The Fire in Which We Learn
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
Knight-Captain Martine Covington-White didn’t know what Brambleseaver was. The Ward family butler looked human. At least, he was shaped like a human. Given the Church of the Flying Cog’s penchant for experimental engineering, and the Ward family’s reputation for being delightfully out-of-touch with common values, it was entirely possible that the Wards tested their engineering abilities by animating a corpse and calling it a butler.
Brambleseaver stared at Martine through the partially-opened front door.
“Yes,” said Brambleseaver. His voice didn’t rise at the end, as though this wasn’t presented as a question. Martine expected this, having dealt with Brambleseaver before, but it was still rather offputting.
“Captain Covington-White to see Lady Ward.” Martine saw Brambleseaver’s gaze shift from her to something behind her. Martine followed the butler’s gaze to the front gate, where her horse was hitched. Pepper was in the midst of a particular biological function common to horses, that somewhat undermined the solemnity of the moment.
“I’m sorry about that,” said Martine. She owned the only live horse in Widget Ridge, and the people weren’t used to the things that sometimes came out of it.
“Yes,” said Brambleseaver, and the front door opened. Martine stepped in. Brambleseaver moved slowly to a collection of fireplace tools near the entry hall fireplace.
“Should I wait here?”
“Yes,” said Brambleseaver. The butler slowly picked up a set of flat pans, ideal for scraping up horse droppings, and slowly moved towards the front door.
“Oh you don’t have to do that,” said Martine. “I’ll take care of it when I leave.”
“Yes,” said Brambleseaver.
“Why do you keep saying that? I’ve been here before, and I know you can say other things.”
“Yes,” said Brambleseaver, clearly not helping.
“OK but you really don’t have to clean up after me.”
This awkward conversation lasted another seventeen minutes before Brambleseaver was able to get away from it.
This was perhaps the sixth time that Martine had cause to visit Lady Luna Ward, and each time she was shown into a different room. Luna Ward enjoyed showing off her family’s opulence, and sometimes their decadence. This time the room looked something like a sitting room, but the walls were lined with bookshelves.
Martine noticed that the books seemed to be real. An impossible amount of reading material for a city that had only existed for just over a hundred years.
“Oho, the policewoman comes,” said Luna. “Perhaps she will arrest me?”
“I’m not the constabulary, Lady Ward,” said Martine.
Luna spread her arms wide and beamed. “No, you are City Defender! How delightful!”
Martine tried to hide the fact that she enjoyed Luna’s bizarre enthusiasm. “I need you to understand something, Lady Ward,” she said, rather more sternly than she intended. “I have no intention of allowing you to treat the city as your personal playground. Especially when it comes to firing the air defense weaponry.”
Luna Ward pouted. “It is against the rules suddenly to court? To flirt? To love?”
Martine crossed her arms. “It’s not flirting, it’s attempted murder.”
Luna started to melodrama through the room, using every available space to give emotional weight to her words. “But Alistair is my love, and he vexes me, and he taunts me, and he invites me. I can hear his words on the wind every night. Follow, Lady Luna my love, follow my path. Come after me, and I will love you more and forever.”
“Have you ever met Alistair Gaines?”
Luna smiled. “Oh yes, many times.”
“No,” said Luna, “but that hardly matters when speaking the language of the heart.”
“So let me understand what I’m hearing,” said Martine. “You’re in love with someone you’ve never met, and you express that love by attempting to shoot him with the city defense cannon.”
“A cynical thought, so clinically expressed.”
Martine stood, realizing that she had taken a seat at some point, and prepared to leave. “I will speak with Mr. Gaines to get his perspective, but I warn you, Lady Ward, I will not tolerate misuse of city defense equipment. Especially for courting purposes.”
“You criticise, and yet you are glad to wear the battle corset I designed.”
Martine shrugged. “You may be nuttier than a cake at Christmas, but I must admit that you make a good, solid battle corset.”
The Knight-Captain of the Order of the Flying Cog turned and left.
Lady Luna Ward sighed. She admired her own reflection in a mirror, which was a very unvampirelike thing to do.
A stocky man, presumably Gil, ran from one end of the giant workshop to the other. Not an easy thing to do whilst carrying a large bucket of sand, but Gil was experienced.
At the workbench to which he was running, there was an amount of fire that was more fire than anybody expected or wanted.
Alistair Gaines, the shouter of Gil, had already jumped back to safety, and Gil’s bucket of sand took care of the excessive parts of the fire, leaving a smaller fire that was easily manageable.
