Well, in an embarrassing twist, I accidentally decided Monday was going to be Music Day, and now Wednesday is Story Day. Oops. But it's okay! The blog must go on.
Today I'd like to share with you the first part of one of my favorite stories I've ever written. A little novella called Clock Strikes Death, a story about one man's struggle to escape his prisons--both the literal and the figurative one. It doesn't easily fit into a genre, and is an odd mix of low fantasy, clockpunk (steampunk with clockwork technology), and a western. But I really like it, and I hope you enjoy it too. If you take the time to read the story, thank you so much, I really appreciate it. If you wouldn't mind leaving a comment on this post and giving me some feedback on what you like, what you didn't, parts you were confused, those sorts of emotional reactions you had while reading, that'd be super great. That's something that incredibly useful to me as an author, rather than just a "that was good" comment.
If you're feeling particularly generous and want to do a full critique of the chapter, I'm providing the link to the Google Doc of the piece as well, so you can give me comments as you go and highlight specific portions of the text. That's the most useful thing to me. Again, thank you so much for being interested!
Without further ado, here's the first part of Clock Strikes Death.
A ringing in Declan's ears chimed the hour. Nine o'clock. Time to die.
He jolted upright in his cot, tense, waiting for the inevitable sound of booted feet come to drag him away to Eternity. All was silent, however, save the muted tick, tock of his heart. The prison bars before him were a dark, unfriendly grey that seemed to grin at him like the teeth of an arrowbelly. His cell was cramped and freezing, the fireplace outside its iron door reduced to ashes and offering nothing in the way of warmth. Just like the one other time he had been unfortunate enough to get himself locked away in one of these bunker-prisons. Declan strained to hear anything that would signal that someone was coming for him. He waited for a minute, then two, then five. A half an hour passed as he listened to the muffled ticking of the second hand, and still no one arrived.
Declan frowned, still laying on his cot. He hadn't seen any human guards since he had been thrown into this dark pit of a prison, and only once had he seen any clockwork--a Sentinel, who had silently performed its duty of giving him a plate of dried rations and a tin cup of water, and then left, emotionless face haunting as always. He had hated those cold, metallic monsters for longer than he could remember.
Where was everyone? Declan stood and made his way to the iron bars, gripping them with calloused hands. He wore nothing but the underclothes he had been wearing the night before--dark grey shirt and trousers that reeked of sweat. His brown hair was wild and unruly, and his unshaven face split into a grimace as he stared at the door to the hallway. Had they decided to just leave him down here? Ironically, that would be a more certain fate than a bullet to the head, at this point. The only chance he had was in the journey from here to the figurative gallows. He had one more trick up his sleeve--literally--but it relied on the hallway just outside the room adjacent to his cell. If he could just get out there…
Declan cursed himself--not for the first time since his imprisonment--for not seeing the ventilation shaft on the way in until it was too late. If his jailor had fumbled with his keys for just a moment longer, he might not be in this mess right now. He would be halfway to Bunnell Creek, laughing at the stupidity of lawmen.
Well, he wasn't laughing now. If no one came to get him, he was dead. Declan couldn't think of a logical reason why they wouldn't come, but he couldn't help worrying nonetheless. He had bad luck. Blasted horrible luck, at that. Come on…you want to see me suffer, right, Biggs? I know you do. Don't just leave me here; you want to see my face when I die. He couldn't believe he was hoping for someone to try and kill him--it just didn't seem right--but that was the only thing that would save him now.
That ventilation shaft…that was the key. Declan had one Card left, his most valuable. He had saved it for years, never wanting to use it, for fear he would never find another one. They only made that kind of clockwork in Enlord City, and they were one of the most powerful types. Luckily, the guards hadn't taken his boots. They'd checked inside, of course--to make sure he didn't have a hidden weapon of some sort. But almost no one expected a boot to have a secret compartment like his did, holding an item so rare and valuable, men would kill a hundred times over to get their hands on it.
Declan liked to be prepared, even in situations that were out of his control. Especially in situations that were out of his control.
