The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Wind Scorpions
The rented jeep lurches. Winston Cash wrestles with the steering wheel. Pollie and Iai brace themselves as the jeep comes to a stop. "What the hell was that?" Winston asks. He doesn't expect an answer, but it rears up and skitters its legs against the jeep's door. Winston jerks back. Pollie screams. Iai leaps out of the back seat and draws his sword.
The wind scorpion scuttles backwards, raising up the front part of its body and waving its feelers. Its jaws snap. Iai holds his sword in front of him with both hands. Wind scorpions are usually no bigger than an inch long or so. This one is as big as a medium-sized dog. Out of the corner of his eye, Iai can see the jeep's shredded tire. If the wind scorpion can do that to rubber and steel, he doesn't want to know what it can do to flesh and blood.
The creature is too fast for him to attack it. It will evade him and counter easily. It sees him as a predator, and wind scorpions don't get eaten without a fight. He has to let it attack him, but it seems uncertain. Iai isn't any animal it's ever come across before. It does, however, recognize aggression.
The wind scorpion lunges, opening its massive jaws. Iai crouches, draws the sword back at the side of his head, and when the wind scorpion is almost on him, he thrusts the sword into its waiting maw. The sound it makes sends cold chills crawling over Iai's skin. He turns the sword in the twitching carcass and slices up, splitting the wind scorpion neatly open.
"What the ... " Winston mutters.
"I didn't know they could get that big," Pollie says.
Iai studies the large wind scorpion. It's a female, and that's about all he can tell. Other than its size, nothing seems unusual about it. He hears a faint slick sounding click behind him. "Kill the lights," he says to Winston.
"What?" Winston asks.
"The lights. Turn them off."
"I can't see without the lights."
Iai walks to the front of the jeep. In the glare of the headlights, he can see the tiny fluttering bodies of moths and other bugs that wind scorpions like to eat. He kicks in the headlights, plunging them into darkness.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" Winston asks.
Iai ignores Winston and looks around. He sees nothing but a smooth expanse of sand. He listens. He can hear faint voices from the Mirage ahead of them and nothing else. "The lights were attracting food," he says.
"We need to get that tire changed," Winston says. He starts to get out of the jeep.
"Stay there. There's another one."
Winston doesn't like taking orders from his idiot apprentice, but he doesn't get out of the jeep. That's the first time he's ever seen Iai use his weapon. He hadn't realized the thing had a blade. He thought it was just a white wooden stick. Now he wonders if Iai's silence and strange choice of weapon really aren't the signs of idiocy he once thought they were.
The jeep lurches again. Iai jumps onto the hood and leaps over the jeep to the back, bringing his sword down at another abnormally large wind scorpion. The wind scorpion scuttles backwards, making a high-pitched hissing sound. This one is as big as a small pony. One of its legs is cut clean off. It snaps its jaws at Iai then charges. Iai sidesteps the lunging wind scorpion and drives his sword down into the back of its head. It whips around so hard and fast that Iai loses his grip on his sword. It slams its jaws down on his right thigh. Pain rips up through his leg like splinters of molten glass. He grabs the handle of his sword again and twists. The wind scorpion hisses, but it doesn't let go of him. It tightens its grip. The pain flashes in Iai's head. He can't feel his hands, and the more he tries to make them respond, the less they seem able to.
Winston stands up in the driver's seat and pulls his revolvers. He empties both guns into the pale orange body of the wind scorpion. It screams and twitches and then is still, but its jaws remain clenched around Iai's leg. "Pollie, get the med kit," he says. He rushes to the back of the jeep.
Iai has already pulled the wind scorpion's jaws away from his leg. The wound is deep, and blood darkens Iai's pants leg at an alarming rate. He yanks his sword out of the wind scorpion's corpse and staggers a little. Winston catches him from behind and eases him to the sand. Iai looks down at the wound. Blood isn't the only thing escaping from the gash. He clamps his hands down on it. "I'm all right," he says.
"That thing damn near took off your leg," Winston says.
"I'm all right."
