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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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, C-3

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.

Episode 5
Chapter 3

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.”
“Do what?”
“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.”

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, C-2

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, only it turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Nikki, Shorty and Willow wait with Hecate for word from Tom, Dog and Agatha who are travelling the dangerous overland route to Havenvale.

Episode 5
Chapter 2

“Bored… Boredboredbored. Bored!
“Shut up Willow.” Nikki sat at Hecate’s controls on the bridge while her sister ranted on. It was Shorty’s turn to wait at the telegraph office.
“I’m bored.”
Nikki rolled her eyes. “Really? You don’t say?”
“How come they get to go off and do exciting stuff while we sit around watching dust settle.”
“You could get a cloth and go do some cleaning.”
“You know what I mean.” Willow stamped her foot. “Life has been good since Tom’s been around, hasn’t it? I haven’t done anything to feel guilty over in weeks…. But the straight life is fucking boring sometimes!”
“Willow! You wash your mouth out! If father was here he’d thrash you somethin’ fierce.”
Willow stuck her tongue out. “He died in Milton with Mom, and good riddance I say.”
Nikki gaped at her sister. “Willow… How… how can you say that, they’re our parents, and we don’t know for sure they’re dead.”
“They’re bad folk, an’ they only ever treated us slightly better than the people they made us rob.”
There was a clang and a creak as one of Hecate’s exterior hatches opened.
Nikki put a finger to her lips. “Not a word of this Willow. If the rest of the crew finds out about our past they’ll kick us out.”
“Tom wouldn’t do that. He’d understand.”
Nikki grabbed her sister by the lapels. “Not a word, especially to Tom!” She released her grip as the wheel on the bridge’s hatch turned.
Shorty stepped on to the bridge. “Well, they’re closed for the day. I guess there’s no news from that end.”
Nikki’s heart jolted uncomfortably to the side. “They were supposed to check in.”
Shorty shrugged. “I’m sure they made it just fine, Nikki. They probably just got there too late for the telegraph office.”
“They should have been there hours ago.”
“We’ll check back in the morning. I’m sure they’ll report in then.”
The telegraph operator shook his head at Nikki the next morning. “No Ma’am, we ain’t got no messages today.”
“Can you check again, please?”
“No need, last message was late yesterday afternoon. Been quiet ever since.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ma’am I’m the only telegraph operator in Bedford, no message comes in that doesn’t go through me, and I ain’t heard no clickety-clack since yesterday afternoon.”
“It’s just that my….” what was Tom to her? Her parents had never let her get involved with boys unless there was some sort of payoff involved, Nikki didn’t have the experience to understand how she felt about Tom. “My friend… friends were with the caravan to Havenvale yesterday. They were supposed to check in.”
The telegraph operator smiled. “Oh, well I can help you there.” He pulled a slip of paper from a drawer behind the counter. “The last message I got was when the caravan checked in.” He cleared his throat and read, “Arrived Havenvale STOP Dragger trouble en-route STOP Three guards missing END MESSAGE” He glanced from the paper to Nikki’s face. “Oh… were your friends working as guards?”
Nikki swallowed, the room suddenly felt too hot. “Y-yes… three of them. P-please hold any messages for me.” She stumbled to the entrance of the telegraph office and leaned against the doorframe, taking great gulps of air.
They were gone. Missing, but missing was as good as dead if they were out overnight in Dragger territory with no refuge towers around.
“We should still man the telegraph office. Give them a week before we give up hope.” Shorty fidgeted with his shotgun and sighed. “I should have been with them.”
“They’ll be fine, buck up you two! Them three can handle themselves if anyone can.” Willow hugged her quilted bear, Sir Furrybottom tightly, betraying her brave words.
“I’ll go back. I just thought you two should hear the news.”
Shorty put a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to go Nikki. I can do it.”
“No. I want to be there.”
Nikki left Hecate in a daze. She trudged through the dusty streets of Bedford, barely looking up.
“Hey now, there’s a familiar sight.” A seedy-looking man hopped down from his perch on a railing. He cocked his head to the side. “I know that pretty little face.”
Nikki kept her gaze fixed on the ground. “I’m sure you don’t.” She tried to keep walking, but the man stood in her way while his two companions flanked her from behind.
The seedy man reached out and forced her chin upwards. A great smile lit his face. “I know someone’s been looking for you. Where are your friends?”
Nikki’s mind raced. Did he know her parents or was it something else? “I’m alone.”
“’Scuse me Ma’am, is this piece of filth bothering you?” A tough looking old coot with a shiny silver badge, and a revolver at his side appeared from the shade of a nearby building.
“Ummm, yeah, I guess.” Nikki batted her lashes at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff placed his left hand on the grip of his revolver. “You heard the lady, clear off Wayne, and take your compadres with you!”
The seedy man – Wayne – tilted his head to the side and winked at Nikki. Under his breath he said, “You’ll be hearin’ from us again.” Then he tipped his hat in mock-politeness to the Sheriff and waved for his companions to follow him. The three men disappeared up a side-alley.
“I hope you’re all right Ma’am.” The Sheriff tipped his hat to Nikki. “Havenvale’s main export is scum like them. Entire town’s under Charkart’s thumb, and now he’s trying to move in on his neighbours.”
“I’m fine. Thank you Sheriff.” Nikki nodded politely then hurried on her path to the telegraph office.
She burst through the door. “Has anyone been in here to send a message?”
“No Ma’am, you’re the only customer of the day so far.”
“Good.” She gave the man her most winning smile. “Do you know a thug named Wayne?”
