Smoke and soot clogged the air. Thick black plumes, having little means of escape to the sky above, wandered aimlessly about like dark wraiths. Ian Tonks Wilkerson blinked at the acidic smoke, rubbing his eyes. The moment he did, Garin Hoffman rushed forward, another knife in his hand!
The sudden motion caught Ian’s attention. He brought his left arm up to slap the Fomorian’s knife hand aside, then hammered a hard right into his attacker’s midsection. Garin grunted while the wind left him in a rush. Ian smiled grimly, stepping forward, still eager from the double dose of Hellgate elixir. His attacker warily backed away, wheezing.
Flames crackled brightly in between the acrid plumes and charred remains of corpses; Ian stepped around one such broken body, only to accidentally step on the charred bones of another. At the sound of the dry crunch, the pilot quickly moved aside, taking his eyes off Garin for only a second. However, a second was all the time the Fomorian needed. Immediately, he lunged forward, knife at the ready!
Ian brought an arm up to bat the knife aside, but missed! The long blade, a well-cared-for Bowie knife, plunged deep into the pilot’s left arm. He hissed sharply, holding back a yell of pain as he jerked back just out of reach. Blood streamed down his upper arm, dripping from his elbow; the wound throbbed in protest.
With a savage grin, Garin kicked aside a burnt corpse, then slashed out with his knife. Ian dodged right; the blade slid left. The pilot slammed a hard right fist across the Fomorian’s jaw, snapping the German’s head back with the force of an elixir-enhanced blow. Garin blinked at the stars that clouded his eyes, staggering backwards into one of the fire-tarnished brass legs of an Arachnae war machine.
Garin pushed himself off the oversized metal spider-leg, then rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. Ian stepped in close, and drove a hard left fist to the Fomorian’s stomach, doubling him over. The pilot grimaced as the deep gash in his arm burned in searing pain from the continued abuse. Doing his best to ignore it, Ian slammed an elbow down between Garin’s shoulder blades. The German abruptly collapsed to the ground.
Ian staggered back, gasping for breath in the soot-choked air. “No,” he wheezed hoarsely. “They aren’t finished. Yer finished. Yer Fomorian ‘friends’ are finished.” He staggered away from the dazed German on the ground. “Good and finished.”
The pilot stumbled away wearily from his former friend, then rubbed his eyes in a futile effort to clear the soot from them. He crossed over to where he had left the young midshipman. Gently, he knelt down beside the badly wounded man. Taking extra care because of his oversized hands, he gently checked the midshipman’s wounds. Thomson’s bandages were very bloody, but he was breathing, even if it was rough.
“C’mon, got to get ya someplace safer,” Ian said to the wounded man. Ignoring the intense pain in his ravaged left arm, he once again lifted the midshipman like a child. Cautiously, he stepped beneath the shadows of the enormous spider-like war machines, heading toward Dr. Von Patterson and her daughter. On the far side of the cavern, he could see Dr. Von Patterson fighting against more of the Fomorians struggling to reach the beleaguered defenders.
Thomson’s eyes fluttered open as the man regained consciousness. “Yer wastin’ time, leave me. I’m done for,” he rasped weakly.
Ian shook his head. “I’ll do nothin’ of the kind. Yer not stayin’ here to die, not on this watch.”
The wounded midshipman’s eyes suddenly went wide. “Behind ya!”
Instinctively, Ian spun around. A Bowie knife, meant for the pilot’s back, plunged home into the midshipman’s ribs, nearly spearing into Ian’s chest! Thomson jerked with the impact, clutching at Ian frantically in agony. Before Ian could react, Garin rushed forward, grabbed the hilt of the long blade with his right hand, then jerked it free. The Fomorian stepped backward, weapon at the ready, then tripped. His right arm gave a soft crunch when he landed; his arm twisted in an unnatural angle.
“No,” Ian said in a low tone, staring wide-eyed at the midshipman. “No … no.”
Thomson didn’t reply. He coughed, a wet and rattling sound, looking up at Ian. The light dimmed in the young man’s eyes. Ian’s arms shook with fatigue and the shock of the moment. His mind reeled.
