Stein roused to find Angelina shaking him violently. Blurry-eyed, he could make out her mouth moving, but her words were drowned out by the ringing in his ears. The hint of relief on her face at seeing he was alive confused him. He watched as Christina slipped past them, and Angelina sprang up to stop her friend and leader from seeing the horror that lay inside the former meeting room.
Taking stock of himself first, Stein got up on all fours and then dared to stand. Falling against one wall, he took a moment to steady himself. He stood there blinking blankly, trying to restart the engine of his mind. Then came a loud rumble he felt through the wall and he covered his head as dust rained down. Finally, a thought arrived, and his brain clicked into gear. I have to get out of here, he thought, pushing off the wall. Lurching back and forth at first, and then continuing at a clumsy jog, Stein made his way to the stairs.
Arriving on the main level of the facility, he was greeted by a sea of rushing people. He grabbed a man and brought him right up to his face. "What's happening?" he yelled as a rumble shook the corridor.
"The Fare have airships and troops here. They're going to kill us all. We have to get out of here!"
Stein let the man go and stood there for a moment, watching the people flee. Why are their hands empty? Where is all the work we've done? How can they abandon everything?
Raising a hand to his chin, he shook his head, momentarily dispelling his desire to flee. I'm not going back to a life of nothing. I can't let this past year mean nothing. He backed away to the edge of the corridor, a doorknob banging into his lower back.
Turning it, he opened the door and entered the room. It was barren, with dull, beige plastered walls, an old kitchen table at the far end, and a window. The scene outside caught Stein's attention, as he witnessed an airship, its bat-like wings grabbing the wind and turning it quickly. He was at once struck by its sense of majesty, and fear as it rained bundles that shook the world around him.
With his heart pounding violently in his chest, Stein's hands went slick. His thoughts started tripping over one another. I have to go. But I can't go empty-handed. Standing in the doorway of the room, the panicked river of people now a worried creek, he saw a yellow blur and a glint of metal.
"Mounira," he whispered to himself sinisterly.
As the eleven-year-old girl went by, he grabbed her by the cape and threw her into the room, slamming her into the table at the far end. Kicking the door closed behind him, he looked down at his trembling hands.
His heart was pounding. Pushing up his glasses, he stared at the mechanical arm and the strange backpack hidden under her cloak.
Without diverting his gaze, he reached back and slid the simple bolt lock for the room. Taking a breath, he then straightened up, his mind going a mile a minute. This is your chance. That arm will make all the difference. You will do far more with it than she ever will, he thought.
"Sorry, Mounira, but I do so hate that title. My name is Doctor Francis Stein, but you can call me Doctor Stein, for short," he said, his sweaty hands clasped together. "With all the chaos, it should be obvious no one will hear you." His eyes darted about, his hands shaking. "And if we can, I'd like to make this quick and professional. Please give me that arm of yours."
With a jerk of her head, Mounira brought her mechanical arm to life. "You're one of them?"
Them? wondered Stein. He swallowed as he stared at the arm. What he'd thought before was that the arm was a simple skeleton. Now that she had activated it, pieces came out of the backpack and reinforced it. There was a hum from the motor behind her.
Panicking, he rifled through his pockets and pulled out a small knife. "Whomever you mean, no. I know opportunity when it arises. I need the arm... for my research. I don't want to have to kill you, but... but I will." He swallowed hard again, frowning in disbelief at what he was saying. "The difference is simply the amount that you'll scream before giving me the arm."
Mounira clenched her jaw, her short dark hair coming forward to frame her scowl menacingly. "Who said I was going to be the one screaming?" She stepped forward and moved her head to the side, hyper-extended the arm forward and grabbed him by the throat. She threw her weight sideways, sending him into the wall. The arm immediately retracted.
Shaking his head, Stein looked up at her. The fear was melting away, and the indignity of being beaten by an eleven-year-old kicked in. He got to his feet, a sneer on his face. "Impressive. I didn't realize it had that capability. But this only postpones the inevitable," he said, lunging at her with his knife.
Mounira blocked his arm and tried to sweep his legs but slipped.
She rolled out of the way and then, with her feet firmly planted, hit him square in the jaw with her mechanical fist.
As Stein blacked out, he stumbled forward and knocked Mounira off balance, sending her falling backwards into the wooden table.
A few minutes later, a piece of wood fell from the ceiling and smacked Stein on the head, waking him violently.
He rolled around, coughing on the stone dust that was in the air.
A rapid set of explosions went off somewhere down the hall; followed by the roar of part of the underground city collapsing.
Stein squinted at the open door and spotted his knife lying on the floor nearby. He shook his head, tears streaming down his face. "Oh, that was real? How could you have done that, Francis? How could you have stooped so low? You are better than that," he said to himself.
Forcing himself up, his chin quivering in shame, he turned to look out the window but something shiny caught his eye. Stein shook his head in disbelief at the sight of Mounira's mechanical arm embedded in the soft wood of the table. The strange backpack-contraption she'd been wearing was abandoned beside it.
"When she fell backwards, it must have gotten stuck. I must be imagining this." He reached out and touched it. "It's real." Taking a deep breath, he gave it a tug, but it wouldn't come loose.
Frowning, he went to grab it with both hands but stopped, peering over his shoulder, his heart pounding.
He glanced down at the arm and then hurried over to the door. Holding on to the doorframe, he looked up and down the empty hallway.
Sunlight was shining through where the ceiling was broken. He furrowed his brow at the sight of a Skyfaller going down in flames. I don't have much time.
Returning to the mechanical arm, he took hold of it carefully with both hands and planted a foot. With some force and wiggling, he finally got it free. He stared at his metallic prize in disbelief. "This will change my fortunes one day. It has to."
YOU ARE READING
The King's-Horse (Book 1)Fantasy
An all-new steampunk-meets-fairy-tale series of heart, legacy, and duty. Christina Creangle stared at the smoldering ruins of her life's work. When the Moufan, an ancient secret society, offered to take care of her senile father as repayment of an...