This ballad was shared at the 57th Conclave of Bards by Thibult Woosjyn, Sindar Station (North) Stationmaster.
Omar’s trigger finger itches.
It strokes the hot metal guard of his mama’s old six-shooter, following the curl of steel around and around the sharp curve of the trigger.
Omar’s mouth twitches into a smile. His tongue pokes through the space where two of his left teeth used to be, the lone shard of his canine finally dulled down to a nub. Patience, he reminds himself. He’s waited so long. He can wait a little longer.
He sees the smoke, now, a roiling black cloud stark — even from this distance — against the white-hot sky. The Speeding Sinner approaches, the brand-new flagship train of the East-of-Sindar Railroad Company. Its black opal coating glimmers in the sun, a shimmering rainbow barreling through the desert.
“Boss.” The voice, low and brusque, is Feroina’s. “We don’t need it.” Her horse shuffles, bobs its head, huffs as if exasperated. It’s always moving, even when it should be still.
Omar sits up straighter in his saddle. He arches his back. He takes a long deep breath — so deep his toes and fingers tingle, so deep his eyes water, so deep his lungs feel like a bladder about to burst. And he lets all that air out with a long shrill yodel.
“Ladies,” Omar calls. He turns left and then right in his saddle, surveying the line of his gang — six women on either side of him, Feroina to his immediate right. “It’s now or never. Look alive and move quick. The Speeding Sinner is crawling with Catechism agents, and they’ll be good at their job.”
He avoids Feroina’s icy eyes and their cold accusation about the one key detail he’s omitting.
“The payload will be under heavy guard and triply Bound. Make sure Miss Roxy Rose gets there in one piece.”
A woman to his far left, wrapped in a shawl with a poncho over that, nods.
“And remember,” he says. And now he meets Feroina’s unblinking eyes, and the sweat on his back goes cold. He’s always loved that about her. He winks. “Have fun.”
He spurs his horse into a gallop.
And they’re off.
Ansley’s gloved hand sweats.
It squeezes the handle of her daddy’s old knife so tightly she can feel the leather fibers tearing against the reinforced grip. She grips the knife so tight her jaw and ribs and hips ache.
Just another knot yet to be unraveled.
She watches the dead land around the Speeding Sinner flash by, as hideous as the blue-gold floral wallpaper covering every inch of every gods-damned train car. The distance between Griffith and Sindar stations is the longest of the entire line. That it is the closest to the center of the Amal Empire makes no difference. If the gang is going to strike, it will be now or never.
“Ma’am.” The voice, high and taut, is Murrow’s. “I will be reporting all this to the Executor.” He crosses his arms, his Binder’s tattoos peeking out from the shift of his wrist sleeves, the holstered pistol rising awkwardly on his hip. She realizes he’s been speaking this whole time.
“Report what?” she says. She keeps her face innocent and honey-sweet.
“Your behavior,” Murrow snarls. “Your inexcusable waste of Imperial resources. Your wanton disregard for policy and standards.”
“I believe, Agent Murrow,” she says, “you are leaving out reckless endangerment.”
He gawks, then recovers. “The Executor likes me. She’ll listen,” he says. “She’ll know I should have been number one on this—”
“And yet the Executor made you my deputy.”
Ansley rises, her hand tightening around the knife. Murrow flinches and steps back. She watches his face register the weakness of this impulse.
“They’ll come,” she says. She steps forward, puts her nose so close into his face she can smell the stew they ate for lunch in the dining car. “And you’d better be ready, or you won’t stand a fucking chance.”
His eyes narrow. She sees how much he hates her. Disrespects her. How glad he’ll be when she’s finally out on her ass, like she should have been all those years ago. He opens his mouth.
“Special Agent Dreddmann.”
A different voice, from a different agent behind her.
“What?” she snaps. She keeps her glare trained on Murrow.
“Contact in car three. We’re being boarded.”
