Tom smiled at the girls. “Oleg is an all-round muddle when it comes to introductions, I’m Tom, Tom Cain.”
Revolver Girl met his gaze with steel in her brown eyes and nostrils flared. “Agatha West.”
Tom crouched by Willow who had buried her head in her sister’s chest. “And you are Willow and Nikki Keats of course.” Willow turned to look at him. “Pleased to make your acquaintance ma’am, who’s your furry friend?” Tom shook hands with the quilted bear.
Willow giggled, buried her face again and tucked her bear tightly to her chest.
Nikki laughed. “She’s had him since she was a baby. I actually named him as a joke when I was five.” She blinked and lowered her gaze. “He’s called umm.…” She coughed into her hand.
Tom tilted his head to the side with a grin. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
Willow peeked out at him. “Sir Furrybottom, she named him Sir Furrybottom.”
She held the bear out to Tom and he shook hands with it again. “Pleased to meet you.” He glanced at Nikki. “Do I have to bow or something, if he’s a knight of the realm and all.”
“No….” Nikki blushed. “He’s just a toy.”
Willow playfully punched her sister in the shoulder. “Is not! He protects me from bad men.” She glared in Giles and Oleg’s direction.
Oleg laughed. “We’re not bad little lady, just misunderstood.”
Agatha faced Oleg with a tight-lipped smile. “That’s what they all say.” She held a pretend noose around her neck. “You’ve got it wrong sirs, I’m not a bad man.” Then she made a noise like a trap door falling away and mock-hanged herself.
“Not funny.” Giles deepened into his sulk.
The screams below faded, but the maniacal laughter of the Draggers continued as the sun faded from the horizon. The Mist came most of the way up the tower and obscured everything in the town below. In the distance other towers, islands of refuge, protruded above the Mist, and way on the other side of town, a half-dozen trade zeppelins floated, among them the Myrmidon, Tom’s home for the past two years.
Tom wrapped his jacket around Nikki and Willow, Oleg broke a bit of wood from the tower wall and began whittling with his knife while Giles and Agatha stared sullenly at eachother.
After some time, Oleg looked up from his carving. “All you might as well rest. Me an’ Giles‘ll keep watch. Mist’ll be gone by mornin’ most like.”
Willow and Nikki curled up together in his jacket to rest, but Tom didn’t feel like sleeping. The cold mountain air bit through his linen shirt, and the constant laughter below set his teeth together like a vise. He sidled over to Agatha. “So what brought you to Milton? Don’t see too many Indians in these parts.”
“Passing through, like yourself.”
Tom nodded. “It’s that kind of town.”
“Uh huh.” Agatha rolled her eyes at him. “Look enough of the small talk. When are you gonna get my gun back for me?”
Tom blinked in surprise. “Oh… I wasn’t plannin’ on it. Oleg seems to know how to handle it. He’ll do any shootin’ we need done I suppose.”
“He can’t shoot like me.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re a very good shot for a girl and…”
“And what? Go on. And an Indian? Like we don’t know how to use guns? What, I should carry a bow and arrows around and slap my mouth while I holler and carry-on?” She demonstrated. “Woo woo woo! Dance around a campfire for your entertainment?”
“Hey keep it down over there.” Giles said, then closed his eyes and turned his back on them.
Tom grimaced. “Whoa, no need to be sore about it Agatha, I didn’t mean no harm.”
“You’re as bad as them if you don’t get my gun back Thomas Cain.”
“Hey, that’s layin’ it on a little thick don’t ya think? I tried to stop ‘em before they had a gun. I’m not risking my life so you can have your little pea-shooter back.”
“It’s not a pea-shooter, it’s a custom-made thirty-eight Sturm model ninety, with vulcanized rubber grips, a flip-up pinhole sight and custom-milled cylinder.” She narrowed her eyes. “And it was my Dad’s.”
Tom knew a little about shooting, but Agatha was starting to get under his skin, so he decided to return the favour. “Way I see it, it’s a gun, like any other. One end goes bang and kills things. It’s best you to stay away from that end.”
She growled in response and sunk her chin into her chest.
“Yeah, good idea.” Tom sat down next to her. “Time for some shut-eye.”
Between the laughter below, the cold, and the uncomfortable wood floor, it was a long time before he fell asleep.
Tom awoke to the smell of smoke. He sat up with a shock before his eyes were fully open. “Sorry Pa, I must have slept late. Is breakfast done?” He blinked and cleared his eyes. No campfire, no Pa… that chapter of his life was long past. That was a relief. His Pa would have whipped him something fierce for sleeping in.
