Clouds broke the night sky like gray waves on a glassy, black lake. Diamond-bright stars glittered as far as the eye could see. Perched high above, the round yellow moon shone down on ancient Roman ruins like the eye of some giant creature’s stark pale gaze. The Roman town was nearly a thousand years old; the marble stones pitted and cracked from the ravages of time and weather. Just a few feet from the town itself stood the dilapidated stone framework and archway of the town’s main gate. The gate was a pair of marbled columns that supported a stone crosspiece. The doors that had stood guard for the town had long ago fallen victim to age and weather. Now, they were little more than rusted metal hinges bolted into the stone. Shadows reached out to grasp at the ruins, between shafts of moonlight. They moved like ghosts along the avenues and alleys throughout the town. Silently, they stretched across the gate and lingered amongst the grass and trees.
Footsteps echoed on stone. A lone figure raced headlong down the old streets and bolted through the gate. Dr. James Von Patterson, skin pale and eyes wide in fear, clutched a canvas-wrapped bundle next to his sweat and dirt-stained white shirt. Despite his run, he clutched the wrapped tube pressed to his chest as if his very life would abruptly end without it. The mountain air was cold and a light wind blew. Despite this, Dr. Von Patterson panted for breath and was drenched in sweat and grime. Down the main avenue and through the ancient gate, he tore across the dark grass towards his campsite that lay thirty feet from the gate itself.
His pace slowed to a walk as he reached the bloodstained and burnt-out tents. Smoke from the ruined camp stung his eyes and smudged his face with soot. Slowly, he walked through the remains, careful not to disturb the camp or the bodies of dead friends that lay in silent witness. For the moment, he was lost among memories that tore at his heart. Horrors of an attack he wished had never happened. Parts of tents not touched by fire rose up in the night like misshapen, grayish-white tombstones.
A wordless shout from the ruins snapped him back to reality. Quickly, he spun then dropped into a crouch. Casting about with a free hand, his fingers located a forgotten pistol. It was one of the newer clockwork variety with an engraved steel finish. Dr. Von Patterson remembered it had belonged to one of his porters before he had been so recently stabbed to death. He fumbled with the lock and pushed down the barrel to open the pistol and expose the cylinder. Inside there were only three rounds left, out of six. Quietly, James pulled the barrel closed and pushed the lock back into place, then waited. Satisfied no one heard him, he slowly wound the mainspring on the clockwork gun.
Wood chips exploded in a hailstorm of blackened shards from a burnt tent pole just off to his right. Dr. Von Patterson suppressed a yelp of surprise, and half-crawled between the wreckage of tents and long shadows. Another bullet flew overhead, striking a tree. Frantically, he scurried through the camp in a crazed pattern turning one way, then the other in an attempt to hide from his pursuers.
At the Roman gate behind him, five figures in black raced into view. Tall and muscular, they were dressed in black, blending in with the shadows around them. They even wore charcoal gray scarves to keep the chill from their faces, save for their eyes. One of them pointed at the brief motion of a shadow among the burnt tents, then dropped to one knee. In a smooth motion, he brought up his rifle, pulling down and back on the lever-action to load it.
“Remember, only wound him. He’s more valuable to us alive than dead.” The tallest of the dark figures commented icily.
“I remember,” came the gravelly reply.
The shot echoed in the night air, just as James attempted the fifteen feet between himself and the safety of the trees. He yowled in pain as a white-hot lance of fire exploded in his right side, causing him to stumble. He kept his feet, however, and through brute force of will stumbled in a blind panic toward the trees.
Branches whipped and tore at James’ face. Roots, upthrust from the forest floor, tripped him with each exhausted step. He paused for a moment at a large oak tree and gulped a lungful of air. A wave of nausea and excruciating pain shook him like a wind-tossed leaf. James leaned over and panted heavily, his vision red and blurred for a moment. When it cleared, he could hear his pursuers crashing through the burnt-out camp not far behind him. He looked down at the pain in his side and saw a modest crimson stain mingled with the soot, dirt and sweat already present in his shirt.
“Must keep going,” he panted to the moonlight, the forest, and to himself. “Can’t let this stop me. I have to keep going.”
With sheer force of will, Dr. Von Patterson pushed himself off the tree. He closed his eyes a moment to steady himself, then stumbled off into the forest, pistol in his right hand, the canvas bundle cradled in his left. No more than five steps later, the ground betrayed him and fell away under his feet. Loose dirt, covered by a deceptive carpet of green moss and pebbles, broke under his weight to reveal a furrow dug by runoff water. His footing lost, James slid wildly down the small hill and crashed into a knot of tree roots at the bottom. The doctor lay still, exhausted from running and partially covered by the brush.
A branch snapped, and James tensed. Then he heard a woman’s voice.
“Dr. Von Patterson?” The voice asked.
James sat bolt upright. His vision swam for a moment as a result of his wounds. He knew the voice from his time at the museum. Relief flooded through him. “Adonia?”
A woman, draped in a long coat that stopped just at the top her knee-length leather boots common to many airship pilots, stepped closer in the gloom. Her yellow eyes narrowed in concern. “That I am. You sent word to the museum that you discovered something, yes? They sent us, but when we arrived your camp was on fire? What is happening, James? Where is your family?” She asked with a light Portuguese accent.
“Sent away,” he whispered harshly. “They left on the previous cargo ship to help shop for supplies a day before the attack.”
“Who attacked?” Adonia asked while she knelt to check Dr. Von Patterson’s wounds.
“I bloody well couldn’t say. They didn’t leave a card. I do know they’re after my find. And they’re willing to kill for it!” James replied between clenched teeth and bolts of stabbing pain. “Adonia, they can’t take it. I can’t explain now, but they must not have it.”
Adonia considered this a moment, her yellow eyes thoughtful. “Very well then. I’ve known you a long time, James. I trust you on this. The ship I came with has set down not far from here. Come, lean on me. We’ll make it.”
Carefully, she lifted James to his feet. He swayed a moment and took an experimental step. Adonia jumped forward to catch him before he fell headlong into a gnarled tree. Together the pair slowly picked their way along the bottom of the hill. Thick vines and prickly shrubs wound tight among trees and along the ground. So much, in fact, that it hampered their pace to a crawl. Adonia searched the underbrush for any sign of a dry watercourse or small game trail that might make travel easier while she half-carried Dr. Von Patterson with her. She had guided them both around a large oak when the sounds of running footsteps echoed louder from the hilltop above. Anxiously, they both waited in the shadow of the oak tree until their pursuers had moved on. When the noise faded away, Adonia looked around at the thick bushes and trees.
There, between a thick pair of holly bushes, was a faint game trail in the grass. She knelt and looked for tracks. It took her a little while but she finally found them. Several sets of tracks from a medium-sized cougar could be seen, but if Adonia was any judge, the animals had not been this way in a while. Satisfied it was safe, she stood and helped James to lean against her again. Carefully, they parted the holly bushes and followed the tiny game trail along the base of the hill and onto the top.
“We’ll need help.” James said hoarsely. “They’re well armed. I haven’t seen it, but their ship has to be close about.”
Adonia was silent in thought. In her mind she reviewed all the flight paths and trade routes she could remember. Finally, she recalled a recent story she had heard during a recent stay at Briggs’ Reach.
“Do not worry about that. I know of someone, I just hope they are listening.”