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July 04, 2022

Pale Traveler

By Mel Trent

The Immortal Guns of Talon Constantine: Pale Traveler

I.

Kaine is alone. Behind him is an expanse of desert night he can't recall crossing. There's nothing in it but cold sand. Ahead of him is the dim silhouette of a woman. She waits for him. Her long black hair whips around her with tiny whirlwinds of sand. She will kill him. He doesn't think he'll mind. Under his feet are glittering silver tracks. The ties are broken, and the line is crooked. Under that, he can feel the pulse of a dying leyline.

His clothes are in tatters. Vicious wounds crisscross his face. His arms, chest and back are similarly scored, but his wounds don't hurt. What hurts is that he is alone. He feels as if his insides have been torn out and replaced with a swarm of angry wasps. They buzz and sting, but he grits his teeth and moves on.

He has both guns and both knives. Hidden somewhere in his tattered coat is another pair of guns. The grips have pale pink inlays. Despite that, he thinks they're good guns. Bullets are inclined to do whatever he wants them to do no matter what the gun looks like. This is good because he intends to use every bullet he has.

The wind hurls needles of sand at his wounds. He doesn't feel it. He's aware he's in pain, but the stinging emptiness inside numbs him to everything else. He stumbles forward. His breath staggers in and out of his lungs. She watches him, her eyes phosphorescent under the blue starlight. He thinks about shooting her down, about gaping holes in her body gushing hot red blood, about her anguished screams. He imagines staring down at her as she dies at his feet. He'd put a bullet in her brain to end it quickly, but that would be kind. She deserves to suffer. She's the one who tore him up. She's the reason he's alone.

There are only four stars in the sky. Shaman is a steady, bright glow directly over his head. Firefly's dull purple light flickers and quivers. Yuusei is spinning like a dervish, throwing pieces of itself down to the vast desert. Steam rises from the distant impact points. Above those three is a silver star that Kaine has never really understood. It is Samurai, but he knows next to nothing about it. Sometimes, if he watches it long enough, it appears to spread large white wings. He can see those wings now as they try to catch Yuusei's shards, but Samurai is too distant. Yuusei can't be saved. Yuusei must be destroyed.

She is ten feet away, yet the shadows that shroud her form have not fallen away to reveal a human body. Sulfurous yellow lights flare from her eyes. She laughs softly at him. "I will tear you apart," she hisses. He feels her voice deep in his eardrums. It makes him sick to his stomach. He raises the guns. Bright blue lines race across the silver surfaces. He's never seen them move quite so fast or glow quite that bright.

At this point, Kaine thinks he should probably try to talk to her. She won't listen, but he has other ways of ending this than his bullets. The point had been to save her, to save himself, but that hasn't worked. If she doesn't kill him now, the visions soon will. It would have taken all three of them to do anything. But still. If there's any chance, he should take it.

He thumbs the hammers back. It's just a vision. He's got no free will. "Die, bitch."

He empties both guns into her. He can't tell if the bullets do anything, and then he realizes that they didn't even hit her. She's gathered all twelve of them, and now she's sending them back. The impact tears him open. Some of the bullets go clean through. Others lodge in his heart, his lungs and in bones. He drops Hizashi and Getsuei and goes down on one knee. She laughs at him. He draws Kumiko's guns and unloads those bullets into her. One of her eyes winks out. Her shadowy form stumbles. He can see blood beginning to spill onto the sand.

Being shot takes her by surprise. He's got her now. He drops the guns and pulls out the knives. Like Talon's guns, the lines on the knives glow brighter and move faster than he's ever seen. She is gasping now, backing away from him. The sand is already saturated with blood. He throws the knives. Both catch her in the throat. The shadow evaporates. He falls face first along the tracks. He turns his head and rolls his eyes towards the sky. The black night is full of tiny streaking lights in brilliant colors and white feathers that tumble down from the silver star. Stardust and feathers settle on his back as he drags out one last breath. The desert fades to black. He feels a presence leaning over him. Cool lips brush against his ear. A voice that is neither male nor female whispers, "Rise."

