A/N: As noted in the summary, this story is set in a steampunk (Dust-punk, maybe?) alternate universe. Chapter 1 will be posted next week (have to get to Weiss and Blake!), with subsequent chapters every two weeks thereafter. Although the story is set in Victorian England, I have not been particularly scrupulous in my use of language, favoring casual comprehension for the modern audience over fidelity to the period (...that last sentence being, in fact, a perfect example of the kind I've avoided!). Well, that and the fact that a lot of the RWBY characters just don't sound right in Victorianesque language.
For the curious, in the language of flowers the belladonna lily, more commonly called the amaryllis, represents pride.
~ 1886 ~
The night wind off the sea was stiff and steady, rustling the sands and rattling the leaves in the trees. Richard Chase shifted, the weight of the rifle on its strap chafing over his shoulder. Sweat trickled down his face and into the open V of his shirt front.
He glanced back towards the entrance to the old stone-walled fort. Though it wasn't a military outpost these days, he found it easier to think of it that way.
He supposed it helped him sleep at night.
"Evening, Doctor. Come out for a smoke?"
"Yes, yes. A...smoke."
From behind them, from one of the high towers so that the sound carried, there was a shrill scream. It started out as the pain-wracked cry of a man, but as it rose and soared the humanity seemed to be torn from it, leaving only the terrified bellows of some wild beast.
Dr. Pendrick fished beneath his white coat for his cigarette case with shaking fingers. The young man's fresh, clean-shaven face was drawn and pasty.
"God! How can they stand it?"
Chase assumed that Pendrick was some kind of genius, plucked from the ranks of medical school on the strength of a breakthrough research paper or something like it. It surprised him to think it, because to his mind geniuses were fellows like the bosses. Whatever Pendrick's medical passion was, it certainly wasn't all-consuming in the way Chase was used to seeing it. When men dreamed big, that dream had a habit of taking root, growing and growing until it ate their soul from the inside. He'd seen it before: Ireland, India, the Sudan.
Back in the fort it wasn't politics or religion that they dreamed, but esoteric dreams, strange ones. Maybe that was what being a genius meant. Most men just dreamed of money, power, freedom, or serving God. Geniuses dreamed of becoming gods themselves.
That wasn't the part that scared him, though.
What scared him was that they were succeeding.
Another howling scream lit the night and was dissolved into the wail of the rising wind.
Pendrick managed to extract a cigarette from his silver case and strike a wax vesta. The tiny flame was snuffed almost at once by the wind.
"Let me," Chase offered, and took a brass Dust lighter from his hip pocket. Pendrick's eyebrows rose at the sight.
"That's the kind that they give out to commemorate special acts of valor, isn't it?"
The snowflake emblem on the side kind of gave it away, Chase supposed, handing it over. Maybe that was how they thought of it. It was a good lighter, so he carried it with him, and then every time he pulled it out, it was a reminder of what he'd done—and to whom he'd belonged when he'd done it. Better than a military medal, at that, which a man would just toss in a drawer and forget if he didn't have occasion to wear it.
Pendrick spun the wheel, causing a flame to spring up. The old-style lighters, invented over fifty years ago, could be untrustworthy, due to their use of hydrogen fuel. But with the discovery of Dust, like the crimson crystal in the lighter's heart, all that changed. It was fuel and fire all at once. Supreme power, power to remake the world. The silver snowflake inlaid in the lighter's brass face glittered as a testament to that.
"I was in the Sudan," Chase said quietly, "during the uprising."
"I've only heard stories—what was in the newspapers—but from what they say, if the fanatical regime had taken hold, it could have stood for twenty years."
Chase wasn't sure if that would have been a bad thing, considering what they'd done to prevent it. It had clung with him for weeks, the screech of metal, the smell of lubricating oil, the noise flesh and bone make when they meet the cold, relentless power of steel and iron.
Those memories didn't cling to him any more, though. Not since he'd come to the island.
He had new memories to replace them, now.
"I was with the advance force at Khartoum," he said, "the group that pulled General Gordon out before the Landsknechts advanced. That's why they gave me that thing." He pointed at the lighter. "And then, because I could be trusted," he added with a mocking laugh, "they sent me here."
Another scream tore through the night. Pendrick shuddered.
"Good God! That's infamous!"
"You'll find that most of us here have similar stories," Chase said, shrugging. "Loyalty's important."
And the best kind of loyalty is the kind you can't buy with money. The kind that you get when you own a man's soul.
