The story so far…
Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate.
Hecate has a mysterious stowaway, a young woman named Ishara, who rarely comes out of hiding.
In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to a crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. They did lose what they thought was a near-worthless cargo of lead bars. It turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Now Tom and the crew are going back to try and recover their lost cargo.
Tom awoke from a deep sleep to find a girl straddling him. Not normally a bad way to wake up, but this one had a crazed look in her eyes, and she radiated cold.
“Good morning sleepyhead.” She had a dark complexion, silky black hair, and wore only a light cotton dress.
“Ishara?” Tom sat up in surprise. “It is Ishara isn’t it?”
“You guessed it, you guessed it…” she replied in a singsong voice.
“What are you doing here?”
“I like you Tom. You’re a man of your word.”
“I appreciate that, but it really doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“Oh!” She looked puzzled. “Oh, oh, ooooh. Yessss I’m here for a reason.” She stared at him expectantly.
Tom flared his nostrils and tried to keep his frustration from showing. “And that reason is?”
Ishara frowned as though trying very hard to concentrate. “You’re in danger Tom. Soon you’ll face a choice Tom. Mustn’t be greedy Tom.”
“Where have you been hiding?”
“Everywhere and nowhere Tom.” She giggled. “You’ll never find me if I want to hide.”
Tom took a deep breath. “Look, I’m tryin’ to understand, but none of the words comin’ out of your mouth make any sense. Why should I believe anything you say?”
Ishara put a finger to her lower lip and plucked at it. “Buhb, buhb, buhb. Oh! The drawer. Haven’t found that yet, have you?”
“Enough Ishara, I think you need help. Please don’t hide anymore, I’m sure Nikki, or Agatha, or someone might know what to do. Come with me, we’ll go see them.”
Ishara looked terrified. “No! Nooooo.” She crawled back to the far corner of Tom’s bed. “Can’t… can’t see too many people at once. Even one… even you… hard to think. Drawer under cabinet.” She pointed to the low chest of drawers next to the bed. “Bottom panel, slide right, then pull.”
“Ishara, what’s wrong with you? Will you let me help?”
“Beyond your help Tom. Helping myself, slowly. Takes time. I’m not all here, you see?” She laughed, as though that were a terrific joke.
Someone knocked at the door. “Tom?” It was Nikki’s voice.
Tom glanced at the door. “Yeah?” When he looked back, Ishara was gone.
The door opened. “Tom? You talking to someone in here?”
Tom sat, mouth agape. “Ishara… she was here a minute ago… I think.”
Nikki’s face turned stormy. “Ishara was here? What were you two up to? I heard laughter.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. She needs help.”
Nikki arched a brow. “And you’re the one to give it to her I suppose?”
“No, not like that! She’s wrong in the head. Where the hell did she go?”
Nikki put a finger to her lips and leaned forward. She whipped the bedclothes off.
Tom lay there naked for an instant before tumbling off the side of the bed and scrambling for his clothes.
“Honestly Tom, you got nothin’ to be ashamed of.” She laughed and peered under the bed. “You sure there was someone here?”
“Yeah… I mean I think so. I was asleep… maybe it was a dream? Powerful strange dream if it was.”
“Well nevermind. Day’s startin’, an’ Willow has coffee a-brewin’.”
“Coming, just gimme a minute.”
Nikki nodded and shut the door behind her.
Tom scrambled into the rest of his clothes. He was about to follow Nikki when he paused. It wouldn’t hurt to check out the chest of drawers.
The panel gave with a sharp click, and the drawer opened just enough that he could gain purchase on the edges. Tom slid the drawer all the way out. Inside the red felt lined compartment was the strangest pistol he’d ever seen. It had a very long barrel with a feed-tube underneath and a lever mechanism, like on a lever-action rifle, that looked to be manipulated with the index and middle fingers.
There was also a gun-belt and a few hundred rounds of ammunition. One of the previous captains of Hecate liked to be prepared.
Tom went to the galley and slapped the pistol down in front of Agatha. “What is this?”
Agatha looked up from her breakfast. “Volcanic pistol. They were popular for a while, twenty years or so back. Fell out of fashion. More accurate than a revolver, but slow rate of fire, finicky ammunition and lots of jams.” She wiped her hands on her pants and picked the pistol up. After checking it was unloaded, she worked the action, opened it up and checked the insides, looked down the barrel. Finally she put it down on the table and frowned at it, like it had done something to annoy her.
