The streets of the Slums District were dark and empty, as they always are when the horrible things come out. Pools of water stood from the recent rain and the air was heavy with moisture. The moon had made itself scare that night, leaving a city of pitch all the darker.
On a somber and solemn road, a puddle of water exploded as a foot slammed into it. The treacherous pool stole the runner's traction causing his feet to swing behind him and a tall, burly male smashed into the cobble stone street. His head struck the ground and the world tuned out, his vision was filled with static and his ears rang like sirens. He lumbered to his feet, staggering and stricken with panic, he shambled forward into an awkward jog. The peace of the puddle was disturbed once more and Rodger's cauliflower ears, through the din of his head wound, heard the pursuant splash. His vigor was renewed as fear pumped fresh adrenaline into his body. He sprinted down the empty street that offered little avenues of escape; the buildings boarded up, and the lamps' fires forever out.
He felt a shadow looming over him. His heart pounded louder than the ringing now. The cold chill of the night drifted away and hot, warming fear filled him. It crept up his spine, raising the skin and hair on his back, and a new surge of adrenaline burst into his body; his heart beat quicken, his flight or fight response triggered. He turned, drawing his weapon; he sighted the shadow, and fired. He fired over and over and again, the gun's flash brightening the area, the report deafening him further. Once all that was left was the dry clicking of the spent revolver, he stopped and drew a heavy breath. When the smoke cleared it revealed the nothingness that Rodger has emptied his weapon into.
He lingered there for many moments, panting, eventually he lowered his arms. There was nothing. The panic subsided and transformed into a larva of humor. "Nothing, all this time, I was so… " he thought to himself. He let out a chuckle and pressed a hand to his bleeding wound on his forehead. He winced and drew back his hand covered in blood. He knew the wound would need to be treated. Knowing that all was safe, Rodger took a step forward in the direction he had come.
It was so dark that night. The movement of a shadow next to him could never have been seen. An instantaneous whirlwind of pain exploded in his head as long, slender fingers with dagger like nails cut through his eyelid and seized his right eye. In a fluid motion the orb was plucked from its socket, the optic nerve pulled taught until it snapped and was left dangling out of his ocular cavity. He screamed. His shrill cry incapable of expressing the true depth of his agony and fear. A small well of consciousness told him to run, but the pain forced out all reason. He collapsed to his knees, hands covering his face, and wept blood and tears.
A flog like voice that drifted from only the darkest corners of the night, spoke to Rodger. "Deeeelllliiicciiiousss," it said in a hiss and an echo. Rodger heard an unmistakable wet pop, and then the clacking of teeth.
The sound dissolved the shock and Rodger's good sense to flee was renewed. He struggled to his feet but two hands grasped his shoulders, shoving him back onto the ground. With his remaining eye he looked up into a face he couldn't understand. The creature before him removed a hand from Rodger's shoulder and brought it to his remaining eye. He was gripped by too much fear to move, so instead he watched the last thing he would ever see.
The most uncomfortable part for Morgan was the spittle that flew into her face. Sure, the embarrassment warmed her back in that unpleasant kind of way, and her stomach was dropping lower than her feet, but the spit came at her in large globs and she wasn't allowed to wipe it from her face.
"I don't know if you're reckless or just stupid! Which is it?" Captain Murphy yelled rhetorically. Morgan knew better than to answer.
"Barging in on the Governor General like that, you're lucky he doesn't have you hanged!" he continued, as he paced the floor in front of her.
Morgan could feel the eyes of the other soldiers in the room, each probably enjoying the show. It made her just as angry as it did embarrassed.
"Can you explain what the hell you were thinking when you interrupted the Governor in the middle of his bath? I'd seriously like to know."
Morgan knew what was coming next but she played her part all the same. "Sir, I thought I detected the presence of a Neverborn -"
"Don't give me that line $$$$$$$$!"
Though no one believed it, Morgan knew she could sense the presence of Neverborn. Ever since she reached puberty, she had this...feeling, whenever the denizens of Malifaux were close. But, she had never been able to prove it to anyone, not even her parents.
"All I care about, "Captain Murphy continued, "is that the General has requested you be stripped of your rank and cast out into the streets."
Morgan's heart stopped at that moment. In an instant the conversation turn into something so much more than just another chastising. There was nothing she prized more than her job. That's all she had been doing, her job, to keep an ever watchful on the mansion and ensure its unwavering safety. Now, she may lose everything.
"But, I was able to convince the General to show leniency, considering your years of service."
Morgan exhaled the breadth she had not realized she was holding.
Captain Murphy stopped pacing. His eyes narrowed on her. "You'll be sent to the eastern slums along the border of the quarantined zone. There you will remain, with the guard patrol, indefinitely."
It was the same as a death sentence. She had clawed her way up the ranks to the position of Sergeant Major and got an honorable, and safe, job at the General's mansion. Sure, it lacked all the excitement that the streets offered, but guarding the mansion was easier and would prolong her life, a life which she had already gambled enough times in the past. She had earned her place here.
"Sir, I-" she began.
"Forget it, the decision s'been made. As far as the paper work is concerned, you're already gone."
The barracks was full with every soldier Morgan knew and her shame and embarrassment was all the more real with their eyes and ears present.
The Captain's expression was softened by just a mere modicum of sympathy that passed his eyes. "It's the best I can do Sergeant. You're a good soldier; the front line will be all the stronger with you there." With that, he turned his back and left her to prepare.
Without a word, she began gathering her things. They weren't much. She took a bag out of her foot locker and began filling it. Her single set of civilian clothes, her lucky side arm she lovingly named "Mickey", her picture of herself and her father, and some other meager personal effects. She was stowing more than her belongings, she was burying her career. Being tossed away to the slums was the equivalent of being exiled. She would fade away into anonymity and only if she was lucky. But, the part that really galled her was the knowledge that it was an act of mercy. One mistake, one stupid mistake, and now she was doomed to a life of gutters and rats. To crawl her way back up the ranks.
A slender man, with a deceptively weak look, walked up beside Morgan. "I'm going to miss you Morgue," he said.
"And I'll probably miss you too, David. No promises though," she said with a wink and a false smile that fooled only herself.
"Oh Morgan, how the hell did you wind up in this predicament?"
"Really don't want to talk about it." She put the last of her possessions away. She turned to regard David. "It's done though. Next time you see me, I'll be a hero or I'll be dead."
"I don't want to think about that, I'd hate myself for betting against you." He smiled, even though he knew he meant it.
"I would hate to put you out like that. Well, it's been fun working with you."
"Think maybe I can finally get a kiss before you go? It'd make me something of a hero around here to finally crack the morgue."
"No, but I'll make a deal with you. I promise you'll get that kiss when I come back. If you promise to kiss whatever comes back."
"Like I said, I don't like to make losing bets."
Hoffman awoke in an explosion of sensations and fevered sweat. Consciousness returned to him violently from what felt more like a coma than sleep. His breath came in quick ravaged gasps, his muscles ached and he felt more tired than when he had laid down to sleep. In his nightmare he'd been running, he couldn't remember from what. His dream was a muddled concoction of pitched void and resonating screams. He felt he could recall the voices, but the more he moved about his bed, the more the acuity of the horrors whisked away into the ether of memory.
No longer able to sleep, he decided it might be prudent to start working. After the laborious process of getting dressed he sat on the edge of his bed to rest his tired back. There in the corner was his harness construct, without which walking would be such an endeavor. He casually brought up his hand and beckoned it. The movement of his hand sent a shiver down his spine, having triggered some momentary memory flash back of his dream. For a fleeting moment Hoffman swore he could recall what the voices wanted, and their beckoning for him to join them. He shuddered and the memory was gone. The construct stood obediently next to him as Hoffman tried to reconcile the disturbed feelings flooding him. He found no recourse for them, so he resolved to head to his office and begin the day. Let work expunge my unsettled humors, he thought.
His office, several floors down from his sleeping quarters, was drab and utilitarian, with not a lick of adornment beyond what was needed. The walls were barren minus the shelves of scrap and books he used frequently. The room was the cross between an office and a laboratory, with many tables of machines and tools. Every wrench, piece of tin, and bolt was exactly where Hoffman had left it and exactly where he wanted it.
He detached himself from his harness construct and dropped into the chair before his desk. He withdrew a sheet of parchment from a drawer, dipped his quill in a pot of ink and began drawing the first stages of a blueprint. He traced neat and perfect straight lines with a ruler, if the finished grid was not to his satisfaction he would crumble it up and throw it away. He did this many times before he was satisfied.
An idea had been brewing in his mind for some time now, something new he had to create. He wasn't sure where the inspiration or the drive came from to create this new fabrication, only that it needed to be made. It lingered at the forefront of his attention without pause. No task could he do, no endeavor so engrossing; nothing could absolutely remove it from his thoughts. After an hour of throwing away parchment and redrawing grids he finally was able to sit back and reflect on the skeletal frame exposed on the parchment before him. It would be different than anything he'd made so far. It would be better than them all.
