Jamie’s efforts to steer the wagon away from the drug-addled men in the middle of the road weren’t enough. They were like stitched given programming. Once they noticed us, they started moving toward us, slowly at first, then picking up speed. They hurled themselves at the wagon with no regard to personal safety.
Combat drugs were something else. I knew something about the things, having grown up around the Academies. They weren’t that hard to develop, but in terms of developing them well, it was a different story. Only a narrow set of them saw use in the Crown’s armed forces. On the other hand, those forces were massive, and the drugs that were used were used a great deal, skyrocketing the doctor who devised them into untold heights of fame and power.
The rejected drugs ended up getting discarded, unless they were given to warbeasts, either in anticipation of a fight or as something injected into a special gland. Discarded drugs sometimes saw use as something for gang leaders to use, to spice up underground fighting rings, or as something recreational, for those who wanted to cut loose. I knew that men that lacked confidence with women and women that lacked confidence with men sometimes took low doses to give themselves courage and to rouse feelings that might otherwise be dead.
I was guessing that the Devil had a source for his drugs. Probably collected all of the rejected stuff from Corinth Crown, then figured out how to distribute it.
This was the sort that cost too much for what it gave. The sort that maybe was included in a soldier’s kit, in case of a losing battle with no escape, so they could toss it back and go out valiantly.
I turned in my seat, shifted my grip on my knife, and stabbed. I’d been aiming for the neck, but with the motion of the wagon and my target combined, I hit the shoulder instead.
The knife had an impact on its own, with all the force I could bring to bear. But the man’s grip on the side of the wagon was unreal, and his nervous system was doing something different altogether. He moved back and away from the blade, letting it come free of his shoulder, but his grip remained firm. He didn’t seem to feel the pain, and that had nothing to do with shock.
His teeth were clenched so hard together that parts of his lower face were alternately turning white and turning crimson, with muscles standing out at the corners of his jaw. His breath was drawn hard and exhaled just as forcefully, with spittle and particulate forming a thin, drooly froth in the spaces between teeth.
I aimed and drove the knife into his neck once, then twice. He rocked back, but his grip remained sure.
I watched, waiting and hoping for the man’s fingers to loosen and for him to fall by the roadside.
He let out a deep cry, like the lowing of a cow, a moan and a retching sound all at once, and then let go with his uninjured arm. He reached up and over, taking hold of some of the bracing that kept the tank secured to the wagon, gripped it, then reached out with the arm with the gouged shoulder. The arm’s movement wasn’t so sure. There was no pain, but his arm didn’t function like it should, and he flailed and batted his arm against the side of the wagon for a moment until he was able to get his hand into a place where he could grab hold of something. Nevermind the agony that it should’ve caused, given the state of the shoulder.
My knife had cut near the spine and had nicked an artery, with blood spurting out in time with his rapid heartbeat. He was beyond the point of caring. There was only the drug rage.
Three of them on the wagon. If they got a grip on either of us, then they wouldn’t let go. I was having enough trouble getting rid of one of them.
Gripping part of the tank, I sliced at his fingers. When that failed, I stabbed at them.
He brought his good arm over, gripping the same bit of bracing, then pulled his arm with the sliced up hand and arm away, swinging himself closer to me, reaching.
That he didn’t get me was more a fault of his arm being injured and slower to move than anything clever on my part. While he worked on getting into a position to reach for me again, I stabbed at the fingers and hand that held the bracing, as many times as I could in the span of roughly three seconds.
It was easy to forget, when growing up with the Lambs had been an eager series of lessons in suggesting the opposite, but people were hard to kill. There were tricks and shortcuts, weak points to target. A man could fall down and hit his head in just the right way, or could take what seemed like an ordinary sort of punch, and he could die of an aneurysm. Mary was good at finding the efficient ways to kill. Gordon was good at weak points.
Had been. Had been good at weak points.
I could do okay on my own, but I wasn’t as precise. When I failed to deliver an attack in a way that physiologically stopped my enemy from functioning, I could usually still psychologically impede them, taking the fight out of them.
