The story so far…
Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers (humans who have been turned into animalistic killing machines by exposure to Mist) and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate. 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. On a smuggling run to Atlantis they picked up the latest member of the crew, Dog, a runaway gladiator.
Lately the crew tried to recover several tons of gold from Charkart’s warehouse, but they had to dump it to avoid crashing into a lake, as Hecate had taken heavy damage during a firefight. Tom managed to rescue some of the gold, but was dragged through a wisp of Mist. Before the psychotic rage that overtook him caused him to kill anyone, Ishara, a mysterious ghost-woman who haunts Hecate, twisted something inside his brain that knocked Tom unconscious.
“Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom…”
Tom woke feeling like he’d spent the night with a horse sleeping on him. Every fibre of his body was sore and cold. More than that, his spirit was flayed raw, he felt angry and afraid. Something had happened to him… but he was at a loss to figure out what.
“Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom…”
He squeezed his eyes shut. “Shut up.”
“Oh… you’re awake? Rise and shine sleepy.”
Tom couldn’t place the voice. He blinked his eyes open and gradually the world swam into view around him. He was lying on his bed on Hecate. No engine noise, so they must be stopped.
He turned to the side and groaned. “Not you… Ishara, what are you doing here?”
“Yes me, of course me…. Should I be offended by his ever-so-rude manner? Perhaps I should give him a little wiggle room on this one, after all it’s not every day a man gets himself infected by Mist through his own stupid greed and general thick-headedness, now is it?”
“I… that wasn’t a dream?”
“Nonono, Tom dear. You were naughty, ignored my advice didn’t you. Ignored my advice and paid the price, that’s what happened to poor Tom Cain.”
“But I’m not… you know, a raving maniac.”
“Saved you, I did that. Saved you from your idiocy. Though why I bother is beyond me. Men like you can never really be saved. You’ll find a way to undo all the patches I’ve made in your head soon enough.”
Tom sat up, his head swam. If he focused, he realized he could see straight through Ishara to the bulkhead behind her. She really was a ghost. “Patches?”
She shook her head. “Temporary… though I suppose all things are. Even the land which hath borne Man shall one day turn to dust.” She frowned. “Where do I know that from?”
“How long until the patches fail?”
“What the hell are you talking about Ishara?”
Tom took a deep breath. “What does that mean?”
“En-men-lu-ana was a poet, and a king. I knew him as a poet first, before the throne went to his head. He was a lousy poet after he ascended. That’s where I remembered the line from. It was one of his.”
“I don’t care about your stupid poet! How long until the patches in my brain fail and I turn into a bloodthirsty beast?”
“Oh… that.” Ishara narrowed her eyes at Tom. “Two weeks, two months, two years… one of those I think. Probably not two days or two hours.”
“Not, maybe, two decades?”
Ishara laughed. “Two decades is twenty years Tom. No, you have two something, at most.”
“Yes Tom… that means maybe less.” She rolled her eyes at him. “Depends on you. I can help you fight, but only while you’re young. Once you’re a full adult….”
“I lose my mind and start killing anybody in sight.”
Ishara nodded. “That is a good summary Tom, I’m glad to see you’ve been paying attention.”
“Thanks.” Tom groaned and rolled to the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet with him to cover his nakedness. His clothes were there, but his pistol was gone, and his rigging knife was missing from his belt.
Ishara laughed. “I will go now. You have a lot to catch up with.”
“Yeah, whatever. Say hi to Enmenlulu for me.”
“En-men-lu-ana. I’d say hi, but he’s been dead for several millennia.”
Tom grunted. “Aren’t you dead too?”
Ishara’s face fell. “Tom, it’s very rude to remind me of that. How would you feel if you were dead and the living rubbed your nose in it.”
Tom rubbed his eyes, unsure which would drive him insane first, the twisted remains of a human soul nestled inside him, or Ishara. “I mean, if he’s dead, isn’t he a ghost too?”
“Oh Tom, how do you think this works?”
“Honestly, I haven’t a deuced clue, and I don’t much care either.”
“Well fine, be that way then.” Ishara faded from nearly substantial-looking to nothing, and in no more than a second she was gone.
Tom shook his head and mumbled under his breath, “Crazy bitch.”
“I heard that.”
Tom threw his boot in the direction of the disembodied voice. “Yeah, well stay the hell out of my quarters! Did you hear that?”
There was no response.
After getting dressed, Tom swung his door wide and nearly fell over Agatha. She sat against the opposite side of the hall, with her feet nearly in his doorway. One leg was bound up in a cast. Tom began to wonder how long he’d been out.
Agatha blinked and looked up at him. Her eyes shot open, and she made a grab for her revolver.
“Whoa whoa, Agatha! What’s goin’ on?” Tom raised his open hands.
Agatha narrowed her eyes at him. Her revolver was clear of its holster, but she left it pointed away from him. “You feelin’ okay Tom?”
Tom shrugged. “Sore as hell, but I reckon I’ll live.”
Agatha played her trigger finger back and forth across the trigger guard, as if itching to slide it inside. “What do you remember?”
“Y’all dumped the gold… I saved some bars and got on the ladder… I got to the top and… passed out I guess.”
“Nothin’ else? You didn’t hit no Mist?”
