Story

Deathslinger

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This story contains moderately graphic violence, death of civilians, and execution by hanging.
Haru Rake paced the length of her porch as snow drifted down, covering the corral in a soft white blanket. She barely noticed the cold. Ten minutes since the clock struck nine, and her farmhands still hadn’t shown. That wasn’t like them. Any other day, they’d be out working the moment it was light enough to see, no matter how the other townsfolk harassed them for coming out to Haru’s farm. She paid them double wages for that.

The wind shifted again, carrying the cattle’s lowing from the barn. It had taken Haru all morning to do the milking by herself, and that was just the start of what her animals needed every day. Come spring, seeds needed to go into the ground, and without help she’d never get the whole acreage planted in time. She’d lose the crop for sure. She glanced through the window at her old clock. Fifteen minutes past the hour. No help for it, she’d have to seek them out in town. A town that welcomed Haru Rake like it welcomed a typhoid outbreak.

“The Rakes are all necromancers,” folk said. “They’ll take the soul right out of you and twist it to do their bidding.” They weren’t entirely wrong. A whole passel of Rakes had turned necromancer back in the day: Haru’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. The power in their blood had been too much for them, and one by one their warm gazes grew cold and hungry. They had terrorized the frontier, murdering anyone who couldn’t fight back, then enslaving the victims’ souls to bolster their own power. From there they became even more dangerous, raising the corpses as revenants to spread their violence further.

Folk never believed it was Haru who’d put the other Rakes down, hunted each loved one and killed them with an ensorceled cobalt bullet. She still had three of those bullets, made special by her grandmother.

Haru stepped inside and exchanged her work shoes for riding boots. She bundled up tight with a heavy coat and shawl before dawning her wide-brimmed hat. Gone were the days when she could ride into town unarmed, so she slipped a small knife into her boot and strapped on her gunbelt, the revolver a comfortable weight on her hip. With one foot out the door, she turned and tucked her grandmother’s polished cobalt slugs into a breast pocket. Couldn’t be too careful.

In the barn, Haru saddled up her old gelding, guiding the placid beast out into the snow. Haru urged the gelding into a run, and they ate up the miles to town. The wind shifted, blowing snowflakes under the brim of her hat. She brushed the flakes aside with one tanned hand and squinted as morning light reflected off snowbanks along the hard packed road.

A few wisps of clouds drifted in front of the sun, shielding the glare until Haru could unsquint her eyes. She was among the town’s outer buildings now—squat structures made of rough wood, local clay, or scrap iron. Temporary buildings that had turned into a permanent town. Scraps of buzzing conversation drifted to Haru’s ears. She frowned and flicked the reins. Why would so many people be out and about this early on a frigid winter day?

She emerged onto Main Street toward Town Square. A wide scaffold stood tall in the square, its timbers of fine oak showing smoother seams and stronger joints than any of the surrounding buildings. Ropes hung from the scaffold’s long arms over panels that would drop away, leaving a body dancing through its last few seconds. Townsfolk dressed in their Sunday best were packed around the scaffold, chatting away, here to celebrate a hanging. Haru’s guts turned colder than the frigid wind on her face.

There wasn’t anyone on the scaffold. Haru let out a breath. Maybe she wasn’t too late. Maybe this didn’t have anything to do with her hired hands, and they’d just been delayed by the festivities. She swung down from her horse, heels crunching on the snow-covered ground. She looped the reins round a post and pushed into the crowd. Tall and broad, Haru shouldered townsfolk aside with hardly a sweat. Some of them saw her and glowered from beneath their hats, careful not to meet her eyes. A few spit into the slush at her feet.

She broke through the thickest part of the crowd to the square where the scaffold itself stood. Across the square, a small group of town deputies stood with satisfied expressions. In front of the scaffold, the town undertaker measured one of half a dozen bodies. Two of her farmhands lay among the dead. Haru felt a lump in her throat and swallowed. Aside from working for her, what could either of them have done to earn a hanging? One had needed her help when it came time to put down a coyote-mauled cat. Another body she recognized as a youth who sometimes picked pockets in town. The rest Haru didn’t know, but what were the chances that so many deserved the noose in one day?

