The Dragoon's Challenge

Michael Panush

Quincy Quill awoke to a rat with sparrow's wings soared out of the open window of his attic room. His eyes flashed open as he watched the low light of morning in through the dusty glass of his room. The rats always flew away at morning, and returned in the evening. Quincy didn't mind them much. They served as a sort of alarm, telling him when he should be awake for his daily duties. They were a little strange, he supposed. But where he lived, in Chestnut Hollow inside the one of many Lunatic Kingdoms on the Moon, rats with wings were normal enough.

They were chimeras, creations of some occult artist who worked in the flesh of animals, that had escaped and gone feral. Chimeras were common on the moon, both as wild beasts and pack animals, and Quincy had seen donkeys with crocodile heads pulling wagons in the cramped streets, elephants with turtle shells serving as mounts for nobles, and cunning serpentine raccoons sneaking food away from the tables of his inn. Compared to some of the other things lurking in the dark tunnels of the moon, winged rats were a fairly ordinary sight.

Quincy dressed quickly, his pale blue eyes darting out of the attic window at the crowded street. He was thirteen-years-old and scrawny as a plucked chicken. His russet colored hair was tangled and he wore spectacles, giving him the appearance of some shabby owl. He wore a high-colored shirt, a brown vest and tattered forest green frock coat, with shined shoes, breeches and stockings. Quincy worked as an apprentice for hire, serving a new master every couple of days, and he always tried to dress the part.

The boy was not merely another set of hands and eyes. He was a Glyme Lad, one of the few products of an experiment meant to create children with deep reserves of knowledge at birth. The sorcerers and natural philosophers of the Hermetic Kingdom – one of the major powerhouses on the moon – had stuffed thousands of tomes' worth of thoughts into the boy's head at infancy. Quincy knew the make-up and power of an ounce of phlogiston, the proper stone arrangement of a geomancy charm, and the feeding habits of dragons. He didn't know who his parents were, or anything else about his birth.

The Glymde Lads, named after the link-boys of old London on earth, had met with little success, with most of the subjects going mad, but Quincy had survived. After the project fell apart, Quincy had been taken in by the innkeeper of the Selene's Rest and his wife, and now earned his passage by working as an apprentice. It was a decent life, Quincy supposed, though he had never known anything else.

Quincy pulled his coat around his shoulders and smoothed back his hair. His attic room consisted of a worn cot and books, scattered around the floor in tottering stacks like a library after a storm. Quincy maneuvered around them as he walked to the stairwell. He found more comfort in facts than people, and increased his reserves of knowledge during his free time.

After going carefully down the stairs, avoiding the squeaky steps to preserve the precious sleep of the boarders of the Selene's Rest, Quincy made it to the bottom floor and the dining room. Already, some of the other boarders were up and munching on Helene Sittle's breakfast – a delectable assortment of eggs, warm bread and cold milk. Quincy took his seat and waited for Helene Sittle to place a plate before him.

"Ah, Quincy!" she said, patting his shoulder as she handed him her food. She was a large woman, with brown hair in a simple bun, wearing a peasant's dress. "How's our little genius on this fine morning?"

"I'm not really a genius, ma'am," Quincy replied. "Thank you for the food. I'm fine, also. To answer your question." He winced. Conversation was always a little difficult for him, some side effect of the Glyme Lad spells. "I'm going to work today."

"On a Saturday? Oh, that's a rare shame, dear Quincy." Helene and her husband liked Quincy. He was not quite a son to them, but they cared for him just the same. "Mary and her friends are going to the market, down in Nocturne Hollow. Maybe you'd care to join them, if you ain't working the whole day that is."

"I'm serving a dragoon," Quincy explained. "I don't really know the hours. Though I would sort of like to go. With Mary, to the market, I mean." Mary was the daughter of the Sittles. She was a lovely girl, and Quincy was absolutely terrified of her. He hurriedly stuffed a piece of bread into his mouth, preventing himself from having to say anything more to Mrs. Sittle.

Mrs. Sittle nodded, and her eyes fluttered. "Ah, a dragoon. They sure are handsome, ain't they? In their fine white uniforms with epaulettes and braids and ribbons and all." She looked down at Quincy. "But it could be dangerous, couldn't it? They enforce the law, and that can be troublesome, up here on the moon."

Quincy nodded. "I suppose it could be. But I should be all right. I have a detailed knowledge of the lunar criminal underworld, and our entire law code, of the Six Kingdoms and the Star Chamber, and I know that—"

Mary Sittle entered the room. She grabbed some bread from the table as she hurried out the door, then stopped and looked at Quincy. "Oh," she said, giving him a quick smile. "Hello there, Quincy. Good morning." Her brown hair was in single braid, which curled around her shoulder. Her eyes were dark and her face was kind and exceedingly pretty when she smiled.

