Saturday, April 8, 2017

Leopold Orso and the Case of the Bloody Tree




Leopold Orso and the Case of the Bloody Tree

by Pavel Kornev





Buy The Sublime Electricity series by P. Kornev:


Book 2: The Heartless




UPON BEING promoted to the rank of detective constable of the New Babylon Police, Leopold Orso had no idea that, from then on, he would have to track down succubae, exorcise poltergeists and hunt for werebeasts. But, even after grappling with the supernatural had become routine, he was still thrown into a trembling fear every time he thought back on his first investigation: The Case of the Bloody Tree.
The Second Empire stretches from ocean to ocean. Army dirigibles hum through the heavens, and its waters are furrowed by steamships. But above all else, the power of the state is derived from industry. So one day, when workers start disappearing from a nearby factory, the New Babylon Criminal Investigation Department takes up the case. But, the detectives have no idea what horrors the acrid char of factory smokestacks can awaken...




"CUT OUT YOUR HEART, AND BRING IT TO HER..."

Steamphonia, "We have no time"



1

TWO SHORT horn-blasts, and the bench jerked forward. The windows clacked, and the walls of the train started to creak. With a lurch, the train started off on its way, slowly picking up speed and leaving the depot's platform behind. The steam train threw wisps of black smoke into the air; they enshrouded the vehicle in a gray haze, which trickled past the windows, causing a tickling in the throat. I coughed.
"Get out at the next stop..."
The thought ran down my spine with an eerie chill, terror scratching at my soul. I hurriedly tossed a mint sugar-drop into my mouth. After that, I unfolded my newspaper, blocking off my fellow passengers with its yellowing pages. But the latest news was of little interest to me. As usual, all my attention was drawn by a picture of a girl on the second page.
Her refined hourglass figure, her gorgeous locks of red hair, her charming smile, and her light gray eyes with orange sparkles.
Pure blather, of course! The grainy photograph was, in fact, black and white. Instead of those eyes, all I could see was a pair of light gray spots. But that didn't bother me. The girl's image was imprinted in my mind; I could return to it at any moment I wished.
Unfortunately, though, I didn't manage to distract myself from the bad premonitions.
"Billy, looks like little Leo here's getting too big for his britches!" sounded out from the opposite bench.
"Come now, Jimmy!" came the other wisecracker, quickly picking up the game. "It’s not little Leo anymore, it’s Detective Constable Leopold Orso! He was even dignified with an invitation to the winter ball! We're no match for him anymore!"
"Look at him. It seems like all this newfound prestige has gone to his head!" the first kidder laughed back. "He's still dragging around that week-old paper!"
"Come off it! The man’s a Viscount. He's been accustomed to society dinners since he was in short pants! That's just how the promotion affected him! I mean, it sounds like a joke! Twenty years old and already a detective constable of criminal investigations! What a dazzling career he has ahead of him!"
With a gloomy sigh, I set aside the edition of the Atlantic Express and stored it in the side pocket of my rubberized cloak with brand new patches.
The constables on the opposite bench were baring their teeth in anticipation of a response. The short hulking black-haired man sitting next to me didn't leave them disappointed.
"Don't pay it any mind, Leo," he yawned, covering his mouth with a wide hand. "They're just jealous."
Jimmy and Billy started clucking away in laughter, their card game on the bench now completely forgotten.
"Well now, Ramon, a promotion is definitely out of the question for you!" Billy cried out, melting into a wide frog-like smile.
"You're a bit too... Aztecky for that!" came the red-headed Jimmy, supporting his friend.
A true Catalan would have immediately grabbed for his clasp-knife, but Ramon Miro's temperament had more affinity with that of his mother, a native of the New World. He let the insult go in one ear and out the other, revealed the stock of the lupara lying on his knees, and placed a new electric jar into it.
The weapon with four short ten-caliber barrels used electrically ignited rounds, so both magic and infernal creatures were powerless to stop it from shooting, but it often misfired due to the jar's poor ability to hold a charge.
I clipped my glasses to my nose in silence with their dark round lenses, letting them know that I was not in the mood to crack wise. Jimmy and Billy exchanged sour glances and returned to their card game.
My coworkers could try to hide their anxiety with mockery or artificial ambivalence all they liked. I could still feel their nervousness perfectly. And truth be told, I was experiencing a bout of nerves myself. The photos of the crime scene were just too ghoulish. New Babylon was a notorious cesspit, but still, over all my years of service with the criminal investigations department, I had yet to come across such unmotivated yet cold and calculated cruelty.
The train tracks went up the mountain. The train was rocking from side to side, and my eyelids began sticking together. But just then, as bad luck would have it, the conductor walked up.
"Detective Constable Orso?" he asked, turning to me. "Inspector White would like you to join him."
It couldn’t have been anything bad, mostly because of how close we were to our destination, but my heart still sank. After giving a sorrowful sigh, I took off my raincoat and followed the conductor into the first-class car. As I walked by, I tossed my gaze on a mirrored panel and winced involuntarily.
Ugh... Handsome I certainly was not. I was too tall and ungainly. The situation could be rectified by a suit from a good tailor, though. My uniform not only fit badly, but also bulged out along the belt, where I kept my holster.
No matter! I'd be a legal adult in just three months, then my rich uncle would have to give me my share of the family estate, whether he liked it or not.
But I immediately remembered my multi-thousand-franc debt, and sighed in pity. Everything changes, but not nearly as fast as I'd like it to.

