiny gears, cogs, springs and other sundry clockworks were clicking along while Ouihan, standing to one side, was examining them with a magnifying glass.

Standing on the other side were both Sister and Victoria II, watching Ouihan examine the workings.

Ouihan finally straitened up and said, “The core gears and workings are the same, however there are many significant differences in what looks like the control regions. Whoever made this duplicate tried to override the core loyalty to you and your family Your Eminence.” he looked down at Johann and asked, “But you feel compelled to listen to me?”

Johann said, “Yes.” he still couldn't get over the sound of his new voice.

Sister looked perplexed, “How do you know this Ouihan?”

“I dunno, just do.”

Victoria II was looking on with interest asked, “Can you fix Johann so that follows my commands?”

“I think I can, but I don't think we have the right cogs and gears to do it with here. What I can do with what we have on hand is bypass the external control center so that his free will is restored and so he won't be compelled to kill you Your Eminence.”

Victoria II looked thoughtful then asked Johann, “If your controls are released will you swear fealty to me?”

Johann said, “Quite frankly Your Eminence, no. Your government has taken far too much from me to ever require me to serve you.”

Victoria II was briefly stunned about Johann's frank answer but rather than answer sharply she took a deep breath and said, “Very well. If you will please tell Us about it?”

Johann took the better part of an hour to explain his and his daughter's story as well as recapped what he experienced when he was first placed in the mechanical body he now occupied, “...so you see Your Eminence, I have given your empire my very life and quite unfairly.”

Victoria II nodded, “Just so. Very well will you then agree to help me for just compensation for the wrongs done to you and your family?”

“With all due respects Your Eminence, how can I trust that you will indeed do this?”

“You will have to take Our word for it. Besides We cannot have one such as you run loose on the streets.”

Ouihan said, “With all due respect Ma’am, it would seem to me that you already have the control that you need. Meaning me. Both your sentinels and Johann have some sort of base programing to follow me.” Ouihan turned and faced Victoria II and said, “Besides, if you want me to help you then you will have to trust my judgement on these matters. My feeling is since Johann here didn’t ask for this and was quite unfairly put into this situation by your government, weather you had knowledge of it or not, it is your responsibility to make it right regardless of what Johann does in return.” Ouihan sounded surer of himself and held himself much like a man much older and wiser than his 12 years.

Victoria II looked at Ouihan stunned. She had grown used to people sugar coating their corrections of Victoria’s mistakes or their disagreements to her. Only other person who did not do so was her beloved Captain Cooper. He always laid things out plain. Ouihan’s correction and stance also highlighted something else. She knew that he was right as was Johann. So why did she suddenly take a hard line on Johann. Because what he represented quite frankly scared her. No make that terrified her. An army of sentinels was out there somewhere, and they weren’t beholding to her but to her enemies. The fact that Johann had said that he personally saw several hundred and perhaps a thousand of them only terrified her even more. So, her whole reaction toward Johann was innately sharp and hostile. She chided herself about reacting mechanically. No different than one of the sentinels. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Johann or even not like him. No, it was that he represented a greater threat than she was prepared to deal with.

She finally said, “Yes you are right Ouihan. We suspect that your ability to control the sentinels was the reason why the Glass Darkly showed your importance to what is to come.”

She turned to Johann and said, “Our apologies. You have indeed been through far more than you should have, and We have no right to ask more of you, save that you do not oppose Us. Once We are back at the palace, We will make amends in any way We can.” She then turned to Ouihan and said, “Since We cannot have him so compelled to do Us harm, do what you must to restore his free will.”

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

In a small, quaint park just adjacent to Empress Victoria I Plaza, Captain Cooper patiently watched Ehawee greedily devour the meat pie that he had bought her. He thought back over his 50 some odd years of life and he realized that he had been hungry at times, even to the point of starvation, but never because of poverty. Something moved in his heart as he looked down at the young girl who had restored her disguise making her look once again like a boy from the Eastern Continent.

This was only the second time in recent memory that he felt his otherwise cold heart open to another. Now he knew that he had no room in his heart for romantic love. Not since she died, his one true love. However, in order to do the things that he has had to during his life, he had to turn off a part of his humanity. Also, because of the pain of losing her had caused. Then he had come to a point in his life when he felt he had no soul left. That was until he, quite accidently, found his way to this parallel universe and his Vicky. She somehow rekindled the spark inside him he thought was long cold. In the subsequent years he devoted himself to his now adopted daughter and none other.

Ehawee somehow, in such a short span of time, widened his heart even more. He couldn’t even begin to fathom why. All he knew was that as devoted as he was to Empress Victoria II, he would also be to Ehawee.

This also brought him to another realization. In the recent years that he had been serving Vicky, he allowed that coldness creep back into his heart regarding anyone who wasn’t her. That with his immortality made him an even more dangerous man. He used to despise the zealots he had, on more than one occasion, seen in the both worlds he had lived in. Now he discovered that he had become one. No more than one of the mechanical clockwork monsters that he had been amazed by since he had come to this world.

He realized in that moment that he had to widen his gaze. He needed to be more discerning about his approach to things and his methodology.

This didn’t mean that he would be any less devoted to Vicky and her cause. No, rather he would redouble his devotion to her, but will do so with a greater scope and consideration. He had to ensure that the Ehawees of this world not be hurt in his singlemindedness.

Ehawee finished her meat pie and started to use her grimy sleeve to wipe the succulent juices from her chin when Cal, absentmindedly, reached into his pocket and took out an embroidered handkerchief and handed it to her. She shyly accepted the handkerchief and wiped her chin and lips then started to hand it back when he shook his head. She then put the cloth into one of her pockets and said, “Well sir, I need to take you back with me to our covey.”

Cal looked thoughtful and shook his head, “No, you need to go back and tell Vicky that I would do better for her if I stayed out here in the streets getting more information and running interference for her.” He then reached into his pocket and took out a key, a few coins and a notebook. He then scribbled some notes on a piece of paper in the notebook and ripped it out and handed the paper to Ehawee, “Take this back to your covey and give it to Vicky.” He then scribbled something else on another page in the note book and ripped it out and handed it, the key and the coins to her and said, “After you do that go to this address and use the key to let yourself in and stay there until I come get you. I want you safe for the rest of this.”

She looked at him with a puzzled look on her face, but like the earlier look in his face made her feel fear the current look made her feel safer than she had felt in years. So, she nodded, took the paper, key and coins and on an impulse leaned over and kissed him on his cheek. She then stood, turned and disappeared into the crowd in the plaza just outside the park.

10)Rotate and Mesh, the Gears Continue to Spin (Tock)

All the orphans that were in the covey were standing in a semi-circle around Victoria II. She had just reviewed the “Battle Plan” with them while Sister and Ouihan were distributing the needed supplies and gear. They were also distributing the small fortune, at least to the orphans’ perspective, in coins that the Empress had on her so that the children would have any needed resources to complete their individual missions. What was distributed amounted to ten Talons each. Far more than any of them would see in a year of begging, scrounging and stealing.

The plan was that the children would disperse themselves along all the approaches to the palace, use their street cant to relay a message to Sister on what obstacles they saw. Then Victoria II would decide which approach was the least dangerous. Then when the appropriate approach was decided upon then the orphans will start up an organized plan of chaos. All this to distract the people involved.

Victoria II was thinking, “Simple plan?” but she had seen so many simple plans fall apart. She tried to reassure herself that, even though young, the orphans appear to be capable. Honed by years of living in the street, or under it rather. Even Ouihan had his own street smarts to go along with his amazing other talents.

Street smarts used to be a very foreign concept to her until one day Cooper explained the value of it to her. The other concept that used to be foreign to her was the concept of gut feelings. That too, her dear Calvin expounded about in detail on more than one occasion.

The thing was her gut feeling was practically screaming at her that something was being overlooked. However, she couldn’t figure it out. She, not for the first time that day, was wishing that Captain Calvin Cooper was there. Maybe he would be able to advise her as to what was being overlooked.

As she was thinking that Ehawee came running into the room looking for Sister. She took one look at Victoria II and froze. She had been out on the street the whole time, so she didn’t know that the Empress was there. All she knew was that they were helping someone in trouble and her name was Vicky. In this world and language, Vicky was an unheard-of name, not being a contraction of Victoria. That was why it was safe to use that name on the streets. To date, Cal only used the endearment in private with Victoria II. However, Ehawee was very intelligent and so she was able to make the connection. She went up to Victoria II and bowed before her holding out the note from Cal.

Vicky smiled and took the note and said, “Thank you. And you are?”

“Ehawee, Your Eminence.”

Vicky looked at the note and took a moment to decode the private cypher that Cal and she had created. Cal was able to put a great deal of information in such a short space with the cypher used.

The note translated as, “Vicky, I don’t think it would be wise for me to join you at this time for several reasons. First, it is possible that I may be under some level of surveillance and might lead them to you. Second, I believe that I am able to serve you better running interference out here on the street…” The note went on to summarize some intelligence that he had gathered up to the point of writing the note. He also briefly stated that he had decided to take Ehawee under his wing. She could only guess his motives for that but, she was heartened to hear that Captain Calvin Cooper had opened his heart for another. She was also concerned, for a long time, about his propensity for coldness.

Ehawee had no hate or love for the Empress, however, she was in a state of aww just standing in her presence. Victoria could see this, so she smiled her most disarming smile, moved over to a pair of makeshift seats and motioned for her to sit next to her as she sat in the other. Ehawee reluctantly and very shyly sat down next to Victoria II. Victoria said, “Now tell me about yourself…”

Scrapper was among the first wave of orphans that were sent out to check the approaches to the palace. He wasn’t happy about the whole situation. He felt he could be doing other things with his time. Especially since he had all those Talons burning a hole in his pocket.

Nevertheless, he went about his assigned route to examine what was going on. He could see that there were several, ‘unfamiliar’ people loitering in unusual places. He had known this part of the street like the backs of his hands. He knew the rhythm and flow of the streets of this district, the warehouse district, of Grandeur City. This was his usual haunt, where he would beg, borrow or steal to live and share with his ‘Family’. He had only belonged to this covey, club or gang for just about a year now. Before that he lived on the streets and did his best to stay out of sight of the hassers. He was always on his own, without any friends or family.

Having to answer and work with others has not been an easy adjustment for him. He quite often had to butt heads with Brother over who was the ‘dominant’ male. Of course, he didn’t view it that way. For him it was just a natural and visceral thing to do.

Very early, however, he learned that there was no domineering Sister. She was, without question, the leader of the covey.

She was too young for Scrapper to find attractive, but nonetheless he had felt compelled to always be on her good side or get her attention otherwise. He didn’t know why, and he was never really, like most street kids, in touch with his own feelings. As he was summing up the street situation, he was also dealing with a mental fugue regarding what he would rather be doing with the money in his pockets.

He was so caught up that he almost missed the large hulking ‘pilgrim’ that was standing in the shadows of an enforcer’s telegraph box.

He turned and carefully got his shadow’s attention. Visk was his shadow for this jaunt.

Visk was a strange one. She was an anomaly. She only came down to the coven once and left quickly. “To many machines” she had said. She was a little blond urchin, somewhere around 12 or 13. He couldn’t tell, and didn’t think she knew. Her slight frame and delicate features made her look like a pushover, but once he had grabbed her arm to hold longer for a discussion, and she turned into a pile of greased snakes, with a strength and quickness he could barely believe. She also moved as quiet as midnight and was only around occasionally so when he could connect, he got as much info or help as he could. She made a great lookout. She was always underestimated.

“Visk, stick to the plan, and I’ll hook you up” he smirked

“Scrapper, promises don’t bake the bread” she snapped.

“You’re a strange little wonk. One of these days when you grow up, you might turn out good but not with your attitude” Scrapper snapped back.

Visk shook her head and thought to herself “If you only knew, you would plotz yourself.” She was easy to mistake as a child. Her vague age appearance was one of her greatest assets, as many thought. She would frequently blend in with the street trash and orphans, just another forgettable face of an early teenager. Sometimes she would chop off all her long hair and disguise herself as a boy to avoid some of the trolls who would like nothing better than capture an unaccountable girl in the flower of her youth. It always grew back, and fast. That seemed to be a side effect. That was another reason she moved around a lot. If she didn't, people might notice things and get too curious. She had too many secrets she needed to stay that way. It kept her safe. It kept her from becoming a lab animal. It also kept those on the other end of her work from delivering retribution. You see, she killed people. Not just anyone, she had her standards. She would only take the contracts she approved of, and rarely anymore at that. She had invested her money well over the years, and it has grown to the point that she could buy and sell city blocks if she chose. How could someone who was for all appearances usually 15ish do so much? Easy, she was over a thousand years old. She was immortal. What most people in the know never realized about Immortals was the fact there were more than one or two. She knew of at least eight over the years. Not that she had met them. She avoided them as they each avoided one other. It was more that you could see the signs and pick up trails and rumors, putting two and two together here and there. It’s amazing what you can learn if you are no longer cobbled by a mortal’s lifespan. Her appearance had marked her as an easy target in her real youth and she had to get tough or die. Once her world had changed and she was here and immortal, she capitalized on it. Later she learned about her other secret. She is a Null. In a world of Magic, she is immune and invisible to it whether she wants to be or not. Her shear presence can cause magical effects to cease temporarily. She cannot be found by scrying, she is in no prophecy; no blip on magical vision, any mechanical effect even partially magical has any effect. She is a black hole in the weave. This also means that despite her wealth, even the simplest gears and levers machine will only work if it is powered by something other than magic.

Scrapper always wanted to be important. He would always seek out Visk for information and such; however, he always liked knowing things that she didn’t so that is one of the reasons why he never told her what they were doing this for. Just that they were helping someone important.

She had her own suspicions but nothing that she could confirm in the short amount of time that she was aware of the ‘mission’. She liked Scrapper, well as much as she allowed herself to like anyone these days, so she went along with him to help. She also was curious as to what was happening. She was not happy about the recent events that had set the city and ultimately The Civilization on its ear.

It was only late afternoon of the same day that the empress was supposedly assassinated. Up until Scrapper looked her up, she was getting ready to go underground or move on again because she wasn’t comfortable with what was happening. So, she decided to help him and pick up whatever information she could while she was at it.

Scrapper turned to her and signaled to her in his street cant what he had seen. She understood right away because this was her district as well. As a matter of fact, she owned a couple of the buildings in the area where she had secret safe rooms and her own tunnel network. Because of her ‘special ability’ she preferred the warehouse district because there were very few devices and other machines for her to disrupt and get unwelcomed attention by. She had even a greater understanding of the ebbs and flows of this district. Scrapper then signaled that she needed to get this information back to Sister as soon as possible. He would stay and watch.

Of course, she was puzzled about the significance of the large pilgrim, but she went ahead and raced over to the covey as stealthily as she could.

Scrapper watched her leave then turned back to survey the street again. After a few minutes he started to get hungry. He could smell the meat pies and rolls being placed in warming racks in the bakery across from where he was standing so he decided that he earned a decent meal for a change, so he went over into the front door. He usually went over to the back door and begged for day old leftovers, dropped or mis baked items. He has had to choke down many of burnt rolls in his days consequently. Today he was going to treat himself to a fresh baked and hot meat roll.

As he walked into the front door, the baker looked up at him with a very irritated expression on his face. “Move on Scrapper. This entrance is for paying customers. Get to the back door and I’ll see what I can scrape up for ya.”

Scrapper snapped down the silver Talon coin on the bakery’s counter and said, “I’m a paying customer today!”

The baker looked at the coin and asked, “Who’d you nick this from?”

“No one. I’m working for someone important today. The lady paid me.”

The baker looked doubtful then looked over to the corner of the shop behind Scrapper where three hassers were sitting, who began to get up from the table they were sitting at.

Scrapper closed his eyes and realized that he just made a mistake. He recognized one of the Hassers as O’Malley the hasser who’s regular beat this street was. He had never seen the other two hassers before. As a matter of fact, they didn’t really look like any hassers that he had ever seen before.

O’Malley said, “Well, well, well what have we here boyo? You been lifting purses again?”

“No O’Malley, I earned it fair and square.” He turned and reached for the coin on the counter but quick as a rattlesnake’s tongue O’Malley’s hand shot out and pinned his hand on top of the coin.

“We’ll see about that Scrapper.” He then reached into Scrapper’s pocket deftly and took out another handful of Talon coins. “The only way the likes of you would have this many talon coins if you nicked them or rolled someone. Either way, we’ll sort it out at the station house.”

Even though Scrapper and O’Malley were always on the opposite ends of things, Scrapper always knew O’Malley to be a fair minded and honest fellow. So, on a sudden inspiration he said, “You work for the Empress, do ye not O’Malley?”

O’Malley looked at Scrapper through squinted eyes, wondering where he was going with this then said, “Aye?”

“Well tha’s who I’m working for.”

“Oh, what a big one! You’d say anything to not get pinched.”

The other ‘hassers’ looked at each other with meaningful looks. One of them said, “O’Malley, maybe we should investigate it further. Have him take us to the empress and show us?”

O’Malley got an irritated look on his face, then an appraising look. Not for the first time since he was teamed up with these, unusual, enforcers had he felt that there was something not quite right. He then looked at Scrapper and shrugged, “Alright, boyo. Take us to yer employer. But I’ll warn ya. If I don’t see the empress at the end of this rainbow, you’ll be spending the rest of your tender years in the state school or the block house.”

11) The Death of Innocence (Tick)

Alexander was sitting behind his desk getting more and more irritated by the reports coming in over the ticker tape on one corner of his desk. His irritation didn’t stem from what his extensive network was doing, but rather what they, collectively, where not doing. That being finding Empress Victoria II.

The last set of reports showed that the ‘Brothers’ were found dead in an alley and thus failing to bring to an end to Captain Cooper who, he correctly surmised, a fly in their operational ointment.

He started to look through his ledger to decide who would be his replacement Street Bull when he heard his ticker tape click out a new message. He closed his eyes briefly thinking, “What now?”

His attitude lightened swiftly when he read, “Assets imbedded with the hassers in the warehouse district are investigating a promising lead on the Empress’ location. More to follow…”

He carefully ripped the length of tickertape with the message on it and using some desk gum he affixed it into his ledger and made a note underneath it, “Street Bull to remain living for time being.”

Visk made her way to the covey, opening the hatch outside and carefully looked inside to make sure that no machines or other magic were in function near where she’ll be. She knew that the effective range of her “Quiet Space” was only 5-7 feet. So, whenever possible, she always tried to stay at least ten feet from any gadgets. She previously told the members of the Orphans covey that she just didn’t like being near machines and other magic. Since this wasn’t unheard of in this day and age the rest of the orphans understood and took this for granted.

Once she saw that the coast was clear she stepped into the room and raised her hand to get Sister’s attention. Sister was talking to someone, whose back was too her, wearing pilgrim garb. What she could make out of this individual was that she was indeed female, dark skinned with strait black hair. She was definitely of Southern Continent heritage.

Visk had already put one and one together to surmise whom this individual was when Victoria II turned her head to show her famous profile. Seen on every silver Talon coin, gold Sovereign coin and 10 Sovereign notes, it seemed more impressive in person.

Her quick mind took in every detail of the room. From the two ever present sentinels by her side, the manacled man sitting on a bail, also in pilgrim garb and the makeshift map drawn on a piece of paper on the table that Sister and Victoria II were standing by, all formed a solid picture in her mind. Everything that she saw confirmed her initial suspicions. She quietly congratulated herself for trusting her instinct when she agreed to help Scrapper.

Sister saw her and signaled her to approach but Visk, seeing the Sentinels standing there, shook her head, pointed at them and gave the street cant signals to the effect that they scared her. Sister shrugged because she knew about Visk’s fear of machines, or so she was told, and she excused herself from Victoria II and went over to Visk and asked, “Whatcha got?”

Visk went over what she and Scrapper had seen, including the ‘pilgrim’ and then asked, “So we’re helping the Empress?”

“Yes, we’re helping each other. She has promised that things will be better for us.”

Visk looked at her in the eyes and asked, “And you believe her?”

Sister looked over her shoulder at Victoria II who was now talking with Ehawee again and said, “Yes I do. I really do.”

“Well, I think things will at least be more stable if Her Eminence stays in power…” Visk cut herself off, she didn’t mean to sound so in touch with things or adult, so she went on, “I mean, ‘the devil you know…” and she shrugged.

“Yeah, there’s that too.”

Visk saw out of the corner of her eye another hulking mass of a sentinel stepping through the other hatch entrance to the room. She saw how it froze halfway into the room, so she acted like she panicked and said, “I gotta go.” And ducked out the entrance.

Johann was entering the main room from the anti-chamber that was the orphan’s gadget room felt his body briefly locks up. He felt that he could push through and keep his body moving but it was like the normal cold, unpleasantness that he had to deal with was like tenfold. However, as soon as it hit him the sensation and lock up went away. He looked around the room, puzzled as to what would cause him to lock up like that but the only thing, he noticed was the blond, grimy waif that ducked out the door. As soon as she left, he was freed up. He wondered on this a moment then shrugged thinking, “Just another new sensation to go with my other new sensations.” He filed it away in his mind for later consideration and continued to go to talk to the Empress like he intended to in the first place.

Brother looked up from what he was doing to see Johann’s hesitation. He asked, “What’s up mate?”

“Who was that? The blond one that just left.”

“Oh, tha’s just Visk. She’s one of our street chums. Why you ask?”

“I don’t know, just something strange.” Johann then shrugged and went on, “I guess everything is strange these days.”

Brother smiled and said, “Oh, she’s a strange one ‘right. She is afraid of gadgets. That’s why she doesn’t hang round much.”

Johann looked around at all the gadgets that the orphans were using as a matter of routine and said, “I can understand that. It’s just…never mind.” He turned and continued to go talk to the empress, but he filed it away in his mind for further consideration. While doing that he realized that his thoughts and memories seemed to be different in a way. Not that he was remembering things that he didn’t think were his memories, but rather his mind seemed to file and catalog his memories very efficiently.

Since Ouihan bypassed the controls, restoring his free will, he had felt no compulsion to kill the Empress when he approached her. He also felt much more in control of himself and his…machinery. Since his free will was restored, he had taken time to reconsider helping the Empress. He still blamed her, being that she was ultimately responsible for her government’s actions, but he felt less anger toward her personally. Of course, he didn’t feel any zeal or strong compulsion to help her, but he began to feel like, maybe, he should give her the benefit of the doubt.

So, he approached Victoria II and stopped a respectful distance from her and waiting for her to acknowledge him.

Victoria was still talking to Ehawee about more details on what she and Cal had talked about. From all appearances, Ehawee and Victoria II appeared to be finding a comfortable sense of ease with one another.

Victoria II noticed Johann and asked, “How may We help you Johann?”

“I have been thinking about it. I still don’t trust you or your government, but I am feeling that your government has got to be better than a government ruled by Lord Calador. Your government was what killed me to begin with, but he is the reason that I’m trapped in this shell and not just dead.” He then looked her in the eyes directly and asked bluntly, “If I serve you, will you keep your word to me?”

A lifetime of conditioning came to Victoria’s thinking. She was ready to scold Johann for his obtuse request. Or rather from a noble perspective it was obtuse. However, over the last few years she has been influenced by another perspective. This crystalized something else in her mind. She had been changing her government recently to raise the lower classes and provide them more opportunities. Why? Because this immortal man who is from a mysterious land called America has influenced her. He has told her of a land and world where the nobility was the nobility of the individual over the nobility of the government. Government being the aristocracy in her land and world. He had convinced her that even in the early days of aristocracy it was up to the individual to prove their nobility, and not have it handed to them. The republic he came from had set up a framework where one could still prove their individual nobility and yet protect those who could not.

The government is enriched by this availability of opportunity not stagnated by the control of it as is the case of an aristocracy. He also explained to her that he understood that such a thing only happed through revolution or evolution. Revolution was the fastest way for it to happen but that usually was the bloodiest, most violent way. He supposed that if Victoria would begin reforms that would recognize the individual’s nobility or potential thereof, then in time the government would evolve into a better nation and world. Of course he also taught her that the usual way that this happened was from revolution and that was because, usually, governments and the people in power, would try to resist this change as long as possible thus forcing the people who were not in power to force the inevitable changes. The changes became inevitable with the advent of clockworks and the industrialization of society.

So, not for the first time, a lifetime of preparation for the imperial position flew into face of her more recent experience and influence. So, she could not answer this question in the traditional framework of thinking. Rather, through the path that she had already committed herself to follow.

“Yes We…I mean I give you my word.”

Johann looked at her for a long minute. Even though his face lacked the normal animation of the human face, Victoria II couldn’t help seeing an expression of judicious thought or consideration in his eyes.