II.

Kaine wakes up with a start. A flurry of susurrus voices wheel through his head and fade. He sits up gingerly. The room is empty. He hears the shower running and Kumiko singing softly. Jynx is down at the grocer's on the corner. I want pickles, he thinks.

Jynx's voice answers back brightly, Hey, all right! You're awake! You okay?

Yeah, I guess. No pain. I need salt. They got beef jerky or Slim Jims or something?

Salt? Are you pregnant? You want ice cream and chocolate, too?

Have you ever seen Samurai's wings?

Um ... not really ...

They got peanuts? Peanuts would be good, too.

Um, Kaine? Are you really all right? I don't like the vibes.

The vision kinda disturbed me. We'll talk later. I think you're being followed.

Yeah, I have a new shadow. Isn't he cute?

His guns sure as hell aren't.

No worries. He doesn't plan on using those guns. Not on us anyway. He's curious.

Who is he?

Don't know yet. Should I just get you a big ole block o' salt?

No.

All right, I'll be back in a few minutes.

Kaine leans back against wall and tilts his head up to look out the window. It's midmorning, and the sky is white. Everything will be black with a howling sandstorm before evening. They can't afford to wait for it to pass. They'll have to go through it.

III.

A man passes under the window of a room in Tarragon Inn. The right side of his face is covered in scars, and his right eye is a shade or two lighter than his left because of it. People stare at him as he passes. He gives the impression of being well armed and dangerous, but no weapons are visible about his person. No one bothers him. He heads towards the post office to look over the most recent wanted posters.

A bright light winks in the window on his left side. He pauses. He turns his head slowly. It's not the sun glinting off the barrel of a gun. It's an ethereal light, the kind of thing you want to see full on because it's beautiful, but you know the second you turn to look, it'll be gone. He's seen that light before, but it's been years.

He sees nothing in the window but the light. It fades, leaving a blue afterimage deep in his cornea. He blinks. So they're here, he thinks. He turns his attention back to the street and walks on.

IV.

Kumiko steps out of the shower and dries herself off with a scratchy towel that probably used to be white. It's now a shade somewhere between grey and yellow, and if it didn't smell clean, she would be inclined to think it had never been washed. She rubs water off her hair, thinking how glad she is that she got it cut short just before she left Absolution. She hated to see all that beautiful blonde hair chopped off, but it's so much easier to take care of. Besides, she thinks she looks incredibly cute with short hair.

Once she's dry and her hair is a damp, tousled mess, she looks around for her clothes and then remembers that she left her clean clothes in her backpack, and her backpack is not in the bathroom. "Damn it," she mutters.

She presses her ear to the door. She hears nothing. Jynx isn't back yet, and Kaine is probably still asleep. She wraps the towel around her. She wishes it were a much bigger towel as she tucks the ends in. She opens the bathroom door quietly and peeks out. The bed is out of her line of sight. She tiptoes out of the bathroom and heads for the corner where her backpack is, but then she stops. Her mouth drops open.

Kaine is sitting up, leaning against the wall with his head tilted towards the window. Kumiko doesn't really notice his bare chest or the mesh of scars over his heart. She doesn't really notice his well-shaped muscles or that his eyes, in the weak sunlight, are a very deep shade of blue. What she notices, what drops her jaw, is the light around him. It's a soft white light, the kind of diffused glow artists like to put around the heads of angels and depictions of God. It comforts her and takes her breath away at the same time.

The longer she stares, the more she notices that the light has a shape, and spreading out from Kaine's back are two large white wings. Something is wrong with the wings. They're broken.

Kumiko cries out. She slaps her hands over her mouth. The towel comes undone and drops to the floor. The light around Kaine fades.

Kaine turns his head away from the window when he hears Kumiko's cry. He feels his face turning red. Kumiko's cheeks are almost purple already. He should look away. He wants to look away. He can't.

