Letters Beyond

by Cassie Gustafson


bampw-black-and-white-fog-forest-mist-Favim.com-416041


November 16th, 1889

My dearest Thomas,

Oh, how I wish the events of the past week had turned out differently, that time had split to alter the path we lead. But even as I type these words, I know that it cannot be, that you cannot be. I can see you shake your head of curls and hear your voice infused with mirth: “Silly Nette. It’s contrary to logic! The past cannot be rerouted by mere emotions and whimsical desires. Imagine the chaos that would ensue were such a scenario possible. Lines of time diverting and arching all over Londres, nay, the world!” You are, of course, correct on all counts, my wise friend. Mistress Fate has raised her cruel gavel and brought it down in finality and without mercy.

I just wish that a world, any world, could exist with you still in it.

It is as if a phantom possessed operates this typewriter, one that haunts my dreams, both waking and in sleep. Certainly I cannot presume to understand the complexities of the afterlife, though perhaps an apparition does watch over me and urge me ever forward. You. My heart compels me to write out the events of the week prior, to account, and therefore atone, for my sins through each and every excruciating detail. After all, is not what happened to you all my fault?

It began with a plan—an idiotic, harebrained, fool-of-a-plan that only someone as imprudent as myself could have invented. This plan, I shared it with you and Jones over our usual table of drinks at Rowlings.

 

***

Out of breath, I paused to survey my audience. Jones, forever the refined—and overly tailored—gentleman, sipped at his brandy. Some part of my mind suspected that his silky burgundy waistcoat cost more than my schoolbooks for the term, let alone his top hat. You, antithesis of Jones, sat hunched over your latest project in your usual eccentric ensemble of leather waistcoat and trousers, all the while gulping down several ale-and-cordials—blackberry if my memory serves me. My own tonic and spirits sat fizzing and untouched in front of me for naturally I had just risen to give what I imagined to be a rousing speech.

As always, Jones was the first to protest. “Good heavens, Annette. It is simply not allowed. How many times must we go over this?” He sat draped in his chair, legs crossed at the ankle, his glass in one hand, cane tapping out his indignation with the other.

“My good man,” I said, voice alight with passion. “It is precisely because it is not allowed that such a plan need undertaking in the first right! For I declare that tyrannical kings can keep us down no longer!” For effect, I took a very unladylike swig of my drink then slammed down the glass tumbler and plopped into my chair. The bones of my corset bit into my hips but my stoic face remained.

“Nette, please keep your voice down. The Mysts may hear you.” This came from you, Tommy, always the worrywart. You looked up through those dark curls of yours just long enough to cast a nervous glance over your shoulder before returning to your project. A pile of rusted metal fittings and tiny gears lay before you, though somehow your nimble fingers always seemed to know just what to do with such things.

I glanced over at the few other patrons, none of whom paid us any heed—a queer band from Université de Londres. Besides, they all knew us by name here. And if a Myst were to enter a shabby place like Rowlings, every soul would know for it could not hide the whirr of its internal gears, the metallic click in every step, the mists that seemed to emanate from it, or the unnatural glow to its crimson eyes. Only aether-power could do that last bit, and aether was the most expensive resource known in all His Royal Majesty’s Empire français.

I lowered my voice. “I will keep my voice down as soon as you two dandies agree to accompany me on this daring venture. You are always saying we need to take action, and here it is, laid in front of you like a suckling pig and still you refuse to partake.”

“What exactly is it that you hope to accomplish?” Jones asked. “Say we march up to this wall you speak of, at the edge of the King’s forest, having somehow managed to remain unseen and unscathed by the Mysts. And then what?”

“And then we spy and discover what it is he is hiding in there.” My voice betrayed my eagerness. “If the rumors are true and he’s amassing a large fortune behind The Wall, then someone could seize it. And if someone were to seize it, then King Nappy’s empire may be weakened enough for someone to….”

“What,” Jones scoffed, “overthrow the King? Might I remind you, the Napoleon Empire has endured for nearly a century? It cannot be done.”

“Will you venture with me to The Wall or not?”

“But the dangers, Nette,” you added. “La Brume is heavily guarded. If they even found us by The Wall…. You know what the Mysts do to trespassers.”

“Well, technically,” Jones cut in, “we don’t really know what happens to them, do we? Because they never bloody well return.”

A quiet hush fell over the table. Every citoyen français had heard the tales of what happened after dark in the Forest of La Brume, in the mist.Jones broke the silence. “But why, Annette? Even if the rumors are true, why risk our necks to see over a wall?”“Because I must,” I said simply.

In that moment, you looked up at me from your tinkering, your eyes fixed intently on my face as you had so often done whenever I spoke of The Wall and La Brume. Your fixed gaze sent the chilling thought once again crashing through me: He knows. But as I always did in these moments, I reassured myself that you could not possibly know what I hid in the darkest corners of my heart. But how much did you suspect? For undoubtedly, the inklings of suspicion had formed inside you: Of why I had come up with such a seemingly foolhardy plan just to see a wall, why I listened for the rumors of La Brume with careful ears, why I would stop at nothing until I discovered what I needed to know. You tore your eyes away, returning to your tinkerings without a word.

The mounted gas lamps flickered in unison. Jones sighed heavily, glancing around the now-empty bar then down at his pocket watch. “Blast, it’s nearly Mandate. Time to head back.

Outside, the clouds hung low with fog and the promise of rain. Mist swirled around us, clinging to the hem of our cloaks as we walked quickly through the cobblestone streets toward the dormitories. Gas lamps flickered from atop their posts, spilling an eerie yellow light. Not surprisingly, the streets were empty this close to Mandate.

You kept glancing around at the mist with nervous eyes, your arms clutching your precious project to your chest. Forever-valiant Jones strode ahead in a nonchalant fashion, though he gripped his walking stick with white fingers. My breath came in short, shallow pulls, having little to do with my corset and everything to do with the gathering mists.

When we had nearly reached the women’s dormitory, I knew it was now or never. It was time to play the Aces up my sleeve. Of course, I had been working on you both for months now, whittling down your defenses, though I could only hope my final proposition would be enough.

“All right gentlemen,” I began before the two of you could hurry off to the men’s dormitory. “If you refuse to consider my proposal for the sheer adventure of it all, perhaps bribery will sway you.”

You both turned to face me. How insane I must have looked in that moment, standing on the stoop, arms crossed over my cloak, strands of loose hair whipping in the wind. I hoped you saw determination, not desperation, in my stance though both emotions moved through me in equal measure.

Jones’s face showed surprise mixed with intrigue. Your face, dear Tommy, I could not read, cast as it was in shadow. What were you thinking in that moment? I only wish I would have asked.

