Alpha; Wasteland 3

Usual Alpha statement goes here. I recently got back to my Wasteland stuff and found that I quite missed it. I’ll be going back over the original two stories and tweaking them – they were just to damn grim for the average reader – no levity meant that they were just depressing.

 

C&C always welcome. Enjoy.

 

Wasteland three

 

Each mile across the ocean was bought in blood and sweat and discomfort. Each day was filled with muscle aching labour and each night we fell into exhausted slumber. All that time I felt freer and more carefree than any time since we fled the farm. When time allowed I played games and talked with people, each one as desperate and scared as I was. It was an enforced community that I cherished, for it reunited me with the thing I had missed most; people. Love my parents as I did, the sight of new faces, the timbre of new voices and the feel of new skin that had been absent for so long was wonderful. This, of course, was not to last.

 

My arms are heavy with an honest day’s work. Sweat runs down my face and the smell of hot metal and oil burns my nose. All around me the engine room booms and clangs with the sound of hammers, pistons and power tools.

“Boy.”

An arm appears from beneath the pipes before me, the hand gesticulating.

I pass Delver Winse the closest wrench and I receive a thumbs up before he returns to work.

The engine room has become my new home. Back on the farm I would have scouted the fields for scrap, pulled weeds, watered crops and fed our various livestock. Here I haul junk, reclaim parts and aid in the maintenance of one of the massive train’s great engines.

Behind me overseers strut with engineers and cogwatchers, their duty lists clutched to their chests like holy symbols. Labour gangs, their heads wrapped in rag turbans against the noise, feed in auxiliary fuel or run back and forwards with repair teams. Above me twenty men turn the wheels that pump water around the inner workings of the pretech engine, each one massive and foamed with sweat.

Suzanna is here too, her head baffled against the noise and her arms painted with grease to the elbow. She, like Winse, is given the privilege of working on the pretech engine, soothing it’s nuclear heart with repeated blows from a spanner.

The rest of the crew call her Juddatha, which I’m told is a sign of affection in whatever their native tongue is, although I suspect that it is actually something immodest. Suzanna doesn’t mind and has more than once shown potential suitors what she thinks of their advances. My sister seems to have come into her own here in the rough grime of the engine room. Her humour has become more bawdy and she never seems far from laughter. She is not the girl I fled the farm with, but is instead becoming some whole new woman that I do not fully know.

The horn cuts through the hiss and rattle all around me. Winse appears from beneath the pipes, his face slick with oil. He jabs a finger at the wall mounted clock. It’s time to start slowing down.

Most of the workers start heading towards the doors to the other parts of the train, a few hanging back to finish their work or talk softly behind the rumbling pipes. The overseers and the senior engineers haul on the wheels that control the valves that pump fuel around the mighty engine. It will continue to power the landtrain forward for some hours with careful guiding, but today’s fuel allowance has been spent and the maintenance crews need sleep. The night is closing in outside no doubt and the families and traders that use the train will be eager to set up their things for the night.

Winse claps me on the shoulder.

“You at the market tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Come by if you can. Beni wants to make sure you eat today.”

Winse’s wife, as coal black as her husband, has mothered me ever since I was partnered with Winse in the work gangs. She had insisted that I eat daily – a luxury that not all could achieve on this trip. Mother and Father had fallen in love with her for such generosity.

I wonder how my parents are? What duties did they have today? Hunting and trapping? Father is a skilled hunter and Mother is the best shot with a rifle I have ever seen. Maybe they have been deployed as guards for the Train Master, either protecting the fuel key or the engine room itself. Maybe the Train Master has asked for them to provide escort and protection for him personally?

“Hieme,” Suzanna punches me on the shoulder. Long hours hauling on heavy metal has added more weight to her arms and I feel it as the playful blow lands.

“You ready? Let’s go.” She pulls me out the door, swapping goodbyes with men from her section. Winse waves me farewell as he and the overseers begin the inspection of the engine and begin to put the beast to sleep.

