Part Nine Of A ‘Horrors By Gaslight’ Serial Novel In Sixteen Thrilling Parts!’
by Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)
The first thing that Alexander St. Roivas became aware of, upon cracking open a bleary eye, was the unholy mess. Unholy in more than metaphor: eldritch texts were stacked close and piled high upon every flat surface, including upon stacks of other, less critical eldritch texts, which doubled nicely as book-stands. What bits of the floor, walls, and furniture were not mazed with bookmark-studded tomes were littered with scribbled incantatory formulae, mind-twisting diagrams drawn in many things that were not ink, and the numberless blasphemous, bizarre devices that were the tools of Alexander’s family trade. He had clawed frantically through each and every one in search of the proper response to–
–ah, yes, there was the second thing he became aware of, the bloom of the indefatigable scratching seemingly buried in the depths of his formidable brain. Like a maddened, verbigerative Horace Greeley the phantom itch could only pulse its warning in the most general of senses, go west, young St. Roivas, go west–but there was quite a lot of barbaric American wasteland to the west of Massachusetts, and Alexander cherished civilization in those rare moments in which he was allowed to enjoy it. Until he could put a name and a reason to the itch, he was not inclined to let it lead him into the wilderness. Indeed, he was barely inclined to let it bring him to leave his bed (despite thirty-some-odd years of stern self-discipline to the contrary) for, in his rage at his continuing failure, he had resorted to carefully-rationed self-medication in the form of three sturdy measures of his best Irish whisky. The drink had stilled both the itch that ravened in his mind and his own furious self-recrimination, but given that much of the rest of the night was a blur, he was now, in his waking state, aware that it might have led him into untoward behavior–
–as if summoned the heavy bolster beneath his head shifted and flexed, resolving itself as a particularly gross and meaty arm covered in a thick mat of fur, and Alexander St. Roivas (much to his chagrin) became aware of the third and final thing: that is to say, the hulking, unconscious presence of a second body in his bed. His disgust was at least partially aesthetic. Catching the edge of the bed in one hand Alexander made to ease himself away from the intruder, noticing as he moved that he was both completely unclothed and sore in certain suggestive places. “Blasphemous gods, not again,” he hissed under his breath.
The snoring mass behind him rumbled out a phlegmy sound and dropped a second arm over Alexander’s waist, dragging him back against a hairy barrel chest that was more humanoid than human. Alexander suffered himself to be moved, less out of any desire to go in that direction and more out of a desire to keep the ape from waking and finding them in this tender position. That was, until this impolite shifting pulled him back against the rest of the lummox, including a particularly warm and morning-swollen mass that made itself comfortable between the two halves of Alexander’s ass–all thoughts of subtlety flew from Alexander’s mind on the instant and he thrashed himself free with both alacrity and malice aforethought, contriving to throw on his dressing gown and cinch its sash tightly before the offending person (if such could be called a person!) could drag himself up and out of his drink-sodden, snorting coma. “Hellfire, Al, that was my nose,” Jake groaned, clutching at his blocky face with one enormous hand.
“No, Jacob,” Alexander said thinly. “I assure you, it was not your nose.”
Jake pinched his nostrils shut, momentarily bewildered. “I’m pretty sure it’s my nose, Al,” he said cautiously. “It’s right here on my face, see–”
Alexander threw up his hands. “Never mind!” Now that he was upright, he could see their clothing, scattered to the four winds and adding a certain textile presence to the indescribable mess. “Kindly do me the favor of explaining why I find you in my bed this morning? I am reasonably certain that your wages include room and board. A room of your own, even.”
A certain look of low cunning surfaced on Jake’s face, one with which Alexander was (regretfully) familiar. “Jeez, I dunno, Al,” said Jake, hauling himself upright–thank the powers below, the sheet still clung bravely to his lower half. “All’s I remember is you inviting me in, although you kinda didn’t exactly invite me, more like dragged me–”
“Yes yes thank you Jacob that will be all,” Alexander said, all in a rush.
“–and I thought, jeez, Al’s so wound up, he could really use a good hard b–”
“That will be all,” Alexander snapped, overriding whichever horrible word that was about to be.
Jake subsided, visibly pleased with himself, and scratched his furry chest. “You asked, Al.”
“Fires below preserve me from making that mistake again.” Alexander found and stepped into his slippers. “I’m for the bath, I believe. Do kindly remove yourself and your… things… from my room while I tend to my ablutions.”
“Them blooshuns of yours, Al,” Jacob said, almost fondly, and without further ado he flung the covers back and presented Alexander with more of himself than Alexander was currently interested in seeing. Alexander spun on his heel and hurried away.
Jake was absent from Alexander’s littered rooms when he returned, at least. Jake’s own clothing was gone, and Alexander’s discarded things had been put in the hamper; when he wasn’t being a pain in Alexander’s neck (or, indeed, in other places on Alexander’s person) Jake was not a terrible manservant. Oh, he couldn’t cook–and he didn’t clean–and he was illiterate, ignorant, and credulous–and he dressed like the dock-ape that he’d once been and mocked Alexander’s fine manners and personal sense of style–and he guzzled Alexander’s whisky like it was water and tended to put his hands on Alexander whenever Alexander’s inhibitions were low–but he did, occasionally, make himself useful. Alexander’s vocation was not always simply scholarly, after all!
Alexander sighed and once again set about shuffling through his massive library. He knew it to likely be futile–if the answer existed anywhere, it was here, but every room, every surface in his home was stacked head-high with books, and even Alexander’s mighty intellect could not encompass the text of every last one. Still, he could not sit by and do nothing. The very fate of the world likely hung in the balance! Even for a scholar and occasional warrior of the occult like Alexander St. Roivas, upon whom hinged the fate of the world nearly every Tuesday, it was a grim and dreadful possibility.
A lead-footed thudding in the hallway outside announced Jake’s return well in advance of the actual fellow. A hangdog Jake (dressed now, fortunately) backed into Alexander’s study with an absurdly delicate tray clamped in his meaty paws. “You oughta try and eat something, Al,” Jake wheedled, putting the tray down on the one empty spot in the center of Alexander’s desk.
Alexander cast a weary eye over the contents of the tray. Blackened toast lumped high with marmalade, sausages in a disturbingly pink shade of trichinosis, and the foul ditchwater coffee that Jake loved and Alexander was tempted to exorcise the demons from–no, Jake couldn’t cook, but it certainly didn’t stop the man from trying, more’s the pity. Still, he hadn’t eaten since… yesterday, was it? Alexander, resigned to his fate, selected a slightly-less-burnt piece of toast and nibbled on it, his nostrils flaring at the powerful bite of bitter orange. “Thank you, Jacob,” he said, passing a hand over the book still open on his desk.
His conscience eased, Jake made free with the sausages. Alexander fancied he could hear them squeal. For his part he nibbled determinedly at the toast and even went so far as to attempt a mouthful of the coffee. “A fate worse than death,” he declared it, shivering.
“Sorry, Al,” Jake mumbled around a mouthful of not-quite-dead pig. “But we ain’t got no milk for your tea and the dairy said no more credit.”
Alexander scowled. “I’m aware of that,” he said, a bit more sharply than he intended. “Perhaps if my liquor bills hadn’t tripled in the last six months–”
“Sorry, Al,” Jake said again, hunching his shoulders.
“No, Jacob, it’s all right,” Alexander said. Taking off his spectacles he rubbed a hand down his face. “It isn’t your fault. Well. Not entirely, at any rate. It’s been a lean month–whatever this terrific psychic pressure betokens, it’s certainly scared the usual offenders into hiding. I haven’t had a lucrative job in weeks.”
Jake considered this, finishing off his sausage and licking his fingers clean. “Things’ll pick up soon, Al,” he declared, without any real evidence to support his theory. “You’ll figure out what’s causing the problem and go smack it and things’ll all work out.”
“Mm. Yes. ‘Smack it’, as you say.” Alexander’s lips thinned. “If only it were that easy! Nameless gods, it could be any one of a thousand, thousand creeping things–I cannot simply go ‘smack’ them all!”
The look of disappointment on Jake’s face was absurdly childish, like that of a little boy first learning that his father didn’t know everything. “But… we can’t just sit here and not do nothing, right, Al?”
“In point of fact, Jacob, we can.” Alexander slapped the heavy tome, currently open on his blotter. “The answer is here–”
“You found it, Al?” Jake said eagerly, sitting forward.
“Not here, you dolt. Here.” Alexander waved one hand, indicating the rest of the house. “Somewhere in these books, in this house, the answer exists–or, if not the answer, a signpost that will point me towards it.”
Jake nodded. “So we just gotta find it.”
“I find your choice of pronouns to be suspect,” Alexander said, suddenly quite tired.
“You could do that thing,” Jake suggested, thick fingers groping at the air as he quested for words. “With the compass and the blood and all. It shows you where stuff is, right?”
“Do you think I haven’t? Great gods, Jacob, the lambskin only shows an area thirty-seven miles on a side–there is not enough blood in both our bodies to fuel anything greater! When I sate its terrible hungers and ask the compass for guidance, the device only points west, west, west–I knew that before I ever sat down!”
Jake’s heavy brow furrowed. The process of thought was visibly painful to him–indeed, it was painful to watch him make the attempt. “But it knows,” Jake said. “It can’t show you nothing, but it knows.”
“Yes, I suppose so, in a way,” Alexander said, irritated. “It still does me no good.”
“And the thing with the knife, Al, it knew too, right?”
“Yes.” Alexander sighed. “West. Always west.”
“And–” the furry ridge of Jake’s brow beetled to the point where his eyes nearly vanished “–this stuff is all magic, right, Al?”
Alexander opened his mouth, then shut it again, long enough to shake his head. “A lecture upon the difference between an inherently magical tool and one which can be used to channel my own abilities would be wasted on you, Jacob. So… let us say ‘yes’. Is there a point to all this?”
“Well, I thought–”
“There’s a turn-up for the books!”
“–I thought, you know, since everything in the house is magic, and it all wants to tell you what you want to know, why don’t you just ask it, Al?” Jake was already cringing; he knew what was coming.
Alexander’s eyes narrowed. “And precisely what do you think I have been doing, Jacob, playing tiddly-winks?” His hand shot out and snatched up a rune-edged dagger, then traded it for a compass with a small stone hung from its apex, then traded that for a feather pen stained with foul brownish fluids. “I have asked the question of every device I own, of every being which I can coerce, and of myself, over and over! If there is something I have failed to do, I’d like for you to tell me what that is!”
“Well… ask, Al,” Jake said. He cleared his throat with a phlegm-laden rumble–one of Alexander’s sardonic eyebrows developed a definite twitch–and spat neatly into the palm of one hand. “You just gotta say ‘where’s the answer’,” Jake said, glancing down at his spit-smeared palm, “and–”
He smacked the spit with the first two fingers of his other hand. Alexander had just enough time to emit a pained yelp as the spit flew, nearly landing in Jake’s eye (and it would serve him right) before Jake dodged and let it fly behind him. “Jacob,” Alexander said icily, “if you have just spat by proxy on one of my irreplaceable books–!”
“Yeah, Al,” Jake said, scrambling out of his chair, hunting for his spit. Alexander remained where he was, frozen to his seat with outrage and disgust. Jake’s rump waggled obscenely in the air as he pawed through one of the stacks of books–Alexander was on the verge of planting his letter opener in the moon-round insult when Jake stood up and turned around, clutching a book to his chest. “This one, Al,” Jake said, offering it to him, his eyes wide with credulous belief.
“Oh. Wonderful. The Ni’kodaemon Maleficarum. One of seven tomes known to have been recovered from the first library at Londinium after it was sucked down into the bowels of Hell, stolen by my great-great-grandfather when its former owner could not stop gibbering in insane terror long enough to sell it to him at any price, and it is now graced by a gobbet of your spittle.” Alexander rubbed his eyes, trying to catch hold of his temper. “I would skin you alive for enough leather to rebind the book, but I fear that it would find your hide insulting.”
Jake let the words roll right off him, continuing to offer the book to Alexander until Alexander relented and took it, mostly to get it out of Jake’s impious hands. He’d already consulted the Maleficarum and found nothing of use in it. Still, Jake’s childishly-trusting eyes were on him–Alexander harrumphed and gentled the book open once more, fearing that if he did not, Jake might decide to spit on something else.
“It’s just that you said that blood and spit and stuff are important for magic and all, Al,” Jake said after a moment, pleading now. “You use that stuff all the time.”
“Yes, Jacob,” said Alexander, turning a page. “My blood. My spit. Used sparingly, with full knowledge of the consequences, following ancient and well-tested rituals. I would not slice open my hand and fling blood everywhere on the off-chance that something magical might happen–I might as well dance with the chaos at the heart of the universe!”