Jones crossed his arms over his chest, cane tapping against the side of his cloak. “And just what manner of bribery did you have in mind?”

“My good man, let me be frank. You are failing history yet again. If you do not increase your performance in the coming months, you will be placed on academic suspension or, worse, asked to leave Université. I, on the other hand, am a master Historian. And so, Jones, I bequeath to you the promise of tutelage in history for a full year’s time.”

His mouth fell open—owing to my forthrightness or my offer, I did not wait to hear.

“Of course, this means I will have to endure your self-righteous company for extra hours of the day, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.” I turned to you. “Tommy, I bequeath to you my most prized possession, the brass spyglass grandfather brought me back from his travels. I know you fell in love with it from the moment you laid eyes on it, though I give it to you now.”

Perhaps the excitement of it all was too much for you froze. I doubt you were even breathing. I, too, held my breath, for time and my grandfather’s gift were everything I had to my name. If you two were to accept my offers, I knew it would cost me dearly.

Or so I thought at the time, before I knew what costing one dearly truly meant.

“So let me get this straight,” Jones said slowly. “This tutelage and this spyglass thing for Tommy, you would give them freely in exchange for us peaking over a wall?”

I nodded. “More or less. So, what do you say, gentlemen? Will you go with me?”

You still had not said a word, Tommy, though you eyed the advancing mist from the corner of your eye with growing unease. Jones stood next to you, seemingly indifferent to the mist, arms still crossed.

After a long pause, Jones spoke. “Annette, as much as it pains me to reject your offer, I would rather be unceremoniously flung from Université and branded a disgrace to my family than be a dead man.”

With a sinking heart, I turned my gaze to you, but you stood motionless and silent in the dark. Before I would admit defeat, I knew I had to play my final card: The Ace of Curiosity.

“And what if I promised to let you in on what I’ve been up to for the past several months?” Both your heads snapped in my direction. Lowering my voice, I added, “I know you’ve both seen me sneaking out after Mandate in all hours of the night. At great personal risk, I might add. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? Well, let me show you. Follow me, gentlemen!” I pulled open the door and began ascending the stairs.

“Follow you to your…” Jones huffed, “Into a girl’s dormitory! The impropriety…!”

As luck would have it, the sudden tolling of the Mandate bell decided it, giving you both little choice but to step inside. Behind the closing door, the faint whirring of gears and clicking of metal already began to sound in the distance.

The hallway was empty, lights extinguishing with pops under the row of doors that lined either side. For the citizens in Londres, Mandate was law, instilling hysterical fear and unwavering obedience in its adherents.

Jones humph-ed and hmm-ed his discomfit as you both followed me down the hallway towards the far end. When I glanced back at you, your expression surprised me. Instead of the worry I’d been expecting, your face wore a deep, contemplative look.

Turning my attention to unlocking my dormitory door, I knew it was time to show you everything.

The room we entered was small, though tidy. A made bed lay in the far corner opposite a worn writing desk. Between the two was a window, its thick shades drawn. Nearest the door sat a squat wardrobe stacked with piles upon piles of books. Though neither of you had yet laid eyes on it, this room had been my home for the past three years at Université.

After you’d both entered and the door had been locked behind you, I wasted no time. Striding across the room, I flipped the mattress up and off the bed, exposing the stockpile of two-dozen weapons and gadgets beneath.

“Good heavens, Annette!” Jones stumbled back against the closed door, clutching his cloak in his hands, face draining of color. “Where in Londres did you manage to acquire a single weapon, let alone all that?”

Something had stayed your tongue, Tommy. Curiosity, perhaps? Cloak still on, you moved forward, carefully setting the contents of your project onto the floor. Then you knelt down to rummage amongst the pile, finally selecting a brass heart on a chain. You held it up to your ear, though no mechanical clicking sounded, and turned to me with questioning eyes.

“A SafeHeart,” I explained. “It activates if your own stops beating.”

Without comment, you placed the chain around your neck. Jones, recovering from his initial shock, followed your lead, reaching into the pile and pulling free from its leather sheath a sword made of strange metal. He weighed it in both hands before raising an eyebrow.

“A tinna sword,” I explained, “forged from the strongest alloys available. It will cut through any metal, or so I’ve been told.” I could not help smiling at his look of shock.

“So this is why you’ve been stealing off into the night, Annette? To collect all this?” Jones swept a hand over the weapons. “And might I ask how the daughter of a merchant can afford such things?” He stopped and shook his head. “No, no, don’t… don’t tell me.”

“And this?” You raised a tiny egg-shaped metal sphere.

I started forward and plucked the object from your palm. “Careful with that one. It’s either a steam capsule, defer explosive, or… Ah yes, a barb.” Twisting the sphere, I threw it hastily into the mattress that leaned against the wall. Mid-air, dozens of razor-sharp spikes sprang from the object, imbedding it deep into the mattress’s side.

“All this to see a bloody wall?” Jones asked.

I studied the floor. “For you, perhaps, but not for me.”

The room stood quiet a moment.

Realization dawned, first in you, Tommy, then Jones. You both slowly turned to face me.

“By the heavens above, you’re serious,” Jones remarked, shaking his head. “You really mean to go inside. And all this time I’d assumed you were bluffing.”

“Why, Nette?” you asked in a quiet voice, though perhaps you already knew. Did you ask merely to confirm your suspicions?

“Because I made a promise. I must know what lay inside The Wall,” I said simply. “It’s important, Tommy. If the rumors are true, all of Londres may depend on our going inside.”

Jones scoffed. “What rumors? Surely you’re not still referring to that nonsense about the ‘gold hidden in the mist’?”

“There is only one way to find out,” I said. “Besides, how else does King Nappy pay for the aether that powers all those Mysts? Even he’s not that wealthy. We’ll just go have a look….”

“Oh, King Napoleon would surely stand for that,” Jones interrupted in a mocking tone. “Let’s write him a letter, shall we? ‘Dear King Nappy, we know you are busy on your throne in Château de Versailles eating cakes, beheading innocents, and what-not, but we wanted to inform you that your tyrannical rule is alive and well here in good old Londres, and in no way compromised by three young scholars traipsing through La Brume on a wild goose chase searching for glittering mounds of hidden treasure. So no need to worry yourself, or send more Myst troops. Sincerely, one refined gentleman, one tinker eccentric, and one red-headed whim-chaser who is trying her damnedest to get us all killed.’”“Must you always be so dramatic, Jones?” I huffed.“Must you always be so secretive, Annette?” he retorted. “Why not tell us your reasoning behind this insane quest?” “I cannot.” My voice was the size of a mouse. “I’m sorry, dear friends. Believe me. I wish I could. But it is better for you two if you do not know my reasoning. If we were ever to get caught, it would be safer for you not to know.”“Well, that’s bloody comforting,” Jones grumbled.A weighty silence followed.Jones’s resistance was certainly not surprising. On the contrary, he had every reason in the world to feel unnerved. Getting caught near The Wall was punishable by death. If one were to get caught climbing over The Wall or, heaven forbid, inside the Forest of La Brume…. Well, as Jones had said, no one ever came back. And yet, you both knew me well enough to know when I was serious, that I would go alone if I had to.

