Augusta was at the door again. Lucas could tell because her hissing, whirring and clanking were far easier to hear in his new Kuuvian office.
The office was very clean and furnished with gorgeous earthen tones. It was starkly different from home. He wasn’t sure how long he should wait before leaving his newfound operations in Falinnbannao, Kuu. Not before they replaced the door that Phinneus, from the Order, destroyed. Though, they must have by now. No, he was enjoying his visit overseas.
Exactly three knocks, as always, sounded on this office’s door.
“Very good Augusta, let them in!” Lucas called.
The door swung open, and following the fanciful automaton were a rag-tag band of mercenaries from the airship Gazelle. Lucas was wary of hiring another bounty hunter, but he had no choice and these three were assigned by Queen Dahlberg herself.
“Good evening,” Lucas offered his hand.
The captain shook with him, “Alexander Nolan, at your service, Mr. Buford. This is my partner Rilain and the guy on my shoulder is Franklin.”
“I’m glad you could come.”
“I received a letter from the Queen; she said it was a matter important to the people of Falinnbannao, but never mentioned what it meant to you,” Nolan led the conversation.
“Captain, I’m involved in this because this town’s well-being is literally my business.
About a month into operations began here, workers started to disappear. One by one, they would just... not show up. I’d had the production manager follow up and check on their families, but they said they hadn’t seen the either.
I’m going to be frank, the police have nothing, and I’m not qualified to be hunting down a serial kidnapper.”
From the corner of his eye he could see the Nakalo fiddling with his bookshelf, thumbing through them. Growing up with royalty, their prejudices were well ingrained.
“And could your demon, please stop touching my things!?”
Rilain didn’t take to the slur quietly. She’d been pushed around every time she’d been to this icy nation and it was starting to cut deeper each time.
“Call me a demon again,” she gritted her teeth, ” and you're going to need to replace the other arm.”
“Our help, our rules,” Nolan chuckled.
The air was tense. The little octopus, Franklin, squeaked a few times.
“I agree, little buddy,” Nolan turned to Lucas, “I’m going to shake down some locals.”
The mercenaries were heading for the door when Lucas gestured to hold on.
“Wait. We’ve started on the wrong foot. This is my money paying you, and my people you’re about to harass. They’ve had enough trouble lately. Your reputation precedes you, no matter what the Queen thinks. I can’t have you roughing anyone up just yet. I implore you.”
“And what do you propose we do, then?” Nolan a little miffed. He forgot that being Antifordian, Buford had, more than likely, heard of him.
“Take it easy, get your bearings, reconnaissance. I’m prepared to pay your stay at the Dansen Inn since we’re so far from the docks. We’ll reconvene for afternoon tea and I can answer any more questions you have.”
Alexander looked over at his partner who was giving him an eye and began speaking again still focused on her, “They got booze?”
“There’s a pub two blocks uptown.”
The captain smirked, “See you tomorrow, Buford.”
And with that, the crew left his office. He didn’t know how he managed to get through any social interaction with Arazian folk without harm. Perhaps Kuu was a better place to be.
That evening, Lucas went through his usual routine of checking up on the production floor manager to see if any new employees had gone missing. He trusted the manager most of all. She was your typical antler-implant thick-skinned artist type and, in fact, employee #2 here in Kuu. As much as Lucas tried to get her to come to the design side of things, she always refused him, preferring to manage.
"Morning, Elin. How are things?"
"I thought we'd had enough of the disappearances, sir, but..." she held the base of her antlers in agony as she did when not feeling well, "they got Geoff."
"I'm going to lose it, sir. I've got barely enough people for an automaton a month. More than that, I'm not sure I can take the stress and worry."
"Okay. I'm going to do what's best Elin. Shut it all down."
"But sir!" this was not the reaction she expected and she was in an anxious panic.
Lucas grabbed her shoulder, "I'll pay everyone as if working; I've got some people who will stop the disappearances; I need you to go home and take care of yourself."
It was not a fun thing to do, and he knew money would run out soon if he didn't get the first shipment from Falinnbannao out the door before winter.
He went home, flipped through his mail. Another invitation from the Kuuvian Automaton Science League for the fireplace. Lucas's partner on the decision engine, Lars Attridge, specifically warned him about that group. There were two schools of Automatry, and Lucas was in the one creating real products, the League was in the other.
More worries. Lucas had several pots brewed for him before his mind would calm to let him rest.
Alexander moseyed into the pub. It was a quieter place than he'd imagined, but what with all the disappearances, the mood was probably sombered a bit. He found a spot at the bar and got a stiff drink known as Squid-Ale. Franklin hopped onto the counter and insisted he get him a glass as well.
