The afternoon sun struck Roy’s eyes the moment he stepped off the Argentum Express.
“Dust and ashes,” he muttered, jamming his derby hat onto his head to block the light. “Mountain air will be the death of me.”
The metal monstrosity of the sky train shifted and creaked as its frame cooled. Roy did his best to ignore it. In the recesses of his mind he knew exactly how much magic had lifted the Express off the ground in Leondale, how many sulfurite crystals had exhausted their fire to push it over the mountains to the head of the Mi-Tzi river. He also knew exactly how much power now bled from the bottom of the train’s cars behind him in smoke and embers, wasted. The fire whispered in the back of his mind. Told him it would gather if he willed it, begged him for purpose, for form, swore if he only gave in to his desire, the fire would burn it into reality.
But Roy Harper’s thoughts were his own. The fire was welcome in them only when invited and he hadn’t travelled here to burn. He’d come to work.
Roy straightened his jacket and crossed the platform towards town. The station was a few hundred feet outside of Yellowstone, connected to the town by a gravel path winding alongside the shores a of wide lake that took up the northern half of the valley. From the air the water had looked like an alien eye, a ring of reddish brown oxide deposits around a bright cyan pool with unfathomable depths at the center. But from the path the lake itself was little more than a strip of bright, rippling liquid below a picturesque landscape with the town walls giving way to the rising ridges of the Yellowstone mountains. In spite of the clear day down below gathering clouds hid the upper peaks from view. For a moment Roy enjoyed the simple pleasures of the natural world.
“Hungry tree! Hungry tree!”
Roy’s head snapped around, scanning for danger. Deep in his gut he felt something was wrong, something beyond the obvious, which was a twenty foot pine tree that had lurched out of the tree line and was rapidly closing on the stream of passengers making their way to Yellowstone. The tree’s roots thumped and slithered over the ground like dozens of crazed snakes. Loose stones and uprooted grass flew behind it, kicked up by the fast moving appendages.
The crowd of passengers panicked.
Most of the crowd saw the tree and bolted for town. Yellowstone’s ten foot tall earthworks were enough to stop most trees and Leroy could see the guard patrols atop it to fend off anything the walls alone wouldn’t deter so heading for town was a sensible move. More foolhardy souls drew weapons and formed a ragged line between the tree and the rest of the crowd.
Roy saw the telltale flares of light as two spadroons and one sword cane ignited. The weapons were deadly enough, even in untrained hands, but only against human targets. Trees were another matter. They were too hard to cut or stab effectively, had no vitals to target and sap prevented their burning easily. If you really wanted to threaten them a heavy ax was the surest bet.
That, or a fire bordering on an inferno.
Roy glanced back at the train, a few dozen feet back, opened his mind and made the invitation. Every sulfurite crystal in the cars thrummed in response. Streams of fire burst from under the train, forming into a spiraling funnel until they merged into a single, serpentine torrent. Roy turned and dashed towards the tree, the fire trailing behind, eagerly responding to his thoughts of the winding river he’d flown over for the past several hours.
Ahead, the situation had gotten much worse. An arm in a gray sleeve stuck out from under a tangle of roots, a still burning cane sword lying on the ground a few feet away. One of the men with spadroons was trying to work his way around to the trapped man while the other was swinging frantically at the tree’s waving branches in an attempt to get its attention. Roy slowed and reevaluated his strategy. Flashburning the tree wasn’t an option now, in fact he’d pulled too much fire from the train to attack without hurting the trapped man.
A wave of the hand split the flames in half and Roy scattered what he didn’t need into the grass along the path. That would keep it going for a minute or two if he needed to come back for it. The man working around the side of the tree jumped away from the unexpected spray of flames. Seeing that, Roy tweaked the placement of the fires just enough to keep him separate from the tree. That gave him enough room to work. The rest of the fire got crushed down into a bead as small as Roy’s pinky joint that he wove through the flailing branches.
Touched against the trunk of the tree.
And let go.
The resulting explosion blew two of the lower branches off of the pine and sent it slowly toppling over. Through sheer force of will Roy shaped the explosion up and away from the trapped man and the effort left him winded. It wasn’t a simple matter for a downed tree to get upright again but it was possible and the pine immediately set about it, branches waving in erratic spasms that set the trunk undulating like a snake. Roy grabbed the grass fires back up, still advancing, and dumped the flame on the tree’s upper branches, spreading the pain out. Then one of the men still on their feet joined the effort, his spadroon tossing out angry gouts of fire in short, fat bursts.
