Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas

The Orphans are taking a well-deserved break for the holidays. They'll be back in the new year with more fantastic adventures!

Art courtesy Steampunk Scholar

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-6, C-2

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. Now she’s patched his brain to keep him from turning into a Dragger, but the fix is only temporary. What’s more, Tom just found out that Charkart is assembling an army to invade Bedford, where Hecate is currently undergoing repairs, because Charkart thinks they still have the gold.

Episode 6
Chapter 2

Tom took a deep breath. “Whoa now… before I start, you have to promise me two things.”
Agatha’s pistol wavered for a moment from his forehead, then she snapped it back into position. “Why should I promise you anything?”
“They’re simple requests. All I want is that you keep this conversation between the two of us for now, and that you hear me out fully before pullin’ that trigger.”
“Okay, but only if you back off a few paces.”
Tom slowly stepped backwards until Agatha lowered the barrel of her revolver. He let out a breath and thought about how he could phrase things to avoid being filled full of holes.
“Don’t make me wait too long, Tom.”
“Right… sure, well first off, I wasn’t being quite straight up when I told you I didn’t hit any Mist.”
Agatha snapped the revolver back up into firing position, aimed straight at his head. “I knew it! God damn bastard! I should kill you right now.”
“You promised! Agatha, hear me out. Am I acting like a Dragger?”
She lowered the gun so it was pointed at his chest. “No… but I don’t know everything about Draggers.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t think many people do. It’s…. You know where you go when you die?”
“You’re seriously not doing anything to allay my concerns here, Tom, talkin’ about me dyin’ and all…. I suppose you’re just gone, finished, blackness, whatever.”
“Well, seems it’s more complicated than that. Mist is made up of dead people, Agatha, somehow their souls have been… I don’t know, defiled or something. They possess the living ‘cause they’re impotent on their own.”
“You’re still not convincin’ me.”
“Right, well Ishara is a ghost too. Only she’s whole, and she has some kind of powers. She fixed me so the spirit inside me can’t take possession.”
“You have any idea how crazy all this sounds?”
Tom grimaced. “Some. If I hadn’t lived it I probably wouldn’t believe it either. You’ve got to admit it explains Ishara at least.”
Agatha paused and rubbed at her temple with her off hand. “Yeah… it does that. So why is she undamaged, and everyone else is driven to killin’ rage?”
“I have no idea, but I think we can use this. If we can learn more, we can figure out how to do somethin’ about the Mist. Maybe even get rid of it entirely.”
Agatha holstered her revolver. “Even the chance of that is worth the risk. You show any signs of cracking though, and I won’t hold back.”
Tom nodded. “Agatha, if it comes to that, I expect no less. I’ll write a journal explaining everything, and keep it in the secret compartment in my room. If you have to kill me, you can use that to explain why.”
Agatha sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve. “Tom I…” her eyes started to mist, and she looked away, “I hope it don’t come to that.”
“Right, well I second that. Now, let’s go back a page. Who the hell could have stolen my gold?”
Harry Rees did not look pleased to see Nikki and Willow again. “You brought the gold?”
Nikki nodded and held up a messenger pouch.
Rees brightened slightly. “Let’s see it.”
Nikki dropped the heavy bag on the table. “There’s a bonus in it for you, if you can keep word we’re alive from getting back to our parents.”
Rees sniffed. “You two ought to give me a bonus for being a pain in my ass. If Charkart invades, I’ll have to find a new place to do business.”
Willow pushed the bag forward. “Well then you ought to be thankful. An extra two pounds of gold should help you relocate.”
Rees laughed. “Fair, but you know they’ll hear about you sooner or later.”
“You let us worry about that.” Willow turned and led Nikki out. “Come on, let’s get back to Hecate before anyone misses us.”
Nikki sighed. “Yeah… yeah.”
“We’re just doing what we got to.”
“Stealing from Tom.”
Willow put her arm around Nikki’s shoulder. “We’ll make it up to him, and it’s a damn sight better than going back to Mom and Dad.”
Nikki nodded. “The plan was for us to have so much gold Tom’d never notice it missing.”
“Nikki, I don’t like crossing Tom either, but we did what we had to.”