"H-hello there, Mary," Quincy said. "G-good morning." He parroted her words like an imbecile. He felt like had swallowed a bucket of hot coals. Quincy always did, when he was around Mary. She was pretty and smart and kind, and he was a cast-off laboratory experiment. There wasn't anything more to be said. "I hope you and y-your friends have a good time. Today, I mean. At the market."

"Thank you," Mary said. They stared at each other for a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, broken only by the munches of the boarders on their breakfasts. Quincy considered asking her if he could come along. He felt nervous around Mary, and even worse around her friends from school, but maybe it would be worth it. He fumbled to try and think of the right words, knowing very well that she could easily turn him down, and he wouldn't blame her for it.

Heavy boot steps in the hall distracted him. Helene Sittle moved to the door. "Quincy, dear!" she called. "There's a dragoon here. Must be your employer for the day."

With a mixture of relief and disappointment, Quincy turned to the door. A dragoon stood there, resplendent in his white uniform with gold trim. He was a giant of a man, completely bald with a thick down-swept moustache and broad shoulders under golden epaulettes. He carried a shako, white with gold thread, under a large arm, and had a battleaxe on his belt and a multi-barreled musketoon on his shoulder.

"Which one is Quill?" he asked, speaking with a thick Russian accent. Europeans of all kinds made up the residents of the Lunatic Kingdom, but the dragoon's Russian was thick as snow. "I am Sergeant Boris Vulkov, and he is to assist me."

Quincy stepped up from the table, straightened his collar as he faced the Slavic giant. "That's me, sir. I'm the Glyme Lad you sent for." He saw the Russian's eyes look him and up down, and shivered in the warmth of the inn. "Is there a problem, Sergeant Vulkov?"

"I thought you'd be bigger. Dragoon work is tough work."

"I understand, sir. I have an extremely detailed knowledge of…well, everything, so my size should not be an issue." He heard Mary laugh and felt his face grow red. "Should we go outside, sir? And maybe I can start the day's work?"

"Maybe." Sergeant Vulkov started to the door, and Quincy hurried after him. He turned around and waved quickly to Mary, and she waved back. Then he followed Vulkov out of the inn and into the crowded street. He stayed close to the large Russian, which wasn't hard. The dragoon was like an island in a sea of other people.

Chestnut Hollow was an upper lower class residence, a complex warren of overlapping houses, sheds, taverns, inns, markets and more, all connected by cobblestone streets inside a great hollowed-out section of gray moon rock. The streets were crowded with peddlers and their stalls, chimeras of a hundred different mixed species, thin-legged moon spiders weaving their way through the crowd, and even the occasional wealthy sorcerer or wizard, resplendent in a cloak of exotic brocade and accompanied by some clanking automaton or flitting elemental familiar.

As Quincy stepped into the street, a thin hand grabbed the hem of his coat. He turned and looked down to see Mad Mungo tugging at his coat like a hungry dog. "You must be careful, boy!" Mad Mungo was a Bedlamite, one of the many sorcerers who had lost their mind through their experiments. "Trouble ahead! Trouble and disease and rats, oh, endless rats! You be careful, Quincy!" Mungo begged food from the inn and Quincy was always kind to the ragged former wizard.

"Yes, sir," Quincy agreed, nodding assiduously. "I'll be sure to watch out for any rats, or other bad things. Thank you."

"Go with the Gods!" Mungo cried, slumping back into the alcove that served as his home. "Like cures like!" Quincy hurried to catch up to his employer for the day.

Vulkov barreled through the crowd towards the highway entrance at the end of town. Highways, large tunnels equipped with phlogiston-powered railways, provided transportation between the various Hollows. Sergeant Vulkov seemed to have little time for cluttered Chestnut Hollow. He looked down at Quincy, his brow furrowed as he placed his shako on his head. "You know the history of the moon, yes?" he asked.

"I do, sir." Quincy cleared his throat. They were nearing the edge of Chestnut Hollow, and sleek open-topped train, a chariot as it was called, waited for them on the railway. "At the dawning of the Enlightenment Age, the great magical talents of earth, disgusted with their persecution by religious authorities and so-called scientific minds, decided to leave the bounds of earth and establish a new world here on the moon, where they would be free to delve into the depths of occultism without outside interference." He spoke from memory, nodding to himself as he continued. "They established the six Lunatic Kingdoms, all under the command of the Lunar Regent and his Star Chamber council. And they started the dragoons to impose law."

Vulkov nodded. "You speak the truth. But there are many who are unhappy with things on the moon. Smugglers often sneak to earth, to buy the strange, pitiful little contraptions that are made there and take them here. And there are other criminals, robbers, murderers and gangs. And the highwaymen, of course. That's what we're dealing with."

"Has there been a robbery, sir?" Quincy asked.

Sergeant Vulkov shrugged. "Yes. This morning, the Easterly chariot was attacked by highwaymen, led by the notorious Alejandro De Ventura, who took everything from the passengers at musket-point. But that is not the problem. Dr. Everly Mosh, an alchemist of no small skill, claims that he was robbed of some extremely dangerous material. We'll have to get it back."

