Hunter or Hunted: Justice and Vengeance
Book Preview: The Lioness and The Rat Queen by Noah Lemelson
Seeking justice and vengeance, Marcel Talwar and his comrades set off to hunt down the traitorous tycoon Lazarus Roache. But in the ruined lands of the Wastes, hunters can quickly become hunted...
The wind came from a land called, in happier times, Vastium. Now that name lived only in history books, replaced with The Wastes, and the wind borne from this broken and blasted land bore the mark of its mother. Hot and acrid it was, bitter and quick. The wind flew over the landscape, past cities turned lost necropolises and verdant fields now dusty basins. It witnessed with equal disdain scrapshacks with chimneys smoking, abandoned manors buried under blankets of dust, and factory complexes that had in gilded times been modern and grand, but now lay crumbled and utterly forgotten. It flew past the pits of mudlions and the dens of wastehounds, though the camps of mutants and the unruly taur herds of desperate ranchers. As it flew kilometre past kilometre, the hate that pressed it on wavered, along with its strength, its fury bursting over shattered bunkers and buried shrines to fetid things. It grew weaker and weaker, as the land around it began to resemble something not exactly civilized, but vaguely adjacent to an analogy of civilization. Half-paved roads and rusty bridges, towns made of scrapmetal and refurbished ruins. It descended into one of these towns, down its narrow dirt streets, taking the dust of the place with it, on this last leg of its journey. It flew and faded, from gale to wind to breeze, until, with its last strength, it sputtered through the opened door of the Troll’s Heart Bar and Tavern, and into the face of one Marcel Talwar.
* * *
The bald man with the beard looked up over his cards to stare at Marcel. The sneeze had been far too dainty for a hardened raider, which, despite his rough clothes and put-on accent, Marcel wasn’t. Marcel was a vigilante, self-declared, and before that a private detective, once a soldier, war hero really, and way back when, a mediocre medical student with a wanderlust born from an upper-middle-class ennui. But it was very, very, important that Marcel maintain his lie, pretend to be the Martin Bonecrack that he introduced himself as, so he transitioned his dainty sneeze into a deep, baritone bout of coughing.
“Damn wastelung,” he growled, picking up his cracked glass of whiskey and sipping. He glanced at his hand of cards. A two, a five, and duke of swords, a two of petals, and a jester of gears. Not great, but not horrible. “I’ll raise an aurem,” he said, tossing the coin onto the table.
“Match,” said the bald man with an eyepatch. This was a different bald man than the one with the beard, who was a different man than the bald man with the tattoo of a naked woman fighting a needlecat on his face. Three bald men at one table. This would not be a problem in it of itself, Marcel bore no antipathy for hair-deprived folk, the only issue was that the man he was hunting, one Felik Rector, had been described by a well-bribed local as “that bald bloke who’s been hanging ‘round The Troll’s Heart.”
The other two bald men matched the bet, and Beard revealed the next card. A mistress of swords. As Tattoo scrunched his forehead and the needlecat on it in thought, Marcel took the moment to glance around the room. The bar was a shabby thing, well in line with a wastetown such as this, all scarwood and scrapmetal sheets. A steel-armed barwoman stood beside a broken mirror and wall of bottles, all too sun-worn and dust-covered for their labels to be read. A man played a jaunty tune on the keyboard of a calliope, steam bursting out from pipes in the instrument’s back. These pipes interwove with others that cut in from the floor in a sort of messy trellis up the wall and into the rooms upstairs.
Their table was not the only one occupied, though it was far from a busy afternoon. A table over a principate soldier was napping, face in a puddle of his own beer, blue cap soaked. The man sat as a reminder to Marcel that he was in the den of his enemy, though so far the Principate soldiers that occupied this nowhere town had not made themselves a problem. In the back corner sat the final customer, Marcel’s co-vigilante, Kayip. The large monk, also bald, hid his features under a heavy hood, the glint of his featureless half-mask barely visible in the dim.
“I fold,” Tattoo said, as Beard stared at Kayip with some suspicion. Marcel had to admit, in retrospect, that a heavy hooded cloak was actually a fairly conspicuous look on a hot summer’s day.
“I raise five aurem,” Marcel said, to turn attention back. It’s not like it mattered much if he won this hand. Eyepatch turned to stare at him, and then studied his cards.
“So,” Marcel said. “What business you folks in?”
“Trade,” Beard said simply.
“Murder,” Eyepatch said, with a tone that made it unclear if the man was joking.
Tattoo merely grunted and waved over the barkeep for another drink.
Marcel scratched at the cogleg beneath his trouser, phantom pain bothering him as it was wont to. Eyepatch matched the bet.
“I’ve been looking for new work,” Marcel said. “Heard there’s some bigwig stiffland businessman making noise out here.”
Tattoo snorted and shrugged. The calliope-man started a new, off-tempo ditty.
