The cat who digs
the vibes of other cats
is a square who
needs to get with it.
Treasures of knowledge and stuff
Where am I?
-Creeper Poetry Reading by Brother Leo
Chapter Four: The Plot Thickens a Bit More
In his safehouse once more, with the door securely septuple-locked, Gary opened the letter, which the Creeper had somehow managed to write and seal in the space of a few seconds while totally without access to office supplies or sealing wax. It was just some more of that mysterious crap he hated. It said the following:
If you want to find out who hired Trout to kill you, go to the Mechalomaniac Sunday school in Eastport. There, try to focus less on swiping anything shiny and more on overhearing a conversation at a meeting there.
Typical Creeper smugness, thought Gary. He crumpled up the note and tossed it into his wastebasket. The thief then sat back and calmly surveyed his options. Let's see, he mused. I need to slip into a heavily-guarded Mechalomaniac Sunday school, patrolled by heavily armed religious fanatics and whatever royally weird technology those guys have dreamed up, be in a position to overhear a conversation held at an undisclosed location without being noticed, and slip out. Man, I miss the old days where I just had to nab a scepter.
That night, Gary peered up at the awe-inspiring and rather shiny facade of the Mechalomaniac School for the Children of Those Condemned to be Turned to Rust Prior to the Builder's Return. Gary was still confused as to why people sent their kids to this place after learning its name, but he supposed some parents would do anything to get the little scoundrels off their hands for an evening. The two prominent towers of the building were covered with a variety of friendly animatronic Mechalomaniac children doing various friendly things like building cameras, shaking hands, polishing gears, and decapitating Pagan children. The imposing iron doors bore the inscription Suffer the little children to come unto us...and learn a valuable career in the field of camera and robot repair. Gary took all of this in, shaking his head. Separation of church and state, he kept telling himself, was the only way to go.
Avoiding the watchful gaze of the sentries, Gary tiptoed out onto the pathway surrounding the building, wincing as he heard the faint clanging of metal. He could have bought a nice pair of sneakers, but noooo, he had to get the fancy black leather boots with the steel toes that made clanging noises all the time. He was so busy thinking about his poor footwear choices that he didn't notice the loud but distant clanging of metal on metal drawing nearer. Cursing his inner preppie, Gary made his way stealthily around the corner of the building to the right.
And froze. Not a hundred paces from where he stood, a glistening, hulking monstrosity was stumbling towards him. One liquid, gleaming eye speared the darkness like a beacon, while two massive arms, one bearing a crushing claw of iron and the other a gaping hole, poised to spit out projectiles of some kind, hung from its sides, prepared to put a sudden end to the zany exploits of any heathens in the immediate area. The squat, tanklike construct of its body was supported by a pair of sturdy legs that pumped with a pistonlike rhythm. Nearly the entire height of the machine was taken up by a huge, disapproving, and severely homely face that was, Gary came to realize, a gigantic version of those on the security cameras from Shoalsgate. The entire huge monstrosity thundered down the narrow alleyway that ran alongside the school, making the earth shake and rambling fanatical testaments to the Mechalomaniac way in an hard-to-place accent. It drew nearer, nearer still...after a moment it stopped moving and sagged. The light in its imposing eye dimmed. After a few minutes, a short Mechalomaniac, cursing, ran out of the building, gave the giant wind-up key protruding from the beast's side a few good hard turns, and went back inside.
The huge metal guard began to clunk towards him again. Gary cringed against the wall, sinking deeper into the shadows. He felt the earth below him shake as the robot passed by, skirting his hiding place by mere inches. The short Mechalomaniac sighed and darted back indoors. As the steady pounding of the mechanical creature's footfalls faded off into the distance, Gary took a moment to collect his thoughts.
"What the hell was that?!"
When nobody answered, Gary decided that it was just another thing to find out about here. But first, he had a conversation to eavesdrop on. Regaining his composure, Gary crept around the back of the Sunday school, working his way across the barren backyard, choked with tombs and a small cemetery. He easily avoided catching the attention of the Mechalomaniac nuns who stood guard on the rooftops, armed with crossbows. You just didn't screw with nuns, Gary reasoned. Eventually, he worked his way up an outdoor metal staircase that climbed the side of a meeting hall that extruded from the main building. This was where the conversation would take place, he was sure of it! He pressed his ear against the locked door and began to listen.