Time passed quickly and without Hoffman's attention. It was noon when a knock on the door finally broke him away from pencil and parchment. He opened the portal and a young guardsman stood outside.
"Yes, what is the matter?" Hoffman asked, annoyed to have been disturbed.
"Sir, I have been sent by Mr. Lucius to confirm your well-being. You have not delivered the report he was expecting."
"Of course, of course, excuse me. Tell him I'll be with him shortly." With that Hoffman slammed the door close without waiting for a response.
He organized and put away his schematics though it pained him to do so. There was still so much to do, so much to work on. From another drawer he took out his latest report on his findings into the human/construct grafting activity in the city. It was his charge to hunt down and stop these crimes, but as of late, he'd been rather distracted.
The air car to the Slums was teeming with workers and soldiers. It stank of fear and sweat. Some of the men were returning to their slum posts after a much needed sabbatical and others were just arriving for the first time. It was stifling inside, with no winds open for air. Morgan stood next to a green cadet with a young and solemn face. She remembered what it was like to be afraid, though it had been many years since she last was. In her forty years, the last twenty four serving in the guard, she had seen enough horrible abominations, savage renegades, and awesome volumes of blood to have long surpassed the need for fear. All she knew now was when to run and when to run faster.
In the guard Morgan had climbed the ranks quickly. Once upon a fading memory, she had been complete in her recklessness; a brash fool, eager to make her mark. Her outlandish acts of valor, some would say stupidity, earned her a reputation that escalated her position faster than she had thought possible. The memory of those days was fond and warming but a worm of despair wiggled past. She was older now. She had forgotten how to be that person. To be so wanton and indestructible was a gift of youth.
Unbidden, she recalled the mistake that landed her in the mess. Back in the mansion, downstairs in the foyer, getting ready to leave, she had had that familiar inching in her palms, the flushing of her skin, almost like the feeling of embarrassment. She chased the feeling only to crashing into a room, unknowingly, while the Governor General had been slipping into the bath. Then the feeling of embarrassment had nothing to do with her latent powers. Mr. Lucius and stepped into the room, having been nearby, and escorted her away, before the Governor General's rage could kill her.
The air car conductor's crackling voice overpowered the crowd's murmuring to inform them that they would be making the final stop soon. The masses onboard began gathering their meager belongings. Morgan's thoughts were scattered by the cluttered sound of shifting bodies. The air car slowed then came to rest in a cradle made of iron riggings. A ramp was lowered to meet the car slung underneath the enormous blimp. Officers and administration personnel exited first, then followed the guardsmen as they were drilled by a foul mouthed sergeant.
The private next to Morgan cast a weary and unhappy look her way as he shouldered his pack and made way for the door. She wanted to say something uplifting but considering the survival rate of new recruits in Malifaux she couldn't bring herself to do anything more than smile. The young man took her sympathetic as a flirtatious gesture. He smiled back and opened his mouth to speak but was quickly silenced by the drill sergeant who'd noticed the recruit's delay. So he scampered off without a word.
Outside the air was hot and acidic. Morgan could taste ash in the air and the stink of rot. From the elevated position of the landing platform, she could see most of the hovel proper. Many of the buildings were dilapidated and the rest run down. It was a filthy place, full of despair leaking like black ink from every corner. The only source of light and development was from the military garrison stationed just at the boarder of the district and downtown Malifaux. The sun was setting now, the sky a burst of crimson color, the moon distant and small; it was as somber as any night in the slums. By the time Morgan descended the last step the night was strong. She checked in at the administrative office. Its facade was dark and uninviting; for nobody ever visited for pleasantries.
Inside Morgan met with the local captain. He was a wiry old man with no humor left in his soul. Morgan could tell with just one look they weren't going to get along. They stood in his utilitarian office. The dim light from the oil lamp flickered uneasily, its reserve of fuel low. "Morgan Le Roux, you do not come highly recommended. A good record with a lackluster finish," he said in voice of dry bones; her profile, a thick folder of documents, standing open on his desk.
He looked up at her. "You worked in the downtown office before, but now you'll be serving out here on the front lines. It's no picnic here. You don't get to go home at night into a warm safe bed."
Morgan rolled her eyes mentally, this was far from her first round-about. She also found humor in the notion that any bed was ever safe in this world.
"Here you're going to be plagued constantly but the things out there," he pointed a finger at the wall but meant the world outside. "There you'll go on patrol and, when needed, to fight. Tonight, you start. There's a freak running about, carving himself out the eyes of some people in this and the nearby area. We don't know what his intentions are or what infernal machinations he's got planned, but this has the stink of cult all over it.
Morgan nodded. She wasn't eager to get back out into the world, but her only hopes lie in how dirty she gets her hands. If she could be a hero again, she might be able to claim her relatively safe position back at the Governor's Mansion. Besides, if she just tried to lay low, she'd eventually die anyway.
Hoffman read the report with little interest. It had just been delivered to him and the details in the report were sketchy at best with more than just a little propaganda. He could tell that the man who wrote it had a lot of personal emotions towards the Arcanists and unfortunately that passion didn't make for an accurate report. When he was done committing to memory the few useful details, and there were few, he closed the folder and shoved the document away from him.
The chair groaned as he leaned back. He placed his palms over his eyes and pressed. The interior of Hoffman's office was getting too familiar to him.
He opened a trick-locked drawer in his desk. He pulled out a thick volume of yellow parchment bound by twine. He set the papers reverently on the desk and unbound them. These papers were the culmination of weeks worth of effort, no duplicate existed. He laid them out in order. There were little letters and numbers delineating the category and position within, on the corner of each page, but he didn't need them. He knew his own work well enough. When he was done, a quarter of the stack was laid out on the table before him. The header on each page said the same thing, "Outer Shell - Body". The papers before him combined to make a single large blueprint of his latest machination. A very human shape construct.
An authoritative knock on the door drew his reluctant attention. Quickly, he scrambled the page together and rebound them. The knock came louder and faster. Only one person would come bother him here. He threw the pages into the drawer and locked it. But he didn't invite the guest yet, there was one more thing to do. He removed his shirt. "Yes, come in," he said and stood to his feet.
The door opened and a masked figured entered. Lucius stood in the threshold as Hoffman pulled his shirt on and butted it up. "I'm sorry, if this is inconvenient I can come back another time," Lucius hissed.
"No, not at all. I was just changing into fresh garments," Hoffman said, forcing himself to believe the lie. Few people made Lucius wait, and those who did incited his suspicion.
Lucius made no attempt to hide his obvious inspection of Hoffman's attire. It was in that moment that Hoffman knew he was under the scrutiny and curiosity of the second most powerful man in the Guild.
"I came to see how you've been feeling. You haven't left your office much these last few weeks. I was concerned something might be wrong," Lucius said, slowly and methodically, as if each word was crafted with great care.
"I've been preoccupied in some research. Nothing to be worried about," Hoffman said dismissively has if he never thought his absence would be missed.
"None the less, if you have any needs please let me know. I'm sure we can be most accommodating."
"That's terribly kind of you." Hoffman was desperate to end the conversation. He smiled politely but his mind was frantic.
"Well, seeing how you're alright, sorry to intrude. I'll leave you to your own devices then." With that Lucius bowed and left the room.
Once the door was closed Hoffman let out a large but silent sigh of relief. No doubt Lucius would be listening from the other side of the door. Hoffman didn't understand his own anxiety. It was no secret he experimented and built many strange machines. For some reason, one he couldn't explain, he was very protective of this work. Nobody, especially the Guild, could know about it. With that understanding, he knew that the blueprints were not safe here. Lucius would no doubt come stalking back here and try to find out what it was that Hoffman was hiding. He would have to continue the project elsewhere.
Hoffman opened the secret drawer and removed the bundle of paper. He couldn't do anything this close to the city. His only option was the slums, but he didn't want to attract any attention to himself. Surely there must be a way into slums on an official order of business, he mused. Yes, he would find a way to hide his creation from the prying eyes of the guild. Someplace nobody would look.
After half a day of walking through the streets of the slums, Morgan finally found a man fitting the description of the victim she had read about in the report. She was sure it was him. How many eyeless men are there in the slums anyway? He was retched and dirty, covered in the filth and grime of the streets. The report stated that he came wondering into an apartment complex a few weeks ago, bleeding and moaning as he shambled blindly. He was taken in, questioned, patched up a little, and then kicked out the door. It wasn't until another officer noticed the rising number of attacks like these and informed authorities.
The man was covered in fitly rags and he wore a stained white bandaged around his eyes. When Morgan approached, he feebly held out a cup. "Spare some script, please." Morgan dropped some change in the bucket.
