NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.
I. The Vow
Tears rolled down both sisters’s pale cheeks as the twins cried without sound.
For minutes, they simply knelt together on the blood-slicked floor, looking at each other, weeping wordlessly. Each held the other’s shaking hands.
Each was the mirror image of the other, except in one regard. A line of small punctures crossed one twin’s brow just below her hairline. The wounds were days old, but they still bled. Thin, red rivulets of blood stood out starkly against the woman’s pale skin.
The unharmed twin could stand it no longer. She let go of one of her sister’s hands. She gathered up the edge of her robe’s long sleeve and, reaching up to her sister’s face, gently mopped away the blood which marred the image of her Other Self.
The bleeding twin tried to remain still, but found it too painful. So she reached across with her own free hand and touched her sister’s face. There was no blood to clean on her sister’s brow. Instead, she ran the tips of her fingers across her sister’s cool, smooth skin, so that the movement of her arm mirrored that of her twin’s.
The wounds on her head hurt, but that pain was not the pain that made her or her Other Self weep.
I am sorry, the unharmed twin thought.
We are sorry, the bleeding twin corrected.
Both sisters bowed their heads slightly. Then they both looked back up. Their four blue eyes met, and, in that moment, the vow was made.
We will never be alone again, they thought.
Their tears stopped. Their eyes turned cold.
We will die first.
II. The Drop
Sax had been to enough hangings to know that most men closed their eyes in the second before the lever was pulled.
As he bent his head forward so that the Judge could slip the noose around his neck, Sax resolved not to. He would hold his head high, and he would keep his eyes open, so that the gathered crowd would see that he was not afraid, that he was not ashamed, that he felt no remorse.
His moment of shame and remorse had come the day before, when his eyes had drifted upward from Jane’s body to rest on the white fox. He remembered the shocked, astonished expression on the fox’s face. Sax too had felt shock at first, but his shock had quickly been replaced by other emotions. He had always thought of the fox as a rival, as one of the perpetrators of his misery. But, in that moment, he saw the fox as a victim, too – another soul trapped in the nightmare that was Jane. And he felt a deep sense of shame that the white fox had done what he himself had for so long contemplated doing.
At first, it had been difficult to take the knife, but eventually the white fox had loosened his grip.
Now, as he swept his eyes over the crowd which had gathered to watch him hang, Sax caught a glimpse of the white fox among the assembled faces. His gaze did not linger long, but, for just a second, he caught the white fox’s eyes, and a moment of recognition passed between them. Sax was not sure that all was forgiven, but he felt that a mutual understanding had been established, and that a truce had been agreed.
It was a truce which would not have to last long.
The rope was tight and scratchy around his neck. Sax wondered what the moment itself would be like – if it would hurt, or if he would even be cognizant of what was happening.
On his way to the gallows, a deputy had surreptitiously offered him a flask. But, after a long moment of consideration, Sax had declined it. For once in his life, he would face his troubles sober.
The sun was hot on his face. The crowd was buzzing with nervous anticipation. The Judge had finished speaking. All that was left was the drop.
Sax kept his eyes open, and his head held high.
He heard the sound of the lever being pulled, and was surprised by how peaceful he felt.
He didn’t even blink.
III. The Cure
The tiny bed was empty. The single rough, cotton sheet lay undisturbed. The pillow had not been slept upon.
Slowly, the Supreme Mother swept her gaze across the dark expanse of the room. A series of small, scared faces stared back at her from atop the long row of bunks. One-by-one, she locked eyes with each of them in turn. Searching. Sensing. Waiting.
Finally, one of the girls buckled under the pressure. She held up a tiny hand and furtively pointed at the floor beneath her bed. The Supreme Mother cast her eyes downward and saw just the toe of a child’s shoe sticking out from beneath the hanging corner of the bedsheet.
Silently, she motioned for the two Sisters who waited behind her, and the three of them moved across the night-black room to stand next to the indicated bed. Then the Supreme Mother reached down quick as she could, closed her hand tight around the thin ankle which she found connected to the protruding shoe, and pulled. Hard.
She could feel the child scrabbling to catch hold of a bedpost, clawing at the bare wooden floor with her tiny fingernails as she was dragged out from her hiding place. The child thrashed away beneath her grip, trying desperately to break free, to crawl back under the bed.
“No!” the child screamed, so loudly and fiercely that the Supreme Mother flinched, and many of the other girls hid beneath their bedsheets. “No! No!”
The child kept on screaming until the Supreme Mother nodded to one of the Sisters, who managed to force a folded-up washcloth into the child’s mouth. The child must have taken a bite at the Sister as she did, because the Sister jerked her hand away with a look of horror on her face, and stared wide-eyed down at blood which started to trickle from her finger. Meanwhile, the second Sister slipped the heavy cloth hood over the child’s head.
