Arcanum – Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 20-2

Mr. Bates’ eyes widened.

“They needed any excuse,” I said. “If you had not done a thing, they’d have contrived some other excuse.”

Mr. Bates sagged in his chair like a marionette whose strings had been sliced in a single sweep of a surgeons knife. His eyes closed and he placed his palms over his face. “A lifetime of guilt…” he whispered. “And I was not to blame!” He lowered his hands and I saw tears of relief, shining in his eyes. I found myself growing somewhat irate. Oh yes, the guilt over a clan of dwarves could reduce this proud man to tears, but what of the guilt for every green skinned laborer in his factory who had to beg or steal to survive with their arm ripped off or their leg mangled by some frightful machinery? I was about to give him a piece of my mind when he stood, his knees popping and groaning.

“Dr. Cog,” he said, seriously. “I owe you more than I could possibly say. Name anything – a mansion, my entire fortune, I will give it and give it gladly.”

I realized now, that I was standing at a crossroads…I rubbed at my chin, then smiled. “Have you been keeping up with the news of Daniel Thews?” I asked.

“Oh, that fellow?” Mr. Bates’ face grew twisted as his voice lost all of its good cheer. “Yes. His chicanery in court has led to the most calamitous thing to befall industry in this city since the halfling strike of 1840: A union! A union for half-orcs and even full blooded orcs, though they claim that they don’t allow them in. Why, I was talking to Mr-“

“I want you to finance Mr. Thews election campaign,” I said. “I heard one of the newsies announcing it – he’s running for a seat in Parliament? I want him to have a broadsheet in every tavern and shills on every street corner talking him up to be the next, best thing in the whole bloody world.”

Mr. Bates looked as if he had bitten down on an apple – and came away seeing half of a worm.

I was whistling all the way to the Hall of Records. Striding down the stairs and into the musty basement level, I found myself facing the same mousy haired, narrow faced girl who had served the desk the last time I had been here. Seeing me, the woman brightened immediately. “Dr. Cog!” she exclaimed. “It is so good to see you here. Did you ever find that book you were looking for? The…Horror of T’Sen Ang or something?”

“Horror Among the Dark Elves,” I said. “And yes, actually.”

“Was it everything you hoped for?” she asked, her voice chipper – unaware of the blood, the danger, the darkness that had surrounded that damn tome for more than a hundred years. Unaware of the dark city of T’Sen Ang, of the vile elves who had made it their home. Unaware of the dark, laughing eyes of M’in Gorand and her genocidal aims for all the races of Tarant who were unwilling to bend their knee to the elves.

“It was a page turner,” I said. “Question: How long has the Tarantian been printing stories from Caladon? When I was last in the city, they had an office there.”

“Let me check,” she said, bustling towards some of the large cabinets that held all the collected newspapers for the past eighty years. As she rummaged around, she called to me: “Might I ask what it is you are looking for? I may find it right here.”

“I’m looking for any papers or obituaries on Laurence Brummond – he died in Caladon. Or at the very least was buried there,” I said. Laurence Brummond and his mysterious wife had been the center of Virginia’s distraction. Laurence had been survived by a sister, Beatrice. I believed that The wife was Virginia – but what it was that could have led to her husband’s death and her joining the Panarii church? I needed to know. Not merely because I needed to find her, but also because I wished to understand what had led her to fleeing to Caladon without me.

What was it that had so shamed her?

“If it helps,” I added. “It should be within the year 1884, only two years before.”

“Oh, here is something…” The woman said, clicking her tongue. She lifted the newspaper from its rack and walked over, laying the carefully folded newspaper down. Unlike the old paper that had reported on the death of Dr. Renfield Terwilliger, this paper looked freshly printed. It was only from one year before, after all. I unfolded the paper and began to read – my brow furrowing in puzzlement.

CALADONIAN COUPLE BRUTALLY MURDERED!

“Upstanding citizen” survived by sister

Local gentleman Lawrence Brummund and his wife, Gretta Brummund, were found dead in their apartment last evening, the victim of a brutal beating by one or more assailants. Currently, the police have no suspects in the case.

“It’s downright puzzling,” said Detective William Prescott. “Nothing outside of the apartment was stolen and there was plenty to steal. From what we have pieced together, Mr. Burmmund was a very upstanding citizen, from a well-respected family here in Caladon. Somebody took a dislike to him, and we aim to find out who and why!”