He wondered how Dr. Pendrick had sold his soul. Maybe for him it was just money, probably for a family somewhere that needed it—parents, siblings, even a wife or child of his own, if it came to that. That would explain how it was that he could still care.
"But that...It's hideous, I tell you. Bad enough that we have to be here, we doctors, scientists. The work...I can understand how the work has value. I...I can see that." It was exactly the same tone of voice Chase remembered a freshly commissioned lieutenant using before ordering their squad to assault a caravan in the jungles, once. "But you men...it shouldn't be heroes who have to face this!"
"You'd better not let Montgomery hear you talking like that," Chase said with a laugh, sharp and barking. "And don't mistake a little luck in battle for heroism. If we were really heroes..." He turned and looked back at the fort. "Well, if we were really heroes, we'd be doing something other than standing here on guard, wouldn't we?"
Wordlessly, Pendrick handed him back the lighter, and he stuck it back in his pocket.
"Storm's coming," Chase said, looking up at the sky.
The doctor nodded, taking a drag on his cigarette.
Even when the first fat droplets began to fall, though, neither man made any move to retreat to the shelter of the fort.
~X X X~
It was over two hours later when the screaming finally ceased. In the fort's tower, the younger of the two medical men who flanked the operating table straightened and set aside his instruments to be cleaned and sterilized. He would not have thought it ironic that he, with the work he was doing, was adhering scrupulously to practices for patient safety that many hospitals still rejected as newfangled nonsense. He would have merely noted that scientific breakthroughs had to be respected, and that it would be the height of folly to allow his own work to be corrupted by something he could take simple steps to prevent.
"There. I think that finishes things for the night."
He looked across at the older man. Even hidden by his surgical mask, his partner and associate's face showed the ruddy pink of good living, of indulgent society. A genial smile, a pleasant manner, these were all part of the stock-in-trade. But with that smile covered, the coldness in his eyes gave him away, made plain that here was a man as dedicated to esoteric science as he himself was.
Thunder rumbled loudly outside the window. He hadn't even noticed when the storm started, so immersed had he been in the work. He turned to the door, where Montgomery stood with the young Dr. Pendrick, waiting.
"Take the subject to the recovery room and make certain that the incisions are all dressed and treated." He'd done all of the suturing work himself, of course; he wouldn't trust anyone else with that job, but the post-operative care he was happy to hand off to another medical practitioner. Pendrick was most definitely not dedicated to the work, to the advancement of science, but his intellect and nervous disposition made him perfectly suited to handle his present task without difficulty.
He and Montgomery advanced. The big man with the scar-creased, bald head looked intimidating and indeed was intimidating, but the doctors found him to be the perfect servant for the project, combining an absolute personal loyalty with the creativity and intelligence to carry out his instructions in the best possible fashion under whatever circumstances happened. Pendrick moved to help him at the other end of the gurney, but Montgomery popped loose the foot-brake and easily rolled the table forward without the need for assistance, his enormous strength seeming to overcome the subject's weight without hesitation. Pendrick scurried along after, closing the lift gates and operating the switch that made the table descend into the depths of the fort.
"That one is going to be trouble one of these days," his colleague said. "He's too soft-hearted. He doesn't believe in the work."
"He will, Henry. He will."
"And if he doesn't, Emile?"
"He will. One way or the other."
~X X X~
The cage doors rattled as they opened onto the level of the fort reserved for experimental storage. The gurney wheels rattled over the stone-flagged floor as Montgomery effortlessly steered it along. The noises echoed through the halls, and down from the depths arose a response, wailing and hissing, screeching and howling, each individual throat giving voice to something different from all the rest in a kind of hellish orchestra.
A shudder ran through Pendrick at the sound, and he glanced over at Montgomery. The man showed no reaction at all to the clamor; his face was as impassive as a statue's.
How can he bear it? Pendrick thought. Chase, and very likely the other guards and staff, were men hardened to human suffering from their experiences in battle, yet they still displayed awareness of what was happening here. The senior doctors had their scientific dedication to drive them, their complete understanding of and devotion to their end goals allowing them to purge all other emotions from their hearts.
Montgomery, though, confused him. The scarred man was no scientist, no intellectual, and yet he was as utterly cold as his masters. Pendrick wondered if this was the way the zealots and fanatics of the Inquisition had been, their pure faith driving them even though they could not truly understand the minutiae of doctrine that gave them their orders in the first place.