Jake fidgeted for a moment before bursting out with “But we’ve gotta try something, Al! It’s been a week and we ain’t no closer to finding out what the problem is! You don’t sleep and you ain’t eatin’–”
“Jacob–” Alexander broke off there, clutching at his temples. “Would you be so kind as to fetch me two aspirin and some water?” he asked through gritted teeth. “And then you might take the breakfast things back down to the kitchen. And kindly remain there.”
Cowed, Jake took a step back. “All’s I’m saying–”
“Go,” Alexander snapped, and Jake went.
Alexander scowled down at the book without making a move to take it. “Did you spit on it?” he demanded to know. Jake shifted from one foot to the other. Alexander’s scowl sharpened. “It is a simple question, Jacob. Did–you–spit–on–it?”
“Not on it,” Jake said, his ears afire with embarrassment. “Not directly.”
“Stop spitting on my books at once!” Alexander slumped back in his chair. “Nameless gods, such things you make me say. Are you an animal? Is that it?”
“It’s only a little spit,” Jake said, as if that mattered. “You ought to at least look, Al!”
“If, and only if, you swear on your name–no, not your name, on your beloved potency–to stop spitting on my books.”
“I swear, Al,” said Jake, looking injured. “I figure if it ain’t worked by now, it ain’t gonna.”
Alexander paused in the process of liberating the Lybarro Fistandantalusia from Jake. “Congratulations, Jacob. That was actually something close to a thought process. Tell me, does your head hurt now?”
“Naw,” Jake said, fitting himself gingerly into the chair on the other side of Alexander’s desk. “Should it?”
“If there were any justice in this world,” Alexander muttered to himself. The Lybarro was, at least, one of the less valuable books in Alexander’s makeshift library, being as it was a copy of a copy of an ancient Spanish scholar’s maunderings on every last mystical ritual that he could glean from conversations with other, more adept scholars; Alexander had no doubt that fully half of the book’s contents were nothing more than the inventions of the Spaniard’s diseased mind. Still, it was worth a try, if only because it would make Jake stop coating the rowhouse in a fine mist of credulous spittle.
It was unsurprising that the book should reference the Ni’kodaemon Maleficarum, an altogether more worthy tome. The Spaniard had cribbed his references from far and wide. Still, it gave Alexander a bit of a jolt–not that it should have, he hastened to inform himself, as most of the books in the house related to each other in some unclean way or another. “Ridiculous,” he muttered under his breath, turning the page.
“Why’s that, Al?”
Alexander’s head jerked up. In his fierce concentration he had entirely forgotten Jake’s presence. “Even if there is a portal into the Ni’kos dimension on this continent,” he said, “the summoning spell requires the willing sacrifice of a hundred and seventy-seven human souls. A hundred and seventy-seven! Jacob, I know of every nickel-and-dime cult in this accursed country with more than six members–I would sense a hundred and seventy-seven if they were crouched gibbering on the backside of the moon. No one and nothing on this earth or any other has the power to hide so many cultists from me.”
“Oh.” Jake subsided, then rallied. “Not even–”
Alexander sighed. “Not even your so-called ‘Devil’ himself, no.”
“Necromantic cults are a disease of the mind,” Alexander proclaimed, warming to his subject despite himself. “Even if they practice no magic, engage in no rituals, the very act of learning enough to declare themselves ‘willing’ would warp their minds and stain the very aether around them. Any diabolist worth his salt–ha, his salt–would sense that warping. And I, Jacob, am one of the foremost diabolists of my age!”
Jake fiddled with one of the buttons on his shirt, crestfallen. “Maybe they didn’t know what they were agreeing to, Al. Maybe it’s just one guy who knows and the rest of ’em are all in the dark.”
“It can’t be done!” Alexander slapped the Lybarro open in front of himself, flicking rapidly through the pages. “Ritual magic is an exacting craft, and a misled sacrifice is not truly a willing sacrifice, therefore useless. Allow me to translate freely from the Spanish–” He broke off there. “Ridiculous,” he said evenly, closing the Lybarro and opening the Maleficarum instead. “Allow me instead to translate freely from the original Lepontic.” He cleared his throat, letting his eyes drift down the page. “‘To the brink from afar let two hundred less twenty and three be brought of their own free will, and let them then be cast shrieking as one into the depths, while such incantations as I have set down here are spoken’–” He paused, narrowing his eyes at the book.
Jake, failing to notice, merely looked woebegone. “I guess you’re right, Al. Lemme take the book back downstairs–”
“No,” Alexander said, his voice nearly sharp enough to cut. “Blast it, my Lepontic is so rusty, but I’m sure that’s right.” Closing his eyes he strained his fine mind to the utmost, his hands snapping shut into fists. “Great gods,” he said, after a tense silence lasting nearly a minute.
“What?” Jake said, eyes wide in credulous horror. “What is it, Al?”
“The ritual only demands that they be brought of their own free will, not that they consent to their sacrifice. Of course, they would have to be induced to merrily travel together to a gorge in the middle of nowhere before being flung over all at once, which would be… problematic at best–no. No.” Mind afire, Alexander slapped the edge of his desk, making the bizarre tools scattered over its surface jump and dance. “It wouldn’t be problematic at all, would it…” His voice trailed off.
Jake waited for several seconds before hopelessly asking, “Would it?”
“Blast this accursed modern age!” Alexander cried, leaping to his feet with such vehemence that his desk chair hurtled back to crash against the wall. “Why did I not see it before–what foul mind could conceive of such a–Jacob! My hat and stick! No, first: my atlas!”
Insensible to Jake’s efforts Alexander bent his attention to the map of the United States that occupied fully nine-tenths of his desk. “Jacob, my magnifying glass,” he said, holding out a hand without looking away from the minuscule type.
After a few moments of frantic rattling Jake’s head popped up above the surface of the desk. “Here, Al,” Jake said, reaching up to put the glass in Alexander’s outstretched, groping hand. With a vague grunt of acknowledgment Alexander turned his attention to the map once more; Jake huffed out a breath and dropped again.
Ten minutes passed in a red-eyed fury. Muttering imprecations under his breath Alexander perused the map in excruciating detail, his fingers brushing across the slick paper, his magnifying glass never far behind; Jake tenderly transferred his armload of discarded tools onto the battered and high-heaped sideboard before edging back in Alexander’s direction. “What is it, Al?” he asked, afraid to raise his voice above a whisper.
“Mm,” said Alexander, his fine brows drawn down in a fierce scowl of their own. Jake swallowed and lowered himself back into his usual chair. Alexander’s muttering took on a profane and somewhat Coptic edge; his fingers halted, pressed to the paper. “Nameless gods,” he said, his fingers gone numb. “They knew–”
“What?” Jake dared to ask.
“The Black Canyon,” Alexander said, seized with an appropriately black hilarity. “Someone knew.”
“But… but I been there, Al,” Jake said hopelessly. “Sure, it’s deep and all, but it’s just a canyon… ain’t it?”
Alexander dismissed this with a flick of his fingers. “Oh, certainly it’s merely a canyon under most circumstances. It would require exactly the sacrifice of which I speak to make it anything more.” His hand curled into a fist atop the printed image of Colorado. “Great gods, the audacity of it–but such blasphemous reward awaits the audacious man!”
“Al, I got no idea what you’re talking about,” Jake wailed.
“What? Ah. Yes. Your pardon. It’s so simple, so horribly simple, that I am amazed that no one has tried before now–the ritual requires that a hundred and seventy-seven willing travelers be flung into the gorge as one, correct?”
“That’s what you said, Al.”
“How would you do it, Jacob? How would you arrange for such a thing to happen?”
Jake’s blank, sweating face was answer enough. “I dunno, Al–”
“Because it’s simple,” Alexander said, letting his fingers trace lovingly over the etching of the canyon. “All you would need to do is destroy this bridge.”
“This railway bridge,” Alexander clarified, nearly crooning it. As utter a horror as a gateway to the Ni’kos would be, his oft-besmirched St. Roivas soul was beguiled by the cleverness, the clarity, the pure evil of the mind behind the plan–“Destroy this railway bridge and send a passenger train full of unwary travelers hurtling into the depths!”
Jake burst into Alexander’s study, breathing hard, clutching a sheaf of sweat-blotched papers in his hand. “I got ’em, Al,” he wheezed, spilling the timetables across the face of the open atlas. “The guy at the counter said we gotta go to Boston to catch a cross-country train, like you said.”
The heavy oaken tripod was already set up atop the atlas, the stone plumb which hung from its apex gently swinging. Alexander snatched up the timetables and shuffled through them, rapidly sorting them into two piles. “Thank you, Jacob,” he said, his voice crisp. “While I look through these, fetch me my valise and then see about packing bags for the both of us. When you have caught your breath, of course.”
“OK, Al,” Jake said, collapsing into his chair like a gasping landslide. “Think we’ll be able to beat this guy to the canyon?”
Alexander’s smile was wintry. “No.”
“Even if we could, it would not be enough,” said Alexander, laying out six timetables in a loose approximation of a circle. “The evil begins long beforehand, Jacob. What if there are more than a hundred and seventy-seven passengers onboard the train? What then?”
Jake’s brow creased in thought. “He can’t have extra, right, Al? ‘Cause magic ain’t like that. You said so. No extra couple of bodies for good measure or nothing.”
“That is correct.”
“So–” Jake fidgeted “–I guess he’d have to get rid of the others somehow. Put ’em off the train, maybe.”
Alexander snorted. “Kill them, you mean. Where is my damned knife–” The obsidian blade which he fetched out of a drawer could only loosely be defined as a ‘knife’, being a knapped bit of black stone with one end wrapped in stained deerhide. The sharpest blade Alexander owned, it radiated an unfocused, unaligned power much like a lantern radiated light; Jake, who was as deaf to power as he was to tone and manners, was nonetheless visibly discomfited by the knife’s physical presence. Alexander resolved some day to figure out whether Jake’s discomfort was psychic in origin or simply superstitious, then wrapped his hand about the blade and slashed open his palm with a wince and a silent snarl.
Jake winced right along with him, but several months in Alexander’s employ had taught the man not to protest out loud, if nothing else. Alexander daubed a bit of blood on each of the six timetables, then caught the stone plumb in his still-bleeding hand; on the instant there came a snap and a flash and a whiff of ozone, setting Alexander back on his heels with his teeth gritted. “Like calls to like,” he rasped, stilling the pendulum in the center of the tripod before letting it go.
“I thought you tried all that stuff, Al,” Jake said. The stained pendulum hitched, once. Jake watched it, his eyes full of dread.
“I did.” Alexander bound his hand in his handkerchief, his own eyes locked on the pendulum in anticipation. “The difference is that now I have a much clearer question to ask.”
When finally the pendulum began to swing, it did so with a ponderousness–a heaviness–that entirely belied its size. In reality it was a chunk of stone about the size and heft of Alexander’s pocket-knife, hung from a watch-chain; symbolically it was a boulder, suspended in mid-air by a chain as thick as a man’s thigh. It seemed to shift the air in the room with it as it went; Jake, half-hypnotized by the swinging pendulum, rocked back and forth in his chair as if he were being dragged along behind it. Alexander might have been amused, save that he was struggling not to do the same. Eventually the pendulum settled into a slow, looping arc that passed over all six timetables in turn. “It will be a moment,” Alexander said. “You might fetch me my valise while you wait.”
Jake snapped out of his light daze, shaking himself like a dog. “Right, Al.” He heaved himself out of his chair and turned to go; the pendulum swept by behind Jake and staggered him, sending him reeling a step or two to the left. Jake shuddered, hunched his shoulders, and hurried out of the room before the pendulum could switch back across him.
By the time Jake returned, Alexander’s battered valise in hand, the pendulum’s natural swing had degraded into a much less natural six-pointed star, jerking from the spot of blood on one timetable to the next, and the next. The sense of heaviness had faded; instead the pendulum whipped the air around it with each jerk, lashing at Alexander’s face and forcing him to squint. The papers pinned to the wall behind him ruffled. And still he hung grimly on, concentrating through the vicious headache even as the backlash flung his hair into his eyes–with no warning the pendulum lunged for one of the timetables and stuck there, quivering, jerking at the chain until it seemed it must break free. For a moment, all was silent. “I ain’t never gonna get used to that,” Jake declared.
“How good of you to say so,” Alexander said absently, picking up the indicated timetable. The eerie connection broke on the instant, the pendulum falling free. He knew a moment of triumph–a clear answer to his question!–and then brushed it aside. “So now I know which train,” Alexander said, brandishing the blood-smeared timetable. “All we need to know is when next it departs–”
“Can’t you do it without bleedin’ on anything else?” Jake burst out. “I mean, it’s the devil to clean up after, and I don’t like it none when you bleed, Al.”
