Section I: The Hunters
Diego didn’t like what he was seeing. No, he didn’t like it at all. It hinted at difficulties to come. Diego hated difficulties, but what else does one get in this life? He cussed in Spanish because it was the language he first learned to cuss in. Then he cussed in English because it felt better. Insulting someone is better in one of the romance languages, but to really express the frustration of a pointless universe requires English. Then, for good measure, he cussed in French. That didn’t satisfy at all.
Jeanine didn’t say a word. She hardly ever did, and especially so when confronted with complications. She used the time to think. Diego found it frustrating so he cussed for her. She hated that. Jeanine didn’t react, at least not in a way many could tell. Diego could tell, and knowing he had gotten under her skin helped him feel better. Jeanine thought it childish, and she was right.
“If you’re done annoying me, I’d like to know what you found,” she said. Perched on top of the osovaca, she was able to use the height difference to fully convey the subtext: he had a whooping coming. He thought the price worth it.
“The whole pack is moving. It looks like they’re carrying everything they own. They headed north but at a full run. Too fast for us to catch,” he said.
“Then we got to cut them off. Any idea how far up they’re going?”
“How I’m supposed to know that? I know they’re headed north and trying to make speed.”
Jeanine thought on this for a moment. “They’ll follow the railroad then.”
“That sounds about right. We could lose them if they turn on one of the rivers. Safe way is to follow the tracks, stay behind them, and run them down. Will take longer, but it’ll work.”
Jeanine now looked incredulous. “You want to play safe? Who are you? Have you been replaced by that Double Walker when I wasn’t looking? Maybe I should shoot you down now, just in case.”
Diego walked back to the osovaca and climbed up behind Jeanine. He thought about ignoring the comment since she all but told him his plan was a good one, but ignoring wasn’t something he did particularly well. “When has there been a time you weren’t looking?”
Diego heard her smiling as he settled into the saddle. He counted that as a victory, and he still knew a whooping was coming. He still thought it worth it.
Winter is the dry season in Florida but the clouds didn’t know. A few hours after they started down the railroad tracks, the rain came. Florida weather lasts only long enough to make things miserable. By the time they came to the Hillsboro River it had past, but the difficulties stayed. Jeanine stopped the osovaca beside the tracks, and Diego walked along the river banks. He stopped every few feet, looked around, then shook his head and moved on. Eventually he came back to the osovaca.
“Rain washed out most signs. Can’t get a read for sure, but I don’t think they went along the river.”
Jeanine looked east along the banks while Diego cleaned some of the mud from his boots. The rain had soaked her locks but rather than waste power drying them she decided to deal with the loose hair. Her coat, like Diego’s, was wool, and kept her both dry and comfortable. Not having to worry about the weather let her focus on her quarry. “Why would they head east here? Where would they want to go?”
“There’s a bunch of rivers and lakes northeast. They could try to lose us in there, head to the St. John’s and run north. Would be hard to follow through all that water.”
“You think they know we’re behind them?”
“They’re running like something is chasing them. If it ain’t us, who then?”
“You gonna be able to track with all the rain? I don’t feel much like getting lost out here.”
Diego finished with his boots and checked his shotgun. “I ain’t been lost since before you were born. Tracking is a different story though. Water is grounding energy, washes away the marks. If it don’t storm, I may be able to see enough to get us by.”
Jeanine nodded. Diego climbed up the osovaca, and they continued north along the tracks.
The storm broke two hours later. They had enough time to rig a tarp for some cover before it started hailing. The osovaca was oblivious to it all, but Diego was in a mood.
“You think they called it up?” he asked. He took off his hat and rubbed his bald head for the hundredth time. Then, for good measure, he rubbed his beard. None of it helped.
“How would they do that? They don’t have that kind of power.”
“The rain don’t smell right. Feels like it shouldn’t be here.”
Jeanine agreed so she kept silent. She lay on a bedroll under the tarp and eyed the rain like intimidation would stop it. “You do think they know we’re behind them, don’t you?”
“Why are they running so fast? Something moving this fast is desperate to either get someplace or away from something. Where would wolfers go? They don’t have towns. That means they trying to get away. We just happen to be tracking them. Then when we get close, it just happens to hail. It don’t seem like a coincidence to me.”
Jeanine still lay on her bedroll. “We don’t know what they know. But it’s a good guess we ain’t gonna surprise them. Let’s just pretend they know we coming. We’ll stay on the tracks. They’re heading north and will go around towns if they trying to make time, but they’re trying to get somewhere specific. We find out where, and we pick up their trail again.”
“Ocala. We can find where they headed there. We can pick up a job too. Maybe the bounty can tell us more about what the wolfers are doing.”
“What’s the job?”
“People been going missing for some months. No one know why. They think something in the forest is taking them.”
Jeanine let out a little chuckle. “Someone come back from missing?”
Diego lay on his bedroll and closed his eyes. “Tavern owner. Gone for three days and came back with no memory. Folks saying he’s lucky to be alive.”
Jeanine laughed. “Oh, he’s lucky all right. Got himself a bar now. Double Walkers are some arrogant sons a bitches.” She adjusted herself on the bedroll. “That also answers the question of how a pack is able to move so fast and still carry everything they own. They’re getting supplied by something. Could be the Double Walker is their contact.”
Diego thought on this a minute. “Lots of ifs in that idea but it makes sense. Didn’t think about that.”
Jeanine settled in as comfortably as she was going to get. “Then why’d you think the bounty would know anything about the wolfers? You think all monsters talk to each other?”
“How can someone so smart be so stupid?”
Diego was almost asleep so he let the comment pass. “Won’t be no bodies to find, but if we find all the eggs we’ll get paid. Shouldn’t take a full day. We can be back on the trail right quick.”
Jeanine said nothing and soon Diego was snoring. She stared at the rain some more, but it didn’t seem to care.
Osovacas shouldn’t exist. Of course, before The Bridge they didn’t. Like with so much else, they were introduced during the 1859 invasion. With the collapse of The Bridge it looked like that trouble was here to stay. Some, like the osovacas, could be adapted for use. Twenty-four hands high, tireless, and easily trained, the creature was a good mount. It could carry two people and their supplies forever and not get tired. It wouldn’t go fast, a full run was only a bit faster than a trotting horse, but it could run over any terrain, and that’s what made them so useful. It wasn’t like there were many roads anymore. Brambles or sawgrass, an osovaca went through it all. It could even swim a river without slowing down. Diego figured it was the bear part that made that possible. He had never seen a cow swim as fast as an osovaca, but he knew bears were good swimmers. His best guess was that some wizard took the dumbest part of a hairy cow and shoved it into a bear. The end result was a stupid giant that ate grass and was cranky about it. Why a wizard would do something like that was beyond him.
The last thing the wizards did was open The Bridge, then they all died. Horribly. Diego, like most folks, thought they deserved it, but it did leave unanswered questions. The servants were still around. Creatures, like the wolfers, still caused trouble. They made for good bounties, but former slaves could only answer so many questions. Diego knew about slavery, but he wasn’t disposed to show mercy. Wolfers didn’t regard people as anything but food. It would almost be worth it to open The Bridge again to get rid of all of them. But The Bridge couldn’t be opened, the wolfers wouldn’t go, and the cost would be too high.
Diego hopped down from the osovaca they had named Beast and examined the ground, as he did every hour. Jeanine didn’t see anything, she never did. Diego crouched low and stared, turning his head at times. Eventually, he would grunt to himself, get up, and say something about being close enough to the trail. When Jeanine asked what he saw, he called it the little piece of soul left behind. That troubled her. The war proved people made themselves out of whatever they had as best they could. If one’s soul was left behind, even a piece, just by walking, then it was quite a fragile construct. A careful builder might leave a smaller piece, but that only slowed the rupture. If Diego was right, then despite winning the war everything was coming apart anyway, just slower. Hopefully, Diego’s name for what he was seeing was just wrong.
“Are we on the right track or not?” she finally asked. Her morose thoughts made her anxious to be moving.
“Something ain’t right. The color of the soul changed. Ain’t seen this before.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Damned if I know. I just know it ain’t right.” He stood and looked out into the night. Jeanine readied her rifle across her lap. When Diego pulled his shotgun from its leather case behind the saddle, she cleared her mind and readied her first spell.
“They close?” She whispered without looking at him.
“Something close. Maybe them, maybe not. But it ain’t something I want walking.”
“Can you give me something to work with? I need to focus on something.”
“Focus on keeping quiet and not dying.”
“Shit. When we’re done here I’m going to shove that shotgun so far down your throat you’ll piss buckshot.” He didn’t smile, and neither did she. Diego chose to believe it was because she was mentally preparing herself.
Five minutes later they were still waiting. “I don’t feel nothing,” Jeanine said. “You?”
“No. Not anymore.”
Jeanine didn’t immediately relax, and neither did Diego. As far as they could tell, they were alone in the forest and it felt silly to be scared.
“Mind telling me what got us spooked?”
“Not sure. Something just don’t feel right.”
“Well ain’t you just something other than useful.” She adjusted herself on Beast, disinclined to give up the height advantage. The osovaca was trained to stay still during combat. “Either there’s something there or not. We can’t stand here waiting.”
Diego shook his head. “Nothing there now, but something was close and it was something fierce.”
“The Double Walker?”
“No, no way a Double Walker can do that. Wolfer neither. This is a new piece on the board.”
Jeanine sighed. “This is bullshit. Let’s go have a talk with that thing in Ocala. We need some answers.”
Diego climbed back on Beast, and they rode on.
Diego pushed open the double doors. The setting sun was behind the building and gas lamps were just lit. A little more than a dozen people saw him enter and proceeded to ignore him but also pay attention. Diego walked to the bar, took a seat, and smiled at the bartender.
The bartender made a point of looking at the shotgun jutting out over Diego’s shoulder, although he stayed friendly. “We don’t allow weapons in the bar. Keeps things more friendly. Just leave it with me, if you please.”
Diego kept smiling. Slowly, he reached into his coat and pulled out a flask. Without taking his eyes off the bartender he took a long pull. He put away the flask and, still making eye contact with the bartender, said, “Oh, I don’t think I’ll do that. Don’t get me wrong though. I want things to stay friendly, but I’ll think I’ll keep what I got.”
The bartender’s demeanor changed in that subtle way those who work often with difficult people show they’re serious. He slowly moved his hand below the bar and glanced to Diego’s left. “I don’t think you understand. I’m not asking you for your weapon, I’m telling you to give it to me or get out.”
Diego never stopped smiling, even as the point of Jeanine’s rifle touched the bartender’s ear. Her mask fell away without sound or spectacle and she stood behind the bar. “You’re looking at the fat man, aren’t you? The one who’s supposed to be a sheriff or something, right? You really think he’s fast enough to help out? He doesn’t think so. Man hasn’t moved a muscle even when you asked him to. He may be fat, but he ain’t stupid. How about you? Are you stupid?”
“The money is right there. You can take, it just don’t hurt anyone.”
“Shit,” said Jeanine. “You really think we’re robbing this place? With all the eggs you got stashed around?” That statement confused the fat man and the other patrons, but the bartender, for the first time, started sweating.
“Take the money and ride,” said one of patrons. Diego didn’t know who, just that he wasn’t armed.
“Why don’t you tell them?” Diego said. He was looking at the bartender, but his smile faded. That stare held the bartender in a grip as tight as any fist. Diego continued, “Put your hands on the bar and tell them about the eggs.”
The bartender placed both hands palm down. Still looking at Diego he softly spoke, “They’re safe. They’re in…in…They are….” With a grunt the bartender looked down at his hands. He shook his head, then shook it again. When he locked eyes with Diego, it was with a fury. “What eggs? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jeanine gave a little laugh. “That was a damn good try, but you missed it.”
Diego slapped a hand on the bar, and while not all the patrons jumped at the sound, most did. “Almost had him.”
The fat sheriff, who may or may not have been a sheriff but who was definitely fat, said, “I’m thinkin’ there’s some mistake here. Loyd has been in this town quite a….”
“Be quiet,” said Diego. He never raised his voice but the sound carried all the same. He put a finger on the bartender’s forehead while saying, “Let’s see if this works.”
It did. The bartender fell asleep.
Jeanine lowered her rifle while she addressed the patrons. “Y’all probably got some questions. That would make sense to me. You’ll get your answers but it’ll be a bit. We got a bunch of work to do before this thing wakes up.”
Diego turned to the crowd as well. “Meet us outside in about two hours. Thank you for your understanding.”
With that the two walked out of the tavern, dragging the still sleeping bartender by a foot. No one moved.
It took two buckets of water to wake the bartender. Jeanine thought about giving Diego grief for putting too much behind the sleep spell, but after failing the push she couldn’t fault him too bad. The bartender who wasn’t a bartender was tied to the horse rail in front of the tavern. She and Diego stood in front of it. The bar patrons, joined by a few townsfolk, stood in the street beside a wagon with a tarp covering its back. She was glad for the catch, but a part of her understood this was horrible. That wasn’t why she let Diego handle most of it, but it was enough. Horrible or not, it was the safest way forward. When the bartender raised its head, she gave Diego the nod.
“What’d you do to me?” asked the slightly panicked bartender.
“Evening,” responded Diego. “We have a conversation to finish. I asked you about some eggs but still don’t have an answer. You got one now?”
“I said I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jimmy, you going to do something about this? How the hell can some strangers walk into my business and tie me up while you watch?”
Diego punched the bartender in the jaw. The snap shocked the crowd back a step. Jimmy, the fat sheriff, recovered first. “Dammit, that is enough! What the hell are you doing to him? What are you doing to me? Answer my damn questions, and if you try that magic shit one more time I’ll string you both up myself.”
Diego stepped back from the bartender and gave a look to Jeanine. She nodded for him to continue. He then turned to the sheriff. “Take a look at his jaw.”
“I ask you for answers and you’re playing with me?”
“Listen,” said Diego said. He made sure his words carried to the entire crowd. “Is his jaw bruising? Is it even red? Does he look like he’s in pain?”
“I don’t give two cow shits for Loyd’s jaw. Who are you?”
“Who we are don’t mean nothing. It’s what we are. You’re going to make me spell it out?”
“Oh fuckin’ Christ,” whispered the sheriff. “Why didn’t you say you were hunters?”
“Because of this thing,” answered Jeanine. She thought now a good time to remind the crowd of some recent history. “How many people have disappeared in your town in the last few months? A dozen? Two? Anybody show up again? Lemme guess, Loyd here was the only one to come back.” No one answered directly, but a few heads started nodding.
“Are you all crazy?” screamed what looked like Loyd. “We don’t know they’re hunters. They put mind spells on us. Untie me now while we still can fight them.”
“You’re thinking of fighting?” replied Diego. He made his way to the wagon and grabbed the tarp. As he pulled it off he said, “Maybe you should take a look at this first.” Inside the wagon lay dozens of dark-colored, oval objects, each the length of a large house cat. Diego picked up one of the ovals, running a hand across the leather-like exterior.
The bartender screamed again. Although the sound began as human, it didn’t form words. It was an animal’s scream of pain and fear.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” shouted Diego and smiled.
“What the holy hell is going on here?” asked the sheriff, who genuinely wanted to know.
“We’re trying to show you this ain’t Loyd,” answered Diego. “Loyd’s been dead for some time. Sorry to say, all those missing are dead.” He paused and looked out at the crowd. “This thing ate them.”
“That’s, that’s something you’re saying to us now. We supposed to just believe it? I was just talking with Loyd a few hours ago and now you telling me he eats people.”
Jeanine interjected, “You’re gonna see the truth of this in a minute. It ain’t gonna be pretty. None of this is pretty. Diego, let’s do what we gotta do now.”
Diego took a torch from the wagon. The thing that wasn’t Loyd screamed anew, reaching a painful pitch. “You don’t have to do this. We’ll go. We can just go. Don’t hurt us.” Diego walked over with the torch and crouched down in front of it.
“You’re right,” he said in a voice only the thing could hear. “I don’t have to do this. But it’s fun and ain’t much entertainment in this job.” He shoved the fire into the bartender’s face. The crowd gasped. When Diego kept the torch in place some shouted he should stop. None noticed Loyd wasn’t screaming anymore. Diego held the torch to the fake bartender’s head a full minute before pulling it back. Instead of Loyd’s charred flesh, there was a pure white, serpentine face with skin the same leathery texture as the eggs in the wagon.