Near the scaffold’s lever, two of the deputies had their hats off and were talking to an older gentleman. The gentleman wore a white suit with shining ivory buttons, and the sun reflected off his straight teeth even from across the square. She glared at the white-suited man as he hefted a trunk and turned away from the square. He had to be a judge from back east, here to put some fear of the law into simple frontier folk. Haru’s hand itched to grab the carved handle of her pistol, but she resisted. It wouldn’t do for these townsfolk to see a Rake drawing iron.

A gust of wind blew up, and it carried the pungent scent of brimstone into Haru’s nostrils. Bile rose in her throat. She hadn’t smelled brimstone like that for years, not since she’d put down the last of her relatives. They got that scent the first time they bound a soul, and it only became more pungent as their power grew. She glanced side to side. Except for dark looks thrown her way, none of the townsfolk acted like anything was amiss. They didn’t smell even a whiff of a sulfur stench strong enough to turn stomachs. Wasn’t that always the way? Since Haru had the so-called gift, she was always the one to sniff out the stink of necromancy. Haru tilted her head. Where was it coming from?

Another gust of wind rose, and this time she could make no mistake; it was the white-suited judge who reeked of brimstone. He wasn’t just an overzealous easterner. He was a necromancer, and he’d probably found a way to steal these people’s lives as they gasped out their last breaths. Her hand pressed against the pocket that held her grandmother’s cobalt bullets. One of them is all it would take, but with so many people around, she had no chance of escape once she pulled the trigger.

“Haru?” A woman’s harsh whisper broke into her planning. “I know you can’t be doing what it looks like.”

Haru glanced sideways. Within arm’s reach stood Pollyanne Lorke, her tan face and straight black hair framed by her deputy’s hat. The slender woman put a hand on Haru’s arm. “I know this is ugly and those two were real helpful for you, but there’s nothing to be gained by getting violent. The judge has a writ convicting them of assault, murder, and worse back east. They were tried and sentenced proper.”

“Sentenced proper?” Haru asked through clenched teeth. She pushed the anger down. She and Pollyanne had been playmates once upon a great many days ago. Maybe the other woman would hear the truth when Haru spoke it. “That man in white is your judge? He sentenced them? He’s a necromancer, Pol. He’s got the smell.”

Pollyanne narrowed her eyes. “Judge Colson, a necromancer? Can’t be. His writ’s from the capital. They wouldn’t give that to a necromancer.” Her expression softened. “You’ve taken a loss, Haru. Why don’t I walk you home? Last thing you need is to be on Colson’s bad side. He’s the highest authority this side of the Boundary River.”

Haru stifled her retort. Judge Colson was a necromancer, but she wasn’t going to convince Pollyanne, not here. The deputy’s faith in the capital’s law was too strong. “I’ll be on my way then,” Haru said. She’d wait until the judge left town, track him across the frozen scrublands, and do what had to be done.

A commotion near the platform drew Haru’s attention. The deputies were leading five more people to stand before the scaffold: prisoners with their hands shackled together. The last of Haru’s three farm hands was among them: a young man named Alans, barely more than a boy.

Haru glanced back at Pollyane. “And I suppose these five were tried and sentenced proper too?”

Pollyane’s expression twisted into a pained frown, but Haru was already turning away from her. There would be five more sacrifices to the judge’s power if she didn’t act, but she needed somewhere with a clear shot.

Near the scaffold, Judge Colson began the motions of sentencing. He read out the first prisoner’s supposed crime: murder of a shopkeeper in the next town over. Haru didn’t believe a word of it, but she understood how the authority of a capital writ might convince the townsfolk. Four more to go before they opened the trap door. Haru hoped that would buy her enough time. She hurried into the town’s ramshackle hotel, where a clerk craned his neck to see what was happening in the square.