Kumiko reaches down and snatches the towel off the floor. She fumbles with it. "I ... um ... uh ... um, I ... my clothes ..." She waggles her hand towards the corner where her backpack is.

Kaine says nothing. He still wants to look away and still can't.

Kumiko squeezes her eyes shut. "Could you get my backpack for me please?" she asks, barely managing to contain what wants to be a squeal of embarrassment.

"Oh. Um, sure." Kaine stumbles out of the bed. The bell on his neck gives a cheerful ring. Heat rises in his face as he realizes that he's not much more dressed than Kumiko is. Too late for modesty, he thinks. He staggers across the room, grabs her backpack and lurches awkwardly towards her. The bell jingles. He stops in front of her. With one hand, he holds out her backpack. With the other, he grabs the bell. He turns his head and looks at the floor.

Kumiko swipes her backpack out of his hand and feels his fingers brush the back of her hand. She backs into the bathroom and slams the door. She leans against the door, clutching the backpack to her chest. Her heart is fluttering. She takes a few deep breaths. A small smile spreads across her face.

For a while, Kaine finds it impossible to move. He can't decide if what just happened is a good thing or a bad thing. The fact that he might even consider it a good thing bothers him a little. It puts the vision in a slightly different perspective.

Jynx walks in the front door with two bags of food and supplies. "Hi, honey! I'm home!" he says. "Hey, what are you doing up? Are you okay?"

"Huh? Oh. I'm fine. Um ..."

Jynx pauses and looks around the room. "What just happened?"

"Nothing."

"Uh-huh, yeah right."

"Um, Kumiko ... needed her backpack. She ..."

"You like her, don't you?"

"No."

"You answered that a little too fast. You've got a crush on her."

"Shut up. I do not."

Jynx laughs.

"Shut up and give me my pickles."

Jynx puts the bags down. He pulls out a jar of pickles. "I want details."

Kaine takes the jar and sits down on the bed. "Of what?"

"Did you kiss her?"

"No! Will you stop already?"

"I think she likes you, too."

Kaine throws a pickle at Jynx's head. Jynx ducks, and the pickle splats against the wall.

"That's wasteful," Jynx says.

Kaine glares at him.

Jynx picks up the pickle, inspects it then brushes it off. He takes a bite out of it. "Hey, these are good," he says. "You know, you might wanna get dressed before she comes out of the bathroom again."

"Yeah. Where's your shadow?"

"Dunno. I was trying to get a better look at him. Something was starting to feel weird. Then he just vanished. That felt weird, too. Like a pop or a skip in the energy."

"Probably not a good sign."

"No, but I guess we'll deal with that later. So ... the vision ..."

Kumiko presses her ear to the door and listens for a while. She doesn't hear them talking, but she hears Kaine's bell jingle as he gets dressed. She waits a few more minutes just in case and then comes out of the bathroom.

The twins are sitting side by side on the bed. They don't look at her. Kaine's eyes are closed, and Jynx is chewing on his knuckles. She decides she doesn't want to know what Kaine's vision was. She can tell it wasn't good just by the looks on their faces. If they want her to know, she's sure they'll tell her, so she pretends it doesn't really mean anything to her. "So," she says. "Where are we going now?"

Jynx hops off the bed. "Post office!" he says.

"Post office? Are you expecting mail?"

"No, Hobbs puts up new wanted posters every morning."

"But I thought you were after --"

"We're broke," Kaine says.

"So we need to go the post office," Jynx says.

"You're broke? How broke?" Kumiko asks.

Jynx digs in his pockets and comes up with a handful of coins. "You got anything, Kaine?" he asks.

Kaine shakes his head. "You took it all to go to the store," he says.

"Right. Uh, that's worse than I thought. Two stars."

"Two stars?" Kumiko asks. "All you have is two stars?" She shakes her head and digs through her backpack for her wallet. She's not much better off than they are. After paying for the room the night before, she has six stars left. "You know, we wouldn't be having this problem if you hadn't made me give Rollie the money I got for catching the Trinity Gang."

