Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 13

Genre: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy
Stumbles Clumsily InGirl Genius
Mara’s Involvement: medium
Time: continuing after The Pauper Princess and the Way of the Trilobite.
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The story so far!
–Gil schemed with Lucrezia to usurp the Storm King!
—-OR DID HE??
–Tarvek killed everyone!
—-OR DID HE??
–De Prinzess meets her other cousins!
—YES, SHE DID!

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Legal disclaimer stuff:
“This story is not approved by, sponsored by or affiliated with Studio Foglio LLC or Airship Entertainment.”
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The Pauper Princess Fanfiction Theatre Presents:
Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 13!

The two Techmasters busied themselves setting up a new viewing screen in the war room. Tarvek practiced his patience while pacing along the edge of the planning table. Gil glared at Othar and his attempts to apply percussive maintenance to his (nonlethal) contribution to the Heterodyne arsenal. Khrizhan glared at everyone as a point of honor.The upper half of Zeetha’s body “floated” as she grumbled and fussed over something attached to her missing lower half. Higgs’ offer to help had been rebuffed. Zeetha was still not the sort to easily accept help when she believed none was needed. This was most of the time, in spite of a few years of Higgs’ imparted wisdom.

“Zeetha, just tear it off,” said Gil.

She cocked an eyebrow. “I thought you wanted me to be careful with it?”

“It’s already broken,” he said. “We’ve got five others that work. Not that it isn’t fascinating to see you imitating a Class Five full-roaming vapor.”

Whatever that is,” she muttered. “And suit yourself.” She wasted no more time yanking a small disc from wherever it had been attached. The air below her waist shimmered, and she was whole once more. Broken or not, she set it carefully near the other discs at the corner of the planning table. “I think it added more to the scene. Seeing me half-disintegrated really got her running.”

Techmasters,” said Tarvek, ignoring the chit-chat, “Are you ready?”

“Yes, sire,” said Doctor Kratzenschnupp. He gave the screen one last adjustment and switched on the power. “In a moment, we-“

Excuse me, Doctor,” said Tarvek. “General! Really, now. Some dignity, please.”

The mighty Jägergeneral Khrizhan had been keeping his hand firmly to his mouth while waging a losing battle against the giggles. In his case the ‘giggles’ sounded like bellows from Castle Wulfenbach’s engine room, but the effect was the same.

“Eff dere vas any dignity in de room, hy vould show it!” he said. “Forgiff me eff hy iz not used to vorking vit leedle sqveaky toys!”

Tarvek stamped his foot and squeaked a threat. “You are this close to removal from this room, sir!” He threw a glare towards Othar, whose attention, at least, remained on the task of repairing his weapon. Tarvek strode confidently across the table towards him. Khrizhan had to look away, or lose all decorum from the sight of the two-inch-high Storm King navigating around the troop and artillery pieces on his own war table. Most of the pieces dwarfed him; others were practically in scale to his new size.

Othar…” he squeaked as menacingly as a tiny man could.

“Almost got it, little man!” the Gentleman Adventurer exclaimed. After a moment, he looked up, contrite. “Ah. Sorry about that. It just came out, you know.”

Never mind that!” said Tarvek, briefy waving his arms about. “Get me back to size!”

“Got it!” said Othar. He grinned, switched on the power, and aimed.

Wait!” Tarvek yelled, running with all haste to the closest edge. “Not while I’m here! Wait until-

A loud ZZAP, and Tarvek was large again… and sprawled across the table. Pieces flew as they were smacked about by his growing limbs. He sighed, then groaned while attempting to ignore the guffaws now coming from the General.

“Just as a point of curiosity,” he said with deceptive calm, “Why didn’t any of you stop him?”

Gil scoffed. “Grab it while it was being discharged? I didn’t want to end up a giant, thanks.”

Before anyone else could assist, the General wrapped his massive hand around Tarvek’s waist and hoisted him up and off the table. Tarvek grumbled his thanks before directing his attention to the Techmasters.

“Othar!” Zeetha snapped. She made a grab for the weapon, which the Gentleman Adventurer kept well away from her. “Why did you make another one of those things? I still have nightmares about scuba ants overrunning my bathroom!”

Higgs corrected, “Our bathroom, dear.”

“Oh, even I wouldn’t abandon a classic like a shrink ray,” said Othar. “And now I’ve perfected this one! It goes down and up now! I could also use a matching frog glove, but that’s incidental.”

