The Petrologic Engine
By Nyki Blatchley
I pressed myself against the wattle-and-daub wall, hoping the shadow of the many-storeyed roundhouse would hide me from prying eyes. I didn't like being out in daylight, considering how many people might be searching for me, but it was reassuring to feel the pressure of my shardcaster against my chest inside the skin jacket.
I never felt comfortable in a megavillage; give me the forest anytime, herding reindeer and hunting mammoth. A clean life, for all they said we were hunting the giants to extinction. Here, the smoke of a thousand hearth-fires stifled the air as much as the stone-dust that hung over the factories.
I didn't like it, but this was where my contact wanted to meet, and I'd need all the help I could get to fulfil my mission. I scanned the street from my vantage between buildings, watching passers-by. Any of them might be the one I'd been sent to meet, but each went past, head down under the weight of living in this place. A bus rumbled past, its team of aurochs straining against the weight of the wooden structure and the passengers it held.
A prickling in the back of my neck had me swinging round, grabbing the shardcaster, but I held my fire. Only one shadowy figure stood behind me, neither attacking or retreating.
"It's a good moon for the chase," a deep, clear female voice commented.
I hadn't expected a woman, but it was the phrase I'd been waiting for. "The next will be better," I responded.
The figure nodded and moved closer. I lowered the caster, but I let her see it was still ready for use.
"Nice weapon," she commented. "Still, it's the hunter who kills the prey, not the weapon."
"Fair enough." It wouldn't do to let her get me riled. "I've killed my share."
"We'll see." The silhouetted head nodded, and she stepped out of the deeper shadow.
She was young, but old enough to be grown into a mature form. A very mature form that filled out a hunter's skin garb decorated with elaborate engravings. I certainly wasn't unaffected by her, but it wouldn't do to let my guard down.
"You know why I'm here?" I asked.
"Of course." She came closer, moving as if she stalked prey. She wore her auburn hair loose to her shoulders, unlike most megavillage women. "I'm to help you get to the Engine and give you whatever back-up you need. The boss thought I'd look less conspicuous."
Less conspicuous? "How come? That's hardly the latest style around here, is it?"
She snorted, hazel eyes crinkling in humour. "Around here, everyone thinks they know what it means. A lot of men like a huntress, you know."
It took me an instant to get what she meant. It's not that we didn't have the same services at the herding stations, but no such games or dressing up. You accepted the women as they were.
"And they like you like this?"
I wasn't actually sure if that was what she meant, or if it were just a disguise, but she only gave me a lopsided grin. "You can call me Gazelle."
I stopped myself laughing. She might have the grace of a gazelle, but certainly not the delicacy. Still, it was probably a name for this mission only, so it didn't really matter.
"And you can call..." I began, but she put a forefinger onto my lips—a finger too well manicured for a huntress, I noted.
"I don't want to call you anything. Let's just get this done, before something goes wrong."
Was that a trace of unsteadiness in her voice? Probably not, given how cool she looked, though she blinked a lot more than a hunter would.
"Fine with me," I said, shouldering the bag I'd put down while I waited. "Lead the way."
Gazelle took me through the back-alleys of the megavillage till I was thoroughly lost. I could find my way through trackless forests, but the crookedness of this place defeated me. She flitted from shadow to shadow, although no-one was in sight, but took my arm to cross the packed thoroughfares, chattering nonsense until we were back into the alleys.
"Best way to hide in a crowd," she murmured, "is don't hide. Not far now."
As we crossed one of these streets, though, a voice called, "Hey, you!" I forced myself not to turn and look, and the speaker added, "Yes, you. I want to talk to you."
My muscles tensed for flight, but Gazelle squeezed my arm. "No," she whispered, "they're too close. Let me handle this."
My instincts protested, but she was the expert here. I turned slowly, as she did, to find two men facing us, the crossed sashes over their chests and shardcasters worn visibly proclaiming them as justice guards. One was brawny enough that I doubted I could beat him in a fight, but the small, ferret-like man was clearly the dangerous one.
