Alex Reynard

The Library

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Chapter Fifty-Seven

Windows up. Doors locked. Everyone quiet.

Now that the clouds were behind them, everyone could see they way forward. It was not a pretty sight. Drifting mist still clung to the air, but through it could be glimpsed dozens more skyscraping rock towers, all interconnected via a spider's web of rope bridges. Each bridge looked ratty, narrow, and fully exposed to attacks from above. George made careful calculations before tiptoeing onto the first one, making absolutely certain the skate blades would have clearance and not shear the linchposts off.

Toby watched the bridge sway with the wind. It was so very easy to imagine it snapping under George's weight. And how much did George weigh? With five passengers inside him?

As if that wasn't enough of a worry, Toby became aware of something else. Bird droppings. Decades' worth. Greenish splats covered every inch of the pillars and bridges. Toby had never been more glad to be sealed behind glass. He could practically see the germs swimming around out there, just itching to crawl up the tires and march right into his mouth.

George's keen eyes scanned the horizon. He began to understand what Zinc had told him about how their choice of route didn't matter. From his current position there were several branching paths, but further away there were fewer and fewer. All routes converged to one point beyond his sight. A place Zinc had implied would be overbearing in temperature.

No one inside spoke a word. They were glued to the windows, unable to stop themselves from staring down. Even though Junella and Zinc had been through here before, it was impossible not to worry if today would be the day these old ropes finally gave up.

George was cautious in testing each bridge before setting tread upon them. He'd give the first few rungs a violent bounce with a front tire, feeling for any strain or looseness. Most seemed decently sturdy. He wouldn't have been confident tearing across them at top speed, but at a moderate pace he felt reassured enough. Though one time his test made the whole thing unravel in an instant. George watched the remains of the bridge swing down and away into the mist. Gone. 'Thank goodness there are four more to choose from.'

This was a shorter bridge, currently. Only twenty-three feet. Some of the ones he'd seen ahead connected far more impressive spans. The wind at this height was not inconsiderable, so he took his time crossing. He was very glad for his skate blades: they functioned like a tightrope walker's pole, keeping his center of gravity where it belonged. Relieved sighs came from his passengers whenever they felt solid rock beneath them.

Not for long though. This plateau was puny. Only two bridges led away from it. George picked the left one, tested it, then headed across.

Toby didn't want to stare outside and think about plummeting, but his brain was being morbidly curious. Dread turned to disgust when he got a closer look at what the bridge's ropes were made of.

He remembered his bathroom at home. The shower. The monstrous tangles of fur that his mother would pull from the drains when they clogged. And it didn't matter what color fur went in: the clogs always came out the same sludgy black.

That kind of brackish, begrimed hair was exactly what the ropes were woven from. Grimy, tainted hair, accessorized with wads of crud. Oh lord, he could feel that hair just by looking at it. His sadistic imagination pictured him being forced to walk across it in bare feet. Squishing with every step.

Toby physically grabbed his head and turned it away from the window. The revulsion had been hypnotic. He needed something to knock the imagined texture out of his mind. "Someone give me something else to think about so I don't get sick!"

Junella made a 'keep it down' gesture.

"Sorry!" he squeaked. "I just saw all that hair and..." He gagged.

Junella was sympathetic, but snickered anyway. She ran her hands along her smooth curves. "Thankfully, hair clogs are not something I have to worry about." She turned her head to Zinc. "...Unless HE gets in the shower before me," she said pointedly.

"Poor baby. Gotta deal with my shedding? Try the circus act of having to lather up using only your feet," he shot back.

Toby wondered about that for a second, then pictured the utter catastrophe of Zinc trying to maneuver his wrenches around inside a shower. There'd be broken tile and shampoo everywhere. That image distracted him from his disgust enough for a laugh to pop out.

Zinc was glad to see he'd lifted the mouse's mood. He reached below his seat and found a lever. The whole thing rotated ninety degrees so he could address the back seat more easily.

Junella blinked. "They can do that?" She started fiddling around under her seat and was rather delighted when she found the lever. She only wished Zinc had told her about this earlier. No more stiff neck!

Toby liked the swivel-seat idea too. If they'd had a little table, they could have set up a card game between them.

"We're not gonna make the ropes any stronger by worryin' at 'em, so let's pass the time with some shit-shooting. For starters..." he rubbed his neck, "sorry about my unprofessional conduct back there. I should've warned you two about the birds before I went runnin' off."

Piffle whisked her paw. "Water under the bridge. I forget stuff all the time." She remembered wanting to play with Doll's hair and now was a perfect time for it. She asked her plastic pal if it was allright and received an enthusiastic nod. Soon Doll was unbagged and immobile, but enjoying the feel of Piffle's fingers on her scalp.

Toby nodded. "I'm not mad either, Zinc. You've forgiven a lot of my screwups, and honestly, we just went through a horror highway and an airplane barrage. I can understand why you and Junella wanted to blow off steam. If this place didn't smell so bad, I'd be tempted to get out and stretch my legs too."

Zinc nodded appreciatively. "Allright, I just hadda get it off my chest. It was unbecoming of a bodyguard-slash-tour-guide-slash-mayhem-artisté such as myself."

Toby laughed. He was glad they all were talking now. It was a heck of a lot better than just staring out the windows and fending off acrophobia. Another topic came to mind. "Hey. Um. I was curious. When I go home, what do you guys think you'll do afterwards?"

Piffle's antennae poked up. "I hadn't thought of that."

"I have," said Zinc. He reached in his jacket pocket for a blackened rag and started buffing his wrenches with it. "The way I see it, assuming we get back down the mountain in one piece, we're gonna be hot shit supreme for having been there. Might even get on TV. It'll be good for business, that's for sure. I'm hopin' we can get enough imaginite pouring in, I can finally start work on my dream car."

"You've been talking about it long enough," Junella needled.

He laughed because she was right. "Everything I've built so far's been all about function. I wanna do something with form." He gestured like a woman's curves. "I want red paint, and so much chrome you could die. I want lines like ocean waves. Two big round 'hello sailor' headlights. Six axles! An engine that purrs like a cheetah! Huge fuckin'-"

A playful kick from Junella cut him off.

"Heh. Started workin' myself up a bit there."

"You don't dream big enough, partner." Junella leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms behind her head. She looked past the ceiling to imaginary clouds. "We've done a lot together, and we've built a lot. But you've never made me something that flies."

"I didn't know you wanted one," he said, sounding interested in the prospect.

"I dunno where the idea came from. It's recent. Maybe I dreamed it, but... I got this image in my head of the Jennie-Mae, remastered. What if we fixed her up new? Gave her some lift?"

Visions of a flying pirate ship floated through everyone's minds. They all had to admit it was a pretty damn cool idea.

"Spose it's possible..." Zinc muttered, already considering propulsion, aerodynamics and armaments. Once upon a time, their ship had sailed. Just a few feet of hover, but it was enough to get them place to place. Then an encounter with a wormhole and a raincloud had ended all that. He'd been meaning for the longest time to fix her back up, but there was always something else that needed his attention.

"Possible or not, it's fun to think about," Junella sang languidly. "Maybe we could get George to power it somehow."

From up front, George's trying-not-to-sound-too-excited voice responded, "You know I enjoy flying."

She liked that he was on board with the idea so quickly. It was pure fantasy, she knew. But if they were just throwing out wishes, why not? She glanced over at Piffle. "So then, shortcake, what about you?"

The hamsterfly replied straightaway, not even looking up from Doll's hair. "I'm gonna marry Zinc and settle down in a little cottage by the lake."

Zinc did not have any liquid in his mouth with which to do a spit-take, but he improvised.

Piffle put her paws over her mouth to keep her laugh quiet. "I'm just teasin'!"

"Whew! Nearly had a heart attack there. No offense intended, but I don't see myself as the ball-and-chain type." He blinked. "Plus, yeesh! Would our kids ever be ugleee!"

Piffle giggled again. "Actually, I was-"

The car came to a sudden stop.

Everyone looked up and around for danger. But George wasn't sounding an alarm, so they eased back into their seats and relaxed.