My repeated stabbings managed to destroy his hand to the point that he couldn’t hold on any longer. He fell, and as he did he went under the wheel. The entire back corner of the wagon jumped, and as it did, the wheel came down funny. It wobbled violently on its axle.
There were two more to deal with, and I didn’t dare move a hair, out of concern that it might be the bump or the shift in weight that made the wheel come off.
“What happened!?” Jamie called out.
“We might lose a wheel,” I said. I put my foot on the back of the seat and climbed onto the top of the tank. There were men climbing up the side and back.
“We’re not even close to the station!”
Two were too many to deal with. One of the men was struggling with his climb, and it looked like it was because his toes kept hitting the wheel. The one at the back was making more progress.
Crouching, gripping the tank, I kicked out at the face of the man at the back.
I might as well have kicked a stump. His face contorting, he tried to bite my foot, snapping. One hand moved away from the top of the tank to grab for my ankle. His fingertips grazed the top of my shoe, but didn’t find any purchase as I lifted my leg up and out of his reach.
I brought my leg down, driving my ankle into the bridge of his nose, then kicked at his face again. He grabbed again for my leg.
What even led to this? What deal did he offer them to make them agree to drug themselves like this?
The good was that he wasn’t making progress in climbing while he was making frantic grabs for the foot. The bad was that he might actually succeed at some point, the guy to my right was making headway in climbing up, and I wasn’t doing anything to solve the problem. We wanted to be rid of these guys before we arrived. If that was even possible, with the wheel being a problem. The wobbling wheel was getting worse.
“Incoming!” Jamie called out.
They came from a side street, rounding a corner at a surprising speed. Not drugged up thugs, but warbeasts. The ones the Crown officers had had as part of their squads.
They were sleek, built like some combination of wolf and lion. The frame was wolf-like, built to run forward more than it was built to be agile, and the fur was long, pointed back, but there was a degree of size that pointed more toward Lion, along with shaggy manes, and their claws were large and more hooked in a way a wolf’s weren’t. They used the claws for traction as they ran.
They didn’t try to jump up. They didn’t go for the men who were dangling off the side and the back of the wagon. They kept pace, and they made broken yowling, growling sounds in a way that sounded like dogs on the losing end of a fight.
Sound carried. If they were giving away our location, then there was no point to trying to keep the noise down. I drew my gun, looking back at Jamie to get confirmation.
I saw him start to nod, and took that as reason to open fire. I put two shots into the face of the man at the back of the wagon, paused to see if that would be sufficient, and when he didn’t loosen his grip, I fired a third.
Not good. Not good. People will have heard. They’ll be heading our way. We still have to get to our destination and unload the contents of this wagon. If they catch on, there’s no point.
The maned warbeasts increased in volume in response to the shots. I aimed and fired, then switched sides to put a bullet into the one on the other side. The bullet ricocheted off the ground, instead. I had to use the last of my six bullets to stop the damned thing.
Leaving the man at the side. He reached up and over, grabbing for me instead of for a grip on the wagon. I wasn’t in a position to get out of the way, given my precarious position on the top of a bouncing, swerving container with a bad wheel.
He took hold of my arm, and began trying to drag me off. No sense for self preservation. Only a desire to destroy me. In this case by hauling me off the container and down onto the street.
“Heads up! Hold on!” Jamie called out. He was half-standing, hands on the reins, looking back and forth between me and his destination. I saw the light-post.
Shit on a candlestick. These guys weren’t operating like normal people did. I wasn’t sure he would slacken his grip if a cannonball took his head and torso clean off. Their nerves and their reflexes had been altered.
But I couldn’t think of any better options to handle this guy.
Which meant I was hoping that my grip was better than his. I let go of the gun and grabbed onto the frame of the container. I wedged my heels in as best as I could, belly facing the sky, fully preparing myself to be torn away.
I felt a hand grip my collar. For an instant, I thought it was the man who had my arm. It was Jamie.
