Assisting A Puss
“You know, I’m surprised we were able to drag you out of Mechanicsburg.”
Doc blushed a little. “Well, it’s an amazing town. No other place I’ve seen has five different places to secure various mechanical parts and tools on every street.”
“I was far more impressed by that sausage fountain,” Jennifer said, glancing back down the road. “I’ve never thought of sausages as building material before.”
“You’re not the only one,” Victor said, shaking his head. “Of course, I also never thought a cup of coffee would have the effect it did on me.”
“That was interesting,” Marty agreed, fighting back a few giggles.
“You’re sure you’re all right now?” Alice asked, shooting him a concerned look. “You were awfully jittery for a while there.”
“I’m fine,” Victor assured her. “Just – don’t ever let me have coffee again.”
“Trust me, we’ll remember that,” Marty said, grinning as he nodded. “So, we’re good for supplies, got a horse for Jennifer – where to now, Doc?”
“Well, if we want to get closer to the Queen’s court, we want to keep following the road we’re on til the next fork, then go left and--”
“Hey! You lot!”
The group sat up a little straighter, looking around for the source of the voice. The road was empty, as were the fields around them. Marty arched an eyebrow, puzzled. “Uh, hello?”
“Oh for – down here!”
Marty realized the voice was coming from somewhere near his feet. He looked down to see a cat jogging alongside his horse. It was a most unusual cat. It had all the normal cat features, of course – whiskers, a tail, fur that was pure white, and large green eyes. But it was also walking upright on its hind feet. More peculiar, it was wearing clothes – a small red coat with gold trim and epaulets on the shoulders, and a pair of sturdy brown boots. It looked up at him disdainfully. “Honestly, the things I put up with. . . .”
The rest of the group had noticed the cat by this point, and were watching it curiously. “What sort of creature are you?” Doc asked, tilting his head to examine it from a different angle.
“I’m a cat,” the cat said, in a rather “are you blind?” tone. Then it relented and added, “All right, I’m a construct – an uplifted cat. And I need you lot to do something for me.”
“What? We don’t have any milk on us, if that’s what you want,” Jennifer said.
“No, no – already learned nobody has milk around here,” the cat grumbled. “I need you to say, if questioned, that the lands you’re traveling through belong to the Marchioness Heterodyne.”
The five looked at each other. “I’ve never heard of a Marchioness Heterodyne,” Doc said suspiciously.
“Me either – why should we, cat?” Marty asked, looking back down.
“Because if you don’t, I’ll scratch out your eyes and bite off your toes.”
“You even think of doing that,” Alice said, pulling out her knife, “and I’ll have myself a new catskin muff.”
“Hold on, hold on, I don’t think we need to resort to violence just yet,” Marty said, as the cat puffed himself up. He grabbed it by the scruff on the back of its neck and lifted it with a grunt – the cat was rather plump. “Who’s this Marchioness?”
“The owner of the lands you’re riding through!”
“The owner of the lands we’re riding through is Baron Wulfenbach,” Doc said. “Everyone knows that. Are you trying to pull some sort of con job for money or food?”
“No!” Everyone stared hard at the cat. “Well, not on you, exactly,” the cat finally confessed, squirming a little in Marty’s grip.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Marty asked, setting the cat down on the horse in front of him. “Who are you, anyway?”
“If you must know, I’m Krosp I, the Emperor of All Cats,” the cat said in a rather snooty voice.
“I wasn’t aware cats had emperors.”
“Neither are they,” said Krosp in a long-suffering tone. “The man who created me didn’t stop to think that most cats are mere dumb animals. Oh, I can command them, and they’ll listen, but they’ll completely forget my orders the instant they fall asleep or something moves!” He leaned heavily on a paw. “I’ve only got one subject who listens to me, and she’s not even the same species.”
“This ‘Marchioness?’” Doc asked blandly, eyes slightly narrowed.
Krosp sighed. “Oh, forget it. I ought to be running along to the next group anyway, before that carriage catches up--”
“You’re not going anywhere until we figure out what’s going on,” Marty told him, catching his coat as he made to jump off the horse.
“Why should I tell you anything?”
“Because Alice will have less motivation to turn you into a catskin muff then,” Victor said, forcing Alice herself to bite back a giggle.
“All right, all right! I’m trying to help the girl I suppose you all would call my ‘owner.’” Krosp said the word like it was some sort of swear. “Her name’s Agatha Clay, and she was the daughter of a miller who ended up in quite a lot of debt. I ended up on their mill when I escaped the catastrophe of my creator’s death. When her father died, the bank foreclosed on the mill, and suddenly Agatha and I were left out in the wilderness with only our wits and ourselves. Agatha offered to serve me – she did!” he protested to their disbelieving looks. “She fed me and everything!”
“Oh – I guess that would count to a cat,” Jennifer said with a little snicker.