Piffle's gaze was still fixed out the window, just in case. "I forgot what I was gonna say..." She noticed her hand was still resting atop Doll's curly locks. "What about you then? Do you have any plans after we reach the mountain?"

Doll couldn't answer, since she was currently being seen. So Piffle placed the little writing pad in her hands and covered her up with the bag again. The car was quiet enough to hear the scratch of pencil on paper.

Finally, Doll poked Piffle and she felt a folded sheet pass into her palm.

"Izzit okay if I read it out loud?" Piffle asked.

Doll nodded.

"Okeydoke." Piffle inhaled and began to read with a smile, but that quickly evaporated as she heard what she was saying.

"I wAnT To Be A womAn AGAIn. I wANT To Be seeN. I wAnT To wALK oN NoRmAL LegS uP To THe man wHo LocKeD ME IN THIs BoDY & SpIT IN HIs fAcE. I wAnT To Be ALIve."

There were tears at the edges of Piffle's eyes when she finished. She leaned over Doll and cradled her gently, kissing the top of her head, unable to say another word.

Everyone felt a shift in their attitude towards their plastic companion.

It was easy to think of her as a prop, a toy, a mascot. But there was a truer word for what she was: handicapped. Though her current form was a miniature mix of cute and grotesque, none of them really had any idea what she was inside. She was like a quadriplegic. Unable to move without special equipment. Unable to speak. Her silence made her seem less real than everyone else.

Piffle felt sudden, intense guilt over treating Doll like a baby. Speaking to her in a cutesy tone, playing with her hair. As respectfully as she could, she lifted Doll from her lap and placed her at her side as an equal.

The burlap bag rustled. Soon another reply was pushed out.

"YOu meAnT nO DISReSPecT."

"I do care about you very much," Piffle said, nodding. "I'm sorry if I forget sometimes you're not really a doll. Maternal instincts, I guess. I can't wait until you're whole and real again and we can talk together and I can hear your voice. I'm sure it's pretty."

Doll reached out a burlap-covered hand to gently touch Piffle's thigh.

The hamsterfly smiled warmly and put her furred paw atop it. Then something moved in her peripheral vision.

She turned her head and froze.

Her voice was hoarse and quiet. "Oh Toby... you really don't wanna look out your window right now."

Zinc's attention had been on Doll. Now he looked to Piffle, then at the side window. He found it difficult to believe he hadn't seen the shadow crawling across the interior.

It was standing on the skate blade, listening to them.

The biteranodon had been hanging asleep below the rope bridge. Hours ago it had dived beneath the mist for a chance at consuming one of the rabbitlike constructs that roosted in the rocks. Now, with a full belly and too much cowardice to fly back up through the stinging fog, it had been waiting for more food to come along. Lo and behold, it had.

Everyone in the car did their best impressions of mannequins.

George was in a panic. Shame and dread overwhelmed him. He had stopped cold when he'd heard the rustle of greasy feathers beneath his wheels, then felt the odious thing's touch upon him as it walked up from underneath the bridge. There wasn't a single thing he could do to stop it. And how could he give any warning to his passengers? He contemplated taking over the gatling gun again to blast it to shreds, but a noise like that would bring down all the others. He was between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The only motion inside the Fearsleigher was four pairs of eyes looking back and forth amongst themselves.

Barely moving her mouth, Piffle said, very quietly, "Maybe it will go away."

But that was unlikely. It had heard their voices already. That meant the big wheely box had food in it. The sounds had stopped, but biteranodons are not quite so stupid as to think that an absence of sound means prey has vanished. The construct's head swung back and forth like a pendulum. It lifted one foot and scraped the talons across the window, listening for meatsounds of panic.

Toby did not make any, but holy hell did he want to. The nightmare's face was less than a foot away from his. The sunken, eyeless pits. Those tiny, yellowed teeth in agonizing detail. The biteranodon's rank breath began to fog the window. Toby watched its upper and lower mouths opening and closing like a double metronome.

Junella looked tired already. Her needles skimmed delicately across her grooves. "I actually thought we were gonna get all the way across this time without having to go through the goddam duck hunt routine."

"We've never made it this far," Zinc said through gritted teeth.

Junella exploded as quietly as possible, "IT'D BE NICE FOR ONCE."

Slowly, slowly, slowly, Toby was extending his hand. He was opening his palm. He was feeling his hammer inside, nestled between his radius and ulna, readying it to come out.

The bird's head passed back and forth with an unreadable expression. It tried to bite through the glass but gained no mouthful of meat. It took a step back, looking vexed.

Everyone hoped with all their heart this meant it was about to give up and fly away.

Actually, it had run out of patience.


It reared back and slammed its head through the window, scattering sparkling shards like raindrops.

Everyone screamed.

It was over so fast that, afterwards, Toby couldn't even describe what he'd done.

When the glass exploded, he was already itching to deploy his hammer. When the ghastly bird came ramming through like a linebacker, Toby's hand shot forward to block. Pure reflex. His palm touched its dome. There was a sound like a gunshot.

The biteranodon's head ceased to exist.

Toby shrieked and bounded over Piffle. Aerosolized bird meat now painted the car's interior. The nightmare's body went limp and physics took over. Without a brain to hold it up, gravity took hold of the stinking corpse and yanked it right out the window, past the blade, then down, down, down over the side of the bridge.

For a moment, everyone was dead quiet except for the piston-thumping of their hearts.

Junella's jaw was in her lap. "WHAT THE PISSING SHIT DID YOU JUST DO, TOBY!?"

Toby was unaware he was still crab-walking over Doll and Piffle's laps. He just wanted as much distance between himself and that gore-soaked broken window as possible. "I HAVE NO IDEA!!!"

With Toby's hand squashing her face, Piffle hiccuped and blurted rapidly, "After Anasarca I was gonna move my mom and me into a nice house in Coryza and maybe get a job as a nurse!!!"

Everyone looked at her.

Zinc blinked. "Well that's very nice but..." He looked up through the window and saw exactly what he expected to see. "...we got incoming."

The biteranodons above had definitely heard the hullabaloo below. The flock was coalescing into a swarm. Their circling sped up, tighter and tighter. They began to descend from the top of the sky like the emerging tail of a tornado.

Toby became aware he was squashing his two friends. He jumped off, looking frenzied and helpless. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Oh my God, I alerted the birds, didn't I!? I made them come! I'm so sor-"

Junella slapped him, lightly. She grabbed his chin with one hand and sang at him double-speed with the other. "Not your fault. Shit happens. Cry later, action now."

He sucked in a deep breath. "Thank you."

A curt nod. Then Junella swung her chair back into position so the others wouldn't see the micro-burst of frustrated rage that passed over her features. Sometimes you just wanna relax and drive, and fate sends nightmare birds up your ass. She strategized for a second, then whipped back around towards Zinc.

Before her needle could touch a groove, he anticipated her orders. "Me. Roof. Gun."

"Exactly," she sang with relief, glad he was so dependable.

Just as Zinc was stepping outside, Piffle sat straight up, electrified with purpose. "I'll help too!" she shouted, then whooshed out the door.

Junella had been about to hand her a weapon, and instead gawked after her in disbelief.

Zinc watched her zoom through the air towards the swarm. "Where the flyin' fuck are you flyin' to!?"

Piffle didn't hear him. The wind was already drumming in her ears and slicking her antennae back. Her wings blasted her towards the top of the sky, one fist held out in front of her, feeling an imaginary red cape flapping at her back. Her muzzle was set in a grim little smile. She was gonna teach these overgrown budgies it was impolite to scare her friends.

The swarm could not believe their luck. The smell of fresh meat was climbing right up to meet them! Beaks popped open, releasing screams of hunger. Biteranodons by nature are terrible hunters. On Earth their stupidity would have doomed them to extinction in a few generations, but Phobiopolis cultivated their desperation, keeping them on the brink of starvation to ensure berserker feeding frenzies.

Piffle knew none of this. She powered towards her enemy, fueled by the boundless will that had seen her through countless other perils. A sky full of gaping, serrated mouths bore down upon her, and she was unafraid.

When one bird was finally close enough, Piffle spun like a drill and punched it sideways, grunting with the impact. Then she turned to knock another out of the air. But more came. And the biting started. Piffle screamed.