"Kletus will see you now, Sheriff."
Footsteps, followed by a door swinging open and shut.
"Well, praise the Builder 'n Housepainter, ye're a sight fer sore eyes, sheriff!"
Gary winced. In his world, there was no television and thus, no southern televangelists. This, however, was exactly what Kletus, the Mechalomaniac high priest, sounded like. This would be an annoying conversation, to say the least.
"Look," stammered Trout in a prissy manner that had probably gotten him in a lot of fights as a kid. "What exactly did you want to see me about, Kletus? You know I've had some bad experiences with schools."
"Shee-ucks, you're a man to get right to the point, Sheriff! Lemme show you a little 'ole number I like to call a Servant!"
"Er, I saw a few on my way in. They were very polite."
"Not that kind of servant! This one has a capital 'S' in front of it!"
There was a pause, followed by some footsteps, a muffled, rambling voice, and the occasional sound of someone walking into something.
"Er...that's one of the jaywalkers I delivered to you, right?"
"Right as rain, m'boy!"
"Only...um...why does he have a bucket nailed to his head?"
Kletus sounded just a little flustered.
"It ain't a bucket, Sheriff! Danged if that ain't a special, brainwashing mask that makes 'im obedient as a burrick chasin' an accordion!"
"Because it looks to me like you just took a normal person and nailed a bucket to his head."
Kletus began to sound a bit annoyed.
"Sheriff, give your 'ole pal Kletus some credit. Look, he'll do anything you set your mind on. Just command him!"
There was a clang, presumably caused by the Servant bumping into a wall.
"Jest set a while an' watch. Ummm....walk in a crooked line across the room. See? He did it! Ah...now...bump into that pillar."
There was another clang.
"See, he does whatever you ask 'im."
"It really looks like he just can't see with that bucket and bumps into things-"
"Ye're gettin' me riled, Sheriff. D'ye want the kickbacks or not?"
"Oh, no, the money's fine, really. It's just..."
I think you're a chicken-fried loon who has no business being outside a securely locked room, he thought.
"...I'm uncomfortable not being included in your full plan. I mean, when do I hear about your insidious plot?"
"Lawks, Sheriff, what makes you think I'm up to a dang 'ole thing like that? Maybe I just like to build meself giant robots and Servants that spit out gas that turns people to rust. But is what I do really so odd?"
Builder and Housepainter, yes.
"Er, no, I suppose not. What did you say about rust?"
"Ah, now that's the keen bit. Hang on a sec, I'll give you a demonstration. Um, stand back."
"I still think it's just a guy with a bucket nailed to his head."
"Shh! Now that we've got some volunteers-"
"Hey, man, you said there'd be an open bar!" came a third irate voice.
"Shut yer trap a sec, City boy! Now, watch what happens when I press this here switch."
There was a faint buzzing sound, followed by a hissing noise and a final clank.
There was a long, awkward pause.
"Um, Kletus," said the Sheriff cautiously. "Was that supposed to happen?"
Kletus mumbled something about a few bugs to be worked out.
"Only...well, that serv- oops, Servant of yours seems to have...let out some kind of red gas..."
"It was supposed to get that there prisoner, okay?!"
"Well, that's what I thought. Only the Servant itself kind of dissolved, so I thought maybe-"
"It didn't work, all right?! We're still workin' the kinks out of it! They'll be right as rain in a few days, Sheriff!"
"Hey, man, can I go now?" It was the third voice, that of the intended victim.
"Yeah, yeah. Get outta here."
"A weapon..." mused the Sheriff. He paused in thought for a moment. "It'd be a very good one. If it worked, that is."
"It will, Sheriff, it will! Just gimme some time and some more...volunteers."
"More people to nail buckets to, you mean?"
"Stop that! Those ain't buckets!"
"Right. Well, the money's good, so I'll do it. I'll give you the people you need to nail bu- to turn into Servants. People who won't be missed. Jehovah's witnesses. Sewage attendants. Immigrants. And you'll keep giving me lots and lots of money."
