Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


Light Version | Dark Version


It had been night for so long, Toby had nearly forgotten real sunshine. If asked, he probably wouldn't have remembered where he'd seen it last. It had been dark throughout his time in Coryza, in Amaurosis Fugax, in Polycoria, and in EC as well. At least then it had been easy to not notice due to the city's constant artificial brightness.

Toby was in the back seat, finishing his soda and looking out the window at the Veil Of Tears. The constellations roamed to and fro as they had for centuries. Beings of starlight, decorating the blackness around them. Toby wondered how sentient they were. Were they merely animate and reactive like nightmare constructs? Or did they have thoughts and dreams of their own? Were they souls like him, who had ended up in Phobiopolis and were changed?

These dreamy thoughts distracted him from noticing that they were nearing the edge of the parking lot.

As soon as they passed over, the sun sucker-punched Toby in the eyeballs.


It was a good thing George didn't need to blink, because everyone else in the car was sure doing a lot of it. At the exact edge of the lot, they passed through the region of eternal night into a section of Phobiopolis that kept more or less regular hours. Meaning the merciless afternoon sun was directly overhead. Whether the architects of Ectopia Cordis had built the parking lot right up to an already-existing terminator, or if Phobiopolis conformed itself to a man-made boundary, no one knew. Either way, the effect was like stepping out of a darkroom into a spotlight.

It was also a good thing they had set up some automatic defenses for the car. The sextet couldn't see the nightmares that had been waiting at the edge of the daylight to ambush blinded tourists, but they all heard the squeals as the scavenging beasts leapt at the sides of the vehicle and were deterred by spikes, skates, or stuffed animals.

When the travelers' eyes adjusted, they could see that George was ferrying them along a dirt path in the corpse of a coniferous forest. The land was scorched yellow. Trees like blackened popsicle sticks leaned alarmingly. Chunks of charred branches were all over the road. Nothing grew here but scribbled bushes, barely hanging on.

They didn't spend long in this place. Less than a mile away, the highway and the cliff came into view.

Toby had to shield his eyes again. He thought at first that Hypovolemia was a long bridge over an ocean. But that reflection wasn't water. As they neared, Toby leaned out the window and realized with terror that they'd be driving over an ocean of broken glass. He zipped back into his seat and rechecked that he was all belted in.

The sound beneath George's wheels changed as they left the dirt and rumbled onto a ten-lane ribbon of concrete. The dead forest ended as abruptly as the parking lot had, this time falling away into a thirty foot cliff. Below was a vast basin of shards. Windowpanes, liquor bottles, syringes, television screens. Anything broken that came to a jagged point. The glass stretched out endlessly in all directions, reflecting sunlight in daggers. It would've taken a fleet of trash trucks decades to haul it all, but Phobiopolis had brought it into existence on nothing weightier than the fears of its dreamers.

Junella and Zinc tossed their empties out the window. Because, why not?

Junella had said the freeway was a gargantuan living nightmare, and while it didn't twitch or growl as they drove onto its flesh, there were still signs. Its white and yellow lines were oddly organic, like stripes. It was supported off the ground by asymmetric concrete beams that looked more like tree trunks or elephant legs. And where the road connected to the forest path, there were sun-shriveled fleshroots anchoring it in the dirt. The highway was like an insect: an exoskeleton of concrete with all its squishy innards sandwiched in between. This was visible at the edges of the outer lanes. Rebar stuck out like curly hairs, and scabs dripped oil wherever the creature's flesh was exposed.

'Of course there's no guardrails!' Toby thought. If they fell off this road, it would be one of the worst fates in all Phobiopolis. There would be nothing else to do but crawl towards land, bleeding to death repeatedly along the way. And what if you sank? What if you fell beneath the surface of that glass ocean, shredded to pieces again and again as you resurrected eternally?

Toby did not have to be told how sharp the stuff was. There were crashed vehicles all around with crimson trails leading away from them. Nightmares patrolled on bloodied feet, searching for skeletons they could tear a last few morsels from.

Up ahead on the road, there were more of the hog-like things that circled EC's garbage piles. Toby also saw furry things slithering up the leg supports, and faraway, circling specks in the sky. He was struck with a memory of a science documentary about the many mites and bacteria which live on people's skin. 'Holy crap, this thing isn't just a big nightmare, it's got its own ecosystem!'

And farther to the horizon, he could see that this ride would not remain smooth for long. This was the first time he could remember Phobiopolis throwing something at him he'd actually dreamt about before. At nighttime back home, memories of curling up in the backseat on long car trips had become bad dreams of impossibly-twisted roads with humongous bumps and loop-de-loops. Far in the distance, he could see the highway curling around like a snake, rising high up in the sky, chunks flaking down from the undersides as the creature they fell from slowly writhed like a great dormant god.

The sight alone was making Toby's saltines want to come back up, even though he knew he hadn't actually eaten them.

In contrast to Toby's increasing dread, Zinc was bouncing in his seat, giddy and eager. "Man alive, Juney! Here come the constructs! We spent plenty on all these new toys, let's play with 'em!"

They were closing in on a pack of pigs. Some unlucky motorist had crashed their car and now half a dozen snorting swine were crawling all over the wreckage, eating literally every piece of it. Seats, doors, windows, bodies, everything. Toby couldn't help but wonder where the folks inside had gone to.

The pigbeasts all looked up at the sound of new meat approaching on four bone wheels.

George called out, "I would rather we didn't allow them to dine upon us."

Junella figured Piffle had spent enough will on their ride, she deserved a chance to have fun with it. "See this, Piff?" she pointed out a switch on the dash. "Headlights. Give 'em a try."

"But it's daytime!"

Zinc chuckled; she hadn't been listening to him earlier at the shop.

They were getting closer and closer to the hogs. "Just hit the switch."

The hamsterfly shrugged. She strained a bit to squeeze her chubby tummy between the seats, but gave it a flip as directed.

Instantly: the sound of scorching meat and squeals of pain.

The Fearsleigher's headlights came on with a brightness that made the sun look like a dead bulb, focused intensely into two tight beams. Toby didn't know if they were more like lasers or lightsabers, but they speared out ahead of the car for about half a mile. And whatever they touched started burning. Hogs became kindling as George jiggled the car back and forth to target them. Some of them ran and jumped off the edge to get away.

Zinc's tail wagged in sadistic glee. "Ha! Barbecued pork!"

"Jeepers!" Piffle said. She knew they were nightmare constructs, but she almost felt bad for them.

He noticed her concern. "Our first car broke down out here years ago. Imagine trying to rebuild an engine from mindfucked parts while an army of nightmares is all trying to sink their teeth into you. Ain't no picnic. So every time we come back, we like to savor our revenge."

The headlights were effective, but only worked in a straight line. Some of the pigs, along with a few puma-sized ratbeasts with six hips, figured out how to dodge around the beams and come charging at the car.

Junella grinned. "Persistent. Shall I light 'em up, partner?"

"Please do, m'dear!"

She extended her pinkies as she flipped the covers off two square sections of steering wheel, revealing big shiny buttons. When she jammed her thumbs down on them, everyone's ears rang with the ACKACKACKACKACKACK of gunfire.

The pigs and rats spun and danced as the machine gun's bullets tore into them like paper dolls. The nailplow handily knocked the corpses out of the way. Nightmare blood flooded the lanes and made red smeary tracks for George to drive through. "Such an interesting sensation. Like prancing in warm mud!"

Toby was very glad that his friends all seemed to have everything under control and he didn't need to do more than keep still. He held Doll, pretending to comfort her, when it was really the other way around. He tried to tell himself it wasn't his cowardice acting up, just a distaste for adrenaline after the overdose he'd endured in EC. Sitting this out sounded fine to him.

He watched from the sidelines until a smear of peripheral movement jerked his head to the window. Just in time to see another rat creature leap at the car and split itself in half along a skate blade. Black blood splattered the glass. Toby saw the rat's body go tumbling and somersaulting away behind them.

Ah, but he'd brought friends. Rats and pigs and other things were scrambling up the legs of the bridge and onto the road. Coarse fur, black eyes, long claws, and yellow teeth. A squirming mass of ugliness. Toby poked the two front seats. "Um, guys? There's a whole bunch of creepy crawlies back there chasing us."

Zinc shrugged. "Why fret about what you can outrun?" He patted the dash. "You can outrun them, can't you, George?" he asked teasingly.

The skull on the hood guffawed. "What a preposterous question!"

George slowed just a little to give the creatures behind him false hope. He heard their squeals of triumph as they surged forward. But then he put the pedal to the metal and tore off at double speed, leaving them screaming and howling as they watched their dinner escape.

George roared, "I can't say it enough: I am entirely enraptured with this new body!!"

Ahead was the first of many hills. From the window it looked as steep as a mountain, but that was mostly a perspective illusion. Once they were on it, it wasn't much worse than a normal highway bump. Toby didn't think they'd all be that easy.

Zinc had been sporadically poking his head out the window for a while. At first Toby thought he was just acting like a nonev dog, enjoying the wind on his fur, but Zinc was looking for something. A sudden burst of enthusiasm signaled he'd found it. "Right on time! Bats ahoy! I knew they'd spot us eventually!" He leaned across the center to smooch Junella's cheek. "You were right."

"About what?"

"You drive, me gun." With that, he vaulted out the side window.

Toby felt a reflexive lurch of worry, imagining his friend splattering all over the pavement. But of course Zinc was fine. In fact, the Fearsleigher now had a new roof rack specifically made to facilitate someone with hands of unusual size swinging up from his seat onto the top of the car.

Toby looked out the side window, and in the overcast sky above he could see something circling. Jagged, dark, swooping shapes. They were turning, heading towards the car. Toby heard Zinc's feet clomping around, making his way over to the big brass gun. And then...


Toby clamped his hands over his ears. It sounded like the devil was tapdancing!

In between bursts of the mighty gun, Toby could hear Zinc's rapturous laughter. BRRRRTT! BRRRRTT! BRRRRTT! The canine howled with joy at the sheer phallic power in his hands. Toby started seeing black bleeding shapes falling out of the sky to land in the glass below.

One of them even hit the road. It was gone in a flash, but the batcreature's wings looked more like trash bag plastic than flesh, dripping with greenish blood. Toby thought he'd seen these before in the swamp around Sander's shop. Back then they were far enough away to give no sense of scale. But the one that had just smacked into the cement had a wingspan of at least seven feet.

Junella got a faceful of pink ruffles as Piffle squeezed by into the passenger seat. "Well, Zinc's not using it right now."

The skunk snorted, not sure if the hamsterfly was gonna be a nuisance.

Piffle eyed the buttons on the steering wheel. "Mind if I give it a try? I wanna eighty-six some piggies!"

Junella arched an eyebrow. "You can be deceptively bloodthirsty sometimes."

Piffle did a tiny curtsey. "Why thank you!"

That got a legit chuckle out of the skunk. She took her hands off the wheel. "Go wild, sister."

"Hot dog!" Piffle leaned way over, nearly smothering the skunk with her ponytailed pith helmet, and fired the machine guns at the latest wave of snarling nightmares. "Sooooeeey! Here pig, pig, pig!" She giggled as the machine guns made mince meat of them.

