CHAPTER 4 - Collateral Damage

265 0 0

When you’re hard hit, focus on what you still have rather than on what’s missing.

 

 

The smoke quickly filled the library, billowing up in waves of dark grey and black. Chuck and Lili coughed and hacked as the wizard led them to the invisible door. A wave of the hand revealed the knob, but the wizard recoiled at its touch, shaking his hand painfully.

“The flames are in the hallway!” he hacked, lifting a handful of beard to cover his mouth. With his other hand he quickly pushed on Lili’s shoulder, forcing her to her knees. “Lie down,” he coughed, “Get your mouth close to the floor where there’s still some air!”

She nodded and dropped onto her belly.

In moments it would be impossible to breathe—the smoke swirling in the air, clawing at nose and lung. Even now, Chuck could only see the faint glow of the magical fire at the back of the library. He could also feel the heat growing behind the metal door.

With a snap of his fingers, his dragon staff jumped into his hand.

“Oy!” he snapped, coughing into his beard, “Wake up, you!” With a sharp flick of his wrist, he whacked the carved dragons head against the desk next to him.

A wooden eye blinked. With a twist and a yawn, the small dragon perched on the end spread its wings, the dark brown grain of the wood fading to green. The creature gurgled from its chest, then added a quick yap from its tiny mouth.

“I don’t care what you were dreaming about, it’s time to go to work!” Chuck grunted. “There’s a fire out there.”

Short pause, then a few more yaps.

Chuck sighed, “I know you didn’t start it. Did I accuse you of starting a fire? No I did not. I want you to stop the fire.” He coughed again and slapped his beard back over his mouth to filter out the smoke.

Looking over the wizards shoulder, the tiny head leaned closer and gurgled at him.

Chuck rolled his eyes and let his beard drop, exasperated. “Oh for…I KNOW you’re in the habit of making them! Do I look senile to you?” Standing next to the door, he rapped the staff against the hot metal, “Feel that heat? Of course you don’t, you’re a stick. Albeit a magical stick, you are not…I repeat, NOT, made of this,” he grabbed the flesh of his own arm and tugged at it, stretching his skin, “soft, meltable squishy stuff. You will not burn, but I will! So,” taking a deep breath, “I would appreciate a little  help in putting this fire out. If you puff it out, surely you can suck it back in, right?”

The small head looked up at the wizard, crystal eyes unblinking.

Chuck squinted. Small coughs through his nose swirled and pushed the smoke from his face. The effect made him look much like a puffing, furry, white haired dragon.

The small eyes finally blinked, followed by a single, curt squawk.

“I DON’T CARE IF IT STINKS!”

Plunging his hand inside his sleeve, the wizard produced an oven glove, grabbed the doorknob and opened it. Flames roared shoulder height. Chuck tossed the staff into the flames and quickly slammed the door shut.

A minute passed. Then two.

Knock-knock-knock.

“You are NOT coming in here,” the wizard yelled blatantly, “until you deal with that fire!”

Pause. Squawk. Cher-squaw!

“Oh, don’t tell me that,” Chuck hacked into his beard, “I’ve seen you eat some pretty grotesque things…don’t start making excuses now!”

Coughing and wheezing, the wizard finally had to join Lili on the floor. He offered her the end of his beard to cover her own mouth.

She shook her head, but continued to stare at him until Chuck looked curiously back at her. “You…are a very strange mägo,” she said between sipping air.

He half-coughed-half-laughed, muffled by the fists of facial hair pressed against his mouth, “That’s the rumor.” He winked.

Swirling above their heads, the smoke thickened, absorbing the last of the oxygen within the walls of the room. Even the small battery powered fan Chuck held against their faces was eventually overcome.

Lili choked, her eyes watering fiercely, “I…hope…Morty and…Deloris…fared better.”

Chuck nodded in agreement, blinking back his own tears brought on by the smoke. But his face turned pale almost immediately. “Morty!” he gasped, jumping abruptly to his feet, the transformation instantaneous. Adjusting the firefighter mask on his face, Chuck grabbed the doorknob with a gloved hand, axe to the ready. “Stand back!”

Lili slid away from the door, hiding under the closest desk.

“One, two…” and the wizard yanked the door wide.

There was nothing there. More smoke, yes, but there was not a flame in sight.

Stepping into the hallway, Chuck looked to the left, then the right.“Huh,” his voice echoed in the mask. Walls were charred and where boxes and crates had lined the floor, only ash remained. Parts of the flooring was pitted and uneven now, even the cement, which was still smoldering from the heat. Walked carefully and cautiously towards the laboratory, he avoided the drooping ceiling overhead.

