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3:15 to Dayko

NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.


     In one seamless motion, Jackie DeCoeur stood up from behind the overturned table and levelled her six-shooter at the Jailkeeper’s grinning face. Aiming just between his eyes, she exhaled the breath she had been holding, and she squeezed the trigger.

     Jackie heard the shot ring out, and she knew her bullet’s path was true. But, in the same instant that her revolver fired, the Jailkeeper just… disappeared. He simply vanished into thin air, leaving behind nothing but a mass of spinning, swirling papers, which were held aloft for a second as though borne upon a miniature whirlwind, before they shot out in all directions just as fast as a bullet, so that Jackie had to duck back behind the table to avoid being struck in the face by the storm of paper projectiles.

     One of the flying papers ricocheted off the ceiling and two walls, then came to rest at her feet. She picked it up: It was a copy of her own wanted poster.

     “Cute,” Jackie DeCoeur said, before wadding the poster up into a ball and throwing it against the wall of the canteen car, which rattled and shuddered as the prison train sped along the tracks. “Always did hate that picture of me.”

     Peeking back above the table, Jackie saw where her bullet had struck the paneled door at the other end of the car, embedding itself harmlessly in the dark wood.

     “Now I remember why I hate fighting spellslingers,” she said, as she flipped open the revolver’s cylinder and replaced the spent cartridge. “They’re always more trouble than they’re worth.”

     “You won’t get any argument from me,” Tishia said.

     Jackie glanced over to her right, across the train’s central aisle, where her deputy, Tishia, lay crouched between two overturned tables of her own. The red-haired woman was facing in the opposite direction from Jackie and trading ineffectual shots with a second Jailkeeper – a grinning man with a cruel face and a thin, black beard, who wore a clean white shirt beneath a dark blue vest, along with pinstriped pants and patent leather shoes. Bits of paper were stuck into the wooden tabletop between the Jailkeeper and Tishia, as though they had been fired into it with a canon, and Tishia was bleeding from a series of long, shallow cuts along one side of her face, where she hadn’t quite managed to dodge the Jailkeeper’s salvos.

     “Tishia, I hope you’ll take this comment in the constructive spirit in which it is offered,” Jackie said, as the Jailkeeper she had been fighting rematerialized next to the one Tishia had been shooting at, “but I’m beginning to feel as though there were one or two crucial details missing from your scouting report.”

     “How was I supposed to know there were two of them?” Tishia called back. “I spent a whole month watching that stockade, and I never saw the two of them in the same place at the same time.” Jackie’s deputy flinched as a double barrage of paper missiles thudded into her makeshift barrier, sending splinters flying in all directions. “And they look exactly the same! They must be twins, or something.”

     Tishia was right about that, Jackie supposed. The two Jailkeepers were mirror images of each other, seemingly identical in every respect.

     Holding her gun out around the side of the overturned table, Tishia squeezed off a pair of shots in the twin Jailkeepers’ direction, only for the two men to vanish into identical swirls of warrants and wanted posters and newsprint.

     “And, in the whole month I was watching, I ain’t never seen them do anything like that,” Tishia added. “I didn’t know they were slingers – or whatever the hell they are.”

     “Well, we’ll discuss the finer points of reconnaissance after we get out of here with our skins intact,” Jackie said. “Or mostly intact, anyway.” She tossed a handkerchief across the aisle to Tishia, who caught it and held it up against her bleeding face. “Now’s our chance – you ready to move?”

     After wincing a bit as she dabbed at her wounds, Tishia nodded.

     “Then let’s go,” Jackie said.

     The two women stood up quickly and met in the aisle, where they stood back-to-back with their pistols held at the ready. Then they began to move, with Tishia walking forward and Jackie stepping backward, so that they kept both ends of the train covered as they advanced down the aisle.

     “How many more cars before we get to the prisoner compartment?” Jackie asked as they reached the door which led to the next carriage.

     “Two more,” Tishia said. “One more crew compartment, and one boxcar. The prison compartment is the last car before the locomotive.” She shifted her revolver to her other hand, so that she could grab the handle of the door. “How long until we get to Dayko?”

     “Less than an hour,” Jackie said, without any need to consult a watch. “So, unless you feel like turning our escape into a running street battle, I’d suggest that we pick up the pace.”

     “Still no argument here,” Tishia said, and she threw open the door.

     Sweltering air, bright light, and rust-red dust all came roaring in through the open doorway as the Waste sped by outside, along with the deafening rattle and clank of the train as it rumbled along the long iron rails that straddled the pulsating leyline below. Metal squeaked and squealed as the two adjoining cars strained against their couplings, and steam hissed below the train as the pistons driving its wheels vented hot air with each powerful stroke.

     “Watch my back,” Jackie DeCoeur said, holstering her pistol as she stepped out into the space between cars.

     “Don’t I always?” Tishia called back over the roar of the train.