The clerk glared at Haru when she asked for a second-story room, but his attitude changed in a hurry when she slide over three times the normal rate and told him to keep the change. Seconds ticked by in Haru’s head as the clerk fished around under the counter, finally producing a tarnished key.

Haru pounded up the stairs and unlocked the musty room. The shutters were closed against the winter cold, but cracking them open gave Haru just what she needed: a commanding view of the square. From here, she had a clear shot at the judge, even if it was a little far to make without a rifle. With Colson dead, the executions would at least be delayed, hopefully called off altogether once cooler heads weighed in. Meanwhile, Haru would escape through the hotel’s kitchen and ride out of town. She’d be a fugitive, but five people would still be alive.

Below, the judge finished his proclamation of sentencing. Not much time. She slid open the cylinder on her revolver and loaded one of her grandmother’s cobalt bullets. Only these ensorceled bullets would kill him. Necromancers repaired injuries by feeding on the souls they stole; it took the power of another necromancer to set those souls free.

She snapped the gun shut and rested the revolver on her left arm, sighting down the barrel. She couldn’t afford to miss. The special bullets had been made by her grandmother using the last of her necromantic power. On her death bed she’d given the bullets to Haru, along with a warning never to dip into the power that ruined their family.

Haru wasn’t sure what she’d do when the bullets ran out. She hoped there wouldn’t be any necromancers still kicking by then, but if the judge was anything to go by, that was a vain wish. She could only make more if she tasted the power her grandmother had wielded, and Haru had sworn never to do that.

In the square below, the judge motioned for the first prisoner to be dragged up to the platform. Haru adjusted her aim down the polished barrel. Time to put down another necromancer. She pulled the trigger.

A weight slammed into Haru from behind, pitching her forward. Her gun jerked to one side, and a brilliant blue light erupted from the barrel, reflected in blinding arcs off the falling snow. The shot burned into the general store’s wall instead of the judge.

Haru hit the rough floorboards hard, the weight pressing her down. As the stars cleared from her head, she recognized the weight as Pollyanne. “I’m sorry,” the other woman said. “I couldn’t let you.”

Other deputies flooded the room within moments, too many of them to resist. They wrenched her gun away and bound her hands with twine. They hauled her down the stairs, out of the hotel, and onto the frozen street, where she beheld Judge Colson only a few paces away.

The judge’s mouth was set in a hard line. This close, liver spots stood out below his high hairline, and a vein bulged on his forehead. He pointed back to the square. “Take her up to the scaffold. I was fortunate enough to tie an extra noose this morning.”

An excited murmur swept through the gathered townsfolk. Pollyane stepped up to the judge, shaking her head. “Your honor,” she said. “I think it was all a mistake. At least a trial would—”

“A trial would take time,” Judge Colson said. He looked Pollyane in the eye. “And if I were delayed, I might have no choice but to look into those allegations of horse theft that your brother got mixed up in last year.” He leaned in until he was nearly nose to nose with the deputy. “Is that what you want?”

Pollyane’s eyes widened. Then she looked away, fists clenching at her side. “No, your honor.”

Judge Colson smirked and turned away from Pollyanne. He knelt down and opened his trunk, a polished piece of luggage inlaid with ivory. With the trunk’s lid open, the scent of brimstone thickened in Haru’s nostrils. Her eyes watered. Of course Colson would keep his necromancer’s tools close—he couldn’t risk anyone discovering them behind his back—and anyone this powerful would know that a container of ivory and bone kept the magic potent for longer.

If Haru could upend the trunk, perhaps whatever secrets spilled forth would prove to others what she could already smell. She pulled against her captors, but they only gripped tighter, and all she got for her trouble were fingers digging painfully into her shoulders and arms.

The judge stood from his trunk, withdrawing a knotted noose of dark rope. He shut the lid and raised a hand. “To the scaffold!”

