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Iron Quill - Obsession - The Hunter


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The Hunter

Words: 1750

Ingredients used: All

Questions, comments, critiques all welcome!


    In walked a one eyed stranger, his boots kicking time to the music of the railroad tracks. A dozen faces turned to watch him, a dozen hands drifted towards hidden pistols. His coat was ragged, pierced through with bullet holes, and Nephilim claws. One half of his face hidden by a bolted on mask of scarred metal.

    He towered over the barkeep, and even the bar’s Guild sanctioned clockwork bouncer, and when he spoke he stole the air from the room.

    “Water,” he said, “For me and my horse.”

    “Just water?” The barkeep quivered.

    “That must be some horse,” said Sally in the corner, whose hearing was going and who sometimes forgot to keep her voice down.

    The stranger looked her way and Sally ducked behind the painted lid of her piano. “Just water for me,” the stranger said, “A bag of feed for my horse.”

    “And how were you intending to pay?” The barkeep said, flinching back, trying to put as much space between him and the stranger as possible.

    The stranger reached into the deep pocket of his coat and pulled out something round and dully shining which he tossed on the table. His fingers were all the same length, the barkeep suddenly felt sick as much as scared.

    “That’s awful heavy coin,” the barkeep said as the disk stopped spinning. It was stamped with a ram’s head and embossed with the letters ACE. “Ah.” The barkeep snapped his fingers and a towheaded boy appeared at his elbow.

    “Fetch this gentleman a tankard of water,” he said, “And be quick about it.”

    “Right you are sir.” The boy bobbed his head and vanished.

    “Is there anything else I can help you with?” The barkeep asked, fighting to hide his unease. Behind the stranger the poker game started back up with a table-full of lousy hands. Sally cracked her fingers and went back to playing but her notes sounded flat somehow - flatter than usual even.

    Only the train rattling by reminded the occupants of the bar that there was a world outside these dull sandstone walls.

    “I’m hunting someone,” the stranger said, “Maybe he passed this way.”

    “We haven’t seen any amalgamation,” the barkeep said.

    “The man I’m hunting isn’t an amalgamation. He’s an engineer, blind, often dressed as a beggar. He goes by many names, he usually travels with a silent woman about so high.” The stranger marked the woman’s height with his hand, she would have fit neatly under his chin, if she were here she’d be the second largest person in the room.

    “Ah,” the barkeep said again, and wished he had something useful to say.

    Sally stopped playing.

    “A woman like that would stand out,” the barkeep said, “But I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

    “You are,” the stranger said, “I wonder why.”

    The barkeep swallowed. His boy appeared. “Your water,” the barkeep said.

    “Once you’ve fed my horse,” the stranger said, targeting the boy with his goose-grey eye, “I would borrow you for the afternoon. I need a local guide.”

    For once in all his thrice-cursed life, the barkeep held his tongue.


    The boy followed the stranger out into the street, twitching his apron in a vain attempt to keep dust from collecting in its folds.

    “Tell me about the town,” the stranger said, his voice was thick as molten steel.

    “It’s called Opportunity,” the boy said, “But Da says opportunities can be good or bad, and that maybe the town fathers could have been more specific. Used to be, folks thought there was gold in the hills back yonder, but now the only business we get comes through on the train, and when the train don’t run…”

    “Do travelers come through any other way?”

    “No sir,” the boy said, “Well, not hardly anyway. There’s the coach road, but you already know that. You rode in on it yourself.”

    “You saw me?” The stranger said.

    “I was cleaning the third floor guest rooms. You can see clear across town from there.”

    “And no one else has come through recently? Maybe they bought supplies and headed into the wild?”

    “No…” the boy lied, “Wouldn’t you be better off asking the train men?”

    “The one I’m hunting knows better than to ride a train.”

    The boy said nothing, he didn’t trust himself enough.

    “Well,” the stranger said, “Show me what there is to see.”

    “Right, uh,” the boy looked around, “Follow me.” He led the stranger around to the back of the inn. The town, such as it was, occupied a flat disc of red earth, the last clear country before the foothills, and the mountains beyond. There were maybe two dozen houses and small shops arrayed in a semi circle around a hand pump, behind the pump stood a gallows of sun-bleached wood.

    “There’s nobody much around,” the boy said, “Of course there are some folk on the ranches still, but ever since the plague came through…”

    “What plague?” The stranger said.