“’Perfekted?’” said Khrizhan. “Iz dot vhy de Storm King iz as short as Meez Violetta now?”

“Ohhh, so he is,” added Zeetha with a grin.

“I can fix that!”

Don’t you do a thing,” warned Tarvek. “I can live with this for now. Not that we’re not enjoying your utterly confusing conversation, but we’re wasting time. Doctor Kratzenschnupp, do we have a fix on Agatha yet?”

“Yes, sire,” he said, moving away from the screen to offer the others a better view. There was no time to make high resolution images. A faintly glowing green background displayed white vector lines, accompanied by a slight pulse that depicted a building’s interior. Gil and Tarvek gave the image a quick view and muttered to themselves in the usual Sparkspeak that people like Zeetha typically tuned out.

Gil finally spoke as commoners do. “Shouldn’t we be hearing them, too?”

“I tried, sire,” said Doctor Kratzenschnupp, “But the communication device was interfering with the rendering signal. And there wasn’t time to correct it.”

“It’s a strong signal, Doctor,” said Tarvek. “Well done. Agatha’s always at the center of the image. Based on the layout, this must be  a control room. There isn’t much movement, so she’s either lingering here or has removed the suit. We can’t assume the signal won’t be found soon and shut off, so we need to move quickly. Doctor, you’re recording all this to create a permanent map, yes?”

“Of course, sire.”

Tarvek nodded. “We shouldn’t have more than three people for this mission. Professor, recharge the cloaking disks. Is there any way for them to last more than fifteen minutes?”

“I will see what I can do, sire.”

“Higgs and I are two,” said Zeetha. “And that is not up for discussion. If anything happens to her because of your insane plan, you take full blame. Understand?”

Tarvek pretended to be unfazed. “Understood.”

Gil said, “Bohrlaikha is the third. Now-”

“Bohrlaikha?” said Tarvek. “I don’t see how it could be, unless its steam exhaust can be cloaked?”

The Professor thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Forgive me, Herr Wulfenbach. If time is of the essence…?”

“Iz obvious,” said Khrizhan. “Ve send a Jäger. Not only sneaky, but could smell de Mistress!”

“Thank you, General,” said Tarvek. “I was about to make the same suggestion. Decide who to send and then get him or her ready.”

“Question, sir,” said Higgs. “How do we get through the shield?”

Gil answered, “We’ll use the strongest and most heavily armored clanks to pry open a sliver. It won’t last long and it’ll be narrow. You’ll all have to make yourselves thin and move quickly.”

“Ah,” said Othar, “If you’re worried about being small enough to fit through a small space…?”

“Don’t you dare point that thing at me!” said Zeetha. “Again!”

“Now, hold on,” said Tarvek. “I think it could be of use. We don’t use it on ourselves, but on anyone who’s in danger of raising an alarm. Professor, would the cloaking disks extend to include Othar’s gun?”

The Professor shrugged. “As long as they keep it close, I see no reason it wouldn’t?”

“Hold on there,” said the Gentleman Adventurer. “You can have it as long as I’m part of your team! Oh, now, don’t you all give me those looks. You need a card-carrying Hero for something like this! And who better to retrieve his lady sidekick?”

Again,” said Gil, “She cannot be your Empress and your ‘sidekick.’ Pick one!”

“Othar,” said Tarvek, “Your reputation for sneakiness is deserved, but we’ve decided. The shrink ray would be a benefit. Without Agatha here, you have to answer to us. Hand it over.”

Othar pouted, but began to acquiesce. Then he suddenly withdrew the weapon and showed excitement. “Oh! I almost forgot! I’ve fixed it!” He pointed it at Tarvek, to the other’s great dismay.

No, no-!” Another ZZZZAP, and Tarvek’s head thumped against the ceiling. Standing upright was no longer an option, thanks to his shoulders now almost being level with the ceiling. He held the back of his head and spoke through clenched teeth. “Put. That. AWAY.”

“Hoy!” said Khrizhan. “Stop playink for a second, und lissen! Dey iz reporting a beeg surge from de shield! Dey haff sent out more… Vat? Say dot again, Gkika!”

Gil nodded to his Techmaster, who already knew to flip a switch and broadcast Gkika’s communication into the room. Her voice crackled through the amplification devices.

“-Scorpions, spiders, vasps, more hoppers, snakes, und… HOY! Stop wrestling vit dose crocodiles und KEEL dem! Yas, hyu! Form a sqvad und–! Hyu! Fall beck und get dose flames on de spiders! Dey gots poison!”