Biteranodons can clamp down with one mouth and start chewing with the other. Piffle struggled, twisted, punched and kicked, but her overconfidence had sent her into a whirlpool of teeth as surely as flying headlong into a garbage disposal. She watched her beautiful jacket getting shredded to ribbons. She watched her blood trail through the air.

"Thiswasamistake, thiswasamistake, thiswasamistake!" she yelped. "I'm sorry I ate one of you! Leave me alone!!"

Two steel hands clamped down on two brass gun grips.

"Allright pidgies..." Zinc breathed, "...come and get your birdseed."


Bullets rained upwards into the swarm. The shadowed sky spat back clotted blood as a dozen birds burst. Earsplitting screeches of agony ripped out of the biteranodons as they fell. Piffle felt hope as she watched feathers fill the air. Not all let go of her, but at least one's head was bisected completely from its body.

Two steel balls shot out of Zinc's back, followed by several feet of heavy chain. Engines on his shoulders grunted to life. Before the doorknockers had time to fall, Zinc was whipping them around into a whirl. Twin cyclones on his arms.

He sure as shit wished Piffle had given him some advance warning, but at least she'd bought him a few seconds to get to the roof, get on the gun, and get into a killin' mood. His bared teeth flashed white lightning.


Meanwhile, Toby had been stuck motionless, trying to decide if he should hide or help. He noticed Junella was just about to join Zinc in some target shooting. He lunged for her, grabbing her arm. "What can I do!?"

He'd asked instead of darting off like Piffle. She liked that. Junella looked the mouse up and down, cross-referencing him with the supplies behind the backseat. She briefly pictured him trying to wield one of the army surplus rifles she'd bought, and that beggared belief. She spotted his hip pouch. "Had any practice with those yet?"

Toby patted the pouch, thinking about how dinky the knives and shurikens inside were. "Will they do anything against biteranodons?"

She clapped his shoulder. "They've got hollow bones and big ol' wings. How well can a kite fly with a rip in it?"

Good point. Toby nodded acceptance of his mission.

She nodded back, then leapt out onto the skate blade. Her white scarf fluttered behind her like a contrail. "Any of you beaked bastards shits on my head, I will personally return the favor!!" Her willpower filled both hands with revolvers. Fire and lead leapt from their mouths.

Gunfire deafened him. Toby turned and looked through the broken window, seeing the sky darken with even more incoming biteranodons. How many of them were there!? He flipped open his pouch and dug inside, trying not to prick his fingers.

A tug on his leg. He looked down to see Doll, re-bagged, asking wordlessly how she could help.

Toby tipped his muzzle towards the backseat. "Same as before I guess!" he shouted above the sound of screeches and shots. "Find me anything I can throw!"

She saluted and began searching.

Meanwhile, George realized that no one was listening to his apologies for letting that rotten bird get so close in the first place. They were all booming away like crazy. Which, he considered, was good. Better to take action than dwell on the past. That went for him too, so he fixed his sights forward, daring to increase their speed across the bridge as much as the swaying would allow.

He estimated they were halfway to their destination. The pyramid-shaped layout of bridges and pillars was narrowing towards its apex. Looking ahead, he could see that soon enough all routes would converge onto one last choice. From there the rock towers aligned in a row like stepping stones, leading to a place where the last bridge stretched across empty air into a flaming zero. A tear in the sky that spat bright sparks into this half of reality. George's nerves were on edge as he came to another bridge and tested its strength, trying to balance haste with thoroughness.

'I am officially insane,' Toby thought. The wind pelted his face and sucked the breath from his lungs. He stood in the doorway, trying to force himself to step out and join the battle.

'Stop being such a fraidy cat! You already did this before on the highway!'

'Yes, but now I'm miles off the ground, held up by nothing but old hair!'

'And before you were going at freeway speeds across concrete.'

Fine. He couldn't argue with that. He felt slippery metal beneath his sandals as he stepped onto the skate blade. He kept one hand glued to the door frame while re-thanking Zinc for the seatbelt winch. He looked up. Dread punched him in the stomach. There had to be millions of biteranodons up there. A tidal wave of oily flapping wings and trap jaws. All the bullets in the world couldn't hope to make a dent in their numbers!

'NO,' he thought, physically pinching himself. He looked again. Between Zinc and Junella's guns, a heck of a lot of them were already plunging limply towards the ground. Piffle was circling like a ceiling fan, keeping them distracted. 'This is not hopeless, and you are going to help your friends right now.'

Keeping his eyes skyward, his hand went to his pouch and he threw the first thing he touched. A miss. 'Doesn't matter. Try again.' He did. He plucked a silver star and let his arm uncurl towards the closest nightmare. He held his breath.

A miracle happened. The shuriken ripped right through its wing like cutting paper, and the biteranodon screamed. It tumbled and flapped desperately, but all it accomplished was smashing into another of its kind. Both fell out of the sky.

Toby's eyes were wide as headlights. 'I just did that. I actually just...'

A disbelieving grin came to his face and he started flinging metal as fast as he could fill his hand.

Piffle was a pink comet. She'd learned her lesson trying to take them on directly. Now she was doing her best to out-fly the stinky chickens, leading them on a back-and-forth figure eight around the car. Anything to keep their attention on her and away from the others. She winced at the pain from all of the bites, but kept on flying. Zinc's hail of bullets followed her like a horse and cart.

The canine followed her flightpath, amazed by her determination and her trust in his aim. He moved his bullets smoothly like a finger through the sky. Tracing after her, hoping a sudden turn wouldn't put her in his line of fire.

George thought about diesel trains and tanks. He kept the Fearsleigher inching forward, but having to hold back his speed was driving him insane. He was keenly aware of every last knot and fray in the ropes beneath his wheels, always searching for instability. A lone biteranodon got past the barrage and dove straight towards him. He welcomed the chance to vent his frustrations. Opening his mouth, he unleashed a furnace-blast at the unfortunate construct. It screamed from both mouths as it fell towards the canyon, wrapped in hellfire.

Junella did a beautiful little tuck-and-roll as the last bird she'd blasted was inconsiderate enough to fall straight down and smack into the spot she'd been standing in. She hit the side of the car, shoved off, and got back into position. She threw her guns away and was pulling the triggers on two new ones, all in one breath.

Toby watched with envy. He'd nicked a few so far, but nowhere near as many as Zinc and Junella. 'It's not a contest,' he reminded himself. 'Start feeling sorry for yourself and your aim'll screw up. Think of it this way: every one you kill is one less your friends have to deal with.' That did help. He didn't have to be the ultimate hero. This was a team effort. He reached back and felt something new slap into his hand. He glanced back. Doll had found some bigger knives for him. "Thanks!" He swung the blade to test the weight, then sent it sailing towards another bird. The biteranodon's chest opened up like unzipping a coat. Toby yelped in celebration, but then had to duck falling giblets.

All six of them were doing their part, but Zinc was racking up the most kills. Between his bullets and his shoulder-balls, he'd performed radical surgery on nearly sixty birds so far. He was absolutely drenched in gore. It tasted like engine lubricant and raw turkey. Not bad.

One particularly skilled biteranodon was able to accomplish a sideways swoop that carried it low across the battlefield, straight at the meat creature covered in metal. Its back was turned. Perfect target.

Zinc brayed in shock as its talons tore through his jacket and into his shoulders.

The pain made him see stars, but in a heartbeat his madman's grin returned. "Congratulations, shitbird. You win the idiot award."

Zinc retracted his doorknockers.

They were engineered by Dorster & Son to melt harmlessly through fur, flesh, and clothing. This did not include whatever happened to be in the way when this feature was triggered. So the biteranodon let out a very surprised shriek when Zinc became an egg slicer. Two heavy chains slashed laterally through its body, shearing its wings and spilling its guts.

Zinc cackled sadistically as the nightmare's screaming remains sloughed off like wet bags of tripe and toppled into the chasm below.


George could feel Zinc's latest kill add its blood to the veritable topcoat of birdsludge he was now wearing. 'I fear I will never be clean again,' he thought with disgust.