“I know… I just, I’d feel better if he was awake. I could have asked.”
“Nikki, don’t you do it.”
“Do what?”
“You’re going to tell him when he comes ‘round aren’t you?”
“No…” Nikki shoved her hands deep in her pockets, “well maybe.”
“Just let it be, he’ll be right cranky when he finds out it’s missing. We add in our affiliations, which is bound to come out in that discussion, and we might as well just go back to the Dodgers now.”
“Where have you been?” Tom eyed Nikki and Willow as they boarded Hecate.
Nikki was about to speak when Willow elbowed her in the midriff. “Just stretchin’ our legs.”
Nikki swallowed and nodded. “I’m so glad you’re okay, Tom. You are okay… right?”
Tom grinned. “Well, truth told, I felt terrible when I woke up. Now I’m doing a whole mess better. If it weren’t for the missing gold and Charkart on the warpath I’d be right dandy.”
Nikki shuffled her feet and cleared her throat. She looked ready to say something when Willow threw her arms around Tom and gave him hug. “We were worried about you ya big lug.”
Tom put an arm around Nikki’s shoulder. “Well, I’m fine. Is that what’s getting to you, or losing the gold?”
“Bit of both, I guess.” Nikki sniffed.
“It’s okay, really. I’m fine. I was pretty wound up when I found the gold missing, but I don’t blame you. I will stake whoever took it to an anthill and smother him in honey though.”
Willow punched him in the arm. “Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?”
Tom nodded. “Right, maybe I’ll just yank out all their finger and toenails with a pair of rusty pliers.”
“Well, we’ll probably never know who did it, so what does it matter? Gone is gone. We’ll find a way to make more.” Willow shrugged. “We should get back to helping Shorty fix up Hecate.”
“You don’t think it was one of the crew?”
Willow scratched her ear. “Maybe, but we had a half-dozen or so people from Bedford on board before anyone noticed the gold was missin’. Could have been any one of them.”
“What I don’t get is why they left us enough for repairs. Why not take all of it?”
“Who knows what goes through the minds of thieves and criminal lowlife types. We’re just a couple of small-town girls, right Nikki?”
Nikki frowned at her sister and sighed. “Yeah…. By the way, Tom, Sheriff is holding a town hall tonight. He wants one of us to stop by, give our side of things, you know.”
“Sure, I can handle that, sounds like fun.”
“Get out of our town!”
Tom ducked as a beer bottle whistled overhead. The crowd gathered in the town square roiled with anger.
“Pipe down!” The Sheriff of Bedford stepped forward, shielding Tom. “Any one of you throws another thing is going to land in jail so fast they’d swear they was born there!” He waited a moment for the crowd to settle. “Now, y’all know this has been comin’ for some time. If it weren’t for Hecate and her crew, Charkart would be comin’ in a month, or a year, maybe two, but sure as shootin’ he’d be comin’. Point is they didn’t bring trouble.” The Sheriff waved his hand in Tom’s direction. “Charkart is the enemy here, and any in-fightin’ goes on here only helps him.”
“If we got rid of them at least we’d have another while to prepare!” A tall man from the crowd pushed forward.
“That ship has sailed my friend. Once Charkart mounted an army there was only one place he was going to point it. There’s no way he’ll stand down, even if they left today.”
“But what if we turn them over?” A woman’s voice from the crowd. “All he wants right now is them!”
The Sheriff tipped his hat. “Ma’am, respectfully, he wants the gold he thinks they have more than he wants them. Even if we turned ‘em over, he’d think we were hidin’ the gold.”
“Well, how do we know they ain’t hiding the gold?” The tall man pressed forward.
“Yeah who would dump that much gold!” a fat man at the front said. “I’d push my wife out first if the load needed lightening.”
“You’d push your wife out for free!” shouted another voice.
“Point is,” said the tall man, “we think they’re holdin’ out. And we want our share!”
“We want a share! We want a share!” The crowd chanted, all of them surging forward at once.
The Sheriff backed off and put his hand to the revolver at his side. “Sorry ‘bout this Tom. I suspect Charkart’s men have been working behind the scenes here to rile folks up. They ain’t normally so cutthroat.”
Tom was about ready to draw his own pistol, when a series of gunfire reports echoed across the small valley. Everyone froze and listened to the wind. The shots continued, a rapid exchange of fire between two sides.
“They’re here!” called the Sheriff. “Every armed man get to your perimeter stations. Tom, you come with me.” He took off at a run toward the sound of battle.