Police are investigating various rumors that the murderer is in some way connected to the Caladon Crime Ring, purportedly headquarters in the Sobbing Onion Tavern, but no substantial evidence has been found.

Mr. Brummound is survived only by his sister, Beatrice, who the police are still trying to contact. “We’re hoping she might know something about the whole affair. We’ve had some trouble finding her.”

“What the…” I whispered. The picture that the papers had run of Mr. Burmmound and his wife showed a face that I could nearly recognize as Virginia’s – round cheeked, brown of hair, though with a more chipper, cheerful attitude. His wife, though, was a blond haired beauty, not anything akin to Virginia. I rubbed my chin, slowly. The…

The only thing that made sense was that…

Virginia wasn’t named Virginia. Her true name…was Beatrice. Beatrice Brummund, the sister of Laurence Brummound. With both slain? But the headstone had said that his wife had been his survivor? Had this paper been mistaken, or had the headstone been carved improperly.

“Are there any newspapers that mention a Beatrice Brummond? Any birth records? Anything?” I asked.

“It will take some time to search, sir,” the mousy woman said.

I chewed my lip. “I don’t have the time, I’m sorry.” I shook my head. The only thing I could have found was confirmation that Virginia was, in fact, Beatrice. But it was growing clear to me that she had to be. And if she was Beatrice, and Laurence had been murdered by some gangsters in Caladon…then…

“She’s going to the Sobbing Onion,” I murmured under my breath as the mousy woman returned to the desk. She beamed at me, as cheerful as a squirrel with an entire boat full of acorns.

“Is there anything else you need, Dr. Cog?”

“No,” I said, nodding to her. “My thanks, but I have a boat to catch.”

***

The trip down the Hadrian river, through the pass of Catan and to Caladon had, by now, become one that I was quite familiar with. Despite the fact that we were taking a new boat, I actually met some travelers that we had seen on the other ships that we had sailed upon to reach the southern city – but I was not in the mood for any conversations. I was thinking isntead of the destination, even as my companions met and mingled on the deck. Well. Those that were willing to. ‘Magnus’, as ever, was confined to quarters or to her false beard, a result that left her cross either way, and few other than the sailors were interested in speaking with Sally.

Raven, though, delighted in the ship, the sailing, and the vast complexity of the rigging. Elves, it seemed, did not sail often. Those that needed to travel the seas relied instead upon their own magicks or on smaller ships that could be easily handled by a single skilled sailor. Seeing an entire crew rush about on the rigging, furling and unfurling the sails to the commands of the captain and officers, was an endless delight for her, and she took detailed notes with every rushing passage.

I wished I could share her delight – but instead, I spent my time cleaning my gun and working on a new design. If we were going into the Sobbing Onion – which, from what I could tell by speaking to other passengers who had visited Caladon before, was a seedy dive in the poor part of town – I would be fighting in close quarters. And so, I had begun to experiment with some magnesium and flash powder and other caustic chemicals. Rather dangerous, considering the wooden area that we were confined in…but necessary. Besides, I took all the precautions required. And the end product seemed quite promising: A brace of grenades that, when thrown, would blind and stagger all who were not protected.

Finally, though, the ten day voyage came to an end and we once more stepped off the gangplank into the beautiful city of Caladon. I could no more enjoy the view than I could have enjoyed Raven’s bed – I simply looked about myself with a grim frown as my companions emerged from the ship behind me.

“So, this is Caladon,” Raven said, quietly.

“Not near as impressive as Tarant, eh?” Gillian asked our elf.

Raven shrugged. “It does smell better,” she said, seemingly unaware of the ire that this awakened in our patriotic half-orc.

“Dr. Cog! Dr. Cog!”

A voice drew my eye and my brow furrowed as I saw the trademarked straw cap and tweed jacket of one of the Tarantian’s newsmen. The man looked like the same fellow who had tried to interview Virginia during our teleportation out of Caladon two months before – and he seemed to be entirely unsurprised at our being there. Before I could hold up a hand to stop him, he reached me, his hand already working to scribble out shorthand as he fired off a barrage of questions at me: “I have questions about your magickal spell cast earlier this year – is it true that you seek to fuse magick and technology?”

“No, I-” I started.