They walked onto the platform, joining several carts, animals, and passengers as the conductor pressed down several levers and sent the chariot rolling forward. It was an ornate vehicle, the golden sides and hardwood floor covered with intricate drawings of wind spirits, cherubs and other decorations and symbols of speed. The conductor in his crimson uniform pressed one of the cranks and his chariot sped forward into the tunnel, moving at great speed past the gray stone.

Quincy nearly fell down when the chariot started, but Sergeant Vulkov grabbed his shoulder with a mammoth hand. "Don't fall off," Vulkov said darkly. "These things go fast."

"I know their exact speed, sir," Quincy agreed. "Thank you." He put his hands in his coat and sat down, while Sergeant Vulkov stood and stared forward. Quincy tried to think of something to say. Next to him, a wrinkled, wizened gnome, an earth elemental serving some magician, was busily picking its nose and flicking the contents off the side of the chariot. Quincy looked back at the dragoon. Vulkov looked quizzically at the boy, like he was a puzzle the dragoon couldn't figure out.

Vulkov removed his shako and set it on his knee. "That little girl, at your inn. What is her name?"

"Mary, sir. Mary Sittle. She's, well, she's very nice." Quincy smiled to himself, ignoring the foul fumes of the nearby gnome. The chariot rolled under a separate tunnel, and Quincy caught a glimpse of another chariot, speeding off to some other destination above them. "Actually, if this job ends before the evening, I was considering going with her to the market in Nocturne Hollow. I'd have to ask her, of course and…" he trailed off. "I'm sorry, sir. You probably don't want to hear about any of this."

"You want to ask her," Vulkov replied. "But you are afraid, yes?"

"Yes, sir." Quincy's voice was very small.

"Ah. Well, young Quincy, perhaps you are braver than you think you are." Vulkov leaned back. "There is a way station where Dr. Mosh is waiting for us. Wake me when we arrive." His eyes fell shut, like a switch had been turned, and he fell asleep in seconds.

Quincy stayed awake, staring forward into the darkness of the highway tunnel. Was he braver than he thought he was? It didn't seem so, even if he did apprentice himself to a dragoon in a job that was sure to be a little dangerous. But talking to Mary seemed something else entirely. He shook the thoughts from his mind, and mentally recited detailed lists of the moon's criminal underworld, until they reached the way station.

After waking up Sergeant Vulkov, the dragoon and the Glyme Lad headed up to the two-story way station, where chariots changed tunnels and passengers rested. It was a strange structure, a mixture of inn, watering station and supplies store built straight up into the rock, with several tunnels and moving chariot platforms set within. It was all built of gray lunar rock, and a dozen large moon spiders were clambering about on webbed ladders, performing routine repairs to the complex clockwork machinery.

Vulkov and Quincy headed upstairs, past a bulky bipedal automaton, spewing steam as it hauled a crate of glowing rune stones in its riveted metal hands. Sergeant Vulkov's large legs carried him quickly to the top of the stairwell, to a small waiting room of worn tables and chairs before a sausage vendor in a tin cart. Sergeant Vulkov stamped his boots on the floor with military precision. "Dr. Everly Mosh," he said. "Where is he?"

"That would be me, my good dragoon." Dr. Mosh sat in the back, at a table filled with half-empty bottles of sherry, whiskey and black rum. Mosh was a portly man, wearing a worn traveler's cloak, a capotain affixed with a ruby clasp, and thick gloves. But the oddest thing about him was the plague mask he wore, a strange beaked visage of steel and leather, with glass goggles that covered his eyes. His facial features were completely hidden under the mask. "And I do wish you could have hurried. We may all be undone."

Vulkov and Quincy walked over to join him. "This is Quincy Quill," Vulkov said. "He is a Glyme Lad."

"Good heavens." Dr. Mosh pulled back his mask to pour a squirt of whiskey down his throat. "They send some bear of a Russian and a failed experiment that's still clutching his mother's skirts. The moon is surely doomed."

"I am an orphan, sir," Quincy said, looking at his shoes as his face went red. "I never knew my mother. Now, if it's really important, perhaps you should tell us what was stolen from you, instead of complaining about us." Talk about his parents angered him, even though he had no memory of them.

Mosh shrugged. "Very well. I was just robbed, as you know, by a vicious gang of highwaymen. They were masked, but you say it was De Ventura who led them. If this is so, he must be stopped. For he is now in possession of a certain alchemical experiment of mine, the Anacea I have christened it, that could empty the moon of all life within a day."

"Why did you make this thing?" Vulkov asked. "Are you stupid, for being so smart?"

Dr. Mosh gulped. "I attempted to make something else and I failed."

"A Panacea?" Quincy asked. "A cure to all diseases and endless health?"

