Mike Wild

Engines of the Apocalypse

Chapter One

The end of the world began with a scream. A very high-pitched, girly scream.

Not Kali, then. She wasn't a girly scream kind of girl.

No, the scream in question came from her guide, one Maladorus Slack, hired only hours before in the Spider's Eyes when he'd claimed to know the location of a lost passage leading directly to the fourth level of Quinking's Depths. It was an audacious claim and it wasn't every day Kali trusted the word of some ratty little chancer in a seedy tavern, but there had been something in the way he made it — with wariness as well as greed in his eyes — that had made her take a gamble and hand over fifty full silver for the privilege of having him share what he knew.

As it turned out, it was money well spent, Slack guiding her at twilight into a cave in the hills above Solnos and, deep within, tearing creepers off an ancient cryptoblock he swore, once unlocked, would enable her to bypass the Depths' upper levels and find treasure of such value that she might, as he put it, come over all tremblous in the underknicks. Kali had been forced to have words with him about this, pointing out that it was her business what went on in her underknicks and also, while she had him pinned against the wall, that she wasn't your common or garden tomb raider doing what she did for the money. Unless her taxes were due, of course.

Later, she would feel a bit bad that Slack had spent some of his final moments being throttled, especially when she recalled the hungry roar that followed the poor sod's scream. Not that what happened to him was her fault. Nor Slack's. In fact, there was no way either of them could have guessed what was going to happen after she picked up the Claws.

Okay, okay, okay, she'd been at this game long enough so perhaps she should have known better. Perhaps, given the way things had been going until then, she should have sensed the whole thing was going to go tits up.

'This cryptoblock…' Slack had queried as she worked on the numerous etched blocks that formed the seal. The conditions in the cave were cramped, and he was balanced awkwardly between the skeletal remains of earlier treasure seekers who had found their way to the threshold, trying to ignore the fact that all their bones were utterly and inexplicably shattered. 'It is some kind of puzzle, yes?'

'Not some kind of puzzle,' she replied. 'A very specific kind.'

'You have seen such puzzles before?'

'Once or twice. Cryptoblock seals are typical of an ancient race called the dwarves.'

'The Old Race?' Slack said. 'Tall with pointy ears and bows?'

Kali sighed, but took time to set the man straight because he had at least heard of the Old Races, which was more than could be said of most people on the peninsula, especially out here in the sticks. 'No, the other lot. Short-arsed with attitude and axes.'

'But surely both are stories for the children, yes? These Old Races did not exist?'

'Oh, you'd be surprised…'

Slack sniffed. It was the kind of rattling snort where you could hear the contents of his nostrils slap wetly against his brain and Kali grimaced in distaste. But the man seemed to accept the truth of what she was saying.

'The dwarves. They were supposed to have been masters of deadly traps, were they not?'

'Not supposed.'

'Then this door is a trap?'

Kali glanced at the skeletons on the floor of the cave. 'Either that or these guys had a very bad case of the jitters.'

Slack glanced fearfully around the cave, looking for hidden devices.

'You won't see a thing,' Kali advised. 'They were master engineers, too.'

'You do know what you are doing?'

'Wish I did,' Kali said. She ran a finger down the join between two blocks, concentrating hard, tongue protruding between teeth. 'Trouble is, no two cryptoblocks are the same… springs, balances, counterbalances… you just have to feel your way around.' She gasped as something suddenly sprang inside the cryptoblock and slammed together where she delved. 'Farker!' She cursed, whipping out her fingers and sucking their tips. Then she almost casually grabbed Slack's sleeve and pulled him aside as a solid stone fist the size of an outhouse punched down from the cave roof onto the spot where he'd stood, reducing what remained of the skeletons to dust. With a grinding of hidden gears, the fist retracted, and Kali returned to her work, smiling slightly as Slack had, himself, come over all something in the underknicks, a small stain forming on the front of his pants.

'Sorry about that,' she said, wrinkling her nose. 'Might be a while.'

She'd worked diligently on the puzzle well into the night, Slack staring warily about him all the time, flinching or whimpering each time there was a click, clunk or clack from the door. At last, though, there was a sound that was different to the others — somehow final — and, as he watched, Kali stood back with a sigh of satisfaction, brushing the dust off her hands.

Slack regarded her and the cryptoblock with some puzzlement, because, at first, nothing happened. Then, with a soft rumbling and puffs of ancient dust, the blocks making up the door began to punch in and out. Some then slid behind those next to them, which in turn slid in front of others next to themselves. Yet more ground up or down, obscuring or obscured by their neighbours, or simply retracted backwards into darkness, never to be seen again. The movements became faster and more complex, the cryptoblock shrinking all the time, until at last all that remained was a single block, floating in the air, which Kali grabbed and casually tossed aside. Slack found himself staring at the discarded stone.

'I do not understand,' he said. 'It is gone. How can it be gone?'

Kali frowned. Questions, always questions. 'Translocation mechanics,' she said, adding in response to his puzzled stare, 'It's a dimension thing.' It might well have been, for all she knew; the truth was, despite having cracked a few of these bastards, she really hadn't a clue where they went.

Luckily, Slack hadn't been interested in analysing her statement too deeply. His attention had been side- tracked by the passage that lay beyond the cryptoblock, and the ore that glittered in its walls. It was only triviam, all but worthless, but its shine held the promise of greater things, and as Slack wiped sweat from his lips with his arm, she frowned. The man might have saved her the trouble of negotiating the first three levels of the Depths, but there was a growing air about him suggesting that, while he'd been happy to guide her to the cryptoblock, he'd never really expected her to open it, and now that she had was having second thoughts about who deserved the treasure beyond. Her suspicions were confirmed as Slack raced ahead of her into the opening.

Kali cursed and threw herself forward, grabbing his tunic from behind — just in time, as it turned out. Slack was already skidding helplessly down a sharp incline and, now a dead weight on the end of her arm, wrenched Kali onto her stomach and pulled her down after him. The stone floor of the passage was rough beneath her, tearing her dark silk bodysuit, and grazing her exposed torso with sharp scree. She ignored the pain, concentrating instead on jamming her legs against the sides of the narrow incline in an effort to slow their progress. The walls tore at her ankles, stripping them of skin, but she ignored this,too, groaning as she stretched out her other hand to get a firmer grip on Slack. He suddenly yelped and lurched, and Kali willed all her weight onto the floor of the incline, praying for enough traction. She was yanked forward and her arms were almost pulled from their sockets, but the two of them came, at last, to a tentative stop — again, not a moment too soon. Kali sighed. Below her, Slack dangled over a seemingly bottomless abyss, too terrified to struggle or even object to the rain of stones that bounced off him, clattering down into the dark.

Kali twisted herself into a stable position and heaved him up. 'Looks like I need to keep an eye on you in

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