“Well? Is it worth carrying, or should I stick to the revolver?”
Agatha sniffed. “Normal volcanic, I’d say no… but this one. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it, I’ll tell you that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember how Shorty described the engines on Hecate? Look on the outside to be normal, but on the inside they’re just perfect, flawlessly made. This pistol’s like that. Nine rounds, bet it shoots straight as hell, and the action’s slick as whale snot on an iceberg.”
“Where’d it come from?”
Agatha exhaled between her teeth. “Beats me. There’s no stamp on it, an’ I don’t know of anyplace in Europe or the Americas can do such a fine job.”
Tom nodded, and strapped on the belt for the volcanic pistol. It felt comforting at his side, like they were meant for eachother. “Just another Hecate mystery I suppose.”
“Yeah, I heard you had a run-in with Ishara.” Agatha grinned. “Nikki was pretty steamed.”
“I think… I’m pretty sure it was a dream.”
“I’m not sure if she’d be more, or less upset about that.”
The door to Dog’s bunkroom was unlatched, so it swung open when Tom rapped on it. “Comin’ up on Bedford in an hour. We don’t have a lot, but I can give you a few guilder to get you on your feet. You shouldn’t have much trouble findin’ work.”
Dog sat, lotus-style on his bunk, his face a mask of calm, his eyes closed. “You would prefer it if I left?”
“You’re a useful hand in a tight spot Dog, but we’re taking risks you don’t need to take on.”
“I would like to help, if you will have me.”
“Hell yeah we’d like your help. It ain’t your fight though.”
Dog opened his eyes and regarded Tom calmly. “I prefer to avoid fighting, but you saved me. I owe you a debt I can never repay.” A smile curled at the edges of his mouth. “And I like it here. If you will have me, I would like to stay.”
“You don’t owe us nothin’ Dog. We just did what was right.” Tom offered his hand. “But I’m glad to have you aboard.”
Dog took the hand, swung off the bed and threw his arms around Tom, leaving Tom’s arms dangling awkwardly at his sides. When he released Tom, a brilliant smile shone against his dark face. “Then this is my new home.”
Bedford was a mere pimple of a town, but it was the closest place to Havenvale with docking towers.
Tom weighted one corner of the chart down with Sir Furrybottom, and unrolled the other end. “There’s a clear road through here. Me and Agatha will hitch a ride with a caravan, or hoof it.” The whole crew gathered around, jostling for space in the crowded bridge.
“I will join you.” Dog crossed his arms. “If there are Draggers on the ground I will be best put to use there.”
“Better with a weapon.” Shorty grinned up at the hulking ex-gladiator. He produced a finely crafted gladius and scabbard from behind his back. “This was meant as a good-bye present, but seeing as you’re staying, I guess it’s a welcome-aboard gift.”
Dog smiled and hefted the sword. The blade was mirror-smooth steel, it had a brass pommel shaped into a snarling dog, and finely polished hardwood grips. “This is beautiful work, Shorty. Many thanks.”
“It’s just stock steel, I wanted to make it Japanese-style, folding the metal, but I don’t have the gear on board for that.” Shorty glanced meaningfully at Tom.
Tom rolled his eyes. “We can’t afford a blast furnace for your hobbies, and even if we could, it wouldn’t fit.”
“Well, I was thinking, if we expanded the machine room into the cargo bay we could—”
“Ain’t gonna happen Shorty,” Tom cut in.
Shorty shrugged. “Anyhow, next one I’ll find a forge and fold proper for you Dog. You familiar with Japanese swords?”
Dog smiled. “Only from the wrong end I am afraid. This will be more than adequate, but thank you for the thought Shorty.”
“You bring Tom and Agatha back safe, that’s thanks enough.”
Tom cleared his throat. “As I was saying. We’ll go overland. The rest of you wait here and man the telegraph office, we’ll send a message when we know where and when we need you to pick up the cargo.”
Nikki frowned. “I don’t like it Tom.”
Tom put an arm across her shoulder. “Don’t you worry, we’ll be just fine. You’re in charge while we’re gone.”
Agatha nodded. “We’ll be fine Nikki. The three of us can take care of ourselves. Well,” she glanced admiringly at Dog, “two of us can at any rate.”