"Thanks," he said without gratitude.
"I want to ask you some questions, Rodger," Morgan said in her soldier's voice.
Rodger registered the commanding tone right away. "I haven't done anything, I swear!"
"I know Rodger; I want to talk about those who have done something to you."
"I already told you lot all I know."
"You haven't told a witch hunter anything yet," Morgan lied, it was easier. He wouldn't be able to tell she was just another soldier.
"I don't want any more trouble," he said after a moment.
"You may not trust us, but that doesn't mean you're not going to help."
Rodger laughed. "What you going to do? Take my ears next?"
"Not at all. The witch hunters have even nastier ways of dealing with the likes of you," Morgan said slowly as she leaned in closer.
Rodger felt her close in and he began to tremble slightly.
Morgan reached into her pocket and removed a handful of something. She opened her hand over Rodger's cup and dropped the script.
"Now tell me what I wanna' know," she said warmly.
Rodger hesitated. He put his hand in the cup and felt the scripts, trying to guess how much it was.
"Huh, a witch hunter bribing a victim of an attack who doesn't want to talk about his attacker? Never thought I'd live to see the day."
"And wouldn't you like to get back at those, because of whom, you'll never see another day again?"
"No, it won't fix nothing. More than likely it'll just get me killed next time."
"Well I do understand. But, I have a job to do, people are getting hurt, and I'm out of script and patience so it's time to talk or I'll have to put the reputation of the witch hunters to use."
"Hell," Rodger said as he lowered his head and sighed. "I don't know who it was. He were fast, and stealthy as ghosts. Powerful, whoever he was. I only got a hint of what he looked like. He wore oddly patterned pants and a long dark coat. I saw nothing else, I swear."
"OK. Can you tell me why you were attacked? Did you have any enemies?"
"Lady, this is Malifaux, everyone has enemies. But, no, not really. I was leaving a saloon that night. I was walking home when I heard this voice. It was so loud in my ears but it only spoke with a whisper. Then I was attacked and now I'm blind," he finished the last sentence quickly and turned his back Morgan.
It was over; she knew he'd give up nothing else because he had nothing else. She left without a word, but only made it a few meters before she remembered to ask. She turned back and yelled, "What was the name of the saloon?"
"Dusty Gem," he called back.
"Much obliged." She knew the bar was in the eastern part of the slums. It wouldn't be hard to find.
The bar was all the dive she had thought it would be. The facade was built from dark and decaying wood. Its windows were so dirty that no light showed threw them. And, it smelled. There was plenty of noise though, despite its uninviting appearance, Morgan could definitely hear a lot of chatter.
She pushed her way passed the swinging double doors and emerged into a thick cloud of smoke. Men everywhere were puffing on pipes as they drank their cheap liquor; laughing and talking animatedly. Morgan coughed on the suffocating clouds. A patron sitting nearby at a table full of boisterous men looked up and fell silent at the sight of her. His compatriots followed his eyes and then they fell silent. This repeated until the entire establishment quieted and all eyes were on Morgan and her guardsmen uniform.
Morgan shifted uncomfortably on her feet. Better act like an officer then, she thought to herself. She straightened her back and called forth as much of her authoritative voice as existed. "Alright, I only have one question then. I'll ask it and be on my way."
The assembly of drunks didn't respond. Morgan noted a look of real dislike in their eyes. It was more than uncomfortable, it was dangerous. It was unusual for her, most people downtown seemed to like and respect the average guardsmen. But, here in the slums things were different. She reconciled not to return again without a full squad. "Alright, I have your attention then, I see. A man named Rodger Engelmann was a patron here. Four days ago he was attacked. I'm looking for any man here who knew Rodger."
The crowd did not answer, they only continued to stare unwelcoming. But, at the mention of Rodger's name the tension of the bar did raise. A few men took on looks of sorrow and anger and a few others fear. Morgan noticed this.
After a spell of silence Morgan decided a new tactic was needed. "Alright, if you don't want to help me that's fine. I'll just have to come back again later, this time with a full platoon. We'll garrison the streets, close this bar of course, and perform a thorough investigation. It could take months, plus a background check on everyone in the area." She knew that she'd never get support to make a move like that, her word alone was not enough to get that level of military involvement. But, they didn't know that.
The bar tender, a young man with lots of blond hair, stepped forward. Morgan knew that there would be at least one person with a stake in the fate of the bar.
"I knew the man, he was a regular here. I'll answer your questions," he said.
"Alright, please step outside for a moment with me," she replied.
"And leave my bar unattended for this lot to have their way with?" he asked incredulously.
"Then let us find a quiet place to talk."
They cleared a table in the back, forcing out its previous, and now unhappy,
occupants. The spirit of the bar livened back up and soon Morgan had to strain herself just to be heard.
"You have a successful looking business here," she said in the hopes of being more amicable.
The bartender did not bite. His sour expression and clear dislike for Morgan's disturbance did not abate. "Thank you, for some this is the only thing that makes them happy in this god forsaken nightmare world."
"I can understand that."
The barter only nodded.
"What's your name Mr...?"
"Jim, is fine."
"Jim, what can you tell me about Rodger Engelmann. Was he a regular here?"
"At what hours did he arrive and leave?"
"If I can recall correctly, I'd say around supper time and he'd leave when the sun rose."
"Whom did he associate with? Did he have friend or enemies?"
"I didn't know him that well."
"Ok, what can you tell me about the night he was attacked? What time did he leave? Did anything happen that night?"
"I can't tell you anything, I don't recall that night."
"You know, the less you give me the more I'm going to need to escalate this investigation."
The bartender rolled his head back and sighed. "He came in that night, alone. He drank for a few hours. Once he was completely drunk he stumbled out of here."
"Our questioning of Mr. Engelmann was sketchy at best. Could you perhaps tell me what way he took leaving the bar?"
Jim mused for a moment. "I'd be guessing if I remember, but I think he went left out the doors, that would be south on Gilt Road."
The information struck Morgan strangely. Traveling down Gilt Road would lead someone away from the residential areas. That direction led to some abandoned areas in major states of disrepair.
"Thank you." With that Morgan left the establishment, as much to her relief as the bar's patrons. Outside the sun was dispersing. She looked to her left at the vacant streets and unlit roads before here. The truth would be down there. But, her patrol shift was almost over and she was already going to catch fire for deviating from her designated patrol area. The investigation would have to wait till tomorrow, but she didn't know how she was going to last that long.
The warehouse was small and easily missed, being surround by much more impressive structures nearby. It was dark, mold covered, and completely inhospitable, but it was also perfect. Hoffman found the warehouse on the south western interior edge of the slums, in an untouched, rot filled, scab of the district. Last night he had searched for many hours looking for a place that would truly be unnoticed. He just hoped that his presence wasn't detected. These parts of the slums were largely unlivable but that didn't make them uninhabited. The clatter and clang of his hunter and his mechanical attendant might have attracted unwanted eyes. He resolved to not begin work on his project just yet, though it pained him. He needed to wait and see if he was going to be bothered first. But the urge to build was so strong; it was all but impossible to ignore.
The building had two levels and from Hoffman's reckoning used to be a slaughter house. There were pens in the back and the warehouse's single main room had a ceiling mounted conveyor belt system running all over, with hooks dangling from it. But its real appeal was the mass of scrap lying around. It seemed that in the building's, and even the district's, last few months of life it had been transformed into a dumping ground for unwanted things; which made it a treasure trove for Hoffman.
He stood beside his machine as it sorted through the scrap, separating and organizing that which he may need. He did not know that through a dusty window, a man in an alley was watching him. The man was covered in rags and kept his face hidden under a hat much too large for his head. The stranger stood sentinel for a long while, monitoring everything Hoffman did. To the worst of Hoffman's fears, he had been seen last night. This stranger now watching him was playing lookout for a group of undesirables working in the area.
Hours passed before the stranger's reconnaissance was done. He quietly slipped away into the complex alleys and streets, to inform his comrades. Though it was dark out and the alley darker still, the young man navigated the catacomb like alleys with ease. He had been forced to run them for days upon days until his memory was such that he knew them better then he knew himself. He took a sharp right past two rusted out piles of scrap and slipped through a narrow gap between buildings, the entrance to his gang's hideout too small to be noticed if you didn't know it was there.
The small band of Arcanists made the base for their clandestine meetings in a vacant lot surround by vacant buildings. The plot of land was well hidden, only one way in through a narrow gap that was easily missed. Their job was not a glorious one, but they carried it out with pride. When called upon, though it rarely happened, they would carry out raids on the slums. But, they had been out of touch with the faction so long they sometimes worried they might have been forgotten.
Their operation was small and only furnished with the basics for survival. Once every few months an operator would show and deliver supplies and intelligence. New orders hadn't arrived in a while and supplies were low. But, that didn't dilute the noble sense of duty they all shared.
