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Twenty-seven

Briar leaned against the door, pressing her ear to the crack and listening for all she was worth. On the other side she detected only silence, so she stopped and reloaded there in the dark, filling the rifle by feeling her way through her bag. It took an extra moment, but it was an extra moment she was willing to spare.

Finally she said, “I’m going first. Let me take a look.”

“I can go first just fine,” Angeline argued.

“But my gun will fire more than twice, if it needs to. Keep a watch on my son, will you, ma’am?” she said, and she pushed at the door’s latch and let the wooden barrier creep back out of its frame.

Briar led with the barrel of her rifle, and followed with her masked face, swiveling back and forth to take in the whole scene despite the limitations of her visor. She could hear her own breath too loud in her ears, echoed and amplified in her mask, and it was still the same as when she’d first put it on and dropped down the tube. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to it.

The room before her was very different from the last time she’d seen it. The glorious unfinished lobby was littered with the aftermath of a localized but very vicious battle. Bodies were sprawled and folded across the regimental rows of chairs; she counted eleven at a glance, and she spied a magnificent hole in the wall that looked like it could’ve been cut by the Boneshaker machine itself.

And directly inside the hole, where the wall was bitten off and dangling in heavy, scarcely lifted chunks, Briar saw a foot atop the rubble, as if its owner had bodily created the hole and now languished within it.

She didn’t quite forget to scan the rest of the room, but her subsequent sweep of the area was perfunctory and fast. Without warning her son or the princess, still in their dark little cubbyhole, she ran to the foot and crawled up over the jagged blocks of broken masonry and marble until she could drop down beside it.

She let the Spencer fall off her shoulder, and set aside her satchel.

“Swakhammer,” she said, patting at his mask. “Mr. Swakhammer.”

He didn’t respond.

The mask appeared intact, and mostly he did too—until she began to stick her fingers between the seams of his armor and feel for things that might be broken. She found blood, and quite a lot of it. She found that his leg was bending in an unlikely manner, broken somewhere below his knee and dangling inside a heavy boot with a steel-toed shell.

She was wrenching his mask away from his head when Zeke got tired of waiting in the stairwell. He came to the wall’s edge and asked into the hole, “Is somebody in there?”

“It’s Jeremiah.”

Zeke asked, “Is he all right?”

“No,” she grunted. The helmet came mostly off, but it was attached by a series of springs and tubes. It fell away, but didn’t roll far. “Swakhammer? Jeremiah?”

Blood had pooled inside the mask; it was coming from his nose and—Briar noted with real alarm—it was dripping steadily from one of his ears.

“Is he dead?” Zeke wanted to know.

Briar said, “Dead folks don’t bleed. He’s done up brown, though. Jesus, Swakhammer. What happened to you? Can you hear me? Hey.” She gently slapped his face, both cheeks. “Hey now. What happened to you?”

“He got in the way.”

Minnericht’s filtered, masked voice came down like the hammer of God, echoing loudly through the chamber with its dead souls and split-open walls. Briar’s chest seized up in a tight flash of fear, and she wanted to scream at Zeke for leaving the relative safety of the stairwell. He was standing there, out in the open at the foot of the stone-cluttered hole, vulnerable as could be.

Briar stared down at Swakhammer, whose pupils were darting back and forth behind closed lids that were caked with drying blood. He was still alive, yes, but not by much. She looked up and said, loud enough that she could be heard from outside the hole and across the room, “You’re not Leviticus Blue. But you could’ve been his brother,” she added with as much bland apathy as she could muster. “You’ve got his sense of timing, that’s for sure.”

Over the lip of the hole in the wall, she knew she had a bare ridge of shelter. The doctor, if in fact he was one, couldn’t see what she was doing—not very well. She used the moment and the cover to lightly frisk her friend in case he was carrying anything helpful. She’d chucked the Spencer aside. Even if it was within easy reach, she’d never get it up, cocked, aimed, and fired before Minnericht had time to do something worse.

One big revolver was lying alongside Swakhammer’s ribs, but it was empty.

“I never said I was Leviticus Blue.”

Briar grunted as she tried to lift Swakhammer enough to feel around underneath him. “Yes you did.”

Zeke piped up, “You told me that’s who you were.”

“Hush, Zeke,” his mother warned him. There was more she wanted to say to her son, but she turned back to the masked bastard again before he could respond. “All God’s children know it’s what you wanted these folks to think. You wanted them to be afraid of you, but you couldn’t make that happen with your name alone. You might be mean as a snake, but it turned out you’re not as scary as one.