The government goons had done a thorough job in their vandalism—making the warehouse virtually uninhabitable.

The doors leaned to one side. Sheets of metal now twisted and bent, were fused together and hanging by a single hinge. All the windows in the room had shattered. Fragments of broken glass littered the floor, the dim light reflecting off shards. Where the PROMIS once sat, a gigantic pile of ash marked where the Centurions had started the fire.

Uuuuuurp!

The dragon, affixed to the top of the staff, lay bloated across the pile of ash, like a large melon. The tiny head swayed slowly to and fro, little trails of black smoke rolling out from nostril, mouth and ears.

Chuck flicked his wizards hat back with a finger and started laughing. “Well look at you,” he cheered, “I knew you could do it!”

Glazed eyes looked up. Errrrr-cha.

“Oh no you don’t,” the wizard warned, “Hold it in until we can find a place to…,” he paused. He glanced out one of the windows. The back of the building didn’t have a walkway or driving ramp—it just dropped down several floors to the other warehouses below. “Hmmm…I think I have an idea.” Snatching up the staff, he walked back to the open window and shoved the staff out the opening. Patting the dragons head, “Alright…let it rip.”

Before he could finish the sentence, the room lit up. Like a colossus flame thrower, fire shot from the dragons mouth—arching high into the air, then dropping to the levels below. The flames dissipated before touching the other buildings, a spectacular waterfall of orange, yellow and streaks of red.

Chuck stroked the neck of the staff affectionately, “That’s a good boy. Feel better?”

With a last urp, the dragon shuttered, its chest back to normal size. Flexing its wings, the enchanted beast shook its head.

“I know I don’t say this enough,” the wizard grinned, tapping the beast on the nose, “but I’m proud of you.”

The dragon snapped at the gnarled finger playfully.

“Alright, you’ve done your part,” Chuck laughed, “Now go dream of fat female serpents.” Tossing the staff into the air, it vanished.

Lili stood in the doorway, watching it all. “Strange indeed.”

BANG!…BANG!…BANG!

Chuck dashed across the room and waved his hands in a wide arc. Doors appeared within the brick, both dark and scorched. He yanked them open.

Morty, who was holding a two handed wrench, stumbled forward in mid swing, with nothing to hit. The heavy tool carried him forward, feet following the momentum until he landed face first in the pile of ash.

“Puh-puh-puh!” he sputtered, shaking his black and white beard clear of the debris. He blinked under his goggles and looked around until centering his attention on Chuck. “They burnt my home.” Pulling the goggles up onto his forehead, he lifted a handful of black ash in his fingers. The tiny flakes tumbled through the air to land softly onto the floor. “Stole my invention, my books, my computers,” he grit his teeth, “…and torched my HOME!”

Deloris coughed in a handkerchief and then wiped her eyes.

Chuck patted her shoulder, “You alright, dear?”

“Fine,” but she watched Morty jump around in the soot, kicking it up into a new cloud of blackness. “I’m just worried about him. This has been his whole life, Chuck. Now it’s gone.” She looked around the room at the broken windows, blackened walls, even the power outlets were melted and warped, oozing from their sockets. “How do you lift yourself up from a blow like this?”

Chuck stepped forward and grasped the tinkerers shoulders. Morty stopped jumping up and down, but fumed—his nose crinkled up in a snorting anger as he was guided to the side room.

“Do you have all you need to complete the PROMIS?”

Morty snorted at the wizard, “I don’t see why you’re…”

“Just answer me, Mortimur,” he interrupted. “Do you have, in this room, what you need to finish your project? Think quickly.”

A quick glance over the inventory. “I think so. Probably.”

“Do you have the tools?”

“Yes.”

“How about power?”

Though the plugs in the first room were melted and twisted beyond use, the outlets where he and Deloris had hidden were perfectly untouched. A small lamp, plugged into the far wall hung silently, sharing its soft yellow glow. “Looks like it.”

Chuck ran his fingers through his beard. “You know, there’s plenty of room in here for a bed, a few tables, chairs…even a couch if you wanted one. You’d still have plenty of room to work, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh for crying out loud, what is your point, Chuck?”

