2010, Van Horn, Texas
The blood was everywhere. Torn pieces of bodies lay scattered around the room like unconnected blocks of Lego. The carnage made my stomach turn even from a distance. I grabbed the branches of the live oak upon which I sat, focused and mustered aether into my eyes.
As the arcane energy filled my sight, my vision shifted. The world’s colors inverted while streaks of bright light stained all I saw. Aether marks. Splashes of crimson and yellow lay scattered over the room like the paint smears of a mad artist. Aether was the fuel of all magical and supernatural alike. Since no use of magic was wasteless, the energy used to power it spilled around.
They trailed out onto the balcony, down the wall marred with claw-marks, through the garden and east toward the Davis Mountains. What left these marks was clearly not a mage, but an unnatural being. I withdrew my aether, and my sight returned to normal. The color of the baker’s house before me reverted to white. Small statuettes, one broken, embellished the corners of the terrace. Mr. Smith had to bake a bit of something else than donuts and bread to afford this.
Outside, everything appeared as it should have been. Live oaks danced in the wind, and the garden lay clean and quiet with blooming flowers growing in neatly kept rows. The police have arrived mere minutes ago and were now stretching their yellow tape between the trees, one of which I sat on.
But that mattered little. The aether marks suggested the culprit was an Amunite. Rumor had it they were an escaped experiment-gone-wrong of a former weapons development center. It wouldn’t be the first one I caught. Or the first bounty I would claim. Since the police station was beyond understaffed, this was above their capacity, and thus they were sure to put up a bounty for citizens to help them.
A bounty my family needed. I held my cowboy hat and leapt down.
I fell into a controlled crouch and tipped my hat to the policeman tying the yellow tape to the tree behind me. Pedro turned with an annoyed sigh. He was one of the youngest members of the local department. The officer ran his hand through the mustache he grew to appear older and smiled at me. “The yellow tape holds for you as well, Lucas. Not to mention you are too young for this.”
I rolled my eyes. Give me a break with this nonsense. Yes, I was seventeen, what about it? The thought still brought a scowl to my face. “You’ve been saying that since I was fourteen. So, got the bounty note yet?”
“The chief’s been on the phone about it the whole morning. It should be ready in the station soon. What do you think happened here?”
An innocent curl played on my lips as I shrugged. “Beats me.” I wouldn’t move a finger until I held the note in my hand. Once, I helped the donut-eaters without a note and, of course, I didn’t get paid. Back then, it didn’t mean much. Yes, my family was poor, but we could get by. But now, my sister was sick, and since we had no money for health coverage, we had to save up to have her treated. Or at least adequately examined. “But I might think of something during a ride to the station.”
He snorted. “You said that to get a free ride.”
Oh, I so did. Why would I walk when I didn’t have to? “Maybe. Would you have something to bite into? I had to skip breakfast.”
“In the car.” He stepped forward and motioned me to follow him. His badge shone in the sun while his black uniform bore the fragrance of being freshly cleaned. Next to him, I looked like a poor stepchild in my worn-out, high leather boots, old jeans, washed out t-shirt, and an ancient cowboy hat. Not to mention my hay-like hair and blue eyes being a stark contrast to his darker features.
Once in the car, I helped myself to the paper bag lying on the back seat. He measured me with a long look. “I understand things are rough, but you are young, so you can’t skip meals.”
Instead of answering, I fished out a chocolate-topped donut and bit into it. Technically, he shouldn’t have allowed me into his car. But nobody cared, not in this village-called-town. We arrived at the station before I finished eating.
“Thanks.” I got out of the car, taking the paper bag with me.
“That’s my breakfast too, you know,” he shouted before I closed the door.
“Was.” I slammed the door and walked toward the beige building of the police. Pedro turned the car around and headed back to the crime scene. I approached the bounty board, and there it was, a bounty notice as fresh as a spring breeze.
My smile froze when I saw the prize. Two thousand dollars. The biggest reward ever offered and enough to get my sister, Amber, examined. I tore off the paper and tucked it behind the belt of my blue jeans, not giving them a chance to change their mind.
Now, I had to prepare to catch the thing that ended the baker’s family. Usually, the Amunite would hide somewhere in the town, so all I had to do was guide the donut-eaters to it and cash out the bounty. I have long suspected it was the police chief’s way of helping my mother. But still, I had seventeen collected bounties in three years, and now, my little sister needed the money more than ever.