“Hush your mouth, woman. I’ve made this place what it is today.” he said, defensive and angry, and possibly smarting from a slight wound to his pride.

Briar hoped he was smarting. She hoped he was as much like Levi as he acted. She said, “I won’t hush; and you can’t make me, Joe Foster, even if you try. And you might. You’re the kind of man who likes to hurt women, and I hear I’m not the first.”

He barked, “I don’t care what you heard or where you heard it. Except that I do want to know, and I want you to tell me this moment, where you heard that name.”

She stood up fast and straight. Instead of answering his demands, she said, “I want to know who the hell you think you are, dragging us into your little western front, you son of a bitch”—she borrowed Angeline’s favorite label.

When she stood, she could see him as clearly as he saw her, and the triple-barreled shotgun in his hands was something of a terror. It wasn’t aimed at her. It was aimed at Zeke, who, to his credit, had successfully hushed as his mother told him to—though whether it was due to her orders or Minnericht’s amazing firearm, Briar didn’t know and didn’t care.

She’d expected him to threaten her, but Minnericht was smarter than that, and meaner. Well, that was fine. She could be smart and mean, too. She said, “You made this place what it is today? So you think you’ve got some kind of power down here? You sure act like you do, but it’s horseshit, isn’t it? It’s all a big show so people will think you’re the smartest man with the most money. But it ain’t like that. If you were half as smart as you pretended to be, you wouldn’t have to steal Levi’s inventions, or scare up the leftovers from the mining contest. I saw them back there, in your storage room. You think I don’t know where they came from?”

He roared, “Stop talking!”

But she was determined to keep his attention on her instead of on Zeke, and instead of on the slender, boyish old woman who was slinking out of the stairwell to creep up behind him. Briar continued, talking louder so she’d be heard over him, “If you were half the man you pretend to be, you wouldn’t need me to prop up your story—and you wouldn’t need to bring in the boys, like you do. Levi was crazy and he was bad, but he was too smart for you to just pick up his toys and run with them. You need Huey because he’s smart; and you tried to talk my own boy into staying by telling him a pack of lies. But if you’d really made this place what it is, you wouldn’tneed to.”

His aim shifted so that the fat-barreled triple gun pointed between her breasts. She’d never been happier. He said, “You say another goddamned word and I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” she shrieked. She spit out the next part in a frantic, desperate tirade—all in one breath, skipping from pause to pause and trying to keep him angry, because Angeline had almost reached him. “You don’t even know how to work that gun, I bet. You probably didn’t even make it. All the ideas you ever got you stole from Levi, who designed it all and built it all. You know just enough of it to make yourself look like a king, and all you can do is pray to God that no one figures out how useless and weak you really are!”

Beyond roaring, beyond howling, he simply shouted, “Why are you here? Why are either of you here! You never should have come! This wasn’t about you,” he swore. “You should’ve both stayed home, in that disgusting little hovel in the Outskirts. I offered you more—I offered you both much, much more than either of you deserves, and I didn’t have to! I didn’t owe you anything, either one of you!”

She shouted back. “Of course you didn’t! Because you’re not my husband, and you’re not his father, and none of this was our fight, or our problem. But you didn’t figure that out in time, joe Foster.”

“Stop using that name! I don’t want that name; I hate that name, and I won’t hear it! Why do you know that name?”

Angeline was there to answer.

Before Briar could blink, the old woman was on him, wrapped around him as tight as a vise, as mean as a mountain cat, and much, much more deadly. One of her knives was in her hand, and then it was under Minnericht’s chin, in that narrow seam where his skin met his mask.

She used her weight to jerk his head back and stretch that seam, exposing his Adam’s apple and a white stretch of flesh. As she did so, Briar gasped and Zeke leaped over the debris and into the near-shelter of the hole, beside his mother.

Angeline said, “Because of Sarah Joy Foster, whose life you ended twenty years ago.”

And with one slash, swift and muscle-slicingly deep, she cut a line across that seam.

He fired two of the gun’s three barrels, but his aim was lost to imbalance and shock. He spun and stumbled, and slipped and skidded across the scuffed marble floor that was soaked with his own blood. It gushed in a pair of amazing sprays that shot out from both sides of his neck, for Angeline had cut him hard from ear to ear. She rode him like an unbroken horse as he flailed, grasping for the woman, or his throat, or anything to steady himself. But he was bleeding too fast, and too much.