Gil looked over at Alistair, who was grinning like he always did. Alistair was a handsome, dark-skinned man somewhere in his 20s. He was a talented engineer, but enjoyed experimentation far too much. The Church of the Flying Cog was almost ready to excommunicate him simply for following their tenets a little too enthusiastically.
“You are in far too good a mood,” said Gil. “Try to not kill us both.”
Alistair laughed. “I try to not promise anything.”
“Are you flying today?”
“Yes,” said Alistair. “I can’t imagine a day without going up there.”
“Even while getting shot at?”
Alistair looked over at the Velocitron. He didn’t invent it, but Alistair made it his business to perfect it. The Velocitron was in good shape, but bore evidence of the recent attacks by Lady Luna Ward.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think so.” Alistair unsnapped a baton-like object from his toolbelt and pressed a button, extending its length by three feet. The extended portion crackled with energy, and he inserted it into a power node built into the aircraft, right behind the cockpit.
“Look,” said Gil, “I know you can’t do much about the Wards. They’re too powerful, but can’t you fly at night or something?”
“She sees better at night,” said Alistair, “but I think I worked out a trajectory that will hide me from her gun sights and take me behind the volcano.”
“If you say so,” said Gil. “I generally don’t give my opinions on things that aren’t bakery-related.” He turned back to his end of the large warehouse which he shared with the young inventor. It housed a large pastry oven surrounded by a rather impressive kitchen.
“Thank you for the sand!” Alistair continued smiling as he activated the blast curtain that would shield Gil’s bakery when he took off, which would happen very soon.
“Good morning, Gil,” said Martine, as she entered Gil’s Bakery.
“I’m not Gil,” said the man who was there. “Do you want me to get him?”
Martine looked at the floor. “If you could, please.” She hated when that happened. Gil’s assistant looked much like Gil, but Martine sometimes had trouble telling them apart.
“Captain Covington-White,” said Gil, who had emerged from the back room. “What can we do for you?”
“I was hoping to speak with Mr Gaines. Is he in?”
Gil’s answer was lost in the overpowering boom, followed by the earth-shaking rumble that Gil found all-too familiar. After an eternal 90 seconds or so, the Velocitron cleared the roof doors and the noise subsided.
“He appears to be out,” said Gil.
“Oh,” said Martine. “Well…what kind of pastries do you have?”
The conversation after that was remarkably pastry-related and not at all interesting.
Luna laughed, delighted at seeing the roof door open, and Alistair’s Velocitron emerge. She was already sitting behind the gun and, with the flourish of somebody in a musical, took aim.
She watched through the gun sight as Alistair spiraled through the air, daring her to chase him. She could not quite see when he went behind the Tower of Caution, and smiled when he flew behind the Lightning Spire.
He is playing hard-to-get. Luna’s heart leapt with the challenge of it all. But when the Velocitron finally emerged from behind the Lightning Spire, Luna scowled.
That tricky mongoose! He had turned and flown toward the volcano! He was now out-of-range.
Luna frowned. This was not what should be happening, surely? The game must be played, no?
Or…perhaps this was a new game…?
Luna extended her arm and whistled. With a clattering of metal feathers, Lady Luna Ward’s pet vulture, Serenity, answered her summons. Without even looking, Luna swept her arm forward to indicate the target.
Serenity flew towards the Velocitron while Luna watched through a pair of very stylish binoculars.
Alistair often lived with a false sense of security. And by often we mean always. And by false sense of security, we mean he should be dead.
But here, in the open, he was free.
The Velocitron was handling well, and there was no need for evasive action because nobody was attempting to murder him. There was no sense of urgency.
Serenity, on the other hand, acted from a clear sense of urgency. Serenity wanted to kill Alistair.
Serenity was Luna Ward’s very first Widget. Over the years she had modified it (with the help of her brother, Max), and it currently took the form of a turkey vulture. Nobody knows why, and even if they did know, it really wouldn’t matter. The bond between Serenity and Luna was strong.
Alistair had never met Serenity before, so it came as a huge surprise to him when a metal turkey vulture sliced off a piece of his left wing. He immediately went into a defensive flight pattern, and activated two repair widgets to try and take care of the wing damage.
He lost sight of Serenity, but a sudden glint of sunlight commanded his attention. The metal bird was approaching from the front, heading straight towards the cockpit. Alistair pulled up to try and ram the bird, but Serenity matched his action, swooping over the nose of the plane and landing right in front of him.
Alistair’s panicked reflexes caused him to swat at the bird, but all he managed was to cut his hand on the sharp metallic feathers. Serenity was ignoring him, and was pulling at the control stick, seemingly trying to rip it out.
