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Gnomezilla

My Jade

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They didn’t sit shoulder to shoulder by choice. Leveticus’ rabbit warren of a shop left crevasses between the stacks of merchandise barely wide and tall enough for him, let alone for the men who had come to speak with him. Howard Langston had found a measure of comfort by straddling one of the lower heaps, but Joss could not even turn to one side. Hemmed in by the pitted counter of knotwood, by a spray of stone-headed cutting tools escaping from their bucket and three of Langston’s legs, he had to speak sideways to the others.

“How the hell do you think business has been?! Only reason I don’t smash Toni’s smug face in—“

“—Kaeris, I’m telling you! Not Toni. She’s gone feral same as they all do—“

“—Real convenient to blame the one who flies out of reach and never do anything, isn’t it, Langston—“

Leveticus caught the wrist of the waif as she wandered into him, and set her on another track through the room. The other men’s eyes turned to follow her swaying even while the argument ground on.

“—No, ‘convenient’ would be blaming his right-hand man, only one he ever trusted—you know where I could find someone like that, Joss?—Jesus!” Hank broke off as a round, fanged shadow flashed past the window, falling, behind the waif, and the floorboards shook. “What was that, some new kind of dropping bear?!”

“Don’t make things up. Why the hell do you think—“

Another figure flashed past, mostly pink, landing lightly enough to only clatter the boards. “I found one!” it announced, and let itself in. The pink thing dodged arachnid legs, popped up again next to Joss—a girl, of course, but this one butted into Joss with purpose, tried rapidly three times to find a way past him and over the counter, then darted back out again trailing a distinct reek of pigeons. Both men blinked, and she was gone.

After a moment Howard Langston stated the obvious. “That wasn’t Alyce.”

[Series 5 of the battle narratives: The Children's Crusade]

[Series 6 of the battle narratives: My Jade]

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‘That’, they discovered when she appeared behind the counter, balancing mismatched mugs of egg coffee on a tray and doling them out, was Marlena. “Missus said all business affairs should be conducted over coffee,” she told Leveticus, handing over the second smallest mug. “It’s hospitable.”

“There was coffee on the stove,” he growled.

“I’m not serving that coffee to visitors!” she sniffed, and turned her back to them all, the last mug teetering as she spun. Alyce snickered, unseen, from the back rooms. Marlena scowled, grabbed the mug, wound up, and flung it through the doorway. The mug shattered, Alyce yelped, her mechanical arm shot through the doorway outstretched to grab, and so did the miniature arm of a nightmare teddy bear. The teddy latched onto the clockwork arm, dug in with the screech of steel against steel, hauled Alyce back out of sight.

“Hey,” Hank remarked, “I remember her now. Should’ve figured she was one of yours.”

“Oh?” murmured Leveticus, keeping an eye on Marlena as she high-stepped over the mess, calling out to the teddy.

“Yeah. One of the last jobs I got off the Guild before Hoffman got weird. Was supposed to arrest her, but Lazarus must’ve been tipped off...grenade concussions knocked me out, and when I came to there she was, stripping everyone’s clothes off, the little pervert.”

“Really.”

Joss slammed his mug down hard enough to snap the handle free. “What d’you expect me to do,” he roared, “high-five you for it?!”

Howard strained his torso backward to avoid the arc axe. Even though Joss had to strike at him overhand, the blind swipe had nearly sliced his face off. He whipped his conduit claws forward, ready to intercept a second strike.

“Joss.” Leveticus flicked his metal fingers against the pewter of his mug. “Howard didn’t notice,” he continued, “that she’s a child.”

Joss glared at Leveticus as best he could while keeping his eyes on Howard’s claws. “And you did?”

“Exploratory surgery, Joss. She had been shot—“ he punctuated it with another tap, “—not by Alyce, before you ask. Her bones are still soft, still growing.” Leveticus looked past them both. “I was deceived. But tall as she is, she is still a child—aren’t you, Marlena?”

She had reappeared, and the tiny teddy with her. The teddy’s colors were familiar in patches, Joss now saw. Guild colors, torn to ribbons and sewn atop the more familiar colors of nightmares in the wild. The teddy grinned back at him, showing a glimpse of green behind sprays of needle-pointed teeth.

Marlena folded her arms and stared up at Howard Langston. “Last time you introduced me first,” she said.

“Yes. The man you have not met is Joss, the other is Howard Langston, fine upstanding members of the Miners’ and Steamfitters’ Union. Joss, Hank, this is Marlena, who is looking for somewhere else to stay—“ he folded his hands in a parody of pity, “—do either of you have it in your heart to feed and clothe and educate a poor, orphaned girl?....”

The giant arachnid legs shuffled and clicked in that uncomfortable silence. Joss broke it at last. “Hell. That coffee’s all I had to eat today.”

Marlena glowered. “And he worked for the Guild.”

“They both have, Marlena. You ought to ask others’ loyalties before showing your own.” The inquisitive child flinched. “Think. This is a business meeting. They are of the Union, have worked for the Guild, yet are still here today. And he hasn’t eaten yet. And unless you scrounged a pigeon up there as well as an egg, neither have you.”

