“They’re coming for us, Colin. You know that, don’t you?” Bekka’s ancient voice was a tight thing full of gravel and distant memory. But that voice was muffled now by the power plant compartment of her latest mekanik, a fifteen-foot-tall suite of armor. Her legs dangled out of it, making it appear as if the belly of the thing had swallowed the upper half of her thin, wiry frame. Standing upon a rickety ladder, she poked her head up from under gleaming, bronze cowl and stared at Colin with a steely gaze that could stop even the village elders in their tracks when she raised an eyebrow like she was doing now. “Spanner,” she added as she reached out her arm. She wore a brown, leather coverall, and her spindly hand seemed to sprout out of a stained, woolen shirt like a dead twig from dry earth.
Colin McLeer turned his green eyes away from Dian—short for Dian Cecht—perched on the windowsill and almost invisible against the dark night outside. Dian was Bekka’s giant raven—and confidant, some said—and had been with her as long as anyone could remember. Colin shaded his eyes from the bright, electric lights hanging from the ceiling as he spoke. They, like the rest of the lights in Geevagh, were powered by Bekka’s generator. “But Fian said that the discussions with the Zylet ambassador went well.” Colin handed her the spanner. He held her gaze, a thing he did often with her, which was one of the reasons she had chosen him as her apprentice… but certainly not the most important one. “He said that he was close to reaching an accord with them.” Colin’s intelligent, green eyes searched Bekka’s wrinkled, wizened gray ones, and Bekka had to hold back a smile. She adjusted the bright lamp attached to her goggles, lowered the magnifying lenses and ducked beneath the cowl once again.
“Heh!” she snorted from inside the beast. “When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know when your enemy is biding time… which is exactly what that two-faced, tome-thumper is doing with young Fian.” Colin smiled at her use of the word young to describe Fian. While it was true that Fian was the youngest of the village Elders, he was in his sixties and as silver-haired as the rest.
“What did the Zylet’s do to Clan Kilney and their keep down south?” she shot with venom from within the metal beast.
“They burned half of-” Colin started.
“And what did they do to Gooding’s Hold and his people in the east?” Bekka’s voice was calm but held within it a barely contained combination of rage and disgust.
“Their mekaniks leveled most of–”
“Exactly!” she shouted. Colin heard her grunting as she tightened a bolt deep within the power plant.
“But we’ve got three times the number of soldiers here in Geevagh than Gooding did, plus we have a half-dozen of your mekaniks. Fian says they wouldn’t dare attack us.”
“I have no doubt the Kilneys and Gooding said the same thing. All it bought them is burned homes and shallow graves. All in the name of a god that wasn’t theirs. I said as much to Fian, but the arrogant fool just shook his head and smiled at me… at ME.”
Nearly everyone in the village treated Bekka with deep respect, for she had been old when the elders were children. However, the resentment between her and Fian was well known, for she had found him wanting when he tried to become her apprentice as a boy. Rumor had it that she had been silver when the Elders were children. Rumors also abounded about how old she was, but no one ever had the courage to ask her, not even Colin at his most brazen. In truth, everyone was more afraid of the answer than they were curious about discovering the truth.
Bekka extricated herself from beneath the cowl and stood up straight, perched like a crow atop the ladder. She leaned back, a bit dangerously for Colin’s comfort, and gazed up at the gleaming, bronze face of her creation. A satisfied, almost wicked grin split her ancient face as she took in the details she had carved into the molten metal when she created the helm.
Her other mekaniks had been simple suits of armor, powered by steam and aether, each capable of carrying a man within and carrying semi-automatic canons on each arm that could wreak havoc with foot soldiers, cavalry and other mekaniks. This one had originally been a standard design, nothing more than an addition to their defense forces. But something in Bekka had changed when the Zylet Ambassador arrived in Geevagh two weeks before. As was her privilege, she’d sat in on the Elder meeting with the Ambassador. Upon returning to her shop, she immediately began working on modifications to the great machine, telling Colin only that this one needed to be something different… something special.
“Get up there and slip into the cockpit,” Bekka ordered. She turned to Colin and motioned with her head for him to climb up the back of the beast. Colin stared up and examined in the face of the metal monster. The face was a grimace of fury, much more detailed in design than the plain, metal helms of Bekka’s other mekaniks. The face snarled around a mouth full of golden fangs, and rather than the pair of eyes like the others, this one had a large, single lens of dull crimson. Flaring out from the temples were two great horns that spiraled back in long curves.
“Is it ready for a test drive?” he asked. Colin had taken the past three mekaniks out for their maiden runs, ever since he’d become her apprentice.
“Drive?” she asked. “No. Not yet. This one is different. Its power source is neither steam nor aether. Now get up there.” She gave him the smile that meant discussion was over.
Colin raised an eyebrow, wondering what would power the great machine, but he’d been with Bekka long enough to know when she would not answer any more questions. He nodded his head and moved around the floor of the workshop to the mounting steps, careful to avoid tripping over the various gears, plates of steel and bronze, and other equipment that littered Bekka’s otherwise spartan workshop. He also had to step over Dagda and Ogma, Bekka’s two giant, Irish wolfhounds who habitually slept at their master’s feet, no matter where she might be working.
He clambered up the steps and grabbed the steel crossbar mounted across the shoulders, which allowed a driver to lift his legs and slide into the dark, interior of the machine. He grunted once, pulled up and then slid his legs inside. As they slid in, Colin noticed immediately that the fit was snug against his tanned leather pants, not tight, but close enough to his body to make him wonder. The other mekaniks had been a loose fit, designed for the burly soldiers who normally drove them. Additionally, the normal levers for controlling the machine were gone. He assumed that Bekka simply had not yet installed them.