Garin winced in pain, then shoved himself up to squat on one knee. His right arm that had held the Bowie knife hung loose at his side, as if his shoulder were dislocated. Despite his injuries, he laughed. “I told you, assassin,” he said thickly in German, “you cannot save them. Such a waste. You will just get to watch them die, bleeding away in your hands,” the Fomorian chuckled hoarsely.
Tonks snarled, his eyes suddenly burning with an insane rage at the taunts, his vision blood red. A crimson haze swept over the pilot, unlike anything he had felt before. He carelessly dropped the body of the dead man and rushed towards Garin.
Garin looked up as Ian charged. Before he could throw himself aside, Ian’s foot crashed into Garin’s chin, snapping the man’s head back! The Fomorian jerked backwards to the floor, the Bowie knife falling out of his blood-soaked grip. Garin blinked, trying to roll away to safety.
Ian was on him in a moment. Pinning the Fomorian to the ground, he pounded the man methodically and hard, fist after fist. The pilot snarled furiously like a wild animal in a blind rage. His eyes burned with an insane, inner light; all reason drowned in a sea of bloody hatred. Garin’s body shuddered with each blow while the air around them resounded with the sound of bones snapping and the crackle of the greedy fire.
At last, Garin lay still, a broken figure of a man. Ian panted, looking on gleefully with a strange detached interest. It was as if he were watching a bug whose wings he had slowly pulled away. Slowly, Ian’s rage cooled; the insane glee melted away, replaced with an abject horror.
“Garin,” Ian croaked in disbelief. “What’ve I done?”
Garin laughed, but the laugh quickly devolved into a cough. “What the Hellgate elixir wishes,” Ian’s former comrade-in-arms replied hoarsely in German. The man grinned, his face a bloody, bruised death mask.
The pilot fell backwards, away from the broken Fomorian. Ian stared at his bloody fists, then back to Garin in a mix of revulsion and terror.
“Did you,” the Fomorian began, then paused to swallow while his body shuddered, “did you never wonder why you were taken? Never? You were as important as the little girl,” Garin explained through waves of shaking pain, his voice slowly fading to a whisper. “Peter Bauer was keen to recover you. All that time ago … remember those anarchists two years back that you caught? It was the assignment where you met your Rosalita. Remember, you never caught their leader? That was Captain Bauer. He remembered you.”
Ian shook his head instinctively, as if his life crumbled before his eyes. He remembered the moment in question. He had disabled their bombs, caught the anarchists, save for their leader. The effort had ruined a church and nearly cost the lives of dozens of innocents, not to mention the woman he loved. His obsession at finding that leader had cost him everything: his career with the Special Branch, even his chance to settle down with Rosalita. He stared, open-mouthed, at Garin.
Garin laughed again, his broken chest shaking with the effort. “Peter Bauer often said: ‘what better revenge, to not only bring the man hunting me into my fold, but to have him enjoy it as much as I do!’” The Fomorian’s laugh dissolved into an ugly cough. He looked Ian in the eye.
“No,” Ian said in horror. “I’m nothin’ like that!”
“Says the devil who made his own hell,” Garin replied in German. His voice faded on the last word, drawing it out as his body relaxed one last time. Gradually, the light fled the Fomorian’s eyes.
Ian scrambled, panic-stricken, backwards away from the dead man, then looked around. Flames leaped into the air, whirling about in a merry dance, devouring anything they touched. Across the makeshift battlefield, through the choking soot, the pilot could see burnt crates and bodies dotting the underground landscape between toxic gas canisters and the nightmarish war machines. Amid the hellish decor, the massive figures of the Fomorians rushed, either for exits to the surface or towards Dr. Von Patterson and the ragged line of survivors from the scuttled Fair Winds, who had gathered on the far side of the cavern.
Dr. Maria Von Patterson and her daughter both stood defiantly alongside a handful of bloody, ragged defenders. They were in fewer number now, holding the line while the last of the one hundred and fifty passengers from the destroyed Fair Winds clogged the doorway behind them. The defenders fired steadily, taking quick but careful aim to conserve their precious ammunition.