The light-post came and went, scraping against the top edge of the container wagon, catching the man in the armpit, and hauling him away. He didn’t loosen his grip, but my arm was narrow, my skin beaded with sweat. His hand slid down to my wrist. I moved a solid foot in the direction of the bottom end of the wagon, before a combination of my shirt around my chin, Jamie’s grip, and my ankles being wedged between the bracing and the tank itself stopped me. The man’s iron grip dragged against the edges of my hand to the point that it scraped away skin.
With our adversary left behind and me at no further risk, Jamie let go of my collar. I let my head relax, back of my head resting against the wagon.
The wheel was jittering, making violent noise with every rotation. I was less worried now that it was going to come loose and more worried that it would shudder itself to pieces as it veered this way and that.
“How close are we?” I asked.
“I’d feel a lot better if we were closer,” he said.
I nodded. “Don’t make any right turns. Might put too much strain on the wheel.”
“Suggestion accepted,” Jamie said. He paused. “Seven minutes. But I have an idea, we’ll be closer to the terminal, and we won’t have to make any right turns to get there.”
“Right,” I said. I took a moment to catch my breath, sitting on top of the container with my feet by Jamie’s right shoulder. “Right.”
“I’ll be better when the night’s over. How about you? Sleepy?”
“Ha!” Jamie laughed, one note.
“Good,” I said. “Good.”
I took a second to draw the second of the three guns I’d stashed on my person. I’d had to let go of the first while struggling to stay atop the wagon. I looked off to the side, seeing the shadows before I saw the danger itself. “And we’ve got warbeasts.”
These ones appeared in front of us, from three separate side-streets. The same sort. Manes.
These ones, it seemed, were more fixated on the stitched horses pulling the wagon. From the moment they leaped into motion, they moved in straight lines.
I aimed, muscles in my shooting arm twitching from the exertion of holding onto the wagon just moments ago, and I missed. I missed again with my second shot, then my third.
“Hit the warbeasts!” Jamie said, as I pulled the trigger, catching one of the three maned creatures.
“I’m trying!” I said. I missed again.
“Not very hard!”
I aimed at the second. From the moment I pulled the trigger, I knew my aim was off. A heartbeat after I let the bullet fly, I adjusted, squeezing again, and clipped it in the cranium. It was a grazing shot, but it was a well-placed graze, damaging eye and snout, bringing the creature down.
One more. I didn’t bother to reload. I let the empty gun fall onto the wagon seat between my right foot and Jamie’s rear end, drew a third gun-
But Jamie had already shifted his grip on the reins, drawn a gun, and fired at the remaining maned warbeast. The bullet was well placed, but with the shift in the pull of the reins, the horses at the carriage front veered to one side. The wheel screamed with the sound of rotating metal scraping against metal as the container’s weight leaned more heavily on that side of the axle.
“Don’t do that!” I admonished him.
He gave me an ‘are you crazy’ look.
“I had it!” I said. I found the gun and reloaded it.
“You hit two with six shots.”
“And I had another six shots with my remaining gun, you dunce!”
“You’re the dunce,” Jamie retorted. Just childish enough a retort to indicate he’d known I wasn’t serious with my own insult.
I settled down in the seat, breathing hard. My ears were ringing from the tension and all of the gunshots.
“You’re supposed to get better, very quickly, with practice, not get dramatically worse,” Jamie said.
“Eat poop, Jamie. Jarred my arm. Muscle is doing a nonstop twitchy-twitchy painful thing, and my coordination is off.”
“Fix it, then.”
“At the next opportunity,” I said. I switched the gun to my left hand, tucking the other one into my waistband for easy access.
We approached another group of people. As we were getting closer, the concentrations of who was where were getting more intense. This group numbered twelve in all.
All twelve had that eerie behavior to them, too still, as if they had shut down everything except what they needed to keep an eye out for targets. All started moving in response to the clopping of hooves on road and the noise of the wagon.
“Can’t turn?” I asked.
“Can’t turn,” Jamie said.
“Dang it,” I said. I raised my gun.
Squinting, my eyes stinging with the residual smoke that laced the moisture in my eyes, I opened fire. I aimed for the clusters first, then the ones closest to the horse. Jamie fired as well, but his focus was on keeping the horses on track, and despite his earlier criticisms, his aim wasn’t all that.
