A goblin with a clockwork arm carried a tray of cigarillos across the marble floor of the great hall. The goblin had a light green face, with a thin nose and the wide, pointed ears of a bat. It wore dark red livery, its mechanical arm shining slightly in the low light of the hall. Fredrick Frost watched the goblin's approach, listening to the quiet hum of delicate clockwork machinery as the waist-high creature raised its arm to bring the tray up to its master's waiting hand. It was a Helper Hob, one of the countless little animals that lived as servants within the Lunatic Kingdoms. In his way, Frost was just as much as a servant as the goblin.
"Would you care for one, Mr. Frost?" Graff Kaspar Hess, the current employer of Frost, sat across from him in a richly upholstered divan. "They are grown in the Druidic Kingdom's Oak Hollow, from the tobacco fields raised by botanical magic." He selected a thin gray cigarillo and held it up towards the goblin. The Hob pulled a flintlock lighter from its belt and snapped the cigarillo to life. "Their scent is heady – but not unpleasant."
Graff Hess was a corpulent man, with a shabby moustache resembling a dark stain on his upper lip serving as his own visible hair. The rich embroidery of his suit, waistcoat and carefully folded cravat marked him as a member of the Hermetic Kingdom's aristocracy. The Hermetic Kingdom was an eternal enemy of their Druidic counterparts, as the artifice and engineers of the former clashed with the natural, earth-based magic of the latter. The irony of a Hermetic official smoking a rival Kingdom's cigarillos was not lost on Frost.
He shuffled in his armchair. "I'll not trouble you, sir." Frost tucked his hands into the pockets of his dark greatcoat. He wore it over a matching blast vest and a belt set with two steel-barreled flintlock pistols. A long sword on his belt and a scoped rifle slung across his shoulder showed his profession as a violent one – and working as a personal agent in the Kingdoms was violent indeed. "In fact, I'd like to know the reason why you summoned me. If that's all right with you, Graff Hess." There was a slight Irish lilt to Frost's voice. Countless centuries on the moon had not removed it from his family. His dark hair, curly and uncombed, framed a weathered face with stubble clouding his chin and keen, cold eyes.
"It is, Mr. Frost, it is." Hess's pudgy face split in a grin. It was like watching a seal bare its teeth. "Now, you were a Dragoon once, is that no so?"
"Aye." The Dragoons were the forces of law and order on the moon. Their loyalty was to none of the Lunatic Kingdoms, but to the Lunar Regent himself. However, they were a corrupt bunch and Frost did not care for their company. He'd struck out on his own.
Hess's head bobbed. "Then you know of the laws preventing the smuggling of…certain goods from the planet below us?"
"I am." There was no one on the moon who wasn't.
Earth – and everything from it – was anathema to the residents of the moon. They were the sorcerers, alchemists, wizards, and natural philosophers, who had fled from earth to avoid the coming Enlightenment and the end of magic. They had traveled to the moon on enchanted strands of spider silk and turned the gray chunk of rock into a new paradise for themselves. Great Hollows, linked by tunnels known as highways, now honeycombed the inside of the moon. There were few laws to govern the Kingdoms' citizens – and a ban on earth's technologies was chief amongst them. Of course, as Frost had learned in his time in the Dragoons, the wealthy and the powerful could often find way around such laws. It seemed that Hess had found such a way.
"Well, I have broken that law." Hess's grin began to fade. "We of the Hermetic Kingdom are engineers and we need inspiration. We need to be inspired if we are to achieve greatness. The bird cannot fly without his wings, after all." He leaned back on his divan and examined the smoldering end of his cigarillo. Hess rested a hand on his belly, like he had eaten something that disagreed with him. "I have certain contacts amongst the smugglers of Crater Town and even the Crime-Keeper General. They would give me…otherworldly devices, from time to time. I realized the danger of this, of course, for myself as well as for the Hermetic Kingdom."
"Of course," Frost agreed.
"So I sought to have the offending instruments moved. From the Hermetic capital of Coldfire Hollow to Chestnut Hollow, where I recently acquired some property." Hess's grin was gone now. His chubby face was pale and his moustache looked like an ink stain on white paper. "But circumstances have conspired against me. The chariot carrying my devices was attacked by highwaymen. Its crew worked to save it, most valiantly, but it was still lost – in Ironton Hollow."
Frost stared hard at Graff Hess. This was alarming news. Ironton Hollow was abandoned, home to only tribes of warlike, feral Pale Men and rambling, insane Bedlamites. Chariots were the mechanical devices used to run on rails through the tunnels and highways. They were often targets for highwaymen and it was just bad luck that one had been attacked and fallen into the wilderness of Ironton Hollow. What Hess wanted from Frost was obvious.
"You want it reclaimed?" Frost asked.
"Precisely. Those devices have incalculable value. Their sheer magnificence is enough to make any Lunatic citizen feel like they have been touched by a divine hand. I need them back, Mr. Frost. I dearly need them back." Hess's weak grin returned. "There is another alarming bit of news I must share with you, though. One of my servants found about it. He was much less loyal than Fritz here." Hess patted the goblin's wrinkled head. "He sold the information to the Hadean Kingdom. The Hadeans are not exactly our friends, Mr. Frost. They have perhaps already dispatched a number of their Reaper Guards to retrieve my devices."
"I'll keep my eyes peeled for them, then." Frost came to his feet. He pulled his coat around him. It was drafty in the hall of Hess's mansion, with wide windows beside the pillars. "Anything else?"
"There is, Mr. Frost." Hess clapped his hands. "I've done the liberty of hiring you a Glym Jack."