Blessedly, footsteps sounded in the hallway moments later, coming with it a hope of escape. It wasn't the metallic clank of a clockwork, but the booted steps of a man. They were coming to get him. Finally.
Declan reviewed the plan of escape in his mind as the sound grew closer. He could get out of this, if he was clever. The prison was very secure, that much was true, buried in the earth a hundred feet down, but it had one weakness. It turned out that there wasn't much air down in the bowels of Orlam, and so you needed to have some sort of ventilation system to filter air through the tunnels, or else anything stuck down here would suffocate. Not the clockwork, of course, they didn't need air, but anything living. A prisoner lucky enough to get inside that ventilation system could, potentially, make their way to the surface and escape. The only problem was that the shafts used to filter the air were entirely vertical, and a hundred feet high. That meant, despite the route to freedom built into the design, no one had ever successfully made it out alive.
The iron door leading out to the hallway opened, and a grizzled man walked in, long black coat enveloping him like a shadow. His eyes were cold, and his face was wrinkled and worn, testament to the life he had led. His short black hair was speckled with grey and well-groomed, and he wore his coat and the similarly colored uniform beneath it with a rugged dignity. One would expect nothing less from a foresheriff. This was Larcer Biggs--the man the Empire called when they had a criminal they wanted taken care of. And the man who wanted to blow Declan's head off.
Declan eyed the revolver on Biggs' hip, which the big man was fingering as he smiled coldly. The lawman was like a cat, always watching, always patient, waiting for the right moment to strike. He had probably been planning Declan's capture for months. Declan felt a shiver as he looked Biggs in the eye. He knew he shouldn't have come to the Canyons again.
"Well, well," Biggs said, coming to stand in front of the cell door. "We meet again, Markosa."
"What took you so long, Biggs?" Declan said, forcing himself to meet the other man's gaze. "You have to work up the courage to face me?"
"Oh, please," Biggs said, giving him a look of disgust. "The day I am frightened of you, Markosa, is the day the world ends. You're a petty coward who only cares about your own skin. Every criminal is, once you peel back their veil of self-righteous overconfidence."
"Always with the big words, aren't you?"
"I'm merely civilized, unlike some others."
"I can be as civilized as the rest of you Imperial bootlickers." Declan turned away, feigning indifference. "I just find it distasteful to kneel at a master's heels like some sort of mongrel pup." He spat.
Biggs paled, clenching his teeth."Be careful what you say next, thief. Tongues that slander shall be removed. Thus a body is cleansed of unrighteousness."
"Quoting scripture at me?" Declan laughed, still not facing his captor. "How appropriate of a hypocrite. You do realize, however, that if you cut out my tongue, you won't be able to hear me beg for mercy before the end. Don't you?"
"I do not need to hear your pathetic wails, Declan, nor your blasphemies." Biggs was almost about to break--Declan could see it on his face. The slow shift from quiet anger to bellowing rage. "I need not anything but justice."
"That's what all lawmen say." Declan turned back, eyes burning. Maybe he was going too far--but he didn't really care at this point. "That is, until you peel back their veil of self-righteous overconfidence, and find out that they're just like the criminals they so readily persecute. You're so quick to deal death and judgment on others, but when someone points out your own carefully guarded flaws…" Declan smiled bitterly. "It makes you realize that you see yourselves in the people you hunt down. You bring them justice in the hopes that justice will pass by your own deadly sins." Declan said the next words with acid, a calculated fury that bubbled within him as he closed his eyes. "A man's reputation or his family's reputation shall not define his own worth. What a man doeth, how a man treateth those around him, and what his heart revealeth, these things shall save his soul. Or damn it. We're exactly the same, Biggs. The only difference is you're the one with the badge."
Declan heard the click of the revolver, and looked up. Biggs stared at him, face as cold as before. He held his gun in one hand, hammer cocked. I'm going to die.
"I should kill you right now," Biggs said. "No one would care if I blew you away and left you here to rot. You don't have any family left that would care what happened to your body."