Your eyes once again found mine, burning into me with a strange depth, an understanding. Was it in that moment that you knew my reasons?

You were the first to speak. “You would go alone, yes? If we do not join you?”

I nodded once. “I must go.”

“And there is nothing we can do to stop you,” you added. It was not a question.

I shook my head.

You gave a slight nod. “Then, as your friend, I must go with you.”

Jones stared at you with incredulity. “But… but…” he sputtered. “Friendship is all well and good, Tommy-boy, but what we are speaking of is certain death! Venturing to The Wall is one thing, but to go inside? It is nothing short of insanity!”

“You would rather her go at it alone?” you asked.

Jones huffed. “Well, come now, I didn’t mean… it’s just that the risks…”

You turned, giving Jones a mirthless smile. “Why Jones, don’t tell me the mist has stolen your valor?”

The irony that this comment came from you was not lost on Jones or myself. For you feared the night mist, not to mention its mechanical creatures, above all else.

Jones’s chest swelled with outrage. “Of course not! The very foundation of my ancestors was built with bricks of valor and mortar of heroism! I was simply outlining the risks involved. Certain death, mind you. Though, of course, if you, Tommy-the-Tinker, will agree to such a plan then I, Jones Kensington, will certainly take this call to arms, no matter the personal sacrifice!” Somewhat out of breath he pointed at me. “But it better be damn fine tutelage from you.”

You nodded at me. “Then it’s settled.”

With a rush of relief, I realized you would both join me, as I’d always hoped; that, above all, the love and kinship that had grown between us in the past three years had helped sway you both to my side. I beamed over at Jones, cloak in hand like a matador, then down at you, Tommy, huddled in your own cloak next to my uprooted bed, fingers still clasped around the SafeHeart. I could have kissed you both.

“It is rather a fine spyglass,” you said, forcing a laugh from me.

“So what do you propose, my dear, insane Annette?” Jones asked. “I’m assuming you would not send us gallivanting off into the night to face armies of Mysts without an adequate plan?”

A crooked smile lit my face. “A plan, you say? I’m glad you asked.” I walked over to the battered desk and pressed an obscure section of ornamentation. A secret panel slid open on the side. From it, I pulled free several small rolls of parchment. Holding it skyward, I turned to face the two of you. “Gentlemen, meet The Plan.”

***

Time flew as we made our preparations. I shared with you everything I had acquired—the intricate gadgets and weapons, even the detailed charts. These I had painstakingly constructed while spying on the Mysts as they marched in unison around The Wall’s perimeter that held the forest of La Brume. Most importantly, I shared with you the rumors I had heard concerning The La Brume. Then together, sneaking out after Mandate, we’d confirmed those rumors: The ones that spoke of prisoners and great mechanical beasts going beyond the wall, into the forest mist only to disappear; that told of cloaked figures entering the forest at midnight on moonless nights; that whispered that, somehow, La Brume held the power of the French monarchy, and to seize whatever was in there was to destroy not only King Napoleon III himself but the whole of his royal dynasty. If the King should fall, we could only hope that the people of Londres would be willing to rise up and restore the greatness of their long-lost London for we could not achieve it alone.

After months of careful deliberation, meticulous preparation, and great anticipation, the agreed-upon night arrived. It was time to act.

***

On the seventh day of the month, you once again consulted your astrolabe. Its brass dials indicated the alignment of the planets, just as predicted, and a heavy moon shone in the sky. The three of us were rendered nearly invisible by our black cloaks over dark leather trousers and shirts. Admittedly, I felt a bit out of place, least of all because the two of you kept staring at my manly attire when you thought I was not looking. Over the past month, I had slowly transitioned to more practical clothing during my nighttime outings, and yet the outfit still seemed rather backward to me: my loose-fitting shirt at odds with the customary constriction of my corset, and the pants fitting snuggly contrary to the freedom of my usual flowing skirts. Even so, I had come to appreciate the freedom trousers offered me to move around as I wished.

Jones himself seemed out of sorts by the lack of tailoring to which he had grown accustomed, though I must admit I preferred him less rigid. Even his light hair seemed less restricted, not confined by balm and comb as per usual.

Only you seemed perfectly at home in the unconventional ensemble, especially the cloaks you had designed. How you managed to weave such fine metallic fibers into the course wool, and how such fine metallic fibers could protect us so soundly against the enemy, I will never fully comprehend. You knew we would need protection from the Mysts and intuitively you knew our best chance for protection would be to use the same materials to shield our persons as comprised the Mysts themselves, but how you knew I cannot imagine. Yet, it takes little effort to recall how many times those cloaks saved our lives.

Jones and I carried our choice of weapons. At his hip hung Jones’s tinna sword, and a few smaller blades lined the inside of his cloak. I brought with me twin daggers, one strapped to either thigh. You, of course, refused any proffered weapon, an embarrassed smile winding across your lips. I believe your exact words were: “I would not know where to begin with such a thing. Would gash myself, surely.”

Jones and I also carried several pod weapons including decoy misters, defer explosives, and barbs. These we tucked into the numerous pockets lining the inside of our cloaks. You, of course, carried your astrolabe and the charts we’d made, along with your goggles. I thought you looked rather distinguished in those goggles, even before learning of their true purpose—-to grant you much improved vision in the dark night. Around your neck hung the SafeHeart, an item you had hardly removed since learning of its existence that night after Rowlings. As always, it lay tucked it inside your shirt as we struck out into the night toward The Wall.

You led the charge, goggles granting you improved vision in the dark, until we’d reached a small clump of trees near our destination. Even without the moonlight overhead, the great stone Wall and its metallic soldiers were impossible to overlook. The Wall loomed out of the darkness, mist pouring over the top like tendrils of a creeping plant. Directly in front, three steel Myst soldiers marched in an unnaturally exact row, each step bringing the hollow clang of metallic bones. Jagged teeth clacked. Skeletal fingers gripped powerful aether-powered weapons. A whirring sounded from their skull-like heads, the result of the aether-powered energy source within. Unnatural scarlet eyes pierced the mist in front of them. Mist pooled around their metal leg bones as they marched.