Inspector Robert White was traveling alone in a sleeper car. He was sitting casually, splayed out in a soft armchair reading the materials on the case. As soon as I walked in, the inspector tossed the folder on the table and furrowed his brow.
"Still in uniform?" he asked in surprise. "Leopold, you're a detective constable now. You don't have to wear the uniform anymore."
"Habit," I smiled back rigidly.
"Take a seat!" Robert White pointed at the seat opposite and suggested: "Do you want everyone to know who they're dealing with just by looking? Do you feel that self-assured?"
The inspector's face was plump and soft looking, but White was neither soft nor naive. And, in that the curse of the fallen was lurking in the inspector's blood, giving him the unique talent to sense lies, I took refuge in half-truths:
"That's part of it."
I didn't want to talk about my difficult financial situation. That was the true reason I had opted to keep wearing my police uniform to work. I could even get it mended and cleaned on the company dime.
Robert White squinted his colorless gray illustrious eyes and asked:
"Be so kind as to remove your glasses."
I obeyed, but without any desire.
On the Night of Titanium Blades, the streets of New Babylon had been flooded with the blood of the fallen. It had poisoned some and given unbelievable abilities to others. My parents had left me with a talent that wasn't the most pleasant. I was able to bring others' nightmares to life, so I felt more secure hiding my colorless eyes behind the dark lenses of my glasses.
"What made you want to become a policeman, Leo?" the inspector suddenly inquired.
"I heard the Newton-Markt paid well," I answered, habitually chasing off the memories of the horrible night when my family mansion had been visited by death itself. Only my father and I had the good fortune to escape with our lives. The subsequent investigation came to naught. The case was archived, but in the depths of my soul, I was nursing the hope that I would be able to solve it on my own.
Robert White shook his head with an incredulous smile and began packing his pipe with fragrant Persian tobacco.
"Are you already familiar with the materials on the case?" he asked, pointing to the folder.
"I am," I confirmed, "and I do not understand why the investigation was delegated to us precisely."
"Who else should it have gone to?" the inspector furrowed his brow. "The local precinct is just three constables and a sergeant, and this is an extraordinary matter!"
I couldn't argue with that. The mysterious disappearance of three workers from the processing plant and the cruel murder of the guard could cause high-level repercussions in the capital, which was to say nothing of this small provincial village!
After all, the unfortunate chain of events could have all been avoided if they’d just performed an elementary check after their first workman disappeared, which was how this whole business had started. But no, it was written off as a commonplace accident like someone falling into a wood chipper or slipping into a barrel of lye. Then, a few days later, when two stokers disappeared during the same night shift, they didn't take that to the police either. They just sent their guards to patrol the factory at night, but that only ended in the factory losing a member of their security force.
Only after the unfortunate man's ghastly mutilated body was found in a nearby stream were the police brought in. And soon after that, the case caught the attention of the Newton-Markt.
The perspective of trying to follow the cold trail of the mad butcher made me quite upset. The inspector, though, looked inspired by the upcoming investigation. He struck a match on the side of the table, waited for the bright smoky phosphorus flame to change into an even glow and started drawing on his pipe.
"Leo, you'll never become a good policeman until you learn to trust your gut and see possibility where others see nothing but a burden."
I couldn't restrain a skeptical smile, but then Robert White gave a dejected head shake, took a puff of his pipe and asked:
"Say, do you know where we're going?"
"To Milnek's processing plant."
"And you couldn't be bothered to find out what they process?"
"I assume it's not gold."
"Gold?" the inspector snorted. "No, not gold. Aluminum. Tell me, Leo, what do they make from aluminum?"
Here though, I answered without the slightest hesitation:
"Dirigible bodies."
"That's right!" White confirmed. "It's a strategic metal!"
I nodded, acknowledging my own lack of consideration. Army dirigibles were the military upper hand that allowed the soldiers of our united New World colonies to hold back the Aztec onslaught. Our air superiority was also the only thing stopping Great Egypt, Persia, and the Celestial Kingdom from declaring war on us over their many territorial ambitions. What was more, the process to obtain pure aluminum, like that for titanium, had been invented relatively recently. Wizards and otherworldly beings simply could not defend against objects made of them with their spells.
"Do you suspect sabotage?" I inquired. "Sabotage of aluminum shipments would appear to be the work of Great Egypt, and espionage would fall under Department Three's jurisdiction, not that of the CID."
But Robert White responded to my suggestion with unhidden skepticism.
"Fortunately, these regrettable incidents did not harm the factory’s production capabilities. And the rage of the ideological Luddites is directed at mechanisms, not people," he said, shaking his head. He tapped out his finished pipe, then continued thoughtfully. "As long as the missing persons didn't see something they weren't supposed to..."
What could a simple guard have seen to make them flay him alive?
I was reminded of the pictures of the crime scene; I shook my head with determination, chasing away the unpleasant memories and asked:
"Where should we start?"
"The inspector general ordered me to go reassure the workers. First of all, we'll set up regular night patrols. I'll meet the manager, you look over the crime scene..."
We discussed the forthcoming investigation for some time, then the inspector lit his pipe again and asked carelessly:
"How did you like the winter ball, Leo?"
I started trembling inside, but I didn't show it, answering calmly:
"I'm still under its sway."
"Look at you!" the inspector laughed uncontrollably. "If you only could have seen the fireworks display they put on two years ago for the fifty-year anniversary of the Night of Titanium Blades! The fallen in hell must have felt sick!"
Robert White got lost in memories, and I nodded along, throwing out a "yes" when need be. It was getting gradually lighter outside. A long horn-blow blasted out, and the train began slowing its pace.
"This is our station!" the inspector announced. "Go tell the others!"
I returned my glasses to my nose and hurried back to my train car.