Ferret looked us both over, a sneer on his face. "So, what's a couple of mammoth-chasers doing here. Lost your way?"
Most of my attention was focused on the guards, but I was aware of a space forming around us, the passers-by staring in curiosity and terror. Their expressions seemed to say, It might be me next, but it's someone else today.
"We've just arrived," Gazelle replied, a seductive smile offering but not promising. "We've had enough of life out there. We've heard there's good money to be made in the megavillage."
The two men exchanged smirks. "Depends what you're willing to do, sweetheart," said Ferret. Then his expression tightened. "Then again, maybe you're here to make trouble."
I tensed a little more and had to stop my hand from creeping towards my caster. Had they been tipped off about me?
"Why would we do that?" Gazelle's question sounded so innocent I almost believed her myself.
"You scum are all the same." Ferret spat and turned to his comrade. "Come on, we'll take them in and get the truth out of them."
"Or have some fun, at least," added the big man, leering at Gazelle.
Her expression told me her strategy wasn't working. In the one instant when neither man was looking at me, I pulled out my caster and fired it on repeat at Ferret first, then at the other guard. Both staggered back with half a dozen shards embedded in them.
"Run," I yelled at Gazelle. I grabbed her hand to tug her after me, but she shook it away and set off almost as swiftly as her namesake, leading me into the nearest alley. Yelling died away behind us. I doubted if I'd killed either of the guards, but hopefully they were badly enough hurt not to follow at once.
"In here," snapped Gazelle, her voice steady in spite of the pace at which she ran.
She yanked open a wooden cover, and I followed her down earth-cut steps into a cave below a roundhouse. She shut the cover after us, so that the only light was what seeped through the gaps between its boards, but my hunter's eyes adjusted quickly.
"We'll stay here till we can be sure the chase has died down," Gazelle told me.
"Makes sense," I said. It was frustrating not being able to get to my target straight away, but prey comes to the patient hunter.
We sat in silence for a while, as I gradually made out more of my surroundings. I made out the shapes of a few large pots against one wall, one of them lying broken, but otherwise the place seemed empty.
Gazelle held herself very still, probably listening as I was. A good deal of shouting drifted from far off, and at one point feet pounded along the alley above us. I fingered my caster, but the feet faded into the distance without stopping.
"I thought you were supposed to be inconspicuous," I commented at last.
She turned in my direction, though not looking straight at me. She clearly couldn't see as well as I could.
"I am on my own. You're the one who's conspicuous. You should really have disguised yourself, though I don't suppose you could have convinced anyone you belong to the megavillage, whatever you were wearing." A smile ghosted over her face. "Every movement you make says hunter."
"And so they treat me like that?" I knew some hunters who came to the megavillage to trade. None were close friends, but I didn't recall anyone describing it as quite that dangerous.
She shrugged. "Not necessarily. They treat anyone that way, if they feel like it. Anyone a bit different, anyone who looks at all rebellious. Sometimes for no reason at all. People are taken off the streets, and you never see them again." She lowered her voice. "Some say they go to feed the Engine."
I was glad she couldn't see me shudder.
"So that's why your group was formed?" I asked. "I did wonder. I thought it was only us who were oppressed."
She gave a mirthless laugh. "You think you're oppressed in the forests and the herding stations? Try living in the megavillage a moon or two. You don't know how lucky you are."
"Like my brother?" I snapped, before I could stop myself.
"Your brother?" Her voice sounded suddenly younger, more innocent.
I hesitated. I'd had no intention of letting Gazelle know anything about me, but I'd already said too much for that.
"He was a herder. They attacked his station for not providing enough meat. Big attack—stoneguards, death-gourds and everything—no-one stood a chance."
"He was killed?" Still the tentative, childlike tone.
"Taken." I swallowed. "Brought here. Maybe given to the Engine, as you said."
"I'm sorry." She began to reach out her hand, then withdraw it; she probably thought I hadn't seen. "I assumed you were just...well, a professional."
