Few things hurt more than doubt creeping into a life of conviction.
Go back to the last sure knowledge you have—the last revelation you know to be true and stand your ground. Stand firm and wait.
The Universe will send you aid and clarity.
Even if you can’t see it at first.
“Is it done?”
“I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop asking me that. This is very delicate work and I’m sure no one wants to get caught…especially me.”
“But you’re always so fast in your clickity-clack world—typing on those buttons and such. You work faster than most of us can talk.”
Nat smiled to himself. It felt good for someone to notice his efforts. Funny thing was, he never thought the old wizard had paid much attention to him in the first place. It gave the compliment more weight. But this was a dangerous task. He’d been asked to hack into government databases, steal funds under the name of the President…and then…
How did the wizard even get Shrubs actual finger prints in the first place? The paperwork would be the easy part—a little artwork, a bit of cut and paste and even a novice could fool a government official. Chuck wanted the team to have pardons for the crimes they already committed. Nat’s job now was to take the tools he’d been given and set up a new life for all of them. If done right…this could cover all their tracks. If done wrong, well…
Chucks confidence made him smile again, but Nat made sure not to show it. “This is a bit more complicated than what I’ve done before. It’ll take some time to plant the phony files into the system. Give them a bit of official history.”
“But you can do it?”
He nodded, “I think so, yes.”
Chuck tousled the programmers hair. “Excellent.”
“This is a lot of work you’re expecting us to do in a dangerously short period of time, you know,” complained Freak. The TNT crew, the twins and Lili were all huddled around one of the main tables, looking at schematics of S.L.A.G.s. Buffy stared up at Cryo64, who grinned back at her unabashed. The shop owner shook his head at both of them and refocused, “I’m not sure we can do it.”
Tumbler took a pen and scratched some notes on a pad. “We can, Craig—you know we can…we just need the parts, the tools and a big enough space to work in. We’ve done tougher jobs than this.”
Freak gave him the evil eye.
“Yeah,” Telly added, “where people don’t want to shoot at us would be nice!”
“No one tried to shoot at us,” Lili clarified.
“Maybe not,” he countered, giving the twins a nervous look, “but after what they’ve said on the news, who says the Centurions wont try to?”
Nibbles popped the bubblegum in her mouth, “I’m with Telly. There’s no way I want to stick my neck outside if I don’t have to. But I don’t mind helping out. I like Dax.” She pondered a moment before adding, “We need a place to hide just as much as a place to work.” She sighed loudly, “Too bad this place doesn’t have a work station like the Trench Arena.”
“Ooooo,” grinned Telly, “that would be sweet. A dedicated work bench, lifts…and I miss all the pop they keep in that little fridge, too.”
Freak grumbled and rolled up the schematics, “Doesn’t do any good to wish.”
“No,” Chuck said aloud, his tiny, gnarled fingers combing through his beard, “But I don’t think we have to wish for anything.”
“Oh boy,” cringed Nibbles, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, “I think he’s having another idea.”
They all moaned.
President Shrub sat motionless in his wheelchair, the door propped open behind him. Clouds rolled like the waves of the sea, past the windows of his dining area. It was his favorite room, made completely out of transparent materials. He could see all the lights of Clockworks below him, slowing flickering to life as the last rays of daylight fell behind the mountain range.
He wondered if his children were safe. Were they warm? Had they eaten? It was strange, how the pressures of life seemed to fall away when the parent in him rose to the essential issues of his children. But there was nothing he could do now. Not effectively, anyway. The twins were no longer in his care.
All he could do now, was wait.
Yet, with only a few minutes of evaluation, he’d sent his children off with terrorists. It wasn’t true, of course. The people who had broken in were friends of Wendell and Dax. He wasn’t sure if anyone would agree with him, but that was enough for Shrub. Something in his heart told him that sending his kids away was the right thing to do…even now. There was unseen danger here.
The children would be safe the further away they were.
Shrub could hear the door to Dax’s bedroom prison open and close. The doctors talked out loud as they walked through the penthouse. The home they’d turned into a prison without consent. The home they’d violated.
No. The home Ian had violated.
The very thought caused his brows to slowly sink, like rolling black storm clouds, filled with anger and vengeance.
The elevator doors closed. A few mumbled words and then footsteps towards him. The light tapping of shoes across the solid floors echoed softly until the sound stopped just shy of the doorway. Shrub could smell the spice scent of Ian’s aftershave.