IT WAS COLD and windy outside. The snow that had fallen over the night wasn't even close to melting. Ice-tinged puddles on the sidewalk were shining up at me.
"Now, we've gotta make our way to the factory," said Jimmy, looking around in sorrow, "I'm freezing my ass off..."
Billy tossed a wad of chew into his mouth, and unleashed a ball of yellow spit underfoot.
"Make sure something else down there doesn’t freeze, old Jim. You’ll jingle as you walk!" The constable smiled, but it was obvious that he fully shared the despondency of his partner.
As, it should be said, Ramon and I also did. In New Babylon, snow was a rare occurrence. Evidence of the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean. Generally, the wet white flakes that fell there would melt just after they touched the ground.
Devil! Atlantis is an arm’s breadth from Portugal, and not so far from Africa, but when you get into the mountains, it's cold as Siberia.
"I’ll jingle?" Jimmy furrowed his brow. "Better to have them jingling, than having the factory butcher lop 'em off at the root..."
"No matter. You could go to Persia and find work as a eunuch!" Billy replied, easily finding his place.
"Wrap it up," I said to the jokesters, having lost it after hearing the nickname the newspapermen had stuck to our murderer. "I’m feeling sick enough as it is..."
At that moment, Inspector White left the train wearing a gray cloak and derby hat to match. In one hand, he was carrying a cane and, in the other, a rumpled leather traveling bag. Behind him, there came a baggage-laden porter.
"After me!" said our boss, saluting us with his cane as he walked off around the train station building.
At the gate, we found a police armored carriage waiting for us. It looked like an iron box on four hefty wheels with a machine-gun tower on the roof. And though we weren’t expecting it to be particularly comfortable, we hurried inside, trying to escape the glacial wind.
The constables and I took our seats on the benches in the carriage; Robert White took a seat next to the driver looking as comfortable as ever.
The powder engine gave a few claps, then started rollicking away with a measured popping, and the clumsy-looking vehicle rolled off down the road. Jimmy and Billy fell asleep very quickly, and Ramon Miro began fiddling with his police-issue electric torch. I turned away to the side window.
I was struck by the darkened snow outside. It seemed to be saturated with coal dust. But I didn't have to think over why that was for too long: soon, the armored car turned a corner and I could see wisps of black smoke climbing up into half of the sky.
Now, the wind was carrying the fumes away from the village, but based on the blackened walls of the homes with dirty streaks of ash, that wasn't always the case. I also saw the trees on the slopes, marred by withered foliage. In places, the bushes were totally dead and black. Many of the towering pines were entirely desiccated.
The armored car came on top of the hill, and we were revealed a view of the factory. It was so massive it seemed to be a whole bustling city in miniature. The brick workshop buildings were separated by narrow alley-passageways. On the outskirts, there was a sinister-looking boiler room looming. Right behind it, the coal heaps began. Further in the vacant lot, there were scattered foundations being dug out for new buildings and, beyond that, beckoned a boundless quarry. In it, many-ton machines savaged the earth with their scoops then dumped the debris out into steam trucks. The great hulking monsters waited to be filled up, turned around and unhurriedly crawled up to the factory.
And there were smokestacks everywhere. They were puking wisps of black smoke into the air. Every time the wind picked up in our direction, my throat started tickling from the strong odor of chemical reactants.
The armored vehicle drove into the village and stopped before the police building. We got out to wipe our feet and, just then, the earth trembled and we heard the percussive ring of a far-off explosion.
"What was that?" Inspector White asked in alarm.
"They're blasting in the quarry," the driver explained. "They do it at the same time every day. You could set your watch by it."
Robert White nodded and turned to me:
"Let's go, Leo! I need to speak with the sergeant about the schedule for night shifts..."

