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Iron Quill (The Lost) - The Gunsmith's Apprentice

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The Gunsmith's Apprentice

Words: 1750

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Her eyes ache from staring through the loupe, the nerves in her fingers are burnt out, firing randomly, she hisses as the bullet she’s drilling drops to the scarred table. In the instant before it hits Elle sees it explode, bits of brass casing knife towards her, the shockwave tears through the delicate glassware, the beakers and the boxes of gears arranged neatly all around her.


Of course none of that happens, the bullet lands. Still Elle can’t resist a guilty glance over her shoulder at the closed door to the workshop. She sets the hand drill next to the inert bullet and lets the loupe fall into her palm. She closes her eyes and clenches and unclenches her hands, concentrating on the movement, willing away the chemical numbness that makes them clumsy.


“Remember,” Clara’s voice echoes in her ears, an old refrain, “It’s the bullet that does the work. They call us gunsmiths, what’s a gun? What are you? Just a vehicle to deliver the bullet to the target. Back on earth maybe it was different, but here? You shoot a lead bullet through a spirit, tell me how well that works for you. Know your bullets, make them right, treat them well. It’s the only thing that will keep you alive.”


“Right,” Elle says out loud to the darkness, “And make yours too, stay hunched over the bench for twelve hours a day working by the light of a soulstone torch because the chemicals I’m using are too volatile to risk around open flame.”


She puts the loupe back in her eye and picks up the bullet again. It’s almost fully drilled, a few more turns should do it. Then she packs it half full of a yellow powder from a stoppered glass vial, over that she sets a circle of glass which she heats with a torch until it fits the bullet perfectly. She repeats the process with a tacky green substance and another circle of glass. Last she fills the cartridge with powder, inserts the blasting cap and puts the finished bullet in an indent in a velvet lined box.


The box has one hundred and forty-four indents, thirty-two are empty. She will be allowed to sleep when they are full.


She wakes to a pounding on the door. Her thin cot creaks as she sits up. “What is it?”


“Work.” Clara’s voice is rough, her throat smoke-scarred, “Get up.”


“Coming.” What time is it? She had barely taken her boots off before falling asleep, she’s still wearing heavy leather overalls and a rough cotton shirt. She grabs arm braces from the shelf above her cot and slips them on, each one has a hold-out pistol locked into place near her elbow that will deploy into her hand with a flick of the wrist. She checks the load on each and is satisfied to see the tips of the bullets faintly glowing. Her gun belt goes around her waist with her custom eight-chamber revolver and three rows of bullets divided by type.


More pounding.


“I said I’m coming,” she yells, snatching her duster from the raw wood floor and stepping into her boots.


The door flies open, “Our work today is of a time sensitive nature,” coming from Carla the formal language drips with irony, “So maybe instead of lying around until all hours you could get yourself moving.” Carla is heavy set, the buttons of her shirt strain to close over her stomach, her hands are like platters, her hair is chopped brutally short and her eyes are constantly in motion, probing, alert. Elle feels tiny next to her, a terrier following a mastiff.


“Yes ma’am.” Boots laced, Elle tosses her coat on, “I finished the explosive rounds, they’re in the…”


“I saw.” Carla cuts her off, “They’ll do.” She pulls a sticky bun from the pocket of her coat and tosses it to Elle, who catches it. “Come on.” She stomps out the door, Elle hurries after.


“What’s the job?” She brushes lint and gunpowder off of the bun and takes a bite as the two hurry through the common room of the dormitory. Steamfitters glance their way and Carla doesn’t speak until they break into the thin daylight.


“Find a girl, find a book. Don’t let the one get a hold of the other.”


“What happens if they do?” Elle says.


“We kill the girl.” Carla reaches into her coat and pulls out a wadded up flier, “Do it all before the Guild catches her.” She tosses the flier over her shoulder to Elle who catches it without thinking.


Elle stuffs the rest of the bun in her mouth and chokes it down while she flattens out the flier. It’s a wanted poster printed on the cheap waxed paper favored by Guild accountants. There’s a woodcut of a wild-eyed girl with fly away hair and a scar on her cheek. “WANTED,” it reads, “Unlicensed Use of Magic, Theft of Soulstones, MURDER”


“Is she one of ours?” Elle asks, hurrying to catch up with Carla’s longer strides.


“She was. Ironsides put the black mark on her, she was seen down around Temple street about an hour ago.”


“And the book?” Elle says.


“A grimoire. Won’t want us to find it. So we find the girl first.”