"Since then, I am." I didn't want to discuss this any more. "Do you think it's clear outside?"
She was silent a moment, listening. "I think so. We can risk it."
We came out into the open from the alleys we'd been threading to another huge space, this one surrounded by towering roundhouses. Just a few dozen paces ahead, a wooden palisade rose at least four times my height, curving away to surround most of the clearing. Now the fun started. I had no idea how we were going to get inside: that was supposed to be Gazelle's job.
"Everything's arranged," she murmured, as if I'd spoken aloud. "Our people have prepared an opening. Follow me."
Feeling exposed, I trailed behind her as she moved up close to the fence and started to work her way around. There were bound to be stoneguards inside, but would any be patrolling out here? I'd never seen one close up, let alone had to fight one, but I wouldn't fancy my chances, from what I'd heard.
Nevertheless, it was vital to destroy what lay inside—or at least damage it, if destruction wasn't possible. The villages and the forest had maintained balance—hostile at times, but essentially stable—for generations, but it was different now. Megavillages were spreading everywhere, encroaching even on the forests, and stoneguards were seizing control of more and more herding stations. Like my brother's. It would only be a matter of time before only deep-forest hunters would be free of slavery.
We'd assumed at first that this was the old rivalry taken to extreme, but intelligence suggested, as Gazelle had confirmed, that citizens of the megavillages, too, were oppressed and enslaved. Then we'd managed to contact a resistance group here, in the capital, and they'd agreed to help us in an attempt to stop the growth, or at least wound it.
"Here." Gazelle's voice was barely audible, and she knelt, drawing a knife of sharpened, polished ivory that she inserted between two stakes of the fence to lever a section open. "Follow me in. And keep quiet."
I was tempted to point out who was the trained hunter here, but that would give the lie to my own words. Of course I'd be quiet, just as I would be closing in on my prey.
On the other side of the fence, a green bank rose steeply to just above head-height, and we slithered up it, lifting eye-level just above the rim. The slope fell away on the far side to a flat, grassy expanse surrounded by the bank. Dotted all over the plain stood vast menhirs, some of them being dragged along trenches by straining teams of aurochs, the drivers lashing them on. One of the larger stones, near the centre, had a pair of mammoths tugging at it.
Around and between the stones stalked stiff-legged figures carved from grey rock: the stoneguards.
"So there it is," Gazelle whispered in my ear. Her warm breath on my cheek could have been a distraction, but the sight before me was impressive enough to hold my attention. "The Petrologic Engine. What do you think?"
"It's an abomination," I murmured, but it was as much to convince me as her. The flow of earth energy, more than I'd ever experienced, made hairs stand up all over me. Whatever its use, I felt a little overawed at a marvel that could change the nature of the world.
"Of course." She shrugged. "What an abomination, though."
Knowing what she meant, I let that go. "The question is, what do we target to put it out of action?"
"The big one, of course." I could hear the laughter even in her faint whisper. "Size matters, after all."
That made sense. As far as our intelligence could make out, the Engine was constructed where two powerful ley-lines crossed, and the positions of the stones directed the earth energy into patterns that could provide answers to impossible questions and control tools throughout the megavillage and far beyond.
The big one she referred to was slightly off centre and clearly fixed, since it had no trench to be dragged along. This must be the one our informant had called the central lithoid, which coordinated the whole complex.
"So what are you going to do?" asked Gazelle. "Huff and puff?"
"Better than that." I swung the hide bag off my shoulder and opened it, carefully drawing out the object inside.
For the first time, her eyes widened. "That's a death-gourd," she breathed. "I thought only the council of elders made those. No-one else even knows how they work."
"We do." Tempted as I was to brag to this woman who again seemed less self-assured, as in the cave, I didn't know enough about Gazelle to give away our secrets. "Just leave it at that."
She frowned, examining the dried gourd. "So how is it going to help? I've seen these things in use." She shuddered. "They kill a lot of people, but that's not what we want."