She can’t keep the smile from her lips. She knows Murrow thinks she’s gloating. But he doesn’t know how relieving it is for one knot to start untying itself.
“Alert the men,” Ansley says. “And remind them all: He’s mine.”
“Now all y’all listen up and listen good,” Omar drawls. This is his favorite part. “We’re the Dandy Dreddmanns, and I know our reputation precedes us. We sure worked hard to make that so.”
His ladies fan out around him, weapons drawn. Feroina stands behind him, the glimmer of her dual twelve-shooters in his eyes.
Omar winks at a woman in the aisle. She stares impassively. He grins: She’s tougher than they usually are.
“I won’t lie,” he continues. “All that massacring could’ve been avoided if everyone involved had just kept. Their. Cool.”
Roxy Rose, flanked by three of his ladies, steps into the car behind them. They’ll clear out the two trailing this one as well as the caboose, then together work their way up the line. Omar keeps his ears perked for gunfire, but he’s not worried.
He blows a kiss at a man sitting by the window. The man doesn’t flinch.
Now, that strikes Omar as odd.
He takes a moment to survey the passengers. No one’s screaming. No one’s weeping. No one’s even sweating.
Omar’s tongue probes the gap in his teeth. Have the exploits of his Dandies numbed citizens into such instantaneous submission? Seems unlikely. Unless…
He senses the whir of motion before he sees it. Feroina’s gunshot rings out before he can turn. But he does see the body of a woman — the same woman at whom he winked — fall crumpled and dead to the ground.
And he certainly sees the dagger in her hand.
And then chaos breaks. Feroina takes a club to the shoulder. Gunfire clatters out in all directions. He drops to the ground, but a man is already there — the same man at whom he blew a kiss — and Omar feels the man’s fist collide with his own chin. Hard.
Omar’s teeth rattle. He catches himself.
But the man is fast. Shockingly fast: A blade is already drawn and arcing down.
Omar snatches the man’s wrist and lands on his own hip. The man bears down on Omar and that’s his mistake because Omar rolls to dislodge the weight and before the man knows it Omar’s pressed the knife-wielding hand into the man’s own chest.
A body lands on top of him — another passenger, this one holding the club — and five more gunshots buck before the stillness returns and the persistent chugging of the locomotive is audible again.
Omar stands, the gun smoke purple with enchantment coiling at the top of the car. Blood splatter covers the blue wallpaper, giving the golden roses patterned across it a carnivorous appearance.
“Now just what in the deathless hell was that?” Omar says.
Feroina, her right shoulder hanging at an unnatural angle, rolls over body after body of the fallen passengers with her feet.
“This one’s Maynard Bowles,” she says. Everyone still standing can hear the pop of her tendons as she thrusts her shoulder back into place.
“Maynard?” Omar looks down at the corpse. He now recognizes the dead bounty hunter from one of their many card games together.
“Renate ‘ja Salton, over here,” one of Omar’s ladies says.
“I don’t recognize this one,” another of his ladies calls, “but he broke my fucking wrist.” She shifts her gun to her better hand and adds two more bullets to the dead man’s skull.
“They’re all bounty hunters,” Feroina says. She rubs her shoulder.
Omar tries his hardest. He really does. But he can’t keep the grin off his face.
“She’s good, ain’t she?” he says.
His ladies turn to him. “Who?” one asks.
“Why,” Omar says, “my big sister.”
Feroina’s frigid glare could freeze a volcano. But Omar can’t contain himself.
Ansley swallows her cackle down: That dandy fuck is almost hers.
She can hear that stupid drawl he loves to affect, see that idiot gait of his, smell the cloying perfume he rubs on his wrists — “So the aroma reminds you of me,” he always said, as if anyone could ever forget someone so garish.
