Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter 36: Neon

The sky is already pitch black by the time we arrive at the docks.
In the distance, I can hear men working still, pushing and pulling boxes and barrels ashore with cranes and muscles.
The smell of smoke, sweat and industry wafting this way like a fowl breeze.
But out here the ships lay silent, these are the leisure ships that get taken out on weekends to impress friends and customers alike.
I fiercely try to ignore the Winton family seal on one of the biggest specimens.
Each boat has a private dock held up by massive wooden beams that leads to the draw-up walking plank.
“So…does Neon have a boat?” I ask carefully, wondering where else he could have hidden since, aside from the ships this is mostly just a long street next to a channel on the edge of the city.
Tungsten chuckles “In a way kinda yes but not one of these.” He keeps walking and I wonder if I should press him further.
About where we’re going.
About who we’re going to.
I try to think back to Neon from back when I was Mercury’s ion.
I don’t have many memories of the guy with the green-tinted glasses. He was just one of the people whom Mercury failed to impress no matter her efforts.
He was younger than the rest, however looking to be Tungsten’s age or even a bit younger.
But in rudeness, he was right up there with the rest of them so I didn’t see much reason to try and get acquainted.
The alchemists are just a collection of people talking and yelling past one another without really listening.
I guess I wasn’t much different in that regard.
I think back to Utopia. Back when we saw him last.
I’d never throw a glass at someone though, I know that for sure.
Tungsten stops abruptly and then points into the deep saying “Tada”
I look over the edge into the inky black and spot a splotch of dark that’s a different type of dark. Upon closer examination, I discover it’s a tiny wooden dingy.
“That’s it?” I ask a tad perplexed.
“yup, now watch your step as you get in, it’s not the most stable boat.” And with that he holds on to the wooden beam, sits down on the ledge, feet dangling over the edge and then slips into the boat.
It creaks with his weight and drops a good twenty centimetres lower into the water.
He then holds out his hands to me “Come on.”
I follow his example and the moment my feet touch the bottom of the boat I have the feeling I’m going to fall over.
I grab Tungsten’s massive shoulder. He pats my hands assuringly then says “Now duck.”
“Yup.” He crumples his knees and carefully lowers himself against the boat until he’s sitting on his knees and folded down like a shrimp.
Leaning on him I can achieve a similar position.
Then he grasps around the bow of the boat, pulls out a line that’s covered in algae and water stains and starts to pull.
And as he pulls we move, slowly but gradually underneath the docks.
“Watch your head.” He warns me as the pockmarked planks move over my head.
The last stray light vanishes as we get dragged under and for a moment I wonder what’s going to happen next.
“Hold on. Changed the locks huh? I’m not surprised but I am disappointed.” He says though I doubt he’s talking to me. He fumbles for a while in the dark and then suddenly there’s the sound of a click and light beyond as he opens a small door hidden in the brickwork underneath the docks.
It’s…well it’s the height of about a quarter of a door, still the right width it seems.
“We have to fit through that?” I ask flabbergasted.
“Uhu, and last time I tried it I still could but perhaps you wanna try first? I rather have you pulling on my arms than pushing my ass if I get stuck.”
Which is a surprisingly good point.
With some effort, I manage to clamber myself to the front of the boat and since we’re almost on the same level as the door going through isn’t that hard as long as you’re small enough.
But then beyond that tiny door is a sheer drop and I tumble forward recovering myself just long enough to look down, swing my legs over the ledge and drop down on my feet.
“Watch the drop!” Tungsten yells about a century too late.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” No thanks to you “Your turn.”
“Right.” His hands and head stick through first and it’s clear the shoulders are gonna be the biggest obstacle.
“All right kid, I have nothing to push off of on this stupid boat so can you just grab my wrists and I’ll do the rest?”
“I guess?” I grab his wrist and he holds on to mine and then he pulls himself through with so much force he almost lifts me straight off the ground. I look around for anything to hold onto but down here all I can see is a long vaulted corridor made from porous yellow rock.
There are dull electric lights light bulbs strung haphazardly along the sides which remind me of Mercury’s den in a way.
What is it with alchemists and tunnels?
Maybe I should reach out for one of the lights? But they probably arranged them in series like idiots and if I accidentally break one of them there won’t be any light for us.
“Could you put your feet against the wall?”
“Line this?”
“Uhu, all right now step back.” Tungsten lets go of my wrists.
Then he jumps and lands next to me.
He closes the door.
Breathes a sigh of relief and says “Oh good, that was the easy part.”
“Come on, if we’re lucky we’ll get there before morning.”
We start to walk and I find I can never figure out when Tungsten makes a joke, and when he’s dead serious.