Krosp glowered at her. “Anyway, I decided I didn’t want to live like that any longer than I had to – and by taking Agatha as my subject, I had to be sure of her situation too. So she fashioned me these boots and this fine coat so I could help her impress the baron. She’s a brilliant inventor in her own right, so I’ve been bringing bits of her work to show Wulfenbach. I only meant to try and impress him, but his son seemed to take an interest in her inventions as well, so I decided to expand our plan a little.”
“Wait – you’re trying to trick the Baron’s son into marrying a miller’s daughter?” Marty said, frowning.
“I’m trying to trick him into marrying a supposed Marchioness,” Krosp corrected. “They seem to like each other, from what I’ve seen. Now, part of the plan is that they’re traveling with Agatha today, to see what it is she owns, exactly. Which means you’ve got to tell them that these fields belong to the Marchioness. Capisce?”
“But the Baron won’t fall for that!” Doc protested, waving a hand. “He has to know your – subject isn’t actually a Marchioness!”
“He hasn’t questioned it so far! Now put me down – there’s a castle I’ve got to clear out before the Baron and his retinue arrive.”
“Okay, okay,” Marty said, returning the cat to the ground. “Good luck, I guess.”
“Thank you.” Krosp raced off down the road, boots leaving little puffs of dust in his wake.
Doc shook his head, scowling. “It would never work,” he grumbled. “It shouldn’t be working now!”
“I know,” Jennifer said, frowning herself. “Is Baron Wulfenbach not particularly bright?”
“Not particularly – the man’s a genius! I don’t understand how he could fall for this in any way, shape, or form!”
“Explain it to the guy who isn’t sure what a Marchioness is,” Marty said, looking between them curiously.
“It’s the female form of Marquis,” Jennifer provided. “It’s also one of the highest titles one can receive. The only ones that rank above it are Duke, and the royalty titles – King, Queen, Prince, Princess.”
“Baron, on the other hand, is pretty much the absolute bottom of the heap when it comes to titles,” Doc continued. “Not to say Baron Wulfenbach isn’t a powerful man, or a competent ruler, but when it comes to nobility, even viscounts could look down on him for his title. If there was a Marchioness around, she’d outrank the Baron. In fact, she’d probably own not only the Baron’s lands, but a lot more besides. He’d be a vassal under her.”
“You know what the really odd thing to me is?” Jennifer said. “We actually did have a noble family called the Heterodynes back when – when my parents were still alive. I don’t remember if they were specifically Marquises, but they were noble. I think they controlled this entire area back in the day.”
“Cat knows his history, at least,” Alice noted. “If only he would learn manners.”
“You can’t really teach those to a cat,” Jennifer said, grinning at her. “Cats are certain they’re the ones in charge.”
“Heh. That’s true enough.”
“This is why I’ve always been a dog person,” Victor joked.
“Same here,” Doc chuckled.
“I have to get a pet sometime, I feel left out,” Marty said playfully.
Just then, they heard the sound of steady hoof beats behind them. The group looked back to see a fancy white carriage, pulled by two slate grey horses, coming up. “This must be the carriage Krosp mentioned,” Doc said, motioning everyone over to the side.
The carriage pulled up beside them. The door bore the distinct symbol of Baron Wulfenbach – a golden, winged castle. The curtains on the door’s window were parted, and a man with white hair similar to Doc’s and a bent nose looked out at them. “Hello,” he said politely. “I would like to ask you travelers something, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, Baron,” Doc said respectfully, dipping his head. The others quickly followed suit.
The Baron nodded. “I’ve been informed by a number of people lately that the lands we’re traveling through belong to the Marchioness Heterodyne. Is this true?”
Marty peered curiously past him into the carriage. Sitting next to the Baron were two young people about his age – a brunet boy who resembled the Baron a bit, and a blonde girl with glasses. They were chatting together excitedly about something to do with “europhic harmonies” and “Velde’s Theorem of Imaginary Numbers.” They weren’t even paying attention to the Baron’s question, thoroughly wrapped up in each other and science.
“Well?” the Baron said, bringing Marty’s attention back to him. The man seemed to be asking for entirely innocent reasons – but his blue eyes were rather calculating. Marty got the feeling this guy was like Doc, who could come up with six new ideas before breakfast.
“We’ve heard they are,” Victor said, cutting off Doc before the scientist could say a word. Doc shot him a surprised look.
“I see,” the Baron said. He leaned back, looking quite thoughtful. “Very well, carry on with your journey. Miss Heterodyne – you said your castle was just up ahead?”
“What? Oh – oh yes!” Miss ‘Heterodyne’ said, with a slightly nervous smile. “Just over the next hill.”
“Very well then. Good day to you all.” The curtains were drawn shut, and the carriage proceeded on.
The group watched it go. “That was awfully altruistic of you,” Doc said, frowning at Victor. “What made you say that?”
Victor looked first at his horse, then back at him. “B-Begging your pardon, but you’ve always had a magic watch on hand to provide you with whatever you needed. I know what it’s like to be thrown out into the world with nothing.” He sighed. “It wasn’t really a lie, either, was it? I just said that’s what we’d heard, which is true enough.”