Between the hood and the gag, the child’s cries were more or less silenced.
The Supreme Mother put her hands beneath the child’s arms, lifted her up into the air, and carried her bodily out of the room, with the two Sisters falling into place behind her. She held the child out at arm’s length as they processed down the darkened hallway, so that the child couldn’t catch her with her flailing legs and kicking feet.
Heavens, but the child was strong. Much stronger than a girl her size ought to be.
Of course, we know where that strength comes from, the Supreme Mother thought to herself with a shiver.
At last they entered into the Sanctuary, where a third sister had readied the font beneath the altar. The Supreme Mother carried the squirming, kicking child over to the filled basin. The trio of Sisters fanned-out around her and began to sing the hymn, their voices rising as one to fill the small room with the song of the angels.
The Supreme Mother looked up at the altar, looked up at the Sign – two angled, golden staves, joined at the top so that they resembled the wings of an angel.
She looked at the Sign, and she prayed for strength.
Then she took hold of the child by the hood and forced the child’s head down into the font, until it was entirely beneath the water.
The child fought hard against her, lashing out with redoubled strength as she tried to grab hold of the basin, to pull her head above the surface. Water splashed up and over the side of the font, and great bubbles churned around the child’s thrashing head. But the Supreme Mother’s grip was firm as iron, and, even as they continued to sing, two of the Sisters moved next to her and grabbed hold of the child by the shoulders, holding her firmly in place.
“Angels of Mercy, we beseech you,” the Supreme Mother said, looking up at the Sign. “Just as we cleanse this wicked child’s body, so may you cleanse this wicked child’s soul.” Her voice rose above the singing of the Sisters, and the gasping of the child, so that it carried loud and clear up to the Heavens. “Wipe clean the stain of her vile birth, that she might know your tender Mercy.”
As she spoke, she could feel mana streaming out of her body and into the child’s, which only seemed to increase the urgency with which the child thrashed beneath her. It was as if the child’s very blood fought against the Light, as though her very being defied the Cleansing.
The Supreme Mother looked down at the struggling child whose hooded head she struggled to hold underwater, and, as she did, she found herself wondering – not for the first time – whether the real Mercy might not be to hold the cursed child there until her struggling ceased once and for all, until no more bubbles rose to the water’s surface.
Not the Cleansing, but the Cure. Would that not be the greater kindness?
But the Supreme Mother put that thought aside, as she always did. That choice was not hers to make. Only the angels could command it. And they had not spoken to her. They had not spoken to her for a long time.
As she felt her mana exhaust itself, the Supreme Mother pulled the child’s head up and out of the font. She and the Sisters released their grip, and the child collapsed onto the floor in a gasping, crying heap.
The hymn finished. The Supreme Mother looked once more to the Sign, and said one more silent prayer. Then she lifted the sodden hood up off of the child’s head.
She looked down at the child, and her heart fell as two blood-red eyes looked back up at her. She held the red-eyed child’s terrified gaze for just a second before she felt herself forced to look away.
She had always found it nigh impossible to look in the child’s eyes. She looked at those red eyes, and she saw corruption, and it pained her.
The Supreme Mother bowed her head. Then she motioned for two of the Sisters to carry the child back to the bunk room.
The third Sister moved to stand behind her, and placed a hand on the Supreme Mother’s shoulder.
“What will we do?” she said, the fear evident in her voice.
The Supreme Mother sighed.
“We will keep trying,” she said. “Every moon, we will perform the Cleansing. We will keep trying, and it will work. The angels will grant her their Mercy. I know this to be so.”
“And if not?” the Sister asked. “What then?”
The Supreme Mother sighed again, and again she found herself thinking about the Cure.
“Then we pray,” she said.
IV. The Switch
Junior conductor Remmy Wacha had finished checking on the couplings and was already on his way back to the engine compartment when he felt the train lurch beneath him and start grinding to a halt. He only managed to stay on his feet by grabbing hold of a nearby door handle and hanging on for dear life, and he cringed as he heard the sound of crates toppling and splintering in the boxcars behind him.
Well, it could have been much worse, he reckoned after a moment for reflection. He could have still been in one of those boxcars. Those crates could have been tumbling onto him rather than each other.
As fast as his shaky legs would carry him, the noggle hurried his way up to the locomotive. When he got inside, he found the engineer – an ancient fox named Ayte, who had been driving iron on the rails for as long as there had been rails – slumped over the control panel of the mana engine, his hand hanging limply down just next to the dead man’s switch.