Alexander blinked at Jake, his expression almost mild. “Well, Jacob, if you insist, I suppose I could try,” he said. He flipped open the timetable and ran his eyes down the column. “Thursday morning, ten-fourteen AM,” he said, snapping the timetable shut. “I do so love an easy divination.”
Jake’s mouth opened and shut a few times. “You’re makin’ fun of me, Al.”
“Yes, and?” Alexander held out his hand. “My valise, please. And you might see to packing. We’ve a train to catch!”
The train station to which the pendulum had led them was jammed to the rafters with fools. Even had there not been a threat upon their very lives and immortal souls, the train’s passengers would still be leaving civilization for uncouth pastures, which made them fools in Alexander’s books; of course, he was planning to do the same, which rankled. “Feel free to take all the time you like, Jacob,” he said. “It isn’t as if the fate of the world depends on us, as usual.”
Jake finished prying his fingers free of the Model T’s dash. “Uh,” he said, and then swallowed. His face was a greeny, cheesy color.
Alexander shut his eyes in exasperation. “Perhaps some fresh air?”
There was little enough fresh air to be had, this close to a railway station–this close to Boston–but Jake rallied once he was out of the car (which he treated with the same dread as any of Alexander’s other dire tools). “So what’s the plan, Al?”
“The plan, as you put it, is this.” Alexander fished about in his jacket and fetched forth a small red glasses-case. “I dare not go in there, Jacob, not blindly. A plan of this magnitude–of this horror!–could only be the work of one of a handful of blighted souls, and–” here he cleared his throat “–I am personally known to most of them through one channel or another. If I am seen, the absolute best that we could hope for is a postponement of the inevitable; the worst, of course, is that he and I will erupt into a pitched duel in the middle of the station, killing hundreds and annoying me to no end.”
“That does sound pretty bad, Al.” Jake squinted at the glasses-case.
“So! It seems I must rely on you to purchase our tickets, and also to reconnoiter–ah, your pardon–to look around in a stealthy manner. However, I am relatively certain that our nefarious opponent will not simply waltz in undisguised carrying a large sign that says BY THE BY I INTEND TO KILL YOU ALL, so I will need to ask you to wear these.” Alexander flicked open the case, revealing a pair of round wire-framed spectacles.
Jake moved to take them, already cringing–they were delicate little things, and he was quite accustomed to being scolded for touching Alexander’s delicate things–and thus he squawked and froze when Alexander shoved the entire case into his hands. Alexander took advantage of this momentary delay to slip around behind Jake. “The right lens is plain glass,” he said, watching Jake gingerly pick the glasses from the case and shake their ear-pieces out. “The left lens is enchanted to see through all manner of magical disguises, camouflage, and invisibility–” and he grabbed the back of Jake’s neck before Jake could turn around. “No,” said Alexander. “Do not look at me while wearing them.”
“Why not, Al?” said Jake, the muscle of his neck flexing under Alexander’s iron fingers. The spectacles looked absurd on his broad and rough-hewn face, like dollhouse miniatures. “You wearin’ a disguise or somethin’? What would I see?”
“More than you’d like, I assure you,” Alexander said frostily. “Try not to pay attention to the left lens unless you need to. You will see many fluttering things and puffs of smoke. They’re harmless.” Usually, he did not add, out of a desire to spare both Jake and himself the ensuing bout of nerves. “Ignore them.”
“Yeah, Al, I see ’em!” said Jake, pointing at the sky above the station. “Weird how those birds ain’t there to one eye and all.”
“‘Birds’. Yes.” Alexander harrumphed again. “What you are looking for is a passenger who looks different through the two lenses. If you find one, memorize what he looks like through both lenses, then purchase us a roomette on the sleeping car and return here.” Jake carefully shut the little glasses-case and held it up over his shoulder. Alexander took it. “If you don’t find such a passenger, there are… other options.”
Jake fumbled with the tiny spectacles for a moment, then nodded. “Got it, Al. I’ll be back soon.”
“Try to be somewhat discreet,” Alexander told Jake’s retreating back.
“You worry too much, Al.”
“On the contrary, Jacob, I don’t know that it’s possible to worry ‘too much’ when it comes to you.” Alexander took refuge behind the Model T as Jake headed for the station.
Jake snatched the glasses off his face without further ado. “They’re off!” he said. “Aw, man, Al, damndest thing I ever seen–”
“Really, Jacob? The damndest?” Alexander rolled his eyes skywards. “I shudder to think what could be more damned than some of the things I have shown you.”
“Well, OK, not the damndest, Al, but… but the damndest, I swear!” Jake rounded the back of the car with ungainly enthusiasm and hunkered down by Alexander’s side, pushing the smudged glasses into Alexander’s hands. “So I go in there and everything’s busy and there are all these little bits of ash in the air or something, only they’re not really there, ’cause I couldn’t see them except with my left eye, like you said–”
“The point, Jacob?” Fetching his handkerchief from his sleeve, Alexander huffed on the lenses before buffing them clean.
“Anyway, I looked around like you said and I was real sneaky about it, but I don’t think I needed to be, because he was right there–” Jake broke off there and snatched off his battered flat cap, running one blocky hand through his curls. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it, Al, and it was kinda creepy, I don’t mind tellin’ you.”
“You don’t mind telling me? How nice. What was it?”
Jake jammed his cap back onto his head. “So there’s this bearded guy on the platform, looks like a teacher or something, right? And he’s got a whole class with him, buncha little kids in uniforms? Only I look with my left eye, like you said, and outta my left eye they’re not kids at all, they’re some kinda–” Jake hesitated and flapped his hands, physically groping for the proper words, generally a useless endeavor “–some kinda stumpy clay dolls, all dressed up in fancy clothes.”
Alexander knew a moment of triumph that tasted like wine on his tongue. Of course, he had trusted his divinations, but the confirmation of his suspicions was exalting. “Magical constructs! That’s most certainly our offender, then–golems would allow him enough manpower to control the train without affecting the headcount one way or another.”
“Yeah, Al, that’s what I thought!”
“I’m certain it was,” Alexander said with a minimum of irony. “So, the teacher is our man, then. Tell me what he looked like.”
“Well, he kinda looked the same either way, but outta the left lens he was wearin’ this big tall hat, like–” Jake waved one hapless hand about a foot over the top of his head, freezing the blood in Alexander’s very veins. “Like that president, you know?”
“Abraham Lincoln,” Alexander clarified, unable even in the teeth of his horror to avoid attempting to educate Jake. He nearly fumbled the glasses trying to put them back in their case. “What else? What about his face?”
“I couldn’t really see so much of it ’cause of the beard and the hat’s brim and all, but I think–” Jake hesitated “–I think he was wearin’ an eyepatch or something, Al.”
Alexander closed the glasses-case with absurd care. “Of course he was,” he said, mostly to himself. “Of course he was.”
“You know this guy, Al?”
Alexander did not answer the charge right away; instead he shut his eyes and breathed deeply until the nausea passed. “Lyon,” he breathed, managing to charge the name with all of the considerable venom in his possession. As if it were a talisman, it righted him. “To say that I ‘know’ him is to gravely understate the case, Jacob,” Alexander said, opening his eyes. “Open the trunk, please. You’ll find a wheeled chair and a picnic basket in it. I shall require both.”
Jake glanced over his shoulder at the trunk, but–proving that he could be taught, after a fashion–declined to ask. Instead he heaved himself to his feet and went to negotiate with the trunk; Alexander sat himself on the car’s running-board and struggled to master his roiling emotions. Herve Lyon! Genius and madman both, much like Alexander himself, but with an intellect of which even Alexander needs must profess himself jealous. A worthy foe indeed, one wholly capable of summoning and binding the Ni’kos–Alexander’s dreadful musings were interrupted when one wheel of the chair bumped up against his foot. A wicker basket sat in the chair’s seat. “Here y’ go, Al,” Jake said, hunkering down again.
“Thank you, Jacob.” Alexander fetched down the basket and flipped open its lid. From within he produced a number of mundane objects: a large pair of smoked glasses, a plaid scarf and lap-robe, a tweed fedora quite unlike his neat homburg, and, last of all, an unopened bottle of whisky. Jake, who had been attending to this unpacking with baffled curiosity, perked up considerably at this last, and Alexander found it prudent to keep the whisky close at hand.
Jake picked up the glasses, frowned at them, and put them down before Alexander could tell him to. “What’s all this stuff for, Al? A disguise?”
“Indeed, a disguise,” Alexander said. Producing his pocket-knife, he broke the seals on the whisky bottle and levered out the cork.
Jake wet his lips. “That part of it?”
“Yes, Jacob.” The smell of good Irish whisky wafted between them. “A terrible waste,” Alexander muttered; steeling himself, he upended the bottle and gulped down a good quarter of its contents.
“Cripes, Al!” Jake made a grab for the bottle, only stopping himself at the last second. “You can’t just put that stuff down like that, it’ll knock you on your ass!”
Alexander lowered the bottle and dragged the back of his hand over his lips. “That, Jacob, is the idea,” he said, his voice hoarse. “If Lyon should catch even the barest whisper of my presence, I shudder to think of what he might do–and I dare not disguise myself via magical means. Might as well douse myself in perfume and light myself on fire! Therefore, it seems I must disguise my intentions the old-fashioned way–” and he upended the bottle once more. The stuff burned his throat and roiled in his gut like liquid fire.
“So… what, Al? You’re gonna get stinkin’ drunk and put on all this stuff and make me wheel you onto the train? Is that it?”
The initial onrush of the whisky hit Alexander like a freight train, making him reel on the running-board. “Precisely,” he said, shuddering. “Nameless gods, what a bite–but I’d like to see even the great Professor Lyon detect my thoughts underneath the veil of this stuff! If I am too drunk even to know my own mind, I dare him to do any better!” Grimly intent, he put down another acid slug of the stuff. To use good whisky as a mere tool offended Alexander deeply, but he hadn’t had anything worse on hand–“If anyone asks about the stink, you may tell them that I am addicted to patent medicines,” he said, his voice tart.
“OK, Al,” Jake said unhappily. “Only… can I have a swallow before it’s all gone? For good luck? ‘Cause I’ll be doing all the work, looks like.”
Alexander could sense drunkenness looming in the offing. Soon it would overwhelm him–he had only moments. “Drink the rest and put the bottle and basket back in the trunk,” he instructed Jake, pushing the mostly-empty bottle into Jake’s eager hand. “Cover me as best you can and have a porter help you.”
“Mm-hmm,” Jake said around the mouth of the bottle. “Mm-hm-hmm.”
Grasping the last few seconds available to him, Alexander swung himself into the chair’s seat. He was already staggering, all sensation in his hands and feet lost, the numbness traveling up along his arms and legs–he swept off his homburg and jammed the fedora onto his head, fumbled the smoked glasses onto his nose, and wound the scarf around his throat and face. He was just flicking out the lap-rug when the whisky descended upon him like an avalanche. Deeply dizzy, he fell forward and only barely caught himself, with a choking wheeze of laughter at finding his nose so close to his knees; then he fell backward, into the chair, and lost himself in hilarious contemplation of the world.
Jake’s voice was as loud as thunder whenever he had cause to speak. When Jake was wrestling the wheeled chair up the station’s steps and cursing under his breath, or when Jake was soliciting the aid of a porter to carry their valises while he dealt with the chair, or when Jake was explaining to a horrified young woman that Al was a good guy, really, but he was sick as anything and needed a lot of medicine to stand it–all these things assaulted Alexander’s ears like gunfire.
A few cars behind them, a crowd of small boys in private-school uniforms swarmed about their harried teacher, nearly pushing each other under the wheels of the train in their enthusiasm. Alexander took in the sight in the same spirit as he took in everything else, amused beyond words at their blue knee-breeches and their red school ties, each boy disheveled in his own unique way. Most of them wore little school caps; one boy had lost his, however, as boys were wont to do. Their teacher would have his hands full on this trip, certainly–
For some reason this thought filled Alexander with a dim sense of foreboding, and he was still pursuing its cause when another wave of whisky surged forward and took hold. The world around Alexander faded to nothing. His chin dropped to his chest. After a moment, he began, with an unseemly enthusiasm, to snore.
He had been laid out on the bottom bunk of a roomette. Someone had taken off his shoes, unfastened his cuffs, and put a damp cloth on his forehead; that same someone lurked beside the bunk even now, taking up almost every square inch of the tiny room whether he meant to or not. Jake sat huddled beside Alexander, morosely chafing one of Alexander’s wrists. Outside, it had grown dark.
“Jacob,” Alexander said, his voice weak and hoarse.