When her eyes weren't on the sky, Junella spared some glances towards Toby and realized the mouse actually had a decent arm on him. She decided to reward him. Ducking back through the door, she called out, "Doll! In the glovebox there's some round, white, egg-lookin' things! Get two and give 'em to Toby!"

Doll was surprised to be addressed like a normal furson. She saluted and skittered across the car.

Toby had overheard. "What are they?" he shouted.

"You'll see! Just give one a squeeze and throw it towards the biggest cluster of birds! And..." Her sentence was cut off when another biteranodon dived towards her. A bullet through its ribs made it reconsider. "...And be careful! They're expensive!!" She'd really wanted to save the little whizzers for a special occasion, but right now, getting their asses to safety was good enough.

Soon Doll had slipped two intricate ivory ovals into Toby's hand. 'Huh. Fancy.' They looked more like jewelry than weaponry, but he knew appearances were not to be trusted in Phobiopolis. He looked up towards the swarm, scanning. He squeezed one egg and pitched it high.

Then his heart caught in his throat as he realized Piffle was zipping right towards it. He tried to scream to warn her.

As it turned out, he didn't have to. She saw something that looked like a ping pong ball coming up to say howdy, and then she was blinded by fireworks.

Toby leapt back by reflex when the little ball unleashed a lightning storm. Sizzling blue arcs of electricity hit every biteranodon close by, then jumped from one to the next in a chain. The energy sought out nightmare flesh like a magnet. Toby saw the constructs' chests swell up like microwaved hot dogs. They screamed shrilly as smoke poured out of their burning bodies. Then they all started exploding. Also like microwaved hot dogs.

Piffle was right in the middle of the lightshow and felt the energy touch her, but it produced no more than a pleasant tickle. Whatever had just happened, souls were immune to its effects.

Toby clutched the Fearsleigher's frame in disbelief as he watched twenty-eight charred corpses come tumbling out of the sky like a hail of chicken nuggets. He reached down to tuck the remaining egg safely in his vest pocket. If these things could do that, he would not let his next throw go to waste!

"Fun toy, huh!?" Junella called out to him.

The mouse watched dead birds smack with splattering crunches into all the surrounding pillars. "Don't know if I'd call it fun. But effective? Holy shit, yes!"

It was a valiant fight from everyone. Piffle was rattled by the lightning but kept on directing the swarm's attention in her back-and-forth loop. Doll dashed back and forth like a short order cook, finding new things to fling. Toby continued riding his adrenaline, hurling sharp things skyward as soon as his pouch reloaded or Doll restocked him. Junella's guns were small but her nerves were ice and her aim was godly. George was the envy of any dragon with his flamethrower nose. And Zinc was simply a merciless natural disaster wrapped in fur and streaked with blood.

It was a valiant fight, but a doomed one.

No matter how many geese they cooked, reinforcements were always inbound. They dived without heed towards the blazing guns, driven mad by the possibility of fresh meat sliding down their throats. Death was merely a speed bump to them. The canyon floor was so far below, a few birds resurrected mid-fall. Some were so disoriented they met a second death on the hard ground below. Others managed to get their wings outstretched to shoot back upwards and rejoin the chaos.

The travelers' goal was not to depopulate the area, only to get away. The flaming portal was within George's sight, but he couldn't move any faster towards it. The bridge beneath him was already swaying too much for comfort.

"OUCH!" he roared.

Furiously offended, George looked below to see beaks and talons holding onto the underside of the bridge he was currently on. One individual had sunk its fangs into his right rear tire. He snarled the ugliest curse he could think of and blasted a flood of fire beneath him. "They are below us as well!!" he shouted to his comrades.

A second later, as the bridge caught fire, George was filled with regret.

They all smelled it. Few things in any universe smell worse than burning hair.

George watched the fire dance along the guideropes, spreading like luminous paint. He could feel the unraveling begin. He looked ahead to the next rock plateau. A perfectly timed surge from his wheels might just get them there before the bridge collapsed.

It was a microscopic fraction of a chance, but there was no reason not to try for it.

"HOLD ON!!!" George shouted.

He clamped his brakes down, then flooded energy into the drive shafts. Release. Friction. Speed.

George dared to laugh as he rocketed across the rope inferno.


'Well, that's the end of that,' he thought with a resigned sigh.


The strain from George's peelout had eradicated whatever structural strength the poor bridge had left. The Fearsleigher and all its passengers seemed to float in the burning air for a few moments before gravity's hand closed around them, pulling them straight down at a speed so fierce it nearly knocked them all unconscious.

Toby's stomach smashed against the top of his ribcage. He watched the second egg slip out of his pocket and hover before his eyes, weightless. All he could think was, 'Junella's gonna be mad if I lose that.' He reached out to snatch it and felt a wonderful moment of pride before the reality sank in that he was falling.

Piffle and Junella reacted quickest. Piffle because she was the most used to falling, Junella because she, in her infinite pessimism, had been expecting this all along. The skunk let her current pair of revolvers fall upwards (there were about sixteen of them scattered around her feet that were now dancing through the air like confetti) and used her tail as leverage to lunge towards the open passenger door. She grabbed for the doorframe and sunk her needles in. 'Sorry, George.'

Zinc screamed down, "Juney!! The blue button!!"

She wanted very much to scream back, 'I'm TRYING!', but her hands were occupied with keeping herself from sliding upwards out of the car into empty air.

Just as Toby was beginning to piece together the mystery of why his feet were starting to float away from the car, a bunch of funny black dots popped up all over his vision. Then his brain rolled over and tried to switch off.

Piffle saw Toby's eyes. Zero expression. She changed trajectory in less time than it takes to say so. She swung herself around in a curve to build momentum and tackled the drifting mouse. She did not know his seatbelt would have saved him anyway, she only knew her friend was in trouble.

They somersaulted together into the car. The jolt of hitting his head on the backseat clicked Toby's brain back on. Without conscious thought, he grabbed the fluffy cheeks of his rescuer and crashed his lips into hers.

Piffle sputtered for a few moments, then laughed out loud. "Gee whiz, Toby! That's gratitude!"

He laughed nervously. "I c-can't believe I did that..."

"But ya did," she said, and nuzzled noses with him. Piffle checked around the car for Doll. From inside the storage area, she got a burlap thumbs-up.

Meanwhile, Junella's mouth was forming all sorts of fiery swears her hands couldn't articulate. She clawed and kicked like a wildcat, trying to swim towards the dashboard, casting her eyes back and forth for that goddamn button. She hadn't wanted Zinc to install it. She'd ignored a perfect time to use it on the highway. But now she had no choice. 'Of course fate wouldn't cut me some slack on this.'

Amongst all the other dials and switches, she finally saw the little sapphire circle. She got a death grip on the steering wheel and used her other hand to call out to the others, "HOLD ON TIGHT TO WHATEVER YOU CAN!!! 3...2...1!!!"

Her finger flew like a javelin towards the blue button.

Piffle and Toby felt a double ker-chunk below them.

Toby remembered that sound. It was from when George and the Fearsleigher had merged. Specifically, from when the skate blades had raised up and locked into place. Toby looked past the door and saw that they had extended outwards a few feet and clicked into a mirrored diagonal alignment.

'Like helicopter blades,' he had just enough time to observe.

Then eight Gs picked him up and bashed him against the front seat hard enough to break his nose.

Piffle's wings folded like origami. The gear in the back flattened Doll. Junella watched as the steering wheel caught underneath her arm and bent it in about seven different ways it shouldn't have. Zinc's scream sounded like an unbroken forty-second yodel as the Fearsleigher turned into a buzzsaw below him.

This was the emergency failsafe he'd asked Andy to install. Zinc had purchased a Cyrus Tear especially for it: a substance so volatile you had to be either real smart or real stupid to work with. Zinc's plan was to make use of the flat, wide surface of the extended skates. If the car fell from a great height, it might be possible to spin them, generating enough lift to slow the descent and leave the car in a salvageable state when it touched down.

Of course, there is a reason why helicopters have tail rotors. The Fearsleigher had no tail rotor.

So for the next one hundred and thirteen seconds, the occupants of the Fearsleigher got to experience what it would feel like to be a wadded-up sock in a washing machine powered by jet fuel.