“Bekka, are you sure you got the measurements right? It’s tight in here,” he called from within. He stared out through the narrow, forward port and could see the top of Bekka’s head below him. He heard Bekka’s dry, laughter.
“Then I got the measurements right, young apprentice,” she cackled. “This one is for you.”
“Me?” Colin asked, bewildered. His voice sounded hollow and nervous inside the cockpit.
“That’s right. If things go the way I think they will, then you’re the only one I can trust with this.”
Colin suddenly felt giddy and nervous all at once. He’d never been good at soldiering. He was small for his seventeen years, and thin, prone more to scholarly studies than combat. He’d been a good student to Bekka over the years, learning everything there was to know about their history. He’d studied everything from the Tuatha Dé Danann of the ancient past through the first and second ages of man. He’d learned from her of the great blight that wiped out most of humanity, and the wars that followed, and of two hundred years of peace as what was left of humankind reverted back to smaller clusters of villages, towns and a more agrarian style of living.
Bekka had always said that he was her best student, and he could to recite back to her the names, dates and places of every significant historical event for the past six thousand years of man’s history. She’d told him that his knowledge of the Celts was approaching her own, and that she was starting to forget some of what she had learned over the decades.
“Does Fian know what you’re planning with this mekanik?” Colin asked.
“Fian is a fool, and he’s going to get us all killed if we don’t do something about it,” Bekka said flatly. “Does the cockpit fit?”
“Yes, Bekka. It does, but I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay. You will. We may make a soldier out of you yet,” Bekka added, and she started laughing quietly as Colin heard her start scrambling up the front of the machine.
“Soldier?” Colin yelped. “You haven’t even mounted the canons on the arms yet!”
“Don’t you worry about that. When the time comes, you’ll find that it won’t be a problem. Now hop on out of there. I have a task for you.”
Colin climbed out and carefully made his way down the steps. As he looked up he saw Bekka fiddling with a catch at the neck of the machine. With a final twist, the beast’s head split across the top, and with a hissing sound a small, spherical housing the size of a man’s head rose out of the compartment on rigid, brass pistons. Bekka reached up and pulled out the spherical casing.
“Catch!” she said and dropped it down to Colin. He barely caught it in time, straining with the heavy metal casing. The brass was cold to the touch, colder than it should have been, as if it had been set out on a wintry day. It had brackets beneath that would allow it to fit snugly in its housing, and there were sockets in the bottom that would plug into power couplings. It also had an iris built into the front that appeared to have a mechanical actuator in the side.
“What is it?” Colin asked, having never seen anything like it.
“It will hold the heart of the machine. See that latch on the back?” she asked.
Colin did, and the rear half of the casing opened like metal mouth. “There’s nothing inside,” he said, more confused than before.
“Exactly. That’s your task. It will be dangerous, and you’ll have to dive deeper than you ever have before.”
“The power source is at the bottom of Loch na Súil.”
“Loch na Súil?” Colin blurted, his mouth dropping open and his eyes going wide. “But that’s supposed to be where-”
“Exactly. And we’re going to harness it… you and I… to defeat an enemy of the Celts. Ironic, don’t you think?”
“Is that possible? I thought it was all just legend… mythos.” Colin knew the legend well. Bekka had hammered into him the tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann more than any other part of history. The old Celtic legends were the foundation of how the people of Geevagh lived. After the Great Blight tore through humanity and the aftermath of violence that further depleted its numbers, many of the survivors of Sligo County had gathered and rebuilt life without the influences of the Hebrew god, his son, his prophets and the greed and the violence that seemed to always go hand-in-hand with them.
“Everything is possible, Colin. Never forget that. It’s merely an application of time, knowledge and endeavor. With those three, everything is possible. Now go, gather supplies and your biggest backpack,” she ordered. “And don’t let anyone get the idea you’re leaving. I’ll gather the gear and meet you at the crossing just north of town.”
“Yes, Bekka.” Colin set the casing on the workbench, turned and picked his way across the cluttered floor towards the door. He was startled as it burst open.
“Bekka!” Captain Braden Byrne shouted as he rushed in. Captain Byrne led the squad of mekaniks and had been Bekka’s apprentice before joining the guard. Like Colin, he placed his allegiance with Bekka above nearly all other things. He stepped past Colin, giving the boy a curt, respectful nod. Like the other men of the mekanik squad, Byrne stood over two meters tall, muscle stretched taught over his soldier’s frame. He wore the gray leather and brass-plated armor of the squad, with the silver wolf pack insignia gleaming on his chest. At his hip he carried a sidearm of Bekka’s design that harnessed aether to magnetically accelerate copper slugs to a high velocity.
“What is it, Braden?” Bekka’s tone was worried, but the look in her eyes belied a suspicion of what the news had to be. She began making her way down the ladder, and Braden rushed to her, helping her down from the ladder. “A rider just came in from Leitrim!” he blurted. “He said that the Zylet army was on the move and heading this way.”
“I want you to tell me everything,” Bekka said quietly. Turning her gaze to Colin, she said, “Go and do as said. It seems we have less time than I thought.”
Colin nodded and stepped out into the cool night air.
“And Colin,” Bekka called. He stopped and turned in the doorway. “It may be an hour or more before I can meet you at the crossroads.”