“Al!” The relief that dawned on Jake’s face might almost have been heartwarming, had he not crushed Alexander’s hand in both of his at the same time. “Cripes, Al, I didn’t think you were never gonna come out of it–”
“In my valise,” Alexander croaked, pulling his hand free of Jake’s grip before anything broke. “Gray candles. In my valise. Light one, please.”
Jake drew back, already casting about. Alexander shut his eyes and concentrated with all his significant might on the cool cloth draped over his forehead, for if he allowed himself to realize how very ill he felt, he would shortly be ill. The roar of the train strove to drown out every other noise, nearly muting the clatter of Jake’s search; still, shortly a whiff of sulphur smote Alexander’s nostrils and a certain lethargy of thought descended upon him. “Candle’s lit, Al,” Jake said.
“Oh, good,” Alexander said, opening his eyes again. A fat candle sat on the tiny trestle table, protected by an ordinary glass chimney; its nauseous pinkish-gray wax burned an insalubrious dirty orange. “If you’ll kindly move away from the wash-basin, Jacob, I intend to be heartily sick.”
“I think I should be more worried if you did like it, Jacob.” Alexander gingerly levered himself into a sitting position, a glass of water caught in one trembling hand. “Believe me when I say that you don’t want to know what those candles are made from.”
Jake flapped both hands at Alexander in a horrified warding gesture. “I believe you, Al! Don’t tell me!”
“In any case, we need to keep one of those candles burning at all times, I’m afraid. It will serve to camouflage the pattern of my thoughts from all but the most determined of scrying.”
“Well, if we gotta,” Jake said, with another sideways glance. “But that don’t mean I gotta like it any. So… what do we do now?”
“Now? We wait.” The train’s tapwater was metallic and awful, but Alexander forced down another swallow. “Although I know very well that Lyon is making a try for the Ni’kos, I have no proof, and without proof it would be foolhardy to act.”
“But he’s got those little clay things–”
“So?” Alexander drained his glass. “There is no rule against the possession of magical automata. I have availed myself of them in the past, and doubtless I shall do so again in the future–still, they are simple-minded creatures, much like yourself, and thus I generally consider them more trouble than they are worth.”
Heedless of the insult, Jake said, “But if he ain’t up to no good, why’s he got them on the train at all?”
“Transporting them for sale in San Francisco? Who knows? Perhaps he simply doesn’t want to carry his own baggage.”
“Calm yourself, Jacob.” Alexander leaned forward and fetched himself another glass of water–the roomette was so small that he could reach the wash-basin from his bunk. “The summoning will require a significant amount of preparation on his part. We’ll have ample time to thwart his intentions.”
“Well… OK, Al, if you say so.”
“I do.” Abruptly the rigors of the day were altogether too much for Alexander; he emptied his second glass of water, put the glass in the tiny basin, and fell back onto his bed. “For now, Jacob, let us get some rest. We’ll need all our strength in the days to come.”
Out of arguments (or merely sulking) Jake bent forward to fumble with the laces of his boots. Alexander paid little enough attention to the man until Jake’s absurd bulk hit the bunk above his head–the bunk’s hinges groaned, the mattress bowing alarmingly under Jake’s weight. Alexander tensed, preparing to fling himself onto the floor should Jake come crashing down. “This is kinda nice, Al,” Jake said, shifting about in his bunk and making it groan again. “Like bein’ in a hammock on board ship, you know? Only I ain’t gotta get up tomorrow and–” here he yawned hugely “–pump water outta the bilge…”
Alexander eased himself out of his own bunk. “… perhaps you ought to take the lower bunk, Jacob.”
“Nah, that’s OK, Al! You can have the lower bunk, I don’t mind climbin’ up here!”
“No, it’s–never mind.” Shaking his head Alexander changed into his pajamas, doing his best to ignore the suspended ape behind him. His head was still spinning, both from the residual alcohol and the foul gray smoke of the candle–a necessary evil, in every sense of the word. Undressing himself therefore required more of his attention than usual, his normally-precise fingers fumbling with the buttons.
By the time Alexander turned out the lights, he was exhausted in both body and mind, hardly looking forward to a night spent under the baleful glare of the candle–Jake’s eyes were two glittering, watchful pinpoints in the dark, giving Alexander an unpleasant jolt as he turned around. “G’night, Al,” Jake said, his voice strangely hopeful.
“Good night, Jacob.” Alexander settled himself into the lower bunk, taking great pains not to disturb his poor head any more than necessary.
All around them, the train rumbled on. Jake was quiet for a good five minutes before he said, “Hey, Al?”
“Mm? What is it, Jacob?”
“Who is this guy, anyway? I thought you were gonna blow up for sure when I told you about the eyepatch.”
Alexander sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d be content if I told you he was an old acquaintance.”
“Naw, probably not. That didn’t look like no acquaintance to me.”
By the candle’s dirty light Alexander could see the bulge in the mattress quite clearly, as well as one of Jake’s hairy elbows, poking out beyond the edge of the narrow bunk. “I do not know what he is now, but many years ago he was a professor at Arkadian University–”
“–ain’t that where you went to school, Al?”
“For a year or so, yes, before I was pitched out on my ear,” Alexander said, with a bitter laugh. “Fools all, unable to see beyond their own myopic view of the world–but, ahem, that is perhaps a story for another time. Yes, he was one of my professors then. My mentor, in fact. A brilliant man.”
Jake shifted in the bunk above him. “I ain’t never heard you admit anybody was smart before, Al.”
“Very few people in this world are smarter than I am, Jacob. He is one of them.”
“Oh,” said Jake, awed.
“However, due to the demands of his brilliance, he was… unbalanced. Perhaps even sociopathic–” Alexander broke off there. “Or perhaps not,” he said, discomfited. “So many men in my profession are possessed of… odd manias, I suppose. Unusual fixations. In later years I came to believe that his interest in me was not… wholly intellectual.”
It took Jake a minute or so to work through this conundrum, but once he had, he craned over the edge of his bunk to stare down at Alexander, scandalized. “You mean he wanted to get in your pants?”
“That, or he intended to offer me in sacrifice to some eldritch being or another,” Alexander said, absolutely refusing to shift uncomfortably under Jake’s scrutiny. “It’s all much the same. … go to sleep, Jacob.”
“It ain’t the same, Al,” Jake said with some horror, but he fell back onto his bunk.
Alexander snapped out of sleep at his customary hour the next morning, mildly bemused by the unfamiliar roar of the train all around him. Above him Jake slept on, his buzzsaw snores nearly as loud as the train itself.
Gingerly Alexander picked his way out of his bunk. The last of his drunkenness had passed off in the night, leaving him with a foul mouth and a sharp headache to remember it by. No matter, he would survive. Sparing a single, cool glance for Jake’s bundled form, Alexander fetched a new candle from his valise and lit it from the guttering remains of the old; it was no more attractive during the daytime, although at least the dirty flame was harder to see. Alexander replaced the glass chimney and carefully stowed the remains of the first candle in a box in his valise. “Faugh, what a stench,” he muttered under his breath before turning his attention to his toilette.
By the time he had cleaned and shaved himself as best he could, Jake was stirring, his snores replaced by thick, unintelligible noises. Alexander (who was quite used to the racket) merely hurried into his clothes before Jake could wake up enough to watch him do so. His timing was, as usual, impeccable; he was perfecting the knot of his tie before Jake managed to pry one eye open. “Morning, Al,” Jake croaked.
“Good morning, Jacob.” Alexander stowed away his few things. “Once you have bathed and dressed, I would appreciate it if you could see about fetching us some breakfast–toast and tea for me, I think. I haven’t the belly for anything more complex this morning.”
“OK, Al.” Jake screwed his fists into his eye sockets, then scrambled down from the upper bunk with something less than perfect grace. As was Jake’s habit when he was not invading Alexander’s bed, he’d slept in his clothes, wrinkling them beyond repair. (No amount of remonstrance on Alexander’s part could make Jake wear pajamas, as the concept of clothing that existed solely to sleep in was lost on Jake.) “You sure you don’t wanna go to the dining car?” Jake asked, wrinkling his nose. “I mean, it stinks in here.”
Alexander smoothed the front of his waistcoat, as if he could somehow make up for Jake’s lack of couth by adding an extra helping of couth to his own wardrobe. “Would that I could, Jacob,” he said. “Alas, I daren’t leave the ensorcelment of the candle.”
“So, what, you gotta stay in here with that awful thing all the time?”
“That’s the long and short of it, yes. Also, I intend to maintain the fiction that I am deathly ill, and I can’t precisely do that if I’m gallivanting about the train, now, can I?” In order to get out of Jake’s way, Alexander retired to his bunk once more, resigning himself to mangling the pleats of his trousers. “So, breakfast, when you can, Jacob.”
“Got it, Al.” Jake dragged his shirt off over his head, and Alexander hastily averted his eyes.
“Nameless gods preserve me,” Alexander said, with a delicate shudder. “Water for me, then, I think.”
Jake put the tray down on the little table. Alexander caught the candle in one hand, just to be safe–Jake wasn’t clumsy, precisely, but he knew precision only to nod to. Once the tray was settled, Alexander let go of the candle and selected a piece of dry toast from the pile of food. “Tell me what you saw on the way to the dining car,” he commanded.
“Nothing spooky, anyway,” said Jake, folding an entire strip of bacon into his mouth. His next few words were muffled by chewing. “Saw a couple of those kid-things, but they weren’t doing nothing, just waiting for a tray.”
“For the professor, no doubt,” Alexander said. His stomach had consented to keep the first bite of toast with only a slight nauseous roll, so he added a fine scraping of marmalade to the rest, leveling it off just so. “See if you can find out where on the train they are quartered. Once you’ve eaten, of course.”
Jake looked dubious. “I’ll try, Al.”
Alexander’s nose twitched, but he declined to mention it. “You think,” he repeated. “All right, I’ll let the logical fallacy go for now. Why do you… think that, Jacob?”
“Well, I mean, those kid-things are all over, Al! I didn’t see none of them sitting down anywhere, and I didn’t see no teacher, but I asked the porter where they were stayin’ and he said in one of the rear cars.”
“You asked the porter,” Alexander said. His headache resurged with a vengeance on the instant, and Alexander clutched at his temples. “You asked the porter.”
Jake frowned. “Well, yeah, Al.” Belatedly, after some painful thought, it dawned on Jake that he might have done something wrong. “You said I should ask somebody when we’d get to the canyon and all, so I did! And then we was already talking, so…”
“Over a few beers, unless I miss my guess.” Alexander let his hand drop. “I suppose it is my own fault for being so unspecific. We will just have to hope that word doesn’t get back to the professor. So, when will we get to the canyon?” Instead of answering, Jake hunched his shoulders. Alexander’s gaze grew sharper. “Jacob,” he said.
“… he didn’t rightly know,” Jake mumbled. “And it was only two beers, Al. I wanted to be sociable, like.”
“He said… probably three or four days.”
“Three or four days,” Alexander repeated. He could not even be disappointed, let alone surprised. “Well, that narrows it down somewhat, I suppose.”
“I’m sorry, Al–”
Alexander waved the apology away. Jake fell miserably silent, shuffling his oversized feet like the world’s largest schoolboy. “I suppose it is the best that I can hope for under these circumstances,” Alexander said, shifting his gaze to the passing scenery. “If only I could make my own inquiries–but! I cannot, and thus I must make do.” He sighed. “Thank you, Jacob.”
As much as it rankled, he was forced to depend on Jake for everything. (Alexander could only suppose that he paid the man for some reason.) Jake dutifully brought him food, drink, and news, or, rather, the lack of news. Lyon seemed content to do nothing, indeed, barely seemed to exist; his charges scampered all over the place, but engaged in nothing more than scripted boyish mischief. “It gives me the damn willies,” Jake complained, kicking at the table’s foot and staring balefully at the hateful candle. After three days the noisome stench was ingrained into everything they owned, and the miasma of tainted smoke was very real. “All’s I can see are these normal kids in those dumb shorts, but I know they ain’t real. Things that ain’t real shouldn’t oughta act real, Al.”
“Hm,” said Alexander, manifestly disinterested. He rustled the edges of his newspaper and waited, patiently, for Jake’s latest burst of loquaciousness to end.
Jake stopped glaring at the candle and glared out the window, instead. Outside the sun was setting over the plains of some state or another, hanging like a bloated fruit over the mountains in the distance. Jake cleared his throat, then slumped forward and buried his face in his crossed arms. “What I don’t get, Al, is why you don’t just let me go pound on this guy and get it over with.”
“Really,” said Alexander, letting the paper drop. “You don’t understand why I won’t let you assault a seemingly-blameless school teacher, in front of his class full of seemingly-impressionable youngsters and an entire moving train full of witnesses?”
Jake’s shoulders hunched. “You din’t hafta put it like that, Al.”
“Indeed, I might almost let you in any case,” Alexander said. The newspaper rose once more. “Save that I refuse to judge the man before he takes action.”