A small figure stepped into the hallway from a far door, and gingerly approached the two seated gentlemen. Frost stared at the child. The Glym Jack was a small boy, no older than nine years of age. He had a pale face set with round spectacles and wafts of thatch-colored hair. His suit was white, with silver piping on the sleeves. A silver waistcoat, breeches and stockings completed his strange uniform. Frost had heard of the Glym Jacks – children who were experimented on and turned into living compendiums of magical knowledge. They served as factotums and assistants for wizards, rented out from the Illumination Academies which created them.
"Why would I—" Frost started.
"My name is Pliny Lumen, s-sir." There was a slight tremor in the boy's thin voice. "I have a deep knowledge of earth's various technologies and cultures. I also know the exact lay of the land in Ironton Hollow, and numerous other facts that will assist you in your mission." He bowed slightly. "I am at your service, Mr. Frost."
It was unnerving to hear such knowledge being spouted from a child's mouth – particularly one with such pale blue eyes. Frost came to his feet. He stared down at Pliny. "Well, come along, then," he muttered. There was no use with arguing with Graff Hess. Besides, for the money being promised to return the otherworldly devices, working with Pliny Lumen would be worth it. Graff Hess was a rich man and was more than willing to part with his Silvers – the moon's currency – for the return of his contraptions. Frost turned away and walked from the hall. His boots clicked on the tile, followed by the rapid clatter of Pliny's dress shoes. The goblin watched them go, its brass and metal clockwork arm still extended and offering them the tray of unwanted cigarillos.
Perhaps an hour later, a chariot dropped them at the docks in Ironton Hollow. The chariot, despite its name, was more like a wooden boat or ovoid wagon, which ran between the long rails that filled the tunnel. It was piloted by a bulky brass automaton, which clanked and waved a clockwork-powered hand as Pliny and Frost departed. They stepped onto the chipped wooden boardwalk and looked down at Ironton Hollow. Like all the Hollows, it was a wild collection of structures pressed together between the massive gray stone walls of the cave itself. Causeways connected the buildings, which ranged from little cottages to stone towers. Some structures sat on ledges, which had been hewn directly from the rock wall. But everything in Ironton Hollow was empty as an unused coffin. There were only a few ravens – chimera beasts with the heads and little feet of mice – soaring in a black swarm above the abandoned buildings.
Frost stared down at Pliny. The boy hadn't said a word during the entirety of the journey. "Well." Frost pointed to a stairwell which wound down from the docks, into the village below. "Shall we begin our search, then? These otherworldly devices won't find themselves."
"They will not, sir," Pliny agreed, with utter sincerity. "We have to locate them."
"I was making a joke, lad," Frost muttered.
"Oh. A joke." Pliny grinned weakly. "Well, that does explain your rather odd statement."
They headed down the stairwell, which wound around the jutting rock and led into the empty village. The two of them walked together down a lonely cobblestone street which wound past empty inns, public houses and stores. They eventually came to some marketplace, with empty stalls set up in disorderly rows. The enchanted torches that lighted every Hollow in the Kingdoms flickered in the distance, making shadows leap and dance.
"Did you not learn humor in the Illumination Academy?" Frost wondered. "While you were learning everything else in existence?"
"Not particularly, sir," Pliny explained. They walked down the empty lane. An odd wind rustled through the stalls, making the aged wood strain and whine. "The Illumination Academy utilizes a very complex process to directly impart large amounts of raw knowledge directly into the brain. It does rather…overwhelm certain other faculties, such as emotions, which we really don't need for our tasks." He smiled weakly. "But the emotions are there. Just hidden, I suppose."
Looking at the boy, Frost wondered if those emotions were there at all. He was about to say so, when he heard footsteps falling lightly on the cobblestones. Frost raised his hand. Pliny walked on, obliviously reciting what he had learned in the Illumination Academy – until he noticed that Frost had fallen silent. Pliny froze. He turned back to Frost. "Mr. Frost?" he asked. "Sir?"
A Pale Man stepped into the street in front of him. Pliny let out a little squeak of panic when he saw the Pale Man. Like all residents of the Kingdoms, he must have known all about that strange species. The Pale Men were supposedly the result of some mad magician's experiment in the early days of the moon's settlement – an attempt to create artificial life from human flesh rather than from metal or minerals or animals that made up most homunculi, automatons or chimeras. The resulting creations were tall, pale, and spindly humanoids with long, thin fingers and skin the color of milk. They were completely hairless, with dark, watery eyes resting in their grim faces. They lived in tribes and warred with the residents of the moon. To make matters worse, they rarely traveled alone. This Pale Man wore loincloth of dirty homespun fabric, a war club made from a plank of wood and several rail spikes resting at his side.
More Pale Men emerged from behind the stalls and buildings of the Ironton marketplace. They all had similar, simple garments of rough leather vests and dirty trousers or loincloths. Their weapons ranged from spears with serrated tips and warclubs to bows with notched shafts, and rifles and muskets sold to them by daring traders. Frost watched them approach and reached a hand into the pockets of his greatcoat. He looked down at Pliny. The boy was shivering like a puppy left in the rain, but he did not cry out or scream. Was the Glym Jack worth saving? Or was he just a tool in the body of a child?
Frost did not know. But he stilled pulled a self-igniting grenadoe from his pocket and squeezed down on the pin. The grenadoe was a round ceramic bomb, small enough to fit into his pocket and tipped with a brass trigger stud. Frost kept it depressed and calmly walked over to Pliny. "When I hurl the bomb," he hissed. "Turn and run to the left."