Haru stumbled and lost her footing as the deputies dragged her forward. Her heels dug furrows, then thudded against the gallows’ stairs. Thrilled murmurs ran through the crowd. Haru grimaced. The crowd’s excitement was only natural. Instead of just common criminals, they were about to watch the last of the no-good Rakes get the noose. Only Pollyanne hung back, arms held tight around herself.

Haru locked eyes with her old playmate as the other deputies dragged her. “Pol, whatever he said, you can’t think this is right.”

Pollyanne frowned, but she said nothing.

Haru’s feet hit the top of the platform. “Colson won’t stop. He’ll keep killing to feed his power. He’ll come back through here and claim more people. Is that what you want?”

A deputy cuffed her across the face, and Haru’s vision wavered as pain blossomed in her cheek. Her eyes cleared as the judge reached the top of the stairs, his breath coming out in long plumes of steam. The deputies held Haru still below the last of the scaffold’s long arms, rounding out the doomed souls to an even six.

Most of the other prisoners stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused in resignation. Two of them muttered quiet prayers. Alans glanced at Haru with a desperate expression, as if there was something she could do to help him, to help any of them.

Judge Colson approached her, his grandfatherly features twisted in a hungry smile. “Today you find justice,” he said, and placed the noose over her head. The sulfur stench from the noose overwhelmed Haru, almost emptying her stomach. Barely audible whispers tickled her ears—the power within the noose calling out to her, daring her to imagine what havok she might wreak with it.

The judge leaned in close to adjust the noose, so close that a wave of faces writhed in the whites of his eyes. Every face had once been a person, but now they languished in torment until he expended them to fuel his magic or prolong his life. Haru tried to draw back, anything to get away from those eyes. She’d witnessed the captured souls of a necromancer’s victims before, but never so many at once. The judge was a monster to put even her own family to shame.

“You’re a Rake, aren’t you?” he said in a low voice so only she could hear. “You could have been a powerful practitioner. That makes you a sweeter treat than all the trash of this town combined.” He made a final adjustment and turned for the stairs. At the bottom, he would pull the lever and Haru’s life would be sucked out through this noose, to become one of the many souls in bondage.

Pollyanne stood close to the judge and his trunk, her back ramrod still.

Haru caught her eyes. “Pol, please. His trunk. If you have any doubts at all, check his trunk!”

Pollyanne looked at the trunk, back at Haru, then at the trunk again.

The crowd of townsfolk jeered at Haru. Someone threw a chunk of ice from near the front row that sailed past her ear. Judge Colson reached the bottom of the stairs and raised his hand to the trapdoor lever.

Pollyanne kicked open the ivory-inlaid trunk. It fell onto its side and disgorged a small avalanche of blood-filled vials, carved bones, and ritual knives. The tools of a necromancer.

Silence crashed down on the square as the townsfolk glanced between Judge Colson and the damning paraphernalia. A young man pointed at the spilled contents, mouth hanging open. Children clung to their parents’ legs. A gray-haired woman broke the silence: “It’s just like I seen ’em, when they came to take Ma’s bones.”

The judge glared at Pollyanne. His hand tightened on the lever, and he began to pull. The trap door inched open beneath Haru’s feet. The noose tightened around her neck as she pressed up on the tips of her toes.

Pollyanne drew her revolver and shot the judge in the chest. Colson jerked back but stayed on his feet. A dark blue stream poured from the bullet hole, but the wound did not bleed. The dark smoke coalesced into a screaming human face, one of the judge’s captive souls, sacrificed to preserve his life.

Pollyanne pulled the trigger again, then three more times. Each shot slammed home but did little more than leave another smoking hole in the judge’s suit. The judge grunted in exasperation and reached his hand out to take the lever again. The rope went taut over Haru’s head and the sulphurous noose tightened around her throat. She gasped for air as its whispers echoed in her ears.