He nodded once again, closed the door quietly behind him and started jogging through the cobbled streets of Geevagh. His guts churned with worry over the news Captain Byrne carried. The streets were empty and his way awash in the bright light of a full moon hanging low in the sky, for the village turned down the electric streetlamps during the late hours of the night to conserve energy. As Colin made his way through the village, he wondered if the wooden homes and shops of Geevagh would suffer the same fate as those of Clan Kilney and Gooding Hold. He passed a pair soldiers as they made their rounds through town, nodding to each, although they paid him little attention. Colin and Byrne shared a sense of camaraderie, but the rest of the village treated Bekka’s latest apprentice with as much distance as they had the others over the years.
As he passed the barracks in the middle of town, he spotted six mekaniks lined up outside the building, their golden hulls gleaming in the pale moonlight. A prayer to Nuada passed Colin’s lips, hoping for strength and victory in battle against the Zylets, if it came to that.
He reached his home, opening the iron gate and moving as quietly as he could around the back. Removing his shoes, he crept up the back stairs that led to his small room built into the attic of his adoptive parent’s small cottage. It took him only a few minutes to change out of his dusty workshop clothes and into his leather breeches and shirt. The leather felt cool against his body but would protect him against the chill air of the forests and glens between Geevagh and Loch na Súil. He quickly gathered his backpack, waterskin, and a long dirk that slipped easily into the back of his belt. Then, with a quick look around to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, he quietly went back down the steps and entered the house thorough the back door. In the kitchen he grabbed a loaf of the bread his mother had made that morning and slipped that into the pack. The pack went over his shoulders, and he went out the back.
He came around the corner of the house and spotted a full squad of soldiers jogging down the street in their glinting brass armor and leather uniforms, heading south in a tight group. Colin ducked back into the darkness and watched them go by. Full squads marching through the streets was unusual in Geevagh, and Colin suspected that the word had already gone out for the Geevagh regulars to muster at the barracks. Colin moved back behind the house, making his way from alley to alley as stealthily as he could, moving northwest towards the crossroads. It took him thirty minutes to reach the edge of town, and he was certain no one had seen him. Another ten minutes found him at the crossroads where he settled in amidst a cluster of bushes beneath a large oak tree. He pulled out the loaf and pulled off a chunk, nibbling it slowly to assuage his hunger. As he waited he pondered what might happen to Geevagh and the people there, fighting to keep his eyes open as fatigue took him.
* * *
Colin was deep in a dream where he stood before a great red sun that filled the sky and burned everything beneath it. The clatter of a wagon startled him out of the dream, and he sat up rubbing tired eyes. The wagon came to a halt just beyond the bushes. Colin silently pushed several branches aside and saw Bekka there, staring at him. Dian Cecht, perched on her shoulder, stared at him as well with unblinking yellow eyes.
“Come,” was all Bekka said, and her tone was something Colin had never heard from her before—worry. She sat upon one of the great wagons used to transport damaged mekaniks, and she held the reins of two great oxen in her scrawny hands. Colin could just see the chest of the beast above the lip of the wagon, covered by a large tarp. Bekka had changed from her work clothes to a suit of leather he had never seen before. It looked ancient, even in the moonlight, and it was made of the deepest green. He could make out the tracings of leaves etched into the leather. The distinct outline of a dragon’s tail wrapped around the sleeve of her outstretched arm, and the dragon’s head drooped over her left shoulder. The armor was extremely loose on her wiry frame, looking far too big for such a scrawny, old woman, but Colin found himself thinking that it looked perfectly natural on her, as if she’d always worn it.
He slipped the loaf back in his pack and stepped out into the bright moonlight. He heard a rustling in the bushes behind him and instinctively reached for his dirk. Two massive, dark gray muzzles poked through the bushes, followed by the rest of Bekka’s two wolfhounds. They stood almost four feet at the shoulder, and Colin realized suddenly that facing them would be pointless with a dirk, or even a sword.
“We couldn’t ask for a better escort,” Bekka said as Colin turned and climbed up into the seat next to her. “I can take you another kilometer towards Loch na Súil, then I must turn south.” Colin settled in as Bekka shook the reins. The oxen moved with a start, and the wagon rolled off down the cobbled road.
“What did Captain Byrne say?” Colin asked when the silence had grown thick enough to cut.
“What I expected,” Bekka snapped. “The Zylet ambassador got wind of the Leitrim rider and delivered an ultimatum to Fian. Either we capitulate to them and their god, or they roll in and do to us what they did to the others.” Bekka shook her head. “Not again,” she said under her breath, but it was loud enough for Colin to hear. She turned to him and her eyes were imploring. “I’ve seen this too many times, Colin. Too many.” She pulled on the reins, and the oxen came to a slow, clattering stop. “I’ve got the breather gear in this bag.” She nodded to a cloth bag between her feet. “I know it’s heavy, but you’ll have to carry it all the way to the loch. She reached behind the seat and grunted as she pulled out a long, heavy rod with a mechanical claw on the end. The shaft was two meters of brass with a leather strap, a handle and a lever on one end. There was a reticulated claw on the other end that looked big enough to grip a man’s head. “Here, you’ll need this grappler. Do not try and hold the power source in your hands, whatever you do. Bring the casing to the bottom with you, and place the power source inside before returning to the surface.”
“How do you know the power source is down there?” Colin asked as he took the grappler from her and leaned it against the back seat.
“I’ve always known, Colin. I can feel it… pulsing down there in the darkness.”
He turned and stared at her, but she kept her eyes on the road. Thoughts of how old she really was danced at the edge of his reason, the possibilities stretching his young mind to its limits.
