Chapter Five

“Look, I don’t care who you know,” the seven-foot constructed bellows at me, straining his facial stitching, “you can’t come in here with a prisoner!”

His sewn-together face is a waxy green under the many gaslights of Industry that flicker up the shallow slope behind me to the base of the Damsels’ Drop. Mismatched eyes glower down at me and Lonnie, whom I’ve got in a half-nelson and who has degenerated to spouting horrible-sounding syllables in an alien tongue, with only an occasional flailing of limbs to indicate that he’d rather be elsewhere.

“Especially not that one,” he finishes, crossing his borrowed arms.

“Look, just send someone into the Club,” I accent the word heavily, “and have them ask for Lord Culnor. You’ll find that he’s actually quite keen on seeing me.”

Not that it’s any great surprise, given the rest of my night, but gaining entry to the Geinodes Club is not going smoothly. Between the Falkoj crashing down and rumors that some idiot let loose an air elemental on the Damsel’s Drop, the doorman outside the Lunatic Fringe is giving me hells. I could take him out without losing my grip on Lonnie, but that’s not the point. That isn’t How Things Are Done when it comes to the Geinodes Club, not even at the Lunar Entrance. There are standards.

Lonnie squirms in my grip as I try to sound reasonable. “I am sorry about jumping the line,” I offer, “but this is kind of important.”

One green and one blue eye narrow. “Pal, what’s important is that you get the hells off of my doorstep before I screw your head off and get me some replacement parts. I could use a new jawbone; this one’s getting a little mealy. Yours ain’t much to look at, but it’s square enough to work.”

Sandards be damned, there are courtesies, too. Headbutting this guy into next week is looking more and more tempting when I catch an acrid scent, quickly masked by perfume and pheromones so thick you can chew them. Involuntarily, something twitches in my groin. A hand slides its way across the constructed’s bare chest from behind, tracing the long stitch running from his hip to his shoulder. Exquisitely-painted nails dig in ever so slightly, and I see the reanimated man shudder.

“Oh, but Bexton,” the voice drips, “Jaspar would look ever so much less handsome minus that adorably square jaw of his.”

The constructed is held rapt for a moment, until the hand leaves his flesh as its owner slinks into sight from behind his bulk. “S-sorry, Melina,” he trembles. “I didn’t know--”

Her eyes lock onto mine, drinking up the rest of the world. They are red, with slitted pupils like a cat’s. “Oh, of course you didn’t,” she moans, making a gasping chirp at the end, as if someone had just touched her somewhere that she hadn’t expected, but quite enjoyed. I feel the twitch grow into more of a throb. “But pleeease, let Mr. Fellthorn come, and enjoy himself fully inside.”

It’s the way she pauses as she says it, the exact choice of words she makes with her perfect lips... my mind goes to some very un-hallowed places. I tear my gaze away from the plunging neckline of her barely-there and wholly scandalous black dress, ignoring the way her ruby lipstick is smudged at the corner of her mouth, as if she’d just been working that mouth up and down--

“Melina,” I grit my teeth. “So good to see you.”

She giggles in delight, sliding herself up next to me to grasp my arm at the elbow in a strange parody of a man escorting a woman. We must make quite the sight: her perfect sexuality, my battle-torn grime, and Fat Lonnie wedged on my opposite side like a meaty accessory. We glide past the doorman--well, Melina glides, and I grunt and drag my prisoner--and sink into the shadows of the Lunatic Fringe.

It’s like plunging into a cool bath: the darkness is palpable, dense enough to bottle and sell to tortured adolescents, and completely shuts out the noise of Industry behind us. Even scents fade away, leaving behind only Melina’s cinnamon perfumes. A staccato beat pulses through the darkness and into me as we walk down the long, carpeted hallway. It’s impossible to see anything but the glow of the concealed lighting that runs alongside the carpet, a redness that trickles into perception just far enough to allow you to see your own feet. Far ahead are the heavy curtains theat separate us from the Lunatic Fringe. A faint image of a red moon glows across their front.