2

AROUND EVENING, it got warmer and the snow started melting but, at the same time, the wind grew much stronger, becoming biting and gusty. From the west, there was a storm front coming in. The dark sky there was occasionally sliced through with bright threads of lightning.
Ramon and I were standing at the entrance to the boiler room the stokers had disappeared from the day before last. At a slight distance from us, we heard the assigned factory guard stomping his feet. It was now entirely dark, and the boy, who had a lean chicken-like neck, would hunch his shoulders up in fear time and again when he saw the shadows of the bats that darted past overhead.
I found it amusing.
"Just what is the sense of all this rambling about in the dark?" Ramon mumbled in annoyance, spitting on the ground. "Say Leo, what are we doing here?"
"We’re reassuring the workers by looking brave while the inspector leads an investigation. Isn't it obvious?"
"If only..."
"Alright, Ramon," I sighed, "let's go!"
The constable threw his lupara belt over his shoulder and we walked down the narrow passage between workshops. The flashing of far-off lightning would occasionally reveal strange and terrifying figures. But as soon as we turned our electric torches toward them, the monsters would quickly turn into exhaust pipes, posts and barrels. And the mobile flame that occasionally passed in the sky was just the signal torch of yet another transatlantic dirigible. Nothing magical.
From time to time, we were met by workers. A cart of workmen drove past. Another group of laborers emerged from the red-hot underworld of their drying plant for a smoke break. A group of haulers stomped past to the gates, finished with their recent shift. Some were leaning, and others were walking with their shoulders hunched up around their ears. Some nodded to our escort, while others just turned away in silence.
 And once again, I felt fear. Someone had a tenacious and resilient form of it that didn't let up for even a moment. Their fear was pulsating furiously, like a human heartbeat.
Fear was my domain. My illustrious talent allowed me to catch others' fears, pull them out and bring them to life. And there was nothing even slightly pleasant in that.
Curses! I would gladly trade my talent for that of Inspector White. Sensing lies didn't seem so bad!
"A cross," said Ramon, drawing my attention to a crude drawing made in black ink on one of the walls. "Could it be that anarcho-Christians are mixed up in this case?"
"I doubt it," I replied, shaking my head. "This isn't their style."
Around the corner, a powerful light was flickering, and I placed my hand on my holster. But it was just the local constables who we'd assigned to patrol the neighboring section. We exchanged a few words, turned around and headed back.
I shivered. I was cold and tired. A slight drizzle started coming down. The gusts of wind cast the mist straight into my face. The lightning flashes started growing brighter. The thunder rumbled eerily between the factory buildings.
"I wouldn't mind going in to warm up for a bit," I yawned, rubbing my chilly fingers on the boiler-room door.
"You can warm up out here..." my hulking partner grumbled back, nodding to a factory guard.
I took my sugar-drop tin from my jacket, pulled out a raspberry-flavored drop and offered one to Ramon.
"It'll just ruin my teeth," he refused. "What do you think happened here?"
"I don't have a clue," I admitted as I stretched my talent out to the guardsman, who was looking skittishly at the unquiet shadows flickering through the lightning-lit sky.
Nervousness was filling him and, under it was hidden a true fear, lurking and subconscious. Bringing it to life turned out surprisingly easy: I just stretched out my talent and watched as a bat nose-dived from the sky at the guardsman's head. The boy squealed, waved his arms in the air and turned tail. He was no longer watching when the bat I'd just brought to life dissolved into a cloud of shadows.
His malignant chiroptophobia had been allowed to grow entirely unchecked...
"Are you having fun?" Ramon sighed.
"What makes you say that?"
"Your eyes are glowing."
I squinted, massaged my eyelids, and took another look at the constable.
"Is this better?"
"Right as rain."
The unpleasant pain in my temples really did quiet down; I threw open the door of the boiler-room and called my partner over:
"Let's go."
It was dark and warm inside. Even a bit hot. The boilers and steam lines were humming. The arrows on the pressure gages were twitching wildly. An orange fire was burning in the furnaces, and the sweaty stokers were tossing more and more coal into them.
"Is it always this lively at night?" I asked a workman.
"No, constable," he shook his head. "Our shift is ending in half an hour. Just two people will stay on overnight."
"We’re gonna take a look around, then," I announced, wanting to warm up somewhat.
The man nodded, and I called Ramon into the dark corridor. There were a few tubes running under the roof. The constable turned on his torch, and the bright beam easily chased off the shadows. It didn't take long to check the back rooms. The back yard was full of coal and we didn't go into it, instead returning inside.
By that time, the shop foreman had already called for the end of the shift. The stokers, covered in coal dust, threw their shovels and carts down and started walking toward the entrance. We left the boiler room together with them, but it was raining outside, and Ramon suggested we wait it out in the makeshift barracks. I didn't refuse.
"Who'll fall asleep first?" Ramon wondered, struggling to restrain a yawn.
I took off my cloak, put it to dry on a hanger and took a look at my wrist chronometer.