“But how will I find it?”
Bekka reached into a cloth bag at her feet and pulled out a rectangular box the size of her hand. “I made this.” She handed it to him, and he examined the thing closely. It appeared to be made of copper, its smooth casing covered by runes Colin couldn’t identify, despite all of Bekka’s teachings. In the center of the device was a glass lens about six centimeters in diameter. Inside lay a silver needle glowing with its own inner light, swaying left and right as he moved.
“It will lead you right to it, Colin.”
“How does it work?” His curiosity got the better of him.
Bekka hesitated for a moment, pondering her words very carefully.
“Magic.” She gave him a mischievous little smile that he took to mean she was joking and either didn’t intend to share the secret or lacked sufficient time. “Place the breather gear and that housing in your pack,” she added, straining to push the heavy bag between her feet. “You can use the grappler as a walking stick. Don’t worry, you can’t break it.”
Colin grabbed the sack, hefted it to his side and began transferring the equipment into his backpack. Once everything was inside, he secured the cover. “Where shall I meet you?”
“Carrowmore. I’ll be hiding in the cave and finishing up my work on the mekanik. I still have some modifications to make.”
“But Carrowmore is south of Geevagh. Will you be safe if the Zylet troops come?”
“Don’t worry. They’ll never see me. I’m more worried about you. You’ll need to be extra careful when you come back south. ”
“I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“And leave everything behind except the housing and power source inside. If you live through this, you can come back and get everything later.” He nodded to her. “And Colin…” Bekka turned to him and grasped his shoulders, looking deeply into his eyes. “You can’t fail. This is the most important thing you’ve ever done. You’re the only one I trust to do it.” She released his shoulders and smiled at him. “Now get going.”
“I won’t let you down,” he assured her. Without another word he hopped down from the wagon and strained to sling the heavy backpack over his shoulders. He grunted as it settled into place, and he suddenly wondered if he could make it to Loch na Súil. Walking around the oxen, he stepped onto the verdant, green turf of the Irish countryside and set off towards his goal.
“Luck, Colin,” Bekka shouted.
He turned and stared at her in the moonlight. “You too!”
Bekka shook the reins, and he watched the ox team turn the wagon around, heading cross-country in the general direction of Carrowmore. Dagda and Ogma ranged out to the left and right of the wagon, disappearing into the moonlight and spotty underbrush that dotted the landscape. With a leap, the great raven Dian Cecht leapt from her shoulder and sailed up into the sky on broad, black wings, circling lazily around the wagon as it trundled southward.
Colin shrugged his shoulders to ease the pain as the straps cut deeply into his flesh and bone. The heavy gear strapped to his back weighted over a hundred pounds. It was thirteen kilometers miles to Loch na Súil, and it would be another eight from where he stood to get to Carrowmore. On the trip south he would only burdened with the housing and power source, but that didn’t make him feel any better. He took a heavy step towards the loch, and then another. And another. The weight tore at him, testing his body with the strain and his mind with doubts of his ability to complete his journey. But he’d given his word to Bekka, and deep down he had to believe that it would be enough.
One kilometer became two. Two dragged out into three. With each step his body ached just a little bit more, and his legs burned. He was grateful for the grappler, for despite its weight it helped him keep his feet. The moon traced its way across the sky, and soon the east faded from black to gray to rouge. Colin’s legs were agony beneath him, nothing more than two blazing pillars that threatened to fold with each step. His arms had grown numb, and he could barely move the grappler forward as he walked. It was devotion that buoyed him, his devotion to Bekka, and his sense of duty to the people of Geevagh kept his arms and legs moving when his will tottered on the brink of giving up.
The sun rose and finally perched upon the horizon, its glow hazy through blanketing mists that covered the countryside. Colin got his bearings and discovered that he was only a quarter-mile from Loch na Súil. He dared not rest for fear of not being able to get up again. He spotted a hedgerow to the north that would lead him directly to the loch. He grew warm as the sun rose, and sweat poured from him in rivulets that soaked into his leathers. He dreaded the blisters he knew he would find on his shoulders and feet when he reached the loch.
The hedgerow bent north, and just beyond the bend lay his goal. Sunlight bathed the countryside in deep and pale greens alike, but the surface of Loch na Súil was nearly black, its surface as smooth as a mirror.
Colin collapsed upon the shoreline, crying out in pain as his legs finally buckled beneath him. Shrugging left and right on his back, he pried his shoulders out from the straps that had dug trenches into his flesh, wincing with each movement. Fatigue beat against him, but devotion and duty helped him maintain consciousness. Rolling over, he got to his knees and emptied his backpack. The loaf, crushed beneath the weight of the equipment, beckoned to him, and he tore into it like a starving wolf into flesh. The waterskin found its way into his hands next, and he gulped again and again, nearly emptying it.
With his belly full, he found his strength somewhat renewed and rose to his feet. Kicking off his boots, gasping as blisters on the bottoms of his feet were scraped and torn, he quickly pulled his leather shirt and pants off. His shoulders were raw where the straps had pressed into him, and a line of torn and bloody blisters dotted his flesh on each side. He bent over to pick up the breathing apparatus, and his legs betrayed him, dropping him to the ground. With a mumbled curse and then a prayer to Nuada for strength, he stood again. The breather was a gleaming half-sphere of polished metal nearly the size of his back, and its underside matched the contour of his back. A storage sack dangled down each side of the breather for when Colin would gather oysters and crabs. Bekka had a taste for both, and they were the reason she had invented the thing.