Jake fell silent. It ought to have been a relief, but instead it made the small hairs on the back of Alexander’s neck rise to attention; glancing around the edge of his newspaper, he confirmed that Jake was indeed looking at him with an expression akin to pity, or doggish woe. “You’re scared of him, ain’t you, Al,” Jake said, his voice hushed.
Alexander crushed his paper in both hands, quite without meaning to. “I am not frightened of him,” he said, enunciating clearly and biting each word off at the end. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man’s skills and abilities, which I suppose might translate into ‘fright’ from your limited world-view!”
“Oh,” said Jake. He worried his lower lip between his teeth. “So you are scared.”
“For the last time–” Alexander broke off cleanly there. For a moment he occupied himself with straightening and refolding his paper, so that it would once again lay just so. “Terrified,” he said, his voice bleak. “This man is beyond me in every conceivable way, and always has been. What most likely strikes you as my arrogance I call only justified confidence–I have not been truly arrogant since I met him and was schooled. Do you understand, Jacob?”
Jake’s eyes were wide in superstitious fright. “That ain’t like you, Al,” he said, his voice quivering from the shock. “That ain’t like you at all.”
“Thank you, Jacob. I’m aware of that.” Alexander smoothed a hand over the front page of the newspaper.
“But…” Were Jake to look any more sincere, he would start wringing his hands together. “I ain’t never seen you fail before, Al, and you ain’t gonna do it now, neither.”
For a moment Alexander entertained himself by trying to parse that mess, then gave up and accepted it in the spirit in which it was meant. “Jacob–”
“I got faith in you, Al!”
“I’m not sure whether to be flattered or horrified by that, Jacob.” Alexander looked down at his hands, then shut his eyes.
“Al, you gotta stop talking like that, it ain’t doing no one any good.” Jake’s voice was firm, with the barest hint of the same wheedling tone that he was wont to use to guilt Alexander into eating. “And it ain’t like you, neither.”
“I believe you already said as much.”
Jake laced his fingers together and stared down at them. After a long, strained, silent moment, he said, “Al?”
“… what, Jacob?”
“Are you gonna get mad at me if I tell you that I peeked at you with the glasses on?” Jake’s shaggy head lifted, exposing his hangdog expression. “Only a peek, I swear, you were out cold and they was right there–”
It startled a thin and unamused laugh from Alexander. “If you did, Jacob, then I’m sure that you got exactly what you deserved.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Jake said bravely. “I mean, it ain’t like you were ugly or old or anything, just covered in… stuff. Chains and locks and tar and stuff.”
“That ‘stuff’ that you speak of is the visual representation of every blasphemous pact and agreement that I have ever entered into, plus a number which I inherited from my ancestors, Jacob. Although I suppose that the various dread meanings would be lost on you–” Alexander broke off there as a new and horrible suspicion leapt fully formed into his mind. “Are you trying to distract me, Jacob?”
“No!” Jake protested, too vehemently. “No, it ain’t… I didn’t… yeah, I guess so, Al.”
Alexander raised both eyebrows. “That was almost clever of you, Jacob. I’m impressed by your newfound capacity for duplicity.”
“Thanks, Al,” Jake said, although his eyes went blank at duplicity. “I just figured that you shouldn’t oughta dwell on it, ’cause you do that.”
In an effort to circumvent the rest of the conversation, Alexander picked up his newspaper and snapped it open once more. It rose like a wall in front of him, and the world vanished behind neat, orderly columns of black type on gray paper. Alexander had always found this disappearing trick to be restful, and even more so when it reduced Jake to nothing more than a series of small shifting sounds. After a few moments, he allowed himself to laugh ruefully. “At least you haven’t–”
Resorted to your usual distractions, he’d meant to say, but just then a massive paw closed on the top of his paper and crumpled it down into his lap. “Jacob!” Alexander said instead, his voice (to his chagrin) somewhat shrill with surprise. A determined Jake wedged himself into the lower bunk atop Alexander, his expression somewhere between hopeful and–Alexander grimaced–sultry. “Jacob, this is… absolutely, utterly, definitely not the time,” Alexander said, vexed.
“You worry too much, Al,” Jake said, and this time his voice had an entirely different firmness to it, one with which Alexander was regretfully familiar indeed. With an awful finality Jake extricated the ruined newspaper from Alexander’s limp hands, casting it aside to flutter onto the floor.
“Jacob,” said Alexander, crossing his arms most firmly over his chest. He’d learned the futility of pushing against that apish mass, and he disliked futility. It felt so… futile. “May I remind you of where we are, and what we could be required to do at any moment?”
“Nope.” Jake caught both of Alexander’s wrists and pulled stubbornly at them until Alexander was forced to let his arms be pulled away (it was that, or have them both snap like twigs). After that… Alexander had, on prior occasions, likened Jake’s rudimentary seductive abilities to being engulfed in amorous molasses. The immense bulk of Jake’s body rolled slowly forward, pressing Alexander down, flattening him like a steam-iron might; a knee crushed its way between Alexander’s thighs and the rest of Jake followed, until one of Alexander’s legs was mashed against the wall of the compartment and the other was pushed off the bunk entirely. Jake caught up a mouthful of the side of Alexander’s neck. Alexander’s foot juddered helplessly against the floor.
Once he was pinned (and pinned he undoubtedly was!) there was nothing for it but to put his arms around Jake, unless he wanted to leave them thrown uncomfortably akimbo. In this bunk, there was not even room to stretch them up above his head. Alexander shut his eyes and concentrated on catching his breath, suddenly a difficult task. “I do not know where you got the idea that this leaves me weak with lust,” he said, as tartly as he could.
“You gotta admit that it took your mind off stuff,” Jake said, around his mouthful of wet and tingling skin.
“I have to admit nothing.” Alexander sucked in as much of a breath as he could. “And I’d appreciate it if you’d get off me.”
“Nah, I don’t think so, Al.” Jake lifted himself a life-giving inch or two, but only so that his thick fingers could fumble at the knot of Alexander’s tie.
Alexander slapped the broad expanse of Jake’s back, more as punctuation than anything else. “Stop it, stop it,” he said, his voice now a rising and angry warble. “This is not the time, I am not interested, stop taking liberties with my tie at once–” Jake craned up long enough to bite at Alexander’s ear, and Alexander’s breath burst out of him as a roar rather than words; everything came together, like a million pebbles forming a single avalanche, and the next time that Alexander cared to notice anything he had all of his limbs wound about assorted parts of Jake. One of Jake’s slab-like thighs was pressed against Alexander’s groin hard enough to hurt, but Alexander fancied himself a connoisseur of the smaller pains and could not be put off by this one. “I am currently very displeased with you,” he pointed out, in a voice gone both husky and hushed, and then he seized two handfuls of Jake’s hair and dragged him around into as fierce a kiss as he could.
“So dock my pay again,” Jake suggested, the words mostly lost to Alexander’s mouth. He was grinning–Alexander could feel that–Alexander could feel many things, actually, and one of the things that he felt was a growing need to rearrange himself. He insinuated his hand between them with as much care as he could and Jake lifted his hips to let it go. With a little grimace Alexander did what was necessary, pressing two knuckles agains the distended front of his trousers and nudging things into place; Jake dropped again and forced Alexander’s hand flat between them, palm against his own insistent erection, knuckles against Jake’s. Alexander wrenched his hand free, flipped it over, and shoved it back between them, catching a great handful of Jake’s heavy, blunted prick and making the man groan, winning a small measure of revenge–
Time passed in a drifting reddish haze, as it was wont to do. Alexander was not a man prone to submitting to his passions, but when he condescended to do so, he preferred to surrender to them entirely (if, possibly, only in the name of efficiency). If it were not for the acrid scent of the candle undercutting the musky scent of Jake, Alexander might well have been lost entire. His tie was loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned and shoved aside, his shirt halfway undone, his trousers sadly wrinkled; Jake’s suspenders had fallen to hang loose at his hips and his shirt hung entirely open. Theirs was a writhing embrace, a rough and biting thing, grasping and steamy, full of swearing in multiple tongues (Alexander) and coarse laughter (Jake)–
–the shock, when it came, was not the expected one, and it dropped Jake full-length and unconscious on top of Alexander.
The psychic pressure was terrific, the physical pressure, sadly, even more so. Even at this extremity Alexander could not deny what had just occurred; it snapped him back to himself instantly, and he went taut underneath Jake’s immovable bulk. “Jacob, wake up,” he wheezed, slapping awkwardly at Jake’s cheek. “Wake up, wake–” He broke off there. The sounds in the hallway were stealthy, and they were heading this way, and in a flash Alexander understood what they were and what they were here to do and how very little time and choice he had–“Stay asleep,” he hissed instead (although there was little enough need!) and he pulled Jake’s slack head onto his shoulder, positioning it between himself and the doorway. He barely had time to go limp, his cheek pressed to Jake’s, before the slinking thing started to paw at the door.
The thing caught at the handle and dragged it down. The door swung slowly open, flooding the roomette with two circles of hellish red light that stung Alexander’s skin like a swarm of insects. The lights swept back and forth like search-lights, taking in the (disgraceful) tableau with an inhuman lack of interest, splashing a distorted (and humiliating) shadow back and forth against the wall; from its vantage point Alexander must have looked equally as unconscious as the man on top of him. Alexander watched the play of the light from under his lowered lashes, not daring to move, hardly daring to breathe. After a period of time that approached aeons, the door swung closed once more, cutting off the infernal light–the dragging, screeching sound that came then was deliberate and slow and rasped upon Alexander’s strained nerves like sandpaper. Skreeeee-kik-kik, a stuttering claw wrote upon the door, splintering the wood. One. A pause as long as the universe–skreeeee-kik-kik. Two. And the stealthy sounds moved on.
For a moment Alexander could only lie there, seething in his rage–the indignity of it! That he should have been caught like this, that he had been seen like this! Someone would pay for this humiliation–Alexander shoved his fury aside and wriggled a hand between their chests, groping blindly for the little iron nail that he always wore on a bit of leather thong about his neck. “Wake up,” he growled, jabbing Jake’s forehead with the point of the nail, perhaps a bit harder than warranted.
The air between them cleared with a faint snap of ozone. Jake’s eyes fluttered open. For a moment, still half-asleep, he continued to grind himself down against Alexander with a foolish grin on his face; still, some combination of Alexander’s newly-infuriated expression and the slight pain from his forehead eventually got through. “Wha?” Jake said foggily, his grin fading.
“Get up,” Alexander said crisply, shoving at Jake’s shoulder. “Our friend has made his move.”
Confused, Jake sat up, then scrambled to his feet. “I don’t–what happened, Al?” Automatically he pawed at the front of his trousers, rearranging himself with a little wince.
“A garden-variety sleeping enchantment, that’s what’s happened,” Alexander said bitterly. Swinging his feet to the floor, he put first his shirt and then his waistcoat to rights with irritated flicks of his fingers. “Everyone on this train has been put to sleep, doubtless enchanted to have pleasant dreams of how much they want to go to California–oh, yes, that will ensure that they are brought willingly to the edge of the precipice indeed!” He retied his tie, settling the knot against his collar like a tiny personal triumph. “And meanwhile the professor’s horrible little constructs sneak about and count the number of people in each car, preparing, no doubt, to kill some of them and bring the headcount right–we haven’t much time, Jacob.”
Eyes wide, Jake hastily rebuttoned his own shirt, then shrugged into his suspenders. “OK, Al,” he said. “What do we do?”
Alexander stood up and suffered a momentary bout of light-headedness. The creases of his trousers he could do nothing to fix–how he despised going into battle wrinkled and disheveled–and there was the slight additional problem of his physical distress. Nothing to be done about it now. No time to take care of it. He resettled his painfully-distended erection within his underwear once more and resolved to ignore it. “We’ll have to split up,” he said.
“What?” Jake gaped at Alexander even as he stomped back into his hobnailed boots. “Not a chance in hell, Al, I ain’t leavin’ you alone with those things!”
“Do you want to die? Is that it? Or worse, perhaps–who can say to what foul ends a Ni’kos demon might put our shuddering souls!” Alexander snatched his grandfather’s revolver from his valise and buckled on the belt, then propped one foot on the bunk and strapped the holster to his thigh. “I must go after Lyon–curse it, I shouldn’t have spoken his name aloud–ah, but it’s too late to worry about such niceties, isn’t it, Jacob?”
“And I’m comin’ with you,” Jake said stubbornly.
“Don’t you see?” Alexander slipped a certain eldritch blade into the inside pocket of his waistcoat, then fetched out a small bag full of foul black powder and put it in his trouser pocket. “If we both go to stop Lyon, who will stop the train?”