     Outside, the red-eyed woman braced herself as she waited for the coupling to settle. After a moment, the train turned onto a straight section of track, and Jackie made her move. She took one light step onto the bucking coupling, then took a quick jump forward, alighting on the platform at the rear of the next train car and grabbing hold of the black iron railing. She nodded at Tishia, who waited on the platform of the last car, and Tishia nodded back. So Jackie grabbed the handle on the door into the next carriage, and she slid it open.

     The instant she did, a salvo of paper came flying out through the open door, so that Jackie and Tishia both had to throw themselves to one side, with Tishia almost tumbling off the train in the process.

     “Well, there’s one of them,” Tishia said, grimacing as she stood back up. “Wonder where his brother’s at?”

     Jackie was about to reply, when she sensed movement above her, and saw the shadows which the train cast across Tishia’s face change ever so slightly.

     “Up above!” the red-eyed woman shouted, her revolver instantly out of its holster as she pointed it up at the second Jailkeeper, who had appeared on the roof of the train just over her head, and was about to fire off a spell. Jackie cracked off a pair of shots in his direction, and he vanished into another whirlwind of paper.

     “I’ll take the one up there,” Jackie said, grabbing the ladder which led up to the roof and starting to climb. “You get his friend in the next car.”

     “I’m on it,” Tishia said, as she leapt across the coupling and vanished into the next carriage.

     Jackie kept her pistol at the ready as she clambered up onto the roof of the swaying and shuddering train. The dusty wind blew into her face and made her feel as though she were being shot at with an endless barrage of grit. Dirt and sand bounced off her dark glasses with little plinking noises, and they filled her unprotected mouth with the awful taste of clay. She had to use her free hand to hold her black gambler’s hat atop her head, lest it be blown off, and the fringe of her black serape billowed out behind her like a dark angel’s wings. Beneath her, the roof of the train was slightly rounded, so she had to position her feet carefully to maintain her balance.

     Jackie DeCoeur took a few steps forward, keeping her knees flexed and her eyes open.

     “Can you come out to play?” she yelled.

     As if in response, a Jailkeeper materialized maybe a dozen paces in front of her. He was crouched down low, and he conjured a barrage of paper missiles, which he fired at Jackie’s knees. Jackie leapt straight up into the air, firing off a shot of her own at the Jailkeeper’s head as she did, only to see the man vanish before her bullet was even out of its barrel. Jackie didn’t have to see it happen to know that the man would reappear directly behind her, so, as she landed back on the train’s roof with a metallic thud, leaving twin dents beneath her boots, she also dropped to one knee, just in time to feel a stream of paper whoosh through the air above her head. Spinning nimbly on the balls of her feet, the red-eyed woman whirled to face the other direction, firing off two quick shots as she did. But her bullets passed through empty air; the Jailkeeper was gone.

     Jackie stood back up and turned around, and was surprised to find herself almost face-to-face with her smiling adversary. His hands were at his sides, with his thumbs hooked into his suspenders, but there was a mischievous look in his eyes.

     “I’m not one to look a gift baloth in the mouth,” Jackie said, cocking her pistol and pressing it up against the Jailkeeper’s forehead. “If you’ve developed a death wish, I’m happy to oblige.”

     The Jailkeeper’s smile just widened. And that was when Jackie heard it. Somehow, above the din of the speeding train, and the high-pitched whistling of the wind, she heard a quiet but familiar sound.

     She heard the sound of a pistol being cocked.

     Jackie didn’t fire her gun. Instead, she threw herself down against the roof of the train.

     As she fell, she heard the crack of a shot, and the Jailkeeper vanished. Jackie could actually feel the passing bullet as it sliced through the air just above her head.

     “Damnation!”

     Jackie heard Tishia cry out in alarm from the other end of the train car, followed by the sound of footsteps clambering across the tin roof. As Jackie stood back up and dusted herself off, she heard Tishia sigh an audible sigh of relief.

     “Oh, thank the angels,” Tishia said, almost bending over double as she struggled to catch her breath. “My ‘slinger up and disappeared on me, so I figured I’d poke my head up here, see how you were doing. And there was that other ‘slinger, just standing there with his back to me, and I figured, finally, I’ve got the drop on one of ‘em, and a clean shot. But as soon as I fired, he up and disappeared, too, and then I saw that you were behind him, and you went down, and… and…” Tishia was holding her sides and gasping. “And… I thought I must’ve hit you instead.”

     “No harm done,” Jackie said. “Except to my wardrobe.” She pulled off her gambler’s hat, and stuck a finger through the small hole which had appeared in its felt.

     “I’ll buy you a new one, when we’re back in Verkell,” Tishia offered.

     “You will not,” Jackie said. “There’s only one fox made ‘em the way I like, and I put him out of business.” The red-eyed woman smiled, flashing her gold tooth. “Fortunately for you, I ordered a couple spares before I did.” Then she nodded in the direction of the prisoner transport carriage, which was only two cars away. “But we can discuss changes in fashion later. For now, let’s get back inside, before this train hits a bump and we find ourselves walking the rest of the way to Dayko.”