“They’ll likely be in two parties,” she hears herself saying. “A large, heavily armed group at the front, led by Dreddmann and Feroina ‘ja Xhao, followed by a small one protecting their Binder, Roxy Rose. Omar will always be highly visible. If ‘ja Xhao is not with him, she will be leading a third, lighter contingent. Check doors and corners, and especially your six. She will—”
“This is a train,” Murrow says. “There’s no way they can go around us.”
“And yet they managed to board us somehow,” Ansley says. “Don’t underestimate them.” She turns back to the agents around her. “Remember, firearms have range but low volume. Once the bullets are spent, it’s fists and knives. Stay low and stay covered. Press forward. Subdue with prejudice. We only need the one alive.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the agents around her say.
She turns and leaves the car, knowing Murrow will follow. Which he does as soon as she’s in the next car.
“You should be with the men, Agent Murrow,” she says.
“We should be dispersed throughout the cars,” Murrow says, “sprinkled amongst the passengers. We could get the drop on them, take them down one-by-one.”
Ansley rolls her eyes: It’s a stupid plan, proposed far, far too late.
“There are no passengers on this train, Murrow,” she says.
“There are passengers in cars three, four, and five,” he snaps, “and anyone in the dining car.”
“Those are all bounty hunters,” Ansley says, “hired from across the Reaches.”
Murrow stops dead. “You hired bounty hunters? With Imperial funds?”
“Good gods, Murrow,” Ansley says. “What do you think the white funds are for?”
“We are the Catechism,” Murrow says. He pounds a table. “We are the shield of the Amalguard. And you would sully our reputation over a family spat?”
Ansley’s open palm strikes his cheek with a sharp thwack.
“I am tired of reminding you who’s number-one on this operation,” Ansley says. She can already see the red marks from her nails on his skin. “Report me for whatever you want when we have the Dreddmann gang, but right now tighten your pants and get back with the men. You have work to do.”
She turns for the door to the next car.
“And besides,” she says over her shoulder, “the bounty hunters are probably already dead.”
She steps outside, onto the gangway of the next car. The desert unrolls alongside her, flat and unchanging, sometimes obscured by the dense bellows of steam seeping from the locomotive.
When the door behind her has closed, she knocks three times — twice in quick succession, and then once after a short pause.
Even over the labor of the wheels, the rush of the wind, and the chugging of the locomotive ahead, she can hear the bar retracting and the bolt lifting.
The iron door shifts open. She steps inside the fortified car.
“Ma’am,” Special Agent Zauren says from behind the door. Magus Agent Schwartz only nods in Ansley’s direction, his wide-brimmed hat covering his eyes.
Ansley avoids the gaze coming from behind the triply Bound iron bars and turns to Zauren.
“Tell the conductor: maximum speed,” she says. “No one’s getting off this train until it stops.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Zauren says. He moves toward the furthest door to enter the locomotive.
Ansley faces Magus Schwartz. “Has it given you any trouble?”
“No, Ma’am,” he says.
Ansley turns, finally, to the Uncanny Being, magically bound behind bars — a thing with the approximate form of a human that is anything but. It stares at her, unblinking. Collected. Calm, always.
But Ansley knows how to read eyes. She has seen too much resentment, hate, spite, wrath, fear in the faces of her quarries, her colleagues, her lovers. Her family.
And the hot red eyes of this creature cannot hide the furnace within it.
“Is my magus lying?” Ansley asks. “Have you been a good little pet?”
“I have been your bait, as we agreed,” the Uncanny says.
“And will you continue to do so?” Ansley asks.
“Nothing more and nothing less,” the Uncanny says, “as long as you do as I asked, as well.”
Ansley smiles, even as she feels one certain knot tighten.
“The conductor says maximum velocity is unsafe at our current weight and distance from the Sindar Terminus,” Zauren says.
“Then shoot him,” Ansley says, “and tell the steam Binders manning the engine they’re next unless they comply.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Zauren says. He turns back for the locomotive and unholsters his pistol.
Omar reloads his mama’s six-shooter as the purple smoke clears from the dining car.