We stump through the crowded hangers that serve as carriages, stepping over or around people huddling in groups. Soon the train will stop and we will be able to step down and make our beds.

“How was work?” I ask Susanna.

“You were there,” she snorts, turning and making eyes at a young man from her work gang. “See you later,” she shouts at him.

“Will there be a huntroast do you think?” There hasn’t been meat for several days, the hunters coming back empty handed each time. Our rations are holding up, but I long ago had my fill of hard tack and processed starch bricks.

Hot pig, now that would be something. Or one of the big lizards that sleeps on the rocks by the ocean. Or even one of the fish that craw up the shoreline to feed on the grasses. I imagine the meat coming part in my mouth, the juices, the grease, the flavours. My stomach knots painfully.

We find our parents in the biggest of the communal hangers. Both greet us with tired smiles and open arms.

“How was work?” I ask.

“Nothing more terrible than all the other days so far. How about you?” Father wipes muck from my cheek and tuts at the state of my clothing. He has fared little better in fairness; his thin shirt grubby with sweat and dirt, his boots and leggings cakes in drying mud. I smell blood on him.

“Is there a roast tonight?”

He grins and looks at Mother.

“Roast? Not that I know of. Dear, do you know anything about a roast?”

“Not at all.”

“Papa!” Suzanna thumped him on the shoulder, to which his immediate response was to snatch her up over his shoulder.

“Now that I think of it,” he said, swinging Suzanna around as if she were a five year old again, “some very handsome man did manage to bring down a bit of game.”

I can’t resist jumping on him, scrambling up his chest like a climbing rat. He roars in mock anger and wrestles us both, like he did when we were tiny.

This trip has reforged us. No longer does the sight of Father make me fearful, or Mother make me wary. They are my parents again, and my love for them is unimpeded once again.

The train rumbles and growls as it slows, the families and traders around us sitting or standing in cramped familiarity and, without effort, we talk as a family should. Briefly, I was a child again.

As I rest on Mother’s lap I tell them all the jokes Winse has taught me and the new things I am learning about the engine. Winse has even begun teaching me, in the quiet moments when we can take our breaks, the tongue of his people.

“Winse say’s I’m a natural and I’ll be fluent by the time we make it to the end of the landbridge.”

Mother smiles and Father nods saying, “When we get there you’ll have to teach us.”

“What about you Suzanna?”

“Oh, you know, the usual.”

“Did you talk to that boy again?” Mother’s voice becomes strange whenever she mentions ‘the boy’. His name is Kamit and he is part of Suzanna’s work gang. Suzanna used to talk about him until both Mother and Father started to take an interest.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And what? It’s not like we have much to talk about other than the engine and the smell.”

“Are you planning on seeing him tonight?”

Suzanna gives the smile that I am getting used to more and more and says, “if he’s there.”

I can feel Mother about to say more, to make some point or argument that will try to draw Suzanna into more speech about Kamit, but a shadow falls across us.

“Nino. Maeve.”

She is as massively built and sturdy looking as the Landtrain itself. What she lacks in the feminine grace shared by Mother and Suzanna, she makes up for in overt power.

“Justice,” Father says. I can see the muscles of his arm twitch and the cable like sinews in his neck bulge. Neither of my parents rise, but both are wary of the huge woman.

Justice returns his greeting with a nod. She wears her red bandana as usual, her hair piling up behind it in an unordered mess of braids and dreadlocks.

“The Master would like you both to patrol the market tonight,” she says.

“We’ve done our time,” Mother replied.

“We are all being given additional duties for the night. There is unlicensed trading and untithed prostitution being conducted.” Her eyes flicked to Suzanna briefly. “I have heard rumours of a grooming group.” She meets Mother’s eyes and their gazes softened slightly, each woman connecting with the other in some way I do not feel qualified to describe.

“Fine. How long for?”

“All night. You may work in shifts and you will be given light duties tomorrow as compensation.”