Throwing his arms wide, the wizard grinned, “My point, you little twit, is to show you that crying isn’t necessary! Look about you. You have what you need. No, it’s not perfect, but now those nasty little parasites are out of your hair! The government lapdogs think the warehouse is ruined. They took all your work and believe you have nothing to come back to. Which…”

“Which means for once, you might be able to work in peace,” Deloris smiled, catching on. “You can create the PROMIS your way, sweetheart!”

Lili wasn’t so convinced. “What if they come back?” She shifted back and forth, glancing down the smoldering hallway, “Even the mice can just walk on through the warehouse now, without knocking.”

It was a fair point and one that caused them all to pause. If the Centurions did come back, for any reason, they’d surely catch the tinkerer and anyone with him.

“One thing at a time,” Chuck snorted, pushing the concern aside. He walked over and poked Morty in the chest. “And, by the way, I kept my promise.”

 

****

 

It took them late into the night before it was all set up, but with some muscle, ingenuity and of course a smidgen of magic, Morty began to realize there was hope. It wasn’t much, but it was certainly a start. Chuck already possessed a small fridge, a mini-stove and refreshments stashed away in the library. One of the main rooms in the hallway between the laboratory and the library was a washroom. The door had started to melt, but for the most part, was undamaged. Using sledgehammers, they knocked holes between the rooms and connected them as one. Chuck sealed off the outer doors with spells, so anyone walking along the halls looking for stragglers would only see the damage done by the Centurions. It was nearly perfect.

“But what if I need to go out?” Morty complained, “I’ll eventually need parts, or food, or…”

“We’ll deal with that one day at a time,” Chuck cut him off. “The last thing you want to be doing is wandering around in public. For now, we stay put. At least until I can make contact with Höbin and make sure the kids are safe and sound.” He sat down and breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t luxurious, but for a hole in the wall, it wasn’t half bad.

Deloris poured each of them a cup of tea as they sat around one of the desks. “We should get the computers set up and check the news. This had to cause quite a scandal.” She couldn’t help but giggle.

The wizard took a sip. “I wouldn’t laugh. Except for you two and Motherboard, no one knew who we were—especially Wendell’s identity. Just seeing him change into human form, well…there’s likely to be a few angry gnomes out there.”

Lili set her saucer down on the desk, “What about Nat and the rest of the team?”

They all stared at her.

“I’ll grab the laptop,” chimed Morty, jumping from his seat.

Chuck fidgeted with his cup. “Goodness. I hadn’t thought about that,” he shook his head, “Stupid old fool. If anything happens to those…”

Deloris patted his hand, “Let’s wait and see.”

“We’re going to need the G.R.R.’s help if those kids are in trouble.”

Deloris nodded, “I know. You all kept your end of the bargain and Motherboard is a gnome of his word. Plus, he won’t leave Nat to those wolves. Not if he can help it.”

“Then once we have everything set up here, if you could help me find out where…”

“Uh, guys?” Morty called out, “You…might want to see this.”

The tinkerer knelt in front of Chucks desk, his laptop displaying a breaking news story. The three gathered behind Morty as the anchorgnome explained the scenes unfolding during a live shot. Camera crews charged the Trench Wars stadium as thousands of fans bolted from the building, pushing and shoving one another haphazardly. Gnomes screamed, looks of sheer terror engraved upon their faces.

“This is the scene that befell those unfortunate enough to be at the live Trench Wars season finale competition. Two million gnomes watched as pilots, Wendell Dipmier and Turnpikes own Dax, showed their true colors.” The scene immediately changed to a feed from one of a stadium camera. It zoomed in on Wendell as he transformed from a gnome, back into being human.

Chuck bit his cheek. “Oops.”

Morty looked up at him. “Did you know that would happen?”

Rapping the tinkerer on the skull with a knuckle, he snapped, “I’m a wizard—I know everything that will happen!” Rolling his eyes, “Now stop asking stupid questions and let me listen!!” Leaning closer to the monitor, he stared at the crowd. “They’re not moving.”

Deloris squinted, confused. “You’re right. The fans aren’t reacting to Wendell’s transformation…”

Lili frowned, “Then what made them all panic?”

The scene jumped forward, showing Wendell leaping down the steps and towards what looked to be a pit door open.

“Come on,” Chuck grinned, bouncing up and down, “almost there, almost made it.”

The door closed.

Snorting, “Well that was rude.”

Above, the fans erupted in a wave of panic. Those closest to Wendell stood up and clawed over the gnomes behind them. Within moments, every citizen was fleeing from the stands.

Chuck sighed, “…and there’s the panic.”