My family’s house lay by the eastern edge of the city, small and desolate. We didn’t have the money to repair it. I approached the old door and slid inside, careful not to make a noise that would wake up my mother. She served night shifts on Friday so she would be sleeping. The floorboards still creaked beneath my steps. I wished my mom wouldn’t have to work two waitress jobs, but there was little a high-schooler like me could do to help. Aside from hunting bounties.
As I passed through the living room, I glimpsed Amber sleeping on the couch. With a tightened chest, I stepped to my sister. The girl trembled in a fever, covered by sweat. The local charlatan that called himself a doctor said she had the flu. Yet three weeks of popping pills later, Amber was every bit as sick as when we first visited him. We had to get her a proper examination, but that cost money we didn’t have.
Amber needed me to get the bounty, and I would do just that.
I tucked the blanket that had slipped down back over her and softly stroked her hair, whispering, “I will get us the cash for your treatment.”
Amber mumbled something in her sleep and stirred, but didn’t wake up.
I smiled and went to pack. The days may have been warm, but the nights were cold, so I grabbed the leather coat my father once wore. Into a large rucksack, I packed whatever dried jerky I found, half of a loaf, a small pillow, a blanket, and enough water for three days. The bread was bound to be disgusting the next day as it would dry up, but being picky was not an option. From the cupboard above the sink, I took a near-empty bottle of antibiotics, bandages, and disinfectant. Black-tailed rattlesnakes frequented the Davis Mountains, and it wouldn’t be the first time one bit me. Not even one of the first dozen times, in fact. What was their problem with me?
The mere thought of the wooden casket hidden in the shed made my legs heavy. Yet I needed the contents. With a weighty heart, I walked to the shed standing in our unkempt garden. A quarter hour of rummaging through the old tools found me the box.
Inside lay a set of hunting knives, three boxes of ammo, two colt anacondas, and equipment to maintain them. Aside from the coat, the guns were the only mementos of my father. The bastard left us when I was seven and Amber four. One day, he disappeared without as much as a goodbye.
The only thing he left behind were the anacondas with a handwritten note saying For Lucas. He had been teaching me to shoot with them ever since I was five. I broke my wrist the first time I shot one. But I kept practicing, every day until money got so tight we could no longer afford the ammo.
One day, I would shoot the bastard with them. Not to kill him but in the knee or the ankle which would both hurt and stop him from running. He deserved more than a bit of pain for leaving my mother alone with two young children.
I deconstructed the guns, cleaned them, oiled them, and put them back together. I armed the cylinders and placed the six remaining clips of ammo into the pockets of my coat. Forty-eight bullets. At least they were prepared in moon clips so I could reload quickly. When I was six, my father had thousands of them lying in boxes around the house. After I donned the belt holding the holsters, I tied their bottoms to my thighs. The trick made me draw faster, and I might have needed that.
Technically, I was not allowed to carry arms, much less openly, but it wasn’t like the Davis Mountains were crawling with police. And it wouldn’t be the first time an Amunite had attacked me.
Ready, I walked out of the house and headed south, making sure my coat concealed the holsters. Dangerous or not, my sister needed the money from the bounty.
The tracks led me deep into the Davis Mountains. Lone tree-dotted hills carrying a certain charm, but it was the gray peaks towering atop them that had my heart. My mother used to bring me here to play all the time when we were younger, before she lost her job in El Paso and had to start working as a waitress. Now, those were but memories.
Yet I had more urgent matters to attend and pushed my aether into my eyes to see the tracks. They kept going deep into the mountains. Their size both excited and bothered me. On the one hand, this would be by far the largest Amunite I’d hunted. Since their bodies were blends of flesh and metal, the size promised extra bounty if I could carry back some of its metallic parts. But I had to be fast, else someone else would get it first and take everything.
From the corner of my eye, I caught movement. My heart shot into my throat and my hand to the anaconda colt. I spun. A mountain lion crawled through the bushes by the side. It prowled, ready to jump, its paws soundless on the rocky ground. I straightened and started walking backward. I didn’t want to shoot the cougar, not unless I had to. Not only would the sound of gunshots reveal my location, but it also wasn’t the cat’s fault we stumbled into each other.