Every nerve on my left side is tingling, and the state of my groin is making walking more of a chore than usual. Got to focus on something, because my body is well on its way to making some terminally poor decisions.

I choke out some words. “Nice to see you, Melina. How’s business been?”

She laughs carelessly, sliding her hand up my bare arm. Gooseflesh erupts in its wake. “Oh, good all around. I’m breaking in a pair of twins lately; a little light between the ears, but they can do the most amazing things with their tongues...” I hear a rustle from somewhere down, and keep my eyes fixed ahead. I’m pretty sure I know where that other hand went.

“Mmm,” her sigh confirms. I hear a wet sound: a tongue running over sumptuous lips. “Looking forward to continuing their education. Those boys are so eager to please. Care to watch?”

My throat tightens, and I cough to clear it. “Sorry, maybe next time. I’ve got other business here tonight.” Watching Melina break in her newest concubines--can men be concubines?--would be educational, but not the kind of knowledge I need right now.

Good. Staying focused.

“Not with that slut Ashara, I hope?” She almost hisses. “I’d feel extremely jealous, especially after I just slid you in past Bexton back there.”

I cock my head, intrigued. “The Lady of Mystery? Melina, it’s not like you to give away your hand like that. Been having unwelcome competition?”

“Oh, nothing I can’t handle,” she assures me. “But one or two of my regulars haven’t been around in a while. Good customers. One of them was always so imaginative with a riding crop...” She sighs. “I miss him so.”

I snort. “And his coin-purse.”

“And his cock, Fellthorn. You should know better.” The flirtation is gone from her voice, replaced by something more dangerous: uncertainty.

I do,” I reply carefully. “I wasn’t sure I’d have such a warm reception, considering.”

I feel her shrug imperceptibly. “You can keep a secret.”

“Every secret has its price,” It spills out unbidden, without me thinking, and I regret it immediately. But of course, Melina knows that, too.

“Yes,” she sighs, “your little Club’s motto, no? Well then, consider me grateful that you haven’t found a buyer yet. You haven’t been looking very hard, from what I hear.”

“For a society of secrets, some of them certainly aren’t kept very well.”

“I have many ways of learning secrets, Fellthorn,” she says, and several of them flash unbidden to my mind. “One that I’ve not been able to uncover is why mine is still kept. Particularly given your penchant for slaughtering my brethren whenever you have the opportunity--or whenever you can manufacture one.” She sniffs daintily. “If I’m not mistaken, I smell their blood on you even now.”

I swallow, and keep walking. Melina won’t attack me--her kind aren't the type to go for open confrontation--but I’m not at my best, and her little insinuations are having more than their usual effect. I’m sure she’s well aware that I’m as hard as a tree trunk: hatchling ichor isn’t the only thing a succubus can smell. Succumbing to her charms would be a wonderful way to ensure that her secrets got kept... permanently.

“I’m sworn to fight the Crawling Ones, yes,” I answer, with a bit more care. “And you’re certainly no angel.” She laughs, but a little uneasily to my ear. “But you’re also not quite the devil that you could be. There aren’t too many innocents, down here in Industry. You want to swallow up a few of the Captains of Industry every now and then to satisfy those... appetites? That’s almost a public service.”

“They aren’t all Captains, Fellthorn. Some of them are maybe the sort your lot likes to take in and keep warm. Your parishoners, even.”

I shudder. I’m not exactly sure how it all works--the texts are rather squeamish on the details--but a succubus’s methods of feeding definitely belies her sultry demeanor. “Why are you telling me this?”

We’re to the doorway into the Fringe proper, and the beat has a moaning undertone to it that does nothing to ease the feeling between my legs. The darkness parts slightly, and I can see her face, framed by her indigo hair. Her red eyes glow with concern.