Pollyanne swung her arm around and took aim above Haru’s head. Her sixth shot boomed out, severing the rope pulling Haru’s noose tight. Haru fell sideways onto the scaffold, gulping in air as the noose loosened.

The judge shouted in anger, drew a small pistol from his suit, and shot Pollyanne in the chest. She fell backward into the crowd, and chaos erupted. Townsfolk screamed and ran in every direction. Two of the braver deputies lunged at the judge to tackle him, but he struck one aside with a blow that cracked bone, proof that he’d consumed more of his vast reserve of souls to give himself strength.

Haru cast the noose off her neck with a shrug of her wide shoulders. The whispers faded, and some of the brimstone left her nostrils. She breathed deep. She glanced right and saw the other five prisoners still gasping for air as they balanced on the partly opened trapdoors.

Haru glared at the two deputies who had dragged her up to the scaffold. “What are you waiting for?” she snapped. “Cut these poor souls down before they give the necromancer even more power!” The deputies jumped to obey, and it was only as one of them drew his knife to cut Alans down that Haru remembered her own hands were still bound.

In the square, the judge threw off the second deputy trying to restrain him. He swung his arm around, tracking his small pistol toward Haru. She sprinted across the scaffold and threw herself off the platform, a shot buzzing just over her head. She hit the frozen ground, and her breath whooshed out of her.

With arms still tied behind her, Haru stretched her hands down to reach the small knife in her boot. Through the slotted timber of the scaffold base, the remaining deputies found their courage and moved in on Judge Colson. Could they stop him? They would likely run out of ammunition before the judge ran out of lives. Only her grandmother’s two remaining bullets, tucked safely in her breast pocket, could cut the captive souls loose and end the judge in one shot.

Judge Colson raised his hands wide, and more dark blue smoke belched from his fingertips. It flowed along the snow-packed ground; townsfolk and deputies alike scattered before it. The smoke flowed into the half-dozen corpses laid out before the scaffold. The bodies jerked and spasmed. With grinding cracks like breaking ice, they rose.

The revenants lunged into the crowd, grappling their victims and crushing the life out of them with reanimated strength. The square disintegrated into a fractured panic of gunshots and screams, hiding the judge from view. Haru freed the knife from her boot and sliced through the ropes around her hands, then rose to her feet. She needed to find a gun and get another shot at the judge while there was still a town to save.

She sprinted around the scaffold and nearly tripped on her first objective: a deputy’s revolver dropped in the snow. Several paces away, the gun’s owner writhed in the snow, wisps of blue smoke concentrating around his crushed throat. The man’s jaws opened so wide they nearly unhinged, and he rose to his feet with a crack. Haru’s breath caught. Only the most powerful necromancers could create revenants that enslaved their own kills.

Haru grabbed the fallen revolver and loaded one of her grandmother’s bullets into the last chamber. The new revenant rushed at her, its hands balled into hard fists. She pivoted aside to let it pass her like a charging bull. As the revenant swung around, she raised her pistol and emptied the first chamber into its face. The creature jerked back from the impact, and she dropped her aim lower, firing four shots into the revenant’s elbows and knees. The impact sprayed blood and bone fragments onto the snow, and the revenant fell twitching. Haru turned away. It was impossible to destroy a revenant with normal bullets, but a skilled shooter could do enough damage to render them relatively harmless.

Her grandmother’s bullet slid into place under the hammer. She scanned the square for the judge. Her eyes found him beside his trunk, commanding his revenants with great sweeps of his arms. She raised the revolver, sighted him down the barrel, and pulled the trigger.

A revenant leapt in front of the judge, and the cobalt light of her shot engulfed it. The revenant vanished, leaving only a shadow scorched into the snow where it had stood, but the judge remained. He smirked and brought his hands together. The other revenants rushed in, forming a tight wall between them. No matter how Haru shifted her aim, there was no way for her to get a shot. She would only waste the last of her grandmother’s bullets destroying another revenant. She needed another vantage, something that would give her a chance.