I’m erring on the ‘joke’ side as soon we encounter a round room with a polished floor, inlaid with brass in the shape of a wind-rose and pointing at eight black iron gates that are locked tightly.
Over the rough plaster walls, there are phrases and pictures painted on the chalk. The colours are dull but the scenes remind me more of pirates and swashbuckling than alchemy.
“What is this place?”
“Smuggling route, for all the things the city needs that don’t fit the bill of legality.”
“And how does Neon know about it then?”
“Easy, he’s one of their most loyal customers.”
“Look Neon isn’t…bad. Or like, by alchemist standards I mean, sure he’s embroiled in some shady shit but that’s more because of Steel than anything else. He’s a really sweet guy if you get to know him. It’s why I was so surprised to hear he was involved with the whole kidnapping thing. But then he also wouldn’t bat an eye at killing someone if Steel gave him the order… so in hindsight, I guess that tracks? Anyway instead of the smugglers having to find him all the time to sell their wares they just gave him permission to build a room in the tunnels.”
I scratch the back of my head, wondering how oblivious I’ve been during my time with Merucyr “I guess that’s one way to do business. So which door is his?”
“The one that doesn’t have a wind direction pointing at it.
I look around and sure enough, right next to where we came in, there’s a gate that doesn’t look like it should be there, chopping the massive blue sea monster on the wall straight down the middle.
It has the same black gate and the same lock but it still seems off.
“It’s worth a shot.” Tungsten pulls out his keys and tries to fit a particularly heavy-looking one into the lock. He twists the bow but it won’t budge.
Tungsten sighs, puts away the keys and cracks his knuckles.
He then jams his long nails into the lock and starts fidgeting with the tumblers and gates inside the mechanism.
I’ve never picked locks before but I know all the parts of one…
And this doesn’t look like it should work at all.
But then the gate swings open with a high-pitched whine and I just stare at it.
“You picked that with your nails?”
Tungsten beams “It’s a hobby.”
“…Right.” I let out as I decide that as long as it’s helpful I’m not going to question it.
He holds open the door for me. “After you.” He says and I step beyond into yet another vaulted tunnel, although this one looks a lot more eccentric. The sides of it are slathered with concrete and then inlaid with round pieces of green and blue glass. It gives the room an odd character and with the little light that runs past the ceiling reflecting oddly off the glass it gives me the distinct feeling that we are being watched.
Looking down at the floor I see those same cobblestones, however.
I’m not one of those people who normally cares much for interior design but even I can see that’s an odd combination.
So what’s up with the walls?”
“Well…the glass eyes are just bottles stuck in the concrete and he uses them to check if his den is still watertight, if one of them fills with water it means he’s got work to do.”
“Wait, he built his den underneath the channel?”
Tungsten shrugs “It was free.”
Okay, now I can feel the entire weight of the channel pressing down above my head.
“Hold it!”
Tungsten yanks my arm back “What the-?” I look at my feet and the place they were wandering into. “What’s wrong?”
The big man stoops down and digs fingernails between the cobblestones to pick out a small brass base with a needle sticking out of the top.
“Is that a syringe?”
“Something like that and sharp enough to puncture through the soles of your shoes.”
“I thought you said Neon was a sweet guy?”
“Yes, well, but he’s a bit paranoid when it comes to guarding his den, it’s why I wasn’t exactly jumping to take you this way. But it’ll be okay. I know his tricks so we should get through just fine. Speaking on which how long can you hold your breath?”
“I don’t know?”
“It’ll be fine.” He smiles at me but the way he pulls the side of his mouth gives me the feeling the smile isn’t completely genuine.
I shuffle closer to the big guy and notice his dog ears are sticking up straight and attentively.
He sniffs the air, looks around, then says “We should be okay for a while.” Follow me.
We walk down the corridors, our footsteps reverberating against the rock and concrete.
The corridor is long and my gaze keeps going back and forth between the ‘eyes’ that line the walls. Tungsten told me they’re just bottles and looking closer, yeah he’s right but it still feels…

For a time we walk without encountering any more traps and it almost makes me wonder whether the syringes were the only trap laid out for us.
That is until I hear a soft rattling sound and Tungsten’s eyes widen. “Fuck, okay hold your breath and keep moving.” He tells me and before I have the time to wonder what’s wrong a hissing sound slithers into the room and bounces off the walls. The air tastes toxic, like a factory, only hundreds of times worse.
I don’t mean to gasp, it’s a reflex, but my throat burns with acrid fire and I feel my lungs protest to cough.
I manage it once, then one hand clasps around my mouth and nose before I can cough a second time.
Another wraps around my waist, lifting my feet off the floor.
And then Tungsten starts to run, dragging me with me while my brain is panicking in overdrive.
My eyes water.
My chest is screaming.
I need to breathe.
My mind gets pulled back to the time Mercury tried killing Stegarius.
Tungsten had grabbed my neck.
I couldn’t breathe.
A chill goes up my spine.
Just let go of me!
I’ll walk!
My feet land softly on the ground and for an odd second, I wonder if Tungsten can read minds.
But then he opens his mouth and says “Okay you can breathe again.”
I gasp for air and immediately enter a coughing fit as my system tries to expel the toxins. Tungsten waits patiently,
He then reaches inside his pocket and picks out a small bag with a silver disk in it. “If you have your regular breathing pattern I want you to breathe through this for a second okay? Just in case the dose you got is too high.
It takes me a while to get myself back under control again. But when I do I grab the disk from Tungsten’s hand. It’s silver, like a tea sieve, inside I can hear a powder-
“Don’t shake it! You’ll shake it all out.”
“What is it?” I inspect the back, I see a hint of engraving on the back, but it’s hard to make out in this terrible lighting.
“You had that this whole time?”
“Yes, but if you collapsed there was no way to administer it…also sorry for like, grabbing you like that but, I mean I panicked.”
I swallow, “I mean you saved my life, I think the method can be overlooked.” I push the disk against my lips and breathe in. The powder feels cool, oddly so. It soothes but it’s also strange to breathe in a powder consciously.
It makes my head feel light.
“That should be enough.” Tungsten grabs the disk from me and places it back in the bag. He sighs relieved “Well we did it, we survived.” He gets up off the floor and indeed, beyond there’s a door that looks…surprisingly normal given all that happened out here.
That was it then?
We made it through-
But then I hear that rattle again next to the door. Tungsten seems to be too elated to notice it.
“Tungsten!” I call out, he turns and ducks as something zips over my head.
There’s a thunk, and it takes me a moment to recover my pounding heart.
Then I look up and see something stuck inside the doorway.
Tungsten looks at it incredulously.
“A harpoon? Seriously?!”

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