Two finely sewn leather sheaths poked out of the top of the breather, one on each side, and Colin knew that their interior was comprised of layered cow intestine, one sheath inside the next, and each layer been cured and lubricated with specially treated oils. Both tubes connected to a facemask made of glass, copper and leather that allowed the wearer to breathe underwater. The facemask also had glowlamps on each side that allowed some visibility in dark or murky water.
Colin hefted the breather, groaning as his neck, back and legs all protested at once, and slid it over his shoulders. His skin screamed in pain as the straps settled into place. He picked up the casing and slipped that into the left-hand storage sack. Ignoring the pain, he reached around and grabbed the facemask. He set it over his face, pulling tight the two leather straps at the back. As he breathed, air came from the breather through the in-tube, and exhaling sent it out through the other. Colin didn’t know what was inside the thing, but it allowed him to spend up to an hour underwater, essentially breathing his own recycled air.
He struggled to lean over and not fall again as he picked up the grappler and the pointing device. Checking the device, he saw that it was pointing directly to the center of Loch na Súil. Then something occurred to him. He turned the device on his side and gasped as the needle dipped downward, indicating that the power source lay deep within the small loch. A quick estimate placed id least seventy feet below the surface, and fear gripped him like a noose. He could only hope that the power source wasn’t buried under so much silt that he would not be able to get to it… and that he was going to be able to get back out again.
Sighing and praying for just a little bit of luck, he strode towards the water and waded into the chill murkiness of Loch na Súil, gasping as cold water washed over his bare skin. As his head went beneath the surface, his breathing grew fast, almost as if he was gasping, but after a few strides he drew slow, steady breaths and proceeded deeper into the loch. The water was only slightly murky, although his feet and the grappler stirred up great plumes of mud from the bottom, and the bottom sloped more quickly than other lochs he had been in. There seemed to be a curve to it, almost as if it were shaped like a great, muddy funnel. As he descended, the water grew inky black and colder. He could just make out the silver needle in the murk if he held it up to the faceplate, but beyond that he was blind.
Deeper he went, further and further away from the shoreline. He estimated he was forty feet beneath the surface when the mud beneath his feet grew firm and the incline increased. He started to feel something like a current, a pulsing sensation made of heat, not water. The temperature suddenly rose, and another forty feet found him walking upon a solid surface, the muck no longer squeezing between his toes. He could feel jagged cracks beneath his feet, as if he walked upon an open plain of sun-baked mud. The incline had grown so steep that he could barely keep from sliding, and the water grew hotter with each step. Through the murk he could now see a hazy, red glow coming from below, like a red iris set in an eye of hazy ink, and the portent of that image was not lost upon Colin, who knew the history of the power source well. He could now hear a hissing sound coming through the water, faintly at first but growing in volume as he advanced.
The water around him was hot now, almost unbearable, and the surface beneath his feet was steep enough that another step would send him sliding to the bottom. A fierce, ruddy glow came up at him from about fifteen feet below, turning the water and silt around him to the color of blood, and the hissing sound pressed against his ears, as if a blacksmith had dropped hot iron into a bucket, but the iron refused to cool. He slipped the pointing device into the right-hand sack and pulled out the casing. The metal felt even colder in his hands now that he was immersed in hot water, and the runes wrapped around the metal appeared to be glowing with a pale inner light. At first he thought it was a trick of his eyes, but when he held the casing close to his face, the lettering was much brighter than the metal. As he watched, fascinated, realizing that the inner light was pulsing faintly and doing so in a precise rhythm with the heat pulsing across his body from the power source.
The heat was starting to get to Colin, and he would have to drop into the pit at the bottom of the lake in order to get the power source. Fear that he would not be able to stand the temperature of the water when he reached the bottom filled his thoughts, but he had little choice. Resolved to move as quickly as possible, he tightened one hand around the grappler and clutched the housing to his chest with the other. He stepped forward and let the weight carry him to the bottom. The temperature of the water became unbearable, and he clenched his teeth with the pain. As he touched the bottom his skin felt as if it was being scalded. The light was nearly blinding now, as if someone had dropped a miniature, red sun into the bottom of Loch na Súil, and the hissing filled his ears. Colin quickly worked the latch on the casing, and the back opened up with a brief burst of bubbles. He set the casing on the smooth, hard bottom of the lake before him and angled the grappler towards the bright, hissing sun that filled his world.
His hands started to burn as the grappler closed around the orb. He clenched his teeth tighter and tried to ignore the pain. Stepping back, he moved the orb over the casing and released the grappler. The orb settled into the interior of the casing, and as it did so, the housing slowly closed of its own accord. As the doors closed on the orb, the runes covering the casing flashed once in blinding bluish white, and then they settled in to a bright pulsing of cool blue. Darkness folded in around Colin, and the heat immediately started to ease.
As his eyes started to adjust, the two glowlamps and the light from the casing shed enough light to see by. Colin slid the casing into the store-sack and starting clawing his way up the steep, smooth side of the pit. He had to hammer at the side with the grappler, breaking it away like baked clay. He dug out a hole big enough for his foot, stepped up into it and work the next hole. It only took six of these to get up far enough that he could walk out.
Exhaustion beat upon Colin as he finally made it to dry land, and he collapsed in a heap, gasping. His skin was still ruddy, and his hands had started to blister from the heat of the water.
“No rest for the weary,” he said quietly as he did his best to focus his strength. Colin stripped off the breathing apparatus, left the grappler where it lay and put his leathers back on. It took him a few minutes to eat the rest of the bread and finish the water. Finally, looking south, he stood up and started off at as fast a pace as he could manage. He had slung the store-sack over his shoulder, and the chill of the casing soothed his skin as it bounced against his back in time with his stride.