“That’ll have to do.”

“I could help,” Suzanna said.

Justice shakes her head.

“No.” Without further comment she turns and leaves.

“Big bitch,” Father mutters.

I had yet to understand the animosity between my parents and Justice. Indeed, she was disliked up and down the length of the train. Twice she had been attacked by, and defeated singlehandedly, groups of travellers. Non spoke well of her, but they never really spoke of her either.

I had asked Winse about it once and his reply had been no more enlightening.

“It’s not who she is,” he’d said, “it’s what she is.”

 

The night market clatters around us, the traders setting up their stalls and the cooks lighting their fires. The huntroast has been butchered and divvied out to the licenced food venders. Whatever it was it was big. One man staggers away with his arms filled with offal and another fills a sack with bones and skin. We will eat well for a long while I think.

I walk through the bustle. This is my favourite pat of the day and I find a comfortable spot to watch the construction.

The train holds more people than it has any right to, and every night they climb down from its hot metal hangers, dragging their possessions with them. There are those, like Winse, that have made the train their permanent home, working as cooks, guards or engineers. Many more are traders, moving from one place to the next, and some are buyers who travel just to close deals or collect merchandise.

The sleeping tents get raised in a flapping calamity of colours. Rusties help set up the big generators and pump air into the heaters. Others gather wood for more fires.

Master Coleen marshals several for the raising of his joy tent, his daughters standing by watching and gossiping. One of them, a flame haired girl not much older than Suzanna, runs around the rusties and the other workers, whispering in their ear and laughing with them.

Mother has told me to stay away for Master Coleen’s tent. Father has also told me to stay away from his daughters. I have no idea why.

Between the great structures families set up makeshift camps. There is a scramble to get as close to the big fires as possible, or to secure a place by one of the generators, for despite the noise, heat is more valuable than peace out under the stars.

I learned early on the hucksters and thieves worked the market with stealthy diligence, snatching trinkets or food from the unwary. Most groups would have appointed watchmen sitting up whilst during the night to protect them from potential theft. Most nights Mother and Father would take turns for our little group.

Father moves among the workers and the families, his rifle slung over his shoulder. His axes have been locked away in armoury, to which only Justice holds the key. I can see that he’s tired, but he looks too fierce to trifle with. How strange it is that I can barely remember how he looked beneath the mountain. That seems so long ago now. I hope that one day I forget it entirely and never remember it.

The Eye of Hodin rises in the sky and the sun begins to dip below the horizon. Smoke and sparks fill the air and the rap of tent canvas mixes with peoples voices.

Mother finds me sitting on a sand dune.

“Hey, kid.”

“Hi, ma.”

She slipped an arm around me and I cuddled into her warmth. She kissed my forehead. We sat and watched the building of the shanty town. If I closed my eyes I could pretend that I was back home, back on the farm, with the smell of the machine hall after a hot day of labour and the burning of the night fire in my nostrils.

“I love you, ma.”

Todo Padre, child. I love you too. What’s brought that on?”

“Just happy.” I was. It might seem strange to even think it, but I was happy for the first time in almost four months. I felt things unwind with me that I didn’t know were wound up. The sky, quickly becoming black and star speckled, sucked up my fear and worry.

The eye of Hodin was full tonight. It watched, approvingly I think. It was then, in that unguarded moment that I asked Mother a question that I hadn’t realised was on my mind.

“What does that statuette do to Father?”

Mother went cold.

“I hoped you wouldn’t ask me about that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, child. Don’t be. We should have talked about it earlier. Once your father and me can sit down with the pair of you, we’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“Will you tell me about the war as well?”

“Yes. Think of some questions and we’ll do our best to answer them.” She stood. “Now, go find Winse and your sister.”

I made my way through the press, ignoring the cries from merchants as best I could. Suzanna would be nearby no doubt. She usually met her work gang for a drink of the engine fermented alcohol the rusties brewed before coming to bed down with us.