"He needed it more than we did," Jynx says.

"You can't pour shots in a burned out bar," Kaine says. "He can't make any more money until the bar's rebuilt."

"But you can always get cash for taking the bad guys to jail."

Kumiko sighs. "You guys are such pains," she says.

V.

The population of Whatcheer, shortly before the war, was once listed at 3,015. A sloppy census after the war reported the population at 1,968. In 1999, 785 people live in Whatcheer, although no one has actually bothered to count anything on Phoenix since the war ended. It's hard to imagine that anyone lives in Whatcheer at all. The place feels like a ghost town already. The post office used to be a popular meeting place. In fact, mail used to arrive from Angel City on a daily basis. Postmaster Hobbs still comes in just before dawn every day, sweeps out the sand that creeps in, puts up the wanted posters off the CrimeNet database and waits for the mail transports. He remembers the last time the mail came. It was November 12, 1981. A package had arrived for Lexington Dent, the mayor of the town. Dent had torn the package open right there in the post office. It was a ticket for Dent, his wife Elodie and their daughters Stacia and Natalia to leave for Salvation the very next day. They left behind their dog and most of their furniture. Not to mention the office of mayor and all the responsibilities of running a dying town. The sheriff had done little to stop looters from cleaning out what the Dents left behind. The sheriff adopted the dog himself, but the heartbroken mutt died within a year. Hobbs remembers it all like it was yesterday.

The bounty hunters that come through on an irregular basis are enough reason for Hobbs to keep the post office open. He makes no money off them, but his pay still comes in from the interplanetary government system. If he stopped opening the place up every day, except Sundays, he'd stop getting his stars. Now that Rollie's is burned down, Hobbs thinks he should turn the post office into a make shift bar. Not that he wants to compete with Rollie. He just wants to fill the gap. He's lived in Whatcheer all his life. He doesn't want to see it die.

Hobbs usually chats with the bounty hunters who come in. Most of them are friendly enough to say a few polite words. Some of them are lonely and in need of human contact. Only a few of them have ever made him refrain from speaking, even if just to say hello or something. The man who just left is one of them. In fact, Hobbs is still trembling several minutes later, and he isn't even sure why. It might have been the look in that slightly clouded eye that turned on him as the man walked out. More likely it's that the man didn't seem to be interested in the wanted posters. He was waiting for something.

When the sounds of a bell ringing and laughter had drifted into the post office, the man had lifted his head a little and then walked out.

Kumiko has been looking at her feet, walking sullenly a few steps behind the twins, listening to them argue about something. She's not sure what, but Jynx had said, "Do too," as if picking up a conversation they'd started a while back and hadn't finished. Kaine had answered back, defensively, "Do not," and they had been going back and forth for a while. She doesn't notice that they have stopped talking until she finds herself running into Kaine's back.

"What the hell --" she starts to say.

They don't answer. They're staring at an old man who just walked out of the post office. He's got a wide brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. His long brown coat is tattered and dusty. Kumiko can't see any weapons on him, but she thinks he must be a bounty hunter. Horrible scars run down the right side of his rough face. Then she sees his eyes drift towards her and the twins. Jynx and Kaine are paralyzed. She feels herself beginning to tremble. She can't tell if they meet the man's gaze or not, but he continues past them and doesn't look back.

"Holy shit," Jynx says.

"What?" Kumiko asks.

"He looked at us," Kaine says. "Did you see that?"

"Hmm. But that was the bad eye," Jynx says.

"Yeah, bad as in he could probably kill people with it."

"What are you two babbling about?" Kumiko asks. "Do you know that guy? Who the hell is he?"

"McBride," they say. They look at her as if she should know that and that name should strike terror in her heart and give her nightmares for days.

"Who?" she asks.

"McBride," Jynx says again.

"He's evil," Kaine says. "He hunts people for fun."

"I heard he's possessed."

"Yeah, he tried to capture a demon once, and it scarred his face and then went into him through the scars."

"I heard he was born with those scars."

"And the demon."