Pollie brings the med kit over. Winston flips it open and starts pawing through its contents for bandages and ointments. Pollie gasps and slaps her hands over her mouth. A small white feather tumbles out from under Iai's hands and settles on the sand. Winston stops rummaging and looks at his daughter. She points a trembling finger at Iai. Her mouth flaps, but she can't find the words.
"I'm all right," Iai says again.
"Let me see that," Winston says.
"No, it's --"
"What the hell's the matter with you?"
"He's ..." Pollie says.
"I'm all right," Iai says.
Winston pries Iai's hands off the wound. White feathers, stained with blood, sift to the ground. More feathers clot up the cut, turning brown as Iai's blood dries. Winston stands up and takes a step back.
"... not human," Pollie says, finally able to finish her thought.
Iai's wound throbs in time with his heart, and in the silence, he can almost hear his blood pumping. His leg feels tight and sore. It's already healing. In a few hours, there will be only a faint scar there.
Pollie starts to crouch down next to Iai.
Winston yanks her back up. "Don't get too close," he says.
She pulls her arms into her chest, curling her hands into fists under her chin. Her eyes are big and damp and quivering.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Iai says.
"What are you?" Winston asks.
"I'm your apprentice."
"But you're not ... a human being."
"It certainly looks that way."
"What are you?"
"I don't know." That's the safe answer. The truthful answer would require too much explanation, although there are still questions either way. Iai only suspects what he might be. He has no proof, and he isn't sure he'll ever get the truth.
"Where ... where are you from?"
"I don't know."
Winston crosses his arms and stares at Iai. It certainly explains a few things. "Are there others like you?"
"I doubt it. I don't see why there would be." Iai gets to his feet and picks up his sword. He leans his weight on his injured leg. It aches and throbs, but he should have no trouble walking on it. He wipes the yellowish blood of the wind scorpions off his blade and slides it back into the scabbard. He looks at Winston and Pollie. "I am still your apprentice," he says.
Winston nods. "That's very true," he says. He strokes his long mustache. "But I think I can safely conclude that the resume you turned in is full of lies."
Iai hangs his head with a sigh. Roland warned him about that. "Yes."
Winston nods again and continues to stroke his mustache.
"I had no choice. I needed to have this job, and I couldn't very well say where I had been the last eighteen years."
"I ought to tell my superiors about this."
"Yes, I suppose that's the policy, but --"
"But I won't. On one condition. You tell me why you needed this job and what you're up to."
Iai feels his heart thudding in his chest. He wishes he'd spent the last eighteen years somewhere other than a monastery. It didn't give him the means to deal well with people. He doesn't think Winston wants to contact Superior C & D. They were supposed to have returned to Absolution after capturing the Trinity Gang. That didn't work out, yet they didn't seem to be tracking down any other bounties. But it doesn't seem right to defend himself with Winston's indiscretion, whatever it is. "I thought it would be the easiest way to protect the twins," he says after a while. "It gave me a reason to follow their movements."
"Jynx and Kaine Seraphim. They're ... I'm supposed to protect them."
"That so? Well, you're eighteen years too late. There ain't no such thing as Seraphim twins. It's just the one boy. Kaine was stillborn."
"Yes, but he ..."
"Now, the rumor is that there's two of 'em. And I admit it; it seems that way sometimes. But it's just Jynx. And I'll prove it."
So that's your plan, Iai thinks. He smiles. "As long as you realize that I cannot allow you to harm him. Or Kaine."
Winston sneers. "I'm not worried about the dead one. Now let's get these tires fixed and move on before more of those things show up. I wish you hadn't smashed the headlights."
"I apologize. If I hadn't, though, there'd be more."
The passenger side rear tire has a big chunk taken out of it. They replace it with the spare tire, but the front driver's side tire is beyond repair. The wind scorpion bit all the way through the rubber and took a good-sized piece of the rim with it. There was only one spare anyway. They pass the rest of the night in the jeep, and at dawn, they begin walking towards Memphis Mulligan's 'Mazin' Mirage.
Hara Michiyo watches her darkness fill with approaching lights. One light is a soft white. It moves with deliberate undulations, and it rings like a bright silver bell. One light is a quivering purple slash that hops and rolls as if it knows where to go but can't make up its mind how to get there. One light is a very faint and very small globe of pink. It glows with the heat of some emotion Michiyo doesn't understand. It hurts her to look at that light. She wonders to whom it belongs.