Giles laughed. “Your Pa’s not here to take care of your ass boy.”
Tom sniffed again. No campfire, but there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. He looked over the side of the tower. The Mist below flickered orange where the Draggers had set the town alight, and in the distance two of the town’s fifty or so refuge towers were burning.
Oleg stood beside him. “Must be a smart ‘un leadin’ them, usin’ fire like that.”
Agatha snorted a laugh. “Too bad we don’t have a smart ‘un leading us.”
Oleg grinned at her. “Now now, try an’ act civilized, Injun.”
Agatha stood and stepped toe to toe with Oleg who was a head and a half taller than her. “Civilized, like stealing other people’s possessions?”
“That’s for yer own protection little miss.”
“Protecting us from what? Most dangerous thing up here is your damn snoring!”
An uproar of laughter below broke the conversation. Tom peered over the side, but couldn’t see a thing through the Mist. “I don’t like it. What’re they doin’ down there?”
Oleg whipped open the trap door and leaned through the hole. “Shit, they’re climbin’!” He pulled out the revolver and blasted a half dozen shots at the Draggers. The grinning mock-humans just continued their climb though, steady as ever.
Agatha whistled, mock-impressed. “Where’d you learn to shoot like that Ace? You couldn’t hit the ground throwin’ a rock!”
“Shut up!” Oleg quickly reloaded, dropping several cartridges from shaking fingers as the Draggers came ever closer. They smelled of the wild, and leered up a the humans with hungry eyes, laughing and chuckling as they came.
Willow screamed and Tom turned to see an arm reaching over the side of the tower wall. He ran forward as the perverted human face appeared and lashed out with a straight right, smashing the thing’s nose flat. She blinked, but continued to haul herself upwards. Tom grabbed a finger and pulled. It broke with a loud pop. He broke another, and another, but the Dragger threw her leg over the wall, ignoring him completely.
The blast of the revolver next to Tom’s head deafened him. The beast’s head exploded, and she fell backwards off the tower. A fine mist of blood and gore settled all around.
“See I can hit ‘em!” Oleg grinned at Agatha.
Agatha snorted. “Well dog my cats, we should call you Captain Crackerjack with shootin’ like that. Two feet away and you didn’t even hit dead-centre.”
At the trap-door Giles was busily kicking and stomping at fingers. Tom ran over and slammed the door with a satisfying crunch of broken cartilage and bone. “Take that!” He jumped on the door, causing a new wave of crackles and pops. “Hah! Try climbing with all your fingers broken!” He whipped the door open again and several grinning faces fell away, still laughing, only to be silenced when they finally hit the ground.
The few remaining Draggers retreated, and that was the end of the assault.
Other than the mist below, the weather was beautiful, the warm sun beat down, comforting at first, but as dehydration set in it became a curse. The Mist showed no signs of receding as it normally would, if anything it was thickening in the midday sun. The Draggers stayed on too, their cackling echoed from every corner of Milton.
Three nearby towers fall to Dragger attacks that day. The six refugees in the tower did their best to shield themselves from the sun, but they were all burned and peeling by evening, throats raw and tongues swollen from thirst.
As night approached the Mist grew thicker and taller than ever. It lapped around the walls of their refuge, as if searching for a way in. Several ropy tendrils snaked through the cracks around the trap door.
Tom saw them first. “Mist coming in!”
Giles turned and saw the smoky worm creeping toward him. He screamed like a little girl and scrambled up the side of the tower wall, where he stood balancing on the thin rail. Oleg followed suit, but lay down across a corner in the wall. It looked uncomfortable, but he didn’t risk falling like Giles.
The others backed away and the wisps of Mist, deprived of their targets, scrabbled uselessly for purchase against the walls underneath Oleg and Giles. Then they paused, as if sniffing the air, and turned toward Tom.
It was extremely rare for someone to be turned before their nineteenth birthday, but Tom wasn’t taking any chances. He hopped up on a corner and imitated Oleg. Not as uncomfortable as it looked, although he sincerely hoped he wouldn’t have to sleep that way.
With nobody old enough left to attack, the mist tendrils seemed to give up, they returned to the trap door and slithered down through the cracks. Slowly the mound of Mist under their tower flattened out as if exhausted from the effort.
In the distance, moonlight illuminated mounds of Mist attacking the other towers. Screams of fear from humans, and laughter from the freshly turned Draggers told the story. The town of Milton was being overrun. Around midnight clouds rolled in, obscuring the moon and rescuing the survivors from the morbid sight of the other towers falling, one by one. Shrieks of laughter and terror mingled together through the long night.
In spite of their exhaustion, not one of the six refugees in the tower slept.