I started writing a piece last week, and now I’ve finished it. Or, well, I have a new first draft that tells the story I wanted to tell. That’s usually what I mean by finished, here. This piece is in the same setting as Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse, though it’s a bit different. This one was inspired by Chuck Wendig’s X Meets Y Horror prompt. Read on past the break!
It was the fourth murder in as many weeks. The victim, Bourjain Halliday, sprawled on the ground like a puppet with no strings. Lenora swallowed back the taste of bile and defeat. She was supposed to be the one stopping these killings, whatever was causing them, and she still had no idea what was killing her townsfolk. She fingered her pearlescent badge while Gerry the surgeon checked Bourjain’s body for wounds.
“Ma’am, I haven’t the faintest.” Gerry squatted by the corpse, shaking his head. “You remember the stippling? Looks like it might, and I stress might, have come from a powder burn? Like you see with a firecracker.” His finger traced the faint black burns that etched the back of Bourjain’s neck. “But I’d expect to see more tissue damage. And here,” he tugged the back Bourjain’s shirt collar down, “there’s nothing of the sort. Just that odd stippling.” He shrugged, then looked up at Lenora and squinted in the sunlight. “Same as with the last three. High time someone put an end to that, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
Lenora bit her lip, staring at Bourjain. They’d grown up together. Seeing him lying there on the ground like that was as unnatural as anything she could think of. She knew she had to put herself together, pick up the trail of whoever or whatever was doing this, but… it felt all but impossible. The first three had been bad enough, but with Bourjain…
“Ma’am?” Gerry looked concerned.
“Yes, Gerry. It’s high time.” Lenora rolled her shoulders, setting her fingertips lightly on the grip of her shooting iron. She’d best not dwell on the body that lay by her feet. She turned around, to look up and down the alleyway that had hidden the body.
“You think he died here? Or did someone move him?”
Gerry shrugged. “I’m no tracker, ma’am. Might have been any number of folks around. But he’s got the lividity to match his position here.” He pointed to the bruising where blood had settled in the skin, “So I’m inclined to say he died here, or was here real soon after dying.”
Lenora nodded, still not looking at the body of her friend. “Alright. Thanks Gerry. Give Yenly his measurements, would you?” Gerry stood up and nodded, dusting off his hands. The carpenter would appreciate the advance notice.
Lenora stalked out of the alley, out onto the biggest street of Buite’s Heights. She could feel the sour tension of others’ expectations knotting in her stomach.
The town meeting had dissolved into muttering clumps of townsfolk. They hadn’t liked to hear her admit that she didn’t know who was doing the killings. They hadn’t liked being told that they had to go everywhere in pairs at least, and keep an eye out for anything strange. She’d told them that it wasn’t as simple as they wanted, that the killings were strange murders that might not even be from the darkness she was here to stop. But it hadn’t mattered. They’d still turned on her and called her out. Lenora could feel her sickening sinking feeling coming back with a vengeance. It had started with the first murder, getting worse and worse each time, but after this meeting she knew what was causing it. The people of Buite’s Heights were losing faith in her. She could feel the power ebbing from her badge.
Though she stood in the crowded common room of Burroughs’ tavern, townsfolk all around her, she had never felt so alone in her life. She knew that fear and distrust could still fuel her badge. But using it, both from what the few other Protectors she’d spoken to said and from personal experience, was never as strong. She swallowed her pain and fear, trying to give off a brave face to those who needed her to help them. Maybe, if they thought she was strong, they’d believe in her again.
She still felt alone.
She turned back to the bar, where Ezra Nomes sat. He was just about the only person in the room who hadn’t taken part in the public shaming. That might have been because he was too busy drinking himself into oblivion, like he so often did, but he smiled and waved her to a seat next to him, patting the stool. At least someone wasn’t speaking ill of her right now. Someone might care.
Burroughs, the taverner, gave her a rueful smile from behind the bar. “Well! That was about as rough as I’ve seen it.” She shook her head. “Sorry you had to go through that, Protector.” She held up a shot glass and quirked an eyebrow. She was attentive, as usual.