“Oh good God damn,” said the sheriff.
“You’re a old one, ain’t you?” said Diego. “I ain’t seen a white skin for quite some time. Must have come over The Bridge, huh? No wonder you resisted my push, you got some strength to you.”
“I’ve just been living my life,” said the thing, although it said it in Loyd’s voice. “The war’s over now. There’s no need for this.”
Diego’s stopped smiling. Still crouched in front of the creature, he whispered, “The war ain’t really over because you eat people, and so will your children.” The thing looked at Diego and threw itself at him, but the ropes held. “We’re gonna end this now. These all your eggs?” The thing thrashed in its bindings but didn’t answer. Diego walked to the wagon, grabbed an ax in the back, and smashed an egg. The thing went into a frenzy.
“I’ll kill you! I will kill you all!”
“Are these all your eggs?”
“Go to hell! I swear I will kill you!”
Diego smashed another egg. Then another. The thing with Loyd’s voice continued screaming as Diego walked back over and crouched again. “I ain’t gonna lie to you. You know there’s no way you’re living through this night. The only question is how you’re gonna live the hours you got left.”
The serpent thing stopped screaming and began to cry. “You can do what you want to me. Just let them go. Please don’t hurt my children any more. Please, please.”
“I understand your eggs don’t die right away if they break. The little ones stay alive for a while, huh? How long? Hours? Days? Must be painful though. Their skin ain’t fully formed or nothing so it must hurt a lot, burns even. Like being on fire. Got to be hard for a parent to watch their children on fire. You got real good hearing too. Can you hear them scream right now? Are they calling for their mamma? Or are you the daddy? I ain’t sure of the particulars on that.”
“Please let them go. Please! Please!” it begged.
“This ain’t no lie either. There is no way you or any eggs survive to see the sun again. That ain’t an option, and it never was. There are two choices: I kill you and the eggs real quick, or you watch while your little ones die real slow. That’s it. Understand?”
“To hell with you and your kind. You think I’m the only one? You think you got us all? You will never get us all. We will hunt you because you deserve to be hunted. You are food.”
Diego stared at the Double Walker. “There are others then. The wolfers? How long have you been supplying them?” The Double Walker said nothing, but it had lost its poker face. “Anything else out there we should know about? It ain’t another Double Walker, so what is it?”
This time the monster didn’t even try to hide its reaction. Its fear came through. “I’ve never seen one before. It scares the wolfers. Scares me too.” Then it spit at Diego. “You should be scared as well. It’s death. It’ll kill you. It’ll kill everything.”
“Well, that’s an answer now isn’t it?”
Back at the wagon Diego pulled out another egg and slammed it against the wheel until it cracked. Pulling out the embryo, he held the slimy thing to his ear for a moment. “Shit. I don’t hear nothing. Maybe they’re already dead. What do you think?” Then he threw the embryo at the creature, hitting it in the face. The thing screamed while shaking it off.
Jeanine slowly nodded her head. “That’s enough. Don’t need magic to know it’s telling the truth. End it now. And make it quick.”
Diego pulled out two eggs and slammed them together. He held both to each ear while they dripped. “Damn, I still don’t hear nothing. Maybe if I do three.” The thing tied to the post continued screaming while Jeanine walked between Diego and the wagon.
“We made our point,” she said. “Finish the job. Now.”
Taking his torch Diego responded, “Fun never lasts.” He threw the torch into the back of the wagon and stepped back as it blazed. He waited a moment while the Double Walker continued screaming and the townspeople shouted. When he was satisfied with the fire, he picked up the ax and walked back to the thing that wasn’t Loyd. His swing took the head off and buried the ax into the post. Without looking at her, he spoke to Jeanine, “If you like, I can add the body to the fire and make sure the eggs burn. You can talk to the sheriff unless you want me there.”
“You handle this. I’ll talk to the sheriff.”
Jeanine walked over to the sheriff, grabbing the man’s shoulder to get his attention. “We should have a word about that bounty now.”
Jeanine sat with the sheriff in what passed for the office. She let him move ahead of her and spend a minute by himself. He was sitting behind his desk when she came in, so she stayed quiet as he stared into nothing and processed what he had just seen. No need to rush things. This was the most delicate part of a bounty. The job done but the payment still pending meant hearts and minds could change about how great the threat actually was and how much it was worth. Better to sit and wait. If there was a need to push, and there usually was, it would come in its own time. In this particular job things could work out if she gave enough space. Jeanine didn’t have to wait too long.
“Loyd’s dead,” said the sheriff. It wasn’t a question. Jeanine nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Loyd’s dead because that thing killed and ate him.” Jeanine nodded again. “What was it? Are there more?” Jeanine was surprised the sheriff asked good questions. The man was processing the information and adjusting faster than most.
“We call them Double Walkers. We know there ain’t many around, but I couldn’t tell you a number. I’ve only seen a few in my life. This one was old.”
“Are there any more in the town?”
“No. Just this one. Was enough, wasn’t it?”
The sheriff nodded at that and took a box out of one of the desk drawers. Around his neck he wore a key on a leather strip. He took the key, opened the box, and pulled out a small pouch which he lay on the desk. He then reversed his steps and returned the box and the key to their original positions. When he was done he looked at Jeanine, “You’ve been doing this a while then I take it. Probably been through a lot of towns like ours and seen a lot of things. That right?”
Jeanine nodded again. It looked like push time was fast approaching, but she held her tongue for a little longer.
“You came here for something else. Something you wanted from that monster.”
Jeanine just raised her eyebrows.
“You’re going to play now? After that show you put on, you’re not going to have the decency to tell me why you did it? Then you expect to get paid for this game as well?” The sheriff’s voice rose with each question so Jeanine decided to tack in another direction.
“Your town is out of danger,” she said. “Your people are safe. We made sure of that. Yes, we did need to get more information from the Double Walker, and we got it. Our work isn’t done, but there ain’t more we’re going to do here.”
The sheriff stared at her. “You got your way of doing this, and I can respect that. But know those of us in these towns see stuff too. And we don’t get to ride away after. Next time, I’d appreciate you talking with me first.” He slid the pouch over. Jeanine thought about what he’d said as she took it. She could tell from the weight he hadn’t cheated her, and that decided her answer.
“We do have a way of working, especially with towns we ain’t been in before. Now that we met though, that way can change next time we visit.” The sheriff looked at her for a moment then nodded.
With payment made there was no reason to linger, and they both knew it. Both walked to the door and the sheriff opened it, revealing the wagon completely ablaze. Jeanine could just make out the body of the Double Walker on top. Beside the wagon Diego sat next to a small pile of eggs. Slowly, he grabbed one and put it by itself in front of him while lifting the ax and cracking it open. He then lifted the embryo to his ear and held it there for a moment. Eventually he shook his head and threw the entire mess on the burning wagon. Then he reached for another egg and repeated the process. Jeanine and the sheriff stood in front of the office and stared.
“Can you tell me what he’s doing?” the sheriff asked.
“My guess. He’s still trying to figure out if the eggs scream when you break them.”
The sheriff nodded and kept staring. Turning to Jeanine he said, “I would appreciate it if your next visit wasn’t for quite some time.” He walked into his office without waiting for a response.
Jeanine kept looking at Diego. They needed to talk.
They were moving again by mid-morning, not that they had much choice. Although no one in the town was overtly hostile, the message to quickly leave was unmistakable. They bought what supplies they could, loaded Beast, and headed north. Jeanine wasn’t sure why north, but there were other things on her mind. Actually, just one other thing. Diego’s performance in town stuck in her brain. It wasn’t that he was wrong, torturing monsters was part of the fun of the work. After losing most of the human population, being invaded, and facing 25 years of war, humans on this planet deserved a shot at vengeance. But she wasn’t sure what Diego was doing was vengeance. She wasn’t sure what it was, and that concerned her more than why they were heading north. So, of course, she asked him about the wolfers.
“Why are we going this way? You picked up a trail?”
“No. Rained washed everything out pretty good. Was hoping we could have picked up something from the Double Walker, even a stray memory. Didn’t get anything though.”
“You pushed too damn hard. One thing to get the emotions up, but what the hell were you doing playing with the eggs like that?”
“Oh, you getting soft on me? Worried about monster eggs now?”
Jeanine shifted in her seat and took a breath. “Answer my question. What the hell was that?”
Diego stayed silent. Jeanine hadn’t meant to ask the question so quickly, but it was out now and they were going to deal with it. “You think we won the war?” asked Diego.
“I don’t. We closed The Bridge and destroyed their army, but what did we win? The world is broke. It’s been decades since the war ended but what we got? Monsters everywhere. Hardly any money. We didn’t win shit.”
“Any time you want to tell me what you’re talking about I’m right here.”
“I lied to the Double Walker. When I told it I couldn’t hear the eggs, that was a lie. I did hear them. They screamed when they died. Not sure what they said, if they were saying anything, but they did scream. Every one I broke screamed. All of them.”
Jeanine turned around in the saddle to look him in the face. “They are monsters. They eat people. Those eggs would grow into monsters that would eat more people. You didn’t hear the screams of the town people that thing ate.”
“I don’t give a damn about that thing or its eggs. I got a question about me: what am I if I can hear something only other monsters can hear?” Diego stared into space. “The Dying, The Bridge, the war. It didn’t just break the world, it broke us too. It broke me.”
“Shit man. You getting all down because you can hear some eggs talk? You think the war broke you? What’d you tell me about your life before? You still got scars on your back, but you think you got problems now?”
“You might be right about that. Maybe I was broken before the war, but I wasn’t a monster. We can do things, powerful things. But magic isn’t just about what we can do, it’s also about what it makes us. I can hear those things because I changed. May still be changing. And ain’t change a type of breaking too? Magic ain’t nothing but evidence we’re not right anymore.”
“Well I changed too. I ain’t no monster, and I ain’t broke. I was born human, and I’m gonna die human. You go crazy by yourself.”
“What if we don’t have a choice? I didn’t choose magic. It came when The Bridge opened. What if crazy comes the same way.”
Jeanine turned again and faced front. “Crazy or not, whether you human or you ain’t is up to you.”
Diego was quiet after that. They rode on.
Just before noon Diego called for a stop. He climbed off the osovaca and started scanning the ground. Jeanine recognized ritual preparation when she saw it.
“How open the ground gotta be? And how much of the sky do you need?”
Diego chose a spot about 100 feet from a large oak. Then he addressed Jeanine, “Ground don’t have to be too open but gonna need to see the sun through the rest of the arc. Moon too.”
“This the igbodu then. We’re gonna be here a while.”
“Oh yeah. They’ll get far ahead, but we get a chance to rest a little. Don’t matter. No other way to get back on their trail.”
Jeanine agreed. This was a powerful ritual and would give them the information they needed. They couldn’t pass on the sacred spot. Once they got back on the trail they could continue running the wolfers down. Hunts were either short or long. This was already a long one so they should rest when they could. She steered Beast over to the tree, pulled down the bedrolls, and made camp. All the while Diego cleared a circle about 10 feet wide and gathered materials for a fire. By noon the fire was going and he sat meditating in front of it. Jeanine lay down.
Diego woke her up when he fell onto his bedroll. She had only been asleep a couple of hours. Diego looked a little ragged. “You able to get it started?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he breathed out. “Magic’s working. Should get an answer at sunset. Means we’re gonna be traveling all night though.”
“That ain’t new.”
Diego only grunted a response. Within moments his breathing was slow and regular, but Jeanine was awake. She lay thinking for a few minutes
“What the eggs say?” Diego grunted again, but in a half-hearted manner meant to imply sleep. Jeanine’s hearing was too good for her to be fooled. She only waited a few minutes. “I know you heard the question.”
He sighed but didn’t open his eyes. “They didn’t say anything. They were just screaming. No words, just screams.”
“You sure they weren’t words? Maybe we don’t speak their language. That thing screamed when you started torching the eggs. Could be they have words.”
“Yeah, that could be true. Would be something if they got language while they’re still in the egg though.”
“It’s something they scream while in the egg. Words don’t seem that much crazier.”
Diego grunted an agreement, his eyes still closed. “Guess I can take some comfort in not knowing the language of monsters then.”
“Stop that mess. You choose to learn a language just like you choose to use it. Being a monster or not is still up to you. Pretending otherwise is just being a coward. You’re a right pain in the ass, but you ain’t no coward.”
“You just compliment me? Now I’m thinking you’re the Double Walker.”
“Yes, a right pain in the ass indeed.” Jeanine closed her eyes. It was his ritual so she had many hours before she had to wake up. She enjoyed each one.
Jeanine sighed in disappointment when she woke and realized dusk was still more than an hour away. Even when the world gave her a perfect gift like uninterrupted sleep she couldn’t accept all of it. Still, she just had a night’s sleep, even if it was day, and that was something she hadn’t had in quite a while. An extra hour wouldn’t make all that much difference. The ritual also meant Diego was vulnerable. She rose from her bedroll and surveyed the scene.
Diego silently sat by the fire and stared into it. He was sweating though the air was comfortable and the fire didn’t look too hot. The ritual connected like things in order to find a connection to another. Diego was using the fire he built to connect to the sun so he could find something under it. It was a weak connection, hence the need for an igbodu, but it still required effort. The level of concentration and strain must have been enormous, but it looked to be working. She started packing up camp while he finished.
The fire went out just at dusk. Diego didn’t move. Jeanine walked over and gave him some water. “You find them?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re headed east. Two days ride ahead of us.”
“You up for riding two days straight?”
“That ain’t nothing. We got a bigger problem. Something else is tracking them, and it knows we’re here. I got its attention.”
“How’d that happen? This ritual is only about receiving information. You cast something on top of it?”
“It took everything I had to do the ritual. Whatever the thing is, it was able to feel what I was doing. And he wasn’t happy about it. Mighty powerful mage.”
“You get anything about him other than he’s a man?”
“I got that he’s male. I don’t know if it’s a man or not. Even that is just a good guess. He could mask real good. Didn’t help that he wasn’t what I was after either. Not sure how he found me or tracked me back.”
“You think he’s going to give us trouble?”
“Don’t everything give us trouble? He, or it, was looking for me through the ritual. I’m thinking our paths gonna cross.”
Jeanine frowned. “You’re being tracked in a way no one can track. I thought we were doing the hunting here.”
“You think this changes things? Should we track this bastard down and find out what for?”
She thought for a minute while looking east at the growing dark. “No, he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. We got a bounty, and we gonna collect on it.”
Diego nodded. Jeanine gave him 20 minutes to rest before they headed out.
Diego and Jeanine kept a steady pace. On the third day, Diego stood up after looking at a patch of sand and announced they would catch their target by dawn. He didn’t seem too happy about it. “They’re not running like before. I think they’re going to make a stand.”
Jeanine shrugged. “Wolfers always make a stand.”
Diego shook his head. “This is different. Wolfers always stand together, always. Most of this pack is now going north, but some are staying. They’re splitting up.”
“Now that’s something. How many we talking about?”
“Not totally sure. At least five. Pack leader could be one of them.”
Jeanine turned her gaze north and held it there for a bit. Diego stood and got himself a drink. “Saddle up,” she said without taking her gaze off the horizon. “Keep your spell in your mind and the shotgun loaded.”
Diego put away the waterskin and started his climb into the saddle. “So, are we going for the pack or hitting the trap?”
“You know we don’t have the speed to get to the pack. And this ain’t no trap. They know damn well we know what they’re doing. They’re calling us out.”
“You making it sound like we’re facing a human gang.”
“War’s been over 25 years. Maybe wolfers been around humans too much. Maybe they’re learning. Maybe they just picked up some bad habits. Either way, we’ve been called out. Works to our advantage. We know where the wolfers are but got no idea about mystery man behind us. If we hit them quick, we can turn around and face what’s coming. Now let’s go meet our new friends.”
About an hour before dawn, Jeanine stopped Beast. She took a waterskin and her rifle and told Diego to take some water as well. Florida in January is a mixture of cold, dry, and uncomfortable. Their coats would protect them from the elements, both natural and magical, but water was something they couldn’t conjure.
Jeanine felt good. True, they were walking into unknown danger, but she knew the danger was there. Diego was being an ass, but he was always an ass. His shit was his own. He had to clean it up or sit in it by himself. In the meantime, he took direction well. She was pretty sure they had turned the corner.