 <----- Previous          Start from the Beginning          Next ----->

Monday, December 10, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-6, C-1

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.

Episode 6
Chapter 1

“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.”
“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.”

 <----- Previous          Start from the Beginning          Next ----->

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, C-6

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.
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 the crew is trying to recover their lost treasure. Nikki, Shorty and Willow are due any minute rendezvous at Charkart’s warehouse with Hecate. Tom, Dog and Agatha are running out of time, they’ve moved the cargo to the third floor, but Charkart set fire to a cargo of diesel fuel on the ground.

Episode 5
Chapter 6

The temperature on the third floor shot up in seconds.
“The wagon is still on the lift! It stopped just short of this floor.” Dog pointed.
Tom ran over to see that the lift had come up several inches short of the third floor. The three of them threw their weight into it, but it was too much to pull the five ton cargo over.
Agatha scrambled up onto the wagon and started throwing bricks off.
“No!” screamed Tom. “We’ll build a ramp!” He ran to grab some boards while Agatha ignored him and carried on dumping their cargo. She’d dumped a few dozen by the time he got the makeshift ramp in place.
“Try again!” called Tom.
Agatha jumped down and hauled at the wagon, while Dog moved to the rear of the lift and pressed his back against the wagon, using his feet straight against the wall of the elevator to push.
Smoke billowed up the staircases, and the floors under their feet were getting warm as the wagon lurched from the lift.
“Run run run! We need some speed built to get the back wheels over!” called Tom.
The three of them strained to build momentum. The wagon’s rear wheels hit with a crunch and almost rolled back, but for a final push from Dog.
Agatha coughed and blinked back tears from the smoke. “Pull, come on!”
The wagon creaked around the corner, and jammed against a row of shelves. The passage was too narrow for them to make the turn.
“Come on we’ve got to get these shelves out of the way!” Tom started to unload the end of the shelves.
Dog put an arm out, blocking Tom. “Let me.” He drew his gladius and hacked at the wooden legs of the shelf on the far side.
Agatha drew her revolver and set to work shooting out the next leg. Soon the entire shelf groaned and collapsed against the wall.
They hauled the wagon to the window, but there was no sign of Hecate yet. Smoke was boiling up the staircases, and sweat poured off the three crewmates.
Tom checked his watch. “They’re not due for another two minutes.”
Dog pointed to the far side of the warehouse, where flames were starting to climb the staircase. “I don’t think we have two minutes.”
The smoke was too thick, Tom coughed repeatedly, and stuck his head out the window for a breath of fresh air. A crackle of gunfire below sent exploding brick shards into his face. Tom hurriedly withdrew.
Agatha and Dog were lying on the floor, wheezing for air. Tom lay next to them. “We’re going to have to jump if they don’t show soon.”
Agatha coughed. “Charkart’s gonna eat us alive.”
Tom shrugged. “You wanna burn?”
A large section of floor collapsed, sending a gout of flame up to the third floor. The heat washed over the three crewmates. It cleared the smoke away, but the air was so hot and dry it burned their lungs.
Tom closed his eyes. “I’ll go with whatever you guys decide. Do we jump or stay?”
Agatha took Tom’s hand in her right, and Dog’s hand in her left. “I say we stay. Stick together to the end.”
Dog nodded. “It would be good to die among friends.”
At that moment another crackle of gunfire came from below. Above they heard a faint, “Yaaahoo!” and the sound of a shotgun returning fire.
Tom stuck his head out to see Hecate’s lift. Shorty dangled over the edge, blasting merrily away at the crowd below with his sawed-off shotgun. “You folks need a lift?”
Tom and Dog scrambled behind the wagon and pushed it over. Gunfire from below continued. Agatha jumped on to the elevator and began to snap off shots at the men below.
Slowly the wagon rolled across, bumping down as it moved from the building to the lift. As the front wheels of the wagon hit, the lift began to sink, tipping the whole cart forward dramatically. Several dozen gold bricks teetered forward, and spilled off the edge of the lift onto the ground below.
Behind them, there was a mighty roar and woosh, as the far wall of the warehouse collapsed. The rear wheels of the wagon cleared, and it shot forward, out of Tom and Dog’s control, smashing against the far side of the elevator cage. They heard a scream from the front of the wagon.
Shorty launched a flare, and Hecate powered up, full throttle, pulling them away from the side of the warehouse. Tom slammed the elevator gate shut, just as the wagon came rolling back up against it, and they were off.
More gunfire crackled below, but it faded in the distance. Tom scrambled around the wagon to see Agatha lying on the floor of the lift, clutching at her leg. “God damn wagon ran me over!” Her lower leg was bent at a funny angle.
Tom turned to Shorty. “We’ve got to get her up!”
Shorty took the winch controls, the lift jolted upwards, then stopped. He tried again, with the same result. “Too heavy!” He looked up to the belly of Hecate, where Willow was leaning out, watching the action below. “Willow! We need a ropeladder!”
She cupped her hand to an ear, and Dog bellowed, “Rope-ladder!”
Willow nodded and withdrew her head. A moment later a ropeladder snaked down.