With six shots from my first gun and two from the second, I got six of them. Jamie got two. Of the eight in total, only five died properly. The others barely seemed to care about the bullets.
One of the ones we didn’t get went straight for the horse. He hurled himself at the horse’s legs, and the entire wagon tilted as the horse stumbled. Two more hurled themselves against the side of the wagon and wagon wheels, the first bouncing off, the second going under the wheel and failing to damage it in the process like the one had earlier.
“Come on, come on,” Jamie said, as the horse the man had hit continued to stumble. The wagon jerked violently as we rolled over bodies of people we’d shot. I heard something give, a wooden crunch and a snap together in one sound. “Don’t fall, horse!”
“Bugger bugger bugger,” I said. The wheel came free, and the entire back of the wagon sagged. The arms at the front that the stitched horses were attached to rose up, threatening to lift the things into the air.
As it was, the wagon bobbed, trying to decide if it wanted to hurl the horses skyward or if it wanted to dip forward, driving them into the ground. As it veered into the former, it dragged, and as it did the latter, the horses floundered, the one horse struggling in particular.
“This will have to do!” Jamie called out. “Off!”
He was already letting go of the reins, preparing himself to hop off of the wagon.
I did the same, only for the left side of the wagon. I watched Jamie, and as he jumped, I did the same. I rolled with the landing.
The wagon was still moving forward, and Jamie, on the other side of it, followed it, away from the remaining men who were staggering or running in our direction. I moved in parallel.
I reached to my belt, and I grabbed one of the grenades we’d liberated from the Apostle’s men.
“If this stuff is flammable, we’re going to die,” Jamie said.
“What?” I asked. I’d thought we were aiming for the crowd. Hearing what Jamie said, I had to connect the dots, realize it wasn’t just the crowd, but included the container. Or part of the container. I processed what he’d said again, then repeated myself, with ten degrees more emphasis, “What?”
“You’re a bad influence, Sy,” Jamie said. “On three!”
“Good knowing you, sir,” I said.
“Likewise, even if you’re a pain… Two, three!”
Skipped one, just to take a jab at me, I thought, as I tossed. I turned, running before I even saw where the grenade ended up. I knew where I’d aimed it.
The grenades caught the tail end of the container, and the front ranks of the charging group of drugged men. They detonated, rocking the surroundings, and I lost my footing, falling.
The container, cracked and damaged by the grenade, dumped its contents onto the road. Said contents flowed down the street, and along the gutter.
“Hurry,” Jamie said, helping me up.
We hurried. Between the smoke, the explosion and the fire, only two of the drugged men came after us. The two bullets we used in putting them down brought a third, and the noise of the third bullet didn’t bring any immediate visitors.
We had to run a block to get to the terminal. It was another hut of tubes and controls, to guide the water flow. The attached dials, signs, and labels were so old that half weren’t readable anymore, but Jamie seemed to have a sense of it. He indicated the cranks to spin, shutting off water so that we would only contaminate the water supply in one area. We moved to a hatch, and we climbed down to a lower level. There was a large tank that gutter water flowed into, where the water was cleaned and strained of any noticeable debris. The recycled water from the drains and rain was normally used to flush toilets and be strategically released from certain pipes to wash city streets or attach to the fire service’s pumps.
With Evette looking on, we closed off the tank channels, rerouting the flow, a process, according to Jamie, that would normally be used to drive a clog out of the pipes.
We stepped back to look at our work, listening to the sound of the gutter water chugging through.
It was done. The drug we’d loaded into the wagon had made its way into the ditch and down here, and now it would make its way to the station and the buildings in the immediate surroundings. With only the Devil and his men awake and potentially drinking the stuff, only they should be affected.
Jamie took a few more steps back, and then collapsed, his back to the wall.
I nodded, looked up at the hatch, and went to climb up, making sure that the door to the outside was firmly closed and latched, before retreating down to the dim space below, only partially closing the hatch behind me.
As good a hiding place as any, sitting in the dark here. I settled down next to Jamie, looking up at the hatch. If there was any light up on the surface, it would be visible around the edges of the hatch.