“How are you feeling?”
The president didn’t bother to turn the wheelchair to face him. Didn’t even turn his head. “Does it matter?”
A light sigh, “Of course it matters. That’s why I asked.”
Fat fingers gripped the cushioned arms of the wheelchair.
“You’re mad at me.”
“Mad?!” Shrub snapped, “Of COURSE I’m mad!” Yanking on the oversized wheels, the chair flipped around in one abrupt motion. His pale face and bloodshot eyes stared up at the albino, “You’ve turned against me and started a coup!”
Ian Twofold let his mouth drop open. “A coup? You’re not serious.”
For a moment, Shrub hesitated. It wasn’t the answer he was expecting.
“I’m more loyal to you and this administration than I’ve ever been!” the albino fumed, “Is that what this looks like to you? A take over? That I’m usurping your authority? Your power?”
“Well, I…” For a moment, he faltered—then his eyes refocused on his assistant. “You’ve lied about my children, Ian. You threw the Gnolaum to the wolves and have an innocent person drugged in the next room! You actually sentenced him to be executed, when he has done nothing to…”
“He’s a troll!” Ian cut him off. Spittle fell from his bottom lip, his eye twitching. He hovered over the president, fingers curled into claws, “Or have you forgotten that this is the very race that eats our people!?”
“No,” Shrub replied firmly, “I have not forgotten. You seem to forget that I’ve seen those who served faithfully in environmental recon. I have seen others die. Brave gnomes defending our shores before the automated systems were put in place.” He met the crazed gaze with an indignant stare of his own. “But now I see a gnome who has over stepped his bounds. Exerting authority he does not have…to further a plan, based on a skewed perspective of reality!”
The albino threw his head back in a near cackling laughter.
“So I’m insane, am I?” Wiping the saliva from his bottom lip with the back of his sleeve, “Well this position doesn’t exactly provide a stable environment to work in, now does it.”
Gripping the arms of the wheelchair, Ian thrust his face close. “And you’re missing the point! This isn’t about you or me. It’s about the people. It’s about this city! This administration made an oath to protect the inhabitants and at the first sign of danger, you didn’t simply fail to defend us,” he snorted, “you brought them HOME!”
Pushing himself upright, Ian spun around and paced the room, like a caged animal. “This isn’t a coup, my fluffy fabulousness. If I wanted you gone, I could have dealt with you days ago. Weeks. Months, even! Oh don’t look at me so shocked. That’s never been my intent.” He looked back hurt. “I’m trying to save you.”
Shrub frowned now, confused. “Save me? How is…”
“The people are scared!” Ian continued, “The poor are ripping this city apart, brick by brick as we speak—because that…that human, posing as the Gnolaum, has encouraged them to rise beyond their station! He has fostered a rebellion among our own people!”
“Ian…he is the Gnolaum.”
“No! The Gnolaum is a gnome!” he choked, “He has to be a gnome…because the rest of the world doesn’t care about the little people of this city! They hate us. FEAR us!” His pacing quickened, a hand lashing out to rap knuckles on the glass as he passed. With the billowing clouds outside, it looked like the albino was walking on air. “So I have put you back into favor with the people. You need to be seen as a true leader during this time of confusion. By making the hard decisions you couldn’t make, I’ll make sure this administration and your lineage, lives on!” Stopping in mid stride, he faced president Shrub and grinned.
It was a eerie expression across a flushed face.
“Stop this madness,” Shrub whispered, “if you’re bent on getting rid of them, then ban them. Send them away on a boat. Get them off the island…but don’t kill them! Don’t do anything that we might regret later on, Ian. What if, after all your conviction, you’re wrong about Wendell?”
“No,” the albino growled, “you’re still not listening. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“The object of my desires is quite simple, Mr. Dipmier,” Noah said with a dash of anger. He loomed over the hero, twisting the thin strands of leather in his hand. His teeth were clenched tight, fighting to control the anger. “I want you to give me information. Specific information.” He raised an index finger, “No. Detailed information—about why you are here and what you have been doing here since you arrived. Once you have done that, I will then require a confession from you.” He looked upward, his face softening, “Something that will reassure the flock of this city, encourage them, to remain faithful and follow the edicts of the Church.”
Wendell watched as the monk swayed to the rhythm of his own words, stomach turning.
“.…and then for you to leave Clockworks. Forever.”
