Fantasy steampunk weird fiction

Water Demons

By Jennifer R. Povey
May 28, 2020 · 3,283 words · 12 minutes

Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri via Unsplash.

From the author: My brain said "Steampunk fish golems." I argued with it for a while, but could not get away from steampunk fish golems. One day I'll revisit Constance. She's a cool character.


Gurgle.

That was not a good sound. Constance spun around, one hand resting firmly on her umbrella. That was the only weapon she could get away with carrying openly, in this time and place. She knew things would change, sooner or later. She waited for men to stop being so afraid of women.

Gurgle.

The child appeared to be only driftwood on the stream. Something was holding it under. She wore the loosest corset she could get away with, and unhooked it altogether before diving in. If anyone saw her, they would say she was crazy, but she could plead feminine instability. A child in danger.

The boy’s ankle was firmly caught on something. With a tug, she got him free. He screamed once he had surfaced, his foot damaged… possibly beyond repair, but it beat drowning. Her skirts floating around her, she pushed him onto the riverbank and then tried to follow.

Something grabbed her shoe. A kick divested her of it, and she was free and clear. Whatever it was, some kind of creature, no doubt – possibly a water goblin, it was robbed of its prey now.

Constance pulled herself onto the shore. Water goblins in the river was not good. She would have to do something about it. The boy had stopped screaming, but only because he had passed out. Wishing for a communications sphere – far beyond her means – she stayed close to him, waiting for somebody to pass. Within ten minutes, two passing men had scooped up the boy, and a third helped her to her feet.

“Water goblins,” she said, before they could even ask what happened. “He needs a physician. I think I just need dry clothes.” She realized she was shivering.

“I’ll walk you home,” the third man said.

For once, she was not about to refuse the offer. As she let him lead her, though, she thought about the child’s foot. The damage was not right for water goblins. Whatever had done it had had teeth. Or, no… maybe jaws made of iron. Water goblins grabbed using their hands, drowned their prey, and then let them rot before eating them. Whatever this was grabbed with jaws. She wished she’d been able to retrieve her shoe.

Barefoot, thus, she made her way down the street, letting the man believe he was the one protecting her. But she resolved to be back very soon… more suitably clothed for an investigation. Technically, she should contact Ronald. Her life would not be well served by making herself look like an inappropriate woman. ‘Bluestocking’ was the least of things she would be called if she was found out.

Maybe she should just learn to take it as a compliment.

The man offered an arm and she took it. The dirt street felt particularly rough under her feet as she wondered how to get rid of him. There was no way he would let her make her own way home, not a woman alone, not as wet and bedraggled as he was. She settled for speaking little, saying nothing beyond the directions to her home. Fortunately, it was not far, not long before they reached the pleasant house beneath the elm tree.

Whatever thoughts her companion may have had died unspoken when he saw the tall man who opened her front door from inside. His eyes flicked over the scene.

“Constance! Darling, come inside, quickly!” His tone was marked with concern as he reached for her arm, shooting a grateful look to her escort. “What happened to you?” he asked as soon as they were inside, throwing her a towel.

“Jumped in the river to rescue a kid. Thought it was water goblins, at first, but now I’m not so sure.” She started to pull off her dress. Ronald had, after all, seen it all before, and the blinds were closed.

Those who thought a good woman should never expose herself to any man were not there. Besides, the ring on her finger gave Ronald full right to see whatever he chose.

“Why don’t you think it was goblins?” he asked as he produced a robe from apparently, and possibly literally, nowhere and threw it at her. She caught it and pulled it on.

“Crushed the kid’s foot. Goblins would just have bruised it. It was something stronger, something with teeth. Or jaws, anyway.”

Ronald picked up her discarded dress and corset. “Get dry. We’ll go out and investigate. I heard a rumor about something nasty in the river myself. Heard somebody found a dead selkie with weird bite marks on her. Of course, any selkie stupid enough to be in this river…”

Constance made a face. “Although, having said that, it’s the mermaids who should avoid it. They have to breathe the stuff. But this wasn’t a mermaid, they use spears.”

Ronald nodded. “Could it have been a shark?”

“Maybe. Would be a very lost shark if so, but… Anyway. I’ll grab something suitable, and let’s go. You’ll get the car ready?”

“Of course.”

Their neighbors would think he was henpecked if they heard that suggestion. A woman who had her own ideas was anathema to them. The clothing she put on would have been more so… from the outside, she still looked like a respectable matron, albeit one who lacked children. The corset she wore, however, was reinforced with metal panels that, she knew from experience, would stop anything short of a bear attack. The skirts were specially designed to split up the sides if needed… and be easily pressed back together. The parasol she picked up had a sword blade in it. A knife in each boot and silver hair pins, easily long enough to reach a werewolf’s heart, completed the outfit.

By the time she got outside, Ronald had the car ready, belching small amounts of steam from its boiler. He held the door for her, as any gentleman would for his wife. She settled comfortably into the passenger seat, her umbrella across her lap., and wished guns were not so uniformly useless against supernaturals. Being able to work at a distance would have been highly desirable. It did not take long to reach the river, a little downstream of where the boy had fallen in.