"Lie down. You sleep half an hour, then I sleep half an hour."
"Great!" said the constable, looking pleased. He placed his lupara in the corner and laid down on the bench. A minute later, he was sleeping like a baby, lost in a dream.
I sat down on a table made of thick stripped boards, but very soon started smelling something, and got to my feet. I locked the door just in case, then checked the head stokers and went back, not wanting to leave my sleeping partner alone for too long.
On the wall of the room, there was a burning gas lamp; in its uneven glow, I took out the newspaper sticking out of my pocket and opened it habitually to the second page. The black and white photograph lost its graininess under my gaze. It started filling with color and taking on dimension. My heart fluttered. Tears welled up in my eyes. I led my finger over the photo. The air began shimmering, preparing to weave itself into the unbearably beautiful image of my beloved...
Kra-ank!
The strange screeching sound broke my trance; I shuddered and started listening, but the sound got lost in the hum that filled the boiler room. I could no longer pick it out of the host of other sounds.
Had the stokers dropped something, or had a gust of wind opened a window?
I took a look into the hallway and shouted:
"Is everything alright?"
No one responded; I shrugged my shoulders and went back to the table, but suddenly caught a sharp splash of fear. Someone else’s fear! My heart wavered. I pulled my Roth-Steyr from the belt holster and, pulling back the slide, chambered a bullet.
"Ramon!" I called to the constable, not pulling my pistol out of the doorway.
"Yeah?" my hulking partner immediately rapped back, as if he hadn't even been sleeping.
"It seems we've got problems..."
The constable shot to his feet and grabbed his gun, which was leaning on the wall.
"Are you sure?"
"No, but we should check. Let's go!"
Ramon threw his lupara over his shoulder and headed for the exit with a revolver in one hand and an electric torch in the other. The bright beam slid down the hallway and easily drove back the darkness. He turned back to me and reported:
"Clear!"
"I see," I rapped back. I checked the front door, then we went further.
The stokers weren’t near the furnaces. All we saw there were shovels jutting out of the coal heap. The bad guys must have known plenty of secluded corners here, but I didn't shout out to them. Instead, I suggested that we check the coal storage.
Ramon nodded and headed for the side door. I walked behind, ducking down to avoid hitting my head on a pipe running over the door. Just then, the constable shouted:
"Halt! Police!" and dashed down the hallway.
The beam of his flashlight passed over a body on the floor, and he jumped quickly to the side. By the time he’d turned the light back, the stunned stoker had already been dragged past the corner!
Ramon ran off in pursuit, but a shadow jumped out of the side passage and slammed into him, knocking him off his feet. The constable rolled head first on the floor. His revolver flew in one direction, and his torch in another.
The dark figure leaned over Ramon. I raised my pistol and fired two shots into the stranger's back.
Both hit. The attacker shuddered, froze, then suddenly turned and threw himself at me!
I shot and missed in surprise. I stumbled back, but instantly got myself together and opened fire, not allowing any more misses.
One, two, three!
With every strike, the villain gave a shudder and slowed his pace but, at that, he stayed on his feet as if he was being protected by some anti-bullet charm.
I bit my lip until it bled, overcame the panic and continued shooting into the center of the dark figure moving toward me with the measured steps of a golem.
Blam! Blam! Blam!
But it was all for naught!
The invincible scoundrel stepped into the beam of the cast-aside torch, and I caught a glimpse of his pale skin, covered in livor mortis spots. He had lifeless, milky white eyes and root growths jutting out of his body.
Curses! A walking corpse! We’d never stop it with copper and lead!
I raised my pistol and shot the last two bullets into the pipe over the corpse's head. With a thud, a thick column of steam started shooting out. A moment later, the air in the hallway was hot and humid.
The scalded body was blown back to the opposite wall. He tried to cover himself with his arms but, just then, Ramon’s lupara thundered out. A ten-caliber slug entered the back of the creature’s head, bursting it into pieces. A stinking slime was cast out. The dead body fell to the floor, gave a few twitches and fell silent.
"Leo, catch up!" Ramon shouted, running around the corner.
"Wait!" I shouted, setting a stripper clip into my Roth-Steyr, thumbing the rounds into the fixed magazine, then removing the emptied clip. The bolt slid back in place with a juicy clang, loading the uppermost bullet into the chamber.
I dove into the steam cloud, grabbed the torch off the floor and ran on. There was cold air blowing at my face from the broken and thrown-open windows; I got up on a mud-caked window sill and jumped out to Ramon, who was turning his head from side to side, aiming his lupara from one suspicious shadow to the next.
"Point the torch over here!" demanded the constable, bracing his weapon on his shoulder.
The powerful beam of the police torch cut through the darkness of the night, slid over the black heaps of coal, kept going and suddenly came upon a squat figure, dragging the stunned stoker behind him. A shot rang out. A long tongue of flame lashed out from the dual barrels with a flash, and then Ramon shot again.
The dead man ducked, dropped his victim and fled into the night in a few leaping bounds.
We didn't go after him.

