Authors: Adam Dreece
Tags: #Emergent Steampunk
They ducked bullets as they rounded the first corner. Bakon could see Abeland leaning into his run; it was obvious he was starting to have real trouble breathing.
Arriving in the study, Abeland closed and locked the door. Without a word, he swiftly moved around the breathing machine to the bookcase behind it and pulled down another fake shelf of books, revealing a heavy lever.
Abeland huffed as he pulled on the lever. “The mechanism’s a bit stiff. Help me push this open. Push the bookcase in on the right.”
Both men put their backs into it as the sounds of footsteps echoed down the hallway.
Finally with enough room to squeeze through, they entered a dark, dank corridor and pushed the bookcase closed, sealing themselves in.
Abeland’s hands hunted around in the darkness until he found a lantern. After a few quick cranks, a white glow filled their stone-walled surroundings.
Bakon studied the lantern. It was remarkably similar to some that Nikolas had.
“This way,” said Abeland, taking a step and feeling his legs wobble.
“Who are you?” asked Bakon, putting his arm around Abeland’s shoulder to stabilize him.
Abeland studied Bakon’s face. He was thankful he’d trusted his gut and not poisoned Bakon’s food. He’d been tempted to, fearing that Bakon was somehow connected to one of his enemies.
“Head left,” said Abeland as they got to a fork in the tunnel. “This way leads to the edge of the back garden, right by the forest. We can make our way to Relna from there.”
At the end of the stone corridor was a wooden door, daylight showing between the slats and around its perimeter.
Abeland turned off the lantern and put it down. They took a moment to listen for anything on the other side.
“Okay. Let’s make a break for it,” said Abeland, pushing the door open.
They stepped out into the early-evening garden and found a dozen soldiers waiting for them with rifles drawn.
“Well,” said Abeland, disappointed. He raised his arms. “I’m starting to feel that Lana might actually be upset with me. Also, she’s had so much time on her hands, it seems she’s found all my secrets.” He bit his lip as he scanned about.
“You know,” said Bakon, raising his arms as well. “I’m worried what Egelina-Marie will do to me the next time I see her.”
“Who’s that?” asked Abeland, turning to Bakon. The ignored soldiers weren’t sure what to make of their casual conversation.
Bakon struggled with emotion. “My girlfriend, who I abandoned to try to find the Piemans.”
Abeland looked away, hiding his surprise for a second. He turned back and studied Bakon’s face.
“Excuse me,” said one of the soldiers, waving his rifle that was trained on them. “Could you… ah, stop talking?”
Abeland straightened up and glared at the man so strongly that the man recoiled a step. “Excuse me. Do you mind? We’re not going anywhere, so allow us to finish this.” Something shiny in the forest caught Abeland’s attention.
The soldiers exchanged looks, not sure what to do.
Abeland dropped his arms. “That’s it. I’ve had it with you lot,” he boomed. “Do you know who I am?”
“Abeland Pieman,” stuttered one of the soldiers.
Bakon stared at Abeland, surprised.
Abeland smirked at Bakon. “Yeah, well, you don’t have to keep looking.”
“Put your hands up… please?” asked the lead soldier.
Scowling at the soldier for interrupting, Abeland said, “I’ll consider it—” He then caught sight of something else in the forest behind the soldiers. “No. Thanks for the polite request though.” He made a pistol with his fingers and pointed it at the soldiers. “You’ve forced me to use my last, most secret weapon.” The soldiers started to laugh. “Bang,” said Abeland.
A shot rang out, then another. Before the soldiers could figure out what was happening, they were all down on the ground.
Bakon was stunned. Abeland winked at him and blew the imaginary smoke off his index finger.
“Thanks for your help, whoever you are,” said Abeland to the two figures emerging from the forest.
“Eg! Richy!” said Bakon.
Egelina-Marie glared at Bakon before moving her gaze to Abeland. She gestured to the soldiers. “Are there any more?”
Abeland turned to the manor. “I’m guessing probably about two dozen more. Lana sounded very mad.”
“That your wife?” asked Richy.
“Ex-girlfriend, it seems,” said Abeland. Egelina-Marie could see pain in his eyes, hiding behind his humor.
“You found a Pieman,” said Richy. “I knew you would.”
Bakon messed Richy’s hair. He forced his gaze over to Egelina-Marie. His felt his throat closing, his hands getting sweaty, and his face burning.
“Shut up,” said Egelina-Marie, giving him a shove and then pulling him in for a tight hug, pressing the side of her face into his chest. “You’re an idiot, and you need to shut up.”
Bakon closed his arms around her and whispered, “Okay.”
Hans stepped onto the fallen front door and looked around. “Mother, I have returned!” he yelled, once he was certain that he was alone. Stepping into the shambling remains of the kitchen, he stared at the cupboards, remembering days ago when he’d searched for food that wasn’t there.
Coming back to the house had been a siren’s song for him, irresistibly drawing him back. As each day had passed, he’d been less and less able to resist the idea of returning. Now, standing in the kitchen, it felt strange, disturbing, and yet—right.
In the days since he’d fought with Saul, Hans had terrorized more than a dozen small caravans as he tried to figure out what to do with himself. He’d nearly met his end by way of a retired soldier’s javelin, but got the best of the old man in the end.
