Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Tank: Chapter Five: Part Two

Notes: More story, yay! And longer than usual, and definitely more action that we've seen for a while. Also, Anton should just stop taking trains altogether, he's clearly cursed.

Title: The Tank: Chapter Five, Part Two


Chapter Five, Part Two

The change happened so fast, Anton didn’t have a chance to stop himself from falling. One moment the train was chugging along, heading southwest on a decline as it passed through a narrow valley in the Bernese Oberland, and the next…

The noise was bad enough, a sharp crack followed by a rattling boom that penetrated Anton’s teeth, but it was accompanied by a sudden lift that sent everyone in their car, for a moment, into the air. Anton hung for a breathless second, with just enough time to turn his eyes away from the window he was hurtling toward before he impacted it.

Glass shattered against his cheekbone, and he felt something in his face crack along with it before his shoulder took on the burden of preparing the path for the rest of him. Even as the window vanished, the train rolled. That shouldn’t be possible, Anton thought to himself before he realized that he was airborne yet again. Only this time, he was outside the train. He’d passed right through the window frame, and flew through the air until he hit—a tree? A needle-covered rock? Something that broke his fall and nearly broke his spine as well.

Anton crashed to the ground, the air gone from his lungs, and watched as the train, all eight passenger cars, completed a second roll to the left. The engine was a smoldering mess, completely destroyed—but by what?

Magic? An explosive? Anton struggled to push up onto his hands and knees. The way his back screamed at him for it was slightly reassuring—at least he could still feel things, and his vital organs didn’t seem compromised. He tried to get to his feet and failed. Or maybe it’s too soon to know that. It didn’t matter—he could wallow in his own pain later. Caroline was on that train. Camille was on that train!

Anton staggered a few steps forward, one hand cradling his ribcage, then stopped. There was a shadow ahead of him that shouldn’t be there.

It was an odd thing to notice, but ever since he began deciphering truth from pictures that were little better than smoke and spirit, he had learned to pay attention to the way light moved. Things might get muddled in a building, with artificial light to confuse things, but out here there was nothing but the setting sun to cast a shadow, and all of those should be facing the other way. So it wasn’t a shadow, then. It was a…

“Look at you.”

A person. The man peeled away from the tree he squatted behind, taking a few small steps toward Anton. He was swathed in dark clothes, baggy and indistinct, and his face was covered in ash. “Never seen a fellow fly like that before,” he said. His French was oddly accented—an Alsatian dialect, perhaps? “The fact that you can even stand, much less move, is proof that God loves you.” He pulled a knife out from beneath his shirt. “But not enough to save you from my eyes, or my blade.” He took another two steps forward, his knife glinting menacingly in the red light of the sunset. “Now you—”

Anton pulled out the tiny Deringer he’d taken to wearing in his jacket after his last talk with Camille, cocked the hammer, and fired his shot dead into the man’s face. It was a small caliber bullet, and if his attacker was wearing armor of some sort beneath his camouflage the round might not penetrate, but there was no shield protecting his gaping mouth, now dripping blood like a faucet. Brains spattered the trees behind him, and after a moment he slumped to the ground.

“Apparently God’s still on my side,” Anton muttered. He took a deep breath, winced, and tried not to look at the ruin of the back of the man’s head as he stumbled past the body, desperate to make it to the train. Was it an ambush by the Dévoué? Were there more grey-garbed men stalking the wreckage of the train for passengers to murder even now? Anton had some of his spell equipment on him, but none of them would be much good offensively, unless he counted the wooden ball in his left vest pocket…but honestly, how useful would that be up here, in a fairly remote mountain pass with no villages? He needed to—

A second explosion rocked the ground, only this one sounded more like a swarm of metallic bees being released at high speed. Glinting orange sparks shot high above the train before crashing down again, trailing their light like spears of fire. As soon as they hit the ground, they shot straight out in all directions. Anton heard screams, expected to scream himself—he was standing, he was moving toward the train, how would the magic distinguish him from an attacker?—but the light passed right through him, harmless.

That amount of deadly precision had to be the work of Dr. Grable. He, at least, was still functioning. It was a tremendous relief to Anton—he wouldn’t yet be called to use his talents to kill. He gulped and thought of the man behind him. To kill again, at least, and that hadn’t been talent, that was pure luck.

He pressed on over the rocks, past small shrubs and straight toward the smell of gunpowder. Orsini bombs, perhaps? Whatever had managed to roll the train, it had been powerful. He stumbled toward the private car, now a broken wreck. “Caroline!” he shouted, his anxiety bursting out of his chest. She had to be all right. “Caroline!”

It wasn’t until he saw her crawl out of another broken window, coughing but managing to get herself to her feet, that Anton realized he’d just given himself away. Why should he care about her in particular, other than because she was one of the only women in their party? Why should he be so forward as to address her by her first name? Idiot, idiot

The odds were good that no one had even heard him, so surrounded were they with cries and tears and shouts. Caroline heard, though. She met his eyes for a moment, and her free hand clenched over her heart as she saw him, her eyes closing briefly. Thank God, he saw her mouth. Perhaps she and his attacker had a point after all.

“Fucking hell,” a familiar voice groused from above. Anton saw Dr. Grable standing on the toppled train, a silver wand glowing like a brand in one hand, the other one clutching the wooden leg of an elongated cocktail table. It seemed to be all that was keeping him on his feet—he was listing heavily to one side, like his left leg couldn’t support him. How had he even gotten up there?

“Sheer bloody-mindedness,” Dr. Grable said, and Anton realized he’d spoken the last part out loud. “You survived, then. Excellent. Get into the cabin of our car and check on the others while the young lady and I do a little protective thaumaturgy on what’s left of this rubble.”

“It will be all right,” Caroline chimed in. “I’ve got plenty of materials for the basics.” She had her holdall with her—smart.

“I—yes, I can do that.” It helped to have an order to follow, now that he knew Caroline was unhurt. It was the tether he needed to keep from running off to the other passenger cars, searching for Camille. There were plenty of people in a muddle over there right now already, and Anton was no healer—he would only get in the way. He crawled in through the same window Caroline had exited from and looked around, marking where their company lay, then moved to each of them in turn.

Cardinal Proulx was unconscious, and judging from the size of the knot on his skull, likely to have a terrible headache when he awoke, but he was breathing freely and no limbs looked to be contorted. Monsieur Deschamps was similarly unconscious, although he seemed to be coming around. His wrist was likely broken, or at least very badly sprained, but Anton could detect no other obvious maladies. He moved to the second half of the car, where the news was less good.

Caroline’s companion was dead, her neck very clearly broken. She’d probably died in the initial explosion, as the twist of the train had thrown them all about the cabin. And Voclain…

Well. He was dead, that was evident. But it probably wasn’t the crash that had killed him.

It was far more likely the bullet lodged in his chest that had done that.

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