Wendell was about to throw out a snide remark, but the trembling old gnomes in his peripheral vision dissuaded him. For whatever reason, all three were trembling and cringing from the religious leader. If Noah walked around one side of the altar, they would retreat. What have they done to you boys?
“Are you paying attention, Mr. Dipmier?” Noah snapped, lifting Wendell’s chin with the handle of the whip. “I do not like to repeat myself.”
“Why would I help you?” he almost choked. Something stirred in his gut
“Ahh,” Noah grinned, “The answer is simple.” Dangling the whip in front of Wendell’s face, the metal tips tied to each strand looked like broken metal teeth. “You won’t have a choice.”
“Do you like this? It’s an ancient artifact we’ve used here in the Church for some time now. Generations in fact. Only on the ‘bad’ people, of course.” Noah casually motioned to the blue-stained box. “All these remarkable tools have been used to, shall we say ‘encourage’ the truth from those with a disposition to withhold information. Circumstances like this.”
Wendell frowned heavily, his eyelids narrowing. “What do you mean, like this? How is this extreme—other than the fact that you kidnapped me and now you want to torture me?” Wendell tugged at the chains more out of anger than any hope of escape. He wasn’t going anywhere and he knew it. His only hope was to either convince the gnome he was wrong and to let Wendell go…or to comply. Which didn’t sound too bad—talking, that is. There weren’t any secrets left that he had to worry about. Noah knew who he was—or at least who Wendell claimed to be.
“I have no doubt the government faction had their way with you. Interrogated when you were first arrested? That is their way. Technology or chemistry to extract what they want. But this,” Noah grinned, wagging the short whip in his hand, “is special. Evil to use against evil. Poetry, really. You see—we hate magic here in Clockworks. It is an abomination. Unnatural. A belief system that takes us further away from TGII and the truth of the Universe. But these artifacts,” he held the whip up, as if it were a prized trophy, “were shaped and molded by the wicked of your kind, allowing me to use that inherit evil…to deal with the disease among us.”
“That,” gasped Wendell, trying to control the chill pulling at his spine, “doesn’t even…make sense.” Smirking, “You sniff glue, don’t you.”
One of the prisoners snickered.
“Silence!” Noah snapped, ignoring Wendell’s jab. “Of course it makes sense, stupid boy.” The monk looked at him smugly, “Do we not use weapons to deal with criminals? A gun used as an evil tool can also be used to silence the evil in the criminal. A blade can defend a kingdom…”
Wendell shook his head, “I’m thinking industrial glue.” Noah sounded too much like the philosophy teachers and professors in his hometown. Their views never made sense to him, twisting perspectives to fit their point, mingling scriptures or biblical stories with their own interpretations…but not quite speaking the truth. “Then wouldn’t the real evil be in the person? Isn’t,” he shivered again, “it the intent that matters?”
Noah looked down at the weapon in a loving, longing way. “The intent of this item is to do harm. It was created to do harm. It can only cause harm. Thus, in all sense of the word, it is evil. But,” he wagged it lightly in the air, “it is not an evil I created. My intent is to do good with it.”
“The ring is altogether evil,” Wendell muttered under his breath.
“Excuse me?” Noah frowned.
Wendell shook his head, “Nothing. You sound like the whip has a will of its own.”
Noah once more caressed the leather strands. “It does.”
Another chill ran down Wendell’s spine. On that had little to do with the cold in his muscles or bones. This guy is literally nuts, and you, Wendell, are in a deep pile of cow dung.
“This has an odd name, but I never remember it correctly. I believe it translates into something close to snake bite. Or maybe it’s serpent venom—I do seem to get them mixed up.” Noah circled around the alter, to stand behind Wendell. “Now that we’ve had our little chat, let’s get started, shall we?” Folding the sleeves of his robe back, “I would like to start by asking you how many accompanied you to this island? Exact numbers, please, with their last known whereabouts within the city.”
So that’s it? He wants information so he can round up my friends? Subject them to this? No way. Taking a deep breath, he growled, “Go snort another glue stick”
“Wonderful,” Noah said, almost gleefully, “I was hoping for some resistance!”
Wendell watched the tiny weapon, dangling from the gnomes hands, vanish from site. He didn’t like the thought of being whipped…but it was hard to fear something that looked like a child’s toy.
Be brave Wendell.