Doc softened a little, but shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t hurt anything. I still think the Baron can’t actually be taken in by this.”
“He did seem to be rather thoughtful just now,” Jennifer agreed. “Mind you, it could be possible that Miss Clay is related to the Heterodynes. One hundred years have passed, you know.”
“Hmm, that’s true.”
“Did the Heterodynes really have a castle around here?” Marty asked as they approached the hill.
“Yes, right where she said it would--”
Jennifer stopped, a look of slowly-dawning horror appearing on her face. “Uh-oh.”
“What?” Alice asked, pulling level with her.
“It’s just that – well – the Heterodynes as I remember them were both powerful scientists – and not very nice people.”
There was a moment of silence. “You think that cat’s in over his head?” Marty finally said.
“Oh, most definitely.”
“Damn.” Marty looked at his friends. “Maybe we should go help him.”
“Is it really any of our business?” Doc said, glancing up the hill. “The only reason we know anything about this con is because we forced him to tell. Assisting him in any way could land us in quite a lot of trouble with the Baron, and then where would we be?”
“Not to mention I’ve heard that the castle is filled with all sorts of traps for the unwary,” Jennifer said. “There was even a rumor going around that it was somehow alive.”
“Alive?” Victor repeated, eyes huge.
“Yes! Visitors reported rooms moving around on their own, stairs becoming slides and hallways shifting directions right under their feet, and a voice booming from the rafters, mocking them and asking riddles. I never went there myself, but I saw no reason to doubt the stories.”
“Of course, it’s probably been abandoned for a while,” Alice commented. “Depending on when the last Heterodyne – real Heterodyne – was in residence.”
“About fifty or so years ago,” Doc said, doing some quick mental calculation. “Unless you believe the rumors that they were chased out of here by one of their own creations. I did hear something eighteen years ago about a pair of brothers claiming they were of the lineage – Bill and Barry. They fell off the edge of the earth pretty quickly, though.”
“The point being, is that an abandoned castle probably wouldn’t have any more working traps – unless they involved deep pits, of course,” Alice said, steering the conversation back on track.
“Most castles, though, don’t have a reputation for being alive,” Jennifer pointed out. “Though that makes you wonder what condition its mind could be in now. From the hearsay, it wasn’t that sane in the best of shape.”
Doc’s hands were twitching on the reins. “You’re making me want to go and help Krosp solely so I can get a better look at that castle.”
Marty sniggered. “You have to admit, Doc, it would be a trip--”
There was a sudden, loud explosion ahead of them. Everyone jumped, including the horses, a couple of which – Victor’s and Jennifer’s – who reared. Victor slid off the back of his stallion while Jennifer managed to wrest her control back from her gelding. “Easy now! Easy now!”
“Whoa! Guessing maybe those traps are still in pretty good condition!” Marty said, looking intrigued.
“They must – hey! Come back!” Victor yelled as his stallion galloped away. “Oh no. . . .”
There was another explosion from the other side of the hill. “All right, I vote we help Krosp solely to keep the castle from blowing up and hurting a lot of other people,” Alice said.
“I can get behind that,” Marty said, spurring his horse forward.
“Wait, I can’t go anywhere without my horse!” Victor said, looking down the road as his stallion continued to run.
“Actually, Victor, maybe you ought to stay behind anyway,” Jennifer said, frowning at him nervously.
“Like I said – the Heterodynes were not nice people.”
Understanding dawned in Victor’s eyes. “Oh. I see,” he said, a little shudder going through him. “Yes, perhaps I should stay back. Once – once w-was more than enough.”
“Yeah, you going crazy again doesn’t help anybody,” Marty agreed. “You go and see if you can catch your horse. The rest of you – let’s ride!” He took off up the hill, grinning with anticipation.
“Marty!” Doc, Jennifer, and Alice raced to follow. Victor took off in the opposite direction to catch up with his stallion. “Damn it, that kid’s going to be the death of me.”
“If he’s not the death of himself first,” Alice said. “We really must endeavor to teach this boy fear.”
“I still don’t know how he can’t be bothered by blood or killing things,” Jennifer said. “He does know disgust, right?”
“Yes, though I don’t think it registers with him much.” Doc smirked at Jennifer. “Though perhaps that’s less him never knowing fear and more him just being a very active, very enthusiastic young man.”
As they crested the hill, the group couldn’t help but pause and take in the view. Below them was a small valley, and then there was another hill – this one looking to be man-made out of a large pile of dark stone. A long white path wound its way to the top, where, perched at a slightly odd angle at the moment, Castle Heterodyne rested.
And what a castle it was – made of the same almost-blue grey stone of the hill, with red-roofed turrets abounding – though most of them were leaning to the side, looking as though they’d been crushed at some point in the past. There was a very large golden trilobite mounted on the front of the castle – “their personal symbol,” Jennifer told the others. A massive hole near the front door revealed the front tower was filled with huge clockwork gears. A large gargoyle on the side spouted what looked like an entire river out of its fang-filled mouth. And the entire area surrounding it smelled like steam and oil and axle grease. All in all, it was a truly awe-inspiring site.
