Declan is back for more in the second part of Clock Strikes Death. I hope you'll like this next chapter in his story as much I enjoyed writing it. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's the link to the first chapter of the clockpunk/fantasy/western. Feel free to leave comments and tell me what you think about this chapter, the characters, and what your emotional reaction was to everything. I'd really appreciate it. Oh, and if you want to go crazy and comment directly at certain parts, here's the link to the Google Doc, in which you can use the comment feature to your heart's content.
Now, on to the story.
It was five o'clock. That meant he had escaped from the bunker-prison a little more than seven hours ago. He had climbed out of that pit using the strength from the Hunter's Card and the holes the Hunter had punched in the metal wall of the ventilation shaft, all the while bleeding out from multiple injuries. He had evaded the clockwork that had pursued him, made his way out into the depths of the Canyons, and gotten a couple hours of rest before setting out again. Luckily, while using the first Hunter's Card, and then the second when the first expired, his wounds had reknit themselves--at least partially. That didn't mean he was fully healed by any means, but it did mean that he had cheated death once again.
Declan Markosa, the Gambler, as some called him, or the Criminal, as he called himself, had jumped head-first into Death's River, and had come back with his wits about him.
Unfortunately, now he was lost.
He had outrun the clockwork chasing him, but had done it at the cost of his own sense of direction. He stood now on an outcropping of rock overlooking one of the many rifts in the rock that gave this side of the continent its name, watching the sun rising and wishing he had any idea of where to go. He had never been good with directions, and as such had avoided going too far from civilization to prevent just this kind of situation. When you were being chased by immense metallic creatures that wanted to rip your head off, however, those sorts of inhibitions had a way of being pushed to the sidelines.
Declan spotted a herd of wildebeest grazing in the canyon below, next to a river that flowed through its center. According to the best scientists Enlord City had to offer, these canyons had been formed by those same rivers, carving away at the rock year after year to turn what was once a plain into a giant rift in the ground. Declan wasn't all that knowledgeable about geology, but he was skeptical about that theory. The thought that a small river could do that much damage to rock was sort of hard to believe. Of course, the same scientists who promoted those theories of geology also thought that clockwork were a good idea, so that was one strike against them right there.
Declan sighed, trying to get his mind to focus on the task at hand. He needed to get out of the Canyons, not speculate about their origins! He squinted towards the sun, which was rising on the other side of the canyon. So, that was east. The direction he needed to go. Great, Declan thought, looking to the left and to the right, noting that the canyon seemed to go on for miles in either direction. He glanced downward. The canyon wall was incredibly steep as well. If only he still had his Skyknight Card... But no, he couldn't think like that. He had needed that to escape. Without it, he wouldn't have even made it this far. He did have the three Sentinel Cards left, though.
He pricked his palm with one of the pieces of clockwork, and immediately his world grew more vivid. He could see every minute detail on every inch of rock for a mile. He could hear the sound of water flowing from the river down below, a slight trickle against the rocks, and the braying of wildebeest as they ate their meal. He could feel the chill of the receding night as if it was enveloping him like water, and he shivered at the intense sensation.
He stared across the Canyons, searching for a way to get down into the rift below him, or some other route to take to get across this obstacle. Nothing presented itself. And then he froze, eyes widening. His nose had been amplified too, and he caught a smell on the air, one that immediately caused adrenaline to start pumping through his system, and his heart to begin ticking more and more loudly.
They were common out in the Canyons, large serpentine predators with haunting, lidless eyes and a mouth full of teeth like knives. Declan had only seen an arrowbelly once, back when he used to live in the Canyons--back when they all used to live in the Canyons--and it hadn't been a pleasant experience. He'd managed to escape it that time by hiding in a cleft in the rock while it punctured and devoured his horse, but he didn't have as convenient of a distraction this time around.
Arrowbellies were very patient predators, stalking their prey before lunging and coiling around them like a rope. They didn't kill by strangulation, though--they had a much more efficient means of killing their prey. Declan shuddered, remembering his horse's dying scream as it was stabbed simultaneously by a million little spines that had speared out from the arrowbelly's underside.
That was when he had discovered how the creatures had gotten their name.