Jake opened his mouth, then shut it again. “I ain’t no engineer, Al,” he finally said, weakly.
“And how well I know it!” Alexander jammed his hat on his head. “It’s a train, Jacob. You fight your way to the front–” he gestured vaguely in the direction of the engine “–and you find the largest lever, and you pull it back and down. And then, I presume, you hold on for dear life.”
“You think I’m gonna have to fight those clay things, Al?” Jake asked, worried.
“Yes? I presume that they’ll safeguard Lyon’s plan at all costs. What’s the matter, Jacob? I thought you enjoyed a good scrap.”
“I do, Al! I do! It’s just… well…” Jake flailed both meaty arms, nearly braining Alexander in the process.
Alexander’s lips thinned. “I never thought I’d see the day I saw you afraid of mixing it up.”
“I ain’t afraid!” Jake burst out, his scowl going black at the slur. “I ain’t scared of nothing, nohow, and I’d beat the devil himself if you put him in front of me! It’s just that it ain’t right to beat up on kids, Al!”
The idiocy of this statement left Alexander aghast for a handful of seconds. “They aren’t children, Jacob,” he finally said. “They’re constructs.”
“But they look like kids,” Jake said stubbornly. “I ain’t beat up a kid in knee-britches since I left school–”
“–you went to school?–”
“–and I don’t rightly want to start now!” Jake finished. “I ain’t a bully no more!”
“Well. Maybe their orders won’t extend to stopping you, although I expect that’s too much to hope for.” Alexander patted down his various pockets, making sure that he had as many tools and devices as he could safely carry without clinking. “Now, then. You won’t be able to simply knock them unconscious, as they haven’t a consciousness to begin with–depending on what sort they are, they are powered either by an eldritch phrase written on their foreheads or by a scroll buried in their clay. Your best bet is to, ah, remove their heads in some way–” Alexander broke off there, in anticipation of the outburst.
It wasn’t long in coming. “I gotta pull the heads offa bunch of kids?” Jake wailed. “Cripes, Al!”
“Maybe! I don’t know! All that I’m saying is that either you reach the engine compartment and throw the brake lever, or we will all die!”
Jake subsided, unhappily. “OK, Al,” he said, flexing his fingers. “It makes me feel slimy but I guess I gotta.”
“Indeed you do, Jacob,” said Alexander. “Indeed you do.” Cupping his hand around the candle’s flame, he blew it out.
Alexander depressed the doorhandle with caution, easing the door open an inch at a time in case there were obstacles beyond. Behind him Jake dusted his hands together and huffed out a breath, getting excited about his upcoming tussle despite his ridiculous scruples; he grunted as the door swung back to reveal the two wavering, splintered lines clawed in the wood.
In the hallway, it was dark and quiet, unnaturally so. Even the noise of the train seemed muted, although it still rushed down the tracks towards its destiny. Every door as far as they could see was splintered with scratches. At least the very existence of the darkness meant that those red-eyed creatures were nowhere nearby.
Alexander pulled Jake to him via the simple expedient of a hand knotted in Jake’s shirt, all the better to breathe in the man’s ear. “You go that way,” Alexander murmured, pointing past Jake towards the front of the train. “You said Lyon had a rear car, so I’ll head towards the back.”
“OK, Al,” Jake whispered back. He glanced up and down the hallway.
“Be careful,” Alexander said. He let go of Jake’s shirt and made to step back; Jake grabbed Alexander’s shoulders, halting him. Alexander blinked. “What?”
Jake’s mouth on his drove him stumbling back against their marked door, the roughness of it threatening to peel the skin from his face. Jake had never been a subtle man but he had always been a sincere one, and the unfeigned emotion in the kiss, while simplistic and overly sentimental, was hard to deny. “Don’t you get hurt, Al,” Jake said hoarsely, once the kiss broke. He caught Alexander’s face in both of his massive, blocky hands. “I ain’t never gonna forgive myself if you get hurt ’cause I wasn’t there.”
“I don’t think you need to worry, Jacob,” said Alexander, gently extricating himself. Jake had a good day’s growth of beard going, and Alexander’s face stung like it had been scoured. “If I fail, you’ll never survive long enough to feel the guilt.”
It won half of a small and wavering smile from Jake. “You ain’t gonna fail, Al,” he said, sounding more confident than Alexander himself felt. “I told you, I got faith in you.”
“I’m sure you’ve made worse investments in your time,” Alexander said, with an ironic flicker of one eyebrow; then, before this little scene could get any more maudlin, he spun on one heel and darted away down the hall.
Jake’d be the first to admit that he didn’t know nothing about this stuff, but even he could tell that something wasn’t right on this train, and not just because of those scratches on all the doors. He’d spent years sleeping in a hammock in a common bunk onboard ship, and even a roomful of sleeping people was kinda noisy, in a snoring sniffing coughing sort of way. Plus there was always one guy who wasn’t really asleep, so he sounded different–but there just wasn’t any noise behind any of those doors. It was like they were all already dead.
Rolling up his sleeves Jake started forward. He was seeing those damn kids in every shadow and jumping at them, which was pretty embarrassing. Fortunately there wasn’t nobody around to see him do it.
The next mental touch was still light, but had the definite flavor of recognition to it, a feeling like someone speaking his name just out of earshot. It ended with a little burst of something that might have been amusement, with just a hint of anticipation. Alexander, already achingly on his guard, plunged down the center aisle towards the next car. The little touch did not come again.
He’d gotten used to the clawmarks on the doors and all, and the porter had been snoring loudly on the stool in his little closet, which made Jake feel a little better about stuff. He yanked open the door at the front end of the car, blasting himself with the train’s racket as he stepped into the space in between the cars, and then he pulled open the rear door of the next car and thought for a minute that it was on fire or something.
He must have made some kind of noise, because the red lights swung towards him and went all narrow. Four red lights, two pairs of them. Whatever they were attached to made this angry hissing noise–then they bounded towards him, glowing red eyes drawing jagged streaks through the air at about the level of Jake’s belt.
Whatever he’d said, Jake came damn close to pissing his pants in fear as the things closed in. “Awww, cripes,” he moaned, trying to step back and bumping into the door instead.
When he saw the flicker of a coat-tail at the far end of a car, he honestly believed it to be just another unrelated phenomenon–except that then the door opened and a tall, spare figure slipped through.
Alexander did not bother to shout. His lips peeled back from his teeth in an unlovely grimace and he redoubled his speed, no longer bothering to watch behind himself; almost as an afterthought he drew his grandfather’s revolver from the holster on his hip. Was he being led a merry chase? Most certainly–but he would yet run his prey to earth!
He cringed even as he did it, half-expecting a nun to burst out of one of the roomettes and drag him off by his ear. “Jeez,” he moaned, just barely stopping himself from apologizing to the kid.
The one he’d kicked rebounded, scuttling towards him on all fours now, which made the hairs on the back of Jake’s neck stand straight up; the other one wrapped both arms around Jake’s forearm and bit him with a mouth that felt like a fistful of needles. Jake bellowed in shock and ripped that one free just as the first one barreled back into him, latching onto his leg like a ball and chain–
–three more pairs of red eyes flamed at the far end of the car, filling the night with the sound of hissing. The one in his hand squirmed and kicked at him and snarled, its eyes like hellish pits, its mouth full of jagged, broken fangs. Jake kind of lost touch with his squeamishness after that. “Come get some!” he roared, flinging the prisoner at its onrushing friends. The one on his leg clawed at his thigh and Jake swore and yanked it off him; then the others piled into him and they all went down in a heap.
Swearing under his breath Alexander ran after his old mentor. He’d seen the amusement on Lyon’s familiar face–to be recognized was one thing, to be dismissed was quite another. There were distinguished gray streaks in Lyon’s beard now, but the one eye that remained to the man still glittered with that familiar lunatic fervor.
Again Alexander burst into the next car just as Lyon reached its far end. “Stand to!” Alexander shouted, hearing in it an uncomfortable echo of an earlier self crying out to be recognized, to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged by this man.
“No,” Herve Lyon said, and he offered Alexander the thinnest of smiles before he once again slipped through the door.
Alexander flew through the car like his feet were winged and shouldered his way into the next one–Lyon once again already had his hand on the door at the far end, as if this were a nightmare and Lyon the immortal hart which Alexander needs must hound for eternity. “You’ll run out of cars eventually!” Alexander pointed out, his mouth dry.
“The same fool as always, Alec!” Lyon seemed to drift through the door like smoke. Alexander bared his teeth in acknowledgment of the barb and plunged forward once more.
More of them had shown up while he’d been distracted. Jake ground his teeth and dragged one foot forward, lugging three of the infernal creatures along with it. His arms were so weighed down that he could barely lift them, let alone get in a good punch, and no matter what Al had said Jake didn’t want to actually start ripping off kids’ heads–he dragged the other foot forward, completing the first step towards the engine room. “Lay off,” he gritted out.
Their only answer was another round of those chattery hissing sounds. Jake shuddered and swung one arm with all the strength he possessed–two of them lost their grip and tumbled away to hit the wall, only to bound back into the fray a moment later, none the worse for wear.
Jake dragged himself on down the hall, weighed down by a dozen of the glowing-eyed thrashing things.
The door at the far end of the car was already closing, the tail of Lyon’s greatcoat flicking through in his wake, waving at Alexander like a red flag at a bull–and like an enraged bull he almost fell for it, charging forward a few steps before he woke from his mindless fury. No, that wasn’t right–Lyon could never have made it through this minefield so quickly, at least not without disturbing the shapes on the floor! Alexander spun on his heel and yanked open the door that he’d just come through.
He stepped out into the swaying space between the cars and was buffeted anew by the wind and the noise. The unmanned train rushed on through the night, over moon-drenched plains that were already rising rockily towards the mountains–Alexander’s heart began to beat along with the rhythm of the wheels, so loud in this unshielded space. His path was clear. Metal rungs had been welded to the back end of the car in front of him, forming a ladder that rose to the top of the car, and at least one of them bore a small clean spot where the soot had recently been wiped away.
Jamming his grandfather’s revolver back into its holster, Alexander steeled himself and began to climb.
He’d made it about halfway to the end of the railway car, but he didn’t know what he was going to do when he got to the end. With all these things dragging him down, he’d never get the door open–and if he got it open and stepped through, they’d drag him down under the wheels, sure as shooting! The thought make Jake shudder like a horse and heave his shoulders, sending kid-things scattering in every direction.
Jake made it another five feet before they piled on him again, bringing him down.
The top of the train was a forest of odd protrusions. They all looked like Lyon in the dark. Best to make haste, before Lyon realized that his little trick hadn’t worked! Alexander flung himself onto the roof of the coach without further ado, rising carefully to his feet in the very teeth of the gale. It threatened to pick him up and throw him bodily from the train; it ripped at his clothing and slicked his hair straight back; it deafened him and stung his cheeks like the lashes from a thousand tiny whips.
Carefully, nerves on edge, Alexander advanced one step, then another. The train rocked underneath him, seeming to pick up speed. His hands he was obliged to hold out for balance, and thus he was not armed when the scarecrow figure rose from behind a trapdoor at the other end of the car and started at his presence; Alexander snatched his grandfather’s revolver from its holster once more even as Lyon snatched a gleaming silver pistol from inside his wildly-whipping greatcoat. Both guns flashed out as one; both of their wielders froze.
Lyon’s greatcoat whipped madly about him in the slipstream–Alexander could hear it, snapping at the air like a pennant. But Lyon’s hat–his great, tall, mad stovepipe hat–was as firmly seated on his head as ever, even when he tilted his chin down and presented its brim to the wind. “I see you’ve learned a thing or two since your days at the university!” Lyon called. The wind hurried his gloating words on their way.
“One might say that!” Alexander flung the words back, uncaring of whether the wind would snatch them away. Lyon’s one remaining eye was a pinpoint of light under the brim of his hat, his eyepatch a bit of darker shadow, the pistol a brilliant gleaming blueish-white in the moonlight–Alexander cursed himself again for his lack of foresight. “The Ni’kos, Lyon? I always knew you were mad, but this… this is madness even by your warped standards!”
“I am the only man alive capable of summoning the Ni’kos!” Lyon cried, flinging his free hand out in a spasmodic gesture. “It would be madness not to try–who else would even dare? One of those puling, whining dogs that defecates on true scholarship? You?”
“I am sworn to defend humanity against the eldritch, as well you know!” Alexander ground his teeth. “But were I not, and some days I wish fervently that it were not my charge, I assure you that the Ni’kos would be well within my power to summon!”
The answer–the challenge–was a silent thing, in the form of the insane grin that curled on Lyon’s face; he drew every last bit of his considerable power to himself, like an oyster forming a pearl, ripping it free of its former moorings. Even the wind was momentarily mute in the face of so much power, writhing about Lyon like a freshly-beheaded serpent. Alexander reeled back a step, a thin thread of blood starting from one nostril.