Gunfire rang behind her, and a few revenants in the front rank staggered. Haru glanced behind her. The freed prisoners and a handful of surviving townsfolk huddled atop the scaffold, the able among them firing into the oncoming horde. Pollyanne lay against a sandbag at the top of the scaffold stairs, one hand clutching her revolver, the other pressed against her bloodstained shirt. Behind her, Alans reloaded a rifle with trembling hands.

If Haru could get on top of the scaffold, it might give her a shot at the judge. Haru sprinted for it, revenants crunching the snow behind her and the townsfolk’s bullets buzzing past her ears. She took the stairs two at a time, the gunfire becoming a desperate fusilade as the revenants closed in behind her. The townsfolk might slow the monsters down, but the things wouldn’t be stopped.

Haru loaded the last of her grandmother’s bullets. Her boots clattered on the scaffold and she reached up toward one of the long arms and the rope still dangling there, the rope that would have ended her if Pollyanne hadn’t shot it through. She wrapped the rope around her arm and hauled herself higher, feet bracing against the support beam. She looked out over the horde of revenants and beheld the judge, her line of sight free from any obstruction.

With her free hand, Haru raised her gun. The judge looked up and saw her. His expression twisted in fear, but there was nowhere to run. Haru pulled the trigger. A small puff of smoke escaped her revolver… and nothing else. The last of her grandmother’s special bullets, and it was a dud. Below, the judge’s lips split into peals of laughter. The old man’s face flushed, and he waved a dozen revenants forward, while others battered the doors of the hotel and general store, where more townsfolk had barricaded themselves.

Haru released her hold on the rope and hit the scaffold hard. She’d been so close, and now it was all for nothing. She didn’t have another cobalt bullet. Beside her, Pollyanne opened her weapon and reloaded the bullets one by one, her actions slowed by the use of only one hand. “You almost had him,” she said in a voice tight with pain. “Good thought, climbing the rope like that.”

Haru nodded with what felt like the last of her strength. “Didn’t matter.” She glanced at the stairs, where a handful of townsfolk slowly gave ground to the oncoming revenants. A whiff of sulfur reached her nose, and she marveled that she could still smell the judge over all the gunsmoke and death.

The smell came again, close like it was just under Haru’s nose. She looked down and saw that it was. The noose she had shrugged out of still lay on the scaffold where it had fallen. She brushed one hand against the silken knots, and the whispers seeped back into her mind. It called to her; with the judge focused on his revenants, she might be able to make use of it herself. Without another cobalt bullet, it might be her only chance.

Pollyanne examined her, face pale from blood loss. “You’ve got that look, the Rake look. The noose is speaking to you, isn’t it? Death offering a hand to you, just like the others.”

Haru nodded. The noose felt like an old friend in her hand. The knowledge of how to use it came to her like it had always been there. “It’s my blood,” she said. “Same as it was in my grandmother and all my no-good family.”

“Then you’ve got to use it,” Pollyane said. “Use it to stop Colson while there are still some of us left.” She leaned her head toward Haru. “Use it on me.”

“Pol, oh no,” Haru said. But the noose pulled at her, a hound eager on the scent.

“It should be me,” Pollyanne said. She pressed her bloody hand harder against the wound in her chest. “I’m hurt already, and I stopped you from killing Colson when you had the chance.”

Pollyane was right, but she had also saved Haru’s life on the scaffold. Haru glanced at the other woman’s wound. It had bled heavily, but it was likely survivable, if Pollyane lasting this long was any indication. She couldn’t escape this by pretending Pollyanne would die anyway.

But they would all die when the revenants stormed up the stairs. The noose was hot in Haru’s hands. The judge might have taken an army of souls, but he wasn’t a Rake. He wanted her power because it was greater than his. If Haru took Pollyanne’s life, she could use the power it gave her to seize control of Colson’s revenants, claiming her family’s birthright at last.