“Gkika!” said Gil. “We’re sending reinforcements! Keep the troops together!”

“Step on it!” she replied. “Iz not dot enny vun uv dem iz toff, but dey iz leedle, und dere iz tousands uv dem!”

“Gkika!” said Tarvek, “Are they coming through the shield? Is anyone able to go in while they’re coming out?”

“Dose tings ain’t vorking dot vay,” she said. “Hyu know dot!”

Zeetha asked, “Does this change our other plan?”

“No,” said Tarvek. The war room quickly became a din of separate conversations: Gil and Khrizhan with their respective people to organize the counterattack, Tarvek conferring with Zeetha and Higgs, and Othar… being Othar.

“-Scuttle their shield generators, get Agatha,” Tarvek finished. “Any questions?”

Higgs reviewed the imager a moment. “It will probably take us fifteen minutes to get to our targets. And then the cloaking devices are out, yes?”

“We have two backups,” said Gil. “But that leaves the third member vulnerable.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Zeetha. “We’ll get out. We’ll get her out.”

*****

On the ground, clank troops were moved to the front lines to take the brunt of the new threat. Thousands of deadly spiders, scorpions, wasps, bees, snakes, lizards, and even giant caterpillars were stomped, squashed, burned, and sucked into vacuum chambers, but their numbers seemed endless. Casualties were unavoidable. The most durable constructs moved to the second line to protect the more fragile, human troops. Aside from the critter brigade were more even larger hoppers, the cat/dog hybrid creatures that had menaced “Agatha” in the desert, and giant, colorful birds that reminded the more well-traveled troopers of ostriches. Like the hoppers, they led their attacks with their feet and legs. Unlike the hoppers, the six-inch daggers they called toes tore open hapless organics that got too close.

In spite of their merciless gibes and jests at each other’s expenses, Generals Gkika and Goomblast worked as one, and coordinated orders with the Wulfenbach and Sturmvoraus field commanders . There were no arguments about defense, counterattacks, or troop positions.  They had every confidence the new threat would be routed, if not without losses. As for Gkika herself, she had high hopes of taking home a pet crocodile after this irritating war was over. Perhaps one of those pretty birds, as well.

At the same time that the field commanders saw reinforcements emerging from the airships, the ground under the front line of war clanks rumbled. Cracks rippled across the field at astonishing speed. The troops began preparing themselves for earthquake damage, when the ground beneath the front line caved in, sending them falling every which way into giant trenches.

A clamor arose from the other end of the line as creatures resembling nothing more exotic than earthworms, but with a diameter rivaling an airship’s, breached high into the air before diving back under the ground to dig some more. A portion of the second line began pursuit, albeit in vain, unless devices capable of rapid digging could be deployed.

Another rumbling was heard, but not from underground – from directly ahead, just beyond the shield. The Jäger troops  in the second line, behind the fallen clanks, readied themselves. They were met by a tsunami of soldiers pouring from the other side. At a glance it was clear they were not human, or rather, no longer were. Piercing eyes of unnatural colors, skin of all shades except those found among humans, ears resembling animals’, not men’s, teeth as sharp as-

“Vat?” General Goomblast cried in disbelief. “Dey gots Jägers?!?”

Gkika slapped his arm hard. “Dey gots nottink! Nobody but os deserves de name! Dey iz… copies! Dis insult vill not be unavenged! BRODDERS UND SEESTERS! DESTROY DEM ALL!!”

A war cry so chilling, even clanks gave pause, erupted from the horde. The swarm of faux Jäger seemed endless. They ran over the front line clanks trapped in the trenches without hesitation. Most of the clanks were not so helpess after all, and attacked as the creatures clambered over them. Sheer numbers won out, though, and the majority of the creatures met the second line head on. Flying units were kept busy by Dupree and Dinunnder’s own flying machines. This was especially frustrating to Franz, who could finally make strafing runs of death by flame like a proper dragon, and had to squander the opportunity by beating up on other winged wonders. But at least they were formidable winged wonders. Dupree herself continually evaded destruction and capture, while dealing out her own damage with much glee.

Gkika and Goomblast fought back to back and had only minor trouble clearing a circle around themselves. “See?” she said with an unsettling cheeriness, “Dey need so many becoz vun Jäger iz vorth tventy uv dese guys!”

