“What?” Duchess Von Ferrin glanced around in alarm. Only herself and Captain Hunter were visible in the room.
The captain’s smile was brittle and cold. From inside his coat, he withdrew an eight-by-four-inch brass-trimmed wooden box. It was an opti-telegraphic. Its small quartz stone glowed a cheerful pale white to show the device was broadcasting.
Von Ferrin was on her feet in an instant, her knuckles were white with anger. She glared at the captain. “You deceitful swine! You had a working opti eavesdropping on our conversation?”
Dr. Llwellyn’s voice echoed out of the device. “Madame! Control yourself! Such language, and you a duchess. Remember your manners!”
“Quiet, you elven snake!” She snapped.
Captain Hunter pushed his chair back from the table and rose to his feet. “Deceitful? Interesting choice of words given our current conversation.”
Her eyes narrowed. She clenched her jaw to bite back a reply. The duchess took a slow, deep breath to compose herself. She smoothed imaginary wrinkles from the folds of her dress. “So. What are your intentions, sir?”
Captain Hunter studied the opti-telegraphic thoughtfully. A din of excited conversation rolled from the small device between Dr. Llwellyn and two other people. Hunter turned his attention to the duchess.
“Despite your station, I would have escorted you to the brig and left you there under guard until we reached port,” he explained. “But as you pointed out there is no brig aboard. So we’ll settle for a visit to the Britannia’s officers. I’m certain they would be eager to ask you a few questions. I’d wager it would be Mr. Mason who’ll do the questioning. He’s the competent leftenant who’s been handling such matters lately.”
“I have observed the effects of his ‘competence’,” Von Ferrin replied tartly. “Well, may I collect my reticule? It’s in the cabinet there,” she asked gesturing to a cabinet on the far side of the common room. “I have a fresh handkerchief inside.”
“With respect, no.” Hunter replied sternly.
Von Ferrin’s face went stiff. “I never took you for being so rude!”
A chorus of excited conversation rattled from the opti-telegraphic. Dr. Llwellyn, in particular, sounded beside himself. But none of it was directed at the captain, so he ignored it. He drilled a hard gaze at the duchess.
“Under normal situations I am not rude, madam,” he said sternly. “Given you have tried to kill me once before, and then your activities of late, no one would blame me for being a little rude.”
“Anthony!” Dr. Llwellyn’s voice erupted out of the device.
“Not now, Doctor,” Hunter replied.
“Yes, now, damnit! Get out of there! The duchess is using clockwork as a weapon!” Llwellyn said, alarmed.
Von Ferrin’s right hand dashed for her left sleeve. At the same second, Hunter’s hand dropped for his sidearm that he had neglected to bring with him. The duchess pulled a small, palm-sized box out of her sleeve. At the touch of a button, a metal rod telescoped out of one end. Hunter and Von Ferrin lunged at each other. Hunter was a second too slow.
The duchess stabbed the metal rod against both of Hunter’s outstretched arms, then against the opti-telegraphic. A flash of light and a loud pop filled the room. Hunter was thrown backwards. He crashed into a table and tumbled to the floor. A charred opti-telegraphic landed next to him.
“You should have let me recover my handbag, Captain,” Von Ferrin said in a cold tone.
Hunter trembled from being electrocuted. He tried to stand, but when he tried he lost his balance and fell against a chair. All around him he heard the click of countless clockwork gears. It was too many to be his artificial hand. The captain remembered what they had discovered among the maps aboard the Brass Griffin. Inside, he felt a chill grip his spine.
The duchess smiled. It was a self-satisfied smile, like a predator who had cornered her prey. “Horrid, isn’t it? Feeling helpless. Weak. Powerless.” She pressed the small switch on the base of the box in her hand. The rod telescoped back inside. “And that’s what life is so much about, isn’t it? Power and control.”
“No. It isn’t,” Captain Hunter coughed. “There’s no such thing. It’s an illusion. A drug paid for in blood that does nothing but destroy everything that touches it.”
The convulsions left him while he pushed himself onto his knees. He glanced at the duchess and blinked in surprise. With a great force of will, he kept his face calm. He now understood Dr. Llwellyn’s warning. Hunter wished it had come a few minutes sooner.
