In which Dodger meets the Duke of Thunder
Dian Wu furrowed her brow at Dodger, then glanced down the length of her own body. Dodger was able to see enough of the lower half of the demon to realize that the three barrels set to wide open had torn the thing clean in half. Well, not clean, exactly. There was a whole lot of blackened blood and some kind of frothing green goop. Her lower body slumped to the rooftop in a wet slop. The upper half of the demoness fell forward as she released the last of her reserved powers straight into Dodger. Thankfully, while his right hand gripped the still-smoking Hortense, his left clutched the metal rod of the LAD system behind him. Every muscle in his body contracted and seized as her power passed through him and into the rod. Where Feng had taken a full-on lightning strike, Dodger’s dose was more like licking the prongs of the Rhino’s battery. A kick in the ass as opposed to a total ass-kicking
While he shook off the momentarily paralyzing effects of the zap, the upper body of the demoness slid down him, and both halves rolled off the side of the Sleipnir and away into the darkness beyond.
Three down, one to go. Or was there? The storm had faded at her death, with nothing left but the occasional roll of thunder. Perhaps the Duke was no longer with the gang? Or maybe the demon witnessed the demise of his woman and turned tail. Either way, Dodger had more important things to worry about at the moment. Once he was certain Dian Wu was gone, Dodger released his hold on the LAD rod and carefully made his way across the roof to Feng. He crouched over the Celestial’s prone form, expecting the worst but praying for something better.
“Feng?” he asked. “You still with me?”
Dodger rolled the unconscious man over. He touched Feng’s neck and waited, pleased to feel a weak pulse.
“Let’s get you back inside,” Dodger said.
No, someone else said in a booming mind voice.
Dodger looked up, and, much to his regret, there stood a monster of a demon. The thing was an easy seven and a half feet tall, and almost as big around. His skin was as black as pitch, matching his black breeches and shoes. The thing was bare from the waist up, his dark chest rigid with well-toned muscles. He all but seethed with pent-up rage in the now-gentle patter of rain; nostrils flared, fists balled, lips snarling.
Lei Gong, I presume? Dodger asked.
Lei Gong eyed Dodger warily. You underspeak?
Underspeak? Was that the word for what they’d been up to? Dodger nodded, rather than let on that he had no idea what he was doing.
Strange, Lei Gong said. You are not a conscious user of magic, yet I sense much power in you. I sense death too. The demon took in a deep breath through his nose, sniffing the air, then wrinkled his nose as if he smelled something awful. You are marked.
Yes, Dodger said. So you might want to think twice about messing with me.
I fear no one. The demon took another sniff. Not even the blood fiends.
Ah. That explained part of it. Marked, indeed. Dodger was going to have to make a quick jaunt back to the Desert Rose and hold a little palaver with Miss Rebecca when this was all over.
Dodger nodded to the demoness a few feet away. Your lady friend said something similar before she fell.
Lei Gong glanced to her unmoving form, then let out a laugh. The sky rumbled with his sudden humor. You defeated Dian Wu? I am impressed.
I aim to please. Would you like a taste of what she got? Or will you move along peacefully?
I do not think so. The thunder demon cracked his knuckles, each snapping with a resounding crack that filled the space between them. I am destined to have the soul of Xiao Chen. It was promised to me.
The words of another man leaped to Dodger’s mind before he had a chance to formulate his own retort. Destiny waits alike for the free man as well as for him enslaved by another’s might.
And what do you mean by that strange phrase?
Dodger grabbed the rod beside him for support as he drew Florence, leveling the gun at the huge beast. It means my friend stays with me. As does his soul.
You will fight me, for both?
I suppose I will.
Then make this worth my time, little one.
The same moment Dodger squeezed the trigger, the thunder demon brought his hands together in a single strong clap. A sonic boom emanated from his joined hands, moving in a distortion so warped that Dodger could actually see it traveling through the air, jolting the bullets from their intended path and tossing them away like so much tissue paper thrown into a hurricane. The distortion continued across the rooftop, shoving Dodger onto his back and away from Feng’s fallen form. Dodger rolled to his belly and scrambled to Feng’s side once more. He resisted the urge to fire again, instead shoving Florence back into her holster as he got to his feet and readied himself for hand to hand with the gargantuan demon.
You are joking, Lei Gong said. You expect to fight me with just your fists?
I never kid when brawling, Dodger said. Put ‘em up and fight me like a man.
This brought another bout of laughter from the demon. Just under his thundering laugh, Dodger thought he heard a voice he recognized.
Get him to rush you, Boon said.
Dodger tipped his head to the spirit’s voice. Where have you been all this time?
Everywhere, Lei Gong said.
You can’t underspeak to me alone, Boon said.
Dodger rolled his eyes. How was he supposed to know stuff like that?
Every corner of the globe, the demon continued. So many years. So many miles. Somehow, he always eluded me. But not tonight. Tonight, he is mine.
Underspeak is different from how I touch your mind, Boon said. That’s why he can’t hear me. But forget all of that; just get him to attack you.
“I don’t think I’m gonna have a choice,” Dodger muttered. He raised his fists at the demon. Come on, then. Let’s get this over with.
Lei Gong clapped again, sending forth another sonic wave, knocking Dodger flat on his rump. Dodger groaned as he drew himself to his full height and raised his fists once more.
Is that the best you have, little one? Lei Gong asked with a chuckle.
Not quite, Dodger said, swaying with the momentum of the moving train. He held out his hands and flicked his fingertips, beckoning the demon forward. Come on, and I’ll show you what I got.
You care so much for him?
Dodger huffed. I ain’t paid to care. I am paid to kick your ass from here to the Mason-Dixon Line. Now are you going to get your ugly rump over here so I can beat it raw, or are you going to stand over there and clap at me all night?
