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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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Briar chanced a look and saw the scuffle that matched the scrambling sounds behind her. Frank, Ed, Allen, and Willard were gone, and Varney was half kicking, half shoving the still-groggy Hank down the hole.
“All clear,” Varney announced as Hank fell to the bottom with a yelp.
“Good,” Lucy said. But then a whole chunk of wood came smashing out of the door frame and into the bar, and three waving, stinking, grasping hands came reaching through it, prying and yanking at the other boards that stood between them and the emptying room. “After you, Miss Wilkes. ”
Swakhammer swore loudly and turned his attention to the door behind the piano. “Behind you!” he warned.
Briar said, “Mr. Swakhammer, I’ve got plenty in front of me!” and she fired again.
Swakhammer ran to the east tunnel door and leaned against it, pressing his back firmly and digging his feet into the wood-grained floor. The east entrance was failing every bit as fast as its western counterpart.
“We can’t stay like this!” he said, and ripped himself away as the first writhing, twisting fingers tried to drill themselves past his armor. He whirled around and cocked the pistols, and fired them at the door with less aiming than Briar had summoned. The blasts hit as much wood as rotter, loosening the barrier even more. A foot broke through the bottom beam and kicked back and forth as if feeling around for something.
“Go!” Briar shouted, preparing the rifle again and firing at anything that wiggled behind the broken places in the doors.
“You first!” Lucy ordered.
“All right!” she agreed. Lucy threw herself around the bar’s edge and dove for the hole in the floor.
When Briar heard a definitive dropping of the one-armed woman down to some lower corner below, she turned just in time to see Swakhammer’s masked face only feet away from hers, and coming in quick.
He seized her arm and grabbed it so fast, and so hard, that she almost shot him by accident; but she lifted the rifle with her unencumbered hand and towed it behind her like a kite as Swakhammer dragged her down to the hole.
The doors broke one after another; the western main entrance and the east tunnel collapsed inward, and a flood of reeking, broken bodies came cascading into the interior.
Briar saw them in snatched glimpses. She didn’t slow and didn’t hesitate, but she could look, couldn’t she? And they were coming with a speed she could scarcely believe from corpses that could hardly hold themselves together. One was wearing half a shirt. One was wearing nothing but boots, and the parts of its body that would otherwise be covered had come sloughing off—revealing gray-black bones underneath.
“Down,” Swakhammer insisted. He jammed his hand onto the top of her head, and she ducked to follow the shove of his palm.
She almost fell, mirroring Hank’s sloppy toppling; but at the last moment her hand snared the top rung and she swung down in a gangly slide, knocking her knees against the walls and the ladder edges. She stopped at the bottom and slipped, then regained her footing. Her naked hand splashed down onto the floor and she hoped her gloves were in her coat pockets. Otherwise, she didn’t know where they’d gone off to.
A hand lifted her by the elbow, and in the darkness she saw Frank’s concerned face above her. “Ma’am,” he said. “You all right?”
“Fine,” she told him, rising to her feet and moving away just in time to keep from getting landed on by Swakhammer, who dropped down into the deeper chamber with a stomp and a splash.
He reached up and locked his hands around the underside handles. “Lucy,” he said, and he didn’t need to say anything else.
She was already there, her mechanical fist cinched around a trio of steel bars that could’ve been anything before they were used as braces. Lucy passed them up to Swakhammer one at a time, and he held on tight with one hand while he threaded the bars through the handles with his other one.
From above, fleshless fingers picked angrily at the cracks, but there was no outer hole and Swakhammer had brought the crowbar down below. As a last gesture of defiance and security, he jammed the prying device into a handle and let it serve as an extra brace.
While the hands and feet of the dead things stomped and scratched above, Briar tried to scan the tunnel’s atmosphere and figure out where she was. Surely this was the deepest she’d ever been beneath the world, below a basement and down into the bowels of something else—something lower and wetter. This place was not like the finished, brick-lined tunnels that Swakhammer had led her through in order to get to Maynard’s; this was a hole dug beneath a solid place, and it unnerved her. It reminded her of another hole beneath another solid place. It made her think of a spot beneath her former home where a catastrophe machine had burrowed its way out into the world, and back again.
It smelled the same, like wet mud and moss, and decomposing sawdust. It stunk like something unfinished and not yet born.