Von Ferrin had remained where she stood up from the table a moment ago. But her outrage from before had vanished. In its place was a calm, cold air of superiority. She was also no longer alone. Four Autonoma Arachnae, clockwork devices often called “seamstress spiders”, had joined her. Each were as large as a man’s fist. Two crawled protectively along her shoulders, another remained on the ground, and the last stalked slowly along the duchess’ right arm. She raised her arm and smiled at the delicate brass device. It clicked a tiny pair of needle-like mandibles as if it replied to an unspoken communication. Electricity arced across the device’s metal mouth.
“Lovely aren’t they?” Her eyes slid back to the captain. “We make legions of them, yet they are given no more consideration that one would a piece of furniture. Again, Captain, ‘control’. Imagine what could be accomplished with the power to control just these simple tools. If such techniques were applied to people, it would give the rabble a purpose. A direction.”
“If one prefers mindless drones, then I see your point,” Hunter snapped back.
The duchess waved a hand and five more clockwork spiders, these half the size of the original four, appeared from behind her and scurried across the floor. Hunter clawed his way to his feet and stumbled backwards. The spiders crossed the distance to him in seconds.
The captain clenched his jaw and slowly stepped backwards to the suite’s cabin door. “I don’t know how you’ve managed this, but it’s quite impressive.”
Von Ferrin tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “You don’t? That’s interesting, captain. Here I thought you would, given how hard you worked to disrupt my work in Edinburgh with a talented physician of my acquaintance!”
The duchess pulled back the sleeve of her left arm to show a series of metal studs exposed along her forearm. She gestured once more, and five more clockwork spiders emerged from the cabinet across the room. Hunter realized from the blue-white glow on the metal studs, those were tiny antenna embedded inside Von Ferrin’s arm.
“Dr. Mary Hereford,” Hunter said in a low voice. “The murders. Her experiments with the unusual valves and gears embedded in her victims. Augmenting those victims with clockwork additions.”
“Oh, so you remember?” The duchess took a slow, menacing step towards the captain. “Dr. Hereford’s remarkable work bore amazing fruit, don’t you think? Even if it was so rudely interrupted!” Von Ferrin’s words lashed out like a whip. Her face returned to an eerie calm. “I’m surprised at you. I thought you, of all people would understand the power of merging weak flesh with the mechanical.”
Captain Hunter glanced at his artificial left hand. Two of the smaller spiders jumped forward. They missed the captain’s boot by inches. He quickly crushed them under his heel. To his horror, four more small spiders swarmed over the clockwork remains. Like ants, they carried their burden to the far side of the room. There they reassembled their clockwork comrades.
“What has this to do with the Roman knives?” Hunter demanded, changing the subject. “Or are you just delighting yourself with a new means to cause pain?”
Von Ferrin’s face lit up in anger. “For all your bluster, you are not nearly that clever, Captain. All the pieces are there.” She counted them off on her fingers. “First is Dr. Hereford’s experiments in clockwork augmentation in Edinburgh. Let’s not forget the reanimation of those corpses aboard that relay station. I thought the clockwork additions with that miraculous gemstone fascinating, didn’t you?” She raised a third finger. “Let’s not forget the blood of that charming little werewolf Angela Von Patterson.” She clenched her fist. “There is so much more, too. Don’t you see how it it all comes together? It’s like puzzles to an expanded picture.” The duchess lowered her right hand to let the one of the larger clockwork spiders scurry onto the small tea table.
She took another menacing step closer to the captain. “The knives? They are a part of this, too. Their ‘treasure’? From what one of the Mulciber monks told me before his untimely demise, it is a trove of wonders. An alloy ten times the strength of steel used to contain a ‘gearless generator’ that could harness and store the sun itself.” Von Ferrin held up a hand in mock surprise. “Oh, but let us not leave out a very important piece. A certain journal you have in your possession. One concerning the ‘proper’ reanimation of corpses? Reanimated corpses which need a tremendous amount of power to maintain?”
Hunter crushed two more spiders. Four more took their place. The captain backed away until he reached the cabin door. A spider scaled a table then leaped at him. He deftly caught it with his artificial hand, crushing a part of its body. He flung it beside him towards the corner of the room.
“And said corpses need constant maintenance to keep the bodies repaired since they won’t heal naturally,” the captain snarled. “I read the journal as well.”