"AND don't. Tell. Anyone! For that, I'll give you...twenty or so subjects, and await your next payment to my account. I'll give you the prisoners after I've got the money."
Because I don't think a nut like you can be trusted with anything more valuable than lint.
"Because I don't trust you, Kletus. You're far too cunning and deceitful for me to keep up with."
"No, no, really. You're a snake in the grass. A charlatan. A real Janis!"
"Aw, git outta here, Sheriff!"
"Thought you'd never ask. Bye, Kletus."
There was the sound of Trout's footsteps walking toward the door. Gary flinched as he realized that the Sheriff was going to exit by the door he stood listening at! He looked about frantically for a means of escape, but there was no time. The huge metal door slammed into him, crushing him flat against the wall. Trout paused.
"Kletus," he queried.
"Did you just hear someone go 'urk'?"
"Probably just rats, Sheriff. Pesky varmints."
Trout said "Rats?!" under his breath and shook his head. Finally, he walked off, letting the door swing shut. Gary, wedged between the wall and the door, straightened himself out with a sigh of relief. After patting himself down and feeling for loose teeth, he paused as he heard Kletus continuing to talk, probably to a group of Mechalomaniacs assembled there.
"Now, fellas, I've just done two dang nice things at once! One! I got us twenty-some chickenshit nobodies to Servantize."
"Catchy verb, boss."
"Two! I've done got the Sheriff right where I want him now! He doesn't want anyone findin' out about this thing, but I can blackmail that tin star with my trusty 'ole wax cylinder machine! I done got our conversation even as it was goin' on! Listen!"
There was a click, followed by the raspy, recorded sound of the Sheriff.
"I still think it's just a guy with a bucket nailed to his-"
Kletus hastily cut the recording off.
"Anyway, I kin get that Trout fella to do whatever the hell I want by threatening to play this baby and bust that scandle 'o his right the hell open!"
"Yeah, Brother Maynard!"
"Won't playing it get us in trouble too?"
"Shaddup. And get this taken to our bank vault tomorrow. The safety deposit box key's in the west tower. Folks, we're adjourned. Now git the hell out!"
Gary flung himself over the wall and into the shadows before the tide of Mechalomaniacs leaving could slam the door into him again.
Panting in the bushes at the foot of the wall, Gary strained his ears until the Mechalomaniac footsteps receded into the dormitories at the rear of the school. Once he was entirely sure the coast was clear, the master thief whipped out his notepad and scrawled some new objectives on it.
To-Do List For Today:
Sneak into Mechalomaniac Sunday school: Done
Eavesdrop on Kletus' Plot-Advancing Conversation With Sheriff Trout: Done
Get Bank Vault Key in West Tower: Not Done Yet
Rob the Bastards Blind to Keep in Practice: Not Done Yet. Looking forward to it. Sneak Out: Not Done Yet
Gary shook his head. It'd seemed like a simple get in, overhear evil plans, get out mission, but noooo. Now he'd have to spend even more time skulking around this creepy place. He could handle haunted tombs and underground, lava-choked cities of ancient and undying evil, but Sunday Schools were too much even for him.
"At least," muttered Gary, "I can still knock people out. I'd hate to be deprived of that outlet for my frustrations."
He looked down at his notepad to see if he'd missed anything. To his horror, a new task had appeared:
Don't K.O. or Kill Anybody: Not Done Yet
Gary hastily erased it.
"Right," he said. "The key's in the West Tower, so I nab it, get that recording from the bank vault, and alert the public to this maniacal and downright unprofessional scheme."
"Or just blackmail Trout for a buttload of cash. Whatever."
With this dilemma settled, he crept off towards the Sunday School's back door.
After a few steps, Gary winced as he stumbled onto one of those damn metal paths the Mechalomaniacs always left lying about. He detoured off of it, opting for the quieter and more shadowy route through the small cemetery at the edge of the grounds. He paused by a tombstone as an evil, unearthly cackle split the night.
"Glad the stiffs around here still have a sense of humor," he quipped. He really hadn't been doing enough quipping of late, and it was time to get back in practice. Gary continued behind the building, laying low to avoid the nuns and edging between the school wall and the two small crypts next to the outer wall. He froze as he heard the ominous clanking of the huge metal beast rounding the corner. Not trusting the thing to overlook him a second time, Gary dove into one of the crypts, slammed the door shut behind him, and listened for the sounds of the mechanical guard's passing.