"Actually, Mr. Frost," Pliny corrected. "Going to the right leads into a locale with a denser conglomeration of structures, allowing us to more easily lose our pursuers. I would recommend taking the rightmost path, if possible."
"Very well. The bloody right path, then." The Pale Men were creeping forward. Some of them crept on their hands and feet, which were covered with the kind of sticky pads that let them clamber up any surface. Others simply loped closer, their long bodies compacted and waiting to spring. The nearest Pale Men raised his club. Silently, he moved in to attack.
The grenadoe was primed. Frost hurled it, an underhand toss that sent the grenadoe rolling into the main body of Pale Men. "Move, lad!" he roared, as he turned to the right and pounded down the empty, cobblestone street. Pliny hurried alongside him, the boy's ornate coat fluttering behind him like a set of malfunctioning wings. Arrows and musket shots thundered after them. Frost listened to the projectiles, hearing them crash into the surrounding structures or rattle against the street. Then the grenadoe went off, causing a fiery red cloud to roar to life in the center of the Pale Men. Spindly bodies were hurled into the air. Fragments of ruined market stalls tumbled down, clattering heavily against the ground in a chunky rain. Frost refused to look back.
Just like Pliny had said, the rightmost path led a narrow lane which wound between the large, empty buildings. Frost and Pliny made their way down the alley, and Frost could hear the Pale Men drawing closer. He risked a glance behind him. Sure enough, they were coming into the alley. Some of them crawled straight on the walls, blades held between their teeth.
There was no time to stand and fight. Frost drew out his pistols and fired them behind him, shooting blindly into the silent ranks of the Pale Men. Several of them collapsed from the volley, their thin limbs flailing wildly like marionettes with slashed strings. But more Pale Men were closing in and Frost knew he could not outrun them forever. He stared ahead and saw that the narrow alley opened up into a wide courtyard, where a circular waterless fountain sat uselessly on the flagstones. The fountain was decorated with playing cherubs, who had gone dusty and dull over the years. Frost and Pliny ran for the fountain. It was the only cover available.
Frost crouched by the fountain and Pliny sank down next to him. The boy continued to shiver. Frost reloaded his pistols, quickly slipping in new rounds into the steel flintlocks. He took aim at the charging Pale Men and then glanced at Pliny. "Will you run?" he asked. "Will you run while I hold off these devils?"
"I don't want to abandon you, s-sir," Pliny managed. "A Glym Jack has a duty to—"
"And are you no more than just a wretched Glym Jack? A creature with a magic-addled mind in the shape of a boy?" Frost demanded. He hadn't checked his words. They spilled out of his mouth, brought on by fear at the massing Pale Men and the arrows and musket shots crashing down near the fountain. After he spoke, he watched Pliny's eyes lower in shame. He regretted his words.
Before he could think to apologize or say anything else, a shadow fell over the fountain. Pliny and Frost stared upwards, to see what had cast the strange shadow. As soon as they did, neither of them knew exactly what to say. There was a flock of about a dozen flying creatures above them, but these were no birds or even bats. They were chimeras, composed of rhinoceroses and hippopotami with powerful, oversized eagle and hawk wings flapping on their sides. Frost watched the strange flock of rhinos and hippos and realized that each of them had a rider. These riders wore silver and scarlet coats, with blunderbusses, muskets and blades on the oversized saddles of their mounts. Tricornes or broad-brimmed hats shielded their heads and a few wore handkerchiefs around their mouths, masks or tinted goggles. Frost instantly knew that they were highwaymen.
"Ahoy there!" A rhinoceros flapped low, its heavy feet kicking ponderously as it landed next to the fountain. The rider hopped down and Frost saw that she was a woman. She had a tangle of red hair dropping to her shoulders and a pleasant face marred only by a silken eye patch. She bowed low, sweeping off her tricorne. "Alessandra Stromboli, Bandit Queen of Ironton Hollow, at your service." There was a kind of energy about the red-haired woman, like she was waiting only for some spark to spring into sudden action.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, madam." Pliny bowed as well. "I am Pliny Lumen, a Glym Jack, and this is my current master, Mr. Fredrick Frost. He is a personal agent of Graff Kaspar Hess, vaunted noble of the Hermetic Kingdom, and we are on a mission to—"
"Will you shut your fool's mouth, lad?" Frost hissed. He glared back at Alessandra and then looked over her shoulders. The Pale Men were still massing to attack. The highwaymen were holding them off with bursts of fire from their muskets and blunderbusses, but arrows still hummed through the air. The winged rhinos and hippos began to bellow, snorting and roaring at the potential battle to come. Frost knew that Alessandra was their only means of escape. If she wanted them dead, she had only to hop on her winged chimera and fly away – leaving Frost and Pliny to the Pale Men.
But Alessandra Stromboli merely smiled. "Searching for the smuggled earthen technology, no doubt," she said. "The very devices that my band stole." Alessandra shrugged. "Well, it is no matter. I'd be a poor monarch indeed if I let fellow humans in my kingdom fall to the Pale Men." She walked back to her rhino. "Hop aboard, and we'll return to my little capitol. There the matter can be discussed."
It was the best offer that Frost was likely to get. He hurried to the winged rhinoceros and scrambled onto the back. The rhino's gray skin felt rough under his fingers, but he still managed to get onto the wide saddle behind Alessandra. He sat there awkwardly, feeling the warmth of the rhino below him. Pliny struggled to follow and Frost extended his hand and grabbed the boy's shoulder. He hauled Pliny up. The Glym Jack seemed terribly light. Pliny Lumen was still shivering with nervousness.