    “It was a queer thing,” the boy said, “Folk just started wasting away, no fever or anything, they faded just like the town. For days they wouldn’t leave their beds and then, suddenly, they would get up and wander off, like they heard some call…”

    “But it didn’t touch you or your father?”

    “Do you have a name, sir?” The boy asked, trying to change the subject.

    The man was silent for a while, “Should I?” he said at last, “What would you like to call me?”

    “I shouldn’t know,” the boy said.

    “Do you have a name?”

    “Alan. But Da mostly calls me ‘boy,’ and the others don’t talk to me much.”

    “Why is that, Alan?”

    The boy said nothing.

    “Alan,” the stranger said, “I am not as simple as you seem to think. I could put my fist through the wall of your father’s bar without the slightest effort. I don’t carry a gun, because I can throw a rock further and more accurately than any bullet. I’ve put full grown Nephilim, and worse things in the ground with my bare hands. Luckily for you, I am not your enemy. I mean you no harm.

    “But I swear to you now; if you know where my quarry lives, and you conceal it from me, I will make your plague seem the fondest of memories.”

    Alan looked up and met the stranger’s eye, his set jaw began to quiver, “She brought me back,” he said at last, “The woman you mentioned.”

    “Good,” the stranger said, “And do you remember where they were hiding?”

    “No,” the boy said, his voice heavy with regret, “but there are only a few ranches close enough for walking.”

    “You will show them to me,” the stranger said.


    As they walked, the stranger sang some wordless song from far away. His voice was untutored and unlovely, as rudely stamped as the rest of him, but Alan found something comforting in it like the alien drone of some fog horn. It sounded like safety.

    Of course the boy knew where they had to go. The Hampsteads still kept their forty head of cattle on the ranch to the west. South, where the land sunk and the bayou began, that had been old Lauretta’s farm until the city witch burned her for an Arcanist. By ancient unspoken pact, the land east of the train tracks was home to nightmares, and no homesteader who ever broke ground there was seen again alive.

    And so he led the stranger first, and last, to a white house behind the first hill north. Its siding rattled like loose teeth in the wind, and a rust crusted weathervane creaked its lonely course. The stranger’s song rose above the wind and the boy felt cold. Memories leaked in on him; flashes of farmhouse and barn, of bodies all strung up on meat-hooks, and the cackling eyeless man feeling the structure of his face.

    “Stay here,” the stranger said, “I won’t be long.”

    Alan could only nod. he remembered the rough hands of his savior, the earthy angel lifting him up, snapping leather bonds as easily as paper. He remembered the one word, “Enough.”


    The stranger was in the house a long time. Long enough that Alan began to wonder if he was ever coming out, but the echoing strain of the stranger’s song kept him rooted to his spot on the hill.

    When the front door opened again it was not the stranger, but a smaller man that came stumbling through. His arms churned the air as he ran, full of faith and fear. His hair was wild grey, his eyes covered by a black cloth.

    Then an upstairs window - real leaded glass, the pride of the estate - blossomed outwards and the stranger was flying through the air to land in front of the running man. One thrust sent the engineer to the ground, and the stranger stepped over him, wrapped his hand around the blind man’s tattered collar.

    “Where is she?” He said, and his words carried effortlessly.

    “I told you, I don’t know,” the other man cried, “I swear it, she left. She left me all blind, and with my work undone. You must believe me.”

    The stranger wrapped one meaty hand around the other man’s head.

    “Please,” he begged, “Please don’t, I can make you another…”

    And then the half-heard echo of the stranger’s song rose up, and she came from over the hill. She was alike to the stranger, and when he met her one goose-grey eye a great peace came over him.

    There was a crunch and the little man fell to the ground never to rise, and the two strange creatures met alone in the yard before that clapboard house. They sang, and their voices rose in crude harmony to the failing light of day, and they held each other close. Each one half-masked, they walked off hand in hand to the east, unfearing.

    Alan noticed that the wind hand turned chill, and his arms were all covered in gooseflesh. He shivered belatedly, and picked his way down the hill. He stepped over the broken body of blind man, and through the gaping wound of the farmhouse door.

On the kitchen table was a sparse breakfast, half-eaten, and a cat licked at spilled cream with a clockwork tongue. Upstairs, Alan knew, there were other horrors but he spared himself their sight. Instead he set to work with kerosene and matches and walked home with a roaring fire at his back.

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