This short story was commissioned by Ironrise Games – a game company formed by three awesome local dudes here in Chicago: Chris, Danny, and Ed. They are building an amazing steampunk game that is going to be a ton of fun to play – and they invited me to play in the sandbox a bit as a way to continue building up the world of Ironrise.
Branches scraped at Duncan like claws as he pushed his way through the wiry trees. The lantern at his belt was barely helpful against the impossible darkness of the woods outside of Nightfall, but he felt better having it on him all the same. Not even careful adjustments to his night-vision goggles made the situation much better.
The sooner I get this over with, he thought, ducking around a low branch, the better.
Nightfall gave him the absolute creeps. It was well known that Nightfall got its name from the eerie darkness that lingered in the air above and within the city, a darkness that seeps into every nook and cranny, every building, every street. Even the people of Nightfall were soured and weighed down by the inky blackness, and it showed in the sleepless, weary lines of their faces. The city itself was tolerable thanks to a significant amount of both electric lighting and gas lamps, but the forest and untamed land surrounding the town was black and murky.
Duncan didn’t plan to stay long. His goal was to uncover the next move of the notorious Arcomancer – known to frequent this area outside of Nightfall – and find a way to recover the ancient text known as the Book of Ghosts. Legends told of the Book containing the secret histories of the ancient machine gods and their empire. Within the Book there was said to be the key to resurrecting these forces of great evil, waiting for thousands of years under the surface of the earth to be unleashed once more.
If I can get a glimpse of what she’s up to, it could lead me right to the Book. I may stand a chance of getting to it before anyone else can use it.
A brilliant, greenish light snapped and sizzled to life in the darkness ahead of him. Duncan felt a thrill of triumphant recognition and he veered toward the green light, his pace increasing. He turned a small knob on the side of his lantern, lowering the glow almost to nothing, a dull amber pinprick inside the glass. Without the element of surprise his whole mission would fail.
Moving as quietly as possible among the dry trees and underbrush, Duncan found that the light was coming from within a ring of large stones. He paused near one of them, listening. His hand went to the hefty pistol he wore, freeing it from the leg holster in case he should need it. Heart pounding, Duncan peered around the side of the rock.
The Arcomancer pushed a stake of iron into the ground at the center of the ring of stones, and the ball at the top of the stake illuminated from within with a yellowish light. She moved with slow, steady purpose, placing more stakes into the ground in what must have been a specific formation, all the while muttering to herself in rhythmic meter. Snapping, shifting tongues of green electricity shot upwards from her right hand, which was encased in an elegant but terrifying glove-like device. Duncan recognized that glove and the fitful green lightning even before he confirmed the woman’s face or voice.
Selena Cross was as cold and craven as the dark shadows that pressed in on Duncan from all sides. She was cruel, calculating, and an utter villain. Her nefarious plots had upset the plans of Duncan and his crew many times in the past. Duncan hated the Arcomancer, and he wasn’t alone in that respect.
Selena finished placing the lantern stakes, and Duncan saw them pulse in time to her soft chanting. She turned in the circle of stones, her movements as one preparing for a graceful dance. Her back was now to Duncan, and she knelt down between lantern stakes to brush aside leaves and dirt with her free hand.
There’s nobody with her, he realized suddenly, I could take her down right now if I wanted to. Duncan squeezed the grip of his pistol. He watched her, heart pounding at the perfect opportunity, but then his gut clenched. He could not bring himself to even take aim. Something about it didn’t sit right with him.
The green lightning dancing in Selena’s gloved hand shuddered and flared brighter, taller as she began to rotate her palm downwards. She chanted louder, strange syllables in language that Duncan did not know, while aiming the arc energy at one particular spot on the ground. When the arc energy from the glove made contact it jolted, shoving her upwards and off the ground for a second before she could adjust the proper dial. With a delighted laugh, Selena dropped down onto her feet, braced against the force of the lightning as she fed it into the earth.
What the hell…? Duncan squinted inside his dark goggles.
Selena used her free hand to turn small knobs and flip switches on the casing of the glove device. Duncan watched as the brilliant green lightning shifted, changing shape patterns, intensity, hue, and strength as it fed into the ground in a steady, jagged stream.
Duncan’s eyes widened. She’d used that glove in combat before but never had he seen her do anything like this. Arc energy was known to be dangerous and unpredictable. Selena’s glove somehow made it bend to her whims, but this looked incredibly risky. And why feed that energy into the ground like that? Who knew what kind of disastrous result that might have?
He could stop her. Duncan again felt the urge to take the clear shot with his pistol. The Arcomancer was unaccompanied and unaware of his presence – nothing to stop him from taking her out. He squeezed the grip of the pistol, taking aim at the back of Selena’s head. It would be easy. A clean shot – no fuss. Duncan eased pressure onto the trigger, then again his gut clenched and he released his grip.
Damn it all! I can’t do it. He holstered the gun again, putting the idea out of mind. I can’t, and I won’t. Not in cold blood.
The arc energy spat and stammered, shoving Selena back about a foot. Her boots slid on the leaves as she struggled against the force of the glove’s power.