There was another explosion, and suddenly the air was filled with the scent of ozone as bright light flashed within the hole. “One hell of a light show they’ve got going on in there,” Marty commented, leaning forward on his horse.
“Hey, the Baron’s carriage is already there,” Jennifer said, pointing it out to the others. “I’m surprised the horses haven’t tried to make a run for it yet.”
“Those are the Baron’s horses – he chooses only the hardiest and most even tempered,” Doc said. There was another flash of bright light as some sort of beam shot out the back of the castle, putting a glowing hole in a nearby hill. “That being said, you’d think even a horse with years of experience with mad scientists would try to run now.”
“Well? Do we go in and offer our services?” Marty asked, almost hopefully.
“Are you trying to find another way to teach yourself the shudders?” Doc asked suspiciously.
“Says the guy who admitted he was tempted to help just because the castle itself sounded cool.”
“All right, fair enough, but even still, Marty.”
“Two haunted castles didn’t help you learn anything about fear,” Alice pointed out. “Why do you think the situation would be different with this castle?”
“Well, this one isn’t haunted, exactly,” Marty said, though he was starting to look a little embarrassed. “And I just – I want to know what the shudders are all about! And all the tales I’ve heard of involving big bad monsters and terrible ghosts and crazy demons always have them in castles! Or churches sometimes, but we haven’t really run across any of those.”
“That’s true enough, isn’t it?” Alice looked thoughtful. “I wonder why that is. Would a ghost story set in a perfectly ordinary house be any less frightening?” She frowned. “It was terrifying enough to me when that demon cornered me in my grandmother’s cottage.”
There was a loud electric “ZAP!” from somewhere in the castle, and lightning arced out of a window. “We’re not accomplishing much by sitting here and debating why bards set stories in castles – though I’d guess it’s because most people prefer hearing about kings and queens and such rather than commoners like themselves,” Doc said. “Except in the starring role. Probably some psychological thing – anyway! Do we go forward and try to help, or do we go back and simply assist Victor in catching his horse?”
“I’m all for going forward,” Marty said, looking ready to take off again.
“The situation has piqued my curiosity,” Alice said with a small grin. “And I’m afraid that’s a beast that doesn’t let me alone until it’s sated.”
“I’m the one who put this idea in everyone’s head, so I guess I’m obligated to say we press on,” Jennifer said. “Just – carefully.”
“Right. Let’s go and see if we can offer any help.” They set off, charging down the hill. The horses were left with Wulfenbach’s steeds, and they raced up the path to the castle proper. Alice handed Jennifer her knife as they reached the door. “You’ll need a weapon,” she said as she caught her breath. “That’s what we should have gotten in Mechanicsburg – something for Victor and Jennifer to defend themselves with. Victor cannot rely on that toasting fork forever.”
“We can protect them,” Marty said firmly. “Besides – do you even know how to use a sword, Jennifer? Or a bow and arrows, or anything?”
“No, weapons training was considered quite unprincess-like,” Jennifer said, clutching Alice’s knife tightly. “This, however, I’m quite certain I can use.”
“Good. Just stay behind us, and we’ll do our best to make sure you come through without injury,” Doc said. “On three – one, two – THREE!”
They burst in the door, weapons at the ready – only to be confronted with an absolutely amazing sight. Inside the large, open room they’d entered was something that looked to be like some sort of great mechanical female ogre, with wires and gears sticking out of her skin. Her hands were gleaming silver claws, dripping with fresh oil, her hair was a mass of multicolored wire, and her eyes were constantly shadowed by a hat that looked disturbingly like it was made out of human skin. There was something white and red crawling over her, hissing loudly – “Krosp!” Jennifer whispered.
The Baron, his son, and Agatha were also on the scene. The Baron, unfortunately, was pinned underneath some debris, and was struggling to get free. His son and Agatha were both wielding odd-looking devices – the young Wulfenbach, a cane with a glass top attached to a glowing blue globe; Agatha, a red thing with three crooked prongs that looked more suited to being in a kitchen than being used as a weapon. They were both dirty, with ripped clothes and a few cuts, but they were standing. And looking very pissed off. “You can’t resist this forever!” the young Wulfenbach yelled, pointing the cane at the middle of the ogre’s chest.
“I cAn Tooo!” the ogre yelled back, swinging a claw at them. The young Wulfenbach and Agatha quickly got out of the way. “You sHalL DIE for iNvaDIng mY sanCTuarY!”
“This is my castle now!” Agatha yelled, pressing a button on the top of her device – it let out an increasingly high-pitched whine. “And at any rate, it was never yours! I’m sure of that!”
“FooLish Girl! I WilL deSTroy aLl of YoU!” The ogre suddenly noticed Krosp, who appeared to be trying to rip a few wires apart with his claws, and flung him away. He sailed toward the back wall with a yowl.