"We think it'll damage the stone, at least. At best, shatter it."
Baffled and wondering as she was, with wide eyes and on the edge of fear, Gazelle looked more like her namesake than before. I just hoped our assumptions would be justified. The gourd was filled with the crystals from the mountain quarry dedicated to their production for the megavillage government's stockpile. We'd liberated a large quantity from a convoy and been able to make our own death-gourds.
Any strong impact resulted in the crystals bursting out into fire and wind, and the hundreds of tiny flint shards mixed in with them could cause widespread injury. Our tests had shown that they could split a rock in half, but it was still a gamble that the same would happen to the central lithoid. A gamble worth taking, though.
"So..." Gazelle frowned, glancing from the stone to the gourd and back. "What are you going to do? Throw it?"
"It needs to be placed just right." I examined the great stone as I spoke, trying to identify the right place. "Then it depends whether my shooting's as good as it should be."
"This..." I pointed to the pebble plugging a small hole in the gourd. "This has to be made to strike...what's inside. Best way to do that from a safe distance is with a shardcaster."
She raised an eyebrow which eloquently questioned whether I could really expect to hit the target, but all she said was, "So we need to wait till no-one's too near the stone or our route to it. Fair enough. And afterwards?"
"Well, disrupting the Engine should disorientate the stoneguards at least. Maybe put them out of action. And hopefully we can get out in the confusion."
"Hopefully?" She frowned. "Why don't I like the sound of that?"
A flash of anger stabbed me. "It's dangerous, obviously, but not suicidal. You want to go back?"
An impudent urchin's grin replaced the frown. "And miss the fun?"
It seemed the opportunity would never arrive, amid the comings and goings of the operators with their teams of beasts, and the stoneguards wandering the area. They'd be difficult to elude here, despite their lumbering gait. The way we were taught to give a stoneguard the slip was to keep it moving till it had to recharge its earth energy. Here, with the power crackling around the Engine, that would be a long time coming.
Then..."There!" Gazelle breathed, an instant before I could speak, and we were both up and over the bank, running for the central lithoid. Shouts came before we were halfway there, and I was aware of all the stoneguards in the place turning to converge on us.
The nearest operator abandoned his aurochs team and ran towards us, fumbling for a shardcaster that hung from his belt. Yanking my own out with my free hand, I sent half a dozen flints into his face and throat before he could draw. The man collapsed to his knees, scrabbling at the shards embedded in him.
"Go!" shouted Gazelle. "I'll cover you."
There was only time for a nod of appreciation as I sprinted for the menhir, whose grey, grainy surface towered far above my head. I knelt and placed the gourd carefully at its foot, in the spot I'd picked from the bank.
A shadow fell across me, and I turned to see a stoneguard reaching down, the blank granite where its face should be seeming to glare. I tried to twist under its grasp to get away, but a stone hand came down hard on my shoulder, trapping me.
I was dead for sure, but maybe...I made a lunge for the gourd, ready to slam the pebble in with my hand, but the guard's other hand fell on me, yanking me to my feet. I was surrounded by three of the stone creatures when a man came panting up, his elaborately tooled belt proclaiming him the manager.
"Don't kill him," he snapped at the stoneguards. "I want him alive. For now."
He turned away without waiting to check that the creatures had understood. Perhaps it was unthinkable that they hadn't. "Bring him with me," he added without looking back.
I managed to glance around as the stoneguards hustled me along after their boss. I was half expecting to see Gazelle lying dead, or else a prisoner too, but she was nowhere to be seen. So much for covering me. She must have bolted as soon as it looked hopeless. Unless...
What did I really know about Gazelle? She said she was from the resistance, and she had the phrase, but the council of elders could have got hold of that. Perhaps I'd been led straight into a trap.
Not that I could do anything about it. The guards halted, and I found myself facing a stone I hadn't seen before: a level slab, about four feet high, covered with dark stains I wished I didn't recognise. What had Gazelle said about people—maybe including my brother—being given to the Engine? Was I going to join them?