Mosh nodded. "Smart lad," he said. "And yes, I wished to create a Panacea in bottled form. I attempted to include a little of every disease and illness within the potion, along with the essences of vermin, insects, and lepers. But instead of a cure for every disease, I merely created a potion of concentrated sickness, which spread through the air, stone, and touch, and – if opened – could destroy every living thing on the moon." He rested his masked head in his hands, his bravado gone. "And now it's in the hand of some criminal Spaniard. I am a poor alchemist indeed."

Quincy suddenly felt sorry for the deflated doctor. "You had good intentions, sir," he said. "And we'll get it back. We'll stop De Ventura from opening it. I promise."

Dr. Mosh looked up, his eyes suddenly bright in his mask. "I hope that you do, lad, with all of my heart." He lowered his head. "Or else all is lost."

Sergeant Vulkov stood up. "Come, Quincy," he ordered, turning away from Mosh and making for the exit. "We are going to Craterburg."

"The outlaw city?" Quincy asked, hastening to catch up to the dragoon. Craterburg was a town built on the surface of the moon, hidden forever in the shadows and unanswerable to the Star Council or any of the six Lunatic Kingdoms. It was under the control of a government of criminals, led by a fabled individual known as the Crime Keeper General and named Dennison Day. "But how are we going to get there, sir? The tunnels to that settlement are all out of service, and we don't have the time to walk."

Vulkov shrugged. "Simple. A number of mounts for the dragoons are kept at way stations. We will simply get a ride."

"What sort of ride, sir?"

Quincy swore he could see the hint of a smile playing around Vulkov's mouth. "You shall see, young Quincy. I think you will like it."

A few minutes later they rode hard through the abandoned tunnels, mounted on the back of an armored rhinoceros. Heavy steel plates covered the rhino's sides, clanking with each step of the beast's thick legs. A lantern hung from a stout pole attached to the rhino's shoulder, providing a circle of light through the cavernous empty tunnel. A wooden palanquin topped the rhino, with seats for Quincy and Sergeant Boris Vulkov.

Quincy held tightly to the edge of his seat, wincing with every movement of the snorting rhino. He looked down the dark tunnel, watching a pack of feral chimeras, bats mixed with wolves, scatter as the rhino ran past. He knew much about Craterburg, their destination, from his reading and innate knowledge. It was a city of smugglers and highwaymen, with its own cruel code of law and power. But one thing about Craterburg still perplexed even him.

"Sergeant Vulkov, sir?" he asked. "If you and the other dragoons know where Craterburg is, and you know where that's where the thieves congregate, why not move against it and remove it? It must be well-defended, but if all dragoons are as strong and fearless as you, then it would seem a simple enough task."

Vulkov snorted. "Perhaps we could do something like that," he said. "Perhaps we'd ever have a chance at winning. But many people, in the Lunatic Kingdoms and in the Star Chamber, find it useful to have the thieves around. The Hadean Kingdom needs Resurrection Men to steal corpses for their experiments. The Templar Kingdom needs hired murderers to enact their petty hierarchical killings. And so the thieves live on – by being useful."

"It's still not right," Quincy said, looking at his polished shoes. "It just doesn't seem right." He looked back at Vulkov and once again, swore he saw the stoic dragoon smiling faintly.

Sergeant Vulkov turned back to the tunnel. "Some would call you naïve, young Quincy, that you don't tolerate the scum of the highways. But I say that you should never lose your sense of justice." He pulled on the reins of the rhino, slowing the great beast. "Get down," he commanded. "We are about to be ambushed."

"What?" Quincy asked, dropping to his knees. "But, sir, how did you—"

"I smelled them." Vulkov pointed ahead. "There they are."

Half a dozen men, all dressed in black cloaks, tricornes and matching domino masks, stepped out from behind the rocks, their garments rustling as they leveled muskets and blunderbusses at the slowing rhinoceros. Their leader wore a tall top hat, and swished his rapier around as he approached them. "Stand and deliver!" he cried. "I am Baron Von Blutch, Lord of the highwaymen, and you have ridden into my clutches! Count yourself lucky to leave with your lives!"

Vulkov hopped out of the rhino. "Funny place for the lord of all highwaymen to be," he said. "Far away from any actual traffic to be robbed." He walked calmly towards Von Blutch, reaching for the stout battleaxe in his belt. "One would almost think you are a poltroon." Vulkov towered above Von Blutch, taller and wider than the spindly highwayman.

With a snarl, Von Blutch plunged forward with his rapier. "Stinking dog!" he cried. "My blade shall pierce your—" Almost casually, Vulkov swung his axe against the rapier, a backhanded blow that sent the sword spinning through the air until it sunk into the dirt.

The highwaymen raised their muskets to pour a volley into Sergeant Vulkov, but the dragoon was quicker. He pulled his musketoon from the sheath on his back, cocking both hammers as he swung it to face the robbers. "Draw on me," he said. "And die." The muskets clattered to the ground, the highwaymen surrendering like leafs before a strong wind.