“Luckily,” the announcer continued, “Centurions were on sight and ready for any emergency.” Cameras zoomed in to show Wendell surrounded and the fight that followed. “Authorities jumped to the protection of our citizens, subduing and apprehending the human and his monster companion…including the traitor, Alhannah Luckyfeller.” Each moment the camera lingered on the fight, it zoomed closer, displaying each strike from a baton. “Clockworks City would like to thank President Shrub and the valiant gnomes who serve in the Centurion legion.” The scene cut away to a W.E.T. INC public announcement, apologizing for the event.

“What!?” gasped Chuck, almost falling backwards. Lili steadied him, but he yanked himself free of her grip. “They caught them?” Grabbing the laptop, he shook it violently, as if choking an enemy. “Where?” he yelled, “Where did you take them?!”

“Woah…WOAH, Chuck!” Morty jumped to his feet and wrested the hardware from the wizards grasp. “Take it easy,” he shot Deloris a concerned look, “We’ll find out what’s going on, ok? Stay calm.”

Flopping down into a chair, he slid the wide rimmed hat from his head. The soft, snow white hair curled over to one side of his high forehead, the tips bobbing in the air. He sighed weakly and said, “They were supposed to make it to the Black Market.” His eyes were red, his lips almost pouting under the mountain of white hair, “I don’t understand—Höbin was supposed to rescue them!”

Morty frowned, “I thought you just said you knew everything that would happen?”

Blue eyes glanced up under the bushy eyebrows. They narrowed to slits. “We really need to teach you about sarcasm.”

Deloris came over, slid a chair up and sat down beside the wizard. “If they caught Wendell, the authorities are going to keep and interrogate the others as well.” Reaching over, she patted the gnarled, fidgeting hands. “Which means I need to get a hold of Motherboard right away.” She looked up at Morty. Their eyes locked. “I need to go back to G.R.R. headquarters.”

“What? No,” Morty complained, “No. No. No.”

“Sweetheart…”

“You just moved in! We’re doing so well, worked our problems out…”

She smiled softly, the light catching her watering eyes so that they twinkled. “This is not about you and I, Morty. This is about the people. About the cause.”

“Cause?” he choked, “What about our cause? What about helping me to get the PROMIS up and working, so we can break free of this governmental monopoly on energy? Isn’t that worth your attention?” With all the dirt and soot on his face, the tinkerer looked like a frustrated little child. Well…a child with a massive beard and mustache. He pouted, “Please don’t leave.”

Deloris slipped from her chair and knelt in front of him. Sliding her arms around his neck, she gave him a deep kiss. Then, whispering in his ear, “I will never leave you again, Mortimur Teedlebaum, you brilliant, handsome gnome. I love you. But we have abilities that are needed right now. We can never live the lives we want to live, until this society can be set in order. The people need wake up and see what’s going on—or we’ll always have things getting between us.” She kissed his cheek softly. Then another. “You are one of the keys to this success, my love. So while I go rally the minds and hearts of the people, you make sure we truly can give the power back to the people.” With a final kiss, she slipped from his grasp and walked to the hole in the wall. “Lili, dear, would you come help me?”

She looked at Deloris, then over to the wizard. He nodded.

Morty watched the two ladies vanish. He rose slowly from the ground and stood there as if he’d been left at the alter, a groom without a bride.

“You picked a winner, I’ll tell you that.” Chuck stood up slowly and rolled his shoulders back, old bones creaked, joints popped, “ She’ll be fine. As will you. In the end, you’ll both be together—just like you planned.”

“I’ve played enough of your games today, wizard, so if you don’t mind, keep your sarcasm to yourself.”

The tinkerer never saw the hand coming. Right across the back of the skull. Chuck slapped Morty so hard, the gnome stumbled forward.

“Ow!” he snapped, rubbing the contact area, “What was that for?”

“For not recognizing sarcasm from a tender effort to comfort a friend, you dolt.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Hmmph.”

“And…thank you. That’s good to know.”

They stood there, in silence. There were no longer any doors to exit. No windows to look out or to let in the faint sounds of the city above. No furnace pipes moaning or rattling in the night. Everything was sealed off. It was now a tiny world, made up of three rooms.

Suddenly, Morty wasn’t sure he was up to the isolation.

Flipping his hat back onto his head, Chuck walked towards the hole in the wall.

“Speaking of promises,” Morty said bluntly, an idea coming to mind, “You still owe me a favor.”

Please Login in order to comment!