He didn’t have long to struggle, and he wanted to make it count. He tried to turn the gun around in his hands—to aim it back, over his shoulder, but it was too heavy. He’d lost too much blood, and he was too weak. He fell to his hands and knees, and finally, Angeline let go of him.

She kicked the big gun out of his reach and stared down while he sputtered, and while his glorious red coat grew redder still.

Briar turned away. She didn’t care about Minnericht’s death; she cared about Swakhammer, who wasn’t bleeding with quite so much spectacular gore, but whose life was ebbing all the same. It might well be too late already.

Zeke took a step or two back. Until he did so, Briar hadn’t noticed that he’d been all but hiding behind her.

He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again as a bustle of incoming activity prompted his mother to grab, hoist, cock, and aim the Spencer.

“Get down,” she told him, and he did.

Angeline hobbled over to the hole, scaled its lip, and readied her shotgun just in time to point it at Lucy O’Gunning as she stomped around the corner and into the room where the battle had just ended.

Lucy had found or fixed her crossbow, and it was affixed to her arm, ready to fire. She aimed it back at Angeline before she realized who she was. Then she brought it down and said, “Miz Angeline, what are—?” finally, she saw Briar, and she almost laughed when she spoke the rest. “Ain’t this a pairing? I swear and be damned. We don’t have too many women down here inside the walls, but I sure wouldn’t mess with the ones we’ve got.”

Briar said, “You can count yourself in that number, Lucy. But don’t start smiling yet.” She pointed down at Swakhammer, whom Lucy could not see over the edge of fallen wood and wall. “We got trouble, and it’s big, and it’s heavy.”

“It’s Jeremiah!” Lucy exclaimed as she poked her head over the rubble.

“Lucy, he’s dying. We’ve got to get him moved out of here, and back someplace safe.”

Angeline said, “And I don’t know if that’ll save him or not. He’s hurt bad.”

“I can see that,” Lucy didn’t quite snap. “We’ll have to take him… We’ll have to put him…” she said, as if—should she talk long enough—an idea would eventually occur to her. And then, one did. “The mine tracks.”

“That’s a good thought,” Angeline said approvingly. “He’ll be easier to take down than carry up, and if you can get him in a cart, you can roll him all the way back to the Vaults without a lot of trouble.”

“If, if, and if. How are we going to—?” Briar said.

Lucy interrupted. “Give me one minute,” she said. She added to Swakhammer in particular, “Don’t you go anywhere, you big old bastard. You hang on. I’ll be right back.”

If he heard her, he didn’t give any indication of it. His breathing was so shallow it could scarcely be detected, and the twitching of his pupils beneath his eyelids had slowed to a faint roll, corner to corner.

Half a minute later Lucy returned with Squiddy, Frank, and Allen, if Briar remembered the other men’s names correctly. Frank didn’t look so hot. He had a black eye so broad that it nearly made a black nose and a black forehead too; and Allen was nursing a hand that had been injured in some way. But between them, they crawled into the hole, lifted up the armored man, and began to half tow, half carry him out and down.

Lucy said, “We can take him to the lift. At the bottom level, we ought to find mining carts—this is where all the lines ended when Minnericht drew them up. Come on now, and hurry. He ain’t got long.”

“Where will we take him?” Squiddy asked. “He needs a doctor, but—”

And that’s when they noticed the bloody puddle with a masked villain lying dead at its center.

“Jesus. He’s dead, ain’t he?” Frank asked with awe.

“He’s dead, and thank Jesus for it,” Angeline told him. She reached for one of Swakhammer’s dangling feet—the one that did not appear broken. She picked it up and propped it over her shoulder. “I’ll help you carry him. I could use a peek from a doctor myself,” she confessed. “But this corner of of Jeremiah ain’t so heavy. I can help.”

“I know a man,” Lucy said. “He’s an old Chinaman who lives close to here. It’s not medicine like the kind you’re used to, but it’s medicine all the same, and right now, you’ll both have to take what you can get.”

“The medicine I’m used to?” Allen grumbled. “I’d sooner die, if you want the truth.”

“Swakhammer’d maybe rather die than get cleaned up by a Chinaman,” Lucy said as she used her uncommonly strong mechanical arm to brace Jeremiah’s back. “He’s scared to death of them. But I’m willing to scare him if it keeps him in one piece.”