Declan searched around quickly for another cleft in the rock--somewhere he could hide where the monster couldn't get to him. It would be difficult finding something that an arrowbelly couldn't squeeze into--they were remarkably flexible, even with their vestigial wings. He couldn't see anything that presented itself as a good choice, so he started to walk alongside the canyon wall, looking for a cave of any sort to lose his stalker. The trick with arrowbellies was to not make any sudden movements until you had found a way to escape--if you started running, they would be on you in a second, not willing to pass up the chance at a meal in this often barren place.
As he searched, the hair on the back of his neck standing up from the feeling of being watched, a thought came to him. Why was the arrowbelly going after him, when there was a whole herd of wildebeest below in the canyon? The serpents couldn't fly, not really, but their vestigial wings were capable of catching the air and gliding long distances. A mature arrowbelly could easily glide down upon the herd and coil around one before the group of them broke in a panic.
So why am I the prey?
There were two possible solutions: one, the arrowbelly wasn't after him at all, and was merely nearby while it stalked the wildebeest below, or it was a juvenile, and it wasn't quite capable enough to take to the air with confidence. He hoped it was the former, but a part of him knew it wasn't. As he walked, he noticed the smell following him as the breeze carried it towards him. If it was a mature arrowbelly, it wouldn't even bother with him, not with a whole meal just below, and it definitely wouldn't be following him from downwind. It had to be a juvenile. That made escaping it somewhat easier, but still difficult.
Declan finally found something. A hole between two rocks that seemed to go somewhere further below ground. A burrow or something. If he waited right above it, and then dove in before the arrowbelly had a chance to spring its trap, he might be able to escape it. If he was lucky, which he usually wasn't. Hopefully, there wouldn't be something poisonous lurking in the hole, like a snake or a scorpion.
Declan wasn't optimistic, but he also didn't have much of a choice. You couldn't outrun an arrowbelly, and even a juvenile was extremely dangerous. He hated not being able to run. He stood above the hole, inspecting inside with his amplified vision. It didn't look like it went very far, but it would have to be enough. He braced himself, and jumped.
He went in the hole feet first, folding his arms against his sides to insure he fit the tight confines. He hit almost immediately, but then the dirt he had seen in the bottom of the cleft collapsed, and suddenly he was falling into a much larger cave. It was about ten feet down in all, and Declan landed awkwardly, luckily not twisting his ankle, but not doing much to help his semi-injured state. He stumbled to the side of a large boulder in the cave and leaned against it, adrenaline still pumping through his system.
The cave wasn't all that large, though a tunnel did head in one direction, away from the canyon wall. It didn't look like there was any way out of it but that corridor, and Declan hoped that he would be able to find his way back to the surface. If I get trapped down here... It wasn't a pleasant thought--escape one of the bunker-prisons of the Canyons only to die in a cave because you starved to death. It would be very ironic.
Declan heard a shrill scream from above, clear as glass with a Sentinel's hearing, and knew that the arrowbelly was coming. Luckily, he'd had the presence of mind to take Biggs' gun and some spare bullets before he had escaped the bunker-prison, but even still, it was going to be a tough fight if it came to that. Hopefully, he could mislead the beast, or trick it somehow. Or, if all else failed, he could hide. He blanched at the thought.
Declan checked the revolver, making sure he had bullets loaded, then scanned the room, trying to determine what would be the best course of action. He could take cover behind a rock and fire on the thing as it came down...but no, he didn't want to use the gun unless there was no other choice. An angry arrowbelly was not something he wanted to deal with right now, and he would have to hit the creature just right--it was armored, and there were only certain spots it was vulnerable. He did have a Sentinel card applied, and two more with him, but even that might not be enough, especially in this tight of quarters.