“Krosp! You--” Agatha squeezed the device’s handle. Another one of the beams they’d seen before shot out. The ogre dodged, but not quite fast enough. It howled in pain as the beam tore through its side before putting another hole in the wall.
“Great Scott,” Doc whispered, staring at the destruction. “That must be a heat-based matter liquidizer – I’ve only ever seen that with two prongs! Three was considered far too powerful!” He peered out the hole to see another gouge in the back hill. “They were probably right.”
Marty saw where Krosp was slated to land and quickly moved to intercept. The cat landed on his head with a screech, digging his claws into Marty’s scalp. “Hey! Easy, easy, I’ve got you,” Marty said, reaching up to try and pry him off.
“What where who – you again?” Krosp peered into Marty’s face upside-down. “Why are you here?”
“Jennifer told us this castle isn’t exactly known for cheerfulness and joy,” Marty said, finally managing to dislodge the cat. “We thought we’d come help you out, if you needed it.”
“We’re doing--” There was another roar from the ogre, and a claw cut into the stone above them, sending bits of rubble flying. “Okay, we could probably use some help,” Krosp admitted. “Ugh, this dust is never going to come out of my fur.”
“I think you’ve got rather larger problems than dust,” Alice noted, coming over.
“Try bathing yourself with your tongue sometimes and see if you have the same opinion.”
The conversation caught the attention of young Wulfenbach, who looked behind himself with a frown. “Who are – you’re the travelers that we just encountered! What are you doing here?”
“Trying to keep the castle from blowing up and raining itself on Mechanicsburg,” Alice said, rather deadpan.
“I think that’s something of a lost cause, Alice,” Jennifer said, eyeing the mechanical monster with quite a bit of trepidation.
“We heard the explosions and came to help,” Marty said, cradling Krosp in one arm while the other went to the handle of his sword. “Anything we can do?”
The young Wulfenbach and Agatha looked at each other. “We can handle the monster,” the young Wulfenbach said, the glass bubble at the top of his cane beginning to glow with a bright white light. “But if you could help my father over there, it would be much appreciated.”
“Sure!” Marty put Krosp gently on the ground, and he and the others hurried over to where Baron Wulfenbach was pinned. “Hey, we’re going to get you out of there,” he said, giving the Baron a cheerful smile.
The Baron gave him a rather bland look in return. “I heard.”
“What happened to you?” Jennifer asked, rolling up her sleeves as Doc and Marty put their shoulders against the largest piece of rubble holding him down and began to push.
“A lucky hit from that creature over there,” the Baron admitted. “It was aiming for Gilgamesh--” (“Gilgamesh?” Marty whispered to himself) “– but I calculated seconds earlier what it was doing and put myself in the ‘line of fire’ instead.” He smiled proudly at his son as Gilgamesh let loose a terrific burst of lightning from the tip of his cane. “I have to admit, he’s been doing well for himself. I didn’t realize the electrical generator was that far along.”
“It’s a fantastic device,” Doc said, glancing up from his pushing with a grin of his own. “Is that a sixty volt aetheritic convertor, do you think?”
“I believe it is.” The Baron looked over at Doc, adding what he could to the effort. “A scientist yourself, I take it?”
“Oh yes,” Doc grinned. “Have been ever since I was eleven. Read a story about a man who built a ship that could sail to the deepest and farthest parts of the seas, and I was absolutely hooked. I’ve built my share of inventions – I actually just loaded up on parts over in Mechanicsburg so I can satisfy the urge.”
“You should have seen his shop over in Gale’s Town,” Marty added. “He’s made a machine that dispenses little cubes of ice--”
The mechanical ogre roared, interrupting the conversation as one hand came down close to them. Jennifer shrieked and hid close to Marty. “Perhaps we’d be safer under the rubble with the Baron!”
“It’s almost dead!” Gilgamesh yelled back at them. “It just needs one more good – you have GOT to be kidding me!”
The blue globe attached to the cane had abruptly quit glowing with a rather sad “crunk” sound. “This was supposed to be the solution to my power problems!” Gilgamesh complained, picking it up and glaring at it. “Agatha, how’s your liquidizer doing?”
“It’s running rather low on power too,” Agatha said, grimacing at her latest hole – this one didn’t even extend all the way to the back of the castle. She glanced between her gun and Gilgamesh’s cane. “Maybe, though, if we cobble the power sources together, we can gather enough energy for one more shot from either of these.”
“You know, I was thinking that if we used an electric current with your liquidizer, you could get finer control. . . .”
A great metal claw smashing itself inches from their noses caught their attention. “Right, have to save that for the lab,” Gilgamesh said, pulling out what looked to be a wrench that had been twisted into a right angle. “Let’s get the cables off as fast as possible and see what’s salvageable.”
The mechanical ogre laughed. “PitIful! YoU wiLl dIE lOnG bEforE thOSe caBleS coMe oFF!”
“Not today!” Agatha snarled, yanking a large screwdriver from her skirts and setting to work.
