The boy pelted down the walkway, his boots pounding on the iron mesh and desperate for another avenue of escape. An intersection, or shadowy gap behind the rumbling tree thick pipes, a ladder going up into some dark hole of a hatch. But flying down this long narrow passageway, his fear grew at the realization that there was nowhere he could hide. And always the echo of his steps pursued him from out of the shadows far behind, undiminished by the feeble aethetric lights.
He ran from that sound, for this echo had weight and substance, a beast grown from out of the dark and foul air to chase him down. He could become lost down here in this twilit underworld filled with hissing grumbling machinery, but the creature that hunted would smell him through the hot pervasive stench of the burning coal.
The tears ran down his dirt streaked face. He knew the beast could hear his laboured breathing, the thing was supernatural, hellish. And it drove him on towards the infernal pit at the heart of this forgotten never where.
Ahead the shaft ended in a curving bulkhead rusted by rivulets of accumulated steam. There was a portal jutting into the passage, its heavy door closed and seemingly locked tight to the fear blinded boy. He reached it and tugged in desperate panic on the spokes of the wheel, deaf to its screeching grate as the mechanism turned easily, hearing only the crashing of the beast upon the walkway, feeling the tremendous vibrations of its loping strides shake the bones in his sockets and the heart in his thin chest. Then came the click of the lock, and he was hauling the metal door open, darting through and pulling it closed behind him. He spun the wheel’s twin as tight as he was able for a few seconds more of lead, and barrelled out of the doorway’s niche onto another walkway. And the boy was caught still in an instant by the sight.
It was not the infernal pit, but the dark and cavernous ovaline belly of a mechanical leviathan. The walkway was suspended more than a hundred feet above the sloping floor, and the boy could see as he peered over the railings the stokers small as insects round the great aethetrics machine. Between its gargantuan conical abacus and its pedestal of huge blackened furnaces rested the great sphere of glass, the pride of the Empire, outshining all others. Captured lightning crackled within, lancing out from the black globe on its column at the heart of the device to dance upon the convex curves of their crystalline cage. A cacophony of aethetric buzzing and men at work drifted up upon the stifling air. It stank with the toxic mix of metallic aether and acrid coal smoke, while far above in the domed ceiling four great turbines hummed with the pretence of ventilation.
Then the lock screeched again behind him. The boy shot off down the walkway and barrelled down the first set of stairs he came to, jumping the last few to land on a second walkway. He sprang up and raced round to another flight of stairs below the first, the increasing din of the men and machines flooding his ears so that he could not discern anything else. But he knew the beast was here with him, perhaps upon the walkway above, perhaps upon the stairs and catching him up. As he reached the third walkway with another desperate leap that jarred his body, an animal’s roar sounded out, momentarily drowning all else, and the boy looked far along the walkway to see the beast’s monstrous pet galloping to meet him with a mouthful of wickedly curved fangs.
He fled along the walkway, throwing himself down the last flight of stairs. Now he was among the dirt streaked stokers and their mountains of black glittering coal, weaving amongst them, small enough to dodge one after another of the huge bare-chested men with their heavy shovels and crude language. The heat was sweltering even here, and sweat broke out on the boy’s brow to drip into his eyes and blind him. Out of his mind with terror he took a fatal turn and a blast of Hell-heat scorched his face. He staggered back and tripped over a pipe half buried in the metal floor. For a few seconds he lay on the ground gasping for breathable air, until he felt a hard hand grab viciously at his shirt. The owner of the hand dragged him up, his feet leaving the ground behind, and the boy found himself staring into the glowering face of malevolence incarnate. Sweat glistened on the stoker’s fleshy bald head, forging clean streams in the banks of dirt caked on his leathery skin. His sneer showed a set of teeth completely cast in gold, blazing in the light of the fires, a mouthful of flame ready to cook the boy to ash.
“I’ve caught a little thief come to steal the Empress’ coal me lads!” The other stokers jeered, cruel men turned so by the hardships of their lives in the pit.
The bald stoker grinned horribly. “Down here boy we burn the thieving vermin along with the coal!”
Terrified the boy tried to free himself from the sledgehammer hand and its death grip on his clothes, pitching his feeble strength against the muscular stoker and losing hard, until a force far superior to either boy or man knocked both to the floor. Dropping to the floor and freed from the malicious stoker, the boy scrambled away from the fearsome predator before him, the animal from the walkway.
The tiger was a giant of his race, the black barred fur a freakish blue-grey where the rest of his kin were coloured with sunfire. Standing over the body of the bald stoker, one paw crushed the thick neck to the ground. But he looked at the boy with beautiful pale blue eyes, intelligent, and self-aware. So when the tiger opened his mouth, the boy knew what sounds would emerge from that fanged maw.
“Cub safe now.” The tiger’s voice was a deep rumble, a rich magnificent sound. But the words he spoke were not for him.
“His hide look scratched?” A female voice, resonant and deadly low.
The great tiger looked away from the boy, even the small movement of his head filled with grace. “I want eat my kill, Artemis.”
“You’ve been fed Saber. Check the boy.”
At the woman’s words the tiger stepped off the dead stoker, almost petulant, and padded right up to the boy as he lay quivering against a mound of coal. That fearsome face filled his vision, and the boy felt his bladder give way.
The tiger sniffed him. “Cub mark his territory. Not hurt.”
“Oh his daddy will be pleased.” The feline moved back, and the woman came into view from over its left shoulder.
The boy shook in the presence of the beast. She stood in the light of the furnaces with ruby fire in her eyes, bright red hair cascading over her left shoulder, a giant demoness risen from the belching flames of the fat furnaces. The right half of her skull glowed bronze down to the ridge of her eye socket. Her right arm was an abomination, gears, pistons and plates of metal that barely resembled a human limb. From the back of that mockery of a hand thrust a steel blade the length of the forearm, dormant by her side. In the other hand of flesh and bone she held a pistol at the ready to shoot any stoker that moved. The hard set of her face warned them against any argument.
The fierce woman closed in on him. “I told you not to run, Jackal.” She stuffed the pistol into one of the many belts around her waist so that she could fold the blade back in on itself, and pushed it back into its encasement. Her mechanical hand disarmed, she used it to haul him up, just a piece of flotsam tossed about on waves against his will.
He struggled now against her inhuman grip. “Please don’t take me back to him Mistress Gallow! I beg you please don’t!”
Her face remained impassive, a fire demon with a face of cold stone. “Its what I’m paid for, boy. You should understand that by now.” Brandishing her pistol the flesh and metal harridan took him away through the retreating crowd of stokers, the blue-grey tiger growling in her wake.
Copyright © 2009 LKG Frendo, All Rights Reserved