She shivered and clutched herself and her Spencer close, but the warmth of the freshly fired rifle didn’t do much to penetrate her coat. All around her, the others huddled together. Their discomfort fed hers, until she was so nervous that her teeth were rattling together.
Finally the trapdoor was as secure as it was going to get, and Swakhammer’s bulky shadow stood under the noisy roof. He said, “Lucy, where’re the lanterns at? We still got some down here?”
“We got one,” she said. Briar didn’t like the sound of her voice when she shaped that last word, like there was something faulty about it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Lucy said, “There ain’t hardly any oil in it. I don’t know how far it’ll get us. But, here, you take it, Jeremiah. You’ve got your tinder-strike, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma am. ”
The object in his hand was about the size of an apple; and he struggled with it: His large, gloved fingers were too dull to move it.
“Here,” Briar said. She pulled off her mask and shoved it back in her satchel, and she reached out to take the thing. “Tell me what to do with it. ”
He handed it over and said, “Don’t take that mask, off yet, missy. We’re going up before we’re going back down. ” Then he pointed at a thumb-shaped switch. “Press that down. No, faster. Harder. Shove it with your fingers. ”
She tried to follow his instructions and, after four or five attempts, a splatter of sparks caught a thick, charred wick and the flame illuminated the tiny crowd. “Now what?”
“Now you give it back to me, and you put your mask back on like I told you. Lucy, you need help with yours?”
“Don’t be a dummy, boy. I’ve got it under control,” the barkeep said. With her one arm she pulled a folded lace-covering out from under her skirt and flapped it open. To answer the question on Briar’s face she said, “This is one of Minnericht’s experiments. It’s lighter than what you’ve got and it works real good, but it doesn’t work for very long. I won’t have an hour with these skinny filters. Mostly I keep it tucked in my garter for emergencies. ”
“Will an hour be enough?” Briar asked.
Lucy shrugged, and she popped the mask over her eyes and chin with a move that couldn’t have been smoother if she’d had two arms. “One way or another. We’ll find some candles stashed before that’s up. ”
As all around her the other residents of the tunnel produced and donned masks, Briar joined the movement and reapplied her own. “I hate this thing,” she complained.
“Nobody loves them,” Varney assured her.
“Except Swakhammer,” Hank said. He still sounded tipsy, but he was awake and on his own two feet, so his condition was significantly improved. “He loves his. ”
The armored man cocked his head to the left and agreed. “Sure. But let’s be honest: Mine looks amazing. ”
Lucy said through her compressed cotton and coal filters, “Who says men aren’t vain?”
r /> “I never said it. ”
“Good. So I don’t have to call you a liar. You men and your toys. ”
“Please,” Briar interrupted. The closeness of the quarters made her restless, and the wet chill was seeping into her clothes. “What do we do now? Where do we go? Mr. Swakhammer, you said up and then out. ”
“That’s right. We’ll have to come back and clean up Maynard’s later. ”
She frowned inside her mask. “Then we’re going to another safe spot? A safer spot, I mean. Maybe I should take off now and see about finding Zeke. ”
“Oh no you don’t. Not with those things swarming, and not on old filters. You’d never make it, crack shot or no. We’ll head for the old vault and regroup there. Then we’ll talk about clearing the topside and taking on the bank blocks. ”
“Bossy old bastard, aren’t you?” she huffed.
“Yet quite reasonable” he said, without having taken any offense.
Willard lifted the lantern, and Swakhammer adjusted the glass. Soon the whole tunnel was alight with a weak orange glow as wet as juice.
Moisture glistened off the incomplete walls, and Briar was only somewhat reassured to see support columns rearing up from the earth and disappearing into the ceiling—the underside of Maynard’s floor. Shovels lounged against the walls and were almost consumed by them; the digging tools sank into the muddy surface and jutted against carts. From the carts, Briar’s eyes followed the scene down to the tracks beneath them, and then she realized that this was a deliberate place—not simply some cooling cellar.
“What’s going on here?” she asked. “You’ve been clearing this out, haven’t you?”
Lucy answered. “Always deeper, dear. Always deeper. For things just like this, you see? We can’t go up, not really. We don’t have the materials, or the wherewithal, or any safe means of doing so. These walls bind us inside as surely as they hold the world at bay. So if we need to expand—if we need to make more safe places, or create new roads—we have to go down. ”