(Author's note: I have lived in Sheffield for about fifteen years, the story is mostly based around my favourite amusing locally based nightmares, it is more a Victoriana-style version of modern-day Sheffield than actually based around Victorian Sheffield, which I know nothing about. Any feedback or ideas would be awesome ^^.)
“I suppose I should attend my lecture,” he told her apologetically, alighting from the chair he had been lounging in, straightening his papers and wiping off the worst of the honey stains before replacing them in his satchel. After their transaction, it was significantly lighter, “I promise to meet you again at the same time tomorrow.”
It was widely believed that students of the University of Sheffield did nothing but lounge around drinking absinthe and sipping Honey and never attended lectures or wrote their essays. This was not true. A true student could drink absinthe, sip Honey AND write their essays at the same time. This explained the contents of most of their essays and, for that matter, the lectures; the lecturers were no different to the students, only with more experience under their belt, better constitution as a result and a lot more money to spend on Honey. The student whom Hildegard had been chatting pleasantly to over their afternoon breakfast of absinthe and Honey was also fairly wealthy because he was (like herself) exiled nobility and (also like herself) handy with a crowbar and a set of lock-picks. He also knew a lot about the Correspondence and had a good imagination, so they had a lot to discuss.
Hildegard Argelmach was not a student. The closest she came to any kind of study were the nights she spent in coffee houses, writing poetry about how much she missed her home. Sometimes the poetry went off topic and then the waiter started screaming and bleeding from his eyes when he tried to read over her shoulder. Here, in the precipitous, semi-sentient death-trap known as the Tower of Arts, she was an unwelcome impostor. By the ancient laws bound into the very foundation stones of the Tower when it was constructed centuries ago, laws sealed into a contract with the Brass Embassy using the Chancellor's blood, the Tower always ate impostors first. Only if it had devoured all available impostors and was still unable to sate its dark hunger was it allowed to start on the students in order of rank (freshers first, then undergraduates etc.). The Tower of Arts was ancient and single-minded and cranky and insane, more so than the most senior of academic staff. It was always hungry.
She heard the ravenous growls of the Paternoster, somewhere between the tortured wailing of a thousand condemned souls and the booming footsteps of a gigantic steel Golem. The architect responsible for the Paternoster had named it ironically; he was Brass Embassy and shared their unique sense of humour.
She had half an hour before it fully woke up. Her muscles tensed as she readied her umbrella and awaited her opportunity. As the platform sped down in another futile attempt to meet its twin in the middle, she sprang into its maw, her petticoats twirling.
It lurched and changed speed, plummeting past her like a guillotine blade. The attempt on her life had been expected; she feinted a dive for the platform, then hooked the handle of her umbrella over the roof of the cab, hoisting herself up onto the next platform. It was still determined to shake her off. With a hiss of steam, it lurched to a halt just as her feet landed on the platform, propelling her into the far wall. She put out her hands to balance herself, then regretted her move.
The Tower of Arts swayed nauseatingly in the direction she pushed it. The sudden violent movement, combined with Fallen Sheffield's permanent strong gales that congregated around the University for some unknown reason, had disrupted the fragile balance of the Tower's already dubious stability. It was about to fall over! Hildegard hooked her umbrella onto an overhanging cooling pipe and pulled with all her strength. Groaning in protest, the building righted itself, then started swaying in the other direction but allowed itself to be centered again with a gentle push from Hildegard, who was now clinging onto the umbrella for dear life.
All was relatively silent. The roar of the Tower's bestial intelligence was more subdued, like a tiger purring. Without other noises to distract her, she could make out the background whirring and clacking of the machinery and the hiss of steam. Or was it growing louder? Then everything went dark. Hildegard drew a deep breath. Her heart fell. She realised why the Tower was suddenly going so easy on her and hadn't tried to pitch her out of an eighteenth-floor window even once.
It was luring her into a false sense of security, then down to its lowest floor, unlisted on the map. The inner workings of the foul machinery that kept the Tower from falling over altogether. Nobody ever left the Basement.
She reached behind the silk ribbon on the brim of her lace bonnet and turned on her Aetheric Goggles. The uranium inside lit up with a green glow. When she placed them over her eyes, she could see in the pitch darkness. The Paternoster had stopped altogether, so she could only go forward, deeper into the Basement. She heard the high-pitched chittering of bats above her head. The mechanical sound was uncomfortably loud now but the congregation of bats was so large and so close that it was clearly audible. No matter how many she smacked aside with her umbrella, more of the leathery-winged pests found their way into her hair.
When she looked up, she saw where they were coming from; the bats were actually driving the machinery! They dove in and out of some infernal device that looked like a cross between a gyroscope, a hamster ball and a treadmill. It was connected to thick black pipes and copper tubes with myriad valves and whistles. As she peered at it, thousands of tiny glowing eyes peered back at her. They stopped, cried out as one, then moved swiftly in a formation that required far too much strategic thinking for the intelligence of an average bat. Their sharp claws and fangs clutched at Hildegard's dress. They were trying to lift her up off the ground – most probably to fed into the machinery! She swiped at them with her umbrella, desperately trying to keep enough of them off her so that she could at least retreat. Something that sounded suspiciously like bones crunched under her feet and she lost her footing. She screamed and held the umbrella over her head for protection as she scrambled in the white dust that stank of the grave and covered the lens, obscuring her vision. Dark shapes buffeted her, slashing at her with their claws.
"Look behind you," whispered a voice.
She turned her head and saw, contrasted with the light coming from the cruelly inaccessible exit, a rope being lowered down the shaft. She dove for cover and scrambled towards it. To her annoyance, the bats managed to tug off her shoes and disappear with them back into their mechanical lair, away from the hated light, just as she grabbed the rope and began climbing to freedom.
She took the hand of her rescuer, noting its unnatural warmth and the oddly wide, yellow-pupiled, hawk-like eyes beneath the bowler hat. She didn't care. She was on the Ground Floor, inches away from the main exit. She ran until she saw something that she imagined probably smelled a little more like fresh air and looked more like daylight, although she had no idea what the Surface looked or smelled like. Then she sat on the steps until she could breath again and her heart didn't feel as though it was trying to escape from her chest. There were no students in sight. It was a busy time for lectures. There was nobody to eavesdrop on her private conversation with the Devil, nor anywhere to run if it went badly.
“I want paying double,” she gasped.
“For what, may I ask?” asked the gentleman in his refined, precise accent, “For not remembering the feeding times of the Paternoster when you were told in advance that your mission would require you to visit the Tower? I saved your life. I believe that means you owe ME. Although, business has been good lately, so it would not particularly inconvenience me to forget. You did at least do the job, I trust?”
She threw her handbag at his feet, “Two Correspondence Tablets and some Honey for your troubles.”
“I don't take Honey. Dulls one's senses, you know.”
“Where's my pay?” she demanded, wondering for the twentieth time today why she insisted on taking commissions from Infernals.
“Ah, but you haven't quite finished your errand yet!”
“You told me to fetch you the Tablets!”
“You were told by a contact from the Embassy to deliver the tablets to a contact from the Embassy. I am not the correct contact,” he said, “I am merely here to ensure the tablets arrive safely. The drop-off place is in the central plaza of the Far Gate, next to the fountain.”
She groaned. She had just escaped from one place full of unspeakable horrors that wanted to eat her soul and now she was required to run to another. Under the employ of a third. Not that there was really anything else in Sheffield any more.