“Stay with the boss. Press forward,” Feroina is saying. “I want three of you with me. We’ll advance atop the cars, get behind the bulk of the Catechists, and then bear down on—”
“No,” Omar says. “Feroina stays with me. Pam, you’ll take the three outside.”
The silence that responds is the first thing that unnerves him this whole damn time.
“Y’all got that?” Omar says.
Feroina nods at Pam.
“Sure thing, Boss,” Pam says.
“Feroina, with me.”
He turns and walks forward. Feroina falls in by his side.
“All good?” Omar asks.
“You’re changing the gameplan,” Feroina says.
“Boss’s orders shouldn’t be trouble for anyone.”
“No trouble,” Feroina says.
“It’s my gang,” Omar says. “Y’all’re my ladies.”
“No trouble at all, Boss,” Feroina says.
“But my sister,” Omar says, “she’s trouble. And she knows we’re coming for her pet. So, it’s her we’ll cause trouble for, and I’m betting she knows—”
“We don’t need it.”
Omar stops. He faces Feroina and looks her up and down, his tongue darting through the gap in his teeth, brushing the smooth shard of tooth remaining.
“We got along without it just fine,” Feroina says. “We’ve lost six ladies already and we’re bound to lose more. We don’t—”
“I need it,” Omar snarls. He presses his face so close to hers he can feel the cold of her forehead against the heat of his own. “I need this. Is that fucking clear to you?”
Feroina’s eyes go chilly in a way he does not like. Does not like at all.
He dares her to flinch. To blink, even.
She does not.
“No more trouble,” Omar says.
“No trouble, Boss,” Feroina says. “None whatsoever.”
Ansley sees the gunfire before she hears it.
The final approach to Sindar Station brings the Speeding Sinner into the shadow of the Sindar Mountains’ east range. There, the track must weave through the desert valley then steer wide around Cancer’s Crux — that poisonous, ash-belching volcano and legendary gate to hell.
She’s hurrying back down the line, the Uncanny sealed up tight three cars behind her. But as the train shimmies — and the cars wobble nauseously from the velocity and inertia, sparks cascading from wheels all the way down the line — Ansley just so happens to see burning purple flashes through the windows of a car arcing behind them.
Only two cars away.
Godsdamn, he’s making good time.
“Agents!” she calls. “In position!”
The agents around her snap to attention. “But Ma’am—” one begins.
A bullet tears through the door ahead of them with a metallic snap. The black velvet headrest right beside Ansley explodes in a cloud of stuffing and feathers.
“Do it!” Ansley roars.
The agents scramble around her. They dash to their spots, unholstering pistols, daggers, and clubs.
Her agents find their cover and train their firearms on the door ahead, thinning purple smoke still billowing from the bullet hole.
But Ansley does not move. Her hand tightens around her daddy’s old knife, but she does not unsheathe it. She has her twelve-shooter drawn and cocked but does not raise it. She stands in the aisle, waiting —
— waiting, as the knots unravel —
— and waiting, as the knots tighten again —
“Omar, you fuck,” she mutters then screams, “Come on!”
The door explodes in a purple haze and figures slink through, gunfire flashing and blazing and roaring like discordant canons, bullets singing about the car hot and traceable through the smoke and raising sparks or stuffing or blood or howls wherever they strike.
Ansley holds fast. She watches the figures duck for cover.
An agent’s bullet drops one assailant. Behind her, Ansley watches Feroina ‘ja Xhao roll for cover.
They’re both here, Ansley knows.
She raises her twelve-shooter and fires, fires, fires, fires, fires —
The train lurches right as she’s tackled from the left. She crashes to the ground just in time to avoid a burst of crossfire, the agents around her shouting in surprise, the body on top of her pinning her to the floor and thrashing.
Ansley blinks the stars out of her eyes and strains under the weight. She hears footsteps rushing past, guns still blazing and windows shattering and men and women screaming or cursing or both.