Lenora nodded in thanks, staring at the dark brown spirits sloshed into her glass. She could hear snatches of conversation from all around her, all the townsfolk who were pretending she wasn’t there. None of it was complimentary. Only some of it was neutral. She downed the shot, then coughed a spray of liquor back onto the bar. Her throat burned. At least it was better than feeling the pain of losing the town’s faith. Burroughs wiped up the mess with a sympathetic nod, refilled Lenora’s glass, and then moved off to answer a call from further down the bar. There was an uncomfortably empty spot around Lenora and Ezra.
Ezra leaned over close, speaking under the noise of the crowd. “They’re a bunch a shitheads, Protector. Sorry you got to put up with them.” He sipped from his glass. “Sorry I left them to you.”
Lenora was quiet.
She’d gotten her badge from Ezra’s comatose body about five years earlier. She’d run a posse for him, riding down husks that had shown up and started abducting folk, husking them too. He’d gotten into something way beyond the posse’s ability to handle, and faced it down singlehanded. He’d put it down, mostly, but Lenora had taken up his badge when they caught up with him and found still more trouble to shoot. His mind hadn’t come back for about a week while they tried to keep him alive.
When he came back to his senses, he’d taken one look at the badge on Lenora’s shirt and broken into tears thanking her. He’d retreated into a bottle and stayed there ever since.
It was nice having him still be there for her. But she wasn’t sure how much she wanted him in her corner. Burroughs’ sympathy seemed like a more reliable bet.
“You know Lenora,” Ezra leaned in again, “Maybe what you need is some backup.”
Lenora shook her head, but she knew he was right.
Even with backup, things just kept falling apart. It did feel better having someone else with an iron behind her while she stalked around town looking for trouble, but that didn’t stop people from dying alone in the night. Gerry was the next to go, though by this point she’d picked up enough from him that she could recognize the same tell-tale marks on his body, and say with confidence that he hadn’t been moved. Ezra’s old skills as a hunter helped too, even if he was still working his way out of his bottle.
Nerobia Renshaw, and then Suss Renshaw, went next. Lenora found them on two consecutive days. She could feel the quiet resentment of the town sapping her badge’s strength and her own resolve. Burroughs served them drinks, subdued, while Lenora and Ezra talked it over in hushed tones. Ezra, by some miracle, stuck with water.
The pace of deaths picked up, and then people just started disappearing. Word was that the Sanchez family had simply left in a wagon. Their house was certainly bare enough for that to be true, and their wagon was gone, but Lenora had a horrible feeling that something else had happened.
And it just kept on. By the fourth week after that town meeting, at least sixty more people were gone. Buite’s Heights felt abandoned, and people rattled around there like peas in an empty can. Some of them stuck together in clusters, families moving in a paranoid herd, while others wandered town with a mean and suspicious look in their eyes, like they were begging someone to make a move on them. Those ones caressed their guns like they were looking for an excuse.
It was one of those that drew down on Lenora just a little after dawn in the middle of the fourth week after Bourjain Halliday’s murder.
Ezra hadn’t been waiting for Lenora on her porch this morning, the first time he’d failed to show since he’d volunteered to help her. Lenora was so worried that she hadn’t even thought before bustling out the door to find him. She didn’t check the streets for threats the way she’d been doing for the past few weeks, and she didn’t see Sana Halliday pull her shooting iron from her holster and level it at her.
“Lenora!” Sana’s shout made Lenora jump. She turned to look, and saw that she was staring down the barrel of Sana’s drawn iron. The barrel seemed awfully large, seen from the business end, even when she was fifteen feet away.
“Lenora,” Sana’s voice was harsh, thick with anger. She was standing very carefully, with the attention that Lenora expected from someone who was on the drunk side of tipsy. “Been four weeks now, Lenora,” Sana’s gun didn’t waver, unlike her stance, “you figure out who killed my brother yet?”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Lenora was glad that there were so few people here any more. The street behind her, where Sana’s beam might pass, seemed clear. She swallowed her nervousness, trying not to pay attention to the useless clenching of her gut. “No, Sana, you know I haven’t.”
“Why then,” Sana quivered, disgust in her eyes, “do still have that?” Her barrel twitched towards Lenora’s badge. “It’s time you stepped down, Lenora. Let someone competent do the job you can’t.”