After the long minute he finally said, “Yes, I will help you. I will not serve anyone ever again!” he said with great finality.

Victoria II nodded her head and said, “Very well. We… I will recognize your freedom of choice. I gratefully accept your help. We furthermore decree that from this day forward that Johann Schmidt is a free individual and not only pardoned from all accused crimes but rather found that he was wrongfully sentenced for them.

“We furthermore decree that his daughter is granted clemency for the crime in which Johann had been punished for not because she did not commit the deed but rather, We have determined that she was justified in doing so. We make this declaration in the presence of the witnesses that here surround us.” She then nodded to Ehawee and Sister.

She turned back to Johann, “You are aware that this proclamation has no value if I am not returned to the palace and the throne?”

“Yes I am.” He said bluntly.

“Very well.” She motioned at the map that they were developing as a battle plan and she said, “Here’s how you can help me…”

After Visk dodged out of the covey she headed back down the tunnels that were quite the labyrinth. She was on her way to rejoin Scrapper on the street, but her mind was awash with weighing out the implications and consequences of what she was involved in. In her mind she was weighing out the benefits of helping the empress and the benefits of helping the other side. She has lived a long time and she had become jaded to the absolutes of good and evil. Which path she would take would be the one that gave her the longest-term benefit as well as short term gain.

Yes, she didn’t like the short-term consequences of the coup that was going on in the city above her head. However, would it benefit her in the long run? She wasn’t sure. Possibly, but she would have to take some time to weigh this out.

While she was thinking she heard, from a considerable distance ahead, people approaching. One thing about her being a dead zone was that she honed her senses to detect clockwork items by their smell, feel and the sounds that they made. All of these were subtle and hard to detect. She found her way into an access covey that opened to valves on both sides. She then pulled up her hood and scarf to conceal her face and hair. She closed her eyes and focused on her hearing and sense of smell.

She detected the faint smell of ozone and she heard the barely perceptible electrical sounds that most times indicated scorchers.

She remained absolutely still and waited. She heard and smelled three individuals coming down the tunnel heading directly toward the orphan’s covey. She sensed a fourth. Her finely honed senses told her that the fourth person was Scrapper. She also used her senses to sort out that at least one of the individuals was a hasser. The other two smelled sort of like hassers, but there were also more subtle smells that didn’t fit. So, what were they? She couldn’t tell.

She waited until they were in sight before she opened her eyes. She saw three hassers pushing Scrapper along. Scrapper was manacled and looking quite unhappy.

The group stopped right across from where Visk was hiding and one of the hassers grabbed Scrapper’s manacles and jerked them and said, “Alright, we have been going back and forth long enough. I think you are trying to get yerself to a place where you’re gonna try to lose us.”

One of the other hassers, Visk recognized as O’Malley, said, “Alright boyo, tell us where yer employer is now, and we’ll head that way toot suit.”

Scrapper shrugged, and said, “You go down that way about another hundred paces and there’s a hatch on your left. That’s where our hang out is. That’s where Empress Victoria is.”

The hasser that grabbed Scrappers chains smiled, an unsettling smile, and said, “Well why didn’t you say so sooner.” He reached into his pocket and took out a key and started to unlock the manacles.

O’Malley looked puzzled, so did Scrapper. Scrapper looked across into the shadows where Visk was hiding and she could tell that he knew she was there. He, very subtly, shook his head as if to say no.

Then, as if by some unseen signal, the remaining hasser stepped up behind Scrapper and quickly slit his throat from ear to ear.

O’Malley had a look of stunned disbelief on his face but his reflexes, that were honed from years of working the streets, had him reach for his holstered service revolver.

Visk, thought, “Damn, damn, damn! Shadowmen, I should have known.”

O’Malley had his service pistol halfway drawn as if his body knew, but his mind couldn’t get around it he said, “What the blazes did you do!?”

The Shadowmen who unshackled Scrapper smiled, dropped the manacles and began to draw forth a scorcher.

O’Malley looked down at the scorcher drew his pistol further out but before he could level it on the shadowman with the scorcher, the knife wielding shadowman quickly stabbed him in the base of his scull severing his brain’s connection to his body, preventing O’Malley from being able to do anything ever again.

The shadowman with the scorcher turned quickly and pointed it at the shadows where Visk was hiding and depressed the trigger button. The blue arch of energy flew halfway toward Visk only to peter out.

Both the Shadowmen looked stunned. They had never seen that happen before.

In that stunned silence came a low but rising growl that sounded like a monolithic violent creature rising from the depths of eternity. Visk stepped out of the shadows like an apparition of all the violence of mankind from the very beginning of time.

The Shadowmen could only make out one feature at first from the black featureless entity that now erupted into motion among them. That being flat blue eyes that flashed as a glacier in the midday sun, and twice as cold.

When Scrapper went down, things shifted into high gear. The Shadowmen, they could be nothing but, whirled on her with the Scorcher and pulled the trigger. She didn’t know how they knew she was there. She was kicking herself for missing everything, getting involved, being too slow in getting away, and not saving that little punk Scrapper. Now most importantly, she was mad at having her cover blown by these guys as the Arc fizzled to nothing about an arm’s reach away. “Jävla! Jävla! Jävla! Jävla!” she cursed as she swept the dark blade from its spot in her back under her shirt. The 14” blade seemed to appear out of nowhere to the Shadowmen. The blade was long, dark, and looked like a tooth from some ancient monster. The demon seemed to explode into movement, like watching hornets swarm out of a poked hive. A dawning revelation that something primal has been unleashed and demanded their souls in retribution. She cut and stabbed and slashed, starting with the backs of legs and arms, unhinging their ability to run, or fight or defend.

She cut off the Shadowmen’s heads, throwing them in the water flowing down the center of the tunnel. After wiping and hiding her blade, she took off to bring the message. She forced herself back into the scared little girl delivering the message and the news of Scrappers death. She knew that soon she would make her way out of this covey to one of the caches she had in the city, change clothes, and shift to one of her other personas to break the trail of observation. One thing is for sure. Things just got tougher.

12) The Darkness Before Dusk (Toc)

Visk’s announcement about Scrapper’s death and the nearness of Shadowmen was initially greeting with stunned silence. After she said her peace, she shrugged and left to disappear.

Ouihan was the first to get it into gear. He said, “We need to scatter Your Eminence!”

Victoria II shook her head and said, “Yes, Sister we need to find someplace else, someplace safe.”

Sister stood there stunned. She had always come across as confident and strong. Never in doubt and this was the reason why she was always looked to as the leader. There was never any doubt in her skills and strength. However, now she never looked more like a young twelve-year-old girl. Tears came to her eyes and she just stood there in stunned silence. Ever so slightly shaking her head as if denying the truth.

Ouihan took Sister by the shoulders and made her look at him in the eyes and said, “Sister, we need you.”

Brother gently came up behind her and rubbed her back. He said, “Ya know we have git. So, listen to your slack jaw brother now and let’s git gone.”

She turned her head and looked at Brother and nodded and said, “Everybody rat scatter! Meet up at the South Station hidey hole in two hours. Make sure you’re not followed. M’nence, Ouihan follow me and Brother.”

Victoria II took Ehawee by the shoulders and pushed her forward, but she resisted. She said, “Captain Cal said I was to go to this address and hide there until all this was over.” She held the paper and key out like they were a talisman that could ward off any evil.

Victoria II looked at the address and asked Sister, “Is this address on the way to where we’re going?”

Sister looked at the address and said, “Yes, it’s not too far out of the way of where we are going. Why?”

Victoria II looked at Ehawee in the eyes and said, “I don’t think that Captain Cal would forgive me if I didn’t see Ehawee there safely.”

Captain Calvin Cooper slowly walked down the alley toward a little tinker shop that was just off the beaten path. The shop was run down looking, cluttered with gadgets and other household appliances that need repair both inside and outside the shop. Cal carefully made his way into the shop around the stacks of gadgets and other bits and pieces of devices.

Behind the counter was a heavyset hunched backed man with salt and pepper hair, beard and of undeterminable age. He wore the classic workman’s goggles with different magnifying glasses on swing arms so he could choose different powers of magnifications depending on the size of clockworks he needed to examine. He was working on some sort of machine that could either be a cash register or some sort of slot machine. Since the outer shell was removed it would be impossible for an amateur to figure out what it was.

Without looking up from his work he said, “And what do I owe this unexpected pleasure Coop?”

“I think you know why I’m here Igor.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that. I read Frankenstein too you know.” He finished attaching the hook end of the spring to a swing arm then looked up at Cal and said, “Even though it hasn’t been written here in this world.” He got a thoughtful look on his face and said, “Maybe I should write it myself so I can give up all this.” He vaguely waved his free hand about as he placed the needle nose plyers in the tool rack by his side. He then pushed his goggles up on top of his head and look at Cal.

“That would be nice if you knew how to read and write.” Cal said with a smirk.

“There is that.” ‘Igor’ then broke a crooked toothed smile and thrust his hand out to shake Captain Cooper’s.

After a vigorous handshake the two men regarded each other for a moment then ‘Igor’ said, “Your lady is still in the wind. But I think the Shadowmen are closing in.”

“What’s the latest?”

“Some Shadows and a hasser got themselves killed going underground following a lead.”

“Shadows and a hasser?”

“Yeah, O’Malley from the Warehouse district. It seems some shadows got themselves imbedded with the hassers. Part of the augmentation that Lard Caldoofus has put in place.”

Looking back out the window at a man who was ambling by Cal said, “I see. Go on?”

“Well the word is that as soon as the Legions march out in the morning tomorrow the Enforcer Legion will put the city under martial law. Since Calador has arranged for every enforcer to have one to two shadows, depending on their level of honesty, Grandeur City will be his on the marrow.”

Cooper nodded thoughtfully then said, “Can you get a message to General Maximus?”

“It’ll be tough. He’s got a shadow sitting on his lip too. All the generals do.”

Cooper smiled and said, “Very well. Get a message to Sargent Major Ukala Ukahn. Tell her ‘White Queen’s Knight takes Black King’s Rook’, she’ll know what I mean.”

‘Igor’ looked at Cooper with a jaundiced eye and said, “You spooks and your codes. I think you do that so that you’d feel like James Bond or something.”

“Believe me, there’s a reason for these codes. Alexander runs the shadow ship too tight for any of us to screw up. Someday I think I need to put an end to him.”

“Cal, you can’t save the whole world. You know that?”

“Well, I can at least try to save what’s important.”

“Well you can try. But you and I know that everyone dies someday. Even you and I will go back and die someday. Or so I am told.

“By the way, it looks like The Valkyrie is in town.”

“You say I obsess about my codes. Your obsession is keeping track of us immortals. Who cares if she is in town? As long as she’s not working for Alexander that is?”

“No, as a matter of fact it looks like her handywork that ended to the two shadows that were killed in the tunnels.”

“Hmm, do you think we can reach out to her and pull her in on our side?”

“Naw, if she is true to her form, she’s already disappeared herself from whatever persona that she was occupying at the time. Besides, I think it’s a useful obsession to keep track of our kind. I still have a theory that, even though as far as I know it hasn’t been tested, an immortal can end another immortal.”

Cooper looked at ‘Igor’ a bit longer and said, “Dontcha test it out on me now.”

“Naw, you’re too pretty to kill.” He said with a wink.

Cooper snapped his fingers and said, “I almost forgot, I sent a package to my Black Street hide out. Can you look in later to make sure she got there safely?”

“She?! Why Coop you old dog.”

“No, it’s nothing like that. She’s an orphan who needs to be off the street. She’s a cagy one but she somehow got under my skin.”

“Wow, that makes two now. Keep this up Coop and one might begin to think that you have a heart.”

“Fat chance that. I left my heart in Afghanistan.

“Well Master Sargent, you take care of yourself. That hunch is beginning to look like it’s growing a hunch of its own.”

“With all due respect Captain, get bent.” He got a serious look on his face, “I’ll get that message off to the Sargent Major right off, Coop.”

“Thanks.” They shook hands again and Cooper turned and walked out.

No sooner had Cooper left the alleyway the man who had ambled by the shop earlier came back, entered and closed the door behind him. He flipped the sign on the door from open to closed. He then turned to the man behind the counter who was already tapping on a private telegraph that was hidden behind the counter unobservable from the street.

The stranger said to ‘Igor’, “Alright old man, tell me what you and Captain Cooper were talking about.”

The hunched backed ‘Master Sargent’ shook his head and said, “Son, you walked into the wrong shop.”

Everette stood in front of Alexander’s desk holding his black billed hat nervously as he was finishing with his update on the latest failure, “…so even though we lost two more men to an unknown assailant, we have determined that the target has enlisted street urchins to help her. More specifically a known group composed of orphans and runaways.”

Alexander sat in his conservative but comfortable looking desk chair looking at Everette and his tall hulking partner over steepled fingers. He pursed his lips and nodded and said, more to himself then to his underlings, “So with a set back we still make progress.”

Everette cleared his throat and asked, “Beg pardon sir?”

Alexander shook his head, “Never mind Everette, your performance as Street Bull has been acceptable. Was there anything else?”

Everette, obviously relieved said, “Yes sir, I have my best men following the captain. It is my thinking that he might lead us to the emp… uhem, I mean target.”

“And how has that worked out so far?”

“Well sir…” he paused as if he wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“So, no progress on that front then?”

“No sir, sorry sir.”

Alexander closed his eyes, obviously trying to curb his irritation but he said, “No matter Everette, I agree with your assumption.” He opened his eyes and said, “in the meantime have your secondaries start rounding up these urchins and start putting some pressure on them. One of them are bound to give up the target.”

Alexander then opened his ledger and started writing something. This was an obvious dismissal, so Everette and his partner bowed and left.

Tumbler was one of the Orphans who part of the extensive network of eyes and ears on the street. He was known for his extreme physical flexibility and acrobatic skills. Hence the name ‘Tumbler’. Every evening he would do his acrobatic show for pennies and the occasional Talon on the corner just outside of the Grand Central Train Station not far from the Orphan’s Covey.

His daily shows were timed in order to get money from the workers as they were going home from their jobs at one of the many factories that made Grandeur City the center of The Civilization. While he did his amazing routine of acrobatics his sister, Birdie, and their friend, Batty would walk among the crowd watching soliciting ‘donations’ as well as picking the occasional pocket of the onlookers.

Tumbler wore a red velvet vest and tan cotton harem pants. He also wore a red sash and a fez that matched his vest. This style of dress was representative of the nomadic people from the Western Desert of the Eastern Continent. Of course, Tumbler and his sister were from there originally. Their parents died when trying to sail from the Eastern Continent to the Northern.

Batty on the other hand was obviously from Northern Continent stock with her red hair and blue eyes which made her stand out dressed in the same style as her friends.

During Tumbler’s shows, every so often, he would involve Birdie and Batty in the routines. However, today he was solo on the stage while the others circulated among the crowd. Today, they were not only harvesting coins but information from the chattering crowd.

Mousey had already passed word to them of the bug out from their covey and so they were on the look out for any information as to whatever the Shadowmen were going to do next.

Halfway through his normal routine of acrobatic wonders he was able to discern that there were four street thugs working their way through the crowd toward him and his compatriots.

He had enough street savvy to know that they were not here for the show but rather for them so he finished his intricate maneuver and said, “Thank ye ladies and gents, but now I must be off to the birdcage.” He reached into his sash and took out a small vial, threw it onto the ground between him and the thugs that were almost to him. There was a flash and red smoke billowed out of the remnants of the vial. Tumbler did a graceful backflip and fell fat on the ground and slithered down a nearby storm drain.

Batty and Birdie each pulled a sash from their waists and quickly wrapped themselves and tried to disappear into the crowd.

One of the street thugs grabbed Birdie by the scruff of her neck but was amazed to only find an empty sash in his hand.

The other thug, on the other hand, didn’t waste time and simply blackjacked Batty, grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder.

When a rather dapper looking fellow in the crowd saw the latter part of this he said, “Hey now, let the little lady go.” And he held up his silver tipped cane to emphasize the point.

The thug smiled a crooked tooth smile and said, “Tis my daughter and I toll er not to be round these Rabs.”

The ‘gentleman’ looked uncertainly for a moment then realized that the thug’s dark hair and dusky skin belayed any relation between him and the red haired fair skilled damsel. So, he stepped forward and drew forth a sword from the cane and said, “Well let the enforcers sort this all out.” Although he meant well the ‘gentleman’ didn’t consider his surroundings and didn’t have time to react to the knife wielding thug that was one of the ones who originally went after Tumbler.

The thug, in true shadowman fashion stabbed the gentleman in the base of his scull killing him immediately. Before the gentleman hit the ground the four thugs dispersed with the screaming crowd leaving only the gentleman’s body in the street.

Mousey and her usual companion Yoyo, were making their way toward the South Station hidey hole when they turned down an alley to see two street thugs waiting on the far end. They turned on a dime to exit the alley only to see two more thugs behind them. They looked at each other and then back to the thugs.

Yoyo said, “Warn da tuthers.” And she slipped her yoyo out of her pocket and began to casually. flip it up and down as she strolled toward the thugs in front of them.

Mousey nodded and took a piece of foil out of her pocket and turned back toward the two thugs in the alley.

“Come along little lady an we won’t hurt ye.” Said one of the thugs.

Mousey closed her eyes and quickly unfolded the foil sending out a shower of flashing bits of metal. This both blinded and burned the two thugs as she dodged between them and down into a storm drain.

Yoyo, who was a foot taller and a bit larger than Mousey waited until she was within a couple of feet from the thugs when she erupted into a dazzling display of acrobatics, kicks while swinging her silver yoyo as a weapon. As the yoyo hit one of the thugs it sent out a flash of electricity knocking the thug back off his feet and onto his back unconscious.

The other thug tried to blackjack her but instead he got the yoyo hard in his right temple. His world erupted into sparks as he went flying sideways into a gutter to die slowly from the resulting brain hemorrhage.

Yoyo then ran out into the street to try to disappear into the traffic of end of the day workers. She made it about half a block before she ran into a tall man dressed in a long black coat, black top hat and dark square glasses. She tried to bring her yoyo into action again, but the man used his cane to wrap it up while he grabbed her neck with his left hand that had a palm shocker in his glove. Yoyo crumpled to the ground while the shadowman looked admiringly at the clever yoyo wrapped around his cane.

The shadowman turned started to stroll off as another thug stepped forward and unceremoniously picked up Yoyo and threw her over his shoulder like a gunny sack then followed him.

The Black Street area was about as far off the beaten path as you could get in the center of town. This district was down wind from the ‘Stacks’ of the many factories and so the air had a think coal smog in it. This is the main reason why this area was sparsely populated these days. The perfect area for a safe house.

A group of Eight were walking down one side of Black Street headed toward South Station. In the lead was Brother dressed in his normal nondescript street clothes. Following right behind were sister and Ouihan who were quietly talking about nothing of great importance. Just getting to know each other as it were. Right behind Sister and Ouihan was Victoria II who had changed out of her pilgrim garb into a light blue denim matron’s dress with a beige apron and smog mask. She also wore a beige head scarf that matched the apron. This style of dress made her look like any of the many women who worked at the factories or other workplaces downtown. Walking next to her was Major Gladly who was dressed in non-descript workman’s clothes and a coat folded over his manacled wrists. A step behind and to both sides of the Empress and Major were the two sentinels also wearing workman’s clothes. Trailing behind them was Johann still in his gray pilgrim garb.

They had just finished dropping off Ehawee to Cooper’s safe house and were headed toward the South Station hidey hole.

Major Gladly said, “Your Eminence, you should cut your losses and make your way out of the city. This would be the wise thing to do because Lord Calador has too many resources in place for you to beat him.”

“Wisdom?! Do not talk to Us about wisdom Major! Was it this so-called wisdom that led you to betray Us?!” “Wisdom?! Do not talk to Us about wisdom Major! Was it this so-called wisdom that led you to betray Us?! You whose family has been serving the empire for generations. Your uncle died with my parents on the HEAS Vengeance!”

“Your Eminence, I have my reasons for doing what I did. Know this, Lord Calador swore to me that you were to just be deposed. Not assassinated.”

“And you believed him?” she then held up her hand and turned her head signifying that she was done with this discussing.

Up in the front Brother stopped and held up his hand. Ouihan almost walked into his back he was that involved with what he and Sister were talking about.

From the group’s left and right two large figures stepped out of the shadows dressed in pilgrim gray.

The shadow sentinel to the left was then flanked by two Shadowmen dressed in long coats and armor with their face covered with leather masks and dark glasses. To the right the shadow sentinel was flanked by four Shadowmen.

Brother looked to his left and right and said, “Bugger it all!”

Sister shook her head and looked back at Victoria II and said, “What now mum?”

Empress Victoria II Arkanti pulled down her mask, held up her head channeling her great ancestor’s fighting spirit. She looked left and right and said, “We fight!”

13)The Long Night (Tick)

Master Sargent Blake, the man nicknamed as Igor by Captain Cooper, calmly continued to tap out his message to Sargent Major Ukala Ukahn while the street thug continued to walk over to him. Master Sargent Mike Blake was retired from the U. S. Army where he had seen many harrowing things. He acquired his hump courtesy of his torturous captors at the Hanoi Hilton. Now he has been here in this world, where he found out he was immortal, for thirty some years. Needless to say, he was not a man easily intimidated.

“I said, Old man tell me what you and the good Captain Cooper were talking about.”

“Oh, just the price of tea in China that’s all.” As he finished out his message to the Sargent Major.

The stranger casually slipped a foot and a half long rod with a rubber handle on one end and a U-shaped fork on the other end out of his coat with his right hand as he reached into his coat’s inner pocket.

Master Sargent Blake knew that this rod was a contemporary “taser” and he could only guess what the other object was. Immediately after he finished his message and sent the “end message” code he began to slip on a pair of glossy black woven gloves that appeared to be made of some exotic synthetic material.

“Where the hell is China?!” the stranger said, his voice rising in irritation while thrusting the “taser” at the hunched back Master Sargent.

By looking at the deformed man you wouldn’t think that he could move as quickly as he did. His left hand shot out and grabbed the rod by the fork while simultaneously his right hand was clasped the menacing stranger by his throat with his index finger and thumb were expertly placed over the pressure points just below the hinge of the jaw where the carotid arteries flowed to the brain.

The stranger’s eyes flew open wide in surprise at the precision and strength of the hunchback’s grip. His left hand let go of the “needler gun” that he was drawing out of his pocket as well as his taser rod and his hands grabbed at the hand clutching his throat. The gun fell to the floor as the stranger already began to feel the blood flow to his brain being constricted.

“You’re going to sleep now, but I’ll be happy to give you a geography lesson as soon as you wake up.” Blake said as the stranger’s eyes rolled up and he desperately grasped at Blake’s vice like grip trying to extricate himself.

After a couple of desperate minutes, the stranger’s body went limp and Blake let his body fall the floor. He looked over his shoulder at Cooper who was leaning on the door frame that led to the back area of his shop and said, “You didn’t need to come back. I have everything in control.”

“Yeah, I know but, I am curious about what information you can extricate from him.”

“Probably not much. Like you said, that fellow Alexander has good grasp on his people and probably a great deal of compartmentalization in his organization.”

“You got a point there. Well send up a flare if you need any help old friend.”

“Will do Coop. Now get ye gone.” he said as he rounded the counter and reached down at the now limp stranger.

As an afterthought Blake said, “Here!” as he tossed the ‘Taser’ to Cooper, “You might need this. It looks well made.”

Cooper deftly caught the rod by the rubber handle and said, “Thanks, I can probably put this to use.” He then pumped the slide rod charging the rod a couple of times and tested the ‘taser’ on the metal of the door latch. He pursed his lips and nodded approvingly as the yellow arc put a black smudge on the copper latch.

Coop then turned and left.

Batty was unceremoniously deposited on the floor of the room next to the four others that were laying unconscious. As the door closed plunging the room into darkness, batty opened her eyes and sat up. She had come to at some point during her transit toward the place where she guessed that she was to be tortured and questioned. She was awake enough to know exactly where she was.

There were three reasons why she was named ‘Batty’. The two main reasons were, first, because of her amazing night vison the second was her incredible hearing. She felt the binders on her wrists and ankles that must have been placed when she was unconscious and shrugged. She waited the moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom of the sparsely lit room. While she waited for her eyes to adjust, she deftly slipped out of her restraints. After losing the restraints she took a moment to examine the room she was in.

The door and walls were lined with some sort of metal, probably iron or steel. What little like that was coming into the room was coming from around the door and through a vent of some kind opposite of the door about six feet up on the wall. The room appeared to be ten by ten feet square but only about seven feet high.

She listened carefully and heard her captors walking away chatting about how they plan to extricate information from the children. While listening she slipped her manacles that had been her binders into her sash and she then fished out a hidden knife and a file that had tucked in her leggings at her ankles.