She watches them heading towards her and hates them. They want to take her shadows away. They will make the trains stop, and the trains must run. She can't let the trains stop again. She's done so much work. To see it destroyed at the whim of two silly little boys and a dollop of glowing pink light would be anticlimactic. She will wait for them. When they come, she will let the ground swallow them.
Michiyo turns away from the lights and looks across the length of shattered track at her feet. As she watches, the shards begin to move. They slip across the sand, the friction hot enough to turn the sand into grainy glass. The broken track clicks together. She shivers at each click, and her shadows wrap around her like skin. The section of track is whole again, another stop along the way complete. She looks east, towards Rune, and sees the scattered pieces of the rail glinting in the early morning sun. So much work left to do, she thinks, but so close. Soon.
Ben Hayes frowns under the eyepieces of his binoculars. The column of black smoke he's been watching rise from the direction of Hopesprings seems to be spreading. As if that's not bad enough, he can see three more people walking towards the Mirage from Dust. For a town that was wiped out, it seems to have a penchant for spitting out a few wanderers. He'd gotten the feeling that something strange was going on not long after Jynx and Kaine had arrived at the caravan, but he couldn't say just what. His psychic ability is so weak that it's usually more annoying than helpful. He senses certain things, but he's not ever sure what or why. Oddly, it seems stronger when the twins are around. Like the night before during the game when Kaine had come back from Miss Rosie's trailer, his face tight and pale and his lips pressed into a bloodless slash. Jynx had asked what was wrong. Kaine had said nothing, but Ben, sensing something seething and uncomfortable in the air, felt the name McBride rip across the space between the twins. Ben had spent the rest of the night searching the desert for McBride, but he never saw anything.
The twins and Kumiko left a few hours ago, but Ben can't shake the weird vibes. Hopesprings is burning, and now more guests from Dust. He doesn't want to know what's really going on, but for the first time in many years, he feels a desperate need to get off of Phoenix for good.
Memphis trundles up and squints up at Ben. "Now what?" he asks.
"Hopesprings is on fire," Ben says.
"Yup, I see that." Memphis points to the approaching travelers. "I meant them."
Ben squeezes his eyes into focus. He recognizes Winston Cash and Cash's daughter, but he's not sure about the third figure. He hesitates to say it's a person. It looks human. It looks like the most beautiful man he's ever seen, but it doesn't feel like a man. Even that far away, Ben can sense immense power from the creature. His vision suddenly draws sharp, and he sees clearly the face of a boy, maybe twenty years old, with dark blue eyes and long blonde hair. The face is so beautiful and the feeling so intense that Ben can't look for more than a few seconds. He drops his head, binoculars and all, and sees feathers.
The binoculars tumble out of Ben's hands as he gasps. They nearly hit Memphis on the head.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Memphis asks.
"Sorry," Ben says. He can't seem to find anything else to say.
"So who the hell is out there?"
"It's Cash and his daughter and some kid I've never seen before. Probably an apprentice."
"That's just great." Memphis snorts and waddles back to his trailer.
Ben sits on his perch for a while longer, scratching his head and watching the beautiful boy. He doesn't need the binoculars to see the boy clearly.
The Mirage is still and quiet when Winston, Pollie and Iai reach it early that afternoon. Pollie sits down in the lengthening shadow of one of the vehicles and drinks from a water skin. Iai sits beside her and pokes at the scab of feathers on his thigh. "Don't pick at it," Pollie says.
Iai drops his hands to the sand and leans back. Things have not been going as he had hoped. The giant wind scorpions bother him only slightly less than the fact that Winston and Pollie know that he isn't human. The easiest thing to do would be to leave them behind, but Winston is dead set on following the twins. Iai isn't sure why. It might have something to do with his obstinate belief that Kaine didn't survive being born. Iai worries that they might get hurt if they get in Yuusei's way, and they almost certainly will. He realizes that he can't leave them. He's as obligated to protect them as he is to protect the twins.