“...I’m going to work with them today,” Marlena’s voice went flat, “and then have to come back here anyway.”

“You don’t have to come back!” Alyce chimed in from the doorway.

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“You didn’t have to come with us either,” the child told Rusty Alyce later.

Leveticus had ordered both men out of the shop, and they had filed out, Joss still growling. As soon as Joss had the elbow room to throw a punch, he’d jabbed his axe squarely into the junction box where Howard’s conduit coils fused with his back. Howard had stumbled down the porch steps, wheeled, and charged back at Joss. Before long Alyce had joined Leveticus and Marlena at the railing, watching the bladed fist fight with bright eyes. “Stupid,” she’d remarked after Howard had lassoed Joss into a chokehold, “he could’ve taken Joss’s head off if he punched with his dumb choppers.”

Marlena had stuck out her tongue at Alyce. Leveticus brushed her aside, beckoning the older girl closer as Marlena spat out dust and tiny teddy patted her on the back.

“Alyce. You of all people ought to be aware this isn’t a fight to the death—“

“Yeah, yeah, they’re just brawling over your scraps. Sure you don’t want to bring someone who can, oh I don’t know, actually kill something?...”


 

“[I’d rather be killing Neverborn. At least when they are dead they stay dead.]”. Perdita centered her sights on the abomination’s larger skull, yet waited.

Abuela jabbed her shotgun stock over the armrest of her steamchair, deflecting several interlocking rock-cutting faces mounted above the creature’s conjoined maw. “[We had enough of these to fight around Latigo. Why travel all the way into this nasty city? It pays better? There’s something here you want?]” The abomination bucked on coiled and cantilevered legs, but she bypassed the shotgun’s stock and backhanded it down to earth. “[You’re not bringing home another pet, Perdita.]”

Francisco guffawed quietly, this time. Nino’s rifle spat, and Perdita’s pistol answered half a heartbeat later. The abomination bucked again, spraying corrosives from the smoking holes just torn through both its skulls, then collapsed as its legs folded and clamped against its underside.

The giant which stalked the Guild threw the shadow of its six-shooter over the abomination’s death blood. Reflections of wrongful stars glowed in the fluids and slid out of them, marking a map of streets near the river, before the emissary withdrew its shadow.

“[There’s so many at home, grandmama...so very many. In the city, not so many. I will end them all. But maybe first the city has some predator—]”

Nino flicked a darkened catch away from a mirror-polished dot of silver. ‘Danger—Neverborn’ spoke the first reflected flash, and his familia fell silent and scanned their assigned quarters as Nino relayed the sighting.


 

“Yeah, I did have to come with you,” Alyce answered, later, bent over twigs of some stinking plant twisted between a crumbling facade and its brickwork. “What if Hank had won, huh? Where’d that leave you?”

Marlena watched Joss cut one of the waifs out of the group by sending a mobile toolkit between it and the others, grin, and herd it towards the shelter of half-collapsed stonework. “Alone, I guess.”

“Nope!” shouted Alyce, drawing her pistol and firing. Marlena screeched as a bullet struck her—not again!—and just like before, it hadn’t been Treasure’s shot. “Vitals, ever heard of them?” she taunted her target, then dove for the earth as yet another bullet streaked toward the girls.

The cracks of shot and crumbling brickwork behind them drowned out all but the “...te enterarás!” of the retort.

Marlena swayed forward onto teddy’s back, clutching at her wound and at the threads of the world. Beside her, Alyce reloaded, swearing, and yelled at the unseen pistoleer to talk straight if she couldn’t shoot straight. More gunpowder blurred her vision with charred scents and smoke, more voices shouted unintelligible taunts from its concealment…

Leveticus’ thread tensed as one of the unseen pistoleers vaulted over Alyce’s snare and landed between the girls. The inquisitive child smelled the crushed plant, cologne and sweat, even as her vision began to fail. She turned her attention to the threads instead.

Rage, cold and sure, farther away: it bit into a tangle as fierce as Alyce, and unknotted it. A last bullet struck Alyce, Marlena knew by the spirit which leaped into her tangle, but the knot which was Leveticus was calm and grim, and no taunts followed that shot gone home, but only outraged cries. The child smiled and passed out.


 

“Well?” Leveticus demanded of Joss, once they had returned to the shop. Marlena remembered nothing of the journey or the bullet’s removal, but Alyce’s glances toward her were so shy she was almost afraid to ask.

Joss held out a slab of cracked, carved stone stinking of the invasive plant. “It was right on the whatchamacallit line inside, like you said. They never even saw me, not even the sniper. Proof? I’m here.”

Leveticus took it with his metallic hand, flicking dirt away. “You’ll want to wash I suppose, the sap attracts them,” he muttered.

Joss coughed.

“Sticky fingers? Don’t come back here complaining when it gets into your joints,” he grumbled, yet dug soulstones out of his pocket and handed them across. “Go away. I’m a busy man.”

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But what is it?” Marlena asked, once the Union men had left.

“Boundary marker, human,” muttered Leveticus, guiding her hand to recognizable Roman numerals cut into the slab. “From the time of the first Breach. No matter, someone’ll want it.”