“I want to know where I stand, church man. You going to put the word out on me when you hear about someone a little too pure who heads straight from my bechambers to the Crawling Lands?” She spits the word like the meaningless aphorism it is, in her world.

I sigh. “We’d all like to know where we stand, insect girl. Let me make it real simple for you: if I come for you, your secret getting out will be the least of your worries. So keep on doing what you’re doing, and we’ll see how that goes.”

She gives me a long look. Then she smiles, eyes not leaving mine. Her smile widens, spreading across her whole face with a look of delight. She hops back, and grabs the bottom of her skirt with both hands, like for all the world a happy little schoolgirl. She squeals: “I think you liiiiiike me!” She claps her hands together excitedly. “I think you like-like me!”

Dammit, my grin flashes before I can even help myself. I don’t even know what I say, something stupid, and she’s suddenly pressed up against me, lips very close to mine. I’ve lost track of Lonnie; my hands are on her hips as she grinds her pelvis up into my cock. Pleasure shoots through me; I can feel her all the way down to my toes.

Not everyone who beds me regrets it, Fellthorn.” Her voice is low, and her breath smells of cinnamon. I can’t move; no, I won’t move, even though a distant part of my brain is screaming my own bloody murder at me. Her hands around my neck, she arches her back, tilting her head away from me and pressing her breasts into my chest. Her dress is nothing, and I feel her nipples slide across--

With an inhuman hiss, she leaps away from me into a half-crouch. A smell: burnt meat. Her cheeks bulge out with black mandibles that click together in front of her teeth; her red eyes have gone multifaceted, distending her face into something alien. A warmth, on my chest... the symbol of Sayn Ieander around my neck is glowing white-hot! I feel it only faintly, but as she backs farther away, I see how the symbol has burnt itself into her, leaving a charred cogwheel imprinted between her breasts.

We both swear in unison. I shake my head, cursing my stupidity, and snag Lonnie with one hand while keeping an eye on Melina. Sure, succubi don’t tend to go for out-and-out violence... but it looks like that probably hurt.

Instead, she’s laughing. With a ripple, her blackened flesh smooths out and her face returns to its pristine countenance. She doesn’t come any closer, but the teeth she’s showing me are all pretty smiles.

Oh, church man... you’re none of you immune. You’ve just got more attention from the Man downstairs.” She turns and lifts the curtain into the Fringe, dress somehow pulling up of its own volition to show off the tiniest sliver of cheek. The look she gives me is exactly the one she’d have if her face were buried to the hilt between my legs. “Not all of us from the Crawling Lands have the same idea about our duties here on your world. Offer’s still good. Hells, keep your little wheel on if you like. If that’s the worst your God can do, well, maybe you could fill in for my dear, missing Rodrigan, no riding crop necessary. You know where to find me...”

She steps out into the club, and it swallows her whole.

I shake my head, cursing myself again as I pull Lonnie through the curtains after her. That nearly ended up... how? What, exactly, would have happened, had I just let myself go? Lord knows it’s been a while... I took my vows over five years ago. And while celibacy is more a Church thing than a God thing--near as this sinner can tell, anyway--I’ve honored it. What would’ve...?

Lonnie is staring at me, black eyes unreadable. “You’d have escaped us, Fellthorn,” he answers. “She’d have taken you, drawn you up body and spirit inside her to feed her unborn, and you would never get to find out what we’re doing this very moment to your precious little C-urgk!”

My arm is an iron bar across his throat as I slam him up against the black velour wall of the Fringe, and Jorngnir is sword-sized and a hair’s breadth from that black eyeball, unwavering. Several person-shaped holes appear in the air nearby, evacuated by formerly-dancing occupants perhaps off-put by a sword whose surface area is best measured in square feet.