Alessandra patted the side of her rhino. "Up, Angelo," she ordered. "To the sky."
The rhino's wings flexed and flapped. It took off at a trundling run, its stubby legs kicking off from the flagstones and propelling the weighty chimera into the air. The wings flapped again and the rhino gained height. Frost clung for dear life to the broad saddle. Alessandra's rhinoceros soared high, one of its hind legs smashing into the tiled roof of a nearby building and knocking some shingles free as it joined the rest of the highwaymen's chimeras.
Then the whole flock of them was soaring away from the embattled square, with bullets and arrows flying after them from the Pale Men. Frost glanced up at Pliny. The boy's eyes were slammed shut but he was smiling a little, at the wind on his face. Frost still didn't know what to make of the Glym Jack. He held onto the saddle and wondered about their uncertain destination – and the dangers caused by a few expensive, otherworldly devices.
Stromboli's band made their headquarters in an abandoned cathedral, which was perched on a ledge overlooking Ironton Hollow. Long stone causeways connected the church to the rest of the Hollow, and the highwaymen had a few falconets set behind their barricades to defend their hideaway. A sentry was place in the pulpit, with a spyglass looking down at the Hollow. They had carved large holes in the wide cathedral roof, so that the heavy chimeras could fly down and land like giant birds returning to their nest. Alessandra Stromboli's rhino was the last to land. It settled down near the pulpit, and the bandit queen hopped off and planted her boots on the stone floor.
The other highwaymen were disembarking. They hopped down from their mounts and led the rhinos and hippos to a small corral in the corner. Some removed their scarves and masks, revealing a variety of nationalities. There were Chinese from Cathay Hollow and Blacks from Dahomey Hollow, as well as cast-offs from all of the six Lunatic Kingdoms. Alessandra clearly had a diverse group of highwaymen following her illicit banner. She landed her rhino and hopped off, allowing an outlaw with glowing tattoos on his chin and cheeks to lead the animal away – after Frost and Pliny clumsily dismounted.
"So," Stromboli said, slumping into one of the church pews, which had now served as a bench for the bandits. "You were sent by the Hermetic noble who we robbed, is that so? And I suppose you want to ransom back the otherworldly devices?"
"That's right, madam," Frost replied. "Or take them by force, if you're not agreeable." He let his hand casually fall to the handle of his long sword. "But I do dearly hope we can come to some solution. Graff Hess has granted me the authority to promise a large purse if you turn over the desired mechanisms."
"He can promise as substantial a purse as he wants, Frost," Alessandra replied with a wicked grin. "We haven't got the devices anymore." She nodded to the windows. "We overtook Graff Hess's chariot in the highways outside of Ironton, but the Pale Men fell upon us as we rode back to this church. They have been unusually hostile as late." Her eyes darkened. "In fact, there is a large camp of them on the road to this very cathedral. We fear that they may soon attack."
Frost glared at her. "And you were looking for more defenders, so you snatched up me and Pliny. Well, that makes more sense than highwaymen's charity." He nodded his head. "Continue with your tale. What happened to the smuggled earth goods?"
Alessandra gave Frost a guilty grin. "We lost them," she explained. "The sacks containing the devices left our grasp when the Pale Men launched their ambush. They fell into the gullies and ravines that fill the edge of the Hollow under this cathedral. The Good Lord only knows where they are now."
"The Good Lord only knows," Frost repeated. "Well, I've the next best thing in my employ." He pointed to Pliny. "This Glym Jack knows the entire layout of Ironton Hollow – as well as all other various facts that are there to know. Perhaps he could pinpoint where the devices fell, if he had a little time." He turned to the boy. "Well, lad, what of it?"
Pliny considered the question and nodded quickly. "There are several Bedlamite camps down there." Bedlamites were the mad men of the moon, who had been driven out of their wits by delving into arcane facts. They rambled from Hollow to Hollow, begging for alms and doing what their maladies told them to. "Perhaps they secured the apparatuses?" Pliny's cheeks flushed. "And thank you, sir."
"For what?" Frost asked.
"For the, ah, compliment regarding my knowledge. It was a compliment and not just stating a fact?" Pliny posed the question hopefully.
Before Frost could reply, the sentry hurried down from the steeple. He was a Russian from Firebird Hollow, with a furry ushanka and a curled Cossack moustache. "My queen," he called to Alessandra. "The Pale Men – they are retreating!" But there was no joy in his words. "And something else is approaching our church instead." The copper spyglass shook in his hand. "I think they are from the Hadean Kingdom."
"Hell's Bells." Frost muttered. He produced his own spyglass and walked to the church's shattered stained glass window, to take a look of his own.
Frost extended the glass and peered at the stone cliff which bordered the sheer wall of Ironton Hollow and led to the cathedral. A column of cavalry was there, moving along the stone at a decent trot. Frost's enchanted spyglass zoomed in. He saw that the horses were skeletal steeds, little more than bones and rotten flesh animated by necromantic magic. Their riders wore the black and silver uniform coats of the Reaper Guards, with stark white masks made from human skulls under their funerary tricornes. Long muskets and swords rested on their backs. They were prepared for war. The Hadean Kingdom celebrated death and rot. They were one of the most feared powers on the moon, for their necromancy as much as their merciless tactics. Now they were coming here.