Von Blutch tried to dash backwards, but Vulkov grabbed the scruff of his neck with a free hand and hurled the highwayman through the air. Von Blutch sank to the ground, mewling piteously before the dragoon.

"You're name is Arnold Pramper," Vulkov said. "You're a low-ranking footpad for the Crime Keeper General with delusions of grandeur."

"C-call me Von Blutch, if you please," Pramper winced. "Or Herr Baron, if you don't mind."

"Well, baron, I need an audience with the Crime Keeper General." Vulkov grabbed Baron Von Blutch's hand and hauled him up. "And you'll take me to him. Or maybe I'll tell him how you got a-hold of those fine suits and flintlocks. I have a feeling you stole them, and not from highway passengers either."

"Heh. No honor among thieves, right?" Von Blutch said, his grand accent gone. He lowered his head, and pulled away his domino mask to reveal a squinty-eyed face full of pock marks. "Well, come along then. Let's get up to the crater. You wait here, lads," he added to his men. He turned around, letting Vulkov follow him. The rhino plodded after its master, and Quincy sat back in his seat, staring with wide eyes as the tunnel sloped upwards into the strangest city he had ever seen.

They came out of the tunnel and onto the main street of Craterburg, a packed thoroughfare and black market, catering too every kind of vice imaginable. It was a sprawl of a city, with packed taverns and gambling halls spewing their residents into the street like smoke from fire. Above it all, a massive glass dome reached up and kept Craterburg safe from the vastness of cold black space and twinkling stars in the distance.

In the center of Craterburg was a mock cathedral, a church of crime made of decaying gothic stone. The gargoyles and crucifixes had been defaced by obscene graffiti, and statues of Grecian figures in lewd attitudes stood before the aged stone. Flags and pennants bearing the broken chains, symbols of the Crime Keeper General, fluttered from the edifices of the cathedral. This was the capitol of vice on the moon, and the home of the Crime Keeper General.

Vendors offered large stacks of strange good smuggled from earth, and Quincy saw round boxes projecting flickering images onto their screens, as well as silver discs that played strange music when inserted into rectangular apparatuses. The cacophony of crime echoed through Craterburg, as hawkers offered girls, games and more, and arguments were settled with sword and pistol.

Sergeant Vulkov looked back at Quincy and motioned for the boy to join him on foot. Quincy stepped out of the rhino's palanquin, tripped and tumbled to the filthy ground. Vulkov helped him up. "Stay with me," he said. "There are slavers here, kidnappers and murderers. I would not have you be taken by them."

"And whom do they sell people to, sir?" Quincy asked, feeling a tinge of fear breathe to life inside of him like a sudden flame in his guts. "There can't be many customers for that sort of thing."

"You'd be surprised. The Lunatic Kingdoms are connected deeply to the sinner's trade, young Quincy." Vulkov shook his head. "Rest assured, the moon has rot at its core." The dragoon suddenly pointed forward. "Ten thousand hells! There he is! There's De Ventura!"

Quincy followed Sergeant Vulkov's thick finger. He was pointing to a Spaniard with pointed blonde mustachios, who was looking through several glossy large dirty pamphlets smuggled up from earth, while he waited in line to enter the cathedral of crime.

Alejandro De Ventura wore a silken crimson frock coat and a broad-brimmed hat with a large red feather in the brim. He set down the magazine when he spotted Vulkov and turned away. He started running for the entrance of the cathedral, drawing his sword and forcing away the other people in line with quick swipes of his blade. Quincy spotted a clay potion, tucked under De Ventura's arm.

Von Blutch looked nervously back at Vulkov. "Must we follow him?" he asked.

"We must," the dragoon agreed. "You first."

They ran after De Ventura, while Sergeant Vulkov drew out his musketoon. "Stop, you miscreant!" he bellowed, but De Ventura wasn't listening. The Spaniard hurried ahead, running straight for the double doors of the cathedral. He pushed his way inside.

Quincy hurried forward, passing Sergeant Vulkov and Von Blutch. Quincy's eyes were locked on the clay jar under De Ventura's arm, watching it rise and fall as the highwayman ran. A single misstep, a simple drop and the jar would shatter on the hard flagstones, spilling pure death through Craterburg and the moon.

"Stop! Please!" Quincy cried. "You don't know what—" He slid between the doors and ran into a wide chamber, the throne room of the Crime Keeper General. Quincy's voice died on his lips as he looked around the cavernous chamber. Crime lords dressed in fine frock coats and wigs stood in the corners, watching him with angry eyes. In the throne at the far side of the room, flanked by a pair of gorgeous strumpets in flowery dresses and towers of dyed hair, was the Crime Keeper General.

