In which Dodger learns a surprising bit about himself
As Dodger cowered on the roof of the train, he heard a woman say, It is good to see you, Xiao Chen.
Dian, Feng said. You’re looking lovely, as always.
I’ve missed you.
How could you not?
I see. Are we still an arrogant bastard?
I don’t know. Are we still a conniving bitch?
Dodger lifted his head and the darkened SPECS, risking a peek as curiosity overpowered his sense of danger.
The older man remained at his place, standing proudly over the defeated twins, and a woman stood not two feet from him, almost close enough for Feng to reach out and strike her. Dodger could see why the man didn’t hit her, though. She was an exquisite beauty, her svelte form cinched in a skin-tight corset, her exotic Asian features painted to mimic those of a fragile doll, and her long dark hair flowing free in the wind.
She was also considerably taller than the man, towering over Feng to a height of what had to be an easy six foot six.
How is the old man treating you these days? Feng asked.
Same as always, Dian Wu said. The woman slunk closer to Feng, slipping behind him as she ran a hand along his shoulders and then up to his tightly bound hair. Cruel. Terrible. Horrid.
In other words, just the way you like.
Exactly. She pulled at his hair clip, unbinding his topknot and allowing the cascade of white to tumble over his shoulders.
His hair fanned out, caught up in the wild breeze, whipping about his face in ashen tentacles.
I always liked you better with your hair down, she said. Gave me something to hang on to.
Feng grinned at some distant memory as he wrapped an arm about her waist and yanked her closer to him. Likewise.
Was it Dodger’s imagination, or was he cowering against the roof of the Sleipnir, listening to a seemingly ageless magician flirt with a female demonic assassin that was sent to kill the man? Yes, he supposed he was. He had seen stranger things here as of late, but this was definitely making the top ten of his list.
Dian gave a sultry purr that was just barely audible over the wind. We were always good together, Xiao Chen.
We were never good, Feng said, his smile widening. We were terrible.
Agreed. She pushed her breasts into his face. And we could be terrible again.
I don’t think so. Feng frowned as he shrugged her off. That ship sailed a long time ago. I am not that man anymore.
Pity. That man was the best you ever were. Or will be. Dian moved away from Feng to eye the fallen demons at her feet. I see you overpowered my dimwitted sons. Again.
Feng chuckled. To quote a man wiser than we, it was almost easy.
Yes. Even easier than last time.
Ah, yes, last time. The demoness gave a short laugh out loud as she kicked the bodies of her own demon sons over the side of the train. Remind me again, how did you escape us last time?
It was like flipping a switch, or turning a valve, or any number of other clichés concerning how quickly a man’s mood could change. Any humor that was on Feng evaporated at her question. He lost his easy smile and fell into a stony silence.
Now, now, she said with a mock pout. Did I open an old wound? I am sorry. The demoness laughed louder this time.
Again, Feng said nothing. He kept his eyes on the distance, as if trying to shut her out.
Such a shame she had to die, Dian Wu said. And all for naught. What was her dying wish? That you should be free from us? She died so you could escape us, yet here we are again. Seems a waste now, doesn’t it?
A sudden and powerful rage came over Feng. Dodger could see it in the way the man snarled. The way he flared his nostrils. The way he balled his trembling fists.
Where is your true love now, Xiao Chen? Dian Wu asked. She reached out to stroke his hair, caressing his long locks from root to end as she asked, Where is your willing virginal sacrifice? Where is your wilting lotus flower?
Feng snapped his hand around her wrist, bringing her groping affections to a halt. He snarled, aloud, “You don’t get to call her that.”
And who will stop me? You? Dian Wu laughed a third time, the sky lighting with her humor. I can feel how weak you are, Xiao Chen. You exhausted yourself on my sons. Just like last time. But how will you escape me now? She turned on Feng, snatching him up by the collar of his silken robes and lifting him a good six inches from the roof. Who is willing to provide a diversion for you this time so you can run and hide like the coward you truly are?
While the two held their little powwow, Dodger got to his unsteady feet and trained his gun on the demoness as best he could. I reckon I will.
Dian Wu whipped about in place, and by all that was holy, the thing sure did seem surprised to see him. Who are you? Where did you come from?
What are you talking about? Feng asked. Dodger has been there the whole time. The Celestial gave a gasp of mock surprise. Oh, that’s right. You couldn’t see him until he announced himself. Feng paused to shoot Dodger a dirty look, and said aloud, “Which he wasn’t supposed to do until I needed him.”
“From her sass talk,” Dodger shouted over the wind, “it sure sounded like you needed me.”
“Nonsense. I have it under control.”
Dodger waved his gun at the demoness’s hold on the Celestial. “Yeah, I can see you have everything in hand.”
What is this? Dian asked over their argument. She gave Feng a shake, and he flopped like a rag doll in her angry grip. What is going on here?
Can’t you tell? Feng asked. Can’t you guess? You always seem to know everything. You tell me what’s going on here.
Dian brought Feng closer to her, staring square into his face. Tell me, or I will snap both of your necks right now.
Oh I doubt you will do that, because he is marked.
The demoness almost lost her grip on Feng. Marked?
Marked? That was the first Dodger had heard about such a thing. It took everything he had not to repeat the word aloud in his own mind. He had no idea what all of that was about, but from the way the demoness reacted to the word, he thought it might be best to flaunt his sudden special status.
She looked again to Dodger with a snarl of disgust. You brought one of them into this? That isn’t very fair.
And since when did you ever care about being fair? When you traded my heart to that bastard or when you took my Lien from me?