The young spy burst through the narrow alley. Panting and waving his arms. He startled the others so bad, they grabbed their weapons.
"Mr. Downtown! Mr. Downtown! Guild's 'ere, I seen it," the young man said between his painting breadths.
Mr. Downtown, an older gentlemen, dressed in clothes just a step up from rags, with a face that was mostly hair, shot to his feet. "What? Do they know we're here?"
"No suh, it's just one man, but he's in the ol' grinder house. I saw him." The kid stopped to catch his breath, he placed his hands on his knees and hunched forward as he gasped.
"Well who was he? What was he doing?"
"I don't know who he was, suh. But, he looked like 'e was searched for something. He had 'is 'uge machine, it didn't look like any guild 'onsruct I've eva seen."
"What did the man look like, son?"
"He was olda', wore this thing on his back, looked like he had trouble walkin'. And 'e was dressed real nice."
Downtown's face lit up as realization dawned on him. A wicked and greedy smile caressed his lips."Hoffman," he said slowly.
The four other men there also caught wind of his enthusiasm and intent. They each got up and huddled around Downtown as he began to scheme.
"This could be huge for us boys. If we nab the old cripple, we could really make a statement to the guild," Downtown said and he slammed his fist into his palm.
A burly man next to Mr. Downtown spoke. "But, we haven't received orders to do anything. Won't the bosses get mad?"
"Get mad?" Downtown said incredulously, he leaned forward and smacked the man on the head. "They'll sing songs about us. Maybe even move us out of this $$$$$$$$ hole. Everyone worth his pickaxe knows of Hoffman. If we get him, we could really put the Guild back."
The others smiled at the notion, even the man who was rubbing his head.
"Listen up; we're grabbing him, tomorrow tonight."
Morgan's chewing out was no less than she had expected. But, she was prepared for it. She took the Captain's tongue lashing with quiet dignity. It seemed that one of her squad mates had dutifully reported her missing from patrol. She had been sentenced to a week of latrine duty, no extra rations for a month, and five lashings. The latter part of her punishment came as a surprise. They dispensed it without ceremony and gave her the whip quickly. She bore the pain as quietly as she could. When it was said and done, she limped back to her barracks. Sleeping was a nightmare, her back was too tender and weak to sleep on, but sleeping on her belly was not an option either. After hours of turning and adjusting, she finally settled into a position on her side that was tolerable.
The following morning, dressing was a chore, as even the lightest garments set her still weeping wounds on fire. It'll be worth it, she knew. If she could uncover who was behind the heinous attacks, she'd be back on easy street in no time. It would be all worth it. But, she'd have to be cleverer now. She couldn't just wonder off on patrol again. That meant sneaking out at night was about her only option left. She was going to be very tired the next couple of nights, but to her superiors she could always blame the whipping for her inability to get good sleep.
She stumbled out of the barracks and into the bright, hot, sun. No clouds today, field exercises were going to be particularly punishing, she thought.
And they were. The calisthenics lasted longer than usual, no doubt to the pleasure of the officers, who many soldier believe were delighted by the prospects of finding new and inventive forms of discomfort. Morgan was sweating profusely as she stumbled into the mess hall. The long tables were full of people but almost devoid of life. Each solider far too exhausted to waste energy speaking. They ate their food with solemn exhaustion.
Morgan sat at the first available seat. She didn't great any of her fellow soldiers and nor did they give her any regard. She was a new face, and while she received their due curiously during the first few hours there, she was ultimately still a stranger and not to be trusted. The hardships a guardsmen faced made him strong, fearless, but far from friendly.
The gruel, if it could even be that, had about as much flavor as rice but the consistency of bad milk. It was repulsive but at the same time fortified and what they were all used to as soldiers. They downed the grub with little enthusiasm. It wasn't always bad though, once a week they'd be treated to real food. Bread was a luxury they were often offered.
A young, and by Morgan's estimates, dim witted, man sitting beside her had finally worked up the courage to speak to her after fifteen minutes of glancing her way.
"You're new here," he said.
Morgan turned to regard him. He was young, narrowed faced, with a large goofy nose; harmless looking in the extreme. She considered his statement and couldn't decipher it for a question or not. So she replied in her most defensive way, with sarcasm.
"Nope been here for years, how is it you've never met me?" she said.
He stared at her for a moment, the gears in his head turning slowly. "Oh, I see," he said and chuckled to himself. He loaded a spoonful of gruel into his mouth.
"Are you… enjoying that?" she asked with an incredulous look. She had been slowly and steadily forcing her meal down but she did not think her face conveyed any enjoyment of it.
"I'm used to it, cannot say I love it, but it certainly isn't the worst thing I've eaten, or at least to my reckoning it's not. When I was a lad, I used to live on this farm back home, until I got arrested that was. But, on that farm I'd eat real meat and real milk almost every day, it was -"
Morgan put her hand over his mouth, which she quickly regretted. She pulled a hand back that was wet with the meal that the boy and spilled down his face. She wiped the hand on the sleeve of his uniform. "I didn't ask for you life's story."
"Pardons all around, I do get carried away with the talking. I've often been told that-" he stopped suddenly after the look on Morgan's face told him she didn't care.
But, strangely enough, the boy did pique her curiosity.
"You said you used to live on earth, but you look so young, and you said you got arrested? So how can you be from earth-side, young, and a criminal?"
"Well I'm thirty four years young," he said.
"That's mighty older than your simpleton charms implied."
He paused for a moment as he considered the words. Once he got them he nodded enthusiastically. "Yep, most people say that. I just got a young man's face I reckon."
"Now that leads us to the inevitable question, what did you do to get arrested and shipped out here?"
The man's grin faded and a shadow of regret appeared. For a moment, Morgan saw hold old he really was. "I hurt somebody, real bad. Not on purpose, but he, well let's just say he got what he deserved. They say I was fortunate to wind up here, rather than the gallows. They gave me the choice, time here or death. Seemed simple to me."
"Well, I can see how you would have thought that. But, how did you wind up in the guard?"
"Dunno' must abin' my warrior's spirit," he said with obvious pride.
Out of respect, Morgan didn't laugh.
"How did you wind up here?" he asked.
"Me? I was bread and born here, in this city. Joined the guard because it beat the mines, or the whore house. Didn't have a rich family, so my options were not expansive."
"Well it's nice to meet you, my names Rupert."
Hoffman's nightmares took an escalated leap that night. Their contents were an indecipherable blur of flashing shadows and shapes, a collage of monochromatic chaos. Hoffman's disembodied spirit was beset by a constant buffeting of wind, unable to consolidate its self. What terrified him though, was the voice. Over and over it repeated the same thing; a voice like a knife through silk, a whisper that could be heard clearly no matter how loud the static around him was.
"Build it, build it now," it said, over and over again.
When Hoffman awoke that day, the dream remained in his memory for several moments. He was panic stricken. Something was terribly wrong! He needed to get back to Guild Headquarters. He needed the Witch Hunters. He was gripped with fear and a stoic sense of duty, he needed to figure this out before it was too late. But, as he scrambled to flee the warehouse the dream began to fade. Like smoke it dissipated and a sense of calm slowed his racing heart.
He stood with the door's handle in grasp and not any sense as to why. Bewildered, he walked over to his design table and unrolled the schematics, using scraps of metal to hold the corners down. He looked over his brilliantly hand crafted designs once more; confirm that all was exactly perfect. Then, he began the work.
The old factory was full of noise, but that was of no concern. This part of the slums was well deserted. His mechanical attendant stood beside him, holding up the pieces of metal that Hoffman would need. For Hoffman, the machine was not essential. Using the powers he had been given by Malifaux, most of the pieces came together on their own. Given false life, they rattled and banged into each other, moving in a mad circus of completely organized and controlled movement. Rods connected to sockets and wires slipped in around each other. The design was amazingly complex, even for Hoffman. There were times he would have to return to his blue print just to remember how it all was supposed to go. It concerned him less than it should have that many of the contraptions he was building he could not remember what they did.
By the time he was too exhausted and hungry to continue, the full frame of a skeleton, an eerily human one at that, was complete. Its bones were rusted and caked with grime. It had wires like veins snaking through it. They didn't go anywhere though. He had yet to build the many fine instruments it would need. It was going to be his finest creation, he just knew it. For the first time ever, he was going to build a construct with its own self-governing logic core. This machine, would able make far more complex decisions than any Guild construct to date.
Pride weld up in him, he felt almost like a father. It had been a long time since he had known contentment. What happened to his brother had been hard, it had left him in a constant state of wanting that he could not satisfy. He was a thirsty man amid an arid desert, and this project, it was his oasis. He smiled to himself, as he continued to appraise his construct, and the thought of his brother faded from his memory.