And then she smells it: the stench of jasmine and honeysuckle, with a faint but unmistakable trace of orgeat lingering in the air.
She throws the bloody, gurgling face of a dying agent off her and sees the cadre of boots pressing forward from her vantage point beneath the seats. She launches herself from the floor, her gun readied and trained on the door leading toward the locomotive.
And she sees him already halfway through the door.
He whirls to face her, gun drawn. She recognizes the pearl handle in his grip and the snub-nose barrel aimed her way.
Omar gives her a wide smile.
And then the door slams shut, leaving her surrounded by the dead and dying from both their parties.
She should be pissed. She should be furious.
But did she see some missing teeth in that dipshit grin of his? That must have hurt.
Ansley smiles at the thought.
Omar can’t keep the grin off his face: His sister did not see that rout coming.
He watches Roxy Rose seal and fortify the door with her Bind, trapping Ansley in the previous car. He can’t think of anything more humiliating for her, having to trudge through the shit of Amalcross to tell her pig bosses how her bad little brother imprisoned her, killed her whole team, and nabbed her Uncanny pet.
“Boss,” Feroina says, “the payload is two cars ahead.”
“What’d I tell you?” he laughs. “Easy as stealing pie.”
“We lost Pam,” Roxy says behind Feroina, “and Claribel and—”
“But we still got the pie,” Omar says. “We’ll drink to Pam and all the rest back at the hideout. Come on.”
“Right behind you, Boss,” Feroina says.
Omar struts toward the door at the other end of the car, passing the bodies of three more Catechists slumped in separate aisles. He cracks his knuckles and stretches wide. He feels so damn good. He feels so damn alive. The Dandy Dreddmanns are unstoppable — he’s unstoppable! That’s got to make his sister sick to her stomach.
So sick, it might even kill her.
“Roxy,” he says, her name muffled as his tongue pokes at the hole in his teeth, “ready for the fun part?”
But no one stands beside him. Omar is alone at the front end of the car.
He turns around.
“Now just what the fuck is this?” he says.
But he already knows.
Before him, his four still-standing ladies have fanned out, filling alternating rows of seats with their guns trained on him. Feroina stands in the aisle, stance wide, guns at her sides.
“You’re done, Omar,” Feroina says.
Feroina’s eyes can’t freeze the welling heat in his own. His throat tightens. He wants to show the ladies he has a plan. He wants to beg them to trust him. He wants to call Feroina a turncoat shit after all he’s done for her — for all of them.
But Omar’s been around too long to believe you can change minds when it comes to this. So he blinks hard to dry his eyes, clenches his teeth to steady his waver.
And says instead, “I ain’t. Not yet.”
Feroina raises a twelve-shooter and fires.
He’s sure the bullet lands, but his body is already in motion. He throws himself against the door, feeling it open from the force of his weight. He gets off five wild shots as a volley of enchanted bullets hail around him.
He lands in the next car, and a second volley of bullets rings out — this time from the opposite direction.
Omar rolls for cover, right into the legs of an agent of the Imperial Catechism, and he puts the man down without thinking. Another agent one row of seats over roars and aims. Omar swings his mama’s six-shooter at the man and fires — click! he’s empty — but the bullets from his ladies rip through the door and one catches this Catechist in the neck.
The gunfire rages. Footsteps pound, people scream, bodies crack against the floor, the smell of iron and burnt flint wafts with the purple balloons of enchanted gun smoke.
Omar curls up, the spent casings from his gun already shaken out and mostly replaced. He’s fitting the sixth and final bullet in when he hears something like the tearing of paper.
“Oh, no,” he can’t help but say out loud.
It was always to be Roxy’s last resort, for whenever — not if ever — the Dandy Dreddmanns finally got the shit end of the odds. It was supposed to make sure they all went out together, as gloriously as possible.
Hard to believe that time is now.