Lenora closed her eyes and sighed. Slowly, ever so slowly, she lifted her hand to where the badge was pinned to her shirt. “You know what Sana? Fine.” She looked down to work the clasp open, then up as she was tugging the pin out. There was something off about Sana, and for just a moment she drew on the power of the badge. On the little power she had left.
Her hand shielded the badge’s dull gleam from Sana’s eyes, and for a moment Lenora could see a darkness unlike anything she’d ever seen before. It seeped through Sana’s veins, and it clung to her head and heart like strings to a puppet. Lenora stood there for a moment, badge in hand, and felt her guts twist. She’d found her first trace of darkness, and it was stuck deep in one of her oldest friends.
“What are you waiting for?” Sana narrowed her eyes. She held out her hand, “Give it here.”
Lenora nodded slowly. “Alright. Here.” She tossed it gently, underhand, then reached out with her will. As it reached apogee, the badge winked like the sun for just an instant, and Sana shut her eyes against the glare and fired her iron.
The beam missed Lenora by inches. She was already rushing her old friend. She shoved Sana’s iron into the air as two more beams burst from it in rapid succession, the badge thumping to the dirt. Lenora’s fist found Sana’s face, and Sana fell backwards with one hand tugging on Lenora’s belt, pulling the Protector down as well.
They struggled on the ground, grasping for leverage, raining blows on shoulders, stomachs, heads. Lenora head butted Sana hard in the nose, hearing a crack, and then she could feel her iron being pulled from its holster.
Sana looked up at her, blood streaming down her face, turning her bitter smile crimson. “Should have just given me the badge Lenora.” Lenora could feel the iron pressing into her just beneath the ribs.
“Might not want to do that.” Ezra’s voice was close, and they could both hear the click of an iron’s hammer.
Sana and Lenora stared into each other’s eyes, tense, sweaty, bloody and bruised. And then Lenora saw something dark flicker behind Sana’s eyes. It gave her just enough time to flinch aside and knock the the iron in Sana’s hand before Sana pulled the trigger.
Sana kneed Lenora in the hip, pushing her off and bringing the gun up towards Ezra, two more beams sizzling out. Lenora raised her fist, and brought it down hard on Sana’s face, slamming her into the ground again. She glanced up, to see Ezra standing wide-eyed, looking at the path taken by the beams that had just barely missed him.
“A little help?” It came out as a croak, and Ezra jumped forward to grab Sana’s wrists and wrestle them behind her back. Lenora fell back, gasping, while Ezra arrested Sana.
Sitting back on his haunches, Ezra shook his head. “Remind me not to be late again.”
Lenora and Ezra went straight to the tavern to talk things over, after sticking Sana in one of the cells beneath Lenora’s offices. Lenora had pinned her badge back on, but she still looked like a mess. Ezra looked dazed.
“Burroughs, mind if I charge these cylinders?” Lenora juggled the hot empties from the shooting irons as she came through the door, heading for the door under the stairs, the one that led to the basement.
“Oh, leave those here with me,” Burroughs said, behind the bar. She stopped pouring the tea Ezra ordered long enough to point, “I’ve got a few more that I need to put in, I’ll do ‘em all at once.”
Lenora crossed the room to the bar, picking up the box marked ‘for charging.’ “I’ll grab those too. I can speed things up for you.” She headed back to the basement stairs.
“There’s really no need, I’ll get to those soon enough,” Burroughs called as Lenora started down the stairs.
Lenora chuckled, flicking the single bulb’s switch with her elbow. It was just like Burroughs to protest others helping out. The bulb was an extravagance made possible by the tavern’s windmill, and it left jagged but stable shadows scattered across the basement floor, so unlike the softer edges Lenora would expect from a lamp. The charger was there on the far side of the room, taking up an entire wall with its metallic bulk.
The basement looked much like it had last time Lenora was down here, bottles and barrels resting in racks against the walls while tall shelves took up a good portion of the floorspace. The workbench ran along the wall to her right, tools left neatly in their positions on their wall hangers. There was something comforting to Lenora about the regularity, the easy familiarity, of this place. She’d been down here so many times, fixing her shooting iron or tinkering with something, that it felt reassuring. And the novelty of that bulb never really wore off.