Piffle was only just starting to feel the stinging ache from her mangled wings when the sheer force of the spin pinned her to the ceiling, where her lungs collapsed and she blacked out.

Junella managed to drag herself into the cubbyhole beneath the driver's seat. The gas and brake pedals dug into her like blunt garden spades, but she could handle that. She watched her broken arm flop around like a sweater sleeve. 'If we get through this alive,' she thought, 'I might just walk back to EC, find Andy, and flay him.'

The gatling turret was positioned close to the center of the car, so Zinc was not whipped around so much as upwards. He felt his pants shoot down his legs and fly away. He shut his tin lids tight, trying to hold onto his eyeballs. His ears were long gone. At least his grip on the gun was secure. He'd screwed his wrenches down tight and locked them in place. Now all he had to worry about was whether he was going to be ripped straight off of his own arms.

Poor Toby. He wasn't getting the worst of it, but this sure wasn't Disneyland either. The G-forces felt like he was being squeezed through a printing press. And what could be worse? Seeing that both back doors were still hanging open. Only friction was keeping Piffle from falling out.

She'd saved him, so it was time to repay the favor.

He did not allow himself time to think. Adrenaline was for decision-making now, not reason. The centrifugal force was so intense, pulling himself away from the front seat felt like tearing off his skin with velcro. He realized his arm had been crushed beneath him and he'd broken three fingers. But he still managed to flop towards the unconscious hamsterfly and snare her ankles.

As he pulled her down towards the back storage compartment, two more hands aided him. He did not look back, just in case Doll was unbagged. They struggled Piffle into the little cubbyhole together and squeezed in beside her. Pain still danced along Toby's nerves like thorny lightning, but at least the gravity pressure was slightly less here.

He tilted his head. His neck sounded like Rice Krispies. He saw Doll: dress torn, head half-flattened. He weakly gave her a thumbs-up. Her bag had been swept away so she couldn't reply, but he held her close and waited out the spinning.

George had not regretted merging with the Fearsleigher until now. The world whirled around him, blurring into oranges and blues and greys. He barely knew up from down. But the spin was literally tearing him to pieces. He could feel parts loosening, rivets coming undone, seats shaking, axles shuddering. It was a completely new kind of unpleasantness. As if all his bones were being slowly carved apart in different directions.

But the worst part was that he could feel what was happening to his passengers. Their bodies slammed back and forth inside him. His body was harming them instead of protecting them. It was one thing to know they had been suffering in Amaurosis Fugax, but now he was experiencing it internally. Feeling the consequences of his failure.

George could feel his grille bayonets bending, a sensation like having his teeth pushed down his throat. He could not endure this much longer. He could feel the fluids slapping around inside of him that had once belonged to his poor passengers. This was intolerable. They did not deserve this. George could feel his door hinges tearing. He could not endure this much longer. It was not fair. They should not have to suffer this much. George's hood popped open and was bent immediately in half. He could not endure this much longer. This was not fair. George's skull shattered and bits of his eye sockets sprinkled across the frothing sky. THIS WAS NOT FAIR. HE COULD NOT ENDURE THIS.



The landing was a mercy. Not just because the terrible spinning finally stopped, but because it killed every one of them instantly. Their pain blessedly ceased, replaced by perfect numbness.

The impact sprinkled chunks of car and bits of bodies in a twenty foot radius. Toby, Doll and Piffle were accordioned into one another. Junella looked like a smashed inkpot. There was nothing left of Zinc atop the car but two wrenches with a ribcage dangling between them.

George was now bone again.

His death had reverted the transformation potion. The crash spat out his remaining fragments like watermelon seeds.

Dim flashes of awareness began twinkling through everyone's brains. Sensation returned to limbs. Hearts began to beat again. Lungs took in air.

Zinc's torso was somewhere half a mile down the road, but he resurrected around his wrenches nonetheless, laid out across his loyal, lovely gun. His hands were clamped down so hard, the gun grips looked like bubblegum. "Sorry girl," he coughed out. He looked down and was grateful to see that his pants had reappeared.

Toby heard groaning. He smelled blood. He felt tingling in his extremities. He put all of his functioning neurons to work trying to figure out how to open his eyes. Mission accomplished: a square hole was looking back at him. He and Doll had their arms wrapped protectively around one another.

"Thank you," he was able to say properly this time.

Doll could not respond yet, so he closed his eyes. Then he felt a gentle plastic hand touch his forehead. He nodded.

From beside them came Piffle's muffled voice, "That was the worst merry-go-round I've ever been on."

Junella peeled herself off the floor. She was lying in a slippery pool of her former self's inky innards. She reached up to pull herself loose, then slumped against the front seat and began chuckling soundlessly. Soon she was shaking with helpless sobs of laughter. After living through a hell like that, what else could one possibly do?

Beneath them, the Fearsleigher rumbled. Now that George had been ejected, it followed its programming and began lowering the skate blades to their normal position. Or at least it tried to. The car rose and fell like a fat man trying to stand up from a low seat. It tried to raise the nailplow too, but that had been sheared clean off its mounts.

Toby stretched. On all fours, he slowly eased himself backwards out of the crawlspace. Daylight trickled in through the open, leaning doors.

Junella reached up and dug her claws into the upholstery. Grunting from the strain, she hauled herself to her feet. She bonked her head against the ceiling and hissed. Then, just as she was about to ask how everyone was doing, a voice interrupted her.

It was like an earthquake creating words. Cannonade becoming language.


The ground actually shook from the sheer volume of George's protestation. Leaves rattled on the scrubby bushes around them. The sky echoed with his words long after he had stopped erupting them.

His throat hurt.

He stood there, once again a charred but illuminated skeleton, devoid of metal. And he smoldered with rage. He did not care who had heard him. It was his ultimatum to the universe in general.

All of Zinc's fur had been blown back. He pried his eyelids open just so he could stare properly. "Jesus wept, Georgie!"

The sound of another voice startled the stallion so much he nearly tripped over his hooves. "Sir Zinc! I... I apologize. I let my emotions overtake me."

The others were cautiously peeking out from inside the Fearsleigher, like soldiers unsure if the grenade lying in front of them was live or not.

George hung his head and nervously fidgeted. He was babbling now, in a much smaller voice, "That was undignified of me. I am sorry you had to hear that. It was a tantrum, plain and simple. When the spinning began, I could feel your bones break and your blood spill. Unspeakable heartache. Failure! Absolute failure! My reason is to protect you and I failed!"

'Good god, he's gonna have a nervous breakdown,' Junella thought as she sprang from the car and ran towards him. She hugged his leg. Holy shit, he was actually trembling!

Toby tucked Doll under his arm and jumped down too. Piffle joined him. Zinc tried his best, but couldn't get his wrench jaws unstuck from the semi-melted grips.

Junella squeezed. "Shut your sweet mouth, George," she lullabyed. "We all screw up sometimes. Don't let it tear you up."

"I... I..." George could not speak. For a moment there, he had felt his old self pounding with all four hooves against the inside of his brain, trying to come back. All the unthinking brutality and rage. It was the most awful feeling. Though still not as bad as feeling his friends suffering inside him. Nothing could be worse than that. George knew he must remember it forever. It would sting him like wasp's venom, but it would be a remembering pain. A pain he would do anything to never repeat.

And then he felt Sire Toby and Madam McPerricone hugging him as well. Even Madam Doll.

"I am grateful to all of you," he whispered.

A faraway sound tickled Zinc's newly-regrown ear. He looked around. His face fell. "Sorry to break up the party, guys... but we're standin' in a minefield."

Everyone had been so focused on George, they hadn't thought to check their surroundings.

The area they'd fallen into was typical of the canyon floor in Lumbago. The land was curved between the rock pillars, sloping up and down like a snowboarding half-pipe. Orange rock and orange sand, punctuated by sickly, tangled bushes. And the corpses of biteranodons were littered absolutely everywhere. Their flattened bodies were like a feathered carpet. The stink was incredible. Smaller nightmares were emerging from their dens, shaped like rabbits but with teeth and claws three times normal size. They stared in disbelief at this bounty from heaven, then began to feast lustfully on their former predators.

