A Hellion House Short Story
Not all monsters dwell in the woods.
The mages of the Conclave have questions—dangerous ones that put airship pilot Gideon Fletcher and his sister, Miranda, in the midst of an inquisition for illegal magic.
The Fletchers live in an elegant world of gentlemen’s clubs and Society balls, but their claim to fame is making daring rescues in the perilous Outlands. It’s all fun and monsters until they save a man wanted by the Conclave, and the mages turn their suspicions toward Gideon’s family.
Their scrutiny brings a new kind of peril. Little does Gideon know his sisters have much to hide. Trouble has arrived for the Fletchers, and it clearly means to stay.
For those who like steampunk adventure with a touch of magic—not to mention conspiracy, monsters, airships, and an adorable baby dragon.
“If we don’t find the wreck soon, we’ll be obliged to turn back,” Norton Fletcher said.
Gideon glanced at the sky, calculating the remaining daylight. His father was right. No one risked traveling outside the city after dark. “That would be certain death for the crew of the wreck.”
“But not for us.” Fletcher’s face was rigid. “Don’t get caught up in the emotion of these missions. It’s a quick way to die.”
Gideon gave a low laugh to hide his resentment. His father never let go of his impulse to instruct his grown son. “I have compassion.”
“A waste of energy. Everything breaks and everything mends,” Fletcher said. “Live long enough, and you’ll understand.”
“Do you truly believe that?” Gideon asked, heat creeping into his words.READ MORE
“Yes,” his father replied, “and no. It’s what old men tell themselves to stop the ache of fear in their bellies.”
The words were terse, a bitter blend of the flippant and the true. Questions crowded Gideon’s mind, but Fletcher’s expression closed like a door banging shut, the Dragonfly’s captain replacing his father. Not that the difference was pronounced on most days.
Gideon studied his father, who stood at the pilot’s station with feet planted wide and back ramrod straight. Fletcher wasn’t a large man, but his stocky figure and lined features, weathered by decades of sun and wind, made Gideon think of petrified oak. As Fletcher eased a lever forward, the Dragonfly dipped closer to the river, twin propellers thwop-thwopping through the mist. Autumn fog trailed ghostly fingers around the dirigible as if the mist meant to snatch it from the sky.
A flare had gone up two hours ago, according to the report of the watchmen who scanned the forest from the great towers that flanked the city gates. Fletcher Industries—one of the premier airship firms in the city—kept half-a-dozen rescue crafts on standby, but the last week had been busy. When word arrived, only the Dragonfly was docked at the airfield and the crews were shorthanded. Norton Fletcher—owner, designer, and still one of the best pilots in the sky—had taken the job himself. Of course, Gideon went with him. He was heir to the Fletcher empire and familiar with the day-to-day operations, but he still took pleasure in watching his father work. Or he had. As the afternoon wore on, that first thrill had darkened to anxiety. So far, they hadn’t found any trace of the wreck.
Gideon peered over the edge of the gondola, estimating the distance to the dense treetops. Ash, birch, oak, chestnut, and the occasional conifer grew in a lush tangle. This area between settlements was called the Outlands. After the population fled the countryside, nature had thrown a party. The result was the beautiful but deadly forest that covered every trace of civilization. Gideon leaned out another inch, one hand on a sturdy cable. There was still plenty of clearance before the craft risked scraping the branches, but distance made it hard to see the river. Unfortunately, closing the gap would be unwise. That was the gamble with rescue missions—risk all to save the innocent, yet risk becoming a victim oneself.
A trio of dragons soared above the branches as the ship passed overhead. Their population had grown with the forest, but the city dwellers paid them no heed. Urban dragons were relatively small, weighing about twenty pounds. Even their wild cousins rarely grew larger than a goat, and humanity had far more to worry about than an invasive species of lizard.
For the hundredth time that afternoon, the broad silver swath of the river emerged from the encroaching trees. The Dragonfly had followed a zigzagging path, searching both sides of the water. They had seen a fleet of River Rats—clans of wandering thieves and magicians who lived aboard their crafts—and once a smuggler’s ship with its gun ports open. Both had probably been bound for the walled farms to the east. There was gold in river business—at least for those brave enough to risk it. Gideon would take the sky any day.