From behind the trees, we each pulled from our cloaks small circular steam capsules and rolled them toward the Mysts. The advancing soldiers stopped suddenly, three heads twisting as one to regard our tossed pods.

My breath snagged in my chest. You two grew extraordinarily still beside me. Jones’s right hand hovered over his sword while you clutched at the SafeHeart around your neck.

Before the Mysts broke from their path, the steam capsules began to pour vapor from their centers, creating the illusion of mist. After what seemed like ages, the Mysts turned their heads back and continued on. We breathed a collective sigh.

“That was close,” Jones said, letting his hand fall from his sword.

With painstaking slowness, we earned our way over to the great stone Wall, then scaled it one protruding stone at a time before dropping onto the soft, spongy moss of the mist-covered forest. Only then did we light our torches.

“What is it, Nette?” you asked, goggled eyes reading the concern twisting my face.

“It all feels too easy, somehow,” I said, scanning the mist for unnatural crimson eyes, but finding none. “It’s as though King Nappy never expected anyone to actually disobey him.”

“Luckily for our plan, he underestimates the Annettes of the world.” Jones stared up into the great trees that towered over us. “There certainly aren’t many like you around.”

With lingering unease, I advanced into the forest, eyes never leaving the horizon. The mist swirled up blackened tree trunks and snaked out over leafless branches, spilling from branch tips like fingers. Dodging between trees, we concealed ourselves in the mist, searching for an unknown entrance. Both mist and forest grew denser as we persisted, taking on a heaviness that became difficult to wade through.

It turns out you were right to fear the mists, as we soon discovered. Jones led the way, then stopped and turned, waiting for us to catch up. From where I stood, not twenty paces behind, I saw the mist grow ever bolder, snaking up either shoulder and twine around Jones’s torso like the tentacles of some terrible sea creature.

You saw it too, Tommy, for you cried out, “Jones, behind you!” Even as you spoke, the mist began to wind around the legs of my trousers. I twisted and pulled free, looking up in time to see Jones wrench against the pull of the mist. It had him by the neck, though he wrestled fiercely.

You fought your own mists to my right, though you were in far better shape than Jones. I dashed forward to help Jones. Jones struggled hard against his binds. Finally, he broke free.

“How in bloody hell is the mist getting thicker?” Jones exclaimed. “There are no Mysts around!”

We had no answers as we continued to fight through the forest.

You cried out, stumbling over something on the ground. What I first assumed to be a tree root soon took shape in the night. A steam vent jutted out of the earth, reaching well above my knee. We had failed to notice it earlier, concealed as it was by the mist. Yet, now that we knew to seek them out in the darkness, we saw these vents everywhere.

“Well, that explains the mist,” Jones said. “But what in heaven’s name is making it?”

I searched the night, but it offered no answers.

“We’re close, Nette,” you said, and I knew your words held truth.

Minutes later, my foot broke free of the mist and I stumbled into a clearing, the press of hard earth below my feet. No trees grew inside this clearing and the soft forest moss cut off at the boundary as if cut by a razor’s edge. To my great surprise and relief, the mist also refused to cross the boundary into the clearing, instead stopping just beyond its edge. The clearing stood perhaps twenty lengths in diameter, surrounded on all sides by towering trees and dense mist.

Jones staggered to my side, hand at my elbow. “Are you all right?”

Before I could reply my eyes fell on a metallic circle set into the forest floor. You joined us in the clearing then and followed my gaze. It was exactly what I’d been hoping to find—proof that the King was hiding something out here.

Slowly, Jones and I drew our weapons, waiting for something to happen.

With cautious steps, you moved further into the clearing and approached the strange metal plate. Your form seemed so very exposed in the still night air without the cover of trees overhead.

“Careful, Tommy,” I said, though you seemed not to hear me.

Stooping down, you ran your fingers over the metal plate, studying its design. Daggers still raised, I inched forward to watch, Jones at my side. The intricate metalwork of the disk became clear. It was not a mere plate, but a circular hatch with a diameter approximating my own height. Great steel arms crossed over the front in a large X. Under the steel arms, stretching from the center and extending outward was an intricate, swirling bronze design reminiscent of a twisted sunburst.

“Is that…?” Jones asked, “Is that an entrance?”

Not taking your eyes off the hatch, you replied, “So it seems.”

“But where is the latch? Surely it must open somehow,” Jones said.

Something else troubled me. “And where, then, do the large beasts enter? All the prisoners? Surely they cannot all fit through there.” I turned to scan beyond the clearing. “There must be a larger….” My voice faltered, horrified by what I saw.

A solid wall of mist surrounded us.

Though the mist had stopped at the edge of the clearing, contained as if by a glass partition, it spread upwards in billowing waves. Mist encircled us, reaching well beyond where the treetops had been. We were trapped. To risk venturing through the mist meant asphyxiation, certain death.

“Good heavens,” Jones breathed nearby.

We lowered our weapons, standing in stunned silence.

You spoke first, voice remarkably firm. “That decides it then. In we must go.” Only your shaking hands betrayed your anxiety. Removing something from inside your cloak, you placed the object in the center of the X where the steel arms met. It was a strange contraption resembling a large spider the size of an ostrich egg. A conglomerate of intertwined metal fittings and copper tubes sat atop long, spiny steel legs.

From another pocket you retrieved a small vial filled halfway with a peculiar muddy-brown liquid. This, you uncorked and placed below the spider creature on the hatch door. The murky russet-colored contents began to bubble in earnest, emitting puffs of black smoke inside the vial. Yet, as with the mist’s strange reluctance, the smoke stayed confined to the bottle, swirling around inside the bottle’s neck.

From the device, you pulled free the end of a tube and sunk it deep inside the gurgling liquid. You took a step back as the spider-like gadget began to hum.

Pseudo-Aether, I realized with shock. Not nearly as clean as real aether, as powers the Mysts, but still valuable. How in the world…? Apparently I was not the only one with secrets.

Jones and I watched in surprised fascination as the creature rested its belly on the steel arms and flexed its long legs down, pointed tips clicking against the hatch below. Without warning, it hopped up, balancing on pointed tips, then scuttled down the steel legs and to the center of the hatch below. The creature pressed the sharp points of its legs into the epicenter of the copper sunburst and slowly began to twist.

For several long seconds, nothing happened. Then with a deep grating noise, the sunburst began to unwind; small, lighted cracks appeared at its center as the hatch slid open. The creature continued to twist and press its steel legs outward, opening a backlit hole in the center of the hatch nearly wide enough to slip through. With a quick burst of motion, the creature drained the last of the pseudo-aether and forced its legs flat, sending the remainder of the door sliding into its recesses. The spider contraption and vial vanished below, followed by a clang and the tinkling of broken glass. Light flooded upward.

