"Aether? Skids, did you say aether?" I said into my helmet ventril, struggling not to yell unnecessarily.
"That's what I said. The weapon has a rather large aether reservoir. Which is now practically empty."
The weapon used magic? But... Actually, that made a sort of sense once I considered the possible reason. A holy weapon would need some kind of Maker-condoned magic in order to fully slay the demons. "I suppose it's something the clerics approved, on direct orders of the Great Maker. Depending on how you interpret the exact wording of the Codex of Purity, I suppose—"
"That really doesn't matter now!"
"Right, sorry. Is there anything you can do about it?" I wasn't expecting much. On the other hand, it was surprising in retrospect that Skids had been able to adjust the weapon at all.
"Here's the thing. Regardless of who ordered this thing to be built, I know who it was ordered from. And who built it." I could hear the sounds of tools on metal behind Skids' words.
"How could you possibly know that?"
Several metallic impacts were followed by the sight of an entire panel falling off the side of the weapon wagon. "Got it!" The sheet of metal quickly fell out of view behind the moving train, having fallen from the trailing side of the diagonal wagon. Gabian had increased our speed to match against the skittering demons, preventing them from catching up.
"I hope we don't need that! We're not going back for it."
"Nah, it was in the way. All good. Yeah, I can work with this."
"Skids! What is going on?"
"So, I didn't want to mention this earlier and tip off any overly sensitive clerics that I knew."
I waited for Skids to continue, but the silence stretched out. "If you're there, quit stalling and tell me! Please."
"Sorry, had to take inventory of what parts I have on hand. The thing is, parts of the mechanisms in these weapons were put together in Wonambi, City of Dar—"
"That can't be! No one would allow... Would they?" Using something made by mages in one of their dark cities went against everything taught by the Clerics and the Codex.
"Someone sure did. I know how this mechanism works from a friend named Kacer Dro who was chatting about a job the other week. Dro did a rather cheap job of it, so for a fun exercise I thought up some simple improvements. It was quite a shock to recognise Kacer's work was integral to the firing mechanism. I have no idea how the projectiles work — that's all weird and far beyond me — but the rest of it makes sense."
"So you know how to fix it?"
"I knew how to improve it. There's nothing to fix about a lack of aether."
"What about the spare aetherbottles? From the aetherrailer?"
"That might give us a few shots, but not enough. Don't worry, I've got this covered. But we're gonna have to stop for a few minutes. And I'll need someone to get my spinnerbike from wherever they stashed it. Please tell me we didn't end up leaving it in Exaltation."
"Uhh..." I had no idea where it had ended up. "I don't think so? Ask Timothy. Um, surely he should be able to hear us. Timothy, are you there?"
Timothy didn't answer.
I pounded on the top of the cabin. Someone pounded back. "Maybe his ventril's not working?"
"It might have switched from group mode back into person to person mode. Uh, it does that sometimes."
"Well change it back! Gabian's got to be wondering what's going on."
"Uh, I've got my hands full altering the firing mechanism. Could you try? It should be fairly simple."
I braced my borrowed crossbow between my legs to free up my gloved hands. "How do I do that?"
"Um, how to describe it? Cup your left hand beside your ear, then point your right pointer finger forward and move it in a widening spiral for two rotations."
"Which direction?" I asked, not starting until I was sure I had it right.
"The spiral? Um, doesn't matter, just don't move it forwards or backwards. After that, stop the spiral, clench your left fist, and push the right pointer finger forward. That'll include everyone in range."
While part of me was excited to try out more magic, I still had the loud voice in my head reminding me how terrible this was. Intentionally invoking magic was a very big deal. I had succeeded in excusing myself for passively using the helmet, and for activating the light in my gloves — how bad could a light really be? — but controlling the ventril was a clear step down a dark forbidden path. Reminding myself that this was to save my city helped. Thinking about how the clerics of Deepbloom had secretly organised mages to construct their weapon... well that just confused me. I did not really want to believe that was true, but I saw no reason to doubt Skids either. Except of course for the obvious: Skids was a mage, and mages must never be trusted.
"Hello? I could have done it myself by now. If I wasn't up to my elbows in wiring."