Even hunched over the altar, Wendell was taller than Noah. His torso hid the monk within his own shadow. The flickering candles did not reveal the movement behind Wendell, neither was there any sound to prepare or warn him for what happened next.
The rare and expensive mägoweave, a magical cloth with the durability of the choicest plate mail, gave way. Like teeth of a wild beast, metal bit deep into flesh.
His head whipped back, eyes wild with mouth open wide.
“AHHHHHHHH!” he screamed—the sound pounding against the impenetrable walls of stone. Even as the scream faded from lack of breath, the yellow smiley continued. Lips trembled in a silent cry of anguish.
The prisoners cringed, slapping their hands over their enormous ears as the human yanked against his bonds, arching his back.
Wendell grit his teeth and clenched his eyes tight, already blinded by tears. Tickles of lava rolled down his back, setting every nerve aflame. Noah’s arm dropped a second time—the tiny whip, once again, sliced effortlessly through the mägoweave and tore at flesh.
Again he screamed, but his mind reeled. Drums pounded in his ears, drawing his attention away. This was beyond anything he’d experienced. Pain Wendell didn’t know existed. Biting through his tongue, blood trickled over his teeth and from his bottom lip. It was near impossible to inhale. The more Wendell struggled to take a breath, the greater the fire grew across his back. Tears of unspeakable pain ran down his face, dripping off his chin and onto the altar.
This will all have an end.
Muscle and sinew of his back lay exposed to the candlelight. Blood ran freely down the track of his spine.
Noah lowered his hand and smiled.
“I’ve always found that to be such a lovely sound.” Pulling the whip back across his palm, he examined the metal shards fastened to the end of each leather strand. “It’s the sound of attention. Lifting Wendell’s chin with the whips handle, he smiled mockingly, “Do I…have your attention, Mr. Dipmier?”
Draped over the cold stone, Wendell shuddered. He could feel the Ithari working within him—the familiar pulse of warm energy pumping through his veins, but the pain didn’t stop. It didn’t let up. Fire surge through skin and muscle…down his back, making him ever aware of the torn flesh and seeping blood across his skin. Even the magical cloth refused to mend itself as it had always done before.
Wendell looked up in confusion and Noah grunted with satisfaction. “No, the pain won’t stop. Not until I tell it to. One of the advantages of possessing such rare and powerful artifacts.”
“Why…are you doing this?” Wendell asked, his hands shaking violently. “I…haven’t hurt…anyone.”
Noah grit his teeth. Taking the butt of the whips handle, he jabbed it against Wendell ’s temple. “Yes, you have!” he snarled, “You’ve hurt millions, just by your presence. Then there’s the winning the Trench Wars against my Trinity pilots. That in and of itself became a sign to many that you were greater than the Church.”
That can’t be right. Why would any right-thinking person believe…“But it’s…just a game.”
Nostrils flaring, “You think this is a game?”
Wendell shook his head, “Trench Wars is a…sport. You don’t determine your religious beliefs on a sport.” But the serious look on the monks face disturbed him. “Do you?”
“I am astounded, Mr. Dipmier—that you claim to be one of our religious figures and yet you are so ignorant as to the population of this city. Trench Wars, the Church, our traditions—these are most important to us. They define us. They set us apart from the rest of the world, which hates and despises us.”
“I don’t,” Wendell said weakly.
Noah let the ends of the whip fall limply to his side. “But that’s because you want something from us, now, don’t you?”
What is he talking about? Sweat trickled down through his eyebrows, following the bridge of his nose and into his eye. The salt stung, but it paled in comparison to the burning in his back. He blinked it out. “I don’t want anything from you,” he said weakly.
The whip lashed out, slicing deeply across his ribs. Wendell’s scream pierced the shadows, dying out with an echo and gasp of his breath. The blows weren’t just sharp—there was force behind it As if he’d been hit with a hammer. Blood trickled off his shirt and across the stone. “Don’t lie,” Noah said evenly. “There is no room for lies in this place. For sooner of later, Mr. Dipmier, I will pull the truth from you.”
Placing the weapon down upon the altar, Father Noah walked to the propped open wooden box. He ran his fingers tenderly over the objects contained within.
He’s going to kill me. Whatever he wants, he won’t let me leave here alive. The crazy midget has already kidnapped children, the elderly and the unwanted. He doesn’t care about me. His head swayed heavily over the stone…and he coughed. No matter what he said, Noah considered him a threat. It was time to shift his attentions. To survive. One way or another, Wendell knew he had to survive and find a way out. To get out of his bonds and… This is crazy. Why am I not healing?