He could head further into the cave, through the tunnel, and see if he could find somewhere to hide in there, or maybe even a section he could collapse somehow, and make it impossible for the arrowbelly to follow him. Unlikely, but it was the best option he had right now. He took off at a dead run, trusting on his enhanced senses to warn him of any dangerous terrain. He heard the arrowbelly behind him, scraping at the hole, and then wriggling down inside it. He risked a glance back and saw its head poking out from the cleft in the ceiling, angular jaw snapping as its eyes caught his. It was big, even though it was a juvenile, with golden scales all along its serpentine body. It began to squirm, and Declan could just see its vestigial wings poking from the hole as it tried to squeeze its body through. It screamed again, and the sound sent shivers down his spine, but luckily didn't deafen him, despite his increased sense of hearing. The Sentinel Cards were built in such a way to protect against over stimulation, and automatically decreased volume when it would become damaging to a clockwork--or to him, in this case.
Declan turned around again and kept running, scanning the tunnel to find anything he might use to hinder the arrowbelly's pursuit. Nothing but bare rock greeted him. The tunnel didn't seem to have a discernible end, though it did twist and turn, so another cavern might appear at any moment. He could no longer really discern where the arrowbelly was by smell--the air was stagnant down here, and no currents were drifting in to provide him with a particularly strong scent--but he could definitely hear the thing as it clawed its way through the tunnel after him. If he didn't find something soon, the arrowbelly would be upon him, and it would be too late. He contemplated turning around and just shooting it, trusting on his senses to provide him with a clear shot. Then the tunnel ahead seemed to break, and opening up into a second cave, and he dismissed the thought. There had to be a place to hide in the next chamber...or at least somewhere to stand his ground.
He crossed the threshold between the tunnel and the cave, and was greeted by thousands and thousands of clockwork.
The cave was filled with them. Hunters, Sentinels, and a hundred other types. Even some Skyknights were present among the collection. For just a moment, Declan's heart seemed to freeze up, and he knew then that he was going to die, that the machines he had hated for so long would finally force him to join them in damnation. But the moment passed, and he realized that they were not moving. They weren't even standing.
It was a graveyard.
The thousands of clockwork lay strewn about the floor of the cave, propped against the walls, or in huge metal bins, torn into pieces. Ahead, the tunnel continued on past the huge chamber further into the rock, though it did seem to have an ascending angle that looked like it might lead outside. Declan stood there at the mouth of the tunnel, staring at the dead clockwork, unable to force himself onward. It seemed like he was in Eternity itself, and these were his fiends, made to haunt him forever. Behind him, the arrowbelly screamed in rage, and Declan blinked, refocusing his mind.
Find a way out of this. You can still survive. You're not dead yet.
He went to the nearest clockwork skeleton, a Guardian, and checked the back plate. It was unlocked, and he looked inside, hoping against all hopes. But no, it was empty. Of course. No one would leave a Card in a clockwork, even if it no longer worked. They could be fixed--well, unless Declan had used them--and so they were still extremely valuable, even if their host was dead. Declan cursed as he turned away, trying to think of something, some way he could use this place to defeat his pursuer.
And then it came to him.
He turned over the Guardian, inspecting it. Two arms with retractable blades, sturdy build, tall. It seemed like it was still perfectly functional, just without a Card. Declan produced one, taking one of his spare Sentinel cards and inserting it into the back. It would take a few seconds to get the gears moving, so he scrambled away to find another clockwork. He almost cheered when he found a Reaper, a great hulking thing with an enormous scythe blade attached to one arm. He inserted his last Card, and then took off as fast as he could towards the tunnel, grinning from ear to ear.
Clockwork programming was inherent in the Cards, and those two had been instilled with a desire to watch and keep guard over prisoners, and attack anything that tried to escape, as well as their enhanced senses. Declan wasn't entirely sure that the Card's function would give the two clockwork the strength required to keep their body from falling apart, but it was the best he could do on short notice--and hopefully it would distract the arrowbelly long enough for Declan to get away.
After all, the things relied on sight, and so as long as Declan could hide himself well enough, he should be able to fool the arrowbelly, especially since it was a juvenile. A part of him hoped that the clockwork would rip the thing apart as soon as it came into the graveyard chamber. The bigger part of him was sickened by the thought. As much as he hated things that tried to kill him, he hated clockwork more. It was a shame his whole life revolved around them now.