Freed of the weight he had carried on his hike north, Colin felt somewhat renewed, and the miles slid beneath him. His legs were not as sore, presumably as a result of being submerged in the hot water. The sun was warm above him, and the green of the Ireland stretched out in every direction. The sights and smells refreshed him, and for a short while Colin drifted away from his pain, from his worry for Bekka and Geevagh and the people that lived there. He simply enjoyed the beauty of creation that surrounded him as he walked from glade to forest to glade. He had come about sixteen kilometers, leaving Geevagh behind him and to the east when he spotted a column of black smoke and his ears picked up the dull thumps of artillery. The smoke rose to the southeast of his path towards Carrowmore, and through it he saw the shapes of two armored airships in Zylet colors that appeared to be firing cannons towards the ground. He didn’t want to waste any time by changing his course, but fear for Captain Byrne and the other soldiers ate at him.
The forest that bordered Carrowmore came into view, and Colin hastened his pace. The cave was only a kilometer away, and the trees swallowed him as he entered the cool, green shade of oaks and underbrush. Colin picked his way through the forest, and the green hillside of Carrowmore rose up to his left. Through the trees Colin spotted the black husk of a mighty oak struck by lightning decades before. It marked the entrance to Carrowmore, a pair of stony caves that cut into an otherwise green hillside. A short distance from the hillside Colin spotted Bekka’s wagon. But as he drew closer, there was something wrong with the hillside beyond the tree. The caves were gone. All he could see was turf and shrubs covering where the cave entrances should be.
As he came around the burned oak, his attention focused on the hillside, he almost walked right into a Zylet scout sitting in front of a small campfire. The man turned and they looked at each other with surprised faces.
“Well, look what the good Lord has delivered unto me,” the man said a bit wickedly. “They said folks from Geevagh might come here to hide.” The man cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes at Colin. “I don’t suppose you know where the Carrowmore caves are supposed to be, do you? It would save me a great deal of trouble.”
Colin shook his head slowly, fear stealing away his voice.
“Well,” the scout said, “I supposed I can pry it out of the next one to come by. It matters not. We’ll be sending the lot of you to those pagan gods of yours.”
Colin, terrified, thought about running, but he knew he wouldn’t get far. Besides, his duty to Bekka still held sway. He reached behind his back and slowly pulled his dirk, knowing full well that he had little chance of beating a trained soldier of the Zylet army.
“That anxious to die, are you?” The solder asked. He patted the strange looking sidearm at his right hip. “It would be easier to just shoot you where you stand. But I’ve been bored all morning and wouldn’t mind a little exercise.” His hand crossed to his other hip and pulled out a heavily curved saber. “Try and put up a good fight, will you?”
Two dark gray shadows passed through the hillside, as if the earth had spat them out, and a low, thundering growl came from both as they crashed into the soldier. Dagda latched his massive jaws around the man’s hand, and the saber went flying. Ogma went for his throat, and all three went down in a massive tangle of limbs and fur. The scout never even had a chance to scream. He flailed his arms and legs helplessly as the two wolfhounds torn into him, and then he lay still. All Colin could do was stare open mouthed.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the hillside start to shimmer and melt away before his eyes. He turned to see Bekka walking out through the fading illusion. She stood before the two open cave entrances and smiled at Colin. “Like I said, we couldn’t ask for a better escort.”
“What-” Colin managed. “How-”
“It’s time you knew the truth, Colin. Come inside.” Bekka turned and walked back into the caves. As she did, the air shimmered once again, and the illusion of the hillside reappeared. Colin could only stare. First Dagda released the scout and disappeared through the illusory hillside. Ogma followed.
Colin took a few furtive steps and then pressed his foot against what looked like solid earth. His foot disappeared through it. He took a few more steps, watching his feet and legs disappear before his eyes. Then he strode through, almost leaping the last bit. The inside of the cave, illuminated by torches every ten feet or so, stretched out before him. He followed the cave back about fifty feet into the first open area and saw the glinting hull of the beast, its dull, gold metal reflecting torchlight.
Bekka stood before a fire, and suspended above it she had a wide, intricately etched silver bowl dangling between three copper rods that met above in a tripod configuration. The water inside the bowl boiled fiercely, and she dropped leaves of some kind into it that turned to smoke as they touched the roiling water.
She did not turn as she spoke.
“I am the exile Bé Chuille. I have also been known as Becuille and Bé Chuma over the millennia. I’ve loved Eogan Inbir and Gaidiar and Conn of the Hundred Battles and even his son Art mac Cuinn. I slew the witch Carman when the Greek civilization was in its infancy. I was there when Lugh used his mighty spear of light to bring down the bastard Fomorian, Balor, whose evil eye you now carry with you. I am six thousand years old, Colin. And I’m tired.”
Colin was dumbstruck. His head reeled, and his legs felt weak beneath him.
“It’s not possible.”
“I told you. Everything is possible.” Bé Chuille, last daughter of the line of Tuatha de Danann, turned to Colin and gazed at him with eyes that glowed like white suns. “The Tuatha de Danann were a mighty people once, their punishments equally mighty. Cursed was I for my infidelity, at least I thought it was a curse at the time. I was left alive after they had all passed into memory… left alive for this day. Our heritage must be protected, Colin.”