Right then was when she expected the ambush. When it didn’t happen she knew things were going their way.
“We’re going to leave Beast here. This is going to be done soon, and he can’t fight for shit. Best he stays where we can come back and get him.”
Diego nodded, put the waterskin over his shoulder, and asked, “You seem to have all this figured out.”
“You’re jealous now? Look, they split their group to either kill us or give the others time to escape. If they really thought they could kill us, they wouldn’t have sent the others north. They’d have hidden them. But are you, Mister Tracker Man, sure they’re not hiding?”
“About as sure as I can be. There’s one group staying and one headed north fast.” Diego took a moment to look east. They had about 45 minutes to dawn. “So you’re saying,” he continued, “they think they’re gonna die. They think we’re stronger.”
Jeanine patted Beast on the side of his head and told him to stay close to this spot. They would be back probably around noon. Beast took this in stride. When she was done with the osovaca, she turned to Diego and motioned for him to follow. She then addressed his statement. “Took you a while to catch on. You know, you’re one hell of a fighter, but you’re a shitty general. No head for strategy.”
Diego didn’t argue.
Eventually, Jeanine continued explaining. “They haven’t tried to kill us yet. They want something, probably to talk. Either way we ain’t walking into their ambush. They’re walking into ours.”
“And what about the thing behind us? He’s walking into our trap too? I don’t have a head for strategy, but it don’t feel like we have a trap.”
“One thing at a time. The wolfers know more about that thing than we do. Maybe we do talk a bit first.”
“They at least know they need to run from it. We’ve been on their trail, but they ain’t running from us. Their sign has looked odd, but now I know why. They’re scared but not of us.”
Jeanine turned to him. “You’re saying they don’t know we’re behind them?”
“No, that’s just it. The sign shows some connection to us. They know we’re chasing them. But we ain’t why they’re running like hell.”
“Damn. What the hell got them so spooked?”
“And if they’re so scared, why are some of them standing and fighting? Shouldn’t all of them be running?”
“That part don’t change. They’re trying to get some space for the rest of the pack is my guess. But why us instead of what’s behind us?”
“Maybe because we’re the easy fight.”
“I told you it looks like they know they can’t beat us. They’re coming to die.”
“And I heard you. I’m saying they’re coming to die, but that’s easier than whatever is behind us.”
Jeanine stopped smiling.
Section II: The Hunted
An hour after sunrise, Jeanine noticed they were being followed. Their pursuers were on the flanks so she wasn’t sure if that counted as following. She thought about it a second and decided it didn’t matter.
“You catch that?”
“They’ve been tailing us for 30 minutes. I was wondering when you were gonna say something.”
Jeanine stopped and turned around. “You’ve known we had company for 30 minutes and didn’t say nothing?”
Diego shrugged, “I figured you’d handle it.”
Jeanine shouldered her rifle. “You’re being a serious asshole right now.” Then she muttered a short spell and fired out into the scrub. A white light hit a spot about 50 yards out and flashed. Standing there was a wolfer. It, one couldn’t guess a wolfer’s gender just by looking, stood on two legs, dressed in a leather vest, pants, and wide belt. Both the belt and vest had pockets all over. The wolfer didn’t move, and its expression didn’t change. Neither Diego nor Jeanine ever saw a wolfer’s expression change. Probably something about the facial muscles. Practically, it meant one didn’t know if a wolfer was scared or enraged until it ran away or attacked. There wasn’t even a wagging tail to give some hint.
Diego already had his shotgun pointed at a spot in front of them and just to the right. He moved the shotgun slowly to the left and cocked both hammers. “Might as well show yourself,” he said. “I’m anxious to get this started.”
Another wolfer appeared about 50 yards in front of Diego’s shotgun. One moment there was empty space, the next there was a silver-furred creature wearing a leather vest similar to the first. This one also had also had a satchel over one shoulder.
“You got something you want to say?” asked Jeanine. “Or should we just start dancing? I’ll start with the one behind us with his mask still on.”
No one moved. Diego struggled not to shoot. This whole hunt seemed wrong. Instead of tracking down and killing monsters, they were being tracked by something that could be a monster. The world had gotten too complicated too quickly. Diego wanted someone to explain it to him. The moment was interrupted by a series of snarls and snaps made by the silver-furred wolfer. It didn’t move, just made the sounds in a low tone. Jeanine and Diego didn’t take their eyes off their targets but knew another wolfer appeared behind them.
“I ain’t sensing more,” said Jeanine.
“Me neither. This it then.”
“Thought you said there was five.”
“Yeah, I did. Must be getting careless in my old age.”
“Good you admit it though.”
The silver one spoke. “I have come to talk with the Mad One.”
Jeanine and Diego didn’t say anything, just kept pointing their weapons. Eventually Diego said, “Going to have to be more specific.”
Ignoring Diego Jeanine answered, “Now why are you trying to talk? You think you’re gonna save your pack? Try to buy us off? What you gotta say we want to hear?”
“No, Rifle Mage. I know words will not save us. I haven’t come to bargain with you. I’ve come for revenge.”
Diego readied the shotgun, figuring talk time was ending soon.
“Neither of you will be the subjects of my revenge,” continued the wolfer. “You will be the objects that deliver it.”
“If you don’t want us dead,” Jeanine asked, “why’d you arrange this little tea party?”
Turning to Diego, the silver wolfer spoke. “You know, Mad One. You must know. Surely the Caped Man has made himself known to you by now.”
“No reason to talk if you won’t make sense,” Jeanine said. “You give me a reason why we don’t just put you all down now?”
The old wolfer never took its eyes off Diego. “Before crossing The Bridge, I knew slavery. Then I came here and knew war. When I built this pack, I knew family. Now, at the end of my life, I will curse you with my knowledge. You will use that knowledge to defeat the Masters’ tool. Or you will fail, and my enemies will die. Either way I will know victory.”
Even though she knew the answer Jeanine asked, “How’s this curse going to hit us?” Of course, it was too late.
As soon as it was done speaking the silver-furred wolfer leapt at Diego. It didn’t jump high, but it did jump far. Fifty yards was not much for a wolfer, and Diego knew it would cover the span easily, but he didn’t fire. He saw a smile that couldn’t be there. He held his shotgun, even kept it pointed at the old wolfer as it jumped, but he didn’t fire. He was watching the smile. When he decided it wasn’t for him, he dropped the shotgun and caught the wolfer. Both hands touched fur just as Jeanine’s second shot sounded. Then Diego left the world for a bit.
From the outside one saw both wolfer and man fall to the ground and tumble, the man’s hands deep inside the fur. The two creatures held each other, locked together despite all the forces around and through them. They didn’t struggle or begin a vicious hand-to-hand fight. They lay still. Both had a distant, vacant stare. That’s all one on the outside could see.
Diego stood in an open field. This was his field, built on memories of spaces he had seen but mostly those he imagined. This field was his chosen arena, a little bit of calmness in the horror. In front of him stood the silver wolfer, and this surprised Diego. None came to the field on their feet. All had been on the ground, some screaming in pain and shock. Most too overwhelmed to move, and all disoriented. This wolfer was calm, relaxed even.
“You haven’t been here before, but you know this place,” Diego said. He was receiving memories easier than ever before, but so much information was difficult to process. Although sorting the images wasn’t difficult, the volume was overwhelming. The wolfer was handing him its life, almost as a present wrapped up neatly in a beautiful box with a signed card.
“No, I have never been here before. That would be impossible. This is your mind after all.”
“How do you know about all this?” Diego’s frustrated tone did nothing to hide his fear.
“You know slavery, don’t you Mad One? You know what it is to be less than nothing. It means you are invisible unless you are needed. You stand next to your masters as they talk about their most intimate secrets, things they have not said to lovers, and they don’t think about you. Most of what a slave overhears is useless talk, petty gossip, but some information is valuable. For example, how to operate a rare and dangerous weapon. That is you, Mad One.”
Diego saw a scene, a memory he hadn’t called up. He was in a ceremony standing behind a man. The day before he would have called the man a wizard, but he now knew this was a high-ranking priest. A hole opened in the room, black as death and the size of a man. The priest cheered.
Then Diego stood facing a door and next to a bed. Behind him he heard a man talking with a woman. He didn’t recognize the voice but knew it was the same priest. They talked of the house, his career, and other mundane things. They rutted, quickly and quietly.
Diego stood in a chamber, behind the same priest and to the side. A soldier came in. He was tall and young and accomplished in battle. He wore armor but carried no weapons. The warrior never looked up. His eyes fixed on a spot three feet in front of the priest. The warrior walked to the spot and dropped to the floor, pressing his forehead to the ground without saying a word. The priest looked at him for some time. When he spoke he told the warrior he had earned Ascension. Today his old life would end and a new life of devotion would begin. The warrior would now be the instrument of the gods. He would personify terror. He asked him if he was ready for this new life. Of course, the warrior said yes. The priest told him to follow, then turned and walked out the door.
Diego was back in the ceremony. The priest chanted and others, also priests but not as high ranking or strong, knelt behind him. They said nothing. Two dozen of the lesser priests silently concentrated and supported the high priest. The hole opened in the room, the priest cheered. The lesser priests said nothing. The warrior walked to the priest, his eyes still downcast. The priest shouted a question at the warrior. He asked if he was ready to be a weapon of the gods. The warrior said yes and looked up. He locked eyes with the priest and said yes again. There was a moment of silence, then the warrior ran to the hole and charged through. The hole didn’t change. The blackness remained without movement or sound. Even as the warrior immediately emerged from it, the blackness remained still. The warrior was different. He did not run out like he confidently ran in. His armor was gone along with the rest of his clothes. Naked, he wept and screamed about darkness and pain and darkness and hunger. The priest did not cheer, but he did smile.
Diego came back to the field. “That’s me then,” he said to the wolfer. “I’m a weapon of the gods.”
“The gods are dead Mad One. We should know since we helped kill them.”
Then Diego’s own memories came. He remembered volunteering for the militia as a young man. He fought warriors as strong and brave as the one from his new memories, his taken memories. Those warriors were skilled and disciplined, but their swords and armor were no match for a band of ex-slaves with rifles hiding behind trees. He remembered meeting General Brown and being asked about these strange abilities. He felt pride at being told he would come on the raid. They would cross The Bridge and attack the enemy’s home. He remembered the year of guerrilla war, raiding and burning across a shocked land. No one had ever invaded before. No army had ever marched across their fields except their own. They were not defenseless, but they were surprised.
He remembered winning. They closed The Bridge. He was not the last one back, but it was close. The General did not come. Most of them had not gotten as far as Diego. Most of the band lay dead in a world so far away from home a mind would go mad thinking about it. But The Bridge had been closed. The war did not end right away, but it was over. Just a matter of time.
He remembered running to The Bridge, knowing it would close whether he made it through or not. He was half crazed and feeling like a god. Somewhere inside he was also terrified of the feeling.
His pursuers were close. He knew he could kill them all, but it would mean not making it through. He could stop them or go home. He went home. Diego ran to The Bridge. It was far larger than the blackness from his new memory but just as empty. He ran through it with his pursuers right behind him. He heard their shouts: a series of snarls and snaps.
“We have met. You were there when we closed The Bridge. You were chasing me. Have you been looking for me this whole time?”
The wolfer growled low. “You are arrogant. We never met because we weren’t chasing you. We were running to get there before it closed. Once through I didn’t think of you again until sensing your pursuit some weeks ago. I had no wish to see you, Mad One. I would flee from you or kill you if I thought I could.”
Diego nodded. “Yeah, I see now. You all worked to make sure we succeeded. A way to get the master without having to fight yourself.”
“Slaves always fight.”
Diego nodded again. Then he grabbed the wolfer’s head and tore it off.
He woke up hard. The pain in every joint screamed whether he moved or not. His head, a beacon of agony, showed a clear path to the most painful parts of his body. Jeanine sat next to him. He heard Beast a bit off eating something that couldn’t be eaten.
“Don’t talk. Drink,” she said and poured some water in his mouth. “They’re all dead. I burned the bodies too. Even the one you took.”
He didn’t respond. The pain and shock of coming back wouldn’t allow it. They were silent together for a long time.
“You find out what you needed?” Jeanine asked.
He shook his head. “Too early to tell. Learned a lot more about how I came to be. Don’t know if it makes much of a difference.”
“No one knows until it does make a difference.”
Diego just stared at the sky for a while, then he looked at Jeanine. “It’s never going to be just me inside. I’ll always have those people with me. My control slips and any of them can come out.” She nodded. He went silent for a bit.
“I ain’t just broke. I keep breaking. All the time. There ain’t no rest. Makes it hard to hold on. It’s why he called me the Mad One. Just a matter of time before I lose my mind.”
She grabbed his hand. “Remember what you told me about soul tracking? A little piece is left behind. We’re all breaking all the time. It’s why there’s room to grow.”
Diego didn’t say anything. Growth was good, maybe. Going crazy because of it was not. Reconciling those two facts was what Jeanine called accepting the cost. It would take a lot more time before he could do that.
Jeanine continued, “We still got more wolfers to track and got to say hello to our new friend behind us. I got a plan. Listen to what I say and stop being an asshole.”
Diego nodded. He would fail at one of those requests but decided it best not to mention it.
“You find out where the wolfers headed?” Jeanine asked. “Or anything about what’s following us?”
“I just know they’re going north. Got an idea about what’s behind us but nothing solid.”
Jeanine got up and started getting Beast ready to head out.
“Well ain’t you just something other than useful.”
It took some days to scout a good ambush site. Although they didn’t know exactly what they were up against they knew it was tough. The plan, such as it was, centered on hitting the thing hard and killing it quick. They would figure out what it was afterward. They found their spot and baited the trap. Diego, being the bait, thought he should have some say in how the trap would work. He was wrong.
“It can sense you. We don’t know how but that don’t matter,” said Jeanine. “You know for sure it can’t get information from you? You sure you won’t tip our hand?”
Diego shook his head. “Then we’re already in trouble since I know the plan. If you really believe it can get information from me, then why let me plan any of this?”
She rolled her eyes. “I ask myself that every time.”
Diego grimaced knowing he had fallen into one trap. “Fine,” he said. “We do it your way. At least hide behind me. I don’t want to hit you by accident, and I don’t think I’m gonna have time to find you.”
Jeanine said nothing which was as good as a yes.
The ambush site was a canyon but only by local standards. Top to bottom it was 200’. A forest grew around it but stopped about 50 yards before the opening as well as the edges on top. Too many places to hide would let the thing get close, but it would also let Jeanine be near. At least they had an escape route if and when things went bad. Diego tried not to think about that.
Diego stayed in position, nodded to Jeanine as she walked to her spot, wherever it was, and started breathing. One learned the exercises the first day in the university. It took him longer than his classmates to learn, and over the years it hadn’t gotten easier. Being quiet and just paying attention became progressively harder. There was always a thought or voice in the back of his head clamoring and demanding to be heard. That was fine now, as long as the voice didn’t reveal anything too sensitive. Maybe the thing couldn’t hear thoughts. Maybe it could but couldn’t go too deep. Until they knew for sure there was no reason to take chances. Hearing nothing was what Diego wanted, but if it just got a garbled mess, that was fine too.
They waited. The sun rose. Diego grew hot. He tried meditating but didn’t get any better at it. It grew hotter, and they waited some more.
Diego didn’t think about leaving. He knew Jeanine wouldn’t let him, but more than that he knew the thing would come. He knew it because if it were him, he would come. He figured it would attack all out, with what he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure when but if it were him he’d wait a good, long time so his targets would get tired and careless. He did his best to prepare himself. He laid out the mental groundwork to react faster than his opponent. If he were lucky, he’d kill it quick. Diego didn’t count on luck, especially in a fight. Things didn’t break his way unless he broke them himself. Luck wasn’t an ally, but it didn’t have to be an enemy. Turned out, on that day, luck was just a bastard.