The air around him tightens, pulls him backward. Then catapults him forward, and he hits the seats in front of him. He hears tearing and twisting metal screeching so impossibly loud the soft and sudden pop wouldn’t be noticeable were it not for the singular ringing that follows. His bones strain and squeeze as the pressure wave passes over — thank the gods he’s below it, on the floor — and shattering window glass rains atop him.
His stomach lurches: The car’s gone airborne. Through the black dots crowding his vision he watches his mama’s six shooter slide across the floor and his bullets spilling everywhere.
Omar feels the car land miraculously back on the tracks. He feels the rattle throughout his body as the inertia of the charging locomotive fights through derailment, the cars lurching and wavering as they realign atop the tracks. The shriek of the wheels grows louder and more splitting, and he realizes his hearing is returning.
With a final shudder and one last screech, the cars even out. The locomotive chugs loud and clear.
Omar takes a long deep breath — then notices the ferrous taste of blood. He checks his body, looking for the wound from Feroina’s bullet. But he finds nothing.
He spits the blood out, and the tip of his tongue lands in the bloody puddle. The very tip he always used to poke and prod that gap in his teeth.
Omar smiles. He really is unstoppable.
He rises unsteadily and staggers through the rest of the car, stepping over the bodies of dead Catechists, crushing glass shards beneath his boots. As he presses forward, something shiny catches his eye in one of the aisles.
He bends down and retrieves his mama’s six-shooter.
Ansley finally unsheathes her daddy’s old knife.
She crosses her wrists so her pistol-bearing hand rests, stabilized, atop her knife-bearing hand.
If this is how you want to play it, she thinks, then let’s play it how you want.
She runs and leaps onto the fallen roof of the wrecked train car ahead of her. The wind tears at her face and hair. Dust and grit pelt her eyes and coat. Sparks rage and sing along the track.
But Special Agent Dreddmann presses forward.
She had just kicked her way through the sealed door when the shockwave hit, throwing her almost the entire length of the train car. Of course Roxy Rose would have a deathbind. Omar’s ladies — and her agents — are now little more than bloody pulp smeared about the train car. Ansley really should have seen that coming.
Too late, now.
Through gaps and holes in the rubble, Ansley sees the mangled bodies of the gang. None of them will be Omar, she knows.
But she checks anyway. She recognizes Feroina ‘ja Xhao, and those blasted or torn beyond recognition are distinctly feminine enough.
Ansley smirks and exhales and feels a knot untangle in her stomach. She didn’t even know that one had formed.
But she would have been inconsolable if that dandy fuck had gone out on his own terms.
She creeps further along atop the train car, staying low to center her weight in case of any sudden curves in the tracks. At the edge of the car, she sees the gangway of the next one has been warped and soldered from the explosive energy of the deathbind.
She jumps down and ducks inside through a hole. There’s a small puddle of blood surrounding what looks like the tip of someone’s tongue in the entryway, and broken glass and bodies litter the floor.
She hears the sounds of a struggle at the far end — and smells a trace of orgeat.
Ansley crosses her wrists again and hurries forward, the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine growing stronger. Glass crunches beneath her steel-toed boots.
Two men crash through the gangway to the floor in front of her. Omar, blood drooling from his gritted teeth, lands on top of Agent Murrow, struggling to push away Omar’s six-shooter while bringing his own blade to Omar’s neck.
“Freeze, Omar!” Ansley says.
Omar looks up, eyes wide with surprise — and Murrow springs sideways and flips Omar over, now bearing down on him with the blade.
“That’s enough!” Ansley says.
Murrow growls but doesn’t stop. Omar kicks and grapples. But Murrow’s got him pinned too well, blade inching closer.
“That’s an order, Agent!” Ansley snarls.
Murrow roars. The blade juts down. Omar strains to stretch his neck, Murrow’s knife point just beginning to dig into Omar’s jugular —
Ansley pulls the trigger. The enchanted bullet bores through Murrow’s head and right out his ass, purple smoke billowing from both holes. He collapses dead, the knife limp in his hands.