The smell of a cook fire drew my attention. The smell of grease and hot meat made my stomach groan.

Perhaps she was getting food?

In an act that I pretend is unselfish, I join the line at the nearest fire. It is a simple split oil drum, lined with hot coals, metal skewers of meat sizzling above. I have seen some cooks pour liquids and spices over their meat, but this one is plain and fatty – just the way I like it best.

“What is it?”

“Big swine,” the cook tells me. He is squat and hairy, his arms thick with old scars and muscle. “The guard Nino took it down.”

“That’s my father.”

He grins and claps me on the shoulder.

“Then this one is free,” he says and pulls a long skewer from the drum and hands it over. Dripping fat burns my hand and the hot metal will leave a mark on my palm I know, but I can’t stop smiling as he points me out to the people in the line and his family.

“This one is Nino’s boy.” More hands come to pat me, to praise my father and by extension me. I am punched good naturedly by older men in mock challenges and the women call me handsome and exclaim that I will be as handsome as my father one day.

The meat sears my throat as I wolf it down, the juices painting my lips and chin with grease.

A troupe of actors were staging the final act of a play nearby. I had only caught some of it previously and didn’t care for it; a love story, dredged they said, from way before the Meta War and attributed to a man called Drake Spear, or somesuch.

I saw Winse standing on the crowd and went to stand behind him. He turned and greeted me.

“Hieme? Good to see you lad.”

“Shouldn’t you be at the shop?” His wife would complain if Winse left her alone for too long.

“As bad as she is,” Winse muttered, running an oil dark hand through his white grubby hair. “I’ve gone up and down this bridge for the last ten years and I’ve never seen this play in full.”

“Remember, Beni said she wanted me to eat tonight.” I can’t hide my smile and neither can he.

“You have eaten, you little brat.” His finger wiped a smear of grease from my chin. “Trying to take advantage of old timers like me and my wife, eating our cooking and taking up our time. You’ll want me to blow your nose for you next.”

“Only if you say please.”

He aimed a swipe at me, which I playfully dodged.

“I might as well get back,” he said as the actors began taking their bows.

“Have you seen Suzanna anywhere?” I asked as we walked away.

“Not since the end of our shift. Why?”

“Ma wants me to look out for her.”

“That you should. Lots of bad things can happen to a pretty girl like that.”

This was not the first time someone had warned me to take care of my sister, a notion that I found strange. She was the elder and seemed far more competent at taking care of me. It was she that seemed to possess the strange abilities of speech and conversation that helped regulate her moods, a talent that I could not replicate and, neither it seemed, could Mother and Father.

“She has her wrench.”

“Plenty can happen that a wrench can’t fix.”

“Like what?”

Winse sucks his teeth and his pale eyes go wide for a moment, before he says, “Would you look at that?”

I looked and saw that the crowd ahead had parted. At the centre of the clearing was Bront Sturn. He was one of the chief wrestlers and strong men, hired to fight at the infrequent settlements along the bridge. I had seen him training atop the landtrain’s haulage carriages, either running of pulling himself up and over the metal railings again and again. His body was thick with muscles, all of them sinuous and tight, sculptured and perfect looking. In Outern Town he had lifted their local champion above his head and tossed him from the fighting ring as if he weighed nothing.

His coal black beard was bloody and by the look of it his right eye would never see again. He lay sprawled at the feet of Justice, his chest rising and falling in shallow bursts, specks of blood leaping from his lips with each limp breath.

Justice stepped over him and walked away without a backwards glance.

“Come on, boy,” Winse took hold of my arm and steered me through the crowd, away from the broken man.

 

When Benithra Winse saw me, she stopped talking to her customer, threw up her hands and cried, “For God’s sake, child, you look half starved!” Without further word to her customer she sprang towards me, caught my elbow in strong brown hands and sat me down by the fire. Without preamble she shoves a wooden bowl of stew into my hands. Then she rounds on her husband.