“From extinction.” Bekka held out her hand and looked at the sack in Colin’s hands. He handed it over, and she quickly pulled out the casing, its runes still glowing brightly with a faint pulsing. She turned towards the mekanik before them and whispered a few words Colin did not understand. She held the casing before her in outstretched hands. The casing lifted up from her grasp and silently floated up towards the open helm of the mekanik. It rotated mid-air and lowered slowly into the housing designed for it. As it settled into place, the housing lowered with the faint whirring of gears and a release of pressure. Then the back of the helmet closed. The entire mekanik flashed with ruby light. Colin briefly saw runes covering the machine from head to toe, but they faded quickly, leaving only the dull, golden glow of the armor plating. The cave was suddenly filled with a dull thrumming sound, a pulsing that made his bones tremble. “You are the steward of our legacy, Colin. You are the last of the true Tuatha de Danann and the direct descendant of Manannán mac Lir. The time has come for me to leave this place.”
“Go?” Colin asked, suddenly very frightened. “You can’t leave. You still have so much to teach me.”
“I’m tired, Colin. I must go. But don’t worry. I’ll be leaving something behind for you. Now get on up there. I need you inside for the last step of the ritual.”
“But-” Colin started.
“Go!” Bekka cut him off. “We’re running out of time. Dian Cecht tells me that our forces have taken heavy losses and are in grave trouble.”
Colin nodded, his sense of duty to Bekka ever-present. He dashed upon aching legs towards the beast, climbed up its legs, and scurried over the back. With his arm muscles screaming in protest, he grabbed hold of the crossbar across its shoulders and slid inside the machine. There still were no levers to control the mekanik, but the panel within was now illuminated, small indicator bulbs showing the steady green state of working joints and an active power source. He pressed a button on the left side of the panel, and the back of the mekanik closed with the sound of hissing pistons, followed by a clang-thunk as the metal sealed behind him.
Bekka stood on the far side of the silver bowl, the water within it boiling even more fiercely. She reached into a pouch at her waist and pulled out a glowing amber jewel. She began chanting again, and a white glow enshrouded her body. It pulsed with the tempo of a heartbeat, growing brighter and brighter with each passing second. As Colin watched, Bekka’s features shifted with each pulse, her appearance morphing from a haggard old crone to that of a young, beautiful woman. She stood straight now and filled out her emerald armor. Bekka lifted her hand and placed the jewel above the water, leaving it floating in mid-air as she drew back her hand. Steam began rising towards the jewel and was drawn into it. Then the light that surrounded Bekka began doing the same, drifting away from her body like steam to be sucked into the jewel that now glowed like a tiny sun. The seconds ticked by, and Bekka began to fade out of existence, her form slowly drifting from sight as the jewel grew impossibly brighter. And in the instant when Bekka was no longer visible, the jewel erupted with a pulse of light and a thunderclap that shook the cavern walls. A beam of light shot from it and pierced the center of the mekanik, bathing it and Colin in light that hurt his eyes. Warmth filled him… and knowledge. All of his fatigue was swept away like mist in a strong wind. Bekka’s six thousand years of memory flowed into him, and in an instant he understood it all, knew the full history of the Tuatha de Danann as one who had been there.
Suddenly he was aware of three other minds, that of Dagda, Ogma and Dian Cecht. They were connected to him, and he realized that they too were extensions of the Tuatha De Danann, created by Bekka as guardians. He saw the battle through Dian Cecht’s eyes as the great raven circled above. It was a mass of flame and smoke and screaming men. Captain Byrne’s squad of mekaniks lay scattered and in ruin, several of them still on fire, and Colin could see a full battalion of Zylet troops regrouping behind a line of fifteen smaller mekaniks covered in the white and red of the Zylet guard. They had four kilometers to get to Geevagh, and Colin was three kilometers behind their rear formations.
He needed to move, but he didn’t know how to operate a machine without control levers.
Will it, a voice whispered in his mind, so he did.
He willed the machine to take a step, and it did. Then he willed another… and another.
Colin strode out of Carrowmore into the forest, the massive metal feet of the beast thudding into the turf below him. The mekanik was now an extension of him, his movements becoming those of the beast. He broke into a jog, something most mekaniks couldn’t accomplish, and began chewing up the distance between him and the Zylet army. He pushed his limits, and the machine obeyed his will, running faster and faster until the green hill of Carrowmore was far behind and the open forests and fields of Sligo county stretched before him. It didn’t take long for him to cross the battlefield. He saw hundreds of dead soldiers, all in Geevagh uniforms, and then ran through the shattered formation of Captain Byrne’s squad. Tears filled Colin’s eyes, and a fury rose within him… a fury that needed an outlet.
Harder he pushed the great machine, and faster it ran. He passed through a thick copse of trees and spotted three armored airships floating about seventy meters above the ground and a half-kilometer distant.
Open the eye.
It was Bekka’s voice that spoke in his head, but not Bekka’s mind. It was only her memories floating up from within and guiding him, but he did as the voice said. He willed the iris set in the face of the machine to open. The beast’s head tilted upward, and Colin could see the first warship in his mind’s eye. The iris opened, and the air hissed as a ruby beam of light cut through the space between the beast and its prey. It pierced the armored hull of the airship and sliced through the vessel like a razor through flesh. Colon swept the beam sideways into another airship, and then the third. All three were in flames before the first shattered hull hit the ground and exploded. Colin closed the iris and kept running. He heard horns blowing as he ran, and then he saw troops come running out of a dense grove of oaks at the far side of a wide field. They charged towards him on foot and horseback. Seconds later a dozen Zylet mekaniks broke through the trees and opened fire with canons mounted on their arms and shoulders.