“Ooh!” she gasped, “Feisty, aren’t you?” Selena chuckled. She pushed back against the energy like a wrangler with a wild animal, her free hand still fiddling with the dials. The green lightning began to refocus, its shape narrowing into a single beam as Duncan watched.
It’s almost like she’s picking a lock, Duncan thought, narrowing his eyes.
The lantern stakes flickered, the yellow light dancing with the green glow in the darkness, and Duncan felt the earth began to shudder beneath his feet.
What the hell kinda ritual is this anyway?
Something must have clicked in the unseen lock Selena was picking. She gave a little crow of triumph and settled into a more comfortable stance, feeding the arc energy down into the earth below her. It was a few moments more before Duncan noticed the movement in the dirt and leaves on the ground several feet away from Selena. He squinted, focusing the lenses on that movement near the ground.
The earth was moving, dirt crumbling and parting. Something emerged, and reached up through the soil to the surface, and Duncan’s breath caught in his throat.
A weathered, dingy metal hand appeared.
All over the clearing, more hands began to dig upwards out of the soil, clawing at the earth. Duncan watched in horror as the ground erupted all around Selena, lit by the eerie green glow of the arc energy she fed into the ground.
Duncan watched in horror as the first of the creatures pulled itself out of the ground, awkward and slow. Its body – once a smooth, dark silver metal – was now worn and eroded from having been buried underground. There were traces of rust on its outer shell. It stood upright like a man, Duncan shuddered as he saw its blank face – it was nothing but pure, cold machine. The design of its casings reminded Duncan of the clothing a priest or a monk might wear, but there was nothing comforting or holy about these things that were scrambling slowly to their feet on the surface. Its empty eyes gleamed with the green glow of Selena’s arc energy, and it turned its tilted head toward the Arcomancer.
But these aren’t gods, Duncan realized. They’re soldiers. The metal forms unfolded themselves, creaking and clanking, angling their blank heads towards Selena, their empty eyes pulsing with the green glow of light. Duncan cursed silently. I should have taken the damn shot while I could.
He needed to get out. What had he been thinking? For him to be here spying on the Arcomancer with no backup? He adjusted the setting on his lenses with a small button on the side, then turned to make a break for it into the woods back the way he’d come.
One of the revived machines had appeared behind him. He hadn’t even heard the damn thing sneak up on him. It lunged even as he gasped and dodged, its hands reaching for him with splayed fingers.
Duncan ducked right as the thing swiped at him, and its dagger-like fingertips grazed the rock where Duncan’s head had been. Sparks flew from stone as Duncan staggered away, but the thing came after him, swiping again. He tumbled backwards, rolling into the clearing through two of the boulders, and almost losing his footing over a one-armed machine struggling to clear the surface.
Duncan’s pistol was cocked and in his hand before he even realized he’d drawn it. Selena turned, hearing the noise, and their eyes locked.
Duncan fired, the heavy clockwork pistol’s first bullet soaring true. Gasping, Selena snapped up her gloved hand, the arc energy flaring to deflect the shot. Duncan charged towards her, firing again and again.
Five… four… three…
Each shot he fired brought him closer to her as he ran. Selena was startled and off-balance, but managed to deflect the bullets with the glove. With one shot left, he hesitated a half second, still running. Selena seized the chance, sending a blast of arc energy at him from the glove. Duncan ducked, the electric heat soaring past him. He leveled the gun again for the final shot. He was nearly right on top of her, closing the gap fast. He saw the fear and rage in her eyes, the green glow illuminating her snarling expression. He squeezed the trigger even as she raised the glove again.
One of the machines slammed into his shoulder, tackling him with the force of a runaway train car. Duncan went down, hitting the ground and sliding several yards away under the weight of the twisted, tarnished mechanical man. His pistol disappeared into the darkness, the shot fired and wasted.
Duncan gasped and coughed, the wind completely knocked out of him. There was a burning in his lungs and his ears rang; he knew right away there were ribs cracked if not broken. Selena gave a sharp gesture with her arc glove, and the machine got to its feet again, obediently stepping back from Duncan. His head spun from the impact, and blood ran into his eye from where he’d hit his head.
The Arcomancer towered over him with the glove glowing and primed. The arc energy cast menacing shadows across her face, even as she smiled down at him.
“My, my,” she mused. “Duncan Hendricks, as I live and breathe. How nice of you to join my little party.”
“Selena Cross,” Duncan wheezed, wincing at the pain in his sides and chest. “Is that you? I wouldn’t have dropped by unannounced if I’d realized this was your shindig.” Selena scowled at the sarcasm.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t. Come now, Captain. Let’s dispense with the niceties, hm?”
She glanced at the nearest machine, and gestured at Duncan with the glove. The machine who had plowed him down now stooped and hefted Duncan to his feet. Strong metal fingers dug into his arms, squeezing him as they lifted, and did not release once he was standing. Selena moved forward, the confident roll of her hips warning Duncan that she felt she’d won. She snatched the dark goggles from his head, and Duncan couldn’t help but suck in air. The sudden visual realization of how dark outer Nightfall was hit him and unwelcome panic slithered into his gut.
“There,” Selena crooned, “now we can see eye to eye.” She tossed the goggles aside.