The foliage slipped from view, the water gleaming directly below. His heart skipped as he saw what the Dragonfly had come for—the wreckage of a midsized sailing craft.
“There,” Gideon cried, pointing over the side. “Bring the ship around again.”
The crew—four hands besides the Fletchers—jumped to obey, hauling on the lines that adjusted the auxiliary sails. Boilers hissed, feeding the engine that drove the propellers. Slowly, the Dragonfly, with its twin gray-and-white silk balloons, pivoted in the sky.
“Sir, we dare not go lower,” Higgins, the grizzled senior airman, said.
“Then get your gear on,” Norton Fletcher replied, guiding the ship into position above the wreck. “We’ll go down for a look, although it’s not promising.”
Hopeful or not, it was still their duty to search for survivors. Gideon grabbed his own equipment, wondering what they’d find. Fools had a way of getting what they deserved.
The river—cold, fast, and often foggy—was riddled with ruined weirs and the stumps of old bridges. Wise travelers took a River Rat who knew the water’s tricks. According to the harbormaster’s records—all crafts were required to declare their routes and crews before they cast off—Mr. Joseph Ellery, esquire, had not. On some level, Gideon wasn’t surprised. He’d met the weedy banker at parties and the theater, and he had been consistently underwhelmed.
By the time the Dragonfly hovered in place, Gideon, Higgins, and Crewman Yale were ready to descend. Flight crews typically wore supple leather suits as protection from wind and weather, along with high boots and close-fitting helmets. Gideon added a weapons belt and a rifle in a sling across his back, as well as long knives strapped to his thighs.
“You’ve got an hour of good daylight left,” Fletcher said. “Don’t waste it.”
Gideon tried to catch his father’s eye, but the goggles that protected against the burn of the wind made it impossible. He wasn’t sure why he bothered to grasp at that last moment of connection—he needed no reassurance, and emotional displays were not his family’s way. Still, the unknown that lurked below left a hollow feeling in his gut. When Higgins offered him a flask of smuggled French brandy, Gideon gratefully took a swig for luck.
A square metal plate, about five feet across, formed part of the Dragonfly’s main deck. Once unlocked from thick steel hasps, the platform could be raised and lowered with steam-powered efficiency. Cables spooled onto four large wheels that moved on a single automated crank calibrated to keep the plate perfectly level—a key feature of Norton Fletcher’s design. The rescue crew mounted the platform, crouching low and grasping the lines for balance while Fletcher himself released the brake. With a whir of well-oiled gears, they gently floated the forty feet to the river’s edge.
A breeze caught the platform, swaying it slightly, but Gideon didn’t mind. The scent of greenery and rich mud was a novelty, one he inhaled with gratitude. His home stank of smoke and too many bodies crowded close together for protection. The Outlands might be deadly, but at least they were clean.
The men jumped the last few feet, boots splashing in the shallow water. The wreck was in the middle of the river, but there wasn’t enough of the ship left for survivors to take shelter in it. The crew would have struck out for dry ground or been carried off by the current. As this was the closer bank, it made sense to begin the search here.
“By our calculations, that’s where the flare was fired,” Higgins said, pointing a dozen yards ahead. “Anyone hoping for rescue wouldn’t go far.”
Gideon nodded agreement and scrambled up the bank, not wasting time. He pushed up his goggles, needing his peripheral vision now. As the September shadows lengthened, the fog already misted above the water. It would be dusk long before the sun actually set.
Unholstering his rifle, Gideon strode onward, using his nose as well as his eyes and ears. Death had a smell, as did blood, but the wind was off the river and gave him no clues. A rustle in the trees caught his attention.
Gideon raised the rifle and turned slowly, realizing there had been birdsong a moment ago, but now there was none. Somewhere in the treetops, a dragon squawked and flapped in seeming fury. Gideon began to sweat, soaking the shirt beneath his jacket. He was still on the bank, the bush and trees barely a dozen yards away and hiding who knew what. Countless ruins lay buried along the riverside, evidence of a world before walls and the terror of the Unseen.