Crunching wood snapped her back to the world. Alans and a handful of townsfolk were chopping at the stairs as their ammunition ran out. Haru shook her head. She wouldn’t do this. She wouldn’t become like every Rake cousin she had put down. That left her with only one solution: to let the judge put her own neck in the noose.

She emptied her revolver and dropped it to the scaffold. Noose in hand, she stood and leapt off the scaffold, leaving Pollyanne’s cry of protest behind. She landed hard among the swarming revenants, and held the noose over her head with her left hand. This wouldn’t work if the revenants tore her apart.

“Judge Colson,” she shouted. “You wanted my gifts. I offer them to you if you’ll spare these others.”

The revenants converged on her, but they did not attack. They seized her arms and dragged her toward the square’s edge where the judge stood waiting. Gunfire petered off behind her as the horde paused its assault. She stumbled the last few steps, and the revenants forced her down onto her knees.

The judge stood over her, taking the noose in one hand. “Your gifts will be sweet indeed, Rake,” he said. He leaned down to fit the noose around her neck as his lips peeled back in a hungry smile. “But you must know I can’t let anyone escape this town alive, not with what they know about me.” His breath washed over her, hot and sour.

Haru smiled. “I know.” She twisted one arm free and drove her grandmother’s final cobalt bullet into the judge’s throat. Brilliant blue light erupted on impact, burning her eyes.

The judge stumbled away, flailing at the dud bullet lodged in his flesh. Dark blue smoke poured from the new wound, then more and more. The smoke became hundreds of faces, wheeling round in the air to descend back on the judge. His flesh blackened and crumbled where they touched it. The judge shrieked once, and then he fell under the assaults of his stolen lives. The smoke dispersed, leaving only a charred skeleton behind. The revenants fell down to the snow as mere corpses, the force animating them gone.

Haru stood on shaking legs among the fallen bodies and bloody snow. Near forty people lay among the fallen from her count, and that was just what she could see. Not an easy blow for the town to recover from.

Snow crunched behind her. Haru whirled, hand going for a gun that wasn’t there. Pollyanne stood there, supported by townsfolk on either side, with the remaining survivors fanned out behind them. Many were injured, some worse than Pollyanne. They stared at her, not with the fear and hatred she was used to, but with bewilderment.

They hadn’t seen her deal with necromancers before. The demise of her family had been no more than frightening stories to them, stories that changed with the folk who told them.  Haru straightened to her full height and put on the voice she used for directing farmhands. “Wounded into the store, it’ll have the best supplies. Any folk who’ve got strong stomachs, with me, we need to get these bodies off the street.”

For a few moments, there was only silence. Then Pollyanne spoke up, her voice strained but still strong enough to carry. “What are you all waiting for, a parade? The lady just saved us, so let’s hop to it.”

This got the other townsfolk moving. Those who could went to pile the dead into carts and tear down the bloodstained scaffold. Others patched up the wounded or swept broken glass and shell casings out of the square.

A few of the townsfolk still gave Haru dark looks, but not when Pollyanne was watching, and most now seemed more curious than afraid. A few even asked Haru what she’d done to destroy Judge Colson. She told them a little of her story, and for the first time, found an audience willing to listen. The town was hurt, but maybe if they all toiled together, they’d find a way to manage.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    A great story, loved it.

  2. Jeppsson

    That was tense! Great story!

    • Jeppsson

      (Got tired of my old nick, that I’ve been using for ages… I’m gonna go by my surname from now on.)

      • Jeppsson

        Oh, right, that was incomprehensible since I also changed the little drawing I use for a profile pic. But this is the person formerly known as Dvärghundspossen speaking.

        • Cay Reet

          Good to know! Also, hello

          • Jeppsson

            Hi! *waving at Cay*

          • Bunny

            I like your new sketch! Is that a bunny?? I’m clearly partial to bunnies Cute!

          • Jeppsson

            Bunny: Yeah, it’s a cyborg girl holding a bunny.