They wheeled the gurney into the infirmary room, which was nearest to the elevator. Pendrick pulled back the coarse white sheet covering his new patient, then unbuckled the strap that encircled the left wrist.
"What are you doing?"
Pendrick glared up at the big man. Medical urgency gave him the strength to stand up to his presence.
"I have to treat and dress this subject's injuries from the operation. I can't do that without actually being able to examine them properly, move arms and legs, and so on. You may take what measures you find necessary for security after this is dealt with, but I have to do my job!"
What Montgomery might have said to that was forever lost as a scream rang out, a scream of agony and suffering from not far outside the room.
"Come on!" Pendrick snapped. It sounded like the noises from before, that had come from the tower, but here there were no experiments, no medical treatments going on.
Montgomery's hand closed around his arm.
"Probably just one of the wretches having a nightmare."
"They've earned it, if that's the case, but we don't know what it is. What if someone is hurt? Do you want to be the one to explain how we let one of the subjects die needlessly? Because I will not be that one."
Montgomery's cold, poison-green eyes held Pendrick's for several bitter seconds that brought nervous perspiration to his brow, but the young doctor did not break and look away.
One by one the big man's fingers uncurled from Pendrick's wrist.
"As you say."
Pendrick yanked his arm back from the loosened grip, grabbed his medical bag, and rushed out the door. Another scream, this one fainter than the first, drew him on, rushing up the hall and to the nearest intersection, where he went right and stopped at the first iron-bound oaken door and peered through the barred window.
"Here! It's this one!" he called, looking back. Montgomery wasn't running, but his long-legged stride meant that even his steady, measured tread covered ground with relative speed. His big hand dropped to the ring of iron keys that was hooked to his belt. He wore them at all times, along with a .45-caliber Webley army revolver in a cross-draw rig on his left hip and a short brass rod with a rubber hand-grip in a kind of leather sheath on his right. Not hurrying, he came up alongside Pendrick and took his own look through the window.
On the far side of the cell, braced up against the wooden bench that served as a sleeping pallet, a manlike figure was hunched over. He seemed to be trembling and twitching in pain, but that could mean anything. What settled the point for Montgomery was the fresh blood, the same crimson as the subject's hair, staining the side of his white smock.
The correct key came to his fingertips effortlessly and he slipped it into the lock. It turned, grating as rusty metal ground against metal. The heavy bolt slid back from the frame, and Montgomery pulled the door open.
It was Pendrick's sense of mercy that did it. Seeing an injured patient in front of him drove everything else out of his mind. He rushed forward into the cell, fumbling with the catches of his bag.
The figure whirled on him like lightning, a massive hand seizing the doctor by the side of the head and driving his skull with terrific force against the cell's stone wall. Pendrick dropped to the straw-strewn floor, a smear of red behind on the gray.
Lightning flashed outside the tiny, barred window set high in the cell wall, thunder following right on its heels to herald that the stone was right on top of the fort. The imprisoned subject seemed limned with shadows as the brilliant light filled the cell, more beast than man. The thunder seemed to startle him; he hesitated before he leapt, and it was that hesitation that cost him.
Montgomery didn't waste a moment on shock or horror at Dr. Pendrick's death. That instant was all he needed to react to the threat, his hand whipping the baton from its sheath with a practiced movement. The rod was tipped with two blunt gold spikes; he thrust it at the hurtling figure's face and at the moment of contact there was a sharp crackling sound, its own little bolt of lightning as the power of the phial of verdant Dust in its core discharged. The attacker dropped, clutching his eyes. The grunt of pain was very different than the obviously feigned scream from before.
"You actually cut yourself to make it look good," Montgomery said, slamming his hobnailed boot into the bloodstained spot on the smock. It drew another short, sharp cry of pain. "Not just a little scratch, either, by the look of it. I'll remember that trick, for when someone tries it again."
His boot slammed down again, hard, and this time the cry was more of a pained yelp. Good, he thought. Bastards need to remember what they are.
"Don't worry, though. I won't kill you. No, you've got your part to play in the greater development of science. The doctors are going to want to know what makes you rebellious—murderous! That kind of," he chuckled, "bullheaded stubbornness is unusual. Maybe vivisection of your brain can provide some answers for them. But you'll need to be alive and reasonably well so they can tell the defects from the injuries."
He spun the electrical baton in his hand and leaned down—and then a searing pain stabbed through his back. He straightened up, but his movements felt sluggishly hazy. They'd hit something important, he knew, but...who?