"Enough, enough!" Junella growled, shoving the hamsterfly off her. "I don't wanna die drowning in pink sequins!"

Piffle patted her paw. "Thanks, though. You're rilly sweet!"


Meanwhile, Toby was looking out the back window at something he did not want to see. A tentacle had flopped up onto the road from beneath. Then another. 'Please don't let there be eight,' he whined internally. But there was.

Hauling its blubbery bulk up onto the highway was an arachnopus, and it was even uglier than Toby remembered. A wet sack of blubbery flesh covered in tarantula bristles, with eight protruding eyes. It moved faster on land than one would think, using its own gooeyness to slide along the road like an air hockey puck. And of course it was heading straight for the Fearsleigher.

For a heartbeat, Toby was 100% sure this was the same one whose web he'd fallen into back in the Blackdamp. It had followed him all this way. To finish the job. Or maybe it had just taken a liking to his flavor.

Those hairy, suckered legs scooted it along at a monstrous speed. Its eyes jiggled. Its mandibles opened and its beak snapped. It wanted fresh, tender mouse meat. It was gaining on George. It would be close enough to grab onto the back bumper in seconds.


Then it exploded like a wet pinata full of cottage cheese. The gatling gun's bullets damn near inverted its center mass. Tentacles flailed in reflexive agony. Eyeballs flew in every direction. Zinc gave it another few shots to make sure it wouldn't get up again for a while. Then it was just another sack of unmoving meat on the highway.


In the front seat, Piffle sniggered. "With talk like that, a girl could get jealous."

Toby stared in awe as the smoking corpse of the octospider receded to vanishing in the rear window. A monster he'd feared so much upon his first encounter, and now he'd watched one die in seconds. Like swatting a fly.

"Toby, climb on up here! You gotta see this baby in action!!" Zinc howled.

After a show like that, the mouse was almost tempted. But his brain reminded him of how much he did not want to topple off a moving car onto a hard concrete surface.

As if reading his mind, Zinc added, "Your belt's on a winch! It'll reel you back in if you fall!"

The mouse looked outside at the pavement blurring past, imagining how it'd become a cheese grater to any bodily parts that made contact. But he was impressed that Zinc had foreseen his objection before he'd even made it. He gave Doll a squeeze. "What do you think? Should I go?"

She didn't bother with the pad and went back to her original method of communication. Toby felt 'S-U-R-E-!' spelled out on his chest.

"Allright. Thanks for the vote of confidence. But what'll you do?" As soon as the question left his lips, his brain answered it. "Would you mind being our chief supply officer?"

From beneath the burlap she gave a thumbs-up.

"Great!" Toby remembered their fight with the Hell's Bozos and how helpful she'd been there. He unbelted and stood up, folding down the backseat to reveal a treasure trove of newly-bought weaponry. "Here. I get the feeling we're gonna need this stuff." He patted Doll on the shoulder, wishing her good luck. "And don't anyone look in the backseat while she's working!" he reminded Piffle and Junella.

The skunk glanced up at the rear view mirror, seeing that Doll was uncovered again. "Eeeeguh. Don't want to."

Piffle swatted the skunk's arm. "Now don't you go back to being mean to Doll again!"

"So long as she stays back there, I won't have to. Also, Toby, if you're about to go visit Zinc, you might wanna hold off for a sec."

He was about to ask why. Then a glance out the windshield showed him.

In seconds, his ass was back in the seat and Doll was cradled protectively in his arms.

"Wheee!" shouted Piffle.

This was the first of the monster hills. That earlier bump had been nothing but a baby. George whinnied as the road shot up at a sudden forty degree angle, and the incline got worse the farther up it went. Six feet, twelve feet, twenty feet high... Toby's eyes were shut tight and his claws were digging into the upholstery. George could feel the little pinpricks but said nothing. The bulk of his concentration was on getting up over the rise and not skidding backwards.

Forty feet above where it had started, the hill tapered off. Toby dared to open his eyes.

The freeway dropped almost straight down.

Toby braced his feet against the floorboards and bit back screams as George went over. There it was, the nut-punch feeling. He remembered it from long car trips through hilly areas. He moaned in pain as gravity socked him below the belt. For a moment, everything in the car that wasn't strapped down was weightless. Time stretched agonizingly.

George had a rare moment of panic as he fought to keep his wheels in contact with the concrete. A drop this steep would have normally sent his hooved self sprawled and crashing. But friction kept his tires kissing the road. They went down like a rocket until the pavement curled up into a short dip and leveled out. "Thank goodness!" he exclaimed in relief.

After Toby was horizontal again, all he wanted was for the car to just pull over and stop. But they'd be gobbled in seconds if they did that. And he'd already told Zinc he'd be joining him on the roof.

With a queasy heart, he resigned himself to his choice. He set Doll on the seat and rolled his window down. Wind slapped him across the cheeks like it was challenging him to a duel. He looked down to see white lines zipping blurrily beneath him. He had to be insane to even consider this!

'Y-O-U-C-A-N-D-O-I-T' was spelled out on his thigh.

Toby turned and Doll froze again. He took a deep breath. "Thank you," he told her.

He checked that his belt was securely anchored. When he stood up, a sturdy cable extended from the seat. 'I'll be okay. I jumped off Bigwheel 48, didn't I? And again into the garbage. A fall won't kill me. Or rather... Ach. Never mind.' Toby got a firm grip on the window's edge and carefully eased a foot out.


Another perforated trash-bat fell out of the sky and went 'THUNK' against the skate blade. It missed Toby by mere feet. He clung to the car like his fingers were fused to the metal.

"Sorry!" Zinc called down. "Aiming with this thing ain't an exact science!"

Toby opened his eyes and uncurled himself from the fetal position. The wind was plowing through his fur and his ears were flapping like windsocks, but he'd done it. He was outside the car. He was standing on two of the big spikes, holding onto the window frame, and the waist belt was holding him snugly. 'I'm outside,' he told himself, his brain refusing to believe it for a few seconds.

"Howdy, neighbor!"

Toby looked up and instantly understood what those four newly-added handles on the brass gun were for.

As purchased, it wasn't really meant to be operated by someone with gigantic threaded metal hands. Zinc at first felt like it would be sacrilege to have someone take a welding torch to this masterpiece, but practicality won out in the end. He'd bought it. It was his now. He had all the right in the world to customize it. And what good was a toy you could only look at? So he'd asked Andy to add some sturdy grips towards the front, tailor-made to fit his wrench-jaws. As for the crank, another handle had been added on the opposite side. Affixed to both were pedals.

Toby couldn't believe what he was seeing. Zinc was riding the gun like a bicycle!

The canine's fur fluttered in the breeze. His tail was straight back like a rudder. It would have been impossible for him to get any happier. The gun was on a gyro mount: Zinc could point and shoot by swinging and see-sawing his body around. Constant pedaling kept the barrel spinning, and the bullets came out whenever he clamped down on his hand-holds.

"Bandit at four o' clock!" Zinc cried. He leaned his whole body to the side to aim towards another trashbat that was zooming in for a kamikaze dive. Its lamprey-like mouth was wide open, showing a snaggletoothed circle of fangs. No eyes, no nose, no ears. Nothing but a hole to shove food into.


Sunlight shone through the forty holes Zinc had punched through the ghastly thing. Green, toxic blood spilled in all directions as its corpse plummeted to the glass sea below.

Zinc laughed like a maniac.

Toby felt slightly ill, as if it were wrong somehow for anyone to be taking this much enjoyment out of violence.

Zinc noticed the quease. "You gonna be a wet rag, Toby? After everything we've been through?" he ribbed.

The mouse looped his arm through the roof rack to secure himself. "I wasn't gonna say anything. I'm just... not a gun guy, I suppose."

Zinc winked and stuck his tongue out. "Good. Means I don't have to offer you a turn." He scanned the skies again. It seemed like the airborne beasties were getting the message. So he swung the gun around 180 (making Toby duck) to check his six. "Now isn't that neighborly. Look whose chums dropped by!"

The squishing, sliding, lurching sounds gave Toby a clue before his head turned. Behind them he counted five more arachnopuses drawing near. And three of their cousins: equally-immense spiders with eight great snakes for legs. Scales covered each of these entirely. Their fangs dripped yellow poison. Each foot hissed and snapped with every step. Toby's brain immediately started imagining what that venom might do to him if it got into his blood. And which of those mouths might start taking bites out of him first.

But he looked up and Zinc was calm as an evening pond. The wind rustled the mutt's cheekfur and flapped his jacket, but the sight of an approaching horde didn't dim his grin a bit.

"There's so many of them! How can you be so relaxed about this!?" Toby yelled.

"Would it help me any if I wasn't?" he lobbed back.

"That's not quite..." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the eight-legged horrors gaining. Like birds in a swarm, they managed to move en masse without tripping one another up. Their speed was double that of the hogs or rats. "I meant, are you really not afraid of them?"

A tiny shrug. "If I didn't have this, I might be." His tail caressed the gun like a hand on a señorita's hip. "But I do. So I'm not."

"It's that simple?"

"Sure," he replied, with an unsaid, 'Why not?'

Uncountable alien eyes were fixed on them. Tentacles and reptiles reached out for them. Inches away from the back platform now. Each nightmare was vying to be the first to climb aboard and cram one of the meat-beings into its craw.

"Zinc! Aren't you going to do something about them!?"

"No need to rush," he replied coolly.

In reality, he only appeared unconcerned. His eyes said boredom, but his body was keenly alert. The tendons in his legs were tight as steel cables. Waiting patiently. Purely for the sake of showing off, but what harm was there in that?

The spiderbeasts were within seconds of overtaking them. A single sucker from a single tentacle touched the car.


They'd never had a chance.

It was over in seconds. Eyes blazing with bloodlust, Zinc swept the gun back and forth over the slimy squad and tore them to ribbons like ripping open birthday presents. Spider gore showered the harpoon turret, back window, and Toby's feet. Zinc's laughter was bestial. Rapid flashes from the six gun muzzles shone in his eyes. He bared his gleaming teeth, hoping that in their last few instants of vision before the bullets carved them up, the nightmares would see and recognize: there was only one predator here. They were never anything but prey.

Toby was out of breath just from watching it. Also completely deafened, hearing nothing but the piercing high-pitched tone that accompanies a sound too loud to handle. And his nose hurt from the stink of gunpowder. A gagging chemical aroma. The closest he could compare it to was tossing an armful of pencils in a furnace.

He looked up and saw Zinc's smile of perfect satisfaction.

Some part of Toby envied it.

That smile didn't even budge when dozens more tentacles appeared from the edges of the road, and dozens more octospiders and snakespiders came crawling into view.

Zinc knew it'd take the creeps a while to catch up, so he turned his back on them, looking skywards again. The bats' circular flight patterns were starting to break up. Their tiny minds were already forgetting what had happened to their comrades.

Toby's attention was still fixed on the bulbous uglies behind them. Could he count on Zinc being so quick on the draw twice? "They just keep coming!" he wailed.

One nice thing about a land where all physics is illusory: it's easy to will your ears to stop ringing. "Yeah. And?" Zinc called back.

