Authors: Adam Dreece
Tags: #Emergent Steampunk
Richy nudged her with his shoulder jokingly. “Woo, watch the mouth there, Mademoiselle Manners.”
“Pargos! Pargos! Pargos!” she whispered, making him chuckle.
The laughter stopped as the cages came close enough for them to see people inside.
“Are they alive?” squeaked Richy, horrified.
Egelina-Marie clamped her hand over his mouth as two soldiers walked right up to their position. The soldiers were standing only a few feet away, torches in hand, scanning about.
Slowly, Egelina-Marie and Richy started to back up.
“Hey, there’s something shiny in the bushes,” said one of the soldiers, pointing.
Egelina-Marie glanced around and saw the light bouncing off Richy’s Yellow Hood cloak. They scrambled backward to the path, and took off as fast as they could into the Red Forest.
A shot fired.
“They’re chasing us!” yelled Egelina-Marie, grabbing Richy’s hand and running blindly down the dark path.
Richy felt his hood snap against his face as a rifle shot bounced off of it.
A minute later, Egelina-Marie skidded to a stop at a fork in the path. She moved back and forth, hoping for something to help her decide which route they should take.
“What is it?” asked Richy, glancing around, breathing hard.
“I can’t figure out which way our stuff is,” she said, a mix of emotions in her voice.
When they’d left her horse and his sail-cart, they’d marked the path carefully so that they’d be able to find their way back with only the moonlight and Egelina-Marie’s small mirror from her backpack.. She didn’t have time to rifle through her backpack to find the mirror, and couldn’t find any of the markings.
“Over there!” yelled a voice in the darkness.
Egelina-Marie’s heart sank. She’d failed herself and someone she cared about for the second time today. She could hear the voice of inner doubt attacking her about every decision she’d made so far. Fear started creeping in, trying to paralyze her limbs and root her to the spot.
She glanced back and saw the little dancing balls of torch flame getting closer. For the first time in a long time, she felt the younger side of her nineteen years of age, and wished her father was there.
The shine of the moonlight in Richy’s blue eyes reminded her that he was only thirteen. His face was filled with fear and hope that she would get them out of this. She didn’t know what to do.
“Should we fight?” asked Richy nervously.
Egelina-Marie glanced at his hands. His shock-sticks were still in his yellow cloak’s hidden pockets. His actions and words didn’t line up.
“Eg, we need to do something,” he repeated, worried she was locking herself up in her head again.
She squeezed his hand and chose the path with better moonlight. “I’ve got an idea,” she said as they skipped over tree roots and ducked low branches. “It’s a stupid one. It’s really stupid, but it might work.”
“I’m all for stupid right now,” said Richy eagerly.
Eg smiled at the sense of relief in his voice. “Do you think these guys are tired?” she asked, halting at a tall tree stump.
Richy nodded emphatically as he bent over to breathe.
“Good. Charge up your shock-sticks,” she ordered, diving into her backpack to get Tee’s slingshot. She’d almost left it when they were taking Pierre’s body from the battlefield, but something had nudged her to take it. Now it was going to be vital.
Minutes later, four soldiers arrived, pistols drawn.
“Hey!” said one of the soldiers, seeing the light bouncing off of Richy’s cloak a few steps into the forest.
“Turn around!” said the lead soldier in a booming voice. “Let me see your face, or we’ll kill you where you stand.” He stepped forward towards Richy’s hooded form, glancing around suspiciously. “I thought there were two of them.”
“I don’t see anyone,” said another soldier.
“Hey, he’s a Yellow Hood! We’ll get a reward!” said a third soldier. All four of them grinned excitedly.
“I’ll give you one chance to surrender,” said Richy, trying to sound as confident as Eg had told him to be. “Be warned, for I have magical powers. So drop your weapons!”
The soldiers laughed.
“Nice try, kid,” said the lead soldier, reaching out to grab Richy’s hood.
Just then, one soldier dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“Get up, you lazy—” said another soldier, just before he dropped to the ground as well.
“Surrender!” boomed Richy.
As the leader turned around to see what had happened to his friends, Richy reached out from behind a bush and struck him in the foot with an armed shock-stick. The soldier lit up with blue lightening and flailed madly before falling to the ground.