Tom remembered the cold shock of his leg connecting with the tendril of Mist. The evil spirit worming its way into his brain, overwhelming Tom’s persona with the desire to kill. “No. If I had, I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you now would I?”
Agatha slipped her revolver back in its holster. “All right. You were laughing some crazy when we hauled you in. I was ‘bout ready to blast you full of lead when you collapsed.”
“Well thanks for holding back.”
“Tom, I ain’t never gonna hold back. If it hadn’t a been for my broken leg, and Willow jumping on my arm, you’d be a dead man right now.”
“Ahh… I see. How long was I out?”
“Nearly three days. A lot’s happened. Help me to my feet, and I’ll catch you up.”
Tom got Agatha to her feet and handed her the crutch that had been lying next to her. The two of them made their way to the galley, and Tom began to prepare himself a feast.
After a few bites, Tom looked around. “Where is everybody?”
“Busy. Look, Tom, we done pissed off Charkart something royal.”
“But, no big deal right? We made it away. We just won’t go back to that neck of the woods for a few years.”
“It’s a very big deal Tom. I don’t think he knows we dumped most of the gold. Story is he’s amassing an army in Havenvale, getting ready to invade.”
Tom blinked. “Charkart’s going to invade Johnson City?”
“Didn’t make it that far. Six gasbags were punctured, and we were losin’ altitude even after droppin’ the gold. We only made it as far as Bedford, and you can thank Nikki for that. Charkart’s only a half-day’s trip away, and Bedford has nothing like the manpower we’d need to defeat him.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Townies are right sideways about it. They want us gone yesterday. Only the Sherriff and a few old hands took our side, they’re organizin’ a militia to help fight off Charkart. Shorty’s got the others workin’ to fix the gasbags, but he figures it’ll be at least a week before we can get airborne.”
Tom rubbed his eyes. “So what’s the plan to defend Bedford?”
“We’re hopin’ it don’t come to that.”
“Holy hell Agatha! You hope! That’s the plan?”
Agatha dropped her gaze. “I don’t know how to fight a war, Tom. Do you?”
Tom was about to answer that he had no idea either, but there was something inside him that did. He tried not to think too deeply about it as he accessed the knowledge of the psychotic spirit lodged inside his skull. Whoever the spirit had been in life, they knew a lot about warfare, and though Ishara had created an emotional barrier between Tom and the other, it didn’t block all passage of thought. In fact it was almost as if the other man’s skills and training belonged in Tom’s own past. The only thing missing was the memories that would have given that knowledge context.
“Well first light tomorrow, we need to run a team of scouts up to the ridge overlooking Black Lake. If I remember the terrain right, it’s a natural choke point. Even a handful of rifles there could hold off an army for several hours. They can take to the trees at night, like we did, and watch for movement during the day.”
“What good does a few hours buy us? We need a week!”
“No, we don’t. There’s what… eleven or so hours of daylight per day, this time of year. Movin’ a big group of men overland slows things down, so the trip’s gonna take at least nine hours. All the men on the ridge have to do is hold them for two, three hours, then retreat. Our small unit can take to high ground and spend the night in the trees, but a big army can’t do that. They’ll have to turn back or face the Mist.”
Agatha narrowed her eyes. “How do you know all this?”
Tom grinned. “I guess I read too many adventure stories when I was younger.”
Agatha snorted. “That explains a whole mess of things about you, Tom.”
“Speakin’ of adventures… where’s my treasure at?”
Agatha averted her eyes. “I put it in the armoury safe.”
Tom frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“Uhh, Tom, I don’t rightly know how to say this.”
“Oh come on! It can’t be that bad. Did you spend too much on parts? That’s okay, I must have rescued a dozen pounds of gold easy! We’re still sittin’ pretty right?”
“Yeah, ‘bout that Tom….” Agatha grimaced and shook her head.
“Well for Lord’s sakes, spit it out! The suspense is killin’ me. Is it gone?”
Agatha looked about ready to cry. Tom had never seen her that upset before. He was so used to her being the tough one, he’d almost forgotten she was younger than him by a few years.
“It’s gone isn’t it! What, all of it?”
“I’m so sorry Tom. I don’t know what happened! We put the gold away safe, like I said…. Next mornin’ it was nearly all gone. If we cut a few corners there’s enough for repairs, and a new cargo lift, and that’s it.”
Tom felt woozy. The shock of losing all that gold, after he’d sacrificed what he had…. Doomed himself to decay and eventual insanity. He felt the spirit wormed into his brain testing, probing for weakness. The urge to kill crept forward. He started to hyperventilate, then the rapid breathing turned to laughter. It would be so easy to spill her soul. There would be nobody to stop him, and she deserved it, losing his money like that.
A metallic click brought him back to reality. Tom blinked and realized he was staring down the barrel of Agatha’s revolver. She stood, quivering in a corner of the mess. When had he crossed the room, or even arisen from his chair? There were gaps in time he couldn’t explain.
Tom raised his hands slowly. “Whoa there Agatha. Just hold it. Sorry I went off a bit there… umm, so who could have taken the gold?”
Agatha raised her left hand to steady her aim. “What’s goin’ on with you, Tom.”
“Nothin’, really… I’m fine. Just, sorta taken aback…. You know, losing all that gold.”She narrowed her eyes. “That’s not it. You’d better do some quick explainin’ Tom, my finger is gettin’ awful twitchy here.”