Ansley feels the sharp fine powder of her grinding teeth as her stomach tightens, tightens, tightens — tightens so tight she feels this new knot squeezing all the air out of her lungs, all the muscles off her bones, all her bones out of her skin.
Omar throws Murrow’s body off and gasps for air. He rolls onto his stomach, breathing heavily.
She keeps her gun trained on him, her knot still tightening. So tight it chokes her. But as it tightens even further still — as she stares at Omar’s hideous tasseled yellow getup, reeking of money even though it looks as if a cheap piece of leather had been put through a meat slicer and then pickled in piss — she feels a dozen other knots loosening with relief, freeing up her airways, relieving her muscles, loosening her skin.
She inhales, and the world grows brighter.
“Big sister,” Omar says.
“Baby brother,” Ansley says.
“I’m all right. You?”
“I’ve been better,” he says.
“On your feet,” Ansley says, “and no bullshit.”
He rises slowly and carefully.
“Drop her gun,” Ansley says.
“I’ll take the bullets out,” Omar says. “I swear.”
“So you’d let me keep the knife if this was turned around?”
“Come on, Ans. You know that’s different.”
“Drop it and kick it here, Omar. I will not ask again.”
His upper lip puckers with motion, his eyes never leaving hers. He brings his arm slowly forward, lets the gun hang loose around one finger.
Drops it to the floor then kicks it to Ansley.
Ansley picks up their mother’s old gun.
“You take good care of that,” Omar says. “You keep it well-polished and—”
Ansley throws the six-shooter out a shattered window.
“Bitch!” he shrieks.
Ansley strikes him hard in the mouth with the butt of her daddy’s old knife. A mess of spit and blood sprays across a row of seats.
“Move,” she says. She grabs him by the scruff of his neck and shoves him forward.
Omar sniffles and walks into the next car with his hands raised, Ansley right behind him.
“You know,” Omar says, “it doesn’t have to be like this. My Dandies are all dead, thanks to you. I lost Mama’s gun, thanks to you. You win, all right? You always win. We can call it even. I’ll just fade away and—”
“Shut the fuck up, Omar.”
Mercifully, he does.
But Ansley’s jittery. She finally has him. She’s finally got him. Oh gods, she’s going to savor this. She finally bested him, and for good. Oh, this is so grand for her.
At the fortified car, she puts the gun to his head and pounds on the door with her daddy’s knife handle — twice in quick succession, once after a short pause — and the bar retracts, the deadbolt lifts, and the door swings open.
She throws Omar into the car. He lands on his knees and sprawls across the floor.
“Good job, Ma’am,” Agent Zauren says. He closes the door behind them and resets the deadbolt.
Ansley avoids the Uncanny’s eyes. She looks at Magus Agent Schwartz and nods her head.
Magus Schwartz rises and pulls back his massive loose sleeves, revealing the two-dozen diamond-encrusted gold bracelets along his arms.
Omar crawls to the Uncanny’s cage.
“I’m here to free you,” he says. “You and me, we’d be unstoppable. But you’ve got to help me.”
Zauren lands a heavy boot on Omar’s back. The Uncanny doesn’t even look at them.
“I have done precisely as you asked,” the Uncanny Being says. “And now you shall do precisely as I asked.”
“Here’s the thing,” Ansley says. “I changed my mind.”
Schwartz presses his hands against the bars.
“Control,” he whispers.
The triply bound bars of the Uncanny’s cage glow and grow, bowing and expanding to seal the creature entirely in an airtight metal sphere.
“You would betray me?” the Uncanny says.
“Never trust a pig,” Omar wheezes, “you dumb fucking sprite!”
Flaming tendrils flare through the open pockets of the solidifying sphere and form into the shape of hands, red-hot and translucent, burning blue and yellow along the closing edges of the encircling iron. The Uncanny’s furious and steady eyes remain locked on Ansley.