His name was Dennison Day and he was a thin, lupine man, looking almost ill at ease in his golden coat, matching vest and cravat. He wore a long wig that reached down to his waist, the dark horsehair curled perfectly. A long sword rested on his legs. The Crime Keeper General looked down at De Ventura and Quincy through a pair of spectacles on a chain around his neck.

"Ah," he said. "My dear Alejandro. You have the money you owe us, I believe." He held out his hand and one of his women handed him a thick leather-bound book, overflowing with tattered pages. The Crime Keeper General flipped it open to a certain spot and nodded. "Of course, if you don't….well, there's already one cross next to your name, my dear Alejandro. We could make it a double-cross. You know what happens then." He held out his hand, and the second of his handmaidens passed him a pearl-handed razor.

De Ventura smiled. "No need for that, my sultan of sin and viscount of vice. I have payment enough."

"Surely, you don't mean the boy?" the Crime Keeper asked with a bemused smile. "We wouldn't pay half-a-silver for him, and we can tell by his rags that he's not anyone worth ransoming."

Quincy adjusted his collar. "They're not that bad," he whispered to himself. Sergeant Vulkov and Von Blutch walked over to stand behind him. The Crime Keeper General didn't seem to notice, but De Ventura eyed them warily.

"N-no, sir," De Ventura cried. He held up the clay jar. "This is a potion of priceless value. This simple libation can cure all diseases, solve all problems, achieve immortality and accomplish God only knows how many other miracles. Wiser souls than I have christened it, the 'Panacea.' Doubtlessly, this should make up for a thousand debts. But I humbly give it to you, only to make up for one."

De Ventura dropped to his knees and held out the clay jug. Quincy shook his head, stepping between De Venture and Crime Keeper Day. "No! Don't take that, sir! You don't understand! It's not an Panacea at all! It's an Anacea, full of disease and death and it could destroy all life on the moon!"

Crime Keeper Day looked up at Quincy. "You interrupt my court, impudent little sniveler? We may be criminals, but we still have our decorum. And you have violated it." His eyes flashed up to Sergeant Vulkov. "And you have brought a dragoon into our midst. We have little use for the hounds of the Lunar Regent here."

Quincy could feel the eyes of the Court of Crime upon him and he felt pricks of fear running down the back of his neck. He took a step back, and nearly tripped. "I'm s-sorry, sir," he told the Crime Keeper. "But that really is very poisonous and it needs to be properly stored. It could r-really be disastrous if it got out."

Sergeant Vulkov nodded his head. "He speaks the truth, Day. I have no love for your criminal empire, but I will not allow that potion to be opened."

"So you threaten us, eh, dragoon?" Day leaned back in his throne, shrugging his shoulder. "You gaudily dress buffoon." He sneered down at De Ventura. "Drink that potion, Alejandro. Swallow it down, and show our sergeant how wrong he is."

Alejandro De Ventura looked back from Day to Vulkov and then to Quincy. "It's poison?" he asked. "Madre de Dios. I thought the alchemist fool was lying, to keep me from stealing. My lord of sin, I swear, I did not know!"

"Drink it." Day held up the razor. "Or you'll be choking on your own blood."

Quincy wanted to tell Alejandro to turn and run, but there was no time. De Ventura raised the clay jug to his mouth, using his teeth to pull out the cork. "God have mercy on me," he said, and upended the jug. Dark green water, thick and viscous as mucus, poured into his mouth. Alejandro De Ventura swallowed the entirety of the jug and let it fall with a clatter to the ground. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. De Ventura rested a hand on his chest.

"S-sir?" Quincy asked. "Are you all right?" His mind raced, trying to think of possible cures. The mages who had created him had shoved book after book into his memory, including medicinal and alchemical texts. But sifting through them, moving through his memory, was like trying to grab a fistful of sand.

"Hmmm?" De Ventura gulped. "Oh. I suppose I'm—" He opened his mouth and a great gout of green smoke poured out, followed by thick streams of mucus that trickled down his chin. He sank down to his knees, as bulges appeared in his throat and chest.

"Good heavens!" Quincy cried. Vulkov grabbed his hand and started pulling him to the doors, while panic ran through the other members of the court of crime. Even the Crime Keeper General leapt away from his throne, and ran for the door. Quincy looked back at Sergeant Vulkov. "Sir, we have to save him!"

"If we stay here, young Quincy, we will die," Vulkov said, and Quincy knew he was telling the truth. "Now stay with me."

They ran to the doors, already pressing open under the crowd of criminal courtiers. Vulkov swung the musketoon from his back and fired, blasting open the chain around the door and letting them open. The Crime Keeper hurried into the street, his courtiers following him. Quincy and Vulkov were close behind, and the boy risked a glance over his shoulder, back into the cathedral.

De Ventura continued to spew out pure disease, a seemingly endless blast of dark green muck shooting out of his mouth like a grotesque fountain. Quincy could make out solid, writhing objects within the green liquid. There were beetles, clumps of worms, swarms of smaller insects and even furry, snarling rats the rival of dogs for size. Quincy turned away, his stomach churning as Vulkov pulled him into the street.