“So. We’re dealing with something with strong jaws, but not sharp teeth, correct?” Ron asked as he pulled the car up at the side of the road.

“Seems that way. Crushing damage rather than lacerations.” She felt much better for having showered. “But not goblins. They don’t have the strength for it.”

Peering into the water, all she saw were a few ripples. In fact, far fewer ripples than there should have been. “I think whatever it is has been chowing down on the fish population.”

“Likely. Fortunately, it didn’t get to indulge in a taste for small boy.” He grinned at her, more proud than worried.

Which was part of why she <i class="calibre8">had</i> married him. She poked at the surface of the water with her umbrella, hoping nobody was there to see her. Good women did not act like that.

The water bubbled and broiled, and the back of a fish emerged… and grabbed her umbrella. She hit the button to release the blade, and whatever it was fled. “Giant fish.”

Ron shook his head. “That was metal.”

“Joy. Giant artificial fish. Somebody’s been playing mad scientist again. At least it’s not a spider mech this time.” She was not sure why, exactly, mad scientists were fond of steam driven spiders. Or wasps. She would never forget the wasps.

She shuddered.

“Likely,” Ron agreed. “Let’s see if we can land it. Although it looked to be, what, three feet long?”

“Isn’t that the normal size for the one that got away?” Not that she meant, exactly, to accuse him of exaggerating, but it had looked smaller to her. Then again, she had been worrying about not letting it get away with the umbrella. He had been the one concentrating on watching it.

Ron laughed a bit. “Three feet long, but with jaws and strength to hold down a small boy. We’re going to need some serious fishing gear, but I don’t think we can leave it in there.”

Constance nodded sharply. “We can’t. The next kid might not be so lucky. Besides, I plan on finding out who made it and hitting them over the head with it. So. What bait do we use?”

“Doesn’t seem to matter. It’ll bite on anything that moves. I think I have an idea.” He wandered back over to the car.

Constance knew that once Ron had an Idea, he would not stop until he had fulfilled it. In other words, the problem of landing the metal fish was in good hands. The problem of watching while he worked it out was up to her.

She saw it again, then, further out, fin and tail above the water. He was right, it was definitely metal, at least the fins were. The body was deeper red, looked almost ceramic. She studied it for a long moment. She had not seen this specific thing before, but there was a certain familiarity to it.

Pottery would not help it swim, but she did not know what the maker had used for motive power. Then again… this was one of those times she wished she was better at magic. A quick scan of the situation might have told her something. Metal wasn’t right – and it worried her.

Metal and dirt. Things of the earth more than of the water, out of place.

“I wish it was water goblins,” Constance said quietly to herself. She knew how to deal with those, knew what to say, what herbs to use. What would make them go right back out to sea and stop bothering people.

She knew a lot less about how to deal with the creations of some mad scientist, that likely had no magic to them other than that of chaos and creativity. Something akin, almost, to the old magic, that which lay in the hands of the blacksmith.

Yes, akin to that, and she could not help but murmur under her breath, words intended to protect her from older magic still, darker magic. The fish thing seemed to thrash for a moment, and she frowned.

Ron was backing the car up to the river. She saw part of his plan now – to use the car’s strength to get the fish out of the water. Being a machine, it no doubt did not need water to breathe or ‘live’. They would have to work out how to turn it off.

Then she saw the second one. “Ron,” she called out. “There are at least two of them.”

“Got it,” he shouted through the open window. “We snag one, work out how to turn it off, go after the rest.”

He always made it sound so easy, she thought.

“The net might hold it?” she suggested.

“It might.” Ron moved to rummage in the trunk, starting to pull out the net.

“I’m not using my umbrella as bait this time. I like that umbrella.” She grinned at Ron as she grabbed a tree branch, suspecting that the metal fish would bite anything that came close to them.

Poking the branch into the water, she watched. After a moment, she saw ripples and swirls in the surface, and then felt a firm tug on the branch.

“Got one, I think.”

Ron threw the net, secured to the car, hoping it would tighten. “Let’s bring it in. See what we have.”

Checking nobody was around, she hopped into the driver’s seat and hit the accelerator.

“Damn,” Ron swore loudly.

She cut the engine, and hopped out of the car.

All that was in the net was dust and gears.

“The second it was out of the water,” he said without looking up,

She frowned. “Wait.” Clay. “Oh for… you’re kidding me. Any marks on it?”

“Yes, but I didn’t get chance to read them.”

“I need to get to the library. Now.” Her tone was the kind that she seldom used. He looked up then, nodding at her urgency.

“Protect. Latch on,” she told him, “They don’t seem to be working as intended, but I doubt it is the mechanical parts that are failing.” She shook her head. “Why does it always have, in the end, to come down to magic?”

She spent most of the night in her library, finding the information she needed. It was not information she accessed regularly, and was buried in the depths of the place. In the end, she slept in her chair, waking early the next day. Almost immediately, she called for her husband.

“Ron!”

He came downstairs, his shirt unfastened enough to make her want to do something other than research. “Are these the marks?”

“Oh… yes.” He sighed. “So. We need to go talk to a Rabbi, it seems.”