"Y'all are goan suffer fer the sins of the pagans, and the Builder, he spake saying 'RISE UP AND WALK! RISE UP AND WALK!' SO SPAKE THE BUILDER!"
Gary winced. He could recognize Kletus's obnoxious religious drawl now, and apparently the guard had been fitted with a recording of Kletus's for a voice. That made it dangerous and annoying.
"Builder, not again! This job doth bite the big one."
There was the faint sound of the key being wound up again.
"And the Builder did say, send your monetary contributions to-"
The sounds of the robot and its unhappy escort faded into the distance. Gary sighed with relief and eased open the crypt door. Or tried to. It was locked.
"What the hell-?" said Gary. He could understand crypt doors that locked from the inside, to keep enterprising gentlemen like himself out, but a door like this was surely meant to keep something in...
"Mrghlllaaaoooooh," said the zombie next to Gary.
"Frrrrrrrggyyyyyyyyaaaaghllllll," the zombie said.
Don't panic, thought Gary. Don't panic because it's one of those damn undead and you can evade them easily- except this is a confined space- but don't worry because it's really easy to kill- if I had holy water which I don't- but it's only a zombie, what's the worst it can do, really?
The zombie stumbled up to Gary and started chewing on his hood. Gary flinched away and stumbled backwards over a coffin while colorfully shouting "Waaaugh!"
"Gggggghhhhhhhrrrllllllhhhhh!" shouted the zombie angrily, and it charged at full speed (Which was about two miles per hour) towards its victim.
Realizing that he had to keep the heavy stone coffin between himself and his pursuer, Gary darted around the coffin again, making sure to move in the direction opposite the one the tomb's resident was taking. The zombie sluggishly chased Gary in a circle for a few minutes, after which the thief calmed down enough to try escape. Frantically drawing his sword, Gary swung with all his might at the lock on the tomb door. It bounced off without leaving a mark and became embedded in the zombie's shoulder.
"Whhhhhhnnnnnnnnnrrrrrrrrrrrrgggh!" shouted the zombie in protest.
"Great. Just great," muttered Gary, who wasn't taking this as seriously as he had a few minutes ago. He tugged at his sword, which remained embedded in the monster's shoulder. The zombie leaned forward and cuffed him with a decaying arm, knocking him back over the coffin. Gary landed wedged between the coffin and the wall, and desperately pushed out with his legs in an effort to clear some space for himself to stand in. The huge, ornately carven coffin slid across the room and slammed into the zombie, pinning it to the wall.
"Rrhhhhhhhhhnmnnnnnnnnnnfffh." complained the zombie. A cloud of dust, stirred up by all the action, drifted out of its mouth and nose.
Gary walked over and, with great straining, pulled his sword out of the zombie's shoulder.
"You have to get up pretty early in the morning to take on an intellect like mine, my unsavory friend."
His momentum from tugging the sword out caused him to fall backwards and through the trapdoor that the coffin had been concealing until it was pushed aside. The zombie, still trapped, was the only one to hear the irritated screaming and clattering, followed by the muffled thud that came from far below. It was also the only one to notice the cloud of dust that came wafting upwards through the hole, as if there had been a tremendous impact kicking up dust. The zombie took all this in. After a moment of thought, it tugged the lid off of the coffin, retrieved the false teeth stored within, inserted them, and said, "I say, that hooded chap seems to have had quite a tumble. I rather do resent his conduct, I'm afraid. I try to take his coat for him and he stabs me in the shoulder. Bloody strange way to accept hospitality, I should think."
Far, far below, in the catacombs deep beneath the Sunday school (there was a popular rumor among the pupils that previous uncooperative students were entombed there, but more knowledgeable parties believed it had something to do with the fact that the place used to be a cathedral), Gary lay facedown on the uneven stone floor, illuminated by shaft of gray light from above. Now and then he let out a small, keening grunt and twitched feebly. He remained in this state for quite some time, deciding unconsciously (quite literally so) that in all likelihood wakefulness wasn't a very good idea just then. Eventually, however, Gary's foolhardy nature prevailed and he blearily opened his eyes. According to some sort of universal law regarding people finding themselves in situations of this sort, Gary muttered, "Where am I?" When nobody answered, he struggled upright and took a look around. He was in an almost lightless series of vaults, that was for sure. Above him was... Gary looked up and memory reasserted itself, rather painfully. He decided to have another lie-down. A few minutes later, Gary sat up again, reflecting ruefully that he'd probably scored more knock-outs on himself these past few days than he had on other people.