“Name is…” Marcel said. “Well, Demiurge-be-damned, name slips from my tongue like a brasshare off a mucktoad’s back. Lazamis or something?”
“Oh Lazarus Roache?” said Eyepatch. Marcel tried not to react strongly to the name but nodded as if, yeah, that could be it. “Supposed to be on a mad buying spree, grabbing what he can from every slaver, and even buying manmeat off palewhat plantations, if they have any spare. Haven’t seen anything like it in my years.”
“Can we… not discuss the slaver’s trade now,” Beard said, shooting his eyes towards the drunk Principate soldier.
“Oh, those imperials won’t bother us none,” Eyepatch said. “Was a slaver myself, back when I was young and reckless. Heck, used to hire Domitus here,” and he pointed to the tattooed man, who grunted, “as muscle.”
“But not anymore?” Marcel asked. “’Cause I’ve been meaning to make some inroads, a little networking, if you will.”
Eyepatch shook his head. “It’s a damn political trade now, you work with the Crimson Eyes, suddenly you piss off the Iron Strixes, sell to the Fist-Biters, and then you have Trog-Skinners on your back.”
“What about you?” Marcel said, throwing in another aurem coin to the growing pile in the center. “You said you’re a trader.”
“Mechanical equipment,” Beard said, a bit too quick. “Ya know, engineer stuff.”
“Hmm… I happen to know a few exiled Icarian gearheads,” Marcel said, which, exempting the plurality, wasn’t actually a lie. In fact, the engineer was just a floor beneath them, waiting for the signal to strike. He thought on some of her esoteric ramblings. “Do you sell ætheric inverters, by chance?”
The man nodded, matching the bet. “Sure, sure, mate. Not on me at the moment.”
“How about…” Marcel threw some random technical sounds together in his head. “Sangleum reoxidating prelighters?”
“Have in the past,” Beard said. “But caravan’s empty.”
That settled it for Marcel. Between Beard’s twitchiness at the slaver talk and the holes in the man’s knowledge, he was certain enough that Mr. Beard was, in fact, Felik Rector. He faked a stretch and kicked his boot out, just far enough to knock a well-placed coin into a hole between the floorboards.
* * *
Down below in the steam-filled basement of the bar Sylvaine Pelletier was struggling to get the moisture out of her fur. Hair, damn it, hair! For over twenty years the young woman had been trying to purge from herself all the bestial slurs and insults her childhood bullies had drilled into her. Unfortunately, those children hadn’t been alone; it seemed all of society had been bent on reminding her of her fur, and her ears, and her claws, and her razor-sharp teeth. Even the oh-so-enlightened United Confederacy of the Citizens’ Resurgence had treated her with little more than bemused and begrudging tolerance, keen to subtly remind her, in too many ways to count, that no matter what she did, who she tried to become, she’d always be a Ferral, a beastwoman.
She shook her head, droplets of steam and sweat flying, and stared down at her glove. An ætherglove it was, the tool of an engineer, and she, the first Ferral engineer in recorded history. She’d almost be happy about that, if the cost of this position hadn’t been binding her will to the machinations of one Lazarus Roache.
With a sigh, she did her best to banish these thoughts and continued to grope around in the disorganized guts of the small turbine room. The bar, it seemed, had been built on a pre-Calamity powerplant, and was still providing æthericity to half the town. Poorly, by Sylvaine’s estimate, whoever had done the repairs had done a hack job, rusted pipes jutting in random directions, steam leaking from every coupling. It was a fetid steam too. She didn’t want to guess where they were getting the water, but it smelled tainted with sangleum and sewage. Gear’s-grits she was desperate to get out of here.
A clink and a clang. A coin bounced off pipes and metal casings and landed in a puddle near Sylvaine’s boots. She bent down and squinted in the dim. It was a frasc, a UCCR coin, Marcel’s signal that he was ready above.
Sylvaine closed her eyes and raised her glove. The task was simple. Overload the turbine and send a burst of steam upwards. It should provide just enough a distraction for Marcel and Kayip to apprehend Felik. With Kayip’s autotruck parked in the back of the bar, it would be an easy escape out of this troglyn’s armpit of a town. But that all depended on Sylvaine being able to precisely overload the turbine.
She sucked in her breath. It had been days since she had last tried some æthermantics, tried to manipulate the mechanical æthers to alter machines from a distance. It was the signature skill of engineers, a skill denied to Ferrals, but given to her by Roache’s miracle drug/mind-enslaving narcotic, slickdust.
Come on, this is easy. You’re in control. Sylvaine told herself. She let the power flow through her, first a trickle, then more. It moved through her blood, down veins and up arteries, round and round, energy pooling at the edge of her glove. It came surprisingly easy, intense but tame, and she focused it onto the machine, envisioning the required results, trying to manipulate the metal and machinery into her desired permutation. It was working, it was actually working! Stable and in control, she was the engineer she pretended to be, not just some failed bestial experiment by Lazarus—
The power erupted suddenly, violent and molten through her blood. The fine spark of æthericity became a thunderclap, and the machine she was manipulating burst in a sudden fury. She opened her eyes to see a wall of steam rushing towards her.