The Velocitron screamed in protest as the pressure on the control stick forced it into near-impossible stunts. Alistair’s seat belt snapped from the force, and he tumbled out of the pilot seat. He was able to grab hold of something, but the wind resistance prevented him from getting back to where he was. This left Serenity free to complete its task.
Desperate to do something, Alistair reached back with his free hand, grasping for any straw. He found the Lightning Rod handle and pushed the button to release it. With one fluid motion, Alistair turned the power output to maximum and jammed the business end of the Lightning Rod into Serenity’s chest.
It had the desired effect, as long as one desired weird and dangerous effects.
The contact point became a sea of sparks. Serenity screeched, and launched itself away from the Velocitron. Alistair, having deprived the Velicitron of its main power source, was now able to climb back into the cockpit to try and regain control.
Alistair grabbed hold of the control stick. He was happy to find that it didn’t appear damaged, but it did come off in his hands quite easily. Serenity was evidently only seconds from completing its task. Alistair watched as the volcano filled his vision, and the ground rushed towards him.
At this point, Alistair said a bad word. We won’t repeat it, even though we are quite confident that nobody would actually blame him for saying it. Just think of a bad word, and pretend he said that one.
Meanwhile, back at Ward Manor, Lady Luna Ward dropped her binoculars in shock. She had watched the exchange, and now her love was crashing into the volcano!
With practiced ease, Luna found the snap catches of her long, flowing dress and undid them. Beneath it was a much smaller dress that was still somehow elegant and left plenty to the imagination. It was dominated by a rather imposing battle corset. One that had not been revealed to the general public, as it still required extensive safety tests.
Stopping only to fix a pair of goggles over her eyes, Lady Luna Ward ran to the high balcony and leapt. The built-in rockets would activate in time to save her, but it would be close.
Alistair didn’t remember the impact, but he did know that he was now in a cave of fire. He knew that his head was bleeding. The arm that he had wrapped around the remnants of his seat belt felt dislocated. He figured that his ankle was broken. He guessed that he was still alive.
Alistair had built several safety systems into the Velocitron. None of them were particularly effective, but together they seem to have worked. The parachute that deployed wasn’t nearly big enough to stop a vehicle that large or heavy. The safety nets were woefully inadequate. The front-facing air cannon was a terrible idea. However, all of these things (and a handful more) meant that his impact into the side of the volcano wasn’t nearly as fatal as it felt.
“Gil,” he whispered, but Gil didn’t come. Alistair passed out anyway.
He awoke to the sound of being poked with a stick. The feeling didn’t bother him nearly as much as the sound did. Alistair feebly swatted it away, but this just made people shout at him instead.
Alistair blinked until his vision cleared, though his everything still hurt. He was in a cave. There was fire, but the fire wasn’t lava. Rather it came from the torches held by a dozen people wearing robes and decorated with face paint.
“Hello,” said Alistair.
Nobody said hello back, which was a bad sign when dealing with hoods and torches, and the people that use both (especially at the same time).
One of the people stepped forward. “Why did you come here?”
Alistair looked around at the large hole through which he had come. “I crashed,” he said. Had his arm worked, he would have gestured to the path of destruction with a sarcastic flair.
“I am Veren Morask, of the Blood Moon.”
Alistair nodded. “I’m Alistair, from Widget Ridge.”
Morask gestured towards the shattered Velocitron. “This machine. You will tell us how it works.”
“I’d venture,” said Alistair with a wince, “that it no longer works.”
Morask moved to Alistair, and held a curved dagger at the engineer’s throat. “You will not be so smug, outlander, when we put you to the torture. After an hour, you will tell me all your secrets, and after a day, you will beg me to let you die.”
Alistair sighed. He had just flown into the side of a volcano and survived. He knew nothing of the Blood Moon, but if all they had were daggers and threats, they wouldn’t even make Alistair’s Top 100 Deadliest Situations list.
“Alright,” said Alistair. “Let’s start with the power source.” He reached into the cockpit and found the handle of the Lightning Rod.
“A stick?” sneered Morask.
“A stick is just a lever looking for a fulcrum,” said Alistair. “However, this is a bit more than that.” He pressed the button, and extended the Lightning Rod. It was already crackling with energy, so when it hit the pit of Morask’s stomach it shot him several feet backwards.
The cult leader screamed in agony and rage. The rest of the cultists started towards Alistair, but he waved the Lightning Rod in their direction. The blue energy crackled as he did so, stopping the advance of the hooded men.
Morask was able to stand, but he was obviously shaken. Alistair figured these people believed in magic, and would assume he was a lot more powerful. At least, he hoped so. The Lightning Rod couldn’t have much of a charge left. It wasn’t designed as a weapon even though he had used it as such twice in the past hour.