Right. The first thing was to work his way through these catacombs and find some way into the lower levels of the school, then get to the west tower, nab the key, and get the hell out. No problem. Not having any way of indicating which direction to head in, Gary listened for any distant sounds of activity. His straining ears heard footsteps in the distance...farther off, there was some sort of clanking, probably another one of those damn robots...and something closer, too. It sounded like...rattling chains.
The rattling came closer. Suddenly, right in front of Gary, a horrific apparition emerged from the gloom. It was the size and shape of a man, but it had ceased to be human years, maybe centuries ago. It was clad in the rotting remnants of an M. C. Hammerite habit, which consisted of a lot of leather and quite a few fashionable studs. A fluorescent hood was draped over its head. The face of the being was a fleshless skull frozen in a permanent death grimace. A pair of dark sunglasses covered the dark sockets that used to house eyes. There was a huge, mace-like object in the right hand, a newfangled gadget called a microphone, Gary had been told. Around the beast's neck was the source of the rattling chain sound. It was a series of huge, cumbersome gold medallions. As it shuffled beneath one of the ancient arches that lined the chambers, it caught sight of Gary and stopped. With a creak, its jawbone popped down. It raised the microphone. There was a split second of silence. Then the haunt began to sing, with each verse punctuated by some impromptu dance moves.
Yo, I'm down in the vault wit' da rest o' my clan,
I wave to my homies, 'What be happenin, ma man?'
Flames all 'round joo, nuttin' but fire,
We're da cult to call 'f a catchy tune is your desire!
I'm da ghost wit da most! I'm hip an' I'm fly!
You need a flashy artist, well brutha I'm your guy!
I been dead a few millennia, but I ain't no square!
You got a haunted ca-te-drull, den homie I be there!
Hip-hop it'll never die, tho' sometimes we do,
Stick aroun' here too long, I just may cap you!
The party here goes on an' on, so boy don't have a cow,
Come quiet, dude, or I'll start yellin' 'JOIN US! JOIN US NOOOOOOWW!
Gary screamed. The haunt stopped rapping and looked down at Gary. Then it raised the microphone over its head like a club and swung violently. Gary hopped backwards thinking, It's trying to kill me. As long as it isn't singing anymore...
Trying to buy some time, the thief desperately swung his sword at the monstrosity's head. By sheer luck, the flat of the blade hit it in the face, breaking the dark glasses. With the shades dangling from its cowl, the haunt looked disapprovingly at Gary, then shoved him forcefully backwards with an open palm. Gary skidded across the rough stone floor and rolled out of the way just before the microphone slammed into the ground behind him. He rolled upright and began sprinting into the darkness. He could hear the hellish chant of the thing directly behind him:
Hey little dude don't run away;
I'm goan kill yew anyway!
Gary ran faster. Up ahead, at the edge of the gloom that filled the catacombs, he could make out a door. It was a huge, forbidding oak door, covered with metals, festooned with skulls, and adorned with various torches. It was the kind of door that would, without a doubt, swing open slowly and with an ominous creak, as if to say You can still slam me shut and run if you change your mind, nobody will think any less of you... With any luck at all, it led to the basement of the school, where he could work his way up to the tower and deal with good old-fashioned religious fanatics who stayed dead when you killed them and didn't do any singing apart from the occasional hymn and/or sacrificial chant. Ducking his head and lowering his shoulder like a battering ram, Gary charged at the door head-on.
He hit it with an impressive crack that caused little motes of dust to float down from the ancient wood. Stunned, the thief bounced back onto the cobblestones just as the haunt reached him, microphone raised. Before the fiend could strike, one of the torches, dislodged by the recent impact, tumbled out of its bracket and struck it on the head. As noted earlier in the story, any torch that doesn't open a secret passage is kept lit, and this was no exception. The monster burst into flames and stumbled backwards, letting out low, soulless wails that were a vast improvement over singing anyway. The wailing attracted another skeletal apparition from the shadows, who charged into the circle of firelight, screaming.