But, while needles blackened and bark charred, the pine refused to burn.
Roy dashed past the downed man as the other spadroon wielder vented and sheathed his weapon, dragging the injured man out of the way. The pine’s roots dug into the ground and the massive tree nearly spasmed fully upright again. Fire wasn’t going to keep it down. For a moment Roy considered trying his bone bead necklace but decided that, given the circumstances, adding snow to the equation was counterproductive. So he finished pulling on his dueling gloves, the heavy leather supple and familiar in his hands, then drew his last card to play.
The dagger over his left hip came free with a soft rasp. Dead iron, cold wrought in the old style, forced into the shape of a weapon by naught but a hammer and human will.
Forged to kill magic in all it’s forms.
And life was the highest form of all.
Branches flailed wildly but Roy slipped past them and plunged the tip of the dagger down into the trunk of the tree with all his weight behind it. The tree bent almost double with a tortured groan, folding until up around the dagger like a book, then snapped straight, fast as a jumping spider. Its trunk smashed into Roy and sent him flying through the air. He didn’t remember landing.
As he lay staring up at the sky, feeling the waves of the lake lapping in his hair, he felt it again. Something about the tree was off. Or maybe it was just his ribs, which he felt throbbing with every heartbeat. Whatever the matter was, it would have to wait. He bolted back to his feet, viciously pushing his complaining ribs to the back of his mind, expecting to find the last two passengers at the mercy of the tree.
Instead he found the tree struggling to do anything with half its roots cut away. Two woodsmen were cleaving through its branches, their heavy bearded axes propelled in complex, lethal cutting patterns by gouts of fire blasting from the back of the ax heads. The gleaming bronze blades never stopped moving and, in the time it took Roy to stagger out of the lake and across the gravel path, the tree toppled to the ground a final time.
And didn’t move again.
After a moment’s pause the woodsmen moved in and began hacking the tree to pieces, stripping the branches from the trunk with shocking speed. Roy swayed on his feet, caught his breath and wiped water out of his eyes. Turned out his hair was soaked. He took the handkerchief out of the breast pocket in his vest and ran it through his sopping locks then looked around for his hat. Found it in the grass beside the gravel pathway, dusted it off and put it back on. And went to talk to his employer.
“That you, Grunt?” He rasped out as he got close to the woodsmen.
The bigger of the two paused in hacking the tree to pieces just long enough to glance at Roy. “Up already, Harp? You need to learn to take it easy.”
Roy took a deep breath; quashed a wince as his ribs twinged extra hard. “Easy is for old men.”
A final swing of the ax cut the top third of the tree away. Ben Grunwald slung his weapon over his shoulder and grinned. “That’s what I’m trying to say, Harp.”
“Bite your tongue, kid.”
Grunt laughed and shouldered his ax. “You’re only a year older than me, Harp.”
Roy looked along the trunk and found his knife. One attempt was all it took to realize he couldn’t bend down and retrieve it.
Grunt’s companion reached down to grab it for him. “Gloves!” Grunt snapped. “That’s an iron dagger, Will. Put on gloves! Dust and ashes, man, look at the way it’s burned into the bark.”
Will hesitated, embarrassed. Roy resisted the urge to join in with Grunt. Yes, the the dagger had sapped the magic out of a two foot section of the trunk leaving it gray and lifeless but it was hard to pick the damage out of all the burns they’d left on the runaway plant.
The kid fished a pair of thick work gloves out of a pocket, yanked the implement free and handed it back to Roy with a sheepish look. He couldn’t have been more than half Roy’s age, probably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen, but even so he was big and strong, standing a full hand taller than Roy was. Most men were taller than Roy, of course, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed by it.
He snatched the dagger back from Will and put it back into its sheath then looked around for any further complications. Patches of fire still burned in the grass. A quick thought rounded all of them up into a small, angry red orb. Since it was a long walk back to the train and he couldn’t keep control of the flames over that long a distance Roy settled for channeling the remaining firepower into the sulfurite crystals in his cufflinks. They’d needed topping off after the long train ride anyways.