"They say if he looks at you with his left eye ..."

"It means he's gonna kill you. And if he looks at you with his right eye ..."

"He'll just maim you."

They shudder.

Kumiko puts her hands on her hips. "That's all just silly rumors," she says.

They shake their heads. "No," Jynx says.

"It's not," Kaine says.

Kumiko looks over her shoulder down the street, but McBride is gone. She looks back at Kaine and Jynx. "Well, if he's a bounty hunter, I seriously doubt he's got any interest in you two," she says.

"Then what's he doing on Phoenix?" Jynx asks. He coughs feathers into his hands then looks around.

"What the hell was that?" Kaine asks.

"Now what?" Kumiko asks.

"What's Pale Traveler?" Jynx asks.

Kaine shrugs. "Sounds like someone gave their kid an unfortunate name. But that ..."

"Pop? Skip?"

"Teleporting?"

"Hmmm ... my little shadow friend from this morning. Look, there he is."

They spot a young boy standing at the corner of the derelict building that used to be the Starlight Hotel and Opera House. He's small, and he looks like he might be twelve years old, if he's lucky. He's wearing a poncho that used to be dark green with bright orange strips. The colors have faded. A big sombrero with small star shaped decorations hanging off the brim tops the boy's head. All his clothes look too big for him and as if they were left in the sun too long. They can't see his face under the sombrero.

"I don't think I like this," Kaine says. He takes a step towards the boy. Then the boy is gone. "Fuck."

"Yeah, that's a teleporter, all right," Jynx says. "And he's pretty pale."

"Pale Traveler ..."

"You don't think he's some kind of ..."

"Demon?"

"His aura's murky, that's for sure."

"Star demons."

"What? Are you serious?"

"It has to be. Normal demons don't feel like that."

"So there's how many of them? Three or four?"

"I don't know. Three I'd think. Samurai isn't really ... here."

"True."

"Okay, which one should I be more worried about? McBride or that kid?" Kumiko asks. She checks the straps on her gun belt. They're a little looser. It feels like they've been oiled a little.

"McBride," the twins say.

"We can take a demon," Jynx says.

"Take him where? Dancing?" Kumiko asks.

"We need to hurry up," Kaine says. "There's a sand storm coming. That should keep the runt from following too close."

"We're going to go through a sand storm?"

"Yes, and I hope you have something to put over your eyes."

They step into the post office.

"Good morning, boys!" Hobbs calls out to them. He's relieved to have familiar faces -- friendly faces -- come in after seeing that man. The twins have always been nice to him. They'll stay and chat for hours if they have nothing better to do.

"Hiya, Hobbs!" Jynx says. He waves at the postmaster.

Kaine scans the posters. "I don't see anyone worth McBride's time," he says. "I wonder why he was here."

Hobbs starts to tremble all over again. "That was McBride?" he asks.

"Yeah, didn't you know?"

"I ... I had no idea."

Jynx shrugs. "I don't think you should worry, Hobbs. He won't bother you. 'Slong's you stay outta his way," he says. "Maybe he's looking for the teleporter."

Kaine shakes his head. The bell jingles. "Kid's not up here," he says.

Hobbs raises an eyebrow. "What's with the collar? Someone got you on a leash?" he asks.

Kaine blushes.

"His girlfriend put it on him," Jynx says.

"I am not his girlfriend," Kumiko says. "I just needed a way to tell them apart. That was all I had."

"You must be Kuroda Kumiko," Hobbs says.

"I am. It's very nice to meet you, sir."

"See anything interesting, Kaine?" Jynx asks.

Kaine pulls a poster off the corkboard. "One hundred thousand stars for Arizona Winthrop, wanted for holding up three banks on Absolution, a tech lab on Salvation and for murdering two chute guards on her way to Phoenix. Last seen in Dust," he says.