     Jackie and Tishia hurried across the roof of the train car, then lowered themselves onto the coupling below. They opened the door into the next carriage – a plain, unmarked boxcar – and, when no torrent of spells greeted them from inside, they let themselves in, closing the door behind them.

     Surveying the contents of the boxcar, Jackie asked: “What in blazes in this?”

     “I haven’t the slightest,” Tishia said, her mouth hanging slightly open. “The manifest we got from your friend said this car was supposed to be empty.”

     But the boxcar was decidedly not empty. Instead, in its center, stood a giant metal chamber. The chamber was nearly as long and as tall as the boxcar itself, and it was divided into two separate, room-like sections, with identical, padlocked doors. The chamber’s metal walls looked to be inches thick, and they were attached to a metal frame with what must have been hundreds – or thousands, even – of thumb-sized rivets. Glowing magical runes seemed to cover every inch of the chamber’s walls. They were written in strange, arcane languages which made Jackie’s head ache just to look at them, and they pulsed with a black, lightless glow. The runes seemed to hum as well – a low, incessant, droning hum, which set Jackie’s teeth on edge.

     “What in blazes would you keep in something like that?” Tishia asked, her voice barely a whisper.

     “Something which you very much did not want getting out,” Jackie said.

     The red-eyed woman walked over to the nearest of the two doors, and she pressed the back of her hand up against it. The enchanted metal was warm to the touch.

     “Iron?” Tishia asked.

     “Lead,” Jackie said.

     Tishia whistled. “That thing must weigh, what? Ten tons? Twenty?”

     “At least.”

     “What do you think’s inside?”

     “Only one way to find out,” Jackie said. She lifted up the padlock. It was bigger than a closed fist, and it was heavy.

     “You think that, maybe, we ought to just leave that be?” Tishia asked.

     “You know how I get around locked doors,” Jackie said, probing inside the padlock’s keyhole with the tip of her little finger.

     Tishia sighed, then shook her head. “How long?”

     Jackie gave the padlock one last, critical look. “Thirty seconds,” she said.

     “Twenty-five,” Tishia replied immediately.

     Jackie shot her deputy a sideways glance. “Twenty-two.”

     A broad smile formed on Tishia’s face, and she put her hands on her hips. “Fifteen,” she said.

     Jackie pursed her lips and exhaled. “Too quick for me,” the red-eyed woman said. She stood up and took a step back, inviting Tishia to take her place. “All yours.”

     “Thank you kindly,” the deputy said, retrieving a thin piece of metal from inside her sleeve as she dropped to one knee and began to pick the lock.

     “You were just teasing me, starting at twenty-five,” Jackie said, counting off seconds on her fingers.

     “And you’re just trying to distract me now,” Tishia said, a look of intense concentration on her face. A moment later, the padlock opened with a spring-loaded click, and it fell to the ground, where it landed with a loud, metallic thud.

     “Thirteen seconds,” Tishia said, as she slipped the lockpick back inside her sleeve.

     Jackie DeCoeur tipped her hat to her deputy. “You’re too good for me,” she said.

     “Keep practicing,” Tishia said.

     “I do practice,” Jackie said. “Thirty minutes, every night, before I go to sleep. But mostly I’ve been working on safes – and I am getting better.” Then she drew her pistol and put a hand on the massive lead door. “Ready?”

     Tishia moved to stand behind her, then nodded.

     Jackie opened the door. Even though it must have weighed a good, solid ton, in swung easily on its hinges. Stepping inside, it took the red-eyed woman a moment to survey the strange tableau she found illuminated beneath the glow of a bare, artificial light. Once she had taken stock of what she was seeing, she raised her gun and said: “Get away from her.”

     “Who are you?” asked the panicked-looking man at whom Jackie was pointing her gun. The man had a neatly-trimmed moustache, and he wore wire spectacles and a long white coat. In one hand he held a small clipboard, and his other hand held a gold watch. As Jackie pointed her revolver at him, he raised both hands up in the air. “You can’t be in here,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

     “You don’t seem to have heard me,” Jackie said. “I said, get away from her, and I meant it.” And Jackie pointed with her free hand at the woman she had found the strange man bent over.

     The woman was tied down to a metal table with thick, baloth hide straps. Jackie knew a thing or two about tying people up, and she could tell that the woman was bound with more restraints than were necessary. There were belts not just around her wrists and ankles, but around her forehead and neck, her waist and chest, and even her elbows and knees, too. The metal table was tilted at a slight angle, and Jackie could see deep grooves along its sides which led to a pair of buckets on the floor. The woman herself was a strange sight. She had the palest skin Jackie had ever seen on a human – assuming that she was human, of course, although that was what she appeared to be. But she looked as though she had never spent a day beneath the harsh, Jakkard sun. Her hair, which was done up in a simple braid, was as white as a fox’s pelt – but not from age, for her face was young and her skin was smooth. She wore a white, long-sleeved robe, and her eyes were a pale but intense blue.