"Sorry, just... Magic. This is a big step for me." I took a deep breath, made sure I was firmly planted on my perch on the roof of the steam engine, and performed the motions Skids had described.
There was no bolt of lightning from the sky, or any sense that anything had changed.
"Er, hello? Timothy?"
"Charity, there you are! What's going on with the weapon? What happened to you and Skids? Gabian's vision is fading and your voices cut out right when the weapon started failing." He sounded frantic. Everyone was frantic, but he was even more frantic.
"Um, the magic needed fixing. Sorry I worried you. Skids has a potential fix for the weapon, but dro needs dro's spinnerbike. Do you know where it ended up?"
"Yes, it's lashed to the front of this engine," Timothy said immediately, filling me with relief. I had no idea what Skids' plan was, but I needed it to succeed. "Er, I hope you're not planning to climb over the engine to retrieve it."
A vision of me doing just that flashed through my mind. Were there enough secure footholds to safely climb back one-handed? "No, no, we will need to stop the train. No need for anything that extreme."
"Did you say stop the train?" Timothy asked, sounding even more concerned.
"Not yet," Skids said. "But in a few minutes. I need to hook this up to a wheel and I really don't want my arm ripped off. Er, no offense."
"Open the throttle a few more notches!" I heard Gabian say. There was an odd echo, because he was loud enough that I could hear him in the cabin below me as well as through Timothy's ventril. "If we need to stop, then we should get ahead when we can."
"Actually," said Skids. "If you can get the spinnerbike to me sooner, it might us save an extra minute."
In the background, I could hear Gabian reminding Timothy which lever to pull, but I had greater concerns. "If I fall off or drop the bike, it's not worth potentially saving a few minutes!" I replied with rising panic.
A loud clang told us that Skids was still actively working on the weapon's internals. "Heh, I'll be ready for us to stop in just a couple of minutes. Don't worry about it."
"Skids! Don't scare me like that!"
Skids didn't get to respond to my concerns, as Gabian spoke up through Timothy's ventril. "Ask them how long we'll be stopped for. And do we need to stop completely or just slow? The further ahead they get, the longer it will take for us to pass the front demons so we can shoot at them."
"True, but the further they go, the closer they come to the rails, so the weapon crew will reduce the range and we do not need to be as far ahead of them," I said, picturing the various trajectories involved. "But time and distance are limited. Skids?"
"Ideally I'd want to test fire it a few times, but... Hmm, I can skip removing the... And then if I... Yeah, I can do this in three minutes, I think."
"Skids says three minutes," Timothy relayed to Gabian, who could not hear us. "And we do need to fully stop."
"How? No, forget it. In that case, we'll definitely want to go after the front lot first before slowing to get the back lot. Otherwise by the time we get to the front ones we'll be so close to the city that the track will go into the cutting and we won't be able to fire up to them."
"Sounds like you've got it figured out. Alright, hit the brakes on this thing! Charity, get ready to grab the bike. And you... Hey, you with the crossbow! I'll need you to hold some stuff very still! Never mind, I'll say it again when we're not moving."
Timothy did not actually slam on the brakes, but he did stop the train almost as quickly as possible under Gabian's gruff guidance. I prepared to jump down as soon as we halted completely. Jumping sooner would have only given me further to run to the front.
When I reached the front of the engine, I found the bike was tied very securely to an exposed copper pipe. I struggled with the loops of rope, trying to find part of it that could be pulled loose. To my sleep-starved brain, the knots looked the same to me from every angle.
I jumped and made an embarrassing squeak sound. Timothy was standing over me with a large knife in his... arm? It wasn't in his hand, and he did not have his hook. "Oh. Thank you."
"No problem," he said as he rapidly sliced through the ropes.
"How fast can you change it?" I asked, pointing at the blade. The bike began to come loose, so I quickly grabbed at it to keep it from falling on our heads.
Timothy pushed at some unseen mechanism at the base of the knife handle, twisted, and pulled. The knife came free and he slotted it into a pocket of his leather apron. Reaching across to his hip, he took his hook from another pocket and clicked it into place just as quickly. "That fast," he said. He grinned and reached up to hook the frame of the bike. Together, we lowered it to the ground. I started wheeling it to the right until I was clear of the gravel rail-bed. Jogging with the bike would be faster on solid ground.