The three other passengers that fought with the tree looked like they were going to be okay, though the man in gray who got trapped under the pine’s roots had some nasty bruises and limped a bit. Then again, Roy was feeling much the same and he expected to make a full recovery. The rest of the passengers who’d run for it were out of sight, presumably safe inside Yellowstone’s earthworks.
“You some kind of wizard?” Will asked, watching Roy from the corner of his eyes.
Roy snorted. “Do I look like I’m coalstoking Dutch?”
Grunt laughed. “It’s the way you dress, Harp. The only people this far north who bother with those fancy suits of yours are the pompous types. ‘Course he thought you’re a wizard.” Grunt threw an arm over Roy’s shoulders and thumped him on the chest, which hurt but Roy ignored. It wasn’t as bad as the flannel of his bright red shirt scratching against Roy’s face. “But Harp’s just been touched by some druid nonsense, just like I was. Except it made me bigger and taller and it made him angry.”
“If I was as angry as all that you wouldn’t have that arm.” Roy shrugged Grunt’s arm off and straightened his suit. It was tailored but made of cotton and he didn’t think it was all that fancy.
“But what about…” Will waved his hands theatrically towards the scorch marks on the ground.
“Don’t worry about it,” Roy grumbled. “Grunt, you got some kind of druid or medicine man in town? That tree didn’t seem like it was running wild.”
Grunt glanced back towards town, where a larger party of woodsmen were coming out through the main gate to come meet them. Then he turned to his companion and gestured to the loose pile of wood that had once been a tree, still twitching but too small to move or think on its own anymore. “Will, lash up that lumber and help the boys get it back to town.”
The unspoken message came through loud and clear. Roy should ask again in private. “Am I the only one you invited to this little party?”
“The only one who said he was coming. We might see Van Der Klein or Cain, but they never said one way or another.”
“Klein ain’t coming. He just got married two months ago.”
Ben’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Books tried to get ahold of you but you weren’t at your last three addresses.” Roy looked out at the scenic mountain peaks and the menacing forest line. “He didn’t know you put on the flannel and came up here to cut trees.”
“Ignis fatuus.” Grunt looked dejected. “Can’t believe I missed that.”
“Speaking of-” Roy began to reach into his jacket then gasped as pain shot through his side.
“Let’s get you back to town,” Grunt said. “The Woodsman’s Guild has someone to look at that for you.”
They started down the path to Yellowstone again. Roy managed to get the package out of his pocket after a moment. Thankfully it didn’t look damaged from the fight. “Books sent me your mail and asked me to bring it to you.”
Grunt took it with a grin. “He can’t stop with the sending things, can he? Natural born quartermaster. Seen him recently?”
“At the wedding.”
“Is he doing well?”
“He’s fatter than ever and still making money hand over fist.” Roy shook his head in disgust. “Who knew there was so much wealth in selling beans to the old continent.”
“Chocolate ain’t just any beans, Harp.”
“I suppose.” There was a gurgling, coughing noise then an enormous pillar of water shot up out of the lake. “Dust and ashes, what is that?”
“Yose’s Heartbeat,” Grunt said. “As the locals call it. It’s a geyser in the lake that erupts every morning, afternoon and witching hour.”
“Anyway, even if Cain doesn’t come-“
“Cain’s not coming.”
Grunt gave him an odd look. “Was he getting hitched, too?”
“There’s a price on his head. He’d be stupid to show his face around anyone from the unit.”
“A price…” Grunt sighed. “What’s he wanted for?”
“Killed a woman down in Winchester County.”
“So it finally came to that.” Grunt shook his head. “Well, you’re right, we probably won’t see him then.”
“We’d better not. If I see his worthless face I’ll cremate him myself.”
They walked in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. Then Grunt gathered himself and said, “Well, you were the only one who came but that’s all right. The Guild brought in a fixer and two of the local Sanna are pitching in. Five should be enough.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Grunt laughed. “You make it sound like you already know what the job is.”
Roy looked over his shoulder at the woodsmen gathering up the downed tree. He wasn’t an expert but he was fairly certain it was too small to be thinking and moving on its own in the first place. And even if it was big enough to move itself trees knew better than to stray too close to human habitation. There was no reason for it to get that close to Yellowstone unless it was ensorcelled. “I might have a guess or two at that…”