Shells erupted around Colin, sending turf and shrapnel clattering across his armor.
Let them come, the voice insisted.
The distance shortened between the beast and the Zylet forces. Shots from the mekaniks and troops began clanging off his armor.
They cannot harm you. Stop here and wait till they’re all in sight.
Mekaniks and men swarmed towards the beast as it stood motionless in the middle of the field. A holocaust burned around Colin, the air thick with flame and earth and lead, and it sounded as if he stood within a hailstorm that hammered at the metal skin that encased him. Dian Cecht showed him that the Zylet army had flowed completely into the field, quickly moving to surround him.
Six massive concussions from Zylet cannons hammered into the beast, forcing Colin back several steps and spinning him around. The heavy armor of a Zylet mekanik crashed into him, forcing him onto his back. Another metal body crashed on top, and another. He heard and felt them hammering at his metal skin, and the green lights for his right arm went amber then red. Fear gripped Colin, and he couldn’t move.
With strength he didn’t know he possessed, Colin roared from within the armor and lurched to his feet, sending the three mekaniks sailing away from him. He pivoted on his feet and spun the helm around to take in where the biggest concentrations of Zylet mekaniks and troops stood.
Just at the edge of the trees where the Zylet army had entered the field stood an intricately decorated mekanik twice the size of the others. It was covered with gold and silver filigree, and a bas-relief carving of an old, bearded man’s face adorned the chest. The helm was decorated with a large cross made of glittering rubies and outlined in sapphires. A thick circle of troops flanked by six armored, steam-driven catapults surrounded their armored leader, and they were advancing in a tight formation. The catapults launched black spheres that smoked as they sailed through the air. They exploded when they impacted upon the beast and the turf around it. The air turned to flame, and Colin heard the men around him begin screaming. A glow enshrouded the beast and Colin strode forward through the flame. The Zylet commander’s mekanik came into view as Colin stepped out from the flame, his hull glowing like the sun as he stood before them.
Colin opened the iris and loosed the fury of Balor’s ancient eye upon the enemy commander’s mekanik. The beam hammered into the machine with a clap of thunder and burned through it like so much paper. Then the machine exploded as its powerplant overloaded and pent-up steam pressure was released in a single burst. The men around it went flying, and three of the enemy catapults were caught by shrapnel, tearing them to pieces and flipping them over.
Colin swept the beast’s head back and forth, rending great furrows through the earth and cutting man and machine apart like a great, red scythe cutting through wheat. Dozens of Zylet men were cut down with each pass, and the vehicles exploded when the beam cut through them.
Colin lurched again as one of the Zylet mekaniks hammered into him from behind. He reached back with his working arm and grabbed the mekanik by its shoulder. He squeezed and felt metal fold under his grasp. He pulled the mekanik over his shoulder and slammed it into the ground twenty feet in front of him. The iris opened, and Balor’s eye burned into it, cutting through metal and man, forcing another gout of earth skyward.
Pass after pass of Balor’s eye decimated the Zylet army. They started to run for their lives, but Colin thought only of the men and women cut down by the Zylet army and its religious crusade. He thought of Captain Byrne and the squad, of the people of Clan Kilney and Gooding’s Hold. He thought of what would have happened if the Zylet army had reached Geevagh. Mercy was as far from Colin’s heart as was the sun. And Colin, through Balor’s eye, burned like a sun. It was over in minutes, and when Colin was finished, the beast was an iris set in the eye of Zylet corpses and burning wreckage.
Colin scanned the field one last time, looking for survivors, for he was determined to ensure there weren’t any. He saw no movement upon the field, so he set off towards Geevagh at a jog. It was another kilometer, and as he passed through a thick line of oaks, his village came into view. The southern edge of the village had been fortified. Men shouted as Colin appeared at the edge of the tree line, and people scrambled for cover.
Dian Cecht flew over the defensive line, and Colin saw the people of Geevagh huddling behind overturned wagons and hastily built emplacements. Several steam-powered catapults were in position, and the villagers were armed with a peasant’s assortment of weapons, anything from shotguns and hunting rifles to swords and pitchforks.
These people would have been slaughtered by the Zylets had Bekka not given Colin the beast. Colin stood there wondering at how many other villages, how many other innocents had or would suffer at the hands of the crusading Zylet king. As Colin pondered his future, pondered what he felt he must do, the red lights for his damaged arm turned yellow then green.
“It can repair itself,” Colin whispered in awe.
Dian Cecht landed on Colin’s shoulder, and both Dagda and Ogma strode up and sat before the great machine, staring up at its occupant.
His decision made, and the armor whole once again, Colin turned the beast south and began his march towards the Zylet capital to ensure the future of his people.
[At an early age Quincy had the intention of becoming an author. Unfortunately, he was waylaid by bandits armed with the age-old addage, “So you wanna be a starving artist the rest of your life?” As a result he ended up a slave to the IT grind for 17 years, maintaining his sanity with motorcycles and music.
He’s been published in a number of anthologies, a few magazines and one omnibus. He has a new short story coming out in Tales of the Talisman in summer/fall of 2012. His steampunk version of Rumpelstiltskin is under contract with Fairy Punk Studios, and his novel Chemical Burn — a finalist in the Rocky Mountain Writers Association Colorado Gold Writing Contest — was published in June of 2012. His new novel Lady’s Blues, will be ready for sale this summer with the sequels not far behind.
You can follow his blog at www.quincyallen.com or friend him up on FaceBook under Quincy J Allen.]