Once she had assessed that there were no captors nearby, she stood quietly and slipped over to the door and by touch examined the lock. No help there. The lock was only able to be accessed from the outside. She then made her way over to the vent and examined it. It was just high enough for her to fit her head in and wide enough to accommodate her shoulders so she knew that she could escape this way. But what about her friends?

She looked at who else was in the room. She saw Yoyo, Chuckles, Midge and finally Bubbles. All members of her covey. The only one that could even get close to fitting in the vent would be Midge. Yoyo would be able to fit but tightly, but she wasn’t known for her ability to fit in tight spaces. Besides, Yoyo once confessed to her that she was Closter phobic so that wouldn’t work as well.

While she was thinking this through, she heard two people’s heavy footsteps coming her way, so she quickly made her way to the vent, pried it open and slithered in backwards and pulled the vent shut behind her.

Two men, one big hulking man and one smaller man opened the door and dragged in one of the orphans, a big boy by the name of Simi. The men dropped Simi on the floor and started to turn and leave. The large man looked around the room quickly and said, “Oi, wasn’t there one more o em?”

“Beeves, how many times do I have to tell you to leave the counting to those of us who know how to?! Move your big ass, I ain’t got any dinner yet!”

The group of eight, including Victoria II, pulled themselves into a tight circle positioning her in the center. This sort of just happed not by any direction by Victoria II.

The sentinels automatically positioned themselves between the Empress and the two shadow sentinels. Johann decided that he should intercede on the side with the larger number of Shadowmen.

The lead Shadowman, wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, lifted his cane to signal his men to stand by then he signaled the shadow sentinels to move in. Then Tophat said, “Your Eminence, if you surrender peaceably the children with you won’t get hurt. You have my word on that.” Meanwhile the shadow sentinels continued to approach the group.

Empress Victoria II Arkanti, ruler of The Civilization, stepped forward and said, “I put as much value in your word as I do rat dung. Actually, quite a bit less. Shadowmen do not take prisoners unless ordered to do so and they certainly do not leave witnesses. No, these children are far braver and certainly more valuable to the future of The Civilization than all of your organization put together.”

In the blink of an eye, Johann’s hand shot out in front of the Empress and intercepted the needle gun’s poison tipped needle that was came flying in from one of the Shadowmen in the group to the left where the larger number of Shadowmen were. Simultaneously Ouihan stepped out of the group and said to the shadow sentinels, “You will cease this folly immediately and follow my command!”

The two shadow sentinels froze then snapped to attention. At the same time Brother grabbed Victoria II by her shoulders and pulled her off to the side behind a mailbox while several other needles came flying in from both sides.

Ouihan said, “You will now turn on those that are attacking the Empress. When this is over, Empress Victoria II will pardon you for your crimes!”

The two shadow sentinels turned and started toward the Shadowmen. Johann also ran toward the larger group of Shadowmen along side him was one of the two sentinels that always served the Empress.

Ouihan felt several needles hit him but he didn’t seem to feel any affect from the quick acting poison that coated the needles. All he felt was the sting as the finned needle pierced his skin. Needle guns were no more than miniature bolt guns with needle sized bolts instead of the larger kind that Captain Cooper used.

Sister aimed her wrist rocket sling shot and fired a red ball at the smaller party of Shadowmen. The red ball hit the ground in front of the group and exploded into a shower of hot sparks that doused the group.

Tophat looked on with mild annoyance thinking that this was just a distraction device, but he realized quickly that the sparks were so hot that they started to catch the coats and other exposed clothing, and skin on fire. He smelled the scent of white phosphorous. He then held up his hand and then deliberately flailed out his fingers in a, “Disperse” signal. Both groups dispersed dropping smoke pellets and flash bangs to try to distract any onlookers.

Brother held out a crossbow pistol and shot one of the Shadowmen in the head before he could dodge out of the way. Victoria II reached behind her back and withdrew two six-inch-long handles and pointed them out toward either side. She then depressed a button on each handle and two-foot blades telescoped out of the handles and she took a ready guard position.

Ouihan finally took cover after seeing that the two shadow sentinels were indeed following his commands and taking on the Shadowmen. One of which was now standing still having been hit by an Arc Light. One of the reasons why the Arc Lights are used so extensively by the Shadowmen is that they temporarily freeze up and in cases of weaker kinds, sometimes permanently disable automatons. Ouihan looked down at his multiple wounds that any one of could of or should have been fatal but were not. He remembered about what Victoria II had said to him about his immortality. He thought, “Immortality still doesn’t stop the pain.”

Sister wrist rocketed another Shadowman when she looked over at Ouihan who was just staring at his wounds. She was shocked by the fact that he was still upright. She reached into her jacket pocket and took out a small first aid kit and scooted over to Ouihan and began to minister to his wounds. While doing this she was flooded by emotions that she had never let herself feel for several years. So, through tearful eyes she worked feverishly on Ouihan’s wounds.

Around one of the many trashcans that lined the streets that the group were taking cover by a Shadowman rolled out of cover and leveled his Scorcher on Empress Victoria II. In a moment of clarity and reflex, Major Gladly saw what was happening. He could have just let it happen. He had been in this betrayal for a penny so why not a pound? However, years of conditioning as well as generations of family duty outweighed a moment of avarice. So Major Gladly jumped forward and hooked his shackled hands around the back of the neck of the Shadowman and pinned the Arclight between them setting it off and discharging the power equally into both of them. The Shadowman’s armor was useless to save him.

Within seconds a group of three Shadowmen bounded over a group of trashcans in an attempt to engage Empress Victoria II. Two of them were stunned by the alacrity and skill of Victoria II with her short swords. This surprise was short lived as she decapitated them. The third found himself pinned to a telegraph pole by a bolt through the notch in his neck that had flew out of a device that was wrapped around Ouihan’s wrist that he was now holding out over Sister’s shoulder.

Immediately after firing his bolt Ouihan grabbed and spun Sister around and blocked the incoming Arclight strike that would have hit her in the back. Ouihan had always had an innate skill when involved in school yard fights that always let him always come out on top of the battle. That is why usually the bullies of the schools, both State School and Halinar's, eventually left him alone. He didn’t know, consciously, that the Arclight strike was coming in, but his body knew and was able to react saving Sister from an almost certain death.

Tophat saw that his men were losing their initiative, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tube with a string hanging out of one end. He pointed the tube into the air and reached up with his other hand and jerked the string sending up a bright orange flare.

Victoria II saw this and said, “We are about to be over run. Let us get out of here!”

Brother yelled, “This way!” and he rolled over and pulled up a heavy manhole cover with one hand while he shot his crossbow at the lead Shadowman.

The top hated lead Shadowman deftly deflected the crossbow bolt to the side with his cane. The drifting smoke from the different pyrotechnics briefly blocked his view of the Empress’ group long enough to not allow him to see them disappearing underground.

Johann from his vantage saw that Victoria II and her group were streaming into the manhole so he left off disassembling the Shadowman in his hands and called the other automatons to retreat.

One of the sentinels grabbed the frozen shadow sentinel and pulled it along toward the manhole. Johann was the last to head underground, but as an afterthought he grabbed Major Gladly’s body and handed him down the manhole to another sentinel and then retreated pulling the manhole cover shut.

Tophat saw that the targets had disappeared once the smoke had cleared and he looked left and right up and down Black Street to see where his quarry went to no avail. Within moments he was joined by his two remaining Shadowmen, one brushing off his smoldering coat, the other limping badly. With Shadowman cant he signaled them to search. He then looked up the street to see a dozen enforcers running to answer the flare. He shrugged and waited for them to show.

Leading the group of enforcers was an Enforcer Corporal named Solomon, Henry Solomon. He pulled up short by Tophat and looked around at the Shadowman wreckage in the street and said, “Ya had a bit of a tussle here had ya?” looking Tophat up and down.

Tophat nodded and said, “Right good man. Now if you’ll please, we need to search this street for a group of hooligans who attacked my men.”

Solomon looked around at the bodies on the floor and said, “You’s Shadowmen ain’t ya?” he felt some of his men bristle around him and her remembered that 7 of the 12 he had with him were augmenters from Lord Calador and the Council. Their bristling confirmed a suspicion he had so he amended, “Not that tha’s an issue mind ya.”

Tophat looked at Solomon appraisingly and said, “No it doesn’t matter. Now get after those hooligans!”

Lieutenant Nefertiti Arkanti, an intelligence officer in the First Amazonian Legion as well as first cousin to Empress Victoria II Arkanti, was walking briskly down the long corridor in the Legion HQ building. She had a message slip in her hand and a code book in her other hand. Her dark brow was furled as she was trying to puzzle out what needed to happen. She had worked with Captain Cooper before and so she knew the majority of his codes, however, this one was new to her. Since the message was addressed directly to the Legion Sargent Major, she figured that she would know the meaning of that code. Meanwhile, she had been running multiple scenarios in her head as to what was happening. Her best sources agreed that the Ugalla had nothing to do with this assassination. She even had some information sift in her reports that her cousin, Empress Victoria II was still alive. If that were true, then this was nothing but an outright coup. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to explore this further because the Council had assigned liaison officers to every section and command. They were very quick to dissuade her from following up on these reports.

She entered the HQ situation room and saw a flurry of activity as the legion prepared to march. Her expert eyes sorted out the faces and found Sargent Major Ukala Ukahn and marched over to her.

The Sargent Major stood and saluted Lieutenant Arkanti, then accepted the message slip. She took one look at the message body and her face went ashen.

Lieutenant Arkanti asked, “What’s this mean?”

The Sargent Major opened her mouth to answer the question when the council’s man came over and asked, “Yes, Sargent Major what’s the meaning of this?” and he took the message slip away from her.

“Mr. Grey, that is a report in from the field that our, um, intelligence assets are ready to be withdrawn in order for the, um, march.” She said quickly regaining her composer.

Mr. ‘Grey’ looked at Lieutenant Arkanti and asked, “Why are you not aware of this code?”

Sargent Major Ukahn gave her a meaningful look and she her quick mind realized that she had to think fast. So, she said, “Mr. Grey, I was aware of the meaning, but I was confused as to why it was addressed to the Legion Sargent Major and not myself.”

“Oh?”

Sargent Major Ukahn said, “Yes sir. I am afraid that it probably is a communication error that’s all. It has been a long time since we have had to mobilize the legion.”

Mr. Grey looked from the lieutenant and the Sargent Major then nodded, turned and returned to his usual place over by Major General Ukahn.

When she was sure that Mr. Grey’s back was turned, Sargent Major Ukahn mouthed the word, “Coup” to Lieutenant Arkanti.

The Lieutenant nodded and got a thoughtful look on her face saluted turned and left.

Batty followed the ventilation shaft that she was in until she made her way down into a furnace room. She was able to pop open a dust hatch before the shaft went into the hot furnace. She was covered with dust and soot and she wasn’t happy about the state of her haram outfit but there was nothing to be done about it at the time. She saw an old black jacket and galoshes over by a stairway that led up to a door.

She attuned her keen hearing and determined that there was someone walking toward the door. She looked around and saw that she could hide among the cogs and gears of the self-feeding coal furnace, hide under the stairs or climb up into the coal shoot to her left. She grabbed the jacket and galoshes and quickly and deftly clamored up the coal chute. She got halfway up when she heard the door open in the room below her.

As she paused, she heard a man humming as he walked down the stairs. From the sounds of the man’s steps she could tell that the man had a slight limp. She also noticed that there was a thickness to his voice that was usually an indication of someone slow of mind. Of course, she knew that this wasn’t always the case. Brother had thick and slow speech and poor articulation, but she knew that he was secretly just as smart as his sister in many ways. She wedged herself up against the side of the chute and waited.

The humming man sounded like he grabbed a shovel and then he broke out into all out singing. She heard him come closer to the shoot and then he started shoveling coal into a hopper that fed the furnace mechanism.

Batty saw the coal fall away from the shoot below her and she could see flashes of the silver shovel passing quickly by the shoot opening.

A cloud of coal dust billowed up into the shaft choked off the air around her. She tried her best, but she couldn’t stifle her cough. She coughed then sneezed and lost her grip on one of the galoshes. The galoshes fell down the shaft into the bin down below.

“Hey now who dat!?” the man said. He then stooped down and looked up the shaft.

Batty didn’t think he could see her because it was literally pitch black in the chute, but he said, “I see ya dere. Come out now, I nae hurt ye.”

Batty didn’t believe him so she quickly scurried up the rest of the shaft and grabbed the small door on the top. However, instead of escaping she was hit by an avalanche of coal that flushed her down into the bin. She laid stunned in the bin half buried in coal, coughing and sneezing.

“Ello, ello ello, what ave we ere, looks like a street rat trying to stay warm from the night air?” and he reached out and grabbed her by her vest and pulled her up out of the bin.

Elsie sat in her customary seat at the Steam and Whistle. She was on the corner of the bar that had a clear view of both the front and back doors. That was why she was able to see Captain Cooper slip into the back door and belly up to the bar next to her.

“What be ye pleasure Coop?” she said without looking up.

Despite the uncertainty in the streets and all the hassers running about, the bar was fairly crowded. It seems that the after-work crowd paid little mind to the broader disasters of royalty.

Cooper smiled and said, “I’ll be needing my steamer trunk.”

“Things that bolloxed?” she asked with genuine concern in her voice.

“I’m afraid so. My lady is still out in the wind and the blood shed isn’t finished for the night.”

“I figured as much. If the news were true, then you’d be in here drowning your sorrows.”

“No, I’d be out their reaping retribution.” Cal said flatly.

Elsie looked at him and nodded. She had heard men talk tough before and she seldom paid much attention to the bleating of sheep pretending to be lions. She knew that Coop was not one of those. He was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. She knew that if anyone ever hurt anyone he cared for, there’d be nothing on Zahn that would stop his retribution. With this thought she also wondered if she could ever be one of those that Coop cared about like that. She supposed that he counted her as a friend. She sighed and reached for the key ring on her belt. She then fished out a single, smaller key than the rest. “I don’t suppose you’ll be needing or wanting any help?”

“Not unless you have a death wish. I plan on going into the shadow’s lair.”

She shuddered reflexively and said, “No, I don’t. But I don’t think you do either.”

“No, no I don’t. But I thought you knew me better than that. You know I always end up standing in the end?”

“Yes, but ye never went into the shadow’s lair before either. No one has and lived to tell about it.”

“There’s a first time for everything. “

He paused, staring at her concerned face, waiting for her next comment. She didn’t speak, so he finally asked, “Is it in the same place?”

“Yes.” She said flatly. She then stood up and said, “You best be taking the whole trunk this time. I can nae stomach your coming and going anymore. I’ll no watch you die again, I’ve done it too often and I can’t take it anymore.” She then turned her back to him and walked over to the stairway in the back corner of the bar. However, instead of going up the stairs she walked to the door on the far wall just adjacent to the foot of the stairs.

Cal shrugged, and followed her, his head ever on a swivel. That was when he noticed the two darkly dressed men sitting in the far corner on the opposite side of the bar. They appeared too intent on not looking like they were watching him. Which in fact he knew that they were.

She opened the door using the key that she had sorted out from the ring. She led him into an office that looked rather lavish compared to the bar in general. She then pointed into the corner where a three foot by one-and-a-half-foot brass steamer trunk sat standing on one end.

Cooper closed the door behind him and locked it. He then went over to the trunk and began to work the combination lock on the latch. Once he opened the lock, he swung the chest open and began taking out an assortment of weapons and other accoutrements of war. He laid them on the plush red velvet couch immediately to the right of the trunk. The last thing he took out of the trunk was an elaborate harness of some kind. He took off his jacket and began to shrug on the harness.

Elsie silently went over and helped him put the harness on. It settled into place like a glove, intermeshing with his torso like a set of gears. She could feel the transformation as soon as it slid into place. He was a little taller, straighter and a bit more deliberate. She then began to assist him in putting the tools of his true trade in place on the harness. The throwing spikes, the fighting knives, the tomahawk on its hook, they all settled into well-oiled sheaths. Next were the pouches for other tools of war; the needle launchers, the blast balls, the reloads for the larger projectile launchers. Finally, the major weapons in their holsters or the hooks and lanyards. As she was assisting him, she could feel the change with each added piece. Some men would get heavier, more menacing as they kept adding to their impressive weaponry, each layer making them more aggressive and blustering. That wasn’t Coop. Coop was the reverse. With each weapon and implement added, something seemed to leave him, fall away. He became less and less a person, more a tool of war. The emotion didn’t build, it faded away. Silent tears were coursing down her cheeks as she finished. She loved Coop and hated this “Thing!” that emerged whenever he did this. She has always deluded herself though. She had realized that the Coop she loved was the phony, and this was the real Cooper.

Cooper double checked to ensure that the magazine that was in his primary weapon was fully loaded. He then grabbed a long, brown leather coat leaving his black leather jacket draped on the coach. He then reached into the trunk and took out a brown leather pouch and try to hand it to Elsie, “Here for your troubles. There’s twenty sovereigns in there.”

She looked at him through narrowed eyes flaring with rage and said, “And ere I thought you knew me better than that.” She shook her head and turned her back to him and walked over to her desk and poured herself a drink.

“Best you stay here in the office Elsie. Two of your customers and I are about to have words. I don’t want you to get hurt.” He said tossing the pouch of gold onto the desk next to where she was standing. “It’s for the damages then.”

She said nothing but looked toward her drink of fine scotch, the images blurred by her tears.

Cooper looked at her back and said, “I guess I’ll see you around kid.” He turned and walked to the door, unlocked it and started to go out, paused and said, “Take care of yourself.” He then left closing the door behind him.

Out in the bar Cal walked directly to the corner table where the two spies sat. They tried to keep up appearances until he stopped in front of them and said, “Evening gents. Y’all are going to answer some question for me.”

Then a lively time was had by all...

Victoria II and her party finally found a safe place to stop in the underground. It was another valve room, not far from South Station.

They had been running for some time, trying to stay ahead of any possible pursuers. The entire party were out of breath except for Johann and the other sentinels.

Johann finally set down Major Gladly’s body and straitened up. He said, “I’m sorry but he’s dead.” to Victoria II.

She looked down at her former bodyguard, traitor and finally fallen hero. She shook her head and said, “He died bravely. He…he redeemed himself in the end.” her voice broke as she kneeled down and closed his eyes. Her own eyes full of tears. “He had finally earned his family’s name and honor back.”

Brother, who had been carrying him because he was still shaken up by the scorcher, set Ouihan down and said, “I saw how ya save Sister. Thank ya.”

“It was nothing.” Ouihan said shakily as he worked out another of the poisonous needles from his flesh.

Sister, who had been quiet and not herself since she heard the news of Scrapper’s death, smiled meekly and said to Ouihan, “Yes, thank you. Let me help you with that.” and she reached into her pouch and took out a first aid kit with salves and bandages. She also fished a pair of needle nosed plyers out of her tool belt so that she could expedite the removal of the tiny bolts.

For a time, the room was quiet save for the occupant’s heavy breathing. Ouihan winced from the pain as the needles were being removed while Brother went over to the entry hatch and looked out. Ouihan finally looked Sister in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry about Scrapper’s death.”

“I knew that that punk would get hisself killed one day, but…” Sister seemed to be at a loss of words.

“But you hate losing someone you’re responsible for.” This was Victoria II who walked over and rubbed Sister’s back.

Sister straitened up, having removed the last needle in Ouihan’s leg and said, “Yes, ever since they voted me as leader, we haven’t lost one of us. Until today that is.” She said turning her back to the others as her eyes filled with tears.

Victoria stood behind Sister and gave her a hug from behind, “Yes I had thought as much. I have sent many of my soldiers to fight and die. I have gone to the front on regular occasions to see their faces and encourage them on. No matter how many I’ve sent to die in battle each one weighs heavy on my conscience.” She looked up towards the ceiling and blinked away tears, “I tried to just reduce them to numbers but no use.”

Sister turned around and looked up at Victoria II and felt less alone. She gave Victoria II a hug and buried her face into her chest cried fiercely.

Victoria II felt herself flood with emotions herself. She was not a mother, but it would seem that this young crying girl touched her motherly instincts. “There, there. It’s ok. Let the tears come.”

Brother said, “Quiet! Someone’s coming.”

The rooms occupants brandished their various weapons and prepared for battle.

After Mousey left Yoyo behind she spent quite a bit of time trying to make sure that no one was following her. She, like the majority of the Orphan Clan, knew the underground of Grandeur City like the back of her hand. She kept hoping that Yoyo would make her get away and find her way to meet up with Mousey.

After a while she realized that her best friend and sometime protector wouldn’t make a showing. Once she made that realization, she spent time calling in information from the network of eyes and ears on the street. She wanted to know the true extent of the Shadowmen attack on the orphans. How many of her brothers and sisters were taken? Once she came to a reasonable accounting, she then made her way to the South Station Hidey Hole to put out warnings that their hiding place may be compromised.

She was very near the Hidey Hole when she noticed shadows that were not supposed to be there. She took out a yellow piece of chalk from her pocket and she put a broken sideways figure eight sign on the pipe. She then turned and ran as she sensed the shadows come to life. She was in full run when she heard three distinct individuals in full pursuit of her. She was nearing end of her endurance and she felt and heard the three Shadowmen gaining on her. She sensed, in near panic, that they were no more than 50 feet behind her.

She was near a valve room that she knew about and she saw Brother’s marker on the pipe and knew that at lease he was there. As she ran past the valve room hatch, she made the street cant sign that meant, “Three are following me.”

Before Mousey had shown, Brother had rolled out across the tunnel and made his way into another valve alcove. Johann also stepped out into the tunnel and took cover in a large pile of refuge. The two sentinels and the two turned shadow sentinels positioned themselves by the hatch ready to go out into the tunnel to support their fellows as well as to protect their Lady and her remaining companions.

Brother let Mousey run by him, and he stood ready, like a steely bear trap, waiting for its quarry. Johann on the other hand reached out and, surprisingly gently grabbed Mousey and swung her behind him and the pile of refuge that he was hiding behind. Simultaneously he stood up to block the passage.

The three Shadowmen screeched to a stop at the sight of the huge figure now blocking the tunnel. Since they were ordered to capture and not kill the orphans, they had stun rods out and not their scorchers or other deadly implements out and ready. So out of reflex the three of them, with rehearsed coordination stabbed their stun rods forward hitting Johann at three different points.

A normal person would have fallen dead from the combined electrical jolts. Even an abnormally resilient person would have at the very least fallen unconscious from the combined volts. Johann, being a sentinel with the will of a very angry man did neither.

The combined electrical jolt did have effect of disrupting a good amount of Johann’s control on his automaton body. But not all. His right hand reached out and grabbed one the Shadowmen’s throat.

The other two, quite by reflex, took a step back and readied themselves for the next action. Both of them very surprised by Johann’s ability to remain vertical to the ground.

Johann had only intended to capture the Shadowman he had in his grip, however, because of the residual electrical jolts going through his system he simply crushed the man’s throat. Once he realized what happed he had to, with considerable focus, will his hand to release the now dead body.

The two remaining Shadowmen were preparing their follow up attack, now with scorchers when the two unseen attackers hit them from each side. Brother, whose normal affect was that of a lovable and simple minded looking large boy, took on a cold continence that was the antipathies of what everyone knew him to be. Sister was the only living person who had seen this look before in his face. The look that he had many years ago when he fought to protect Sister from four street thugs. The street thugs didn’t live to tell of this event. Neither did the Shadowman which stood right across from him in the tunnel. The Shadowman only caught a glimpse of the rage filled face Brother’s powerful hands closed on his throat and effectively crushed his spine and windpipe. The remaining Shadowman turned to see this fellow being attacked and prepared to react when the valve room hatch swung out hitting him square in his face knocking him to the ground unconscious.

The shadow sentinel who swung open the door stepped out looked down at the unconscious Shadowman. He, like Johann, was a soul of a condemned man who was imprisoned in an automaton body. His anger made him reach down to kill the remaining Shadowman but Ouihan called out, “Stop! We need to interrogate him.” The shadow sentinel, despite himself, had to obey.

Mousey quickly jumped up and embraced Johann crying in terror.

Johann had, by this point, regained a good measure of control over his body. He reached down and gently rubbed Mousey’s back and his incongruently mechanical voice said, “It’s okay now. You’re safe here my little mouse.”

