Eli froze in place when he heard the train car explode behind him. He scrambled over one of the benches lining the car and looked out a window. Flames and splintered wood filled the sky.
Where were Hester and Violet? He had lost sight of them shortly after the track buckled and began to collapse. It had since stopped. Eli wondered if he should go back and find them.
The sound of propellers whipping through the air outside put that notion away from his mind. He looked up and saw one of the pirate airships speeding by, toward the rear of the train, toward the cargo car.
Eli knew he had to get there first.
If Violet and Hester were still alive, he had confidence they could take care of themselves. Even if they couldn’t, both of them would likely rip his head off for abandoning the mission to come back to them. He swallowed his pride, turned back to the rear of the train and started running.
Two more cars stood between him and the cargo car, but it felt like he was running the entire length of the train. When he arrived at the platform for the cargo car, he had to force himself not to run in headfirst. The pirates were likely already swarming the thing and he would get nothing but a face full of lead for his trouble.
He edged up to the rear door of the final passenger car and peeked through the tiny window set at head height. The platform was clear, so he opened the door and stuck his head out. Two air ships circled overhead, taking positions above. Ropes began falling over the side, and he saw the first of the pirates begin their descent.
It was then or never, so Eli darted out of the passenger car and through the door into the cargo car. Inside, he found himself face to face with a wall of wooden crates, stacked wall to wall. He couldn’t go around them, but he could see a space between the top of the stack and the ceiling.
Eli jumped up, grabbed the edge, and hauled himself up. The wall was four crates deep, so he found himself in something of a crawl space. He started crawling. Halfway to the edge, one of the pirates came down hard on the roof and left a huge dent, forcing Eli to change course.
Behind him, he heard voices.
“Aw, hell,” a man said. “It’s a blasted wall.”
“Think you can climb over?” a second voice asked. The first voice snorted.
“Nope. Only a woman or a kid could fit through that.”
Eli frowned at this remark and kept crawling.
“So, what do we do?” The second voice asked.
“Blast our way through,” a third voice said.
Eli began scrambling. He was nearly to the edge when the fizzling sound of a dynamite fuse crept up the space behind him. These idiots were actually going to try blowing through the crates!
He turned his body parallel to the edge of the stack and began rolling. There was just enough space at the center of the car for him to do this. He made good speed, and rolled over the edge, falling eight feet straight down.
Eli pulled his legs under himself and managed to land only halfway on his face. He stood and meant to scramble to the back of the car, to get as far from the impending explosion as he could. The sheer emptiness of the space caught him off guard, however. Only one crate sat at the center of the car, held down by heavy chains and bolted to the floor. Emblazoned on its side in big red letters in fourteen different languages was the word WARNING. This had the opposite of its intended effect however, only stoking Eli’s curiosity.
Eli remembered the dynamite, that it should have gone off by now, and that he should probably be dead. Instead, he heard voices over the top of the crate wall.
“…rocks for brains? You want to blow up the entire stash? What’s wrong with you? You two are lucky the Captain didn’t find you.”
“How do we get in then?” The first voice asked.
“The others are rappelling down the side and cutting through the locks on the loading doors. Let’s go.”
The loading doors? Eli heard banging on either side of the car. He saw that the sides of the car were indeed two large sliding doors, held shut by chains. Muffled voices filtered through, someone shouting orders. The chains began to rattle.
Eli needed a place to hide, and fast. The only option available was the crawlspace. He ran to it, jumped up, and grabbed the edge of a crate. However, this crate was empty, and light enough that when he tried to pull himself up, he pulled the crate down instead. Eli fell back on his ass, and the crate fell on his leg. A sharp pain shot up his shinbone from his ankle, and Eli nearly roared with pain. He managed to turn his head and muffle the cry with the sleeve of his jacket. Sweat broke out on his forehead and ran down his face from the strain.
When the initial shock wore off, he sat back and examined the crate. Tears in his eyes, he leaned forward and lifted the crate off his ankle. This caused a fresh pang of pain from the shattered joint, and he cried out again.
All activity outside of the train stopped, and Eli heard a rush of muffled voices that sounded like questions. A few seconds of silence passed, then shouting. Eli thought he could make out the words, “Get in there and see what that was, hurry!”
Eli gritted his teeth and stood on his good leg. He used the fallen crate as a step stool and aimed at the now empty space it had once occupied in the wall. The extra height of the crate, plus the extra lack of height in the wall due to its absence, made it much easier to climb back up, even with the broken ankle. It still hurt like hell, but Eli managed it without making any noise.
He crawled into the space and rolled back to the center of the stack. Spots of light floated in front of his vision. Down below, he heard the clink of the chain falling and the roar of the sliding door opening.
“We’re in! Tell the captain!”
Eli turned back on his chest and inched toward the top of the stack. One of the pirates, a large, shirtless man covered in intricate, intentionally inflicted scars stood above the fallen crate with dagger in hand.
“Looks like it was nothing,” he said. Another pirate joined his side. This one was fat, and short, with small, mean looking eyes.
“Must’ve fallen during the barrage,” he said in a tinny, high-pitched voice. Eli instantly felt dislike for this mean-eyed man. “Come on, let’s check on the loot.”
The two pirates turned their attention to the big crate in the middle of the car. More pirates came through the door.
“What is it?” one of them asked. The scarred one smiled and leaned against the crate.
“These here are Sarnwainian green caps,” he said. “Mushrooms. Very potent. A little bit will make you fly. A lot of it will make you die.”
Eli rolled his eyes.
“Worth a fortune, in Crowndon,” the scarred one said. “But we ain’t using them to get high. The captains got other plans.”
The disliked one grinned widely, and said, “We’re going to use them to start a war.”
This is Part V of “The ‘Shroom Job.” The entire collected parts of the story can be found HERE. “The Shroom Job” updates every Saturday. Also, apologies for the lack of an illustration this week. I started on it late, and post day crept up on me.