We rushed forward and peered below, feeling a wave of heat hit us.

On a narrow metal walkway below, the smoking remains of the device lay in pieces next to glittering glass shards. To either side of the walkway ran large iron pipes and jutting gauges, the arrows of which indicated contents under high pressure. It appeared to be a massive underground lair of metal and machine, like the inside of a submarine. We stood for a time listening below for sounds of discovery but heard nothing over the dull drone of machinery.

Glancing over my shoulder, I could no longer see where the mists ended and the sky began. It was as if our whole universe now existed inside a cylinder of mist.

“Let us go.” Locating a ladder I lowered myself down, careful to step around the fallen creature, you and Jones following close behind.

You dropped to your knees, examining your mangled creature with delicate fingers. After a moment, you raised your goggles to your forehead and sighed. “Ah, yes. Well… couldn’t predict everything.”

Jones clapped you on the back. “Solid work, old chap. Solid work indeed.” In the light, I saw the red mark the mist had left around Jones’s neck. Forcing down a shudder, I turned to face you. “Brilliant Tommy. Sheer brilliance. You are a clever one.”

A blush lit your face.

Jones cleared his throat and glanced around. “Where are we, anyway?”

Studying the machinery around us, I answered, “It appears as though we are in the belly of some great mechanical beast. Steam-powered, by the look of it.” Walking back to the entrance, I used both arms to winch shut the hatch door. Large coiled springs and interlocking gears reunited as the hatch sprang back into place. “And now it is time to press on and find out just what evil doings King Nappy is up to.”

You stared down with regret at your fallen creature then followed Jones and me down the narrow pathway that led deeper underground.

As we walked, the absence of Myst guards troubled me. Around every bend and turn in the walkway, we readied our weapons in nervous expectation only to be met with further empty walkway stretching in front of us through the cramped metallic underground. It all seemed too easy somehow, as though the Mysts drew us in blindly only to ambush us in the end.

Sounds of grating metal parts and whistling steam grew ever louder as we advanced, and the heat became oppressive. Under my heavy cloak, sweat ran in rivulets down my back and legs. The scents wafting on the heat became more pungent, a mix of oiled machinery and singed hair. When we peered around the final corner, we soon learned why.

Our narrow path led onto an upper walkway overlooking what appeared to be a massive boiler room. Intricate networks of pipes snaked above us—including the entrance from which we’d come—before dropping down as one through the center of the room and extending all the way to the ground floor. They fed into the top of a single great machine that filled the room below. It pulsed with activity, an astonishing blazing furnace to one side and an intricate set of finger-width tubing to the other side. This tubing, reminiscent of the laboratory of a mad scientist, filled a quarter of the room and wound around in complicated designs before merging into one. This single tube fed into a sole glass vial resting atop a table on the far side of the room. Blood-red liquid dripped into it a painstaking drop at a time. And all around moved hundreds of Mysts, their eyes a frightful burgundy in the dim light. Yet, instead of marching and carrying guns, these Mysts moved in assembled labor groups. From one entrance, Mysts carted in trays stacked high with lumpy dark matter while dozens more tossed the dripping substance in the massive furnace.

“What is that?” I asked, indicating the dark, wet matter the Mysts fed each machine. My voice was nearly drowned out by the thunderous noise below.

“Coal, no doubt,” Jones said.

“Coal is not wet, generally speaking,” I added.

You pulled down your goggles then and focused the lenses, adjusting them like binoculars, then peered below. A quick moment later you took an involuntary step back. “Oh dear.”

“What is it?” I pressed.

“Well, ah… unless, my anatomy courses fail me, it seems that…. That is to say…. They are feeding those machines what appears to be… what is reminiscent of… Ah, I daresay it is human remains.”

“Human remains!” Jones exclaimed, his expression mirroring my own surprise and disgust.

Looking pale, you returned your sights below. “Yes, yes. That is definitely the correct anatomical size and construction of the human heart. And that, there, a spleen, no doubt.” You swallowed hard and turned away.

“They are burning human remains. But why on earth would they do such a thing?” Jones demanded.

Looking down, you eyed the bottle of red liquid. “Why indeed.” It was not a question. Studying your face, I realized I knew that expression. You had figured out the “why” of it all, though whether mere moments ago or years before I could not be sure.

Following your line of sight, I regarded the tiny glass bottle atop the table, its red glow somehow familiar.

Inspiration striking, I looked from the bottle to the bustling Mysts and back. “You don’t suppose that color is coincidental?”

You shook your head.

“And what they produce down here must cost a fortune?”

You nodded once.

“But is that how it is produced? I wasn’t aware….”

“Nor was I, exactly,” you said.

“So that’s what he makes here. To power his army.”

“My thoughts exactly, Nette.”

“What thoughts are those, exactly?” Jones asked, clearly not having followed my line of thought.

“Oh, it is rather obvious, Jones,” you said—somewhat harshly, I might add, for I myself had only just put it all together. “Do you not see the similarities? Their eyes? The liquid?”

“Eyes? Liquid? What exactly are you going on about?” Jones demanded.

“They are making aether,” I cut in.

“Aether? What, here?” Jones looked down. “By heavens, is that what they’re doing down there? But with human remains…?”

You shook your head mournfully. “You cannot create such a powerful source of liquid energy from nothing, Jones. It has to come from somewhere. And they have utilized the most powerful, chemically complex source of all—the human body.”

“But, from who?” Jones asked.

Suddenly the heat in the room seemed too great. Nausea swept through me. I grabbed the railing for support. “The prisoners…” My voice trailed off.

“So, what now?” Jones’s face looked over at me, as did yours, hidden behind goggles.

Taking a deep breath, I wiped the sweat from my brow then motioned to a tunnel connecting this room with the next. “There’s another room,” I said. “We must explore on.”

You both nodded your assent then followed me.

I thought it could not get any worse. Oh, how wrong I was. Instead of furnaces, the room held massive vats of shimmery silver liquid. A Myst stood over each vat, stirring its metallic silvery contents with long poles. Inside the liquid, floating objects lurked. I could not identify them until Jones grabbed my elbow and gestured wordlessly. What I saw made my heart stop.

Lining the far wall, piled nearly to our level, were bones. Human bones. Thousands of them mixed together. Teams of Mysts gathered the bones into their metal arms like firewood then tossed them into the melting metal.

With mounting horror, I watched a skull grin up at me from inside a vat until the pole held by the Myst swirled it away, beneath a tide of metal.