The thieves slammed the door shut, pressing their back against it to hold it closed. The Crime Keeper General tried to restore his decorum, adjusting his long wig and cravat. "Well," he said. "It appears you were correct, dragoon. Is there are a way of stopping the Anacea's spread?"

Vulkov shook his head. "The way to stop it would be not getting that stupid Spaniard to drink it. Now that he has done that, it will spread through Craterburg, through the tunnels and through the moon, kill all with its sickening touch." He reached for his axe. "Maybe I should finish you first, Day. For the satisfaction it will bring me."

"Wait!" Quincy looked back at the closed doors. "No, there's a way to stop it. I know there is." He tapped the side of his forehead. "It's in here, hidden like a buried treasure under the sand. I can think of a solution." He sat down on the ground, resting his head in his hands. He considered the disease caused by the Anacea, and the forces which had made it.

He thought of Paracelsus and Agrippa, all the great natural philosophers, magi and alchemists, considering their works and teachings. Like cures like -- that was the driving force behind the creation of the Anacea. Perhaps it could stop it as well.

Sergeant Vulkov held up his axe, and every thief and reprobate in the city fell silent. It was strange, to hear not even a hushed curse leave the throats of the rogues of Craterburg. Quincy finally nodded. "Like cures like," he said, coming to his feet. "We need more vermin, something more diseased, to cancel out the affects of the Anacea."

"And what would possibly do that?" Baron Von Blutch asked. "Oh, we're doomed! Better repent before the plague takes us all to Hell!"

"A chimera. Two creatures, melded together, introduced into the center of the Anacea. It would overwhelm the alchemy, and put a stop to it." Quincy looked around at the nervous faces of Craterburg's citizenry. "I know it doesn't make too much sense, but it's magic. It doesn't have to."

"So we get a chimera?" Vulkov asked. "And shove it down De Ventura's throat?'

"I s-suppose so," Quincy agreed.

The dragoon nodded. "I knew there was a reason I brought you along," he said. He looked back at the criminals, raising his voice to an ursine bellow. "Find him a chimera!" he shouted. "And hurry!"

"Do as he says!" Crime Keeper General Day ordered. "Our very lives depend on his success!"

The crowd scattered, each criminal hurrying off to try and find the needed creature. Vulkov and Quincy watched the door. Green strands of poisonous smoke leaked out through the cracks in the wooden double doors, floating into the street. Quincy still felt sick, like his guts were trying to climb into his throat. He looked up at Vulkov, and found the Russian dragoon as stalwart and strong as ever.

"We'll have to go in there, won't we, sir?" Quincy asked. "To administer the cure?"

"You don't have to, young Quincy," Vulkov replied. "If you don't want to."

"No." Quincy shook his head as he looked back at the doors. "I'll go with you."

Vulkov patted his shoulder, nearly knocking him to the ground. "I knew it," Vulkov said.

"Knew what?"

"That you were braver than you thought you were."

Before Quincy could consider the Russian's words, one of the Crime Keeper's subjects raised a wired cage, containing a winged rat chimera. "This will work!" he cried, handing it to the Crime Keeper. "Foulest beasties in the air!"

With an upturned nose, the foppish crime lord handed the cage to Quincy. "Good luck," he said. "And God be with you."

"Thank you, sir," Quincy said, taking the cage and opening it. A rat with sparrow's wings fluttered around inside, and Quincy grabbed it and tucked the animal under his arm. He could feel its little arms, scratching like needles into his skin, but he ignored it. Vulkov readied his axe and musketoon. Both of them faced the door. "Right," Quincy said, pushing his glasses up his thin nose. "No use in waiting. Let's go."

With a roar, Sergeant Vulkov ran to the doors. He swung his axe, crashing it into the wood and forcing it open. He leapt inside and Quincy followed him. They charged straight into a swirling green hell of choking miasmas and deadly vapors. Quincy felt his eyes water and weakness erupt in his limbs. He wanted to fall down, curl up and die, but he stayed upright and tried to look through the green mists that filled the court of crime's throne room.

Something moved towards them. Quincy tried to see what it was, and realized the size and shape of it far too late. A tide of vermin, of snarling rats and buzzing insects and worms, swept down and washed towards Quincy and Vulkov, reaching out like the terrible hand of some noxious plague god. Quincy tried to scream, and then he felt hundreds of tiny legs around him, and heard the chattering hisses of the vermin. He closed his mouth tightly.

Vulkov fired his musketoon, one barrel after the other. The tide of vermin fell back as gore and goo spew onto the walls. Quincy tried to see, and spotted the outline of De Ventura lying on his knees and as still as a statue.

"There!" Vulkov cried, swinging wide with his axe and hacking away the streams of insects. "Quincy! Get to him!"