“Be careful how you connect those – if one’s metric and the other standard, there’s likely to be a failure somewhere!” Doc yelled as he and Marty resumed their pushing job. “Jennifer, see if you can take care of those other bits of rubble there!”
Jennifer, however, was looking around with a worried frown. “Wait a moment – where’s Alice got to?”
The loud “ka-click” of a shotgun being readied drew their attention. Alice was standing nearby, holding the biggest gun any of them had ever seen in their lives. It was a funny golden color, with a crooked barrel that started out very thin, but then flared extremely wide. The opening at the end was almost as big as her head. “Is that a blunderbuss?” Marty asked wonderingly.
“I’d suggest you all duck!” Alice yelled.
The others barely had time to follow her suggestion before she pulled the trigger. There was the most tremendous “BANG!” anyone had ever heard, and a fierce wind swept over everyone. The walls literally vibrated with the force of the blast. The mechanical ogre screamed as what at one point might have been ordinary if somewhat over-sized shot but was definitely not so any longer tore through it. Wires sparked, steam hissed, and there was the sound of shattering gears and melting brass. The ogre roared, and lifted a claw –
Then dropped it again, its final defiance cut short by the sudden lack of a sustainable power source. It swayed on the spot for a moment, then collapsed into an ungainly heap, gears and springs popping from the remains of its carcass.
Everyone stayed very still for a long moment, making sure it was indeed dead. Marty was the first to get back to his feet. “That was awesome!” he proclaimed with a brilliant smile. “Oh man, did you see the way it rattled the walls?”
“Very well,” Doc said, rubbing the side of his head.
“Where’s Alice?” Jennifer said, stumbling back to her feet.
“I think the gun knocked her into the wall,” Krosp said, hissing a little as he massaged his ears.
It had indeed – she was sitting up against the front wall of the castle, looking a bit dazed. “Are you all right?” Doc called to her, using the rubble to pull himself up.
“Can I keep this?”
Jennifer hurried to her side, offering her a hand up. Alice took it, pulling herself back to her feet with a little wobble. “Where on earth did you find that thing?” Jennifer demanded, pointing at the blunderbuss.
“It was half-hidden in the rubble over there,” Alice replied, a smidgen too loud. “I thought it might be useful, seeing as their weapons failed at the critical moment.”
“Not like we meant for them to,” Gilgamesh said, he and Agatha clambering over the rubble to inspect the gun. “Still, thank you for finding it. What do you think they did to it, Agatha?”
“Well, obviously they started by adjusting the energy matrix until--”
“You know, your dad’s still stuck over here,” Marty pointed out as the Baron rolled his eyes. “Give us a hand?”
“Oh! Sorry!” Gilgamesh looked suitably embarrassed as he rushed over. With a bit of grunting, he, Marty, and Doc finally freed the Baron. “Are you all right, Father?”
The Baron got to his feet, dusting himself off and wincing a little. “Well enough to walk, though I think I’ll have to see Dr. Sun quietly soon,” he admitted, limping forward.
“Is that thing really dead?” Krosp said, sniffing the air suspiciously.
“It should be – after what Gil, Agatha and Alice did to it, I’d be surprised if it even managed to twitch a finger,” Marty said.
“A three prong liquidizer,” Doc said admiringly to Agatha. “I wasn’t sure if it could actually be done.”
“She did it in her sleep too,” Gil said as Agatha blushed.
“In her sleep?!”
“I wasn’t quite asleep, I was conscious enough to know what I was doing,” Agatha protested. “I only feel asleep after it was finished.”
“You certainly fired it in your sleep, though,” Gil said, smirking. “The head mechanic Moloch said she was threatening him with it every time he tried to wake her up. We came in to see her staring at a hole in the wall.”
“I’ll pay to have it repaired, I told you that,” Agatha said, blushing harder. Then, pulling herself up a little straighter, she added, “I am a Marchioness.”
“Yes, and we’re indebted to you for helping us take care of this interloper in her castle,” Krosp added, voice going oily smooth with charm.
The Baron laughed a little. “Please. After what we’ve gone though, you don’t need to keep up the deception.”
Krosp’s whiskers visibly wilted. “I – I beg your pardon, your Baronship?”
“We knew your owner wasn’t a Marchioness from the beginning,” the Baron calmly explained. “I would have heard long before if a new Heterodyne had appeared in the land. But I will admit to being absolutely fascinated by the inventions you brought me. And my son does seem rather taken with Miss--”
“Clay,” Agatha provided, giving Krosp a look that suggested she was considering turning him into a catskin muff. “It was his idea to try and trick you, Baron.”
“He should have chosen another name and title, then,” the Baron said mildly.
“Heterodyne sounded good and noble,” Krosp muttered, looking unwilling to give up much more ground. “Haven’t heard of any of them around, either.”
“They’re a very famous family in history,” Gil said, giving Agatha an apologetic grin. “What’s your actual family background?”
“Actually, I’m not sure,” Agatha confessed. “I was raised by Adam and Lilith Clay, but they’re not my birth parents – I was adopted.”
