Pugnum Aut Fuga

A prequel to Tales from a Clockwork Future. The character will be met shortly in the story.

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1. Prequel

A crashed airship is a powerful sight to behold.  The jagged grinning maw jutted up from the landscape like a beached shark, weeks away from the sea.  The splintered wreckage as the carnage of a fresh kill.  A stray propeller gently turning in the summer breeze as torn pontoons flutter like flags.  A sight to fill a young lady's heart with glee.

Alexis, Lexi for short, had been gathering wild mushrooms and herbs to throw in the stewpot tonight.  The best she'd hoped for was to find some of the weird mushrooms that were good for making wine.  Potioboletus, her dad called it.  He never touched the stuff, but travelers were always keen on buying a bottle or two.

She eagerly began sifting through the wreckage, gleeful as a kid in a candy store.  There were all sorts of useful things in here, waiting to be repurposed or remade.  She saw a wall light that was still intact, and she pried the mechanism off the polished beam with her pocketknife.  The bulb was cracked, but still it glowed as she wound the dynamo.  It ticked merrily in her hand like a pleased cicada as it lit up the gloom before her.  

She didn't know what to make of the craft.  It'd obviously been repaired a lot over the years, but it looked like it had bits and pieces from a bunch of different ships welded, bolted, and nailed in odd places.  Like it'd been repaired hundreds of times from wreckage.  There were bright red carpets, polished wood banisters and beams, and sturdy brass fixtures around every corner.  It was a veritable gold mine of salvage.  Something was wrong however...  something she couldn't place. There was something wrong with the rich mine of raw material.  Some unseen curse on the Cave of Wonders.  Some unsettling absence.

She pressed onward.  Something had her on edge now.  Some sense of doubt in the back of her mind.  The boards beneath her feet coughed and groaned ominously with every step.  There was something missing that she could not put her finger on.  The little niggling doubt in the back of her mind had curled up in her chest, slowly growing to an uneasy sense of dread.

She rested briefly in the crew quarters, sitting down on a rope hammock strung up between the beams.  She was almost shivering now.  Not from any draft.  The air was stagnant and clean. The sunlight peeking through the window was reassuring, but at the same time it made it even clearer that something was off.  She looked up toward the door, and she noticed a detail.  An innocuous, innocent, utterly terrifying detail.  The whole ship was slanted, but the hammocks were dead level.

She was off like a loosed arrow, the floorboards yelped in protest as her feet pounded them in a panicked staccato. The clockwork light in her hand flashed rhythmic light on her path like a glowing metronome. She could see the jagged teeth of the entrance rapidly approaching.  With a final leap she burst into the daylight.  Unfortunately, her freedom was short lived, as she collided face first with a hairy length of lead pipe pretending to be an arm before her eyes adjusted to the sun.

She laid there on the grass while she tried to get her eyes to uncross and her limbs to cooperate.  When she managed to sit up, she saw ten or twenty people surrounding her.  They were less than pleased to see her.

"Seems we've got a little trespasser, boys," said the lead armed man through a mangy beard.

"Wot' we gonna do wit' her?" piped in a skinny redhead lady with about a dozen knives strapped to her belt.

"Killing her's the simplest, ain't it?" growled a large man with one arm and enough scars to make out constellations on his face.

"You always say that you psychotic twit,"  hissed another lady with a bow in her hand and an arrow knocked.

"Can it, ya bums."  said lead-arm.  "The captain decides.  The captain ALWAYS decides."

Lexi couldn't speak a word of English, but she didn't need it to know the severity of her situation.  She was a mage.  Alone, unarmed, and far from any sort of help.  If they found out what she was... she didn't want to think about it. That way lay madness.

Mage was an old word for her people.  A misnomer that stuck around long enough that even her own people called themselves by it.  Most folk thought that the magi were warlocks, illusionists, or shamans.  The fact was the complete opposite... each and every mage was raised as a practical scientist.  This was the source of the misconception.  A competent mage could be chased by imperial guard into a junkyard, and chase them back out a few minutes later lobbing incendiary grenades built from odds and ends and common incendiaries.  A gifted mage probably could have improvised a cannon or a flamethrower.  In fact, her uncle had done just so the previous Saturday.  Alexis was going to have to improvise in her situation.  Of course, asking a mage to improvise is like asking a sparrow to fly.

"Alright alright, what's going on here?" Someone shouted over the developing din. Someone in a western hat shoved and elbowed his way through the ring of thugs and maniacs. Anyone could tell he was in charge.  Not because of the hat, but because if any schmuck had tried that he'd have been stabbed.  "Who's this then?" he growled as he clapped eyes on Alexis.  Well.. eye.  His left eye was pale.  Milky.  Dead.  He grabbed Alexis by the crown of her skull and hauled her up to her feet. "Who.  Are.  You?"  He growled.  She froze in fear.  She couldn't say anything.  She couldn't even move.  She dropped to her knees again, staring up in fear at the half blind man.
"Lock her in the boiler room,"  he said as knives-lady and lead-arms hauled her up again. "While I decide what to do with her."

The pirates had unknowingly locked her in an armory.  There was a box of firecrackers in the desk, and matches to light them.  There were plenty of cleaning chemicals in the cabinet, tons of scrap, spare parts, empty bottles, gizmos, gewgaws and whatsits.  If she'd had a day she could have built a weapon that would make any self respecting pirate rethink his life whilst staring down the barrel.  But she didn't have a day.  She was betting on minutes.