Gideon swept his rifle in a slow arc, his nerves alive with dread. “Ellery?”
The woods to his left exploded with movement and sound. He swiveled toward it, but was a beat too late. He had a swift impression of rags and bony limbs, but his senses failed. A long shriek of rage split the silence as the thing hurtled through the air, arms extended. Gideon had no chance to aim.
Crewman Yale’s rifle cracked, smoke belching from the muzzle. The attacking figure flew sideways, the force of the shot tearing a hole through its chest. The scream faded to a gurgle as its lungs failed, but the bubbling moan didn’t stop. The thing writhed, trying to turn over so it could crawl. The Unseen weren’t immortal, but they were extremely hard to kill.
Gideon registered the pale face and wide eyes, the sharp and blackened teeth. The Unseen hated daylight, but they’d brave it for an easy kill—which he’d been a moment ago. Barely aware of its mortal wounds, the creature made it to its hands and knees, gazing at him with hungry rapture.
Gideon blew its head off. He watched it drop, still twitching, as bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it down, icy and sweating at the same time.
Yale came to stand beside him. “You’re lucky, sir. It was one of the crazy ones.”
“Lucky?” Gideon echoed.
The crewman pulled a face. “It’s the smart ones you have to fear. Those will do worse than gnaw your bones.”
Gideon stared at the bloody ground—at the bits of gore scattering the weeds. The Unseen weren’t the only horrors in the woods, but they were the most common. No one knew where the creatures originated from, why they had appeared after the Great Disaster, or even exactly what they were. Men of science agreed they were living beings, and yet unlike any other species. They were perfect predators that had driven humanity from the countryside, defeating every army kings and generals threw at them. A sudden urge to run swept over Gideon, but he stood his ground, clenching his teeth to stop the chatter.
“Sir?” Yale asked, casting him a concerned glance.
Brutally, Gideon shoved the nightmare down to the cellars of his soul. “I’m fine.”
Higgins gave a sharp whistle. He’d stayed close to the platform, guarding their escape. Yale and Gideon turned to see another figure, this one using a rifle as a cane, limping from the trees. It was Ellery, hurt and clearly exhausted.
Gideon broke into a run, lengthening his stride to close the distance. “Where’s your crew?”
“Gone,” Ellery panted. “We were separated in the wreck. The captain fired a flare to summon aid, but no other ships came. The men never stood a chance. I just saw what was left.”
“You went into the forest?” Gideon asked, incredulous. “How did you survive?”
“I had to know it was over for them. I couldn’t just walk away.”
“And what did you plan to do if you found them?”
The man was clearly an idiot. Entering the forest meant walking into the jaws of death.
“It’s irrelevant now.” Ellery peered over his shoulder with the air of a man who’d seen his own grave. The Unseen dragged their meals beneath the trees, where they stripped the flesh like hungry jackals. Ellery’s nauseated expression filled in the details.
Gideon wrapped an arm around the man, half-carrying him toward the ship’s platform. If Ellery was the sole survivor, all that remained was to return to the Dragonfly and safety. Higgins stood on guard a dozen feet away. Already on the platform, Yale raised his rifle to cover their retreat.
Three Unseen burst from the woods, thin limbs barely covered by fluttering rags. One howled like the first creature, but the other two were silent, their eyes calculating. As Yale had said, the smart ones were dangerous. Gideon heaved Ellery across his shoulders and ran.
Yale fired, but only winged his target. Two of the Unseen dropped to all fours, springing forward like wolves. Gideon pushed faster, stumbling beneath Ellery’s weight and cursing as the rifle slipped from his grasp. He let it drop, not daring to slow down and retrieve it. Seconds counted now.
Higgins was closest and shot once, twice, but went down under the weight of the Unseen. Gideon heaved Ellery to the platform before turning back to help. Yale was already beside Higgins, dragging one attacker away. Gideon drew his sidearm, intending to shoot the second.