Declan bit his tongue as an angry retort came unbidden to his mind. No, don't antagonize him further. You need him to take you to the firing squad. You have to get him to give you the opportunity you need. Declan held the lawman's gaze, not saying a word.
After a few moments of deadly silence, Biggs uncocked the gun and returned it to its holster. Declan let himself breathe again. "This is a long time in coming, Markosa," Biggs said, his anger cooling back into a quiet simmer, and reached for his keys. "Finally, you get the treatment you deserve. Execution. If thou taketh another man's--excuse me, woman's--life, thou forfeits thine own."
Declan felt a shiver run down his spine. He hadn't thought about her in years. Of course, that was the reason Biggs wanted him dead. Well, one of the reasons at least. Declan blinked as a flood of images began to fill his head. Jolie, smiling. Jolie, screaming. Jolie, laughing. Jolie, dead.
Biggs raised an eyebrow. "Nothing to say to that? My, this is unlike you, old friend."
Jolie, dead. And he had killed her.
The lock clicked as Biggs turned the key. The door swung open, and Biggs gestured. Declan blinked again. This is it. My chance. He shook the memories off and walked forward. Biggs prodded him towards the door, face grim. Luckily, Biggs had always hated clockwork as much as he did, so there weren't any around to stop what he was about to do. If there was a disturbance, though, it would only be a matter of time before the Sentinels arrived. Those things could sense a pin dropping a mile away. Declan tried not to think about that, instead continuing to remind himself of how he was going to escape, making sure to run through every little detail. Nothing could go wrong. If it did, the Sentinels wouldn't matter. Biggs would kill him in an instant.
One, maneuver myself under the ventilation shaft. Two, use the Card. Three, go for Biggs' gun, and use it to shoot the lock off of the shaft's door. If I can get Biggs killed in the process… He hesitated. He didn't like killing people. Nobody decent did. But he wasn't about to let that bit of sentiment he had left interfere with his own survival. He was going to live, and he would do anything necessary to insure that. Anything.
And kill Biggs in the process. Then there's no one skilled enough to track me down on this side of the continent.
Declan kept walking, Biggs right behind him, neither man saying a word. They had been friends, once. But so much had happened since then… Nowadays, it was hard to tell where friends ended and enemies began.
They passed by two other cells, both empty, before reaching the door to the hallway beyond. Biggs gestured to Declan to open it, and so he did, tensing in anticipation as he felt a slight breeze from the shaft ahead. The criminal and the lawman walked through the door, and Declan continued a few more steps, until he was directly beneath the shaft.
Declan flicked his wrist, and the Card dropped into his hand. It was about the size of a playing card, but a bit heavier, made of gears and springs that criss-crossed the piece of metal like a web. A Clockwork Card. The object that made clockwork run, that gave them their functions and purposes. And the object that was going to get Declan out of this mess.
He pressed the Card tightly against his palm, feeling a prick as the little piece of protruding metal that acted like a conduit jabbed him and drew blood. With his other hand he twisted the little key on the opposite side of the card, starting the timer. Five minutes. Four minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Four minutes and fifty-eight seconds. He could feel each tick in his chest, a companion to the small pop of the Card's clockwork gears. That ticking in his chest was the only reason this worked.
Without wasting another second, Declan snapped into motion, flying through the air with amazing speed--literally flying, defying gravity itself using a power that no one besides himself could tap into. Clockwork. It allowed the Skyknights to soar through the heavens, and now he could do it too. Declan smiled as the rushing of air filled his ears.
He had missed this.
To Biggs' credit, he only hesitated for a moment, staring in shock, before his hand went straight for his gun. By that point, however, Declan was ramming him at full speed. Biggs was launched backward a dozen feet, slamming into the partially open door to the room they had just come from and forcing it closed again. Declan stumbled forward with the speed of his flight and the force of the impact, skidding to a stop and decelerating just enough to keep himself from falling over. Biggs sat slumped against the iron door for a moment, stunned, and Declan used the opportunity to fly forward, going for the lawman's revolver. Biggs recovered just in time to lunge away, hand going for his revolver as he twisted to the right.