3

THE TRACKER DOGS had their tails between their legs. They were whimpering, begging not to be made to pick up the scent.
And I couldn't blame them for that.
Devil! I didn't much want to take part in this raid either!
Even though the sun was long up, yesterday's corpses were too quick on their feet to be run-of-the-mill walking dead. They might well have had some unpleasant surprises in store in the light of day as well...
"Inspector," I said softly to Robert White, "this case is getting beyond the scope of our authority. We should inform Department Three..."
My boss looked sorely at me in reply and smiled:
"Is it the procedural violation that's got you so worked up? Don't worry, Leopold. I've already sent a telegram to the Newton-Markt."
"But..."
"Come off it!" shouted the inspector, cutting me off. "This matter cannot bear delay! We must act at once!"
The head of the factory security was in complete agreement with that, as well.
"The workers are on the verge of rebellion," he announced. "You couldn't get them to work a night shift now at the barrel of a gun."
I could have said that wasn't our problem, but I didn't.
The inspector had made up his mind, so what was the sense of wasting my breath and drawing the ire of my boss?
It was also lucky that the stunned stokers made away with nothing more than concussions, and that fixing the shot-through steam line took a repair brigade less than half an hour. It all could have turned out quite a bit worse.
Inspector White gave the local sergeant the go-ahead, and he commanded loudly:
"Single file! Shoot only on my command! Move out!"
Just twenty people took part in the manhunt; together with the police, a group of factory security was brought into the search for the undead.
The boiler room was on the edge of the compound. Right behind the plank-fence surrounding the coal heaps, began a vast wasteland. A pot-holed road led to the pit behind it. Among the mounds of earth, there was a huge steam excavator. The miners hadn't come to work today.
"There are tracks here!" Jimmy suddenly shouted out, holding his gun over his head. "Inspector, over here!"
The corpse, after escaping the boiler room, had been running without being able to make out the road. In the mud, there were smeared tracks dotted all around, frozen by the morning frost. The bare footprints were interspersed with handprints, and I couldn't tell if they were from jumping and falling, or if he had simply been running on all fours.
The tracks led to the pit; we spread out along its edge, looking in agitation at the shadows at the bottom. There were plenty of uneven spots and divots down there, so an unnoticed person could easily have a hidden underground shelter.
Inspector White bit the mouthpiece of his pipe in thought, then turned his attention to a pile of crudely hewn stone on the slope of the hill and asked the head of factory security:
"What is that?"
In response, he just spread his arms; the sergeant came to his aid.
"It’s said that, under the fallen, there was a monastery here," he told us, furrowing his brow. "It's been abandoned for half a century now. The cells were carved right into the cliff. There's the entrance. It's been filled in to stop little kids from crawling in, though. We're lucky it hasn't fallen in on someone."
"Very interesting," muttered the inspector. "An abandoned monastery. Well, how about that...?"
His words made ants crawl up my spine.
"Inspector, look!" Ramon suddenly exclaimed. "Do you see a hole there?"
And as a matter of fact, against the opposite wall of the pit, there was a mound of soil and, next to it, a narrow crack, dark and deep.
"The first one to disappear was a miner, right?" asked Inspector White, snapping his fingers. "Let's go down there!"
So, we went down a wooden gangway into the pit and carefully surrounded the suspicious crack. Ramon walked up to it, shined his torch in and immediately took a step back.
"There’s a passage!" he said.
I cursed mentally, removed the safeguard from my Cerberus and stuck it back in my cloak pocket. The gun, an invention of the weapons genius Tesla, had long tubular barrels attached together into a removable cluster. That made its clustering rather haphazard but, at that, thanks to its electric igniter and aluminum-jacketed bullets, the pistol could take down both malefics and underworld natives alike.
These corpses weren't likely to have climbed out of their own graves with no prompting, after all...
"Leopold!" Robert White shouted out, just as I was expecting.
"Yes, inspector?"
"You go first. Ramon, you cover him. Jimmy, Billy, you're with me!"
I didn't dispute his order. Instead, I took my Roth-Steyr from its holster, chambered a round and took my partner’s electric torch. Ramon took his lupara from the shoulder-strap, braced the stock on his shoulder and turned his head from side to side, craning his neck. There wasn't even a shade of emotion reflected on his craggy face, but I'm sure the inspector's order had been just as much to his liking as it was to mine.
"Sergeant! You and the boys behind us!" White shouted, giving him the go-head. "Leo, you first!"
The fear in my soul cut like razor blades, but I overcame my subconscious rejection of basements and squeezed into the narrow crack. The passage went right into the depths of the mountain. The bright beam of the torch shone for a good ten meters, which caused me slight relief. I didn't have to worry about an unexpected attack.
Ramon was behind me, breathing hard through his nose. Eventually, he stopped and warned the constables following him:
"You're stepping on my feet!"
Jimmy and Billy nervously swore under their breath in response, but they stopped nipping at his heels. Then the passage widened, and we came upon a set of stone steps that seemed to grow out of the earth itself. We started up them, slowly and carefully.
"Cover me!" I whispered to Ramon when a dark shape appeared before me and the beam of my torch hit on the high cupola ceiling.
The constable passed my warning back. I took a few deep breaths, then walked into the spacious room. It was dark, but empty. At the far wall, there stood the towering base of a broken altar. A heap of stones was blocking the way to the monastic cells.