Temple Street is a twenty minute walk from the factory for citizens of Malifaux with an intact sense of self preservation. The gunsmiths cut through a corner of the quarantine zone and make it in twelve.


Even early in the morning the Temple Street market is thronged with people. Bodies pack the twisting cobblestones between the leaning tenements and merchants shout themselves hoarse trying to move their wares. The stalls are packed with bruised fruit and old fish, cuts of meat from unnamed creatures, and suspiciously stained clothing. Here and there sellers taking advantage of the Guard’s disinterest in policing anywhere too tight for their automata to go. Temple Street is the most comprehensive market for illegal alchemy, artifacts and literature this side of the Three Kingdoms.


“How the hell are we going to find her in this crowd?” Elle says, as they approach.


“She’s a rogue mage and there’s something here that she needs,” Carla says. She pulls out one of her matched pistols, they are ugly blocky things that Elle can barely hold on target but they look small in Carla’s hand. She checks the load and then fires it into the air. The bullet howls in pain as it tears skywards, a side effect of the soulstone dust in its tip.


The shoppers on Temple Street are seasoned citizens of the city, they’ve developed a sixth sense for when to take cover and within seconds the street is all but empty. Elle can’t track where most of them went to ground.


“Lets hope she’s a fighter,” Elle says.


“There’s a book stand on the corner, start there.” Carla stalks down the street, gun drawn.


Elle rolls her eyes and does as she’s told, sifting through the haphazard stacks of books in the corner stall. Most of them are dime store trash. Cheaply printed smut, adventure magazines, patterns for shapeless dresses. One pile is all play texts, popular melodramas with sheet music in the back. The most esoteric thing she finds is a tract on the mathematics of bird migration and the implications for competitive balloonists.


“Nothing,” she calls, turning away from the table. A few people have filtered back into the streets, they’re picking over the stalls but there’s something wrong with them. They show no real interest in what they’re doing, just perform the same mechanical motions over and over, and their shadows… “The shadows,” Elle says, then shouts, “Carla, the shadows are moving!”


They stretch and warp, tugging bodies along after them. They whip around at Elle’s shout and begin to stagger and lunge towards her.

Elle’s pistol clears its holster in one smooth motion, she fires and the torso of the first puppet-person explodes. The others keep coming. She fires again and again, fanning her shots across the crowd until the bodies are broken, no longer moving. She tries not to think of the lives caught in the crossfire and admires her handiwork instead, They’ll do, indeed.


She’s about to holster her gun when the shadows start moving again. They boil across the ground and bleed upwards, shapeless masses with grasping tendrils. Elle raises her pistol, the hammer falls on an empty chamber, “Shit.” She turns to run but there’s more shadow rising, a wall of it.


There’s a cry of pain and fear behind her and Elle whips around to see Carla firing witched bullets into the massed shadow which begins to disintegrate under the barrage. By the time Elle has reloaded her pistol the last wisps are evaporating. “Thank you,” she says.


“Count your shots,” Carla says, reloading.


“Did you find the book?” Elle says.


“We’re looking for the girl.”


“So why did…”


“Keep your eyes open,” Carla says.


“Right.” The two turn away from each other, scanning the alleys that branch off the road at random intervals. There’s a giggle from somewhere.


“This way,” Carla says.


Elle walks backwards keeping pace with her master’s measured strides. There’s silence all around. The tenements seem to grow and curl over them, fingers making a fist. Elle swallows.


By the time she sees it, it’s too late. A finger of shadow races out along a crack in the street and then up, hones itself and punches into Carla’s side. The gunsmith twists as she falls firing wildly into an alley. There’s a shriek of pain as shards of brick fill the air.


Elle darts to Carla’s side and the older woman shakes her head, “Go, finish her.”


Elle hears footsteps out of the alley. Shadows lash up around her, knocking her gun away, holding her tightly.


“Who are you?” The woman’s voice comes from somewhere far away. Elle doesn’t answer and the shadows pull tighter, “Why won’t you leave me alone?”


Elle looks at the woman standing their wild eyed, her fists full of shadow. She flicks her wrist and a gun falls into her hand, she fires and the bullet does its work. The shadows dissipate as the mage bleeds out.


“Come here,” Carla says, with blood in her lungs, “I’m dead. That means you graduate.”


“But I’m not ready,” Elle says, “I need…”


“No, you’re not,” Carla coughs, “Not even close, but you’ll have to do. Tell Toni, she’ll -”

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