Dog picked Agatha up, and slung her over his shoulder. “Tom, you go first and help me get over the lip when we reach the top.”
Tom shook his head. “Shorty, you do it. I’m stayin’ with the gold. Tune the engines for speed when you get a chance. I think we might have company soon.”
Shorty nodded and scrambled up the ladder. Dog followed a moment later, climbing carefully with one hand holding Agatha, and one for the ladder.
Tom shivered as the night wind whistled around the elevator cage and admired his haul. Enough gold for all of them to do as they pleased. He hoped the crew wouldn’t break up, given the choice he’d rather stay with them, and Hecate, no matter how rich he became. Maybe he’d retire to an estate on Atlantis when he was done adventuring around the world, away from the Mist. Until then the money was insurance. They’d never have to take a shady deal, or fight for work again.
Behind them a spotlight stabbed into the night, skewering Tom and the lift in its beam. Tom blinked and shaded his eyes. The pursuing zeppelin was far behind. Once Shorty tuned the engines, Hecate would be safely away before they figured out what had happened.
Tom thumbed his nose at their pursuers, though they were probably too far off to see it. “Never catch us now, suckers!”
There was a clang and the sound of breaking wood from the side of the lift cage. Tom peered over the edge to see they were skimming treetop height. The lift cage had just trimmed the top of a tree. What was Nikki thinking? They were way too low.
Hecate angled up, straining against gravity. Tom heard the engines change pitch, one by one as Shorty tuned them, but they weren’t gaining any altitude.
Hecate was forced ever lower, now they had to follow a deep valley to avoid crashing. Some of the gasbags must be leaking, shot out in the firefight back in Havenvale. At the end of the valley, coming up far too fast, a sight Tom recognized from the hike in. Black lake, seething with Mist.
Dog leaned out of the belly of Hecate’s cargo bay. “Tom, we must jettison the lift!”
Tom looked at the enormous pile of gold. “No!”
“There is no choice! Take the ropeladder!”
Tom ignored him. He scrambled to the pile of gold bars and began to stuff as many as he could in his pockets.
“Tom, do not be a fool! Grab the ladder!”
One last brick into his jacket pocket, and Tom waddled to the ladder, bulging at the seams. He looked ahead and saw they were nearly at the lake. The mass of Mist towered over him, and the lift was headed straight for it.
Tom hooked his arm onto the ladder and looked up. “Okay! Cut it!”
One of the four steel cables holding the lift to Hecate’s cargo bay severed with a sharp twang. The loose end sliced through the air, narrowly missing Tom. Another twang and the next cable snaked past.
The lift below tilted at a crazy angle, and spilled some of it’s cargo into the lake below, but the cage held fast, and most of the gold remained. Above there was a groan of protest, the sound of metal too strained to hold up. Then with a crash, one of the winding drums gave, then the other. They smashed their way out of the cargo bay, and ripped through the air past Tom. The whole mess disappeared into the Mist below, followed by a splash as it hit water.
Hecate, suddenly freed of five tons of dead weight, shot upward.
Not fast enough. The wall of Mist in front of Tom was building, even as Hecate rose upward.
He wasn’t going to make it.
Tom tried to climb, but he was too weighed down with gold. Hecate strained upward, the ladder swung toward a clear patch in the Mist, and somehow, miraculously, Tom threaded the needle of seething tendrils that reached out clumsily for him. He was in the clear!
One last weakened strand of Mist shot upwards. Tom twisted to the side as far as he could go to swing himself away.
The tendril connected with Tom’s leg, like a splash of cold water.
At first he couldn’t believe it. Nothing had changed. Maybe he was still too young to be infected by Mist. A deep sense of loss overwhelmed him, replaced by anger, frustration and sadness.
Tom looked up. Above, Shorty had rigged the ropeladder to the remains of Hecate’s lift mechanism to haul him in. Willow peered over the edge, smiling at him, and Tom wanted to rip her throat out. She had what he needed. She had joy. He would tear her apart, and devour her soul, then the others aboard.
A laugh bubbled from his lips, the thrill of knowing he’d soon possess their most treasured feelings. That was what he needed, killing them would make everything better, make the pain go away and warm his withered heart.
He could feel them, their pleasures, happiness, love, satisfaction. Everything he lacked. He would take it all from them, rip their chests open and take what he needed.
Ishara appeared beside him, and for the first time he knew exactly what she was. A complete soul. A ghost, but not one that had been stripped of all its warmth and humanity, like the one worming its way into his brain.
The thing inside him urged him to take her, but Ishara just sighed. “Told you not to be greedy Tom. Told you, told you, now I’ve got to scold you.”
Tom looked up again. He was nearing the lip of the cargo-bay. Hands reached out for him. The urge to kill them all was nearly overpowering, there was barely enough self-control left, but he held back.
As helping hands grabbed hold of his clothes to pull him aboard, Ishara cocked her head to the side. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow. For now, you need sleep if you’re to fight off the intruder.”
She reached inside Tom’s forehead and pulled a cord inside his brain, flipping a switch he never knew he had. Instantly the world receded and Tom fell into darkness.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, C-5