“We’ve only got a few hours before we need to move. Don’t go and fall asleep, okay?” I asked.
No sooner was I done speaking than I felt Jamie’s head move. It came to rest against my shoulder.
“Leaving it all to me, huh? Jackass,” I said. “Dunce. Nincompoop…”
“…Pencilwit,” I said. I had to think for a few more seconds to dig for more inspiration. “Eraser licker. Nipplesnout. Bat-fart. Turtle-weiner. Barf… belcher. Wormy-arsed snot-suckler…”
Digging for more inspiration, I looked up at the hatch. The light of dawn that was shining through now was stronger. If I had to go by gut…
“Needle-pecker. Duck-buggerer. Shitcrumb,” I said, for good measure. I sighed a little, moving the shoulder of an arm that had long since gone numb. “Up.”
“Mm,” Jamie made a noise.
“Drooler. Snorer,” I said, under my breath.
“What was that?” Jamie asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all.”
“Mm. Isn’t that funny?” He murmured. “I feel like I almost dreamed, except, I wouldn’t have been out for that long, and as dreams go, I just have a dim recollection of you doing nothing but coming up with insults for me for hours. Hours upon hours.”
“And I’d never do that, of course,” I said.
“Never. You’re too kind a soul. Too grateful to me for leaving everything behind to support your sorry ass.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Exactly. But as amusing as that all is, it’s time to go. If I gauged the timing right.”
Together, we worked to reverse what we’d done, flushing the pipes, then restoring water to the area. It was an easier process than setting things up in the first place. Jamie’s intricate recollection of what he’d managed to find out about the city’s water system, services, and the maintenance therein was hardly even needed. It was always easier to get things to do what they were intended to do, than to reroute and rework.
We made our way up the ladder, both of us groaning with our individual aches and pains, Jamie’s tricky shoulder always being some small problem. We peeked out past the hatch, verified the coast as clear, and then made our way outside.
It wasn’t so far to the train station, and except for some perimeter patrols of officers and stitched that we steer clear of, the area was surprisingly empty and shockingly quiet, for an hour or so past dawn.
We approached the station at an oblique angle, but on seeing the first body, we moved forward with more confidence. A man, crumpled to the ground, his skin orange-red in color, lay in the sun.
“They didn’t collect him,” I said. “It’s hard to believe. If they had people on watch, I feel like they would have grabbed him and tried to treat him.”
“It’s no guarantee,” Jamie said.
“Walk the perimeter first, then?” I asked.
We took our time, even knowing that time was somewhat short. Taking care, we verified that there were no people on watch, here, and apparently no civilians either. I looked inside windows to homes, at beds, at porches and elsewhere. There were doors that had been left open and unlocked, and there wasn’t a living soul to be seen. The police who’d been patrolling elsewhere weren’t anywhere near the station itself.
“They weren’t sure what it was, when people started dying,” I said. “They might have thought it was an invisible gas, or a disease.”
“They might have,” Jamie said.
I could hear the skepticism in his voice, and voiced the thought he hadn’t yet. “Or it’s a trap.”
“Might be,” he said. He smiled slightly, at the fact that I’d read his mind.
With that in mind, we were slower in our approach, more cautious.
We were only a few houses back from the door of the station when I saw it. I changed course, and moved over to the curb by the side of the road. The ditch was recessed, to allow rain water to flow in it and only in it, without spilling out into the road. It was filled with detritus, with dirt, some weeds, and bits of trash.
But, in the midst of it, a dark line was visible.
I dug it out, and lifted it to look.
“Telegraph wire?” I asked. “In a ditch.”
I looked at Jamie. I could see the look on his face. My expression dead serious, I lifted the wire, formed a loop, drew my knife, and cut the wire. I waited a moment.
Still holding the wire, I gathered it up as I followed it to its source. Stones in the pathway leading up to the front door had been placed over the wire, hiding it. I got close to the front door, then stopped.
What would I do?
Pile trap upon trap.
I didn’t use the front door. I checked a window, then climbed through, leaving Jamie on watch.