You don’t say her name, filth,” I snarl. “You’re lying. I know better than to trust demons, and I know--”

Whatever it is I know gets lost in another coughing fit. I spit more blood; I’m sure someone here must have a taste for it, if they’re not too picky about eating off of the floor. My vision swims--God, I must’ve made it here on adrenaline; now I just feel empty. I dry heave violently, and waves of pain radiate out from my intestines. Oh, God... this isn’t...

The thing behind Lonnie’s eyes is watching me, impassively; the black eyes stare out unblinking over his still-bloody face.

Sweet Cerupeen! Mother of Mercy, Fellthorn, we’d heard you were here!”

A pair of hands pulls me up, firmly but gently. Another set steadies me from behind. My blurry vision can just barely make out a hirsute man in a bowler hat and black armbands like a bartender would wear, and a severe-looking wisp of a man with an undertaker’s coat and gray skin.

Tanner, Count,” I mumble. “Top of the morning...”

Things get a little confusing. Hands pull me along; I flail. “Don’t forget... prisoner...”. Someone gets too close, and the little gray man known as the Count blurs, and then that someone goes flying through the air over the obsidian bar. Tanner winces as dozens of bottles of expensive whiskies shatter, dumping their much-beloved cargo onto the floor.

Woo. Fumes plus delirium equals... probably not actually an elephant; what the hell was in those--ooh, a pony! I’m carried through throngs of people--well, basically people--who are all swimming through tapioca and pink brandy with skimmer the vorp whipple...


It goes like that. The Fringe is always a psychedelic experience, with its pumping rhythms and ever-swirling light show, but this time it's making a special effort on my behalf. I think I lose consciousness at some point, though not enough to avoid feeling several well-intentioned slaps in the face from the Count. They hurt a lot more than you’d expect from someone so skinny. “Hey now, none of that,” he lisps. “You’re not quite ready for that trip yet, young son.”

The noise fades after a while, and the light changes quality. “Hold his head,” comes a familiar voice. A face wavers in front of my eyes.

Sorry, m’boy,” comes the fatherly murmur. “This is going to hurt like a bastard.”

Something pours down my throat, and the voice is not wrong. It’s exactly like drinking a bolt of lightning. Little explosions of pain blossom in my mouth and down into my belly. An electric surge ricochets around my stomach, and my howl has a reverberation, as if I am screaming with a dozen voices. Something crackling happens inside me; I feel things move around down there, tissues sliding over one another and back together again. I’m just starting to worry about what’s going to happen when this shit makes it all the way through my digestive tract when it fizzles out.

I belch, emitting a tiny crackle and a puff of smoke.

Lord Culnor,” I wheeze. “Please make a note never to save my life again.”

Nonsense, m’boy!” An arm possessed of more meat than the Count has on his entire wiry body wraps around my shoulders and gently lifts me upright. Lord Barrick Culnor squints through his monocular at me, and I see a giant eye blink across its lens, an inch off of his face. “Your father would come back from the dead, murder me, and then rail at me throughout all of Eternity! May our dear Lord spare me such a fate; I listened to enough of the man’s ranting while he was alive.”

He takes a step back, causing Tanner and the Count to scramble hastily out of his way, and casts his eyes respectfully downward. “May God keep his spirit.”

I take a look around, wondering briefly at Culnor's quaint way with words. Probably something he got out of one of these books. We’re in one of the Geinodes Club’s many private libraries, probably one of the dozens owned by Lord Culnor. Books of all manner of dark provenance line six of the walls and lay all across the central table on which I’d been deposited. A map of the world covered with pushpins and colored twine dominates the last wall, its ceremonial position letting me know the direction of True North. The map stretches all the way to the ornately wood-paneled ceiling, a good twenty feet tall, and someone has been scrawling all over it with a wax pencil. The room is well-lit by electric torches and the glow of some infernal engine of Culnor’s in one of the corners. It sparks periodically with an acrid puff of ozone, and I glare at it for a moment, suspecting it to be the origin of whatever hellish potion I just imbibed.