Retaining a wounded dignity, there stood the Fearsleigher. She'd gotten considerably uglier, but was still in one piece. The emergency failsafe had landed it without major structural damage (and had flung away most of the bird blood). The doors were lopsided, every last bit of glass was gone (again), some of the armor plating was curled, the paintjob was now more scratches than paint, George's harness was a crumpled squiggle, and the bayonets were bent nearly sideways. But it still stood. And the skate blades looked invulnerable as ever. Just not lowered. And without them in place, there was no way George could reintegrate with the car or hitch himself to it.

Nightmares resurrect slower than souls. Typically, the stupider they are, the slower it takes. And biteranodons are quite stupid. But now there were corpses littered all around the Fearsleigher, any one of which might spring back to life at any second.

They all realized their dilemma. Junella took charge as usual. "Allright! I gotta get these blades working or we're a buffet. The rest of you, grab whatever weaponry ain't broken and start bustin' skulls!" She swept her arm towards the car for Toby and Piffle to follow her.

George was still standing in the same spot. His pinprick eyes blazed like two microscopic suns. Low and cold, he said, '"You may not need any weapons at all, Madam Brox."

For a second she wasn't sure what he meant. Then she turned and saw him scraping the ground repeatedly with his foot. His whole body vibrated. He was coiling himself like a clockspring.

"New plan! Everyone still gets guns, but mostly we just stay the fuck outta George's way!"

"I like this new plan," George said. His voice sounded like a thundercloud trapped in his throat.

Junella climbed up the side of the car to bang on the roof. "Zinc, I want you to check the hood real quick; see how much of our supplies survived."

He grinned sheepishly. "No can do, Sarge." He tugged on his wrenches. "Stuck."

Her eyes bugged a bit at seeing the metal grips warped around her partner's hands. "Can it still fire?"

"The trigger's permanently pulled. So I think maybe as soon as I start pedaling..." He let her finish that thought.

"Well, shit, then just point it birdwards and keep doin' what you're doin'."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Piffle's cutely round rump filled the backseat as she and Doll poked around inside the storage space. Toby waited at the door to get a weapon, then realized, 'I'm already holding one.' He looked down at his palm. That faint glow was still emanating from it.

'What did I do to that biteranodon's head?' he finally asked himself.

He was still reeling a bit from everything that had happened in the last few minutes, but this was the clearest his mind had been since it started. Might as well make use of it.

He took himself back to the moment when the bird had broken in through the window. He let his muscle memory tell him the story.

And then suddenly it was obvious. Simply a matter of cause and effect.

He didn't stop to think. Otherwise his cowardice would have grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him back against the car. Toby hopped down and went running out into the open.

Junella had just mindfucked up a new pair of revolvers, then dropped them in disbelief when she saw her client seemingly going AWOL. "Get your ass back here! You crazy!?"

"I'm not running away!" he shouted over his shoulder. The dead birds were spread out across a wide area. He found one relatively isolated and stood facing its motionless double-beaked head.

"Sire Toby! Let me assist you!" George cried in alarm. "You will be injured!"

Toby gulped. Sweat ran down his ears and forehead. He felt his leg muscles twitching, felt the sand beneath his soles. "Only if I fail."

George cocked his head in disbelief. Then he realized that his master had not gone mad after all. He gave a whicker of encouragement and resumed his stance.

The six of them were sweaty, bloody, tired and quaking with anticipation. Junella wriggled herself beneath the car, toolbox in hand. Piffle found an army surplus rifle. Doll was stacking up boxes of bullets. Zinc's legs were tensed to begin pumping. George was doing small stretching exercises, feeling out his old body again and remembering why he liked it so much.

Toby was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. The air down here felt oversaturated with oxygen now, like he was getting drunk on the stuff. He glanced above. The swarm was still there, circling. Either afraid of the mist or confused at where their meal had gone. 'Good. At least we'll only have to worry about the ones on the ground.' Toby looked back down at the dead nightmare. It was sure taking its sweet time to resurrect.

Zinc spotted movement. A beaked head raised from the dust, casting about in confusion. Zinc soundlessly rotated his gun towards it. "Get ready, cats and kittens..."

A scaly leg twitched here. A wing fluttered there. One by one, the birds began to stir.

The travelers kept silent.

The biteranodons did not classify George as food. Like many constructs, they paid almost no attention to their peers of different breeds. But the scent of meat was on the air. Coming from a certain direction. Beaks began to swivel towards the blood-soaked car.

The nightmare at Toby's feet started uncurling. Toby felt his heartbeat slow to a pounding thrum in his ears. His skin felt like ice. Inside him was the same overwhelming fear as ever, but there was a core of energy keeping it at bay. He felt the hammer in his arm. Felt its weight. Felt his blood pulsing around it. Silently he knelt, spreading his fingers, reaching out his hand towards the beast.

Its mouths snapped open in a hiss. Its wing lashed out and knocked Toby backwards. He pinwheeled his arms to keep from falling on his ass. The biteranodon squawked and thrashed, trying to stand. Its head zeroed in on the tasty slender mouse standing in front of it. The bird could not fly yet, but it could leap.

Toby's mind snapped into slow motion hyper-awareness as the biteranodon lunged at him feet-first. He saw its broad, tattered wings dimming the sun. Its boil-covered chest. Its glistening double tongues. The steely black talons stretching towards his flesh...

Toby's arm came up, stiff as a beam. He did not try to duplicate his feat from before, he simply let it happen.

The nightmare's scales touched his palm.


That was the sound of the biteranodon's leg being launched straight through its body like a fucking harpoon.

Toby allowed himself the luxury of shrieking like a little girl as he leapt out of the way of the falling corpse.

What he had done was simple. Cause and effect. When the window had broken before, Toby had tried to launch his hammer into his waiting grip. But the biteranodon's skull had been in the way. So the hammer bounced off the skull, back towards his arm. But his arm was solely concerned with forcing it out. Alfonzo's design did not like that, so it pushed harder. The effect upon the nightmare's bone had been like an overclocked jackhammer.

Same with this one's leg. Its corpse hit the dirt with a wet crunch.

Hyperventilating and dizzy, Toby stared at the lumpy black pile of dead meat. His breathing turned into a gasp of high-pitched laughter. He'd actually done it! He'd discovered a new use for his hammer! A completely unexpected side effect! Wait till he told Dorster and Alfonzo about this! Could he do it again? Why not! He had a lethal piston inside of his arm now! He-


Toby was so startled he leapt about three feet straight up.

The bird that had been just about to make a meal out of Zinc was shredded straight down the middle by a machete of bullets. It fell in two loud splats on either side of the gun. Zinc's fangs gleamed. "Yup! She still works!" he crowed.

Toby scrambled to his feet and dusted off his shorts. "Stop being cooler than me! It's not fair!"

Zinc laughed his ass off. "You'll catch up!"

A twitch of movement caught George's eye. He interpreted Zinc's barrage as the signal to begin the festivities.

The reborn biteranodon never saw it coming. It had been dead, then it was alive again, waking up slowly, confused. It raised its head and spoke a questioning, 'cuk?' Then two hundred pounds of solid bone came crashing down, grinding its brains to powder, leaving no time for a single squawk.

"YOU DISGUST ME!" George bellowed. "NO THOUGHT, NO LOYALTY, NO HYGIENE!" He spotted another one just waking up, trying to prop itself up on its wings. "STAY ASLEEP, YOU CRAVEN GERM!" George introduced his hoof to the top of its head, which soon made acquaintance with its fifth and sixth spinal vertebrae.

The sounds of gunshots and hoofbeats turned the silent afternoon into a rainless thunderstorm. Zinc pummeled the sandy ground with bullets. Piffle fumbled with her rifle until she was hitting her targets more by intention than luck. Junella tinkered as fast as she could.

George's head was whipping back and forth like an electric mixer, hunting for more targets. He snorted, snarled and roared. The glow from his bones was brighter than a kerosene lamp. Flames from his mouth and nose crawled up along his skull and down the length of his spine, giving him a burning mane.