Hey mofo don't you tink you kin be settin' fire to us!
We got da skills an' we're da hippest ghosts dat ever was!
Huh! You can't have dis!
Gary screamed again, this time more in annoyance than fear. He thrust his sword out in front of him and barely deflected the first blow, catching a second one on the side of the head, falling over, crawling between the haunt's legs, and swinging wildly from behind. There was a clink as the blade dug into the thing's torso and bounced off the medallions it wore. It lurched backwards, away from the door.
"Ha!" shouted Gary. Still holding his sword, he started to do a triumphant dance which involved standing on his toes, sticking his arms out, and darting his head from side to side whilst going "Woo!" now and then. The fact that he did this in total darkness and no living being ever saw or documented it stands as a great blow to the art of physical comedy.
Resuming a semi-normal stance, Gary turned to the first haunt, which, despite still smoldering, was making an effort to stand. At that moment, he heard an ominous creak behind him. It sounded exactly like the sound a huge, forbidding oak door, covered with metals, festooned with skulls, and adorned with various torches would make when opening. He turned around to see a pair of Mechalomaniacs, alerted by the commotion, running at him with maces raised.
"Stay thy foul crime, blackhearted knave! We shall truly put the fear of the Master Builder and Housepainter into thee this day!"
"Aye, good brother, most certainly the sinful endeavors of this unlawful one will come to an abrupt and much-deserved end at our hands!"
Swinging their maces, which were shaped like the same windup key he'd seen sticking out of the back of the robot, they tried to flank Gary, who dodged wildly about.
"Ye shall taste the cold steel forged from the foundries of our Lord, and it shall purify ye with oblivion!"
"Thou hast no hope of escape from the most blessed sanctuary of our holy SHIT WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?"
One of them had caught sight of the haunt, which had put itself out and was standing up, dusting itself off thoughtfully.
"We shall smite thee and smite thee good BUILDER ON A BICYCLE, THAT'S THE UGLIEST DAMN SON-OF-A-BITCH I'VE EVER SEEN!"
The other haunt had regained its courage and got ready to attack the Mechalomaniacs. There was a creak which sounded exactly like a huge, forbidding oak door, covered with metals, festooned with skulls, and adorned with various torches swinging shut.
Gary leaned against the heavy door, catching his breath. On the other side, he could hear the muffled sounds of blunt objects hitting the door, some subdued shouts, and, very faintly, bad singing. On the whole, Gary reflected, it was far better to be on this side of the door. Ensuring the door was locked, the master thief stepped out of the shadows and surveyed his surroundings.
He was in the school's basement, all right. This room seemed to be a kind of elaborate workshop. It was filled with all manner of eldritch mechanical apparatus- bronze faces strewn across tabletops, silver gears of all shapes and sizes hanging from walls, even the occasional semi-complete clockwork guard lying on the floor. Gary recognized components from several of the security devices that he'd come to associate with the Mechalomaniacs. Among the complex charts and diagrams, a single letter stood out.
The Builder and Housepainter's light of inspiration has most surely granted me the solution to the flaw that has plagued the Stepchildren of Kletus! Truly, their rather limited range and inability to function without the aid of a dedicated acolyte have proved an unholy hindrance to the crusade they take part in, and a new source of power has been needed for some time. Father Kletus need only grant me some of his blessed time and I shall show him the wonder, the revolutionary portable energy source, that shall deliver His Stepchildren to new levels of holy vigilance and spare our endeavors to crush the heathens from new delays.
P.S. Also, I have also figured out why the heads in the animatronic display keep exploding. Will take steps to correct.
Gary put down the letter shakily. Those walking scrap piles were disorienting enough when they ground to a halt every few minutes. It was terrifying to imagine them clunking about under full power. Especially with that unbearable accent...Ugh. Gary looked the room over again, this time with his special "Wealth Appraisal" gaze. Deciding that everything was too damn creepy to be worth stealing, he walked across the room and through the lamp-lit arch on the opposite side.