“Momma?”

“What, Zeke?”

“What about us?”

Briar hesitated, though she dared not hesitate long. Jeremiah Swakhammer was being toted away under the straining backs of his friends, and he was leaving a dripping blood trail like a ball of yarn unspooling behind them. Upstairs the sounds of rotters moaning and stomping continued. Their infuriated, starving demands grew louder and louder as their numbers climbed, and they struggled to find their way inside the pried-open crannies and left-open entrances.

“They’re everywhere,” Briar said, not really answering his question.

“Down’s going to be as bad as up. I don’t know how this room has stayed so clear,” Lucy said with a grunt. “Where’s the Daisy?”

“Here!” Briar said quickly, like she’d had the same thought at the very same moment. The massive shoulder cannon was half buried beneath a slab of ceiling, but she pried it out and held it up with no small degree of effort. “Christ,” she said. “Zeke, this thing weighs almost as much as you do. Lucy, do you know how to work it?”

“Roughly. Turn that knob there, on the left. Turn it all the way up; we’re going to need all the juice that thing can give us.”

“Done. Now what?”

“Now it’s got to warm up. Jeremiah says it has to collect its energy. It gathers up electricity in order to fire. Take it with us—come along, come over to the lift. Fire it inside the lift—that’ll be the best place, don’t you think?”

“You’re right,” Briar said. “The sound will carry from floor to floor, not just the one. That will work, if we can get to the lift.” With that thought, she handed the Daisy to Zeke, who strained to hold it. “Take this,” she told him. “I’m going to go ahead and clear the hallway. There were rotters there before; they might be there still.”

She readied the Spencer and ran ahead of the clot who carried Swakhammer, and ahead of her own son, whose back was bent backward nearly double as he tried to balance his body’s weight against the weight of the gun.

Briar kicked open the stairwell corridor and charged down unopposed.

“Stairway’s clear!” she shouted to the group behind her. “Zeke, come ahead of them with that gun! Lucy—how long until it’s warmed up properly? It ain’t been fired lately. Please tell me it’s not a quarter of an hour!”

“Not if he didn’t fire it. Just give it a minute,” the answer dribbled down through the stairwell.

Briar didn’t hear the last part. The corridor on the guest floor was peppered lightly with rotters in varying states of gruesome decay. She counted five of them, shambling between the bodies of their comrades and gnawing on the limbs of more freshly fallen men. Thus distracted, they barely noticed Briar, who picked them off quickly, one after the other.

The floor was cluttered with limbs that ought to stink, but then she remembered that she was still wearing her mask and that’s why she could only smell the charcoal and rubber seals. For the first time since arriving, she was glad for the singular odor of her own face.

Here and there an arm had fallen away from pure decomposition; and over there in a corner, the decapitated forms of other seminaked, putrefying corpses were collected as they’d toppled. It bothered her for a moment, wondering who’d decapitated them. But then she decided that she did not care and it did not matter. All the living—even those who fought amongst themselves—had a common enemy in the rotters, and whoever had separated those heads from those bodies had her gratitude.

She kicked at the limbs she could easily move, trying to clear a path and test the state of the prone and prostrate forms. One faker opened its lone remaining eyelid and bared its teeth, which Briar promptly shot out of its face.

Zeke popped out from the stairwell corridor with the Daisy shoved behind his neck, his arms draped over it so he could support it like a set of stocks. “Momma, what are we going to do?” he asked with real urgency, and Briar heard a question that she wasn’t quite prepared to answer.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But we need to get out of here, that’s plain enough. We’ll start with that.”

“Are we going with them? To Chinatown?”

“No, don’t,” Angeline said.

She was the one who emerged first from the stairwell, still bearing Swakhammer’s leg over her shoulder. Behind her came Frank with the other leg, then Squiddy and Lucy with the rest of the unconscious man borne between them.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Get yourself to the fort. Go to that ship, the one they fixed there. It ought to be ready to fly,” Angeline added, each word abbreviated and stressed with her own exhaustion. “It’ll take you out.”

“Out of the city?” Zeke asked.

“Out of this part of it, at the very least,” Lucy said from underneath Jeremiah’s neck. “Help us get him on the lift, and then send us down. And as soon as we’re gone…” She shifted Jeremiah’s weight, and he let out a tiny moan. “You get on the lift, Briar Wilkes, and take that goddamned gun and fire it. And then you get up, and you get out of here.”