“Are they… melting the bones?” Jones asked.

You shook your head. “Coating them, it seems. With some sort of pewter alloy, from the looks of it.”

My gaze fell on a far vat where a team of Mysts strained bones from the metal and deposited them onto trays. Each bone glistened like silver. Like the skeletal frame of a Myst.

“And they create Myst bones from those of humans,” I added.

“And power those bones with human entrails.” Jones face wore no expression.

“So this was their fate.” The scene blurred before me and I stepped back, hand over my chest. The metal walls closed in on me, threatening to squeeze the air from my lungs. I felt trapped, helpless, impossibly sad. After all, how well had I known my true family? I’d been hardly seven years of age when the Mysts had come for us.

I did not say any of this aloud, though I did not need to. From the way you looked at me, Tommy, eyes lit with compassion and understanding, you already knew. Somehow you knew. I closed my eyes against the pain and nausea that swept over me.

“What barbarism. What tragedy,” Jones said.

Roaring fire, whooshing steam, and clanging metal echoed through the building.

Slowly I opened my eyes. “We must destroy it.”

Jones turned toward me. “What, the machines?”

I threw out my arms. “This entire place.”

“You are aware that this bunker houses countless Mysts?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And that to attempt to destroy this place under their skeletal noses is suicide?”

“Perhaps,” I admitted, then added with growing excitement, “And yet, if we managed it, it would collapse Napoleon’s army. Think of it. Without the aether he has nothing with which to power his Myst soldiers. And if we destroy this batch, both old and new, he is short that many more. Then all he would have left are the Mysts currently in his enterprise—that is, until they run out of aether. And once they fall, then nothing stands between him and the people of Londres, Berlin, Varsovie, Rome….”

“True, but….” Jones began.

“What do you propose, Nette?” you cut in.

Reaching both hands into my cloak, I pulled out two handfuls of defer explosives. “These.”

“Ah, I see.” Jones nodded his head appreciatively. “Pump the furnace room full of delayed explosives and run, eh? Well, that would certainly do the trick.”

I regarded Jones, nodding appreciatively. “Actually, I hadn’t considered that furnace bit. I was considering dashing around like a madwoman and hurling these, but my supply is limited and perhaps that wouldn’t do much. Throw the lot into the furnace, however, and that would certainly get the job done.”

“Not to mention take down the whole bloody forest,” Jones added.

“And what is my task?” you asked, a quiet determination to your voice.

Jones answered for me. “You and I cover her, good man. Which will of course require that you utilize weaponry. Can you handle that?” Jones waited until you gave a small nod. “Good. Now, we have the advantage of surprise, since they haven’t noticed us yet, thank heavens. Though they surely will when bombs rain down on their boney heads. So, you and I, Tommy, protect our dear Annette while she places the defer explosives inside the furnace—and with any luck they’ll defer long enough. And then we, ah, all run like hell.”

“To where?” I asked. “We cannot return the way we came. The wall of mist took care of that.”

“Hmm, what other choice do we have?” Jones asked.

We thought a moment. You disappeared into the furnace room then reappeared, beckoning. We followed you and watched you point down below. “There. There’s an entrance, you see. A larger one, opposite that wretched machine. Must be where they bring in the prisoners.”

“Ah, good. An escape route.” We looked at each other for a long time.

Finally, Jones took a deep breath. “Well, I suppose it is now or never. Tommy, here are your share of the barbs. Aim true. And Annette, these are all the defers I carry.” He held out three, leaving me with a total of ten.

I nodded, tucking them inside my cloak. “It will surely suffice.” Looking at each of you in turn, I nodded. “Thank you. Both.”

We moved toward the railing, and you affixed a rope that hovered off the ground above the heads of unsuspecting Mysts. I climbed over the railing and began to inch down, Jones just above me, and you behind him. Near the end of the rope, I let go and leapt to the floor below.

And then it all began.

Time slowed as I rushed forward. I dipped my hands into my cloak and pulled free explosives in either hand, the two of you at my heels.

My cloak billowed behind me as I flew past armies of Mysts to the open mouth of the great furnace. Behind me came the sounds of metal hitting metal, and I knew Jones’s sword had found its mark. A small explosion sounded. I whipped around in time to see a Myst fall, head smoking. Your barb, it seemed, had also found its mark.

The furnace was just before me, heat radiating from it. Then skeletal fingers reached out for me. They grabbed my cloak, yanking me back and off course. I ripped free, leaving it behind. All that mattered were those defers cradled in my arms and that furnace, a blaze of red-hot embers and smoldering human remains in front of me. Mere steps from it, I hurled the explosives. They flew from my arms and sunk deep into the mouth of that great, ravenous beast. And then I turned and ran.

Mysts tore from their assembly lines and attacked en force. They fell on the two of you, pushing you back against the far wall. Jones swung his sword in earnest, clanging against the bones of several Mysts. You flung the last of your barbs. They missed their targets, hitting the floor with useless

I ran back toward you, but I was too late. Jones and you had been separated by hordes of Mysts. Through the rush of skeletal bones, I saw a Myst grab you by the front of the cloak and thrust you against the wall. A single boney hand pressed over your heart. Ruby-red aether flashed bright in it eyes, and then you fell, slumping to the floor at its feet. Somehow Jones had broken free of his assailants, though they pursued close behind him as he sprinted across the great room.

In front of me, a half dozen Mysts advanced. I blessed myself at having had the foresight to place a capsule in either trouser pocket. These two I gripped now in my hands, squeezing against the fury radiating through me. How dare they hurt you, my Tommy.

Two Mysts lunged, boney fingers reaching for me. Inches from my face, their jaws snapped and teeth clacked like wild dogs. Into these mouths I shoved my two remaining barbs, then ducked away. Two sizzling pops sounded. Bones crumbled around me, smoke billowing from empty eyes, nose, and mouth. And yet, I could not escape from the two remaining Mysts. Their hard fingers racked through my hair and gripped tightly my clothes, throwing me to the ground at their feet. No amount of twisting could pry their metallic fingers from me. One extended his skeletal hand toward me, reaching out for my heart.

His head exploded with a pop and he slumped to the floor. Behind him, you stood—impossibly alive. Damp curls framed eyes that blazed with anger. In one hand, you held a fire poker, perhaps taken from nearby the furnace. In one deft motion, you struck the sole remaining Myst, separating its head from its body and bursting its aether source. The skeleton hit the floor with a clatter, head spinning across the floor.

I rushed forward, gripping you in a quick embrace. “Tommy! But how…?”

You reached below your cloak, pulling free the SafeHeart. The once silent device now clicked and whirred with life. Your life. “Come. It looks as though Jones could rather use our help.”