The next room was a long, narrow one, crammed with austere bunks and dimly lit by flickering gas lamps. It looked like the sleeping quarters for the Mechs. It was also deserted. Funny, thought Gary. No matter what hour I break into these places at, I never catch more than one or two people asleep. Either people are drinking a lot of coffee these days, or everyone in The City's sleeping during the day because they're on alert for me during peak thieving hours. He paused to consider the impact of this. Well, I am pretty damn good, at that.
Cautiously, the thief climbed the stairwell at the opposite end of the room, tentatively eased open the door at the top, and peered into the massive main room of the Mechalomaniac School for the Children of Those Condemned to be Turned to Rust Prior to the Builder's Return. It was, to make a pair of understatements, rather large and rather imposing. The entire first floor of the former seminary and a bit of the second had been turned into a single huge room lined with pews. Huge statues of St. Yorick The Good at Spackling, St. Attilla The Bringer of the Waterproof Patio Finish, St. Deneb The Lender of Hammers, St. Lennon The Handy With a Crescent Wrench, and other Mechalomaniac saints lined niches in the walls. At the front of the room, in front of the main doors and a bit, was a large blackboard. On it were the Seventeen Most Holy Commandments of The Master Builder and Housepainter, instructions for constructing a simple automatic cannon to be mounted on your front porch and keep solicitors away, and a small, unflattering cartoon of someone whose name was apparently "Sizter Agatha", if the caption was any judge. Dangling above the entire panorama, against a very impressive backdrop of stained glass, was a statue of the Builder and Housepainter as depicted just before his famous rise to the heavens. He was on the verge of tumbling off a ladder with a claw hammer in one hand, a paint brush in the other, and several nails grasped in his mouth. Some cynics had claimed he hadn't ascended at all, he'd just fallen off the ladder one too many times, given up being a handyman, and gone to Blackbrook to be a musician.** This theory had been short-lived, though, as were the cynics themselves.
**The possibility of the Builder and Houspainter's becoming a musician had inspired some of the more unusual aspects of the M. C. Hammerite faith, of which the more orthodox Mechalomaniacs were a recent offshoot.
Gary's gaze swept over this scene casually, decided that the statues were too big to steal and the windows were too difficult to remove intact, and dismissed it all. It also noted the very businesslike nuns who kept watch over the vast display, looking as if they'd just love for some naughty little boy to try swiping an eraser. Certain that he couldn't be seen, Gary darted out of the doorway and rolled behind a pulpit at the rear of the building. To his satisfaction, it was covered with easily-pocketed trinkets that some chumps would pay an arm and a leg for if they were marketed as "collectible". This job was starting to pay off. As Gary tidied up the pulpit, he could just make out the conversations of two of the nuns.
"-really gets me riled is the way that bleedin' Baron is passing all these bleedin' laws on corporal punishment!."
"Yea, Sister, 'tis a blow to the might of our order that hot tar is no longer an acceptable penalty for speaking out of turn."
"Why, when I was a kid, me friends'n I woulda loved to get off easy as kids today do. Something as bleedin' mild as hot tar was our idear of 'eaven back in those days."
"Thou art correct."
"If me 'ole mum could see me now, restricted to things like blunt instruments, sensory deprivation...hardly worth comin' in in the morning."
"Sister Tarquin, thy speech has become befuddled again!"
"Ah, bugger. Ahem! Verily, a pox upon the land, these delinquents."
"Thou doth sound much more normal now, Sister."
Gary, meanwhile, had finished cleaning out the back of the room and had worked his way to the door at the base of the Western tower. Taking a deep breath, he eased the door open, suddenly quite sure it would squeak and give him away. Amazingly, his psychic abilities were just bang-on that day, because it did. Both nuns broke off their conversation and turned his way. Partially hidden by the shadows, Gary stood straight up in what he hoped was a nunnish pose.
"Sister Piglet, is that thou?"
Gary did his best to raise his voice an octave or two.
"Aye, it is I."
There was a skeptical pause.
"'Aye, it is I'?"
"She doth not sound like herself, Sister Tarquin."
"Bugger this for a bag of crisps."
"Ahem! Yea, you speak sooth, kind Sister."