It didn’t matter how many bodies Hans left in his wake, or how much fear he saw in the eyes of those that he let live to tell the tales of the merciless Red Hood, he still felt lost and empty. He wanted what he’d once had back so badly, but had no idea how to reclaim it.
On the way to the house, he’d visited Mother’s rock-pile grave. At first, he’d felt sorrow, but it had quickly given way to rage. He’d yelled and kicked at the grave until a hand was exposed. Apologizing, and with tears streaming down his face, he’d fixed it as best he could.
Hans took in the familiar putrid smell of the house, and savored the touch of ginger in the air. He froze when he saw the floor torn up and a dozen ledgers tossed about.
“What? Oh no!” he yelled, dashing into Mother’s bedroom. “No! No! No!” He knocked over the nightstand and sighed when he saw the little tan book still strapped to the bottom of it. He carefully unbuckled the book from its secret hiding place and picked it up.
As he stroked the cover, bitter and sweet memories came forward.
Hans was five years old when he’d noticed something dangling under the Ginger Lady’s nightstand from the main room.
It was forbidden to go into Mother’s room, and Hans had witnessed what she did to those who disobeyed, but he couldn’t help himself. Something drew him in.
As Hans reached under the nightstand and carefully removed the item, he was unaware of Mother, silently standing over him.
She watched as he carefully stroked the soft brown cover and then turned each page, marveling at the strange symbols and diagrams, muttering pretend meanings for them since he couldn’t read. Her rage at having her book discovered was awkwardly at odds with a need to share her walled-off inner world.
When Hans went to put the book back, he noticed her, and was struck with absolute terror. His voice failed him and he dropped the book, trembling.
Mother carefully picked up the book and returned it to its place under the nightstand, keeping Hans glued to the spot with her gaze. She then grabbed him by the arm and dragged him outside. All the other children went quiet and watched in horror as Hans was dragged out. Saul and Gretel were away with an older child.
As the Ginger Lady strapped Hans down to the wooden blocks, Hans was silent. She could see the fear in his little light-brown eyes. For the second time in her life, she stopped and wondered what she was doing. Every other child that she had disciplined had screamed and fought, yet here was this little one that always stuck out from the others, sticking out even more. She’d found Hans clever and cruel at times, but always respectful in her presence.
Mother picked up her cane and struck him once, brutally. As she prepared for a second strike, she realized he was trying to hold in his tears. He was barely whimpering.
She lowered the cane and leaned on it. “Why aren’t you screaming?” she asked. It bothered her.
Hans glared at her with a mix of rage and fear. “I did something wrong. I’m sorry, Mother.”
The Ginger Lady tapped her cane to the ground in thought. She’d only ever had one other child like this, and she missed him desperately. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching, any prying little eyes spying on them, but there was no one.
“I will make you strong,” she said to him. “You will be special. But you need to remember that you must always listen to Mother.”
From that day forward, though Mother was still cruel to him, she never fed him any of the Ginger. When he turned ten, she had him help prepare the meals. Without the Ginger, he felt and remembered everything, and came to love, hate, and fear her more than Saul or Gretel ever could.
As her age started to catch up with her, she became more and more dependent on him. Shortly after turning fifteen, Hans slipped some of the Ginger into her food for the first time. With her passed out, and his siblings in dazed states, Hans felt intoxicatingly powerful for the first time. When Mother realized what he’d done, she had beat him severely, but it only fueled his desire not to be caught.
As the Ginger Lady’s mind had started to deteriorate, he resented when she didn’t remember that he was supposed to be special to her. Deep down, he feared that he’d ruined her by giving her the Ginger so many times, and took it out on his siblings when they couldn’t defend themselves.
Hans carefully put the little book in a secure pocket of his red cloak. He walked over to the broken stairs that used to lead to the second floor and smiled sinisterly as he gazed up, remembering what he used to do in secret up there before he felt bold enough to do it in the open.
He stood still in the middle of the decrepit house of ginger-scented secrets, thinking. It almost felt like Mother was there, wrapping her sharp-nailed hands around him in a twisted semblance of a hug.
Hans took a deep breath, wiping the tears with his dirty sleeve. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of the chair he’d spent two weeks in, healing from the initial wounds given to him by Master Kutsuu, years ago.
Master Kutsuu had been hired to train the triplets to protect the Ginger Lady from her enemies, both real and imagined. She grew paranoid as she aged, and every few days she feared that the guardsmen of Mineau and Minette were going to storm her house and take away the last of her children. The trio had loved the idea of learning to fight, until they met Master Kutsuu.
He was the embodiment of vengeance, with a look and voice that could bend steel. He decided what style of fighting and what weapon Hans, Saul, and Gretel would learn. For two years, he showed up and randomly picked which one of the trio he would teach that day. His student for the day would sometimes need to be dragged out of the house, and would often return broken and bloodied. Then, without any explanation, one merciful day he stopped showing up. For a month, they feared he would jump out of a tree and take one of them to train, but it never happened.
Hans stared at the old chair. “You used to yell at us, Kutsuu, that we were locked in our shells, that we needed to break through them. We needed to discover the greatness locked inside ourselves. How many times did you say to me, as I lay there with my fingers broken or bleeding, that the pain of the past is not to be forgotten, for it is the light in the darkness of tomorrow?” Hans stopped, and scanned about as a thought hit him. “You were right. So very, very right. What better way to see my tomorrow than with a burning light?”