"We'll have to continue tomorrow," he said to it. "I need to head back to the office for supplies and sadly some more mortal necessities. But, I'll be back, and I'll bring with me enough so that I won't need to leave you again." He patted the shoulder joint of the machine, grime and muck sticking to his hand.
He killed the lights and threw a cover over his work. His hunter stood at the entrance, guarding and waiting. Hoffman stepped up onto a foot hold and harnessed himself in. He was half way out the door when he realized he almost forgot his helper construct. He turned to it and waved it once, a look of dissatisfaction and resentment on his face. This construct was nothing compared to what was to come, but for now he would begrudgingly accept its help.
Morgan didn't have patrol that night and though she was exhausted from the day's labors, it was the perfect opportunity to sniff around for more clues. She silently slid out from under her blanket, still in full uniform. To avoid suspicion from that, she had feigned exhaustion, which wasn't a stretch. It was late into the night, and all the sane men and women were trying to recover with as much sleep as they could get. Hunching down, she pulled her belt on and holstered her sidearm. The only thing she didn't put on was her boots. Those she picked up and carried under her arm.
She walked out of the barracks on the balls of her feet. Outside the night was moonless and chilled. She leaned against a wall of the barracks to pull her boots on. There was nobody that she could see, but still she used the shadows to move. She moved to an intersection of road that marked the center of the compound. She used this central spot to scope out the area. There were few lights on at the far ends of each street, which was where the gates into the base were. The south side had many more lights and clearly visible bodies roaming about. That was the edge of the QZ. Definitely not the direction she wanted to head.
Morgan raced along the buildings. She did this until the perimeter of the base was in sight, just over a wood fence was the derelict and deserted slums. It was no feat to leap the wood fence and disappear into the anonymity of the night.
She had no idea what she was going to find tonight, if anything. Though her chances were best if she scouted the area that Rodger and many of the others were attacked. It was still a large area of ground to cover.
Sticking to the shadows with at least one side always covered by a building, she dug deeper into the slums. As she moved, the ominous presence of danger was made more pronounced by the decrease in civilization. By the time she reached the dead, festering, arm of the slums, there were no lights, no noise, and no sign of life. It was truly an isolated part of the city, a silent monolith of foreboding. The tall structures, grey towers of old, were only visible from the meager star light, without them the city would be almost completely un-navigable. The absolute darkness never ceased to speak to the tiny child in Morgan's heart. It was not unusual in Malifaux for the night to be so black that the inner child of even the stoutest of hearts would cower in fear.
Morgan walked for a long time before doubt and regret snuck up on her. This was a foolish errand. The thought crept into her mind and she became acutely aware of how vulnerable she was out here. It was fortune for her that these feelings only lasted a moment. The hairs on her neck stood up, her skin flushed with warm blood and prickled in that uncomfortable way she had never learned to get used to; a Neverborn was near. The feeling was distant and so too would be the creature in question. Her palms did not itch and her stomach had yet to turn. She stopped dead, her breadth held, as she concentrated on the feeling. She took an experimental step forward, then back, and finally side to side. It was hard to say in which direction the feeling grew stronger. She took many moments to try again, this time taking a greater number of steps. She needed to be absolutely sure of where she was headed, otherwise she move lose precious time. All her senses tuned out like a gas lamp as she focused only on the feeling of discomfort and moving. Even after all that, she still felt as though she was guessing. She picked a direction and started to run. After a few minutes the itch in palms appeared and she knew she had guessed right.
Hoffman's constructs moved with no grace or stealth. It was a fault that Hoffman would see got corrected when he had the time. He knew better than to assume these places were completely deserted. It was simply by process of elimination that he had chosen this district. The few beings in this area would be most likely trying to keep hidden themselves, a harmony of head turning might ensure. Plus, the recent murders taking place just half a kilometer away from this district served in no small part to scare people off. Hoffman felt no unease himself though, prowling the night with a killer on the loose.
The attack commenced without honor.
Five men with pick axes left from the concealment of the darkness. They wasted no time and gave no ceremony. A large, burly man swung his pickaxe high at Hoffman's head, aiming to crush him in one mighty blow. Hoffman's own body was not capable of reacting swiftly enough, but his mind was. The hunter he rode slid back just as the pickaxe came down. The swing passed Hoffman's head and skidded of the hunter's armored hide.
The attacker shuffled backwards as the hunter swung a claw at him, prowling, half circle movements like a tiger. The attack missed but it gave Hoffman the time he needed to put some space between him and his adversary. Using the time allotted to him, he descended from his construct. His mechanical attendant came to his side. Then Hoffman gave the hunter a new directive; kill.
The Arcanists settled back into a defensive posture as the prowling construct circled them. A synthetic growl rumbled out of its throat mounted vox.
It moved, across her skin and within her mind. The sensation she had been following suddenly amplified. It became a shining beacon where moments ago it was but a candle in the dark. She could physically feel the direction it was heading now upon her flesh, the blood boiling and the hair rising in the direction it was moving. It was moving westward. She took off into a sprint. The feeling of urgency she was receiving from this thing pushed her into panic mode. Morgan abandoned all stealth and threw caution to the gutter.
The structures around her started looking like old factories and less like domiciles. They became taller and more clustered as she followed this shadow feeling. Eventually, the only thing her new location had in common with where she had been was its complete abandon.
Hoffman's attendant fired a series of shots as the four closed in. One man took a storm of lead to the chest, stopping him dead under the fully automatic firepower. His pickaxe broke free from his hands as he fell, blood spurting from his chest in several places. His forward momentum carried the weapon in the air; it spun in a blur of random motion, finally coming to rest in the attendant's chest. The construct staggered a half step but regrouped quickly and dispassionately removed the obstruction.
The other three men didn't pause for a moment. They lunged in on the hunter. Driving their harden pickaxes into its hide. Each strike worked through the armor with ease. Scrap and bolts fell with each swing. The construct was wounded but for it all, it lost none of its potency. It roared up, claws raking the air above one of the Arcansist's head. The young man squeal in terror as the construct landed on him. The boy was flattened then torn to shreds as the hunter scraped its claws off the cobblestone streets.
The two other assailants bawled in furry and drove into the hunter all the harder. One swung his pick axe low and with a stroke of luck, caught the construct under the jaw and wrenched the head free. The hunter whirled and sputtered then collapsed.
Grinning, the two men turned to Hoffman. With their backs turned, neither of them saw the hunter's chain spear rise of its own volition and fire. The spear punched clean through the tallest man's chest. He gaped down at the open, weeping wound and expired with a sigh.
The red hair man, much shorter than the others, swung his weapon low and at an odd angle toward Hoffman's side. His harness flung into a defensive posture, bending one of its armatures into a block. The axe deflected off it, creating a fissure in the metal, and becoming lodged in the elbow joint. The man growled as he tried to wrench the weapon free, it took a moment for him to succeed. The damage to the armature was not severe but it would hinder that limb's performance from now on. Hoffman knew this, so he shifted his now weaken side away from his attackers.
Hoffman reached into his pocket but the leather bag he had been hoping to find was not there. He had been so consumed by his research he had left the most precious of tools at home. His souls stones. It was the first time since the fight had started that he felt paniced.
A figure suddenly materialized out of the blackness, a terrible monstrosity with a cuttlefish face. Hoffman had no idea what this abomination was, but strangely he felt no fear. The creature leapt nimbly from the nothing he had emerged and swiftly laid into the red headed scoundrel. Either the man was too horrified to move or too unawares, either way the creature slid one hand forward into the side of the villain's neck. Razor sharp nails piercing skin with ease. With no display of urgency, the creature pulled the hand back nonchalantly, as if it was the merest actions to take a man's life. The Arcanist fell as he clutched at his ruined throat.
The battle was over and the last attacker knew it. He turned to flee but he made it no more than a few steps. The creature known as Coppelius stepped forward on talon-tipped toes. An apparition of pitch and sorrow; he slid from the crevices of the world. A cloud of terror and suffocation wafted over the fleeing Arcanist. His fleet slammed to a sudden halt, nearly toppling him over. The skin on the back of his neck paled. Inside his chest, his heart took a rapid tempo change and then stopped abruptly. He stood idle for a moment, and then slumped to the ground.
Hoffman stood alone with the creature. He stared into its milky, pupil-less eyes and felt no fear. What was more confusing was that he felt no hostility either. A timid sense of kinship reflected off the creature's posture. The openness of his stance, the almost welcoming tilt of his head; it wanted to be friends it said. It was as unusual as it was unexplainable, but Hoffman felt a connection with this being.
He was unsure of what to do. It seemed like there was a need to do or say something, but he could think of nothing. He was not sure what the proper social edict was in this circumstance. Luckily the creature moved first. It turned its back to Hoffman and started walking. After a few feet it turned and beckoned Hoffman with a single long finger.
