Skids and I sat in a huddle in the lee of one of the sheds. The demons were still scuttling by, though I refused to look again. Cleric Elliot was off making arrangements. I was still trying to understand the situation.
"You... You really just volunteered me to put myself directly in the path of all these demons."
"That's right," Skids said, unabashed. "Be honest. There's nowhere else you'd want to be."
"No matter what I or that cleric said, you would inevitably find some way to put yourself between those demons and Forrester's Crossing. You're welcome."
I sighed, trying to force the day's tension out of me until I had no air left to give. Reversing the process, I noisily drew in chilly, refreshing air. "What I want to do is sleep," I said, unwilling to admit that Skids was entirely correct. "But no, now I have to find a way to wipe out a demon swarm with a weapon that doesn't even work!"
"Oh, it definitely works. They test fired it a while before the demons arrived, to confirm the range. Quite impressive!"
"The range," I repeated. "Range does us no good if we can't point it at the demons. And we might be the only ones who can see what we're aiming at!"
"Not quite," another voice said.
"Timothy!" With all that was going on and everything I was feeling, I had completely forgotten about his presence. He'd been part of the group standing around this whole time but must not have had a reason to speak up until now. "I was looking for you," I added, this time remembering to speak with proper moderation.
"Er, yes, I was worried about you. I had no idea you were Sente's contact."
"And I had no idea you were involved in this, though I'm not really surprised. You're quite the adventurous young lady."
"Sorry, I meant that as a compliment. Now, about this plan to save your city, now that it seems mine is safe. Do you have more of those 'goggles'?"
"Yes," Skids said. "And with how helpful you've been to us, I'll even let you wear a pair. Though I'm curious why you're willing."
I was curious too, though I said nothing.
"There are some in Deepbloom who tolerate the existence of mages, when it benefits them. Some merely turn a blind eye. Others find this distasteful," Timothy said.
"And where do you fit into all this?" Skids asked.
"You are not the only mage I have met," Timothy said. "Very few people actually have any sympathy for the mages as people, but I count myself among the few."
There had to be a whole long story behind those few sentences, but this was probably not the time to discuss it.
"So you don't buy into the 'magical corruption' story your clerics have been spreading around?"
"I know enough to say that not everything among the mages is rosy, but it's hardly a pit of horror."
"Aww, thanks, that's one of the nicest things anyone from above ground has said to me," Skids said with a cheeky grin. "Alright, we have three goggle-wearers. Do you have any idea how a steam train works?"
Timothy shook his head. "I'm a butcher, not an engineer. But does Charity truly want to take part in this?" He turned to address me, though I could see him far better than he could see me. "There's no obligation."
"My sisters, brothers and parents are all in front of those... things. I'm terrified, but if there is a way to use the weapon to protect them, I'll help you find it."
"If we find a good corner to set up on, we could destroy them as they try to pass us," Timothy suggested. "While we can't turn the weapon, it hits a very wide area."
"It does," Skids confirmed, having been able to see the test shot much better than Timothy had. "My goggles estimate the dispersion to be about ten meters, though that would be affected by changes in elevation."
I did not want another misunderstanding like we'd had over 'inflammable', so I asked, "Is that ten meters in radius, or diameter?"
"Oh, that's diameter. Whoops."
I glanced in the direction of the living river of demons, which was still passing by us. "That will definitely make a sizable dent in the demons. But a dent is still only a dent. How long does it take to reload the weapon?"
"I heard the operators discussing that before Skids and Diegan arrived," Timothy said. He sounded pleased to have helpful information. "They said it's capable of twenty rounds per minute."
Would that be enough? "That's one every three seconds. If the demons are coming directly at us close to single file, they could get past the weapon if they can move more than ten meters in three seconds. Which is twelve kilometers per hour. Really? Wow, three seconds is a lot longer than it sounds. Anyhow, it gets even worse if they're spread out, because we're hitting circles, not squares. And past ten meters wide we're not hitting them at all."
"If we could funnel them through a choke point we might have a chance," Timothy said, sounding uncertain. It was not a great suggestion, and I felt that he knew it too.
"That might work briefly but they're not going to keep running to their deaths for several minutes. Hey Skids, are there many left?"
Skids checked dro's scryer. While dro was occupied I felt for the flat lump of the relic stowed in my robes. "They're nearly done passing us. Less than a minute left. The front ones are still heading straight, so they're on track to skirt Exaltation."
"They should cross the rail out the east side of Deepbloom that goes to Empyreal," I mused aloud. "We could get there ahead of them, aim at the section where they're going to cross, and repeatedly hit them from the side. We could be doing that do them now."
"No," Cleric Elliot said, looming over our discussion group. "No one is to engage the demons unless they are confirmed to be headed directly at a city, not around it. And only from the vicinity of that city. Am I clear?"
We all gave our assent. I did not like it, but it made sense.
"Good. Now, you had best get aboard the engine that will be moving the weapon. It will be departing shortly."