            I took a chance and sent out the novel I wrote to a bunch of big-timey publishers. I was rejected everywhere, which was obvs not unexpected (I’ve never written a book before, let alone published one). However, I really want to steer clear of too much stress (for mental health reasons). So I thought ok, for now I’m not gonna have, like, serious author plans. I’ll just put it up on wattpad. I’m going through each chapter an extra time before putting it up, one chapter at a time.

            The pic you see here is the one I also use for my profile on Wattpad, and as a book cover there. I draw little pics at the beginning of each chapter too, it’s really fun!

            It’s here if you wanna check out the pics: https://www.wattpad.com/user/SofiaJeppsson3 The text is in Swedish, though.

          • Jeppsson

            Oh sorry, I forgot that you’re not supposed to include links! Oren or Chris, if you want to, you can edit out the link or something from the comment above.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            It’s fine, you’re allowed to use links, they just get put into auto pending so we can make sure they’re not spam. One day we’d like to have an approved list for trusted commentors, since we aren’t worried that you’re going to spam us, but the tech isn’t there yet.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Gotta keep cranking up that tension. More bullets, more zombies, MOAR!

  3. w.

    necromancers seem to be vulnerable, almost like vampires with their coffins,
    what with their sulphur aura and the tools of their profession they need to carry around everywhere. child’s play for a colleque to detect.

    yes, this hanging judge was a perfect bad guy. I wonder if there’s more of them in the capital, perhaps all the powerful elite practice necromancy or that skillset is really rare?
    I wonder that now, that Haru is out of grams bullets. I wish Haru’s drop in the capital and perhaps sniff around a bit

    • Cay Reet

      I think most colleagues wouldn’t have any interest in calling them out … after all, Haru is an outliner who brought down all family members practicing necromancy.

      The skillset seems to be tied to certain bloodlines, so it might be rare – unlike other stories, where necromancy can be gained by making a deal with a demon or suchlike.

    • Kieran

      Oh, definitely.

  4. Bunny

    Amazing story! Awesome setting, intriguing magic, tense action. This was a blast to read!

  5. Candlewitch

    Lovely story! I liked the subtle twist of making the western setting cold and icy — perfect for a story about the undead. Very clever, and a fun, tense climax!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you liked the winter setting. That was Chris’ idea actually. She correctly guessed that it would make the western feel more alive.

      • LazerRobot

        Neat story. I’ve never really read westerns but it is a cool aesthetic. It gets the imagination going to envision a fantasy-style western setting like this, with necromancy magic! Well done on bringing it to life

        • LazerRobot

          Whoops, I meant to make that an original comment rather than a reply. Oh well, this works too.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            No problem, I’m glad you liked the story and the setting!

  6. Paul C

    Fun story, Oren. Especially the twist ending — Oh no! The cartridge is a dud! But the bullet is the key, not the feet per second at which it is propelled. Hah! Great. Really enjoyed that. Thanks for the offering.

    Now … the only quibble — and I hate doing this because the story was so much fun — a chest wound from a pistol — likely survivable? I’d check Samantha Keel (she has a book on medical tropes that need to die, and I think that might be a pun).

    And, not a quibble, but a request: when you expand this to novella length, please have zombies/revenants/necromancers dashing through the snow on cross country skis. One can’t help but see movie options in store…

  7. Raillery

    This is a wonderful story. I love the western fantasy theme, all of the characters, and the protagonist’s clever solution when all seemed lost.

    That said, this story was also instructive in providing multiple instances of an example I shall be avoiding, or at least handling with care: any intervening action between “X pulled the trigger” and the bullet hitting something downrange. I have not as harshly grated my immersion on anything as this in recent memory.

    I would also enjoy a novella-length extension, and would savor a scene in which Haru is re-casing her cobalt bullets. Even if the bullets are magical, the conventional powder can still go bad after all those years. Wouldn’t want a dud!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Glad you liked it! And yeah, sometimes you gotta check those old magic bullets, see if the mundane part is still working.

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