There were no undead inside.
I led my torch, made sure there was no danger and stepped aside, making way for Ramon. With his lupara at the ready, he walked away from the door, and we were joined by the constables and Robert White.
The beams of their service torches ran over the walls; the inspector stood in the center of the room and declared in disappointment:
"This is all? Where's your monster?!"
The echoes of his voice rang loudly under the ceiling. Little streams of earth rained down from above.
"Be careful, inspector!" Ramon got on guard.
Robert White burned the constable with a haughty gaze, but didn't excoriate the man, instead ordering:
"Search the place, top to bottom!"
I moved around the pedestal in the middle of the room, then my beam hit upon a short, dark opening in a pile of stone. A fallen ceiling tile was slanting up against a stone, holding the soil on top of it out. Next to that, there were stone fragments cast all around as if someone had purposefully moved them aside to clear the entry.
"Inspector!" I quietly called out to my boss. "There's a passage here!"
Robert White rubbed his hands together with a satisfied look and issued a command:
"Keep moving!"
I got down on my haunches, shined the light into the dark hole and took a sniff. Fresh air hit my face, as if there was a way up to the surface somewhere nearby. It didn't smell of rotting flesh, either.
"Hurry up, Leo! Faster!" Robert White barked out, rushing me along. "We're losing time!"
My hesitation overcome, I laid down on the dirty floor and, torch in one hand and pistol in the other, crawled on my elbows under the tile. The passage was a little wider than a meter. Past the collapse, the roof was supported by stones jutting into it.
I crawled further. When I was completely past the tile, a little stream of soil started pouring into my collar. I whispered angrily to Ramon, who was already climbing in behind me:
"Be careful!"
And just then, the underground shook from a powerful explosion. The heap overhead shuddered. Broken stone fell onto my head and, with a sharp burst, I threw myself out from under the now sagging stones. I jumped out and turned around just in time to see the shaken-up soil start moving. Stone shards collapsed down with a screech.
"Devil!" I sighed. "Devil! Devil! Devil!"
If that quarry explosion had happened a bit earlier, I'd have simply been flattened!
From this side of the stone mass, I heard a muted knocking: I walked over to the heap and knocked in reply with the grip of my pistol. They heard me, but that was all.
I wasn't nourishing the hope to be let out any time soon. I raised my torch. Its iron body had already grown noticeably warm. I wiped the sweat off my face with the cuff of my cloak and headed off to find another way out.
I went up fifteen stairs and saw a long corridor stretching out with empty doors of either monastic cells or underground storage. Sniffing around anxiously, I walked down it, looking in each chamber one after the next. The fingers of my right hand grew numb on my pistol grip. My heart skipped yet another beat in fear, but the cells were all empty.
Dirt, dust, barren stone walls. There was no one there.
But also, the smell of fresh air was getting stronger and stronger.
I got to the end of the hall, then found a carved spiral staircase, and another hallway. This one didn't have any side chambers carved in it but, at the end, there was a hefty door sitting off its hinges. There was a breeze coming through the doorway, but I held back and forced myself not to go any faster.
Easy. Easy. Easy.
The beam of my torch jumped up the walls. I was following carefully after it with the barrel of my pistol, but the undead man was nowhere to be found. Then, before me, I saw a spot of daylight beckoning, and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest in joy.
An exit! There really is an exit!
I turned off the scorching torch, waited for a second to adjust to the dim light, and walked over to the arch at the end of the hallway. But the closer I got to it, the stronger I felt a certain undercurrent of anxiety.
The illustrious, unlike normal people, are capable of sensing the presence of the otherworldly. So, it wasn’t long before all my doubts were dispelled, and I was sure that some kind of supernatural being was hiding up there.
The undead from before? I couldn’t be sure...
I walked up to the arch, looked past warily and sighed out a noiseless curse. The hallway led me to a huge stone well with steep walls fifteen meters high. Above, at an unimaginable height, there were wisps of smoke crawling across the sky from the factory smokestacks, but there was no way for me to actually get out without mountaineering equipment.
In the very center of the well, there grew an angular tree with lots of dry branches and faded leaves, but it didn't reach the top, and looked very brittle and breakable. Trying to climb it up would be sure to end in a painful fall.
On the side opposite the entrance, there was a small natural stream; water poured in through the wall and disappeared with a dripping sound down a hole dug in the floor. And that was what caught my interest.
I turned the torch back on and shone it on the dark nook. I didn't notice anything suspicious, and started going down the small stone staircase to the dry-leaf covered floor.
And just then, from somewhere down below, there stuck out a dead pale arm, grasping at my ankle!
Knocked off my feet, I fell head over heels down the stairs. It hurt when I landed on the stones, but I immediately turned onto my back and raised my Roth-Steyr. My finger pulled back on the trigger as soon as I caught the head of the dead man jumping out from under the stairs. But just then, with a prickly chill, I became aware of the otherworldly presence. The firing pin loudly slammed down on the blasting cap, but no shot came out.
Devil!
I stuck my right arm in my pocket for my Cerberus, but before I could pull the pistol out, the corpse fell down on me and, with a wave of his hand, cut into my head with some kind of stick.
Stars. Pain. Darkness.