Morgan burst from alley into the fray just as it was about to draw to a close. She had her pistol in hand. The presence of a Neverborn was like a siren she couldn't ignore. She was nervous, but also exuberant. A hope and a sense of joyful purpose rose in her. It was all the more despairing when she saw what was taking place before her.
The alley she emerged from emptied into an unlit street. The darkness obscuring, but her eyes were adjusted now. Lying in a crumpled heap were five bodies. Standing over them was a high ranking officer of the Guild she knew as Hoffman. The other, a foul thing from the keep nightmares dwell. The mood she noted between the two of them was not hostile, it was almost amicable. She looked on with disgust as Hoffman and the creature regarded one another in silence. It didn't' take Morgan long to piece together what was happening. Hoffman was a traitor, he had allied himself with the beasts of Malifaux, and he's been slaughtering the innocent for his own nefarious schemes.
She couldn't allow this. To turn ones back on the umbrella of the Guild was tantamount to insanity. He would pay dearly for his decent into depravity and mayhem. But not now. Seeing how easily the two seemed to have dispatched the five, rather tough looking, men, made her rethink assaulting head on. She would have to play it patient and smart.
They never noticed Morgan, as she slinked back into the alley. She would watch them. Find out where they were headed. Then she would return with the might of the entire guard. The idea thrilled her. She was going to earn her honored place at the Governor General's mansion back; that much was certain now.
The walk was far and would have been impossible if not for Hoffman's helper machine. His attendant kept in toe without protest. He had to do some hasty repairs on the hunter; they were poor but sufficient enough that the construct could follow. Day break was on the horizon. Across the unobstructed plane of the land beyond the city, Hoffman got a clearer view of the sky then he was used to. The two of them stopped at the crest of hill that gave an excellent view of the plane. The land was barren and hot, the dirt was a dry yellow crust that no plant could break through. The only building in site was a few yards away, an abandoned barn. Two stories tall and made of sun bleached, grey colored wood. A broken cattle fence surrounded it. The property was as dead as the desert around it.
Hoffman broke the silence for the first time. "Why here?"
It was a long moment before Coppelius replied. "Sssaaaffferrrrr, lessss eyesss," his voice was like sand sliding down a glass jar.
Hoffman accepted that answer and he asked no others.
Morgan had tried but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She had tried to explain what she had seen. She told her superiors about the barn. But, in the end they didn't believe her. She should have known better. Her punishment for disappearing last night and arriving mid day was severe. It had taken a long time to make the trek back from the barn she had tracked Hoffman and his abominable ally to. She was exhausted and she yearned for water. Her commanders had been gracious enough to grant her that at least, they had no designs for her to die of thirst. Not when they had so much potential to make an example of her.
They didn't even bother giving her a number this time. They just flogged her until her back was too numb to feel pain and the officer's arm was too tired to swing the whip anymore. She could feel the pity in her comrades' eyes. They all knew she deserved to be punished for being a deserter, but even this was too much. The drill sergeant stopped just sort of causing irreparable damage to Morgan. Then he had her dumped into the box to let the lesson sink in.
The box was no more glamorous than its named portrayed. It was a wooden square with one little hole for light and air and only enough room for Morgan to sit with her knees in her chest.
It was sweltering. She was sure she was going to die in here. She was almost completely dehydrated and yet she still continued to sweat. If there had been enough room she would have stripped down. Just when she thought for sure they were going to kill her, her drill sergeant came and let her out. Once again, he had tortured right to the edge of permanent damage and at the last, pulled back. He was a master of his craft.
Morgan was taken to the infirmary were she was tended to. She was disoriented, her thoughts like vapor trails. When she became lucid again she would reckon this punishment exceeded her estimations.
Her stay in the infirmary lasted a week. She had contracted a fever, but once the symptoms had dissipated she was kicked out and put back to work. She met with Captain Murphy who spent a good amount of that time hurling spit and curses upon her. According to him, it was no wonder that Morgan had been kicked out of the Governor General's mansion. She was given her new orders and she received them with trepidation. She was on indefinite latrine duty and she would receive half rations till such time that the lesson was "sunk in" and she was not allowed outside the compound unless accompanied. Her life inside the base was now on lock down.
Morgan left the captain's office. She was crestfallen, how was she ever going to get to Hoffman now? She was never allowed to be unattended, so her options for sneaking out where as good as none at all. Her ambitions may be bruised but they were not defeated yet. Where there was will, there was ways. If it took an act of treason she would get that creature's head and see Hoffman in chains.
By now, Hoffman's disappearance was circulating among the soldiers. A party of Witch Hunters had been assembled to investigate and attempt to at least recover his body. An air of sympathy floated among the soldiers. He was a prisoner or worse to some unknown force, probably dead or dying. It infuriated Morgan to no end. To know the truth and to be ignored, to know he was traitor but to be called one herself; it was all she could do not to burst with rage at every martyr comment she heard.
As she walked, soldiers avoided her like a nephilim. It didn't register at first, but men and women were walking in a wide breadth around her. Nobody wanted their names tied to a disciplinary case like Morgan. She was suddenly without allies on any front. It was a curiously lonely feeling. She never called any of these men friend but they were comrades. The feeling sat uncomfortably on her shoulders. Her career was in mortal jeopardy, lives were on the line, and she had nobody called friend to help her.
A shadow stood in front of her. She looked up. Before her was a face she would normally not have been excited to see. But, now it was a welcome sight.
Rupert smiled at her, his grin large, stupid, and missing a tooth. It was a feature Morgan didn't remember being there.
Her gaze lingered on Rupert's tooth and he noticed. He leaned forward and jabbed a tongue into the hole, making sure she got a good eye full of it.
"Lost that yesterday. Two guys were talking bad about you. Said you was a traitor. I don't like it when people talk badly about my friends, so I socked 'em both," he said in his slow drawl and with a whistling addition to all his S'es.
Morgan smiled at him. It was enough thanks for Rupert. She was in no position to be picky with her friends, and something about Rupert's earnest nature was reassuring to her. He may be dumb as a gremlin but that only meant he would never try to scheme around her. That was worth its weight in soul stones to Morgan right now. She would be needing a blindly faithful ally in the days to come.
Coppelius returned to the abandoned farm just as the sun fell. Once the last rays of light disappeared behind the horizon he emerged from a corner. From within his long, tattered, faded black jacket Coppelius pulled a leather satchel. He held it out. Hoffman took the bag with a polite nod and inspected its contents. Inside was a canteen of water, a lump of stale bread and a chunk of what might be some kind of cured meat. It was the same process that had taken place every day while Hoffman stayed in the barn and worked.
He ravaged the food. It was a disgusting meal that a sane personal would never have accepted from a monster such as Coppelius, but to a starving man it was a feast.
The nightmare's gaze rested on the unfinished work, a skeleton frame slowly being stuffed with gears and wires like synthetic organs. His gaze fell to Hoffman. There was no need to speak. Hoffman understood the gesture. Finish it, he was saying; a task that Hoffman couldn't wait to oblige.
Two Weeks Later...
"It's our decision that you'll be put back on patrol," Captain Murphy said. His face was drawn and tired, but his eyes shown with hard-won strength.
Morgan stood before him, in full dress with her arms behind her back, eyes locked onto his. They were in his office, accompanied by the disciplinary counsel, four men just as severe and humorless as the captain.
feel that you've been properly made an example off, and that you'll think twice before abandoning your post again." He stared at her more intently now, his voice more severe. "If you do, you will be executed as a deserter. The Guild plays no games, for humanity has many enemies on this God forsaken rock. If you're a coward or just lazy, then not only are you of no use but you're also a liability. This is your last chance, I hope you understand that. Dismissed."
Morgan wasted as little time as possible leaving. Her salute to the committee was curt and sharp. She snap-turned and briskly marched out of the office. Outside she took a deep breath, even though the air was hot and dry, she felt liberated. The irony was not lost on her, that she should be so close to being called a deserter when all she was trying to do was better serve the Guild. It's true, she could admit, that she was more than a little motivated for selfish gain. She had a gift for trouble; her father had always told her that.
She met with Rupert, who by special request was assigned to "watch over" her. Mostly it was because he was still the only person willing to be seen with her. Morgan was an outcast now among her peers. Nobody believed her story; they all thought her a drunk or a sniveling coward.
They met by the parade grounds. They, and two other reluctant soldiers, were assigned to patrol together this evening. They were going to the eastern edge of the slums tonight. This was her chance. Morgan had already decided the risk was worth the reward. By now, Hoffman's demise was certain. Morgan was sure then that someone would take her story seriously now. She was the last person to see him before he disappeared after all. But, in that same time, she had earned the reputation of a liar. Everyone was convinced she was drunk that night. To make her situation worse, a witch was found in the slums a few days ago, and the mysterious attacks were pinned on him, giving Morgan even less credibility now.