As he sprinted down the tunnel, he began to hear the sounds of battle, amplified by his Card. The shrill scream of the arrowbelly, the crash of metal, and the slicing sound of blades on flesh. He ignored them and kept running, passing through two small chambers along the tunnel before reaching a third, larger one. The sounds had disappeared by now, but whether or not that meant that the clockwork had defeated the arrowbelly was still unclear. His hearing was starting to fade, and soon his darkvision would as well, the Card dangerously close to the end of its life.
This next chamber was as spacious as the graveyard, and lined with large wooden boxes, but they were all closed and Declan couldn't know whether or not more clockwork pieces hid inside. He kept running, not wanting to waste any time in the dark when he didn't have much longer with his Card. As he reached the middle of the large cave, he realized that he was not going to make it to the other side before the time limit. Ten, nine, the countdown in his head ticked down. He cursed, not wanting to be caught in the middle of this open area without being able to see. If the arrowbelly had survived, he would be dead. Those things could see just fine without any light at all.
Declan couldn't see anywhere he might be able to hide, and he cursed again as he ran, trying to push himself to reach the threshold before the Card ran out. Two, one.
Too late. Declan's vision was flooded with blackness, and he stumbled and fell, scraping his arms against the rocks and knocking the wind out of his lungs. The revolver in his hands flew away, bouncing across the stone floor and into the darkness. He tried to force himself to keep moving, but he realized that he didn't know which direction he should be moving. He started cursing, but stopped when he heard a familiar noise. The plodding scrape of metal on rock. Clockwork. So his makeshift creations had survived after all. But why were they--No, no! Declan thought, realizing what must be happening. The original owners of those cards were created to keep things from escaping a bunker-prison. They must have seen me running away when they awakened and assumed I was a prisoner along with the arrowbelly.
Declan shivered, realizing that he had just created his own longshoremen to carry him across Death's River. The Guardian and the Reaper would be able to see perfectly, and he was completely blind. He wouldn't be able to see them, even when they raised their blades to cut him down. He was alone in the dark, and he was going to die.
How many times have I been in this situation in my life? Declan thought morbidly.
Too many to count, he answered himself.
He waited in the blackness, shivering as his death drew closer. He considered choosing a direction and crawling away, but what would be the point? He would never be able to get away from clockwork with darkvision, and he might choose the wrong way anyway. Better to accept his fate and be done with it. But...he had never done that before. And somehow he had gotten this far. You didn't live by being resigned to death. That was obvious enough.
Declan chose to go backwards, away from where he was facing, and hoped it was the right choice. With the sudden decreasing of his senses, everything seemed dull and distant, and so it was hard to pinpoint sounds, but it seemed like he was facing away from the clockwork now. He would have to trust that they were damaged, and so moving slowly--that would give him the chance to escape. If not, he would be dead shortly, but believing that he had a chance was better than waiting for a death that might not even be inevitable.
It seemed like forever, crawling across the dark, cold floor of the cave, stumbling over and down inclines in the rock as he made his way towards where he assumed the tunnel lay. I am not going to die, he repeated to himself as he went, half-determined and half-desperate. I am not going to die, I am not going to die, I am not going to die.
The sound of metal, however, was getting closer. He considered trying to move quieter, but realized the futility of the idea--they had Sentinel cards, they would see him no matter how quiet his movements were. Eventually, Declan stopped his mantra and any thoughts altogether. Then he stopped moving, and turned around. Metal scraped just a few feet away from him. They were here. He was going to die. His pride vanished, as did any hope of self-preservation. Death was upon him.
He might as well look it in the face, even if he couldn't see a thing.
Declan thought he saw a face in the darkness, a metal mask that inspired fear in every inch of his body. He was reminded again of just how much he hated these monsters. And just how much he feared them. They were everything he loathed, and yet, everything he had become. Deep down, Declan knew that he was just as much a monster as they were. Maybe even more so. For after all, he hadn't been created to do what was horrible, he had chosen it all on his own.
He closed his eyes as a single tear fell, and waited to die.
