Grim-Visaged War – a steampunk story

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Dirk woke up to a throbbing head, rough ground beneath his body, and rope binding his arms and legs. A stone fell from somewhere above, bouncing painfully off his bruised shoulder.

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and looked around.

He was still in the same cave beneath the streets of York. The fanatics who had knocked him out had opened a set of sluice gates on the stream and now the water was running more fiercely through the centre of the cave, driving the ancient machine whose hammers were shaking the place to pieces. At the end of the stream, they had just finished moving aside a set of boards and rocks, revealing another device.

“This is insane!” Dirk called out, fingers toying with the knots that bound him. “You’re going to get us all killed!”

The leading cultist, a young woman with the ink-stained hands of an amateur scholar, turned to glare at him.

“If that is what it takes to protect good King Richard’s memory, then so be it,” she called out above the hammering of machinery.

She pulled a lever and the mill wheel on the second machine thudded into place. It started to turn, driving a complex set of machinery that made the ground shake more frantically than ever. Beams like giant battering rams pounded the cave walls, driven by the turning of that wheel.

“Richard the Third has been dead for hundreds of years!” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms called out. He too was tied up, placed in an alcove near where the cultists stood.

“And so he cannot defend himself,” the leader replied. “Only we can protect him from these libels.”

“Those libels are Shakespeare.”

“They are an outrage.”

“You really think he’d want this?” Dirk shouted. The ropes were coming loose but he was running out of time. Even if the city above wasn’t being shaken to pieces, this cave looked like it was about to fall in on them. “Destroying the city he loved?”

“Why else would he make this?” the leader exclaimed. “We are doing his work!”

Her eyes burned with a fever that told Dirk there would be no reasoning.

At last the knots came undone. He waited until the cultists’ backs were turned, then, flinging aside the ropes, he leapt to his feet and charged across the cavern.

The sounds of machinery hid his footfalls. He had almost reached the cultists when one of them turned, saw him, and yelled in alarm.

Two of them moved to block Dirk’s way, but it was the leader who showed real smarts. She grabbed the bound Blaze-Simms and slammed him against the wall, right next to where a mechanical arm was battering away.

“Stop,” she said, “or the machine pounds your friend to paste.”

Dirk skidded to a halt, inches from the nearest cultists. His whole body shook along with the cavern walls. Somewhere above them, he could hear crashing sounds. As the gearwheels turned, rocks and dirt rained down.

“You keep going, we’ll all die anyway,” he said, trying to master his growing sense of alarm.

“But if you move, his death will be your fault,” she replied.

“I say,” Blaze-Simms said, peering over her shoulder at the machine. “What magnificent gearing. But rather primitive.”

Both Dirk and the woman frowned at him.

“This ain’t the time, Tim,” Dirk called out.

“What are you calling primitive?” the leader snapped.

“That.” As Blaze-Simms spoke, a rock fell from the ceiling in front of him. Held up by the cultists pinning him to the wall, he lashed out with his legs, kicking the rock. It went flying into the gears of the machine.

Suddenly, the machine stopped. It still trembled with power, but its gearwheels and its punishing arms would not move. At the heart of the mechanisms, Dirk could see gears straining against the stone that blocked them.

Dirk grabbed the cultists in front of him and smacked their heads together. They slumped to the ground. As the leader turned, Blaze-Simms kicked her, sending her sprawling among the machine’s many arms. Other cultists lashed out at him, but Dirk was in among them now, striking to left and right, knocking heads and sweeping away legs.

Amid the trembling hammers and rams of the machine, the leader got to her feet.

“You will never stop us!” she said. “We have endured down the centuries. We cannot be-”

With a crack, the stone in the gears shattered. Machinery sprang into life. A hammer lashed out and smashed her against the wall.

The last few cultists stared in horror at the mangled remains of their leader. These clearly weren’t seasoned veterans used to blood and horror. They were simple English obsessives, mild-mannered in everything but their fixation on a long dead king.

While they were distracted, it was easy to knock them out.

The crashing had grown louder, the falling rocks more frequent. The mill wheels on the machines spun and churned, turning the flow of water into a maelstrom of destruction.

“What now?” Dirk asked as he untied Blaze-Simms. “Gum them up with more rocks?”

A section of ceiling crashed down, almost crushing them. Dirk’s pulse raced. Of all the ways he’d come close to death, this had to be the craziest. That didn’t mean he was ready to die.

“I don’t know,” Blaze-Simms said, wide-eyed with fear. “But we need to do it fast.”

* * *


The latest Epiphany Club novella, Sieges and Silverwear, is out now:

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

So if today’s story seems like your cup of tea, then check out Sieges and Silverware, available now through Amazon and Smashwords.

And come back next week for the climax of Dirk’s adventure beneath the streets of York.