Both men collided again, but this time straight into the wall. They both fell to the floor, dazed. Declan felt a ringing in his ears as he struggled to regain his senses. His body ached and the clock that had replaced his heart thumped the seconds through his body, reminding him of the time being lost. He blinked and saw Biggs lying next to him, revolver in hand, and grabbed for it. Biggs grunted and tightened his grip, shoving Declan away as he tried to pry the gun out of the lawman's hand.
Declan was pushed back, and Biggs brought up the revolver, a look of deadly intent plain on his face. Declan growled and launched himself backward with the power of the Card just as the pistol went off. The noise was deafening, and Declan felt a hot flash of pain in his side as the bullet hit. He swore loudly as he changed direction mid-flight and swung back around, charging Biggs again. The man was on one knee now, leveling the gun for another shot, and Declan kept yelling expletives as he flew with blinding speed towards his enemy. This is insane. I'm going to die. I'm going to-
Biggs pulled the trigger. Time went still.
Declan could see the flash of heat and light and hear the bang as the shot went off, all in slow-motion as he flew, screaming, with no weapons and no common sense. The ticking in his heart had ceased, but he could feel each part of a second inch by, waiting for the inevitable climax, the tick that would mean the end had arrived. How poetic, Declan thought, but immediately shook it off and focused. I need to keep my eyes on the bullet. Watch the trajectory; try to move myself so it won't hit any vital areas.
The bullet spun, and he could see it was coming right for his forehead. Nice shot, he complimented Biggs in his head. If that bullet wasn't aiming at me, I might be impressed right now. He shifted the trajectory of his flight, inching down towards the stone floor, and tilted his head back ever so slightly. He prayed it was enough. No, he didn't pray, he never did that. He…hoped. It didn't seem adequate for the situation, somehow.
He felt a sting on his forehead as he angled downward, time at normal speed again, and then a moment later crashed into Biggs' legs with a thud. The man lost his grip on his gun, and it flew away, skittering across the stone. He followed it a second later, tumbling to the ground and grunting as he impacted. Declan rolled under Biggs' legs and then got to his hands and knees, gasping. He was alive. A drop of blood hit the floor below him, trickling from his head. The bullet had just grazed him and broken the skin. He had survived again, he had done the impossible. He shook himself out of his reverie and focused on where the gun had landed.
You're not done yet.
He launched himself towards it, the air whooshing around him again. He rolled and grabbed the gun, skidding across the floor, and skinning his arm in the process. He winced. He was not used to being able to fly around like this, and he wasn't being very graceful. Not like he'd had the opportunity to practice or anything. He could only use each Card once, and then it was useless to him, and to any clockwork that had it installed. He had always thought it had something to do with the fact that he wasn't a clockwork--not fully, anyway, and so it only worked temporarily. He wasn't a mechanist, so it was mostly guesswork, but he supposed the theory was sound.
Biggs was rushing towards him, his whole body shaking with rage. Yep, that was Biggs. Declan raised the gun and pulled the trigger. Goodbye, old friend.
The bullet hit…Biggs coat, tearing a piece of fabric on the very edge of the cloth of the sleeve. Declan swore. Biggs had always been better with the guns.
Declan flung himself upward, tilting his body so his legs went high and his head went low, and shot off another bullet at the same time. His feet hit Biggs square in the mouth, and probably broke his jaw. The bullet connected this time, thank the--well, not the Father, but his own meager skills with guns--hitting the big man in the chest
Biggs collapsed on the ground, unconscious, maybe dead.
Declan wasted no time, and used his momentum to flip again towards the ceiling, grabbing the vent with a clang and firing off a shot on the lock, destroying it. He pulled the door free, and it came, hanging from the ceiling on only one hinge, thanks to the violent way it had been ripped open. Declan hesitated just a moment and looked back down. He aimed the gun to finish Biggs off.
The big man looked so worn and old where he lay on the floor, blood pooling on the ground around him. Are we all really that old? Declan thought, shaking his head. He had to finish this, he had to…no, he didn't have to. But...did he want to? He pushed the thought away, not wanting to dwell on it. Besides, Biggs was probably already dead, or soon would be. Declan stared a moment longer, then turned away and climbed into the vent.
