I just found me a brand new box of matches

rating: +31+x

Wan morning light crept over the sleeping town at the foot of the hill. Dark rooftops, the smoke of chimneys and the pointed steeple of an enormous church cast faint shadows against the snow. A sky so blue it was almost silver stretched out to vanish over the distant plains, low clouds a hammered sheet of darker grey.

Lottie puffed out a long breath and adjusted her overcoat. Warmth seeped up from below. She'd been fueling strictly to the left hopper in her mechanical legs since the first snowfall. It ran hot, and was a lot less efficient, but could burn anything from twigs and grass to kerosene to dried buffalo dung. Out west at the tail end of December, the good quality anthracite that went in the right hopper was hard to come by. And a little "waste" heat went a long way for a woman on the move.

The mountain vista was majestic, but she was used to it. Right now Lottie had eyes for only one thing: a tiny black speck, wheeling in an updraft above the town. She grinned, bouncing on her toes. All these years out on the road, and her adopted uncle had never once forgotten to send her a Transformation Day present. His letters and homebrewed schema were her only connection to anyone back east, anymore. And having even a little bit of pure alchemical fire meant she could fabricate her own munitions, given a well-stocked workshop to do it in. Word on the trail was Brigham City had grown into a Mekhanist enclave. From the look of the smokestacks peppering the town below, it might be true.

As the raven gained altitude and started a slow glide towards her, Lottie felt a gentle ping in the transmitter in her chest. The birds were great receivers and her own signal was strong, but their outgoing range was very short. Poor thing had probably been straining to catch up ever since she caught the stagecoach north from Dodge City. Lottie gathered the raven in her arms, murmuring to it as though it were alive. She sat down on a nearby fallen log, and fished her small toolkit and a few carefully hoarded lumps of coal out of her satchel. Best to make sure the bird was all fueled up and in good repair. Then she would open up the hatch on its back, collect her presents and put in her return letters.

The last letter was just tucked in around the tiny paper twists of mineral samples when a man's angry voice, brisk and authoritative, sounded from the bushes behind her.

"What makes you think you can trespass on my land and live, upstart quadroon?" A mountain man stepped forward, barely rustling the branches around him. He pronounced every word as if someone had filed off all the hard edges and polished them smooth. In contrast to his cultured accent, he was clad from head to toe in layers of thick, glossy furs. Apart from his face, pale as porcelain, in dim light he would have looked more like an unusually scrawny bear than a human.

"I didn't know this was your land. I'm sorry; I'll go." Though Lottie's tone was mild, her eyes narrowed at his description of her race. Still, she didn't want to start trouble before even getting into town. And there were a lot worse words he could've used.

"You are sorry. Tant pis," he said. He reached under his robes and pulled out a tobacco pouch, rolling and lighting a cigarette with practiced ease as he spoke. "There are bears in these hills. Cougars. If you came into their den unannounced, would they spare you, eh?" He nodded at the bird perched on her left arm. "And you come to my woods, steal my crows, maybe to try and sell them back to me — and you are sorry?"

She stood from the fallen log, dusting snow off her trousers with one arm; the raven still perched on the other. "No, this isn't from around here," she said. "And it's not for sale."

"No matter. I am well supplied with beasts. And if you came to sell me something else," his eyes raked her lithe form. "You have only wasted my time."

Wordlessly, she tossed the raven skyward. Its wings clanked against its body, iron on iron; it drifted up in a slow spiral before winging its way back east. With a tilt of her chin, she slapped a hand to her thigh, waking an echoing clank. "This ain't for sale either."

The mountain man observed this with a sour look, digesting the information. "Heh. I had not thought to see one of you so far west, upstart quadroon. It is good that you have come. It will be a, how do you say. Dry run. An aperitif, to whet my appetite for vengeance." He shrugged, drawing deeply from his cigarette. "In a month's time, non-stop trains will begin to pass through here, making their way to Kansas City. So too will my holkost. They consume all who see them, but they hunt those who know them. If you have just now sent warning, your metal friends will only suffer more before they die."

"Vengeance? But there's… there's thousands, there's tens of thousands of people back there. People who never hurt anybody in their lives. How could your… things even find the people you want vengeance on?" Holkost, he'd said. This mountain man was a goddamn Sarkie. Lottie's fingers twitched towards her satchel. If she caught him by surprise, she might be able to score a hit with the seed fire and still have some left.