I put every scrap of energy left into running. It hurt in so many places, but I desperately needed to do something other than sit still. It would have been quicker if I'd let Timothy do it, but the distance was short enough that it wasn't worth worrying about. I worried regardless. Stopping beside Skids, I tried pushing the bike back up onto the gravel. Seeing that I was struggling, Skids stuffed a spanner down the front of dro's jacket and jumped down to take it from me.
"Yeah, I think this should work. The aetherspinners in this model are highly over-spec'd for the aetherbottle. If we had the experimental inflammable air one, we'd blow it up all over again trying this. Though not the inflammable air part. We just need the spinner." While speaking, dro had set on the bike with the spanner, a magical screwdriver, and a pry bar. "Good job this is directly spun, not chain driven."
"What exactly is your plan? The spinnerbike uses aether from an aetherbottle to magically spin the wheel, right?"
"And the 'aetherspinner' is the part that does that?"
"Exactly. Hold the front fork, I'm about to take the wheel right off."
"But what we need is a lot more aether. You said you're attaching something to one of the wagon's wheels. Which will be spinning a lot. So... the aetherspinner can work in reverse?"
"Wow, you figured it out! Yeah, I'm setting up the aetherspinner to produce more aether from the spinning of the wheel. Hey, crossbow person, I'll need some extra hands in a moment!"
I stood back so they could lift the stripped-down spinnerbike into place. "But... Magic doesn't make power out of nothing, right? It always uses some other power... which means it will slow the wheel. We'll be trying to catch the demons with the brakes on the whole time."
"Only while the weapon is firing," Skids said. "So we shouldn't start firing until we're in front of them again."
"Ah, that makes sense. Did you catch all that, Timothy?" He'd returned to the cabin so Gabian was not left alone in the dark.
"You're saying there will be extra drag while the weapon is firing, yes?"
"Yes. On the front of the weapon wagon, of course. We'd be in trouble if it was the back one." I was glad Skids had evidently thought of that. With the wagon straddling both tracks, trying to slow the back end might be enough to derail it.
"Hey, you should get back on the cabin. This won't take much longer. I just need to attach it securely and connect some wires."
"How can you attach it securely and quickly?"
"Glad you asked. Oi, you! The tall caster! I mean crossbow, uh, man. Pass me down the... yeah, that." Skids reached up to take the aetherrailer and pointed it into the guts of the wagon, to the side of the chunk of spinnerbike. "This isn't just a weapon."
"Ohhh, that should work," I said. I was drowned out by the aetherrailer loudly preparing to fire a metal bar at high velocity. I would have liked to stay and watch, but I also didn't want to be the cause of a delay. And I really did not want to be left behind.
"I can sort the rest out while we're moving," Skids said as I seated myself back in my cabin-top perch.
"You're not anywhere near as useless about magic as I thought you were. This is amazing!"
The engine lurched forward slightly, then began to accelerate fairly smoothly.
"Nah, I've got no idea how or why any of this works. And you figured out what I was doing without being told. You could definitely be a seer."
"You came up with the plan just as quickly. And you gave me all the clues I needed to put it together. The point is, I thought I wouldn't learn much from you, and I was wrong. I was wrong to think that way at all."
"Well you haven't tried to kill me, so you're ahead of a lot of people. Aaaand... done! I think. It's completely untested, but I believe the weapon is ready for action! Which means we need to figure out how we're going to aim it with most of the Deepbloom crew unable to see past their noses."
"Well, uh, Maker bless, I guess." I had nothing better to offer.
It took us eight minutes — according to the time on Sente's artifact — to catch up with the frontmost demons. It took another two minutes to reach the correct firing position. That was far longer than we'd stopped for, but our overtaking speed was limited by safety.
"Brace yourselves and prepare to compensate for wheel drag!" Skids said through the ventril. "Connecting the aether loop in three... two... one!"
The train lurched, like it was suddenly dragging an entire herd of pigs. The affected wheel began to drag and produced an unholy squealing sound, also like it was dragging an entire herd of pigs.
