The mesa was quiet as a dead cat. Breathless. Still. The sort of calm that always seems to precede some calamity of nature or human invention. Anyone with two beans between their skull could sense it, knew to find the nearest dark hole and scurry inside, hoping it would be enough to save them. Quiet like that was trouble, plain and simple.
Fortunately for Temperance, trouble was exactly what she was searching for.
She ran nervous fingers over the bandoliers cinched across her chest, checking the equipment one last time. Light from the twin moons glinted off the revolvers at her waist, walnut handles familiar as worn gloves, their weight solid and dependable. She felt ready.
Where are you hiding? She flicked her gaze back and forth, scanning the shadows. A few scrub brush, maybe a boulder or two. Not much else. Not as if there’s much for choice out here.
There was no sight of her quarry yet, but the signs were everywhere. Burned leaves on a bush here. A smoking footprint in the mud there. Either her prey had grown sloppy, or it was fixing for some sort of mischief.
She got her answer when a howl loud enough to wake every farmer from here to Benson City tore across the mesa. Temperance glanced around, and caught a dark shape taking to the air like a hen off a hot griddle. The shape landed on the dirt path, giving her a good look as it howled again.
While the body it possessed might once have been human, no one would mistake the creature before her as such any longer. Its arms were bent at weird angles, pieces of bone pushing their way through the flesh, and two pairs of gnarled horns grew from the creature’s forehead. Likely what skin remained had changed color as well, but it was difficult to tell by moonslight.
That’s a daemon, alright, she mused. Not exactly subtle, far as ambushes go. A playful smile crept onto her lips. Bet it expected Astor to buck and leave me here.
Her horse, however, had other ideas. Astor came to a dead halt, blowing out a blast of air in an undignified huff. It reminded Temperance of a society lady whose cat had presented the tattered remains of its latest kill. From the decayed state of the creature, she supposed that wasn’t too far from the truth.
The daemon froze, head tilted to one side. It recovered a half-second later and spoke in a voice that crackled with each word.
“What have we here? A foolish girl, out alone on a night like this? Such a delicious surprise.” The creature licked its lips, as if the words themselves hadn’t been threat enough.
Temperance looked around, feigning confusion, then surprise. “I’m not alone. Astor is here with me.” The horse stamped a foot, and she patted his flank. “Besides, you’re here now. That’s company enough for any woman.”
The daemon’s mouth pulled back into a snarl, revealing a mouth of teeth that were black and rotten. “Tch, brave words from such a little girl.” It took a step towards her. “I’ll make you regret that soon enough. Yes, you’ll beg me to let you take them back when I’m done.”
Before the daemon could get any closer, Temperance raised a hand. “A moment, if you please.”
She dug into one of her saddlebags and extracted a piece of paper. Holding it delicately between her fingers, she struck a lucifer and studied the document in the brief flash before the flame winked out.
“Your name is Belial, correct? Scourge of Farhampton, desolator of the seaside village of Ilby? Last of the Black Thorn Gang?”
“You know me.” The daemon paused for the second time in as many minutes. Its next words came slow, as if it were putting the pieces of a puzzle together. “You came out here, expecting to find me. You’re the one I’ve sensed on my trail for the last six days. Who are you?”
“No one of importance. Certainly not the sort to be giving my identity out to every creature of the night I come across.”
Belial snorted, at least she assumed the sound was a snort. “Clever little thing. Why are you following me, then? Interested in forming a pact, perhaps? You’re not my usual type, but I might make an exception. My current host is getting a little more . . . pungent than I prefer.” It trailed a finger down its putrid flesh.
“Not a pact, I’m afraid.” Temperance held out the paper. “You’re a wanted man, Belial. Well, a wanted something, at least. Come with me, and I’ll see you get a fair trial.”
With only the barest hiss of warning, Belial launched himself forward. Temperance cursed, and this time her horse almost did buck her off as it spun out of the daemon’s path. She swung herself down from the saddle, one of her revolvers already in hand.
In a single fluid motion she flicked a bullet from her bandolier into the waiting chamber, then spun the cylinder into place. As she drew sight on her quarry, lines etched into the revolver’s wheel glowed a faint purple. The daemon froze where it crouched.
As much as she desired otherwise, Temperance resisted opening fire. Her bandoliers held hexbullets inscribed with every rune imaginable. Some could sear a man’s flesh apart in minutes, others might freeze him to his bones. Unfortunately, Belial was no longer a man, and her bullets were as precious as they were difficult to forge. She tried reason once again.
“Last chance, Belial. Come with me peaceful like, and I’ll bring you in with your head still attached. Keep lashing out . . . well, I can’t promise you’ll arrive in much of any shape at all.”
“Impudent wench,” Belial hissed, but held its position. She supposed a creature like this didn’t reach such a level of infamy by taking risks.
The daemon regarded her, its eyes thin slits that were only the barest glimmer in the dark. “This is a trick. There’s no way you know the incantations to use those weapons of yours.”
“You think I’d be out alone at midnight if I didn’t?” Without taking eyes off her quarry, Temperance drew her second revolver. This one was already loaded with more standard hexbullets. Still valuable, but not irreplaceable. “I’ve got silver loaded, too. Unless you want to burn, I suggest you do as I say.”