Diego’s preparations did help. He sensed the charge before hearing or seeing it. His other sense told him it was behind him and moving fast. He didn’t see it come over the cliff, and he didn’t see it coming at his back. He knew it was coming, and he knew his shotgun wasn’t going to work, at least not as a gun. He turned with the shotgun in one hand and his knife in the other. Ever since The Bridge opened and Diego woke from the Dying, the sleep no one around him had woken from, he was faster than anything he had ever known or heard of. No man, animal, or creature from across The Bridge could beat him in a race. Diego got the gun up enough to block what could have been a claw or weapon. He was even able to counter with his knife. Diego put the knife in position and let the thing impale itself. Considering all Diego had to do was turn around while the monster had to climb over a cliff edge and charge 25 yards, winning the race didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. It was faster. The point was driven home when Diego felt his chest catch on fire. Another claw or weapon, no definitely a claw, cut through the leather and ripped open a ragged line. The knife attack had thrown its balance off because although the wound started deep it went shallow quickly. His heart hadn’t been torn out. Diego thought maybe he should feel lucky, but luck was a bastard.
It surprised Diego in more ways: it could talk, it was a man, and it could bleed. Diego’s knife was covered in red. “How? How? How?” it said. The thing, or man, pressed a hand to its side and held it up. Diego couldn’t see the face but the head turned to the bloody hand while whispering the same one-word question. As the man, or thing, walked away Diego fell to the ground. His legs had been working just fine until right then, but they seemed to stop. Diego decided he could figure out his legs later and looked for his shotgun. Even a hit with mundane shells would put this one down at this range, especially in the back. It probably wasn’t right to shoot him in the back but without the use of his legs there wasn’t a way to get in front. It didn’t matter since Diego couldn’t find the shotgun anyway. The world was getting cloudy around the edges, making it hard to see. Perhaps a lie down was in order.
Diego just put his head on the ground, although it may have looked like falling to the uninitiated, when he felt another pain in his chest. He felt a warmth which passed quickly, then pain came back in with reinforcements. He learned his eyes were closed when he opened them to see Jeanine. She wasn’t looking at him so all he saw was the blood coming down the side of her face. He thought about asking her about it but being still felt too good.
“Get up and run, or we both die here,” she said. Always a need to get up and move usually when he was just getting comfortable. He hated that.
“I don’t have anymore strength to heal,” she continued. “You’ve got to do what you can. You hurt that thing but not that bad. It’s gibbering away now, but if it gets a mind to end us we won’t last. You’ve got to get up.”
Jeanine’s voice helped. He could focus on it and avoid unconsciousness. The pain helped too. He was awake enough to realize Jeanine’s plan, such as it was, wasn’t going to work. Sooner or later the man or whatever would focus on them again. They couldn’t move fast enough to get away, and they didn’t have the strength to make a stand. They had to press what little advantage they had. He had one idea. It was stupid.
Diego sat up. Jeanine grabbed his arm and pulled him into something like standing. She started to turn around, but he pulled his arm from around her shoulder. He figured he only had a step or so before he fell, so there wasn’t time for finesse. A better constructed spell would require less power but more time. He had little strength left but even less time. Diego took his knife and ran the edge across his chest wound opening the skin and, more importantly, letting the blood flow. He felt his blood touch the knife and the man’s blood. In that moment he knew they weren’t dealing with a creature, but it wasn’t just a man. He came across The Bridge, and he was powerful. Without the blood Diego could never have made the connection. Even still the power it took was more than Diego thought anyone could stand. If he had been healthy, he probably couldn’t have done it either. In his current state he had nothing to lose. He could die on the ground or take it with him. Diego didn’t make a conscious choice. He just opened up and let his power flow.
Diego knew he was dead because the pain had gone away. He was disappointed an afterlife existed since he wanted to catch up on lost sleep.
“Get up Mad One. We don’t have much time.”
“There are a lot of people just real mad when I lie down. Why is that?”
“I don’t understand your riddle Mad One. We don’t have a lot of time. You must get up.”
Diego sat and looked at the wolfer chief. He couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice. “I ain’t dead, am I?”
The wolfer tilted his head. “You are close. You are falling now. We have until you hit the ground for you to decide.”
Diego stood and looked around. It was the same dream meadow as before, but it seemed faded. The colors looked like an old painting left outside. “What am I deciding?” he asked and focused on the Chief.
“You know this,” the wolfer said. “You must choose to live or die. I am here to show you how. You must choose quickly.”
“You’re in quite a rush. Don’t time stand still inside my own head? I should be able to take all the time I want.”
“No, Mad One. You are dying. If you do nothing, or take too long to decide, you will die. Your body has been badly damaged, and your power is gone. If you wish to live, you must sacrifice a piece of yourself, a piece you have stolen.” The wolfer looked at Diego without expression, but Diego thought he detected something.
“You’re worried. You don’t want me to die. I didn’t think you cared for me like that.”
“I don’t. You are an instrument of my vengeance and victory. I want you to live so that I will win. I serve you only as it serves the purpose.”
“But you still don’t want me to die.”
“Of course not. I have not had my victory. If you die now, my plans go unfulfilled.”
Diego smiled. “So you do care.”
The wolfer shook his head. “You have moments of great insight, even brilliance. But you are a fool. Choose. Now.”
Diego laughed. Pissing off the wolfer had been the highlight of the day. But the Chief was right. It was time to get to work.
“You know I ain’t done. Tell me how to go back so I can finish killing that thing.”
The wolfer shook his head again. “Such the fool. You cannot kill the Caped Man now. Even wounded and confused it is too strong. You will go back even weaker than before. No. You must run. The Caped Man will follow, but you can outrun him, at least for a little while. You must find the rest of my pack. Together you can kill the Caped Man.”
“I don’t like the sound of this at all. I go back weaker and then run. And you expect me to just join a pack of wolfers like we’re all friends. There’s a bounty on y’all still.”
“They are expecting you. I have told them you would come. They will not fight you. If you wish to kill them all, you may. It will condemn you and the Rifle Mage to death. My pack is the only way you can win now.”
Diego felt his stomach drop as he came to a realization. He didn’t hide the surprise from his voice or face, but given they were both mental projections he wasn’t sure that would matter. “You set me up. You knew I would go for this thing. You knew I would get torn to pieces.”
“Of course. It is part of my plan. Do you think you are in control of these events, Mad One? Do you think your decisions have not been anticipated? I knew you would come. I drew you here. You killed me and took my essence as your own, but you haven’t defeated me. You cannot.”
Diego’s bright spot of the day didn’t seem as bright anymore. “How’d you know he wouldn’t just kill me? You need me alive.”
“It was a risk. I gave you what tools I could, but there was a chance. There still is if you don’t move quickly. But you needed to see the Caped Man for yourself. Without this confrontation you could not do what you need to do.”
“You think I’ll just go running to your pack because you say I have to? Hell, I could just die now and be rid of you.”
“You could, but if you do the Rifle Mage will die. She will be alone and wounded. The Caped Man will turn on her.”
In the silence Diego made another connection. “Your pack will attack her. Or do you have something else out there.”
“You will learn, Mad One, that there is nothing left out there. The board, as you say, is being cleared of the minor pieces. I will have my vengeance.” The wolfer stayed silent. He stared at Diego with a patience he didn’t seem to have just a moment before.
“I don’t give a damn about your pack. What do I have to do to get to Jeanine?”
“You still believe your feelings are relevant. So be it. This will be harder for you then it needs to be but no matter. It will be done.”
“I thought you said we were short on time. Quit wagging your tail and your mouth and let’s get to it.” The wolfer didn’t look upset by the comment, but the dynamic of the conversation changed and Diego felt it. He wasn’t working with all the information even though it was all inside his head. He had the soul of a creature inside his own mind playing games with him. Strange how a day can turn so bad almost dying doesn’t seem like such a negative.
“You must choose the essence of someone you have taken,” said the wolfer, “and consume it totally. That will heal you enough to survive this.”
“How about I choose you.”
“You can if you wish. I will be gone then. We both know you wish to see me gone, but we both also know you want the knowledge I have. I know about you. I know more than you know about yourself. If you want that knowledge, then choose someone else’s essence.”
The wolfer was right. The question was how to play this. Choosing the wolfer would take another piece off the board. That could strip away the complications, or at least some of them. He might have a better chance of figuring out how the wolfer and his pack fit into all this just by seeing how the rest of the pieces moved. But that was bad strategy and Diego knew it. Taking a piece broke the tension of the game. It collapsed possibilities and forced decisions. Diego didn’t have enough information yet to come out of the fallout a winner. He would figure things out but only after it was too late. He needed the wolfer around to keep the possibilities open. Diego would learn what he could, develop a plan that could work regardless of what the wolfer set up, and then make his move. It sounded good until he realized it was the Chief’s plan, and it was already under way. Diego was looking at checkmate and he had barely moved any pieces at all.
If you can’t go with a good plan, go with the plan you have. It wasn’t great advice, but it helped him in the moment.
Over the decades of his life, Diego had killed a remarkable number of people and creatures. He didn’t keep count. In fact he didn’t think much about it. He killed things that needed killing, then he moved on. If what needed killing was a person or a creature or a bug in his bedroll, he killed it with the easiest and most efficient means possible. None of those deaths, and there were hundreds, weighed on him in the slightest. The essences were a bit different.
The first time he killed a man, Diego had just woke up from the Dying. No one woke up. No one on the farm got up when they lay down. They got sick, some faster than others, then they lay down and slept. At some point, they dried out. Within an hour or so all that was left was a husk, a shell of a body. Diego got sick along with the rest, but he didn’t lay down. He refused to sleep, not because he thought it would save him but just out of spite. He stood on the porch while the others all succumbed. Then he woke up. Later he figured he passed out while standing there holding a post. At the time he didn’t know what happened. He knew he was alone. He was free. He was terrified. So he ran.
Sometime later he found the man. Actually, the man found him. Diego didn’t know where he came from. He felt a weight on his side and then fell to the ground. The man was big, bigger than Diego at least. Diego felt strong hands on his throat, and he knew he didn’t have the strength to save himself. He heard the man screaming at him. “This is your fault! You people brought this on all of us. God wants you dead, and so do I.”
The words didn’t mean anything. Diego couldn’t breathe. He had to breathe. He didn’t make it this far to die on some shit road at the hands of some crazy-ass cracker. He couldn’t breathe. If he could just take one breath, just a little time to think. He was alive, but maybe he shouldn’t be. Maybe this insane white man was God’s way of fixing a mistake, and Diego should have died from whatever was killing everyone in the world. This was sure some bad timing on God’s part. If He had made a mistake, then He should at least come down himself to fix it. If God was going to kill Diego, He was going to have to do it Himself.
Diego took his thumb and drove it into the man’s eye. He knew the man was screaming but didn’t stop until he was past the knuckle. The man let go to cover his ruined face and writhed on the ground. Diego took the moment to take in one of the sweetest breaths he ever took. Then he heaved. They were quite a sight. One young man spitting up his guts while the other tried to cover the hole in his face.
“I’ll kill you. You bastard. I’m gonna kill you.”
That got Diego’s attention. He stopped heaving and looked at the man without seeing him. Diego saw every man in his life who told him where to stand, what to lift, where to work. He saw the young gentlemen and ladies who grew soft and fat on everything he worked to provide. He saw the face of the man who took him from his parents, put him on a ship, and told him to never speak Spanish again. Diego couldn’t remember his mother’s face nor the sound of her voice, but he could remember the face of the man who took it all away. He realized that man was dead. The fat, young men and ladies. The old ones too. They were all dead. As far as he could tell, Diego and his assailant were the only living people in the world. Of course, he was wrong. The Dying killed most people but not everyone. In that moment Diego didn’t know he was wrong. He had only seen this one living person. In that moment, he decided that was one too many.
Diego didn’t say anything. There was no quip or profound answer to the man’s ravings. Diego just got up, walked over, and grabbed the man’s head. He hadn’t meant to trigger anything, he had no idea that was a possibility. He just wanted to twist, like the man was a giant chicken ready for a special dinner. Instead he found himself in an open meadow, looking at the man lying across from him with two good eyes. Seeing the man healthy enraged him. Diego was not going to let this man live let alone get better. He saw the man move his mouth. He saw the surprise. He saw the man move a hand up to his eye in a ridiculously slow fashion. Everything the man did was so slow, and that enraged Diego more. This had to end. Diego moved towards the man, actually just thought about it and was there. Diego put his hand through the man’s chest, it felt like sticking his arm through warm pie. Diego saw the man’s eyes widen, but he couldn’t stand the thought of waiting. He lifted and then threw the body back to the ground. As far as he knew, Diego was now the last person alive. He felt just fine.
That was the first time Diego took someone’s being. The Chief called it essence. Diego called it a soul, but that was more habit than belief. The idea of eternal life after death didn’t make much sense to him after living 75 years as an almost indestructible being. That life, one of power and death, began with that killing. Diego woke from it alone in the middle of the road and feeling worse than he thought anyone could. He had known pain, throughout his life the only constant companion was hurt of one kind or another. This was something different. This pain was a blind man seeing the sun for the first time. This was a mute’s first scream. This pain was an introduction to a world he didn’t know existed. Every sense expanded out, stretching until he was sure he would explode. Instead, he tore. Every muscle, tendon, and nerve ending grew in intensity and effectiveness. Decades of training would do the same, but he went through it in hours. The strength and increased speed, as well as the pain and soreness all that training caused. He experienced all of it, and when he was done he swore he wouldn’t do it again. And when he was swearing, he knew he was lying. The others, about a dozen since then, never hurt as bad as the first time, but they hurt enough he was never in a rush to kill that way again. Worse than the hurt, those he killed never left him. The Chief may have his own agenda, but he wasn’t the only one with free room and board in Diego’s mind. The thoughts, knowledge, and memories of more than a dozen people lived inside him, including the screaming racist in the woods. Kicking one out didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.
“I got one,” he said. The wolfer nodded, and then Diego woke up.
Jeanine was sure Diego was dead although she couldn’t tell herself this yet. He still breathed, but Diego was dead. It was just a matter of time before his body figured that out. Until then she would give him the space he needed. They had been riding together a long time and owed each other that much.
She had been riding two days with his body strapped in behind her. Osovacas could run full speed over any terrain, and she had been testing that claim. Beast crashed his way east. She knew the thing was following them. Well, she didn’t really know that. It had wandered off screaming while she dragged Diego away. She couldn’t sense it, but she didn’t sense it during the fight either. They shouldn’t have survived that encounter. She was sure Diego hadn’t. She was less than 100 yards away with her senses wide. Nothing, no matter how well masked, should have been able to get near them without her knowing. But she was caught flat footed. The claw, she guessed it was a claw since she hadn’t seen it, hit her head and the thing moved off before she landed on the ground. She remembered lying there feeling a wetness on her face. Then she felt sleepy, but it wasn’t a good time to sleep. She fought to stay awake and fought harder to stand. By the time she located Diego he was gutted and the thing was making some weird noise she figured was screaming.
Jeanine wasn’t afraid of anything. She hadn’t been afraid then either. This wasn’t the first time she ran from a fight. Standing and losing when you knew you couldn’t win didn’t make you brave, it made you stupid. Jeanine wasn’t stupid. She knew they couldn’t outrun it, but she didn’t have another plan. Diego had done something and the thing was upset about it. Whatever it was, they had lived an extra two days and that was something. Diego might be dead, but he bought them two days. That was something. She’d wait however long it took. She owed him that much.
Diego didn’t wake up. That implies a more gradual process, one that could be pleasant or done begrudgingly. Diego came to consciousness like a second birth: covered in blood and screaming.
“Oh Jesus Christ! Shut your mouth right now,” said someone he didn’t recognize. He didn’t like the idea of being quiet either so he kept screaming. It took three hits to the head before he stopped.
“Damn woman,” he said once he saw Jeanine. “You didn’t have to use your fist. If you want me dead, just shoot me.”
“Gunshot would make too much noise. Besides, I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need every bullet.”
Diego lay across Beast’s back. It was night although the moon hadn’t come up yet. He knew he needed to ask where they were, how long he’d been out, about Jeanine’s condition. They had a lot to discuss and plan, but the night was quiet and the stars were bright. He held the moment, one that by all rights he shouldn’t possess.
Jeanine said nothing. She was entitled to her moment as well.
“So where’d you take me?” he asked when he was ready.
“Right now we ain’t nowhere. We’re moving east fast as this slow thing can go. We live long enough we can get lost in the swamp.”
Diego thought on that a moment. They’d change plans when she had all the information, or they wouldn’t. It didn’t seem to matter much at the moment. “How are you doing?”