I held my breath, hoping and praying that this would work.
A few moments later, the weapon fired. The squealing let up, and the train lurched forward. That reprieve only lasted a moment. The aetherspinner kicked in again, the train lurched the other way, and the weapon fired again. And again.
I watched the projectiles as they arced towards the lead elements of the demon horde. "Aim looks good!" I yelled, hardly able to hear myself over the noise.
Skids said something in reply. I guessed it might have been 'direct hit'. That matched what I was seeing. We were back on track. As before, the demons were mindlessly letting us mow them down, continuously shambling forward into our firing zone. Did the ones behind think they could avoid the fate of their brethren? Did they think at all? Were they all controlled by a very simple instinct?
"This is really difficult!" Timothy said. "Trying to compensate is making the jolts worse!"
"...think I can smooth it out a bit!" Skids said. "...kinda dangerous down..."
Somehow Timothy managed to keep our average speed about right, and the overlapping effective area of the weapon took care of the rest. After a minute, the lurching lessened in intensity a little, and the squealing settled slightly.
"...best I can do!"
"That will do!" I replied, hoping I sounded encouraging over all the noise.
"Gabian says we should have enough steam to keep this up, but barely!" Timothy reported.
I hadn't even considered that as a concern. There was nothing we could do about it now. I sat as still as I could with the lurching, and watched our progress. Our success seemed too good to be true, but more minutes passed by and everything continued to work.
Something vibrated in an inner pocket in my robe. The relic. I slowly fished it out, taking exta special care not to drop it. Nothing seemed to be amiss. I checked the map to see how many demons were left. Not many more than a hundred, it seemed. We were close to done.
The map updated, showing the train's new position further down the track. The demons didn't seem to have moved. That was odd. I gave the device a shake."
The weapon cut out, and so did the sound of the wheel. "What happened?" I called.
"They've stopped! The demons have stopped! Stop the train!" Skids answered.
So the map was accurate. I took another look at it. "Wait, they're moving again! Towards the track!"
The train began to slow. "What do we do?" Timothy said. He sounded like he was trying not to panic, and almost succeeding.
I quickly studied the dynamics of the situation. "We can't get them back in range before they reach the rails, where we can't hit them," I said. My stomach seemed to have fallen all the way to my feet.
"Perhaps we can!" Skids said, somehow still full of energy. "Where's the next crossover?"
Of course. If the demons came at the city along the rails, they would be directly behind us. If we put the wagon back how it should have been, we could fire at them directly. "Uh... the next crossover... That's pretty close to the city. It's after we go into the cutting."
Immediately, the train began to accelerate. Timothy had realised that we needed to get to the crossover as quickly as possible. "Which way does it cross?" he asked.
I wasn't sure whether he was asking me, Gabian, or both, so I answered just to be sure. "Both ways," I said. "It's a double crossover."
"That... doesn't seem useful," Skids said.
"You can take that up with the Great Maker," I said. "What's our plan here?"
Timothy briefly consulted with Gabian, then answered. "We stop as quickly as possible just past the crossover, someone runs out to pull the lever for the switch the engine just crossed, and we reverse. That puts us all on the same track."
I checked the relic's map. "Uh, what if the demons cross the rails and start running along the other side?"
"Then we pull two levers. Why do you—"
"That's what they're doing!"
"You can see them from here?"
"Um." I looked up from the relic. "Yes. Barely. It's obvious what they're doing." I looked back down, not really wanting to see the horrible sight of demons crossing the track again, even at such a distance.
"I'll get two of the crossbow people ready to run for the levers," Skids said.
"Gabian's talking me through the fastest possible reversal of direction," Timothy said. "This is not going to be good for his engine."
"The engine can be fixed. The city, not so much," I said. "Not if the demons get to it. I'm seeing a bunch more demons on my map, spread out sparsely like normal, minding their own business. But I'm pretty sure that if any of this lot get into the city, they'll start calling more like they did at Nearton's Bend."
"We'll make sure that does not happen," Timothy said with steel in his voice. "We're coming up on the crossover. The downward grade is working against us, but that can't be helped."