For a moment, Remmy just stared at the motionless driver, scarcely able to breathe. He was terrified that the old fox – whose health was known to be poor, and who increasingly relied upon the medicinal contents of his silver hip flask to make it through long stretches on the rails – had simply keeled over dead. So, when he heard a low, rumbling snore escape the prone fox’s lips a moment later, the sense of relief which the noggle felt was palpable.
The relief didn’t last long, though. They were already behind schedule, and Brax was not known for his tolerance when it came to missed deliveries.
Remmy slowly crept up next to Ayte and gave the passed-out fox a tentative poke in the ribs. When that didn’t draw any response beyond another long, staccato snore, Remmy escalated to a firmer poke, and then, finally, a shove.
At this last provocation, the fox spluttered, and his heavy-lidded eyes slowly peeled open, revealing bloodshot whites and dilated pupils. The noggle could smell the whiskey on the old driver’s breath.
“What’s all this, then?” the old fox slurred, trying to draw himself upright and nearly falling out of his seat in the process.
Remmy drew back slightly, his nerves causing his body to shake even more than it usually did.
“You fell asleep at the wheel, sir,” he ventured, figuring that “fell asleep” sounded less confrontational than “passed out.”
The drunk fox harrumphed, and then belched a liquor-laden belch which would have stunned a basilisk. “I did no such thing,” he insisted. “Just resting my eyes for a moment, that’s all.”
Remmy listened to how the old fox spoke, watched how he moved. There was no way that the engineer was going to be able to complete his run. Not without sobering up first, to say the least – and who knew how long that might take.
“That’s fine, Ayte,” Remmy said. He tried to help the fox up onto his feet, but it was unsteady going. “You could do with a rest. You deserve one.”
That seemed to strike a chord with the engineer, who nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right,” he said, grabbing the front of his pinstriped overalls with both paws. “I deserve a break.”
“That’s right,” Remmy repeated back. “Take a break, Ayte. You’ve been on this shift too long.” The noggle tried to steer the staggering fox back towards the rear of the engine compartment, where there was a wooden cot folded-up beneath an instrument panel. If he could just get the old fox into bed, then Ayte could sleep it off before they reached their destination.
He had just about gotten the driver to lie down when, suddenly, the old fox stiffened, and pointed back towards the mana engine with anxious, stabbing gestures.
“Wait a second,” he said, sounding just a smidge more lucid than before. “Who’s gonna drive the train?”
Remmy was silent for a moment. Then the nog sucked in a big breath, puffed out his chest a little bit, and tried to sound more confident than he felt.
“I’ll drive the train, Ayte,” he said.
The old fox guffawed. “You’ll drive the train?” The engineer snorted. “You can’t hardly sit in your chair without shaking yourself to pieces, and you’re gonna work the mana engine?”
“My hands don’t shake,” the conductor said. There was a trace of desperation in his voice, and he held his hands out for the fox to see, willing them to keep steady as he presented them for inspection.
The fox just snorted again. “You ever drive a train in your life, Shakes?”
“No,” the noggle said. “But I’ve been studying. I bought a manual for the engine from the company store, and I’ve been reading up at nights. And I always watch the engineers when I’m riding up front, watching what they do, and how they do it.”
The fox seemed to consider this for a long moment. Remmy tried to gauge the old engineer’s expression, but his glassy eyes were impossible to read.
Finally, the fox shook his head.
“No way,” he said. “Booker’d kill me.”
“Booker never has to know,” the noggle said, getting desperate. “Besides, what do you think he’ll do to us if we show up late? We’re already behind, and we’re still a ways away. I can make up the time. I can max this train out.” He sank down, practically to his knees, and he looked the old fox in the eyes.
“Please,” he said. “I know I can do it.”
A few seconds passed in silence, except for the old fox’s labored breathing. Then, finally, Ayte sank down onto the cot with a heavy, tired sigh. He crossed his arms over his chest, and he closed his eyes.
“Just blow the whistle when you’re going through New Progress,” the engineer said. “Damn baloth herders let ‘em just cross right over the tracks. You get us derailed hitting one of those lizards, and Booker’ll be the least of your worries.”
“You got it, Ayte,” the noggle said. He wasn’t able to contain his excitement, and he didn’t really try.
Then the conductor hurried back up to the front of the locomotive, and sat down in the engineer’s seat. He was about to start the mana engine, when something on the floor caught his eye – it was Ayte’s pinstriped engineer’s cap, lying at the foot of the seat, where it had fallen from the fox’s head when he’d passed out.
Remmy bent over and picked up the cap. He placed it on his head, and, in that moment, he felt – no, he knew – that the dream which he had dreamed in secret for longer than he could remember was going to come true.
