Helkey 20 — Devil Drivers in a Button Hook

I look over my motley companions, take a breath, let it out. I check my horologium watch. It’s 5:15 PM Hell time. So about forty five minutes ’til sunset. I walk up to Zel and Theri, check their gear, tighten a few straps. I glance at Mottle — he doesn’t do gear. Turning to Zaya, I ask — “you need anything?” I motion to the dead Poachers’ remaining equipment. Zaya folds her arms in front of her chest, turns her nose up, and scoffs. OK. That’s my answer.

“Sun’s almost down. Is everyone ready?”

In answer, Mottle swoops down from his perch then fastens onto my shoulders. His multiple contacts with my body cause my senses to blur. When they re-focus, I can see both through my eyes and his. It’s not as disorienting this time. He taps my neck with his teeth, injecting his strange liquid food directly into me. He must’ve eaten again when I slept. I feel a rush of energy. I’m thankful for it. Mottle can sense my thanks through our contacts. I didn’t want to eat that devils’ food. Meat looked way too humanoid. I don’t typically eat meat anyway. Too much cruelty involved. On Earth it was easy enough to get my protein from things like tofu and tempeh. In Hell, all my food’s been coming from Mottle which is such a major boon. I don’t want to think about not having Mottle.

The others jump as Mottle wraps himself around me, then seems to bite my neck. I just grin, flap Mottle’s muscular body, then hop-glide toward the cavern’s mouth. “I’ll take that as a yes!” I shout back to them. “Follow me!” Seeming to at last take my merging with Mottle in stride, they rush along behind us.

Outside, the pre-sunset air is still blast-oven hot. Stink of sulfur beats down as if weighted with lead. A green sky yawns above us — blending to a pine-needle color back toward the toxic ocean. I’m glad for Mottle’s cooling body, the fluids and foods he’s giving me. Makes Hell almost bearable. Almost.

Theri and Zel jog up beside me. Zaya flits to hover a few feet off to my right, casting about warily. I turn to Zel. “First things first. How do we best track Cyda?”

Zel nods, kneels down. Theri joins him. Together they scan the ground. The canyon floor is covered in broken rock and sand. I can see numerous footprints tracking between the cavern mouth and a trail winding down the canyon. To me, they all look the same. Zel points to a set of tracks leading off to the left — toward the canyon wall. “Those are Cyda’s tracks. He’s barefoot. His claw marks give him away.”

To the Wisp Fields

I feel a little tinge of regret. Zel and Theri both have shoes now. Their companion ran off — maybe out of fear, maybe out of opportunistic greed. Whatever the case, the poor guy is running around Hell in his bare feet. I don’t know why this makes me feel sympathetic. I glance down at my combat boots and am damn glad for them.

We follow the tracks to the cavern wall. There’s a natural stair made up of sandstone and gravel. We scramble up it, then continue on into the hilly, sandy lands surrounding Knife Lake. An orange-red sun plunges down behind the distant shape of Overseer Tower. Its crooked form wavers in a heat mirage making it look like a serpent slithering up into the sky of dusk. Despite a distance of at least twenty miles separating us from Overseer Tower, I still feel exposed. As if the eyes of some lookout are already tracing our steps. I’m pretty sure my fear is baseless. But Zel and Theri also seem to shrink from the tower.

Once up on the hillside, it’s even easier to follow Cyda’s tracks. They wind down toward the huge purple and green lake. Switching back and forth between hills but inexorably bending toward that ugly water. As we walk, shadows lengthen and a heat-mist rises from Knife Lake. A wind picks up at our backs, blowing the mists away from us and toward Overseer Tower. Sun is gone now. Overseer Tower — shrouded in mists. With light dimming, Cyda’s tracks become more difficult to follow. We slow down just to see. Zel stoops and seems to almost crawl. Zaya drops behind. She’s singing softly. In response, the ground behind us susurrates and shifts. All traces of our passage vanish. That little faerie gets more amazing each time I see her do something. Nobody’s going to be tracking us without some major effort. Dark or no dark.

We continue on in this way for about another hour. By seven o’clock Hell time I summon omnis scienta to help. I weave a little lux enchantment into my sensor, directing it to move in front of Zel. It glows, providing him with a dim light even as I’m able to see things about ten times better than before. Our pace picks up and I kick myself for not trying it sooner. I’ve got plenty of magic continuously filling up my energetic vessel. So I’ve got no excuse. We cut between two hills, avoid some nasty spike vegetation, then come to a wide-open area covered in low-hanging mist. It stinks of sulfur. I suppress a gag. But my eyes widen as I notice various glowing orbs floating in among the mists. They each spill out a light and color all their own. They slowly drift — giving me the impression of bio-luminescent sea life.

