It was strange, being back on Europan soil after so long away. The landscape looked even more churned up by conflict and destruction than it had during the height of the Other's attacks. And yet the signs of renewal were everywhere. Fresh, neat fields of crops grew near towns and villages. The few broken war clanks visible were clearly being pulled apart and broken down for reuse. Destroyed buildings and abandoned villages were overgrown with vines and looted for construction materials. And the thick walls surrounding settlements were in good repair with new-looking patch-work.
Barry and Bill mostly stayed out of sight as they tried to get the lay of the land. The people they occasionally encountered still spoke of the Empire, and Barry still had no wish of encountering Klaus or any other minion of the Other. Barry led the way to an old safe haven in a cave where he had arranged with Punch and Judy to leave coded messages, if they moved or were separated. He didn't want to sneak into Beetleberg unobserved only to find them long gone, and it had been more than a decade since he had last looked in on them.
There were more airships, now. Small ones, zipping along powered by turbines. Large ones, slowly drifting by. Occasionally a flotilla would pass, several large ships attended by a piranha swarm of attendants. Most of them were badged with sigils that were easy to read, even at a distance. Wulfenbach castles were the most prominent, but many of the smaller ships and at least one flotilla showed the fleur-de-lis.
Lucrezia's notes and servants had mentioned a plan to return a Storm King. Apparently, he had been designed. She'd had notes on the alterations. They were…more extensive than the average member of the Fifty Families generally permitted for inheritance purposes. Bill had broken a few things when he'd found out how extensive.
It was unlikely that a Storm King would be supportive of the Heterodyne Boys, from what Lucrezia had suggested.
The message waiting in the cave simply read "Mechanicsburg". The signs left indicated that both Punch and Judy were there. There was no mention of Agatha.
Bill and Barry exchanged worried glances. When Barry had brought them Agatha, Judy had been eloquent on topic that neither Punch or herself were interested in returning to their hometown.
Still, they owed it to Punch and Judy to check in on them.
Bill led the way across the mountains into the valley, having helped their father maintain the hidden paths used when the horde wanted to sneak out and surprise their targets. The paths showed recent upkeep and, more concerningly, regular use.
There were signs of conflict all over the valley. Weapon emplacements and hides that hadn't been operational since Saturnus' death showed indications that they were up and running. If you glanced at the surrounding mountains at just the right angle, you could see the glimmer among the snowy caps that showed the eyries were maintained and someone was keeping the observation windows clear.
They had circled widely around Balan's Gap and Sturmhalten on their approach, yet from what they'd seen from afar the pass was heavily fortified and well serviced with airship look outs.
The feeling of being observed didn't go away.
Bill came to a sudden halt in front of Barry, blocking the path. "Oh Lu. No,” he whispered.
Barry shouldered past Bill, then stopped in horror as he also looked out over their town. In their absence it had sprawled, over-running the ancient city walls, with giant glasshouses and new factories scattered around it. They were protected by a massive new wall, surmounted by statues of Lucrezia, arms outstretched to bar any intruders. An active airship port was located half a mile from the new gates, with airships coming and going, many of them Wulfenbach ships.
Lucrezia was here. Firmly embedded in the heart of Europan politics and the Wulfenbach Empire, if the airships were to be believed. It was unlikely they'd find a pleasant welcome.
They worked their way down into the valley, still hiding from observation as best they could, and let themselves blend into the flow of carts and travelers heading for the front gates. Bill's height still marked him out in a crowd, but the scarring across his face and the cloaks they both wore meant that most looked away, clearly disinterested in strangers and tired of travel with the next destination so close.
The crowd was mixed; from all over Europa. Here and there familiar hometown accents and Old Mechanic sounded around them, but mostly it was Romanian, with occasional German and French. Bill flinched away from the Old Mechanic whenever he heard it and Barry turned his head away.
The statues looked even more familiar and monstrous the closer they got.
“It’s too good a likeness,” muttered Barry, to a captivated Bill who couldn’t stop looking up.
"Oh yes," the peddler standing next to them said. "Built by Baron Wulfenbach himself." He sniggered. "You can tell he's obsessed. The Heterodyne supposedly hates them. She can't stand the sight."
"Then why are they still here?" asked Barry, as Bill continued to stare up at the giant statues that resembled nothing more than the goddess-depictions they'd seen of Lucrezia too many times in the last decade.
"They're apparently tied into the new wall's defences, so there's not much she can do about them short of tearing it all down."
So it was true. Mechanicsburg had fallen to the Other. The Wulfenbach Empire hadn’t built a wall to contain the town’s evil. The Empire was working for her.
