Inside the flame-choked ruins, Ian felt the two flasks of Hellgate elixir burn through him like a white-hot fire. It was as though he had been thrown into a burning cauldron, then tossed into a pool of icy water to cool like a bar of steel.
The transformation complete, the pilot pushed himself slowly off the floor, blinking, his mind in a fog. Ian flexed his now massive hands, feeling the raw power flowing through him like liquid lightning. He was larger – much larger – than he ever had been: easily seven feet in height, with a massive muscular frame to match. He glanced down. His clothes were torn, shredded by his metamorphosis.
Every part of Ian’s body felt alert. With each passing second, he was bombarded by an increasing cacophony of sensations: every echo of a ricochet, crack in the stonework, roar of flames in the wide cavern beyond the window. It was as if his senses had come fully alive, far more than he experienced after taking the elixir previously. The difference was, this time he was nearly drowning in the chaos of it all.
The pilot squeezed his eyes shut, burying his face in his hands while he desperately tried to sort out the new experiences. Slowly, he cultivated a shred of calm purpose amid the insanity of thought that continually raced through his mind. He was to be a distraction, a means to divert the Fomorians away from the real goal: freeing the passengers and crew taken from the Fair Winds before they could be killed.
Ian smiled, flexing his arms. “Now I’ve got the means to fight ’em at their own game!” the pilot said under his breath, his voice an octave deeper and as rough as sharp gravel rolling across metal. He almost laughed, but there was no time for foolishness. He had work to do.
The pilot spun around when a bullet whined past his ear from the window. He instinctively ducked, then smiled, remembering his newly adjusted form.
Quickly, he took stock of the room around him, then ripped off the ruined shirt and vest that hung in rags across his shoulders, hampering his motions. He knelt by Mr. Thomson, who was drifting in and out of consciousness. Ian’s large fingers fumbled with the bandage while he tried to check the wound. The result caused the midshipman to gasp in pain. The pilot withdrew his hands immediately. He tried again, with the same result. Despite his massive strength and size, he did not have the nimbleness to manage the tiny knot he had tied before!
Anger welled up like a geyser in the pilot – a desperate, nearly manic frustration that almost overtook his reason. His vision tinged with red, his heartbeat roared in his ears. Ian glanced at the tiny window, now much too small for his massive bulk, then looked thoughtfully at the door where the Fomorians waited in ambush beyond. He smiled savagely. A hint of motion out of the corner of his eye suddenly attracted his attention. Thomson had regained some sort of consciousness, and was watching the pilot, horrified.
“Sirrah,” Mr. Thomson said weakly, “what have ya done?”
“What was needed,” Ian replied roughly.
“Nothin’ worth that,” the midshipman said with a sad tone. Then the man winced as another stab of pain reminded him of his wounds.
A jab of anger flashed across Ian’s mind: what did that midshipman know? He was wounded and weak! He could not imagine the strength Ian had now. The pilot shook his head slightly, and pushed the distracting thought aside. He needed to remain focused on the task at hand.
“Just stay still,” Ian ordered the wounded man, “ya won’t bleed as much.”
In one motion the pilot rose, then charged the door, yanking it open. In the hallway and short stairwell beyond, the Fomorians lay in wait. They had been expecting a man – a wounded man, at that. Instead, they met a monster!
A hail of bullets swarmed Ian. Despite his more robust frame he instinctively ducked aside, but a moment too late. In the blink of an eye, one bullet burned his cheek while another hammered into his arm. He gripped the wound on his arm. A hot trickle of blood streamed down towards his elbow. Ian flexed his hand, he could still feel his fingers. He glared at the gunman as the mad rage took a firm grip on his mind.
Blindly, he snatched up the discarded wooden door beam and charged his assailants. Ian had no plan, no higher thought. His mind screamed with a red hot anger that removed all reason. He had been hurt, and while the bullet wounds were not as debilitating to him now, they were no less painful. Like a massive wild animal, he charged with only the instinctive, drug-induced primal urge driving him: to hurt that which had just hurt him.
Two of the Fomorians continued to fire, the other pair frantically reaching for their own flasks of Hellgate elixir. It did them little good, as Ian was on them in seconds. The pilot swatted the two scrambling for their flasks with the wooden beam, slamming them violently against the stone wall. They struck with a soft crunch, then lay still.
One of the gunmen fired, the bullet cutting a second searing hot groove along Ian’s arm. The pilot instinctively spun around. He slammed his makeshift club across where the Fomorian stood, swatting him like a fly. The sailor was pitched up the stairs, careening headlong into a stone wall. He crumpled into a broken heap where he landed.
Ian turned towards his last attacker. However, having seen the raw savagery unleashed upon his companions, the last Fomorian shrieked and fled headlong down the stairs. Ian laughed gutturally while his rage cooled, and reason took root again. He glanced around, horrified, then tossed his bloody club to the floor. He quickly returned to where he left Mr. Thomson.
The midshipman waved him away when Ian arrived. “Go on. Find the others.”
“No,” Ian replied with a growl, then scooped up the wounded man like a small child. With the midshipman in his arms, Ian bounded down the stairs, along the hallway, then through the door to the main cavern. He was heady with the excitement and rush of the fight. It felt good, very good, to deal soundly with the Fomorians. Giving them a solid thrashing was exhilarating, almost intoxicating like a good whiskey. Ian found himself relishing it.
In a distant recess of his mind, a dim memory stirred, trying to warn him. It was about the elixir. He would try and remember it later, right now he had the means and ability to deal with the brutes on their own terms! He was not about to waste this opportunity.