Three am, the witching hour, was when the soldiers of the Legions were being roused out of their bunks. A full two hours before they were supposed to. In the night of planning and preparations the Council’s watchdogs had finally decided that all was in hand, so they collectively went to bed to get some rest for the morning march. They were also under the assumption that the officers and senior NCOs of the Legions were going to sleep as well. However, because of Captain Cooper’s warning message as well as a couple of follow up messages, the officers and NCOs had quietly spread the word that there was indeed a coup underway and the Empress was still alive and desperately trying to get back to the palace. At three the soldiers were being quietly roused and whispered instructions were being passed the Legions quietly coiled for actions like some deadly leviathans readying to spring to the surface on some hapless ship.

A military unit’s discipline is perhaps the muscle that keeps a unit in fighting readiness but it’s the trust from soldier to soldier and soldier to officer that is its backbone. With the understanding that they were, collectively, committing mutiny against the Council’s appointed commanders the officers and the enlisted of the Legions moved to secure these watchdogs.

While the bulk of the Legion’s forces prepared to take the city back, specialty soldiers and officers moved in on the barracks that were set aside for these watchdogs. With military precision the khakied dressed soldiers swooped into the barracks rooms with weapons ready. There were enough soldiers for this “cleanup” for two soldiers for each watchdog. Once everyone was in positions the Lieutenant in charge yelled, “Get up! You are under arrest by order of the Empress and her duly appointed officers!”

The watchdogs were each jolted awake and each reacted in their own way with belligerent surprise. The head watchdog sat up quickly but apparently unperturbed. He looked around the room and said, “Kill them!”

Out of each corner of the room stepped out a shadow sentinel that began to wade into the soldiers.

14) The Red Sky Morning (Tock)

Lord Calador wasn’t fond of rising early. He preferred the leisurely start of the day that his rank and station normally afforded him. He often said that even though the clock continued around the day really didn’t start until after morning coffee and breakfast.

So, when his major domo woke him at four AM with the news of the Legions’ “Mutiny” he was rather cross.

“Summon for Mr. Alexander immediately!” he barked out as he thrusted his arms into his robe.

Another servant nodded and ran off.

Calador continued to allow himself to be dressed by his servants as he fumed. “This was not part of the plan. The legions were to be ready to march now…” he continued to grumble most of the rest was incoherent or filled with profanities.

“Yes sir.” His Major Domo said placidly. He had been serving High Lord Calador, in one way or another, since he was 11, so he was aware of most of his foibles. The one thing that he knew was that even though Calador could be harsh at times to those who failed him and harsher yet to his enemies he was never unfair or caprice with his anger. For this his servants owed him loyalty.

“Samuel, see to it that my coffee is extra strong this morning, will you?” Calador asked.

“Yes sir. I have already anticipated that sir.” Samuel knew that his liege lord was particular on his tastes but on the rare occasion when he had to rise early, he always insisted that his coffee be near caustic in strength.

Calador made his way to his office in his city home and sat down at the breakfast table that was across from his desk.

“Sir, shall I have a chair brought in for Mr. Alexander?”

“No, you shall not! I will not be inviting him to breakfast with me this morning!”

“Very good sir.” Samuel bowed and clapped his hands once.

A servant came in bearing a silver tray with a breakfast plate and coffee service on it. The second servant with a tray turned and went back down to the kitchen.

While final preparation of his breakfast was being made, High Lord Calador read the details on the dispatch that arrived by messenger. “Will you look at that Samuel, those mutineers had the nerve to attack my liaisons! I am so glad I invested in those replicas of the sentinels.”

“Yes sir, very good sir.” Samuel said while paying attention to every detail about the breakfast and having no real interest in what his lord was saying.

After a few minutes a servant slipped into the room and whispered something into Samuel’s ear. Samuel nodded and said, “Sir, Mr. Alexander has arrived.”

“It’s about time! Send him in.”

Samuel nodded to the messenger who turned on his heels and left.

A moment later, Alexander stepped into the room looking as fresh and dapper as he always did. Still wearing his smoked colored glasses, top hat and carrying his black-crystal handled cane which he placed tip down between his feet. He then laid both his hands on the handle and stood patiently waiting his lord’s pleasure.

Samuel silently signaled the rest of the staff who all turned and left. Then he said, “Mr. Alexander, my Lord.”

Calador looked up from his reports and said, “Can you explain this mess Alexander?!”

“It would seem that Her Eminence is far more resourceful than you had led me to understand. Also, Captain Cooper has proven to be much harder to kill than we have anticipated. By the way, costs for this operation have tripled.”

Calador looked at Alexander with a dumbfounded look for a moment then said, “You mean to blame this on me?!”

“Well sir, in point of fact yes. If you had given me proper facts without the coloring of your, shall I say, prejudices I would have been able to better plan the operation.”

“You realize, man, that I could have you destroyed? How dare you talk to me this way?!”

Alexander shrugged and said, “Sir, if you were to have me destroyed then the rest of your short life would be forsaken, and worse. My associates would eventually, and quite simply, put an end to you. You, your wealth, your name, your family, all would vanish like ice on a hot sidewalk, no evidence of their existence left behind.”

Calador stared at Alexander for a few seconds just blinking his eyes. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Well do you have any suggestions on how we may salvage this situation?”

“As far as the political situation, I would have to say no. That is something that I have no expertise in. As for Her Eminence and Captain Cooper. Plans and corrections are already in hand.”

“Well if you had done your job correctly from the beginning and eliminated Her Eminence then the political situation would have been well in hand…”

“May I remind you your lordship that even had we eliminated Her Eminence on the planned timeline, Captain Cooper would still have been able to alert the Legions of the Coup and you would still have had to deal with the, shall we say, mutiny. Captain Cooper should have been dead on more than one occasion, so I suspect that there is more to this man than meets the eyes. He even survived a scorcher hit.”

“Scorcher?” Lord Calador looked perplexed by both the unfamiliar term as well as the implications of what Alexander had just said.

“Sorry sir, I mean Arc Light. Forgive me for using the street slang.” Alexander seemed truly contrite.

“Arc Light? No one ever survives an Arc Light hit.” Caldor said more to himself than to Alexander still digesting the implications. His mind then recoiled when the full realization dawned on him that he had ordered a hit on an immortal.

In the alley behind The Steam and Whistle, Cooper was looking down at the shackled man twitching and foaming at his mouth as he put away the black leather case with his truth serum. He shook his head and said, “You shouldn’t have made things so difficult. You should have known that I would get the secrets you tried to keep eventually.”

He then looked up and saw Elsie standing in the back door of the pub smoking a cigarette from a long stem holder. “Could you please clean this mess up for me? I have details to attend to.”

“I’ll call Blake. He will know what to do.”

“That will work. He will know. Tell Igor that I had to use the red solution so I very much doubt that this one’s salvageable.”

She took a long drag off her cigarette and shrugged, “Just add him to the trail of shattered bodies and broken lives behind you.”

Cooper opened his mouth, but Elsie held up her hand to forestall him and said, “I don’t want to hear it. It’d be like a scorpion trying to explain he’s a scorpion. You’re like one of the Sentinels, anything resembling a smile or emotion is just paint and polish on you. Why did I ever let myself forget that? Just be about saving your lady. That’s what you’re good at.” She turned and went back into her bar and softly closed the metal door behind her. The quiet snick of the bolt sliding home in the door was as loud as a hammer strike in Coopers head. It carried a sense of finality with it.

Cooper looked down sadly, the years evident in his frame and stance in that one brief moment and said out loud, “If it were for me Sherie...” but the alley was empty, save for the twitching mass at his feet, and he was only talking to himself.

He then turned and raised his head. An entirely different continence came over his face and being. The leviathan had now fully risen to the surface. Humanity was absent in the juggernaut that stepped forward into the night.

Batty finished the hot cocoa that Maxie had poured for her from his thermos and gratefully munched on the strawberry scone that he provided her from his lunch box. She had though that she was caught and was going to be put back into the cage with her friends. However, the limping building custodian was not of the same ilk as that of his employers. He appeared to be quite ignorant about the goings on in the building that he maintained. He learned early on to keep it that way. He was just a simple man, not a simpleton, just simple. As far as he knew this building was just a gentleman’s club and the business of the members was just something beyond him. He only thought that Batty was a street urchin who was trying to find shelter from the cold night. He knew that he should have called for one of the many security guards that habited the building, but his heart was softened by the apparent fear on Batty’s face when he found her in the coal bin.

Batty was trying to decide whether to tell Maxie about her friends that were held prisoner but decided not to. She decided that it was up to her to figure out a plan to rescue her brothers and sisters.

Once she finished the scone she said meekly, “Thank ye sir. I best be going so you no git in trouble.”

Maxie looked a little crestfallen for a moment, but he realized that he would get in big trouble if he were caught harboring a street urchin. His employers seemed to lack the milk of human kindness. He said, “Little lady, if you can nae find your family then you can come over to my place and stay with me and my missus. My boys would love to have a little sis.”

“I remember. Thank you, Maxie.” She smiled genuinely.

“Lemme slip you out the back here so none of the security hassers catch ya.”

He then led her toward a stone stairway that was hidden behind the furnace’s mechanism. When they came to the iron doors at the top of the steps he reached to his belt and took off a key ring that was his way into most doors and rooms in the building.

Before he unlocked the door, he reached up to a hook on the wall and pulled down a wool sweater that was hanging there and handed it to Batty and said, “This is my spare for extra cold nights. It’ll be big on ya, but it’ll keep ya warm.”

She pulled the sweater on. It fell over her body down to her knees. It looked rather incongruent with her harem pants and slippers, but it was indeed warm. She reached up and pulled Maxie’s face down and kissed him on the cheek and said, “Thank you, Max.”

“Mi pleasure, little lady.”

Maxie then opened the door to be stunned by the sight of the imposing stone –like figure standing on the outside.

Cooper grabbed Maxie by the throat before he could call out.

Maxie involuntarily stepped back when Cooper grabbed him, thus making way for Cooper to step inside.

Despite the darkness of the stairway, Cooper knew that Batty was standing there behind Max. He said to her, “Stay quiet or I’ll kill him.”

Batty quickly surmised that this man had matched the description that she and her friends were told to look out for by Mousey earlier the day before. She realized that she had an opportunity to save her friends here, but she had to play it right.

She said, “Papa this is my friend.” She then made a meaningful glance up toward Maxie with her eyes then said, “I was looking for Vicky here and he gave me some cocoa and scone.”

Cooper got a calculating look on his face as he put two and two together, then said, “I see.” He then looked down at Maxie who was a good foot shorter than him and said, “Thank ye for looking after my daughter, but we are looking for my other daughter Vicky.” He then straitened Maxie’s collar and said, “Sorry for being so rough. I was worried about my kids.”

“That’s alright mate. I would feel the same way if I had a daughter…”

The needle with the sedative was fine and short so Maxie hadn’t felt it go in what with the over stimulation that Cooper had done around his neck with the first gripping then straitening of his collar. All that he felt was a sudden dizziness and the room seemed to darken.

“Oi, I be getting a case of the Wobblies…”

“That’s alright chap. Let me help you sit down.” Cooper guided Maxie back down the steps and to a chair leaning away from the furnace mechanism. Cooper had just barely got him sat down before his body went limp.

Batty got a concerned look on her face and asked, “Is he gonna be alright?”

“Sure, he’ll be asleep for a couple of hours, but he’ll wake up right as rain.”

Obviously reassured, Batty held out her hand and asked, “You must be Captain Cal?”

“Right and you’re a friend of Ehawee right?”

“You know Ehawee? Is she alright?”

“She’s fine. Or at least she was the last time I saw her yesterday.”

“A lot has happened since yesterday Captain Cal. Me and some of my brothers and sisters had been taken by Shadowmen. They are here in this building. I was able to escape.”

Cooper began calculating. He had planned to come in and kick down the doors to Hell itself and take the Shadowmen command staff off the game board for good. He didn’t anticipate this added complication. Before he was to bring a rain of destruction upon the shadow’s lair, he needed to see to the wellbeing of the children, first and foremost in his mind for the greater strategic points at play here. The Shadowmen took the children for both leverage and information. Cal figured if they were extricated from the situation, it would take that leverage and information out of the enemy’s hands. Considering the state that he anticipated leaving the building in after his retribution he decided that it would be best for the children that they be rescued first.

Sunrise saw a blood red sky over the barracks and HQ buildings behind the Palace and Pyramid. It was a reflection of the conditions within. The battle was desperate, the battle was close quarters, a literal gunfight in broom closet. Weapons designed for use at one thousand yards were used at targets across a room. The enemy had employed 100 shadow sentinels whereas the Legions’ automatons, although greater in numbers, were very much falling short in durability. Also, the enemy had called in a number of their Enforcer Legion augmentees to quell the “Mutiny”.

On top of this, several High Lords of the Council had called up their personal militias to march into the city proper. Each militia consisted of a regiment for each High Lord.

High Lord Murtaugh, the Lord Baron of the High Reaches had conveniently had his militia regiment on training maneuvers at the time. So did Lord Calador, go figure. By five am, the two activated regiments were marching into the city from both the southern and eastern gates.

Casualties were catastrophic. The first to engage, the Black Hand Watch Company, were killed to a man in the barracks of the Council’s Watchdogs. Granted the 50 plus Watchdogs were nearly decimated as well with 35 killed or wounded.

The primary handicap to the Legions was the desire to avoid collateral injuries and deaths. That was General Maximus’ first directive when the battle began. So, the Legions had limited their actions to staying within the Palace grounds and barracks areas.

The four remaining Imperial Sentinels, by previous directive by the empress herself, had deployed themselves to protect the designated heir to the Imperial, First Lieutenant Nefertiti Arkanti.

Despite her ordering them to enter the fighting, they refused and maintained their stations surrounding her. No one knew the deeper guides that control the operations of these magnificent machines. However, they just knew that they had to protect the heir.

Once word of The Council’s Regiments entering the city had reached General Magnus a decision was made to order the First Amazonian and the North Highlander’s Legions out to engage the regiments.

Major Generals Kikola Ukahn and Marcus McPherson looked at each other with a look of great trepidation. Ukahn looked back at General Magnus and said, “Collateral damage cannot be avoided now.”

“I am, sadly, aware of that. Just do the best you can.” Shaking his head.

Both Major Generals snapped to attention and saluted saying, “Yes sir!” They turned and left to move out their legions.

General Magnus turned to Colonel McCready, the artillery commander for the Grandeur City Legion and said, “William, I am going to need you to loose the field guns and heavy arc lights to help the legions break out.”

Colonel McCready closed his eyes because he was aware of the implications of engaging the 8-inch cannons and heavy arc lights within the city. He opened his eyes back up and said, “Yes sir.” Saluted turned and left.

The General turned to his two remaining legion commanders and said, “I want you and your staff to work out plans to secure the rest of the city. We cannot let the traitors get a greater foot hold within Grandeur City.”

Cooper had turned off the central gas light valves to darken the shadow’s lair. Now he and Batty made their way quietly down the corridors of the building toward where the other captured orphans were being kept. It impressed Cooper how Batty could lead him along in near darkness. He thought that his night vision and hearing were phenomenal until he met her.

The two guards standing on either side of the iron door of the cell had each held a bullseye lantern and were nervously scanning up and down the corridor they occupied not sure what was going on.

Cooper simply appeared in front of them out of shadow and said, “Open the cell!” in a command voice.

The senior guard said, “Yes sir!” then took a large key ring off his belt with a single large skeleton key on it, turned and unlocked the large iron bolt then slid it open. The other guard, a much larger man grabbed the handle on the door and with considerable effort pulled the door open.

Cooper then took the lantern from the smaller man and shined it into the cell. Four children huddled into the corner and turned their heads and shielded their eyes from the sudden light.

“Is this all of them?”

“No sir. One of em, the big un, was brought out to be questioned.” The smaller guard said.

“Where?”

“The lab. Up one floor sir.” The bigger guard said with a slightly puzzled look on his face.

“Very well. You two are dismissed. I’ll be taking charge of these four now.”

“Are you sure sir? They may be a hand full.”

“Not after I am done with them, they won’t. So, unless you want to watch you best be going home now. You’re done for the night.” He gave them a deadly look that made both shudder involuntarily.

The two guards bowed, turned and left leaving one of the lanterns with Cooper. Once the two guards were at the end of the corridor and turning left the big one turned his head to the smaller one and said, “I don’t remember ever seeing that officer before.”

“Shut up. How many times do I have to tell you to leave the thinking to your betters? That man is an obvious officer and a deadly one at that. Besides, I don’t want to stick around and see what he has planned for those poor lambs.”

Cooper waited until the guards were gone then looked back at the four orphans who were obviously terrified about what was about to happen to them when he made a motion to his side.

Batty appeared out of the shadows and said, “Time for us to go.”

The relief was palpable when they children saw Batty standing safely next to Cooper.

15) The Shadows of Retribution (Tick)

Cooper had found another group of orphans in another cell and had released them as well to add to the group he already liberated.

Cooper led the liberated orphans out of the prison level and up to the laboratory level, all the while using the dark as their shield. Since Batty could see and hear the best, she was always right in front of Cooper, but she was given strict orders to dodge behind him if they ran into trouble. The movement was slower than he intended because Cooper wanted to avoid any confrontations while having the children in tow. He passed up several opportunities to reduce the odds in order to prevent them from being caught up in the crossfire.

Once on the laboratory level, Batty got his attention and signaled Coop there was a man about to come around the corner. She dutifully switched places with Coop so that when the man came around the corner, he came face to face with him and not her.

Cooper slammed the man dressed in a lab coat square in the throat, crushing his larynx. Coop then grabbed the man’s neck while still using his right hand to hold his jaw, ensuring that the man couldn’t make any last call for help. Cooper was getting ready to break the man’s neck and end a slow painful death as his throat slowly swelled shut. However, he looked past the man into the room that he had just come out and saw the bloodied body of the young orphan Simi that they were going to rescue strapped to a procedure couch or wrack of some kind. Having seen so much death in battle he could tell at a glance that they were too late. He then looked into the torturer’s eyes with a cold look. The torturer’s eyes went wide with comprehension and fear.

Cooper decided that this man deserved a slow death so he punched him in the diaphragm and let him fall to the ground where he grunted and gasped for the precious air supply that would soon be gone as his throat swelled. The torturer panicked with the full realization of his unstoppable demise.

Cooper looked back at Batty and the others and made a signal of, “Wait here.” Then he stepped into the lantern lit room, pulled down a curtain from the window revealing the blood red sky outside and covered Simi’s broken body. Before he pulled it over Simi’s face, he reached down gently and reverently closed the eyes of the child. Even though Simi was large for his age, to Cooper he looked no different than the small and fragile Ehawee that had managed to worm her way into his heart.

He heard Batty gasp from behind him and turned to look and see that she had peeked around the corner to see Simi’s body, covered in the curtain, Simi’s blood already soaking through the white cloth. He felt Batty’s grief through the anguish in her eyes. He covered Simi’s face, turned and stepped over to Batty and pulled her into his chest for a hug.

As Batty wept, Cooper’s rage grew within him from an ember to a raging inferno. He closed his eyes and schooled himself to cool it. He knew that he would do these children no favors unleashing that rage in front of them nor would he likely get them all out safely if he gave into the rage. Rage leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to death. He had to ensure that these children were out of the shadow’s lair before he could release the power of his rage.

While Batty wept, the other children came into the room silently and one by one touched Simi’s covered body and said their silent goodbyes. Finally, Batty gave up her embrace on Coop and went over and did the same.

Cooper wanted to bring Simi’s body out of there and give him some sort of dignity, but he knew that that wasn’t practical at the time. “Best be tending the living and honor the dead in your heart” he thought to himself. Besides, if what he had planned were to come to fruition, Simi will have the funeral of pagan kings on the backs of many fallen Shadowmen in the conflagration.

He gave Batty a few moments then said quietly, “Alright, it’s time we best be getting out of here.”

Batty nodded and took her lead position as they lined back up to make their way out.

Cooper knew that they had to take a different way out than the way they came in. When the gas lights came back on, there would be security where they had entered. Fortunately, Cooper had spent some time studying the blueprints of the “Gentleman’s Club” before these events took place. He did so in anticipation that he may someday have to deal with Mr. Alexander and his organization. So, he knew there was a service dock on the same level with the laboratory which would afford them a quicker escape. Since the lights were back on, Cooper had taken the lead position and had to deal with a few “obstacles” on their way to that exit.

Half an hour and five Shadowmen later, Coop was leading his charges out the loading dock side door. Once out of the building, Coop took a piece of tape and placed it over the latch hole to ensure that the door didn’t latch behind them. He led them around some dumpsters and crates to the main street in front of the building.

He handed a slip of paper to Batty and said, “Make your way to this address. Ehawee should be there. This is a safe place. No matter what, don’t leave until I come and get you.”

Batty said, “What if you don’t come?” on the verge of tears.

Cooper looked her in the eyes and said, “I will come. I guarantee it.”

She nodded feeling reassured. She shuddered at the sound of cannon fire not too distant from their position.

Cooper surmised that his message had made their way to the Legions. So, he knew what was happening. He did a quick scan and saw a wall of soldiers proceeding down the main street toward the palace. He saw that they were dressed in the uniform of Lord Calador’s Regiment, so he quickly directed his charges to a back road and said, “Stay to the back roads and alleys. Avoid the soldiers. All hell is breaking loose. Don’t get into a fight with the soldiers. Just run and hide and take your time. Just look like you are children trying to get out of the way. I think you can pull that off.” He winked.

Batty pointed to a storm drain and said, “We’ll be safer if we go underground.”

Cooper wanted to slap himself because he was underestimating his charges. Too many years of seeing children as just children without realizing that these children have already been tempered in the fires of despair and adversity. He rubbed Batty’s head and said, “Yeah, that works. You’re in charge. Take care of each other and I will be seeing you as soon as I can.”

Batty, Yoyo and the other girls took turn kissing Coop on the cheek as they went one by one past him into the underground. The young men shook his hand. Once the last of them were underground, Cooper turned, and his countenance returned to its mechanistic automaton of vengeance again as he walked back to the shadow’s lair.

Victoria II and her group had spent some time resting in another valve room that Sister had led them to. She spent some time trying to think things through while her people rested. Ouihan had apparently healed fully in that short amount of time.

When she asked him about this, he had said that he didn’t ever remember being seriously hurt but he always healed his minor scrapes and cuts quickly. The one thing that he did remember was that strangely the worse the cut or scrape the faster it healed. This was one of the many things he knew to be different about him than other people. However, he never really paid it much mind because he was used to that fact that he was always very different than his fellows.

He had an innate understanding of the workings of things like magic and mechanics in the world. Everything that he set his mind to fixing or making most times worked as he envisioned it to. On the rare occasions that they didn’t, they were even more wonderous in their results. An example thereof was Gidget.

Ouihan had just finished making the adjustments to free the two new shadow sentinels from Shadowman control and their compulsion to kill the Empress. They all agreed that that would be best. One couldn’t have two party members who were compelled to kill the party leader now could one? The two former shadow sentinels were nowhere near as strong willed as Johann. Nor near as angry. So, they were very agreeable to the Empress’ proposal to serve her for clemency.

One of the former shadow sentinels, a thief named Willis, had recounted his experiences once put into his new mechanical body. Once he was given control over his body he began to flex and extend his different extremities testing his control. “It is so cold.” He said with a shiver.

Willis confessed that he had been a thief as far as he could remember. For all intents and purposes, he was a street orphan just like Brother and Sister. His parents both abandoned him when he was around ten years of age. But before that he had learn to steal from his dad to augment the family’s income. He found out later that the reason why he was abandoned was because both of his parents got pinched on a “job”.

After that he fell in with a bad crowd, actually worse than his parents, who taught him the more aggressive end of “Active panhandling”. He had done that for his teen years up into his early adulthood.

One day he and his partner were pickpocketing on Victoria I Plaza when his partner got too aggressive with this elderly, obviously rich, lady. She had fallen to the ground and split her head open on a cobblestone.

He and his partner bolted but Willis was the one who got pinched. Since he couldn’t prove that he wasn’t the one who accidentally killed the lady he ended up walking the 13.

Willis confessed that he knew, deep down, that that was going to be his eventual fate. It was only a matter of time. Now that he has been given a second chance of redemption, he figured that he would make the most of it. Even the cold feeling as he occupied his body was bearable compared to what he thought awaited him in the afterlife.

The other former shadow sentinel was occupied by a woman named only Sally. She was a ‘lady of the night’ who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, according to her, when her gentleman caller had an “accident”. Therefore, she was sent up the 13 steps. She didn’t say much. Mostly kept to herself.

Ouihan sensed some bitterness in her but that was way out of his expertise to fix. So, he made the necessary adjustments, but he felt that he may have to assert his control on her at some future time.