Curse me and my sense of morality…You're welcome, Biggs. You owe me.
The inside of the ventilation system was cold and gray, just like everywhere else in the prison. Ducts went both left and right, paralleling the corridors below and providing an air flow throughout the compound. Declan looked up, and saw a ray of light a hundred feet above him--the outside world.
It was nine o'clock and forty-one, twenty seconds until forty-two. He had three minutes left before the Card's abilities dissipated, but all he had to do now was fly up the shaft. His muscles tensed, and he prepared to launch himself up, but he felt a flash of pain in his side and winced. What? When had he--and he remembered the first bullet, which had connected much more solidly than the second had.
Declan reached down and prodded at the wound, and his hand came back wet. His shirt was soaked with blood. He began to feel dizzy. No, no! I can't quit now. The bullet had hit him near his left hip...he found the entrance wound, and gritted his teeth as he touched it. He felt for an exit wound, and sighed in relief when he found one. The bullet had gone clean through, and it didn't look like it had hit anything important. The biggest problem now would be blood loss.
He heard the clank of metallic footsteps rushing along the corridor below him. The Sentinels were coming. Or worse. He didn't have time to bandage the wound. Fly, you idiot! Let's go!
He tensed again, and then shot into the air just as he heard a crash from directly below him. From the corner of his eye, he saw a clockwork burst through the vent, iron claws slashing dangerously close to him.
Great, Declan thought as the air rushed around him. A Hunter. Just what I needed right now. Not the most pleasant of clockwork he could be dealing with--not that any of them were. Those claws would tear him apart in a second if he wasn't careful. Quite a messy way to die, really.
Declan accelerated, and shot up the vent like a bullet, raising the revolver and aiming at the lock...he started. It wasn't a door. There was no hinge, no lock, nothing. Just an opening with thick iron bars and strong metal surrounding it. Impervious, at least for him. That had not been in the plans he had studied.
Well, crap. He did some quick thinking. Somehow, he was going to have to make this work. The Hunter was the best option. He had to get it to destroy the bars and allow him to squeeze through the opening. But how? The shaft was barely five feet across--he needed room to maneuver!
Declan decelerated as he reached the grate, grabbed the bars with one hand and leveraged himself with a foot against the side of the shaft. He looked down and saw the Hunter tearing up metal as it climbed its way up the air duct. It was large, as all Hunters were, about seven feet in height and with a grimacing visage that spoke of utter focus. Declan swore. Trying to get this thing to destroy the grate without killing him in the process was going to be difficult, albeit impossible. The next option was to try and kill the clockwork, and use the Card himself to tear open the door. He would gain immense strength and quickness, and that should be enough to break through.
Declan checked the revolver. Two bullets left. That was going to have to be enough. He kept himself ready to move at a moment's notice, waiting as the clockwork slashed its way towards him. He would have to duck over it at the last second and hit it from behind, in the one spot where a clockwork was truly vulnerable--its heart. There should be a locked plate on its back, protecting a hole where its wind-up key was inserted. He had to shoot off the plate's lock first, and then hit directly inside the hole. It was days like this that Declan wished he was as good with a pistol as Larcer was. Luckily, he would be firing point blank. He couldn't miss. Right?
The Hunter reached him, not yelling or crying out--clockwork didn't have voices--but making a racket anyway, punching through the duct's metal walls with each strike of a claw. It lunged, and Declan nearly froze in terror. He hated clockwork. And they scared the crap out of him. Mindless automatons, programmed to uphold the law, or to keep watch, or, in this one's case, to hunt down and destroy.
Declan remembered Jolie, gritted his teeth, and launched himself into the air.