The mouse couldn't take his eyes off the nightmares, or the streaks of offal their dead kin had left behind on the highway. He stuttered, trying to find words that didn't make him sound like a complete wuss. "How do you deal with it!? How are you not as scared as I am? I understand you're more used to it, but I think I'd crack up if I had to put up with life throwing monsters at me for the rest of eternity!"

Zinc could understand Toby feeling like that. As he thought about what to reply, he swung the gun around to decimate the latest wave of crawling nightmares. Both for his mouse pal's peace of mind, and to demonstrate that his aim was good at a distance as well as point blank.

When their ears had stopped ringing, Zinc said, "That's what life is, Toby."

"Endless giant spiders?" he snarked.

Zinc chuckled. "Nah! I mean the part you said about how it just keeps coming. I'm not one of these piss-pants pessimists who think life is all suffering and misery and then you punch your ticket to the grave. But it ain't easy either. Shit keeps rolling downhill at you. You're right, it never stops. Though once you accept that, you can roll too. Stay in one place? Of course it's gonna pile up. The only place you should ever sit down is the driver's seat."

It was not what Toby wanted to hear, but it was hard to argue with. And strangely hopeful.

Zinc smirked at how seriously the mouse was contemplating those words. He glanced up and noticed that one of the bats had caught stupidity. It had just begun to dive towards them. "Hey, Toby, heads up."

The mouse noticed it right away. Wings folded back and mouth gaping. "Great. More of 'em." He noticed Zinc had taken his wrenches off the gun grips and folded them across the barrel. "Um, are you gonna drive me crazy and wait till the last second again to do something about it?"

"Nope," he said, laying down and closing his eyes. "You are."


Zinc faked a yawn. "I repeat: you are. That is, unless you feel like letting that thing chew your whiskers off."

Toby started hyperventilating. "Zinc, that's not funny!!"

"Not joking."

Trashbats hunt silently. There was no screech as it drew closer, just the wind and the rumble of George's tires on the highway. The bat's teeth curved inward like the mouth of a leech. Green drool slithered from its wide-open, hungry hole.

"I'm the client!" Toby said desperately. "You're supposed to do what I tell you! Didn't you say something about how it was unprofessional to let me die!?"

Zinc's tin eyelids were still shut. "You gonna yap like a poodle or do somethin' about that bat?" he drawled.

Toby started climbing the car, reaching up with both hands to yank on the canine's jacket. "ZINC, DAMMIT!!!"

The canine yawned again.

Toby looked up and the bat was mere feet away.

Something in his mind switched gears. He realized that Zinc was not just teasing him. This was no joke. Zinc would not spring to action at the last second and save them. Toby could either keep trying to make Zinc do something, or he could do it himself.

He barely got his hammer in hand in time. The bat shot towards him like a bullet and Toby swung on pure instinct. A glancing blow. He felt the hammer hit flesh, but barely. The bat fell against the roof in a hissing tangle of wings and squirmed to right itself. Toby felt panic rising in his heart, trying to freeze his muscles, and realized he simply did not have time for that bullshit. He willed himself to move. Keeping one foot latched under the roof rack, he darted in as close as he dared and kicked. The trashbat's greasy plastic flesh brushed his ankle as it shuddered back, sending nausea through Toby's nerves. The bat got itself back on its scrawny legs and emitted a high-pitched squealing gasp that sounded extremely offended. Toby screamed right back and swung several times in its general direction. The bat made a lunge and caught a steel punch right in its ear. Gut-wrenching shrieks of pain came out of the thing as it fell sideways off the roof, where it suffered immediate death by road rash.

Toby's eyes bulged as he stared at the smear of green and black on the pavement. He was gripping the hammer hard enough to turn his knuckles white.

Zinc lazily opened one eye. "What happened? I wasn't paying attention."

Red-hot steam nearly poured out of the mouse's ears as he swiveled around and brandished his hammer right at Zinc's face.

Zinc raised an eyebrow. "Damn, champ. I did rattle your cage, didn't I?"

Toby looked up at the raised weapon. He vanished it immediately. "Oh god, I'm so sorry!!"

The canine let out a cackle. "What for!? I did a rotten thing to you and you have every right to smash my bastard head in for it!"

Toby deflated. What could he possibly respond to that with? He glanced down and realized how incredibly precarious his position was. Standing on the roof of a speeding vehicle, holding onto nothing, held in place by only one foot. He yelped and clutched Zinc's leather again.

More chuckling. Zinc put a congratulatory arm around the mouse. "You were keeping your balance just fine when you didn't realize it."

Toby opened his mouth, then fumed for a second, then huffed in defeat. "Stop being right so I can argue with you properly."

That shit-eating grin never quit. "Sorry to toss your ass in the deep end, my friend, but the point was illustrated, was it not? I forced you into a corner where you either had to fight or flight. You chose well. You impress me."

Toby wasn't sure if that was sarcasm. "For real?"

"Absolutely." The reply was without hesitation. He patted the mouse's shoulder. "I tell you this as a pal, Toby. You bitch and moan a hell of a lot-"

"Gee, thanks."

"Ah. But that's just talk. I've seen you whine and whine and whine, but then you do the right thing when it's time to. You did a sweet job helping us smash the Cold Coven after Fugax. You even held your own against a pack of mall cops. When you're on the spot, you pull through."

Toby blushed.

Zinc's expression softened into a genuine smile. "Like I said, life never stops throwin' stuff at you. But there's a certain degree of pleasure to be found in whacking it back. Y'follow me?"

"I suppose, for some people," Toby mumbled. "I wasn't exactly ecstatic about what I did to that bat."

Zinc shrugged. "Understandable. But if you got some practice in, and built up your confidence to the point where you could, f'rinstance, look at a dozen charging spiders and not break a sweat because you know you can wipe ass with 'em easily..."

Toby's mind flashed back to Trapforest Path. To how much his mood had improved when he'd made the choice to pick up his hammer. "It's about being in control, isn't it?"

He shook his head. "Nah. That's Juney's style. And lookit how stressed she is all the time! For me it's more like..." He thought a moment, then happened to notice another bat diving down. In a single motion, he swung the gun up, clenched onto Toby's vest to keep him from falling, and squeezed the left trigger. The bat was obliterated in an instant. It hadn't even gotten close. It hit the freeway and George's wheels turned it to road paint.

Zinc looked from where it had splatted, to his wrench-hand clutching Toby's vest. "Like that, actually! I keep relaxed until I ain't." He narrowed his eyes, trying to put into words something that was so much a part of him he never really thought about it. "I guess... I guess I don't care about being in control, because whatever's gonna happen is whatever's gonna happen. And I know I can deal with it. So... ehh." He shrugged again.

Toby admired Zinc's attitude. "I think I'd have to deal with a lot more bats before I could be like you."

Zinc clapped him on the back. "Hey, if we manage to get you home, you won't need to be."

Toby nodded.

Zinc's smile lit up crazily again. "Until then, d'you wanna switch places and take a ride on this bitchin' bangcycle?"

"Hell no!" Toby said immediately. "It looks really cool, yeah, but I haven't ridden a bike since I was six! And especially not one with no seat that spits bullets!"

Zinc threw back his head in a laugh.


The gun threw Zinc off the roof.

Toby's scream didn't even make it out of his throat as time stopped and Zinc went airborne. Something had smashed into the Fearsleigher hard enough to tip it forty-five degrees. Toby felt Zinc's jacket slip out of his grip. He reached out and felt his fingers clutch nothing but wind.

The look in Zinc's eyes was one of, 'Didn't expect THAT to happen!'

Just when Toby was sure he'd have to call out a stop so they could retrieve Zinc's body before the spiders ate it, a steel wrench clamped down hard on the car's left-side skate blade.

Zinc's instincts had saved his pelt again. He dangled behind the car like a sports pennant. "Whew! Cuttin' it close there!"

Toby gasped out a relieved laugh.

Zinc reached out his other wrench. "Mind giving me a hand up?"

Toby looked at the wrench jaws, then his delicate little furless paw. "Try not to amputate."

The canine snickered and tried his best not to as he hauled himself to safety.

Meanwhile, as soon as she'd felt something slam into the car, Junella's eyes had darted to the rear view mirror.

She didn't even waste time cursing. Her right arm shot out past Piffle, banging on the ceiling for Zinc's custom shotgun to fall out. It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to fire, but it was the closest weapon in range. Every second counted. Junella swung the gun over the dash and out the window, aiming with the mirror.

The nightmare was big, boxy and white. It didn't give a single damn about the skate blades, and had kamikaze'd itself right onto them. From where the metal had sheared through its side, its white paint began to dribble down like sentient slime. It was starting to merge with the car.

Junella emptied both barrels. BLAM! BLAM!

The nightmare broke off, shards of its flesh flying in all directions. Some of the paint was still boiling and bubbling its way into the skate, trying to take over. Junella hadn't completely stopped its attempt at infection, but she was sure George's presence could drive it out.

She tossed the shotgun into Piffle's lap and yelled out the window, "ZINC! WE GOT AMBULANCES!"

"Gee, Juney, I couldn't tell!" he hollered back.

Piffle looked at the side mirror and her jaw dropped. It was like something straight out of a cartoon.

From seemingly out of nowhere, a pack of ambulances had appeared behind them. Their proportions were completely ridiculous. Tiny, beady wheels. Spinning dome lights. Bulbous windshields. Trapezoidal sides with big red crosses on them. And with every bump on the road, they squashed and stretched like animation. That was surreal enough already, but then there were the grilles. The ambulance's bumpers were beestung silver lips, pulled back to reveal humongous chrome chompers. Motor oil drool splashed from those mouths and was licked away by obscene silver tongues.

"Those are some mean lookin' meat wagons!" said Piffle.

The skunk nodded. "They're far off their usual turf. They come from this hospital in Teratoma. Seek out healthy people and drag 'em back. You get taken to surgery and, if all you lose is your limbs, count yourself lucky. You might end up stitched to whoever you came in with. Then nightmare nurses stick you in a bed and 'take care of you' forever."

Piffle opened her mouth...

Junella put her hand over it. "I can already hear what you're thinking, you masochist! And the answer is, Some Other Time!!"

The hamsterfly blushed a bit. "Golly, we must really be becoming good friends if you can read me that easy."

The skunk's scowl could've soured milk. "You wanna maybe make yourself useful instead of widening my ulcers?"

Piffle perked up. "Oh, sure! Just tell me what to do!"

Junella could not believe she was about to say this, but, "Can I trust you with explosives?"

Not a speck of fear or hesitance. Piffle simply asked, "What kind?"

Junella jerked her head towards the back. "Hey! Creepy plastic doll! Where are you?"

Two fist-thumps on the back of her seat.

She kept her gaze on the side mirror. "I heard Toby deputize you, so see if you can find me a box of eight or nine round, striped things. They look like bumblebees. Should be a detonator in with 'em." The grinning ambulances were revving up to ram them again. She listened to hear sounds of little plastic hands searching around in the backseat, then went deaf for a second as Zinc filled the closest ambulance full of lead.


"Suck my undies, fuckface!!" the canine shouted. His last blast from the gatling gun had nearly pummeled the wheeled nightmare off the road. It had flipped and landed sideways with a shower of sparks, but he knew these damn things were tough. It'd be up and after them again soon enough.