It was a standoff that Alistair was destined to lose unless he could think of something.
Everybody squinted towards the bright hole in the side of the cave. None of them knew the shape of Lady Luna Ward, but if they did, they’d recognise it easily.
“Luna Ward?” said Alistair. Of course, it was that kind of day.
“Who is this woman?” demanded Morask.
“She’s here to kill me,” said Alistair.
Luna looked stricken. “No no no, my love. We were playing a game, that is all.”
“We are the Blood Moon…” started Morask, but he stopped when Luna held up a silencing hand.
“Quiet if you please,” she said. “This is a moment that you are not part of.”
Morask was furious. “I WILL NOT BE SPOKEN TO THIS WAY,” he shouted. “WE WILL TAKE BACK YOUR CITY AND…” His next words died in his throat when Serenity perched itself on his shoulders, breaking the left one just a little bit.
“Serenity my dear, please kill anybody that speaks if they are not me or my love here.”
Serenity’s eyes flashed green, signifying compliance.
Alistair took a step towards Luna. “Yes, about that. How can you be in love with me if we’ve never met?”
Luna laughed. “Aha, a lady can tell. I saw you, and knew you were the one for me. You visit me in my dreams, you do, and we are together. We laugh, and go places, and we have many children.”
Alistair’s brow creased with the effort of unpacking all this. “So why did you shoot at me?”
“A harmless flirting game,” said Luna. “You know you were not in any real danger, but of course.”
Alistair felt like he was recently in a great amount of danger, and likely still not out of danger. He didn’t know what a pneumothorax was, since he was not a doctor. However, he definitely had one, and it ended the conversation very quickly after he once again lost consciousness.
It was perhaps a day later when Alistair awoke. He had never been inside Ward Manor, but he knew he couldn’t be anywhere else. Doctor Halliday was sitting in the room with him. She was the Chief Cleric for the Church of the Dream of Stars. A middle-aged woman with silver hair and eyes that could cut glass.
“It’s Dr. Halliday I think,” said Elanor Halliday. “We should keep it professional.”
“You’ve treated me so often, I thought we were on a first-name basis.”
“We’re not at that point yet,” said. “You came in pretty banged up though. Dr. Halliday and Dr. Weeks had to assist me, but you will pull through.”
Alistair lay back on the bed. The other Dr. Halliday was the Chief Cleric for the Church of the Ember Sky, and Dr. Weeks held the same rank for the Church of the Flying Cog. He had been treated by all of them, but this was the first time his injuries had required all three.
Alistair was a guest of the Wards for several weeks, though he saw nothing of Luna Ward. Maximilian Ward came to visit him several times, and the engineers spent hours talking about the nature of spark. Max had some crazy ideas, but Alistair enjoyed the discussions.
Over the days, he learned that Luna had convinced the Blood Moon cultists (under pain of Serenity) to carry the remains of the Velocitron to Alistair’s workshop, along with any other detritus that Alistair might have left behind. His workshop had also been upgraded by the Ward family as an apology for nearly killing him and destroying his life’s work.
Alistair felt good about everything. He usually did, but there was one more piece of business before he left Ward Manor.
He had found her in the ballroom. Luna was uncharacteristically morose, but greeted him with some warmth.
“Alistair, my love.” She seemed to want to say more, but he held up a hand.
“I’ve had some time to think about what I want to say, and I need to get through this.” Luna nodded and sat down in a large chair.
“I’ve fallen in love before,” he said. “I know what it’s like, and the worst thing about it is that you never really fall in love with someone. Instead you fall in love with the idea of someone. The person in your head rarely matches the one in real life, and you run the danger of imprinting this stylised version of somebody over the real thing.”
Luna watched him as he took a seat next to her.
“You fell into this trap. I can’t imagine what the Luna version of Alistair is like, but I guarantee you that I don’t match up.”Luna swept a tear from her eye. “My love, I have wronged you.”
Alistair smiled. “Well, I won’t correct you on that point. Trying to kill me was, frankly, the opposite of flirting. I wish you hadn’t done that, but you have a good heart and I forgive you.”
Luna looked at him for the first time since he entered the room. “This is it, I suppose then. I will never see you?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Alistair. “You are…fascinating. I think I would like to know you better, but without all the attempted murder. Let’s start all over, from the beginning.” Luna’s eyebrow went up just a little as he took her hand gently in his.
“Lady Ward, my name is Alistair Gaines. I have never seen a countenance as beautiful as yours. I am a lever looking for a fulcrum, and I would very much enjoy a conversation with you. If not now, I await your convenience.”
They talked for nearly two hours, and during that time Luna did not try to murder Alistair. Not even a little bit.