The thing’s head jerked up as if it had read his thoughts. Hate-filled eyes scorched him as the creature sprang toward the rifle Gideon had dropped. A smart one, then. It snatched up the weapon, raising it awkwardly. The sight filled Gideon with a new kind of horror. His pistol roared just as the beast pulled the trigger. The rifle shot skyward as the Unseen dropped, the back of its skull shattered, but the fight wasn’t over. A second creature lunged, hot and horrible breath fanning Gideon’s face. He bashed the butt of his weapon into its jaw, knocking the creature sideways. The pistol slipped from Gideon’s hand, spinning away. The Unseen staggered, but regained its balance in a single, dance-like shuffle. Gideon slid one of his knives from its sheath. As the creature surged again, he drove the blade deep between its ribs, twisting until he found the heart. This time, it went down.
Yale had killed the third Unseen, then heaved Higgins to the platform. Gideon grabbed his weapons before jumping aboard. Yale threw the lever that signaled the Dragonfly. With a click and a spin of gears, the platform began rising skyward. Gideon sat down hard, panting with exhaustion and relief. Below, Unseen littered the riverbank like broken mannequins. One of them tried to use the rifle, Gideon mused, but then pushed the idea away. Intelligence made them too human for comfort.
Higgins was on his knees, staring at his arm. The leather of his sleeve was torn from wrist to elbow, exposing a strip of skin. There, a perfect bite mark stood out in an angry red, a bruise already purpling around it.
“I’ll clean the wound when we get to the ship,” Gideon offered.
“No time,” the man said, pulling off his helmet. The shorn gray hair stood out from his skull in sweat-drenched tufts. He drew a knife from his belt, then poised it above the wound.
Gideon grabbed the crewman’s wrist, stopping him. The aftermath of the fight had left a tremor in his fingers, but pride was irrelevant now. Only Higgins mattered, a crewman who had flown into hell to rescue an innocent.
“That’s just a myth,” Gideon said. “The Unseen are living creatures. Another species. Medicine has proved you can’t catch a disease that turns you into one of them.”
The look the man gave Gideon was worse than any blow. What the gentry called superstitions were guideposts the workers used to make sense of their world. Gideon released his grip, suddenly conscious of overstepping a boundary. He was the captain’s son, but Higgins was his own master.
“There’s rules,” Yale said. “It’s the airman’s way.”
The knife bit deep, slicing beneath the broken skin in Higgins’s arm. The breath hissed between the crewman’s teeth, but he held the blade steady as he carved and lifted the mark away.
Yale drew his kerchief, folding it into a bandage as he waited. “It doesn’t matter what the so-called doctors put in their reports. A man has to know he’s clean.”
Gideon looked away from the spectacle, barely seeing the misty treetops as they ascended. Emotions twisted inside him, fumbling for a truth he couldn’t yet define. The sight of the blood, of the crewman carving his own flesh, filled him with angry confusion. Then his gaze fell on Ellery, who was massaging his swelling ankle. His crew had been eaten, his rescuers attacked, yet he’d escaped with no more than a sprain? Why was he whole when the members of his crew—and his rescuers—were not?
“Why the bloody hell were you out there?” Gideon snapped, giving way to rage. “Why risk a river passage? That’s not for amateurs.”
Ellery ducked his chin. “I’ve done it before. Running into that piling was pure bad luck.”
Bad luck. Higgins, sweating and pale, was done with the knife. Yale bound his arm. Gideon tried to keep what was left of his calm by watching Ellery’s expression. The man had the look of someone frozen in horror, as if his time in the woods kept repeating over and over behind his eyes.
“And the crew?”
“I used up my ammunition to save them.” Ellery swallowed hard. “I was stranded. There was nothing more I could do except choose how to die.”
Gideon digested Ellery’s words. There was no doubt the man was devastated, but something didn’t add up. “I wasn’t aware you’d made the river passage before. The harbormaster said nothing about it.”
But perhaps that was the point. Ellery had money, and the only reason a rich man would risk his life on the water was to hide something.
“Why the secrecy?” Gideon asked. “You know there will be an inquest after this.”
“I do.” Ellery’s attention shifted away to the fog-shrouded trees. Sweat trickled from under the edge of his helmet, highlighting the pale blue veins beneath the skin. “Not all the monsters are in the forest.”
“What does that mean?”
The man’s green gaze slid over to pierce Gideon. “Make up your mind once the time comes.”