A box full of round, striped things was pushed between the front seats. Doll looked up at Junella with her head tilted, as if to say, 'Did I get the right ones?'

Junella grunted and grabbed the box.

Piffle put her hands on her hips. "Say 'thank you'!" she scolded.

"I am not gonna...!" Junella started to protest, but figured it was a losing battle. Her needles carved out curls of vinyl as she snarled, "Thank you, Doll."

"There, see? Was that so hard? Isn't it nicer when we're all nice to each other?" Piffle beamed, batting her eyelashes.

Junella grit her teeth. "Do you have an 'off' switch!?"

Piffle tittered. "Now you oughtta've figgered out by now that I'm just teasing you 'cuz you make it so easy."

Junella banged her head on the steering wheel a few times. Then she sighed. The munchkin princess was right. She'd been letting herself get far too irritated by the cutesy-wootsey schtick. This time she spoke to the hamsterfly as a fellow furson. "These are sound-activated grenades. I call 'em percussives. If you can keep up with the car, it would be a big help if you could fly out and slap one on each ambulance. Peel off the yellow strip and it's sticky. Just don't, for God's sake, get your hand stuck to one."

Piffle saluted. "I'll do my best!" She took the box onto her lap and started filling her many pockets. "I assume you wanna keep this?" she asked as she handed Junella the detonator. It looked like a walkie-talkie.

"Exactly. Just holler when you're done and we'll blow 'em sky high. And be quick! They'll try to smash into us again so they can merge with the car and turn it into one of them."

George overheard. "Is that what it was doing!? I felt the most hideous itch on my left side where it impacted. I can assure you both, I will not allow myself to be osmosed! I shall take evasive maneuvers!"

"Good! The less we make contact the better." Junella reached out the window and thumped the roof. "And Zinc, hold off on that gun! Piffle's 'bout to prove she's more than just a big pink zit ridin' my ass."

The hamsterfly 'hmmph'ed at that.

Junella stuck her black vinyl tongue out at her. "I can tease you too. Get out there."

"Oh all right, you big bullyskunk!" she said as she popped the passenger door and readied her wings. Though she was smiling as she said it, and noticed Junella had been too.

Toby jolted back as a fur tornado shot out of the car past him.

Piffle let herself fall horizontally, just far enough to be clear of the car so she could unfold her wings to full span. They caught her like a parachute. Then she flapped hard and felt the weight of the air support her. The rumble of the road filled her ears. She pirouetted to survey the battlefield.

There were five ambulances in total, all bouncing along and jockeying for position to nip at the Fearsleigher's heels. The disturbingly-organic details of their construction, and the impossible way they moved, created a wave of surreality. Their wheels seemed to have hair. Their red crosses seemed to be scabs. And of course, there was no one driving them. The wheeled monstrosities all noticed Piffle at once. Five windshields turned towards her like clear, shiny eyes. Five wet tongues licked metal lips.

Piffle gulped, but reminded herself that she was dressed for bait after all. 'And I can lick these overgrown tin toys!' she reminded herself. She dug the first bomb out of her jacket pocket and peeled it mid-dive.

George was glad that Madam McPerricone had diverted the ambulances' attention from himself. (He shuddered at the idea of being absorbed by one of them. 'What might I then be forced to do to my passengers!?') But still, he was worried the horrid vehicles might gang up and overpower her. That's when he noticed a little curly-haired plastic head pop out a side window. He quickly looked away, wondering what Doll had planned, and smiled when he heard the tinkling chime of caltrops hitting concrete. "Good thinking, Madam Doll!"

Doll couldn't take credit for the idea though. A moment ago a green light had told Zinc the hopper was full. He'd kicked a lever on the roof to drop down a basketful of freshly-baked foot-piercers. Doll jumped to action, whipped off her burlap dress to gain greater mobility, and heaved the bulky basket onto the seat. She waited for just the right moment, then dumped it in the path of three of the ambulances.

The resulting pileup was spectacular. The one in front blew its tires with a splash of construct blood. No sound came from its mouth, but the silver lips stretched back in a yodel of pain. It reared up on its hind wheels, then kept on somersaulting upside down when the one in back rear-ended it. They ended up locked together, hood-to-hood. The second ambulance's windshield was smashed to shards. It swerved blindly and clipped a third. Ambulance number three skidded hard to the left, but its proportions were too top-heavy and it crashed on its side, sliding out of control. It tried in vain to chomp the edge of the road and stop its fall, but it only got a mouthful of rebar and plummeted out of sight. Then came the crash of metal on glass.

One down, four to go.

"Three cheers for Doll!" Piffle cheered. She deviated from her mission just long enough to fly to the car and give her friend a quick hug. Then it was back to business.

With the upside-down ambulance wedged on top of the blinded one, both were ripe targets. Piffle found the bombs as easy to peel as tangerines. She dropped three of them on the struggling one's undercarriage just to be sure. For the other vehicle, she got a great shot and rolled a bomb right through its broken windshield. "Bullseye!"

Zinc was enjoying the show and Toby was enjoying a breather. The mouse didn't understand much about construct behavior, but he got a sense that there was a hierarchy among them. These ambulances were rough customers. Any time another nightmare got near, they bulldozed it right out of the way. It wasn't even malice. More like the ambulances didn't even register their presence. Toby had noticed that the arachnopuses and snakespiders seemed almost cooperative, and the pigs and rats didn't get in each other's way either. Maybe different 'breeds' had trouble sensing each other?

'Or maybe the highway itself is controlling them!' he thought. 'Like smaller minds orbiting a larger one.' He wasn't sure why the ambulances seemed immune, but if he'd correctly overheard that they were from a different region, that might fill in the missing piece.

With Piffle's bombs planted on the two wounded specimens, that left another duo to chase down. She'd hoped to sneak up on them from behind, but they were already focusing on her and turning to attack. One surged forward and she had to do a barrel roll to keep her feet out of its chomping jaws. "Bad puppy!" she admonished. At least it had volunteered for the next target. She got two more percussives ready and swooped low over the ambulance's roof. Both bombs plopped into place right behind its spinning dome light. It gnashed its teeth and jumped straight up. Piffle had to brace herself on its roof to leap away. Just from that brief contact, she could feel its venomous paint starting to eat her paws. She winced and tried to flick the awful stuff away.

"My friends, you might want to hold on to something!" George suddenly called out.

Toby looked ahead and the question 'why' was answered before he could ask it. The freeway was about to curve sideways in an insanely tight hairpin turn. He threw his arms around Zinc and squeezed.

He looked amused. "If you wanted a dance partner you coulda asked first."

George did not have extensive experience with tires, but he'd mastered flying easily enough and still had his uncanny spacial awareness. His piercing eyes took in the curve ahead and calculated just how much to slow his speed to make it through.

To his intense embarrassment, he was wrong.

For a moment, everyone's heart skipped a beat as George's tires screeched, skidded, and the Fearsleigher tipped. Its right skate blade hit the pavement and showered sparks. George fought for friction but couldn't overcome momentum. Their arc would take them over the edge and into the glass. "Ten thousand hells!!" he swore.

Time slowed for all of them. Junella realized she was stuck behind the wheel, completely powerless. Toby's brain told him his only hope was to jump, but his muscles were frozen. Thoughts of failure and overwhelming shame filled George's mind.

Something pink shot past like a bullet. Piffle swung herself around in a hard arc. Just before the car would have toppled off the road, she elbowed the car back on track with every ounce of her considerable willpower.

Her push was just enough. The skate blade skimmed open air and gravel skittered over the edge, but the Fearsleigher stayed on solid ground. It was close though. The rims of George's tires had traced the road's edge.

Junella stared out the window in astonishment. She couldn't say a word. Her hands had a death grip on the steering wheel.

Piffle gave her a triumphant smile, a salute, and zipped out of sight.

Both Zinc and Toby were hooting and hollering for her. Piffle allowed a moment of internal rejoicing at having saved the day, but remembered there was still one ambulance left to play tag with.

It had not forgotten them. Being much more used to wheels than George, it took the hairpin easily and leapt towards the Fearsleigher's back platform. Its metal teeth clacked together, missing, but not by much. Piffle strafed past and Toby shouted encouragement to her.

The ambulance ignored the pink insect. It understood now that there were several meat-things inside the strange vehicle. Even a nightmare's mind can understand that 'several' is better than 'one'. So while saliva splashed as it made many attempts to chew the Fearsleigher, it never felt the bombs Piffle skillfully placed on both its back doors.

Like a fighter jet with bows and antennae, Piffle zoomed away from the last ambulance. Her compound eyes were perfect for keeping tabs on all her targets simultaneously, so she knew right away when the remaining three had gotten back on their wheels. They were driving in formation, catching up, and would be within gnashing range soon. Piffle buzzed close to the car, just outside Junella's window. "All devices planted, Sergeant J.!"

Junella was so startled her head bumped the ceiling. "Don't sneak up on me like that! And if you got all four percussives in place, then getcher booty back inside!"

Piffle sheepishly nibbled her index finger. "Ummm, four?"

A growl. "Did you miss one?"

"No, the opposite actually! I wanted to do a really good job, so I tried to use at least two for each."

Junella's eyes got very wide. Her hand hovered over her grooves, ready to go off on a volcanic tirade. But those big, innocent ruby eyes made her hold back. 'Que sera sera,' she decided. "Fine, but you'd really better get inside, because the freeway is NOT gonna like this."

"I did an oopsie, didn't I?"

Junella simply nodded.

Piffle figured that one way she could make up for it would be passing the news on to the boys. She flew up beside them. "Junella says we better take our seats. I think I used about triple the amount of bombs I shoulda."

Zinc's eyes got as big as Junella's had.

Anything bad enough to make Zinc look worried was not something Toby was gonna stand around asking questions about. He held the rack to steady himself as he stepped down from the roof. However, his foot slipped and the wind nearly knocked him sideways. The waistbelt reacted to the sudden slack exactly as it was designed to and yanked him through the window. He ended up curled in a dizzy ball on the seat, wincing in pain and wondering how he'd managed to whack all of his knees and elbows simultaneously. 'Still in one piece though!' he consoled himself.

Piffle reached out to help Zinc down from the gatling gun, and he was puzzled for a second by something about the gesture. It took him a moment to realize that her other arm was hanging limp as a sock.

She noticed his concern. "Oh, this? I, um, I think I broke my shoulder when I pushed the car."

Now that he was looking closely, he could tell she'd flat-out pulverized it. "Geez-o-petes, kitten! Don't it hurt?"

"Not yet," she said, looking on the bright side. "But it'll probably sting like a doozy once the shock wears off!"

She had guts. He admired that. "Hey, I can't let a swell chicky like you suffer. Why wait to heal? Want me to kill it all better?"

"Oh, sure! Thanks for offering!" Piffle bowed her head to him.

"Won't take a sec." Zinc took aim at the top of her skull and swung his right wrench around to bash it inside out.

A moment later she popped back to normal. "Gee, thanks! Didn't hurt a bit! Although, my goodness the stars are out early today!"

He chuckled and scooped her up in his wrenches, then deftly hopped down to land on a skate blade. He popped the door and Toby had just gotten situated enough to help Piffle in to sit beside him. She was still a bit dizzy from the bludgeoning, but her shoulder felt right as rain.