"And a shot of whiskey for my friend down here, would you?"
He figured the only thing to do was to listen in to the locals and soak up miscellaneous information. When on a vague job, any tangential bit of trivia could be what wins or loses a fight or the whole gig, even. The blokes next to him were having a particularly slurred conversation.
"So then I says she better wear the arm-band or ought not come hom' aga'n."
"Oh, ya? Don't you think you.. err... overboard?"
"Stuff it. You've got to look at the big picture. That Queen too damn young, and we all have to pay for the naivety. It's all robots and balls, and little respect for the traditions of us average gents."
A couple chairs from the back moved.
"Hey, shut it about the Queen!"
"Or what?" the first drunkard taunted.
The bartender spoke the first Nolan had heard, "Stop it, Vagn. You knew better, too, Greg. Politics, religion, and bad sailing. I'll have none of those in my pub, nor fighting, and you know it."
"I got better things to do anyways."
The man knew his place, paid up, and stumbled out of the bar
Long into the night, Rilain left her partner to drink himself to sleep. She was too angry to go to bed and was trying to get some productive hunting in while she was here, again.
Rilain decided to run the treetops in this area. It was even prettier than the coastal regions they'd visited before. Everything in the area surrounding Falinnbannao was vertically inclined. If she was going to find anything interesting, it wouldn't be by sticking to the bottom of it all.
A few odd catches helped her work out her frustrations, it really was a good land for hunting. While skinning her prey, she saw smoke in the distance...
The next morning, they met for tea at Lucas's house. None of them looked well rested, except little Franklin
Lucas began with the formalities. "Good morning. I hope you all had pleasant evenings."
Nolan was about to speak up when Rilain interrupted him, "Are they going to do that religious stuff in the woods every night? I can't picture getting any hunting done with all that smoke."
"Religious stuff?" Lucas asked, confused.
"There was a bunch of hooded figures in the woods dancing and praying to a cave or something. It freaked me out."
"That's not a normal group of people here," Lucas looked both annoyed and worried.
Nolan's curiosity piqued, "Who are they?"
"They're known as Geovikkans, not something you admit to being a part of. While as Kuu mythology is about keeping beasts at bay, these cultists worship the monsters. Nasty folk. They've a thinly-veiled political party too that gives the Queen no end of stink. They harassed me when I first got here, saying my technology was the antithesis of tradition and such."
"And there are plenty of those types living in this town, right?"
Lucas thought for a moment and his brain sparked, "You don't think-"
"It's a start." Nolan said.
"Okay, well I believe we should make a quick trip to a friend's."
They took a quick walk down to a house nestled in the roots of the gigantic yew tree the whole town was built around. Lucas felt awful about visiting his friend Elin, since he sent her home so she could stop worrying about all this.
Elin answered the door with a smile, "Lucas!"
They hugged a moment and after straightening himself out he began, "I think you can help us find the missing."
"Oh gosh. come in, then. I've just put the water on."
They entered the hovel. It was packed with bric-a-brac, knick-knacks and both odds and ends. Canvases were strewn throughout, half-finished paintings of landscapes and people on them.
Lucas sat down comfortably, leaving the Gazelle crew to stand about awkwardly.
"I'm sorry to bother you," Lucas apologized.
Elin came in with a tea set from the other room, "No, not at all. I'll rest easier if I can help you."
Everyone began to sip from the cups she graciously handed out.
Rilain couldn't take her eyes off of Elin's antlers, "You've got a handkerchief on your antlers."
"Oh thank you, dear," she thanked her and took the cloth off of her head, "Must have fallen when I bumped my head on the closet."
Rilain was neither used to appreciative people nor antlers.
Lucas smiled and got to business, "We suspect we could be dealing with Geovikkans. I know we've been lenient about politics at work, but I want to know if you've seen any of the guys wear the Streka armbands or whatnot."
"Sure, there's a couple of guys who were trying to push pamphlets after their shifts on the other workers. I know for a fact that Jon Gadil and Grim Orrdanson are. They always have that Geovikkan book in their lockers."
Nolan looked at Lucas, "We've got it from here, then."
"Thank you, I'll try and pour through town records for anything tonight."
Lucas stayed behind to finish tea with Elin, and the others got to work. Alexander would interrogate Jon, and Rilain decided to follow Grim to see if he might lead them to the kidnapped townspeople.
Alexander made his way up the stairways in the town center to Mr. Gadil's house. It looked more like an Antifordian home than one from this town.
There was no stag symbol anywhere on the house, typically a good-luck ornament. It was drag, grey, dreary.