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.
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 the crew is trying to recover their lost treasure. Nikki, Shorty and Willow are scheduled to rendezvous with Tom, Dog and Agatha at Charkart’s warehouse in the middle of the night.

Episode 5
Chapter 5

Two blocks from Charkart’s jail they heard shouts for help behind over the rumble of their stolen wagon’s wheels.
Tom broke stride and let go of the wagon’s harness. “Oh hell. Somebody’s gonna hear pretty quick.”
“Should we go back and shut them up?” Agatha fingered her revolver.
Dog pushed Agatha’s hand away from her sidearm. “No killing.”
Agatha raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have to go. I can get the job done.”
Dog took her by the shoulders. “You do not know what you are saying, Agatha. Every man you kill… it changes you.”
Tom frowned. “It’s okay Dog, I don’t think she has the stones for it anyhow.”
Agatha turned angrily on him. “Wanna bet? I’ll go do it right now!” She tried to turn, but Dog held her firmly.
Tom shook his head. “Gunshots would be worse than yellin’ anyhow. Best we just make tracks for the warehouse and hope Hecate gets there before Charkart’s men. Let’s get movin’.”
Agatha slipped the leather retaining strap back in place over her revolver. “All right, fine. But don’t doubt my nerve. Not either of you. Killin’ ain’t no big thing.”
Dog let her go. “Do not take that path Agatha. Anger and killing will lead you down a course you do not want to follow.”
Agatha grunted and shrugged past them. She picked up the harness for the wagon and began to pull on her own. “Of all people, I never took you for a pacifist, Dog.” She said the word ‘pacifist’ like most women would say, ‘rapist’.
The cherry of a cigarette flared in the darkness.
“That’s number three.” Tom hissed.
The three crewmates had hidden their wagon in an alley a block away and scouted around the warehouse. Every entrance was guarded.
Agatha shrugged. “He’s probably got some expensive stuff in there. Lowlife like Charkart’s always got more irons in the fire.”
“Roof looks like our only option then. Up where there’s no guards, then down through a top-floor window.” Tom clapped Dog on the shoulder. “You think you can climb that drainpipe?”
Dog eyed the indicated route. “I am willing to try, but I am no great climber.”
“All right then. Me and Agatha will go that way, you wait around the corner here. When we get inside we’ll open that door, and the three of us jump the guard.”
Dog nodded. “That is probably safer. If you can distract him from inside, I can catch him off-guard.”
Tom took the lead. The solid, cast-iron pipe was just right for a hand hold, and in minutes he was dangling clear over the eaves, three stories above the alley below. A quick swing up and over, and he scrambled onto the sloped roof.
A moment later he heard a grunt, and Agatha’s hand came scrabbling at the edge of the roof. Tom lay down and took her hand to help her clear the eaves.
Together they crawled to the front of the building. Tom leaned over as far as he dared. “How about I take you by the legs and you see if you can jimmy the window?”
 “There must be another way.”
Tom shrugged. “Maybe, but we don’t have time to look. This is the easiest way in.”
Agatha peered over the edge. “I just don’t like it is all.”
“You afraid of heights?”
Agatha snorted. “No… I ain’t afraid of anything.”
“What then?”
She hesitated. “Fine, lower me down.” Agatha shucked her gun belt and glared at Tom as if he’d done something wrong. She lay on her stomach at the edge of the roof. Tom lay between her legs, took her knees against his shoulders and wrapped his arms around her legs, then they inched forward.
When Agatha’s waist cleared the edge she took in a sharp breath. “Wait… you sure you got me?”
“Yeah c’mon, let’s go.” Tom tipped her over the side, sliding her thighs against the corner of the roof until she was hanging straight down.
He could feel her moving around, then she twisted sharply, almost out of his grip.
“Agatha, I’m losing you, come back!” Tom hissed.
She squirmed more and kicked him in the face. Before Tom knew what was happening she slithered free from his grip and fell.
Tom scrambled forward and peered over the edge. The window was open and Agatha was nowhere to be seen. He quickly slipped her gunbelt over his own and turned to hang, legs down, from the edge of the roof. His legs slipped through the window, and Tom lowered himself as far as he dared, then swung up, and let go.
He landed on the floor with a grunt. All around him were corridors of shelving and crates, dimly lit by oil lamps at the intersections.
“Hey, who’s there?” A man’s voice.
Tom rolled over and was caught in the beam of a hand-held lantern. Before Tom could do anything, the guard inhaled sharply, grunted and fell to the ground.
Agatha lowered the book she’d hit him over the head with, and glanced at the cover. “Hmm, Crime and Punishment… fitting.”
Tom rolled the man onto his stomach and began to tie him up. “Does it ever seem to you like we’ve been doin’ this a lot lately?”
When the man was securely bound, Agatha strapped on her revolver. She and Tom snuck down to the ground floor, but didn’t see any more guards.
Agatha hiked up her gunbelt and pulled her jacket down to conceal it, then walked up to the door leading outside. “Hide, I got this one.” She flung the door wide. Tom barely had time to duck behind a row of shelves.
The guard on the other side turned and stared at her in surprise. “Who are you?”