“You keeping him out in the market at all hours? You ‘spos to be taking care of him. Imagine what his papi say when you get him mixed up in some foolishness, Old Man.”

“Beni – ”

“Don’t go giving me none of that. You sit yourself down and get to work.”

Benithra went back to haggling with her customer. She and her husband sold all sorts, but what they were primarily known for was their firearms. Winse had been a gunsmith back in Afrik before he had taken his talents to the train. Both he and his wife had been riding the Landtrain back and forth between Finde Punte and Iron Harbour for the last five years and had been slowly reaping a comfortable profit.

“What are you working on tonight, then?” I asked.

Winse unslung his back pack and pulled out a complex series of pipes, tubes and other little pieces of scrap. They looked like a collection of junk.

“Whooping gun,” he said.

I had yet to fathom Winse’s strange gunsmith lingo, but I knew that a Whooping gun was similar to my grandfather’s Iron Scratcher – a long barrelled scrap launcher that fired a cartage of crushed junk at high speed. Quite what went into its construction I had no idea, but if Winse used only half of what he had collected, then this one was going to be big.

“Where do you get the parts for these things?”

“Best I don’t lie to you, lad. Lying tends to stick in my craw.” He continued to fiddle with the parts, unhitching his tools from his belt or opening up compartments in his leg.

“I ever tell you about the time I lost my leg,” he said, smiling, his teeth big and white set against the deep brown of his skin.

Like Mother, Winse was crippled, but where Mother had lost her arm in some long ago struggle that she would not speak of, Winse had told me the tale of how he lost his leg more than I could count. He had the disquieting habit of disconnecting its components to fiddle with them whilst he talked to you.

“Ye-”

“It was sixteen years ago, before you was a glint in your papi’s eye. Back when the war was cooling off. I had me this nasty as spit hog, real mean bastard. Never let anyone tell you that a pig is good for anything but bacon. We fell down this ravine when we was chasing survivors from some battle or other. Me and him fell thirty feet down and I got knocked out. When I come to I had me a broken leg and half my skull cracked open.”

I sit back and listen, happy that the story is familiar and restful. The night market bustles around us, traders selling their goods at exorbitant prices, entertainers playing for money and the shouts of the cooks and their crackling fires. Beneath it all is the sound that I will remember for the rest of my life, a sound that I had never thought to hear ever.

The sea. The landbridge is little more than a causeway that crosses the ocean, dividing the great body of water in half. Mother told me that once the great saint Thosé Santos wrestled with the Leviathan and used its body to cross the ocean to visit the Other Worlds beyond Mericland. Winse calls that nonsense and tells me how the earth doctors of Afrik tore up the sea bed and raised it for an ancient king to cross the ocean into Mericland. He says that they used magic and machines and the strength of their God Touched, those we would call Metas or Twists, to do it.

“When I came too, the bastard pig was eating my unbroken leg! If my Beni hadn’t come buy then I’ll bet that that hog would have had me.”

“Hieme,” Benithra called to me, “have you seen your sister?”

Ah. I knew I had forgotten something.

“No.”

“No, he says. She a beautiful young girl, you nut brained little man. Go find her and bring her here. Your mamma asked me to take care of you two bean eating brats, so that’s what I’m going to do.” She tossed a nameless piece of junk at Winse. “Make me something useful outa that, Old Man.”

“Never get married,” Winse whispered to me as he pulled himself up. I rose too and headed out into the market, looking for the work crew that Suzanna hung with. I found them eventually, some way off among the dunes, sitting by their own small fire and looking down onto the ocean.

The moon shone on the water. Hodin’s eye, cast up there when the Allfather sacrificed it for wisdom. It would watch me forever and when I died I would have to account for each moment of cowardice that the eye had seen. As Father was fond of saying, “only in darkness can you be truly brave.”

Suzanna sat with three of her work crew, passing a bottle between them, talking softly. They didn’t notice me as I approached, so focused were they on watching the sea and the great eye above.