Half an hour later — according to the time given by Skids' scryer, as I could not possibly express how much time I felt had passed — we were aboard a different engine, which was pulling a different weapon. We were closer to Exaltation, but did not appear to be much closer to figuring out how to protect Forrester's Crossing. The engine was being operated by a short, muscular man named Gabian. He was even more twitchy and talkative than Diegan had been. I was not sure how much of that was due to the tonic, and how much was caused by our presence in the cab. Skids' presence in particular.
The other source of discomfort — for everyone — was the dark stream of oozing evil. We had outpaced the demons and were gradually leaving them behind us. I glanced out the cabin's right side window to check their progress. This required me to turn uncomfortably far, rather than merely glancing over my shoulder. The black mass was visible against the starlit earth, weaving around trees and flowing over rocks. While the demons were travelling parallel to the rails, they were far out of the range of the weapon we were hauling. Even if they had been a mere stone's throw away, it would not have mattered. The weapon could only shoot directly ahead. Or rather, directly behind. It would have been pointless and dangerous to move the weapon with the operational end aimed at us the whole time.
Gabian had been explaining to Timothy how to operate the steam engine, in case of an emergency. If his tonic-enhanced vision failed, it would take some time to prepare a glowing lantern so he could see again. It might take even longer for his eyes to adjust to seeing normally. The effects of the tonic were not consistent. Skids had been watching the lesson too, but I was struggling to pay attention. I had stood up to help keep me from napping, but that just made me feel more exhausted. Sleep was calling my name, but I could not give in yet. I had to figure out how to save my city first.
"Charity, is your neck alright?" It was Timothy who asked, and I was pleased to hear his concern for me, and touched that he had noticed my discomfort.
"A lot of me is not alright," I admitted. "I will have bruises for weeks."
"What happened?" he asked softly, so as to not interrupt an ongoing conversation between Skids and Gabian.
I was unsure where to begin. "Skids and I were in Forrester's Crossing trying to... well there was a fire and I was trying to help rescue..." I could imagine his eyes growing wider and wider, though our eyes were hidden by goggles. "There was a big explosion and I was thrown through a wall."
"You are blessed to be alive!"
"Yes. Though I do not feel particularly blessed at the moment. And..."
"And? Did... Did someone...?"
My words spilled out in a torrent like demons leaping into the railway cutting. "Chalice was in there. Father got out, but no one could find Chalice before... before the end. And if I hadn't given Skids directions to the blacksmith when we first met, it all might have been avoided."
"I am sorry for your loss. And please try not to blame yourself. Any outcome is the result of many choices by many people, combined with many circumstances outside our control. Sometimes even following the law to the best of our abilities can turn out terribly."
"I didn't always follow the law," I admitted. "I jumped off a bridge onto a train, to run away with Skids. Well, with someone I knew was a mage, who turned out to be Skids. If I had instead fought and kept the mage from escaping on the train, dro might have been recaptured and might have warned the clerics about the explosiveness of the spinnerbike. Then Chalice would still be alive and a lot of other people would not have been hurt or had their property destroyed."
"That might have happened, but it might not have. And if Skids had been recaptured..."
"Skids would be dead. And I would still have been exiled for quarantine. I do not know whether I would have been given the healing I needed first, as a reward for the second capture of Skids."
"Did the mages give you the healing you needed?" Timothy asked.
"Yes. Perhaps. I was not able to stay for long enough to find out what was wrong with me, but I do not seem to be in imminent danger of dropping dead." I was in plenty of danger, but that was danger I had thrown myself into. It was easier to face than the lurking danger from within.
"That is a relief to hear. Although..."
"Yeah." We might not live to see the next sunrise. "I have not forgotten that you changed the subject away from me blaming myself," I said, changing the subject.
"I find it best not to dwell on such things. We can learn from them, but self-recrimination only distracts and disheartens us."
Such things. Of course. I had been selfish to consider only my own loss. "I am sorry for your loss too."
I had to know more about this man. Father had chosen him for me, and he did not make decisions lightly. "If I may ask... what was her name?"
"Edith." He sounded sad, as expected. But I sensed a hint of anger in his voice too.
"Edith," I repeated.
"I think you would have liked one another, if you had met," he said slowly, considering carefully. "But not all potential friends have the opportunity to meet in life."
"I suppose not. And sometimes we befriend the wrong people."
"Sometimes. I think I have been blessed with some excellent friends, such as Diegan. He stood with me in some tough times."
"I do not understand how it happened, but Skids has become a good friend. I have had plenty of sisters, but no true friends. Skids has some other friends though."
"But no sisters!" Skids said, sitting down beside me. I could not remember having sat back down. "We have groups who were raised by the same set of carers, but I don't think they have the same level of kinship. And I don't even remember my own childhood, so... no sisters or anything even similar."
"After breaking me out of prison when I... when I had no hope, taking me to the medical clinic when I was dying, and volunteering me for this trip without asking me first, you're practically family to me."
"Because that's what family does." Sometimes my family could be infuriating, but until the situation went completely off the rails, Father had been about to use his boon to obtain my healing. Not for himself but for me.