Belial’s eyes flicked away a moment, then back. “In that case, I surrender.”
The daemon raised its hands into the air and stepped closer. As it did so, her horse let out a whinny. Temperance cursed again and threw herself back. Belial lunged, bony claws passing less than an inch from her face.
Temperance aimed her revolver. Right before striking the ground she let out a cry of, “Estalia Vos!”
Everything seemed to slow as the bullet left the barrel, a silver streak appearing in the air behind it. It stretched out over an impossible distance, the space around it blurry and distorted.
Then time resumed moving as normal. The silver line shot forward, striking Belial in the center of its chest, spinning the daemon around.
Temperance hit and rolled with the impact, coming to a stop a half dozen feet away. She was up almost as soon as she landed, her other gun pointed at the daemon.
“Calpa!” she called, and another bullet sped away, leaving green sparks in its wake.
For an ordinary man this would have been the end. Belial, however, moved with a supernatural speed that seemed at odds with the three foot silver rod sticking through its chest. It dove behind a boulder, and her shot ricocheted off without effect.
Oh, think you can hide, do you? That’s almost flattering.
Temperance dropped into a crouch and tapped the side of her jacket, tracing a switchback pattern across the ancient leather. In a sudden blur, the jacket stretched towards the ground, launching itself—and Temperance—into the air. She sailed over the boulder with the grace of a leaf in the wind. Belial had just enough time for a look of stunned surprise before she struck him feet first, pinning the daemon beneath her.
As the dust settled around them, Belial let out a dull moan. Temperance leaned down and pressed her revolver against the creature’s temple. “In all fairness, I did warn you.”
“Get it over with already, girl.” The daemon locked eyes with her, refusing to look away. It had plenty of tenacity, that was certain.
“Not yet. First, for all the trouble you caused, and the cost of my ammo, you can answer a few questions for me. Does the name Varconis mean anything to you?”
Belial laughed. Not some daemon laugh, but a deep throated guffaw like she might have heard from a group of miners out for a night on the town. “Have you heard of the moons? Or the ocean? Don’t waste my time with stupid questions.”
Temperance could feel her pulse quicken. At last, after all this time.
“You’ve met them?”
“Met them? Me, speak with Varconis?” This time the laugh was more befitting a daemon. “No, I’ve never spoken with such a being. I’ve only run before their passage, as a mouse tries to outrun a brush fire. With about as much success.” The creature shifted beneath her, and Temperance pressed the barrel down harder. “If that’s who you’re looking for, you’re not just stupid, girl, you’re mad as well. At least I’ll only kill you. For Varconis, well, killing you is just where the fun begins.”
Belial continued to laugh that wheezing, daemonic howl, until Temperance’s foot broke the creature’s jaw. After that, she put a bullet through its skull.
While the daemon writhed in its death throes, Temperance holstered her weapons. Reaching into a pouch on her belt, she drew out a small glass vial, sealed at the top with wax. The bottle’s contents lay hidden in the dark, but she knew her equipment well enough. In her mind’s eye, she could see the quicksilver floating inside, suspended in a bath of mineral oil. She held it over Belial’s former body and waited.
After a moment, the corpse shook its last. From every orifice and open wound a mist poured like steam from a locomotive. Slow at first, then quicker by the second, it gathered above the body, coalescing into a cloud the size of her horse. The cloud appeared blood red and tinged with electricity, a tiny thunderstorm swirling inside it.
Before the daemon could regain its senses, Temperance tossed the vial to the ground. The glass shattered, spilling the precious quicksilver across the dirt.
Temperance held up two fingers on her right hand. “Alaso Necte Vie,” she intoned, making a small circling motion. The quicksilver came to life, shining with a light all its own, and expanded outward until it formed a pool equal to the cloud above. With another flick of her hand, the pool launched into the air, wrapping around the cloud and compressing inward.
A moment later, a silver tube no larger than the vial it had inhabited hovered in the air. Temperance snatched the tube before it fell and stowed it away in her pouch. Giving it a satisfied pat, she allowed herself to relax at last. That could have gone better, but it could have gone worse, too.
Still, the job was done. Now she could have a few days of peace, once she and Astor located some semblance of civilization. At that moment Temperance would have given anything for a cold drink or a warm bed—preferably both. She glanced around for her horse.
Astor, of course, was already next to her. She reached for the reins, but the horse made a nickering noise and backed away, his head low to the ground. Temperance frowned and regarded the animal. “What is it now?”
Nothing, came the reply in her mind. Sorry, I suppose.
“Sorry? What for?”
For almost throwing you back there. I should never have let him get the drop on me.
Temperance couldn’t help but snort. “Somehow I doubt you would have bucked me off. You’re just rusty after all that time playing at plow horse.”
Astor gave her a long look. Martin had me pulling a cart, that hardly equates to a plow.
“Well, don’t get sick over it. You’ll do better next time. How about if I buy you some carrots when we get to town?”
I hate carrots, the horse said, sounding even more annoyed. Despite this, he let her climb into the saddle. Moments later they were winding their way along the dirt path, the first hints of sunrise dappling across the horizon.