Lyon took neither his eye nor his gun from Alexander, but his will lashed out behind him. For a moment in which the very universe held its breath, nothing happened–then the horizon burst into flame with a roar, as the bridge over the Black Canyon exploded into matchwood.
The boom shook the train underneath him and startled him out of feeling sorry for himself. Must have been the bridge going–the bridge! Cripes, he had to get free! Had to get moving, even if it did mean killing a bunch of kids–Jake shook his head to clear it and came face to face with one of the kid-things. No, not a kid-thing, just a thing–the human face it had worn was gone. It still had on the sissy britches and tie and all, but its head was just a ball of clay with glowing pits for eyes. It was just a doll. Just a big clay doll!
Jake’s shoulder creaked in its socket as he fought against the tiny arms immobilizing his right fist. Gritting his teeth, he spat out one last curse and put everything he had into it, wrenching his arm free with a shout. The creatures scrambled after it, clawing and scratching, but before they could pin his arm to the floor again Jake’s freed hand shot out and clutched at the thing’s clay head. With a grunt he closed that hand into a fist–the wet clay squelched out from between his fingers in fat, greasy ribbons. The thing’s eyepits snuffed out like candles, and the creature squealed out a high trembly sound before it stopped moving and fell away, thumping heavily to the rug like a dropped statue.
Flush with victory Jake surged to his knees, laughing like a loon. His wrenched shoulder hurt like hell, and the rest of him wasn’t any too good neither, and he didn’t give a damn. “Got you buggers now!” he cried, and, snatching up another of the dolls, he twisted its head clean off.
“If you think I haven’t taken steps to maintain the headcount, Alec, then you’re just as big a fool as you ever were,” Herve Lyon called back, almost hysterical with high good humor. The gun didn’t waver so much as an inch, even as the scenery rocked crazily around them. “What an absurd little fool you always were–and you the scion of the infamous St. Roivas line! You built your ivory tower from the bones of your ancestors, Alec! Men whose feet you are not fit to kiss!”
“If you think that I haven’t learned my lessons well since last we spoke fifteen years ago, Lyon, then it is you who is the fool here!” Alexander slapped his chest with his free hand. “I am a St. Roivas good and true–I am more than any St. Roivas could have dreamed of being!”
“Not any longer!” Alexander swiped the blood from his lips and dashed it away. “I suppose that I can’t expect you to have noticed, with your head stuffed up your own ass in that manner!”
Lyon subsided, the ghost of that smile still lurking about. Alexander’s eyes watered fiercely in the sooty gale, but he did not dare take his eyes off Lyon, not for a second. “Perhaps I’m lying,” Lyon finally said, nearly purring the words. “You were a useless whelp, true, but I always felt that there was… potential… in you.”
“I know what you felt,” Alexander spat, his lip curling into a magnificent sneer. “Perhaps I didn’t know then, but now… oh, yes, I know what you wanted from me.”
“Oh?” Lyon laughed, a high, mad sound. “Foolish boy, you have no idea of the terrible altars upon which I wished to sacrifice your quivering body–”
“Spare me your sleaze!”
“–and yet you are erect for me even now–”
“–not for you!” Alexander shouted. “Never for you!”
Herve Lyon gave that statement exactly as much consideration as it deserved: barely a heartbeat of silence before his crazed laughter cracked the air again. “Liar,” Lyon crooned. “Oh, liar, liar!”
Once he’d figured out that they were afraid to kill him, he’d lost all fear. If they killed him they’d mess up the professor’s tally, and they’d be in hot water then! So, while they still fought to bring him down or knock him out, Jake knew that he wasn’t going to get his throat bit out, and that made it even easier.
Yanking open the door at the end of the car, Jake wound up and snapped one of the critters under the wheels, where it made a terrific sickening splash. Clay spattered back against his face.
Herve Lyon’s laugh was a cold and bitter thing. “And what would you have me do, then, continue to beat the elemental principles of occultism into the dull brains of underclassmen until despair led me to drink myself to death? How can you look at this world, this begrimed and stupid world, and still want to save it? It is that which makes you a fool, Alec!”
Alexander growled under his breath. “I will admit that it is sometimes difficult to remember why I want to preserve these people!” he cried. “But if you taught me anything, Professor, you taught me that only the laziest of fools stoop to the easy way out!”
“Easy!” Lyon fell back a step in mimed shock, still laughing. “You think this is easy? Then you have indeed surpassed me, Alec, if summoning the Ni’kos is so easy that you may dismiss it so out of hand!”
Gritting his teeth against the wind, Alexander took a matching step forward and scrubbed his bloody hand across his face again. The train rocked uncertainly under his feet, pounding away the miles, much too fast. “Easy for you, Lyon! Easier for you than to actually learn to live with the world that humanity has made! For all your eldritch accomplishments you’re still an awkward boy at heart, hiding away in academia to avoid contact with the real world!”
“Am I supposed to crumble in shock now, Alec?” Wound up to the point of snapping Lyon performed a herky-jerky dance step upon the edge of the car, too crazed with anticipation to stand still. “Spare me your dimestore philosophy, you amateur alienist! Child or not I am still Professor Herve Lyon, and I am the most powerful diabolist alive today–and you, Alec, are not!”
Blood in his mouth now, too much of it, and when Alexander spat it out the wind only splattered it against his shoulder, doubtless ruining his shirt. His ears rang, and his face stung, and his heart lolloped along in his breast in a crazy non-rhythm. “Perhaps you’re right,” Alexander said, no longer bothering to shout into the teeth of the wind. He was certain that Lyon could hear him, no matter how softly he spoke. “Your skills outweigh mine, I’ll admit it, and always have–I will admit that you are a more accomplished diabolist than I. To summon the Ni’kos, Professor–you’ll never know how much it speaks to the twisted place within my soul! In some part I am in awe of your genius, of your accomplishment!”
“Oh, well spoken, Alec, well spoken indeed!” Lyon bayed out a madman’s laugh and doffed his hat in mocking respect, revealing his high scholar’s forehead and the wide band of his eyepatch. His eye glittered with glee. “It is too bad that your high-flown speeches will not save you, but when the Ni’kos have sat me upon the throne of this world, perhaps I shall take a moment to remember you with fondness!”
“But there is one area in which I have always surpassed you!” Alexander bared his bloody teeth in a grin, equally as mad. “One advantage which I possess which you have no hope of duplicating! And it is this which will be your doom!”
Lyon affected a startled expression, his single remaining eye widening in mocking surprise. “Oh? And what is this hitherto-unknown power, pray tell?”
“It’s called ‘depth perception’, you infamous son-of-a-bitch–” and Alexander pulled the trigger.
His grandfather’s revolver spat a tongue of white flame a full three feet in length. Lyon’s answering shot whipped harmlessly past Alexander’s cheek, close enough that he could hear it whistle by–then the impact of Alexander’s slug flung Herve Lyon around in a lunatic, twisting spiral. His pistol flew from the train and was lost to the night; the wind snatched the stovepipe hat from the man’s relaxing hand and hurled it at Alexander, who stepped aside to let it go as Herve Lyon collapsed in a heap at the front end of the railway car.
The next car was full of big canvas mail sacks, which was at least different. Maybe that meant he was close to the front. Jake shouldered aside some of the fallen racks, nearly tripped over a sleeping mailman–“Cripes, sorry!”–and ripped open the door at the front of the car.
“If this ain’t it, I’m gonna die,” Jake gasped, stepping out into the space between cars and grasping the handle of the next door in trembling fingers. The door resisted him for a moment, then cracked free–another pair of glowing red eyes whipped about as Jake stepped through into the engine compartment. Jake pounded his fist into his hand and went for it.
The creature was standing on the engineer’s humped-up sleeping body and wearing the man’s cap, working the train’s complicated mess of steering. Its glowing eyepits went huge with surprise, then narrow with rage, and it hissed and flung itself bodily at Jake, claws out–Jake caught it around the midsection and dashed its clay head against the wall, snuffing out the glow. Dropping the remains of its body, Jake fumbled through the crowded engine room, in awe at the mess of gears and levers and wheels that made up the train’s mind. One of these levers had to be the longest one–one of them had to be the brake!
The levers all jutted out of the same massive gearbox, more than Jake could easily count. Panicked now he grabbed at their handles, searching blindly for the longest, the longest–his hand caught on a lever handle as high as his ear. Jake tugged at it–the train seemed to hitch. “Awwwww, cripes,” Jake wailed, and grabbing the handle in both hands, he dragged it down.
Alexander squinted against the roaring wind, tears now coursing freely down his sooty, bloody face. “Stop the train, Jacob,” he begged no one and nothing, his voice just a thin shadow of itself. “Nameless, blasphemous gods, stop the train, I’ve come too far and done too much to die tonight–”
“DID YOU THINK THAT WOULD BE ENOUGH, ALEC?”
Alexander’s head jerked up. At the other end of the car Herve Lyon’s abandoned body was a glowing, twisting thing, dragging itself to its knees with an awful, slow finality; its eye, when it opened, was as bright as a lightning-strike, and the same unnatural light blasted from its throat when it opened its mouth. “DID YOU REALLY THINK THAT I WOULD BE STOPPED BY SO SMALL A THING?”
For a moment Alexander was too taken aback to speak–what blasphemy was this? Some sort of Lazarus option? What kind of fool would–? Lyon, of course. Lyon was ever that kind of fool. Underneath his feet the train hitched, ever so slightly, like it had a momentary case of the hiccups, and Alexander found himself too overcome even to celebrate. “No,” he said, and he threw both arms around the pipe and hugged it for dear life. “No, I didn’t. Fortunately, professor, I still have an ace up my sleeve!”
As if he’d timed it, the train’s wheels locked, filling the night with sparks and the awful, ear-tearing sound of metal screaming against metal. The world jerked away under Alexander’s feet, only his death-grip on the pipe saving him from being thrown from the braking train; Lyon, holding onto nothing, was not so lucky. The thing’s brilliant maw gaped open in a roar of cheated, thwarted rage as its body was thrown forward, to bounce like a sack of meat down between two cars until it fell underneath the train’s wheels. There was an explosion of light that nearly blinded Alexander, and a small, almost inconsequential bump, and that, Alexander thought dizzily, was most likely the end of the thing that had once been Herve Lyon.
Screaming and shuddering, the train fought to stop, to keep going, to jump the tracks, to stay on them–the car underneath Alexander swung precariously to one side, then to the other, while Alexander clung to the pipe and screamed incoherent curses at the sky. In the end, it was that straight shot up into the mountains that saved them all, the straight and rising tracks helping the train to shed its momentum; the screaming of the brakes thinned to a piercing noise and then died away altogether as the train lurched to a stop with an enormous hiss of boiling steam. Not five hundred feet away, the remains of the railway bridge still smoldered.
It took Alexander close to a minute to pry his aching arms free of the pipe, and another minute to force himself to his feet. Doddering like an old man he scrubbed his sleeve across his face, smearing both sleeve and face with an extraordinary mixture of sweat, soot, blood, and tears and doing nothing to render him any cleaner. Blankly he patted himself down, checking to make sure that everything was in its place–then, like a man in a dream, he straightened his tie and resettled the knot. “Well,” he croaked, “that’s done, then,” and he stumbled off in search of the ladder.
Euphoria struck a moment later. Nameless gods, he’d survived. He’d triumphed. He’d won! The laugh that croaked out of him was too small and stunted a thing to be heard even two feet away; he’d been light-headed to begin with and was now in danger of floating away like a zeppelin. Despite his exhaustion he drifted down the train’s ladder, barely aware of where he put his feet.
By the time his feet hit the ground, Alexander was again calm enough to appreciate the cool beauty of the night. The moon was full, and the sky was packed with stars as far as the eye could see–of course, Alexander knew a thing or two about some of those ‘stars’ which might ordinarily have put him off the sight, but tonight he was only glad to still be alive to see them. Gravel crunched underfoot as he climbed the grade towards the front of the train. A breeze (and only a breeze, and that a natural thing) ruffled his damp hair back away from his filthy face.
He was almost there by the time he heard someone else crunching through the gravel. The train was still huffing throatily, waiting to be put back into gear, and the crackling of the burning bridge was an ever-present background note, but otherwise, all was quiet; Alexander rocked to a slightly-stumbling halt. “Jacob?” he said, his voice still rough. He dropped his hand to his grandfather’s revolver, just in case the the answer was not to his liking.
But it was: “Al!” Jake cried from the other side of the train. There was a quick flurry of crunching footsteps and a series of thuds and then Jake burst out from between two cars, looking much the worse for wear. “Aw, cripes, Al, you look like hell–” “Fires below, Jacob, you look a fright–” and they both broke off there and started, haplessly, to laugh, as the relief took hold.
