"What are the clerics thinking? We can't fight the demons!" I yelled. Skids winced beside me. "Sorry, but it's utter madness."
Shenks waited a few moments to rest his lungs before continuing. "I know, I tried to tell them that. So did Sente. We showed them how many demons are on their way. That just made them argue all the more that this is far beyond normal demon activity. It's a specific, intentional attack. Not like Nearton's Bend at all.
That was very different, but it should not change the obvious facts. "The swarm means the city will be overrun even sooner! It means a lot more people will die! How can they not see that this is so much worse than Nearton's Bend?"
"What is this you speak of?" a burly yardsman said, reminding me that we had been in the middle of a spirited conversation about diet, food preservation, and time efficiency. The circle of yardsmen around Skids and me was growing as more completed or left their tasks. All wanted to know what new complication had provoked such a loud response from me.
"Your clerics say they want to fight the demon horde, rather than sensibly evacuate. My associate is sending me word." It was probably best not to explain how. Or who, given that he was meant to be exiled for quarantine. Given that we were about to be overrun by demons, potential second-hand magic exposure was not a major concern, but it was better not to bring it up. Or that I had visited a hive. Or that there was an actual mage standing beside me. However accepting Deepbloom might be compared to other cities, there was no need to create additional panic.
"I am almost back to you," Shenks said through the ventril. "It will be easier to explain in person."
"Explain what?" Skids and I said almost in unison.
"So we should stop shifting cargo?" the tallest of the yardsmen asked. The others gave him a mixture of responses, all talking over each other.
"I will tell you when I get there," Shenks said, beginning to sound out of breath again.
"Keep going," Skids said over the top of everyone else. "And leave the potatoes. No harm in being prepared to bug out if we have to, whatever the people in charge are thinking." Somehow that actually got results. The men calmed down and returned to the task of moving crates and boxes between lines of railcars and the adjacent warehouse. Doing what they knew was more comfortable than arguing about things outside their control, I figured.
I returned to my sorting through shipping manifests, figuring out what freight was both nearby and worth trying to save. It was not too different to managing a shopping list or figuring out what supplies we needed to stock up on for winter, meaning that I too was doing what I knew. Tapping a beat against the edge of the clipboard with my pen helped me ignore my worries, fears, and pains.
Some minutes later, I heard uneven footsteps approaching on the gravel. The sound stopped on the other side of a string of freight wagons, and was replaced by the clattering of Shenks climbing over a coupler. He burst out from between the wagons looking like a horde of demons was on his tail. "Can we... get some.... light?"
I belatedly realised how ill lit the yard remained. Skids and I were using the feature of our helmets that let us see in the dark, but the yardsmen were working as if it was daytime. Shenks had returned his helmet to its hiding place in the sack he carried, and he was not wearing gloves either. As terrified as he was of running through the darkness, avoiding using magic was clearly his priority. It was amazing that we had convinced him to speak to us through the helmet. "Why did you not bring a mushroom lantern?"
"Would have if I could have," Shenks complained. "Now give me some light already!"
"Could we not?" asked the wild-eyed Carlos. "If you start shining your bright lights around you will blind me and all my men. I'm still seeing spots from when you had it on earlier. You're using your helmets to see, right? Could he just do that?"
"It wasn't that bright," Skids muttered in the background.
I turned to Shenks and saw that he had dumped the sack and backed away from it like it contained a knot of dangeropes. "Not going to happen," I firmly said on his behalf. "How are you seeing?"
"That is a closely guarded secret."
The boom of a crate being set down very heavily drew our attention to Skids. "Experimental tonic that lets you see in the dark, obviously," dro said. "So give Shenks some before he freaks out any further. And don't worry about your secrets, yeah? I'm not your enemy."
Carlos groaned. "Fine, so long as he hurries up and tells us what's going on. Vled, give the terrified bloke a dose of the juice."
Vled was an overly-muscled fellow with a crooked nose and twitchy eyes. It was hard to gauge through the goggles, but I guessed he was as old as my father and either sunbaked or naturally tan. He produced a glass tube from his shirt pocket, unscrewed its tiny lid, and poured in a few drops of a thick substance which looked greyish to me. "Open wide," was all he said. When Shenks complied, Vled flicked his wrist and somehow sent the liquid right into Shenks' mouth. "Drink up."