“Hy vould say thirty,” countered Goomblast, “Except dot dey iz still pushing os beck! Ve need to regroup and push dem against deir own shields! Hy bet dey kent get through any more dan ve-!  Vait! Iz Khrizhan on de talky ting!”

“Yas, yas, for both uv os!” said Gkika. The Generals listened to his communication while continuing their melee with the enemy. “Yas, ve need a moving blockade! Und mebbe sum shovels vould be nize! Dey gots big diggers! Vat? Vhy hyu need Dimo? Ah, hy see. As usual dey need os to clean op deir stoopd plans! Hokeh, ve find him und meet de odders! But get de reinforcements here!”

After Khrizhan ended the communication, the Generals on the ground traded looks. Goomblast scowled. “Eff he dun bring back de Mistress alive on dis ‘secret mission,’ hy vill kill heem myself!”

“i WiLl DeVoUr HiS sOoOoUl!”

“Vat de-?” said Gkika, hitting her communicator. “Dey gots soul-eaters, too?”

Dey don’t,” grumbled Goomblast. “Jolly Old Tom! For de last time, giff back dot talky ting!”

“Oh, dot guy,” said Gkika. “Hoy, Tom! Go ahead und devour de enemy’s souls! Dey got qvite de buffet!”

“aNd SuCh CrUnChY pArTs, mMmMmMm…”

“Yas, goot boy!” said Gkika. “Run along now! Or… whateffer hyu do.” They heard a click, and took a chance on being overheard. “Uff! Hy hate dot guy.”

“Dun get me started.”

*****

Matilda removed the clipboard from Mara’s one unshackled hand and peered at her writing, along with Lucrezia. There were names, there were ages, there were locations. She scoffed. “Such chicken scratch,” she muttered, and showed it to Mara. “Does royalty in Gildern not care for proper calligraphy? Hmph. Anyway, if these little family facts are not one hundred percent true, the venom will only be the beginning of your pain.”

Mara stared dully at the writing while replying. She could not manage more than just above a whisper. “All true, Your Majesty. God forgive me.”

“She thinks the five-year-old is a Spark,” said Lucrezia.

Matilda rolled her eyes. “Ugh, parents,” she said. “They all think their little ones are geniuses. Sorry, dear, but nobody but our own Agatha here has broken through that early.”

Four,” said Mara. “Built a clank at four. And now my daughter… My little one… My…” Her voice began to catch.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Lucrezia snarled. “We don’t have time for your tears. You need to be useful to us, or-“

“Ah-ah-ah!” said Matilda, stepping between them and pointing at herself. “Still Queen here. My palace, my rules, etc. I get to tell her.” She turned to Mara. “You need to be useful to us, or you die. You remember my mentioning that earlier? It’s nothing personal. That rule applies to all Sparks here.” Off Lucrezia’s glare: “Present company excluded, of course.”

“All right!” she continued. “Let’s see what sorts of toys you can whip up for us. Before the rest of you is unshackled, there are some ground rules to keep in mind. They’re standing orders for you. Commit them to memory. Here’s the basic set: No attempting to escape. No attempting to harm myself, dear… Agatha here, or anyone else that we name. Ah, Admiral Dupree. There’s another. However, your absolute obedience is to us two alone, and no one else. Take a moment to let that sink in.”

Yes, Your Majesty.”

Without bothering to let it sink in, Matilda continued. “No sabotage of any of our plans. You’re on our side now. By the way, are you cold? You keep shivering.”

Not cold, Your Majesty,” said Mara. “In pain.”

“Really,” said Matilda casually. “I did tell you that the less you resist, the less pain there’d be?” She paused as if expecting Mara to answer, then shrugged. “You’re bringing that on yourself.” She clasped her hands together. “All right! I’m going to unshackle you, and you’re going to be a good little girl and wait for orders, not try to escape or harm us.”

Mara responded in the affirmative while Matilda undid the restraints. Once fully free, she was bidden to climb off the slab, slowly. She managed to get to her feet again, unsteadily, and did not make eye contact with either woman. Matilda began to speak, and Mara suddenly dropped to all fours and reacted explosively to an onset of extreme nausea. For half a minute she reteched on and off – mostly on – while her dear cousins waited impatiently. Finally Matilda sensed a pause, and spoke.