Live reading of Helkey 20

“They’re wisps,” Theri says, echoing my thoughts.

As if by some unspoken signal, we crouch down. The place is open, full of wisps. We’re suddenly on high alert. Not a moment too soon as out of the mists explodes a gigantic contraption. Spewing smoke from long rows of pipes, a machine about one hundred feet long crawling on six legs — each made of segmented metal ten feet in diameter and forty feet long. Two great pincers sway in front of a gaping maw filled with jagged metal teeth. Above it is a massive, swooping limb with a great glowing bulb on its tip. It dips this arm repeatedly into the mists, snagging fleeing wisps which are swallowed by the bulb. Clusters of lamps like eyes shine with a greenish glow above a metal mouth. On its back near its head is a platform. There I can see devils, perhaps six, operating various mechanisms I assume control the great machine. The whole apparatus reminds me of some monstrous infernal merger between scorpion and machine.

“Drivers,” Zel barely breathes the word.

I nod in response. The great devil machine continues to advance, segmented legs digging furrows into the ground. Massive claws edging ever closer. I want to freeze. To hide. But I’ve got to do something. We can try to hide, then withdraw in stealth and double back to continue following Cyda. Or we can take our opportunity and attack the Drivers now. The longer we wait, the more likely we’ll be spotted.

I blow out a soft puff of air, then nod my head. “Right,” I whisper. Motioning for them all to lean in closer, I point at the giant scorpion. “This is our chance. We’re going to take out that Driver, clue? We’ll keep tracking Cyda after.” I look into each of their eyes in turn. They nod agreement. This is what they signed up for. No time for pussy-footing now. “Good. Now listen quick. They outnumber us. But only slightly. They command a hulking machine and a shit-ton more brute force. We’re going to use that against them.” The huge scorpion is bearing down on us. We have maybe a minute before they spot us. Warming to my subject, I continue. “What we’re going to do is something I learned a while back called a button hook.” It was something Dad taught me while playing paintball. Great for fucking up bigger forces that have trouble reacting quickly. He said it worked against lumbering armor too. He should know. Mori’s ex military and all that jazz. Besides, the giant scorpion thing had armor written all over it.

“Zel, you go left. Stay about a hundred yards off. When you come perpendicular to its right side, I want you to shoot eight times with your rifle at them in rapid succession. When you’re done, immediately run to the rear of the machine, then wait for me. But be ready to unload with everything you’ve got left.” I make a motion with my hand, pointing him in the direction I want and toward the nine o’clock position relative to the machine beastie. “Go now! And start shooting immediately when you get into your first position!”

Zel dashes off. I watch him for a second, then turn to Theri. “OK. I’m sending you around to the other side about opposite of Zel. But I don’t want you to move until he starts shooting. Once you get into position, which should happen about twenty seconds after Zel finishes firing, I want you to shoot six times with your handgun. I know it’s not as effective at long range. Just do your best. Then I want you to run around to the rear position, join Zel, reload, and be ready to unleash Hell. Zaya and I’ll meet you there.” Theri nods. She’s giving me her wicked grin. She likes this Driver baiting plan.

The machine is getting uncomfortably close now. I can see the six devils on the platform. They’re all red-skinned and heavily armed with various weapons. Three are operating the machine. One is driving. The other sits at a station that I think must control the claws. The last operator is spinning a ball and pulling a lever. I assume this combination directs the tail which seems to mirror the ball-spinning, lever throwing movements. The other three devils are guards and lookouts. They don’t see us yet. But they will soon.

Bright flashes light off to our left — on the devils’ right. Zel has started his attack. Bullets ricochet off the platform. One catches a guard in the thigh. He goes down. I turn to Theri, patting her on the shoulder. “Go now!” She runs off like a bolt, keeping low in the mists for concealment. Zel unloads his last shot. This one is a frigging fireball bullet. It explodes over the operator of the tail contraption — blasting through the tail’s structure and causing it to sag. The operator dives away from his exploding control station but is pinned by a massive piece of metal falling down on him from the fracturing tail. Two wounded and one operating station wrecked. Not bad, Zel. I’m impressed.