That seemed to get the Baron’s attention. “Adam and Lilith Clay?” One eyebrow went up. “Miss Clay, we may need to talk.” He winced as he accidentally stood on his injured leg. “But first, I think it’s best we return to my own castle.” He looked at the foursome, who were patting the dust out of their clothes and picking bits of rock out of their hair. “Do you require any assistance to wherever it is you’re going?”
“What? Oh, no, our horses are right outside,” Jennifer said with a polite smile.
“Yeah, we can get right back on the road,” Marty nodded.
Gil and Agatha looked a little troubled. “You did help us defeat that horrible creature,” Agatha said, glaring briefly at the remains of the ogre. “I would like to reward you somehow. . . .”
“Just let me keep the blunderbuss and I’ll be forever grateful,” Alice said with a somewhat disturbing grin.
“If you wouldn’t mind telling me a bit about your cane there, I’d appreciate it,” Doc said, eyeing Gil’s apparatus with an almost hungry look. “I’ve had an idea myself for an electrical power generator. . . .”
Marty and Jennifer looked at each other. “I think the only reward we’ll need is some help prying him away from them,” Marty said, motioning towards Doc as he, Gil, and Agatha fell back into the science talk. It elicited a quiet snigger from the Baron.
Eventually, they made their way back outside and down the path to the horses and carriage. They were still there, though the horses were pawing the ground fretfully, eyes bulged and ears set back. Jennifer worked to calm them as Marty finally detached Doc from Gil and Agatha. He looked at the scrap of paper in his friend’s hand. “Sheesh, you guys were only talking for about ten minutes – how’d you take that many notes?”
“Those kids are brilliant!” was Doc’s response. He was smiling in a way that suggested his face had deliberately stretched in order to accommodate it. “You wouldn’t believe what Agatha’s done with clockwork – she’s built herself self-replicating machines! Ones that practically think like people! Clanks, she calls them.”
“Really? That is pretty neat. . . . But we’ve got our own mission, remember Doc?”
“Right, right.” Doc carefully folded up his notes and put them in his pocket. “But with the parts I picked up in Mechanicsburg – ! I really did choose the wrong town to settle down in.”
“We’ll have to come back for a visit once we’ve taken care of the Queen,” Alice agreed, cheerfully petting her new “toy.”
“Once you’ve what?” Krosp said, his head swiveling toward them.
“We’re on a quest to get rid of the Demon Queen that’s causing so many problems,” Marty explained. “You guys have any trouble from her?”
“I can’t think of any part of the kingdom that hasn’t,” Baron Wulfenbach said, giving them all a rather measuring look. “Monster attacks have gone up twelve percent, and are expected to continue rising.”
“It’s not exactly safe for a group of travelers to go through the forests alone these days,” Gil agreed, frowning. “Even if they stick to the path.”
“To be fair, we’re hardly ordinary travelers,” Doc said, hoisting his rifle with the telescope. “You haven’t seen Marty or Alice work in close quarters combat.”
“You’re pretty good yourself, Doc,” Marty said with a grin of his own. “And we’ve got a – I guess he’s like a doctor, he’s got this magic healing potion stuff he can use on us.”
“And your graces have kindly furnished me with this blunderbuss, so I believe we are quite set against any beasts that would move against us,” Alice pointed out with another disturbing grin.
Gil grinned back. “That’s true enough.” He offered them all a hand. “Thank you again for your assistance.”
“We’ll be sure to work on the problem of the power sources,” Agatha added, also shaking hands with everyone.
“Remember what I said about metric versus standard,” Doc warned.
“Oh, of course! I actually made that mistake on an earlier model,” Agatha admitted, indicating her liquidizer. “Kind of embarrassing, really. Though it produced a very interesting explosion.”
“I’ve had that happen a lot – interesting explosions, that is,” Doc commiserated.
Baron Wulfenbach opened the carriage door. “We’d best be going,” he said. “We have a lot to discuss.” He looked back at the others. “I don’t know if I can say I approve of your quest to unseat our Queen – but I can say that I wish you all the best of luck with it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jennifer said, as she and her companions got their horses. “It means a lot to us.”
“We’ll do our best,” Marty said with a firm nod. “Good luck fixing up this castle, if that’s what you’re going to do.”
“A pleasure meeting you all,” Doc smiled warmly.
“Very much so,” Alice agreed, fixing her blunderbuss to the back of her horse’s saddle.
“The same here,” Agatha agreed. “Perhaps we’ll see each other again in the future.”
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Marty said. There were a few final goodbye waves, and then Agatha, Gil, and the Baron got inside the carriage. There was a hiss of steam from somewhere inside, the crack of a mechanical whip on the outside, and the horses trotted off, back towards town. The foursome watched it go, before heading back over the hill to meet up with Victor. “You think he’ll be sad he missed all the excitement?” Marty asked as they crested the top.
“He’s not really of that temper--”
“WHAT HAVE YOU LOT BEEN DOING?!”