I braced myself extra well, even before I heard Skids yell, "Brace!" to everyone on the weapon.
I'd thought the squealing wheels were loud before, but this was several times louder and from directly under me. We skidded through the crossover, rapidly dumping velocity into sound and heat. Despite my bracing, I almost leaped off the top of the cabin when I heard the horn blaring right behind my head. What was that about?
I looked over my shoulder and saw a lumpy grey mass covering the tracks ahead of us. Demons? No, this was the wrong sort of lumpy and too regular. There was just a little moonlight now, and it was making my goggle-vision look all wrong. My lack of depth perception added to the problem.
We had slowed just enough for two men to jump off the back of the weapon wagon. They ran for the levers. The train continued sliding forward a little further. It stopped just short of impacting the fuzzy mass. There was a hiss of steam, and then silence.
Oh. Goats. Goats!
"Are you alright up there, Charity?" Timothy called.
"Huh?" I struggled to get the words out, and realised I was laughing uncontrollably. "I'm just... having a moment. Goats!"
The train was already starting to reverse. The two runners from Exaltation returned from their task.
"This might get weird for you back there," Timothy said as we neared the crossover.
Skids relayed the message to everyone else. "Hold on!"
The back of the weapon wagon reached the switch track and started to swing around. It was about halfway when the front reached the opposite switch track and began crossing in the other direction, turning the wagon faster.
"This is strange," Skids reported. "Strangely familiar! I don't usually ride on top of trains, and I've never done anything like this, but as it's happening it feels like I've just been in this place before."
"That's odd," I agreed. "Does this happen to you often?" The front of the engine was now crossing over onto the other track, and the front of the wagon was almost across to the other side. We were gaining speed, but not quite as quickly as I remembered from previous times. There was clearly a limit to how aggressively Gabian was willing to transfer mass between rails.
"Sometimes. I think it could be old lost memories. I hope so. It might mean I'm on the right track to finding who I was."
"Someone who rode on trains, apparently."
"Maybe. Or maybe I'm just extremely tired."
"Could be that." The train was now in the opposite configuration to before: the engine in reverse pushing the wagon, with the business end of the weapon pointed towards the other side of the rails. "We all are." I checked the relic again. The demons had resumed heading directly for the city. "They're far enough from the rails that we can safely target them again. It's as if they want to be destroyed!"
"We'll need to reverse direction again as we approach them, so we can let them overtake us gradually like before," Timothy said. "So you'll need to brace yourselves in a couple more minutes."
A couple more minutes. It felt like we'd always been doing this. Like there had never been anything but this train, and this mission. We had almost reached Forrester's Crossing yet again. Now we were leaving it in the distance, but very soon we would be rushing towards it again. I could never really get away from my past. Unlike Skids, whose search was a mystery.
I was so caught up in my deep personal musings that I completely missed the next warning. Inadequately braced, I tumbled forwards, almost tipping over the edge of the cabin roof. Somehow I managed to grab the raised edge and stopped myself from slipping any further, but in the process I slammed my face into the roof.
As I was internally screaming in pain, I wasn't sure who shouted. I was so overcome that I could not even open my mouth to let any sound out. It would have been a struggle to make myself heard, due to the renewed screech of the wheels. For a while I just lay where I had fallen and let the pain die down. It was not in any hurry.
The awful sound stopped, and the train resumed forward motion. Hopefully for the last time this night.
"Oof," I barely managed to say. Slowly, I eased myself back into a less contorted position. I pushed my goggles up to feel whether anything was broken or bleeding. "I think I'm alright." I pulled the goggles back down, trying to ignore the new pain that caused. "But the goggles are broken." I could only see a spiderweb of cracks through them. I pulled them down further so they hung loosely around my neck. The shoulder strap of my handbag was still securely in place, and I'd very deliberately remembered to put the relic back in my cloak when I wasn't checking it.
"Can you see much without them?" Skids asked, sounding worried.
I waited a few seconds as my eye adjusted. I could see my body as we moved further into the moonlight, and the train and the rails before us were visible enough. "A little. I think I should be able to see the demons when we're close enough." Not that I actually wanted to see them. "I'll manage. If everything works out, it shouldn't matter."