Glancing across the room, I could how right you were.

Dozens of Mysts crowded around Jones, clawing for him. He stood atop the table swinging with furious determination. The vial of aether rocked dangerously next to him. Aether in that amount… If that should fall….

We sprinted across the room. Just as I neared the table, a Myst lunged at Jones. He twisted away, cloak whirling around him, its edge hitting the bottle top. The vial fell from the table to the floor directly at my feet, a violent fusion of glass and blood-red liquid. Without my cloak, I was exposed, unprotected. I raised my hand to shield myself, but it was no use. The last thing I remember was a blazing ball of crimson exploding before me. It hit me with a force that threw me backward. Excruciating pain tore into me, bursting through every vein like acid. Black mist whirled in my vision. A sudden stillness came over me. Everything went dark.

***

The first thing I noticed was the beating of my heart. It’s such an ordinary thing; one hardly ever feels its rhythmic thudding. And yet, it seemed impossible to ignore, loud as a drum in the darkness.

Up through the black mist, a face hovered in front of me—Jones’s face, panicked, shouting unheard words. Why the urgency? The thought battled with the painful pounding in my head over the right to be heeded.

I sat up. Your crumpled form lay next to me. Tommy? Asleep?

Jones was dragging me, pulling me to my feet, still shouting at me, though I could not comprehend his words. Dizzying chaos swirled in my head. I did not know what had happened to you, what you’d done. Not until later.

I glanced around.

Mysts. Everywhere. Memory crashed into me with the force of a charging bull. Defers in the belly of that machine.

But I died.

Not twenty paces away, an army of Mysts advanced on us, their metallic teeth clanking and grinding.

Realization struck home alongside Jones’s now distinct words: “RUN!”

“But, Tommy…” I started. Only then did I feel the unfamiliar weight around my neck. Looking down, I saw it—the SafeHeart resting against my chest. Your SafeHeart.

Jones shook his head and pulled me away. “We must run, Annette! Now!”

The words sank in at last. Run. We must run. And so we did.

Away from the shrieking, whirring mass

Run

Away from their clanking metallic bones

Run

Out of the belly of that great machine

Run

Up through the mists that pulled at us….

Run

The explosion tore through the night.

Deafening. Fiery. Consuming.

It shook the earth like thunder, blinding us with its brilliant white light and hurtling us forward in the darkness. We landed on hands and knees in the mist-wetted earth. Stumbling to our feet, we pushed on through Forest of La Brume, skirting smoldering grass and burning trees dropping branches aflame. Fiery embers danced atop the mist like golden-red faeries. To stop would have meant being consumed by the fire, by the mist.

We stumbled our way to The Wall and, somehow, over it.

We did not stop, even for a second. We ran.

Into the blackened night—

Away from the fire

Away from them

Away from you.

***

Jones and I rushed to my room, locking the door behind us. The commotion issuing up through the window was nearly deafening. Hundreds of spectators shouted and bustled about, looking on as La Brume blazed inside the confines of the great stone Wall. Of one thing, we felt certain. No one would approach The Wall, for to do so was forbidden by law, on pain of death.

Jones sat down on the edge of my bed, his head in his hands. “What have we done, Annette? What have we started?” His voice was quiet, muffled.

Striding over to the desk, I stared down at the brass spyglass that should have belonged to you…

“Annette?”

…Would have belonged to you had I never voiced aloud my plan. One hand traced over the cool, brass metal as I thought of your trusting face, your child-like smile, while the other gripped the SafeHeart, your SafeHeart, around my neck.

“I lost him too, you know.”

Finally, I looked up, the blurry image of Jones swimming in my vision. And then he stood and stepped forward, closing the gap between us. His arms wrapped around me in a tight embrace as I began to sob. My mind was in anarchy, alight with broken images and rioting emotions: The crimson eyes of the advancing Mysts; that rich, melodious laugh of yours that lit up your eyes and the room around you; the deep humming and unbearable heat of that great machine; dark curls falling around your sweet face as your hands worked each bit of metal with such impossible tenderness; the scorched smell of branches and burning sap; Your collapsed form lying impossibly still on the ground, limbs at awkward angles; Running, running….

“I’m sorry, Jones. For everything.” I spoke these words into his hair. It smelled of smoke and the cold, seductive sweetness of the mist.

Jones did not speak for a long moment. When he finally did, his words became slow and deliberate. “Perhaps this is not the time, but perhaps there will never be a proper time. I know you had your reasons, but after… after what Tommy said… well, I feel that I must know.”

I looked up, studying his face. “What do you mean, ‘what Tommy said’?”

“Well, that’s just it, Annette. I am trying to make sense of it all. He… he called you… ‘the rightful heir.’ As if you were some sort of royalty. But surely he spoke nonsense.”

He knew, I thought. “What happened in there, Jones? What did he say? His exact words.”

Jones hesitated, concentrating. “He said, ‘They need you, Nette. The rightful heir.’ Jones sighed heavily. “After you were hit, Tommy knelt down beside you, face alight with worry. Then he said that bit about you being the rightful heir. And without a moment’s hesitation, he grasped the chain from his neck and placed it around your own. In the brief interim between you two, the heart stopped beating, but then, it began again the moment it the chain fell around your neck. Not two seconds later, he fell.” Jones blinked back tears.

It all made sense. You gave me your life, Tommy. Sacrificed yourself. Because you knew. Who I really am. How long had you known?

“But surely he was wrong, Annette,” Jones continued. “That whole bit about you being royalty. The idea is simply preposterous. Tommy must have been confused, disoriented by the night’s events…. Right, Annette?”

“I’m sorry, Jones.” My words came out so quietly that, were my lips not so close to Jones’s ear, I doubt he would have heard them. I shook my head, stepping back as I did so, eyes staring at the ground.

Confusion fought alarm on Jones’s face. “Sorry for what, exactly?”

Still not looking at him, I spoke. “I am Annette, true enough, but not the Annette McClintock, daughter of a merchant that you believed me to be. She does not exist, at least, not to my knowledge.” I looked up. “The name I was born to is Annette Lynne Victoria.”

“Good heavens,” Jones breathed, eyes wide. “Surely you don’t mean Princess Annette Victoria?”

His quick acuity surprised me. Slowly, I nodded my head.

“As in the Princess Annette Victoria, granddaughter of Queen Victoria?”

I nodded again, thinking somewhere in the back of my mind that I had misjudged Jones somehow, though I could not discern in what ways.

“But how is that…?” Jones continued. “I mean to say, she was murdered, nearly two decades ago, along with the entire royal family.”