They looked up and addressed the shadows again.
"Art thou in a proper holy state this ever, Sister Piglet?"
"What heresy is this? But soft, if I am of unclean disposition, let the hand of Kletus wrest my soul from my earthly form post haste!"
This reply did not, in fact, come from the shadows, but from the staircase behind them. There was another pause, one that promised unpleasantness when it was over.
"If you're over there..."
All three nuns turned towards the door to the West Tower. The open door to the West Tower.
Grabbing their crossbows, they sprinted upstairs at speeds that would make a Kenyan track coach rave.
Gary recklessly clambered hand over hand up the ladder and pulled himself awkwardly into the room at the top of the West Tower. It was a rather nicely decorated sort of loft, with a throw rug, hunting trophies on the walls, and a balcony that overlooked the wall encircling the school. It was rather a lot of trouble to go to for such a disappointing view, Gary thought. He spotted what could only be the key to the Mechalomaniac's bank vault on a desk near the center of the room, and reached forward to grab it. He stopped short when his senses finally registered the nun standing on the balcony, either taking in the night air (which in this industrial era was like the day air, but a bit more opaque) or admiring the brickwork done on the outer wall. Gary drew his blackjack and strode across the throw rug towards his oblivious victim, making no noise at all.
I oughtta carry one of these around with me during jobs. That way I could finally rob a place wearing my lucky tap shoes.
He stopped behind the nun, who hadn't moved during all this, and had, in fact, been standing there motionless for the past two-and-a-half-days. Lousy though the view was, it was the only one available in this dismal place, and damned if she wasn't going to enjoy it for as long as possible. The blackjack fell with a thunk. The nun lolled forwards and toppled off of the balcony towards the metal-lined courtyard below. Gary leaned out after her and winced. A faint CLANG! echoed upwards.
"Sorry!" called Gary softly.
He turned around just in time to see Sister Tarquin kick in the door. Knowing that he didn't stand a chance in close quarters against three crossbow-toting nuns, Gary hurled himself against the door, slamming it shut. He smashed the handle off with the hilt of his sword and hastily pushed the desk up against it, pocketing the key as he went.
"Now all I have to do is make an impression of this in wax in the art room, carve a wooden replica based upon the wax impression in the new wing devoted to wood shop, and use the tools from metal shop to fashion a clever duplicate, before replacing the original key and leaving no one the wiser."
The door shuddered as four hundred pounds (total) of angry nun slammed up against it.
"Then again, they may suspect I was here anyway. To hell with subterfuge."
Gary stepped towards the trapdoor when the door finally gave way, causing the nuns to pop into the room like an irate, religious, heavily-armed jack-in-the-box with schizophrenia. The desk rocketed across the room, covering the trapdoor and knocking Gary backwards as he fumbled to get his bow out. By some miracle, an arrow was already nocked. The nuns charged over the desk, firing their crossbows and shouting out holy reprimands as Gary tripped over the throw rug, turning his off-balance stumble into a full-fledged backwards dive.
Something flashed behind Gary's eyes as time seemed to slow down. The thief could faintly hear his own slow, slow heartbeat as he cascaded headlong through space. The crossbow bolts drifted through the air all around him, nicking his cloak and missing his face by inches. Gary, still flying shoulders-first through the void, slowly lined up his bow sights at Sister Tarquin. He released his finger from the bowstring. And it was all over.
Reality reasserted itself with a crash, or, to be accurate, two crashes and a series of pinging noises. Gary's dive carried him over the edge of the balcony and into the inky blackness below. His dexterously-fired arrow hit Sister Tarquin's rosary dead-on, knocking her, relatively unhurt, back across the desk and onto her two companions. All this jarring made the desk topple forwards, uncovering the trapdoor and causing the nuns to unceremoniously fall through it.
Fortunately, Gary's fall was broken by the nun he'd blackjacked earlier.***
***Not to worry, though, because she miraculously escaped without a scratch aside from a mild concussion. Convinced that she had been saved from certain death by divine providence, she went on to form another increasingly popular sect of the Mechalomaniac faith, which today remains embroiled in a holy war with various rivals, providing numerous martyrdom opportunities for the eager young Citygoer. So it all worked out for the best.
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