The sirens all faded into the distance; the last police left, radios squawking orders, leaving doors unknocked on, houses unchecked. C Street was quiet, all the motion and activity behind closed windows and closed doors. The children were set in attics and basements, bolt-holes and safe rooms. The men brooded silently over old weapons; the women took stone and strap to kitchen knives. No barricades were raised, no guards or soldiers were posted, no bars or hookah-dens closed. Not on C Street.
The first sign of the approaching army was a vibration. The pounding of feet and hooves, the rumbles of trucks and tanks. It shook the whiskey in the tumbler, rattled the glass in the window panes, and somewhere a child cried, only to be hushed by his big sister. Somewhere distant was the whine and whir of planes, the terrible thump of bomb and missile; but the skies above C Street were clear, the building untouched by mortar or shell.
Morto hauled himself into the street first, his servos whining, the grim parody of an outline of a man, only accentuated by the great white smile the alley-kids had painted on him, glass eyes dark under a heavy brow. He took to the middle of C Street like a statue, lone and forlorn, and nothing that stood at Gibraltar could have waited with more patience or dignity.
Up and down the street, the clangor went up as the barwomen rang the last calls. Dark men and scarred women bent the elbow and shuffled out in the easy camaraderie of shared purpose; and leaving the glasses on the bars and tables the barkeeps followed them out, taking with them their bats and shotguns. They lined the street on either side, a genial crowd that kept well clear of the gutter, and the dark shadows that led to the stormdrains. Itchy fingers tested the action on well-notched pistols, loosened swords in scabbards, cracked necks and stretched shoulders as they hefted hammers and crude polearms. The common men and women of C Street filed down from stoop and ladder and stairwell, filling out the back - all races and creeds, all gangs and sects, a silent alliance carried in respectful nods where any other day or night there would be the flash of blades, the loud cough of a muffled gun, and more blood yet spilled on the street.
From the east, where now they could see the army marching towards them, a warm wind blew that tasted of sand, and the light of the dawning sun. Yet the wind stopped at the 1300s on C Street, and were thrown back. A dark bank of cloud, high and grey, pushed forward. There were houses on that block that every child and mother on C Street knew by name and legend, old temples backed by small iron-gated cemeteries, stones lost in the tall grass that no one ever mowed, witch trees where the sound of old nooses still creaked on certain nights. Now dark portals opened, and vomited up the horrors of C Street legends - the Bonekeeper, with his sickle of teeth; the Gristleman, leading his white cockroaches on leashes of black silk; old Mother Alice, the sight of whose tall peaked cap was often seen against the moon on nights when children stopped breathing in their cribs, hobbled out, and holding her arm was a mixed-blood Saint, a caramel-colored woman in white with a bloody chin, her train held by the ghosts of the stillborn and aborted, her dress tied about her by a chain of tiny skulls.
They took their place to the left of Morto, for there was no room left on the right. Captain Cauldwell who had faced down the Union at the Black Gulf was there in his old uniform, the black blade Betsy on his shoulder. The Storm Halo was there, lightning crackling about his head, the dark clouds dripping blood onto C Street, as though to wet its appetite. Mhari C. hulked nearby, the hump of her crooked back eight feet in the air; the asphalt of the street seemed to pool and cling to her feet like a lover, her skin was the same color of the granite on the sidewalks, and any who looked would have seen her pale reflection stare out from each window pane. The Hexslinger was astride his horse, and for once had his coat open to display the tin stars that covered his chest like mail. On his left and right the stone lion-dogs of the C Street Library roared silently, flesh flickering in movement like an old camera show.
And from the shadows of the alleys, the rats watched. The natives of C Street knew to keep well clear.
The rumble grew, until all in the front row could see it, the short-barreled tank with the high treads in the lead, behind which they could see a wall of marching men, hear the lows of elephants and stranger beasts. At the first stoop in the Zero-Block, the bigger members of the Zero Kids started swinging their chains, the smaller kids with the razors pushed up close against the door. They were street kids, and they guarded their stoop. It was all they had.
The tank's turret swiveled, the short barrel bobbing up and down as it took its range on the Zeroes.
With a hiss of air and a squeal of metal and a thump of pistons and an unholy scream, Morto charged. The Hexslinger and the lion-dogs took off close behind, the Bonekeeper keeping pace with easy loping strides. The tank fired, and in a flameless burst the stoop exploded, the stair an instant rubble, the door stove in, the still bodies exploded from within, blood dripping from empty sockets.
The crash of Morto and the tank sent a crack down the middle of the street, as the mechanical man lifted the front of it clear off the ground the treads angrily chewed up the asphalt. Men and women of C Street could remember when Arturo Romero had bled to death on that very spot, after he had strangled his last victim; lightning and darkness cracked from the Hexslinger's pistol as the support crew came up to assist, and each flash found its mark. Bloody teeth sliced through cloth and flesh as the Bonekeeper began his bloodiest harvest, every C Street child's nightmare made flesh.
With a whine of exertion, Morto stretched his arms to their fullest extant, ripping the treads off the tank, which fell down on its side, a broken toy of war, smoke billowing from engines, axles spinning uselessly. As a mob, C Street moved forward, as the invaders marched on. The soldiers in their grey and white and black urban camouflaged fingered gun and rifle and halberd, and knew what every C Street native had already vowed in their heart.
They would pay for every fucking inch.