“What’s out there,” the youngest man said. I knew his name to be Hodi. Like my family he was from Mericland, his skin dusky and tanned.

“Salt water,” said another, this once called Ric. He came from the north, from the lands that bordered on the radioactive forests of Old Anada. I had heard him talk about the toxic stink of the snow up there and the strange melding of life that haunted the dark forests. “It’s nothing but salt water to the top of the world and back. I know, I’ve seen it.”

“What about the old Kingdoms?” Suzanna asks.

“Legends,” Ric says, “just old legends. There’s nothing more to this world then the Unbroken Trail and Afrik across the bridge.”

The Unbroken Trail was all we knew of our world; the path that ran from the top of Mericland to the bottom. Once it had been a united series of lands, but now it was mostly ghost haunted and, if the tales were true, filled with the unquiet dead.

“There’s the Sudmeric,” Suzanna says.

“Old rocks and high hills, that’s all that is. Aint no people there. Just those damned lizards.”

The last member of their group speaks up now. He is the oldest, his long hair streaked with grey and his knuckles thick and scarred from a lifetime of labour. I do not know his name.

“All the stories are true, you know,” he says.

“Which ones? Most of them contradict the others.”

“Them’s the ones that are most real. The really real ones.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“My people came from long ago. We travelled through the doors from the Old Place and ended up here. We were running from the people from across the sea with their white skin and big boats. Now we are in the New Place and I see the same mountains I grew in the shadow of, but they’re all different. The air tastes different. I used to hunt buffalo on the plains with my brothers. Now I clean metal and hope that this dream will end. What is a greater mystery than life?”

The small group were quiet for time. I lay on the cool sand and listen, hoping that they will talk more, but they do not. I rise and say, “Suzanna.”

“Hieme?”

“Winse and Beni are looking after us tonight. They want you back by their fire.” I think for a moment she will protest and curse me, but instead she rises and we walk aback across the sand away from the work crew who still keep staring out into the night, watching Hodin’s eye.

 

I wake. Fires burn slowly and sedately all around me, the forms of sleepers quiet and peaceful.

Winse snores nearby. I see Mother walking in the distance, a long rifle slung over her shoulder as she walks the perimeter of the camp. Hodin’s eye, slitted and yellow, watches us all.

I want to move from the blanket that I share with Suzanna, but I know she will wake.

Some figures walk between fires. I recognise Justice among them.

The night is quiet. Sound seems stolen.

I try to go back to sleep.

I close my eyes but sleep does not come.

I roll over and catch sight of the red headed girl from Coleen’s joy tent. She is wandering, wrapped in a shawl. She stops to talk with some of the patrolling guards, but the conversations are short and curt. I wonder what has kept her up when all the rest are asleep.

She approaches Mother and tries to talk, but Mother sends her away with a glare. I wish I knew why this girl, so similar to Suzanna in many ways, inspires such animosity in her.

Water, breaking on the shore. It is the only sound, so low and ever present that I almost forgot its existence.

Something about it seems… wrong. I can hear something.

I sit up, uncaring of Suzanna’s sleepy snort.

In the darkness outside the rings of illumination cast by the fires I see nothing. The moon lends only limited radiance, as if it were rationed.

The sea, the waves the splash of water, it fills the world. That’s when the shooting starts.

Guns open up in scatters, desperate barks, the guards stationed around the perimeter firing into the blackness. Justice moves into view again and starts shouting. People are standing up, shoving blankets aside and getting to their feet. Children cry as parents pull out weapons and aim them at the shoreline.

A roar shocks me back to the floor, loud enough to knock me from my feet. My ears ring with phantom screams and migraine whines and something, something massive, hits the camp.

A haulage trailer collapses on its side, metal tearing. Two men are smashed into the air, spinning away into darkness. Something black crushes fires.

“Marahawk!” Someone shouts.

“Hieme!”

I have a brief vision of Suzanna’s face before she slams into me and then my face ploughs a trench in the earth.