     But the thing which had caught Jackie’s eye was the bound woman’s face, which was contorted into the shape of an agonized, wordless scream. Jackie could see a deep, soul-rending pain in the woman’s pale eyes as she struggled beneath her restraints, and what Jackie saw filled her with a cold and terrible anger.

     “You don’t understand,” the white-coated man said. “This is for everybody’s protection.”

     Jackie pulled back the hammer on her pistol, and she watched the man flinch.

     “No, you don’t understand,” she said. Reaching up, Jackie pulled off her dark glasses, and she fixed the terrified man with her blood-red eyes. “In five seconds, one of us is going to be cutting her loose. And, if I’m the one doing it, it’ll be because you’re too dead to do it. Do you understand me?”

     The man swallowed nervously, and he nodded his head. “You’re making a mistake,” he stammered, as he walked over to the metal table and began to unbuckle the belt around the woman’s neck. “You don’t understand who they are. We have to be protected. They’re not natural. They’re not—”

     “—I really need you to stop talking,” Jackie said, “before I shoot you to make you stop.”

     “You have to listen to me!” the man cried out, his knees shaking as he started to loosen the belts around the woman’s wrists. He turned to look at Jackie, and there was desperation in his eyes. “I had no choice! She made me do it! I was just—”

     Jackie DeCoeur pulled the trigger. Her bullet cut the man’s wire-rimmed spectacles clean in half, and the sound of the gunshot echoed around the small, metal chamber as his white-coated body tumbled to the ground.

     “Some people just don’t know when to shut up,” Tishia said.

     Jackie turned around to see her deputy standing behind her, a look of disgust on her face.

     “You finish cutting her loose,” Tishia said. “I’ll watch the door.”

     Jackie walked to the metal table, stepping over the white-coated man’s body as she did. She stuck her gun into her holster, then hurriedly unhooked the heavy buckles around the bound woman’s straps. Once the last of her restraints had been removed, the woman shot upright, but the look on her face did not change. Her features were still contorted into a mask of pure and exquisite agony, and silent tears streamed down her pale cheeks.

     “Did he hurt you?” Jackie asked, checking the pale woman’s body for any sign of injury, but finding none.

     The woman just nodded her head.

     “How did he hurt you?”

     The woman gestured frantically in the direction of a nearby sealed door, which presumably connected to the neighboring metal chamber.

     “Can’t you speak?” Jackie asked, leaning in close.

     The white-robed woman said nothing. She just pointed an imploring finger at the nearby door.

     Turning to Tishia, Jackie motioned with her gun to the locked door.

     “I won’t even insult you by asking,” the red-eyed woman said.

     “I’m on it,” Tishia said, her lockpick already in her hands. And, less than thirteen seconds later, Jackie was crossing into the second lead-lined room.

     There was a low, metal table in this room as well, and this table also had a pale-skinned, white-haired, and blue-eyed woman strapped to it, her face frozen in a look of immeasurable pain. A red fox in a white coat was bent over her, with a gold watch in one hand, and what looked like a small auger in the other. Blood trickled down the bound woman’s face from a series of small, clean holes which ran the length of her hairline, and the woman convulsed beneath her bindings. A small tray on wheels was positioned next to the red fox; it was covered with a blood-stained linen cloth, atop which sat an assortment of knives, scalpels, pliers, and saws, many of which glinted red-tipped in the low light.

     “Are you out of your mind?” the red fox asked, without looking over his shoulder. He glanced down at his watch. “We have ten minutes left. You broke the seal, and that invalidates all the results. We’ll have to start over.”

     “Get away from her,” Jackie said to the fox, raising her gun and pulling back the hammer. “Right now.”

     The startled fox dropped the auger, which bounced off the metal floor with a clank. He spun around.

     “Who are you?” he asked. Then his expression darkened, and he added: “Where’s Kepper?”

     “Assuming Kepper was your friend in the other room, he’s dead.” Jackie said. “He had a problem following directions, which turned out to be terminal. So, unless you’d like to join him, I sincerely suggest that you step away from her, and now.”

     The red fox took a few nervous steps away from the bleeding woman, but he leveled an accusatory paw at Jackie as he did.

     “You must be mad!” he said. “Do you have even the slightest idea what you’ve done?”

     “Yes, I do,” Jackie said, her voice hard, and her eyes harder. “I freed the woman you were torturing in that other room, and I’m about to do the same thing in here.”

     As Jackie spoke, she saw the fox’s eyes go wide with panic.

     “You let her out?” he asked, incredulous. Then he rushed towards the doorway where Jackie stood. “We have to seal the door, now!”

     But he didn’t get far.

     On the metal table behind the fox, Jackie saw the bound woman’s pale blue eyes narrow. The woman raised a single, shaking finger, and pointed it in the fox’s direction.

     The white-coated fox stopped in mid-step. His body seemed to freeze, and a manic scream escaped his muzzle. The gold watch slipped from his paw, its face shattering as it hit the ground, and he clasped his paws over his ears. Then he seemed to writhe in agony.