“I’m beat all to hell. Ain’t slept in three days. Ain’t eaten in two. The only good thing that’s happened is you waking up.”
“That’s sweet of you to say.”
“Shit. I only mean I don’t have to waste time burying you.”
“You know I want to be reduced to ash. Scatter me in the wind.”
“You are a selfish ass. We got some monster on us and you want me to light a fire big enough for the world to see? Think about somebody else for once.”
“I’m sorry my death would be such an inconvenience for you.”
“Well you didn’t die, did you? Unless that mouth got a life of its own.”
“I notice you didn’t tell me too much about how you’re doing. How hurt are you?”
“I’m hungry and tired, and I’ve been dragging your fat ass around for three days. I can’t be hurt all that bad.”
Diego didn’t say anything. Laying across Beast’s back all he could see was the left side of her face. He got up. It took quite a long time and a lot of effort. Sitting up he saw the bandage on her right side. It was dirty and dark with dried blood, and it covered her eye.
“How bad?” he asked.
She was quiet for a bit. Not too long but long enough to tell Diego she was coming to terms. “I lost it. Took most of my strength to get us out and stop the bleeding. Didn’t have enough to repair the damage done. A half inch deeper and I would’ve been dead before I knew what hit me. At least I got that.”
“Yeah,” said Diego, after a while. “We both got that.”
They rode on for another hour or so. When the moon came up Diego thought they put off the talk long enough. “We might as well stop,” he said. “There’s some stuff to discuss. Seems we haven’t been as free as we thought.”
It took another hour to convince Jeanine to stop. She held that any conversation could be done on the move just as easily as by a fire, but they needed rest and food no matter who was came after them. Diego also made the point that they would never survive if they only kept reacting to events. It was past time to be the actors. That, more than anything, convinced her to stop.
Jeanine believed they were in control right up until her head was split open and Diego almost died. Hunting bounties was never a sure thing. A plan was more of a suggestion than a prediction. That was different from realizing multiple players had anticipated every action. Jeanine hadn’t realized how pieces were on the board. She still wasn’t clear. Diego filled her in on the conversation with the wolfer chief, including the claim of planning this out. She was surprised, impressed, and more than a little angry with herself.
“We’ve become arrogant. Gotten cocky with ourselves,” she said. This was after hearing the story and staring into the fire. The light was a risk, but they needed to eat. More than that they needed something to settle the nerves and get them thinking straight. A small fire, just big enough to cook on but not big enough to see too far off, was necessary. It allowed her to focus, and focusing put her anger to productive use. “We probably needed this ass kicking. Had to take us down some pegs.”
“Cheaper ways to get the lesson.”
“We set the price high when we didn’t pay attention to the details. That wolfer chief was too damn quick to go for you. He jumped at you, like he knew what to expect.” She paused for a moment, then shook her head. “Ain’t no ‘like’ about it. He damn well knew. He knew what you could do, probably before you did.”
“I haven’t spent much time around wolfers I didn’t kill. Unless he’s been talking to people who know me, don’t see how you could be right.”
“There no chance a wolfer would be talking to humans about anything. He may not know you personally, but he knows about you. He’s come across someone like you before. Yeah, I know there ain’t no one like you. You keep saying it, won’t shut up about it, but we don’t know what’s all in the world right now. There might be another mage like you.”
Diego stared into the fire. “Yeah, I think there is. But I don’t think that’s how the wolfer got his information. This wolfer is old. He lived on the other side of The Bridge, told us so before I killed him. The memories I saw, his memories, they were showing me a mage like me, or at least something close.”
Jeanine shook her head. “Be careful now. This wolfer is playing games inside your head. Could be those memories are real, could be they’re not. If we figure they are, that means the thing we’re fighting also came from over The Bridge. The wolfer knew enough about you to predict your behavior, but also what that thing was going to do.” Jeanine kept poking the fire. Her eyes lit up and Diego knew she figured something out. It would be dangerous to interrupt her before she finished the details. “We’ve got all the information we need, but it doesn’t matter.”
This wasn’t an exciting realization, but it confirmed their confusion. Verbalizing silent thoughts did help. Diego felt like he was being used, but he had stopped being mad about it. He needed that energy to create a plan. He just wasn’t coming up with one.
“We know we can’t run,” he said after a time. “We know we can’t ambush it. We also know we can’t fight it. None of this knowledge sounds like stuff we could use and win.”
Jeanine shook her head. “We know quite a bit. This thing can feel us from a distance. It can punch through a mask. We also know we can hurt it. You hit it with that knife and it ran screaming.”
“I think I just confused it. It was just mumbling in surprise, not screaming.”
Jeanine faced Diego for the first time. “What do you mean mumbling?”
“Mumbling. You know, saying words real low.”
“Diego, I didn’t hear words. I heard that thing screaming.”
“You were hurt pretty bad. Maybe you just got confused.”
“Maybe I should stab you in the ass. You damn near died so it’s more likely you were confused.”
Diego nodded. He woke up healed from his physical wounds but was just too tired to fight with Jeanine. Besides, she was right again. He was dying by the time he heard the man say anything so maybe he had imagined it. Except he knew he hadn’t. “Neither one of us were confused. I heard it. It spoke, and it sounded like a man. One that didn’t know why it had been hurt. No, a man that had thought he couldn’t be hurt. This thing got some power and is not used to a real contest. He hasn’t been cut in so long he thought it couldn’t happen.”
“Looks like we ain’t the only ones that’s been arrogant.” Jeanine focused on the fire. “Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen it. It’s scared.”
“Why’d you hear screaming? I heard something low, you heard something loud. I heard words and you didn’t. This man can mess with our perceptions or something?”
“That may be. Might be you were closer so you could get a clearer idea of what was happening. But I’m guessing it’s something more complex than that.”
“Of course. Ain’t nothing ever easy.”
“Ain’t nothing ever was,” Jeanine answered back. “You heard the eggs screaming back in Ocala. I’m thinking it’s connected.”
“Yeah, me too. Too much of a coincidence. You didn’t hear the eggs at all though. Why could you hear this man? What’s different?”
“How the hell I’m gonna know that? The Bridge been down for years now and we find things we can’t explain every day. There’s no one alive can figure out how the world works now, probably never will be. We had to learn that again.”
Diego sighed. “An expensive lesson.”
Jeanine shrugged. “Hard head make a soft ass.”
They both sat in silence for some time. The stars turned, the fire burned low, and the two friends continued to sit in silence. It wasn’t sleep, but it restored.
They woke two hours before dawn and moved slowly, reluctantly. They kept a watch but it proved unnecessary, proof enough they weren’t being pursued. They ate breakfast and broke camp in silence. Nothing left undone except mounting Beast and riding east, but neither of them did. They stared into the sky, both facing the pre-dawn darkness. Diego broke the stalemate.
“I speak their language. I can hear their words if they make them, or their screams if they can’t. That’s why you didn’t hear what I did.”
“Why now? We’ve been killing and hunting all kinds of things for quite a while. You ain’t ever heard new languages or screams before. At least no screams I didn’t hear.”
“Got to be this man. He’s the new factor. Somehow meeting him changes something. We’re connected by something.”
Jeanine turned to Diego. “You gonna say it out loud? Or we gonna dance for another day?”
Diego said nothing. He stared at the dark sky he knew would eventually lighten. If he turned around, he would see the light. If he didn’t, it would still come.
Jeanine saw his shoulders move. A slight slumping, a bow to the inevitable. She softened her tone. “That question you asked me before. The answer I gave you is still the same.”
“He moved like me. More than that, I sensed him. Through his mask, right at the last moment. It was damn near too late, but I sensed him. I knew he was there just like I know he ain’t out there now. Just like I knew I could use his blood to hurt him again. That man and me are the same. Except he’s more powerful. Even more since I healed myself. The wolfer said I would be less than I was if I came back. He was right. Jeanine, I don’t know how we can face this man and live. If he really is like me, or I’m like him, then I don’t know if I even want to.”
“Nobody lives forever, not even us. No matter how strong you are, there’s always someone stronger. Even for us. That don’t mean we can’t win.”
“But what does winning mean? Am I gonna have to lose my mind to beat this? You gotta lose another eye? Even if we do beat it, what then?”
“You know we can’t run. It ain’t after us because it can find us whenever it wants. We need to find a way, there’s no turning from this.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just…shit. I’m scared. I ain’t been afraid in a long time. Forgot what it can do.”
Jeanine faced the dawn. “It’s scary when we have something to lose.”
“You saying I ain’t had nothing valuable?”
“I’m saying this is the first time in a long time that something could take something valuable from you.”
Diego sighed. He turned, looked at Jeanine, then at the dawn. Then he headed towards Beast. Over his shoulder he asked, “So what’s your plan?”
Jeanine smiled but she didn’t turn from the sun. “We stock up.”
Americus was never a big town. Large enough and close enough to the railroad to make a decent resupply point, but not big enough to relax in. Although big enough to avoid harassment by most Bridge creatures, there was always something that didn’t get the message. This happened often enough that the area built a small economy on bounties and hunters. People died without an incentive to permanently end the threat. Some people lived because hunters were around. A few people got rich, and that’s what matters. Even for a small town though, the streets were quiet. A few folks ran from one door to another, but not many.
“You notice what I’m noticing?” asked Diego.
“Even with one eye. Something happened here. Why I got a feeling we know what?” Jeanine drove Beast down the middle of the street as nothing got in their way. She stopped in front of the sheriff’s office where a single horse stood tied to the post.
“We should both go in for this. I don’t want to run the risk of separating,” said Jeanine.
“Yeah, I’m uneasy too. After, let’s head to the store and take care of that eye.”
Since the war sheriff’s mostly administered bounties, pushed paper, and kept numbers straight. The position never paid honest holders well. But if there was such a thing as an honest sheriff, they disappeared with the closure of The Bridge. Dishonesty, however, was a spectrum. The Americus sheriff held his office for so long because he knew being too extreme on that spectrum was unhealthy. He made a good living and made sure others got their piece as well, and that’s what matters.
“Hinton,” said Jeanine. “A little early to be drinking.”
“Not by my watch,” said the older man. He was past 40, not that tall, and while some weight had gathered around the middle it wasn’t enough to call him fat. What distinguished Sheriff Hinton was the exhaustion on his face. All sheriffs were tired, it was the nature of the business, but Hinton looked like a man under siege.
“Not sure how you made it into town, but you can’t have my bottle,” said the sheriff. He poured another shot, never looking at the pair.
“Might funny way to say hello,” said Jeanine. Diego walked over to the bounty board. He had no intention of taking on work, but it was always good practice to find out what was going on. He focused on the board while Jeanine and the sheriff danced.
“It’s a might funny time,” replied Hinton. “You still can’t have a drink, but take a seat if you like.”
Jeanine walked over to the chair but kept standing. “What’s going on? Why don’t you want visitors?”
“I don’t have a problem with visitors. This town doesn’t do well if hunters don’t show up. What I’m saying is that I don’t know how you survived. No one’s been able to leave or enter this town in two days. How’d you manage it?”
Diego turned from the board and stood next to Jeanine. “What do you mean no one can leave or enter?” Jeanine asked.
The sheriff shrugged and downed the shot. “I mean everyone who tries to leave dies and no one’s been able to come into town.”
“How do you know they died?”
Hinton shivered and poured another shot. “We hear them. Their screams carry through the town. Never heard anything like it. If those people ain’t dead, then I pity them.”
Jeanine looked at Diego. He nodded and she turned back to the sheriff. “How do you know people can’t get in?” she asked.
“Shit,” said Hinton, “you’re both hunters. You got to know about this town. We get people coming in for work all the time, at least we did. In the last two days no one has come into this town but you two. Everyone who tried to leave ends up screaming their life out. Every hunter. Every townie. The situation ain’t complicated.”
Diego spoke up. “Have you seen the bodies?”
Hinton looked at his glass and downed his shot before replying. “No. Everyone who went out there died or weren’t you listening? I don’t feel curious enough to put my ass on the line.”
Jeanine was about to say something but Diego beat her. “So the screams are the only reason you think people are dead? No idea how, just that it must be bad.”
The sheriff’s mood turned. He got angry because that’s what people who feel guilty do when their worst selves are exposed, when their weaknesses are brought to light. “Both of you can fuck off now. People are dead. They died horribly. For all I know you both did it. No one’s been here in two days but you both come in here like on an afternoon stroll. Now you’re asking me questions? I’m the damned sheriff!”
This time Jeanine beat Diego. She leaned in over the desk, not even by much. She barely changed her angle over the still seated but rapidly rising Sheriff Hinton. That small move ended the escalation. She followed up by locking eyes the same way a viper locks eyes with a too small mouse, saying it lives because it isn’t worth the trouble and should spend the rest of its days making sure to never get any bigger. “We’re done now Sheriff Hinton,” she said through that gaze. “We’ve got an idea what killed your people. Maybe even a notion why it stopped. We’re gonna look for this thing, and we’re gonna put it down. Don’t worry your pretty head about this. I see you got so much to do.”
She leaned back, still making eye contact. Diego added, “We’ll see ourselves out.” He was three steps to the door before Jeanine moved. Even after they left Hinton sat there still as he could. He didn’t move for quite a bit. When he finally did, the bottle didn’t stand a chance.
Neither Jeanine nor Diego motioned to Beast once outside the sheriff’s office. They both turned up the street, Diego in the lead but Jeanine catching up quickly and Hinton already forgotten.
“How do you think it did it?” asked Jeanine.
“I got a guess. I’m hoping I’m wrong, but it’s been quite a run of some bad news lately so I’m betting I’m not. I’ll know for sure if I can see a body.”
“Afraid you were gonna say that. Knew you would but wished it wasn’t so.”
“Wishing hasn’t been real productive for either of us.”
“True. But it don’t hurt. At least not yet.”
They arrived at the general store. Jeanine took a few steps in and surveyed the inventory with a slow sweep of her bandaged head. Behind the counter a young girl, somewhere just beyond mid-teens, looked at them both. Diego made his way over while Jeanine continued her audit. “We need re-supply. Flour, coffee, bacon. How stocked are you?”
The girl focused on Diego, and he saw the look on her face. The world was a hard place and had been for a long time. Countless number walked with their broken childhood showing in their eyes. More people had that look than didn’t he figured. Some covered it with drink, or meanness or craziness or something else, but it never stayed buried. Childhood’s end should not be an event in memory. To know the day of one’s adulthood is to walk around with a precious gift left in ruins and the knowledge of the exact moment it shattered. Of course, that was probably a lie too. Who’s to say what should be. Maybe this was the human way. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe life was just what it was, a process of crushing people. One either dealt with it or didn’t. Either way that look saddened Diego every time. Maybe one day he would find someone without it.
“We ain’t been restocked in ‘bout a week, but we should have most of what you need,” she said, then looked towards Jeanine. “Don’t have much in the way of medical supplies though. Maybe some clean bandages and alcohol, but that’s about it.”
Diego nodded. Her voice told him she was somebody’s daughter just minding the store, at least until two days ago. She used to be a girl in a small town with girl in a small town problems. In the last two days she became a young woman with a business to run. All told, she seemed to be handling it well.
“Won’t be needing those medical supplies,” Jeanine answered. “You got spectacles? Any kind. Smoked glass would be best though.”
The girl turned back to Jeanine. “Pretty sure we got some kind in the back somewhere. I’ll need about 30 minutes to put this all together.”
“We’ll need the spectacles first. If you can get that now, you can take your time on the rest,” said Jeanine. She looked the girl in the face. “Thank you.”
The girl nodded and turned, walking to the back of the store. Diego looked at Jeanine. “You got some kind of plan for those spectacles? Some surprise up your sleeve?”
Jeanine nodded back. “Got an idea. We don’t have the time or strength for me to grow a new eye. But I might be able to create something that’ll work. Going to have to do it on the fly though.”
Diego shook his head. “Not worth it to do something quick and shoddy. We already have enough handicaps. Let’s take the time and do it right.”
“Do you even have an idea of what I’m thinking about doing?”
“Probably not. Still don’t want to do it halfway though.”
“This could delay us half a day.”
“Bit of an inconvenience, but not as much as dying because you can’t see well enough.”
“Do we even have the time? That thing could hit us any second.”
“It could, but I don’t think it will just yet. We have a little bit of time before it’s done doing what it’s doing.”
“And what is it doing?”