"Well this is all very heartwarming," Gabian said with his rough voice, while tangling his fingers in his even rougher black beard. "But we're getting close to Exaltation, and we still have no plan for dealing with those awful critters behind us."
"Has anyone had any sudden inspirations?" I asked. "Any secret weapons hidden in your pockets? Maybe if someone could explain how the weapon actually works, that might help."
"The crew who know about that are riding in the weapon's cab," Gabian said. "You will have to ask them in the changeover at Exaltation. Or maybe ride along with them for the next leg."
"Pockets," Skids repeated, searching through dro's own.
"I still have Cards' deck of cards. I might get some inspiration looking through them. Sa usually played games with them, but sometimes sa used them to tell stories."
"If it helps you solve our problem..." Gabian said, ending with a mighty shrug and turning back to the dials and levers adorning the front of the cabin. The cabin was at the back of the steam engine, behind the insulated reservoir of superheated water.
"Ah, here's the cards that weren't in the pack. Let's see... this one has seven swords on it."
"Um... knife spears? No, not like spears actually. A weapon with a very long blade."
"Oh, I think the blacksmith had something like that as a display piece. I cannot imagine it being very practical."
"I agree." Skids fanned out the small stack of cards. "Lots more swords. Eight, nine, and ten. And then there's one with coins."
"That reminds me to ask, do mages use coins?"
"Nah, not in our hives. We use our scryers to keep track of favours, so there's no bits of metal to carry around or lose."
"Favours? That seems... imprecise."
"I suppose. It doesn't have to be exact. If someone isn't pulling their weight or is presuming too many favours from others, word will get around quickly and they'll find themself shunned until they shape up."
"Hmm." That was an odd way to run a society. "You — I mean yall — do not set prices?"
"Perhaps another time," Timothy interjected. "Unless these favours can help us now, this side track is not taking us to a solution."
"Sorry, I'm all out of favours, and I don't think I could convince any mages to assist us. Not that anyone could get here in time. Maybe titans, but... no, that's not gonna happen."
I remembered where the conversation had come from. "So the cards told us nothing?" I wondered.
"Not really. The cards all mean things, but I've forgotten which is which. Well, the coin card is some sort of ruler." Dro held the card up for me to examine. It depicted a human — apparently male, to my eyes — seated in a large black chair, which was decorated with a yellow cow. He wore fine clothes with a pattern of tiny purple circles in clusters. Grapes, I realised. A tall grey building stood behind him. It was an unusual structure which I figured was some kind of fortification. Overall, I had the sense he was wealthy and powerful. "Cards called them a 'king'."
"King," I repeated. "I have a feeling Sente might know what that means."
"I remember now that Cards sometimes associated the 'king' cards with the Over Seer."
Was the Great Maker like this? A being of great wealth, having a claim to the whole earth, and living above us all in an impenetrable fortress. "Unless your Over Seer or our Great Maker feel like lending a hand and smiting the demons from above or below, I doubt the cards are helpful."
"Yeah. I was hoping one of us would have a sudden realisation about how to solve this, but... Oh well." Dro opened the little box of cards to slide the loose ones inside. "Gotta make sure I don't... Oops, these were all upside down."
That gave me an idea. "Upside down. Hmm..."
"Have you thought of something?" Timothy asked, since Skids was preoccupied putting the cards away.
"No. I thought looking at the situation from the opposite perspective might help, but I have no idea how to actually do that." What was the opposite perspective? What even was my current perspective? I needed to sleep so I could think clearly, but dozing for half an hour would just make me feel woozy. It was too bad I had no more of Sente's amazing drink. I still had the leather bottle, and I also had the relic. Could the relic help? Was it relevant? No, the demons had always been moving towards Forrester's Crossing.
"Maybe we can increase the weapon's firing rate or spread. Or both," Skids suggested. "Then the 'corner ambush' plan could work."
I considered the position of the rails outside of Forrester's Crossing. "It can't work," I said, frowning. "The only bend is in the wrong direction to aim at the northeast side of the track. And closer to the city or inside it, we'll be in a cutting or a tunnel."
"Will the demons attack the city through the tunnel?" Gabian asked. "Then we can run ahead of them just fast enough to make overlapping shots at them as they approach."
"That would be far too easy. Stupidly easy. There's no way we can hope they do something that mindless," I said. "Although..."
"Although?" Skids and Timothy asked in chorus.
"Demons have only been seen crossing the railway directly, like they did outside of Deepbloom. They don't come into the safe zone otherwise. And at Nearton's Bend, they cut the rails fairly close to the city and left the rest untouched. So we should be safe if we stay on the rails and don't get too close to the city."
Gabian grunted. "Cities are meant to be safe and untouched. And demons never travel in large groups for hours. So you cannot count on them not breaking the rules."
"Well then we will have to break the rules too!" I said, trying to sound as grand and inspirational as possible. "Uh, if I can think of any relevant rules to break."
"Other than all the rules we're already breaking," Skids said, tapping a finger on my goggles.
"Can you hold off on your rule-breaking for a while?" Gabian said as he gradually pulled a large lever. "We're entering Exaltation."