The ground shakes and the thrashing in my ears resolves into the sound of people fleeing, stamping and screaming.

Winse’s gun coughs out a monsoon of bright sparks, lighting up a massive scaled flank. More guns open fire. Shouting. Screams.

Suzanna’s weight pins me in place. How did she get so heavy?

“Stay down,” she breaths in my ear, her voice wet with terror. I can hear Benithra’s voice and the scrap rattle of her own firearm.

The roar is so loud that it is almost a non-sound, filling my ears with painful nothingness, all other noise smothered.

I see it then.

Taller than the highest part of the landtrain, the creature was cousin to the steeds of the raiders that had chased my family from our home. But where those had been sleek and lean, this was vast and bloated. Stone shards studded its body, rising up from within its skin. Eyes like fire. A mouth of broken glass teeth.

The moon, Hodin’s eye, halos it, the Lord of Strife’s cruel laughter frozen in the starlight above.

My god has no mercy, no forgiveness, no pity. I have lived too long without fear and this is his punishment.

“Stay down, Hieme,” Suzanna’s voice is a silver whisper, her breathing close to hyperventilation.

I can’t. I have come so far and for so long. In the flesh smiths house I refused to be a victim again. I had forgotten that boast and now this is Hodin’s challenge to me.

I’m up before Suzanna can stop me. I have no weapon. I have no hope. But I have to try, to protect Mother and Father at the very least. They have bled themselves white for me, for us, I need to do my part.

I run forward. I dodge and weave those who flee. I am a small moving blur. Fires light its belly, its mighty frame mostly blocked by spilling smoke and the oily darkness.

More gun fire rates in the night, the pop-pop of rifles and scrap cannons and the longer hiss of the train’s chain guns.

I grab a spar of broken metal. I have no hope of hurting it, but if I can distract it long enough then the guns can bring it down or drive it off.

Its shadow swallows me.

Now or never.

Hodin look at me, see my courage in darkness.

I ram my spear into its ankle.

Its rage explodes like a bomb. I am brought to my knees and I feel blood spurting across my fingers as I clam my hands to my ears.

I look up in a daze and I see its face, peering down at me, at the little creature that had the temerity to challenge it, to try to hurt it.

Its eyes, pools of rancid fire, leave dancing after images on my sight as I close them. I have made a terrible mistake.

Justice slams into it, moving like a blur. At her throat, the gem haemorrhages red light, as hot and violent as the monsters gaze.

She breaks its ankle.

She snatches up my spear, her hand warping the metal, and stabs it through the creature’s foot.

As it topples, she leaps, no, she flies, straight at its face, her fist tearing a canyon in its jaw.

The impact of the creature’s body knocks me from my feet and I tumble in a painful lurch into the remains of a cook fire.

Flicking ash from my face I rise to see Justice standing atop the creature, her hands red to the elbow and her chest painted in blood. She has torn a wound in its chest, as large and deep as a foot locker, and she holds its bloody heart in her hands.

Fires rage out of control behind and before her, the hell gem at her throat under lighting her face.

What is she?

What the hell is she?

 

The Train Master holds a funeral for those that died in the attack. How the creature came upon us with such silence and secrecy no one knows.

“It was a Rad Dragon,” Father tells me. I have no idea what that is and he does not elaborate.

Twenty people died from the attack. I see the cook that handed me the free meat among the dead.

“We owe them this,” Mother says quietly.

The rest of the family nod. We were never able to lay the spirits of the farm to rest. I picture my grandfather, my aunts and uncles and their children all laid out on the earth. If only we had been able to honour them as we do these refugees here and now.

“We should burn them,” Father says. That way their spirits could find Hodins halls faster and not be trapped here to be ensnared by the trickster god, Loek. We had no time to touch the dead or make them ready for the afterlife. They had no grave goods with them. They will enter the afterlife without finery.

“Do you think Grandfather has entered Hodin’s halls yet?” I ask.

Father nods, but it is Suzanna that speaks.

