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 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. However, it turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Nikki, Shorty and Willow waited with Hecate for word from Tom, Dog and Agatha who are travelling overland to Havenvale, but they never checked in. This week we find out why.
Tom stared into the forest for a minute. Dog was right, there were shapes moving among the trees. Beyond that, down the side of the trail the first tendrils of Mist were gathering to push their way up-slope. He looked over his shoulder at the cart he’d been riding on with Agatha and Dog a few minutes before. It was about twenty yards ahead, climbing the steep road that zigzagged up the ridge.
Under his breath Tom said, “You suppose they’ve noticed the Draggers yet?”
Dog followed his gaze. “They seem calm.”
Agatha nodded at Tom. “I think we should try to catch up, without doing anything to spook them.”
The three turned and walked as fast as they dared toward the wagon.
A low chuckle came from the side of the road. An instant later Kent, their wagoneer, turned with his eyes wide.
Tom, Dog, and Agatha burst into a run as a cacophony of full throated laughter opened up behind them.
Kent called, “Draggers on our back!” and slapped the reigns down furiously on his horses, and pulled the long whip from beside his seat to further encourage them.
The crew from the Hecate were still a dozen paces behind when the wagon started to outpace them. Tom glanced over his shoulder. Ten, maybe twenty Draggers followed them on the road, with more coming from the forest.
“This way!” called Agatha, as she split from the main trail and took a steep path up hill, cutting across the switchback road.
Tom was panting within minutes on the steep trail, but with luck the shortcut would get them there before the caravan passed. The Draggers followed, but the steep trail and rough terrain limited their passage to single-file.
Ahead of him, Tom could hear Agatha’s laboured breathing. Behind, Dog ran easily. Tom’s lungs burned, his legs felt like rubber. The climb seemed endless. He glanced back and saw the Draggers were gaining ground.
Ahead he heard the clatter of running hooves.
An instant later the three crewmates burst onto the road, just in time to see the last wagon pass them by.
Tom bent double to catch his breath. “Now… what?”
Dog rolled his shoulders, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply. When he opened his eyes again there was a fierce glee there. “Now, we fight!” He turned to face the trail with a snarl on his lips and gladius in hand.
Tom drew iron and flanked Dog on one side, Agatha took the other. Draggers boiled up the trail. They pushed and shoved, each vying to be the first to the top of the trail.
>Boom!< Agatha fired a shot, and a Dragger collapsed, entangling those behind him.
“Hold off!” Dog called. “Save your bullets, just keep them from surrounding me.” He swung his sword in a vicious arc, decapitating the first of the Draggers. Those behind barely slowed. Again and again he swung, until there was a pile of bodies at the top of the trail, Draggers started to fan out. Tom and Agatha were forced into action to keep them from coming up the sides.
The volcanic pistol felt just right in Tom’s hands. Each shot found a target, although he sometimes had to fire multiple times to stop the Dragger he was aiming at.
Behind the Draggers, the Mist crept upwards through the trees at an alarming rate.
“Reloading!” Agatha called, followed by a tinkle like little bells as she dumped her spent casings on the hard-packed road.
Tom aimed for a Dragger on her side, but when he pulled the trigger, his pistol’s hammer fell on empty air. “I’m out too!”
Dog was forced into triple-duty, swinging on all sides as Draggers pushed them back. Tom scrambled to reload.
Agatha fired a shot, back in action on Dog’s far side, but it was too late. They’d been pushed back from the edge, and now the Draggers faced them on the flat road.
Tom fired a shot point-blank into the chest of a Dragger, then kicked it back toward the crowd coming up the hill. “Retreat! We’ve got to get up the hill!”
Agatha and Dog turned with him, while the Draggers chased them across the road. Tom pushed Agatha into the lead on the next trail and let Dog take the rear-guard again.
Tom scrambled uphill until his lungs felt ready to burst. He could taste the iron tang of blood on every breath.
When they hit the a near vertical stretch in the trail, Dog turned and backed up the hill slashing down at the pursuing Draggers. Their numbers had dwindled to a mere dozen or so, but behind them came the Mist, clawing its way upward on smoky limbs.
Agatha fired from up the trail, taking another Dragger in the heart. Dog swung at another, sending the body tumbling downhill on the other Draggers. Tom fired a shot, but it went wild, his heart was racing and sweat ran into his eyes. He fired again, and spun a Dragger around, its arm dangling uselessly at its side.
Again and again he fired, pumped the lever and fired. The action clicked on a dry chamber at least a half-dozen, before he noticed he was out.