It did not last long, at least not on Alexander’s part, as he had never been predisposed to laugh overmuch; instead he swayed back against the baggage car and sighed out a relieved breath at having taken some of the weight off his feet. “Seriously, you’re filthy,” he said.
“It’s clay, mostly,” Jake said. He scraped one finger down his blackened forearm, leaving behind a flesh-colored stripe, and flicked the gobbet of clay away; it hit the side of the baggage car with a muffled gonging sound and stuck there. The sound made Jake puff right up with pride, grinning at Alexander as best he could around his swollen lower lip. “Man, Al, you shoulda seen it! Them little clay critters think they’re so tough, but their little heads just squash like thhhpt–” Jake blew a tremendous raspberry at the night, then whooped off laughing again.
Setting his feet against the gravel, Alexander eyed this apparition askance. Truly, Jake was an awe-inspiring mess. Jake’s clothing was in tatters, his shirt and trousers torn to limp strips; his arms were coated with blackish clay all the way to the shoulder; every inch of Jake’s exposed skin (and how much of it there was!) was covered with shallow scratches, with dried blood, with clay, or, admittedly, with furred-over tattoos. One eye was mostly closed and rapidly reddening, and, lest Alexander forget, Jake also had that fat lip. Quite the barbaric spectacle. Alexander sighed and patted down his pockets, producing both a clean handkerchief and (miracle of miracles) his hip-flask, still full. He scrubbed his face halfway clean and soothed his ruffled nerves all in one go.
Jake held out his hand. “So what do we do now, Al?”
“We wait.” Alexander handed Jake the flask. “They’ll send someone to investigate the explosion soon enough, I believe.”
Jake slugged down half the contents of the flask, then belched in relief. “What about–” Jake waved at the line of railway cars, strung out along the tracks behind them “–what about them?”
Alexander shrugged. “They should wake in a few hours, doubtless well-rested. I’m afraid that what happened here will always be a mystery to them.”
“Huh,” said Jake, then tipped up the flask again.
Alexander watched him do it, eyes narrowing in measurement. The sheer animal spectacle of it made him come over quite faint, or something. Against his back the train puffed contentedly, sending a little shiver down his spine. “Come here,” Alexander said, flicking his ruined handkerchief at Jake. And of course that made Jake grin in lecherous anticipation, and of course he came; Alexander batted away those grasping, clay-covered hands long enough to take back the flask, soak his handkerchief in a bit of whisky, and put it where it would be of the most use.
Jake yowled in shock and winced back as Alexander patted at the abrasion on his cheek. “Aaaow, dammit, Al, that stings!”
“Quit being such a baby,” Alexander said severely, scrubbing at Jake’s face until it was, by some measure, cleaned. “Honestly, Jacob, I don’t see how you can suffer wounds of this caliber and then whine about a little sting.”
“I wasn’t thinking about it then,” Jake muttered, scraping more clay off his forearms.
Alexander eyed his filthy handkerchief, then sighed and tucked it back into his sleeve. “I don’t know that you’re thinking so terribly much now,” he said. Out of curiosity he caught one of Jake’s thick wrists, studying the dried and semi-dried clay on Jake’s skin with some interest. All that remained of twenty-some-odd magical automata; it wasn’t just Jake’s own lifeblood that soaked into his clothes. The thought gave Alexander some pause. “Still, Jacob,” he said, his voice gone a bit thick, “I suppose I do owe you some measure of thanks, don’t I?”
“Yep, I’d say so.” The grin on Jake’s face was nothing short of smug. Alexander briefly considered dumping the rest of the flask over Jake’s head, in the name of hygiene, or of disinfection, or of… something, while Jake oozed in and put his hands on the baggage car to either side of Alexander’s head, trapping him back against the car’s throbbing metal side. “You got something in mind, Al?”
Alexander quirked one eyebrow. “I’d been thinking along the lines of a two-dollar bonus–” and they lunged for each other. Catching two handfuls of Jake’s curls, Alexander sank into the fierce victory kiss with something a little too ironic to be called abandon. Between them they flavored the kiss with whisky, blood, and dirt–“Admit it, Jacob,” Alexander breathed, when he could. “You live for these moments.”
“Yeah, Al,” Jake agreed, running his tongue over his lips. “Ain’t nothin’ better than winning, ‘specially when it matters.”
“Ah, yes, I find the double negative to be so conducive to romance,” Alexander said, rolling his eyes. “On second though, be quiet, Jacob. It makes you ever so much more bearable.”
Jake’s bulk pressed him back against the train in answer, Jake’s mouth finding his again. Alexander gave up. They were quite alone, for all that a hundred and seventy-seven people (give or take) slept on not a hundred yards from their sheltered position, and the night was really quite pleasant, and that strange euphoria of earlier reminded Alexander that he was, indeed, still in some physical distress from earlier yet–“Cripes, Al, I got blue balls like nobody’s business,” Jake croaked, snorting with laughter even as he said it.
Alexander sputtered out half a laugh of his own before he could bite it back. “I suppose that makes two of us,” he agreed, pressing a fist against his aching gut. “Perhaps we should adjourn to our quarters–”
“There ain’t no room in those damn bunks, Al,” Jake said firmly, and he dragged Alexander’s belt free of its buckle.
“Oh, this is lovely, this is very civilized,” Alexander muttered against Jake’s cheek, glancing left and right to make sure they were unobserved, even though logic would suggest that they could not possibly be. “Out in the open air like a couple of rutting animals, perhaps you’d care to bend me over a rock–” Jake gave over tugging at the buttons of Alexander’s fly long enough to mash one of those oversized mitts of his against the front of Alexander’s trousers, and Alexander gave over complaining in favor of groaning with the sudden, painful resurgence of his need. The ache in his gut redoubled on the instant, as if he were being disemboweled with the claw end of a hammer–“But perhaps there is something to be said for remaining in touch with one’s primitive side,” Alexander wheezed, slumping back against the baggage car.
“Be over quicker if you’d stop bitching, Al,” Jake pointed out, pawing the last couple of buttons free.
Alexander huffed in distracted annoyance. “‘Over quicker’–because of course the entire point of physical gratification is to get it over with as quickly as possible, Jacob. If it would not horrify your Puritan soul I would teach you a thing or two about tantric maginnnnnnnnf.”
It was not the mouth on his that turned his diatribe into a throttled sound, although it certainly helped the matter; it was the oversized hand that had pushed its way into Alexander’s underwear and taken hold of him. For all that Jake was, on the main, an oversized lummox of a man, the proverbial bull in a china shop, Alexander had to admit that those enormous hands were well-sized for this. For all that he was slim and finely built, Alexander was not a small man in any sense of the word, and yet Jake could take most of him in hand without straining. The clay remaining on the man’s palms horripilated Alexander’s senses and made Jake’s grip simultaneously rough and slick. Alexander worried at his lower lip and thrust up into those hands, engaged both by the filthy sensation and by the dark knowledge that his pleasure came quite literally at his enemies’ expense.
He was coated in that expense as well in short order, as Jake’s hands worked at his prick. Jake left off from the kiss to rest his forehead against Alexander’s shoulder and watch what he was doing. “Great gods, you filthy ape,” Alexander groaned, clutching at Jake’s bloodied shoulders with both hands. “The depths to which you drive me–the literal filth–nameless gods, but I have killed a man and still I care more for this–I told you, did I not, that men of my profession are prone to these terrible sicknesses, to these lusts–”
“Yeah, Al,” Jake said, mesmerized by the stream of words and by Alexander’s foul labors. Soon enough Alexander choked out a terrible curse in a long-dead tongue–somewhere halfway around the world, a swarm of bees set upon a bull and stung it to death–Alexander’s prick shuddered and exploded upon the instant, transforming the sticky clay into something which Alexander could really only classify as, well, slip.
Jake gentled him through it while Alexander clutched at Jake and swore. His gut was a single cramped knot, but it was a pain that would pass in time, and in any case Alexander cared little enough about it. Eventually Jake’s hands slowed to a stop and Alexander caught his breath. “Curse these filthy manias of mine,” Alexander said.
“Can I curse ’em later, Al? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I’m gonna die any second now.”
With a sniff of disdain Alexander touched two fingers to the buckle of Jake’s belt. “I don’t think you’ve quite thought that sequence through, Jacob.”
“I ain’t so good at thinking, Al. Like you said.” The hopeful look in Jake’s eyes was almost too much to bear; he twitched his hips forward just a little, in a diffident thrust that was more please than now, wholly inappropriate to his size and general lack of couth.
“How kind of you to admit it–well, this is interesting, isn’t it?” Alexander touched the three ragged tears clawed across the front of Jake’s trousers. “Looks like something of a close call.”
Jake looked down, then winced and swore. “Jeez, I kinda remember that one–scared the piss outta me and I don’t mind sayin’ so! I don’t wanna be one’a them unicorns, Al.”
Alexander went still. For a blessed moment he was unable to translate that from ‘Jake’ to ‘educated’–“‘Eunuch’, Jacob. It’s pronounced ‘eunuch’.”
“Like I said.”
Alexander shook off his scholarly disgust and bent his attention to the task at hand. “Well, at least your near-neutering will serve a purpose now,” he said, reaching in through the topmost rent in the fabric and drawing Jake free.
Jake’s breath roared out against his ear, and all of a sudden the bulk of the man fell forward against Alexander, pinning him to the side of the train and nearly crushing him; the next few moments were less Alexander practicing his handiwork and more Jake madly humping the first offer of release that he was given. It was a reaction that Alexander was, sadly, not unused to. Bracing himself, he curled his hands into the proper receptacle, and waited. Either Jake would catch hold of himself, or he wouldn’t.
He almost didn’t. Raising himself up on his braced arms Jake looked down at himself, in dim and dull-witted awe at his own heavy-thewed rutting–his cock was a blunt weapon caged inside Alexander’s slim scholar’s fingers, as inappropriate as a pig in wedding attire. There was a joke here to be made about sausage, but Alexander most unequivocally refused to make it. “Aw, yeah, Al,” Jake breathed, his voice thick, and without further ado he shot all over Alexander’s soot-stained waistcoat, ruining it all over again to the accompaniment of a series of disturbingly porcine grunts.
When Jake was done, he let loose a pained groan and slumped forward, squashing Alexander entirely. Alexander was not entirely unaccustomed to that, either, so he put his arms around Jake while he waited, matter-of-factly wiping his hands clean (or clean-ish) on the tattered remains of Jake’s shirt. They remained like that for some time, at least until a large chunk of the railway bridge fell into the Black Canyon with a roar and a spiral of sparks. Jake stirred. “Bet I know what you’re thinkin’, Al,” he said, sleepy and content.
Alexander (who had, indeed, been thinking) came back to himself with a startled sound. “Oh?” he said, recovering. “How novel. What, then, am I thinking?”
“You’re thinkin’ you wanna fire up the train and drive it into the canyon and summon up that demon yourself,” said Jake.
“What?” Alexander said, aghast. “I was thinking nothing of the sort, Jacob! I am appalled! That you would assign to me the same base motives as… that man… honestly!”
“Oh,” said Jake, his round and honest face abashed. “I’m sorry, Al, I just thought–”
“I am tempted to do it,” Alexander clarified. “I do not want to do it. In fact, my very soul cries out against the idea–but the temptation, alas, is very real. An opportunity to match myself against the Ni’kos and find out if I am the man I think I am; to find out if I could truly do the unthinkable and succeed where Lyon has failed!”
“Bet you could, Al,” Jake said, loyal to the very end. “And since we both know you could, you don’t actually hafta, right?”
“Unlike some people, I have some measure of self-control,” Alexander said tartly. Nudging Jake away he straightened himself, rebuttoning his ruined trousers. “And for once, Jacob, I am not casting aspersions on you.”
“That’s good, Al.” Jake tucked his wilting prick back into the tatters of his own pants. “I don’t like aspersions. It makes my piss smell funny.”
Alexander hitched in mid-stride, then shuddered and stomped on towards the end of the car. “You did that on purpose, Jacob.”
Intent on only one thing–the washroom at the end of their sleeping-car–Alexander swung on board the train once more, followed closely by Jake. Neither one of them noticed the twin pinpricks of red light that followed their journey, nor the little huddled figure to which the pinpricks belonged; once the night was once again still, the automaton left the dubious shelter of the train’s caboose, leaping over the sleeping forms of the brakesmen whom it had replaced.
With one last red-lit glance at the train, the creature scampered away, intent on finding shelter before dawn. Shelter, yes, and a place to hide, for it had a goal, and a destination, and orders–a mile or so away it came across a battered stovepipe hat, rolling about on the tracks. With a hiss the creature snatched it up, then continued on its way.