'I'm SO glad he's on our side!' Toby thought, heart racing with terror and awe. "George! I'll check over here!" he called out, waving his hammer.

The nightmare stallion twitched, startled. "Hmm? Oh! Yes! Fantastic idea! We shall work as a team!" He snorted in ardent approval. "Comrades! Brothers in arms!" He laughed heartily as he turned another stirring bird's cranium from convex to concave.

Toby grinned lopsidedly. George's enthusiasm was infectious. He actually felt sort of hopeful about his chances. He heard an 'Aaawk!' over his shoulder and whipped around. Here was a chance right now. This biteranodon had landed in a backbreaking slump with its legs curled up over its head. Now those legs began twitching. Its wings flapped and it struggled to right itself.

"No you don't!" Toby yelled. He held up his bracer to protect himself from the talons and rushed in to apply his new technique to its head.

The biteranodon kicked hard and sent Toby sprawling.

His vision spun for a second, but his bracer had kept the claw from plunging though his face, so that was something. Toby jumped to his feet. "Oh yeah!?" he spat, trying to sound tough. He aimed his arm and shot his hammer out with as much willpower as he could generate.

The hammer sailed like an arrow towards the birdthing's eyeless head and clanged against the bone. Instant broken neck. Then the hammer went flying off sideways about twelve feet.

"Oh shit!" Toby squealed and ran off after it. He made a mental note to not use his hammer as a projectile weapon again.

Thankfully it landed in the open dirt. A terrorbunny was nearby. It looked at the hammer, looked at Toby, then puffed up to quadruple its size, shrieking like a teakettle.

"I'm having a bad day!!!" Toby roared at it.

The little nightmare turned tail and ran off as fast as its claw-burdened feet could manage. As if to say, 'Okay! Sheesh! Sorry!'

Toby snatched up his hammer and reloaded it.

Meanwhile, black sweat was rolling down Junella's face as she fought to unjam the blade-lowering mechanism. The fact that it wouldn't stop juddering up and down was not helping her. She kept having to dart her fingers away lest they get pinched flat. Suddenly, two big ruby eyes slid in beside her. She was so startled she nearly hit herself in the face with her wrench. "WHAT!?" she snarled at Piffle.

The hamsterfly cringed. Shouting a bit over the gatling gun's eructations, she explained, "I shot a few, but I think the boys got the birds covered. I was wondering if I could be of assistance down here?"

Junella bared her fangs. "No, I do not need a co-mechanic! I-" Her sentence stopped as she thought about the bigger picture. They needed to get out of here. Piffle could fly. "Wait! No! Sorry! Look, we need to get back up to the bridges, right? There's a coil of As-Much-Rope-As-You-Need in the front. Get it, fly up, then loop it around the biggest, thickest bridge pole you can spot so we can pulley the car up."

The hamsterfly blanched. "I can't lift a whole big car by myself!"

"We'll help you. Now just-"

Piffle snapped her fingers. "Wait! I could do it myself if I was big! Do you still have the resizing thingamabob?"

Junella's eyes widened. A flash of her hand and she was holding it.

"Aces! Why didn't we think of this before!? Remember how it shrunk those people when we were trying to make the apartment building little? That oughtta work in reverse, right? So I'll fly off as far away as I can, then you look at me through the window and make me grow!"

Junella mirrored her grin. "I have no idea if that'll work, but hot damn it'd be cool if it does! Get going!"

"Right!" She turned to shuffle out from beneath the car, then turned back.

"What now?"

She smooched Junella on the cheek, then buzzed away.

The skunk rubbed her cheek and laughed. "Nutcase..."

Meanwhile, Zinc was still ejaculating hot lead into the anatomy of many, many nightmare birds. He was really in need of a shower. Sweat and giblets stained him head to toe. Aiming with the triggers stuck on auto-fire was tricky but not impossible. He soon got into a rhythm of pedaling fast for a wide spread and slow for more precise peppering. And he called out his thanks when he saw a pair of burlap-clad hands dutifully emptying out another basket of caltrops.

George was busy laughing maniacally, pouncing like a pogo stick, ensuring that any downed biteranodons stayed down. There was such savage pleasure to be had in an unfair fight. The little birdies woke up without a clue that a hurricane of bone was bearing down upon them. The crunch of skulls beneath George's hooves was like the touch of velvet. The sound of their startled shrieks, a harp solo.

Toby was glad that George was having so much fun. The stallion was taking care of 90% of the battlefield, leaving Toby the other 10. Of which he was doing a decent job keeping under control, he thought. He'd practiced his new hammer technique on five birds so far, and it was as effective as a shotgun blast each time. Well, almost. One time his hand slipped and he'd sheared a beak off when he'd been aiming for the brain. There was a brief panicked flurry, then a second shot sent it to sleep. But after that hiccup, he was staring to get the feel of it.

Another one! Toby's head turned towards where he'd seen movement, hammer at the ready. But this time it was only Piffle soaring past.

"Off on an errand! Be back soon!" She gave him a jaunty wave.

He smiled back at her, until serrated pain rocketed up his left ankle. Tiny little teeth were digging into him. Teeth that were made for gripping and restraining struggling prey.

Toby whirled around. Embarrassment overshadowed his hurt ankle. He'd been standing right in front of one of the dead ones. It had woken up when his back was turned and did what came naturally. Toby yelled angrily at it. The bird bit down harder. Toby twisted his waist around to get his hand in position.


His hammer shot out like a marble from a Gauss gun, resulting in one spectacularly exploded skull.

He looked down. After prying the bits of beak away, his leg looked like a scratching post. He took a careful step with it and the pain made his teeth clench. This was not good. He wasn't going to make any progress limping from bird to bird like this.

"Yo, Toby!"

He looked up. A small dark hornet was coming to say hello to him.

The bullet passed clean through his corpus callosum, like parting his hair.

A moment later his heart was racing and he was scrambling to his feet in a new body. He looked down: clean clothes and intact ankle. And another dead Toby a few feet away. "Eeugh."

"You're welcome!" Junella shouted.

Well, at least it had been painless. He waved back, then spotted another twitching biteranodon and scurried towards it.

Junella took a moment to marvel. This was actually the same mouse that, just a few days ago, had nearly had a coronary seeing Sander take Zinc's breath. Now she'd put a bullet through his dome and he'd gotten back up like it was no big whoop.

And it was lucky for him she'd noticed the bird's ambush. The skunk's gaze had been fixed on Piffle, and she'd only glanced his way by chance. She looked back to the diminishing pink dot in the distance, resizer in hand.

Piffle was streaking through the air like a fighter jet. Her safari outfit was not exactly aerodynamic, but her strong wings and stronger heart more than compensated. She headed towards the highest hill, a few hundred feet from the car. She wanted to be as visible as possible for Junella.

The skunk squinted. 'Thank goodness for that silly-ass getup,' she thought. Piffle's clothes were bright as a lighthouse bulb. Finally the hamsterfly settled down and saluted, ready to be enlarged.

Junella took a deep breath as she closed the resizing window as small as it could go. She poured her willpower into it. 'I'm sure you weren't designed for this, but do me this favor, would you please?' She held it up to her eye. Piffle's tiny bouncing image was right in the center.

Junella pulled the corners apart.

Piffle's image grew to fit the new dimensions of the little plastic window.

The skunk's face sprang into a grin.

Then, just as quickly, she was frowning again as she watched Piffle suddenly shoot up into the sky. Where the heck was she going? Sightseeing? Junella put a hand above her eyes to follow the hamsterfly's course towards the top of the stone pillars. It was hard to make out what happened next, but it looked like Piffle was cheerleading. Waving her arms around and dancing in midair.

"Your six!" Zinc shouted.

Junella turned. She'd had to stand in the open to see Piffle, and she hadn't been watching her back. The biteranodon had taken a few bullets but could still glide. It had slipped past Zinc and was soaring straight towards her. She put her arms up to block beaks and it knocked her to the dirt. They tumbled together into a clot of bushes.

The nightmare bird's wings were wrapped tight around the strange-smelling meat. The prey struggled hard, but it pinned the squirming thing in place with its feet and prepared to fill its belly.

