Cooper Carrion Crown
Gunslinger of the Mana Wastes
The fire receded to a low-crackling mass of ember. Mellic knew his love had come for him this night. The dark coalesced into a cascade of raven-black hair outside of the light.
“Were you waiting for me?” She chimed in a sweet voice, like bells ringing from past the horizon. Two stars, low-slung on the horizon gleamed in the void where her eyes would have been.
“All my life,” replied a voice as hollow and dry as desert wind, “but our dance is far from finished.” The two stars glimmered, then narrowed as he calmly slid the last round into the chamber of a baroque silver pistol. He kicked the last remaining log into the fire, a shower of sparks fled into the inky sky as a startled flock of burning birds reuniting with their twinkling cousins far overhead. His eyes were fixed, warm brown brimming with gold, incapable of tears. He cocked a smile alongside the filigree clockwork hammer of his pistol with one utterance,
“I love you.”
The two stars widened slowly into a smile as the log flared with the shifting wind, dragging shadows in strange angles. A low guttural growl rumbled out of the void like tar bubbling from the night itself. Mellic inhaled once, drawing in the scent of smoke and sweet rot and unwashed hair, then squeezed the silver trigger.
The report of a the pistol drew a howl reverberating with pain and fury out of the night like a thorn from the paw of a great beast. The lance of smoke was still hanging in the air at the moment he dove to one side, narrowly dodging the twisted arc of fur and claw that lunged towards the source of this offense. Skirting the dim halo of the campfire, nothing of the abomination could be sighted save black trunks for limbs, padding on sickle-shaped bone-yellow claws, and two milky cataract eyes flashing with hunger.
Another click and another round chambered with a flash of silver. His arm and gun followed the rhythm of the lurching blackness, his other arm calmly pressed to the small of his back. Both of them a honed predator, they circled and waited for the other to break the grim dance, nothing but the hissing crack of the log to set the pace. The silent sand beneath his booted feet shifted to swallow him like grave dirt, halting both of them in the same instant. The rotted eggs of its eyes faded from the light, the black form vanishing from view and thought with a stillness that challenged the idea that it ever existed at all; a mad figment of a diseased imagination doubting itself out of existence.
The log continued to burn and pop, then crackled and fell; a splitting hiss and snap followed by the immediate crack of his firearm. As the bolt of fire and smoke lunged from silvered barrel into blackness, the blackness replied in kind. The dark beyond the fire opened like the night itself would swallow the stars and campfire and gunman all in one bite. An inky leviathan of claws swallowing the light like a speck of a rowboat on the ocean of sand. The pained roar split octaves and sounded as if to come from more than one mouth, but one mouth sounded like wet and worried, drowning in blood. The mass of the gurgling monster fell into him like a widowmaker bearing down on a doomed lumberjack, sinking its horrible claws into his form with a final deep crunch.
Stillness and silence save the sovereign flame alone in the desert were all that was left. A thin wisp of smoke wound a spiral into the stars overhead.
The black mass then shifted and heaved back onto its legs. A linen-wrapped hand clawed upwards between the tangled limbs into the dry night air, digging through the knotted black fur. Wrenching the mass aside, Mellic gasped the breath of a drowning man finding the sky again as he slid from beneath the monstrosity. In a wet crunch, he pulled the gilded dagger with his left hand from between the ribs of the lung-punctured horror; grimly wiping the blood on his cloak, now slick with the oil-black fluid the beast pulsed from the wound in a great gout.
His face betrayed no sign of the ache in his muscles as he sheathed the blade behind his back. The granite of his features did crack, however, when he reached under blood-leaden fabric to gingerly remove two planks of cracked and rotted wood from within; deep gouges scored with claw marks haunted the wood where his wounds would have brought him to his Death.
His lips drew back in a sneer as he tossed the ruined wood into the fire for more light, lobbing his cloak over each shoulder for the next task. Wistfully, he set his rusty eyes back to the Western horizon. Momentarily, he thought he could see his love still watching, but the two stars were just stars idling, waiting.
It was his turn to widen his eyes into a slow smile, his mouth betraying no such emotion. He whispered to himself in the dark,
“May we dance again my love.”
With that, he slid the silvery form of the gun into a tooled holster at his side, it purred with a familiar leathery creak when it found home. Turning now to the creature at his feet, he produced another knife from his back, this one a silver crescent set to a very different purpose. He carved a half moon beneath its ribs, introducing the steaming entrails to the night air. Splitting the stomach in the firelight showed nothing but gnawed bones and patches of hair, accompanied by an acidic stink reminiscent of the smell of its fur.
“Starving,” he nodded as he adjusted his stance over the form to inspect its fanged maw, “aren’t we all in these wastes.”
He peered into the faded eyes as he tapped the blade to gums with a wrapped fist, seeing no reflection save blackness. One jagged incisor popped into his patient palm. After claiming a second of the largest teeth like a skilled surgeon he rattled them appreciatively like dice in his hand, then deftly dropped them into a concealed pouch.
Next, a trained finger traced the shoulders and flanks of the bony ruin. He sunk the thin blade with a low sucking sound into the neck, clenching his jaw as he yanked it from shoulder, to the other. From this he pulled the skin from its bony frame, slowly feeling the sinews tense with absence of life, expertly dragging the steel curve along the contours of its back. Once the knife completed this grisly circuit, following the path his finger previously drew, he softly flensed the black fur from its former owner.
With the hide tucked into a threadbare backpack, the man gave a whistle. The orange glow of the fire appeared in two small discs being reflected in the night. Small spectacles approached from the stillness, carrying behind them the furtive figure of a scholar.
“Are we safe? I heard a dreadful clamor,” the scholar’s voice did not waver, but was wreathed in worry.
“Nothing to worry about, by tomorrow night we’ll have reached the city,” replied the gunman.
“For everything I hear about this place, I must say it has proven to be far more interesting than one could anticipate. I must ask though, what was that commotion? I thought I heard you speaking to someone.” His bushy eyebrows pushed together in either concern or suspicion.
Mellic glanced down at his feet to see no trace of the broken monster, as if it had returned to whatever nightmare spawned it. The gunman’s mouth narrowed to little more than a knife-slit in his face as he looked again to the West.