* * *
“Just a pair of dukes,” Marcel said, tossing his cards down right as the floor burst. He fell from his chair as men shouted and screamed, the calliope exploding on a high note, knocking the musician down as the entire room stormed with steam.
“Kayip now!” Marcel shouted, too stunned to stop himself from using the monk’s name.
He heard a scream through the sudden fog, as the monk charged somewhere. Sounds of fighting, grunts and punches. A man in blue rushed into view.
“Attacsh, attacsh!” the drunk principate soldier shouted. “Resurrrgence bomb, terrororists, getss the police!”
As the drunk stumbled out towards the door, a bottle was swung at Marcel’s head. He dodged the blow and responded with a gut punch. The assailant groaned and fell to the ground, staring up dazed at Marcel with one eye, the other lost behind an eyepatch.
“I have him!” Kayip shouted, as Marcel staggered forward. There was indeed a bald man in the monk’s hands, his face half-obscured by Kayip’s azure bracelet, and on that very confused face Marcel could see a bloodied tattoo of a naked woman and a needlecat.
“Not our guy!” Marcel yelled, as Felik’s footsteps rang out from the top of the stairwell. Rushing up the other direction, Sylvaine stumbled, panting, fur covered in wet soot, canine-like nose sopping.
“I’m sorry,” the Ferral engineer said. “I just, I was almost, I didn’t mean—”
“Upstairs!” Marcel shouted, running past her. Kayip dropped the tattooed man and followed.
A gunshot brought Marcel to a halt at the top of the stairs. He hid behind the bend as Felik fired off two more rounds.
“Are you hit?” Sylvaine asked as she caught up.
“I’m good,” Marcel said, pulling out a hand mirror from his pocket to glance round the corner. A trick he had learned during his time as a Resurgence scout. “Listen, Rector, we know you’ve been in contact with Lazarus Roache, just come with us and we can talk this all out peacefully.”
Four more gunshots was the man’s response. The fifth clinked empty. Felik cursed and dashed into a side room.
The trio rushed out, only for Felik to slam the door shut and locked it tight behind him. Marcel kicked the wood in fruitless frustration. Felik was the first and only good lead to that tycoon bastard who had brought ruin to Huile. Without him, they might be forced to wander the Wastes for another month blind, all the while Roache plotted whatever horrific revenge he had in store for Marcel’s home. They couldn’t afford to let the man slip.
Kayip began to mutter a prayer in his strange Church-tongue, rubbing his bracelet, but Sylvaine stepped forward.
“No, I can do this.”
The Ferral woman closed her eyes and put out her glove. Marcel thought he could hear her whisper something to herself. A flash, barely visible, and the door clicked open.
Kayip did not wait but burst through. Felik was on the other end of the bedroom, struggling to get the window open. He aimed his empty pistol and clinked off two impotent nothings. The monk screamed and charged forward, into Felik and then beyond, past glass and rotting wood, out the side of the inn.
“Gear’s-grits, Kayip!” Sylvaine said, as she rushed forward, Marcel running after her. She made the jump with ease, down to the alley below, landing beside the trash heap where Kayip and Felik had fallen. Felik had stumbled away and was grabbing for any piece of metal he could use as a weapon.
As for Marcel, the drop looked rather precarious for someone with a brass limb. He reached over to a gutter-pipe half-a-metre away, and started to straddle down, centimetre by centimetre. It was slow going, his cogleg strong, but not quite a lithe as one made of flesh. Using windowpanes and jutting bits of wood he managed to ease himself down the side of the building, just as Sylvaine and Kayip had corned Rector, who was waving about a rusted shower curtain as a desperate spear.
Marcel pulled out his Frasco six-shooter, a relic from his soldiering days, and aimed languidly in Felik’s direction.
“Okay, give it up Rector. It’s over,” he said.
Felik nodded, a grim look on his face. “’Suppose it is. For the four of us.”
“Freeze in the name of the Imperator!” came the shout from behind. Marcel turned to find half a squad of Principate military police, rifles aimed, bayonets glinted in the evening sun.
Just a minute more, and they would have been driving out of here.
“Well, shit,” Marcel said, dropping his pistol to the dusty road.
About the Author
Noah Lemelson is a sci-fi, fantasy, and “insert-modifier-here”-punk fiction writer, teacher, and writing instructor based in Los Angeles. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts in 2019, and before that got his B.A. in Biology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of two dieselpunk novels. His debut, The Sightless City, was released in 2019 by Tiny Fox Press, and earned First Place Award in the 2019 OMZA Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction, as well as positive reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers weekly. Its sequel, The Lioness and The Rat Queen was released in 2023. He also has numerous short stories published in online magazines such as Planet Scumm, Allegory, and The Los Suelos Anthology.
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