Culnor is looking at me expectantly, and I wave the sign of the star at him, wearily tossing out the more traditional: “May God rest his soul. Wherever it is.”

Now, lad, don’t be that way. The Lord wouldn't let as devoted a follower as Mernick Fellthorn out of His sight for long."

If only to make sure he didn’t get bored and wander off,” I shake my head, sliding down off of the table and onto my feet. My body feels good, solid. Whatever my father’s old adventuring companion gave me, it worked. “He was never one to stick around anywhere for long, much less forever.” I wave at the map. “How many of those trips are his?”

Culnor is frowning at me. A frown from a man that big requires added musculature: his face muscles have sprouted extra muscles just to get them into position. He could tear Bexton back into his constituent body parts without an iota of perspiration. The crags in his brow as I casually dismiss his dead friend would rightfully worry another man, but not me: Culnor has been more of a father to me than my old man ever was.

His eyes don’t even flicker towards the map. “All of them,” he growls. “Your father’s explorations put details on maps like this one that had never existed before.” His look softens. “I’ve been making a study of them, lately.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Revisiting history isn’t like you. What’s torn you away from your workbench? Wife number four giving you heartache?”

Wife number six, boy,” he leers. “The new one’s a mite younger than you, I’ll wager. Blonde thing, amazing curves. Bit of a natter; at least at the Club I can get some peace. Did you know the Librarians were considering admitting women? By God, I’ll have to find the seventh Lady Culnor!” He sighs. “They just don’t last like they used to. Costs me more and more to pay them off, but I’ve got more than I need.”

I frown at him. “And the Church blesses all of this?”

He sighs. “The Church isn’t always what it would have you believe, m’boy. You don’t go in for half its nonsense, I know that, so don’t give an old man grief for his few remaining pleasures. Certainly your High Fathers don’t, when I donate enough coin to their personal coffers.”

I snort. “I’d say something about your heresies if I could do it with a straight face. Not a surprise.” I make the sign of the star again, but a bit more reverently. “May He show us His way, and guide those who are wandering. Speaking of,” I gesture to the many voyages depicted on Culnor’s map, “you were about to tell me a tale about reliving the past?”

He smiles at me, but it lacks the warmth I am used to. “Many tales need telling, m’boy. I believe I’m owed one from you.” He gestures to his attendants. “Tanner, get young Jaspar here freshened up, and find him a hot meal. Count, see to this ‘prisoner’ of his. Unless I miss my guess, our boy here has got quite a story to spin. After that,” he turns his gaze back to me, “we’ll talk about your father. And your future.”

Chapter Four

The cab ride to the Geinodes Club is not my best time ever. There’s no chance in any of the hells that I’d be admitted in through the Solar Entrance, looking as I do, and so I tell the driver to take me to the Lunatic Fringe, and step on it. He obliges, hands fidgeting nervously as if I’d just confirmed his worst fear about his new passenger. There’s a mirror hanging across from where I’m slumped in the back, and I get a chance to take a look at what the cat dragged in.

Hells, Darkleaf was right about one thing: I do look like shit. Naked from the waist up, covered in suspicious-looking filth that’s started to streak off my body from the rain, and sporting a fairly obvious weapon strapped to my now-sleeveless wrist, all I can do is send thanks to God for clouding this guy’s judgment long enough for him to let me in his cab. As he cracks the lightning reins over the elemental engines and motivates the cab to a bone-jolting start across the cobblestones, I grimace and continue my inspection.

All the bad I’m seeing isn’t just because I’m dirty and had a hyper-intelligent calamari rework all my internal plumbing. I’ve been living hard. I’m too skinny--Ieander, when was the last time I actually had a meal made from something resembling food?--and my face is starting to look hollow. The bags underneath my eyes say that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I was a teenager. I’m several months overdue for a haircut. At least it’s all still there, and the same nut-brown it’s always been... frankly, I would have thought I’d have a few grey hairs by now. I mean, I’m almost thirty.