But that wasn’t what was foremost on Wendell’s mind. Ithari would do whatever she would do or could do—he couldn’t change that fact. No. His mind kept coming back to the whole reason he went back to the furnace in the first place. He stared up at the monk, the words finally falling from his lips. “What did you do with my friends?”
“What?” Noah looked back, nonchalant. “Those dirty, disgusting vagabonds we pulled out from the garbage heaps?”
Wendell flinched at the harsh, but not completely inaccurate description. “Yes.”
Noah’s attention went back to the box. “They’re being processed and sent to satisfy the contract obligations we have in place. I wouldn’t worry about them—as far as you are concerned, they’re gone. You should focus on our conversation, Mr. Dipmier. There will be time to mourn their loss later.”
Gone? Mourn their loss? Wendell growled out loud, anger seizing his chest. Simon’s dirty little face flashed through his mind, adding to the rage. Why was the world filled with such evil people? Beings who didn’t care for those less fortunate, even helpless? Did they have no conscious? No compassion or love? He yanked and tugged against the chains violently, “If you’ve hurt them…I’ll,” he started to say, but the threat was useless, and Wendell knew it.
“You’ll do what, exactly?” Noah finished his sentence, not even looking up. “You’re in no position to bargain,” he smiled to himself, “or threaten me.”
“What have you done with them?” Wendell pressed. “If you’re in control of me and you’ll obviously get what you want, then why not tell me? Give me a measure of peace before you rip the ‘truth’ from me.”
“Because,” Noah said coldly, turning to lock gazes with Wendell, “It would give you that measure of peace,…and you deserve none.”
The anger and sheer spite in the gnomes eyes shocked Wendell to silence.
“However, perhaps you knowing will serve another purpose. So I can tell you that they’re being processed.”
Wendell could feel the blood cooling on his ribs and skin. Clotting and sticking to his shirt strands. He grunted as he tried to prop himself up, “What does that mean, ‘processed’?”
“It means, my young friend, that they are all being tagged, scrubbed and disinfected, dressed and fed.”
But that doesn’t bad, he had to admit, what am I missing? “Then why would you say they’re gone, if you’re taking care of your people?”
Noah stopped his motions to consider the words. “Hmmm. I do like that perspective. Takes a great deal off of my shoulders.” He nodded to Wendell, rather amused, “Thank you for that.”
Wendell gasped. No matter what I say, he’s completely oblivious to what he’s doing! Did causing harm to others come so naturally to this gnome? “What do you want from me, Noah?” he blurted out. Maybe I should try something else. “You don’t have to go through all of this. I’m happy to share any information with you that I can. I’m not in possession of any great secrets, but I don’t want to cause more trouble. I have obviously caused enough already.”
Noah lifted a thin ring of metal from the box. He rotated it in the candle light, the surface glinting against the flames. “It’s good to see you taking responsibility for your fault in all this so readily, Mr. Dipmier. I appreciate that. I really do—but the information I want from you are things you most assuredly will not want to share.” The gnome grinned with satisfaction and walked forward with the circlet.
It was as thick as Wendell’s pinky finger and made of silver. There looked to be tiny markings inscribed into the metal, but he could not make them out. On the inside of the ring, however, he noticed what looked to be spikes jutting out from the metal. Noah leaned closer .
“I need the truth,” he whispered, then almost hissing, “The absolute truth.”
Holding the metal over Wendell’s head, a red light appeared from within the metal. First a glow, gentle ripples running below the hard surface…then it flickered…red sparkles, surrounding the ring itself. As the light grew…so did the ring itself. With each passing moment, it expanded, growing wider and wider, until it looked as if it would fit perfectly over the heroes scalp.
Without another word, Noah thrust the ring down over the crown of Wendell’s head.
Miniature razors bit through flesh, impaling themselves and binding to Wendell’s flesh…and bone.
“Ahh—AHHHH!” he screamed. Fire and ice raked across his scalp. The muscles in his neck fought to keep his head upright. This pain, however, faded almost as quickly as it began…and within moments, not a trace of discomfort was left. Wendell blinked several times, his eyes coming into focus.
Noah stepped back and sighed satisfactorily. “Now I shall have it.”