"You were incredible out there!" Toby complimented.

"Aw, it was easy. I just hope I didn't mess up too bad with the bombs."

Zinc vaulted towards the passenger side and plopped into his seat. "All systems go for kaboom-time, Juney?"

"Hell no! Not until we've got as much distance between us and them as possible." The skunk checked the backseat just to make sure everyone was accounted for, then returned her attention to the road. She soothingly patted the dashboard. "Don't beat yourself up over your little slip back there, George. You're new to driving. Mistakes happen. How 'bout you relax and let me take control?"

"Yes, I would much prefer that. And you have my thanks for trying to help console me." Without knowing exactly how, he relaxed his mind's hold on his body and allowed the steering wheel to guide him. Junella flexed her fingers and tested George's responsiveness. For him the sensation was curious indeed, yet felt somehow 'right'. It was like puppet strings running through his body to Madam Brox's hands.

Junella purred. She liked the feeling of handling so much horsepower. She kept her eyes focused ahead. More curves and hills were coming up. The freeway was normally smooth and straight until something bothered it. They were giving it an itch now, and it was responding. 'It's about to respond a hell of a lot more,' she thought.

When Junella pumped the gas pedal, George let out a small shriek. It felt exactly like being goosed!

The ambulances were in hot pursuit, red lights circling. No sirens, just the wet, gnashing sounds of their metal mouths. If any of them had felt the bombs stuck to their aluminum skin, they might have tried to assimilate them before it was too late. But road debris stuck to them all the time. And the scent of flesh was diverting their attention. They could not wait to chew the strange vehicle into bits and slurp down the wriggling treats inside. Keep them safe in their metal bellies. Transport them home to the hospital so they could be cured of all their ills, permanently.

Toby squeezed Doll as the road threw a quarter mile of speedbumps at them. Everything in the car was jiggled higgledy-piggledy. Toby and Piffle dodged their feet away from two stray caltrops, and her ponytail ended up whapping him in the nose, making him sneeze. Junella's hands were busy on the wheel and she couldn't shout a warning when the detonator fell out of her lap. Thankfully, Zinc was quick and caught it on its second bounce. "H-how 'b-b-bout I ho-o-old ont-t-to this-s-s?" he said.

George rather liked the speedbumps. They vibrated his chassis in an amusing fashion.

Junella's hands were rocksteady on the wheel. The bumps ended just as another hill began, but she was ready for it. She'd guided the late Killcanoe down this road before. Twice, even. She knew speed was less important than control. Especially when they'd come to the loops.

Toby peeked out the side window. "Ambulances approaching!"

Junella goosed George again to gain speed on the downhill descent. She wanted to tell Toby she was waiting for a smooth patch to put more distance between them and the nightmares, but her hands were busy at ten and two.

Toby had all four limbs braced against the seat. Doll was immobile at the moment, but had managed to clutch his vest tight. Piffle was turned around in her seat, watching the ambulances through the back window. "We're outrunning them!" she was happy to report.

Junella checked her mirrors. There was half a dozen car lengths between them and the nightmares, but she wanted more. She mentally kicked herself for not telling Piffle exactly how powerful each one of those sticky bombs was. Just one could easily turn an ambulance into a charred, smoking wreck. If Piffle had used the whole box, there was no telling how big the explosion would be.

Up ahead in an S curve, an arachnopus was waiting for them. It scuttled out into the middle of the lane and raised its hairy tentacles threateningly.

"I believe I can take care of this slimy troublemaker," George said confidently.

Junella tapped the wheel: 'Go for it.'

George remembered a little trick from his days tormenting the innocent. Sometimes he'd snort flame from his nostrils up onto his face, turning his skull into a fireball. Now he did the same trick, but with the nailplow. It was a glorious sight. Fire gushed from his inner furnace and coated the spiked wedge like a deadly carpet.

Arachnopuses are relatively intelligent by construct standards. This one wasn't. As the Fearsleigher bore down upon it, it reared up on its tentacles and bared its beak as if to swallow them up.

When the flaming nailplow hit, the octospider burst like a water balloon. Chunks of charred calamari pelted the car and the road. Junella turned on the windshield wipers.

George belted out a basso laugh. There would always be a part of him that delighted in carnage, and that was fine so long as he kept it well-fed.

The road ahead was straight and clear, at least for the next hundred feet or so. They couldn't hope for a better chance. Junella slammed the gas pedal to the floor. George whinnied in alarm and doubled his speed.

Piffle bounced on the backseat as the Ambulances were left in the dust. "Hot diggity! They look like ants now! And they're all clustered together too. Go for it, Juney!"

She swiveled around. "Hey. Only Zinc gets to call me that."

Piffle pouted. "No offense."

Junella turned to her partner. "Wanna do the honors? You remember how to work that thing, right?"

He looked positively insulted. "Like I'd forget a weapon." Then he turned to the backseat passengers. "This is your captain speaking. Please buckle all safety belts and prepare for some serious goddamn turbulence."

Toby rechecked both his waist and shoulder belts, then felt around to see if he could find any more.

"Want me to dumbfound you up a crash helmet?" Piffle asked.

He wasn't sure if she was teasing. "No. But thanks!"

Zinc was not going to miss this show, even if the shrapnel blew his face clean off. He stood up and poked his upper half through the passenger window, looking back at the snarling, salivating ambulances. They were not happy to see their prey getting away. Zinc grinned at how much worse their day was about to get.

He gripped the detonator carefully. It would not do to accidentally drop it. Raising it to his lips, he cleared his throat. The device registered the sound, but was waiting for the magic words.

"Now, please."

He could swear he saw their metal mouths start to scream just as the blast ripped them apart.

The light was like the birth of a second sun. The explosion was a sphere of fire a hundred feet across. The boom blotted out every other sound for miles around. And the shockwave was a juggernaut.

Toby's teeth rattled as a giant invisible hand punched the car from behind. The heat was like the world's largest oven flinging open its door. The shockwave shoved the Fearsleigher up off its back wheels entirely. The sides of the skate blades caught the hot air and for a brief, incredible moment, the car was windsurfing.

Everyone inside was screaming. Obviously.

Not only had the ambulances not survived, they were damn near disintegrated. The largest chunk of one flew straight up in the air and didn't come back down for forty seconds.

The freeway roared in pain as a massive chunk of itself ceased to exist. The explosion performed a complete amputation, blasting away concrete, liquefying the underlying flesh, and bending the rebar inside like pipe cleaners. Blood cascaded from the open wounds. Concrete slabs cracked and slid off into the glass sea like falling dominoes. The road's legs started buckling.

Toby thought nothing could have felt worse than that explosion. He was wrong. The sensation of the car tilting diagonally backwards was worse.

The freeway was rapidly collapsing. Any remaining creatures opted to leap off the edges into the glass below, rather than ending up trapped beneath the wounded concrete beast's falling body. A haunting moan came from within the freeway as it felt its exoskeleton crumbling and its raw tissues exposed to air and flame.

Junella's hands were too tight on the wheel to say a word, but she put her faith in George and eased off the gas. Speed would make them lose control. What was important right now was precision. She tried to keep her heart from beating right out of her chest as she watched the road ahead rise up and start to curl. Cracks streaked like lightning through the concrete. The freeway was gearing up for one unholy hell of a tantrum.

From the backseat, Piffle could be heard saying over and over, "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry..."

The heat had melted the fur right off Zinc's head and turned his metal dome into a tangled, bloody mess. But it still couldn't stop his grin. "Hot damn, that looked cool!"

Not taking her eyes off the road, Junella reached out a hand to yank her partner inside, then filled her palm with pistol and blew away the remaining half of his fool head.

Once he was reconstituted, he shook his new noggin to make sure everything was in order. "Thanks again, partner."

She jabbed a finger towards the headlight control, then pointed out the window.

"Yeah, yeah. Blood tentacles, I'm on it."

If the freeway couldn't buck them off, it'd strangle them to death. While behind them mammoth chunks of concrete snapped and folded as they smashed to the glass sea below, up ahead, boiling crimson oil came bubbling up from cracks in the monster's grey skin. Tendrils of ichor began to rise like hellish saplings.

The only good thing about this was that the freeway was too big to be fast. The travelers would have precious seconds before each tentacle grew to full height, and it was Zinc's job to prevent that. He flicked on the high beams and five hundred degrees of heat surged out. Any tentacle it touched was burnt blacker than an over-grilled hotdog.

From all around them came that terrifying bass moan again, like an orchestra of cellos playing underwater. The freeway was in excruciating pain. Every tentacle they destroyed felt like ripping out its nerve endings.

The road ahead suddenly folded up at a nearly ninety-degree angle. Junella kept her head cool and knew exactly when to pour on the power. They shot up the incline like a rocket and were momentarily airborne. The car tilted towards the pavement as it fell. 'Sorry about your tires, George!' Junella thought.

The stallion winced, braced himself, and cursed fire when he hit. His wheels felt like they'd shattered. "May we not do that again!?" he whined.

"Gonna be the first of many 'til we're off this road," she replied.

George flexed his axles and kept going. If there was nothing to be done about it, then he would do his best to remain stoic.

Junella let everything else go. Her mind was a rat's nest of shrieking fear at seeing the coiling twists of the road ahead, but worry never helped anyone become a better driver. She did her best to blank herself. She kept her eyes peeled. She thought of a powerful song. If George could merge with the Fearsleigher, then she could too. She tried to feel the steering wheel as part of herself. The seats were her own flesh. His wheels were hers.

Cement chunks rained down from the freeway's supports as it writhed back and forth, trying in vain to flick away its tormentors. It stretched and heaved, throwing dips and hills and 90 degree turns at them. It cracked its own concrete in its haste to throw more tentacles at them. The wheels of the Fearsleigher felt like claws sinking into its skin.

Junella had no sympathy. If they were causing it pain, tough titty. This was the only path to get where they were going, so the road was shit out of luck if it didn't like that. She kept her heart a block of ice. She took her time with each turn. Her instincts screamed to rush, but she didn't listen. Smooth. That was the key. Keep all four wheels on the road and they'd make it to the end.

Zinc left the headlights on and hopped out to get back on the roof. It was not an easy journey. The car bobbed and tilted like a ship in a storm. If the roof rack hadn't been bolted in place as securely as it was, he never would have made it. But finally, his wrenches clamped down on the gun grips, his feet slid onto the pedals, and he felt the gun humming to life as he kicked off and started the barrel turning. He looked ahead to the red fingers of roadblood poking up through the freeway cracks, squirming like worms and seeking blindly to curl around living things and crush them flat. "Ah, ah, ah! Papa spank."


The sky rained blood as hundreds of bullets scorched through the air and pierced the road's pseudopods. The stumps flailed wildly and melted back into red inanimate sludge. Zinc felt the gun rumble beneath him like a well-tuned Harley. That was exactly what it felt like. Riding a motorcycle on top of a tank. Could anything top that?

Toby was pretty much paralyzed. He knew he was 100% at the mercy of Junella's driving skills and Zinc's aim. Whether or not he'd end up squished into spam by one of those tentacles, or sent hurtling down to the sea of shards, was completely out of his control. All he could do was hold Doll tight and wait it out. He did everything he could think of to take his mind away. He tried to remember his room, to envision his bookshelf and count the titles.