Life’s been crazy, lately. I’d blame the war, but it was crazy before the war, and that’s been on for at least two years now. Asking “what the hell happened?” is a game my brain likes to play just to hurt me, but I haven’t got the energy for it tonight. Still, there was a time, not so long ago, when I was at least an OK-looking guy. I wasn’t having chamber maids calling me “dreamy”, maybe, but looking in the mirror didn’t make me wince.

It’s not the job--or at least, it never used to be. Striking down an avatar of the Crawling Ones, or even a trumped-up drug lord with delusions of adequacy... you feel righteous. Burning the corpses of kids who’d just died in the name of a ridiculous war that we deserve to lose?

Not so much.

Maybe it is the job. Nobody ever said being a justicar of the Divine Will would be easy.

Crazy night!” tries the cabbie. He’s got an accent that I mark as probably River District... he’s one hundred percent Noldonite, that’s for sure.

You have no idea,” I grimace. I’m not really looking to get sucked into a conversation, here... but I probably don’t have any choice, knowing Noldon cabbies, and maybe a little human contact wouldn’t automatically end in tragedy.

Yeah, I saw you, and I said to myself, ‘Self, are you gonna let that poor guy get picked up by the Lightning Rods for a Decency Violation? That’d just be wrong.’ Hard to argue with that kinda logic.” He grins at me. “So here you are.”

I smile back, meaning it. “I appreciate it. A run-in with the coppers is the last thing I want tonight, I promise you.”

You get caught in one of them fires, burning ship and whatsit?” he asks, falling into cadence. It doesn’t matter what I say; he’ll just riff off of it and keep me talking for the ten or so minutes it’ll take to get us to the Fringe.

Nah,” I say, forcing myself to look at least a little bit relaxed, “I caused them.”

Oh, really?” he says. “I had an uncle, liked to start fires. Real quiet guy, but man, you just never know, eh?”

You sure don’t.”

You ever heard of a place called the Mitterheim Academy for Studious Youth?” he continues, not missing a beat.

Mitter--are you telling me your uncle was Crazy Rastick?” This does perk me up. “The Alchemicals lector who burned the place to a matchstick?”

Yeah, totally--though we don’t call him that in the family! How’d you know Len?” In his mirror, the cabbie gives me another cautious look. Friends of Crazy Rastick probably weren’t the kind of people you’d wish were in the back of your cab.

Scholarship boy. Class of ‘twenty-six,” I grin, and watch the tension ebb out of his shoulders. “That was my third year.” I laugh. “I was in Thaumaturgical Engineering, and I’d just managed to get the sprocket off of the hex wheel I’d been taking apart.”

Ooh,” he winces. “Bad timing.”

Bad timing, nothing! I looked up for half a second and my not-so-stiff-upper-lip-after-all lab partner dropped the containment chant. That bastard wheel went caroming straight out of the classroom and down the hall! Last I could tell, it was headed towards the Parazoology Lab.”

He’s nodding his head, slowly but picking up steam. “The coppers said that a bunch of salamanders got loose, but they didn’t know how. Probably coulda contained the mess, except there were a bunch of lizards running around breathing fire all over.” It’s his turn to laugh. “Maybe they shoulda locked you up, and not my Uncle Len!”

He did start it,” I point out. “It was that crazy laugh of his as he went running down the hallway that distracted me in the first place.”

Eh, I never liked Len that much, anyways. He always thought he was just a little too clever.” He stops himself just a second too late. “Er, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”

I snort, and wave him off. “Look at me; how do you think my fancy education wound up for me? Half-naked in the back of a cab, covered in squid guts, hoping like hell a crazy old bastard who hung out with my dad will stitch up my innards because I’m too full of myself to go asking for--ah, never mind; it didn’t work out is all I’m saying.”

I clam up for a minute, fuming at myself and gritting my teeth as something clenches again inside me. Bizarrely, he doesn’t fill the silence, and I stare out the window into the rain.