Winston walks down the line of trailers, looking for any signs of life. He keeps a hand near his guns just in case. The silence bothers him. Silence always bothers him. He sees fingers and a beady eye pull away from the grimy blinds on a window. Someone knows he's there. Someone had to have seen them coming several hours ago. "Mulligan!" he calls out. "Mulligan, get out here! Mulligan!"
A trailer door slams open. Memphis's nephew, Christian Sparrow, a narrow eyed, crane necked man of almost forty, steps out into the glare and the heat. "We're not taking on any more passengers, Cash," he says.
"We don't need to ride," Winston says. "We just need a rest."
"This isn't a hotel."
"I'll pay double the fee. Just 'til tomorrow morning. We've got our own food and water."
"And your own tent I hope."
"Listen, Sparrow, my apprentice is injured. We were attacked by giant wind scorpions last night."
Christian grinds his teeth against a laugh, but a short bray bursts from his lips anyway. "What, are they up to about two inches now?" he asks. Others, having heard his laughter, have poked their heads out of their trailer windows and doors to listen.
Winston purses his lips.
"One of them was about the size of a dog," Iai says.
Christian flinches. He hadn't heard anyone else walk up. "Who the fuck are you?" he asks.
"My name is Iai. I'm Mr. Cash's apprentice."
Christian settles from his scare and looks Iai up and down, noticing the wound. He raises an eyebrow and starts to say something.
"Our med kit didn't have bandages," Winston said. "We had to improvise. I shot a hawk."
"So you mean to tell me you got bit by a wind scorpion as big as a dog?" Christian asks Iai.
"No," Iai says. "The one that bit me was as big as a pony."
"What happened to the things? Where are they now?"
Christian's face is pale now, and his chin is beginning to pucker and tremble. He's terrified of wind scorpions, actually. One bit him when he was a child. It had been a fairly young one and hadn't done much damage, but it bit so hard, he was left with a bruise that turned ghastly colors before it finally faded a month later. He'd had nightmares of the attack for years. He's relieved to hear that the monsters are dead, but there must be more of them.
"Hey! Cash!" Nathan Grady shouts from the window of the trailer he shares with Jim Patterson.
Winston looks at Nathan.
"How'd it get so big?" Nathan asks.
Winston strokes his mustache, twisting his mouth in thought. "I suppose it must've mutated somehow," he says.
Iai suppresses a grimace. Winston is very good at going on for long periods of time on subjects he knows nothing about, especially when his audience knows even less.
Pollie comes up behind Iai and loops her arms around his. "You shouldn't be standing up," she says.
"I'm fine," Iai says.
"I know, but ... still."
He lets her lead him into the shade again. They sit down and listen to Winston spout theories of evolution at an amused audience.
Pollie leans closer to Iai. "How did they get so big?" she whispers.
"I don't know," Iai says. "But I doubt it has anything to do with a genetic mutation."
"It's the leylines, isn't it? It's Hara Michiyo."
"Possibly." He had drawn that conclusion himself quite a while ago, and he doesn't like it. It doesn't fit with what he knows Michiyo can do, but Yuusei is corrupt. There's no telling what kind of new powers she's been able to teach herself in twenty years of isolation. Then again, there are other possibilities he hasn't considered. Those he likes even less.
Winston drones on. The caravan guards, Miss Rosie, the few passengers and Christian are listening intently. Sometimes they snicker. Especially when Winston talks about a man named Charles Darwin. When Winston talks about the concept of survival of the fittest, though, they get quiet and nod thoughtfully to themselves.
Pollie yawns and stretches. "Wake me up when he's done," she says. She curls up on the cold shaded sand and falls asleep.
Iai takes a small, crude text messaging device from his pocket and turns it on. He scrolls through the messages, trying to ignore the slight chill that creeps over him. Roland hadn't been able to get the kind of information Iai had hoped he would. Most of what Roland sent him were rumors or at least exaggerated stories. A week ago, shortly before Iai had left for Phoenix with Pollie and Winston, Roland had sent a message that the bounty hunter McBride was going to Phoenix to hunt for Hara Michiyo, supposedly for fun. McBride was rumored to have said he needed a challenge. Three days after that, Roland sent a message that said, "I love you." There have been no messages since then. Roland hasn't replied to any of Iai's messages. Something has to be wrong, and there's nothing Iai can do about it.