The remaining soldier dropped his rifle and put his hands up. “I’m just here for—”
Egelina-Marie clonked him from behind with a log.
“Oh,” whined Richy, standing up and brushing himself off. “I wanted to hear what he was going to say.”
“Yeah, that’s a heartbreaking cliffhanger,” she replied, picking up two torches and handing one to Richy to put out. She was thankful that the ground was moist. The last thing they needed was to try and outrun a forest fire.
“Give me their pistols,” said Egelina-Marie, putting one in her backpack. She slung a repeating rifle over her shoulder and found the belt pouch of refills for it.
Richy took his yellow cloak off the tall tree stump and handed the pistols over to her. “I didn’t know you knew how to use a slingshot.”
Egelina-Marie paused, her eyebrows rising in thought. “I… ah… I never tried before.”
“Impressive! Can you teach me?”
“Sure. In fact, you take it,” she said, handing him Tee’s slingshot. “Just in case.”
After putting it away, Richy looked at Egelina-Marie, confused. “What are you doing to that soldier?”
“Searching for money. I’m going to listen to my gut, and that means,”—she glanced around, trying to find where Mineau was, and then just pointed randomly— “we’re trusting that our friends can take care of themselves over there, and you and I are going after Bakon. We’ve got weapons now, and I know where we can buy some supplies, so the only thing missing is money. We can sell a couple of the pistols, but nothing beats actual currency.” She pulled out some coins from one of the soldier’s pockets before moving on to the next one.
“You’re robbing them?” exclaimed Richy. “Isn’t that wrong? I mean, aren’t we the good guys?”
Eg searched about. “We are, and these,” she said, pointing, “are the bad guys. These bad guys took stuff from good people, so we,”—she removed another small bag of coins—“are going to allow them to make it up to the world by funding us. Anything extra we have,” she said, standing, “we’ll give to some orphans or something.”
Richy wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure about this?”
“What, that these are bad guys? Yeah, pretty sure,” she replied. “We don’t have time for a philosophical debate. It’s pretty straightforward in my book.” She caught sight of approaching torches. “Looks like these guys have friends. We better get going.” She put a hand on Richy’s shoulder. “Can you live with this?”
Richy thought about it for a moment, then nodded.
“Good. Let’s get out of here.” Eg grabbed his hand, and they took off at a careful run.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
Egelina-Marie glanced over her shoulder. “Away from those guys. In the morning, we’ll find our stuff and head out.”
“To where? Bakon’s trail will be gone,” said Richy.
She refused to let her heart sink again. “Let’s not over-think this, okay? He’s trying to find a Pieman. That red-hooded woman you told me about—she said her name was Richelle Pieman, right?”
“Yeah,” said Richy, dodging a high root that seemed like it wanted to grab his foot.
“They must be important people, so that means that someone in a capital city’s got to know of them. So either we go to our capital city of Palais, or over to Belnia’s capital city of Relna. We ask around, and see where it takes us.”
“We’re going to Relna,” said Richy with conviction.
She smiled and scanned about, trying to find where the little balls of torchlight had gone. “Why?” she asked, wiping sweat off her brow.
“You said you were going to follow your gut, right? Mine says Relna.”
“Okay. Relna it is.”
They walked in silence, checking periodically to make sure that there were no torches following them. Half an hour later, they arrived at a grassy area and plunked down, exhausted.
Egelina-Marie doused the torch in the dewy grass and leaned up against a tree. She was about to drift off when she chuckled. She reached for her backpack and pulled out a small blanket. Then she pulled out the sandwich her father had packed for her that morning, as he did every morning, regardless of whether or not she was working. In all the years, she’d never appreciated his religious devotion to making sure she had a small pack more than now.
“Are you hungry?” she asked Richy, who was all curled up in his yellow cloak.
“Starved,” he replied, unmoving.
“Here,” she said, handing him half the sandwich.
Richy had forgotten how hungry he was and took the sandwich as if it was holy. “You had this all along?”
She laughed. “Yeah. It’s a long story. I’ll tell you tomorrow on our ride east.”
After several ravenous bites, he asked, “How are we going to find Bakon?”