"Which part of the entire time we've known each other gives you the idea that everything will work out?" Skids snapped.
"We haven't failed yet," Timothy said.
That was a pleasant sentiment, but it didn't help me. Not when my recent failure to protect the same city had left people dead.
"Almost up to speed. Twenty seconds until range," Skids reported. "Brace yourselves! I really hope nothing got knocked loose by all that."
"I'm bracing!" I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice.
"Engaging aetherspinner in five, four, three, two, one."
The first lurch was about what I had come to expect. The squealing started as Skids' construction stole energy from the wheel. the weapon fired, spitting its projectile in a graceful arc towards demonic destruction. The squealing momentarily cut out and we surged forward. The second backward lurch was worse, and was accompanied by a brilliant flash of light. I was half blinded — three quarters, technically — and barely recovered enough to catch sight of the projectile before the next firing. In spite of whatever was wrong, the weapon kept firing. Timothy compensated perfectly, likely under close guidance of Gabian. I couldn't see much due to the flashing in my eyes, but what little I could gather seemed to indicate that we were still hitting our targets. At the least, we were still firing in the right direction at the right pace.
Skids tried to say something, but I couldn't hear more than a couple of syllables.
There was no chance I could see how many demons were left. The brilliant arcs leaping out of Skids' mechanism made it impossible to see anything beyond the weapon. I tucked my head down into my cloak and used one hand to bring the relic close to my face. We had nearly reached the cutting, but there was still time, and we were still hitting the demons. None were getting through. There were only about eighty left. Sixty. Forty.
The crack of the weapon firing seemed to come early. We surged forward. I braced myself extra hard for a strong lurch backward.
Nothing happened. The engine did not lurch. We continued racing onward with unencumbered acceleration. The shriek of the wheel sounded quieter, and more distant. The weapon fired, but it sounded weak. I looked up and saw the wagon falling behind. The sound of metal grinding on metal stopped, and the weapon ceased firing. "We lost the wagon!" I reported, as if anyone could have missed that fact. "There are five of them left! Coming up on you now. They should be in crossbow range."
"We're on it!" Skids called back.
"Are you alright? What happened back there?"
"The coupling broke from all the—"
"I mean before that. What was that? Are you hurt?"
"Something got knocked loose, just as I feared. It got a bit toasty in here but I'm alright."
"Good. Three left moving!" I checked my map again. "Uh, how are you keeping pace with them?"
"After that last shot I reversed the aetherflow, so—"
"I get it. Good thinking Good shooting too."
"Yeah, the first two are pincushions. We've only got a few more seconds of aether, but I've got the lead one in my sights. Wow these are big and ugly."
Timothy had slowed us so we didn't get too far from the action, so I could hear the aetherrailer firing.
"Got it! Two left and we're done!"
Two left, and it was over. Two left, and we could sleep.
The aetherrailer fired a few more times. "Darkness take them! I can't hit these things! Everyone, concentrate fire on the closer one!"
Worry began flooding through me. "You can't hit them?"
"No one can! They're bending our shots! With magic! Foul!"
The worry turned to terror. "If you can't hit them, we can't stop them!"
"We're out of ammunition now. Sorry, we threw everything we had at them, but nothing would hit them! It's up to you now."
"Me? How can it be up to me? If you can't hit them, I sure as anything cannot!" I checked over my shoulder. We were about to pass through the crossover.
"Charity, hold on tight!" Timothy yelled.
We shot across the switch track, once again on the proper line for our direction. The stray goats had mostly dispersed, though we clipped past two of them close enough to touch. "Uh, maybe slow down?"
"Er, I expect that will happen eventually, but we're on a grade at the moment so we're coasting," Timothy said, sounding embarrassed.
"Don't tell me the brakes aren't working!"
"I expect they are, but... To be honest, Gabian was handing all the braking, and he just passed out. I'm not entirely sure how to work them."
"Can't you, um, reverse the engine?"
"As I said, we're coasting. We're out of steam pressure. And attempting to reverse the engine while we're moving at speed seems... unwise. But I believe we will stop, once the track flattens out close to the city.