He reached out and took the dead man’s switch with a hand which did not shake.
V. The Damage
“You did not just say what I think you said.”
Dazie scraped one hoof across the floor in a reflexive gesture of menace. She leaned down close to Presto’s face – which meant leaning down a long way – and gave a good, guttural snort. The air escaping from her flared nostrils sent the artificer’s stringy hair waving and momentarily fogged the outside of his goggles.
Presto swallowed involuntarily, but he repeated himself. “Since you got shot, you’ve lost a second on your draw,” he said. “And your aim isn’t what it used to be.”
Dazie snorted again. Almost without meaning to do it, she flexed her knuckles. The popping noise made Presto flinch.
“That’s what I thought you said,” Dazie rumbled. “Say it again, and it’ll be the last thing you ever say with teeth in your mouth.”
Presto held his ground. “You may not want to hear it,” he said. “But are you seriously going to tell me that it isn’t true?”
For a moment, Dazie just stood there, towering over the diminutive, seven-toed artificer, glowering at him, and looking for all the world like she wanted to crush his head like an empty can. Then, slowly, she drew herself back. Her shoulders slouched, and she seemed to visibly deflate, as though all the air inside her were escaping through one of her still-healing bullet wounds.
And then the big minotaur did something which the artificer had never seen her do before: She fought back a sniffle, and a single, great tear rolled down the side of her muzzle.
“You think I don’t know it?” she said. “You think I don’t know what it means?” Her voice shrank, and it wavered a little as she spoke. “I’m out of the game, Presto.”
The minotaur was about to say more, but the artificer held a single finger up in the air.
“Not necessarily,” he said. He walked across his workshop to a long, low table, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Dazie followed behind. On the table’s surface, the outline of some large object was visible beneath an oil-spattered dropcloth.
“Let’s change the game, shall we?” Presto said, and he pulled away the cloth to reveal the single biggest, baddest-looking boomstick that the minotaur had seen in her life.
It was less of a gun, and more of a hand-held cannon. The short barrel opened to nearly the width of a man’s head, and powerful runes were etched around both the barrel and the stock.
Dazie’s jaw hung open in a look of stunned silence as she reached down and picked up the massive shotgun. She held it up in front of her, getting a feel for its weight and balance.
“You designed the grip to fit me?” she said, a kind of hushed awe in her voice.
Presto nodded. “It’s properly balanced for one-handed firing, but, when that thing goes off, it’s going to buck like a baloth in heat. So I’d recommend firing from the hip, even for someone as strong as you.”
Dazie shifted her posture, holding the gun down against her hip, putting one hoof slightly forward, and flexing her knees.
“How many shots?” she asked.
“Holds ten shells,” Presto said. “Lever action, load through the opening on the side. The shells have sangrite mixed in with the pellets – I can show you how to make them.”
Dazie mimicked pulling the trigger, then mimicked the sound of an explosion. “So all I have to do is hit the broad side of a barn,” she said.
“Do that, and there won’t be a barn there anymore,” Presto said.
Dazie turned the gun over one more time in her hands, then paused. She hadn’t noticed it at first, but her name was engraved on the side of the stock.
Then she did something else which the artificer had never seen her do: She wrapped the barefoot human in a hug which nearly crushed his ribcage.
“Presto, you’re not half bad,” she said.
It took some doing, but the artificer managed to wheeze a reply.
“Go do some damage,” he said.
VI. The Point
Lucy’s black eyes glinted in the darkness as she slid the small, black-lacquered box out from beneath her bed, just as she did each night when the darkness was at its peak. She felt her heartbeat quicken as she lifted the box’s hinged top and looked down at the two objects which lay inside.
She reached inside and picked up the first object. It was a knife – long, and thin, with a razor’s edge and a finely-balanced grip. There was just enough light in the room for her to see her own face reflected in the blade as she held it up and tested the sharpness of its point with the tip of her clawed finger.
She felt the familiar kiss of the metal, felt a warm drop of blood bubble up through the surface of her pale skin, and she smiled.
She put the knife back into the box, and she took out the second item. It was a train ticket – one-way, second-class, with a spattering of dried blood along its lower edge. She flipped the ticket over, and read the handwritten note on the back:
“Talk to the station master. Ask for Red.”
She held the ticket in her hands for a moment, as dark, delightful thoughts filled her mind. She drew her tongue across her bloodless lips, feeling the sharp edges of her pointed teeth as she did.
Then she put the ticket back into the box next to the knife.
Not today, she thought to herself.
Gently, she closed the box’s lid, and slipped it back beneath her bed.
In the darkness, Lucy grinned.
Lucy is an original character created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.