Still uncertain, Briar followed the first part of the order and helped maneuver the big man onto the lift. They rested him against Frank and Squiddy while Lucy poked through the levers up above. She said, “Once we hit bottom and get Jeremiah off to the tracks, I’ll send it back up, you understand? You’ll have to jump for it, ’cause it’s not going to stop.”

“I understand,” Briar said. “But I’m not sure—”

“I’m not sure of anything, myself,” Lucy told her. “But this much is for damned sure: You’ve got your boy, and this station is about to be overrun full tilt by those rotters, and anyone who stays in here is going to get eaten.”

Zeke said, “Are you the one who let ’em inside?”

Lucy gave a hard toss of her head to Frank and Allen and said, “Turnabout’s fair play, ain’t it? I only wish I knew they’d make it this deep. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“We could go with you. We could help,” he insisted.

Briar was thinking the same thing. She added, “We could see you safely back, at any rate.”

“No, no you couldn’t. We’ll either make it or we won’t. He’ll either make it or he won’t. We don’t need no one else to carry him. But you two, well. You, Miss Wilkes. You need to go tell the captain you didn’t die down here. He needs to know that he paid a debt, not that he incurred an even bigger one. He’s down at Fort Decatur, where they’ve fixed his ship and he’s waiting to take off, out of the city. He knows your boy’s down here, now. He told me so, when I gave him Minnericht’s message.”

Swakhammer’s shoulders stretched and he made a gurgling sound like something trying to breathe with a chest full of tar. The last part of it came out in a whimper, which tore Briar up. It wasn’t a sound that Jeremiah Swakhammer ought to make, ever. “He’s dying,” she said. “Oh God, Lucy. Get him out of here. Get him to your Chinese doctor. I thank you, and I’ll be seeing you again sometime, I swear it.”

“On my way,” she said. She didn’t even bother to close the iron gate, just yanked a pulley overhead. The lift began to drop. As the crew was lowered and they disappeared a foot at a time, Lucy said again, “You’ve always got a place with us in the Vaults, if you want it. If not, it was an honor to fight beside you, Wilkes.”

And then the precipitous slide of the lift down its cables and chains took them out of sight.

Briar was left alone with her boy.

The great gun was almost too much for him. He strained against its weight, but he did not complain, even though his knees were shaking and the back of his neck was burning from the warmth of the slowly heating metal.

At the bottom of the lift shaft, something stopped.

Briar and Zeke heard Lucy shouting orders, and she heard arrangements being made, and Swakhammer being toted and dragged off the lift and into the deepest depths of the underground levels. Hopefully there was a mine cart down there someplace; and hopefully, Lucy could take him somewhere to get him help.

With a rustling clank of cables and chains, the lift began to rise once more, climbing back to Briar and Zeke.

They held their breath and prepared to jump for it.

Briar and Zeke held the Daisy between them, and when the lift climbed into view they chucked it onto the deck and followed it. Once they were safely aboard, the lift rose slowly but steadily, a fraction of a floor at a time. Briar rolled the gun over and propped it up on its butt end.

A trigger as big as a large man’s thumb jutted out from the undercarriage.

The whole machine was buzzing with pent-up energy, ready to fire.

Briar said, “Cover your ears, Zeke. And I’m very, very serious about that. Cover ’em good. This’ll stun the rotters, but only for a couple of minutes. We’ll have to move fast.”

Leaning as far away from the gun as possible, Briar waited until the top floor came dawning into view, and then she squeezed the trigger.

The pop and the pulse pounded up, and down. Compressed by the shaft, it echoed and bounced and crashed, coursing from top to bottom and spilling out from floor to floor in a series of waves that might have amplified its power—or might have only dispersed it. The lift rang and rattled; it shook on its cable supports, and for a dazed, almost blinded moment Briar was afraid it was too much. She feared that the lift couldn’t handle it and couldn’t hold them, and at any moment it would drop them both to their deaths.

But the lift held, and it crawled upward into the darkness of yet another lightless place.

Zeke was stunned—every bit as stunned as Briar had been the first time she heard the Daisy. But his mother lifted him out more easily than she’d lifted the gun, and she pulled him off the platform, right into a door.

Without knowing what was behind it, she opened it swiftly, dragging the staggering boy in her wake and aiming her Spencer in a sweeping arc that covered the whole horizon.

The glowing orange bubbles of a dozen bonfires dotted the streets, and around each bonfire there was an empty ring of space. No one had ever told Briar that rotters would keep their distance from a flame, but it stood to reason, so she didn’t question it.