Inside the building were bodies. People that had turned varying shades of orange and red, fallen here and there. The Devil wasn’t among them.
But, more concerning, were the cases and boxes. Piles upon piles of the things. I knew the characteristic smell.
Bombs. Explosives. TNT.
All wired up to this telegraph-style fuse. To other things. To the front door, and to a hatch in the bathroom floor, leading to the water system. I hadn’t even guessed that entry point existed.
Too much, all together. He must have tapped the Apostles’ supplies. Completely over the top.
I unhooked the trick fuses on the front door, opening it. I let Jamie see it all.
“There’s no way we get rid of all of this before they arrive,” Jamie said.
“I know,” I said.
“He could attack last minute, find a way to set it off.”
“I know,” I said, again. “Keep an eye out, and watch out, he might have a sniper rifle. If he has access to all of this… not out of the question.”
Jamie nodded, stepping back outside.
I crossed the station, and I found what any train station office had to have available. The wires were nailed to the wall, making for a painful process of tracing it all back, making sure that it wouldn’t feed back into some pile of bombs or another, triggering an explosion if I made a call. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t, that I didn’t have another minor victory like I had with the front door.
I dialed and made the call.
“Hello? Sir?” A woman’s voice.
“West Corinth train station, here,” I said.
“You’re supposed to identify yourself with a name and number, sir, otherwise the line may be compromised. Please state-”
I was a little pleased that she jumped to sir instead of assuming I was a child.
“It’s compromised,” I said, cutting the woman off. “The station is filled with explosives. It will blow up shortly.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do you have a means of contacting the train that’s due to arrive at seven? And all of the other trains that are due to pass through today?”
“Sir? Yes, we have a means, but can I ask you-”
“Contact them, now,” I said. “Stop the train. Because I’m about to blow up the tracks and the station both.”
“West Corinth,” I said again. “Warn them.”
There was silence on the line. A muffled sound, voices in the background. She was talking to others.
“Talk to me,” I said.
Another voice came on the line, male.
“Who are you?” the voice asked. “Why this?”
“I’m Sylvester Lambsbridge,” I said. “Ask around, the name means something.”
“It does,” he said, in a way that suggested he now believed me, and that it was sinking in. He knew my name already. Staff at train stations and post offices had likely been warned about me.
“You’ll stop the train?” I asked.
“I don’t see how we have any other choice,” the voice replied.
That done, I hung up.
I checked a smaller crate of TNT, judging the quality of it, and deemed it relatively new. Older TNT could be volatile. As I left the building, I deposited the TNT on the ground, in a line.
Jamie greeted me as I moved outside, still laying out the line.
“The Lambs are going to have to find another way into town,” I said. “That’s disappointing.”
“A touch,” Jamie said. He gave me a hand with the crate, speeding up the process.
“Didn’t get the Devil either. He’s out there. Plotting.”
“That’s what you wanted, though, isn’t it? Someone to keep the Lambs on their toes? You wanted to stir shit up and leave it stirred.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But… not quite this messy. Be better if the Devil was dead, but the stirring was still a thing. If we knew when and where they were turning up, we could set up some kids somewhere, just let them know, so they knew to watch out. I don’t like how this guy moves. Big actions, violent, over the top every time.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “And he’s got some sway over the local police, maybe politics.”
I had some guesses. Either they were on a drug only he was supplying, or he had some blackmail. Something he’d kept in his pocket for an event like this, where his headquarters were burned and he’d lost half of everything, and he wanted his revenge.
We worked for another few minutes before I laid down the last of the dynamite. I drew a match.
Jamie pointed further down the street. “Wind’s blowing that stick away.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said.
“If you’re sure.”
I lit the wick. Jamie and I legged it.
One explosion prompted another, which led all the way back to the station. Once the big stockpile went, everything went. A massive, rolling boom, tearing apart the station and the tracks and some nearby buildings.
Bits of wood and shingle rained down all around us.
I bounced on the spot, excited.
“You’re such a kid sometimes,” Jamie said.
“The Lambs are coming,” I said, still bouncing, excited. I stopped bouncing. “And there’s still so dang much to do! Come on, come on!”