“You-“

The regurgitation was renewed with vigor. Another heaving ended; Mara’s head hung low. She struggled to keep her arms straight, or risk falling into the growing puddle. A glimpse of something small from the corner of her eye turned her head just enough. Something small, colorful, metallic, and moving in perfect silence. Something that caused her lips to curl up ever so slightly. Something that a loved one had made for her before journeying to this special place in Hell. Some

Get up!” Lucrezia barked, and made certain of it by grabbing an arm and hauling her painfully to her feet. A bit of reflux made its way into Mara’s throat; she coughed, which only annoyed Lucrezia more. “Pathetic,” she grumbled. Mara swayed unsteadily on her feet.

“I’m afraid that you’ll be cleaning that up,” said Matilda, indicating the puddle. “I don’t approve of this ‘nausea’ element. Fair warning: one upchuck on my gown, and your head’s in a jar. You understand, of course.” Matilda tapped her chin in thought. A figurative light went off, and she fetched Agatha’s choker. Lucrezia scowled and leaned away from it. Matilda regarded it a moment, then bade Mara to be still while she fastened it. Once its highly complex locking mechanism finished, she withdrew and watched Mara for even more adverse side effects. Mara’s appearance was unchanged. The tip of her elbow on the examination slab kept her propped up. She stared dead-eyed at nothing.

“Well?” said Matilda with practiced patience. “Still looking to recolor the carpets?”

No, Your Majesty,” said Mara, now looking her way. “I feel… better. But it itches. I-

“But the nausea is diminished?” she said. Mara nodded slowly. She grinned. “Well! Am I not merciful?”

“So, Matilda,” said Lucrezia, “What ‘toy’ do you expect her to make?”

She thought for a moment, then: “Before making anything new, I’d like her to repair something that’s seen better days.” She slapped Mara’s shoulder playfully. “Up for some fun, dear? Oh, what was it again? ‘Hon.’”

Mara’s fists clenched – subtly – then unclenched. “Yes,” she said. “Your Majesty.”

****

On the way they passed through the control room, where Hugh informed his Queen that “the petting zoo” had been opened, along with something called “Kriegers.” This seemed to delight her, especially the news that they were holding their own against the New Europan forces. Hugh added that Dupree’s flying units were preparing something called “drop bears.” What sort of species that was, Mara did not know.

Matilda led Hugh away to confer privately. Mara could feel ‘Agatha’s’ glare on her, but without being ordered otherwise, she felt free to keep her gaze elsewhere. On Matilda, for instance, who handed Hugh the paper upon which Mara had written her family’s information. She saw Matilda giggle and let her hand slide down his back, before parting ways with him after a quick slap on his behind. She was all smiles as she returned.

Mara was not. “Your Majesty,” she said. “I wonder if… if…”

When she said no more, Matilda’s façade slipped, just a bit. “What.”

My family,” she said, glancing at Hugh. “Please…”

“Oh, stop it, you,” she said, grabbing Mara’s arm and pulling her from the room. “New standing order: no whining.”

******

Matilda led her up a tower that opened to the outside, or rather, the outside behind the shield. The battle could now be seen and heard live and up close. Mara did not react to the battle raging just beyond the safety of condensed energy. It was a brief walk along the parapet to meet the small team of mechanics arguing over a man-sized device which had, indeed, seen better days, as the Queen had put it. The mechanics eventually realized who was approaching, and ceased their arguing. They stood by, waiting to be addressed.

“The skies are still clear,” she said, indicating the dark, but pristine sky. Stars twinkled merrily in spite of the din of war beneath them.

“Begging your pardon, Your Majesty,” one of the mechanics said, “But this here device-“

“Why do you think I was addressing you?” she asked pointedly.

The mechanics traded uneasy looks. “Ah, begging your pardon, Your-“

“Oh, go away,” she said. “All of you. But leave all your tools. And be glad I’m not asking you to hurl yourselves over the wall.” She waited for them to hurry out of sight, and gestured at the machine. “Well, slave, do you have any inkling what this is?”

Weather machine,” she said quickly.

“Hm, nicely done,” said Matilda. “Not long ago it was causing a vicious storm to batter about our enemy and feed us some electricity, and then it stopped. Conjecture is that someone over there has a counterpart that’s keeping the skies clear. Would you know anything about that?”

Yes,” she said. “Professor Óriásifej’s.”