Frost moved his spyglass to the front of the column. A wight, one the gray, skeletal, small apish Helper Hobs that were grown maggot-like in rotting corpses to serve the Hadeans, led the Reaper Guards on a long leash. The man holding the leash lacked the skull mask of the Reaper Guards, but he had an officer's stripes on his sleeves. Frost recognized his stern expression, colorless hair and the thin, curling scar like a question mark under his left eye.
"Captain Xavier Baptiste," Frost said, finally folding his spyglass. "What God did I anger who forced your path to cross with mine once again?" He pocketed the spyglass and turned back to Alessandra. "We have to leave," he announced. "Captain Baptiste believes fully in the righteousness of the Hadean cause. He'll level this cathedral and slaughter everyone in it to help him get those devices and cause a minor scandal for the Hermetics."
"He will?" Alessandra asked. "Seems a bit extreme, Frost."
"Pardon me, madam," Pliny announced. "But it really isn't. I can name several of Captain Baptiste's operations and all have extremely high casualty counts." Pliny started to rock back and forth in his polished shoes, wringing his hands. "If you'd like, I could detail his attack on a group of Roaring Boys – the so-called Sons of Bacchus – who robbed and murdered a Hadean nobleman. Captain Baptiste personally executed the ringleader of this band of Roaring Boys by feeding him to the ravenous giant rats of Nocturne Hollow and then slicing off his—"
"Enough, Pliny," Frost hissed. He turned back to the stained glass window. The Reaper Guards were drawing nearer now. The wight was pulling on its chain, its flared nostrils opening and closing as its clawed hands reached through the air like it was trying to grab something. "The wight must smell residue from the otherworldly devices on your people," Frost explained. "Is there a way out?"
"A passageway." Alessandra pointed to the pulpit. "A lever opens a passageway, which leads down to the ravines." She was staring at Frost in stunned surprise, unwilling to believe that her life could change so quickly. Frost knew better. In the Lunatic Kingdoms, when magical forces ruled and feuded, a person's life could change in an instant – and rarely for the better. "But it will take time to move our chimeras through the tunnel, and to load them with men and supplies."
Frost grabbed his rifle. He checked the telescopic sight and selected a bullet from his belt. "I'll buy you some time then," he said. He turned to the cathedral doors, as Alessandra began to shout orders. The highwaymen scrambled to obey them and soon the entirety of the cathedral was as full as activity as a threatened beehive. The Reaper Guards were drawing closer, and some of the highwaymen manned the falconets and opened fire. Heavy shot boomed and thundered across the Hollow. Stone splintered and cracked as the swivel guns belched lead at the Hadean troops. Frost ran to join them.
"Sir?" It was Pliny's voice. Frost paused by the cathedral doors and turned. "What should I do, sir?" Pliny asked. "A G-Glym Jack's duty is to obey his master and to—"
"Go with Miss Stromboli, lad, for Christ's sweet sake!" Frost snarled. "I'll not lead you to your death, even if you are a whelp with a brain too large for your own good." He hurried from Pliny and headed to the open cathedral doors. Frost took one look back at Pliny. In the moments before he stepped outside and into the tempest of battle, he was struck with a single thought – there was real fear in Pliny's eyes. It was a fear for Frost's safety. That was the kind of fear that no machine – no device – could ever truly have.
Then Frost was kneeling behind the highwaymen with their falconets and blazing away with his rifle. He took careful aim at the Reaper Guards and fired, blasting down the nearest Hadean from his undead horse. The scoped rifle left a heavy wound, spraying thick blood on the gray stones. Next to him, the falconets let off another volley. The shots landed amidst the column of Reaper Guards, smashing some skeletal horses to pieces and scattering bones and rotting flesh over the cliff. Frost grinned, despite himself, as he slammed in another round and took aim. Perhaps they could hold the Reaper Guards off from here. Perhaps there was no reason to flee.
But Captain Baptiste had already shouted the order to charge. "Forward!" he roared, drawing his lethally curved scimitar and holding it high. "For the glory of the Arch Sexton – and the triumph of death!" He spurred his own dead horse on and the rest of the Reaper Guards followed. There was no stopping them. They poured down the cliff and reached the causeway, moving faster than the highwaymen could reload their falconets. The Reapers fired their own muskets and carbines, sending a withering hail of lead into the bandits. Men died around Frost. Most of them ran.
The Reaper Guards rode over the causeway and washed over the barricade in a black wave. Their skeletal horses leapt over the barricades and hacked down the highwaymen manning the falconets, pausing to gun down the few who tried to run. Frost came to his feet and scrambled back to the shelter of church doors. The dead steeds of the Reapers were rushing past him, the scimitars of their riders flashing as they tried to strike him down. Frost fired his pistol from the hip, shooting blindly as he tried to clear a way to the door. The thick scent of gunpowder choked his nostrils, as men screamed and the voiceless dead horses rustled slightly with each movement.
Too late, Frost saw a Reaper coming at him from the side. He dove forward and leapt through the church doors, but still received a biting slash across his shoulder. Frost struck the ground hard, feeling the impact jar all of his bones. He told his arms to move, begging himself to come to his feet and run before the Reapers finished him. His limbs stirred – but far too slowly.
"Sir!" Then small hands grabbed his arm. "Come on, Mr. Frost! Come on sir." Frost saw that it was Pliny Lumen. The boy was helping him up and was now pulling him towards the entrance to a tunnel under the cathedral altar. Pliny's face was red and he strained to help Frost along. "Almost there!" Pliny called. Frost could hear hoof beats clicking on the stone floor behind them.