Junella forced her forearm deeper into the bird's lower maw to keep it busy while her head dodged the upper one. If she could just get her hand to her hip...

The bird let out a strangled 'Aaaawk?' as it suddenly grew a unicorn horn.

Junella's cutlass was hilted in it. Straight through the chest, up the throat, and out the top of its head. Like threading a needle.

She wriggled her legs between herself and the corpse and kicked it off of her. Her sword slipped out of its head with a fantastically gory noise.

She got to her feet and kicked it in the face. "Rude piece of shit," she spat.

Toby ran up to her. "Nicely done."

She sneered down at the thing, offended that it had touched her. "I shoulda been paying attention."

He shrugged. "Hey, your arm's leaking pretty bad. Want me to, uh, do what you did for me a moment ago?" He felt weird about the offer even as he held up his palm.

His politeness got a laugh out of her. "Nah, it'll melt over soon. Thanks though." Then her ear twitched as she caught a high-droning buzz coming closer. Almost like a single-engine aircraft.

The skunk and mouse both looked up to see a gigantic shape soaring in from overhead, making a beeline for the largest group of biteranodons. A flash of gold made them shield their eyes.

When they looked again, their jaws dropped.

Piffle's fork had gotten enlarged as well.

The biteranodons scattered into the air as the loudest buzzing of wings they'd ever heard scrambled their radar. Something unfathomably huge was descending upon them.

"CHOO CHOO!!!" said Pifflezilla.

The resizing window had done its job splendidly. Piffle was nearly forty feet tall, not counting her antennae. Her golden fork now weighed at least a ton, and she herself was about the same mass as a two-bedroom tract home. A fluffy pink airborne juggernaut.

She had her fork held out in front of her lengthwise, like a battering ram. Uncountable greasy black wings snapped as she tore through.

Zinc stopped pedaling and his gun went silent. "Someone make me some popcorn, 'cause this is gonna be a helluva show..."

The swarm scattered. Those that hadn't been demolished by Piffle's extraordinary entrance were blown away by the tornado-force wind from her wings. They cawed in panic. Not once had they ever faced anything like this. Piffle's grin was enormous. The deluxe-sized hamsterfly angled her wings and did a sudden flip around the axis of her fork, like a gymnast swinging around the parallel bars. She plummeted towards the ground feet-first, landing like an atom bomb and crushing several constructs to jelly.

Junella had the forethought to grab Toby and duck him under the car beside her. Piffle's boots sent a shockwave of sand racing across the canyon. Junella felt it rattle shards from her tail as it passed. Zinc was blown horizontal like a windsock.

While half their number had fled, several of the remaining biteranodons regrouped for another assault. Even with their nostrils perpetually clogged with their own filth, they could certainly smell thousands of pounds of hamster meat. A feast to feed the entire colony!

Piffle shot back into the air like a V2 rocket. "You guys'd better clear outta here if you know what's good for you!" she growled. But biteranodons have very little sense of self-preservation, so one of them dived straight for her face. A colossus punch sent it whizzing across the canyon to crunch against a rock pillar. The others seemed to take this as a signal to attack. Dozens swarmed at once.

Piffle knew, there was a time to keep up a sunny disposition and a time to get mad. These overgrown mosquitoes had put her and her friends through an afternoon of misery and had utterly routed her before. But that was when she was little. Now she outnumbered them all by herself. Tiny beaks bit her everywhere, but barely hurt. Their talons only felt like thumbtacks. She reached behind to one on her shoulder and pinched it flat between her fingers."Bad bird!"

Toby winced hard. "Oh yuck!"

Piffle swung, punched, kicked, and karate chopped. Turning on every axis in midair. Her wings spun her around like a whizzing top while she sang the Popeye theme. The tiny, fragile bodies barely registered as she pulverized them.

George had stars in his eyes. "I dearly wish I had wings again. How I'd love to join her!"

Corpse after corpse smashed against the ground. The terrorbunnies were having a carnival amongst the remains.

The nightmare birds attacked with all their ferocity but were hopelessly outclassed. Those that flew too close to her fists and boots got a free chiropractic rearrangement. Those that flew too close to her wings got blasted out of the sky by the downdrafts. Only one of them managed to make Piffle cry out in pain: it landed on her head and chomped down on her left antenna.

"NOW YOU'VE DONE IT!!" she boomed. She reached up and grabbed the little pest in both hands. It squawked and thrashed helplessly. The soft cushiony paws that had once brushed Doll's hair were now pneumatic compactors made of iron. As the others watched from below, she pulled in opposite directions and ripped the ugly little nuisance clean in half.

Junella, Toby and George were all hiding under the car at this point, since outside it was raining dead birds like the world's ugliest hailstorm. When the top and bottom chunks of that last unfortunate individual splatted against the dirt, they all flinched.

Toby could not tear his eyes away, but his shoulder nudged Junella's. "Aren't you glad she tagged along with us?"

The skunk mutely nodded.

"Give 'em hell, Piff!!" Zinc cheered. He jumped up and down, stomping the roof and whistling. "Go, cat, go!"

The canyon towers were speckled up and down with bird blood. Piffle's safari outfit was riddled with tiny teethmarks and sticky black feathers. And still the biteranodons would not retreat. Piffle snatched two of them out of the air and rammed their heads together with a sickening sploosh.

Piffle was a little bit frightened of herself at the moment. She was being awfully cruel to these little things. After all, they couldn't help being what they were. But then she thought of them attacking Toby, swooping at Zinc, getting poor George so mad he burned up the bridge by accident. Sympathy went out the window. "You shoulda left my friends alone!" she bellowed. She reached out to swat one of the buggers, then managed to catch another on her backswing, crumpling it like a candy wrapper. A backflip sent a well-timed karate kick at yet another, pinning it to one of the rock towers in a crimson stain.

Her love for her friends poured fuel onto her fire. Piffle geared herself up for a final blitz to wipe out the last of the nasties. But then, her antennae twitched at a distant sound.

The others heard it too. Or rather, they felt it.

thoom... thoom... thoom...

The vibration rattled up through the sandy ground. Something was coming. Something humongous.

Toby looked up to see chunks of rock raining down from the spires. He pressed his palms to the ground and could feel the rhythmic thumps travel up his arms. His heart turned to ice. There was something horribly familiar about this.

thoom... thoom... thoom...

Zinc looked all around. The echoes were ricocheting off the pillars, making it difficult to pinpoint their source. He swiveled the gatling gun back and forth, wondering if this was something he'd have to shoot. Wondering if shooting would make any difference.

The terrorbunnies all wisely darted for the safety of their burrows.

Thoom... Thoom... Thoom...

The biteranodons were in a tizzy. Those that had survived the onslaught of the titanic furry conqueror were flapping around in flustered circles. Their ears told them just how big and heavy this advancing unknown was. Two enormous beings in one day was simply too much to cope with. Two of them bashed into each other by accident and were soon joining the piles of Piffle's body count below.


Toby's heart quickened. The footsteps now shook the ground hard enough to rattle his teeth. Whatever impending nightmare was drawing near, it would dwarf Piffle.

Then he saw it. A foot emerged from behind a far pillar. Red as blood.

Toby felt ice crystals encrusting his whole body. His breath caught in his throat.


Had it followed him?

It turned the corner and squeezed itself through the gaps between the rock towers, its blocky shoulders scraping rubble away wherever it couldn't quite fit. One of the towers began to lean. Then came an ear-puncturing thundercrack as the mile-high pillar snapped at its base. It shattered from the strain of falling. Thousands of tons of rock spilled down from the sky. Then the whole world shuddered as the mountainous chunks impacted. A tsunami of dust raced across the canyon, sandblasting everything in its way. Boulders spun through the air like water drops. The shockwave sent the Fearsleigher hopping several feet straight up, and when it came down it bisected Junella neatly. She was barely aware of it as she reformed, still gawking agog at the mind-scrambling sight before her.

The creature emerged from the dust cloud without any indication that it noticed or cared about what it had just caused. Its pace never changed. Where before it sounded like it was charging, it was actually just taking its time. Strolling. Perfectly unconcerned with the cataclysms that followed wherever it walked.

The rustbeast.


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