Agatha rolled her head to the side. “Why, hello there. I’m looking for my Dog, have you seen him?”
“No ma’am, there ain’t any dogs ‘round here. Who let you—” An arm snaked around his neck, the guard’s eyes bugged, out. He struggled for a moment, then went limp. As he fell, Dog caught him under the arms, and dragged him into a dimly-lit corner.
As he was binding the man, Dog looked up at Agatha. “Looking for your dog?”
She grinned at him. “Worked, didn’t it?”
Tom checked his pocketwatch. “Hecate’s due in about an hour. You two see if that trick will work again to disable the guards on the main door, then get the wagon. I’ll look for the gold.”
The ground-floor search turned up a large shipment of fuel barrels, an array of antique furniture and other miscellaneous items, but no gold bars. Tom did find a large diesel-driven lift however, which meant the gold could be anywhere.
He found it on the second floor at about the same time Dog and Agatha returned with the wagon, and ran down to meet them. He and Dog manhandled the wagon onto the lift. It barely squeezed in after Dog hacked a few extra bits off with his sword. Then they piled crates in front of the downstairs doors so they wouldn’t be caught unawares if Charkart and his men showed.
Half an hour later, they were almost done loading the wagon when they heard the sound of splintering wood below.
“Ah hell! Agatha, you watch the north staircase, I’ll take the south. Dog, keep loading, then get the wagon into the elevator!”
Tom was just scrambling into position, prone at the top of his staircase, when he saw a shadow move. He snapped off a quick shot.
There was a scramble of activity below. It sounded like at least a dozen men.
“Hold fire! Surely we can talk this out.” Charkart’s voice floated up from the ground floor.
“Like hell!” Tom called back. “Last time you tried to sell us off as slaves. If I were a bettin’ man I’d guess you’ve got worse in store this time.”
“Perhaps we can work something out, no need for violence, right?”
A shot from Agatha’s side of the warehouse betrayed Charkart’s words. Below there was a grunt of pain, followed by a low moan.
“I think I winged one!” Agatha called. “How’s that for some violence, you trumped up goose turd!”
A moment later a gun opened up below, six shots in rapid succession on Agatha’s side of the warehouse.
“You okay Agatha?” Tom called.
“Yeah, just grazed me.”
“Enough of this deuced business Charkart! Any one of your men opens up below and you’re going to lose your entire warehouse of goodies!”
Charkart laughed. “Oh yes? And how will you manage that?”
“I was hoping you’d ask!” Tom blasted eight quick shots from his volcanic pistol on the fuel barrels below. The smell of diesel fumes quickly filled the building. “You gonna risk ignitin’ that mess?” Tom shoved fresh cartridges into the pistol’s magazine.
“You heard him men, hold fire…. What do you want? We have this establishment surrounded. There is no possibility of you getting out without going past us!”
Dog came up behind Tom. “The wagon is loaded and on the lift. Do I take it up, or down?”
“Up I guess… We’re going to have to figure a way out from up there. Windows aren’t big enough for Hecate’s lift.”
“I will see what I can do.”
Charkart’s voice came from below again, “What is it going to take to get you out of there?”
“Well now, let me think. Perhaps your boys could all lay down their weapons and let us take them prisoner?”
“You know that will never happen right? Stop playing bloody fool games!”
The lift engine kicked to life as Dog moved it to the higher level.
“What are you up to?” Charkart called. Then, to someone below he said, “Shut down that engine! No not with your rifle idiot, you’ll set the place on fire, take that crowbar!”
Soon after, the clang of metal on metal sounded, and a moment after that, the diesel engine sputtered and died. There was no way of knowing if Dog had made it to the top floor or not. Tom checked his pocketwatch. Hecate was due in another five minutes.
“I am finished toying with you boy!” Charkart sounded anxious. “You surrender now or I will burn this place to the ground myself!”
Tom snorted. “You’d torch your own stuff? Not likely!”
From above came a crashing noise, repeated several times, then a crushing, rending noise, followed by a karumf of heavy weight falling into the street outside. Tom hoped that was Dog working on the escape route. The smashing noises continued.
Now Charkart sounded frothing mad. “You’re tearing my building apart, I see your stratagem now. Well, your precious airship won’t save you! Everyone fall back, outside, and bring those useless guards with you!”
Tom grinned. “Aww, don’t be like that! We were just getting friendly, you gonna run away?”
“If you come down now, I promise I will not kill you!” Charkart sounded composed again, his words clipped and precise. “You have ten seconds.”
Tom checked his watch, Hecate was due in three minutes.
“You’re bluffing!” Agatha called.
“He’s bluffing, ignore him!” she called again.
Tom wasn’t so sure. He got up and ran to Agatha’s position.
“I think he’s serious Agatha. Let’s go help Dog.”
Tom gave Agatha a hand up, and they ran for the staircase.
They reached the top floor and saw Dog had collapsed a large section of wall using what looked like an antique warhammer.
“So be it!” Charkart’s final words were followed by a gunshot and a woosh of flame as several-hundred gallons of diesel caught all at once.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, C-4