He spat on the ground. "The east is a cesspit, filled with vermin. Everything good died with my family. Burned alive in their beds by clockwork whores like you!"

Lottie's fists clenched. She advanced a step, crushing a loose stone into gravel. "You watch your mouth, mister!"

"No," he purred. "You watch my mouth."

Two hulking, yellow-white shapes advanced on either side of him. Grinning jaws, each bristling with row upon row of animal teeth, covered every inch of their massive bodies. Innumerable fangs clicked and snapped, gnashing the underbrush out of their path. Though they had no eyes, their heads swiveled to and fro, as if sniffing at the air, before turning to point directly at Lottie.

Lottie turned on her heel and sprinted from the clearing, angling up along the rocky hillside. She palmed the little clay spheres of seed fire out of the satchel as she ran. Her footsteps crashed through the thin, icy snow and left deep imprints in the dirt.

Her mind raced in time with her steps. Heading downhill would give the grinning holkost the advantage of weight, added to their speed. Those things were the size of bears — maybe had been bears, once — but given their origin, probably outclassed ordinary bears in both endurance and speed. Even Lottie, nimble as she was, couldn't count on being able to outrun them.

The crunch of their galloping steps in the snow sounded closer.

Up ahead, a steep ridge of loose shale stretched up to a narrow ledge, which was piled with a jumble of boulders. Lottie cranked up another burst of speed, already starting to sweat under her coat. If she'd known somebody was going to try to kill her today, she would've fueled the right hopper for a change. Showers of icy pebbles exploded under her feet, pattering against her pursuers as they struggled to find purchase on the sliding stones.

As soon as she got a foot on solid rock, she turned and whipped a handful of seed fire at the nearest beast. It was better than halfway up the slope. It twisted and roared, its own weight bearing it down as the tiny grenades hit and the fire caught. Their old militant order, before it was disbanded, had trained Lottie's uncle to "tune" alchemical fire so that it burned through living flesh like dry kindling. This creature's outside was mostly teeth, but its innards were evidently flesh enough to burn. Every grinning mouth split in angry, pained howls as it slid back down to the bottom.

The second beast, larger than the first, scrabbled to the side as its companion fell. Its grins widened; dozens of tongues flicked out to lick lips it no longer possessed.

Lottie reached into her satchel only to find no more of the hardened clay spheres. Oh flesh, she thought. I'm out. I'm out for a YEAR. Which wouldn't matter if she didn't survive the next minute.

There wasn't much room to get a running start, but Lottie managed a crabwise leap onto the uneven sides of a nearby boulder. Her arms could only try to hang on while she scraped for purchase with her feet — one leg by itself weighed more than her entire upper body. After what seemed like an hour, as the grinning beast hauled itself up the treacherous shale, she finally got a firm foothold and vaulted over the first boulder to land on top of the one above it with a slam.

Lottie jumped up and down with as much force as she could muster. The rock she stood on, wide as the wheel of a train, started to sway and shift, disturbing the ones beneath it. It rolled out from under her feet; she kicked off and landed on the next one back, looking for an angle. But that stone, too, began to tumble. For a long, breathless minute it was all she could do to hop from one careening boulder to the next as they all broke loose and rumbled down the hillside. Under the crash of falling rock, she could hear the grinner's howls and the crunch of snapping bone.

She fetched up, shaking, against the rocky face of the ledge, and took a few deep breaths. One grinner was a mass of silent, writhing flame — not long for this world. The other lay under a cairn of rocks and shale shaken loose by the avalanche, crushed and buried.

But who knew how many more of those things the Sarkic mountain man had crafted? He'd spoken of his creations as if he meant to take revenge on more than just a few hated individuals. Most of whom were no longer even in this world, if his family were among the many Sarkic slave-owners her order had assassinated over the years. One Karcist, working undetected in the mountains, could assemble as large an army of beasts as he had the strength of will to control.

Lottie's skin crawled at the thought; her jaw felt sore. Her gaze swept down the hillside, where a sliver of sun was beginning to burn through the layer of clouds to the east. The townsfolk would be awake soon. And she had a sudden, urgent need for industrial quantities of dynamite.

Minzheng stretched his arms as he stepped out of the freight depot, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. The morning clerk had been alert enough to inventory and sign for the shipment of parts and dry goods, but had elected to stay inside for a bit afterwards and make sure the coffeepot stayed warm. Minzheng didn't blame the fellow. It was bitterly cold out, and the clear skies promised a day of wind and not much warmth. If he stepped lively, he might have time for a leisurely cup of tea before opening up his parents' store. The thought quickened his steps across the train tracks.