He hands the poster to Kumiko. Kumiko studies the grainy black and white picture showing a woman in what looks like some kind of full body battle armor in the process of fleeing. The picture is from the tech lab's security camera. Below that is a mug shot of a fairly young woman with boyish short, dark hair and small, mean eyes. She has a distinct, x-shaped scar across her mouth and a metal bar seals her lips. Kumiko hands the poster to Jynx.

"Sealed lips," Jynx says.

"Yeah. That's the third one we've seen like that," Kaine says.

"The others tried to come to Phoenix, too, didn't they?"

"Yeah. After stealing money and breaking into tech labs. Maybe they'll get smart and mind probe her to find out who she works for."

"I hope not. It makes steady work if a bunch of flunkies keep getting caught."

"Good point. Well, let's go. The storm will start soon."

"There's a storm coming?" Hobbs asks.

"Nasty sand storm. You should probably shut this place up and go home."

Hobbs nods and slips off his stool to begin sealing up the windows and the door.

"Oh, hey. Hobbs, you know who that pale looking kid is?" Jynx asks. "He looks like he might be about twelve, baggy clothes, big hat?"

Hobbs shakes his head. "Doesn't ring a bell," he says. "Sorry, Kaine."

Kaine grumbles.

Jynx laughs and flicks the bell.

"Quit it," Kaine says.

"Oh, come on. It's cute," Jynx says.

"It is not."

"Is too."

"Is not."

"Is too."

Kaine grabs Jynx and puts him in a headlock. "Is not!"

"Ow! Is too!"

"Bye, Hobbs!"

"Bye, boys! Be careful!" Hobbs says. He shakes his head as Kaine pulls Jynx out of the post office, still in a headlock and still arguing.

Kumiko groans and follows them out into the street.

In the west, the sky is beginning to blacken.

VI.

The sand storm rears up like a starving beast getting its first chance at food in days. All at once, the sky is black. The wind howls around them, driving sheets of stinging sand in perfect horizontal lines. Every once in a while, the wind drops off a little. The blowing sand begins to swoop down. When the wind picks up again, tight whirlwinds of sand tear across the desert. They've been able to struggle through it so far. It's been half an hour. Kumiko wonders if it will ever stop. She can't hear anything but the wind. She can hardly see, and with the sun blotted out, it's cold. She has her pink handkerchief up over her nose and her mouth, and she has on cute clear plastic goggles with rhinestone hearts in the frame. Any exposed skin is getting scoured. She's bleeding slightly from abrasions on her forehead, her ears and the back of her neck. She hopes there's a dress shop or something in Dust. She needs a long scarf to wrap around her face and neck, like the twins have.

They walk in a straight line so that if one of them veers off course, the others might be able to follow. They stick close to each other, but after a while, Kumiko can't see Jynx up front and can barely see Kaine right in front of her. Just as she's thinking she needs to find a way to tell them she thinks they should stop and wait until the storm passes, Kaine reaches back and grabs her hand. She feels a little better. Even when she can no longer see him a few minutes later, she can feel his hand on hers.

Are we headed in the right direction? Kaine thinks.

Vaguely, Jynx thinks. We'll end up somewhere.

Yeah, like Rune with the way this wind is blowing.

Pop, snap. The wind dies a little.

What the hell was that? Jynx asks.

Pale Traveler, Kaine thinks.

They hear the chunking sound of a shotgun being pumped.

"Get down!" Jynx screams.

Kumiko doesn't have time to turn around and see what's behind her before Kaine grabs her and pushes her down to the ground. She hears a shotgun blast. It sounds like it's miles away, but she can tell by the smell that it's almost directly above her. Kaine leans over her and screams in her ear, "Stay down!" It sounds like a whisper.

There's another chunking sound, this one much closer. She looks past Kaine's shoulder. The pale kid is standing right next to them. He grins at them from under his ridiculously oversized hat. The dangling stars whip in the wind. His skin is so pale she can almost see through it. "Two birds with one stone," he says.

Kaine lunges to his feet, driving his shoulder into the kid's elbows, shoving the barrel of the shotgun towards the sky. The shotgun goes off, and then the kid vanishes. Kaine looks around, but he can't see anything in the storm. He crouches beside Kumiko and waits for the next snap.