     “Shut up!” he screamed, and he began to claw at the sides of his own head. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

     Jackie watched in mute astonishment as the red fox rent his own flesh. His claws dug bloody furrows across his own face, pulling fur and skin off in ribbons as he scratched at the sides of his head – as though he were trying to dig out something which had burrowed inside his skull.

     The fox let out a final, bloodcurdling scream, before he shouted: “Get out of my head!”

     Then he grabbed a long, thin scalpel from atop the nearby instrument table, and, without so much as a moment’s hesitation, he drove the scalpel through his own ear and into his head. His body seemed to shudder for a few seconds, before his knees buckled, and he collapsed to the floor.

     Jackie stared for a moment at the fox’s limp body, before her gaze drifted up to the bleeding woman on the metal table. Then Jackie heard feet shuffling behind her, and she turned around.

     Standing there, in the open doorway, she saw the pale-skinned woman she had rescued in the adjoining room. The woman’s blue eyes were narrowed, just like those of the bleeding woman tied to the table, and the uninjured woman also had a single finger leveled in the direction of the dead fox.

     Tishia, who had craned her neck to see the gruesome events transpiring in the next chamber, let out a low whistle.

     “I’m sure he had it coming,” she said. “But… blazes, Jackie…”

     Without making so much as a sound, the white-robed woman crossed the room to where her exact double lay bleeding on the table, and she started to undo her twin’s bindings. After a moment’s hesitation, Jackie followed, and helped her to unbuckle the thick straps.

     Once she was free, the bloodied woman slid off the table and into her twin sister’s arms. Her twin gently lowered her down to the floor, where the two knelt before each other, their heads bowed together. At first, the uninjured twin reached up with the hem of her robe and began gently to mop away the blood which still flowed from her sister’s brow. Soon, though, the bleeding sister reached up and began to stroke her twin’s brow as well, even though there was no blood to clean from the uninjured twin’s skin.

     For a few spellbinding moments, Jackie and Tishia simply stood together in the center of the room and watched the white-robed twins. The two pale-skinned women, who were identical to each other in every observable regard, moved with a single, united purpose, each one’s motions perfectly mirroring the other’s. And, as the twins stared into each other’s eyes, Jackie could almost sense them speaking without words. If the sisters perceived anything beyond each other, they gave no sign of it.

     Jackie and Tishia, meanwhile, were acutely aware of their surroundings – especially when the train lurched beneath their feet and began to accelerate.

     Jackie listened intently for a moment, judging the time between bumps as the train sped over the ties. “There’s no way we’re jumping off now,” she said. “Not at this speed.”

     Tishia nodded grimly. “I get the sense those Jailkeepers don’t want us getting off this train,” she said.

     “Us, or anybody else.” Jackie nodded at the twins crying wordlessly on the floor as they cradled each other’s heads.

     “Jackie, what do we do about them?” Tishia asked.

     “We don’t have time to worry about them now,” Jackie said. “We already have one set of twins we need to deal with, not to mention a prisoner to spring.”

     “But we can’t just leave them here, can we?”

     “Don’t see why not,” Jackie said. “They look like they could use some time alone, and I’d say they can take care of themselves.” She nodded at the floor, where the red fox’s body lay, with a scalpel stuck in his ear.

     “Fair point,” Tishia said. Then she motioned to the door, trying to suppress a shiver as she did. “Let’s get moving. This job is starting to give me the creeps.”

     The two bandits quickly made their way to the next carriage. Unlike the mysterious, arcane cells concealed within the unmarked boxcar, the prison car was a much more ordinary affair. Its single aisle was lined on both sides with heavy wooden doors with black iron frames and small, barred windows. The clanking of chains could be heard from inside the cells as the speeding train rocketed along its rails, seeming to go faster and faster with each passing minute.

     Jackie and Tishia made a quick trip up and down the length of the car, checking to make sure that the Jailkeepers were actually in the engine compartment, and not lying in wait. Once she was satisfied that the coast was clear, Jackie moved back down the aisle until she found the cell she was looking for. Figuring there was no value in subtlety, she shot the lock off the heavy cell door with a single, well-placed bullet. The door swung open as the train lurched and shuddered, and Jackie and her deputy stepped inside.

     There they found a single prisoner, dressed in burlap rags and bound with length upon length of heavy iron chains. The prisoner raised her massive, horned head as Jackie and Tishia entered her cell, and her nostrils flared wide at the sight of the red-eyed woman.

     “I thought you were dead,” the giant minotaur said to Jackie DeCoeur.

     “I’ve been getting that a lot lately,” Jackie DeCoeur said, flashing the minotaur her gold-toothed grin. “It’s been a while, Dazie.”

     “That it has,” the minotaur said, and a broad smile formed across her bovine muzzle. Dazie raised her arms as much as her chains would permit, so that the small cell was filled with the sound of rattling iron. “I’d give you a hug, or at least shake your hand, but I’m a little tied up at the moment.”