He flew over the Hunter's head, soaring in an arc that ended with him spinning and landing on the creature's back, facing up towards the opening. The locked plate was there, just as he had expected, and Declan brought his revolver next to the lock and blew it off with a quick shot. The plate fell open with a creak and Declan shoved his pistol inside the small hole and--
--was slammed into the wall of the air duct as the Hunter threw itself backward. His hand was knocked up and back as he pulled the trigger, and Declan could feel the ripple of air in front of his face as the bullet barely missed hitting him. With a grunt, he started to fall back down the shaft. He swore and accelerated himself upward again, slowing his descent and flipping him around to face the Hunter. It stared at him with an expressionless metal face, and then leaped. Straight at him. Claws pointed at him.
Declan swore again and let himself fall, accelerating downward. He didn't have much longer before the Card's ability faded, and he would be trapped down here. He needed to get that opening...well, open. But he didn't have any bullets left, and the clockwork was still trying to kill him. Declan started, a thought coming to his mind. Biggs' jacket would have spare bullets, it had to. He flipped himself so he was facing down the shaft, and saw another Hunter, just below the shaft, about to climb up after them through the door Declan had blown off. He realized that he only had one and a half seconds before he--
Instinct took over, and he decelerated at the last instant, screaming, half in anger, half in terror. He flipped himself so his body was positioned to go vertically through the vent's door, feet downward, and then fell through the door. As soon as his head cleared the ventilation shaft, he nudged himself forward and grabbed the edge of the half-broken grate, swinging up to slam against the ceiling, just out of reach of the second clockwork. He gritted his teeth at the pain and jarring sensation, but was rewarded by a crash a moment later when the first Hunter fell directly on to the other, in a jumble of metal and spinning gears.
He wasted no time, and dropped, decelerating himself to land gracefully, and then rushed over to Larcer Biggs. He jammed his hand into the unconscious man's coat pocket and took out a handful of bullets. He had approximately three seconds before the two clockwork recovered and attacked him. He flipped open the cylinder and loaded four bullets into the chambers as fast as he could. He snapped the cylinder closed and turned to face his adversaries.
They were upon him, claws outstretched, unblinking eyeholes staring into his soul. He fired a shot off, aiming for one of those eyeholes, and launched himself into the air in an arc to end up behind the clockwork. The bullet missed, bouncing off the wall behind the Hunters and clanging uselessly to the floor.
Declan swung around and onto the back of the first Hunter, the one he had already blasted the plate off of. He tried to get his gun into the hole to fire, but the clockwork began to thrash wildly, and he had to focus solely on staying on the thing. The other Hunter reached out to grab Declan, but he kicked his feet up at the last moment, holding on to the first clockwork with his hands alone and floating vertically face down above it, causing the other creature to crash into the first one. Both tumbled to the floor, but only for a moment before righting themselves and spinning about. Declan still hung frantically to his target's metallic neck, but let his feet fall back down and gain a foothold on the broken plate again.
He shoved his revolver into the hole and fired. If clockwork had voices, the first Hunter would have cried out in agony. Instead, it merely shuddered, its gears spinning violently. Declan fired again. It dropped, unmoving, to the cold stone floor. A Card popped out from a previously hidden slot, gears still spinning with momentum, but slowly coming to a stop. Declan smiled and reached--
And he was flying through the air, unwillingly, and slamming into the wall. He felt a bone crunch as he landed on the floor, and heard nothing but an eerie ringing. No...he was not going to die here. Not this close to escape. He tried getting up, but one of his arms flared with pain, and he crumpled down again. No, no, no! And the clockwork was standing over him, claws dripping blood. His blood. A drop fell on his hand. Wait...he was holding something in that hand. Not the gun...
A Card. The Card. He must have grabbed it just before the Hunter had slammed into him. He could still escape...he could still win. There was still a chance.
I AM NOT GOING TO DIE.
Declan jabbed the piece of protruding metal into his palm. Immediately, adrenaline flooded his system, and the pain lessened. He felt stronger, quicker, tougher, more alive. He glanced up at the clockwork and smiled.
He snapped into motion, rolling under the clockwork just as it slammed its claws down. His previous ability to fly had evaporated--you could only use one Card at a time--but it had been close to expiring anyway. This new Card would last for ten minutes, and the increased combat effectiveness it would give him was much more valuable now than flight.