Victoria II was considering these things while she also considered her next steps. Cal taught her that she should always keep an inventory and appraisal of her resources in order to have an appropriate flexibility of command. She, not for the first time in the last 24 plus hours, wished that she had her Captain beside her. However, she understood Cal’s reasons and ultimately believed them to be right. Yet, she was still a young woman with limited tests of command. At that moment though, she suddenly realized that had it not been for Cal and his teachings she would most likely be dead by now and The Civilization would be lost. All that she had done. All that her ancestors had fought for would be soon relegated to the trash heap of history like so many other empires that were before. So, in essence, Cal was with her in the teachings he had given her over the past few years.

At that moment the ground shook and she heard a loud boom above. Victoria II closed her eyes with the realization that things were getting out of hand. She recognized the sound of an eight-inch shell exploding above. When she opened her eyes, her countenance took on the aspect of her mentor. The cold hard warrior had risen to the surface and in that moment, she knew what had to be done next.

Cooper had just sent a throwing spike to hit an armored Shadowman right between the eyes where his helmet and mask had failed to protect when he was hit again by another scorcher, probably for the fifth time that morning. As he lost control of his body and fell to the ground the armed grenade, he was holding in his left hand rolled out of his grip to the feet of the Shadowman who had just scorched him.

The Shadowman barely had time to register what the object was that rolled to bounce off his toe when the grenade detonated sending the hapless Shadowman flying back into another group of Shadowmen who were charging in. All of them were well within the lethal range of the grenade.

After a couple of minutes, Cooper pulled himself up off the floor, righted himself and continued with his “March to the Sea” as it were. All the while claxons were going off warning all within the Shadow’s Lair that there of an intruder.

Once he had his feet beneath him, he grabbed another grenade, pulled the pin and held it in his left hand while he proceeded down the long corridor toward the main lobby. His goal was to reach Alexander’s office and remove him from the equation. He also had been planting these wind-up devices that looked something like a roll of quarters with some sort of adhesive on one side.

These small black devices didn’t look like much and were most likely not going to get a second thought from someone who was walking or running down the hallways. However, these devices were a wonderful and awful combination of alchemy and clockwork. Their purpose was quite simply incendiary. Once the timer reached zero the alchemical substance in them will ignite and heat the surrounding foot radius to around ten thousand degrees. More than enough to start a fire in the large, primarily wooden, building that he was now marching though.

Up to this point he had already placed ten of these incendiary charges as well as four other more explosive devices. The heavier explosives were place at load bearing points within the building. Again, these devices were designed to not draw attention except by the most expert and careful observer.

Cooper entered the main lobby to see approximately fifty, fully armored, Shadowmen waiting for him. “Alright, time for Betty!!!” he said as he pulled up his main gun from his right hip.

Captain Frederick von Richter stood uneasily on the HEAS Monarch’s bridge as the ship proceeded toward the palace and legion grounds. He could see, off in the distance, the battle that was in full swing between the Legions and the Regiments of the Council. His orders were specific. Help the Council’s Regiments quell the mutinous Legions even if you must fire on and or bomb the palace itself. These orders, needless to say, did not sit well with him.

His eyes kept glancing over to Mr. Black, the Council’s Liaison who was effectively in command of the ship. This was another thing that did not set well with him. The other issue at hand was the fact that Mr. Black didn’t have the power of orders from the Council but also it was punctuated by the behemoth of a sentinel that was now ever present and always just a step behind Mr. Black. Captain Richter had seen the Empress’ sentinels on many occasions, so he knew what they looked like in great detail. This sentinel was a very close copy of the Empress’, so he was aware of its capabilities.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Ship Gaban stepped up to the Captain and handed him a message slip.

The Captain looked down at the message. It simply read, “White Queen’s Knight takes Black King’s knight.” He looked up into the eyes of the Master Chief, then darted his eyes over to the left-wing hatch of the bridge and said, “Good thing you’re here Master Chief. The left-wing brackets need your talented touch. It’s been slipping. Since you have the touch would you be so kind to fix it?”

The Master Chief gave a meaningful look in his eyes toward Mr. Black and his guardian then said, “Aye Captain. Be my pleasure.” He then went over and opened up the hatch and leaned out on the rail and pushed up on a lever that worked the bracket that secured the bridge gondola to the bottom of the air ship. He made a show of pushing against the bracket and the bracket didn’t even budge an inch. “Captain, it seems to be frozen. It’s gonna take more strength than I can muster.”

“I see Master Chief.” The Captain turned to Mr. Black and said, “Sir would you be so kind to loan us the strength of your guard there? Unless you want to wait for the bridge to fall off the air ship?”

Mr. Black looked consternated, but he said, “Very well.” He turned to the shadow sentinel and said, “Go help the Master Chief.”

The Shadow Sentinel stepped out onto the left wing and easily reached up and pushed the handle to the bracket up to the locked position. As soon as he was leaned out and pushing out the Master Chief stepped off the wing and reached down into a compartment that was just halfway up the bulkhead forward of the hatch. In the compartment there was a red handle that he quickly pulled.

There was a loud “Twang” as the left-wing walkway fell off the side of the ship bringing the shadow sentinel with it.

Mr. Black yelled, “What the hell!” as he ran over to look out the hatch to see his bodyguard falling some 1500 feet to the city below.

The Master Chief said, “Whoops, I guess the walkway couldn’t handle its weight.” With a smirk on his face.

Mr. Black looked into the Master Chief’s eyes, narrowed his own eyes and said, “You did this on purpose! Security arrest the Master Chief!”

Neither of the black uniformed SPs moved from their stations to the rear of the bridge but continued to stand at attention. Mr. Black yelled, “Did you hear me?!”

The Master Chief smiled broadly and said, “Mr. Black?”

“What?!”

“Mind your step.” And he clotheslined the man knocking him over backwards out the hatch sending him down to join his sentinel.

Captain Richter calmly walked over to the hatch and looked out. “Master Chief, you do realize that you have violated at least ten safety regs?”

“Aye sir. I’ll put myself on report immediately.”

“You do that. Remind me to Captain’s Mast you some day.” The Captain then turned back to his bridge crew and said, “Very well we have our brothers and sisters in the legions to help here. Helm bring us to 128 degrees and weapons you are authorized to release weapons to fire upon the Regiments. But do please keep your fire tight. I want to avoid collateral damage.” He then turned to a female commander who wore a leather flight suit and said, “Casandra, if you would please launch the Valkyrie Squadron and provide some close support to the legions?”

She saluted and said, “Aye sir!” turned and left.

Captain Calvin Cooper had finally fought his way up to the stairway when he had exhausted the last of Betty’s .45 caliber ammunition. He expertly switched to his bolt gun and continued to fire and make his way up the stairs against an armored human tide of black. Behind him there were about a hundred of what can best be described as human wreckage. He had taken more than a hundred hits himself, but his coat and harness were designed to be bullet resistant. But that didn’t lessen the pain of the multiple impacts. He began to slow in his pace and limp some from the leg wounds, welts and bruises.

Conversely the Shadowmen’s resolve seemed to stiffen the closer he got to Mr. Alexander’s office.

However, in spite of the stiff resolve of his enemies, Captain Calvin Cooper’s rage grew as he remembered the body of the boy who now laid down below in the laboratory area. He also kept remembering the fear and hurt in the eyes of the other children and finally he thought of his dear Vicky who this whole organization had been directed against. The rightful and righteous Empress of The Civilization. She was still in danger due to these men, and a few women. So, on he marched against the black tide. On a grim mission, but a mission none the less.

Each agonizing step only served to focus his awful rage. He was the very definition of a juggernaut in this moment.

The opposing black tide saw the look in his eyes and it only crystalized their fear. He radiated his rage that washed like waves over the defenders causing some of the Shadowmen to the rear to break off and flee.

Off in the distance the first of the incendiary devises started to go off igniting the beginning of an inevitable hell that the building will become.

16) Tempest on the Horizon (Tock)

She wished that there was another way, but in the short time that she got to know Ouihan, she knew that he would volunteer for the mission that he was so very well suited for. In essence this was most likely why the Glass Darkly had placed such importance on him in prophecy. The one great soleus that was given her in this situation is that Ouihan was an immortal. A very unusual one but an immortal none the less.

So, with all that in mind. she quietly laid out her plan to Ouihan while the others rested. Sister was sleeping fitfully, and she knew that Sister will have an issue with the plan, but there was really no viable alternative in this situation. Brother was also finally sleeping even though he was trying to keep watch. The only others awake were the collective sentinels. Johann was the one actually keeping watch since Brother was sleeping sitting up at the hatch.

Victoria II was thinking that there was one weakness in the plan even as she laid it out. Ouihan was immortal but he was still vulnerable to temporary injury and incapacitation. So, he was vulnerable to capture. Therefore, he would need someone to watch his back while he was about getting her an awful army.

While weighing out the plethora of variables she could think of, she decided that Ouihan should be accompanied by Johann and at least one other sentinel. Johann had earned her trust. Not the least of which, he had been open and honest about his misgivings from the beginning.

So, which other one to send? She wanted the two original sentinels to stay with her since they were, without a doubt, trustworthy. So that left Sally and Willis. Neither one she really trusted fully and with Ouihan’s judgement on Sally’s hidden anger, she didn’t trust her at all. At least Willis was strait forward about his past and his intensions. Or at least he appeared to be.

With those considerations, she had decided that if Sally turned, she would do the most damage if she stayed with her and not went with Ouihan. Ouihan had, at least, some override control whereas she had none.

The thought did cross her mind to send all the former shadow sentinels with Ouihan, but something was nagging in the back of her head that that would be a mistake. Since Cal had taught her to trust her instinct, she decided to follow her gut as he would say.

After she finished laying out her plan to Ouihan with Johann and Sally listening on she asked, “Any questions?”

Sally just looked away and Johann shook his head. It was Ouihan who spoke, “Your Eminence, I believe we can handle it. If you need any Clockworking done Sister and you should be able to handle anything that comes along.” He reached into his satchel and took out Gidget and said, “I think you might need Gidget, she can get into tight spaces that we can’t. She also is quite clever with basic clockworks.” He then looked down at Gidget and said, “Gidget, do what Her Eminence or Sister say to do.”

Gidget clicked twice.

“Gidget clicks twice for yes and once for no. She can also communicate with basic tele code. I have yet to see the limits of her capabilities.”

Victoria II took the hexagonal box gratefully and said, “She really is amazing. You’ll have to show me how you made her sometime.”

“It would be my honor Your Eminence.”

“Very well, be careful. I don’t need to tell you how crucial your mission is do I?”

“No Your Eminence, you do not.”

She then turned to Johann and Sally, “You two watch his back. Keep him from getting captured.”

Johann said, “Yes Ma’am.”

Sally just nodded absently.

Ouihan looked sideways at Willis and then whispered something into Victoria II’s ear and then pointed at Gidget.

She looked surprised for a moment then nodded her acknowledgement. She then turned to Willis and said, “When they leave you take watch. We will be staying here for an hour after they leave then we will be on our way.”

Willis nodded.

Johann carefully picked up Brother and moved him over next to where Sister was laying and gently laid a blanket on him. Johann felt that lifting this obviously heavy boy, young man rather, was like picking up a pillow. No real weight to his mechanical muscles. Somehow, he had a feeling that he was going to need this strength before all was said and done. Despite the coldness that he felt every time he focused on his new body he was becoming used to the strange sensations. In some ways he was rather pleased with his new advantages. He had been active for more than 24 hours now and he didn’t feel tired at all. He felt that he didn’t need to rest. Recently, he was fidgeting and picked up an inch diameter iron bar and bent it without effort.

He could feel pressure, heat and cold but not pain. Or at least he hadn’t felt it yet, so he didn’t know what his limits are. He could feel well enough so that he could gently pick things up. Earlier when he held Mousy, he was able to do so without crushing her.

Mousey, there was another thing that he felt. Logically he thought that his human emotions would be gone with his mechanical body, but not so. Mousey reminded him of his daughter when she was younger in so many ways that he began to feel love for her as if she were his daughter. His daughter that he may never see again. His heart, or whatever he felt his emotions with began to ache. But the emotions were there so he looked at Empress Victoria II and asked, “You will take care of Mousey, will ya?”

Victoria II looked back at Johann solemnly and said, “With my life if need be.”

The impact of her vow brought another flood of emotions to him. Gratitude, surprise and something else. What it was he couldn’t place immediately but he knew that it was something that he had never felt before. Not in his life. After a moment he realized what it was. Loyalty. He had felt devotion before to his wife, daughter and parents before. This was to be expected. However, he never felt loyalty to anyone or anything.

Victoria II’s mere presence commanded respect and awe. However, no one before had earned his loyalty.

With that he felt himself compelled to confess this loyalty. He fell to one knee, took her hand and kissed her signet ring and took it to his mouth speaker to feign a kiss. He then said, “I swear to you my fealty and loyalty to my death or till you release me.”

Victoria II had had many swear such loyalty and fealty to her many times over her life but never before had she felt such gratitude for it as she did in this moment. Her voice was emotional as she said, “And I swear to you my protection and loyalty as your sovereign, Sir Johann.”

After Ouihan, and his guards left, Sister woke up and looked around uncertainly and asked, “Where’s Ouihan?!”

By the time Cooper had reached Alexander’s outer office he had depleted most of his weapons and ammunition. He had maybe half a dozen bolts left in the magazine in his pistol and two or three throwing spikes. He also had one grenade and two incendiary devices.

His quick scan of the outer office, before he had to duck back out into the hallway, he saw that there were about thirty Shadowmen in armor waiting in a very good tactical array He quickly scanned the two destroyed automatons that were guarding the outer door of Alexander’s office for any weapons or ammunition that he could use, but to no avail.

His body was covered with many wounds, welts and bruises from hits that got by or through his body armor. He was near the end of his endurance and was beginning to doubt that he was going to be able to breech Alexander’s inner office and remove him from the equation. To add to the misery, the automated sprinkler system had kicked in in response to the multiple fires started elsewhere in the building.

By the time he had destroyed the automaton guards the water had accumulated to about an inch on the floor. Cooper was doing a mental inventory of his remaining weapons and tools. He was trying to figure out how he was going to get past this final gauntlet without himself being incapacitated and captured. That would put a definite kink in his ultimate plans and his ability to protect Vicky and restore her to her rightful place in the palace.

While he was doing his inventory about half a dozen Shadowmen came rushing in from a side hallway, forcing him to expend his last grenade and half his remaining bolts. One of the Shadowmen got to him grappled with him.

While they grappled, Cooper wanted to shoot him but was forced to expend his remaining three bolts into another Shadowman who tried to rush him from the outer office to help his fellow.

The Shadowman had Cooper by his wrists and forced him to drop his now empty pistol. Coop continued to struggle with the Shadowman and tried to grab a weapon at the same time. Cooper was finally able to grab something off his harness. By the feel of it he knew what it was. “Oh well, this isn’t gonna be pleasant” he thought to himself.

He then peeled the adhesive strip and stuck the device on the side of the enemy’s helmet and with his thumb he pulled the safety pin and let the timer run. The default time for his incendiary devices was five seconds unless set otherwise.

The Shadowman heard the clicking of the device and that distracted him long enough for Cooper to roll back and, with his legs, catapulted him over and away from him towards the door. In midair the Shadowman’s head vaporized.

Cooper used his momentum to roll out and come back to his feet. He was alone again in the hallway, but he still had the same problem of the approximately thirty Shadowmen in the outer office. He finally patted himself looking to see if he missed anything in his inventory when he discovered the little gift that “Igor” gave him. He quickly checked the bodies of the Shadowmen that had grappled him and found a revolver on one and a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun on the other. He checked the load and function of these weapons then tucked the revolver in his belt, readied the shotgun and quickly cranked up the surprise package as much as it would be cranked up.

He hoped that the device would be potent enough to do what was necessary. So, with all hopes and prayers he could muster he jumped through the door throwing the shock wand at the center of enemy formation while, with his left hand, unloading both barrels of the shotgun into the largest man in the room who happened to be standing right next to the doorway into the inner office.

While Coop was still airborne, the shock wand hit the wet floor sending out a heavy jolt quickly debilitating everyone who stood on the floor. Meanwhile the big man, with a bowler hat, took the full load of shot to his chest, sending him flying back through the closed door. Cooper hit the ground and rolled back to his feet. He felt a slight residual jolt, but it wasn’t enough to bother him much. Considering that his body armor and boots were designed to mitigate as much shock as possible from the arc lights, so he figured that there was still quite a bit current still flowing out from the wand.

He did a quick scan to ensure that no one was still able to oppose him. Once he was satisfied that he was indeed the only one upright he drew the revolver from his belt and stormed the inner office. Alexander was nowhere to be seen.

Cooper did a quick check to see if there was a safe room or escape hatch, but none were detectable. He looked at Alexander’s desk to see if there were any clues as to his whereabouts. That was when he noticed the thick ledger book with a beginning date entered on its cover. He grabbed the ledger and looked over to the bookshelf behind the desk where he saw a row of several more such ledgers with beginning and closing dates on them. He heard several more of his incendiary devises going off in the near distance. Since roasting alive wasn’t high on his list of preferable experiences he decided to leave. He grabbed the three newest ledgers off the shelf, set a device on both the shelves and the desk then left the way he came in.

Dark storm clouds gathered on the northern edge of the city. Early summer storms of this intensity are a rarity in this region but not unheard of. However, it wasn’t the charcoal black clouds that the man who stood at the window was looking at. No, it was the soot black smoke that rose above the building down the street of the conflagration that was, until this morning, the Grandeur City Gentleman’s Club.

To any nascent observer, the man in question was the epitome of calm, cool and collectiveness. But to High Lord James Baron of Calador 16th of that name, it was easy to notice the slight grit of teeth and set of the jaw of the dapper dressed man. It always amazed Lord Calador how Mr. Alexander always dressed, as if in uniform, in a three-piece black and gray suit replete with top hat, cane and smoke colored glasses. Even at the ungodly hour that he was summoned into Lord Calador’s presence, not a piece out of place or in need of pressing.

Lord Calador looked back at the smoke column in question and knew that it came from the building that Mr. Alexander had spent many years perfecting his most powerful organization from.

The Gentleman’s Club building and entity was very old as it was. However, the organization that was known to be the Shadowmen was much newer and definitely a product of the man in question. Granted there have been Shadowmen of one kind or another for hundreds of years, but they were members of regional or even local organizations. Mr. Alexander took it upon himself several years ago to consolidate and standardize the all the Shadowmen across the Northern Continent. Even those belonging in the Western Pact United that were the sworn enemies of The Civilization.

The monumental task of uniting all the Shadowmen had finally culminated into the product that was an organization that was indeed unparalleled. And for this organization’s impressiveness was one of the reasons that Lord Calador felt confident that his coup would be ultimately successful. Now the rot of doubt had set into his soul like a malignant cancer without cure.

Although Calador had never deluded himself that Mr. Alexander was his creature to control he took solus now that the man that now stood before him had his ire set against their common enemy. Consternation upon consternation that enemy was now known to be an immortal.

It amazed Calador that the bigger picture of power, control and wealth had suddenly shrunk down to the question of survival. The answer to that question had become very doubtful indeed.

Calador, after a long uncomfortable silence, finally said, “So Alexander, what do you intend to do now?”

Even through the smoke glass Calador couldn’t miss the coldness of Alexander’s gaze as he focused it on him. “I intend to finish this.” his voice had the sound of finality like that of a coffin lid being closed.

High Lord James XVI Baron of Calador shrugged and said, “Oh well, I am not devoid of means to finish what I’ve started.” He looked to Alexander and revised, “What we started.” However, the shadow of the cancerous doubt was still present in his voice.

The nearby explosion of an eight-inch shell made him shudder. He looked out the window again and said, “But we must carry on in another, more strategic, local I think.”

As if to echo the artillery there was a nearby strike of lightning with the subsequent clap of thunder. For someone who believed in omens and portents, they would take this as a bad one. However, Lord Calador wasn’t such a man. But that didn’t dissuade the chill that it invoked in his spine.

He turned and pressed the button on his desk to summon his secretary. The middle aged, balding man entered the room promptly awaiting instructions.

“Tell, Lord General Byron that we will be moving our headquarters to Western Academy building. That should be much easier to defend and, as long as we keep the legions contained, be out of range of this blasted field artillery.”

“Yes sir!” the secretary turned and left.

“Well, Mr. Alexander, I believe that we must be about our individual tasks.” In a rare sign of magnanimity, High Lord James XVI Baron of Calador offered his hand to Mr. Alexander not as a proffered ring to be kissed but as a sign of mutual respect, “Until we meet again my friend.”

Alexander took the hand firmly and said, “I do not believe that we will be seeing each other again. At least not this side of Hell.”

17) Rise Up to the Light of Day (Tick)

“What do you mean you sent him on a mission?!” Sister shouted.

Victoria II closed her eyes and schooled herself in patients. She understood Sister’s perspective. Sister had spent most of her life not answering to anyone but being responsible for all she took under her wing. Much like herself. The main difference was Sister had not been prepared for this by anyone but the hard knocks of the street and gutters. She could be forgiven for the normally unforgivable breech in protocol and disrespect. However, being forgivable doesn’t mean not being brought to task for correction. So, Empress Victoria II Arkanti, Empress of The Civilization, Grand Dame to The Order of the Flaming Sword, High Lady Regent and Mayor to Grandeur City as well as a long list of other accolades stood to her full height of 5’ 6”, lifted her head up and took her most commanding posture and said in a steady and firm voice, “You forget yourself. You will not address Us in that tone or manner again.”

Sister flinched as if she were physically struck. Pride and chastisement warred in her. Instead of bowing her head properly corrected she turned her head away and bit her upper lip as if to bite back an unwise rebuttal. However, in a minor show of acquiescence, she did lower her eyes.

Having been handled by some functionary or another her whole life, Victoria II had become schooled herself in the art of handling people. She therefore then slightly softened her stance and voice and said, “I understand your concern Sister. You took him into your protection before you and I met, and you feel responsible for him. But understand this, you, him and all the others are ultimately the Crown’s responsibility, and that means MY responsibility. I did not give this order lightly. He, you and the rest are children, I do not pretend to understand your lives before this but, We do take full responsibility for your lives from here on out.” Her voice didn’t raise even a single decibel in volume for the last sentence but had the command projection as if it were amplified a hundred-fold.

Sister did not miss the formal speech, the importance of proclamation and most importantly, the promise made so she bowed her head, curtsied deeply and said, “Your forgiveness Your M’nence.?”

Victoria II gently reached down and took Sister by the chin and gently raised her head up to make eye contact, “Of course my dearest. You and I have come to an agreement in command here. You have been caring for these children for these long years, yet you yourself are but a child as well. You have been given no reason to trust adults and that I truly understand and am saddened by. So truly I have no right to ask you to trust me, but I ask you to all the same.”

Sister didn’t miss the familiar speech for the last bit, and she understood the concession in it. As well as the respect conveyed in the tone. She felt thoroughly corrected and lifted up in the same sentence. In her life she had only one other that she had come to trust, that being Brother. Now she has come in the short time to trust two others. Ouihan, with his even manner and confidence made an impact on her that she couldn’t quite understand. She didn’t know her mother or father. She didn’t know how much she, deep down, needed a mother figure. Something about Victoria II seem to engender that. Maybe it was because, in essence, Empress Victoria II was mother to The Civilization.

Because her emotions had been compartmentalized her whole life, she lacked the experience in dealing with them. Especially the conflicted ones that came crashing in suddenly. So, she had no way of stopping the flood of tears that just came flowing out.

Victoria II felt herself warm toward Sister as well. Tears came to her eyes as well and she couldn’t help but take Sister in an embrace and said, “Let the tears go my dear. Don’t stop until they are sated. We all need to cry sometime.”

Sister melted into Victoria’s embrace and cried 12 years of tears.

Ouihan and his escort made their way through the streets toward their destination amid the chaos and terror. Elements of the regiments had broken off from their attempt to contain the Legions to abide in wanton rapine, looting and other perverse activities. Ouihan’s 12 years of seeing the perversity around him should have jaded him and numbed him to the human suffering around him, however, he was not just a product of his experiences but also a deeper morality that seemed to be inherent in his very genome. Consequently, he took time out from his primary mission to, from time to time, help those in need.

Johann deeply approved of Ouihan’s morality as well. That is why when they came upon four Regimental soldiers that were carrying a young girl off to an alley to indulge their baser demons, he waded into them with abandon.

Ouihan chose not to restrain Johann from his performance of justice that was his duty, now being a knight of the realm and the Empress. Ouihan instead shielded the girl from seeing the bloody retribution.