     “We’ll take care of that,” Jackie said. Kneeling down, she started picking one of the locks which bound Dazie’s chains. “Tishia, mind lending me a hand?”

     “It would be my pleasure,” Tishia said, setting to work on another lock. “In the meantime, though, I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”

     “Where are my manners?” Jackie asked. “Tishia, this is Dazie.” She indicated the minotaur with a nod of her head. “Dazie used to run with me when we were both working for Jane Vaanderly, robbing banks back Verkell way.” Jackie patted the top of Dazie’s muzzle, which drew a good-natured snort in reply. “I was mostly in charge of planning, and Dazie was mostly in charge of muscle. And, my-oh-my, did she provide!” Jackie grinned, and there was a glint in her red eyes. “We pulled one job where we didn’t even have to crack the safe, because this little lady here just hoisted it up and carried it right out of the bank.”

     “I remember that job,” Dazie said fondly. “That was one hell of a score.” The minotaur sighed. “We had a nice thing going, before Jane fouled it up.”

     “Jane was a wonderful crook, you see,” Jackie said to Tishia, “but she wasn’t much of a long-term thinker. Her preferred approach to knocking over a bank was to walk right in and just shoot anybody who looked at her sideways. Now, that can work, but it also has a powerful way of making enemies, which tends to make life awful hard for people engaged in an honest criminal enterprise.”

     “So, Jackie here starts getting ideas about a change in leadership,” Dazie said. “She starts putting out feelers, asking around, seeing who might be with her if she made a move against Jane.” The big minotaur let loose a long, indignant snort. “Only Jane got wind of it.”

     Jackie sighed. “I underestimated Jane, pure and simple,” she said, as she worked the last of Dazie’s chains free. “She was no criminal mastermind, to be sure, but she was a paranoid fox, and she wasn’t stupid. I made my displeasure at the way she was running things a little too plain. Next thing I know, I’m lying face-down in the Waste, with three bullets in my back.”

     Dazie rose to her feet, throwing her chains to the ground with obvious delight. The minotaur paused for just a moment to rub her sore wrists before scooping the red-eyed woman up in a bone-crushing hug, which Jackie returned with equal enthusiasm, if slightly less force.

     “Jackie, if I’d’ve known what Jane was going to do—” Dazie started to say.

     “—Then you’d’ve wound up face-down next to me,” Jackie said. “There was nothing you could’ve done.” Then the red-eyed woman’s face hardened. “Although, if you happened to know where Jane is hiding these days, I would very much like to pay her a visit. Pay my respects, as it were.”

     Dazie shook her head. “Things got even worse after you were gone,” she said. “Jane kept seeing ghosts around every corner, and she put way too many bodies in the ground trying to figure out what was what. We had every badge in Verkell breathing down our necks, and Jane hightailed it. She split town – and she took our entire stash with her.” The big minotaur scraped a hoof across the floor in anger. “Last I heard of her was a couple years back. Some associates of mine thought they’d spotted her out east, said she was looking for partners to wash her gold, said she was trying to go legit. But then she fell off the map and I, well, I…” Dazie kicked at the chains which lay in a pile at her feet. “Let's just say that prison didn't agree with me.”

     Jackie gave Dazie a pat on her back. “It’s good having you back,” she said, and the red-eyed woman extended her hand, which the big minotaur shook.

     Behind them both, Tishia cleared her throat.

     “Not that I want to spoil the reunion, or anything,” Jackie’s deputy said, “but we really need to be getting off this train before it pulls into Dayko. Because, given how fast we’re going, I think we’re going to end up splattered all across that town in a little, bitty pieces.”

     Jackie nodded in acknowledgement. Then she pulled her second pistol out of its holster and offered it to Dazie.

     “To bring you up to speed,” she said, “we were just on our way to the engine room, and I have a feeling that we’re not going to get a friendly reception.”

     Dazie took the revolver from the red-eyed woman, testing its balance in her hand before making a few practice draws.

     “You wouldn’t by chance be referring to a couple of snappy dressers with sick smiles and a fondness for paper cuts?” the minotaur asked.

     “Friends of yours?” Jackie asked.

     Dazie’s nostrils flared, and her eyes narrowed. She pulled up the hem of her tattered burlap shirt, revealing a row of thin scars along her flank.

     “The Jailkeepers like to play with their guests,” the minotaur said. “I’ve been wanting to thank them properly for some time.”

     Jackie’s eyes narrowed as well, as she counted the wounds on her old friend’s side.

     “Today’s your lucky day,” she said.

     Jackie, Dazie, and Tishia wasted no time on their way to the locomotive. After checking their guns and exchanging nods, the three women slid open the door to the mana engine and made their way cautiously in.

     Just a few feet inside the compartment lay the body of an old, gray fox in a pinstriped engineer’s uniform. Jackie knelt down and placed a hand on the side of the fox’s neck, but that gesture was a formality – blood was pooled around the fox’s head, and his body lay still and stiff.