As they walked out of the compound Morgan mused to herself, saying a word to no one. She mulled the thought over and over. The decision was reached but had not done so easily. On one hand, greatness presented itself to her. To be the one to find and convict Hoffman, and his pet beast, would give her the notoriety to pave her own way. But, to fail would be her end. She resolved tonight that she would ditch her companions in the dark, and not return till she had succeeded.
They patrolled the area for hours. Rupert never shut up, Morgan noticed. Now that he had a captured audience, he found every reason he could to continue speaking. The other two men, young, green, and utterly devoid of interest in Rupert, told him quite rudely to stuff it many times. But, Rupert carried on, never perturbed. Morgan found his antics almost charming; she'd never spend a week in foxhole with him though, if she could help it.
They hassled a few teenagers running around, at the pre-hooligan age. In a few more years they would have to start arresting them. Otherwise the patrol was just another boring day of walking and making a scene of their presence to at least reinforce the image that the Guild was keeping up security, even in the slums.
When the sun was firmly tucked away she made her move. She was keeping rear guard during their patrol. It made slipping out easier, and by the time the sun had set, the others were so tired from the mind-numbing boredom that they wouldn't have noticed anyway. Even Rupert had run out of steam.
She slipped into a dark alley in a crowded street and sprinted away. It would take her hours to find the barn were she last saw Hoffman, if she could even remember it. But, at least she would have the time now. She would hide out in the city till she did.
It was done. Finally. After so long, Hoffman was malnourished and filthy. But, it was done, and it was beautiful.
The femininely shaped construct stood on a box in the middle of the room, like it was on an altar. The machine was smooth; its mechanical parts hidden under flatten layers of metal. It was more strikingly human than anything anyone had ever made. It was also deadly. Hoffman had installed a number of unique features, making it possibly one of the deadliest constructs ever. The most unique feature though, the thing that truly separated it from anything Hoffman had ever built, was the logic core deep inside its chest. It was bigger and more robust than any of its kind. It was Hoffman's proud belief that this machine could act and think all on its own. Maybe not on human levels, he doubted it would be able to speak. But, it would certainly be able to make more complex decisions that any other machine. Only one thing remained. Its first start up.
During the time he was building it, it took all his willpower not to engage the machine with his latent powers. His work would mean nothing if it was going to just be another mindless robot that he had always been capable of building. No, he wanted to see it act on its own first. He needed to see what it could do. Then, after that, he would combine his powers with that of the machines potential, and he was sure this creature would stand taller than anything the Guild could have ever dreamed of. It would even put Ramos in his place.
Hoffman sat on a pile of hay, eating stale bread, alone. The only time Coppelius arrived was to drop off the little supplies Hoffman needed. Then he would disappear. Hoffman could tell though, he wasn't ever truly that far away.
The nightmares were worse than they had ever been; truly horrific, flesh rending and mind splintering scenes of grisly madness. But, each morning Hoffman awoke with no memory of them and nothing more than a renewed desire to build. In his devout fanaticism to build, he had never once considered that his absence would be missed. Now, that the project was complete, he realized that he might have been a tad too focused. It didn't matter; this machine was going to change the Guild forever. That future was carved from stone.
It was time. Hoffman walked up to the machine, reverently placing a hand under its arm. There was a switch that would engage the machine. With his finger resting on that button, he removed from his pocket a large bright blue soul stone. He slid the panel in its chest aside and set deep the construct's power source. He closed the hatch and pressed the ignition switch.
A moment of ominous excitement hung in the air. Hoffman's breadth was held firmly in his chest. As if it had been rehearsed, the machine waited till the absolutely most tenuous last minute to activate. Giving Hoffman a minor start. Unlike many of its brothers and sisters, this construct didn't bob and pop or smoke and whine like a can full of firecrackers. It stood perfectly still. When it moved, it did so in fluid motions, gracefully. Its featureless face had only two eye sockets, no mouth or nose to humanize it. But, those dark sockets seemed to penetrate Hoffman, as its head tilted to one side and observed him. Those empty holes where watching Hoffman, curiously, that much he was sure of.
Hoffman straitened his back, willed his mechanical attendant to settle neatly alongside him. It hobbled out of the corner, covered in dust and neglect. One of the armatures didn't fold in correctly. It was still damaged from the battle a few weeks ago. He had found no time to fix that. Satisfied with his audience, he gave, in his firm British voice, his first command to his child. Without using his power over machine.
"Step down," he said.
The construct leapt deftly, in an all too lady like jump, off the box. It stood in a rather sassy manner, Hoffman was forced to note. Its right hip out, a hand resting on it, and its head tilted to the side. It raised one hand up, its perfectly dexterous fingers opened and its palm placed face up. The posture spoke in a way the machine could not. It was saying, "Got something a little more challenging for me?"
"Yes, I think so," Hoffman spoke. He stepped back and grabbed three large rocks he had found outside a few days ago. He had kept them here just for this test. He tossed them one at a time to the thing, which it caught easily. "Juggle them, if you please."
The construct obliged. The demonstration was extraordinary. But, Hoffman knew that the Lady Collette and her band of show girls had elegant machines too, each more than capable of what his was doing. He needed a more conclusive test. An idea struck him.
"I want you, to show me how smart you are," he said.
It bowed its head and curtsied. It moved to the nearest barn wall. It raised one finger so Hoffman may see it. A long sharpened blade slid out from underneath its finger. It placed the finger to the wooden barn wall and began to carve out something. Its movements were fast and methodical, much more precise and quick than any human. When it was done, it wiped the wood dust from its self with a few quick pats and stepped back to demonstrate its works.
Upon the walls, written in perfect cursive script was, "Hello creator, my name is Madeline."
Hoffman was without speech. He knew he had given this machine as much knowledge as he could, that his logic core was more complex and more powerful than any. But, this was beyond his wildest dreams.
"Hello Madeline, my name is Hoffman. You are very special. I hope you know that," he said with great affection.
Madeline nodded her head emphatically, like an exited child.
Hoffman ran tests of Madeline's functions and found more ways of pushing her intellect. Night had fallen quickly. And out of the shadows Coppelius finally emerged.
'It's done!" Hoffman exclaimed to Coppelius like he was a friend.
Coppelius nodded once and stepped up to Madeline, who without command kneeled before him. Hoffman watching in confusion as Coppelius removed something from the folds of his coat. Two white orbs which he placed in Madeline's hollow eye sockets.
"What are you doing?" Hoffman demanded. He rushed forward.
Two human eyes stared out at Hoffman. The contrast of flesh and construct, of featureless metal and two human organs, gave Madeline a ghastly appearance. And for the first time, the spell that clouded Hoffman began to fade.
"What... what is this?" he demanded of Coppelius.
"Ssssseeeee," his ghost like voice filled the room and he pointed.
A haze formed around Madeline. She was becoming indistinct. Her form blurred and distorted until she was no longer visible, all that remained of her was a blend of erratic colors standing in the middle of the room. But, the eyes remained very clear. Two green lights suddenly shown from within them, bursting into a brilliant existence. It was the first time Hoffman saw the soul stones that had been shoved deep into the eyes through their iris.
The haze abruptly dispersed and Madeline was gone. In her place, stood a woman. A
true women. Tall, elegant, beautiful, and stark naked. Long, light brown hair, fell from her head. Her eyes were bright green and her skin almost an alabaster white.
Madeline looked up at Hoffman and smiled. A true, genuine and horrifying smile. She mouthed the words, "Hello."
Hoffman was mortified. This was not right. The wrongness of it all was too much for him. He stared with his mouth agape at this abomination, unable to accept it. The spell that had lasted for months over Hoffman was shattered. The veil lifted from his eyes. And the creature that Coppelius always was suddenly became clear to him. What had he done? What had he created? For the first time he questioned why he would ever have created this thing.
He took a step back and his helper construct raised its handgun, barrel pointed squarely at the spot the machine's power stone sat.
"I must undo this thing!" he yelled and commanded the gun to fire. The shot would have hit but Madeline's reflexes were too quick and Hoffman had to curse his own brilliance. The shot ricochet harmlessly off her bulletproof shoulders. Eerily, the shot left a shower of sparks but her flesh was completely unmarred.
Madeline looked at Hoffman in shock. Grief and betrayal crossed her soft features.
"Why?" she asked and the question made Hoffman cringe. It was inhuman, utterly devoid of warmth and life. Her skin was a hoax but it at least gave the impression of life, but her voice was drawn, metallic, and monstrous.
"Why creator?" she begged, taking a step back to raise her hands plentifully.
The sound of her voice was like that of a thousand constructs screaming all at once and in perfect union. Her pitch resonated with every word.
Hoffman did not, could not, reply. He willed the M9 to fire rapidly, showering her with a lead storm. She placed a hand over her chest, protecting the only vulnerable spot she had. The rest of the shots shrieked as they bounced off her in bursts of sparking embers.
