This is for a challenge in a Facebook group I belong to. 🙂 It’s the first chapter of my steampunk dark fantasy, Cobalt (which is still very first-drafty, as I’m spending all of my writing time on The Moongate right now).
“Stay close, darling. This is no place to play.” Katerina’s mother drew her close to her side. Wide-eyed, the little girl’s gaze traveled up the rough plank walls of the multi-storied factory, framed from behind by gnarled branches which twisted slightly in the air, despite the fact that there was no wind. Katerina pressed her hands to her ears. The staccato thock, thock, of woodcutters’ axes, always a constant sound in the distance, had never sounded so close or loud. Helena tightened her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and hurried them through the thick iron doors.
A worker shouted, “Libel!” and Josef looked up from a giant logbook at the table against the far wall, then walked over to meet the newcomers.
“Hel, dear, why did you bring Kate?” he inquired, giving the woman a quick peck on the cheek. “What if she runs off?”
In answer, Helena raised her arm to show Katerina’s hand firmly enclosed in her own. “We won’t be but a few minutes. I just received a message at the house; the shipment destined for Adele’s Port was ambushed and everything was lost. The shipper wishes to contact you immediately.”
Josef swore, then, at a stern look from his wife, smiled slightly and patted Katerina’s head. “Might not be a bad idea to hire guards that know how to keep an eye on the skies, and not just to the trees. I’ll tell him that.”
“I’m visiting the market next, if you have any messages for me to relay,” Helena offered.
“As a matter of fact . . .” Josef held up a finger, and returned to his desk where he rummaged through a sheaf of paperwork.
This was Katerina’s first visit to the factory, and she stared around in awe at the honeycombs of shelves stacked full of orbs of all sizes, some a dull glassy gray, others glowing deep blue; the balconies and lofts separating stairways along the walls, where men called directions to each other as they ran to and fro; and the network of iron cables webbing the ceiling, along which huge buckets were trollied up and down the levels. She thought it would be fun to ride inside them.
Her mother hummed a distracted tune as they waited, which was drowned out by a sudden screeching noise coming from above. A man cried out something Katerina didn’t understand, and workers started scurrying along the floor like ants whose nest had been disturbed. A bucket almost directly above them started to sag on its chain, then, as slowly as an airship docking, sank toward the floor as the links securing it separated and came loose. The container tipped, revealing the shimmering contents inside its iron-lined interior.
“Helena!” she heard her father scream from the other side of the room; but her mother stood frozen with her grip on Katerina’s hand like a statue’s hold, entranced by the sight of the blue liquid starting to spill from the bucket.
A worker slammed into them, knocking them to the ground, but something else hit Katerina from behind: a splash of liquid, cold as streamwater at first, then fiery hot. Helena’s arms muffled Katerina’s scream.
And then the pain was gone. The girl struggled out from her mother’s protective embrace, gasping for fresh air.
“I’m alright, Mama,” she whimpered, brushing off a skinned knee. But all she heard was wailing, her father’s voice louder than the rest.
She looked around. Why was Mama still on the ground? And all the other men. She counted six, seven, all of them sprawled on the polished wood floor like broken dolls. She didn’t understand. The bucket hadn’t even fallen; it dangled from its cable far above, the chains still holding it securely on one side. All the men, and her mother, had splotches of glowing blue goo on their arms and faces.
Katerina looked at herself. The same blue stuff that had spilled out of the bucket also covered her own arms, and she reached up to her face to wipe it away from her eyelids. It shimmered with sparks and flashes of lightning white, then sank into her skin, leaving it clean and dry.
She reached down and shook her mother’s arm. But Helena didn’t answer, and her father Josef ran over and yanked Katerina away, sobbing and repeating the word “Cobalt” over and over.