Jynx heaves himself to his feet. There's a tiny burning pain in his left thigh. He looks down. His pants are torn. So is his thigh. It's a small wound, but it's not just a scrape. Scattershot, he thinks, just before he hears the second shot.

Lost him, Kaine thinks.

You guys okay?

Yeah.

They feel the snap of Pale Traveler's teleporting again.

Jynx feels the barrel of the shotgun in the small of his back.

"Gotcha, angel," the kid says.

Jynx whips around towards his left and drives the heel of his boot into the kid's cheek. The boy stumbles backwards a few steps and vanishes in the darkness of the sand storm, but he doesn't teleport. Jynx draws his gun. He takes a few steps towards where he thinks the kid might be standing. He hears the shotgun pump again. He's curious as to how the kid can see him through all the sand. Maybe the kid can feel his energy better than he and Kaine can feel the kid's. It doesn't make sense to him that they wouldn't have always known there were star demons. Then again, in the era of the last star angels, there were no star demons.

The shotgun goes off. Hard pellets dig into the sand at Jynx's feet but don't hit him. Then Pale Traveler pops away.

Kaine is ready that time. He feels the pop, hears the chunk of the shotgun, draws and fires before the kid realizes what has happened. Kaine feels lightheaded, and his heart labors. His left arm starts to go numb. He lets Shaman's vision go, and the pain passes. He staggers over to the still form of the star demon. The kid is staring wide-eyed up at the sand choked sky, heedless of the grains that scrape across his skin. He's so pale now that Kaine can see the muscles underneath his flesh. Kaine kicks the shotgun away from the boy's hand and puts his foot down on the boy's wounded shoulder. Got him, he thinks. To the boy, he says, "Who are you?"

The boy laughs.

Kaine grinds his foot down on the bullet wound.

The boy screams.

"Tell me who you are or I'll rip your goddamn arm off!"

"Muh ... my nuh ... my name is Elijah Exelby."

"Pale Traveler is the name of the star demon."

"Yuh ... yeah."

"Who are the others?"

"Cuh ... can't you fuh ... find that out yourself, Shaman? Ah ... ah ... are you too wuh ... weak to look for them?"

Kaine pulls the hammer back on Getsuei. "Make it easy on yourself. Talk."

"I don't know."

"What are the stars called?"

"I don't know. But they ... thu ... they're here. They'll find you. They'll kuh ... kill you."

"Then let's start by making the odds a little more even."

Elijah pops just as Kaine pulls the trigger. He pauses by his shotgun and pops away again before Kaine can get in another shot. Kaine tries to follow his movements again, but it's not worth risking a heart attack in the middle of a sand storm. He can't see Jynx or Kumiko, but he feels the storm starting to break up. He sits down and waits.

Kumiko notices the silence suddenly. She stands up, shaking off a layer of sand. The wind has stopped. The sky is clear, but it's getting dark. Kaine and Jynx are standing shoulder to shoulder, staring silently at the last shimmers of sunlight on the horizon. She rubs sand out of her hair and takes off her goggles.

"Are you okay?" Jynx asks when she walks up to them.

"Yeah, I think so," she says. "Except I'm full of sand."

"We should keep going," Kaine says. "We'll make it to Dust in a few more hours. I don't think we should try staying out here."

"Yeah, I agree," Jynx says. "But are you sure he was telling the truth?"

Kaine nods. "Pretty sure."

"The truth about what?" Kumiko asks.

"The other two star demons. He doesn't know them. He just knows they're on Phoenix."

"At least we know what one feels like now," Jynx says. "Next time, we'll be ready."

"Does there have to be a next time?" Kumiko asks.

Jynx shrugs. "It'd be real nice if there wasn't."

"But it won't happen," Kaine says. "Come on, let's go."

They head northeast towards the dim gaslight glow of Dust, and Kumiko has a feeling that the rest of the journey will only get harder.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-10-01
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