She cracked open the box of fireworks.  She weighed the cork sized bundle in her hand, examining the fuse and trying to estimate how big a bang it'd go off with.  She grinned.  She fetched a few empty vials from the janitors closet.  From the looks of them they'd held something alcoholic and very strong at some point.  But they were small, bulbous, and narrow necked. As she'd expected, the fireworks slotted into the bottlenecks like they were made to fit.

She got up again, and stared at the cacophony of chemicals.  Unsurprisingly, it was mostly cleaning agents and polishes, aside from the stray bottle of hooch.
She thought for a few moments, trying to remember exactly which things her mother had taught her not to mix and why.  Those two made a poison gas, another set would just fizz up and render itself inert, those are different brands of the same chemical, that sort of thing.  No one had ever taught her to make weapons.  She never thought she'd need to.  But then, she'd never anticipated wandering into a pirate's lair while she was gathering groceries.

She got some matches from the desk.  Red and white heads, the kind that light with a bit of friction.  She jammed a matchstick into a firework, and carefully wrapped the fuse around it.  She secured it with a tiny dab of glue.  A perfect striking mechanism, assuming it didn't go off in her hand.  Working quickly, she filled one of the bottles with chemicals.  She jammed the freshly built detonator into the neck and sealed it with glue as the liquid slowly bubbled. The bottle turned white with poison gas.  She reasoned that it probably wouldn't cause any permanent damage in open air.

She repeated this process a few times, filling vials with that white gas and corking them with the detonators. When she was done, there were 4 smoke grenades ready to be dangled from her belt.  She stared at them for a moment, reconciling herself with what necessity had coerced her to create.  While she doubted she could kill anything, whether she wanted to or not, she knew that every second she could buy boosted her chances of making it back home before the pirates caught up with her.

She hadn't spoken.  They had no idea what they were dealing with, no idea what to expect.  That was her one and only advantage right now.  If she had let on what she was, if she had said a single word, they'd have known.  Her language alone would have given her away.

She had just secured her grenades to her belt and smoothed her shirt down over them when she heard the scraping and clicking of a key in a lock. She swallowed her fear, composed herself, and prepared herself for the insane bid for freedom.

She was led further into the derelict hideaway by the lead-armed man.  She noted the path, mapped her route in her head.  She couldn't afford to waste a second.  One wrong turn could mean recapture... or worse.

After a few turns and a short walk, she was shoved through and open door.  Looking up, she saw the one person she'd expected to.  the one person that she had to pisss off for the sake of her escape.
"Out with it," he spat.  "Who are you and why are you here?"

She had no idea what he'd asked.  She didn't particularly care either.  She said two words that wouldn't mean anything to her captor.  She felt like saying them anyway.  After all, she wouldn't have the opportunity to apologize AFTER the fact, assuming she was lucky.

"Aegre fero,” she said, igniting one of her grenades and tossing it to the captain.  She was already sprinting when it went off with an abrupt "bang!" and bathed the captains study in white noxious gas. The chase was on.

She was halfway down the hall when the captain burst out of his study, kneeling and coughing.  "Get-koff koff," he choked.  "GET HER!"

Her path was obstructed by a cacophony of opening doors and bewildered pirates.  She danced around them, trying not to slow down.  The footsteps built behind her.  She lit another grenade and dropped it before the last bend.  It burst behind her, and she heard at least half of them slam into the wall as they coughed and gasped.
"She's a mage!" someone yelled.  Finally, an English word she knew.

They knew what she was now.  Her people were feared because they knew more science than average folk.  Her people were outlaws because they were nomads, people who refused to submit to the laws of the regions they inhabited.  She wasn’t a scared little girl anymore.  Now she was a threat.

The pommel of a knife bounced off her shoulder as she dashed into the sunlight.  And an arrow whizzed by her ear.  She tore off another bottle and sent it sparking in the direction the shots came from.  A knife arced high over her head, and an arrow hit the ground ten feet away as she kept sprinting.  She was almost to the glade she’d come from.  If she hit that glade, she was as good as free.  She didn’t get that chance.

With a dull thunk, her side exploded in pain and numbness. She stumbled, tripped, and skidded across the rocks.  Her last vial bounced twice and shattered against a tree, releasing the white smoke within. She looked down, and found a green feathered needle sticking out of her torso like a horrible flower.  Her legs were already numb.  She looked toward the ship.  Standing on the prow, his hat cocked over his bad eye and a gas rifle in his hand, was the captain.  Her vision blurred and faded as she coughed in the white breeze.

She woke with a start seconds later… or so it felt.  She tried to move, and found herself chained.  She looked down.  Her clothes were gone, replaced with plain white cloth and metal cuffs. She swallowed, feeling the metal dig into her neck.  She was bound and gagged, and dressed to be sold as a slave.  On top of that, the steady mechanical tremors traveling up and down the wood told her she was moving.  She was being taken.  She would have given up hope right then, if she hadn’t seen a pair of unfamiliar eyes staring back at her through the gloom.

“Don’t worry,” said the eyes in sorry honeyed tones, like to a wounded child.  “”I’ll get you out of this.  Somehow.”
She didn’t know what the words meant… but they sounded good.

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