Somehow, they reached the tunnel entrance. A little strength had returned to Frost. A winged rhinoceros was waiting for them, the last of the chimera cavalry to leave. Frost clambered into the saddle and then swung up Pliny. The boy sat behind him and held on for dear life. Frost slapped the rhino's side and the heavy feet of the animal stirred. It charged down the tunnel, following the mounts of the rest of Stromboli's band.
Frost stared back at Pliny. "You stayed behind," he said. "You disobeyed orders."
"I'm sorry, sir." Pliny winced. "I wanted to help you. My teachers at the Illumination Academy taught us that you can't get attached to your masters. You can serve them – but you can never befriend them. You are to be no more than an engine of calculation, a repository of knowledge. But I…" He trailed off. "I was never very good at obeying my teachers."
The tunnel floor vanished, opening into a wide canyon that stretched down and reached the edge of the Hollow's city. The rhino trundled on and, when the tunnel opened up, plummeted straight down for the gay, rocky canyon floor below. Frost clenched his teeth as wind buffeted him and ripped through his greatcoat and vest. He wondered if they would strike the canyon floor and be splattered all over the stones.
But the rhino's wings unfurled. The chimera soared into the air, catching up with the fleeing swarm of the highwaymen. The rhinoceros flew at a great speed, weaving past the stones and shaking its horn as it sped through the air. Frost looked back at Pliny as they flew. He saw that, despite the boy's fear, Pliny was smiling as the wind ruffled his thin hair. The boy was enjoying himself, like any child would.
Frost allowed himself a small grin. He hung onto the rhino's saddle as the beast began to fly lower. Perhaps this job wouldn't be such a waste after all.
Eventually, Alessandra Stromboli's chimera fleet settled down on the canyon floor. The rhinos and hippos folded their wings and trotted along at a decent clip, their heavy feet padding over the stones. Frost gazed at the sheer stone walls on both sides, where rock had been hewn free to building the now abandoned structures of Ironton Hollow. There were places like this all over the moon, where the Pale Men, dangerous malfunctioning spells and wild chimeras now ruled. The moon was going feral and the Kingdoms could only hold on.
Alessandra pointed down the canyon narrowing with her rapier. "There's your Bedlamite village," she explained. "And if your Glym Jack knows the ways of madmen as well as he knows everything else, then that's where we'll find your otherworldly devices." Frost followed her gaze. Sure enough, there was a rickety, ramshackle little village of assorted shacks and huts. Frost only had to look at it for a little to know that it was Bedlamite.
The highwaymen rode into the small, makeshift village, which was nestled in the corner of the canyon. Frost gazed at the pathetic shelters of the Bedlamites, which had all been composed of flimsy materials filched from throughout the moon. The Bedlamites had taken whatever else had caught their wild fancies as well, and children's toys, scales and weighing equipment, glass bottles, rotten fruit, animal skulls and a thousand other bits of lunar detritus was scattered across the ground between the huts. The Bedlamites themselves emerged from their homes to regard the approaching highwaymen. They were ragged, wild-eyed men, many with great, tangled beards and shiny tin badges lashed to their tattered coats. The Bedlamites crouched in the corners of their hovels, playing with their stolen toys like children.
"Scatter them," Alessandra ordered, drawing a pistol from her coat. She fired the flintlock, sending a shot whistling over the bearded head of the nearest Bedlamite. The rest of the Bedlamites hurried away as the highwaymen sent out a fusillade from their own guns. Bullets cracked through the shabby huts of the Bedlamites. The madmen began to weep and hoot as they ran away, dragging their favorite trinkets with them as they raced into the canyon.
Pliny watched them run. "My apologies, gentlemen! We won't be a moment!" he called. He turned back to Frost. "Was that necessary?" he asked. "It seems rather…well, cruel to simply force these poor men out of their homes."
"The Reapers are at our backs, lad," Frost explained. "There's no time for bandying words about with these fools." He rode his rhino towards the cluster of huts and then swung down from the saddle. Pliny followed him, slipping and stumbling into the chalky gray dust. Frost walked into the village as the boy picked himself up. Pliny had demonstrated empathy. Frost knew that – for all his knowledgeable bluster – he still had a heart the same as any other. Frost shook the thought from his head and began his search, scanning the huts for any sign of Graff Hess's devices.
The first hut he checked had no smuggled contraptions – but it did have something else. Frost poked his head inside and saw half a dozen wooden barrels clustered together. They had holes in their side and their contents had leaked out and covered the stone floor in a fine black powder. Frost sniffed and recognized the acrid scent instantly. These barrels were stuffed with gunpowder. Some Bedlamite must have brought them here, madness clouding their judgment of the sheer destruction an errant spark could unleash. Frost stepped back. He had to warn the others.
He stepped back into the village, when Alessandra slapped his shoulder. "Frost," she said. "It seems our efforts have borne fruit." She pointed to the structure behind her, an open-air hut consisting of a roof held up by several pillars and full of discarded tables. "Have a look over there." On the table, sitting in strangely neat piles, were all of the otherworldly devices.
Pliny had already found them. He picked up one of the devices, a small metal rectangle with black buttons and a shiny screen, and it flickered to life. Frost walked behind the boy and watched as Pliny used the buttons to control the action on the screen, moving a little drawn figure to leap over pits and run up slopes. There was another, much bigger metal square resting on the table, with a screen and small buttons on its bottom. Frost pressed one of the buttons and the screen flickered to life, revealing a small woman in an apron standing before a counter and preparing some meal.