Dog roared and swung his blade one last time, and the Draggers were done. A few groaned on the slope below, too crippled to climb, the rest were dead.
The three crewmates collapsed to the ground, panting for breath.
“Better… get moving… Mist… coming up… fast,” Dog managed between gasps for air.
Tom lay on the slope, his chest heaving. He tried to climb to his feet, but collapsed again and slid a few feet downhill. Beside him, Agatha was in similar condition.
Dog dragged himself to his feet and wiped his sword clean on a dead Dragger’s clothes. “We cannot stay here.”
Three more gulps of air and Tom tried to rise again. A nearby tree supported him, but he didn’t have the strength to carry on up the trail.
Below them the mist was sweeping over the dead bodies of Draggers on the road below. He’d never recover in time to run.
Agatha rose unsteadily to her feet. She blinked the sweat out of her eyes and pointed uphill. “Trees.”
Tom nodded and turned toward the stand of tall trees Agatha had indicated. He fell to his hands and knees and began crawling upslope.
Dog took Agatha’s arm over his shoulder and helped her climb. “I’ll come back for you Tom.”
“Go.” Tom made a dismissive gesture with his hand. He wanted to tell Dog not to bother coming back, it would probably be too late, but he didn’t have the breath. Instead he just inched his own way upwards, nose several inches from the ground, each breath a silent scream. He could feel the Mist closing in. Its dark malevolence sent a chill up his back. It seemed like he could feel its thoughts. It wanted to possess him, turn him into a bloodthirsty thing, a tool to satisfy its dark needs.
A chill bit at Tom’s ankle as he clawed his way upslope. He curled his legs up as high as he could and glanced back. A tendril of Mist made a swipe at him, coming within inches of his foot.
Panic gave him new strength, Tom hauled himself upwards, fingers bleeding from the sharp rocks. The Mist settled back, gathering itself for another push. Spittle dribbled from Tom’s chin, his breathing frantic, he could feel the blast of chill air as the Mist below surged up toward him again.
A hand grasped at Tom’s wrist, and pulled him upward. Tom cleared the lip, and flopped down on a broad ledge with several large trees growing form it.
“Up you go.” Dog shoved at Tom’s behind, while Tom tried to make his limbs move in a climbing motion. When he was about six feet in the air, Dog left him and leapt into a nearby tree just as the Mist surged again. It nipped at Dog’s heels, but it was too late. For several minutes, it swirled and probed at the trees, but couldn’t find purchase.
Tom hung limply for a few minutes before he could move. The mist was slowly mounding up to try and reach them. Slowly Tom worked his way up as high as he could and fastened his gunbelt around the bole of the tree. Nearby, Dog and Agatha hung from other trees.
After fifteen minutes or so, when her breathing had normalized, Agatha cleared her throat. “This is a fine mess we’re in this time Tom, and no two ways about that,”
Tom nodded. “I seem to have a knack for pickin’ ‘em don’t I?”
“Yet we all keep following you, don’t we?”
“Why is that? I ain’t exactly been doing a great job.”
Agatha shrugged. “I sure couldn’t do it.”
“Keep everyone together, make Hecate a working ship and a home for us that need it.”
Tom sighed. “You seem to have plenty of ideas. Every time we argue it seems you turn out right in the end. Maybe you should be Captain.”
“If I was Captain, we’d still be sitting in Johnson City lookin’ for work. You found us something, even though it didn’t earn much, it paid enough to keep us flying a little longer.”
Tom sighed. “I keep gettin’ us near killed. One day I’m going to step over that line. You know it Agatha, you say as much all the time.”
“I’m hard on you because you can do better, and sometimes you need a contrary opinion.”
“Yet here we are. Hangin’ out in trees, waitin’ for the Mist to come claim us.” Tom shook his head. “Hell of a job I’m doin’.”
Dog grinned. “It is not the cry, but the flight, by which the goose makes others follow.”
Agatha gaped at him. “What the hell does that mean?”
Dog laughed. “My old master was full of such sayings. I think it is about leading by example. They follow you because you always put them first, and you try to do what is best, not what is easiest. That is all anyone could ask.”
“Careful Dog, or you’ll fill my head so full of hot air I won’t be able to keep my feet on the ground.”
Dog pressed his hands together and made a mock bow at Tom. “A man who always keeps both feet on the ground cannot put on his pants.”
Tom smiled. “Thanks, you two…. Friends like you almost make up for being stuck in a tree, surrounded by mist. Hecate crew’s turnin’ out like a real family.”
Agatha laughed. “A man who sits around on a pine tree branch all day gets sappy.”