"Looks like a pleasant guy." he said to Franklin who squeaked in reply, "No I don't think we should burn it."
They walked down the path and knocked on the door.
A handsome, youthful man answered the door, coffee in hand, "Hello? I don't think we've met before."
"No, you wouldn't have."
"Can I help you?" the man asked, confused by this stranger at his door and the incessant squeaking the short-limbed octopus on his shoulder was now spouting.
"Shut up!" Alexander had enough of Franklin's suggestions, "As a matter of fact you can."
Nolan pushed the man inside, shut the door, and pulled his gun to his head.
"Yes, why are y—"
"I'm asking the questions here. You aware your co-workers have been disappearing?"
"Yes, how could I not."
"Enjoy going for walks in the woods, say, at night, Mr. Gadil?"
The man stared angrily at him.
"Next question, if a man like you wanted to survive this encounter, where would he say I could look for his missing co-workers?"
Gadil became hostile, "You're wasting your time, fool. The infinite ones are coming and there's not a thing you can do about it. The Queen will get hers as will you all."
Nolan shot a hole in his ear, "You son of a goblin, start saying things I want to hear or I might not miss next time."
"Go ahead. My work can be finished by others," he was laughing like a mad man, "You're too late to stop us."
Nolan grabbed some matches, busted Gadil's knees, and lit the furniture on fire.
He turned to his octopus as he left the house, "Happy?"
Rilain relaxed on the roof of Orrdanson's house. The trees in the town made it easy be be anywhere you like. More importantly, it allowed her to remain out of sight while she followed him.
Grim stepped out of his home in a long, fancy coat and headed downtown. Rilain jumped to her feet and began running above him. The suspect made a few trips to the funeral home before disappearing into the library.
He didn't leave the library for quite some time, so Rilain began thumbing through her own book. She sat on a bench across the street and watched the door from time to time, but it would be hours before he'd come back out. Odd, to be sure.
The group met up with Lucas the next day.
"My guy was talking something about infinite ones attacking everyone," Nolan reported "He was really crazy. Made it sound like whatever they were working at, they were almost done."
"That's not good news," Lucas remarked, concerned.
"Grim definitely went into the woods the other night. I recognize his fancy coat," Rilain explained, "but he spent most of yesterday at the library. It was weird, like, a very long time."
Lucas was hit with a realization. "That's interesting. I was looking over financial records and news articles, and the library's been the target of a lot of donations this past year."
"It looked pretty old to me," Rilain countered.
"That's what's odd.I think we're going to need to check out that library."
And so, they spent the day in the library, looking for anyone suspicious, especially Grim, to lead them to some kind of information. They took out books and studied the place up and down to no avail.
When they were about ready to leave, Lucas went and found Captain Nolan chatting with the receptionist.
"Ready to leave?" Lucas asked.
"Sure, let's grab Rilain."
However, she was nowhere to be found. They retraced their steps and found nothing.
Lucas met back up with Nolan, "Let's try the annex."
Through a small archway and catwalk, there was a part of the library filled with periodicals. Franklin hopped onto one of the shelves and ran about the shelves. Lucas was looking at the ornate floor tiles. Franklin began to sqeak.
Nolan replied to his friend, "Well no one's perfect, perhaps someone put it back in the wrong spot."
"Hey, there's blood here," Lucas exclaimed.
Nolan looked over, "It's weird though, it's a perfect ring. It's as if-"
"I think you might be onto something. there's a crack here, possibly a secret entrance."
Nolan turned to Franklin, "Hey, what was the date of the missing newspaper?"
A volley of squeaks returned.
"Hey Buford, anything special about that day, 40th of Skia 1891? It's the missing newspaper on the shelf."
"Um... geez. Let me see if I can't find the date in the magazines."
Skimming the magazines, he noticed it was missing there too, "Captain, it's missing over here too, but there's a pull switch in here!"
"Yup, in here, too." Nolan grabbed the paper before the switch.
"Well, the magazine before is talking about Hanna's coronation."
"Here too, must be the day she was crowned..." Nolan thought about the things he'd heard around town, "That makes sense! Those cult guys hate the Queen, right?"
"Guess so, even ripping her out of history for their secrets."
And so, they found all the periodicals in the annex missing the date and pulled out the switches. The floor clicked several times and the moon in the center depressed and swung inward revealing a spiral stairwell leading below. The two climbed down, following the trail of blood.
The stairs led them down to an eerie and cold subterranean corridor with statues of Geovik's deities. The trail of blood was spotty, like the struggle was over and people were just bleeding in dribbles. Obscenities, the likes of which Lucas wouldn't ever repeat, could be heard from the next room.