“True. Unless they are infused with occasional vaccinations of were-blood, or so the theory goes.” Von Ferrin sighed mournfully. “A pity we could not keep the young girl when we had her in our possession. I suspect her bones would have been more useful than her blood. But I’m merely a sculptor who works with what she has on hand.” She smiled with a mocking, humble bow towards the captain.
“You won’t have the journal,” the captain declared. He reached back to turn the doorknob, but found it bolted. He tried to unbolt it, but two more clockwork spiders leaped at him. Hunter batted the first across the room, then crushed the other with his artificial hand. “You also will not have the knives.”
Von Ferrin smiled at Hunter like a cat. “My dear captain, I don’t need the knives. I’ve already had them in my possession for some time. Being aboard the Britannia was a means to return them. What I need is the key itself. Which, if what I’ve been told is correct, is not a ‘what’ but a ‘who’. To make sure the secret stayed hidden, the seventh knife of the set is not a part of a map, but a blueprint. It requires a clockwork engineer, an exceptional one, to assemble a device from that blueprint. I nearly had one in Edinburgh until you interfered.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Then I realized there was one better. Your brilliant Moira Wycliffe. She would be perfect as long as I held leverage to keep her under control. Namely, you. Provided you would cooperate.”
Captain Hunter grabbed a metal serving tray and tossed the contents onto the floor. Small clockwork spiders scattered from the barrage of the tea set. He unbolted the stateroom door, yanked it open, then raced down the corridor. Behind him, a nightmare of brass spiders gave chase.
Hunter turned the first corner and his world exploded in a wave of pain. He staggered back and reached for the side of his head. His hand came away bloody.
“Settle down now, Captain,” The porter, Seaman Fineas Carrol, said quietly. Carrol lowered the bloody wrench.
“Idiot!” The duchess hissed irritably from her stateroom door. “This is too public!”
Carrol glared at the duchess, then reached for Hunter. “As her grace said, back inside, Captain.”
“You took long enough, you cretin!” Von Ferrin hissed angrily.
“Wycliffe was a problem,” Carrol snapped back. “She had that charybdian woman with her. The Portuguese one.”
“Oh. Her.” Von Ferrin’s voice dripped with venom. “She is becoming a nuisance. She must be dealt with next.”
Hunter leaned against the wall as if drunk from the blow to the head. Carrol grabbed Hunter’s arm, but realized his mistake too late. The captain turned on his heel and hammered a sharp uppercut to Carrol’s stomach. The seaman grunted as the air rushed out of his lungs. Hunter grabbed the man’s collar then slammed him against the wall. Carrol’s knees buckled, and he collapsed to the floor.
“Blood and sand!” The captain swore through a fog of pain that clouded his eyes. He stumbled past Carrol, but his vision betrayed him. The hallway spun, and Hunter collapsed to one knee. He blinked to clear his vision and tried to stand. Before he could, the clockwork spiders found him.
They moved like one creature and swarmed up his leg. He tried to bat them away, but there were just too many. Needles jabbed through his trousers, his leather coat. Capacitors in the spiders discharged bolt after painful bolt of electricity. Hunter screamed until his throat was raw. He collapsed to the floor, convulsing.
Duchess Von Ferrin raced down the hallway towards the two men. Voices shouted in alarm nearby. She cursed Dr. Llwellyn three times over while she knelt and rummaged through Hunter’s pockets. Von Ferrin removed the worn, stained journal and clutched it lovingly to her chest.
Von Ferrin traced a finger tenderly along the captain’s jaw. “They’ll be here too soon for us to take you now. A pity,” she said with true remorse in her voice. “I had hoped you’d cooperate for the sake of your young Moira Wycliffe. Our little moments together have meant so much, I had hoped we could have extended those into something more substantial.” She smiled at the fantasy, then sighed with resignation. “But instead, I am forced to resort to less civilized methods to make sure of Miss Wycliffe’s cooperation. Which means, I no longer need you, Captain Anthony Hunter. Farewell.”
The duchess turned on her heel and walked briskly back down the hallway. Along the way she batted Carrol on the top of his head with the leather journal when she passed him. “Get up!” she snapped. “We have one last task to do before we’re done!”
Carrol staggered to his feet and with a final glare at Captain Hunter, followed after the Duchess Von Ferrin. Before the pair vanished around a far corner, the duchess waved one hand towards Hunter. A quartet of small clockwork spiders scurried forward and jumped at him. The snap and crackle of electricity matched the sound of his agonizing screams.