She wrenched her wrist free. “Stop it! Why?”

“Pretend there’s a pedigree to some slop-shop opened last week. Buy a lawyer and compound a century’s interest on the spot. Ship it Earthside as a Neverborn relic that doesn’t melt the floorboards. Squat on it and curse Malifaux. Whatever gets it sold.”

His words flew over her head. “...But didn’t we go there to get it?”

Alyce looked up from a pile of twigs she had plucked from the cracks. “I dug that bullet out of you to make you shut up,” she mouthed, “why isn’t it working?...”

The inquisitive child sensed the truce was nearly ended, and circled around to the far side of the table. Leveticus ignored tiny teddy scuffling underneath the tabletop. “Reading the tablet in situ was an unnecessary risk. If a being was innervating the flora, better to let Joss find that out, and if the leyline was the source of its animation, better yet to let Joss take his chances. Alyce.” Teacher swiveled to face Treasure. “What connection is there between the plants and abominations?”

“Can’t make abominations out of plants, what do you think I am, Lilith?—“

“—‘Who’, Alyce, not ‘what’—“ he said, yet Teacher nodded.

“—She’s been too quiet lately anyway,” Alyce continued, talking over him. “So probably the leyl—“

They all tensed at the sounds of constructs in the yard mobilizing: steam whistles venting at pre-set pressurization levels, squeals of corroded joints snapping free of their rust, footfalls which shook the table and collapsed Alyce’s house of twigs.

She looked down at the wreckage, and giggled. “Someone’s trying to pick up the peacekeeper without paying.” When she looked up again, her gun was in hand, her eyes alight. “We going to let him get away with that?”


 

Marlena glowered after Howard Langston as he scuttled out of the yard. Leveticus had refused to pay him for bodyguarding, and the moment he heard that refusal the steamborg had retreated from the peacekeeper’s reach. That was fine, Missus Webster had had negotiations go sour too even after coffee, but as far as the child could see, he had no justification for scooping up the nearest waif and dumping her into his avenue of escape.

Just behind her, Alyce cried out, angry but not hurt. Her clockwork arm spun full rotations on its elbow bearing, spraying loose ball bearings, and the third bullet flew far wide of the guardian between her and a scrapheap, tall with salvaged girders and roofed with tin.

Leveticus flickered and reappeared in the lee of that roof, but while the guardian crumbled under centuries of corrosion, the air flickered again with a much more substantial disturbance. Marlena felt the threads of the world creak with the Guild’s oppression, and fled behind the nearest heap. She peered around the corner at what had nearly pinned tiny teddy: metal which had leapt like a hunter, but unfolded upright and locked around a human.

Marlena did not dream, not since Leveticus had opened her and placed machinery within. Dreams which were not dreams were all that were left to her. One of them floated to the surface, now, as Hoffman reached out to Treasure’s arm and she wrenched it away, then stormed back into the shop. A child wearing the Guild’s mechanics’ crest, a clockwork doll with a construct claw, plans to help Marlena escape the ‘scary scrapyard’ and flee...to him. To the Guild, which wished to kill her.

The thread which bound her to tiny teddy thrummed. The inquisitive child untwisted that thread long enough to send the silver cord into the scraps of Treasure’s arm. Hoffman glanced down at the new doll, then addressed Marlena. “I shouldn’t have had to collect the peacekeeper myself,” he told her. “Pick up your doll, dispose of that dress, and return to the workshop. You will—“

She recoiled, looking all around for escape routes. The peacekeeper’s harpoon revolved, its forefoot treading upon the remains of the waif: the giant which stalked the Guild and its great cage blocked the opposite path.

“—Child!” he rebuked her, but looked up at last as Marlena stretched her arms up to the scrapheap, and she felt him realize his error. She whimpered at the pain of climbing, even with tiny teddy scrambling underneath her feet and rearing up to boost her. As she pulled one long leg up almost up under her chin and found a foothold, she kicked herself up onto a projection and lost sight of him below, but felt the silver cords tangle and hum, heard words float up which made no sense.

“Construct, yes, but I did not connect...“

She turned herself around and peeked over the edge just soon enough to see Teacher flow behind Hoffman with murder in his eyes. “Where is she?” Leveticus snarled, sending a jolt of mechanical decay through the walking harness.

Marlena shivered as Hoffman shrugged off the entropic energy into the constructs’ threads, and hers. He was staring up at her, unblinking, with a expression Teacher never wore, that she could almost understand. If tiny teddy had a human face…and why wasn’t he protecting her? “...A girl?...”

“Alyce!” Again the weight of centuries crackled out from Leveticus, through Hoffman, grounded itself among the constructs.

“...No…” Hoffman wasn’t talking to him—the inquisitive child shivered—he was trying to speak to her. There was no promise of death in his threads as there had been in Sonnia’s, but why did he have to stare so? She felt Teacher rummaging among them also, more livid moment by moment. Leveticus grasped the tether resonating between her and Hoffman and pulsed entropy directly into it. The hum lessened, the tether faded, the Guild master sent approval to the Guild emissary, and the giant six-shooter spat bullets at Marlena’s hiding place.

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