Piffle leaned forward as far as her seatbelt allowed. "Junella? Is there anything at all I can do to help?"

The skunk spared only half a second to look up in the rear view mirror and give her a dragon's glare that said, 'SIT DOWN AND KEEP QUIET.'

"Loud and clear!" she said, shaken by the fury in those orange eyes.

Junella was quite pleased to see that the puffball could handle directions. And Toby wasn't screaming constantly. Also good. In fact, another glance at the mirror showed her the mouse had gone all glassy-eyed. Even better! A catatonic passenger is a quiet passenger.

Curve after curve. Junella was starting to really feel the Fearsleigher as her own body. She leaned side to side as she turned, pouring her will into it, not knowing if it was helping but figuring it couldn't hurt.

Zinc swept bullets back and forth like a broom of death. He swore there were fewer tentacles now, like the freeway was finally getting the message. But maybe it was just gearing up for something different.

Up ahead, he saw the first loop. He wished he'd thought to put some kind of seatbelt on the gun. "Ah shit. Hindsight's 20/20."

Black sweat dripped down Junella's forehead, but her face stayed calm. The loops had terrified her the first time through, but she'd learned quickly that they were easy enough if you could keep steady and not panic. She eased off the throttle. Getting all the way up and over required a counterintuitive speed.

'Easy does it...'

The road rose above them into a curving wall. Gravel and dust skittered down from the cracking concrete. Toby felt his guts churn harder the more the road tilted. He could see out the windows, he knew what was happening, but he couldn't allow himself to accept it or he'd lose his marbles. Even as terrified as he was, he was still aware enough to realize that the last thing Junella needed was a screaming lunatic in the backseat. He forced his brain to see only bookshelves. The cover art, the thickness of the pages, the smell...

Zinc's jaw dropped. One never got used to this. Not even in a city like EC where life was always spinning. He felt gravity reverse as the Fearsleigher went up, up, up...

"It's just like flying," George marveled.

Junella felt her heart stop and her nerves freeze when they reached the apex. It was all about keeping a steady momentum to get them past the point of no return. She exhaled hard when she felt them start to head downwards again, but she couldn't relax entirely. There was nothing but friction and inertia keeping them magnetized to the road right now. Gravity could still decide to pluck them off and flatten them.

Zinc had been clutching the gun's grips so hard he was blasting bullets all over the road without realizing it. As they finally came out of the loop, the green light came on and, without thinking, he kicked the lever.

'Oh shit,' he thought, as he realized what he'd just done.

Toby and Piffle's eyes went wide as they watched the ceiling hatch come open and a basket full of caltrops start to drop down. They'd spill all over. Spiked comets. And both rodents were belted in and unable to prevent it from happening.

In an instant, Doll realized that no one was looking at her.

She tensed her stubby plastic legs and leapt. She jumped past Piffle and Toby and felt their heads start to turn towards her. Their peripheral vision began to petrify her. But she'd calculated for that. Momentum kept her rigid body sailing towards the hatch, then she bumped it closed again. Her reward for her quick-thinking heroism was to clatter undignified onto the car's floor.

But as soon as she was able, Piffle unbelted herself and scooped Doll into her arms, hugging her with all her heart. "Oh thank you, Doll! Thank you so incredibly much! You saved us!" Toby reached over to give Doll even more grateful hugs.

From the roof, Zinc called down, "Forgive me, fellas! I wasn't thinking!"

"I'm gonna use Doll like a nightstick and beat you in the head, Mr. Zinc!" Piffle fumed at him. Then she petted Doll's plastic curls. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Yes you would."

Junella took several slow, deep breaths as they came safely out of the loop. She didn't know what had almost happened in the backseat, but she knew she didn't want to know either. They were not home free yet. There were still dozens more twists ahead, plus a second loop-de-loop before the big one.

Something enormous dropped down behind them with a bone-jarring thud.

It had been perched outside the loop, gazing down like a vulture. Just waiting for tender prey to come rolling along. It hadn't managed to squash the Fearsleigher, but that was no matter. It had plenty of time to catch up and steamroll them into a delicious meat and metal sandwich.

Zinc swung his gun around and pissed his pants. They'd been down this road before, but they'd never encountered a twenty-foot-tall rolling ball of cat skulls.

The freeway shook from its weight. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of fleshless feline heads. Blank, empty eye sockets. Piranha-like snapping jaws. Gleaming teeth. The heads moved and turned in unison, all focused on the Fearsleigher. It looked like they were smiling.

Zinc was an icicle for a moment, a helpless little pup with his tail tucked in. Until he remembered the solid brass cylinder jutting between his legs.


Cat heads shattered into powder as the bullets tore through. Zinc felt savage triumph for a moment, until he realized he wasn't actually accomplishing anything. The skull-ball kept on rolling. It wasn't breaking up. No matter how many heads he blasted away, more were birthed from within to take their place. "Well that just sucks!"

Piffle looked behind her at his exclamation, then shrieked.

Junella fishtailed the car for a few seconds. She gritted her teeth and tried to regain concentration for the twelve-foot dip in the road ahead.

"Whatever's behind us, I don't wanna know," Toby said absently.

"It's a humongous ball of cat heads!!" Piffle yelped.

"See, I did not need that information. At all."

Fretting that she was starting to make everything worse, Piffle looked around for something to do. She spotted the ceiling hatch. Perfect! She waited for Junella to get them out of the dip before unbelting and standing up. Bracing herself against the ceiling with one hand, she unlatched the flap and took out the basket of new caltrops. The windows were already open, so she looked, aimed, and tossed the whole thing.

Zinc could have told her. If bullets didn't faze this thing, caltrops wouldn't either. In fact, the ball didn't even shudder as it rolled over them. The skulls on the bottom were already being crushed continuously, so a few more didn't matter. The ball's method of locomotion was to regenerate more skulls as fast as the ones meeting the road shattered. The countless jabbering jaws seemed to be laughing.

Piffle was crestfallen. "Oh shoot! Oh darn! Oh pootertoots!"

Junella steered through a curve one-handed so she could yell with the other. "Sit your spangly ass down and gitcher belt on! I'm about to do something insane and I don't need you bouncin' around like a pinball back there!"

"Sorry, Junella," Piffle said.

Junella had too many things to concentrate on already. At least the freeway was no longer falling apart beneath their wheels. Zinc was doing a fine job getting rid of the occasional tentacles that still tried to lash out at them. And Toby might as well have been a statue. But the driving wasn't getting any easier and now she had a boulder fulla bones to deal with. She patted the dash. "George?"

"Yes, Madam Brox?"

"I'm gonna try to euthanize those kitties behind us. It's a real dumb idea, but trust me. Don't fight it."

"I have seen no reason so far to doubt your skill. You are doing an excellent job of driving me."

She smiled. It was nice to hear a compliment every once in a while. "Awright then. Hold on to your panties everyone!"

Junella launched the car into a hard turn and slammed down the handbrake.

It was like bald tires on an icy road. The Fearsleigher went into a pirouette spin and everyone inside was slammed sideways. Zinc's feet slipped off the gun's pedals and for a moment he was doing an involuntarily handstand. The car lost speed, top half whizzling around like a UFO, and the ball of skulls surged forward to pounce.

Exactly as planned. Because it wasn't just the car that was spinning, it was the skate blades.

Junella had turned the Fearsleigher into a makeshift chakram.

Skulls went fucking everywhere. The spinning skate blades buzzsawed through the side of the cat-ball and carved out a nice fat chunk. For a moment it looked like a huge screaming head, spitting hundreds of broken teeth from its wide open mouth.

Junella waited for just the right moment, then jerked the wheel hard, canceling the spin. Everyone's heads got knocked around, but Junella was prepared enough to goose the gas pedal and get the hell out of Dodge.

The ball had split into two hemispheres. They crashed onto the road in a tidal wave of skulls. Teeth and eye sockets littered the freeway like a carpet. Zinc could not resist adding insult to injury by blasting the pile with a few bursts from the gatling gun.

Junella looked in the rear view mirror and her smile sizzled. "YES! That oughtta buy us some time!"

Piffle clapped with joy, until she looked over and saw Toby's face. He looked like he'd turned into green cheese. "Toby! Are you okay? Are you even conscious?"

His eyes did not blink, but his lips slowly moved. "I'm overloaded. I can't take this. It's too much to deal with. I'm gonna lose my mind."

"Poor mousie!" She reached over to hug him, then had an idea. "Hey, remember what I said about your bellybutton?"

It took a while for that to penetrate. Then he remembered the trick she'd shown him in the hotel room. "That's an option?"

"Sure! I won't be offended. You can just curl up like a little pillbug and I'll keep you from rolling around too much, okay?"

The very idea that he could escape from this situation seemed too good to be true. He couldn't believe he'd forgotten the navel-gazing trick. "Allright," he told Piffle. "Wake me when it's over."

"You can count on me."

Toby's muscles felt like rotted, cracking timbers as he slowly and carefully got his seatbelt off. He opened his vest and looked down at his tummy. How had he done this before? Just fall forward and...

Back home.

The shelves he'd tried a moment ago to recreate in his imagination were suddenly standing tall in front of him. All his beloved books. The washable vinyl pages with their colorful covers. He reached out, then stopped himself.

How had he forgotten all the stains?

He looked down. The floor was littered with tissues. Wadded up and covered in his own snot and blood. He saw streaks on the walls and... the ceiling too? How in the...?

He looked all around, suddenly dizzy. Not just from the stench of his sickroom, but from how alien this place felt. It was impossible. He'd been in this memory just a day ago. Admittedly, not for long, but... He'd lived all his life in this room. How could it feel so wrong?

Toby looked around at the deflated Get Well balloons. The stuffed animals with dried bile stuck in their crevices. Sunlight struggled to make it through the room's thick curtains, oily with biological residue.

He had been avoiding turning all the way around. He did not know what he would see there. In the bed. His bed. His sickbed his


"NO, I DON'T WANT TO," he shouted, and his voice sounded petulant and babyish. A little kid throwing a tantrum. The reek of disinfectants, medicine, and urine made his eyes sting, blurring his vision as he forced himself to turn around. No part of him wanted this, but he had to face it. He didn't even know why, but he had to.

The bed came into view. Cavernous. Sunken. An ocean of white sheets, turned yellow from years of piss and pus. An endtable filled to overflowing with emptied pill bottles, their tops encrusted with dust. Small snowdrifts of them had fallen to the floor. Somewhere lost in the center of the bed, like lying prone on quicksand, was a boy. A little mouse. Glued in place by his own secretions. His popped sores. His incontinence. He was barely visible: a skeleton with a pelt. Two long pink rodent feet jutted up like fence posts. The skin was cracked and dry, the uncut toenails long as pencils.

From within that bed, Toby heard a slow, wet sucking sound. His own breathing.

He sat straight up, suddenly back in the car. The Fearsleigher was swerving back and forth along an impossible series of rippling curves, and the sphere of skulls was back in action right behind them. The sound of a thousand biting jaws was like bacon frying through a megaphone.

But the smell was gone. And he could no longer see that sick, dying thing that had once been himself. Toby felt himself all over. No sores. His fur was soft and clean.