“Clearing the board.”
The young woman came back as Diego finished his sentence. She placed an old pair of glasses on the counter. The frame was wire and worn but the lenses were intact and clear. “Here you are,” she said. “Don’t know how much they’ll help you but it’s all I got.”
“They’ll do nicely,” said Jeanine. “Town this size got a doctor? Even a skilled barber with some experience at tooth pulling would be OK.”
The young woman looked down at the counter for a brief moment, caught herself, and looked back at Jeanine. She swallowed a bit hard. “We did, but I don’t think we do now. Doc went with my Da and brother, checking in on the McPherson’s just out of town. Ella had a baby couple of months back.” She stopped, swallowed again. “That was the first night we heard the screams.”
Jeanine held the girl’s eyes, one against two but more than enough. “What’s your name, miss?” she asked.
“Dolly, ma’am. Dolly Jones.”
“What’s your father and brother called?”
“Da is James but everyone calls…called him Jimmy. Brother’s name was David.”
Jeanine nodded again. “We’re going out in a few hours. I promise you, If I see your kin or the Doc, I’ll send word. Either way.”
“I would appreciate that ma’am.”
“No trouble. This should be enough for the spectacles and supplies.” Jeanine put a small pouch of gold on the counter. “I’ll take these now. We’ll be back in a few hours for the rest. We got an osovaca so put it in two bags and spread the weight even.”
“Yes, ma’am. I can do that.” Dolly hesitated for second but regained her courage. “Ma’am, the three went out in a wagon and two horses. They were Molly and Polly, Da’s idea of funnin’. If you see them, I could use them back. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble. Two horses and a wagon would be a lot to replace. We’ll see what we can do.”
Dolly sighed, a relief flooding her body. “Thank you again, ma’am. It’s going to be hard enough staying open. I don’t see how I could get the money for all that plus the burials.”
Jeanine nodded, took the glasses, and headed out the door. Diego tipped his hat and followed, feeling sad the whole time.
Diego found Jeanine standing in front of the store looking up and down the street. “If you’re looking to get a drink, I’m right there with you,” he said.
“Yeah, I do feel the need. But that ain’t what I’m looking for,” she replied. “Was wondering where the doc’s office is.”
“You gonna tell me what you’re planning?”
“Can’t get a new eye, but I can get a focus. Should be able to see just as good.”
“Yeah, but it will take power. Won’t be enough time to have it match your aura. You’ll have to keep chargin’ it.”
“What you know? You’re always about force. Fist as good as a finger to you. I’m the one with finesse.”
“Yeah, you got so much finesse you standing on a porch with no idea where to go.”
Jeanine lost her playful demeanor. “I just don’t even want to go and ask her. Maybe it’s the wounds and the exhaustion, but I can’t feel that much loss right now. It’s too much. Right now, it’s too much to handle.”
Diego put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s it say that we would rather stumble around looking for a place to burn metal into your skin than ask a young lady for directions?”
Jeanine put her hand over Diego’s. “It means we’re getting old. Everything means we’re getting old.”
They stood together for a minute. Then they crossed the street and walked into the saloon for a drink and some notion of where to go.
They found the doctor’s office, which was part of his house. Folks told them there wouldn’t be family and there wasn’t. Jeanine and Diego entered and made themselves at home. Diego gathered materials while Jeanine sat at the desk and studied the newly purchased glasses. After putting everything together, Diego sat on the bed and looked at Jeanine.
“You sure about this? This’ll take a level of control that’ll be hard to come to and even harder to hold. And that’s before melting the metal into your skin.”
Jeanine kept studying the spectacles, running a finger over parts, rotating the eyeglasses, and repeating. “Yeah,” she said without taking her eyes off her project, “I can do it. I know I can.”
“Won’t be no coming back. You’re not going to be able to heal this over later. You can live with that?”
“Stop asking me stupid questions and telling me things I already know. Get off the bed too. I’m going to lie down for a bit. We’ll do this in a couple of hours.”
Diego moved, walking out of the room he said, “At least you’re listening to me about taking your time. I’ll get us something to eat.”
Just before he walked out Jeanine, reclining on the bed with the glasses on her chest and almost asleep, said, “I’ll be all right. Don’t worry no more.”
Two hours later Diego returned with a plate piled high with meat, bread, and other items the Doc no longer needed. He handed the plate over. “How can I help?”
Jeanine tore into the food. In between bites she said, “Gonna need a ground for this. Don’t channel anything my way. Just serve as a connection to the floor. I’ll be able to do the rest.”
Diego nodded, pulled a chair closer to the bed, and waited for her to be done. He knew she’d be OK. He also knew this was going to be a trial.
Jeanine finished her meal and wiped her hands on the end of the bed sheet. The glasses never left her lap. She placed the plate down and put the spectacles on. Then she lay down. Diego took off his boots. Barefoot, he placed a hand on Jeanine’s head and another on her leg, as far down as he could. He closed his eyes and waited for the pain to come.
Some called it magic but not many. The university called it alchemy. Most people called it power. Magic is a word relying more on superstition than a precise description of the process. Alchemy was that description. When The Bridge opened the rules changed, and it became possible for one thing to become another. Turning lead into gold was still not possible, but it’s a crude example anyway. The new rules allowed thought to become form. Thinking about fire could create fire, if one had the gift. While a surprising number of people did, most were weak. Even the most powerful still needed a focus, something to concentrate one’s energy on. This was properly known as alchemy. Power was its common name.
Power, the ability to do, was a good description. Some could do quite a bit. Most very little. Since only a few were capable, it just didn’t make sense for people to understand the process with any detail or accuracy. Most people just wanted to not be in the way, and that’s a worthy goal. Jeanine was quite capable and had studied the process in detail. Even she called it power, but what she practiced was alchemy.
Lying on the bed Jeanine held the idea of the spectacles in her mind. She saw the glasses as they were, and then she changed the picture. Slowly the glasses changed. The metal reformed into a monocle. The two lenses combined to become thicker and darker, almost black. She embraced the new form, taking it into herself. That’s when the pain came. Thought could change matter but at a cost.
The metal sank in Jeanine’s eye socket and the lenses merged with the skin. Diego did his best to bleed off as much pain as he could. Although close to full health, his weakened state limited how much and increased the effort. His work did make a difference. Jeanine could focus more easily than otherwise. She was still being branded on her skull, but the pain wasn’t enough to break her. Pain was something Jeanine understood, even accepted. Things hurt. That was a definition of life. Perhaps there would be happiness, even joy. That wasn’t a guarantee. Pain was a guarantee. Knowing this provided no comfort, a fact supporting her argument.
It took more than an hour to finish. Jeanine was right, her style lent itself to finesse. When she was done there was little scarring and the monocle, now surrogate eye, sat in place with a disconcerting elegance. It didn’t belong there, but one could get used to it and even appreciate it as beautiful. Jeanine would have been pleased, but she lost consciousness soon after finishing. Diego could just wipe down her face with alcohol and press a bandage on her eye socket. Then he lay on the floor.
He never did put his boots on.
For the first time in days, Diego slept. He didn’t pass out, he just went to sleep, too tired to ponder the novelty. When he found himself in an open field he was therefore quite angry.
“No! Hell no!” he yelled. “You can’t be doing this. It’s my head dammit!” No one was there, until someone was. The wolfer chief stood in front of Diego, providing a specific target. “What the fuck are you doing? This is my head. You can’t just be pulling my consciousness around. Oh, you and me are going to have some words.”
“It is First,” said the wolfer.
“First? First what? I’m first. You know why? Because it’s my mind, not yours. Keep in your place you ass-sniffing, puppy fucker.”
“I am not a chief,” replied the wolfer, ignoring the insult. “My kind have no such thing. We have those who put themselves in front of the pack when asked. Some are consulted when decisions are made. These individuals are honored by being called First. I am First in my pack, or at least I was when I lived.”
“That’s right. You don’t live anymore. You ain’t first anymore. You are in my head. That makes me first, so don’t you do this kind of shit anymore!”
“We must talk, Mad One, but you are avoiding me. I did what was necessary.”
“Fuck you,” said Diego. He walked away angry at what the wolfer did and furious that he could do it. The chief, or First, didn’t live anymore. He was a collection of memories, knowledge fragments, and patterns. Diego incorporated it all when he killed the wolfer. Whatever will First had was destroyed in that process, or it should have been. First had kept some of his will. Diego was mad because this was proof he was weaker, and there was nothing to do but be mad about it.
“We must talk, Mad One. You are wasting time while The Caped Man recovers. He is getting stronger while you sleep.”
Diego didn’t turn around. He did want to talk with the wolfer but as long as he was angry, First would control the conversation. Brute force clearly wasn’t working, so Diego would have to play the game. Rather, he would have to play a game. He closed his eyes and counted to 10. When he opened them, he was behind the wolfer. “Why is he called the Caped Man?” he asked, and was a little disappointed the wolfer didn’t jump.
First turned around and replied, “That’s not important right now. You must-” But Diego disappeared before the sentence finished. The wolfer shook its head. “You are still here. Stop being a pup.”
Diego reappeared in front of First. At the same moment the sky over the meadow brightened, like a new day was dawning. “I’m going to explain something to you, and then you will answer my questions or this little talk will end. You need me to be asleep to talk with you. That means if I wake up, I don’t have to see your ugly ass anymore. Furthermore, I can now make sure you don’t pull this little stunt again. If you want to talk to me, and you obviously have a greater desire to converse than I do, then you will give me a reason to stay. The only reason I want to hear anything from you is to get information on my enemy. If you want to give me instructions on what to do next, then this is over. If you want to give me a lesson on wolfer society, this is over. I don’t give a damn about you or your pack. Answer my questions or go away.” Diego stopped moving. He made his move and waited for his opponent to counter.
“I call him the Caped Man,” said First, “because when I first saw him he wore a cape. I have never heard him referred to by any name.”
Diego nodded. It was a banal answer but it got things started. “How many others are there like him?”
“I do not know. He is the only one I have ever seen.” The wolfer stopped. Diego raised his eyebrows, and First continued. “Until I met you.”
Diego nodded again. This confirmed a lot, but there was much more to know. “He was created on the other side of The Bridge.”
“So how come I exist? I’m not from the other side.”
“That I do not know. You should not exist, but you do. It is a mystery but also an opportunity.”
“What is the Caped Man? Some kind of weapon?”
“That is fairly accurate. He is a dangerous weapon, but one designed not to hurt his masters.”
“The Caped Man is faster, stronger, and more powerful than any other warrior. He can also take knowledge and power directly from the enemy. Such a man is unstoppable. He can dominate all, even those who created him. So the creators made sure that would not happen. They built in a safeguard. The Caped Man destroys himself. Eventually he takes one mind too many. He loses himself and goes mad. When that happens he loses control of his power and is consumed by it.”
Diego paused a moment. “You’re saying that’s how I die?”
“I do not know how you will die, Mad One. You could be killed by the Caped Man or by your partner. But I can say if you continue to absorb power and knowledge, you will one day go one mind too far.”
Diego stayed silent. Of course he was missing something. First was holding something back, but Diego found he didn’t care anymore. Jeanine fused metal and glass to her face. He was weaker than he had been in decades, and he just found out that getting stronger would kill him. He was also in a town that had lost a good portion of its population to one powerful man in a single, 48-hour rampage. Getting in front of events was now impossible. He was losing this game, even the new one he thought he was playing. Indeed, he was so far behind the only way to win was to turn the board over.
Diego looked at First. “So why not let him die? How much longer does he have?”
First shook his head. “I do not know. It is impossible to say. I only know his end is coming. You could just wait, but it will cost you. The Caped Man has killed many in this town. Every day he is alive means more will die. Can you live with that? Can you live knowing there will be more girls like the shopkeeper?”
Diego’s look hardened. “That sounds like bullshit to me. You don’t give a damn about that woman or any human. You’re still trying to get me to save your pack.”
First shrugged. “You are right. I care nothing for humans because you are my enemy. The Caped Man is my enemy. If you kill each other, I will do nothing but enjoy it. I would like my pack to live. I want you to help them, but if you do not then I will be content to see humans suffer.”
“What about your revenge? Don’t you have some great plan to see vengeance done? If I do nothing, what happens to your plan?”
First made choking sounds Diego recognized as laughter. “Mad One, my plans are done. I have my vengeance. No matter what you do humans will die. Either the humans from this world die because you do nothing, or you kill one of the slave master’s pets, or you die. It does not matter, I am content.”
“Then why the hell do we need to talk? What was so important?”
“My pack is here. When you wake up they will want to talk with you. I came to tell you it is time to decide whether or not to kill them.”
“Shit! How far away? How long until they get here?”
“I told you, Mad One. They are here. They are watching you sleep. Choose.”
Diego woke up.
Night had well and truly fallen when Diego sat up. Except for candlelight spilling into the hallway, the house was dark. He looked at Jeanine and saw she was unharmed, or more like she wasn’t newly harmed. Diego stood and moved toward the hallway. He pulled a knife from his boot but stayed barefoot. While he could move as silently wearing footwear as without, he didn’t want to spend the time.
With his back to the wall Diego stood near the door and listened. Since healing himself his power had diminished but not his senses. He had been able to see in the dark since after his first kill, although he couldn’t say why. The world gave few gifts so best accept those that came. Diego heard five heartbeats inside the house and at least six more in the back yard. They weren’t human. They also didn’t sound nervous. He put that information aside and focused on tracking movements. It didn’t take long as none of the hearts moved. Sounds of eating and snoring came from the kitchen.
Diego slid into the hallway and noticed the candlelight coming through the open kitchen door. He made his way to the entrance and looked around the corner. Three wolfers squatted on the floor eating what seemed to be everything. Two looked out the window at the front street and one more slept against the wall. They could have killed him and Jeanine while they slept, or tried to, but instead raided the larder and taken a nap. Diego, despite himself, was curious.
“Y’all’s the worst houseguests ever,” he said as he stood in the doorway, “and this ain’t even my house.” Two of the wolfers yelped in surprise. The two at the window just turned to face him, and one rolled his eyes at the yelpers. Diego continued, “At least tell me you did the dishes.”
One of the wolfers, one by the front window with black fur, stood and spoke. “You are the Mad One? Our First described you to us. It is you, yes?”
Diego looked at this wolfer. “When did he describe me?”
“A day before you killed him,” the wolfer deadpanned. Diego noticed wolfer movements, even ear twitches, conveyed emotion. He was sure this information came from First, but knowing these wolfers were actively suppressing anger or fear didn’t matter. Diego didn’t care how wolfers felt.
“When did he tell you where I was?”
“How’d he do that? Telegram from wolfer heaven?”
“He came to my dream. He said we should come to you. He said we should work with you to defeat the other monster. He also said you would be difficult.”
Diego grinned but didn’t feel it. “You’re godsdamned right I’m difficult.” The bravado didn’t cover up his concern. Not only was First waltzing around in Diego’s head, the wolfer established telepathic links over distance. First was far more powerful than he appeared, and Diego was considerably weaker. “Why are you here? Just hungry? Maybe a little sleepy too?”
The black wolfer snarled at the younger ones. One of the yelpers came to the window and stood vigil. “I will talk with you in private, Mad One. The young ones should focus on their duties.”
Diego wondered if being alone with the wolfer was a good idea. He decided it was better than being in a room with five. He stood to the side and motioned for the black wolfer to lead the way. They headed towards the stairs. The wolfer started to go up but Diego interrupted him.
“We can talk here,” he said. Diego managed to angle himself so his back wasn’t facing the kitchen and he had a line of sight on the doorway. He didn’t fool himself into thinking that meant much. He was facing eleven to two odds, and that was only if Jeanine regained consciousness. It did help him feel better.
The wolfer came down the stairs and squatted on a step. It looked at Diego and sighed, a gesture he didn’t think wolfers could make. “This goes against everything I believe. I have no desire to talk with you let alone fight together. I care nothing for humans.”
“If you hate us so much, why go through with this little meeting.”
“I don’t hate humans. You are the ones who hate. You stink of it, like an old corpse. I am indifferent to humans. I want only to live my life without seeing you. But that is not my fate.”
“You didn’t have to come here. That old world across The Bridge was all yours. I’m not the one who invaded your home. If you don’t like the welcome, take your furry ass back.”
“First said you would be difficult, but I see he was being diplomatic. You are actually stupid. That will make this harder.”