Sitting by the gate was a sight Bill and Barry had never expected to see again. Carson leant back on his bench, his nose tucked into a book that he was idly paging through. It was a distraction for the crowd; Carson was clearly on watch. They both shied away from him, despite Bill's scars making him a lot less recognisable. Barry's height concealed him within the crowd.
Carson looked up, suddenly making eye contact with Bill. He stood and casually set the book aside, stepping forward. The crowd flowed around him as he walked towards the two; those moving aside were clearly local in dress.
Carson sniffed, looking between the two Boys. "Now here's a sight I never expected to see again." He glanced over the crowd towards a gang of children playing a rowdy game of football against the castle wall and raised his voice.
"Maxinia!" Carson called. A small girl with two black braids hanging down her back materialised out of the crowd, standing with her hands held behind her back. "Run home and tell your mother and father to meet your sister up at the Castle. They're needed."
The girl peered curiously at Barry and Bill, chewing on her lip. "Yes, Herr… Heliotrope?" It was clearly a question. "Nothing else?"
"I'll be there soon enough to fill things in. Get going, girl." Maxinia wrinkled her nose at Carson and sprinted off, weaving through the crowd at the gate. Carson shook his head. "Sharp as a tack and way too cheeky for her own good, that one."
"Heliotrope?" asked Bill incredulously.
"Yes, well. After the attack, we deemed it safer for the family to fade into the background for a while." Carson's eyes looked distant. "It worked well enough that the Baron was fooled, or at least didn't bother investigating further."
Barry looked aside, trying to figure out a route of escape if needed, and spotted a Jäger leaning casually against a fence, chatting with a woman carrying a tray of trilobite shortbread. Scanning more carefully, he picked out the signs of a ring of Jägers loosely surrounding them. He casually brushed his left hand against Bill’s right arm, tapping several times with his remaining fingers to indicate the position and number of their tail. Bill tightened a little but didn’t look away from Carson.
Several of the Jägers were ones who had been regularly on their protective details while Saturnus had been alive. Whichever General was directing this was leaving nothing to chance. They obviously did not plan to let the Boys get away.
"Well, shall we?" Carson started strolling in the direction of the castle, still talking quietly about the bookshop business. Bill and Barry unwillingly followed, both on the lookout for a gap in the coverage to sneak through. Anything dramatic, here in Mechanicsburg itself, was more liable to draw attention than allow an escape.
On the other side of the gate, there was a detachment of Wulfenbach soldiers. Two of them were holding what looked like modified weasels. "Halt, Vespiary Squad!"
Wulfenbach soldiers. Inside Mechanicsburg.
The weasels were sniffing at each person, before they were allowed beyond the cordon, occasionally sneezing or saying “dook!” Everyone seemed calmly resigned and used to the procedure, with small children even patting the weasels.
Carson had a frustrated look on his face. “Ruxala. Why is that down here.” He pointed at one of the weasels, the only one wearing a brass collar. The woman holding the weasel offered it out to Carson, where it sniffed his fingers, then squeaking happily. He scratched behind one of its ears.
“Honker’s on the normal duty rotation, sir. He’s got lots of experience at training kits. Plus, we don’t get to hang out often any more,” the Wulfenbach soldier replied, chucking the weasel under the chin.
Carson grunted. Ruxala held the weasel - Honker? - out to first Barry, then Bill. It reached out for Bill with a “HONK! SQUEE!” and wrapped its front paws around his right wrist, hanging on tightly and headbutting his forearm. Bill brought a hand up to steady the creature, which was unwilling to let go.
“Looks like he likes you,” the soldier commented, a small smile appearing on her face. She turned to Carson. “His shift’s almost up, so he can head up to the Castle with you if you need. Might placate the crowd.”
Carson grunted again. “The young General put you up to this, didn’t he. He’s getting creative again. My grandfather warned me about this.”
“I don’t know what you mean, but Honker’s due to get back to his quarters, and my lady will be missing him. Looks like he finds this one familiar, though.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Carson reached out, skillfully breaking the weasel’s hold on Bill’s arm, ignoring the skrees and grunts of complaint, and tucked him up onto his shoulder. “I’ll deliver him back to where he belongs, though.”
They moved on, Carson keeping a hand on the weasel, which kept nuzzling against him. After a few glances, Barry said cautiously, “What does it do?”