The sky is pelting to match my mood, and my breath fogs the pane. I see the halo of gaslights as we pull under them; they cast a green aspect over everything as the thaumiol combusts. More traditional, reddish fires flicker in the distance, and my mouth turns down at the evidence of my handiwork.

Not my handiwork, the logical part of my brain interjects. Someone else rigged those charges. Whoever filled those soldiers full of bug figured he’d spread them as widely as possible.

You were there, the rest of me responds, filled with gloomy certitude. You missed something. You could have stopped it. There was a time when you would have stopped it.

I wipe the fog off the window and let my brain duel with itself, taking as much of me out for a scenic drive through the middle-city of Noldon as I can manage. In the green glow of the gaslights, streets that by day would be lined by severe black awnings over arches of grey stone take on a pallor of malice. Shadows bend at weird angles, the result of too much magic being burned up in a small space. You get used to it, mostly, but nights like tonight, it’ll send a shiver right down your spine to see one of them lengthen for no reason, and twist at you like it’s hungry.

The hum of the two elemental engines deepens as the driver navigates us carefully down the winding Cafdan’s Way toward the edge of Industry. The Way hisses snakelike down the Damsels’ Drop, a charmingly-named monster of a hill that used to be the trendy place for unmarried lasses of the ripe old age of twenty to toss themselves down to their destinies. There was some idiot story about one such old maid who found her charming prince when she slipped and fell down it; nobody remembers that she died just after they kissed, presumably from her head being screwed on backwards thanks to her trip. Times may have changed, but stories are sticky. These days, the bodies that you’ll find at the bottom of the Drop will be no less broken, but that’s what you get when you screw around with the Captains of Industry.

The long, cylindrical engines at the front of the cab that took over for horses at some point in my great-grandfather’s day thrum even lower, and the air elemental bound to the cab’s base fidgets restlessly, jolting me a bit. Even though nobody’s had to actually ride over rough cobblestones on wheels since I-don’t-know-when, every now and then the elementals get a little testy and like to inform you just how much they love being forced to stare at their stony opposites all day and all night. I tap the cabbie’s window in irritation; just because we’re almost there is no reason to relax on the elemental’s thaumiol feed and leave me jangling.

Violently, his face mashes into the thick glass plate that separates us, pounded in by an invisible hammer. His eyes are pitch black, no whites at all, and he moans deep. His hands flop up to the window and claw at the glass, like he’s trying to dig through it at me.

Fell-thorn...” he intones, “we see you...”

My skin crawls, trying to get away from the possessed driver as best it can. “God damn you,” I cry out. “Leave him alone!”

In response, he smashes his face into the glass pane, and then again. Blood gushing over his lips, he groans, “We see you!”

Something jerks. We’re on a hill that’s nothing but curves all the way down, and nobody’s driving.

“Hoi!” comes the call from ahead of us. “Fat Lonnie! I hear you ain’t paid your dues recently, and you want to be coming down to Industry?” I can hear the incredulous voice shaking its head. “Best be slowing up a bit so we can chat proper, yeah?”

The Captains. When we don’t stop, this cab is going to get riddled with gunshot.

Fat Lonnie” is busy braining himself on the thick glass that separates us, oblivious to the commands of the thugs ahead. The window is smeared with blood: I can’t see how many of them there are. I feel Jorngnir vibrating in its arm-sheath, ready to taste flesh again tonight. I start to move my arm in response, ready to drop the blade into my palm, but by Ieander, I’m tired. Hasn’t there been enough blood spilled tonight? Haven’t I been party to enough death?

My knife catches him in the soft spot just under his chin...

“... we see youuu...” Blood-flecked teeth show in a rictus smile. “... and we see her...”

My lips curl back as I alternately blanch, and then rage. “You motherfuckers. I will kill you.” I shift, preparing myself; Jorngnir flashes, and the glass pane separating us shatters. Fat Lonnie surges through it... right into my waiting headlock.