Shorty glared at Dog. “I could go too. I know how to take care of myself.” He put his hand on the butt of the sawed-off shotgun he carried like a pistol.
Tom shook his head. “No, sorry but you can’t keep up if we have to run.”
Shorty glanced between Agatha and Dog, his brows knitting into a deepening frown. “I can keep up, I’d be fine.”
“I said no Shorty. That’s final.”
“You take care now Tom.” Nikki rubbed at her eyes. She had slipped in to Tom’s room in the pre-dawn light. Thankfully he was already awake and dressed, too full of nervous energy to sleep in. Finding a caravan had been easy, the few traders who risked the overland route were more than happy to have some extra security. They were set to leave on the eight-hour trip at dawn, and if there weren’t too many delays they’d arrive in Havenvale well before sunset.
“I’ll be fine.” Tom checked his volcanic pistol for the fifth time. He’d practised with it a few times, and true to Agatha’s word it was an accurate little package. She was still a far better shot, but at least he could hit what he was aiming at most of the time.
“I’m serious Tom.” Nikki threw her arms around his neck. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Oh, come on. I’ll be back in a couple of days. Nothin’ to worry about.”
Nikki pulled hard on his neck, so his eyes came level with hers. “I’m not letting you leave without you promising to come back.”
“I’ll come back.”
She dug her nails into the nape of his neck. “Promise me.”
“All right, I promise! I’ll come back, safe and sound.”
“No foolish risks, right? It’s only money.”
Only enough money to buy and sell a large city. “I promise, I’ll take care of myself, and I’ll telegraph, soon as we get to Havenvale.”
“You’d better. I have a bad feeling about all this.” Nikki pulled him close and kissed him hungrily.
When she finally released her grip, Tom took a gasp of air and put his arm out for balance. Before he could say anything further she was gone.
“Coffee?” The wagoneer offered the pot back to Tom. He was sitting with Dog and Agatha on the tailgate of the rear-most wagon of a ten wagon long caravan. The mid-morning sun dappled the road through the trees.
“Oh, yes please.” Tom poured a mug for himself and passed the pot to Agatha, she took a large mug as well, but Dog turned it down.
About four hours out of Bedford it was shaping up to be a nice quiet trip. The sun had warmed everything to a pleasant degree, birds and small animals chirped and sang from the trees, if only they hadn’t needed such an early start it would be near perfect.
Tom yawned and passed the coffee pot back to the wagoneer. “Thanks Kent, I don’t know how you do it, gettin’ up so early for these runs.”
Kent leaned back over his shoulder to take the pot. “I don’t mind much. Pay’s good ‘cause nobody else wants the work, an’ the trail’s mostly safe ‘cept around Black Lake.”
Agatha nodded. “You let us know when we’re gettin’ close to Black Lake then.”
Kent laughed. “Oh you can’t miss it. We take the ridge road to stay as high as possible. Black Lake will be the dark pit to the right, completely covered in Mist.”
“Sounds… inviting.” Tom yawned again, and downed the last of his lukewarm coffee. “I’m goin’ to stretch my legs for a bit.” He hopped off the tailgate and walked behind the wagon, it was a brisk pace, enough to get his blood flowing. They were travelling through a wooded hillside, steep incline forced the road through a series of switchbacks.
Dog joined him. “You think we will see Draggers?”
“Dunno, but if there’s Mist around, it’s likely.”
“They die like men?”
“Yeah,” Tom nodded, remembering Airman Giles Whitworth, his transformation into a Dragger, how the knife in Tom’s hand had ended his life when it reached his heart, “stronger, faster, completely insane, but they die like regular people.”
“How do you tell a Dragger from a normal person?”
“They just come at you… sometimes they can be patient, but when they come you’ll know. All they care about is killing, they don’t even mind dying, and when they’re closing in for a kill, they can’t help themselves but laugh.”
Agatha set her mug aside and hopped off the tailgate to join the others.
Dog stopped in the road, eyeing the forest on the downhill side closely. “Do they ever stalk their prey, building larger numbers before they attack?”
Tom frowned. “Usually they’re not that smart… but sometimes, yeah. Why do you ask?”
Dog glanced over his shoulder at the receding caravan. “Because I think we are being followed.”