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.
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. 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 (an ex-gladiator the crew rescued from Atlantis) and Agatha who were travelling overland to Havenvale, but ran into trouble on the way.

Episode 5
Chapter 4

“That must be Black Lake.” Agatha pointed toward the vista that opened up as she cleared the last ridge on the road to Havenvale.
Tom trudged a few more steps up the steep incline before he could see it. “I have never seen the like.”
Below the valley was completely shrouded in Mist, it swirled and boiled angrily, sending dark tendrils flailing against the sides of the valley, like a great beast in its death throes.
“The trail is still clear behind us.” Dog crunched up the gravel road behind Tom. “Does the Mist not usually behave that way?”
Tom shook his head. “Last time I saw Mist this aggressive was at Milton. I heard tell some spots on Earth are like magnets for Mist though, maybe this is one of ‘em.”
“C’mon boys. We haven’t got all day to puzzle it out.” Agatha gazed to the west. “About four more hours of sunlight left, and a lot of miles still to cover.”
“Right, I could use a night in a proper bed, and some proper grub.” Tom shifted his gun belt so it would chafe at a slightly less raw part on his waist.
“What, a handful of berries not good enough for you?” Agatha turned with a grin and set off down the trail.
“Without you, we would not have even had those.” Dog smiled and threw his shoulders back. He took a deep breath of the mountain air and sighed. “It’s not so bad.” He clapped Tom on the shoulder. “Come on, like Agatha says, time is not our ally.”
Tom grumbled, but quickly caught up with Agatha on the downhill slope.
The sun was low in the sky when they finally came in sight of Havenvale.
Tom sat on a rock outcropping for a moment to rest. “’Bout time. I thought we might have to spend another night in the trees.”
Dog grinned. “This way you will not get sappy again.”
“Was that a joke Dog?” Agatha raised an eyebrow at him.
“Not a very good one. I am afraid humour is not my strength.”
Agatha brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Not to worry, you have other strengths.”
Dog nodded. “We all have our roles to play. That is the nature of the world.”
“How ‘bout we discuss this deeply philosophical, and no doubt important stuff over beer and a hot meal?” Tom got up and set off down the trail.
On the outskirts of town, they came across a small saloon with a couple of rooms upstairs.
The barkeep eyed the three of them suspiciously. “Where’d you lot come from?”
Tom grinned. “We were with the caravan that pulled in yesterday, from Bedford.”
“That a fact?” He narrowed his eyes at Tom and Agatha. “Suppose you’ll be wantin’ a room an’ a hot meal.”
“That’d be about right.”
“Well, I can oblige, we have one room open, supper is bean stew, be ready in an hour. Meantime you can break a tooth on these if you like.” He pulled a basket of bread slices from under the bar.
Once they’d negotiated a fair price, Dog set off for the telegraph office so Tom and Agatha could minimize their risk of being spotted by Charkart’s men.
Tom and Agatha sat in the empty taproom chewing on the stale bread to curb their hunger, and washing it down with mugs of watery ale.
Agatha scratched at her hair. “Let’s get a tub goin’ in our room. I sorely need a bath.”
Tom nodded. “I suppose you’ll be wantin’ first crack at it?”
Agatha grinned. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Tom made a mocking half-bow. “Ladies’ prerogative.”
After a dozen trips, the tub was full to Agatha’s satisfaction. She made a shooing motion with her hand. “You wait outside, I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
There was no lock on the door, so Tom sat with his back to it and listened to Agatha’s splashes and sighs of contentment.
Dog came up the wooden staircase that led to the rooms and nodded at Tom. “We have a few problems.”
Tom laughed. “Yeah? New ones?”
Dog nodded, looking thoughtful. “Yes. Charkart’s men spotted Nikki in Bedford. She stopped them before they could telegraph Charkart, but there’s no knowing if they passed word to others in Bedford before she got to them.”
“Nikki did that? How’d she manage it?”
“She did not say. There is also a poster of you, Agatha, Nikki, and Willow at the telegraph office.”
“What’d it say?”
Dog ducked his head. “I don’t read, Tom, but I can guess it’s not good.”
Tom ran his hand over his face. “Yeah… I doubt Charkart’s remindin’ everyone our birthdays are comin’ up. There’s a good chance we’ve already been spotted by someone who’s seen those posters.”
Dog nodded. “If so, Nikki bought us time by stopping Charkart’s men, but that time is running out.”
Tom leaned back and thunked his head against the door three times.
He heard a splash. “Yeah?”
“Better get your clothes on. We might have company soon.”
“I was just gettin’ comfortable here.”
Tom snorted. “At least you got a bath.”
A loud voice came from downstairs, “They took a room up there?”
The bartender responded, “Yup, keep your voice down. Walls ain’t too thick here.”
A moment later they heard the pounding of footsteps on the wooden staircase. Tom drew his volcanic pistol.