Quincy ran for De Ventura. His polished shoes crunched on chitin and then stepped on something warm. He ignored everything, focusing on reaching his goal before his body shut down from the pure strain of his effort. He leapt forward, falling to the ground and crawling to De Ventura, as the insects crawled over his back. Quincy pulled himself along the cement, the winged rat chimera in his arms squeaking and trying to free itself.

Just as Quincy reached De Ventura's form, something pounced on him. Sharp claws dug into the boy's side, and he felt hot blood under his shirt. It was black, with red eyes and sharp teeth in a pointed snout. With a slow horror, Quincy realized that he was being attacked by a rat the size of a wolf. "S-Sergeant!" he cried, as he felt a claw reaching for his face. "Vulkov!"

The musketoon cracked away and the rat flew from his chest, a musket ball wedged in its side. Quincy came to his feet and looked up at De Ventura. On his knees, the Spaniard was as tall as the Glyme Lad. Quincy raised the winged rat. He looked into the beady eyes of the pest. "I'm sorry," he told the creature. "But you should survive this. And if I don't do this, we'll all perish."

He drew himself to his full height and plunged the winged rat into the open mouth of the Alejandro De Ventura. Quincy gritted his teeth as he forced the panicking, struggling rat down, into the spewing stream of pure disease.

It made his hands burn, and he felt tears in the corner of the eyes. He pushed down against the disgusting current, trying to introduce the chimera's essence to the Anacea. Quincy gulped in the poisonous air of the Anacea, struggling to stay upright. His skin burned and he felt like tiny clawed feet were pressing against his eyeballs. He couldn't hold any longer, and let go, tumbling back to the floor.

But the green smoke had stopped. He looked up at De Ventura. The Spaniard's eyes were wide and panicked. The rat was stuck in his mouth, tight as a cork in a bottle. De Ventura's hands wiggled as he came to his feet.

"Quincy!" Sergeant Vulkov ran to Quincy's side and picked up the boy, holding him like he was a weightless pillow in his arms. Vulkov pointed his musketoon at De Ventura as the Spaniard took a tentative step forward. Quincy watched as De Ventura reached up with both hands and touched the chimera in his mouth.

Slowly, De Ventura pulled the rat away. The panicked rat spread its sparrow's wings and fluttered away. De Ventura coughed, and a great cloud of smoke left his throat. The black smoke seeped into the air and slowly dissipated. De Ventura looked down at Vulkov and Quincy. "Thank you," he muttered. "Many thanks."

Quincy shrugged. "You're welcome, sir," he said. Darkness crept in around the corners of his vision, and he let it swoop in and take him.

When he woke up, he was lying in his cot in the attic at the Selene's Rest. He sat up, coughing as his eyes burned. A heavy hand handed him a canteen, and he drank cold clear water before looking up to see Sergeant Vulkov. Dr. Everly Mosh stood next to him, still wearing his plague mask. Helene and Mary Sittle joined him, and the girl's face was grim and frightened.

"Thank heavens," Dr. Mosh said. "He has awoken. The Anacea's hold on him is falling."

Sergeant Vulkov whispered something in Russian. "It is my fault," he said. "I should not have brought a child into my world. I should not have brought a mere apprentice on something so dangerous." He stood up. "I have left payment for you, young Quincy. More than was agreed in your contract, for you have shown the courage of a lion, and nearly perished to save the moon."

"It wasn't that bad," Quincy said. He looked at Mary, and felt his face going red instead of green. He wiped his forehead, feeling ashamed to be his bed, weakened and pathetic in front of her. "Oh, Mary, I'm s-sorry, I—"

"You need to rest a little, Quincy," Mary said. "You were very brave, Sergeant Vulkov tells me."

"I didn't feel brave," Quincy said. He closed his eyes, struggling to focus his thoughts. "Mary," he said. "Could I go with you and your friends? To m-market day, I mean? Or somewhere else? After I have recovered, I mean. I promise I won't recite any formulas or facts from my books, if you don't want me to and—"

"Of course, Quincy." Mary reached out and patted his shoulder. "I'd be happy to have you along."

Behind her, Sergeant Vulkov smiled and gave Quincy an encouraging nod.

Dr. Mosh came to his feet. "Let the lad be," he ordered. "His mind may be packed with the facts of the ages, but he is still just a child who has swallowed a great deal of poison. He needs his rest and plenty of liquids."

Helene Sittle gave Quincy a kiss on the forehead, before she and Mary left. Dr. Mosh followed them. Sergeant Vulkov was the last to leave. He held his shako under his arm. "You are not very big, young Quincy," Vulkov said. "But you have the courage of a much braver man. Perhaps someday soon, I will need another Glyme Lad. Would you like to take the job?"

"I believe I would, sir," Quincy agreed, without hesitation. Perhaps working as an apprentice to a dragoon would be difficult, but he didn't mind. He was a lot braver than he thought he was, after all.

-The End-