“It’s a bug eater. Tracks and identifies revenants. This one has a bit more experience with hidden revenants than some of the others. It also identified your scent as familiar, my lord,” he said, glancing at Bill, “Not that I needed that extra confirmation that your scent is like my lady’s. In any case, Honker here usually has more important duties than being down at the welcome checkpoint. He’s assigned to the defences of the Castle and its inhabitants proper.”
They continued to wind through the town, working their way up towards one of the quieter side entrances to the Castle. Barry noticed that the perimeter never slipped, moving smoothly into place every time he glanced at a roof angle or a shadowed alley.
Signs of major repairs were everywhere in town. Some of the walls had a slightly melted appearance, while others were scarred by the hedge fence, or had clearly been reinforced with metal rods.
The Castle had been repaired. It no longer appeared to drunkenly lean over the town as it had after the explosion. Occasional movement flittered around the towers, including a batwinged flying device that moved faster and turned more jerkily than any of the airships they had seen yet.
Carson continued to talk casually on topics of little importance, occasionally pointing out bakeries or blacksmiths that the Boys had frequented while they were young. He nodded to the occasional Jäger or Wulfenbach soldier who passed. Barry eventually gave in to the fact that Carson was not going to give them any useful information without direct questioning.
“Carson. Who is officially in charge of the town. Is it part of the Wulfenbach Empire now?”
Wulfenbach was the best guess. After all, Klaus’ soldiers were quartered in town and performing customs inspections.
Carson gave a short laugh. “Oh no. the Heterodyne herself is in charge of the town. Though Baron Wulfenbach and the Storm King are both visiting presently.”
Barry stopped, staring incredulously at Carson. "The Storm King?" This was worse than they'd imagined. What had possessed the scattered Valois clan to unite and crown a new ruler?
Carson shook his head. "You have been away for a long time. Sturmvoraus holds the title, though there was some pretty extensive internal discussions over who had the best claim. Blitzengaard eventually decided to unite behind Sturmvoraus though, after the Malfeazium gambit failed.”
Bill said, from between gritted teeth, “So Baron Wulfenbach and Aaronev Sturmvoraus are in town? How do they keep from killing each other?”
Carson laughed. “Believe me, half the town wonders that on a daily basis. My lady seems to enjoy their arguments, however.”
Lucrezia. More evidence that she hadn't changed. Not a jot.
Getting into the Castle ended up being as simple as walking through one of the side entrances, instead of making the long, public hike up the access road to the front doors. However, as soon as they got inside, it was obvious the Castle was in full repair and good spirits. Well, its normal murderous spirits, at least.
Carson led them towards the main entrance hall. All three of them absently ducked under and around the various traps and devices that were standard on the route they were taking. The Castle mostly amused itself by having rather more skulls on the wall than was normal decoration, and occasionally sending a swarm of little flying clock devices at their heads. Bill and Barry had ducked instinctively, but the devices didn’t seem interested in blowing up, preferring to orbit around the group, with occasional members of the swarm breaking away to fly down side corridors.
They turned into the entrance hall. The passageway suddenly dropped away below them. Barry dodged left, knocking a particularly ugly set of armour off a pedestal and balancing there himself. Bill jumped upwards, wrapping one hand around a light fixture and the other around the edge of a tapestry, tucking his boot toes into cracks in the wall. Gleaming sharp spikes filled the chasm below them. Carson was standing a foot behind the trap, on solid ground, arms folded, tapping his toe impatiently.
A blonde woman appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in green, with goggles pushed up onto her forehead and grease marks on one arm. She was flanked by Punch and Judy, with the black haired little girl, Maxinia, tucked in at Judy’s side. "Castle!" she said sharply and authoritatively.
"But Mistress…" the Castle whined.
"Put the floor back now! You know the rules about people coming to visit."
"I wasn't going to hurt them. They like traps. They've been getting out of them since they were toddlers."
"If you drop them into another pit trap right now, I'm going back on birth control. AND I won't let you torment Moloch for a month. Go play with Violetta; I believe she's training right now."
"Well, if you insist…" The Castle sounded put upon as the floor ground back into position around Bill and Barry. Bill let go first, dropping back to the ground lightly, then nodding to Barry to join him. The weasel jumped off Carson's shoulder and made a beeline past them both up the stairs, then launched itself into the woman's arms, who caught it instinctively and tucked it up onto her shoulder.
The woman…the current Heterodyne walked down the stairs towards them, looking intently between their faces. Barry could see the locket he had made, so long ago, at the base of her neck. "Hi Uncle Barry," she said. "You're a bit later than you promised." She then turned and looked at Bill straight on. "Hello, Father," she said. "I'm Agatha."