A violent crack split the silence, and Declan flinched, opening his eyes just in time to see a shower of sparks as something collided with the clockwork in front of him. A bullet. A bullet! What in the... Declan didn't wait any longer, scrambling away as fast as he could without endangering his own safety. He kept his head low, crawling along the rock while adrenaline pumped through his body like a raging river. He heard a grunt, and then someone cocked a shotgun, and another crack echoed through the cave. He didn't see the shower of sparks this time, turned the opposite way and moving as fast as he could on his hands and knees. He silently thanked whoever it was that was saving his life. If he got out of this, he would kiss them right on the mouth.
Declan angled slightly to the left, and saw light out of the corner of his eye. Not a flicker, there and then gone, but a steady light. He turned his head more to see what it was and got a glimpse of a young girl standing beside a lantern, eyes wild and shotgun in hand. She couldn't have been more than fifteen.
If he got out of this, he would never tell this story to anyone as long as he lived.
Declan continued to crawl forward, towards his rescuer, and reached her just as she fired again and nearly deafened him. He grunted and wobbled to his feet, and the girl jumped in surprise and swung the shotgun around, pulling the trigger. He flinched reflexively, but the gun merely clicked. Out of ammo. The young girl wasted no time, pulling out more shells and loading her weapon. She looked him over from the corner of her eye.
"Sorry for almost killing you," she said as she cocked the gun. "No hard feelings?" She was definitely a teenager--he could tell just from the way she talked, if not from her appearance, but she had a roughness that made her seem quite a bit older.
"No hard feelings," Declan agreed, ducking behind her as she swung her shotgun around and fired at the Reaper, who was bearing down on them. Its metal gears groaned as they were torn apart by metal shrapnel, and it reached out its scythe-hand almost longingly. Then the Guardian was there, almost sprinting at them as it held both blades ready to swing. Its gears also groaned, though for a completely different reason, as the stress it was putting on them by running so quickly took its toll. As Declan thought, the Card was not built to work with such a large body, and soon it would stop functioning properly. Right now, though, it was still dangerous, and about to kill them both.
The Guardian's blades began their deadly arc as the girl tried to reload her gun. Declan realized in a moment that she didn't have enough time. He also saw in that same moment that he could step in, take both of the blades and save the girl's life. He had no weapons, no way of fighting back against this thing, but he could save her life with his own, and allow her to escape this nightmare. As the moment passed, Declan remembered that he was a horrible person.
He stood and watched.
The girl reacted as surely and quickly as he might have, dropping the shotgun, hurling herself backwards, and rolling to the side off her left shoulder, grunting as she hit the floor. The Guardian's blades fell, hitting nothing, and Declan took the advantage and lunged forward, vaulting himself over the off-balance clockwork and then snatching up the discarded shotgun a moment later.
"Give me a shell!" he screamed as he righted himself, turning to face his adversaries. He saw a flicker out of the corner of his eye and caught the shell as it arced next to his head. This girl had reflexes almost as good as his own. Who is she? he wondered.
Someone I would have let die. Someone I would let die a thousand times over again if it meant saving my own skin. It was as true a thought as he had ever had, but he was surprised by the bitterness of it. He shouldn't have been. He had known for a long while that he was selfish. He shouldn't still feel like this anymore, shouldn't react this way. But he did. He hated himself every day for the way he thought and the way he acted, but he still did it anyway, completely disregarding the guilt and shame he felt when it really mattered.
He loaded the shell and cocked the gun, pulling the hammer back as he swung it around towards the Guardian. This would feel good. Sometimes all you needed was a gun in your hand to forget your problems. Unfortunately, that was part of his problem.
A scythe came down on his hands just before he pulled the trigger.
He felt nothing at first, though he could see the shotgun being knocked to the ground and his fingers spurting blood. Then it came like a wave, and incredible pain that brought him to his knees in agony. He screamed and looked at his mutilated hands, barely illuminated in the dim light. He was terrified and angry and defeated at the same time. He saw the Reaper bringing down the scythe again, and he cried out a second time, raw and primal. He tried to get away, pushing with his legs and squirming out of the path of his enemy's weapon, but all he succeeded in doing was collapsing to the ground. The scythe hit, digging into the flesh of his back and giving him another sear of pain to focus on besides his injured hands. He felt alone, cold, surrounded by darkness and fiends, and he knew it was all his own doing. He deserved all of it. All of it...