“Wulfenbach’s minion,” added Lucrezia. “You know, I happen to have a bit of experience with weather machines. I could-“

“Oh, no, no,” said Matilda. “Doing our own labor? Has she infected you, after all?” She tapped lightly on Lucrezia’s Agatha-dampening helmet. Lucrezia leaned away and sneered. Matilda ignored this. “Besides, it’s her test, not yours. You hear that, ‘hon?’ We need you to undo Professor… Whoever’s work. I want my storm back. I want my lightning back. Bring it back.” She leaned closer to Mara. Any sign of cheerfulness had vanished. “Now.”

Yes, Your Majesty.” She had been trying not to look at the machine. Trying to stare at the ground or off into nothing, but her gaze kept drifting. The name of every part she saw popped into her head, no matter which song, poem, prayer, or nursery rhyme she tried to replace them with. Now she had no choice but to examine it. She dropped to one knee before the machine and, without looking, grasped one of the mechanics’ tool packs and fished around inside the device.

Matilda stepped over to the rampart to get a better view of the battle. Her Kriegers – a failed, and yet still formidable attempt to create Jäger – continued to pour forth and push back the enemy. For now, their sheer numbers were an advantage. She smiled at the sight of one of the earthworms breaching from the earth and crushing those beneath it, then frowned as a sonic cannon fired from an airship and pulverized her beloved worm’s head.

She turned back to check on her slave’s progress. Parts were everywhere. Matilda was ready to scold her for making such a mess, then noticed that the parts were not in disarray, but laid out in organized fashion. Also, the Princess was working much more quickly than she’d expected. Lucrezia was bent over and watching the Princess work, scowling all the way and occasionally pointing at things to demand explanations. Whatever the Princess was doing, it was resulting in a wholly new configuration for the device.

“Remember, dear,” said Matilda, “No trickery. You’re making this work, yes?”

Mara stayed focus on the repairs while replying. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Matilda glanced back to the battle. “I want weather that will devastate the enemy,” she muttered.

Now Mara paused in her work and looked her way. “Pardon?”

Matilda squatted down and gripped Mara’s chin hard. The pain of it was no worse than the general agony she felt from the venom. “I want the deadliest weather you can muster. I want the enemy mowed down by the worst of Mother Nature, yet sparing my army! Can you do that, or do I hand you to Admiral Dupree now for stuffing and mounting?”

I-I… Y-Your Majesty,” she stammered, “Thought you wanted lightning? Rain?”

“Not good enough!” she spat. “I want killer weather! Literally! At my fingertips!

K-kill…?” said Mara. “Please… Majesty… I don’t…“

What,” Matilda said. “I tell you not to whine, and yet you insist on it! Can you do this, or not?”

Yes,” said Mara, her head low. “I can. But I… walk the path of… peace. Please… Please don’t have me…”

The two monarchs, rather than hiss and snap and threaten and throttle, traded baffled looks, and then burst into raucous cackles. Mara knew how useless it had been to make such a plea, but she could not stop the words. Perhaps it was to goad the Queen into making good on her threat to kill her for being ‘useless.’ At least that way, she would die without causing even more suffering. Then she thought of her family. The Queen didn’t want that information to send Christmas cards. But what she could do from here to help them? Could she do anything?

“Oh, ‘hon,’” said Matilda, wiping away tears, “You are simply adorable! ‘Path of Peace.’ Eheh-heh-heh. You must really enjoy aimless wandering, because that path leads nowhere. Ahhh.” She squatted down again, and this time, grabbed Mara’s ear and held fast. “Something new for you to commit to memory: you’re not working for ‘peace.’ You’re working for us. For our victory. For the pain, suffering, humiliation, and slaughter of our enemies that will only end when they surrender unconditionally, and only then will you be set free.”

(To be stuffed and mounted?)

Matilda continued, “Do you have that in your pretty little head?”

Yes, Your Majesty.”

She let got of Mara’s ear roughly and pointed at the device. “Then earn your keep! Now!”

*******

Tarvek was finally at his correct size, give or take a few centimeters. A bit easier now to concentrate on defense against this new surge. The group had moved to the bridge and were monitoring via banks of imagers… and occasionaly looking out the window.

Opinions were divided on whether this was Dinnunder’s final push. As the Jägergenerals had implied, crushing the troops against their own shield was one of their goals. Matilda would either have to lower the shield to let them through, or sacrifice whole legions. The estimate was 100,000 strong of soldiers consisting mostly of Jäger-like creatures. New Europan flying units were ordered to break off from Dinnunder’s flyers and lay down suppressing fire against the advance, to force them back. Of course, breaking off was proving to be very hard to do.