“... but I’m not killing him,” I finish.

The possessed cabbie squirms in my grip, but I’m in the zone now; I’m switched on. Pain fades away. Jorngnir guides itself under my hand, maneuvering itself easily through the tight space with a mind of its own, and I smash out the back window of the cab with another effortless swipe of the ancient blade. I drag Lonnie through it as I hear cries ahead to slow down, and then another:

Hey, what the--?”

Lonnie is laughing now, bubbling deep in his throat, but he isn’t fighting me. Not sure if that’s a good or bad sign. He just laughs.

The crack of gun blasts tearing into the cab splits the night, and I throw myself down on top of him. The cab is still jerking forward, but the Captains have flanked it, still firing--but one has definitely spotted the two of us, and is waving at his buddies, bringing his own gun to bear. There’s no cover anywhere in sight, just a steep embankment on one side, and a steep drop on the other.

But there is a pissed-off air elemental sitting underneath that cab, and I’d cut the thaumiol line powering its containment circle as we were making our exit.

There’s a sound like a thunderclap as the elemental blasts out of its bindings underneath the cab. A compression wave hits us and we go skidding across the cobbles; I’ve got Lonnie’s ears covered and I’m howling, praying my own eardrums don’t burst. Wind whips around us furiously; all I hear is a high-pitched whine in my ears from the blast. I roll to one side, just in time to watch the cab come smashing back to the road from a height of at least thirty feet. Its splinters are caught by the cyclone of the elemental’s form, slicing through the air like daggers. The elemental engines, freed from the cab, take off like cannon-shot: one slams itself into the bluff in a blinding flash of electrical discharge; the other spirals dizzily off into the air, until I lose track of it somewhere over the river.

Only two of the Captains are in sight, thrown a dozen feet away from where they stood. Neither is moving. The other two are probably on their way to the bottom of the Drop right now. The elemental, though...

The funnel drifts to and fro, flinging more debris every which way. I work my way to my feet, putting myself between it and Lonnie. Jorngnir is in my hand, fully extended to halberd-size; I don’t know when that happened, but it feels good. I feel the thing’s eyeless gaze turn to me.

You’re pissed, and I get that,” I shout through the gale, “but you’re free. I got you there, and this man’s with me. Bugger off, and you can stay that way. Stick around, or make one move towards us, and we’ll both find out how well I remember Basic Elemental Binding.”

It wavers. It’s a moderate-sized elemental, and on my best day, maybe. Right now, it would be all I could do to escape it with my life, and no way am I getting Lonnie out of here too. Still, it’s hesitating...

I dredge my memories, and start the words to a basic binding chant.

There’s another howl, and pieces of cab come flying at me. I hit the deck as Jorngnir deflects the first of them. A few splinters pepper me, but the elemental isn’t pressing the attack; they sting, but nothing more. When I roll to my feet, polearm braced in front of me, the funnel cloud is gone, and the only sound is the ringing in my ears.

I look to the two remaining Captains. The gang members are stirring now, but won’t be going far anytime soon. I take a half-step towards them to end them with steel before they can recover, but stop.

No. This isn’t divine justice. This isn’t the war front. They’re gang toughs; leave them for the coppers.

Jorngnir doesn’t like it, but I grit my teeth, and thumb the control to shrink it down to dagger-size. Its form wavers, hesitating for a moment--its ancient magics want blood, and resist Corwinne’s gadgetry--but after a moment, the Butcher’s Blade complies.

Good. God knows, I don’t need another fight tonight.

A sound behind me; I spin around. Lonnie is at the edge of the road, his too-black eyes staring at me. “Trying to save him?” asks the thing behind those eyes.

Then it throws him off of the Drop.

My legs are moving before his question even hangs in the air. As I fling myself into empty space, I can hear Corwinne’s voice lilt through my mind: “We’ve talked about this...”