A fleet, furtive movement caught the corner of Minzheng's eye, and he whirled just in time to see a person disappear into the shed behind the telegraph office. He stopped short. That shed was locked. That was where Godspeed Mining's pre-ordered blasting powder was stored. If the thief was just opportunistic, that was bad enough, but if they were breaking into the shed on purpose —

"Stop!" Minzheng shouted, hopping back across the tracks and breaking into a run. "You can't go in there! Hey!"

He realized how foolish he was being just as he reached the door of the shed. Inwardly, Minzheng swore at himself. Rushing in alone to confront a suspected thief was a heedless, American thing to do. He could just picture his father's frown, his mother's raised eyebrows. He should go back and get the clerk, be properly in the background as events unfolded. But it was too late; a ragged voice called out to him from the shed.

"Go away. I need this NOW — I'll go to the sheriff and turn myself in if I survive!"

Eyes adjusting to the dim light, Minzheng stopped again, completely baffled. A person about his own age sat on top of a crate of TNT, struggling out of a heavy overcoat; strands of tightly curled hair fluffed out from under their woolen hat. He almost jumped as they reached into one of the coat's many pockets, but what they drew out were a pair of tuning forks. They struck the tuning forks on the edge of a nearby crate and held them up to a bulge on the side of their neck, fixing him with a furious glare. "You usually stick around when a lady tells you to get lost? It's not safe. I don't know if these things are infectious!"

Minzheng did fall back a step when he saw the bulge on her neck gnash in a silent scream. Another mouth had grown straight down from the hinge of her jaw, her fawn-brown skin broken by unnatural rows of angry white teeth. The musical chime of the tuning forks seemed to hurt it — had it gotten smaller? But as the notes faded, it snapped at the air, attacking the source of the sound with renewed vigor.

He looked back at her eyes and realized she had been crying. "Miss… are you hurt? Do you need help?"

The woman sniffled and swallowed convulsively, looking around at the crates. "Flesh, man, of course I'm hurt. I just need to stay on my feet long enough to stop —" She bit the words back, shaking her head. "It's not safe. I can't tell you."

As she pulled her coat the rest of the way off, another angry mouth came into view. It had chewed through the shirt on her right shoulder. She struck the forks again and gave it a dose of sound.

Slowly, Minzheng eased the door shut behind him and sank down on a nearby crate, thinking fast. Whatever the hell was going on with this lady, she was no simple thief. He pushed thoughts of what his parents might say resolutely from his mind. "Listen. I shouldn't have come after you, but I'm here now. And whatever did that to you," he nodded towards her shoulder, "I don't need to know more to know it needs to be stopped. But — does it have to be right now, right this minute? I have an idea."

Her brows knitted together as she stared back, wariness edging out the despair in her eyes. "Even if you meant that… I don't see how you could help." The metal chimed again; she shifted her feet, ready to stand up in a hurry.

"Not me exactly, but. Um. Bear with me here," Minzheng spread his hands in a gesture of peace. "Have you ever heard of acupuncture?"


"There's a doctor in town. A Chinese doctor. He's very good, I've been seeing him for years. There's a treatment called acupuncture where the doctor puts these very fine wire needles a little way into your skin, to help the body's energy flow better."

About to strike the forks again, Lottie's hand stopped in the air. Looking back and forth from the gleaming silver tines to Minzheng's face, she answered slowly. "You think those needles will help? To — to bring the sound down under my skin, to stop these things from growing?"

"It might. And if this danger is something that has to be fought, if…" He grit his teeth in frustration, momentarily forgetting the English phrase for death ground. "If a time is coming when you have to fight or die, when retreat isn't an option? It's better if you can choose the moment, and come prepared with all your strength. And make sure the enemy doesn't know how strong you really are."

"Golly, pilgrim." Lottie shook her head, grimacing as the mouths stretched and snapped. "We sure could've used you during the war." She held out a hand. "Lottie Simmins. Take me to this doctor of yours."

He shook her hand, relief warming the tension in his gut. She was still in danger, but at least she wasn't rushing off to certain death. "Wu Minzheng. We'd better hurry. If I'm too late opening up shop my little sister will bite my head off."

Lottie scoffed, then sucked in a painful breath as she shrugged back into her coat. "If these things don't get better, she's gonna have some competition."

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