Sally, who had been a victim of such things before, felt a sudden sea change in her emotions. Up until now she had been basically numb since awakening in her new body, but with a seething rage that lay beneath threatening to rise up and engulf her and any around. This rage had really been her constant companion for the majority of her adult life. She could never identify who this rage was truly against until that moment. This monumental realization led her not to indulge in the retribution that Johann was participating in but rather to freeze up. All these years she always looked elsewhere to blame her rage and life conditions. She raised the importance of this rage in herself as an indictment on The Civilization itself. By extension she blamed the Empress that now enlisted her. The Empress was the embodiment of the Civilization, therefore, the seat of all blame for its wrongdoing. She had relished the imparted mandate to kill her that was now suppressed by Ouihan’s meddling. So up until now, she had been secretly planning to kill her as soon as the opportunity presented itself. She never realized that the person that she was most enraged against was none other than herself. This in no way, in her eyes, relieved Empress Victoria II from her culpability for the chaos that reigned in the world of Zahn. The very clockwork that ran society was also the instrument responsible for all its atrocities. So, simply killing the Empress wouldn’t end the clockwork that caused the greater evil. She, in that moment resolved herself to bide her time and not rush things. She was now in a powerful and immortal body, and rather than waste it as she had her previous life, she would now focus her rage and energy on a worthy goal. She would put an end to the very fabric of The Civilization.

Once the girl was reunited with her family, Ouihan and his escort continued to their destination. A warehouse that Johann remembered that he and the other shadow sentinels were stored.

Lieutenant Joshua McTavish III of the North Highlanders Legion’s Black Kilts was on a recon mission to follow up on intelligence on where her Eminent Empress Victoria II was possibly located. In order to get there he and his platoon had to get across the Regal River that snaked across Grandeur City from northwest to southeast. Had it not been for the wide and well-traveled river, the Empress could have remained in the underground system and found her way up to the palace easily. However, the Lieutenant was not aware of this at this time. All he knew was that the Regiments had control of the northeast side of the city and demarked by the river and the Legions have finally obtained effective control of the southwest side of the city and side of Regal River.

McTavish and the majority of his platoon were seasoned veterans of war and had it not been for McTavish’s devotion to his men and his disregard for ‘proper’ conduct that was expected of officers he would have been a Major by now. Hence his men had hung on him the moniker of Pappy Mayhem or Pappy for short. McTavish was a bastard son of a noble lord who bought him his commission so that he would have a place in the world. He had no illusions of an illustrious military career that would end up in General rank. That being said, he was a singular individual when it came to command and tactical acumen.

McTavish and his 33 men had made a predawn crossing of the Noble River clinging to bails of Eugal cotton that were made to look like they had been accidentally dumped into the river at the dyeworks. Of course, there were other debris and garbage in the river as a normal consequence of the fighting, so they were blending in as was desired.

Once they were even with the Grandeur Tower Bridge, they abandoned their bales and swam for a drainage grate from the underground drainage system.

While Cooper was laying waste to the shadows lair McTavish and his men methodically explored the underground system.

Victoria II looked down at the Shadowman prisoner who had inherited Major Gladly’s shackles, “Whatever are we to do with you?”

The Shadowman tried to look nonchalant and said, “If you kill me then my brothers will avenge me. If you let me live, then I will kill you myself at my first chance.”

Victoria II raised an eyebrow and said, “Really? Since I am obviously already under sentence of death from the Shadowmen your first threat is meaningless. Which leaves us what then?” her presence was in full force as she towered over him.

He seemed to shrink back some and became less without physically moving. Although he tried to rally himself and attempted to stare down Her Eminent Empress the look of fear in his eyes belayed any advantage he tried to feign.

Having been taught about interrogation and how to read body language by Captain Cooper, Vitoria II saw her opportunity so she struck while the iron was hot, “Perhaps we can find another use for you.”

He gulped seeing the coldness in her dark brown imperial eyes.

She looked around at her people who were getting ready to move out. Then she looked back down at the prisoner, realizing that she had him where she wanted him she said, “We will take care of you presently.”

He gulped again.

Sister had finished packing up her satchel and pack and was just staring blankly off out of the hatch that Willis was standing guard at. Victoria II went over to her and said, “Penny for your thoughts.”

Sister shook herself and said, “Sorry your M’nence, I am having a hard time seeing ahead to what needs happen next. Until now, I have always been able to see a plan. Perhaps not a perfect plan but usually a good one at least.” Her eyes watered and she went on shakily, “But now I can’t see a way out of this. I’m afraid that more of us, if not all of us will be dead by the morrow.”

There was another explosion that shook the room from up in the streets and Sister shook involuntarily. Victoria II nodded and thought about how to word her next bit of advice. She then caressed Sister’s cheek and said, “If our time comes, then so be it. We do not have control of our beginning or our end. However, we have full control of everything we do in between. We all have a role to play in the great show of life. Weather we be empress or pauper we are part and parcel of the tapestry that makes history. Each of us a thread in the tapestry of reality. We cannot control the length of thread that we are given, however, we can control now well we are woven into the tapestry. To live in fear, we do ourselves no favors. Living in fear doesn’t change the length of our thread one iota.

“It is time for you to let Scrapper’s spirit rest. His part has already been played for good or ill. We must now rise up to the light of day and make our place in the sun. Always remember who we left behind but do not let them drag us behind our own potential.”

Sister nodded and opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came. She just nodded again smiled weakly up to Victoria II.

Victoria II looked around at her people again to see that they were indeed ready then she said, “Alright it is time that we were away. Willis, see to the prisoner. He is to be kept in the very front of our progress. If he tries anything shady you have our permission to break his neck.”

Despite the lack of animation in Willis’ automaton face he somehow was able to project a wicked gleam in his eyes as he said, “Be m’pleasure your M’nence.”

The Shadowman gulped again.

Tophat had stationed his new cadre of men along both sides of an underground passage that was known as the ‘Scutter’s Causeway’. Nobody knew the purpose of this extra wide underground passage that was lined with gothic pillars. This long and wide passage corresponded with Imperial Avenue as it approached Grandeur Tower Bridge. Those who were magically inclined knew that there was some sort of conduit of power here that probably reached back to before the time when the city was built above the ruins of the Gotack People who once ruled this region.

Tophat, who was minorly adept at necromancy and life force magery, breathed in and felt the power flow with its ebbs and pulses that was the norm for all mana. As he was tapped into the flow of the magic, he sensed the approach of some very strong mana. He knew that Her Eminence had to be coming because of her reputation. He silently signaled his men who quietly positioned themselves behind the pillars.

Tophat looked at the pillars, briefly examining the Gotack Runes as well as other unknown symbolism and he wondered if he should perhaps return here after all this was over to soak in the energies that so enlivened him at that moment. Between each pillar was stationed an eternal light bowl that have been burning throughout known history, making this area the best lit area of the entire underground system.

He focused his eyes to look down to the far end of the tunnel to where the first eternal lights were located waiting for the first sign of his prey. He looked, disappointedly at his cadre of men and he hoped that they would be up to the task. He only had two remaining men from his original team and even though they were both still nursing wounds from their earlier encounter he still had the ultimate confidence in them. He didn’t, however, know the two new Shadowmen and as for the platoon of 30 men from the Calador Regiment, in these he had no confidence at all. So, with all of this weighing on his plans, he had the soldiers from the regiment take the forward positions and held his Shadowmen in reserve.

He focused on the shadows at the far end of the causeway, waiting for some sign or motion. He informed his men repeatedly while getting into position that they were to wait until their quarry was well within the light before springing the trap. He did not want to repeat his Black Street failure. While he was thinking this through again, the shadows stirred and the first thing to come into the light was a Shadowman followed by a Shadow Sentinel. Tophat was surprised and so focused on figuring out which other Shadowman element was in the area that he almost didn’t registered the volley of gunfire coming from his Regimental soldiers. A part of his mind was impressed that twenty shots hit the lead Shadowman perfectly in center of mass. The rest of his mind recoiled violently with the friendly fire incident happening in front of his very eyes.

He stepped out of his cover and bellowed, “Cease fire, cease fire!”. It seemed that in the fog of battle his fellow Shadowmen followed his lead and stepped forward to restrain the soldiers. When he saw his first two Shadowmen fall he was wondering, ‘why are the soldiers shooting my men?’ It wasn’t until the bolt clipped his left earlobe that he realized that the fire was coming from the shadows. He then thought, ‘no wonder, they are just returning fire’ and he began to yell, “We are Shadow Folk too. Cease fire damn it!”

Victoria II saw the ambushing fire destroy her prisoner. The remainder of the bullets flying her way were blocked by Willis’ bullet proof body. She and her group dove to the sides of the causeway and took cover. This was followed immediately with all in the party returning fire with their various implements of war. Her quick mind realized what was happening when she saw the Shadowmen step out from cover yelling, “Cease fire!” She seized the opportunity to take control of the engagement from the ambushers and directed her party’s fire at the Shadowmen and two of them went down. She also recognized Tophat from the Black Street ambush the day before. She took aim with her makeshift bolt gun and fired. She realized that she pulled the gun slightly to the left when she fired. By that point, Tophat was yelling something that she couldn’t make out over the echoing cacophony of combat in such a confined space.

Corporal McDermott, of the Black Kilts, heard the eruption of gun fire from the tunnel to his right and signaled to the rest of his platoon the direction it was coming from. He was chosen to take point for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was his senses and sensibility. He was very keen of eye, mind and spirit and was able to keep his head while under fire, all good things to have in a point man, regardless of the terrain. The second reason was much more situational. Because he was from a multi-generational mining family and did his time in the mines when he was a mere bairn, he had a feel for the normally confusing way sounds traveled in the underground. He knew that the sound was really coming from his right where another, less experienced person would have thought that it was coming from the left because of the rebound and echo. He looked back to Pappy who nodded to him and signaled to “go ahead”. He then led the forward element towards the ongoing fight.

Tophat felt the second bolt hit home in his shoulder and he decided to heed the better part of valor and dove for cover. With the fall of his final remaining Shadowman, he realized that the battle couldn’t be brought to a stop for the life of him. So, he decided his best choice was to see to his own survival. He took cover behind a pillar that concealed a hidden passage that he was aware of. This area wasn’t well known to the troops he had with him, so if an escape was necessary, it shouldn’t be crowded with others. So, he was well positioned when the platoon of soldiers other than his came out behind his troops. He recognized the uniform of the Black Kilts and decided that since he had no loyalty to the Regimental troops who began this mess, it was time for him to make good his escape.

Lieutenant Marcus Calver from Calador was down five men when a bullet, fired from behind him, hit the pillar to the left of his head pelting his face and eyes with sparks and rock dust. He realized that his left eye was probably ruined, and his right eye was at least temporarily blinded from the rock dust. He yelled, “Mind where you’re shooting you bastards! That one almost hit me!” He didn’t realize that his command was being effectively dismantled to a man by the Black Kilts from behind. He finally realized that things were truly amiss when he felt the rifle butt strike the back of his head and everything went black.

“Clear!” Corporal McDermott yelled. He was answered by a chorus of “Clear!” from the rest of the platoon. Total of 24 dead and 10 wounded of the Regimental soldiers and Shadowmen. Of the wounded was their Lieutenant who was unconscious.

Lieutenant McTavish strolled forward surveying the dead and wounded. Of his own troops only one man hurt with a twisted ankle.

Out of the swirling shadows strode the commanding presence of Her Eminent Empress Victoria II, in the flesh. With her powerful, determined strides, she moved through the chaos of the room as sure and confident as walking through one of the palace’s ballrooms. Upon seeing her magically appearing from the gloom, Lieutenant McTavish was stunned immobile by the very discord her appearance and presence presented. Weapon in hand, her command presence radiated from her as thick and powerful as the air in a thunderstorm. He was able to register the startled gasps and murmurs from his troops. This was followed by his Color Sergeant bellowing, “Sovereign Commander on the Field!”

This command has not been given in living memory. The Sovereign on a ground combat field in charge during a battle was the stuff of fairytales and legends. This didn’t matter to the Color Sergeant. He knew the protocol and the precedent and damn his stripes; he wasn’t going to screw this up.

All of the soldiers, both victorious and captives fell to a knee, head bowed as if poleaxed from behind. None could meet her gaze, not that anyone was brave enough or stupid enough to try.

Chapter 18) The Roll of Righteous Thunder (Tock)

Sargent Hamish McTavish was the Medical Sargent to the Black Kilts and the youngest brother of Pappy. He was an experienced adept in healing and life force magery. He had just finished restoring to full function Lieutenant Calver’s left eye and was taking up his implements and other equipment to go work on the other less injured soldiers,

“Sir, you will experience some blurring and maybe some itching as the eye heals the rest of the way over the next week or so. Don’t let it worry you. You’re lucky that we were here where the magical powers are enhanced, or I probably wouldn’t have been able to save the eye.”

“Don’t sell yourself short Sargent. I expect that you would have managed.” Calver said appreciatively.

Victoria II was nearby talking in a quiet conference with Pappy McTavish while surrounded by a phalanx of protectors comprised of two sentinels, a former shadow sentinel, Brother, Sister and a squad of Black Kilt soldiers. Lieutenant Calver stood and approached the group. He was about halfway there when several other Black Kilts stood up with their rifles ready block his approach.

Victoria II looked up and said, “It is alright, let him approach us.”

The soldiers parted to allow his approach but two of them stationed themselves to his right and left and ready to stop him with lethal force if he made the slightest wrong move.

Lieutenant Calver stopped a respectful distance as protocol dictated away from Her Eminence and knelt, head bowed, awaiting permission to speak.

“You may speak Lieutenant.”

“Your Eminence, we were under the understanding that you were assassinated and quite frankly that there was a move to replace you with an imposter. To be honest, Your Eminence, I am still doubtful of your identity.”

“Lieutenant, you have been misinformed, and We fear deliberately. Yes, there were several attempts on our person since yesterday. However, We have persevered and endured. Tell us this Lieutenant, if we were to prove our identity would your fellow soldiers stop this armed insurrection?”

“Indeed, we would Your Eminence. We are sworn first and foremost to the crown above and before our lord.”

“Very well Lieutenant, if you and your men will escort Us to the palace then We shall put on the Breastplate of Arkan. That should remove all doubt.”

The Breastplate of Arkan was a heavily enchanted piece of armor that was handed down from Emperor Arkan I. Among the various protection enchantments was also a measure to prevent this artifact from being used by anyone other than the rightful heir to the empire. If placed on someone who was not the rightful wearer of the crown it would crush the life out that person. That is why it had been incorporated into the coronation ceremony as proof that the person being coronated was indeed the rightful heir to the crown. In history it had crushed the life out of three would be usurpers, one of which was the younger twin who was accidentally being crowned because of mistaken identity that was conveyed since their birth. So, it didn’t matter if the wearer truly believed that they were rightfully being crowned, the decision of the armor was inviolate and had no appeal

“That would indeed confirm your identity. That fact that you are willing to take such a risk, Your Eminence, also allays my doubt in your identity. I, and the remainder of my command are willing to see to your safety in order to prove such.”

“Very well Lieutenant, We thank you. Please convey to your men that we shall forgive yours and your men’s insurrection. You were only following, what you believed to be, the lawful orders of your superiors. In the larger issue there will be a full pardon for all soldiers who took up arms against Our Legions and our own person, if they will lay down their arms once We have proven Our identity.”

Commander Cassandra McClain was flying her raptor fighter aircraft below rooftop level down Imperial Avenue, her turbines screaming like banshees in the damp pre-rain air. She was heading toward the Grandeur City Tower Bridge where forces were engaged in close combat. Beyond the fever pitched battle lay the large black pyramid and palace where the legions held firm control.

The Grand Regiment of Calador was on the east side of the bridge firmly dug in to prevent the breakout attempt by the First Amazonian Legion of the Grand Army of The Civilization. There were advantages on both sides. The Legions had a three to one advantage in numbers, heavy artillery support and close lines of communications with their fellow legions.

The Regiments were heavy infantry, compared to the light infantry of the First Amazonians and they were dug in and the First Amazonians were channeled by the bridge crossing. Worse, the Regiments had no regard for the safety of the Grandeur City citizens. Their orders were quite simple. Suppress the mutiny of the legions at all cost. No regard at all for collateral damage.

As the pathfinder for the mission, Commander McClain readied a marker flare string in order to set the limits for her follow up fighters to strafe to. She was thinking to herself, “Well you are about to find out that the Legions have one more advantage.” As she fired the flare to the front line of troops of the enemy.

Brigadier Maxwell Snyder heard the turbine scream from behind him of the raptor craft of the Valkyrie Squadron fighters and he was thinking, “Good, they are here to push back those Amazonian Witches.” He was briefed that the HEAS Monarch had been secured by his lord the Baron of Calador the day before and was ordered to support his push to take the palace. So, he was happy to hear the approach of the fighter craft that were part and parcel of the Monarch’s compliment. His elation fell away quickly when the marker flair hit one of his forward communications centers where his son was commanding their first battalion from. He shook his head and thought, “Well that’s just a marker flair and it fell a little short.” That was not unusual and so he anticipated that he might experience some small number of casualties from his forward troops, but the enemy will still bear the brunt of the attack. That consolation went away as well when he watch the multiple rocket launchers in front of him get shredded by the beginning of several strafing runs of the Valkyrie fighters. His horror grew as each subsequent fighter strafed from just in front of his command post all the way up to the communications center his son was at.

“Damn those bastards! They are mutinying too!” he heard someone yelling incredulously. It took him a moment to realize that it was him who was doing the yelling as he watched his troops melt away under the rain of heavy aerial guns. He looked around at his command staff who were looking to him for orders. He shook his head and began shouting out orders to have his troops take cover and dig in further. He was halfway through a set of orders when he saw the forward communications center erupt into an explosion of steam and black smoke followed by a billowing mushroom of flame.

Brigadier Snyder doubled over as if he were physically hit in the gut by the realization that his son was no more. His staff looked on in stunned silence not knowing what to do next.

Colonel Rhineheart Denny, Brigadier Snyder’s Chief of Staff was the first one to gather his wits and began ordering the battalions to pull back to either side of Imperial Avenue and take cover. He knew that this would give the First Amazonian Legion ability to establish a beach head on this side of the bridge and river, but he saw no alternative at that time. Once Colonel Denny was sure that the appropriate orders were issued, he looked to his Brigadier who was crying uncontrollably in a fetal position on the floor of the command center and yelled, “Medic! See to the Brigadier!”

Colonel Denny, who was not enthusiastic about the whole operation to begin with, thought to himself, “Thus the bitter fruit of foul deeds.” As he continued to see to the survival of his command.

Captain Magubo Indiro, Company Commander of Company A, Second Battalion, saw the shift in the line of troops in front of her as a result of the air attack on her enemies. She had just finished ordering her troops to prepare for incoming fire from the fighters that were headed in her company’s direction because she had been under the understanding that the HEAS Monarch was under the command of the regiments. It only took her a moment for her to process turn of events that were revealing themselves before her eyes and rapidly reached a decision. “Company A charge!” she yelled and punctuated her order by waving her leopard skin hilted cutlass in a circle above her head. She didn’t wait for her troops to move but rather led by example and charged forward herself.

The First Amazonian Legion’s khaki uniforms with their various regimental accoutrements of leopard skin, Ostrich feathers and lion claw necklaces made it easy for the forces now engaged in melee to differentiate friend from foe.

Captain Indiro gave out the uniquely undulating Amazonian battle cry as she charged full speed into a squad of obviously confused soldiers of Calador. Her charge was punctuated by a streak of lightning that split the sky right above the battle and a horrible clap of thunder pounded at the very souls of the troops of Calador.

Company A answered their commander’s battle cry with savage glee as they charged forward into the fray.

Corporal McDermott was the first to exit the underground through the access hatch that Brother had showed him. This hatch opened to a back-alley access in this normally upper scale neighborhood. Brother was the next one leave the hatch followed by a man from the platoon of Lieutenant Calver.

To one end of the alley, a company of the Grand Regiment of Calador was using it as an impromptu command post. A soldier of Calador saw McDermott’s black kilt and turned and fired his rifle in his direction nicking Brother’s arm and killing the other soldier of Calador with the same shot. Brother and McDermott dove for cover, firing their weapons in return. The next soldiers to the hatch were Lieutenants McTavish and Calver. McTavish dove for cover as well firing his Webly revolver. Calver used the heavy metal hatch as a shield he started yelling out, “Hold your fire you bastards!” he then flashed his platoons guidon.

This only was answered by a fusillade of rifle and pistol fire.

Systematically the remainder of the soldiers from both the Black Kilts and Calador, with covering fire from their fellows were able to deploy effectively to the far end of alley. Because the Company Command Post of the Calador soldiers were in a bit of a crossfire between Victoria II’s troops and the Amazonians who were establishing a beach head, they weren’t able to effectively contain her troops and entourage.

The other end of the alley opened up to a small plaza with a gazebo in the middle. Victoria II, Sister, and Mousey took cover in the base of the old gazebo with both the sentinels and Willis to provide cover.

Around the corner of the west side of the small plaza came Captain Indiro and the rest of her company looking to outflank the Calador soldiers. Captain Indiro paused when she saw the Empress’ unit digging in, momentarily stunned in disbelief after catching the briefest of glimpse of who was being protected. There was no hesitation after that. The shear visible aura surrounding the Empress left no doubts as to her identity. It pulsed and radiated strong enough to throw shadows and she could swear that she saw it turn thrown a blade that was launched by an unseen attacker. That frozen moment where even raindrops seemed to hover, was enough for her to change her company’s mission on the fly. As if a switch had been thrown, the commands were automatic and felt to her core.

“Rally to the crown! Sovern Commander on the field!”

Off to the east down Crown Street a company of shadow sentinels were approaching in full charge. Lieutenant McTavish was the first to see them and he turned to Victoria II and yelled, “Incoming trouble east Your Eminence!”

In that moment the deluge of rain that had permeated the air came crashing down from the heavens like the fist of an angry god.

19) A Titan’s Tears (Tick)

Cooper dragged the unconscious building custodian to a loading dock in a nearby building not far from the now fully involved and crumbling ‘Gentleman’s Club’. He no sooner had the custodian under overhang when the heavens opened up.

Cooper straightened his aching back and closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath, the air resplendent with the smell of burnt wood from the nearby conflagration.

His eyes shot open when he sensed the presence behind him. Turning, he saw that Mr. Alexander was standing on the opposite side of the street behind him. He was standing in his usual stance, feet shoulder width apart, hands crossed resting atop his black crystal Death Head Cane. He looked at Cooper through his smoked colored glasses, his top hat sheltering his face from the rain. Not a thread or hair out of place. He was dapper as usual.

Cooper, on the other hand, was a perfect example of a homeless man that was drug through twenty miles of rubbish heaps.

Alexander was saying something that Cooper didn’t understand over the sound of the rain and the ringing in his ears from all the shooting in close quarters.

Cooper cupped his ear and replied, “I’m sorry what?!”

Alexander shrugged and started again, this time louder, “Why did you even bother? He’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

“Not if I kill you first.”

Alexander shrugs and said, “Everyone dies eventually. Even you, immortal.”

It was Cooper’s turn to shrug, “So I guess you know, huh?”

“You have done a poor job hiding it these last couple of days.”

“I had higher priorities it would seem.”

“Yes, and I expect that you will fail that as well. I now know where she is and have sent a company of shadow sentinels to take care of her. Oh, and they are instructed to be none to gentle about it.”

Cooper got a cold look in his eyes and said, “You’ll not live to see it through.”

Alexander smirked, an infuriating expression on his face, “I know something that you do not, Cooper. Do you know what happed to the great Wingdama Aling? No of course not. You were probably told, like all others that he went back to his home.”

“Well didn’t he?” Cooper was edging closer to the end of the loading dock he was standing on.

“I guess It depends on your beliefs. In the broader, spiritual sense that is. His bones were enshrined in the vaults under the Gentleman’s Club until you burned it down.” He was edging closer to Cooper as well. “You see, about 100 years ago he was still living here in Grandeur City and he had a bit of a dust up with my great-great grandfather.”

Cooper was slowly drawing his long bowie knife and tomahawk as he stepped out into the rain that was still pouring hard. He asked, “So then how does one kill an immortal?”

“How does one kill an immortal you ask? Well with the right weapon.” Alexander shifted his grip on his death head crystal cane handle and drew forth a two-foot-long, half inch-wide black crystal blade from the polished Roakwood cane.

Cooper could feel the crystal blade slide out from the wooden cane. It sounded like metal being drawn against metal, but the sensation was in his soul more than in his ears. It was like that of fingernails on a chalkboard. He knew then, down deep that this sword wasn’t like any normal blade. He also knew that this sword could kill him if he let it. So, the question was, ‘How do I not let it?’

Alexander moved forward with a grace of a fencer long schooled with perfected technique. Every move was a work of art. So precise, so graceful. The fluid motion carried him across the street amazingly quick without seeming to be. Much like a rattle snake striking its foe. One moment he wasn’t there, the next moment he was.