“One a Charkart’s men, ain’t he?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” Nikki purred. “Y’all could be a wonderful help to me if you could… mislead him into thinking the telegraph was broke when he comes in.”
“I can’t do that Ma’am, it’s my job to send messages for people. And besides, I don’t want to run afoul of Charkart and his men.”
“Just for a few hours, please? Tell him you’ll have it working by noon. I’ll make sure to take care of Wayne and his friends so nobody bothers you.”
The operator heaved a great sigh. “All right Ma’am, but only because I like you, and I don’t like them, but I don’t want no trouble from this. He presses the issue and it’ll get ‘fixed’ right quick.”
“Thank you, thank you.” Nikki took the man’s hand between hers. “I’ll take care of it.” She rushed out of the office and ran back to Hecate.
When Nikki burst on to the bridge, Willow was alone there, playing a game of poker with Sir Furrybottom. She’d strategically placed a mirror behind her bear so she could see his cards.
“Willow, where’s Shorty?”
“He went for a little walk ‘round town, why?”
“I was spotted by some of Charkart’s men. Sure as shootin’ they’re gonna tell Charkart we’re in the area. If Tom and the others are alive, it’ll mean every man in Havenvale will be on the alert for them.”
Willow put her bear aside. “What are we going to do?”
“I bought us a few hours at the telegraph office, but the three of us ain’t enough to take these guys alone. We need help.”
“Nikki, no.”
“You know it’s our only choice Willow.”
“The minute we contact the local Dodger it means we’re gettin’ dragged back into that life. No Nikki.”
“What if it means Tom’s life?”
“Oh, Nikki, don’t say that…. I don’t wanna go back to bein’ bait. I was just startin’ to feel clean.”
“Me too, but what choice do we have?”
The local Dodger, a burly, sweaty man named Harry Rees, greeted them warmly in a smoky back-room full of rough-looking men. Nikki and Willow showed him the rat in a triangle tattoos on their hips.
He gazed closely at their faces and smiled. “That would make you Nikki and Willow, correct?”
The sisters nodded.
“Your parents have been lookin’ for you. They’d just about given up I understand.”
Nikki stared. “They alive?”
“Were a few weeks ago.” He sniffed. “Escaped that disaster at Milton on the last airship to get out.”
“Second to last,” Willow corrected. “We were the last. Why didn’t they come looking for us?”
Harry shrugged. “You’re askin’ the wrong fella.”
“We’ll sort that out later.” Nikki put her hands on the table and leaned forward. “What we need right now is some help.”
“What sort of help?”
“Umm, ten, maybe twelve tough guys to intercept a few of Charkart’s men and hold them for a few days.”
“And what might be your method of payment?”
Nikki swallowed hard, Dodgers never gave anything away for free. “We’re lookin’ at comin’ into some gold in the near future.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “In other words you’ll pay me back later?”
“Uhh, yeah, on my word.”
“How much gold?”
Nikki bit her lip, hastily guessing how much a pound of gold might be worth. “Two pounds.”
The Dodger narrowed his eyes. “I might accept that, if you had it for me now… but you don’t.”
“Five pounds?” Nikki said. She felt a sharp kick from her sister under the table. Was she giving in too easily? She fidgeted nervously with a button on her coat.
“Make it ten.”
The man reached across the table to shake, but before his hand touched hers, he said, “Nine and you’ve got a deal.”
Nikki took his hand and shook before she could think it through. “Deal.”
Harry tilted his head to the side. “And if you don’t come through with the gold, will your parents consider this a favour owed?”
Nikki frowned, she couldn’t really speak for her parents, she never even wanted to see them again. “Yes,” she lied, “they’ll consider it their marker.”
Harry leaned back in his chair with a broad smile. “Anything you need darlin’.”
“As I said, I need a some of your men to intercept three of Charkart’s, hold them for a few days.”
Harry leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin. “Then release ‘em?”
“Do what you want with ‘em.”
“You’re asking me to risk a heap-load of trouble little lady, but I’m sick of them Havenvale types musclin’ in on my business. You’re on, but if you don’t come through, your parents are gonna owe me big.”
Nikki reached over the table and shook hands with the man. “Pleasure doin’ business with you Harry.”
Harry laughed and winked at her. “Likewise. I almost hope you don’t come through with the gold. I’d enjoy having a marker over your parents, but not to worry, I’d find a use for their help soon enough.”
Nikki gave Harry the details of where to intercept Charkart’s men, then left with Willow in tow.
When they hit the street, Willow jabbed Nikki with her elbow. “You can’t make those sorts of promises!”
Nikki turned on her sister. “What was I supposed to do? Please wasn’t going to cut it!”
“Our parents are alive. They are going to track us down, you know it Nikki! When they do, they are not going to be happy.”
“We’ll deal with our parents when the time comes.”
Willow darted in front of her sister and stopped in the middle of the street. “Don’t you remember what happened to Uncle Billy?”
Nikki stopped. “Of course I remember Bill. That was just an accident, nobody knew that bank had an armed guard.”
“Our parents sent him in there, day after he lost a bundle at the poker table, and promised their marker to make good.”
Nikki frowned. “That was a coincidence.”
“Wake up Nikki! Stop being their mind slave. Dad got his own brother killed for doin’ what you just did. Make no mistake about it, they’ll find us, and when they do—”
Nikki pushed past her sister. “It’s different with us, Uncle Bill was always in one scrape or another. He probably got killed on that job due to his own bad planning, and besides, what choice do we have? We need help, and that was the only way to get it. Now go back to Hecate, or Shorty will begin to wonder where we are. I’ll go wait at the telegraph office. I’ll let you know what happened when I get back.”
“You’d better hope Tom comes up with the gold.”
“He will.”
“If he’s not dead.”
Nikki shoved her sister hard. “Get back to the ship!” She turned and brushed at the corners of her eyes with her coat sleeve as she walked toward the telegraph office.

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