"What's this?" I demanded. It would do no good, but I might as well let him know he couldn't scare me. Even if I wasn't entirely convinced of that myself.
"Our input to the energy-flow." His expression was distant and distasteful. "Your blood will help the Engine run more smoothly. Ironic, I think."
I struggled to stop myself shuddering, from more than fear for my life. Everyone knew that blood could strengthen earth energy, but equally everyone knew the corruption it caused, too. If they'd been regularly running this thing on blood...Well, perhaps that explained a lot.
"Tie him down," the man told the guards.
I struggled against the stone hands, naturally, but I was like a baby in their grasp. My sinews were about to snap as they pushed me down to the slab and fastened hide cords around my hands and feet.
The manager moved up to stand beside me, an obsidian knife in his hand. He raised it.
"Don't you have to recite some mumbo-jumbo?" I demanded, hoping I'd put all the contempt I felt into the question.
He raised his eyebrows. "It's your blood I want—some ingredient of it, at least. I'm a scientist, not a magician."
The knife started down, and I gritted my teeth, trying to prepare for the death-blow. A gasp, and the manager staggered back, clutching at his throat.
Whipping my head around, I found Gazelle, a few paces away, lowering her shardcaster. For a moment she met my eyes, and I thought she was going to come and free me. Instead, she turned and ran for the central lithoid. The guards pursued her, but she was still ahead when, only a couple of paces away, she raised the caster again and fired repeatedly at the gourd.
The roar was louder than a herd of mammoth, and the flare blinded me for an instant. When I could see again through the flashes in my eyes, Gazelle was face-down on the ground, arms covering her head, and a stoneguard was closing on her.
"Look out!" I yelled. I was about to add more, but what I saw dried the words in my throat.
Flipping over, Gazelle also saw the vast stone, at least five times my height, toppling towards her as the guard's arm rose to strike. Instantly, she dived under the creature's grasp, rolling several time out of the path of the central lithoid.
The guard only had time to turn after her before the stone crashed down onto its head. Both shattered.
Gazelle was on her feet in a single movement. I could see blood coming from several wounds, but it didn't slow her down as she ran over to me. I looked around at what the remaining stoneguards were doing, but they stood motionless. As I'd hoped, they were linked in some way to the Engine.
Her ivory knife made short work of my bonds. She helped me off the slab, and it was only when I was holding onto her that I realised she was shaking. Several of her wounds had shards embedded in them, though none looked too bad.
"Your wounds. I need to remove those shards, and..."
"Later," she snapped. "Right now, we need to get out of here."
Looking around, I saw she was right. Although the stoneguards were out of actions, several of the operators were running in our direction. At least two had shardcasters out.
"Race you to the fence," she suggested.
I could have outpaced her, wounded as she was, but I stayed back and helped her through the opening before we careered into the alleys of the megavillage. We finally stopped when I was thoroughly lost from the twisting and turning.
Gazelle pressed herself against me, making a noise somewhere between gasping and laughter. "We did it."
"You did," I told her. "But I need to get those shards out and bind your wounds."
She nodded. "There's a safe place we can go, not far from here. We need somewhere to lie low, before it's safe for you to get out of the megavillage."
"And you. They might have seen you."
She snorted, though it sounded painful. "They saw a huntress. I can be other people, too." The urchin grin returned. "Maybe you'd like to meet some of them."
"I...I think I would." My body seemed even more sure of that, and I hugged her.
She winced. "When it's a bit less painful. Come on, now."
Taking my hand, she led me away through the alleys.
About the Author
Nyki Blatchley graduated from Keele University in English and Greek and now lives near London. He's had about forty stories in publications such as Penumbra, Lore, Wily Writers and The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. His novel At An Uncertain Hour was published by StoneGarden.net in April 2009, and he’s had novellas published by Musa Publishing and Fox & Raven, among others. For more information on Nyki and his writing, please visit http://www.nykiblatchley.co.uk/