Diego chuckled. “You got spirit at least.” He turned serious. “What’s the plan?”
“The plan was to come here, find you, and wait for you to fight with us or kill us. We are now in the final stages of that plan.”
“Funny too. Someday you’ll make some girl very happy.” Diego was done joking though. This last comment was mostly reflex. The wolfers had not come to fight, and this bothered him. “What happens if I decide to kill you all?”
“That’s it? No last stand or nothing? There’s 11 of you.”
“Our instructions were clear and explained well. I may not believe this will achieve what First wants, but I have pledged to follow the instructions. We will not fight you, no matter what you choose.”
“First explained himself? What were his reasons?”
“I am not to tell you. Not under any circumstances. Will we fight together or will you kill us now?”
“Oh, so I’m supposed to figure this out on my own then? That bastard set up a little test for me to see if I could figure out his reasonings, huh?”
“No,” said the wolfer, “he does not care what you figure out. Neither do I. I am forced now to work with you, but I refuse to be your teacher. Choose. Now.”
Diego looked at the wolfer for a minute, but he had already decided. He had put a plan together before he had even gotten to the kitchen. He hadn’t done it consciously, but it was done just the same. The only question was how to stop Jeanine from killing everyone.
“Don’t be in such a hurry. Two of y’all haven’t finished eating yet.” Diego then walked back to the room where Jeanine slept.
Except, of course, she wasn’t sleeping. Jeanine was sitting on the edge of the bed fully dressed and holding a knife and pistol. Her bandage was gone, and the monocle sat in her skull as if it had always been there. She didn’t look angry at all. That was scary.
“Your plan, or whatever it is you think we’re gonna do,” she said, “ain’t gonna work.”
“How do you know? You’ve got to hear me out first.”
“Because that wolfer is right. You are stupid, and it does make things harder.”
Diego brought a chair over to the bed and started to put on his boots. “Never thought I’d see the day you’d side with a wolfer over me.”
“See what I mean? Stupid.”
Diego finished with his boots and looked at Jeanine. “This is what I’m thinking.”
Section III: The Fight
Jeanine could stand. She could think and fight. Realistically she couldn’t ask for more. The pain hadn’t gone away, but pain never goes away. It just changes form. The current form felt like a hand of fire pressing against her face. She had experienced worse.
Diego’s plan seemed good although it needed some adjustments. He still had a hard time seeing holes in his ideas, holes big enough to get them both killed, but the basic framework was sound. She did worry the distraction of pushing heated metal and glass into her head prevented her from seeing the larger stupidity. It didn’t matter though since she didn’t have an alternative and time was about up. The monster was bound to ambush them soon. They might as well get it done with since she still had some business to take care of first.
Jeanine and Diego loaded Beast with their newly bought but no longer necessary supplies. If the plan worked, they wouldn’t be in a hurry and could have come back to buy at their leisure. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t need anything. Just hours ago getting flour for a week of travel had seemed prudent. Now it just gave them something to do while talking over details. Jeanine checked saddle bags she checked two minutes before and found they were still fine. She adjusted them anyway.
“There’s no way we’ll be able to communicate to the wolfers if something changes,” she said.
“No way I can see,” replied Diego. “Not sure we need to though.”
“Would be good to be able to reposition them once we know how it’s moving. That could come in handy.”
“They’re just here to die.”
“Shit. Ain’t we all?”
“Now don’t you get all sour. That’s my thing. You’re supposed to be all sunshine. A team can’t be all pessimists or we’ll lose balance.”
“Guess I’m letting you rub off on me,” she grumbled. Then she turned to face him. “It might also be that your plan is stupid and going to get us killed. Got me in a bit of a mood.”
“There’s still time to scrap it. You got something else? I think we got till sundown and it’s just getting light now. Plenty of time for you to come up with the strategy to save us all, boss lady ma’am.”
“Why do I have to do everything? Fix my eye. Fix the saddle bags. Fix your stupid plan. What exactly are you doing? What is your contribution anyway?”
“I give you something to be mad at.”
Jeanine pretended to think on this a moment. She nodded and climbed on Beast. “Good enough. Let’s find some horses and a cart.”
Diego climbed behind Jeanine and Beast made his way out of town along the main road. No one said a word until an hour outside the town’s borders. Then Diego tapped Jeanine on the shoulder. “This should be far enough,” he said. He climbed off Beast and walked a little off the road. Putting his fingers to his mouth he whistled twice. Jeanine rolled her eyes.
“What?” he asked. “It ain’t fancy but it’ll work.”
Jeanine shook her head as she pulled out her rifle. Diego said nothing about the weapon. He still didn’t expect the wolfers to attack but anything could be hiding in the woods.
They didn’t wait long. Within 15 minutes the black wolfer came out of the forest. He came alone and walked to Diego. “There is death here, Mad One,” he said. “We will fight in a graveyard.”
“Won’t have far to go if we lose.”
The wolfer cocked his head. “Are you planning on losing? Is my pack to bleed for no reason?”
“Winning and losing is a matter of perspective. We won when we closed The Bridge, but the war went on anyway. We won when we crushed your armies, but I’m still hunting and fighting monsters like you.”
“I had no armies, Mad One. I had masters. Now here I stand, in front of you, waiting for you to give me instructions.”
Diego chuckled. “See. You’re getting it.” He told the wolfer what to expect and that they would have no further contact. The pack should begin at nightfall. The wolfer nodded his understanding and asked no questions.
“Have you seen or smelled any bodies killed by claws?” asked Jeanine.
“No. There is no blood. They are dry deaths. The bodies lie on the side of the road all around the town.”
“Have you noticed horses?”
“I have not seen nor smelled dead horses.”
“No. There is no life around this town larger than vermin.”
Diego opened his mouth but Jeanine cut him off. “Don’t. It won’t be funny.”
Diego shrugged his shoulders, and Jeanine returned her attention to the wolfer. “Once we engage, head out. Take your pack and run. I don’t care what direction as long as it’s away from us. We see you after this is all over, you’ll be another bounty.”
The wolfer cocked his head. “That is a familiar perspective.” He turned and disappeared into the woods.
Jeanine and Diego watched the wolfer go, staring in silence for a while. Diego eventually spoke. “I thought we agreed they were here to die.”
“No, I ain’t agreed to that.”
“You said we all here to die.”
“Yep. We are. But that don’t mean it has to be all at once. There’s been a lot of death already. I’d like there to be a little less.”
They were silent for a while longer. Diego walked over to Beast and said over his shoulder, “I think it would’ve been funny.”
“Stupid,” Jeanine whispered but loud enough for him to hear.
They didn’t find the cart or horses. They found bodies, lots of bodies, and each one a mummified husk. Diego stopped to touch and stare into every one. After a moment he stood and got back on Beast behind Jeanine. By mid-afternoon she was ready for answers.
“About how many you think we’ve come across.”
“That’s a more specific answer than I was expecting. What have you learned?”
“It’s our man. None of them got anything left.”
“What you mean?”
“He took everything. There’s no residue, nothing left behind. That little piece of soul folks leave ain’t there. Those people are gone. Totally gone.”
Jeanine turned to Diego as Beast lumbered on. “You mean this thing killed over 200 people and drained them all?”
“He ain’t a thing. He’s a man, but he’s one that’s barely hanging on. Who knows how many people he’s got running around in his head.”
“It knows everything those people knew, right? That means it has a better idea of the terrain then we ever will.” She turned back round.
“He knows we’re here,” said Diego. “He’ll come for us tonight. He’s been spending the time getting it all under control. He’s probably not ready, but he’ll come just the same.”
“How you know?”
“Because I’d do the same. I am doing the same.”
There were both silent for a while. Beast walked back to town without a care.
“He might’ve been a man once,” said Jeanine, “but he ain’t no more. He’s chosen a different path.”
“I’m thinking we got a lot less choice about our paths than we think.”
“It ain’t the number of choices that matters. May be we only get to decide one thing ever. May be that choice is just what kind of pie to eat after one meal. Point is, we choose. We think on it and choose. We do that because we’re human. He chose not to choose. Stopped being a man when it did that.”
Diego thought on this for some time. “Does explain why you cook so slow.”
“Damn you stupid. Don’t know why I bother.”
Neither of them spoke again as they rode into town. In about an hour they were back in the general store. Dolly saw them come in and couldn’t hide the expectant look on her face. Jeanine answered the question hanging in the air. “We haven’t found them yet. Spent the day looking but no sign. That’s a good omen though, don’t you think? Means they could still be out there hiding.”
Dolly nodded politely. No one believed Jeanine, especially Jeanine.
“We missed some things last time,” said Diego. “We need hammers, all the nails and boards you got, kerosene, and as many knives you can gather in 30 minutes. Can you do that?”
Dolly nodded again but didn’t try to hide her surprise. “What are you people doing?”
Jeanine smiled, “Got some company coming tonight. Lots to do.”
Dusk was only a couple of hours away by the time they got the supplies and made it back to Doc’s house. Neither of them wasted time on words. Jeanine told Beast to wait on the other side of town, then went inside while Diego started boarding up the windows. He had finished the penultimate window when the howls started. Jeanine appeared by his side almost instantly. “How long you think we got?” she asked.
“Be lucky if it’s an hour. Half that most likely.”
She grunted her agreement. “I got most of the knives in position. Leave the last window and help me. We need to get into position.”
“You’re still bossy even though it’s my plan.”
“It was your plan when it was stupid and gonna get us killed. Now it might work so it’s my plan. And I’m being bossy because you’re wasting time. Move.”
But Diego was already inside.
The wolfers must have made noise when they died, but that wasn’t what Diego and Jeanine heard. They didn’t hear anything, rather they felt each wolfer die. Psychic waves of pain, fright, and anger hit them with every death. “This wasn’t part of the plan,” said Jeanine.
“Got to be First. Some trick or something he didn’t tell me about,” answered Diego.
“There seems to be a lot of those. You need to be having a talk with the shaggy son of a bitch.”
“I’m still figuring out how to do that. It’s a might harder than it should be.”
The conversation, as banal as it was, helped keep them focused even as the howls intensified. “They’re getting close real quick. At least we know their position. Still would like to be able to communicate though, make adjustments,” said Jeanine as she checked her pistol yet again. She had no plans on fighting in the house, but if it came to that her rifle would be a liability.
“It wouldn’t do much good,” said Diego. “In a little while there won’t be any of them left to adjust.” He held his shotgun and reached for his knife again. Touching the one thing that hurt the Caped Man helped calm him.
“Always with the downside of things. That attitude will hold you back in life.”
Diego had a witty rejoinder but the next psychic howl ended the repartee. “That’s right close. You got maybe two minutes to get on the roof,” he said but Jeanine was already moving. She was out the window and scrambling up the wall as Diego finished his sentence.
Alone in the upstairs den of Doc’s house, Diego turned his attention to the stairs beyond the doorway. The furniture had been pushed to the walls with space by the window. The only other entrance was the doorway. They removed the door to give a clear view into the hall and the stairs. Their preparations were sparse and rushed. Diego didn’t figure they would hurt the Caped Man at all or even slow him down, not after all the power he’d absorbed in the last few days. That didn’t matter. Jeanine was wrong, Diego was optimistic about their chances of pulling out a victory. It was just that victory had a slippery definition. It changed from person to person and even from moment to moment. The wolfers were dying, but they had fulfilled their oath. At least a few members of the pack might even live through the night. They were winning.
First was dead, but his plan had succeeded. His victory was almost complete, depending on how he felt about this last part. Diego figured the old wolfer wouldn’t mind. Even if it did, Diego didn’t care. First had his victory. Diego would also have his however the wolfer felt about it. They would defeat the Caped Man, but it would mean something different to Jeanine than to Diego. Jeanine wanted them to fight the monster, heal their wounds, and ride to the next town. They would fight the next thing, collect the next bounty, and be friends the whole time. She would get mad at him, throw him across the camp when he said something stupid, but they would be friends. For Jeanine, victory was not letting the world take away anything else. For Diego, it was being human. Diego would have his victory, but Jeanine wouldn’t. He worried about her. She’d be OK, but this would cause her pain. There was no way around that, but it worried him just the same.
Victory was a moving target: sometimes coming closer, sometimes moving away. Usually, it just went sideways.
The sound of crashing wood interrupted Diego’s thoughts. He could hear someone running up the stairs and could tell it wasn’t the Caped Man. The observation was confirmed when the black-furred wolfer ran through the doorway. The wolfer was bleeding from a host of wounds, and that didn’t surprise Diego, but it was also out of breath. That was something Diego had never seen, and he had chased many a wolfer.
“You look like shit,” said Diego. “Where’s the rest of the pack?”
“Gone,” replied the wolfer. Diego noted the vagueness of the answer. There was no sense pushing for something more specific though. The wolfers had done what they said they would do. Their work was finished.
“Go on,” said Diego. “Your oath is fulfilled. Get out.”
The wolfer looked at Diego and bled some more. “You would face it alone?”
“I ain’t alone. Jeanine’s on the roof. Climb out the window and go up towards her. Do not jump to the ground on this side of the house. Now go.”
With that Diego turned his attention back to the stairs. The wolfer said nothing as it moved to the window and climbed out. Diego opened his senses and was shocked. The Caped Man wasn’t even trying to mask. He was walking to the front door, almost sauntering, as power bled from him. It was the magical equivalent of staring into a sun, one appearing out of nowhere. The last victim was three-days dead, but this was the first time Diego could feel the power.
Diego figured it out just a bit too slow. He just projected a message to Jeanine to get off the roof and away from the house when everything exploded. He was conscious when the floor flew into his face but things went black when he hit the ceiling. He came to under some boards and with little idea where he was. With nothing broken Diego removed some of the rubble, stood up, and looked for his shotgun. Then he saw the Caped Man on fire, a right good blaze visible from anywhere in the night, and moving around in a circle. The black-furred wolfer darted in and out striking where it could. Diego couldn’t tell if the attack was doing any real damage. Considering the Caped Man was fighting pretty well while on fire, things were going to end badly for an exhausted and seriously wounded wolfer. Before he could join the festivities, Diego needed to find Jeanine. If the wolfer was OK, then chances were Jeanine was too. Both had been on the roof and there wasn’t a wolfer alive tougher than Jeanine. Yet Diego couldn’t find her until she shot the Caped Man in the back.
The hit was solid. The Caped Man staggered forward and even fell to one knee. Diego had seen the shot before and knew it was Jeanine’s. That shot carried some of her power, making it strong enough to split a charging osovaca in half. The Caped Man was already standing back up. It was time to end this.
Diego said nothing. He shook off his coat and ran, charging the Caped Man from behind. He channeled every bit of power he had into the run. Compared to even a week before it was slow, but he still moved faster than a normal man could think. The Caped Man wasn’t normal though. If this were a real attack, Diego knew he didn’t have enough in him to get there and give a killing blow. But this wasn’t a real attack. This was the end game. For the first time in a long time Diego felt like he was thinking enough moves ahead that something could work out. He remembered a key lesson about the importance of tension. A good strategy built tension to an unbearable level. One didn’t commit to an action until the board was fully prepared. If you saw only one way forward, it meant your enemy had already won. One’s moves should box the opponent in, making them sweat as the stakes grew but the options diminished. Diego had a plan, one that would raise the stakes and reduce the choices. He didn’t have to kill the Caped Man, he just had to touch him.
And he did.
Through the fire and around the arm. That arm raised faster than Diego could see, fast enough to ward of a killing strike, but not fast enough to block a touch on the neck. The Caped Man stopped moving. He and Diego fell forward, carried by the momentum of the charge. Despite the force of the fall, Diego’s finger never broke contact with the Caped Man’s neck.
No field this time. Diego was in a dark and old forest. First hid behind a tree just a few feet in front of him. Crouching low, Diego snuck up on the wolfer and was disappointed First didn’t jump at the touch to his shoulder.
“I am not sure why I am here,” said First. “Our business is done.”
“I told you this is my head. I’ll say when business is done. Don’t worry though, we’re almost through. One last thing to do. And you’re going to help.”
“I do not think so, Mad One. You have everything from me you need.”
“I’m not asking. We’re going to beat this man. You’re going to help. You don’t have to know how because I do.”
