The sun was only just setting and already the hybrids were abroad, their presence evident from an odd electricity in the air, and howls that were not quite the wind. The wild-haired professor stood anxiously in the doorway of a run-down inn, glancing anxiously down cobbled streets that ran all too quickly past windowless cottages and into open, exposed hills. Half-hidden by the landscape, a massive, golden tripod lay broken on the horizon, weeds warily scaling its armoured hide.
The tall woman rounded a corner and strolled casually towards him.
“Charlie,” he hissed, “come on!”
She maintained the same pace, through the door, with a brief nod to the innkeeper as, musket in hand, he closed and bolted it behind her. “You sure my horse will be safe?” she asked.
The innkeeper let the barrel of his gun rest on his shoulder. The flickering light of the single oil lamp reflected strangely in one of his eyes. “That stable's kept our few draught horses out of harm's way so far, but no, I wouldn't be sure that anyone's safe in this village.”
The two visitors glanced around the empty inn – a few bare tables and only a single barrel behind the bar.
“Why do you even stay here?” the professor asked.
The innkeeper shrugged. “Why does anyone stay anywhere? I'm headed upstairs, where I'll have a better vantage of any trouble.”
They watched him disappear up the stairs, finding his way by memory into sheer darkness.
“It's not straightforward,” the professor said. “Once decoded, the papers will tell us where to go next. Finding them and getting them back will seem trivial compared to the next leg of the journey. We may have to travel over land untouched by humans in decades to reach our goal.”
Charlie peered through cracks in the door, her arms folded. “And then?”
The professor watched her carefully as he said: “And then we have infinite power. And we destroy it before anyone else can have it.”
Her eyes met his briefly. “Huh.”
“Unless,” the professor said slowly, “you want infinite power?”
Perhaps the barest hint of an almost-smile ghosted into existence on her thin lips. She shook her head.
The professor's shoulders slumped. “I'm so tired. It feels like I've been tired for years now.”
She said nothing. Just stood unmoving, leaning against the door frame.
He turned to the stairs. “I'm going to bed. Good night.”
As he began to fumble into the shadows, she said, without turning, “Take the lamp.”
He thanked her, and left her in darkness. After his footsteps had receded, she grabbed a chair and propped it against the wall opposite the door, slouching into it with one hand on the hilt of her sabre.
If she slept, her eyes still flicked open each time claws scratched the cobblestone outside.