With the back of her hand, Eg wiped the side of her mouth where the scrumptious tomato and butter had left their mark. “We’re going to find the biggest mess we can. I’m positive that’s where Bakon will be.”
Richy came to the disappointing conclusion of the sandwich. “What makes you think he’ll be there?”
She let a touch of the emotional storm raging inside her seep into her expression. “Because if he’s not in life- threatening danger, he’s going to be when I find him.”
Richy took note never to anger a woman like Egelina-Marie, ever.
“We’re almost there,” whispered Elly, scanning the moonlit forest road.
Christina hadn’t been happy at Elly’s insistence on going to check out her home to see if her parents were okay. Though Tee had repeated Christina’s point that her parents were fine, Elly’d been relieved when Tee had supported her request and everyone had decided to come along.
They’d managed to avoid two patrols of troops by sticking to the forest edge and hooding their lantern just in time, making them invisible in the night.
They’d also managed to determine that some of the soldiers were wearing Minette uniforms, while others were wearing the foreign ones they’d seen earlier. It confirmed for Christina that something larger was at play.
Christina scanned around, her pistol in hand. Its design was unlike anything the rest of them had seen, and only served as another point of irritation for Franklin. He’d managed to stop himself twice from asking about it, as he knew he wouldn’t be able to manage a civil tone.
Tee put a hand across Elly’s chest as she was just about to step out into the clearing surrounding her house.
“Someone’s in there,” warned Tee, pointing.
Elly locked on to the flicker of light moving through the house. “We’ve passed a bunch of other houses, but there was no sign that anyone had gone into them. Why are they in my house?”
Tee passed a knowing glance to Christina, who gave a confirming nod.
Christina turned to the team. “Franklin, Mounira, I want you to stay here. If anything happens and we don’t come out, get out of here.”
Mounira frowned. “Where would we go?”
“We’ll be fine. We’ll go to Herve. It’s a nice city,” said Franklin, nonchalantly.
Christina felt the tug of Mounira’s hand on hers. “I guess I better come back,” she said, feeling better as a small smile eked out on Mounira’s face. She then handed the lantern to Franklin, and her backpack to Mounira. “Keep this safe, even from him, okay?”
“Got it,” Mounira replied, eyeing Franklin. “Don’t go making your shins hurt, okay?”
Quickly and quietly, Christina led Elly and Tee to the west side of the white, two-story house. With her pistol at the ready, she peeked through a window. “I saw three of them. Probably a few more are in there.”
Elly reached into her cloak’s hidden pockets and panicked. “I don’t have any shock-sticks!”
Tee checked hers as well, and then shook her head. “We lost them at the fight with the Red Hoods.”
Christina thought for a moment, then pulled out her one shock-stick. “This isn’t like your regular ones. It’s a prototype. It’s already charged; just push the button here, and then throw it. You don’t want to be holding on to this one, or you’ll get shocked too.”
Elly accepted the familiar weapon and studied its weight and balance for a moment. Other than what Christina had noted, it was identical to the ones she was used to. She quickly tucked it away.
Checking the siding of the house, Christina asked, “Can you guys scale the wall?”
“No problem,” said Elly, starting to climb up to her bedroom window.
“You don’t happen to have another shock-stick, do you?” asked Tee sheepishly.
Christina gave Tee a half-smile. “I don’t, but I’ve seen how you handle yourself. I don’t think you need one. Just keep a cool head. Anyway, I don’t want you guys looking for a fight. Stay out of my way, stay hidden, but if you need to, defend yourselves. Got it?”
Elly slid the window open and carefully climbed inside, and a minute later Tee joined her.
Glancing over to Mounira and Franklin to make sure they were okay, Christina started making her way to the back door.
She flipped up the dark wood barrel-cover of her pistol, revealing a tightly wound coil. She picked some pebbles off the ground and dropped them into a chamber in the barrel-cover, and then closed it. She cocked it sharply, and listened for the awakening hum of the coil. “Three minutes,” she said, reminding herself how long she had before the coil would lose its charge.
Tee followed Elly to her parents’ bedroom, and watched the confusion play out on Elly’s face as she found no signs that anyone had been home since she’d left. She tried to catch Tee’s eyes, to glean anything she could, but Tee hid behind her hood.