Shenks grimaced at either the taste or the surprise, but the fear in his eyes gradually melted away and was replaced by the same wild look worn by the yardworkers. That had to be an effect of the tonic.
"Well? What's this ill conceived plan to fight a demon horde?" Skids demanded.
"Right, the plan. A few of the cities got together and commissioned a secret demon-slaying weapon. It was mostly built in Makerslight, but it is most suited to Deepbloom, so it was brought here in case... well, in case of an event like this one."
"So we are supposed to stake our lives and livelihoods on a secret weapon? Do you have any idea what it is?" It was Carlos who asked, but he was clearly speaking for everyone.
"And why Deepbloom?" I asked.
"It needs to be aimed, and the city's three turntables are perfect for that," Shenks said. "That is the only detail I know, sorry."
"Clearly the weapon is mounted on a railway wagon," Carlos said. "Why did no one inform me of this? I should give a piece of my mind to... No, no, demon attack. But how do they expect to aim at anything in the middle of the... Aha! This must be the real reason they had us test the juice. The night trips to the Gap never really made sense, but the extra pay... There I go thinking out loud again. I think it's the juice."
"Yes," Vled said.
When the other yardsmen had finished chuckling, Carlos began giving orders. "All of you, keep loading all you can for another thirty minutes, unless you hear certain news that the danger is over. Then whistle for Joachim and Peyton. They'll hitch up a couple of MEHL-17 engines and take everything out to Empyreal. Join your families, gather what you can carry, and get out on foot. You should be safe. Vled is in charge."
"Are you going to the turntable?" I asked him, fairly sure that he was.
"Of course. They will need someone who can see without lanterns and who is used to working while juiced up. Shenks, did you hear which turntable they're setting up at?"
"No, and I need to get back to Sente," Shenks said. "Um... thank you?"
"Actually, we should thank you, for bringing Sente and for doing a lot of things you are not comfortable with," I said. "It means a lot to a whole lot of people, and I hope it isn't wasted."
"Er, sure," Shenks said, and bolted.
"We can figure out which turntable will be best with my scryer," Skids said, quickly moving on. "Whoever's in charge of this madness will do the same with Sente's, so we should end up at the same place."
I noticed an important word. "We?"
"I'm going with him. I can take him on a spinnerbike, and I've got some weapons which might help. If Deepbloom is going to fight, I might as well give them every advantage possible."
There was no room for me in that plan. "What am I supposed to do? Walk out with the yardsmen? Go with one of the trains? Find Sente and Shenks? Wait around and hope you come back?"
Skids gave me an apologetic look. "I know I said we would search for my mysterious origins together, but... well I need to work on who I am, not just who I was. You've made it pretty clear that I can't run away from something like this."
Dro was doing this because of me? "There's a big difference between me climbing into a burning building and you riding off to fight demons face to face."
"Oh? What difference is that?"
"Uh..." I had hoped no specific facts were needed. "Deepbloom is not our responsibility."
Skids shook dro's head. "In the hive, community is everyone. You can go to anyone for a favour. And if you have a reputation for not paying back favours when you can, or exploiting generosity, everyone will avoid helping you. Not helping here would be worse than being careless with my bike in Forrester's Crossing."
"Trying to stand against demons is not a favour, and the Pure are not part of your community."
"That's for me to decide. I'm going. There has to be a reason why I'm here, and this looks like a good enough reason to me."
I had a good answer to that, which Skids had demonstrated earlier. "That sounds like a wise saying, but that doesn't mean it applies. There's no point in fighting demons. It's futile! Joining the folly will make no difference. You'll just become one more dead person remembered in legends as a hero."
"That doesn't sound so bad," Skids said glibly.
"The stories about heroes are cautionary. A good citizen won't be driven to become a hero. A devout city should not need a hero."
"Really, then does that mean Deepbloom is being punished by your 'Great Maker'? Maybe for helping us out the other night?"
"That wasn't a serious... ugh. Look, this is happening. I'm going to take 'Carlos' to the turntable and do what I can to help. Maybe that will involve shooting at some demons. I don't know. I'm not going to do anything stupid, alright?"