Ian watched while the Fomorians fell to a volley of gunfire. Any that were not fatally wounded rose again to begin a new advance that would last only a few steps. However, every step took them closer to Dr. Von Patterson and her gunmen. Eventually, they would be overtaken or the defenders would run dry of bullets. At that point it would be over.
The pilot’s mind reeled, unable to come to terms with what he witnessed. “It was me own idea,” he said in a small voice. “This … was me own fault … I’ve condemned them all.” He gripped the sides of his head while the steady drum of a headache pounded away in his mind. “They were supposed to escape!” His words devolved into a rage-filled scream.
Through the nightmarish landscape, Angela’s sharp werewolf hearing caught Ian’s keening wail. “Mother, it’s Mr. Wilkerson!” she cried in alarm. Without thinking she bolted in that direction.
“Angela! No!” Dr. Von Patterson shouted. Across the cavern, Ian heard the doctor’s shout, which broke him from his anguish.
At that same moment, the first of the Fomorians reached the defenders. Heedless of the danger, Angela leaped out, only to be snatched out of the air by a Fomorian. The enormous brute batted her to the ground, like a cat might slap a bird from the air. The young girl landed hard on her back, the wind knocked soundly from her lungs. She coughed, then rolled over on her side.
“Yer a right pretty thing,” the Fomorian sailor grunted, standing over her. “Cap’n Bauer’ll surely …”
The monster’s final words never left his mouth; abruptly he jerked twice as two well placed shots sent him staggering backwards.
“Your ‘Captain’ will do nothing with my daughter!” Maria snarled over the roar of the flames. “I’ll see that man in hell first! If I have to take him there myself!”
A large section of broken wood slammed into Dr. Von Patterson’s side, knocking her to the ground. The revolver skittered across the floor, out of her hand’s reach. The woman grimaced in pain, blinking back tears while she tried valiantly to regain her feet.
“Then by all means, meine frau,” Captain Bauer said, standing over the dead, twisted body of a gunman that had been behind Moira. “Let us go together!” he replied with a murderous smirk, as if drunk on the sheer chaos.
Angela shrieked in rage as she got to her feet, then rushed Bauer. In the blink of an eye, the young werewolf leaped off of a nearby crate, and rebounded against the back of an unsuspecting Fomorian, knocking him into a flaming pyre of canisters. She somersaulted in a blur over Bauer’s head, and onto Bauer himself! Instantly, she raked her claws into his back and side, shredding clothes and skin.
The Fomorian leader reached around to grab the young girl by the hair. He jerked her from his side, and hurled her against a worktable that sat next to a stack of heavy metal canisters. The table smashed under the abuse when the young werewolf slammed into it. Curled into a ball, she tumbled into the stack of metal canisters, which abruptly rained down upon her, knocking her senseless.
Ian rubbed his eyes, gasping for air. The soot and smoke clutched at his eyes, the flames desperately trying to steal the air from his lungs. He needed a revolver, just something better than a rock that he could hurl at Bauer. The pilot looked at his hands helplessly. The Hellgate elixir increased his size and strength monstrously, but with that came a price. He was too large to hold anything delicate: bandages, revolvers, anything of the kind were now beyond him until the drug had run its course. When that would be, Ian had no idea, for he had taken a double dose. If he could only get some air to clear his head! If only for a moment. Then, he glanced at the machine next to him. There was a way!
Quickly, the pilot scrambled atop the spider-like war machine. He was too large to slide comfortably inside, since the controls were better suited for someone not drunk on Hellgate elixir. However, by laying flat across the top of the nightmarish tank, he could still reach down and punch at the controls with thick fingers.
A few stabs later, the tank’s clockwork engine and steam boiler roared to life. Garish blue lights from arc lanterns danced inside cabin, and an array of valves showed a rapidly rising steam pressure. Ian licked his bloody, cracked lips. He jerked the control lever around; the twin lightning cannons swiveled about obediently. The pilot took a deep, hesitant breath. He hoped the capacitors held some charge. Desperately, he stabbed the firing button, nearly breaking it in the process.