“Have you had anything to do with the gang killings that have rocked this city’s criminal underworld in the past month?” he asked. “Six dead, all of sword and magick – do you have anything to do with this?”

A chill smote me. “No, I wasn’t in Caladon, I-“

“Chief Inspector Henderson has gone on record as saying that while they are seeking out the perpetrator of these killings, but he has also said ‘off the record, bully for them!'” The newsman scribbled more. “What do you have to say about that, Dr. Cog?”

“No comment,” I said, then shoved him away from me and started forward. I fear I misjudged my strength in my momentary flare of ire and set the newsman over the edge of the pier and into the briny, mire filled water of the Caladonian harbor. He splashed about, gasping and bubbling, while I walked swiftly away. As I strode off the pier, my companions flanked me, Raven chuckling softly. I had asked the passengers who remembered the name of the Sobbing Onion for directions – and fortunately, Caladon was a delightfully modern city. Unfortunately, that modernization – including even, gridded streets – didn’t reach into the poorer docks district. We walked until evening began to fall, my companions and I asking for directions and finding ourselves given nothing but the cold shoulder. It seemed that no one wanted to direct anyone to the Sobbing Onion – possibly for nefarious reasons.

The establishment, once we came to it, lived up to the reputation it had already begun to acquire. It was a single story place, with flat rooftop with thick gutters built around every edge of the roof, bulging with collected muck and mire. Brackish water continued to drain from one of the corriguated pipes that ran along the left corner of the building, while the front door looked narrow and cheap. Two men with an ill look to them leaned against the door – one was at least trying to make a pretense at keeping their eyes open. The other was more focused on his dice, which he rolled in a cheap, tin plated cup. They both looked at us as I walked through the front door without slowing or stopping.

The interior of the Sobbing Onion looked as run down as the exterior. There was a cheap bar that wrapped around the back edge, manned by a man who had the face of a basset hound – droopy jowls, low hanging ears, all accentuated by a long, thick, white mustache that looked quite out of date when compared to my own finely spiked facial hair. Four other men sat at a faro table, where the game paused in mid stride. The Morbihan had never taken to faro – too easy to cheat, too simple – but these four were clearly deep into the game, with heaping huge piles of silver and copper on the table’s representations of cards. The dealer had his hand on the box that would spit out the cards, clearly ready to depress the button that would reveal who had lost and who would win this round, frozen as he looked right at me. Three other men lounged at a table, drinking sullenly. They glared at me as well.

There were six humans here (counting the bartender), two dwarves, a halfling. Not a single half-orc.

I walked to the bartender, then smirked at him. “Your best swill, sir,” I said.

The bartender silently pulled down a label free bottle and poured a shot into a dirty glass. As he walked, I saw something that made me freeze in place. There were cheap pictures placed upon the bar, taken and left there, with signatures and epitaphs upon them. It seemed that this bar liked to keep a tally of people. But the one that drew my eye was a grainy image that showed Virginia…but not Virginia at all. This was her before she had become more fully fleshed – younger, with sunken cheeks. But it was not the narrowness of her, nor the clothing – she was dressed in a leather corset and boots and gloves and looked for all the world like something between a pirate and a highwayman. Virginia could have worn that, if she had wished to.

No.

The difference was in the eyes.

The eyes that stared out of me from the years old daguerreotype were the pitiless eyes of a snake. This…woman would have easily slit my throat and taken my coinpurse without a second thought. Beneath the woman, written in a sprawling handwriting so bad it took me three tries to read it, was a single epitaph: BeeBee and her mates.

“Beatrice Brummund,” I whispered.

The bartender grunted. I looked at him and saw he was holding the filled shotglass. I schooled my features as he slid it to me. I casually knocked back the drink, then turned to face the silent crowd looking at me.

“So,” I said, casually. “I’ve heard you have been facing a certain bit of trouble from a local vigilante. A sword in the dark. A bit of magick here and there.” I looked slowly around – seeing a few jaws tightening.

“Who’s asking?” One of the men at the faro table asked.

I walked forward, slowly twisting the glass between my fingers. I don’t believe I had ever felt quite so on a knife’s edge as I did at this moment. I smiled at the ruffian. A cold, quiet smile. “A concerned citizen,” I said. “Do any of you happen to know where this…masked avenger might be?”