Doc was startled enough to stumble back a step as a black and white blur set upon them. Closer inspection revealed it to be a rather angry-looking Victor. “I HEARD EVEN MORE EXPLOSIONS FROM INSIDE, AND ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE BEAMS SLICED THROUGH THE WALL, AND THEN SUDDENLY MY GODFATHER PASSES BY!” he yelled, rapidly checking everyone over for injuries. “AND HE TELLS ME HE’S NOT COME HERE FOR YOU, BUT THEN THERE’S SOMETHING THAT MAKES THE WALLS RATTLE IN A WAY I HADN’T SEEN YET, AND ALL I COULD THINK WAS MAYBE HE WAS WRONG! AND I CAN’T EVEN GET CLOSE ENOUGH TO THE BLOODY CASTLE TO CHECK BECAUSE OF THAT BLOODY CURSE!” He came to Marty, eyes narrowed. “WHAT HAPPENED? TELL ME!”
Marty couldn’t help himself – he burst out laughing. There was just something about the expression on Victor’s face, the way his forehead all scrunched up and his lips set themselves in such a thin line, that he found absolutely hilarious. “We’re fine, Victor,” he managed to choke out between snickers. “You didn’t have to worry.”
“Didn’t have to – STOP LAUGHING!”
Marty kept snickering for a moment, but trailed off as he got a better look at Victor’s face. Now that he was really paying attention, he could see that Victor’s eyes were rimmed with red, and there were almost invisible streaks down his pale cheeks. “Victor, were you crying?” he asked, unable to keep himself from sounding incredulous.
Victor nodded, the anger in his face slowly losing ground to misery. “I – I thought p-perhaps – if not dead, one of you was s-severely injured, and I w-wouldn’t be able to help. . . .” He let out a deep breath, almost completely emptying his lungs. “What died?” he asked in a quieter voice. “I wouldn’t have seen my godfather so personally if it hadn’t been something big.”
“There was a mechanical ogre of some sort inside the castle,” Jennifer supplied, her own voice just as soft. “Alice helped kill it.”
Alice didn’t look nearly as proud of her achievement as she did before. “I’m sorry, Victor, I didn’t realize--”
“No, of course you didn’t,” Victor cut her off, without rancor. “How could you? You can’t see him, and I couldn’t have told you.” He wiped at his eyes. “I’m sorry for causing such a scene. I – I’m afraid I’ve n-never had r-real friends before, and the t-thought of losing any of you, especially s-so soon. . . .”
“You thought we might get hurt or killed in there?” Marty said. Victor nodded. “But you saw how well we did against the demons, and I told you about – shit, this is just something I’m not going to get until I learn about fear, is it?”
“Probably not,” Victor nodded. “I know you’re good fighters – well, er, you, Alice, and Doc, I’m afraid I don’t know in your case, Jennifer. But you never know, do you?”
“Well, no, but I don’t see – ugh. Forget it, it’ll probably just make you more upset.”
Jennifer patted Victor on the back. “We’re fine. Gil and Agatha – the Baron’s son and the millers’ daughter – took care of most of it. Alice only had to give them a hand at the end when their weapons failed.”
“They even let me keep the gun,” Alice said, showing it to Victor.
Victor stared. “What – is that a blunderbuss?”
“It is indeed,” Alice nodded. “An incredibly powerful one. That was what caused the castle walls to shake.”
“. . . . Goodness.”
“Considering what it did, I think we should leave that as our absolute last resort weapon,” Doc said, glancing over it with a slight frown. Then he smiled a little. “Though for that purpose, it’s probably good to have around. We might have need of it against the Queen.”
“Yeah, gun like that would probably reduce her to a fine powder,” Marty said, regaining his cheer.
“We can only hope,” Jennifer said. “Now then – Marty! You’re bleeding a little!”
“I am?” Marty felt his head. Sure enough, there was a thin trickle of blood oozing from his scalp. “Yeah, guess I am. Didn’t notice it in all the excitement.”
“You’re hurt? What happened?” Victor said, quickly pulling out his potion and offering Marty a sip.
“Nothing – I just tried to catch Krosp while he was helping to fight the ogre, and he happened to land on my head,” Marty said, taking the liquid and drinking. “None of us even got touched by the ogre, honestly. Gil and Agatha handled it really well.”
“Perhaps we should have tried to recruit them to the cause,” Alice said thoughtfully.
“I think they have problems of their own to deal with at the moment,” Doc said, though he looked rather disappointed as he said it. “At any rate, we should probably be off again – we need to get past this place before making camp.” He grinned. “And then I can start working on the travel version of the breakfast maker!”
“Oh, this should be interesting,” Marty chuckled, handing Victor the potion back and using his sleeve to wipe the blood off his head. “All right, everybody, saddle up and let’s go.”
Everyone did so, but before they could start again, Alice got off her horse with a wince. “Er, Victor? I – um – believe I need a sip of your potion as well. The blunderbuss knocked me off my feet before, and now my – nethers – are starting to bother me. . . .”