Of all the expressions Piffle had thought he might show upon returning, relief was not among them. "Toby!? I don't have a clue why that keeps happening! Whenever I go in my bellybutton I end up in a candy village or a nice meadow or something. Where did you go that could possibly be worse than here?"

He ran his hands through his hair. His mouth felt dry. "My past," he said simply.

Piffle scooted over to administer a first aid hug. She put Doll between them for extra comfort. "I don't know what you saw, but I'm sorry you did. If it makes you feel better, at least you missed another big rollercoaster loop. And Junella says we're almost at the offramp!"

"That's assuming I can shake these goddamn skulls!!" she yowled from the front seat.

Toby could see at a glance she was on her last nerve. Her scowl seemed to swallow her face. She was driving more erratically, showing signs of mental exhaustion. Her inner tank was nearly empty.

'How long was I in my memory?' he asked himself.

He hesitated, not wanting to make things worse. But then he said softly to her, "You can do it. You can get us out of here. You're Junella Fucking Brox, right?"

She was on a hair-trigger anyway, ready to tell him to shove his positive affirmations up his ass. But hearing him swear in that delicate little voice of his actually made her snicker. And she had to admit, the mouse had a point. She was Junella Fucking Brox. She'd been through worse than this. Just reminding herself of her true name gave her a second wind. She was not helpless. Junella Fucking Brox never was.

She needed both hands to pull them through another hairpin, but she glanced at the rear view mirror and threw Toby a 'Thank you'.

He rubbed his shoulder from where the inertia had slammed him into the armrest. "You're welcome."

Piffle gave Toby another squeeze. "Oh, and you might wanna get your belt back on."

"Why-" His question turned to a gurgle when he saw through the front window what was looming ahead.

Oh, it was simply not fair. His only two choices of where to be right now were the inner hell of his fetid bedroom, or in a car that was about to enter the biggest damn loop-de-loop his mind could comprehend.

Taller than Gyre 2. Easily. Maybe even the circumference of Coryza. The immense concrete circle stretched up into the sky so high it was impossible to see its top. Fist-sized crumbs of concrete littered down like dandruff with every shudder of the still-infuriated freeway. This was worse than Toby's worst driving nightmares. This was giving him heart palpitations just looking at it.


He shook his head. "What!?"

Junella had locked her right hand on the wheel so she could talk with her left. She had to make this part very, very clear. "You've been a perfect passenger back there so far, and I'm grateful, but I need you to promise me that'll continue. Because I have really got to concentrate now."

He nodded. "If I have to I'll shove myself in the storage space and just cry the whole time. But I promise, I will not freak out and be distracting."

She smiled, recognizing just how much bravery it took to think of someone else at a moment when you're pushed to your limits.

The wind whistled past. The road rumbled. George's tires thrummed. Junella looked ahead. She could just barely feel the tilt starting. She brought herself back to the times before. No matter what, the big loop was always here at the end.

With the Killcanoe, they'd been able to hop the gap. Jump from the start of the loop to its end, avoiding the middle. The Fearsleigher would not hop. And that posed a problem because they'd just barely skated through that last loop. It was going to take more than just steady speed and perfect control to get through this. The big one was so damn huge, gravity would rip them off before they got to the apex. They needed something more. But no new ideas were forthcoming. Whatever they did, their ride would have to remain smooth as silk from start to finish. If that cat-thing bumped them even once, they would fall and smash and die.

"Piffle, do you have any percussives left?"

"Well, sure! I didn't use the whole box!" She patted her pockets. "Looks like there's five here."

"Three will be plenty," Junella replied. She locked eyes with Piffle in the rear view mirror. "I know we're not always on the best terms, but right now I need to drive, so that means I need to trust you to do something very important and very precise."

Junella's solemn tone snapped Piffle to attention. She sat up straight with her hands in her lap. "I'm listening."

"You remember the harpoon turret? It's on the back of the car. I need you to fly out and get to it. If it's loaded, unload it. The last thing we need is to end up grappled to that thing. There will be regular spears with no ropes attached. Load one. Stick all three bombs to the tip. When we get to the apex, fire."

The hamsterfly's heart beat faster. That was a lot to remember. "Doesn't Zinc normally do this kind of thing?"

"Yes. But if he falls off, he can't fly back."

"That is a good point," she had to admit.

Toby reached out to take her paw in his. "You can do it. You've got a stronger will than any of us."

She smiled brightly at him for his kindness, then gave his cheek a smooch. "Allright, Junella. I'll do it. If I follow your tune, the cat heads'll blow up and gravity will scatter 'em all over the place, right?"

"Exactly right," Junella sang. Plus the explosion might give them an extra push through the loop. It wasn't certain enough to count on though. She had to look away to the road then. The tilt was increasing. The real fun was about to start. But she spared a second more with her hand off the wheel to give the hamsterfly a thumbs up.

Piffle took just enough time for quick Toby and Doll hugs. Then a deep breath. Then she opened the door.

They were driving at a thirty degree angle now, still at freeway speed. She needed a moment to orient herself before spreading her wings. The drag nearly yanked her into the wind, but she held on tight to the door frame. She was glad for her compound eyes. Back when she'd had eyelids, they certainly would've been watering from all the wind and road dust. From her position now she could see the harpoon turret clearly.

She let go.

It was over before she realized it. Instinct had taken over. She'd let the forward momentum of the car pull it out from beneath her, then she reached out and grabbed the turret as it passed by. Piece of cake.

"Hey, nice move!" Zinc called down.

"Oh hi!" she replied, waving. "Almost forgot you were up there!"

She had to yell a bit over the pounding drone of George's wheels and the incessant snapping smiles of the cat skulls. Thankfully, the ball had reached its top speed and couldn't do much more than keep up with them. But it was following damn close. It was trying to conserve energy for a lunge. If it could just get in a single bite, the rest of itself could swarm all over the car and devour it.

Piffle ignored the construct, as she tried to do with most bullies. "I'm glad you're here!" she shouted to Zinc. "Junella wants me to shoot the catball with a spear, and I don't have a gosh-darned idea where those are!"

Zinc smiled back. Piffle'd been asked to fire heavy weaponry at a twenty-foot-tall monster, and was remaining chipper as ever. What a gal! He pointed to her left. "See that tube with the hinge like a toolbox? There ya are."

"Thanks!" The road was getting steeper by the second. Piffle was starting to slip, so she positioned herself behind the turret, leaning forward onto it. She opened the spear box very slowly, careful not to spill any. "How do I unload the harpoon and swap this one out?"

"The big red button fires it. DON'T push that! Flick the square switch to the right of it."

Piffle looked around on the control panel and found it. This released the turret's hold on the harpoon and, due to their forty-degree angle, it slid out to clang against the road.

"Oh poop!" she exclaimed.

Zinc laughed. The harpoon was dancing around behind them, still attached by its rope. "Not a problem! Just reel it in!"

Piffle did so, then tucked it away in the spear box. Now came the problem of getting a new spear into the turret. She figured it'd be easier to ready the explosives first. She carefully pulled a percussive from her pocket and started peeling. "Gosh I hope this thing doesn't go off early!"

"It won't," Zinc assured. "I've used 'em before. They don't pop until they hear the go phrase: 'Now-"

Piffle looked up and shook her head violently. "No!"

He chuckled and grinned at her. "I wasn't really gonna say it, c'mon!"

"Ooooh, you're naughty!" she said, laughing too. The bit of humor actually helped to steady her nerves. She peeled the grenades as easy as pulling off candy wrappers, then arranged them nicely on the spear tip.

Under normal conditions, loading the turret would have meant taking a few steps along the platform and sliding the ammunition down the barrel. But considering how close to vertical they were by now, Piffle didn't want to chance falling off. That meant flying. She took another deep breath and spread her wings.

When the ball of skulls saw her jump from the car, it reacted like any predator to the movement of its prey. It pounced. The toothy mass moved like a swarm of birds, stretching forwards to snare her.

Zinc was not about to let that happen. He'd already been pedaling the cranks, and the instant he saw movement from the catball, he pounded it with a hailstorm of hot lead. BRRRRRTTT!

The whole ball shuddered and shed skulls like dandruff. Zinc dared to hope he might have unbalanced it enough to send it rolling back down the loop, but things were never that easy.

Piffle buzzed along behind the car with the spear out ahead of her like she was a pole vaulter. It took several tries to thread the end into that itty-bitty barrel hole, but finally the shaft sunk in with a satisfying clamping sound. She happily returned to her perch behind the turret and held on tight. "Whew! Mission accomplished!"

"Not yet, pet. You still gotta fire it!"

"That's right!"

Meanwhile, Junella had been calmly explaining their gravity predicament to George.

"Yes, Madam Brox, I did feel my wheels sliding precariously through that last loop. I had hoped you would have some idea on how to increase the down force upon the road."

"I'm thinkin', I'm thinkin'."

"We do not have much time before we'll need to act."

She banged her fists on the steering wheel. "I KNOW!"

George had another thought. "I could retake driving duties if you need your hands free. All it would require is to keep a consistent speed, correct?"

She reigned in her temper. George was just trying to be helpful. "Thanks, but I'm in the zone here. I've got the feel. I'd worry about any slip-ups if we switched gears."

"I trust your expertise."

"No worries, hoss. You've been golden this whole time. You're getting' a big fat kiss on the lips when we can finally stop."

"I have no lips, but that would be very pleasant nonetheless."

Junella chuckled. George's smooth voice helped ease her stress. "Toby? You still sane?"

"Barely." He looked out the window at the horizon slowly turning over. He felt gravity sucking him back into his seat, pooling his blood away from his face and fingertips. His brain was slowly filling up with static. "I think I might be going into shock again. Feels nice."

"Try not to. Do you think you can handle a small job?"

He blinked in surprise. What could she possibly need him for? "I... Maybe?"

Junella knew that the feeling of helplessness increased the chances of a freakout. Having something to do helped a furson keep their head. She reached over to Zinc's seat for the detonator, then tossed it in Toby's lap.

He caught it clumsily, then stared at it. "You want me to...? I don't know, Junella! I'm a wreck right now! What if I stutter!?"

She locked eyes with him in the rear view mirror. "You won't. Just two little words. You remember them, right?"

He stopped himself in time from saying them aloud. That would have been a Very Large Oopsie.

"I'd do it myself, but I want both hands on this wheel, understand?"

Toby nodded.

And as Junella turned her focus back to the road, a humdinger of an idea popped into her brain. Letting the problem simmer had produced a solution. "George!! The car's your body, right? How much can you customize it?"

He wasn't sure how to answer that. "I am uncertain. I cannot alter my shape or mass, but-"

There was no time for idle words. They'd have to implement this idea before they hit the rapidly-approaching ninety degree mark. "The plow goes up and down. Can you get it up and over the gun turret!?"

The request seemed insane, until he envisioned exactly what he'd be reshaping it into. "A spoiler! Madam Brox, you are a genius!"

"Can You DO It!?" she exploded.

"I see no reason why not!" he shouted back with optimism.

Junella reached out the window to thump the roof and get Zinc and Piffle's attention. "Allright! This is the plan! We're gonna be upside down soon. If we get past the apex, that bunch of skulls could pounce right on us. That'd be undesirable. So when we're close, Zinc: you count down from ten. Piffle: when he gets to zero, you fire right into the heart of those bony fuckos. Toby: when you hear the turret fire, you count to one and say the words. George: you keep us on the road. I'll keep us steady. All clear!?"