The man spat. “The bitch? Who the fuck cares?” He sneered at me. “All I know is I ever get my hands on her, I get the first round and the last when I slit her fuckin’ throat.” He thrust his hips twice, to make it even clearer what he was suggesting.

I nodded, then looked down at the glass. If I played along, as if I were some bounty hunter called in by their criminal overlords, then I surely could get more information as to where Virginia was. All I needed to do was smile, and play down to my role as a half-orc. A half-orc was always ready and randy for some rapine, was he not?

“This cup does need a bit of washing, doesn’t it,” I murmured. I grabbed the man by the thick mop of blond hair that he had been born with and smashed the glass into his face. He shrieked, clutching at his face as blood oozed between his fingertips. As he staggered, the two men on the far side of the faro table sprang up, reaching for their weapons. I snapped out my accelerator pistol and shot one in the head, diving as I did so towards one of the tables. The man I had shot in the head collapsed and his fellow began to fan the revolver. Glasses exploded, beer bottles shattered, and the bartender ducked low.

Sally immediately got into the swing of things by grabbing a chair from the ground and belting one of the front door guards in the chest. He flipped nearly end on end, tripping over his comrade who was following in after him. His comrade fell and fired at the same time, almost shooting Gillian in the thigh, save that Raven dragged the green skinned woman back and behind a table herself. I popped my head up from the table I had ducked behind and flipped over. The four men at the faro table were down to two – the dealer and the fellow I hadn’t shot. The man with the glass in his eyes was clutching at his face, screaming in short, sharp bursts. The bartender was hiding, and the three men at the table had thrown their table over – though one, I saw, was darting towards a back room. I fired at him, but the bullet struck the wall and shattered it open as if a cannonball had smote it.

The man who had tripped near the front door scrambled to his feet, only to find Sally punching at his head. He ducked low, dropping his pistol. I aimed across the way at the two men behind the faro table and fired – my bullet striking the faro box itself. Cards exploded into the air, swirling and dancing in the tavern.

The bartender stood. To my shock, he held what appeared to be some kind of miniaturized mechanize gun! My eyes widened and I tried to take in the mechanical detail before he swung it about and started to lay down fire upon me at a horrible rate. The bullets, fortunately, were small and could not penetrate the thick table. I crouched low, amazed at the sheer terror that could grip a person as what felt like two whole regiments of riflemen were firing at once. The miniaturized mechanized gun – the MMG? – created the most hideous racket as well, a chatta chatta chatta noise.

Raven sprang to her feet – and in her hands, she held a bow.

The bartender, casually, swung the MMG around and Raven darted back down. I scrambled out of my cover – seeing the two faro players were scampering to the left, to try and find a new place by which I could hide, keeping myself low. Fortunately, at that moment, the bartender was still blowing new holes into the table that Raven and Gillian hid behind. I saw one of the legs of the faro men and I fired. The bullet blew his knee in half and severed the leg entire. The man sprawled on the ground, not even making a noise – too shocked as he gaped at the blood pumping from his stump.

His friend screamed: “Green skinned bastard!” and began to fan his revolver, forcing me to duck up next to another table, which I shouldered over. The bartender paused in his shooting, ducking below the counter. I heard the rasp, rattle and clack of machinery. Surely, he was refilling his infernal device with more ammunition. The men who had been at the drinking table redoubled their fire, forcing Sally, Maggie, Gillian and Raven to remain low on the ground.

Enough of this.

I reached into my jacket vest and tugged out one of my grenades. I pulled the pin with one of my teeth and heard the faint hiss of chemicals mixing.

The bartender stood.

The grenade landed right before him and he had but a moment to gasp as I covered my eyes with my hands and ducked low.

A wall of sound and a fierce, hot wave of pure white light hammered into me – and even with my eyes closed, my body ducked behind a table, and the grenade a good distance away, I felt as if I had been nearly stunned myself!

In the afterglow, Raven stood and fired a single arrow. It sturck the staggering bartender in the eye with a sound not unlike a meat slab being flung against a brick wall. The bartender jerked to the left with the impact, his finger convulsively triggering his MMG. The bullets drew a line along the ground and transfixed the remaining faro man. He staggered as blood bloomed across his legs and belly. He and the bartender hit the ground at the same time as Maggie springing to her feet and hurling the Harrower at the men who had been attempting to keep them suppressed.

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