The wolfer stared at Diego. Perhaps he was gauging something in the eyes or slowly adding up the situation. Diego didn’t care. It didn’t matter if the wolfer knew, and it didn’t matter how he knew. “You plan to die. You plan on killing yourself like the Caped Man. You will take too many minds into yourself. That is not how it is done, Mad One. You cannot choose when the time comes. It comes when it comes.”
“You’re wrong wolfer, about a lot of things. Oh you can see all the pieces but you put the puzzle together upside down.”
“What are you saying? You are speaking nonsense.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time. Now you stay here. I’ll need you soon but not quite yet.” Then Diego left the wolfer by the tree. He smiled to himself as he made his way deeper into the forest and only jumped a little when Jeanine whispered in his ear.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she asked.
“Damn woman,” Diego said. “How the hell are you here? Why is it so hard to keep control of the inside of my own head?”
“Because you’re stupid,” Jeanine answered. “Bigger question is what are you doing? We had that thing almost down. Now you’ve gone and done your super magic thing and we have to start over. Do you have to fuck up every one of my plans?”
“The plan was fucked when he blew up the house. If it wasn’t for the kerosene traps, we would have been worse off. The knives didn’t even come into play.”
“Every plan calls for some improvisation. We were improvising. It was working too.”
“Bullshit. You hit him with one of your strongest spells, and he didn’t go down. He barely stopped for a minute. He’s stronger than us. We can’t fight him straight up.”
“So you bring him into your mind? How’s that going to be better? What dumb thing you got planned now.”
“How the hell are you in here anyway? I didn’t bring you here.”
“It’s the monocle. You were my ground so we have a link, and I rode it in,” she answered. “Answer my question before I shoot you.”
Diego sighed. He didn’t have much time. He could keep the Caped Man lost in the forest for bit, but every second was a lost advantage. This had to finish quickly or it wouldn’t work. He sighed again because that didn’t matter. He was running away and his friend deserved better. She deserved a good bye and an explanation. He did too. “I can kill him. First said something that showed me how. The Caped Man has a weakness put in by his creators.”
“Yeah, we know. He takes one too many victims and blows up. That ain’t going to do much good.”
“No. First got it backwards. He doesn’t blow up. He releases them, all of them. Then he dies.”
Jeanine threw her hands up. “How the hell you know that? Are you just guessing at shit and calling it knowledge? Tell me you know something for sure or I will shoot your damn head off!”
Diego forced himself to hold her eyes. He paused, she stared. “The secret was when I healed myself. First told me if I gave up one of the essences I took, I would heal. It worked, but I was weaker. I had less power than before but also one less voice in my head. That felt better than gaining power ever did. For decades I’ve had noise in my head. This was a bit of quiet.”
Jeanine’s stare softened. “That don’t mean you gonna die if you release them all. It sure don’t mean he would.”
“Yes it would. I’ve been running on this power for a long time. I’ve healed myself and kept myself young with it. I can’t survive without it anymore. I know that. The Caped Man’s been doing this longer than I have and with a lot more essence. He won’t survive if he releases them all. Blowing up the house proved it. The Caped Man released everything, or he tried. He masked until he got close, then let it go. He’s trying to die, but he’s holding himself back.”
“You’re saying the weakness is suicide? We just gonna wait until he decides to kill himself? That old wolfer was right to call you mad.”
“No. We don’t have to wait. We can send him on his way. I can, I mean. He won’t go alone, but he will go.”
Jeanine’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What are you saying to me?”
“I can kill him, but it’s gonna kill me too.” Diego looked down. Even though he had been in countless fights and been close to death countless times, it took more courage than he had to look Jeanine in the eye in that moment. “He will go if he’s shown the way. I can show him, and I want to go. I can’t take this. I’m hearing screams from eggs. I got monsters taking over my head. This ain’t living. At least it ain’t human living.”
“How you know that thing wants to die too?”
“He chased us, fought us, but didn’t kill us when he could. He’s taken 20 times more people than me, and that’s just in the last few days. Then he released all the energy he gained. He wants an end. I don’t know why he won’t take it. Maybe he just doesn’t know how, but he wants it.”
Still whispering Jeanine asked, “How are you gonna just leave?”
Diego looked up and caught her eye. “Those voices don’t just make noise, they take space. They take the space inside my head away from me. Every time I take someone I gain some power, but I lose myself a bit more. They steal from me. Every one of them steals from me. If it goes on, there’ll be nothing left but some crazy shell of a man.” His voice cracked at the last word. Diego didn’t take his eyes from Jeanine, but he stopped to take a breath before continuing. “You said we got to choose to be human. Maybe we only get one real choice but we take it. I ain’t choosing to leave you. I’m choosing to be a man and not a monster.”
She looked at Diego. She didn’t see what he needed and she didn’t have to. Each person decided their own needs. That was her advice to Diego and her approach to life. To decide to be a friend is to decide to walk with a person as they make those choices. He made his case and asked her to accept it. It’s what a friend deserved.
“What you gotta do to take him down?” she asked.
He saw the look in her eye. She was staying. Their walk together was ending but they would walk together until the last step. “I need him still,” he said. “Once I get started he won’t be able to move, but he needs to be still for me to start. I’m going to draw him towards me, but I’ll need you to stop him. Not long, even just one step will be enough.”
She nodded. “I can do that.” Jeanine lifted her hands and held her rifle as if it had always been there.
“You have to go when this starts,” he added. “Break the connection. I don’t know what’ll happen to you if you stay but it ain’t gonna be nothing good. You go. Promise me that.”
“Look at you pretending you can issue orders,” she said. A smile crept up but quickly disappeared. “Say good bye.”
Diego looked at Jeanine and felt more human than he had in a while. If there was anything left of him after this, he would miss her. Although he suspected the journey didn’t continue. This was going to be an end. It would be a lie to say otherwise. He looked at her and said, “Good bye.”
Jeanine nodded. “You’re still stupid, but you’re human stupid.” Then she walked into the forest.
Diego paused, staring at his friend’s back as she disappeared. There wasn’t another path, and Jeanine knew it. She wouldn’t be walking away if she thought otherwise. It surprised him how much that disappointed. He had lived a long time in good health. He had nothing objectively to complain about, but the heart knew nothing of objectivity. He wanted more. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to live for centuries as some creature without a sense of self or others. It was hard to leave, but it would be harder to stay.
Diego turned around and looked into the forest. He raised his shotgun and pointed it straight ahead. Without moving, removed trees in a ten-foot-wide path. He cleared out more than 50 feet before he saw the Caped Man.
The Caped Man stood in the center of the path. A cape wrapped around his body with no cowl. The Man’s head was hidden in shadow. Despite his efforts Diego couldn’t light the face. He told himself it was the distance but knew better.
Diego stopped thinking and kept breathing; in through the nose and out the mouth like he was taught. Let the power come and step aside. When the power told him to, he let loose with both barrels and hit the Man square in the chest. He chose fire and shot a ball three feet across. The explosion blinded him for a second. When the light settled he saw the Man still standing in the path. The cape hadn’t even moved. Diego walked forward, ejecting the spent shells and replacing them with fresh ones. His eyes never left the Caped Man.
“Didn’t think this would be easy,” he said under his breath, but he knew the Caped Man could hear. “Had to try though. Might as well come here. I’m through running.” The Caped Man didn’t move. Diego waited, his mind clear. The pieces were set. The only question was who would break the tension.
Physics didn’t matter in this fight. Inside a mind one could do whatever could be conceived. Within a battle within a mind one did what one had the will to force. What moved the Man was force of will, the power of his mind combined with the power of the minds he captured. The will of hundreds threw his body down the path at Diego. All of those former people bound their power to the Caped Man. They had no other choice. Diego needed a moment, a fraction of one fraction of a second, and he would provide a choice. Jeanine almost gave him that moment.
A thin beam of fire came over Diego’s right shoulder. The beam hit the Caped Man in the knee and should have cut through the leg, but the Man only stumbled a little, turned it into a roll, and then jumped. The Caped Man leapt the last twelve feet at the still motionless Diego. He waited, and when the Man came he took the hit. Diego felt the Man’s punch in his ribs. He got the stock of his shotgun up in time to catch the Man on the temple. It wasn’t enough to put the Caped Man down. It wasn’t even enough to stun him, but it was enough to move his head to the side. This allowed Diego to let go of the shotgun and touch the Man’s head. That touch gave the captured minds a choice. They could leave. Diego showed the fragments of people a path to oblivion. Unlike in the physical world Diego had to fight to maintain contact. If he lost it, then he would also lose the path. He had the advantage since there’s no home turf more favorable than one’s own mind, but the Caped Man had power. Diego was weaker, but he had resources. First grabbed the Caped Man from behind and sank his teeth into the shoulder. The damage was minimal, but it prevented the Man from moving away. The side of the Caped Man’s head, still in shadow, began to glow. Then it caught fire. The fire spread to the Man’s body burning Diego and First. Still, they held on. They only let go when the Caped Man exploded.
Even as he was thrown backward Diego could see the fire consuming the Caped Man’s body. Lying on the ground, Diego saw flames grow and faces form inside the fire. They were large, far larger than a human head, and disembodied. Each face rose from the flames, looked around, and disappeared. Diego watched as dozens and then scores and then hundreds of faces all repeated the pattern. Standing, he approached the Caped Man as the last of the faces faded away. He didn’t see First, only the body of the Caped Man. Diego didn’t feel the old wolfer either. He didn’t feel any of the other presences he had lived with for so long. The forest disappeared. The field was gone. He and the Caped Man were alone. He knelt next to the smoldering and smoking body of the Caped Man and had his first look.
He was charred but not as much as he should be. The fire had burned the Man’s hair off as well as burned out his eyes. Turning his head to Diego, and spilling ash down his cheek as he did, the Caped Man said, “I could use some water.” Then he smiled. Diego was sure it was a private joke.
“Why?” asked Diego. “That ain’t a real body. You don’t need water.”
“Didn’t say I needed it, just that I could use it.” Even with the rasp the man had an accent. His English was strange. Whether from damage or because it was his second language, Diego couldn’t tell.
“What are you?” Diego asked. The man kept smiling.
“Oh gods damn! How in the hell is that thing still moving?” Jeanine asked from beside Diego. He sighed.
“I thought I told you to break the connection. It’s dangerous for you to be here,” he said.
“You did tell me,” she said, then looked at him. “You really thought I’d listen?”
Diego didn’t take his eyes off the Caped Man. “Tell me what you are,” he said.
The man laughed. It sounded like a memory of a laugh, one made by someone who didn’t quite understand the joke. “Can I have that water now?”
Diego held up a waterskin that hadn’t been there a second ago. He pulled the stop and saw Jeanine tense in his peripheral vision. Kneeling closer he lifted the man’s head up and poured some water. The Caped Man drank only a little. “That’ll do,” he said. “Thanks for that.”
“Have we met before?” asked Diego.
“No, not until the canyon. I sensed you, even came close once, but we hadn’t been formally introduced till the canyon. I didn’t think any more had been created. But they didn’t create you, did they?”
“You mean the wizards? I ain’t ever seen one. Did they make you?”
“The gods made me. You have seen it. That old wolfer showed you my creation. He was there. Traitors. All of them. I wish I had killed more of them.” This last sentence took the smile from the Man’s mouth. “How could you take that filth into your mind?”
Diego raised his eyebrows. “I’ve taken a lot of unsavory things into my head lately,” he replied. “They didn’t make me.”
The Caped Man shook his head. “No. I was the last. Was alone on this side when The Bridge closed. I’ve been imposing the gods’ vengeance ever since.”
Diego chuckled. “Ain’t no gods. Just us people. We don’t need help making things bad.”
“I suspected you for a heretic. Should have just killed you the first time I had the chance, but I had to be sure. The gods didn’t make you, but I didn’t know if your creation was blasphemy. It was. It is. I have done right by my faith.”
“How many have you killed? Hundreds? That’s just in the last couple days. How many since you come to this world? Thousands?”
“I have fought for my faith. I have stayed true to the gods. I regret nothing.”
“Well then, we are different because I regret all kinds of shit.” Diego tired of the conversation and just looked at the Caped Man, trying to imagine a whole human being.
“Why do you keep me here?” asked the Caped Man. “Do you wish to torture me? You have taken my essence? You have established control. What else do you wish?”
Diego was surprised by the question. “You think I took your power?”
“Of course you did. Why else am I here?”
Diego, kneeling there beside the representation of a fellow broken and lost man, pondered the question. “You know, I’ve been thinking about that for decades and still don’t have an answer. I’m thinking there ain’t one. It might just be a bad question.”
“You toy with me. Mock me now. So be it. I will exist in your heretic mind. You have control now, but can you keep it? Abomination. I will fight you every moment.”
Diego touched the Caped Man’s forehead. “You fight all you want. Tell yourself whatever you want, whatever settles the nerves for you. I’m done fighting though. I got no more questions, at least none there’ll be answers for.”
The Caped Man’s body caught fire, though a smaller blaze than before. The Man said and did nothing. He lay still as the body disappeared, going wherever it was supposed to go if it went anywhere at all.
Diego stood up and saw Jeanine standing in front of him. “Can’t you listen to anything I say?” he asked.
“No,” she said. She looked at him and said no more.
“I can heal your eye before I go. No need for you to keep that thing.”
Jeanine shook her head. “Don’t waste any more time.”
“You’re going to nitpick right till the end, huh?” he joked but neither of them laughed. “Take a little power to settle it right. Consider it something to remember me by.”
Jeanine nodded. “Good bye.” Then she was gone.
Diego looked at the empty spot. The trees were gone as well as the sky. He stood in blackness, a void that kept him in place. All the voices were gone. It was not peace, but it was quiet. Diego enjoyed it for a moment.
Then he was gone.
It took Jeanine a day and a half to find the wagon. The horses were still hitched and none too pleased about it. It took more time to calm them and heal the sores than it did to travel the long way back to town. They followed behind Beast as she led them to the general store.
Dolly was inside when she came in. Neither of them spoke for a while. Jeanine looked at the young woman without expectation but also without initiative.
“Thank you for bringing them back,” Dolly finally said. She met Jeanine’s eyes, but it took a lot of effort.
“Made you a promise,” Jeanine replied. “Your father and brother are out there somewhere too, but they weren’t with the wagon. You may be able to tell from their clothes when all the bodies are rounded up.”
Dolly nodded. “We’ve already started with proper burials. You’ve done more than enough for this town, and for me.” Dolly went quiet again and Jeanine let her take her time. There wasn’t anywhere to go. “Can you tell me how?”
“It seemed to me your father jumped from the wagon so the others could escape. It was brave, but it didn’t work. The horses and wagon kept on running.
Dolly didn’t move when she spoke again. “Your friend didn’t make it. Did he?” Jeanine shook her head. “I’d be happy to take care of the arrangements. He’ll be buried in the town cemetery. Won’t be able to have a marker right away, but I’ll see it happens. I promise.”
Jeanine smiled a little, sincerely reflecting she was touched by the gesture. “No need. I took care of it already. He’s free now. We don’t have to worry about him.”
“You leaving then?”
Jeanine nodded, and then she waited for the one question Dolly wanted to ask.
“Are all the monsters gone?”
Jeanine looked at the young woman for a hard second. The girl had grown in the last week, but she wasn’t a child before. The world didn’t allow people to hold onto childhood for long. Dolly could handle the responsibilities ahead, or she couldn’t. She stood a better chance if she knew the stakes.
“No,” answered Jeanine. “The wolfers are gone, not sure where. The thing that killed your family and most of the town is gone. But there are still monsters. They’ll come sooner or later. Always do.”
Dolly’s eyes widened, but she nodded. “Guess we’ll have to get prepared.”
“If you ever need a hand, put out a bounty. I’ll come if I’m around this way.” Then Jeanine turned and left. No use talking when everything’s been said and travelling to do.
Jeanine climbed on Beast. She had a lot more room but she didn’t take it. She turned the osovaca east and headed out. A big city like Savannah had to have some interesting jobs. Or maybe she would see the ocean again and watch a new dawn. Or maybe it was time to catch a ship to Port au Prince and rest up at the university for a while.
Whatever came, it would be nice to have a fresh board.
Daniel is a historian based in Atlanta, Georgia using history and historical research to help community organizations. He produces the history podcast, Change Over Time (changeovertimepodcast.com), and specializes in oral history. He is currently rolling up a new character.