Being in the vicinity of a weapon pointed at a horde of demons seemed extremely stupid to me, but I knew it was pointless to say so. "Fine. How will we find each other after?" If there was an after. Perhaps the Great Maker's bright messengers would descend from the clouds and wipe out the threat. And perhaps Chalice would come back to life. No, things like that did not happen. Was it even cloudy? I looked up to the stars, but there were no obvious blank patches in the sky.
"...three turntables are to the south, northeast, and northwest," Carlos was saying. "Corresponding to the rail lines towards Nearton's Gap, Exaltation, and Empyreal respectively.
"Got it. I would have thought the swarm would hit to the south, but it now looks like they're aiming for the north side of the city. We'll go there," Skids said, looking up from the scryer.
"And after?" I pressed.
"I'm getting to that. We'll be too far apart for the ventril, and you don't have a scryer so we can't exchange messages that way."
I considered saying that we should have taken a scryer from the fallen casters, but it was too late for that, and I did not really know how to use one. Skids was leading up to a point, so I decided not to interrupt.
"It's too far for voices, but... Yes, I can make my scryer sing into the aether and your helmet will have a general idea of how far away I am and in what direction. So you can find me again, whatever happens. Or at least you can find my scryer again. And if that doesn't work out — like if we have to leave the city in different directions and then your helmet runs out of aether — you can try looking for me at Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts. If you still want to find me."
"Of course I'll still want to find you! You... you're my friend." I had thought of Skids as a friend for a while now, but I had not quite realised how much that meant, and how important dro had become to me. I had not truly had a proper friend before. "Um, so the helmet knowing which way to go to find you seems like some clever magic, but how will it tell me?"
"Oh, it'll beep."
"Beep? That sounds... ominous."
Skids chuckled. "Nah, it's just a sound. From the trillers the ventril uses. Beep! Like that. No beeps if you're facing the wrong way, beeps louder in the left ear if you need to turn a bit to the left, the same for the right, equal in both ears if I'm directly ahead, and faster the closer you move. Simple."
After a few more pokes at the scryer, Skids wove a complex pattern with dro's arms. "I set it not to beep at all for the next five minutes. You don't want it to start screeching at you because I'm right in front of you."
"Thanks, I appreciate that."
"Yeah. It's not fun. Right, so... I'd better get my spinnerbike out of the railcar and we'll be off. Carlos is looking rather impatient."
"I could be almost halfway there if I'd started running after giving the men their orders," Carlos said. "And it's Diegan, actually."
"Well, Diegan, have you ever ridden a self-propelled bicycle before?"
Ten hours later — actually it was only five minutes, but it felt like ten hours — I was relieved to hear an artificial musical note from my helmet. It might have startled me if I had been able to think about anything other than waiting. I had not been much help to the yardsmen in those five minutes. Knowing that I had a way to find Skids helped me to relax and concentrate on finding a crate of lemons.
My concentration lasted fifteen seconds. That was equivalent to three beeps.
I looked up and down the long lines of freight wagons, and around at the bustling yardworkers. The only one I knew by name was Vled, and he was an imposing man of few words. The men's eyes were open wider and darting about faster than before, and their hands were twitching when they were not carrying a load. The dark-seeing juice seemed rather unhealthy.
The helmet beeped again, reminding me of the growing distance between Skids and me.
I tossed the clipboard aside. "I need to get out of here," I said, just loud enough to be heard. Sorry, I cannot... think. I'm no good here."
"Do you want your bike?" Vled asked, gesturing at the railcar I had arrived in.
"Thanks, but no." Now was not the time to attempt to learn how to operate a magically powered bicycle. It wouldn't help me anyway. "I am going up into the city."
"Be safe," was all Vled had to say in response.
"Yes. You too." The yardsmen did not really need me. They would be leaving here fairly soon regardless. But there was a place I could help, and someone I needed to warn. If the demon-killing weapon failed to pull off a miracle, and the Great Maker continued to refrain from intervening, there was at least one person in Deepbloom who I wanted to be safe.
It was time to return to Timothy Douglas.