The infirmary! he realized. Pendrick had unstrapped the subject's wrist. The rest of the straps had been left in place, but a free arm meant that didn't insure anything.
He managed to turn around, to raise the baton in his own defense, but in the next moment, far too fast for his injury-dulled reflexes to react, his throat was torn out.
~X X X~
The rain hammered into the ground, hissed off the leaves of the swaying trees. The fury of the story was like the wrath of hell, crying out to claim those within the fort.
Chase huddled within the frame of the gate he was on guard to protect. He couldn't go inside, worse the luck, which meant he was going to be soaked by the end of the night, but that didn't entirely make him unhappy. Being inside that place—
The explosion tore through his sullen thoughts. He might have mistaken it for thunder, had he not been a veteran of too many campaigns not to know the sound of a man-made detonation. He stepped away from the wall, his rifle settling into his hands almost without conscious thought. Looking up at the fort, he saw the cause at once: the tower was on fire. Flames surged up, erupting through shattered windows like great gouts of dragon's breath defying the storm.
He ran to the gate, hammered his fist against it.
It didn't open, though, not even the sliding metal plate covering the window slot. Nor was there any answer from the indoor man.
Then the noise started.
It was as if the world had gone mad, a nightmare cacophony. It wasn't just the screams, like the ones that had echoed earlier from the tower only soaring from many different throats. It was the yowls of rage, the bestial fury, the crackle of flames, the percussive beat of gunfire, and all of it merged with the devil's harmony of furious thunder and screaming wind.
Somehow, beyond the stone and steel barriers, the fort had dissolved into a war. Oh, he knew the signs well enough. And yet something told him that if those doors opened he would be facing something far more horrific even than a year ago in Khartoum, its only mercy being the smaller scale.
Chase pounded on the gate again. Even as he did so, the back of his mind was screaming at him that he was crazy, that the last thing he needed to be trying was to get in there with...whatever. But there was a practical side to it as well, because those gates would be no barrier to anything trying to get out. They were barred and locked on the inside.
Whatever was being unleashed in there could get out whenever it wanted.
That meant the only hope was to contain it by force. To block the routes of exit. Chase couldn't do that alone. The other guards on outdoor posts were probably in the same position or trying to take shelter from the storm. He needed to get in, keep a line of retreat open, and join up with as many people as he could.
If there was anyone to join up with.
There was a sudden, scraping noise from inside, the sound of the bolts being drawn back. Chase stepped back from the gate, brought his rifle up and braced it against his shoulder, ready to fire. There came the dull thud of the bar being dropped to the stone floor, then the gate was flung open and a wild-eyed man rushed out.
"Stop right there!" Chase barked, but the man ignored him, charging straight on without heed for the threat of the rifle. Chase could have fired, but he saw the man's hands were empty, so at the last second he shifted his grip and used the gun like a staff to deliver a cross-body blow, deflecting the charge and slamming the man down to the grass and mud. In the light from beyond the open gate he recognized the face. "Davies!" he barked. "Calm yourself, man!"
John Davies was a man Chase knew well; he was the captain of the steam yacht that serviced the island. He heaved upwards with all his strength; years of steady drinking had left him fleshy and pot-bellied, and that bulk slammed upwards with manic force, driving Chase stumbling back even as Davies got to his feet.
"Dammit, man, what's happening?"
"We've got to get out of here!" Davies screamed. His face was pasty with terror, making the broken veins in his nose stand out all the more.
"What's happened? Where is everyone? Montgomery? The doctors?"
"There's no time. We've got to get away! You have to help me; I can't run the yacht by myself!"
"Davies, get hold of yourself and—"
"You don't understand!" he screamed, his cry the wail of a despairing child. He seized Chase by the shirt front and shouted in his face. "They're loose. All of them are loose!"
The chill that flowed into Chase had nothing to do with the rain and wind.
"Oh, my God," he whispered.
The sounds of gunfire from within the fort had stilled. Flames were swelling up, surrounding the tower like a fiery beacon in the night, almost supernatural in the way they defied the storm.
He thought again of Pendrick, the way he'd praised Chase as a hero for his past, not understanding what that past really meant. He'd seen the assignment to this place as an injustice, ill treatment of one deserving better. Chase had viewed it as expediency, the cold will of his masters using him like the tool they'd reduced him to being.
They'd both been wrong. It wasn't injustice. It wasn't exploitation.
Shadows moved in the passage beyond the gate.
This was a reckoning.