Slowly, Frost shook his head. "These are the treasures of earth, which we've risked our necks for?" He selected another device, a strange white tool that ended in two rods covered with circles of metal bands. Turning a crank made the rods spin with a slow rattle. "They seem little more than toys – surely not worth hundreds of laws, an industry of smugglers, and the potential for a crippling scandal." He turned to Pliny. "You're an expert on this earth business, aren't you? Do you know the purpose of any of these devices?"
"I think I do…" Pliny held up the little metal rectangle down. "Look! I have achieved a score of note." He set the rectangle down and looked at the box with the flickering image. "They have a variety of uses. They can store information, of any sort. The flickering box – a television, I believe it is called – is currently giving us a lesson on the preparation of meals."
Frost looked from the woman on the television to Pliny. "So, they are like you, in a way."
"In a w-way," Pliny said, stammering slightly.
But Frost knew that wasn't exactly the case. He was going to correct Pliny, when a musket shot cut through the air. Frost stepped ahead of Pliny, drawing out one of his pistols and motioning for the boy to stand back. Alessandra and the highwaymen had drawn their own weapons and taken cover in the Bedlamite hovels. They didn't know about the store of gunpowder, which could level the village in an instant. One highwayman led in the herd of chimeras, moving the heavy animals between the shacks and crude cabins. Frost saw the source of the musket shot.
The Reaper Guards had arrived. They stood in black ranks, surrounding the village. Their skeletal horses were massed behind them. Captain Baptiste fearlessly walked closer to the cabins, his scimitar in hand. "Highwaymen!" he roared. "Lawless scourge of the living – let me hear your call to surrender and it will go easier for you! Let us have the otherworldly devices or I promise that your deaths will possess all the slowness and pain that an enterprising mind can give them!" The wight was curled up at his feet, chewing on its long, yellow nails.
"Hell with this," Frost muttered. He stepped out from behind the Bedlamite houses. "Baptiste!" he cried, walking straight under the guns of the Reapers. "There's no need for this foolishness. The otherworldly devices are little more than fancy toys. They are certainly not worth your life or the lives of your men." He walked out onto the canyon floor, aware that all the Reapers had trained their muskets on him. Captain Baptiste waited calmly as Frost approached. "Take your men and leave this cursed place," Frost added. "While you still can."
Captain Baptiste folded his gloved hands. He did not lower his scimitar. "I have my duty, Frost. Something a personal agent – a mercenary – would know little about."
"Oh, I've had plenty of dealings with someone who is enslaved to their supposed duty," Frost replied. "He managed to break free of it, I think – though he is little more than a child. You are a man, Captain, not some animated corpse to be set upon your Kingdom's enemies." He pointed back to the cluster of Bedlamite homes. "And the mechanisms there are certainly not worth the trouble of dying for them – especially in a place such as this, where death and danger lurk around every empty corner."
"I do not fear death," Baptiste answered. "I am a servant of death. I recognize its power. I welcome it."
An arrow hummed through the air. The point of the shaft struck the stone between Captain Baptiste and Frost, clattering heavily as it spun to the side. Captain Baptiste looked down at the arrow and then turned down the canyon. Frost did the same. Both of them saw a massive army of Pale Men, moving in to destroy them like a white river rushing down the canyon. Many of the Pale Men were mounted, riding on the backs of giant, white lizards with sticky feet that let them climb along with the walls ease. Their spears and clubs waved in the air, as their archers and musketeers prepared their volley. It seemed like every Pale Man in Ironton Hollow had arrived, ready to fight and kill to defend their land.
"You don't fear death?" Frost asked. "I'm glad to hear it." He turned to run.
The Reapers faced the charging Pale Men and opened fire, sending a blistering barrage into their ranks. The first Pale Men went down, their spindly forms striking the canyon floor as bullets ruptured their bodies. The other Pale Men trampled them, racing over them in their haste to reach the invaders. The Reapers managed to get off another shot before the two sides clashed and then it was the kind of bloody, up-close battle that Frost hated. The curved sabers of the Hadean soldiers carved red lines through the Pale Men and lizards. They held their ground – even as arrows, musket shots, axes and spears began to bring them down.
Frost used the distraction. He darted back towards the cluster of shacks. He got about halfway, before the snarling wight pounced on him and grabbed the back of his coat. Frost was yanked back and the hissing wight leapt for his throat. Frost felt the cold finger of the wight brush against his face as was knocked down to the stone. He struck out with his fist, cracking it against the wight's skull and forcing the Helper Hob away. The wight dragged out its claws as it fell, slashing Frost's cheek. Frost winced at the sudden flash of blood and then looked up to see Captain Baptiste standing above him, with scimitar raised.
The Reaper Captain's blade shot down. Frost went for his own weapon, freeing the long sword and raising it seconds before Baptiste's scimitar slashed into his chest. The two blades clashed as Frost came to his feet. He was bleeding, weakened and terrified that a single shot would ignite the gunpowder and blast them all to pieces. But he fought on, attacking Captain Baptiste with wild, sweeping slashes of his long sword and forcing the Hadean back. All the while, the Pale Men were closing in. Frost knew that he didn't have time to waste.
"My apologies, captain," Frost said. He neatly stepped back to avoid another of Baptiste's strikes. "But I'll have to take my leave. However, I wouldn't be so upset if I were you. I'm leaving you with such fine company, after all." He punched Captain Baptiste, driving his fist straight into the Hadean's chin. Frost's knuckles burned as they bashed against skin and bone. He pulled back his hand, sheathed his sword and turned to run.