The devils respond in fury. They focus on the location from which Zel first unleashed his barrage. The two remaining guards run over to the right side of the vehicle — our left — and start firing back. Bullets and fireball rounds streak toward Zel’s last position — lighting it up. But Zel is already gone — heading off to the twelve o’clock position. The scorpion’s driver swings some levers. The ponderous machine turns toward the nine o’clock. The claw operator at last springs into action. Putting his hands into two gloves, he flips a toggle. The claws lift up, let out a loud banging sound as they clack together, then both light on frigging fire! Holy shit! The night is suddenly illuminated by the hot, red glow. Good thing the mists are thick and they’re all facing toward the nine o’clock. The claw operator sends the massive pinchers thrusting down. He rips burning furrows into the ground. Material flies into the air. All for naught. Zel is gone. I can’t see him from my position. I’m glad for it.

I turn to Zaya. “Thought I forgot about you, didn’t ya?” Zaya giggles and shakes her head. I can barely hear it over the din of the guards gunshots and of the great scorpion machine venting its fury. “Good. So I noticed that stuff you did with the ground to cover our tracks. Do you think you can sift the sand beneath it to cause it to sink?”

“Oh, yes!” Zaya replies. “I can sink it. Maybe not bury it. Sand’s not deep enough here.”

“Good. All I need you to do is slow it down. But wait for my signal. And once you do, be ready because I’m going to need you to follow me fast.” As I speak, Theri starts shooting with her massive revolver. She’s about a hundred yards off. Her handgun is nowhere near as accurate as Zel’s rifle. And she’s only got six shots. Nonetheless, bullets ricochet off the platform from a position directly behind them. A final fireball shot explodes on the machine’s flank, leaving a big, glowing dent. No more casualties for team bad. But Theri sure as hell got their attention. Which was all I wanted. From the devil’s perspective, they’ve now been hit from their present front and rear. The guards don’t know what to do. They don’t see the first shooter. They’re taking fire from a second shooter. One continues to shoot in the direction of Zel’s first firing position. They’re practically on top of it now. The claw operator lashes out blindly. The second guard runs to the other side of the platform to shoot at Theri. But like Zel, she’s gone. The scorpion driver, after a brief argument with the claw operator begins turning the machine around. They can’t find Zel and the most recent shots came from their rear.

Perfect! I turn to Zaya. “Now!” The little faerie begins singing as I lift my hand into the air and shout out “Vexare Verberare!” I assign two bolts to each of the guards, one to the driver. The bolts streak out. The sand sifts. The great machine sinks and lurches. Claws flail into the sky. The guards again begin to shift their focus, spinning their weapons even as my glowing missiles close on them. I can clearly hear one word shouted by a guard in Minosian — “surrounded!”

My magical bolts of force explode when they impact against his neck and head. Both are kill shots. The second guard is lucky. He dives flat and the bolts shred the heavy armor on his back. But he’s otherwise unharmed. The final bolt blasts through the scorpion driver’s arm. He still manages to keep the scorpion struggling along through the sand. But its mobility is now hobbled both by shifting ground and him having to operate two levers with one arm. Shots begin to fly over our heads. I grab the little Vila’s hand and, with a flap from Mottle, we’re gliding along the nape of a hillside and down into a little dip about fifty feet away. The shots hitting our firing position are coming from just one guard now. But I’m glad we’re no longer there.

In three more short flights, we’ve come around to the 12 o’clock position. It takes us another thirty seconds or so to find Theri and Zel. They’re huddled together behind a rock. Both have shit-eating grins on their faces as they point ready guns at the ailing monstrosity. It’s seriously fucked up now — smoking from the two fireball bullet hits, its tail a wreckage, foundering in shifting sand, three of six crew down. The scorpion driver is clearly suffering from his wound. Guard and claw operator are confused and panicked. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

I look at Theri and Zel. “You ready?” Zel nods. Theri gives the thumbs up. “Alright then. Let’s give ’em Hell!”

Zel’s rifle and Theri’s handgun both shoot out their remaining fireball rounds. I lift my hand into the air and launch another vexare verberare! volley. The combined magic and diabolical artillery cause the Hell-scorpion’s platform to explode in light and sparks. When the resulting flash finally dims, none of the monster machine’s crew’s left standing.

Wow. Man, did that plan work out better than expected.

(New to the Helkey multiverse? Haven’t yet read the first chapter? You can find it here: Helkey 1 — The Memory Draught.)

(Looking for another chapter? Find it in the Helkey Table of Contents.)

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