"Roger that, Cap'n!" Zinc shouted.

"Roger!" Piffle followed.

"I'll do my best!" Toby said.

Junella glanced back and flashed him a teasing grin. "You'll do perfect or I'll feed you to that thing back there with barbecue sauce."

"Thank you for that pleasant thought," he gurgled.

George didn't have many seconds to spare, so he did some body calculations. The nailplow was raised and lowered by a pair of hydraulic arms. They could get the plow to the back of the car, but there wouldn't be enough clearance to pass it over the gun turret. He'd end up shearing it right off the back, and with Sir Zinc currently astride it, that would not do.

Closer and closer towards the ninety degree mark.

A Gordian Knot solution occurred. George grunted heartily as he ripped the plow in half down the middle. The whole chassis shook. Sprinkles of wood and metal clattered all along the bottom of the car between the wheels. It was his own flesh; he felt no pain.

George swung the lifting arms up and back, rotating the plow-halves on their mounts. "DUCK, Sir Zinc!!!" he called out.

Zinc sure as hell did. Two jumbo slices of nail-studded pizza whizzed past his head as he skroonched himself down tight against the gatling gun.

George locked the now-flat-side-up plow sections into place. Instantly he felt a strong gusty hand shove his backside against the road. The skate-blades had already given them some downward push, but the spoiler was the extra added 'oomph' they needed. He cackled in triumph, leaned his weight forward for balance, and sped forward.

Junella held her breath as he approached the ninety line

...and zoomed right past, slick as butter.

"YEAH!!!" she hollered. "Dynamite job, Georgie!"

Getting all the way through the loop would still require incredible skill, but this was a very good start. "Your idea was brilliant, Madam Brox! I feel like I'm glued to the road!"

She lovingly thumped the glovebox. "Then go, go, go! Pour on that speed nice and slow and thick, like maple syrup!"

George snorted agreement. He chained his focus to the road then, letting it whisper in his ear exactly how much more force and velocity he needed to keep racing onward.

They passed one hundred degrees. Then one hundred and thirty. The blood was rushing to their heads now. Nothing but friction and momentum were holding them to the road. They were a fly walking across a ceiling. The sea of glass had become the sky. If George's wheels lost their grip for an instant, there would be a gut-churning instant of weightlessness, followed by the fall.

The catskulls were keeping pace effortlessly. Grinding their ivories. Clinging to the pavement like velcro. Getting hungrier and hungrier by the mile. Zeroing in on dinner.

Zinc had his feet hooked around the crank pedals, acutely aware of how much gravity wanted to snatch him off. He looked below at the seeming miles of empty air between him and the bottom of the loop. Inverted like this, it was hard to swing the gun around to look forward, but he managed. They were not far from zenith point. Now or never. "Ten!" he shouted.

Toby heard the countdown begin and felt his throat close up. His mouth upholstered itself in sandpaper. It seemed impossible he could speak one word into the detonator, much less two. Impossible!


Junella could feel sweat beading on her skin and sliding towards the ceiling. Her hands had an iron grip on the wheel. She could feel every tiny crack and bump in the road's surface, as if her feet and George's wheels were one and the same.


Piffle steeled herself, finger over the big red button. She had the turret pointed just right. Into the heart of the thousand-jawed nightmare. Their empty eyeholes were all pointed directly at her. 'Criminy, something about that makes my skin crawl!'


Toby envisioned himself choking at the final moment, unable to speak, unable to set off the bombs, dooming himself and everyone else. But he couldn't let that happen, no matter how much his cowardly core seemed to crave it. He searched his brain for a way to cancel his stage fright.


Doll was not having a good time. The belts were holding Toby in place, but she was loose and once again immobilized. She slid up the seats and onto the back window. There was nothing keeping her from the cat skulls but a thin pane of glass. She could see her burlap sack a foot away. So close, and yet infinitely out of reach due to her curse.


George reassured himself that even if they failed they were not necessarily doomed. He knew about the other addition to his chassis that Zinc had insisted upon. Junella did not trust the mechanism, else she would have engaged it earlier when she'd had a perfect chance. He guessed she felt better entrusting herself to her skills, rather than a machine. But it might save them if they fell. The only worry then would be the many-skulled nightmare falling upon them from above and devouring them in midair.


Practice. That was what Toby needed. Do it by reflex. He parted his lips and started mouthing the words, over and over and over, trying to keep his mind blank. If he could set his mouth to automatic, then all he'd have to do was breathe. 'Now please now please now please now please now please...'


Zinc kept his eyes latched to the road ahead, to the apex. But he could hear the deafening chatter of teeth behind him, clawing for his attention, daring him to look back. Were the skulls laughing at him?


Piffle buzzed her wings to keep herself in place. She was hovering upside down with her hand above the button. Tense as a racehorse waiting for the starting gun.




Piffle slammed her palm down. The turret let out a hiss of compressed air that shoved the spear out nearly as fast as a bullet. The deadly length sailed across the gap between the car and the cats. Their dead eyes turned towards the tiny toothpick, then their mass swallowed it whole. The skullball laughed unmistakably. Thousands of juddering jaws, teeth clacking together at the utter hilarity of these meat-beings. Thinking something so tiny could possibly pose a threat!

Toby's ears perked at the sound of the spear being launched. He counted 'now please now please now please.' His lips moved automatically. He breathed.

He spoke, clear as a bell: "Now please."

The skullsphere transformed into a thousand flaming calcium missiles.

The percussives' shockwave rippled the air and tore through bone as easily as newspaper. The nightmare legion's jaws were wrenched open in howls of surprise as the explosion shattered the collective. Their hivemind broke into a billion feral fragments, none able to register anything more than primal pain and fury.

Piffle was the only one looking backwards and thus the only one to take in the awesome sight: a fiery mass of bone falling from the road and plummeting towards, to her, the sky. It lost its shape as it fell, crumbling into smaller and smaller chunks. The spear had gutted it internally. The center could not hold.

Junella felt the blast reach out and shove the car. She felt the wheels slip. With no conscious thought, moving like flowing water, she eased the wheel and the gas pedal to compensate. She felt the Fearsleigher correct its speed, stabilize, and coast through the apex.

All of them felt it internally: the moment when their guts became weightless. They hung there an eternity, waiting to fall or sail through.

Junella held her breath. It took all the effort in the world not to reflexively hit the gas.

Toby felt a shudder of relief bolt through him when he felt the familiar tug of friction's reassertion. Junella had pulled them through. Blood was pooling in his head, and the seatbelts were digging into his skin, but all he could feel was amazement that they'd made it.

Then he felt small plastic fingers touch his shoulder. Y-O-U-D-I-D-I-T.

A smile broke over the mouse's face.

This second explosion had reawoken the freeway's rage. The loop began to tremble now. George felt it in his tires. The road was going to crack again. He looked all around, scanning for falling chunks of concrete, and wondered if it was even possible to dodge them while keeping their steady speed.

Zinc saw what was happening too. He started pumping his pedals. Readying the gun. If he saw even the tip of a tentacle, he'd blast it to kingdom come.

Junella watched the road preparing for a tantrum. The freeway's last ditch effort to punish those who caused it pain. She willed herself not to blink, not to think. She foresaw a coming crack and dared to ease the car gently to the left. 'Steady speed, steady speed... Past it. Good.' Now all she had to do was pull off that same impossible trick twenty more times until the road was finally flat again.

White lines shattered. Hunks of cement shook loose. Patches of red flesh and rebar started to burst through. Freeway blood began to slide and pool and drip through the cracks.

Zinc's eyes were built to stay open. He kept a hawk's watch on the blood. Waiting for movement. His wrenches trembled as they held the gun grips, ready at a millisecond's notice to squeeze.

'Ease left, ease left, ease left,' Junella told herself. 'Nice and slick. Wall off your fear. Yes, the road ahead is falling apart and you are on that road, but you are also Junella Fucking Brox, and you are going to get through this because, goddammit, you say so.'

Sometimes the most powerful thing in the world is remembering who you are.

The car slid like butter in a skillet along the road, past all its hurdles. Junella had chosen the loop's tippy-top to fire the spear for another reason: the scattering remains of the cat sphere would fall straight down, while the Fearsleigher's path was curved. It was simple math to see which one would reach the bottom first. Junella had foreseen this. She knew the skulls might still be dangerous if they landed en masse on top of the car, but maybe not if the skulls hit first and the Fearsleigher slammed right through. 'That'd be a fine time for George to get the nailplow back down,' she thought to herself.

The Fearsleigher was now almost perfectly horizontal. George looked up to see hundreds upon hundreds of cat heads raining down upon the freeway below. Most turned to powder upon impact, though plenty landed with inaudible crunches in the glass sea below. There was still going to be a snowdrift of shattered fragments for them to plow through at the bottom. Snow drift. Plow through. Oh, that gave him an idea! He waited to coast past the danger zone. Then as soon as he felt the car settle back into gravity's grip, he retracted the two halves of the nailplow, jammed them back together as best he could, and belched up a fireball to light them aflame.

A grin stretched across Junella's muzzle. 'I think I love you, Georgie.'

She was finally able to give the car some gas. They were past the worst three quarters of the loop and her guts were settling back into normal positions. Now that constant velocity was no longer a need, she could dodge the heaving chunks of road no sweat. She felt the heat from George's flames and they suited her mood nice and sweet.

Zinc was almost disappointed. The road ahead was churning itself into casserole, but wasn't spewing up any more tentacles for him to shoot at. Awww. Maybe the freeway was tired. Well, at least there was that minor mountain of wriggling skull chunks up ahead. Couldn't hurt to put some bullets into it.

George could see the pile of bone too. Moving. It was beginning to heal itself. "Madam Brox, do you think it would be advisable to go 'full steam ahead'?"

"Eat your heart out," she crooned. "Hell, I'll even let you take the wheel. You've earned it."

George felt control come back to his wheels and he skidded, but only for an instant. Then he was back in command. He flexed his steel and bone, reaffirming his love for this body. "Smashing!" he bellowed. Then chuckled at the inadvertent pun.

Zinc shouted down, "Go, George, go! I'll tenderize, you pulverize!"

"That sounds most agreeable, Sir Zinc!"


If the cat skulls thought their bad day was about to turn around, a blistering metal slap knocked that notion right out of their heads. Newly regrown skulls that had just pushed their way to the front of the pile were churned to splinters by Zinc's bullets.

And then here came a great big flaming nailplow.

To the sound of George's overjoyed cackles, the Fearsleigher bulldozed through. And for the second time that day, the sky rained skulls.

Barbecued bits of bone flew in every direction. The car juddered at the sheer heft of heads it had to punch out of its way, but they made it through easily. The Fearsleigher had become an unstoppable force, powered by the unbreakable will of its passengers.

All of them cheered their throats raw as they sailed through. Back on solid road again. With the offramp finally in sight.

Hundreds of skulls clattered onto the glass ocean below, sprinkling the landscape white. Some of the minor nightmares, the ones with a taste for marrow, descended and began a crunchy feast.


Next Chapter