The fires were built up and fed by masked men who cared nothing for whatever fight still raged beneath the station. These men were reeling, but recovering. They’d heard the Daisy too, and they knew what it was when it sounded. They were far enough away, up here—and sheltered some by the crackling loudness of the fires—that only a few had actually fallen. Some of them shook their heads or boxed at their own ears, trying to shake away the dreadful power of Dr. Minnericht’s Doozy Dazer.

Briar hadn’t known they were up there. But if she had, likely as not she would’ve fired the Daisy anyway. After all, the living recovered faster than the dead.

Briar spied one ponytail, and then another two or three jutting out from the backs of gas masks. The Chinese quarter was out near the station at the wall’s edge; and these were its residents, defending the streets in order to protect themselves.

All of them ignored her. They ignored Zeke, too.

She told him, “Drop the Daisy.”

“But it’s—”

“We won’t get a chance to use it again. It’ll take too long to charge, and it will just slow us down. Now,” she said, because suddenly it occurred to her that she did not know. “We have to find this fort. Do you know where it is?”

She could barely see through the smoke and the Blight, and she wanted to ask someone for directions. But all the busy men, feeding their fires, did not look her way when she shouted for their attention. She doubted they spoke English.

Zeke tugged at her arm. “It’s not far away from here. Follow me.”

“Are you sure?” She dragged her feet, but he took her hand and started to pull her along.

He said, “I’m sure. Yeah, I’m sure. This is where Yaozu brought me, and I remember it from my maps. Come on. It’s back down this street, around this way. The fires help,” he added. “I can see where I’m going!”

“All right,” she told him, and she let him tow her away from the fires, and away from the strong-armed Chinamen with their masks and shovels.

Zeke rounded the nearest corner and drew up short.

Briar slammed into the back of him, pushing him forward two short steps—over a small sea of rotters. All of them were lying down, but some of them were beginning the first tentative flops and jerks of awakening. There were dozens of them, with maybe hundreds more behind them, beyond where the dark and the Blight would let Briar and Zeke see.

“Don’t stop,” she told him, and she took the lead. “We’ve got less than a minute. For God’s sake, boy. Run!”

He didn’t argue and didn’t pause; he only leaped after her—charging from body to body, seeking the street beneath them when he could find it. She led him in the direction he’d picked, setting an example by stomping on any heads or torsos that got in her way. She tripped once, sliding on a leg as if it were a log roll, but Zeke helped her recover and then they were off that street with its legion of irate, immobilized corpses.

“Go right,” he told her.

She was still in front, so she was both leading and following his directions. The smell inside her mask was an elixir of fear and hope, and rubber and glass and coal. She breathed it deeply because she had no choice; she was panting, forgetting so fast how hard it was to run and breathe at the same time while her head was bound by the apparatus. Zeke wheezed too, but he was younger, and maybe, in his way, stronger.

Briar didn’t know, but she hoped so.

The time they’d bought with the Daisy was all but up; and even if it wasn’t, they were getting so far from the blast site that the rotters wouldn’t have heard it, and it wouldn’t have stopped them.

Two streets more, and another turn.

Zeke stopped, and sought his bearings.

“Please tell me we aren’t lost,” Briar begged. She threw her back against the nearest wall and pulled Zeke back, urging him to do the same.

He said, “Not lost. No. There’s the tower, see? It’s the tallest thing here. And the fort was over this way. We’re right on top of it, just about.”

He was right. They felt their way through the gas-filled, starless dark until they found the front gate, buckled and latched from within. Briar pounded on it, knowing that she might be drawing the wrong kind of attention, but knowing also that it had to be worth the risk. They had to get inside, because the rotters were coming: She could hear them rallying far too close, and there was only so much farther she could run.

The satchel that hung across her chest and beat against her hip was perilously light, and she couldn’t bring herself to see how much ammunition was left. The answer was “not much,” and any more knowledge than that would only make her sick to her stomach.

Zeke joined in beside her, knocking against the fort’s door with his fists and his feet.

Then, from behind the blocked door came the sound of heavy things being set aside and shoved to the ground. The rows of logs that made up the fort’s wall and doors began to move, and the crack between the wood opened enough to let inside one woman and one boy, just before the first huffing rotter scouts turned the corner and charged.


Twenty-six | Boneshaker | Twenty-eight



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