4

I WOKE UP from a crack to the nose. I peeled back my eyelids and got another smack from a big ash-darkened droplet, but this time on my cheek.
A light rain was rustling the leaves on the ground, which had painfully beautiful veins. Through them, I could see a dark and smoky sky. I was lying on my back under a tree and...
I was lying?! I stretched out, and tried to sit up, but couldn't move. While I was out, my legs and arms had been trussed up with tree roots, just like the ones that went through the undead man who knocked me out.
The corpse himself was standing near the stairs trying to reattach the curved blade of his druid's sickle, which had flown off when hitting me with the handle. His fingers, bloated from decay, were entirely unsuited to the task and, in the end, the dead man threw the stick away and came back to me with the blade squeezed in his bare hand.
Almost instantly, I was left without the slightest doubt on where the strange wounds on the guard's body had come from. Somehow, he had managed to run away, but that trick wasn't gonna work for me. If only...
My fingers, hidden in the pocket of my cloak, were still gripping the handle of my Cerberus, and that gave me a tiny chance of escape. When the corpse was leaning over me, about to cut through the thick fabric of my cloak with his sickle, I gathered my determination and started twitching all over like I was having a seizure. The sharp blade went through the roots holding me down. The tree shuddered and loosened its grip for a second.
With one quick motion, I got my hand free and stuck the pistol under the jaw of the dead man saddling me, plunging down on the trigger. A spark flickered out. The magical atmosphere of the well was no match for electricity, so the gun immediately gave a loud blast. And after that came another.
The bullets did away with the corpse’s skull entirely. He dropped his sickle and lifelessly collapsed on top of me. But before I could get out from under him, the roots stabbing through him suddenly came to life and crawled away like pallid worms.
A minute later, I was again entirely lashed down by the arms and legs. I cowered, tried to escape, but didn't manage. I just heard something starting to creak under my back.
I turned my head and saw that the dry leaves were hiding lots of small bones from birds and rats. Meanwhile, a bit further, there was a half-decayed human corpse totally enmeshed in roots.
My breathing seized up, and I immediately heard a charming voice in my head:
"Relax! Relax and don't worry. Everything will be fine!"
"Go to hell!" I sighed, feeling the roots crisscrossing me start to move, trying to get through the rubberized fabric to hook into my veins so the creature could nourish itself with my blood. My right arm, where the sickle had cut through my cloak, had already lost all sensation.
The tree gave a shiver, and I heard a light crackling. Then, the angular tree trunk melted into the form of a female figure. The crude bark was replaced with silk-soft skin. Her green eyes burned with an inviting flame. Her thin lips curved in promise of a wonderful kiss. Below the belt, the dryad remained part of a tree, not able to break free or finish turning into a human but, nevertheless, I moved my gaze away, not feeling strong enough to bear the supernatural beauty of the being bending toward me.
"Do you not find me beautiful?" asked the dryad.
"Be gone with you, infernal whelp!"
The foliage over my head started grumbling in rage.
"Do you think me evil?" asked the tender voice, growing in strength. "Does it make me evil to want to obtain freedom and leave this place? It was humans that disturbed my slumber in the first place! It was you that poisoned the air and water! It was your caustic soda that dried my roots, your acid rain that burned my foliage! If I stay here, I'll die! Are you prepared to doom me to certain death? Tell me, do you have no pity for me?"
The dryad could have moved a tax collector to tears, or made a heartless usurer take pity, but there was somewhat more riding on this horse than mere money, so I continued struggling, stopping the roots from entangling me in their deadly cocoon once and for all.
"I only need a bit of power to get free, and I can feel it inside you! Come with me! Look on my body! Am I not perfection itself? Are humans really not capable of considering something bigger than their own pitiful lives?"
Oh, yes! The dryad was beautiful! So beautiful that my heart was starting to moan in unbearable agony. My desire to possess such a perfect beauty could have broken my heart to pieces, but I already loved another and was not prepared to betray her. I simply could not do it. Not even to save my own life...
The roots wrapped me stronger and stronger, capturing my body and depriving me of the ability to move. The first shoots had already reached my neck and climbed past the collar of my cloak.
"With me, you'll be happy," the dryad whispered. "I can give you immortality! Immortality, total love, and happiness!"
Every breath I took was harder than the last. There was a ringing in my ears, and my head was splitting, but the far-off peal of thunder still reached me. A gust of wind flew in. The leaves rustled in aggravation, and that ripple of anxiety, that latent fear didn't go unnoticed by my talent.
"I do take pity on you," I said with utter sincerity, feeling tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. "I feel a great deal of pity for you..."
"And why is that?" murmured the unbearably beautiful voice of the dryad.
"Day after day, year after year, being stuck in the same place, listening to the rolling thunder, seeing the flashes of lightning... And you can’t take shelter, either. You just spend your time staring at the sky and hoping the next bolt of lightning won’t strike you…" I said in one breath out and croaked, starting to wheeze: "It must be terrifying!"
A shudder ran across the tree. The dryad hesitated, not able to find an answer. And in fact, there was no longer any need for an answer. I reached out for her fear and nourished it with my illustrious talent.
The sky overhead grew dark. The wind was blowing, and the rain was pouring. Just then, my talent embellished reality with a blinding flash of lightning. With a deafening thunder, the electrical discharge cut into the tree and clove it in two. The otherworldly presence disappeared, burned out by the heavenly flame. At the same time, the room started smelling of ozone mixed with smoldering wet leaves.
My ears were ringing unbearably, but my head spinning didn't stop me from ripping off the roots wrapping around me. I scrambled onto my side and crawled away from the charred remains of the dryad's abode. The sky grew clear. A dim disk of sun started peeking through the char of the factory smokestacks.
My right arm couldn't move at all. The cut made by the sickle was burning. I raised my hand to my face. Blood was dripping from my fingers. I had to tie off my shoulder with my belt.
My weakness left me; I sat down on the lower step of the stairs, stretched out on the cold stone, made a few deep breaths and fought back unconsciousness. Through the ringing in my ears, I seemed to hear voices and people shouting, but I couldn't have cared less. I pulled the rumpled newspaper from my pocket and opened it to the second page. The only thing that had saved me from the temptation of an inhuman will was my love for this girl. Unfortunately, her picture was now soaked in blood.
At the time, it didn't seem like a bad omen.
At the time, I didn't know it, but everything was just beginning...


The End



You want to know what happened next? 


Buy The Sublime Electricity series by P. Kornev:


Book I: The Illustrious
Book 2: The Heartless

No comments :

Post a Comment