In the next room, they caught some cultists trying to throw a kicking and screaming Rilain into the aquarium that was the entire length of the far wall. It was filled with dangerous-looking squid and octopi, so her worries were more than just about getting wet.
Nolan got right into the fray and in one motion both pushed the men away from Rilain and cut her bindings free.
Lucas took out a whistle and called for Bob, who was waiting outside the building. While the fight was finishing up, Bob stumbled his way over to them.
"Took him long enough," Rilain remarked, panting from all her fighting.
"Well," Lucas offered, "he should be good if there's more of those guys to fight."
They ran through the cavernous corridors until happening upon a window to a huge room with a magnificent beast statue and piles of coffins. Several men were moving prisoners into the caskets.
Alexander was mortified, "That's sick, man... Hey, isn't that the court jester? how the hell did he get here?"
They turned around, and neither Lucas, nor Bob were to be found.
"I thought they were right behind us."
Rilain wasn't too beat up about it, only shrugging.
They ran down until they made their way downstairs to the large room. Most of the coffins were gone, but the cultists were still there. After some fine jib-jab by the crew, Bob came barreling in, throwing about several cultists with each wild swing.
Nolan was impressed, "Crap, that thing's useful."
Franklin squeaked, but only Alexander would ever know what he said.
When he turned around, Rilain was standing on a pile of bloody robes, blades in her hands. A cultist behind Bob ran through a wooden door at the corner of the room and she darted forward after him. The remaining cultists were too much for them, so Nolan threw a grenade behind the gigantic statue of Pyygdra. It came slamming down upon the cultists in the brutal way you never imagine crushed people shouldn't look.
Nolan popped a few coffins open and instructed them to open the others with him so he could catch up.
Rilain followed the cultist into what appeared to be the funeral home. Several of the furnaces were roaring and one in particular was noising off.
"Help!" a muffled voice beckoned.
She opened up the furnace to find Lucas lit on fire. She began to slide him out.
"Oh thank goodness, a demon to save me from hellfire!"
She started to slide him back in, her vein bursting with anger.
"I'm sorry, Please, please! Aaaaaaaa-"
She pulled him back out, letting him roll onto the floor and cool off a bit. Nolan walked in.
"Oh, good. You've found him."
Lucas lifted his charred mechanical hand to say something, but dropped his hand again to reserve energy.
Rilain looked around. "Where's Grim? I didn't see him in the other room."
Lucas mumbled something. Franklin hopped down and let Alexander know what he was saying.
They chased after Grim, Lucas slung on Bob's shoulders. It led them down to the cavern where Rilain first saw the cultists assemble.
"Don't move a damn muscle!" Nolan threatened, holding his pistol high.
Rilain raised her daggers, "Where you running, Grim?"
"Go ahead. Send me home, wretched ignorants," Grim responded.
Lucas sounded better when he next spoke, "Don't. He welcomes death. We'll be so much safer with him alive for police interrogation."
Nolan mumbled something about never letting an employer accompany them again.
Grim drew an elaborate knife and threw it at Rilain while she was putting her blade away. Nolan jumped in front of her and took the full brunt of it’s attack. It left his arm hanging off his torso by short threads. He roared in pain.
Rilain gripped her blade tight, screamed, and jumped at Grim, holding him with the other. They tumbled a bit and struggled, rolling down into the cave. The rest of them followed to find a ton of equipment and parts from the Buford Co's shop floor along with some bones.
"What did you expect to find?" Grim rambled as he gave into his new captor's hold, kneeling while Rilain stood.
It was true, they'd been at this disappearing act for months. It was just a surprise for Lucas to see all the equipment as well. This is why he couldn't get a single automaton built. Was this all because he'd come to this poor town?
The group all reconvened at the hospital in Hiemskôg, where Lucas and Nolan both were recovering.
Lucas smiled at the crew. "So, they've found most of the people alive now. Everyone living and dead is accounted for thanks to the interrogations."
Nolan looked over without moving his torso. "Don't mention it."
"And, not that you guys care, but I've been able to ship my first automaton. Everyone's back to work thanks to you guys"—Lucas turned to Rilain—"thanks for saving both of us Rilain."
Rilain smirked. "Thank goodness. Someone calling me by my name in this country."
"I'm dismissed tomorrow morning. I've had your payment put on your ship. Mostly money, some pelts and atlases I hope will help you in your travels."
They all just stood a moment, breathing. All were recovering in their own way from the ordeal.
"Would you guys consider taking a job again, if I need the help here or back in Antiford?" Lucas asked.
Franklin scuttled around Nolan's bed and squeaked casually.
Nolan pointed at the octopus with his good arm. "What he said."