My inventory’s shrinking, Duncan thought grimly.
“Out with it, Captain. What were you doing spying on me?”
“Spying?” Duncan scoffed. “I was out for a walk.”
Selena tipped her head to one side, and the machine squeezed him harder. Duncan groaned, feeling his bones creak under the pressure of the machine’s grasp.
“Of course you were.” She smirked. “Were you curious, Captain? Are you a seeker of the truth?”
“Sure, who isn’t?” Duncan gritted his teeth. Some of the machines were shuffling closer, surrounding them like docile, curious animals. As they drew nearer, Duncan caught a glimpse of the markings on their metal bodies – strange symbols and foreign writing he couldn’t quite make out.
“Somehow I am skeptical that you came to witness my illuminating communion with the long dead,” Selena mused, rolling the much tamer green lightning between her gloved fingers. “Somehow I doubt your interest my ability to control the arcane and ancient mysteries of the world.”
“Somehow,” Duncan replied, “I doubt your interest in shutting the hell up.”
Selena raised her eyebrows. “Such language! On such an historic occasion, Captain!” she scolded him.
“Historic? This looks like an average freak show to me.” Duncan looked around, his mind racing. There was no sign of his goggles or the pistol. He had a knife in his boot, and another smaller pistol in a pack at his belt, but they were impossible to reach with the machine squeezing him like a fruit.
Selena snorted. “This, my dear, is the beginning of a beautiful new world.” She reached out and caressed the corroded metal chestplate of one of the machines nearest her. “What once was, will rise again, and soon our world will be reborn as a glorious new one. The relics of the past will join me, and I will rule over all things in a dazzling new empire.”
Duncan narrowed his eyes. “These bolt buckets don’t look like gods to me. I thought you were practicing for your next circus act.”
Selena hissed air out from between her bared teeth. “These aren’t gods, you nitwit. These are but the footsoldiers of the gods. They’re awfully fun to play with, don’t you think? At least until I unearth an even better toy. Surely you can understand the appeal of buried treasure.” She chuckled.
Buried treasure…? She must need the Book of Ghosts too. And if these really are the footsoldiers of the old machine gods, then I’m in a helluva lot deeper than I thought I was. Duncan was unable to get to either of his remaining weapons, and he didn’t know how much longer he could keep her talking.
“Out with it, then,” he demanded, “what are you gonna do with these rusty butlers?”
“I don’t mind telling you the truth, Captain Hendricks,” she purred. “Since you won’t remember it anyway. I’m going to uncover the final clues to the hidden resting place of the Book of Ghosts. And once that book is mine, I’ll change the world forever.” Selena’s expression was distant, her eyes misty but thrilled. “I will be the one to bring the strength and power of the old machine gods back to this world — and this world will be mine.”
Blood crept down his cheek as Duncan stared back at her. I already knew she was mad…
“For now,” Selena went on, “I have much to do! Now tell me, Captain, what did you come here for?” She hovered her gloved hand over his chest, clearly toying with the idea of sending green lightning through his heart.
“I told you, out for a walk, that’s all.”
“Pardon me if I don’t believe you.” Selena smiled, and raised the glove with a waggle of her fingers. “The truth, if you please.”
Duncan eyed the electric glow. “All right, all right, it wasn’t a walk. I was out for a jog. I’m lookin’ to lose a few pounds.”
Selena rolled her eyes, and gestured with her free hand. The machines closed in, and Duncan felt himself handed off – now each of his limbs was held by a separate machine drone, these silver ghosts of a time when men were the myth and machines were the population. Duncan’s pulse skipped, a fresh wave fear flooding through him.
“What are you looking for in Nightfall, Hendricks?” Selena sneered, the glove coming closer and closer to his face.
“What’s there to see,” he retorted, narrowing his eyes at her. “It’s all pitch black! Can’t even look for a pair of goggles it’s that damn dark.”
“Tell me what you’re after, or I’ll cease to be civil,” she demanded, almost nose to nose with him.
“This is civil?” His bitter laugh was short; he gasped at the pain. “You have such a way with words, Selena. You might as well dump me here, then, I’ve got nothing else to tell you.”
“Dump you?” She chuckled. “Oh no, Captain Hendricks. I’m bringing you with me.” Her eyes gleamed, catlike.
“With you? Where are you going?”
“To build the dawn of my new empire. Now be a good boy and maybe I won’t keep hurting you.”
“Hurting? Me?” Duncan laughed again. “These old buckets are going to fall apart any second now. It’s a miracle they’ve stood up this long if they’re as ancient as you say they are.”
Selena’s eyes narrowed. “We’re done here,” she snapped, and pressed the palm of the glove to the base of his neck.
Green lightning poured into his body. He screamed, the exquisite pain of the arc energy lancing through him like fire. He saw Selena laugh, but he couldn’t hear; there was only brutal agony. The world around him was dark enough already that he didn’t even realize that he was about to pass out, but after a few moments of the extraordinary electricity he was limp in the arms of the machines. He slipped into a darkness blacker even than that of Nightfall, and his last thought was the realization that the Arcomancer had him in her claws at last.