     Jackie stood back up, and she pointed her gun at the pair of grinning twins who she presumed were the fox’s killers.

     The Jailkeepers stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of the engine compartment. Their arms were crossed in front of their chests, and the smiles on their otherwise wholesome faces were cold and sinister. Behind them, the mana engine smoked and sparked. Jackie could see where control panels had been pried off the engineer’s console, revealing a rat’s nest of disconnected wires and a bevy of smashed dials. Jackie was no expert on train engines, but she had a sense that, whatever the Jailkeepers had done to disable the locomotive’s controls was well beyond her ability to mend.

     “I’m guessing those were your orders, then?” the red-eyed woman said to the Jailkeepers. “To kill everyone on this train before you let anyone escape?”

     The Jailkeepers just smiled back at her, without moving a muscle or saying a word.

     “Not very talkative, are you?” Jackie said.

     “They cannot speak,” came a surreal, stereophonic voice from behind Jackie. “They have no voice.”

     After glancing at Dazie and Tishia, to be sure they had the Jailkeepers covered, Jackie DeCoeur turned around. Standing in the doorway to the locomotive were the white-robed twins she had freed from the arcane cell. Both pale-skinned sisters had removed the sashes from their robes and tied them around their foreheads as makeshift bandages. The twins held each other’s hands, and their faces were expressionless blanks as they regarded the red-eyed woman.

     “What do you mean, they have no voice?” Jackie said, feeling vaguely unnerved about speaking to the two identical women without knowing which one to address her question to.

     “They have no voice, because they have no tongues,” the twins said. They spoke in perfect unison as they talked. Their words were the same, and their voices were identical in tone and timbre – even the precise movements of their pale blue lips were perfectly matched. Listening to them was like hearing a single voice speaking through two bodies, and it was unlike anything Jackie DeCoeur had ever experienced.

     “No tongues?” Jackie asked.

     “Their tongues were removed by the one who employs them,” the white-robed twins continued, “to prevent them from ever speaking of the things they have witnessed.” Jackie saw what she thought might have been a glimpse of anger flicker across the twins’ pale faces. But it was faint – barely the ghost of an emotion – and it passed before Jackie was sure of what she had seen. “We would likely have shared a similar fate, had you not delivered us from our captors,” the sisters said. “For that, we owe you a debt. We apologize that we did not properly express our thanks before, when you freed us. But we were… overwhelmed at the time.” The twins lowered their pale blue eyes. “Our separation was… painful for us.”

     “You don’t have to thank me,” Jackie DeCoeur said, trying to alternate her gaze between the two pairs of eyes which stared intently at her. “What I saw was wrong, and I put a stop to it. No one deserves to be treated like that.”

     The white robed twins craned their heads slightly. “There are many who would not have done as you did,” they said. “There are many who find us… disconcerting.”

     “Those people can go to the devil,” Jackie said. That remembered sentiment brought a smile to her lips.

     The white-robed twins nodded slightly. “In recompense for your service to us, we would like to aid you,” they said, their stereophonic voices as flat and inflectionless as ever. “To that end, we have silenced your enemies.” The twins raised their free hands in the direction of the Jailkeepers. “You will find that they can no longer evade you.”

     Jackie turned around to face the twin Jailkeepers, who seemed to have stopped smiling.

     “Is that so?” Tishia asked.

     Then Jackie’s deputy pointed her gun at the Jailkeeper on the left and pulled the trigger three times.

     Unlike before, the nattily-dressed man did not disappear into a spray of paper. Instead, all three rounds struck him squarely in the chest. He had just enough time to look surprised, and to stare down at the trio of bloodstains which had discolored his crisp white shirt, before his legs gave way, and he sank to the floor.

     “What d’ya know?” Tishia said, blowing away smoke from her gun’s barrel. “We have us a pair of bona-fide hushers here.”

     Jackie’s deputy leveled her gun at the second Jailkeeper next, who had taken a couple steps backward, and was holding his hands out in front of himself.

     “I don’t know,” Tishia said. “Almost doesn’t feel sporting now. I’m not sure how I feel about shooting him if he’s going to be like that.”

     At that, Dazie snorted.

     “It doesn’t bother me,” the big minotaur said, and she shot the second Jailkeeper dead.

     Dazie moved across the engine compartment to stand over the Jailkeepers’ bodies. She nudged each one with her hoof, as though to make sure they were actually dead. Then she spat on both corpses.

     “The seventh hell’s too good for them,” the minotaur said, rubbing her flank as she did.

     Just then, the speeding train hit a curve for which it was travelling much too fast. The whole locomotive seemed to lurch to one side, and there was a squeal of metal as one set of the wheels momentarily left the tracks. Jackie, Tishia, Dazie, and the husher twins all had to grab onto something to keep from being thrown off their feet.

     “We still have one fairly serious problem,” Jackie said as the train settled back beneath them. “Namely, we’re on a runaway train, and I have no idea how we get off it.” The red-eyed woman looked at her partners in crime, both new and old. “So I’m taking suggestions, if anyone has any.”