Whoa now. There was a whole lot of backstory going on here, far too much for Dodger to get wrapped up in. Dodger trained the gun tighter on the demoness, trying to get back to the matter at hand. That’s right, I’m marked. And just what do you plan on doing about that?
Dian lowered Feng to the roof again, but didn’t release him. This changes nothing. He will suffer as much as you. Perhaps more so.
If you hurt him, Feng said, then you make powerful enemies.
As I said, this changes nothing. I already have powerful enemies, and I am tired of playing games. Time for this to end.
The demoness kept Feng in one hand while she raised the other in Dodger’s direction. Her fingertips crackled and sparked with light, or rather, lightning. She flung her arm toward Dodger, letting rip a wide arc of electricity.
Dodger held his ground and his confidence in the doc’s ingenuity.
Sure enough, the metal rod between him and the demoness pulled the streak of lightning right out of the very air, out of its intended path, absorbing the shock in full. Dian paused but a moment before she conjured another streak and growled as it met with the same results.
“What kind of trickery is this?” she screamed.
“It’s not a trick,” Dodger said aloud in return. “It’s science.”
Dian snapped her questioning eyes to Feng, who merely laughed. The demoness shrieked in rage. The thing lifted Feng from the rooftop again, her whole body crackling with the untamed electricity of a wild storm. Electricity she pushed into the Celestial. Feng twitched in her grip, dancing in jolting jerks as she transferred God only knew how many volts into the body of the poor man.
“Feng!” Dodger shouted.
At his cry, Dian returned to her assault on Dodger. She sent bolt after bolt Dodger’s way. Each one went straight into the LAD rod between them, leaving Dodger unharmed.
He wished he could say the same for Feng.
The man now hung limply in the demoness’s grip.
Dodger cocked the hammer on Hortense. I reckon it’s my turn.
His aim was true. He was sure of that much. It was his target that cheated him from landing a shot. Once he squeezed the trigger, and a single bullet raced from the selected barrel of the triple-pronged weapon, Dian blinked out of existence. In a flash of light, she was on the other side of the cab, still clutching Feng and now laughing her fool head off. If Dodger’s hands hadn’t been full, he would’ve rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
You think you can best me with that toy? she asked.
Dodger fired again, and again the demoness flashed across the cab. Dodger knew better than to try a third time. He needed something else. Something to take her mind off of him and his guns.
Something up close and personal.
Fair enough, Dodger said, and lowered the gun.
Dian grinned, baring more teeth than a lady should even own. You are surprisingly wise for a weak-minded thrall. It makes me wonder why they marked you.
I suppose they wanted a change of pace. Dodger flipped open Hortense’s cylinder and reloaded the two spent shots. Seems we have ourselves a bit of a standoff. Neither of us can land a shot. Neither of us can hit our mark. He flicked the cylinder back into place with a satisfying click, then toyed with her dial for a moment. So, question is, what do we do now?
There is no question. I win. She snarled at the limp form of Feng, who was in no position to argue. I always win.
I reckon that’s as honest an answer as I could’ve hoped for. Dodger slipped Hortense back in her holster and braced himself against the nearest rod, trying to hang on as the train continued on its barreling path. Since you got your prize, will you be leaving now? Or would you like to stay for a cup of coffee?
The demoness narrowed her eyes at him. What does that mean?
Why does everything have to mean something else? Can a marked man not offer a beautiful demon a cup of joe without there being some ulterior motive? Dodger paused to let out a small chuckle. I suppose it’s just a woman’s way to suspect something’s up. He motioned to Feng’s limp form. His lady friend would probably think the same thing.
“Lady friend?” Dian said aloud and tipped her head to one side, growing ever more interested in Dodger’s words. Has he found a new love?
New? Heck no. I’d say they’ve been a couple for years and years and years. At least that’s what she says. Dodger hooked a thumb in his belt and tried very hard to look suave and calm and not like he was about to fall on his ass, which he suspected he might do at any moment. I think you might know her. She goes by Lien?
The demoness started, surprised by Dodger’s use of the name. What do you know of her?
Know of her? I know her. Nice gal. A bit saucy mouthed for my tastes, but then again, I like my women-
“Impossible!” the demoness shouted aloud. “Lien Hua is dead!”
Dead, you say? Fancy that. She sure talks an awful lot for a dead woman. Then again, I know a lot of dead folks who talk far too much for my likings. Dodger feigned a small gasp of surprise. Oh, wait. I remember now. I wasn’t supposed to say she was still alive, was I? Sure am glad he ain’t awake to hear me spill his beans like that.
Dian snarled and raged. “You lie! We killed her! We destroyed her very soul!”
That was a right awful thing to hear, but Dodger pressed on with his ruse. Now, that’s not the way I hear them tell it. Something about a bait-and-switch? Fooled you folks at the last minute, or something like that. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a weak-minded thrall. He smiled.
Dodger didn’t know if it was the shit-eating grin or his carefully chosen words, but something snapped the demoness’s patience. She let loose an ugly shriek, dropped the body of the Celestial and flashed across the cab, stopping right atop Dodger. She grabbed him by the throat and lifted him to his tiptoes, bringing him eye to burning red eye with her. Tell me what you know of Lien Hua, and I promise I will kill you much more quickly than I had planned.
Dodger struggled to breathe around her tight grip, but in his mind his words rang out strong and clear. I only have one thing to say to you.
The demoness cut her red eyes at him. And what is that?
“Gotcha,” Dodger croaked from under her grip.
That said, he fired the gun he had pressed into her belly.
In which Dodger meets the Duke of Thunder