Still, the beast showed no intention of going back. I sighed. With the move I trained a thousand times, I clenched my thigh, pulled out the gun, cocked it with my other palm and shot from the hip. Dirt and rubble exploded from the ground in front of its large paws. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. The cougar bolted away.
I hoped that was the last I saw of the big cat. I put a fresh bullet into the empty slot, holstered the revolver, and continued.
As darkness befell the mountains, I decided to find a place to spend the night. I did not spot the beast again but had no desire of risking the cougar ripping apart my throat while I slept. By the foot of a larger patch of mountains, I found a stream I used to refresh myself. All my senses reignited as I washed the blend of sweat and dust from my face. I refilled my water supplies and called upon my aether to check for the marks.
The colorful splashes led away by the edge of the mountain cliffs. To fight an Amunite at night would have been reckless, so I searched the mountains for a place to rest. A natural cavern would have been nice as it would protect me from the wind.
I had no such luck and settled for a shielded cleft. The stone I sagged against lacked any sign of comfort. With no better options, I tucked my cowboy hat down, put the pillow behind my neck and covered myself with the blanket. I kept the anacondas by my sides, loaded and ready.
The sound of falling rocks woke me. My gaze darted around. The moon ruled over the black sky, not even close to the horizon. With a frown, I returned the anacondas to their holsters and rose. I had to verify if it wasn’t the Amunite. With a soft step, I walked out of the cleft. Nothing seemed out of order. I prowled with short steps by the mountainside while the night wind made my sweat ice cold.
A rock beneath my foot slipped. I fell down the hill’s slope. I rolled over and kicked down to stabilize my fall. My foot hit something soft. Pain shot from my left calf. A rattlesnake bit me.
I grunted, clenched my thigh, grabbed the colt and shot the beast. The bullet nearly tore the serpent in two. Sulfur filled the air, punching my nose. Much stronger than a regular shot would release, but I had no time to examine the reason. The leg hurt badly. Damn it! I returned the anaconda into the holster, pried off the rattlesnake and limped back to the cleft.
I searched for the antibiotics and downed three pills. They weren’t antivenom, but I had nothing better. Everything hurt, but I had to move. I replaced the bullet though, just in case. The snake’s blood splashed on my jeans was bound to attract any nearby mountain cat. I repacked my rucksack, stood up and groaned as I stepped forward. The leg shot pain into my entire body and the wound burned.
Grunting with every step, I descended the hillside. I had to reach the stream and wash off the blood before the poison settled in.
My head started spinning, and the urge to vomit crawled up my throat. I tipped my hat to the moon for the light and kept descending. The pain worsened, and breathing became harder. Panting, I walked to the stream. The low flow of water lay before me, opening from the earth and continuing through a low, grass-covered gully. I put down my rucksack and leapt into the stream. My legs gave out, making me kneel into the water, holsters straight above the surface. That was stupid.
The cold water soothed my limbs. I relaxed my muscles, letting the flow wash my wound.
A shadow at my left moved. I raised my shoulder and tucked in my head. Pain exploded from my left biceps, and a big cat slammed into me, knocking me to the shore of the stream with water splashing into the air. I shouted out with pain as the cougar’s teeth tore into my flesh. I drew my anaconda, placed the barrel to the beast’s body and shot. The recoil almost knocked the gun out of my hand. But the bullet punched a hole into the mountain lion. The animal stopped moving, and the sharp scent of sulfur filled the air. I exhaled, my body trapped under the dead beast.
Something was wrong. The cougar’s blood didn’t spray out (like it should have) but merely flowed out of the wound. Slow and heavy, like tar, sizzling and stinking of sulfur. Like the blood of Amunites. First, the snake and now, the mountain cat. What the hell happened to them?
I had no time to ponder the question. I had to move. With a mind full of swears and chest filled with grunts, I pushed off the carcass. I crawled to the anaconda I dropped, put it back into the holster and picked up my rucksack.
The wounds stung as I poured disinfectant over them, especially the one on my arm made my face twist. Every move hurt while my head kept spinning. I wrapped my calf and my biceps with the bandages. I could survive pain, but not bleeding out.