The demon growled. You invite death with your careless words.
Good, because for a minute there, I thought I was inviting a coward.
Again, Dodger’s sass talk was enough to motivate a demon into motion. But whereas Dian Wu was all fire and rage, the Duke of Thunder sure took his time. The demon sauntered across the rooftop as he raised his hands for another sonic attack. Dodger was a little more prepared this time, dropping to a crouch so the wave couldn’t knock him off of his feet. Still, the rush was enough to push him away, shoving Dodger across the wet rooftop with ease. Again and again, the waves pushed him farther and farther across the roof, as well as shoving the fallen body of his comrade. Dodger felt his feet meet the lip of the umbilical behind him. There, he dug the toes of his shoes deep into the folds of the section and waited for the next sonic wave to wash over him, struggling to catch a breath against the crushing pressure of the blasts.
Lei Gong laughed aloud as he made to clap again, but before he could, the hatch next to Dodger was flung wide, and the doc poked his head out.
“I say, old chap!” he shouted at Lei Gong. “Do you have the time?”
The demon hesitated, confused by either the silly question or the appearance of the professor. “What are you-” was all the demon could say aloud before the hatch at the other end opened.
Mr. Torque popped up from the mouth of the far hatch, armed with a strange oversized gun. It looked an awful lot like the harpoon guns used by the whalers in the Northern seas, though it had been some time since Dodger had seen such a thing. For once, Mr. Torque didn’t say a word; he just fired the weapon. The gun discharged neither a harpoon nor any type of sharpened projectile.
Instead, it launched a wide net.
Lei Gong clapped in reaction, unleashing a sonic boom to push the net away. The netting merely fluttered as the sonic attack whipped through its generous gaps. The wave slowed the net a bit, but in the end, the thing reached its intended target, falling like a death shroud over the demon. Lei Gong screamed in rage and began to tear at the netting. Trapping the beast in the thing was a nice idea, but it wouldn’t last long. And then again, maybe all they needed was long enough for Dodger to load it full of lead—or rather, silver. He’d just reached both hands to his belt, to bring the girls out to play, when the doc called out.
“Dodger!” the doc yelled as he climbed halfway out of the hatch. “Slide Feng to me and help me get him inside!”
“I need to deal with Lei Gong!” Dodger cried.
“No need! This fight isn’t yours anymore!”
Dodger wasn’t sure what the doc meant by that, until he heard a low growl on the wind. He looked back over his shoulder to see a dark figure on all fours, running, leaping, racing from the roof of the engine car, across the cargo cab, and toward the thunder demon.
It took Dodger a moment to recognize it as a wolf.
An enormous silver-haired wolf of the female persuasion.
Even in the low light of the rooftop, Dodger was enchanted with the animal. It was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid his weary eyes upon. And it wasn’t just because he knew the soul under the pelt. The wolf was just as beautiful as the woman he knew her to be.
The restrained demon didn’t get much of a chance to react before she fell upon him. All at once, the air was alive with fur and fang and wind and rain. The storm returned in spades at Lei Gong’s pain and rage, the sky crackling with lightning and rumbling with thunder, illuminating the thrashing pair with brief flashes. Yet Dodger didn’t have to watch the fight to know what was happening; he could hear well enough. Without the ability to bring his hands together, the thunder demon was at a loss. The wolf snarled as it ripped chunks out of the demon’s hide. Against any other opponent, Lei Gong might have been able to fight back with just brute strength, regardless of his bindings. But a werewolf was more than a challenge for the net-bound demon.
Dodger couldn’t look away. He was in awe.
“Dodger!” the doc shouted.
Feng is fading, Boon said.
“Help me get him inside before it’s too late!” the doc shouted just under Boon’s thoughts.
Spurred into action by their words, Dodger grabbed the Celestial’s shoulders and dragged the man toward the waiting professor. As quickly but carefully as they could, the pair of men lowered the unconscious elder into the cab below. Part of Dodger wanted to stay on the roof and watch the ongoing fight, but the rest of him knew it was best to give the lady some privacy to do what needed to be done. The beast was something she didn’t want anyone to know about. Much less did she want folks to stand around and gawk at her.
Dodger forced himself down the hatch, slamming the door closed behind him.
The meeting cab filled with the echoes of pounding and scratching, shouting and growling, shrieking and thumping as the demon and the wolf continued their battle on the rooftop of the train.
“Careful,” the doc said as they carried Feng to one of the couches. The doc’s medical bag stood open on the desk, with a plethora of tubes and vials awaiting his need. “Raise his feet and prop them on the pillow. Loosen his robes. Hurry!”
While the doc turned his attention to the selection of medicines, Dodger did as asked and tried to unbind the complex knot at Feng’s waist. It had been years since he’d tied a kimono, and never one with such a ceremonial closure. Dodger glanced around a moment until his eyes landed on the doc’s desk and the letter opener sitting atop it. He snatched up the knife and slashed away the binding. The man’s robes fell open to a clean white undershirt and a pair of silky purple shorts covered in hot-pink polka dots. Dodger let out an uncontrollable snort before he realized he was giggling.
“Stop sniggering and get him out of that shirt,” the doc said, filling the injection gun with a tube of fluid. “I need to get to his chest.”
Without warning, the battle on the rooftop went quiet.
For a few heartbeats, neither the doc nor Dodger spoke. They raised their gazes to the roof and held their collective breath. Slowly, into the cab there seeped a faint bloodcurdling howl. Dodger shuddered at the primal sound of it. The victor shouting to the world that she had defeated her enemy.
And God have mercy on anyone else who thought himself worthy enough to challenge her.