“Thosé Santose will have helped him there.” She holds the wooden figure of the woodsmith in her hand. There are times that I wish I could share her love for the god, but Hodin looked down on me from the day of my birth and Father has told me that this means I am his. I do not want to be, but the god has chosen me for himself, so I have little choice in the matter.

The Master will say a few words. A prayer I think.

He does not keep our gods, for he is not of Mericland, nor of any place I have heard. His voice is soft and lilting, his skin a cream white.

“May the gods hold them,” he says. Which gods, I wonder. There are so many. When it comes to my turn to touch the dead and leave a message with them I stop by the cook.

“You were kind,” I tell him. It is important, I think, to let the dead know these things. He may forget his virtues otherwise.

“Look out for the Ortega’s,” I tell him. “They could use the help of  kind man like yourself.” I picture grandfather and this man, whom I only knew for a few moments. In my imagination they share a joke. It is a good thing to hope for.

“An tell Hodin, if you see him, that I am trying my best.”

I see Justice standing nearby. She holds her bandana in her hand, exposing her scars to the air. The jagged letters of her name stand out like white chalk on her dark skin.

She has a look like hate in her eyes.

What gods does she keep?

“You were a fool,” she tells me.

I was.

“I know.”

“Why did you do it?”

I have no better answer than the truth.

“I feared Hodin would not find me worthy.”

Her lip curls.

“The gods are dead. We killed them.”

This is plainly false and I tell her so.

“You are young and a fool,” she tells me, turning away and leaving me.

Is she right? Have the gods gone? What of Hodin’s eye, the moon? What of the power in the god statue that Mother keeps? What of the strength granted to my sister from her figure of Thosé Santose?

What of the bloody gem on Justices throat?

 

My flesh feels hot.

 

 

 

On the landtrain. Cross the bridge. Attacked by pirates and enforcers of the scrap king. They pass through his realm slowly. There are five great barriers along the landbridge all of which are there to exact a tithe from travellers. The tithes are ruinous and by the end anyone traveling through will be poorer than when they left. Mother and Father work as guards and scouts for the train whilst Susanna and Hieme work in the engine room (Susanna because she is a pretty good mechanic and is fascinated by the relic engine and Hieme because he is so small enough to get inside the various vents that need cleaning)  the forman wants to protect the children so makes them work there to keep an eye on them.

It is a hard time for the family, but then again it’s never been easy for them either.

One of the other guards is Justice. She takes her meals away from the others when the train stops for the night in the safe zones along the way. Justice is a Meta Person, her powers coming from a gem that allows her to fly and grants great strength.

Waldo Winse is a traveling gunsmith, who sells his skills to the highest bidder. He works in the carriage just next to the engine room fashioning guns for the caravan master and his men. He is looking for more profits in the war nations beyond the bridge.

They come to the final gate that lets them into the scrap kings city proper and they travel through it, some passangers getting on, some getting off and trade being done in the meantime. They will stay there a week and the family must work on the train in that time.

But as they leave the scrap king comes after them. He claims something has been stolen. His men attack the train and the family try to defend it – the attack is a ruse to get at the Ortegas.

Mother and Father die in the attack and Justice and Winse save the children,  flying off into Africa – the War Nation.

Winse tried to

“Are you going to teach me more Afrik?”

“Sure I can.” My mentor rattled off a lesson off the top of his head.

I saw Justice moving through the crowds again, her makeshift armour plates catching the firelight and panelling her in reflected flame.

“Don’t you go meddling in that, boy,” Winse sniffed. “Her lot are the reason we’re all in this mess together.” I took the hot meat from the man at the spit and handed over my coin. The price of meat was exorbitantly high, the hunters having come back with so little over the past few days.

Winse and I took our meat back through the huddles around the campfires, settling ourselves down behind Winse’s makeshift store.

“You bringing home strays again?” Benithra, Winse’s wife, asked when she spotted me.

“Only the clever ones,” Winse had replied.

 

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