Kiss of the Dragonfly

42. Checkpoint

They saw the light first—a glimmer in the blackness of the tunnel. As the train trundled along, the light resolved into a concrete hut with lighted windows.

“Cort, put on your helmet,” ordered Petra, hiding their torch below the cart wall. She handed the smallest helmet to Otger and pulled her scarf around her face. Their best chance was that the juggers inside would mistake them for their own kind.

Otger kept the train going at its steady clip. When they neared the hut, juggers issued from it. Worm-hair swung and lamplight glinted on steel. Their movements were relaxed. Evidently the guards did not yet know what had happened at the entrance. Petra’s heart banged like a hammer, anyway.

The largest jugger made a lazy sign. Otger put the train in the lower gear to give the impression they would stop. As the engine drew abreast of the hut, the leader bellowed an order.

“Now!” cried Petra.

Two snaps, and both juggers staggered. Cort nearly fell out backwards, so strong was the kick of the jugger crossbow.

Howls and roars resounded from the tunnel walls. The jugger with the crossbow sank to his knees, then slumped over. The leader, though Canuut’s bolt protruded from his chest, strode forward, drawing his sword.

Petra gave him a whack on the head with her staff that nearly split the wood, but only succeeded in knocking his helmet askew. Bane leaped from the cart and sank his teeth into the wounded leader’s sword arm. The jugger snarled and waved his arm, flinging the heavy dog about like a rag.

A bolt whiffled past—more juggers in the shadows.

Half-blinded by his helmet and unbalanced by the weight of the dog, the leader scythed the air with his sword, striking sparks from the edge of the cart.

Otger leaped from the engine to land on the jugger’s back.

The jugger spun, then abruptly collapsed. Now both juggers from the hut were down, but there remained the ones the companions couldn’t see.

Petra flung her torch into the shadows whence the bolt had flown. The spinning torch revealed a jugger on his knee with crossbow leveled, and a smaller one bending to cock his weapon. Canuut stood firm, aimed well, and shot the kneeling jugger through the head as a bolt zipped past his own ear. The smaller jugger dropped his half-cocked weapon and charged.

Cort was on the ground, feinting with a dagger. As the jugger slashed at the blade he saw, Cort spun and lopped off the jugger’s hand with his sword. Then he silenced its howls with a stroke to the neck.

Petra peered back. The light from the guardhouse windows picked out Otger on the ground, pinned beneath the fallen leader, and Bane worrying the jugger’s arm. Stepping up on the bench, she kicked the lever that disengaged the clamp, then jumped to the ground and ran back to Otger. It needed Cort’s and Canuut’s help to roll the jugger off him. Otger’s knife and hand were black with jugger blood.

All was silent but for the hiss of the waiting train.

“Otger, that was splendid—you were wonderful,” said Petra, kneeling beside him. Nausea fought with admiration.

“Huh,” said Otger. He was trembling.

Cort scowled.

“You too, Cort,” said Petra, hurriedly.

Canuut gave a roar of triumphant glee. “Now I’ve lived a Drakhorn’s life,” he shouted “Now I’ll die a happy man.”


There was no doubt about the next garbage chute. A mountain of trash, extending to the tracks, had buried the machine beneath it. Pale, eyeless things crawled there, and the stink caught at the back of Petra’s throat.

“Cob mentioned none of this—nor tracks nor trains nor trash,” growled Canuut. “These are new. The Karlward juggers are back. And they’re worse than Flays or Gronnor Brok.”

More piles of trash slid by, and unlit concrete buildings. Looking back, Petra thought she saw a shadow move near one of them. They stopped to listen, but heard nothing.

“Hey Otger, why are we on this track and not that?” shouted Petra, noticing a track running parallel to theirs.

“Huh. I think … I’m not sure.”

Then their train began to climb. The torchlight showed a shallow slope of brickwork, up which their track ascended, leaving the tunnel floor behind.

“Should we stop?” asked Otger.

“Um. I think … I’m not sure,” said Petra, anxiously. Here were choices, but the tracks were making them, not her. “Let’s keep going. The map shows the trail going straight through. If the tracks change direction, we’ll stop.”

The tracks climbed precarious brickwork to a giddy height above the floor, then continued through a split in a vaulted roof of yards-thick iron, torn like soft cheese by some ancient convulsion of unimaginable force. The tracks leveled in a passage lit by electric lamps with wires looped between.

From there, a maze of passages branched right and left. Another set of tracks lay parallel to theirs. Then the train followed a bend into a broad passage at right angles to the first. It was dimly lit, but a brighter light shone in the distance. Otger, Cort, and Canuut turned to Petra.

“Stop,” shouted Petra.

When the train’s own clatter had ceased, another clatter reached their ears. It came from far up the passage, and mixed with it, the sound of many voices shouting in unison. Juggers.

“It’s getting closer,” said Cort.

“They’re singing—maybe,” growled Canuut.

“I think it’s another train,” said Otger.

“We could hide around the corner,” suggested Canuut.

Petra fought down panic. “No, they’d stop to check this train. We’ll have to abandon it.”

“Then what?” complained Cort. “Have you the slightest idea where we are, or where to go? I certainly don’t.”

Petra clenched her jaw. That was the problem. It seemed they’d been going straight, but without sun or moon or stars or godshade, she couldn’t be sure.

Otger said, with sudden excitement, “The warm air’s blowing toward us in this tunnel. And in the last one, I’m sure it was moving with us. But when we set out, it was against us.”

It took a moment for the implication to sink in. Then Petra’s eyes widened. “You mean, it always blows out of Karlward, and we should follow it?”

“Yes. And if we follow the wind, the juggers behind won’t smell us.”

The clanking and shouting were definitely louder now and the light brighter. Somewhere behind, the patter of running feet came and went. This part of Karlward was dangerously crowded.

“Everyone out,” ordered Petra. “Otger, start it going full speed, then jump out.”

They ran back to the point where the train had turned into the passage. There, Otger cut the draped wires, putting out that passage’s lamps. The instant he did, the raucous singing stopped.

“That’s so they won’t notice anything wrong with our train,” said Otger. “Or maybe they’ll crash into it.”

“Sharp, Otger!” panted Petra, flashing him a grin. He was way, way smarter than a dog. To mislead pursuers, she had Cort and Canuut scatter the jugger helmets and coats down a side passage. Then they fled up the passage their first track had climbed into.

The track ended at a guardhouse. The legs of one guard stuck out of the doorway. Another lay crumpled in shadow. What had happened? Stabbing pain in her knee made Petra’s head swim. She couldn’t worry about dead juggers.

Then there were no more lamps, and they had to proceed by torchlight. A rubble path took them through brick walls, fragile stoppers between cliff-high splinters of iron. The rent iron gave way to canyons of fractured obsidian, then rock and dirt and the fresh smell of green, and they burst through pine boughs into blinding sunlight.

They had come alive through Karlward.

They found themselves on a broad ledge to which clung stunted trees. Blinking and squinting, Petra limped to the edge and peered down. Below stepped cliffs and a steep, rocky slope, lay the Blood Gorge.

“Never thought my heart would sing at that sight,” chuckled Canuut.

Behind them came a rustling and a rattle—perhaps it was a laugh. The companions spun, the dogs with teeth bared, snarling.

From the wound in Karlward’s side stepped Lucan’s corpse.


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