Behind him, he heard Captain Baptiste shouting with nearly incoherent rage. But it didn't matter. Frost was free and running and now the Pale Men had closed in. They were on the canyon ledge above the Bedlamite village and were hurling down arrows and musket shots. It was only a matter of time until the gunpowder barrels went up. Frost rushed back to the highwaymen and their mounts. He scrambled onto the back of a rhino and waved wildly.
Alessandra Stromboli and the other highwaymen raced to join him and get to their mounts. Pliny was with them, hurrying after the main body of bandits. They left the otherworldly devices behind. "We have to run!" Frost cried. "The damn Bedlamites have a store of gunpowder here! A single shot strikes that powder store and we'll all be carried to Hell on the same black cloud!"
"But the devices—" Alessandra started.
Before she could finish, Frost heard Pliny shout in terror. He looked past Alessandra and saw that the boy had tripped on the stones and fallen to the ground. A great white lizard was rushing towards him, its long snout open to reveal countless jagged teeth. Three Pale Men rode on the back of the lizards, their spears poised to skewer the Glym Jack.
"The devices are trinkets," Frost replied. "And trinkets are nothing next to lives." He slapped the rhino's side and sent it charging back towards the village. Frost felt his heart pound as he rode the chimera down the narrow lane. The bulk of the rhino bashed aside the flimsy dwellings and ramshackle Bedlamite furniture, so that Frost felt like he was riding some avalanche down a hill. He tugged at the rhino's reins, spinning it to the side just as he reached Pliny.
Frost went for his pistols. He fired them both, gunning down two of the Pale Men on the back of the lizard. They fell from their mount, collapsing without a sound. The second lashed out with his spear and the point slashed across Frost's shoulder and drew blood. The Pale Man withdrew the spear and prepared to strike again, as the lizard lunged for Pliny's fallen form. There was no time to reload the flintlocks, so Frost drew his sword again.
When the spear came, Frost was ready. He leaned close and struck twice. The first blow hacked the spear apart, cutting through the wooden pole and sending the point rattling to the ground. The second blow caught the cheek of the Pale Man and sliced his head nearly apart. Frost was nearly falling from the saddle. He managed to slide his sword back into his belt as reached down and grabbed Pliny's arm. He yanked the boy up, just out of reach of the snapping jaws of the lizard. Then he cracked his boots against the rhino's sides and tugged on its reins.
The chimera's wings flapped. They sounded like two flags whipping about in a gale. The heavy rhinoceros lifted into the air, flying straight up and out of the canyon. Pliny clutched the side of the rhino, closing his eyes and shivering wildly as they flew away from danger. Arrows hurtled after them – and then the fateful shot into the gunpowder barrels was fired. The explosion tore into the canyon. Frost felt its heat, singeing his side and making the rhinoceros release a bellowing moan that had the high-pitched shriek of an eagle's call. He and Pliny managed to hold on. The Bedlamite homes were blown to smithereens, their pieces scattered against the canyon walls. It was the same for the Pale Men and the Reaper Guards who were too close – and Graff Hess's the otherworldly devices.
The rhino continued to flap its wings. The other highwaymen had flown away as well, and now circled the ruined camp in a halo. Frost flew to them, and joined their flock as the soared into the distance. He couldn't wait to get out of Ironton Hollow – with or without the devices that had been the cause of so much trouble.
Frost landed his rhinoceros on the dock near the entrance to the highway tunnel, where a chariot was waiting to take Pliny and him back to Coldfire Hollow. Alessandra Stromboli's bandits landed as well, the weight of their chimeras making the wooden dock strain and creak. Frost hopped from the rhino's saddle and then helped Pliny down to the dock. The boy had finally stopped shivering – but he still hadn't said a word.
Alessandra approached Frost. "Well, Frost," she said. "You've certainly stirred up things in our home. We may have to fall back further into the tunnels." Alessandra sighed. "And I suppose there'll be no reward for us from Graff Hess for helping return his possessions?"
"Not a single Silver," Frost agreed. "I am sorry, Miss Stromboli. You haven't profited at all from this bloody outing."
"Oh, I'm not so unfortunate." Alessandra reached into her coat. She pulled out the metal square that Pliny had been playing with earlier. She must have pocketed it, before fleeing the Bedlamite camp. That little device would be worth a small fortune to the right lunar buyers. "Godspeed, Frost. It was a pleasure to meet you." She hopped onto the back of her chimera and turned its heavy form around. Alessandra Stromboli rode the rhino into the sky, her bandits following her and flying away in a triangular formation. She doffed her tricorne to Pliny and Frost as she soared away.
After she left, Frost and Pliny sat down in the chariot. The automaton driver pressed the levers and buttons at the controls, causing the chariot to rattle down the rails and into the tunnel. Frost looked over at Pliny. "Have you been struck dumb, lad?" he asked. "You've not said a word since we barely escaped with our hides intact."
Pliny looked at Frost. "You saved my life, sir," he said. "I didn't think…it doesn't make any logical sense for you to risk your life for a Glym Jack – for me." The boy had started to shiver again. "And to abandon all those valuable earthly items…I can't comprehend it. Not with all the knowledge that I possess."
"No." Frost put his hand on Pliny's shoulder. "Your life, strange as it is, is worth more than any device– no matter how otherworldly it may be." He was already planning on hiring the boy from the Illumination Academy, and getting him a room in the attic in the inn where he resided. Pliny's knowledge would come in handy during Frost's cases – as would the boy's friendship.
When he heard those words, Pliny beamed. It was perhaps the first truly happy expression that Frost had seen the boy make. He smiled back as their chariot rolled away from Ironton Hollow.