Gil said, “Zeetha and Higgs are on the ground now. We couldn’t drop them at the front line; it’s swamped. They’ll have to fight their way through.”

General Khrizhan relayed orders to form a phalanx around them, and Dimo, once he joined them.

Professor Óriásifej’s furrowed his brow and pointed to the outside. “Sire,” he said, “I don’t like the looks of that sky.”

“Hm,” said Gil, joining him at the main window. “Yes, better check your weather dampener.” The Professor left to do just that. Gil’s colleagues joined him at the window. The sky was most certainly looking angry at the moment, even at night. Bits of lightning flashed between clouds, but nothing on the ground as yet. “Professor?” Gil called over his shoulder.

“It’s… working, sire,” he said, “But nothing is happening! I suspect that more power is needed!”

“We can handle a storm,” said Tarvek. “Other than harvesting more electricity, it won’t give her a tactical advantage. Her troops will be as wet as ours will.”

“It would be nice to know who ‘she’ is,” Gil muttered.

“I’ve got about five names rolling around in my head,” said Tarvek. “I hate to say it, but Anevka keeps coming out on top. But I won’t be placing wagers.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it were Zola,” said Gil. “Um,” he said, now pointing to the window, “Oh, Do you see that storm cloud?”

Tarvek peered outside. His eyes widened. “Sweet lightning…”

“If only!” said Gil, now rushing to aid the Professor with his own invention. “Professor! We need those skies clear!

Tarvek addressed the fleet. “All airships! Shields at full! Ready evasive maneuvers and impact stations! Larger ships, move now to flank the smaller vessels! Extend shields if necessary! Prepare to evacuate ground troops! Yes, I said evacuate!”

Doctor Kratzenschnupp stared wide-eyed at the massive funnel forming from the clouds and twisting its way to the ground. A nigh-kilometer in diameter at the top, and a hundred meters or more at the base – for now. Whatever it touched was annihilated by its twisting winds. A tornado, and one on a scale the Doctor had only heard described in lecture halls. Oh, how his Professor had chronicled with growing excitement the tale of a strong, proud city laid to ruins in minutes by the might of the worst tornado ever seen in or near those lands. The glee with which he’d described pieces of the city – and many of its former inhabitants – cast thousands of kilometers in every direction. But then, his Professor was a Spark, and most Sparks admire such destructive capabilities. Many Sparks had tried to master weather of such magnitude. All had failed. Had.

*******

Mara stood away from the two women and contemplated hurling herself over the parapet. They wouldn’t notice. They were two busy giggling with delight while working the controls of their new toy, Mr. Killer Weather Wizard. God help her, she had made controls. They could steer its path, fulfilling their desire to lay waste to the New Europan forces while sparing their own. Of course, some collateral damage was inevitable, but whatever won the day.

Matilda steered the first tornado, which was slow to respond but eventually followed her direction. Lucrezia had her own set of controls. She set the knobs and levers just so, and the two monarchs became akin to giddy little schoolgirls, giggling, touching foreheads, even briefly hugging, as another tornado, of equal size and power, began forming at the opposite end of the fleet. Twisty bread for an airship sandwich.

Mara pondered if it would be a quick death when she hit the ground, or if she would slowly bleed out in agony. Perhaps if she angled her descent to land head-first. Yes. Straighten out like a diver and

Matilda all but knocked her over before wrapping her in a bear hug, and ending with a peck on the cheek. “I love it!” she squeaked. “It’s my birthday and Christmas! Passed that test with flying colors, you did! Sweetie, I can’t imagine this won’t win the day, but just in case, I am going to set you up with the most wonderful little lab! And you’ll create every ghastly, terrible thing that pops into your head!” She draped an arm over Mara’s shoulder and gestured to the meteorological massacre. “Why the dour face? You should be proud of this! I’d wager that Agatha herself couldn’t cause this much ruin!”

That caught Lucrezia’s attention. “Hey!”

Matilda smiled at her counterpart and winked. She patted Mara’s cheek. “Your Queen is pleased,” she said. “That means you should be, too.” Mara tried, but was in too much pain in every way to show any pleasure. Now Matilda’s smile dropped. She murmured directly into Mara’s ear. “I can tell what you’re thinking. New standing order. Commit it to memory: no suicide. We decide when you die. Understood?”

At the moment, Mara had no strength to speak, so she only nodded. Merciful as always, Matilda permitted this as her answer.

–To be continued

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