     From the rear of the locomotive, the husher twins raised their unclasped hands.

     “If we might be allowed to offer our assistance,” they said, “we may have a solution.”

     “Don’t stand on ceremony,” Jackie said. “If you’ve got the answer, then I’m all ears.”

     Jackie expected the twins to explain their idea, but they did not speak. Instead, the white-robed sisters turned to face each other. They bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and they began to chant.

     It was a quiet sort of chanting, just above a whisper, and the husher twins’ lips barely seemed to move as they spoke. Jackie DeCoeur was just beginning to wonder what the chanting was all about when she felt the strangest feeling she had ever felt in her life. The world around her seemed to elongate and stretch, as though the whole locomotive were being sucked up through a tube that was too small for it to fit. Before she could really come to grips with that, though, Jackie felt herself start to elongate and stretch, too. She felt as though her toes were being pulled in one direction, and her head in another, and her body was being stretched between them, like a piece of taffy at the Aureg fair. Her eyes stopped recognizing shapes and just saw bands of colors, which grew thinner and thinner as they merged into a single shade of bright blue, and she tasted something funny on the back of her tongue – like a bitterroot seed, only more metallic, as though she had eaten a whole packet of them, foil and all.

     Then she felt her ears pop, and the whole world went white.

 

* * *

 

     When Jackie came to, she was still inside the locomotive. Only, the locomotive wasn’t moving.

     Slowly, she tried to stand. Her limbs felt funny, almost like they were asleep, and she felt vaguely like she was floating, even though she could feel the floor beneath her boots.

     To either side of her, she could see Dazie and Tishia similarly attempting to stand. They seemed to be having as tough as time of it as she had.

     In front of her, the husher twins stood together, their expressions serene and silent, with maybe just the faintest air of satisfaction.

     “Where are we?” Jackie asked, giving her head a few quick shakes, as though she were trying to clear the cobwebs from it, or to settle her brain back into its usual place.

     “Approximately twenty-seven miles southeast of Dayko,” the twins said. “Outside an abandoned cielesune quarry. This was the nearest of our beacons when we performed the dispersement ritual.”

     Jackie stumbled past the twins and opened the locomotive’s door. Hopping down from the train car, she felt the hot Jakkard sun on her face, and she walked a few paces in each direction, surveying their surroundings. To the south there was a gaping pit in the brick-red ground, which she took to be the quarry the twins had mentioned. In all other directions, she saw nothing but scrubby, sun-blasted Waste as far as her eyes could see.

     Behind her, Jackie heard more boots crunch across the ground, as Dazie, Tishia, and the husher twins descended from the displaced locomotive and stepped over to join her.

     “You mean, you just plucked that whole locomotive off the tracks, and whisked it away right through the air?” Jackie asked the white-robed twins, a note of awe in her voice.

     “The dispersement does not work in precisely the manner you described,” the twins replied. “The subject of the ritual does not transit through the air, as you posit, but instead is carried along the fluctuations of the aether, before being returned to corporeal reality in the vicinity of a prelocated beacon.” The twins shrugged, as though the process they were describing was of elementary simplicity.

     “And you can do that to anything you want?” Jackie asked, still not quite able to believe it.

     “In theory, yes,” the twins said, looking thoughtful as they considered their answer. “The ritual can be applied to any person or object.”

     Jackie was on the verge of asking another question, when she shook her head and smiled.

     “At some point, I want to hear all about it,” she said. “But, in the meantime, I want you to know you have my thanks.” She extended a hand to the nearest of the twins, which she waited for the pale-skinned woman to shake. But both twins took a confused step backwards, and an uncomfortable look appeared on both their faces. “I’m sorry,” Jackie said, quickly tucking her hands behind her back. “You’ll have to excuse my manners. I’m still a little woozy from the… dispersement? I hope I got that right.”

     The husher twins nodded their heads.

     “I feel terrible, though,” Jackie said. “You saved our lives, and I don’t even know your names.”

     “Names?” The twins craned their heads.

     “You know, names,” the red-eyed woman said. “As in, my name is Jackie. Jackie DeCoeur.”

     The twins shook their heads. “We do not have names,” they said.

     “But people must call you something,” Jackie insisted.

     The husher twins appeared to consider that for a moment. “We have been called many things,” they said. “Most of them hurtful.”

     “Well, how about I just call you both my friends,” Jackie said. “Because I would like that very much.”

     Jackie wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have seen the husher twins smile.

     “We would also like that,” the husher twins said.

     So Jackie wrapped both of the white-robed sisters in a big hug – which, she was pleased to note, they seemed to enjoy.

     “Now,” Jackie said, as she led the twins over to where Dazie and Tishia stood waiting, “let me introduce you to a couple good friends of mine. I think you’re going to like them, too, and I think that, together, we’re going to cause some almighty trouble.”

     And that, Jackie DeCoeur thought, was something worth smiling about.


"3:15 to Dayko" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

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Caveat Emptor

The Mender