As tired and hurt as Cooper looked, he was still able to respond to the attack with as much cold hard precision as Alexander. It was as if a switch had been thrown and his body was reacting without processing from his convoys mind. He went from the tired man to a deadly automaton.

The two engaged in a deadly but graceful two-handed dance, every move smooth and sure, every move deadly. Cooper with his knife and tomahawk and Alexander with his sword and the outer Roakwood cane. Any lesser skilled opponent would have been dead many times over in the blink of an eye. Not these two.

The two would close and their weapons would contact in a three-part chop, parry, thrust. Click, click, click each time. This went on several times as the two dancers got the feel for the other. Then the dancers would add a fourth sweep or thrust with a sidestep turn to see if the other were complacent. One of these extra swings reaped a dividend for Alexander, although not as much as he had hoped for. A tiny nick on Cooper’s cheek.

Cooper felt the nick and wondered to himself, ‘No reason on Zahn why this nick should hurt so bad.’ He now knew for sure that there was something very powerful about this crystal sword.

He had to ask. “What manner of crystal is this?!”

“It is from the very meteoric crystal that the Glass Darkly was forged from.” he said smugly, and he pressed another attack.

Three more fruitless exchanges later, Cooper’s bowie knife exacted a small but painful slice on Alexander’s left earlobe.

Alexander quirked an eyebrow and asked, “Are we to take each other apart one nick at a time?”

Cooper said, “If we must.” and he pressed another attack that ended with a low cut to Alexander’s right thigh with his tomahawk followed by an upper cut with the bowie that sent all the buttons on Alexander’s long coat flying off and nicked his lower lip.

Alexander stepped back and brushed his split lower lip with his left sleeve and looked at the blood. He then sucked on his lower lip and shrugged his long coat off. His bravado was slightly decreased when he glanced up and saw that the upper cut had also split the brim on his top hat. Had he been a fraction of an inch closer he would have been split from chin to forehead.

Cooper looked over at the bleeding wound on his left elbow where the tip of Alexander’s sword made it through his own guard. He thought, ‘Well if that were a fraction of an inch to the left it would have hit my ulna nerve plexus.’ This reminded him that he was dealing with a very highly trained assassin. Even an apparently insignificant injury could be disabling. As it was, the wound was hurting more than it had a right to, evidently because of the nature of the weapon that caused it.

The dance they danced brought them closer to the still burning Gentleman’s Club. Most of the building had collapsed in on itself. One would think that the shear amount of rain falling would have gone a long way towards dousing flames, but it had not. The only results of the torrential rain was a thick white steam flowing off the burning maw of the foundation. It was as if Hell itself had opened up here in Grandeur City.

Alexander glanced over at the flaming artifice and thought, ‘I’m going to have to rebuild that soon. Perhaps even better this time.’

Cooper tried to take advantage of his momentary distraction with a flurry of windmill attacks followed by a leg sweep.

Alexander was able to parry the wicked attack sequence of blades but the leg sweep was unexpected and sent him flying backwards against the remains of a set of stone steps that led to loading dock that hours before Coop was leading Batty and the other orphans out of the bowels of this building.

While Alexander was on his back, Cooper tried to press in another attack but pulled up short as the black cane sword came thrusting out. He felt the tip of blade bite into his groin as he did a quick move away to the side allowing the blade to pass by him and hopefully limiting the damage done. Cooper then kicked up against the stone steps and rebounded himself away from the building and Alexander. He looked down at the wound and realized that if he had not turned just then the sword would have bit into what medics and swordsmen alike called Scarpa’s Triangle. A hit at any point in this region of the groin would have been disabling. At the point that the tip of the black blade would have entered it could have severed the femoral artery and would have been fatal within a couple of minutes. As it was, the pain in that key juncture of nerves, muscles and blood vessels was more than it had any business being for the size of the scratch. Cooper hobbled back and shifted his weight to his right hip leaving almost no weight on his left.

Alexander kicked up his legs then used the downward motion to lever himself upright and back onto his feet. Cooper remember seeing this move so many times on Kung Fu movies and he had always thought of what the best move was to attack when one was doing that so without hesitation he rolled in, somewhat awkwardly, to come up right in front of his enemy then he did a slightly off balance standing eagle sweeping his weapons so as to disarm his foe. In theory it would have left him with a prisoner, but due to the off-balance way that he was forced to execute the move and the fact that Alexander was left-handed it resulted in something different. Cooper’s bowie knife neatly sliced off Alexander’s left thumb sending the black sword flying off into an alley, while his tomahawk came awkwardly high, as he tried to compensate for his injury, clipping Alexander’s right jawline missing the intended target of the jugular vein and carotid artery.

The combatants’ forward motion caused them to bump chest to chest, knocking them back away from each other. Cooper had no control at this point, so he allowed himself fall to his back and using the Judo techniques he had mastered, and he absorbed his fall. He remembered looking with disappointment that he missed the fatal target of Alexander’s jugular but then he realized that that was a moot point as the slightly dazed Alexander tumbled backwards into the maw of hell itself that was the burning foundation of the Shadow’s Lair.

Cooper laid on his back in the deluge for who knows how long in pain. Finally, he realized that his mission wasn’t over yet. He still had his lady to see to.

He forced himself to his feet and took several stumbling steps toward the battle he heard raging in the distance. He then realized that he had another important detail to attend to and he turned. Stumbled back to the alley bent down and picked up the black crystal sword with its death head hilt, “Can’t leave you just lying around.”

He took another couple of steps back toward the battle, stopped and said, “Oh hell.” He then fell flat on his face unconscious.

Out of the gray shadows stepped a lone cloaked figure clutching an umbrella that they were using to ward off the down pour. The lone figure shuffled over to Cooper and stood above him for a long moment. The cloaked individual brushed back her hood to see better. It was Elsie.

“Oh Coop.” Her voice carried a soul’s worth of sadness as she knelt to see to his profusely bleeding wounds as the rain washed the blood away from Cooper’s limp body.

20) Lightning’s Swift Sword (Tock)

Had it not been for the accurate supporting fire from the Legions’ Heavy Arc Light batteries, Empress Victoria II’s entourage and the supporting elements of the First Amazonian Legion would have been over run without even a chance to resist.

In addition to the Black Kilts, and the small group of newly set straight members of Calador, two companies of the First Regiment of the First Amazonian Legion were engaging the company of about a hundred Shadow Sentinels and other elements of the Grand Regiment of Calador. Arc Light support was about the only thing making it a holding action, which was the best that Her Eminence’s forces could hope for and only for a short time at that.

Between the pouring rain, the sound of gun fire, and the defuse streaks of blue electrical plasma renting the air, the sound was deafening. The only reliable form of communications at this point were hand signals and flags. Even the various buglers were hopeless in conveying their commands, their sound lost in the maelstrom of noise.

As Captain Indiro led her forces around the gazebo, it was clear that it was being quickly destroyed by gun fire. She signaled to Her Eminence’s troops to pull back and get to the bridge.

One of the Companies on the move was Company C, which were following up on the other Company’s flanking action, was sweeping to the north of the gazebo and coming online with Company A’s left at the leading edge of battle with the oncoming sentinels. Company C’s commander, Jenna McPherson, a fiery redhead, who was newly promoted to her Captaincy and Command was almost overcome by emotions at seeing her beloved Empress on the battlefield and reflexively ordered her second platoon to escort Her Eminence off the battlefield as the rest of her command moved forward and engaged the Shadow Sentinels.

Both these orders were immediately countermanded by a superior. The superior in question had a far greater rank than Captain. It was a ringing order coming from Her Eminence herself, the tone piercing through the din.

The Second Platoon leader was very frustrated and in honesty terrified for her Sovereign and could see going down in history as failing to keep the Empress from death. Her line would be damned through history. She also realized she must obey and then ordered her platoon to take up guard of Her Eminence.

Victoria II understood that the gazebo she was now taking cover in was beginning to disintegrate around her, so she ordered her Sentinels to move forward and become a three-facet shield for her, Sister and Mousey. This didn’t happen a second too soon as the gazebo’s heavy roof fell in on the platform.

To the north of the plaza normally one could see a long way off, however, in the rain and gray mist one was lucky to see 100 feet. Suddenly there was a shift in the wind creating a twirling of the mist and rain making it easy to see a long way off. Lieutenant Pappy McTavish saw about a mile away another, larger, element of sentinels forming up and were beginning to move south in their direction. He estimated that the new force was around 500 strong. He signaled to Her Eminence the newest information expecting her to finally decide to pull out. He was surprised when she simply smiled and nodded her head and began to direct the troops to shift their formations. Not to cover her withdraw but rather to improve their hold on the plaza and open up an avenue for the approaching sentinels from the north.

He shrugged and thought ‘In for a penny, in for a sovereign’ and shifted his own troops according to her commands.

The continual Arc Light Strikes, coming from the other side of the river, so ionized the air around the Sentinels and the Arc Light batteries alike that it started drawing actual lightning strikes in both areas. Captain Joshua Grimma, the Company Commander for the Arc Light batteries, knew that they were covering Her Eminence herself, so even though SOP directed a cease fire in a lightning storms he ordered his batteries to continue to pour on the fire.

His artillerymen understood their mission and the danger. They bent to their weapons grimly to continue fire despite the mounting casualties from lightning strikes. Their rubberized uniforms only provided minor mitigation from the lightning strikes.

Sargent John Pedersol, Gun Commander 2nd Gun, 1st Battery was muttering an incantation to provide protection from the lightning when he felt a sudden surge of mana the likes of which he had never experienced. He had no idea where it came from, but it was very welcome because his limited skill and power normally only lessened the damage caused by the lighting strikes. Now with the new surge of mana came a reshaping of the direction of the spell. Not only did a hardened magical shield formed above his battery but it somehow redirected the incoming lightning’s energy into their arc light pulses.

Captain McPherson was directing her troops to stay away from the wrought iron fence that surrounded the plaza that was now the site of their desperate stand. She knew with the increasing lightning strikes it was only a matter of time before the fence was going to be struck. She felt the familiar sensation of the hairs standing up on the back of her neck that always proceeded an arc light strike in the area. She gave the heads down signal to her troops when the brightest, broadest arc light strike she had ever seen came flying in from behind her. Luckily, she had her dark goggles on or otherwise she would have been blinded by the hit. She saw with awful fascination as the arc light bolt seemed to pause above the front line of the sentinel force that appeared to be rallying to charge her position. The energy of the bolt seem to pool into a large ball of plasma then it seemed to suck in several natural lightning bolts and then explode downward to incinerate 20 to 25 shadow sentinels.

The subsequent, horrendous thunderclap knocked her and several of her troops backwards from the fence line.

She wanted to get back on her feet immediately and get back to commanding her troops, but the wind had been knocked out of her and her arms and legs felt like rubber.

Corporal McDermott was positioned just behind Her Eminence with secret orders from Pappy McTavish that if their defense were to begin to collapse, he was to physically carry Her Eminence to safety ignoring any objections on her part. He was considering doing just that as he watched the approaching shadow sentinels from the north, however, his keen eyes noted a singular detail that would have escaped anyone else.

In the front of the approaching column appeared to be a small man or teenager and to his left rear, one of the sentinels was holding a guideon flying Her Eminence’s personal pennant.

He looked to Victoria II who was smiling at him and nodding her head. He thought to himself, ‘I do not want to ever be on a side fighting against this wily devil... I mean Her Eminence.’

Victoria II took Gidget out of her satchel and whispered something to her and sent her skittering off across the plaza toward her master. She then sent another series of signals to her troops to fall back once relieved by incoming forces. She then ordered her flagman to signal the arc light batteries to cease fire.

At this point her surrounding staff were of differing minds about her leadership. It varied from ‘she’s an absolute genius’ to ‘this woman is insane’. However, even those who questioned her sanity did not even hesitate one moment to follow her orders.

Meanwhile, the Grand Regiment of Calador was joined by lead elements of two other Council Lords’ Regiments over on Imperial Avenue with the purpose of counter attacking the First Amazonian Legion when Colonel Denny was receiving reports about the battle taking place in the plaza to the north. In the reports he was receiving there were conflicting accounts as to who they were actually fighting there. Some reports said that Her Eminence or an imposter was there whereas other reports denied that. The reports agreed that, in addition to elements of the First Amazonian and the North Highlanders Black Kilts was a platoon of his own men fighting to protect the commander of this force.

The latest reports all agreed about the incoming unit of shadow sentinels coming in from the north. He had a sudden cold chill run up his spine as he thought, ‘What if this was indeed the Empress herself?’ He did not want to be a party to regicide, so he called his signals officer to order up a flag of truce and sent a similar order to his forces on his northern flank.

That chill doubled as he realized that he had only marginal control over the shadow sentinels since they were under the control of the ‘Contractors’ that were working directly for High Lord James Baron of Calador.

He decided to also order his signals officer to send a wind up ‘Pigeon’ with a message to update Lord Calador as well as seek guidance on these issues.

He looked over to the corner of the makeshift shelter that was erected over the command post to see his Brigadier still curled up on a set of blankets mumbling to himself. Colonel Denny wasn’t very political himself but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t aware of the political ebbs and flows in The Civilization. He knew that High Lord Calador was, most times, opposed to Her Eminence on political matters. He put two and two together and made a decision.

“Operations assume command here. I need to see the situation to the north, personally!” He then took out a piece of paper and wrote down a set of orders and said, “Execute these orders if I send up a red flare. Do this regardless of conflicting orders from his Lordship.”

Major Michael Rhodes looked at his colonel, clearly confused for a moment until realization dawned on him as to what he was implying. Maj Rhodes turned white as the blood drained away from his face and he nodded slowly in a daze. He then remembered himself and snapped to attention, saluted and said, “Yes sir!”

Gidget quickly found Ouihan at the head of the column of sentinels. The creature climbed up him and proceeded to latch onto his shoulder. Then she began clicking out the brief message that were Her Eminence’s orders. He understood immediately and he led his command quickly past the defending troops to intercede himself between the shadow sentinels and Her Eminence.

He stood up just past the wrought iron fence, looked at the remaining shadow sentinels that were beginning to rally as the arc light strikes ceased. He then held out his hand and bellowed forth, “You will cease your attack and come under my command!”

There was a moment, a strange and wonderful moment where all things seemed to pause on the battlefield. The only sounds that could be heard at that moment were the soft clicking and clacking of the combined sentinels as they shifted into a position of attention and the soft white sound of the rain.

Then in serendipitous synchronicity with a clap of thunder the enemy shadow sentinels did an about face and stood ready to attack the forces of Calador and other elements of the Regiments that were forming to their rear to follow the advance of, until a moment before, their allies the shadow sentinel company.

At that same moment Colonel Denny strode in front of his remaining troops yelling, “Cease fire, cease fire!” his aid walking at his side bearing a white flag tied to his saber. Of course, this was what Colonel Denny was originally planning to do, set a truce in order to get some answers. He was remarkably stunned to see the remainder of the Shadow Sentinels turn to face him.

It took him a moment to recover from his surprise but when he did, he began to stride forward toward Her Eminence’s forces confident that the flag of truce would be honored.

The human commander of the shadow sentinel company, dressed in the typical Shadowman armor, stepped forward to the Colonel and said, “You cannot do this. Our Lord Calador has ordered us to attack these forces and take no prisoners!”

Colonel Denny looked at the Shadowman coldly and said, “Then you shall do so over my dead body!”

The Shadowman Commander reached for his pistol only to realize that the Regimental soldiers suddenly shift their aim from the Legion forces to him. Needless to say, that gave him pause. He then turned to the nearest sentinel and said, “Don’t just stand there, stop him!”

The Sentinel just stood there at attention ignoring his command.

Colonel Denny then shrugged and said, “It would seem that powers greater than that which we command are at work here Shadowman.” He then strode past the Shadowman, through the ranks of sentinels toward the ‘enemy’ lines.

He came up short when he saw the other column of sentinels were being led by a teenage boy, dressed in street rags, standing on the other side of the wrought iron fence that demarked the beginning of the plaza. He saluted the boy after a moment pause and asked, “May I address who is in command here?”

“That would be Us” came the commanding voice of Her Imperial Majesty, Victoria II as she was striding forward through the ranks of the newly acquired sentinel force.

Once she stepped out of the ranks of Sentinels, Colonel Denny recognized her immediately and fell to one knee as did his aid a moment later, “Your Eminence!” he said crisply.

“Yes Colonel?”

He rose back to his feet as protocol dictated and said, “We were informed that you were dead. We were also informed that there was an attempt to put an imposter on your throne.”

“Yes, We are aware of this Colonel. Be assured that this is not true. We are indeed alive and well.”

“Yes, Your Eminence, I can see that. However, there is a problem. How can I be sure that you are not indeed the imposter I was warned of?”

The Empress replied with a smile as cold and harsh at the polar wind. “You, and the other Regimental commanders will accompany Us to the throne room and witness Us donning the Breastplate of Arkan, that is how you can be assured.”

Colonel Denny said, “Then Your Eminence, I will now order a cease fire.” He then turned to his aid and said, “Send up the red flare Patrick.”

“Yes sir!” the Lieutenant standing by his side said, reached into his pack and pulled out the flare.

The five lords and their respective staffs were standing around a table at the Academy listening to the captain that was reading the latest report, “…and finally, Colonel Denny has just ordered a cease fire and has put into custody all the Shadowmen attached to the Grand Calador Regiment. Brigadiers Markam and Samuels have also followed suit...”

“Excuse me, what happened to Brigadier Snyder?” High Lord James of Calador asked with a definite look of distaste on his face.

“He is in dispose My Lord.”

“In dispose?”

“Yes, My Lord. It would seem that he had some sort of mental break down when his son died.”

“I see.” Calador said while nodding.

The young captain then went on, “So we are directed to attend Her Eminence in the throne room to witness her don the Breast Plate of Arkan along with the rest of the lords of the Grand Council, the Legions’ Major Generals and the Regiment’s Brigadiers. This is to determine once and for all that she is indeed the Empress and not the imposter that is said to be from the Kingdom of Ugalla. Colonel Denny also reports that the proceedings will be protected by over five hundred sentinels.”

Lord Calador looked thoughtful then asked, “Curiouosa, can you explain how Her Eminence was able to turn the Shadow Sentinels to her purpose, especially since you said that they were specifically programed with a mandate to kill her?”

A rather disheveled looking white-haired man wearing a white lab coat and frumpy suit with a tool belt with all sorts of tools and other accoutrements hanging off rubbed his unshaven chin and said, “Could be some sort of artifact in programing, but I do not really know. It may have something to do with the mysterious boy that is reported to be helping the Empress.”

“Boy? This is the first I’ve heard about this.” Calador snapped.

A young woman wearing a long black coat, top hat and bearing a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Alexander said calmly, “That is because we have only now received reports on him ourselves.”

“I see. It would seem, Miss. Alexander, that your brother’s organization has proven to be somewhat less than reliable!” Calador said sharply.

Miss. Alexander smiled a cold smile that could freeze one’s soul and said, “If you recall, it was you who moved up the timetable. My brother did caution you that this was unwise.”

“I should never have trusted your brother’s organization for something so delicate!” Caldor yelled with spittle flying and his face turning red.

With the same cold smile that seemed to be permanently fixed on her face she said, “This operation had all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop. Again, had not you moved up the timetable we would have had all the needed information. As it is, the costs of this operation, in both resources and monies has risen ten times the original estimate.”

“Well since the objective has not been obtained, I will not be paying you!” Calador said with a definite air of disgust in his voice.

Miss Alexander tipped her smoked color glasses in the same stylistic way that her brother did and said with the cool certainty of granite, “Payment will be exacted, one way or another.”

Calador turned red and sputtered something incoherently then it seemed a realization hit him, and the color fell away from his face which then matched his white silk shirt. He then closed his eyes and nodded. Then he turned to his major domo and said, “Very well fetch the eye, Samuel and the black leather bag that is next to it in my safe.”

“Yes, My Lord!” Samuel bowed and left the room.

After a few uneasy minutes Samuel returned with a silver tray with a small box and black leather bag on it.

Calador took the items and set them down on the table in front of Miss Alexander.

She opened up the box to reveal an eye shaped, glowing, diamond with many facets on it. She nodded and closed the box. She then upended the bag’s contents onto the table to reveal twenty thumbnail sized diamonds, thirty like sized rubies and around a hundred varied sized emeralds.

She then picked up a random diamond and reached into her pocket took out a jeweler’s glass and examined it.

While examining the diamond she said, “So, with this payment, then I am to understand that our business together is concluded?”

“Yes, it is. Please tell your brother when you see him that I am not pleased.”

Miss Alexander nodded absently as she picked up a ruby and gave it an examination similar to the diamond. She then scooped up the pile of gems and put them back in the bag, put both the bag and the box containing the ‘Eye” in her pockets and said, “Very well. I bid you good day gentlemen. If you are ever in need of our services again the don’t hesitate to call.” She then fixed her cold gaze on Calador and said coolly, “Except for you my Lord. Your patronage will never be welcome again.” She then turned and swept out of the room attended by two armored Shadowmen.

Lord Murtaugh, who was standing opposite her and Calador at the table watched her leave with a calculating look on his face. After she had left the room, he turned to Calador and said, “So where does that leave the rest of us James?”

“Well you can go report to Her Eminence and then gain a date with the thirteen steps if you like, as for me I am taking the better part of valor.”

Miss Alexander and her escort were exiting the front gates of the Academy when a steam powered carriage pulled up in front of her. Since this was not her carriage, her escort both stepped forward to intercede themselves between the carriage and their mistress.

The Carriage door opened up as if by itself to reveal a dark interior. The dark figure in the back seat of the carriage said, “Miss Alexander, I would like to discuss a business proposition with you and your organization.” The man’s voice was deep, smooth and almost seemed to speak directly to the soul.

Miss Alexander felt herself push past her escort and step into the carriage as if by her body’s own volition.

The Archbishop of Grandeur City stood over the golden chest that contained the Breastplate of Arkan, mumbling the incant that unlocked the very secure reliquary.

Victoria II stood at the foot of the steps that led up to the throne patiently waiting as the cleric performed his duty. Standing in a semicircle around Her Eminence were two brigadiers, one colonel and several other military officers from both sides of the conflict.

Off to one side of the throne stood 14 of the 21 lords of the Grand Council in their customary place for all such audiences with the crown. A few of these lords looked rather uneasy whereas the rest looked on with an expectant expression.

In the place for special guests of the crown stood Ouihan, Brother, Sister and Mousey. On both sides of the throne room, standing at attention stood the majority of the turned shadow sentinels as well as the regular sentinels. Several sentinels were stationed at key points outside the throne room. Standing in the position reserved for the Captain of the Guard stood Sir Johann keeping careful watch on all the members of the opposition.

Once the Archbishop finished the necessary incantation the golden chest slowly opened of its own revealing the Brest Plate of Arkan, the Scepter of Might and the Flaming Sword of Reason. The Crown of Wisdom was kept in another reliquary made of clear crystal right next to the golden chest. He then took up the shining, ornately designed, breast plate and held it up then said in a stentorious voice, “Who comes forward to claim this honor?”

“I, Empress Victoria II Arkanti, Empress of The Civilization, High Queen of the Northern Continent, High Lady of House Arkanti, Keeper of the Flame of Reason and Wielder of the Glass Darkly do come forward to claim this honor.”

The Archbishop got a mischievous look in his eyes and said, “Oh well, since we are here to just prove your identity, we can forgo with all the other ceremonial rig amoral.” And he stepped forward and placed the breast plate reverently on Her Eminence.

Once properly placed and buckled on, the Breast Plate of Arkan shifted it shape to fit perfectly Victoria II’s curves and shape. Once this happened the Archbishop stepped backwards opening up the way for Victoria II to climb the steps up to the throne.

She climbed the three steps to the throne, turned and faced her subjects and then the Archbishop’s stentorious voice rung out, “I present to you Empress Victoria II Arkanti, Empress of The Civilization, High Queen of the Northern Continent, High Lady of House Arkanti, Keeper of the Flame of Reason and wielder of the Glass Darkly!”

With that everyone except the sentinels fell to one knee in recognition and respect. The Archbishop then took up the Scepter, Sword and finally the Crown and appropriately gave them to Victoria II.

Once she accepted the trappings of office and allowed the crown to be placed upon her head she sat down on the throne.

With that everyone in the room rose to their feet as per protocol. She gazed out over those in attendance with a serenity that projected the epitome of confidence and surety of reign.

Once she appeared to have taken in everyone in the room with her gaze she said, “It saddens Us, but these last few days many have fallen to the acts of evil and greedy men. Let us take a moment to bow our heads in prayer for all those lost.” She then lowered her head and all in the room followed suit. After a customary amount of time she then looked back up and said, “We shall make several mandates and decrees at this time because of the unrest and treason that have ensued over the last few days.