“I don’t get who would make fish golems and what they intend to protect, but you would think people would learn. I wish it had been a mad scientist. They’re easier to deal with than the Kabalists with their fear of letting outsiders know anything at all.”

Ron nodded. “I know. They might have to tell us know how to stop the things if they get out of control, but I do understand where they’re coming from. It’s not like we don’t all have secrets.”

“You mean when. But I don’t intend to pull them out of the water one by one.” She sounded as annoyed as she felt. She was sure there was an entire shoal of those things, not just one or two more.

“I don’t think the car would survive it if we tried. You’re right. We have to go to the source.” He finished buttoning his shirt. “At least get breakfast first?”

“I intend to. Then I intend to find out who did this and have some words with him.” It wouldn’t be a woman. She knew that.

“I’d offer fish, but they ate them all,” Ron quipped.

“Fish. Or the…” Constance’s lips quirked. “They won’t talk to me. You talk to Rabbi Lindberg. I will talk to somebody else who might have seen something. Please.”

It was Ron’s comment about them eating all the fish that had triggered it. After a light breakfast, Constance set out on foot, her umbrella shielding her face. She wore a comfortable street dress; the morning rush was over and most people were fully engaged in their activities for the day. Amongst the few people out there she caught a glimpse of pointed ears beneath a hairstyle that almost succeeded in hiding them. Almost. Other than that, nothing out of the ordinary marked the streets.

The harbor was not quiet, though. At this point it should have been busy with longshoremen helping offload the catch, but the boats sat empty. As did the warehouses.

Seeing that, she murmured a protection spell, although she was not sure it was the right kind, let alone would do any good. She knew, of course, that if she did not believe in it, it wouldn’t, but she couldn’t quite trust it. “Well, there’s my answer,” she murmured. “Hopefully Ron’s having some luck.”

Nobody heard her. “Partly mechanical,” she murmured to herself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” She thought she saw one of the fish, out in the harbor. Then. “Oh… crap.” The thought that hit her caused her to pick up her skirts and head off at a pace dangerously close to a flat-out run, not caring who saw her. Besides, all she saw on the docks were a few frustrated-seeming fishermen.

There was a hansom cab parked at the side of the road, the horse and driver looking equally bored. She boarded without any help, rattling off her address. “With extra pay for hurry, and a bran mash for your horse if he needs one.”

The horse took off at a fast canter, maybe a slow gallop. From the back, it was hard to tell and hard to do anything other than cling to the grab handle. She would rather have stopped a car, but one took what one could get. “What’s the hurry, lady?”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” she informed him, but noted he was not arguing. At the house she paid him half and begged him to wait, picking up her skirts as she ran inside.

Into her workshop, with the devices and tools and gears scattered across her counter. The place was not tidy, but she knew where everything was. Her hand closed around the handle of one of the devices, which rather resembled an odd firearm. The cabbie would be paid off to not speak of this, but it was still a risk she would not have taken had she not been worried about what waiting longer would bring. Paid off in good coin; and she was in the back again, the gun-like item across her lap, resting on her skirts.

The cab driver showed no reaction. Likely, Constance thought, he was used to this kind of weirdness.

She reached the harbor about when Ron did. “Oh, thank God, you got it.”

“I got it. But we need to be out there.”

“Handled.”

Ron indicated a grizzled fisherman, who frowned when he saw her, reluctant to let her on his boat. His frown faded at the money Ron slid to him. Steam belched from the boiler as it chugged from the harbor. Constance tried to make herself as small as possible, so that at least she could not be accused of being in his way.

Out on the water, watching for them. Ron was fiddling with the gun, knowing how to use it better than she did. If they were connected, they only had to find one. She prayed they were connected.

“Don’t get too close. I don’t want the field hitting the boat.” Ron’s voice was calm, as if he did this every day.

“I see them!” Constance had seen a fin break the water.

Ron fired…and the green lightning of the Tesla blast arced across the water, bouncing through it, turning the sea interesting shades. Steam rose from it as the force of the blast stripped water and salt from one another, but the fish was hit square on.

Something howled in Constance’s mind, the something trapped by those marks. Connected indeed, one single motivating force. Perhaps its name was Legion, but without the cogs and gears it could not remain within those poorly made constructs.

From the water rose a miasma of dark and poison, a cloud that threatened them, that reached out to them with cold and fire at the same time. Something that could take the mind and soul of any it touched for too long.

“Go,” she commanded, finding the strength within her. “Go back to Hell.”

The air seemed to crack, the entire world torn apart for a moment, she heard the fisherman gasp back a scream he dared not release. Then all was quiet, clay fish floating to the water.

“Good work as usual, love.” Ron cradled the gun in his hands, which she saw trembled slightly.

Good work as usual. But the fisherman had seen too much. She would have to pay for his memory as well.

For the memory of a woman for whom exorcism was as easy as words, and the man who loved her.

Constance smiled. The man for whom this was all worthwhile…the one she had, all those years ago, fallen for.

The one she would always love.

This story originally appeared in FISH (Dagan Books).


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Jennifer R. Povey

Everything from epic fantasy to stories for Analog.