By the time he arrived to the main cavern, the smoke was thick enough to cut with a knife. Crates, caught too close to explosions, had gone up in a merry blaze. Flames danced freely between the crates, finding stacks of hay nearby that were to be used for packing. Everywhere people were running, either with buckets of water or in a wild panic seeking to escape the growing inferno.
Ian glanced through the billowing clouds of smoke. Flames licked the air, wrapping around stacks of the brass canisters and their lethal contents. The metal casings practically glowed in the lurid, orange light. A flash of gunfire drew his attention to Dr. Maria Von Patterson, firing steadily into a group of Fomorians. The pilot smiled as her every shot was true, peeling away a Fomorian at a time from the group that rushed towards her. In the end, the sole attacker to escape the doctor’s bullets lunged for her. Dr. Von Patterson sidestepped just as Angela careened into the sailor in a flurry of teeth, fur and claws!
While they fought off the Fomorian advance, haggard prisoners that Ian assumed were from the Fair Winds quickly rushed out of an open doorway behind Dr. Von Patterson. Most seemed eager to hurry towards another doorway and the set of stairs beyond. However, not all left the cavern. Some instead chose to recover discarded firearms from dead Fomorians, forming a ragged firing line. Ian smiled again. They had done it. The captives would make it safely to freedom.
“Impressive, mein freund,” an all-too familiar deep voice said over the crackling flames.
Ian spun immediately around to face the voice; it was Garin Kaufmann. Unlike before, Garin was no longer the emaciated, withdrawal-wracked figure he had seen in the make-shift infirmary aboard the relay station. Kaufmann stood tall and strong, dressed in clothes far too tight for his oversized frame. Drunk with power, Garin’s eyes shone with an eerie inner glow.
“Thought I left ya on that station?” Ian asked suspiciously.
Garin barked a short laugh before he replied. “No, I was taken aboard that British vessel, the Intrepid.” He continued in German, “I was to be ‘questioned’. Captain Bauer felt I had a greater purpose still in store. So he rescued me when he was there.”
Ian took a deep breath, making a decided effort to concentrate past the overwhelming roar from his elixir-enhanced senses. “You’re looking more fit than last I saw you,” Ian said, likewise in German, taking a careful sidestep away from the Fomorian.
“The elixir is most miraculous in its ability to heal anything,” Garin replied. He glanced around. “This is your work, yes?” The Fomorian asked, his voice rough and harsh from exposure to the smoke. “I would recognize it anywhere.”
Thomson moaned while he drifted in and out of consciousness again. Ian adjusted his grip on the midshipman, then took another step away from Kaufmann.
“Work by necessity,” Ian replied. “Your associates mean to hurt a lot of people. Something which I cannot allow.”
“They are a class beneath us now!” Garin countered harshly.
“Class?” Ian spat back in German, “They are lives, Garin. Lives that should be respected and allowed to find their own way!”
Garin shook his head. “Their own way? How can you even think that? They are small people … petty people! Their little nations, their little wars! All the killing, murdering, stealing … passing their useless edicts and their mindless laws. It means nothing!”
Ian felt the rage boiling up inside him once more. “They are innocents! You cannot – should not – control them like slaves! The Garin I once knew understood that!”
The German spread his arms wide as if welcoming Ian. “I have learned better. My eyes are open now. Perhaps for the first time! Ian, I can see you’ve tasted the elixir. Stop. Think. Think of what we can accomplish here! They cannot properly manage themselves. We would stop the incessant squabbling between nations. No chance of war when they all sing under the same banner. The slums, the squalor, the decadence – it would all be washed away in place of the perfect state.”
“On a sea of blood,” Ian replied curtly. He took a slow breath, the elixir was making it increasingly difficult to remember his lessons in German. “Nein … no. I feel the ‘power’ you’re talking about. This power is a lie. It’s a poison wrapped in a pretty bow. There’s no salvation there, Garin. You would oppress innocents to form this ‘perfect state’. Not everyone will accept this. There will always be those who will stand against you, and your Fomorian brethren.”
“Don’t be foolish, old friend. Come, this isn’t the place to debate philosophy. Put down your burden, he’s dying. Leave him, and come with me.” Kaufmann motioned for Ian to join him, however the pilot remained where he was.
“No,” Ian replied flatly. “Someone has to stand for the innocents you will grind beneath your heel. I’ll do it alone if I have to. Starting with this wounded man here.”
Garin’s face turned to a hard frown. “Very well. Then listen while your beloved ‘innocents’ die under a hail of gunfire. The moment I recognized your work, I sent a dozen men to lie in wait outside. There are only two routes to leave our little ‘underhill’. Both are now watched. If anyone not a recognized Fomorian makes an appearance, they will be shot. If they stay, they will choke on your smoke and flames.”
“Bloody bastard,” Ian snarled in English, then glanced over at Angela and her mother. Angela had just knocked a Fomorian into a stack of brass canisters, which abruptly collapsed, crushing the man. Her mother fired at two more attackers, dropping them to the floor the moment they dared appear. From where Ian stood, almost all of the kidnap victims had been freed, and were now running towards what might be a certain death. Ian tensed as if to impulsively bolt across the cavern in that direction.
“You’ll never make it, my friend,” Garin said with a small, cold smile. “They are finished. You are finished.”
Garin’s hand moved in a blur towards his back. Ian saw the glint of light from the long blade a moment before it reached him. He ducked under, sidestepping towards one of the giant metal spiders sitting as quiet witness to the carnage. Ian set the bloody, unconscious midshipman down in the shadow of the war machine, then turned and faced his one-time friend.
“Finished? Garin, I’ve not even started,” Ian replied calmly in German, then smiled.