Jones’s words sent a wave of shock rippling through me for we did not speak of historical events, forbade as it was by King Napoleon, especially in such a provocative manner. But of course even considering that such a pretense should still exist was absurd considering we had just blown up the King’s army and aether production. If King Nappy were to find us now, he’d have rather more to pin us on than some truthful utterances of Great Britain’s bygone history.

With a heavy sigh, I sat on the edge of the bed and gathered my quilt in both hands, and along with it, my courage. “The Mysts, they took us shortly after Queen Victoria’s… assassination. At the hands of King Napoleon III. You and I both know that great queens do not just die on a whim when French monarchs pay a visit. Especially when followed by the sudden and suspicious appearance of a mysterious marriage certificate. It was, of course, forged. Grandmother barely allowed the French Monarch in her presence, agreeing to meet with him solely over England’s slumping status in global commerce at the time. She would never have agreed to such a union.” I eyed Jones. “But perhaps you guessed as much. Napoleon murdered her and then rounded up us all. Was it the lure of ruling India that decided his actions, or perhaps an attempt to imitate his grandfather, the Great Napoleon Bonaparte, and seize control of Europe? Whatever the case, Napoleon III’s tyrannical rule marked the end of our Great Britain, the end of freedom as we knew it, and the death of my entire family.”

“My noble English family stood directly in the path of our new French ruler. Their very presence challenged his authority and power. And so they were… dealt with. Perhaps you’ve heard of what they did to the English nobility, what they did to my family?”

Jones stood very still in the center of the room. Slowly, he shook his head in understanding. “But how did you escape?”

“By fleeing from our great manor under the ratty coat of a servant girl. Over several hours of chaos and evading Myst soldiers, I managed to make it all the way to town. I never was one for proper noble behavior, you see, so my wild hair and dirty, sun-kissed face raised little suspicion. I climbed into the first root cellar I could find. To this day, I cannot be sure how long I stayed there though, looking back, I realize I could not have picked a better hiding place, both for its provisions and for the man that would find me. For after some time had passed, the owner of that particular cellar risked venturing out in the chaos to collect his goods. He found me asleep, nestled among a pile of empty preserve jars. You know, I always did have a sweet tooth. The man recognized my face, but he took me in anyway. He, along with his kindhearted wife, became my family. By cutting my hair short and pretending I was a boy until secondary school, I managed to keep my dark secret—the one that would have had me executed had anyone found out. By the time my feminine qualities became apparent, that I was Annette not Andrew, well, none of it mattered anymore. History had been wiped clean. And even if some suspected, no one dared remember that a proud young noble girl by the name of Annie had ever existed. And so I went off to study at Université, gorging myself on history, convinced as I was that if I consumed enough of the past then what happened to me, to my family, could never happen to anyone else.”

My eyes found Jones’s. “But they edited it, you know—History. The Napoleon monarchy not only ripped my family and me from our home, they erased each and every one of my beloved kin from the pages of history. Pick up any historical document of the French Invasion and it would sound as if King Bonaparte strode into England and onto a vacant throne. The sole reason I know the fate of my family owes to the rumors. Rumors of the King and Queen, and all nobility, being marched off into the Emerald Forest, the mist reaching up and shrouding them like a white demon. And so I had to know. I had to know. And now Tommy is dead….” Silent sobs shook me.

Jones approached the bed and knelt down in front of me. Taking my chin in his hand, he said, “You cannot blame yourself for Tommy’s death. He chose to sacrifice himself out of his love for you. He saw something great in you, Annette. And I do too. Do not let that greatness fall aside. Use it and Tommy’s death will not have been in vain.”

With everything I have, I wanted to believe Jones, and so I asked, “What can we do?”

“Oh, my lovely Annette. There is much work to be done.” He held out a hand for me. “Come, first things first, someone must explain to these people just what in bloody hell is going on. And then they will need instruction, of which I dare say your bossy self has had plenty of practice.”

Hand linked in his, we left the bedroom and stepped out into the cool night. White mounds of smoke billowed from the distant wall, filling the air with the scent of fire and flame. Citizens clustered around, staring and pointing. It was, I realized the first time I had seen people out past Mandate in a very long time.

Despite the smoke, the sky overhead shone with stars, clear and bright as diamonds. You would have loved that night—what promised to be the first of many nights to come entirely free of the mist.

***

Oh, Tommy, how I wish you were here still. You were like a brother to me, my new family, and now you too are gone. I would give the heart from my around neck to get you back, as you did so automatically for me.

And so I say this to you, my wonderful Tommy: I take full responsibility for your death. After all, the foolish plan in its entirety was my doing, and with a selfish, naive heart, I brought both Jones and you into its deadly folds. Even after ten thousand suns set beyond the horizon, I know I can never forgive myself. But that is not why I write this letter. I will not fill my final words to you with piteous self-loathing. Instead, I write to you this letter to let you know that I will not fail you. I will not let you down. I promise.

So much had changed since the destruction of La Brume. I must constantly remind myself just how different things have become. You would be proud of the citizens who have risen up from the dirt and chaos. They fight the remaining Mysts. They win.

Even Jones has changed. No longer the gentleman with the cocky swagger, he has thrown himself wholly into helping the citizens of Londres find freedom. And I lead these citizens, Tommy. Me, your little Nette. I do not know what is more surprising—the fact that I lead our people or that they follow me: to the fields to harvest the crops, to the streams to gather fresh water since the wells have all been muddied with death and, in the coming weeks, to the palace to fight the king. Perhaps the astonishing survival of a royal heir gives them hope.

And best of all, Tommy, we need not hide now, because of you.

I regret every day that we could not give your soul a proper burial, for the fire scoured everything in its path. Still, Jones and I built a small memorial in your honor under the massive oak on the edge of Emerald Pond. I know how much you adored the midnight-blue hemlock flowers that bloom there. And there, we buried your spyglass, having placed it safely in a red velvet-lined box made of the finest teak so that the brass would not tarnish, the glass lens would not break, and the leather would not rot. At any rate, perhaps we bought it some time.

I wish I could say the same for you, my dearest friend. With every fiber of my being, I will it could be so. You will be missed. Alas, you already are, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, from now until eternity.

With the utmost love and adoration,

I remain eternally yours,

Annette Lynne Victoria

THE END

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 10.35.39 PMClick here for Author Reflections on writing the story, and on writing steampunk

2 thoughts on “STEAMPUNK STORIES- LETTERS BEYOND BY CASSIE GUSTAFSON

  1. Very well done Cassie! You wrote a perfect Steampunk story with exciting devises and alternative histories. Especially pleasing was the metal broken heart at the end. – Susan

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