Belly of the Beast, Part 2

(If you missed Part 1, click here to read it first.)

Josephine lumbered to her feet, her hydraulic legs sighing and squeaking as she ambled towards the cage. "And when masster'ss away..."

"Fresh meat!" Piper squawked, bobbing its head from its dim perch high above.

"I never thought I'd be happy to be in a cage." Hex backed away as Josephine stopped in front of him. "Locksley, get your ass back here and save me!"

"It'ss jusst you and me now." Josephine tilted her head and clamped her iron jaws around the padlock.

"No, no. Bad mechanical dragon!" Hex groaned as Josephine jerked her head backwards. The entire door came away in her mouth, lock and all. Hex leapt, scrabbling for the nearest perch. Wrapping his fingers around the slippery perch, he struggled to haul himself up. "Gods, I'm outta shape."

Josephine spat out the door and turned back to the cage, wiggling her snout into the small opening. Her jaws parted slightly and a rubber, tubular tongue unfurled from her mouth, the tip forked with a twin pair of tiny antennae. Intrigued, Hex paused in his struggling to stare at the protrusion. The antenna snaked back and forth through the air below him. Ostensibly, it tested the air particles for scents like Josephine's flesh-and-bone archetype.

Then it grazed the bottom of his foot, and he shot onto the perch with the speed of a slungshot goose. He clutched his tail to his chest as Josephine backed up. The metal reptile shoved her entire arm inside the cage. Steel claws curved from the tips of her articulated toes. Hex whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut as the beast snatched blindly at him, the entire cage shuddering.

The mechanical arm retreated suddenly, and the perch slowly stilled. Licking his lips, Hex cracked an eyelid. The floor in front of the cage was deserted, and Hex cautiously opened both eyes. He heard a soft whirring off to his right, and turned his head.

Josephine stood next to the side of the cage, her head tilted upwards as she studied the cage's configuration with a disturbingly intelligent glint in her eyes. Her mouth cracked open in a disturbing semblance of a grin, and Hex shuddered. Walking her claws up the side of the cage, Josephine stood on her hind feet until she was eye level to Hex. Hex shook his head, his lip quivering. Josephine cackled and shoved the cage away from the wall.

Hex yelped as the cage toppled forward. He banged against the bars, tangling with Piper in a flurry of mottled feathers, newspaper clippings, and platinum fur. Wings thumping against him, Hex covered his head as the macaw flapped in panic. "Stop that, featherbrain!"

Piper danced backwards, cawing. "Fresh meat!"

"Learn a new phrase, you stupid bird!" Hex kicked free of the newspapers and lurched to his feet.

Piper stared at him with vacant, milky eyes. Pale, gray flesh peeked out between his mangy feathers.

"Ewww!" Hex wiped his hands on his vest, recoiling from the dead bird, obviously reanimated by some sort of sinister magic. His throat burned as his dinner threatened to return on him. He turned away, pressing his paw over his mouth.

Josephine stood right beside him, gazing at him through the bars. "Hello, tassty."

Hex squeaked, his stomach roiling. Scrambling towards the roof, he hid inside the metal peak. He took a deep breath, trying to quell his nausea as he listened for signs of movement. He cringed as Josephine's claws screeched along the metal overhead. The dragon ripped the roof free from its casing, flinging it across the room. Hex toppled backwards out of the cage, landing at Josephine's feet.

She descended, claws snicking, but Piper charged towards the opening. The macaw beat its wings furiously as it flew towards freedom. Josephine snapped her head back as it dashed past, gnashing her teeth.

While Piper thrashed around the room, Hex skittered between Josephine's legs and darted towards the door. Josephine lashed Hex with her tail. In star burst of pain, Hex careened off the wall. He rolled behind Pridmoore's desk, knocking against a chair leg. Shaking his head, he staggered to his feet as Josephine rounded the corner. She plodded towards Hex, steam billowing from her nostrils.

Hex rushed towards the bookcase and jumped onto the lowest shelf. He scaled the shelves to the top. A sudden burst of dizziness washed over him as he peeked over the ledge, and he inched backwards while Josephine stared up at him, her tongue flickering out of her mouth.

Peeking around the side of the shelf, he risked a glance down as he heard the sound of nails against wood. The bookcase shook as Josephine worked her claws behind it. Hex groaned. "Hell's bells. Not again."

Josephine heaved, and the bookcase pitched forward.

Hex plummeted downwards, slamming onto the ink blotter on Pridmoore's desk. The bookcase crashed down on top on him in a maelstrom of books and paper. Chinking against the desktop next to him, a cat skull shattered, showering him with bone fragments.

He lay spread eagle on Pridmoore's desk, dazed. His eyes fluttered open as Josephine snuffled under an open book behind him, the steam exhaust from her nostrils curling book pages. Josephine clamped down on Hex's tail. He screamed as Josephine dragged him backwards from beneath the wreckage. Tossing him into the air, she tilted her scaly head backwards.

Pirouetting through the air like a drunken acrobat, Hex tumbled towards Josephine's open maw. He fell head first into her mouth, her jaws snapping shut behind him. Wrapping his arms around the rubber tongue, he held fast.

Josephine shook her head to dislodge him, knocking him against her teeth and lashing him with her rubber tongue. Hex dug his feet into the rivets inside her cheeks, refusing to budge.

Josephine opened her mouth and shoved her front paw inside. Her claws dug into Hex's rear end and he involuntarily released his grip. He shrieked as Josephine shoved him down her steam exhaust pipe towards her fiery belly.

Hex scrambled for a hold on the internal wiring lining the pipe as he slid toward the red hot boiler. His fingers caught on something soggy and coarse entangled in the wires. He jerked to a stop, yelping as the tip of his tail singed against the boiler's wall. Scrabbling away from the boiler, he pulled a tube loose from its port. A spray of lubricating fluid washed over him, stinging his eyes as he tried to stay wedged in the narrow space.