He winced as he rolled, his arm still technically broken, but the pain was mitigated for now, and he could function almost normally again. He would have to get medical attention later, but right now, he needed to focus on escape. He spun as he came to his feet and kicked out, slamming his leg down on the Hunter's back. It bent under the pressure, and its legs spread, forcing it into an awkward position that threatened to make it fall over. Declan hefted himself on to it and slammed a fast into the locked plate, tearing it out with inhuman might. He brought up the metal plate and slammed it edge first into the back of the clockwork's neck. The creature tried to turn, but the gears that made that action possible were now jammed, and so it simply thrashed its arms about, clearly frustrated.
Declan leaped off the Hunter's back, rolled, and then brought his leg across in a sweep that slammed into the clockwork's own appendage, dropping it to the floor with a crash. Declan grabbed the same leg, braced himself with his feet on the clockwork's torso, and then pulled. The leg came off with a metallic scrape, and Declan slammed the disembodied appendage down into the clockwork's back, right above the hole. The clockwork shuddered. He did it again. And again.
The clockwork fell still, its heart smashed and broken.
Declan grabbed the Card as it popped out of the Hunter's back, and then turned to face three Sentinels, that had rushed into the room just moments ago, in time to see him brutally destroy the last clockwork. All three had revolvers.
Crap, he thought. Sentinels weren't all that good in a fight, but they had extraordinarily good senses, and so you could give them a gun and have them hit their target four times out of five. His best chance was to get up close and personal, and force the Sentinels into melee. To do that, he would have to rush a storm of bullets that would most likely kill him outright.
Declan focused, and time stood still. He tried not to do it very often, if ever, since it would eventually kill him, but he had found early on after having his own heart replaced with a piece of clockwork that he perceived time differently than other people. He knew exactly how much time was passing, at every second of the day, and could give himself a mental nudge that allowed his mind to work faster than a normal person would be able to. He wasn't sure if this was something that all clockwork could do--he had never seen anything that would lead him to believe that they did. He had used his technique dozens of times in the presence of clockwork, and they seemed to be as oblivious as humans were to what was going on. It was an advantage that had saved his life on more than one occasion. Twice today.
He could see each bullet as the muzzle of the gun flashed and sent it spinning towards him. He could sense their trajectories, and knew where he had to go to avoid them. He was invincible.
He spun and dodged, drawing closer and closer to the Sentinels as three seconds ticked by, each slowed by his clockwork heart and made perceivable to him. It was dangerous to do more than one second at the same time, but he didn't have a choice in this instance. Then, he was in front of the Sentinels. He lashed out with his fist, striking one of the clockwork in the face.
Time went back to normal, and he was a blur of motion, smashing, tackling, kicking, and slamming into all of his opponents. The clockwork seemed confused...and maybe...terrified? It was hard to tell with clockwork. Their faces were masks, showing no emotion, but their body language could tell you a lot about what they were thinking, if you paid attention. They were automatons, but there was a spark of humanity in them. That was the secret, the thing that no mechanist would ever tell you. How they made their creations able to think and feel and understand. As far as he knew, no one who had ever found out the secret had lived long afterward. Their emperor would not allow his greatest weapon to enter the public's knowledge. He liked his control.
Declan smashed his fist into the last clockwork, and then stopped, looking at his handiwork. He smiled, grabbed the three Cards as they popped out, and turned.
Biggs was awake. And pointing a gun at him.
"What..." Larcer struggled to say anything coherent, staring at Declan with awe and terror as he held the gun in a white-knuckled grip. "What are you? What happened to you?"
Declan hesitated, keeping his eye on the revolver pointed at him. He was already lucky that Biggs hadn't shot him in the back while he'd been busy with the Sentinels--though he couldn't sure be sure just when the lawman had woken up. He didn't want to press that luck--he needed to keep Biggs talking. If he pulled the trigger, Card or no, Declan would be a dead man. Biggs wasn't prone to missing a shot this easy, even if he was shaken by what he had seen. And Declan couldn't slow down a second or two, either. He had done that much more than he should have today already.