My sight darted around, searching for something, anything. I didn’t know what infected the rattlesnake and the cougar, but whatever made them so aggressive and turned their blood into sizzling tar could have still been around. Or there could have been another mountain cat, from which I had no hope of hiding due to the blood-drenched bandages. Two hills away, I glimpsed orange light. Fire. That could help. But I had nothing to start my own. Through the blinding pain, I put on my rucksack and hauled myself to my feet.
I had to buy out each step with pain. I limped forward, seeing nothing but the orange light before me. The flicker of hope. I climbed up the first hill and gazed at the fire burning on the opposite hill. Through the blurry vision, I could see no people around it. I started descending. One more shallow valley, a climb and I would be safe. Or at least safer. A thought crossed my mind as I walked. Whoever made the campfire probably went to check where the gunshot came from. As I kept walking down the hillside, the light grew closer, but a chill crawled up my spine. And not from the cold night wind freezing my sweat.
I pulled out my aether, pushing it into my eyes. The intoxication of power washed away my tiredness and numbed my pain. A dangerous illusion, but I needed the sight. As the world’s colors inverted, I watched the white-painted hill ahead of me. Three people were walking down the opposite hill, straight toward me. Two men with wide hats and stars on their vests, the sheriff and his deputy, and a woman with a longsword strapped to her back.
A longsword? Who uses that? I froze. Behind the group crawled a shadow, like a stain of crimson and silver upon the alabaster world I watched. The Amunite had four arms, two legs, thirty claws, a stinger-tipped tail and a head of a twisted lizard topped by horns. The monster’s body overflowed with aether, spilling it in its wake.
I wanted to shout to warn them, but only grunts left my mouth. I struggled forward. The Amunite kept its distance, prowling behind the group. I slowed down my walk, saving my strength. A flat rock protruded from the hill ahead of me. I walked to it, put down my rucksack and stopped.
Despite my spinning head and ever-present ache, I straightened my posture and dropped my hands to my anacondas, keeping my palms two inches away from the handles. I steadied my breath, which forced my heartbeat to calm down.
The sheriff and his companions descended the opposing hill and were now crossing the valley. The Amunite followed them, silent as death.
I closed my eyes and focused. The wind toyed with my hair, the hat heavy on my head. Everything hurt, but I steadied my posture. I wouldn’t hit if I didn’t stand straight. Exactly as my father taught me. I could hit a thrown quarter before I learned how to read or write. I hated him for leaving us, but for this, I was grateful.
The trio reached closer and stopped as they apparently noticed the guns by my thighs.
The sheriff shouted. “I don’t know who you are, but drop your weapons.”
I didn’t move but opened my eyes. The Amunite kept following the sheriff’s group, closing in.
The sheriff drew his gun, and so did his deputy. “Drop your weapons, now!” They stopped and aimed at me.
I remained still and tried to speak. All that left my throat was a whisper. “Behind… you.”
“What?” the sheriff shouted.
“Calm down,” the woman next to him said, “Isn’t he just a kid?”
Just a kid? I clenched my teeth but remained focused. I would show her who was just a kid. But the largest Amunite I had ever seen was the size of a pug, and this one was larger than a horse.
As the monster crawled behind the sheriff, its claws scraped against the stone. He, the deputy and the woman whirled. The Amunite snarled and leapt forward, stretching wide its four arms.
I clenched my thigh, drew my anaconda and shot. One, two, three, four, five, click. All bullets hit. The Amunite screeched in an inhuman, metallic sound, and fell sideways as the bullets dug into its side, blood spraying from the holes they made.
Not enough. I dropped the anaconda, drew the other one, tossed it to my healthy hand and shot. One, two, three, four, five, six. Each bullet hit the Amunite. Blood and flesh sprayed out of its body. It whimpered and skittered away, so fast my breath became shallow. How was it still alive?
My strength waned. I wobbled and fell onto my back, dropping my gun. I stared at the moonlit sky.
The woman towered above me. A steel cross hanging on her necklace glistened in the moonlight. “Quite the cowboy, aren’t ya?”
I groaned, unable to move.
The sheriff and the deputy ran to us, their faces pale and eyes wide. “What the hell was that?”
The woman smiled. “The reason I’m here. How about ye help himself to our encampment? He’s got more than a few wounds that need treating now.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
I closed my eyes and drifted into the black sea of unconsciousness.