Coppelius leapt at Hoffman. The nightmare's nailed fingers seeking for Hoffman's face. The attack was deflected by the two retractable limbs on Hoffman's machine harness.
He should have concentrated on Coppelius, but Hoffman was too consumed by his need to undo his mistakes. He limped past the beast and willed the harnesses's soulstone torch to uncoil before him. The torch's unnaturally bright blue flame cast azure shadows inside the barn. Madeline jumped right over Hoffman as he brought the flame down on her. She landed behind Hoffman, but made no move to attack. Her harmless appearance unchanged but all the while she kept repeating that one question, like a mantra, "Why."
Morgan was less than a hundred yards away when the first shot fired. She sprinted down a slight hill, almost losing her footing on the shifting soil. She threw her back to the farm house wall. By the sounds coming inside, she could tell the fight was intense.
She crept along the wall till she reached the door. It was open enough for her to peer inside. The sight disturbed her. Hoffman and his pet attacking an unarmed, unclothed, women; her mind ran with deeply unsettling thoughts as to the nefarious goings on in there. No more! Hoffman had cost her enough grief; she needed to save this poor girl.
She burst through the door, her entranced herald by the mighty bark of her pistol. The shot struck Hoffman's harness dead center. It did little harm but was powerful enough to knock him prone. She seized the moment she had gained.
"Come with me now!" she commanded, holding her hand out for the young women. "I'll get you out of here."
Madeline's sweet and innocent face turned dark with maddened eyes and a deep hatred. Her mechanical shriek of fury took Morgan aback. "You harmed Creator!" she howled, springing forwarded with inhuman speed.
Morgan flinched back, her eyes wide with disbelief. What in the hells? Her mind reeled momentarily as she tried to understand what had happened. Her moment of panic cost her. She was thrown back against the wall of the barn with startling force. Her body slammed hard and the wind was knocked from her lungs.
"Morgan!" a drawling voice screamed from the threshold of the barn.
Rupert stood in the doorway, his pistol aimed at Madeline. "What's going on?" he asked, his face twisted with confusion.
"Rupert, get down!" Morgan yelled as Madeline dived at this new threat.
Slow of mind, but quick of body, Rupert dived backwards out of the barn just in time to avoid a flurry of swipes from the long talons that sprouted from Madeline's fingers. He fired his gun as he flew. The shot missed but forced her to take cover behind the wall instead of chasing him out the door.
Coppelius was the only being in the room that seemed unperturbed by the sudden and random appearance of these strangers. He moved to charge Morgan who fired at him. In mid step Coppelius leapt up to the rafters in the vaulted ceiling, hidden amongst the shadows.
After the ring from the deafening report had passed Hoffman spoke. "What are you doing here?"
"Here to bring you to justice," Morgan said, leveling her gun on him.
"Wait, you have this wrong. It's the construct, that women, we have to destroy her – "Hoffman was cut short as Madeline charged Morgan.
The fray was deadly quick and too fast to follow. Morgan had to abandon shooting her gun and use its bladed barrel. Madeline was far too quick. All Morgan could do was take a defensive stance against the savage blows that came.
Hoffman tried to aid in the assault. While Madeline was distracted he put the torch to her back. The fire burn red as it cooked through her protective metal body. She screamed in agony but could not bring herself to attack him.
Coppelius descended from the rafters. He knocked Hoffman to the ground, pinning him awkwardly against his construct harness. He raised a clawed hand and swiped at Hoffman's face. The cuts were shallow but burned with feverish intensity. Hoffman screamed as his faced festered.
Coppelius leapt from Hoffman's chest and landed on Morgan's back. He dugs his nailed hand into her head and wrench it back, exposing her neck to his other nailed hand. It was only by the intervention of Rupert that she was spared. Rupert's shot struck Coppelius in the back, hurling him off of Morgan.
He ran to her, "Are you hurt?" he asked, worrying over her bleeding head.
"It's fine, get the girl!" she yelled, shoving him away.
The enfeebled hunter staggered into the fray. It's chain spear aimed at Madeline. Before it could fire, she vaulted onto its back. The machine wobbled uneasily under her weight. It tried to toss her free but her grip was sure. She grabbed its spear gun and force the barrel down. With a boom and a cloud of white smoke the gun went off, the spear piercing the constructs own head, wrenching it free and pining it to the ground. It slumped to the ground and Madeline leapt toward Morgan and Rupert.
Madeline stood staring at the two them. Her face twisted with anger. She held her hand up to them, palm pointed outward. A stream of fire spat forth from it. Morgan and Rupert shoved each other away from the furious blast. The desert dried wood caught fire easily. Madeline followed them with her jet of flames, carelessly spreading the fire in all directions. Within moments the farm house was an inferno.
Hoffman, Rupert, and Morgan were trapped. The fire was spreading quickly and the only thing that stood in their way was Madeline and Coppelius who had risen to his feet to avoid being caught in the blaze.
Both sides attacked at once. It was a whirling chaos of gunfire and blades. Sections of the ceiling began falling as their supports were destroyed. Between the noise and the smoke it was hard for any involved in the fray to truly be sure of whom they were attacking.
Three events simultaneously ended the battle. Coppelius took another shot to the back, a mortal blow to a human, but not enough to take down a monster of his caliber. But, it gave him grounds to retreat. He leap into a shadowy corner and was gone. Morgan tried to breathe a sigh of relief but the smoke made that impossible. She turned to find Rupert to aid his battle. Through the flames she could make him out, not far away, but hard to get to. He was standing with his back to her, looking around for something. Madeline appeared behind him. Morgan screamed but she could not be heard over the roar of the flames. Madeline raised her hand in the air like a coiling snake, and then punched a bloody hole clean through Rupert's chest with her bladed fingers. She lifted him high off the ground. He gurgled and spat blood and died swiftly without a word. Madeline tossed him away with a casual flick.
The roof cracked like thunder and Morgan was forced to abandon her quest for revenge. Thank the fates she was near the door. But, where was Hoffman, she wondered. She looked around and found his prone body against the wall, a small trickle of blood leaking from his forehead. She grabbed him and tried to drag him. His form was all the heavier thanks to his still strapped on construct harness. She tried to remove it but couldn't figure it out quickly enough, so she just tried all the harder to drag him out.
Once outside she collapsed to the ground as the barn continued to collapse in front of her. The flames were so hot where they fell that she had to get up again and drag Hoffman a little further way. It was then she noticed that her coat was on fire. Rather than put it out she just took the coat off and tossed it away.
There was no sign of Madeline.
Inside the farm house the heat and smoke would have been deadly to anyone. But, to Madeline it was mostly just annoying. She frantically tried to find her creator but he was nowhere to be seen. He had left her. The despair filled her. Why would he leave her? She loved him; he was supposed to love her. The sorrow stole her will to escape. She slumped to her knees as the building was reduced to ash around her.
"What am I going to do?" Morgan whined. She sat on a curb in downtown Malifaux, her knees drawn up to her head and her arms wrapped around them.
Hoffman shuffled uncomfortably, "I don't know. There's... little diplomacy here. I myself have a curious situation to talk my way out of."
"I can't go back. I'll be hanged. Nobody will believe our story."
"I don't think I'll be telling anyone my story. Not now, at least, not until I figure out what happened to me."
Morgan looked up at the consternation on Hoffman's face. "Is there nothing you can do for me?"
Hoffman closed his eyes, and shook his head. "Regretfully, I think not. There's no evidence except the bodies of those men who attacked us. No evidence of the construct or the monster."
"I'll have to run then. Abandon everything I worked so hard for. And what about Rupert? No one will know, he'll be label a deserter like me."
He paused a while before speaking. "Yes."
Morgan sobbed into her arms.
It pained him greatly to abandon her to her fate, but Hoffman had no means of helping her, he wasn't even sure how he was going to help himself. At least he was a high ranking official, he ultimately would be alright. But, he felt true pity for this young woman, whom he left alone to face her own fate as he walked back to the Guild offices.
Underneath a mound of ash and timbers, Madeline was entombed; her resting place a monument of desolation, to be lost in time and buried by sand. There she laid in her feeble and whimpering state, content to let the eons steal away her soul. If not for a voice, a sage like cooing, that lifted her from her self imposed perdition.
"Come child," it spoke gently.
Madeline felt her will pulled as if by strings. She stood slowly, letting the debris rain off her. Her skin was filthy, blackened with soot, but otherwise entirely unmarred.
She looked up into a wizened face, pulled and stretch with age. The old crone smiled at Madeline, her face as gentle and soft as snow, but just as cold.
"Why, child, why sleep in da' soil, when da' the sun was made for you," she whispered as she placed a maternal hand on Madeline's face and wiped away the ash.
"Suchah' pretty girl. You are very special, and birthed for ah very special purpose. Come child, there is so much work to be done."