“First and foremost, for all those soldiers who fought against the Crowns interests, barring certain key officers, We grant a full pardon since you have acted in good faith to your chain of command and were misled by your lordships. Second, We hear by order that all members of the Grand Council shall be detained until such time as a full inquiry can be conducted to determine their guilt or innocence in the attempted coup against the Royal Personage and the interests of the Crown. Third, We hereby and forthwith dissolve the Grand Council and take full charge and authority over the ruling of The Civilization until such time as a proper, parliamentarian government can be formed with representation of both the nobility and duly elected representation from the common born as well, with royal oversight” This brought a gasp from most in the room.

From the members of the Grand Council there came shouts of outrage that quickly silenced when Sir Johann ordered the Sentinels to take overt guard positions around them.

Her Eminence waited a moment for the collective responses to quiet down then she went on, “As for the members of the Grand Council who failed to obey the lawful summons, most notably High Lord James Baron of Calador, We order the immediate arrest for the charge of high treason and the seizure of all their lands, properties and funds that are in the Imperial Bank of The Civilization as well as all other assets available. Their lineages will be banned from high peerage and station in perpetuity, barring individual achievements. These funds are to be directed for restitution and repair of all the damages resulting from their treason.

“As for James of Calador, We find him guilty of high treason and issue a death warrant in his name to all officials of the Crown.” This too drew a gasp from the crowd. “I hear by allocate a reward for execution of said warrant of ten thousand sovereigns upon the provision of proof.

“Since the decimation of the Grand Palace Guard during this attack against the throne, We do now appoint members of the Black Kilt Company as well as other select soldiers that have proven themselves to Us during this crisis to replace them. They will be under the command of Major Joshua McTavish.”

With that, the new members of Her Eminence’s bodyguard snapped to attention with an audible click.

She smiled down at Pappy who appeared to be quite overwhelmed with emotions. Then she turned to Sir Johann and said, “As for the Crown’s Personal Guard I appoint Sir Johann of Grandeur City and Imperial Knight as Captain of the Guard and give him our trust, along with command of the now expanded Imperial Sentinels Regiment.”

Sir Johann bowed his head sharply in recognition and acceptance of his new position. He felt a flood of emotions himself. As if he had come fully to a point of renewal. It was almost as if the constant coldness in his joints and body seem to be lifted and replaced with a warmth and zeal that he had never felt before.

Victoria II then smiled broadly and lovingly to the orphans standing in the place of honor and she said, “Finally, in recognition of certain individuals, without whom We would not be standing here today, We hear by take as Our wards the group of street orphans who under the leadership of Sister and Brother. We shall care for, guide and shelter them and they will henceforth be known as The Children of the Crown. The lineage of them is hereby established as a line of its own in perpetuity.”

This brought a round of applause.

Outside the Throne Hall on the palace grounds, Sally was stationed along with three other sentinels to guard the East Gate. She absently listened to the sound of applause as it filtered out of the grand looking building, but her mind was ruminating on her overall plan to bring down this poisonous edifice and all involved and cleanse Zahn of Clockworks.

As she was doing this a steam driven carriage pulled up to the ornate gates. She, being the appointed lead sentinel of this detachment stepped forward to see what this carriage was doing there.

The Carriage driver pointed to the door of the carriage and said in a hollow voice, “My master would like a word with you.”

Sally was surprised by this, so she stepped over to the now opening door. As she looked into the carriage, she saw sitting nearest to the door a pale skinned platinum blond woman dressed in a long black coat and top hat wearing smoked colored glasses. Beyond her she could barely make out the shape of another man sitting in the shadows. She asked, “May I help you?”

The deep smooth baritone voice seemed to speak to her essence, and it was saying, “No Sally. I’m here to help you. Please come with us and we will make your dreams come true.”

She felt her body obey the command as she climbed up into the carriage, but her soul elated and she knew that even without being physically compelled she would have willingly gone with the owner of this voice to anywhere on Zahn.

Chapter 21 And the Pendulum Continues to Swing (Tick)

Three days later, Cooper woke up with a start. He looked around at the room that he was in and realized it was Elsie’s room in the heart of the Steam and Whistle. He waited to move because he had experienced this before. Every time he was so injured that he would have died normally, he would go into a death like coma for days then awake fully healed. However, after waking he knew that if he tried to push his stiff cold muscles too quickly, he would pay for it in pain and spasms.

He looked around the room and saw that he was alone, so he just bided his time as the sensations of life returned to his body. However, there was something different this time. In the places where the black sword had cut him there was still pain. Not the excruciating pain that was there before but pain none the less.

His hand and arm began to behave so he shook the pins and needles out of it then reached up to touch the bandage on his right cheek. Then he touched the bandage wrapped around his left elbow area. Both areas were tender to the touch but nothing more that he’d remembered from when he was mortal. Finally, he reached down to touch his left hip and found the bandages were still damp with bloody drainage.

“Oh, the dead awakes.” Elsie’s voice sounded sharp and sarcastic as she was standing in the doorway that led to the rest of her apartment.

She then turned her head over her shoulder and said, “Doc, he’s awake.” Then she came into the room and sat down at the chase lounge in the corner.

A young dark-skinned woman dressed all in white wearing the sash that signified a Imperial Healer/Physician came into the room carrying a bag in one hand and a bundle of some kind in the other. She was followed by a nurse who was carrying a tray with bandaging and wound cleaning supplies on it, “Good morning Captain. How are we feeling today?”

“I don’t know how WE feel but I feel like twenty miles of bad road.”

The doctor chuckled and said, “Jovial as usual Captain…”

Cooper cut in, “Is she safe?!”

The doctor looked puzzled for a moment then realized what he was asking and smiled, “Yes, Her Eminence is safe and well and ensconced in her rightful place at the Palace.”

Cooper felt a large weight fall from his soul, and he laid back and allowed himself to sink into the bed.

The doctor saw this and nodded, “Now that is settled, let us take a look at your wounds.” She then proceeded to remove the dressings on his hip wound revealing a slightly festering but otherwise healthy-looking wound that was sutured and about five inches long.

Cooper said, “That’s not right.”

“No Captain it isn’t. But not to worry, we have the infection under control. Your wounds appear to be healing like a normal person’s would. I know that that’s not your usual, however, I understand that these wounds were caused by a singularly unusual weapon.”

Recollection hit Cooper like a hammer, and he asked, “Where is the black sword?”

Elsie said, “I locked that vile thing up in my safe. I knew you would want it, and I want no other to have such a tool of evil.”

Cooper said, “Thanks. Oh, and thanks for putting me up again. I know how hard this must be for you.”

The temperature seemed to plummet in the room. Elsie rose to her feet as a specter of cold fury and said in a forced gravelly whisper, “Hard on me?! Hard on me? Oh, oh, oh, mister you have no idea!” and she turned and strode out of the room without a single backward glance.

The doctor was finishing dressing the wound while mumbling some healing incantations. When she finished, she said, “These wounds are strangely resistant to healing magics. So, I am forced to rely on traditional healing techniques.” She then looked at Cooper in the eyes and said, “She was the one who found you in the street. She tried treating you herself, but had she not realized that there was something wrong and called me, I don’t think you’d be alive now. Even with your special gift. As it was, the life force she poured out into you in the attempt to heal you was almost too much for her to lose and live.”

“Doc I know I owe her. More than you’ll ever know. It’s just that she wants something from me that I can’t give.”

“None of my business.” As she began treating his elbow wound. “This one didn’t get infected so it should be healed up in a jiff. Same as your face wound. However, I suspect that they both will leave a scar. I would recommend that that black sword should be either destroyed or at least locked up somewhere no one can get to.”

“I don’t want that sword to be in anybody’s possession but mine. I don’t trust anyone else to hold onto something that can actually kill me.”

“Quite.” She said blandly as finished up dressing his wounds. She then directed her nurse to take the supplies out of the room and she said, “These should be fully healed in a week or two. The groin wound will take the longest, but I expect that you should have full function and movement within a month. Provided that you don’t overly stress the wound.” She had a hint of the unsaid, ‘But I know that you will’ in the tone of her voice. She then shrugged and said, “Perhaps you may indeed listen to me this time.” As she put the rest of her implements, devices and magical artifacts back in her bag.

She rose to her feet and looked at Cooper for a moment then said, “Cal, as a friend I say that you’ll heal a lot faster if you have some sort of emotional balance as well. Perhaps you have mourned your lost love long enough. You are between two graves, hers and yours. You cannot get back to her, you know you will end in yours; would she want you to suffer until you get there? If so, she would not be one worthy of your mourning. Stop thinking replace and think also.” She smiled, turned and left.

During the reign of Victoria I, she had built a library on the palace grounds that she would cloister herself to during times when she was weighing out difficult decisions. So, the library occupied the back part of the three-story building whereas the front part was a miniature palace in itself to accommodate her needs when she was withdrawn.

Victoria II had designated this building to be the new home of the 33 Children of the Crown. The top floor, that were the servant’s quarters during the time of Victoria I, were allocated and remade to be the children’s quarters. As one went up on the central grand staircase the quarters to the left were set aside for the young ladies and to the right the young gentlemen. The second floor was remodeled from the luxurious imperial living quarters to classroom, gym and laboratory space. The first floor included a large dining room, pallor and a separate reading room. The three-story library area was still in use for its original purpose and had quite an extensive, and expensive collection of books. Almost all of the known books in The Civilization had a copy in this library. This included a locked section that had some of the more esoteric and dangerous tomes. These were not accessible to the children

Victoria II had spent many days educating herself in these halls. She was entertaining some fond memories with a secret smile on her face as the Head Librarian was finishing instructing the 33 orphans who were standing in a semi-circle around her, “…finally, if you need a book or other material from the restricted section you first must obtain written permission from Her Eminence then you must be accompanied by either myself or one of my assistant librarians. Is that clear?”

There was a hap hazard chorus of “Yes ma’ams” as the group of usually independent children answered her. The children definitely looked uneasy in their new station and especially in their new burgundy and white uniforms.

The uniforms were all clean, crisp and wrinkle free but if you looked there were still hints of individualization here and there. Victoria II suspected that this would become more apparent as the children became more accustomed and comfortable in their new roles. She wasn’t about to discourage that either. The uniforms weren’t really her idea but rather from the insistence of the Palace School’s Headmaster who was responsible for seeing to the education of all the noble children on the palace grounds.

“Oh, and one last thing. The spiral stairs over on the far end of the library leads down to a passage that leads to the Pyramid. No one, I say again, no one is to go there unaccompanied by Her Eminence.” The Head Librarian went on.

This brought an almost comical collection of looks from shock to calculation on the various children’s faces.

Victoria II though to herself, ‘Perhaps I should discuss this more thoroughly with Ouihan and Sister’. She knew that these spirited and usually independent children will be tempted, not may, but will be tempted by this forbidden fruit. She also decided that it would be a good idea to take these children on a guided tour of the Pyramid as soon as possible in order to satisfy their curiosity.

While she was thinking this, she realized that the Head Librarian was now looking at her expectantly, so she shook herself back to the here and now and said, “Thank you Beatrice. Now children if you’ll follow us, I believe that it is time for lunch.”

Just then a palace page came into the room and bowed a respectful distance as protocol directed with a message in his hand.

Victoria II smiled at him and held her hand out. He then put the message in her hand, and she said, “We thank you Reginald.” And she opened the message.

Reginald’s face blushed with the genuine pleasure that Her Eminence had remembered his name and he bowed deeply turned and left.

Victoria II read the message and then smiled and said, “Children, you will be happy to hear that Colonel Cooper is now awake and able to receive visitors. Ehawee and Batty, I assume that you want to see him?”

They both smiled and shouted, “Yes!” then they remembered themselves and Batty said, “I mean yes Your Eminence.”

Victoria II smiled and said, “Very well We will have someone escort you to him after lunch. Oh, and please tell him that We regret that circumstances prevent Our visiting him at this time.” She then looked over at Sir Johann who was definitely putting the role of stern protector to its best front and nodded, “Some individuals have advised me that it is still not safe to leave the palace grounds at this time.

Ehawee answered this time, “We will Your Eminence.”

“Now let Us get some lunch.” She led the collective Children of the Crown to the dining room that was arranged for their lunch.

High Lord James, Baron of Calador and the Lowlands was standing at the ramp as his private airship finally touched down after an arduous journey trying to avoid pursuit from the Imperial Air Fleet. His airship was a heavy cruiser class and could hold its own in battle with most of the imperial airships one on one. However, most of the fleet had been dispatched to bring him and his fellow fugitive lords down. As a matter of fact, he had he received a dispatch that High Lord Murtaugh’s ship was destroyed with him and all hands just the day before by the Monarch herself.

Now he was safe. He was outside of The Civilization on a family estate on a privately-owned island that had been in his family for many generations.

Because of his flight from authorities he didn’t signal ahead to his staff here that he was coming for fear that the message would be intercepted and bring about his undoing. So, that being said, he was more than mildly surprised to see his household staff waiting for him as he strode off his ship. He was even more surprised when his head butler said, “Everything has been prepared per your instructions My Lord.”

He asked hesitantly, “My instructions?” he then thought, ‘Maybe Samuel had anticipated this and sent word. He was always so efficient’ so he nodded and said, “Very well, thank you.”

He proceeded down the ramp through the gates down the long path toward the manor house. While he was walking, he was working things out in his mind. No way could this be the end of his ambitions. Absolutely not. High Lord James of Calador will rise again and take back The Civilization and redeem his family name. He was so distracted by his planning that he failed to realize that he was being led to the grand dining room.

Once in the dining room he noted on one level where he was and said, “Oh yes, very good, I could use some good food. Is William still cooking?” And he sat down at the head of the table

“Yes, My Lord.”

“Splendid!” as he spread his napkin on his lap and began to ready himself to eat.

He looked down the table to see that there was one more setting at the far end of the table and he asked, “Why is there another setting?”

“My Lord?”

“Are we expecting company?”

“Why, that is for Mistress Visk my Lord.” The head butler said puzzled.

“Mistress Visk? Who is Mistress Visk?”

“My Lord, she’s the one you sent ahead with your instructions.”

Off to his left heard a dulcet voice say, “My dear lord, I am sorry for the surprise, but Samuel thought it best this way. When I last saw him, he was quite concerned for your safety.”

Calador turned to see a stunning, if diminutive, blond haired, blue eyed lady gracefully walking in wearing a fine dark blue segmented dress and white gloves.

Samuel had arranged ‘distractions’ for his lord before so the realization hit Calador that this was one of those occasions. But he had never before had arranged one as stunning and exotic in their simplicity as this one.

Visk paused and bowed her head rather than curtsey and held the bow, only her eyes visible until Lord Calador nodded his head as per protocol. She then rose and proceeded to the other end of the table and prepared herself for the meal. She seemed quite at home doing so, unlike most he had been around who were cowed by his power.

Calador watched this creature of singular grace as if mesmerized and when she sat down, he heard himself say, “Splendid.”

As the soup was served, Calador asked, “I do not believe I’ve had the pleasure before.”

“No, you have not My Lord. I am quite certain that you would have remembered me.”

“Yes, Quite.” Lord James of Calador usually didn’t care for sassy women. He preferred his women docile and compliant, however, there was something intoxicating about the creature before him. So much so that he didn’t care that she seemed to have spirit.

“Visk, that is an unusual name. I do not believe I’ve heard the like before.”

“Yes, it is. I’m told that it has another worldly flavor to it.” She said with a seductive smile. “Do try the soup my lord. It is from an old recipe that I have spent a great deal of time perfecting.”

Calador took a taste of the soup and found it almost as exquisite as his company, “It is quite delicious. Delicious indeed. Is it some sort of mushroom soup?”

“It was something from my homeland. It is made with the hearts of one’s enemies. It leads a beefy flavor when they are brave and a delicate and empty flavor when they are cowards.”

Her singsong voice and lighthearted tone are juxtaposed to the details of her words. Calador is struck by her words as if by a fist.

“Your jest is in poor taste, young lady!”

She glanced up from her bowl and fixed him with eyes as grey and sharp as five-hundred-year-old polished steel.

“Calador, I assure you I do not jest. This soup is brought to you by Brigadier Snyder. Notice the nutty, delicate flavor, similar to lamb. Not bold enough for beef, but the depth of his love for his son, and the shattering of his spirit at witnessing his death has placed a certain uniqueness to the flavor.”

Calador jumped to his feet, appalled. “What kind of foul trick are you about, poisonous wench!”

“I am following an old tradition. You are receiving a full and proper last meal prior to your execution.”

She took another spoon of soup.

“How dare you!” Calador drew a force rod and advanced. As he did, a part of him observed she did not flee, or get up, or even flinch as he brandished want was known to be one of the most powerful handheld weapons of the realm.

“You should finish your soup; it is to die for. Brigadier Snyder did.”

“Die!” Calador flung out his arm and fired, the Arc ball blinding as it rushed forth, seeming to gain size and force with Calador’s rage.

The small blond just paused, the spoon halfway to her mouth. Calador’s sense of triumph seemed to wither as he watched the unstoppable ball of force seemingly dissipate and vanish as it raced towards her. She finished the spoon of soup in her delicate hand and placed the spoon on the table. She stood from her chair and stepped from behind the table.

“Calador, by royal decree, your lands have been forfeited, your lineage has been extinguished, your family has been turned out on the street under ban, refused food, water, shelter between the capitol and the border of the kingdom. You will never have power again, and this compound is also no longer yours. It is mine, ceded to me in exchange for the information concerning the other four hidden bolt holes you have throughout the realm. I tried to be polite, allowing you in my new home and fed you a meal in spite of the ban. It would be rude to have you die with an empty stomach.”

As she spoke, Calador felt the temper rise higher and higher. His couldn’t believe the sheer impertinence and gall the little girl in his home speaking to him that way! He also didn’t know why she wasn’t a pile of smoldering ash, though. He strode forward and prepared to strike down this child! Did she not know who she was speaking to? Getting closer, he also made note of her attire and some strange movements. The dress wasn’t some cloth, but instead a deep dyed leather.

The girl slid sideways and unlatched the skirt portion. Underneath, she was wearing more leather, all the way down to her high-topped boots. She also had a weapon. She drew forth a blade that was somewhere between a knife and a sword. The blade was darkly stained, the grain of the steel visible to him even from here. The ivory grip was barely visible in her hands as she moved it around. She didn’t posture like some street hood with a sharpened stick, nor a soldier on a battlefield. Neither of those would frighten him. He had trained for single fighting all his life, as some men studied other sports. Instead, she moved it as easily as a scribe moved a quill, she moved it with an intimate knowledge so casually comfortable that it moved at her unconscious will like someone pointing with their finger. Her face showed no worry or fear.

“I refuse to yield to you, little girl, just who do you think you are?” Calador postured defiantly.

“Do you really want to know?” She said in a flat tired voice.

“Boast away, little girl.”

“I taught the Alexanders’ teachers when they were kids. They got greedy and lost their way. If the will is pure, the blade will never be stopped.”

Calador felt a chill flow into him. Something within him knew she spoke the truth.

Several days later, a crate arrived at the palace. The letter that accompanied it laid claim to the reward for High Lord Calador. The funds were to be given to Cooper to be retrieved later. The note was signed “Visk” Inside the box was filled with a smaller box. Between the outer and inner box was an unusual packing material; small confetti-like pieces of leather. Inside the inner box was the face of Lord Calador, skinned from his skull. There was a small tag inside “Brain-tanned by hand with care and purpose.”

Three AM, the witching hour. A lone figure stood across the street from the main gates of the palace grounds. He looked out of place, in his wizardly robes and accoutrements. His gray robes, staff and pointed hat were from an era long gone. However, they were of the highest quality for their time.

He stood there watching the palace grounds intensely as if trying to see beyond the walls themselves. His bearded mouth moving rhythmically as he chanted under his breath.

Sir Johann, not ever needing to sleep again, was personally inspecting the guard stations when he saw the stranger and decided to investigate him.

He and two soldiers wearing black kilts walked across the street to question this suspicious stranger.

Sir Johann addressed the stranger by saying, “May I help you sir?” he was still not used to the sound of his new voice, but he did appreciate its ability to intimidate.

The wizard looked up as if just realizing that he wasn’t alone his eyes shifting from glazed over to bright and sharp, “No son, I’m about my master’s business tonight.” Then he disappeared into thin air.

Sir Johann turned and said, “Order a stand too! Full alert for all stations!” he then took off into a full run and said over his shoulder, “I will check on Her Eminence myself!”

There was a cacophony of alert whistles and bells as the palace grounds went into full alert.

Ouihan awoke with a start. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt compelled to get up and go somewhere. He donned his robe over his pajamas and put his slippers on and grabbed the wind-up lantern of his own design that was next to his bed.

Brother, who was Ouihan’s roommate mumbled something in his sleep but then just rolled over and faced away from the light.

Ouihan proceeded out of his room and down the corridor to the grand stairway and down to the first floor. So intense was his compellation to go that he failed to notice that Sister was following him.

“Ouihan, where are you going?!” she asked in an urgent whisper. All this living in a home and a palace no less was new to her and she wasn’t sure on how to stay out of trouble. Since she found herself caring more and more about Ouihan she was also afraid of the consequences of him getting in trouble.

Ouihan paused, turned and smiled, “I don’t know. But it’ll be okay.” He then turned and continued on.

Sister followed after him saying, “But what about the curfew?”

“No matter right now. All will be okay.” Ouihan heard himself saying, his own mind racing at this new sensation of being compelled.

“Well I’m responsible for you so I’m going with ya.”

When the pair made their way to the large, now closed, double doors of the library Sister said, “The doors are supposed to be locked this time of night, so we’re going no further.”

The doors then swung open on their own allowing them to enter.

Ouihan shrugged and said, “Apparently not.” And he continued on.

Sister followed hesitantly. This feeling of being timid was a new sensation for her. She was always so sure of herself and her instincts but this new life, this precious life that she was now living was full of all sorts of new sensations. But she trusted Ouihan, so she followed on.

Ouihan proceeded across the library’s marble floor that was illuminated by Ouihan’s lantern all the way to the back corner where the spiral stairs that led both up to the upper levels of the library and down to the lower, forbidden, passage to the pyramid.

The pair went down the spiral steps to the lower level were large bronze doors blocked the underground passage that was one of only two entrances to the large black pyramid that stood monolithically on the palace grounds.

Normally there were guards stationed here at all hours, however, for some reason they had been called away. The guards were normally superfluous because the huge bronze doors were sealed with strong magical guards. However, they swung open at Ouihan and Sister’s approach.

Sister’s trepidations melted into fascinated anticipation as they entered this new, yet forbidden, territory. She fell into step with Ouihan as they walked the long underground passageway. The wall sconces came to life with fire to light their way as they went under the main palace itself into the lower maze of the pyramid.

The lower two levels of the mammoth pyramid were composed of an intricate and dangerous labyrinth that was very easy to get lost in. Not to mention the many magical and mechanical traps and other denizens that were designed to destroy those who had no business entering the upper reaches of the pyramid.

Ouihan proceeded along the passageways as if he knew them like the back of his hand, so they quickly made their way to the upper machine of the pyramid. This portion was a labyrinth in itself but not so dangerous. Mostly it allowed the maintenance automatons to tend to the machinery of this huge machine. Ouihan masterfully made his way up to the very heart of the machine. Even though he knew the way it still took the pair the better part of an hour to make their way to the heart of the machine, The Glass Darkly.

The Glass Darkly was a black, polished oval shaped crystal that looked much like a vanity mirror about five feet high and two feet wide at its zenith points. It floated in the middle of a platform that was at the very center of the machine. Around it were twelve copper balls that were fixed to copper tubes that led off into the darkness and into various points in the machine. In front of the crystal oval was a comfortable looking chair that was for the Empress to sit on as she saw the portends and visions that the Glass Darkly provided.

Both Sister and Ouihan felt a building of anticipation and exhilaration in the core of their being as they approached this legendary device. Ouihan forsook the chair to stand directly in front of the crystal feeling a new, yet strangely familiar energy flow through him.

Sparks and energy flowed across the surface of the crystal and they flowed back and forth and around until they began to form a humanoid silhouette of blue energy on the black surface. A featureless face formed and seemed to look right at him and a voice that seemed to come from a great distance yet speak directly to his soul said, “Welcome back, Sir. It has been a long time. Your servant is here to help you.”

From behind the Glass Darkly stepped the wizard in gray who fell to one knee before Ouihan.

With that a plethora of memories came crashing in on Ouihan and he began to understand…

The End… of the Beginning (Tock)

fantasy
Scott Hawver
Scott Hawver
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Scott Hawver
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