Lenora started slowly slotting the cylinders into the charger, watching small status lights flicker on, the color of fresh wet blood. Lenora licked a trickle from her nose and sighed. Even if she didn’t understand how the charger worked very well, at least it was simple to use. Like her badge. If only doing her job were as easy as that. She turned to head back up the stairs when a box under the workbench caught her eye. The shadows inside it had just moved, though the bulb hadn’t flickered at all.
Very slowly, Lenora stepped towards the box. Her whole body began to quiver, tense, on edge again immediately. The box was old, wooden, a crate that had been nailed shut and then, by the looks of it, recently opened with a pry bar. Lenora could see the fresh gouges where the wood was lighter, where two slats had been lifted from the top. One hand on her shooting iron, the other on her badge, Lenora crouched down on one knee to see what had caught her attention. Had the shadows in the box just moved again? She hadn’t heard any movement inside the box, but she would have sworn…
The bulb went out. The basement went pitch black, with just those blood red little lights flickering in the wall charger behind her. Lenora could hear the stairs creak under someone’s weight.
“I really wish you’d let me take care of those cylinders Lenora.” Burroughs’ voice came from the far side of the room. The big woman moved quietly on the dirt floor, far quieter than Lenora’s heart thumping in the dark. Lenora stood up again, inching her iron out of its holster. She wanted her draw to stay silent, not let Burroughs know she was getting ready. She fought the need to speak, to reply. She knew now what was in that box. She didn’t need to tell Burroughs exactly where she was too.
“You too afraid to talk?” Burroughs sounded snide. Lenora didn’t like the confidence in her voice. “You might as well. I can see you bright as day down here. The dark doesn’t hold any frights.” Burroughs gave a throaty laugh. “For me.”
Lenora’s mouth went dry. She crabbed sideways, trying to keep her back to the workbench. From the sound of her voice, Burroughs had been circling around the opposite side of the room. It would be so easy, Lenora knew, to call up light from her badge, but she had to save it. The town barely believed in her these days. After so many had been found dead or had gone missing, whatever power she had left wouldn’t last long. Certainly not after her stunt this morning.
“I take it you found Sana.” Burroughs was getting closer. “I’d hoped she’d do a bit more before the puppet strings broke and killed her, but at least you’re here now.”
The charger’s bloody lights were blacked out for a moment, and Lenora fired. The beam was sizzling bright, etched in her eyes, and it lit the basement like a flash of lightning. She could see that the beam had burned a crater in the wall next to the charger, and see Burroughs’ big white smile gleaming in the brilliant light. “Ezra! Help!”
Burroughs laughed in the dark. “He should have paid more attention to the tea before chugging it down.”
Lenora could feel the pit of her stomach give way, and the iron in her hand began to waver. Burroughs laughed harder, the sound echoing oddly in the darkened basement.
Lenora staggered backwards, feet knocking against barrels and boxes as she went. She’d totally lost her sense of direction. She stopped, breathing hard, iron clenched in her hand as she strained her ears for some hint of movement.
This time, Burroughs’ voice reverberated from everywhere. “You’re going to miss the best part Protector. I’m going to bring Buite’s Heights to Hell, and you’ll miss the finale. It was nice to take care of that washed up ex-Protector though. He was such a problem last time I walked these lands. Now you’ll get to see what drove him mad in the first place.”
There was a gasp from the top of the stairs, up and behind Lenora where she’d least expected them. The bulb flicked on, and she could just barely hear Ezra’s whisper to her.
“Fuck it up Lenora,” there was a struggling breath, “do it good. I know you can.” And Lenora could feel the last bit of strength in her badge well up into her, warm and comforting.
Burroughs stood in the center of the room, eye sockets empty, mouth hanging open. Shadows streamed back into her stout body from all around the room, clear under the light of the single bulb. Lenora leveled her iron and emptied it into Burroughs’ head and chest, three hot beams cooking the flesh. The body remained standing for a moment, then collapsed as the shadows changed direction and streamed back towards the old crate.
Lenora stared at the crate, hatred in her eyes.
By noon, there was a bonfire in the center of town, just outside the tavern. Burroughs’ body burned like any other corpse, but the box, as it charred through and the darkness within was caught between the flames and the hot noontide sun, let loose all the screams of those who’d died in the preceding weeks. Ezra’s body burned normally too.
Buite’s Heights didn’t recover for years, but every year since they’ve held a bonfire in the city square.