I checked my map. The two remaining demons were between us and Skids, and were also now galloping along between the two tracks. If unchecked, they would continue into the tunnels to the heart of the city. "Skids, are you still there?"
"Yeah, but we're not moving. We stopped to fetch some bolts back. We'll roll after you in a few minutes," dro said, sounding faint.
"The last two demons will catch up to us in a few minutes! And at that point, we'll be almost inside the city! What do I do?"
"You have to ask? This is exactly the reason why I left you—"
"The ABAM!" Of course. The only way I could save my city was if I used a magical weapon. The same sort of weapon that had crashed a log wagon, caused Shenks to be exiled, and had caused me to flee the city. A weapon of strong magic, which according to every cleric and everything I'd read in the Codex would spread horrible corruption. For years, the voice in my head had continually reminded me of these rules, and the consequences that I had suffered and would suffer for breaking them. Could I really take this final step? Could I save the city at the cost of crossing this line too? I'd comforted myself crossing other lines that I wouldn't cross any further lines. But there weren't any more lines in sight after this one.
"I don't know if I can," I said weakly.
"What was that? I think our ventrils are about to die."
"I don't think I can be the person who uses magic like this," I said, more strongly.
"You can be whatever person you need to be. Just look at me. I woke up one day in the middle of Wonambi with no idea what anything was. Including me. I have no idea what it means to be me."
"Me either," I admitted. "Mostly I just be what I'm told to be. Or do what I'm told to do. But that's never been enough."
"Yeah, mostly I just try to fit in. But it's so hard when I try to be me, because I don't understand what that is or how it fits with anything else. So I just do what I have to do to look out for the people who help me feel like myself, and hope that's enough," Skids said, growing increasingly hard to hear.
"I have to protect my family," I said, feeling more confident. "That's what's most important. And I'd rather break the Codex than let these demons live."
"Hello? Skids? You need to tell me how to use the ABAM!"
Skids didn't reply. The demons were close now. I could see them clearly enough, lit by the sliver of moon. And was that the slightest pre-dawn glow on the eastern horizon?
I was distracting myself with thoughts of light. I really didn't want to look at the demons.
There was still no reply.
I unclipped the ABAM and held it in both hands. It was a solid metal ball, though it wasn't perfectly smooth, making it easy to hold and throw without dropping it. It had some markings in it, which were probably a designation, but nothing that seemed like instructions.
With great reluctance, I looked up at the demons. They were larger and bulkier than cows, with an additional frame of metal parts outside their bodies. No, some parts when through their bodies. The long edges of the connecting pieces seemed square, but they all met at sharp angles. There were no curves or twists. For all their bulk, they did not seem to have or use muscles. Their mouths hung open, revealing multiple rows of sharp metal teeth, and strange unholy light issuing from behind the teeth. Their hides were blotchy, with unnaturally straight parallel stripes, and markings which looked like letters. According to legends, the forgotten symbols spelled out their name: 'DEMON'.
I was actually glad to only have a single eye to see these abominations.
Below me, Timothy shouted, "We're almost to the tunnel!" I knew what he meant was, 'hurry up and do something!'
I looked down at the weapon in my hands, and willed it to reveal its secrets. What magical ritual would make it detonate on impact?
The answer came to me, even as an almost audible voice told me not to even consider doing it.
I took my left hand away from the ball and raised it. The robe slid down, revealing my tally marks. I would need a lot more of those after today. I looked up at the hand, once inflamed by a wound, now looking much better. I gave special attention to my engagement ring. If this worked, would Timothy be exiled too? Would any of us live to be exiled?
Even as the familiar voice shouted for me to stop, I rotated my hand and deliberately wiggled my fingers. One, two, three, back and forth, stretch out in starburst, slap against the side of the ball and rotate.
I had no idea why I thought that would work. But it worked. The ball beeped.
"No," said the voice.
I threw the ball at the demons.
Belatedly, I remembered that Skids had used one of these to derail part of a moving train.
The aether-boosted artificial magestone detonated. I briefly felt the cabin lurch in a wrong direction. Then my mind turned to meaningless haze and everything went away.