He was delusional. The sane part of his brain knew this, and was trying to calm him down. You're not dead yet. You have to worry about blood loss, yes, but that will not kill you if you can get help. The biggest thing right now is to stay calm, DO NOT go into shock. You can still get out of this. But how? The clockwork were going to kill him.
Then there was an explosion, a burst of light and sound and heat that ripped through the cave like lightning. Declan was suddenly blind and deaf, and though he could feel his throat producing a scream, he couldn't hear even that blood-curdling sound. Flashes of pain from his hands and his back were the only sensations he could experience for a single horrible moment, and he wished desperately that he could be numb as well. He tried looking around, to see what had happened, but all he saw was a flash of light in the middle of his vision, stuck there, taunting him with movement on the edges of what his eyes could see.
He tried crawling forward, whimpering without any sound at the pain racking his body, but stopped when his bloody hand touched something rough and metallic. Clockwork. He froze, waiting for the machine to finish him off with one clean blow, but nothing happened. He lay there, unmoving, for what seemed like hours as his vision and hearing slowly returned, and he saw before him a melted pile of metal that used to be a clockwork. It looked like the thing had been destroyed from the inside out. That must have been the explosion... he thought dumbly, still not making any sort of advance. But what...? How...?
The girl. She must have had explosives. He finally turned his head, and saw the girl on the ground next to her lantern, face betraying fear and horror as she stared up at... The Guardian. The surviving clockwork was standing with its foot on her chest, gears turning almost violently as its body struggled to stay functional. It was about to plunge both blades into the girl's body, but it was slow in coming because of the damage to its inner workings. The girl, unfortunately, still couldn't escape, since the full weight of a massive clockwork pinned her down. She would be forced to watch as her killer slowly plunged its weapons into her face. Until her eyes were destroyed, of course. Morbid, but true.
Declan knew he should do something. But everything hurt. He was going to die. There was nothing... He saw the shotgun next to him, loaded and ready to fire. But his hands... Better to die. Better that she died. Better that everyone died. Then the pain would end.
NO. You are better than this! Please, you have to be better than this... Please, please, please...
He was virtually pleading with himself to be a good person, to do something heroic for once in his life, to think about someone else instead of himself. He knew deep down that it wouldn't be enough. The sane part of his brain thought about the situation logically. You need her to get out of here. Unless she survives, you will die a slow and painful death. If you save her, she will help you, or take you to someone who can. She already was willing to save your life, why wouldn't she be more inclined to do so again after you save hers?
He started crawling towards the shotgun, feeling disgusted with himself. He reached it and grabbed it, but let it drop as his hands flared up in pain. No! the primal part of his brain screamed. No more pain! It's not worth it! NO MORE PAIN! NOO--
He gripped the shotgun with trembling, mutilated fingers, and brought it up. The Guardian was almost to the girl's face. She was screaming. He aimed at the clockwork's head and fired. The thing jerked with the blast, its gears finally giving out and shrieking with exhaustion as it crashed to the ground. The girl screamed again as one of the blades sliced into her face as the clockwork fell, spraying fresh blood across the lantern laying on the rocks next to her. Declan knew it was over, but suddenly both parts of his brain were screaming at him for more. KILL IT. KILL IT. KILL IT.
He stood to his feet, sobbing with agony, and stumbled over to the clockwork. The girl looked at him with awe and fear, stunned as she sat in a half-sitting position on the cold floor of the cave. Declan pushed away the pain and jammed the barrel of the shotgun straight into the panel above the hole that led to its heart. It made a dent. He slammed it down again, and again, and again, each time making a bigger dent. Finally, he punched through. He didn't pause, continuing to hammer the barrel down into the clockwork's back as its gears shrieked and groaned in protest as the thing struggled to rise. Each blow made the clockwork move slower and slower, until finally there was no movement at all.
Declan kept pounding away, his fingers still bleeding, but somewhat numb now, the pain forgotten in the force of his agonized rage. He smashed the gun into the clockwork until the barrel was misshapen and ruined, and wouldn't even fit in the hole anymore.
He was crying.
He was on the ground.
He didn't have the gun.
He had dropped it.
He was crying.
He was gone.