“Hurry up with that spell, Schwartz,” Ansley says.
The magus grunts, his muscles straining and his bracelets steaming and his cheeks dripping with sweat from beneath his wide-brimmed hat, the palms of his hands sizzling like raw meat against the iron.
“Zauren! The bind!” Ansley shouts.
They just need to deprive it of oxygen, and then it will be powerless. Zauren steps off Omar’s back and lurches for the cage, pulling his own sleeves up —
But Omar launches forward and tackles Schwartz.
Without Schwartz’s counterbind, the Uncanny’s powers are unimpeded. It reaches through and around the iron, burning it into nothing like it’s the peel of an overripe orange alight from the inside. Its body expands into a massive living flame. Its heat fills the train car, and it rises alongside the burning oxygen with a whooshing howl.
No, Ansley intends to scream. But she doesn’t have the time.
Instead, the world spins. The knife goes flying out of her hands.
The Uncanny launches the fortified car of the Speeding Sinner entirely off the tracks. The rest of the line follows like an earthworm plucked by an invisible hand, its locomotive dangling ahead and the remainder of its cars trailing in the air or dragging along the ground.
With a blinding flash — and an earsplitting crack following a half-second later — the Uncanny emerges through the car’s shattering roof. It expands into the air with a nebular reach, unfolding across the sky as gracefully as a swimming jellyfish and brighter than even the sun.
Without the Uncanny, the Speeding Sinner plunges earthward. The drag of the cars still on the track snap the airborne portion of the line taught before it hits the ground. The locomotive lands on its side; the crash thereafter is immediate and catastrophic.
Iron screams and thrashes as train cars collide into each other, roll over each other, tumble underneath each other. A massive cloud of dust and sand forms, billowing alongside the flailing wreck before finally overtaking it and obscuring it entirely.
Gods know how long it takes for the Speeding Sinner to come to a rest.
But one thing is for sure: No one could survive such a disaster.
Omar Dreddmann falls out of the ruined train car and rises unsteadily on the sand.
He thinks every bone in his body must be broken. He is covered in blood and burns. When the remains of his tongue poke tentatively at the old gap in his teeth, he finds a dozen new shards and stumps surrounding it.
The laugh rises from his belly, weak, raspy, painful like nothing else in his life. He is alive. He is unstoppable.
And he finally bested his sister once and for all.
His laugh settles. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath through his nose. His chest throbs with pain as his lungs expand.
I did it, Mama. I did it for you.
He exhales long and slow. He opens his eyes again and gazes at the sun, setting blood red behind him.
He takes one last look at the Speeding Sinner. No way she could have survived. That he survived was a miracle in and of itself.
He looks forward again. He knows he’s not far from Sindar Station. He thinks he can make it by moonrise.
And he’ll keep an eye on his back just in case.
Ansley Dreddmann blinks the blood away.
She smells honeysuckle and jasmine and orgeat.
Not possible, she knows. Not possible, not possible. That she survived herself is an impossibility.
But she can hear movement, now. She shifts from her position lying on the ceiling of the upturned train car and strains to look out the shattered window.
Though sand obscures most of the view, she sees her brother, briefly, limping his way toward Sindar.
She closes her eyes and exhales.
A new knot forms — and then immediately untangles, along with every other knot she’s ever had. It was always going to come down to this. Was there really any other way?
And besides, he looks like he’s in terrible shape.
The pain is everywhere in her body, she’s covered in blood that might be hers or anyone else’s, and her skin is still boiling from the Uncanny’s flames.
And she can’t find her daddy’s old knife. It must be somewhere in the wreckage.
But honestly? She’s never felt better in her whole godsdamned life.
She slithers through an open window, clawing at the sand to drag herself out.
This is for you, Daddy. Finally, for you.
Free of the car, she rises to her feet. She gazes at the setting sun.
If she’s lucky — and she thinks she might be — she can catch him by moonrise.