Heat welled up the pipe and sweat soaked his fur. His head pounded in the suffocating heat, and his breath grew short. Tears streaming from his eyes, Hex buried his face in the crook of his arm. Hex trembled as he sobbed. "Gods, just kill me now!"

There was a horrible, wrenching sound, and Josephine suddenly shuddered. Her boiler clanked, hissing as she toppled sideways. Sparks showered over Hex, blinding him. He shrieked as a disembodied hand appeared in the sudden light behind him and latched onto his foot. "I didn't mean it!"

Hex kicked and writhed against the tugging hand. He clung to the clump of soaked leather that had stopped his descent, but the hand behind him gave a sharp tug. He snapped backwards into the light, clenching his eyes shut as he was held upside down by his foot. "I'm too brilliant to die!"

Locksley gently lowered Hex to the floor. "I can't leave you alone for five minutes," she said, flicking ash from the tip of her cigarillo onto the carpet

"Locksley?" Hex flicked his eyes open. He found himself on the floor in Pridmoore's study, his fur matted and his clothes coated in lubricant.

"Know anyone else who'd stick their hand in a dead lizard's boiler for you?" Locksley winced and shook her red, blistered hand. Returning her cigarillo to it's place between her lips, she selected a key from the key ring in her other hand and unlocked the collar around Hex's neck.

Hex immediately felt his powers coursing through every cell in his body once more. "Oh gods, that feels good," Hex moaned in relief.

Locksley stood, lifting the collar. A dark expression flitted across her features as a burst of cerulean flames erupted from her singed fist. The collar bubbled and burst into ash. Her expression cleared as she wiped her freshly healed hand on her trousers. She turned and moved to the drink table. Glasses clinked as she sifted through Pridmoore's assortment of alcohol.

Hex sat up, glancing at Josephine. The beastly automaton was sprawled on her side, her rubber tongue lolling out of her brass jaws. Realizing he was still clutching the contents from Josephine's gullet, Hex flung the soggy mess to the floor. He wiped his paws on the carpet as Locksley leaned towards him.

"So, what happened—" Hex spluttered as Locksley dumped an entire bottle of peppermint schnapps over him, and then hosed him down with a seltzer bottle. "Cut it out!" Hex slapped at the stream of carbonated water drenching him.

"You smell like a cat that choked to death on motor oil. So, it's either this, or you're finding someone else to give you a lift home." Locksley sprayed Hex once more for good measure and tossed the empty bottles over her shoulder.

"I'm not going to ask how you know what that smells like... So, what happened? Where'd you go?" Hex asked, wringing out his tail.

"When he did that transportation spell, or whatever, with that cane of his? We popped into his lab. It was hidden beneath the greenhouse. We were right, after all. He's definitely a necromancer. He's been killing sorcerers and stealing their powers."

"How on earth?" Hex grabbed a loose book page from the floor, patting his wet fur.

"Evidently, he's been using their reanimated familiars and personal items to store their power. The sentinels apparently missed an anachronistic sorcerer during the Purge. That pocket watch belonged to the very last one in existence."

Hex shook his head in wonder. "I'll be damned."

"I guess forbidding necromancy was a good idea."

"No kidding." Hex narrowed his eyes. "Hey, how did you get him to tell you all that?"

"He wasn't the only who knows how to use a scalpel."

"Should I even bother asking if he's still alive?"

"Why do you think his zombie menagerie all keeled over?" Locksley nodded towards Piper. Hex blinked, suddenly noticing the macaw's corpse slumped by the fireplace, its reanimation spell negated by Pridmoore's demise.

Hex glanced at the cages lining the wall, but they were silent too, no signs of movement within any of them. "So much for just gathering evidence," he said.

"You're the one who's all about evidence." Locksley returned to the drink table.

Hex pursed his lips as Locksley poured herself three fingers of whiskey. "So, did Pridmoore tell you where he kept his grimoire, at least?"

Locksley jingled the keys in her hand, jerking her thumb towards the keyhole in Josephine's underside. "I could've sworn he was telling the truth, but the only thing in there was you."

"Um, I wasn't the only thing." Hex pointed at the fuzzy mass he had pulled out with him.

Locksley made a face, plopping onto the settee. "Let me know what you find," she said, raising her glass towards Hex as if toasting, and took a drink.

"Seriously? I was just sanitized."

"Like I said, you're the one who cares about evidence."

"Fine." Taking a breath to brace himself, he crouched by the mysterious, soggy lump. Gingerly grabbing it by one edge, he lifted it to take a closer look, and it unfurled into a leather work glove.

"Well, would you look at that?" Locksley downed the rest of her whiskey and moved over to Hex.

Hex shook the glove and a book tumbled out. Scanning pages filled with archaic text, he gave Locksley a thumbs up. "Jackpot."

"See, how hard was that? Now let's get the hell out of here," she said, taking a drag on her cigarillo.

Hex glanced around at the chaos surrounding them, hugging Pridmoore's grimoire to his chest. "What are we going to do about all this?"

"On it." Locksley grabbed a random book from the floor. She touched the ember tip of her cigarillo to the pages, setting it alight. Lifting Hex to her shoulder, Locksley tossed the flaming book onto the drink table, knocking over a decanter filled with amber liquid.

The alcohol burst into flames and Locksley walked out of the study without looking back. Perched on Locksley's shoulder, Hex watched as the fire swelled, enveloping the study and slowly spreading throughout the necromancer's putrid house. "What is it with you and fire?" he murmured.

"It's cleansing," she said, her cigarillo clenched between her teeth.

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