"I died." Declan said simply. "I...went to Eternity, and then came back with a fiend on my shoulder." It was vague, but not altogether inaccurate. And hopefully it wouldn't antagonize the man with the gun.
"You're...you're one of them," Biggs said, eyes still wide. "A clockwork. You're a machine, not a man. No man could do that..." He seemed to be gaining more clarity now, and his expression transitioned from shock to anger. "You don't have a fiend on your shoulder. You are the fiend. I should have seen it..."
At once, Declan realized his mistake. This was Biggs he was talking to. The self-righteous holy avenger, the man who pretended to be a good person while at the same time killing those he found unworthy. That was one of the reasons Declan was an atheist. People like Biggs. Unfortunately for Declan, and not for the first time, religion was quite literally a threat to his life.
Biggs' resolve tightened visibly, and he steadied the gun in his hand. "Go to the pit, you charlatan." A flash of light and sound, and the bullet exited the gun, coming right for Declan. His instincts took over, and he dodged to the left as the bullet whizzed towards his head. A shot that would have killed him ended up hitting his right ear, blasting a whole clean through his cartilage but otherwise leaving him unscathed. Not that he wasn't already wounded in half a dozen places. He hit the floor, rolling and then skidding away, but Biggs was quicker still, and another bang from the revolver echoed in the underground chamber.
Declan felt a flash of pain near his stomach, and nearly went into shock from the intensity of it. The Card he had applied was taking the edge off of his injuries, but another bullet could end him here. He had to close in to melee. It was the only way to survive...
Biggs was grim as he kept the gun trained on Declan. Declan's instincts screamed at him to dodge, run, hide, attack, do something! But his mind told him differently. It's too late, he thought, fully realizing it for the first time since this had begun. I'm going to die.
Biggs squeezed the trigger. The gun clicked. It was out of ammo. It was out of ammo! Declan remembered now: he had only put four rounds in the cylinder, because he hadn't had much time. He was all of the sudden unbelievably glad he had been rushed. Biggs cursed and reached into his pocket for more bullets.
Declan charged. With all the strength he could muster, ignoring his pain and his dizziness, he sprung to his feet and practically lunged at his enemy, now only ten feet away. The extra speed and agility the Card gave him let him bound across the room in a heartbeat, and suddenly he was in front of the startled lawman, smiling like a cat that had caught its mouse.
Biggs pulled out a round and moved to load it into the revolver. Declan snapped his fist out, knocking the gun away from Biggs and into the wall, and then brought up his other hand to grab the lawman by the hair and yank his head down, while bringing up his knee and slamming it into the man's face. Biggs went sprawling, clutching his face as he cried out. Declan wasted no time, and went for the man again, lifting him by his shirt and then throwing him across the room with the strength of a Hunter. Biggs hit the wall with a thud and then landed on the floor, unconscious.
Declan wanted to kill him. He wanted to take the revolver, put it in the man's mouth, and fire a dozen times. He had given the lawman a chance to live already, and Biggs had tried to kill him again. He couldn't leave enemies behind. It just wasn't smart. But something about killing a man while he was defenseless... It seemed to cross a line that even he didn't dare invade. He struggled with himself for a moment, trying to make a decision.
This man...he was evil. A holy avenger for a god that didn't even exist, or at the very least was evil himself. Declan had seen too many horrible things done in the name of religion to ever trust it again. That was one of the many things that he and Larcer had never agreed on. Any kind of god that would let the evils of this world happen when he had the power to stop it was not a god worth worshipping, or even acknowledging. At least, that was what Declan had always thought.
He would be doing the world a favor by killing Larcer Biggs. He knew it. But that wasn't why he was considering killing the man. It was because he wanted to. He needed to. This man was responsible for everything that was wrong with his life, and Declan wanted to blow his brains out.
And that terrified him.
Then he heard noise coming from a different part of the prison. The metallic clanking of clockwork. More Hunters, probably. The choice had apparently been made for him. He didn't have time to finish Biggs off. He needed to go. Now.
Declan escaped the prison, and the fiend on his shoulder went along for the ride.