A loud hum filled the air, and Ian felt the hair on the back of his arms stand up. The war machine was built so that the operator would sit inside the device, where the insulation would protect them as the twin high-powered streams of electrified water were fired. Ian, however, was outside that cabin. The pilot closed his eyes when he heard the rush of water, knowing what was about to happen.
“Bloody hell, Rosa,” Ian said, “I’m sorry. I just can’t let him keep killin’, even if no one’s comin’ to help.” The pilot whispered a silent prayer, in hopes his idea would succeed. He took a deep breath then exhaled. “I never thought I’d go out like this.”
The water shot out of the twin barrels, brilliant white lightning exploding all around as the combined blast slammed into the ground not far from Peter Bauer. The Fomorian leader was pitched high into the air, thrown face first into a neat stack of gas canisters. Lightning exploded outward, clawing at whatever it could find: metal tools, wooden tables, unfortunate Fomorians, and even the other Arachnae-shaped war machines.
Atop the tank, lightning raked across Ian’s battered form. The pilot shook violently while the stray energy burned scorch marks across his arms, back and legs. Slowly, desperately, Ian pulled on the control lever with shaking hands, the stray lightning playing hell with the inside of the tank’s interior. The turret turned, dragging the twin electrified streams of water across the cavern. The high-pressure streams of death punched through anything in their path, scraping aside Fomorians and exploding gas canisters like overripe melons.
At last, it came to rest on Ian’s actual target. Two crates of nitro-glycerin vials waited next to an open crate of dynamite near the main entrance to the man-made cavern. Ian was not sure if the dynamite would detonate, but the impact of the water combined with the staggering effect of the lightning was sure to have an effect on the notoriously unstable nitro-glycerin.
He was not wrong.
Within seconds, the chemicals ignited from the savagery committed on them. In a hot flash, momentarily brighter than the sun, a mammoth fireball that filled that entire end of the cavern, belched up and out! The double doors buckled, bent, and flew outward onto the dirt ramp leading to the surface. The cavern shook while the fireball punched a hole upwards in the roof, sending flames hundreds of feet into the night sky above.
At the Arachnae war machine, valves – not intended to suffer the brunt of the elemental forces unleashed in the cabin – popped and snapped angrily. Pipes burst, followed by searing hot steam! The machine tore itself apart, electrified water shooting out through damaged joints, and finally throwing Ian to one side like a discarded rag doll. The pilot crashed to a stop amid a pile of flaming debris, next to a ruptured canister spewing a cloud of foul, mustard-smelling gas.
He opened his eyes for a moment. Across the cavern, he watched while Dr. Von Patterson, bleeding from an ugly cut on her forehead, carefully lifted her daughter in her arms. She glanced around with a worried look on her face, as if she searched for someone.
“Go on,” Ian muttered thickly. “Get her away. Take ‘em all away. I hope to bloody hell someone’s there.”
Eventually, Maria – with a battered honor guard of surviving sailors from the Fair Winds – raced for the cool of the night above. All of the victims from the Fair Winds that Ian knew of, were away. He sighed, feeling the elixir’s effects begin to leave him, replaced by a burning, twitching sensation over his entire body. None of that mattered to Ian. The victims were free from hell. They now had a chance.
A single tear slid unbidden down Ian’s cheek. His arms suddenly felt too heavy to lift. His body slowly transformed back to a more normal, human figure. He gradually closed his eyes, at first fighting against the relentless darkness, only to eventually, quietly surrender. Nearby, the ruptured Arachnae tank collapsed onto its side with a deafening crash.
Through the wreckage there was a dim burst of static as the opti-telegraphic in the tank came to life. The telegraphic receiver arm tapped frantically, keying out the message it received. A mechanical voice squawked distantly: “Sender: Brass Griffin, Privateer Class. Emergency message as follows: We are here. Get anyone needing rescue to the open. Does anyone receive Respond. Repeat, get all rescuees to the open, immediately.”