“I will take the front position. Only shoot if I am about to be killed.” Dog edged to the corner of the wall so he’d be out of sight for as long as possible for anyone coming up the stairs.
A scream came from their room. Tom turned and shouldered the door, just as the first of the men reached the top of the stairs. Behind him he heard a bloodcurdling whoop from Dog as the door burst open.
Inside the room, Agatha was buttoning her shirt. “Can’t a lady get a little privacy?”
Behind them, various grunts and moans told them Dog was doing an effective job on the men coming up the stairs.
“I heard a scream.”
“Oh, that was him.” Agatha pointed out the open window. A man lay on the ground outside moaning, one of his legs was bent at an extraordinary angle. “Should know better than to come a’ peepin’. She finished the last button as Tom charged out the door to see if Dog needed help.
He didn’t.
Dog had cleared the staircase of men and stood in the middle of the taproom with his sword at the throat of the bartender. “You called them?”
Tom ran down the stairs as the bartender stuttered, “N-n-no.”
The taproom was surprisingly clean. Tom had expected blood everywhere. Instead the gang of men lay crumpled around the floor, unconscious or moaning over broken limbs.
Dog withdrew his sword, then made a quick horizontal slice above the bartender’s head. A tuft of greying hair wafted down in the wake of the blade. The bartender trembled violently.
“You called them.” Dog returned the tip of the sword to the man’s adam’s apple.
“Yes… I’m sorry okay! Please don’t hurt me, I have a wife and a family to support, two little kids, you wouldn’t want to starve two little kids would ya?”
Agatha reached the bottom step and surveyed the mess. “I’ll get these folks secured.”
“Missed all the action, I guess you’ve got to contribute somehow, Agatha?” Tom leaned against the wall next to the bartender. “Who else knows about us?”
“Mostly us, I think. Me ‘an the boys didn’t want to split the reward too many ways. Some of ‘em probably told their women though.”
Tom sighed. “Naturally… why do things always get so complicated?”
The bartender glanced between Tom, Dog, and the sword at his throat. “I-I don’t know.”
“Never mind… that’s what some folk call a rhetorical question. So if you lot ain’t seen tonight, Charkart’ll find out?”
“Probably… Oh hell, he’s gonna want to skin me alive.”
“You an’ me both pal. Only I don’t plan on getting caught. One last query and I’ll be out of your hair.” Tom smiled. “Where does Charkart warehouse his goods?”
The bartender swallowed. “I honestly don’t know.”
Dog growled low at the back of his throat and put a little pressure on the blade.
“Okay! Sorry, can’t fault a guy for tryin’ can ya? It’s a dozen blocks east of the building he held you at last time you stayed in town.”
“That’ll do. Now lie down with the others.”
The bartender wiped his forehead. “Thank you.” He lay next to the other men.
Soon he was neatly trussed along with the others. Agatha surveyed her handiwork. “Well this is an all-round muddle. What do we do now?”
Dog shrugged, and they both turned to Tom.
“There was a wagon in the stable yard right?” Tom scratched his chin. “Let’s load ‘em up. We can’t stay here, and we can’t leave them unguarded.”
There were no horses, but between the three of them they could tow the wagon easily, even with eight men, a few blankets to cover them, and the pot of bean stew.
Dog got behind to push the wagon. “Where to, Captain?”
Tom smiled, he’d never get tired of hearing that title applied to himself. “I know the perfect place.”
Charkart’s jailor was more than a little surprised to see Tom at his door. He quivered for a moment, then turned and ran inside the low brick building where the crew had been imprisoned during their last stay in Havenvale.
It took Dog only one great leap to bring the man down from behind. They tumbled on the floor. The jailor opened his mouth to scream, but before he could draw breath, Dog cuffed him with a quick backhand across the face. “No noise, or I will gut you.”
After that the jailor gave no resistance. The three of them piled the bound men and the jailor into the small cell. Tom noted that the steel bars in the small ground-level window he’d cut through when the crew had escaped the cell had been replaced by a metal plate with holes in it. Charkart wasn’t about to let anyone get out the same way again. He smiled and swung the iron-bound door closed before locking it with the jailor’s key.
Dog held the pot of stew. “Time to eat?”
Tom could feel the saliva forming in his mouth. “Ab-so-lutely!” He grinned at the others. “You’ve got to hand it to me right? I mean this is the last place anyone would come lookin’ for us.”
Agatha arched an eyebrow. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
The three of them crowded around the stewpot, scooping out mouthfuls on stale bread.
Tom wiped the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. “How long you figure until someone tells Charkart his men are missing?”
Agatha sat back and patted her belly with a sigh. “Less than a day, for sure.”
Dog nodded. “We should act tonight.”
“I reckon.” Tom rubbed his chin in thought. “You up for another trip to the telegraph office, Dog?”
“Certainly, what is the message?”
“Pick-up at two in the morning, twelve blocks east of our previous accommodations. Be ready for anything.”

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