“I have sand in places I don’t even want to think about,” Rhae said.
Thomas shifted himself over in an attempt to put her between him and the boulder to shield her better from the storm. He didn’t dare open his eyes in this mess. At least it felt like the storm quelled to some extent. He could hear her complaining so that was something. He hoped it ended soon. His muscles ached and his mouth was dry. They needed water and a safe place to rest. The sun rose higher as the winds finally died down. Rhae scowled at him as he helped her to her feet.
“We need to find water and a place to hide in,” he said. “Then we can rest.”
Although the sun beat down on them with vicious heat, the clouds churned in the sky. Their angry shapes pitched festering shadows on the ground. No birds flew in the horizon like they had during their last visit. No signs of small animals either. Rhae didn’t mention any bugs. Thomas wondered if it was because of the sand storm or if it was because of something else. He tried not to worry about this too much while keeping an eye out for plant life, particularly cacti, and potential caves. All the while they continued moving toward the town. About an hour from their arrival point, Thomas found a small cave with a generous patch of cacti that reminded him of prickly pears from Earth. They found a small spring inside the cave too. He wished now that his dimensional pocket was better equipped for survival. Raw cactus and water was better than dehydration and starvation. Giving her his trench coat to use as a blanket, he let her sleep first. He didn’t think he would sleep any way.
Gazing at Rhae while she slept, he stroked her arm gently and noticed that the beads had turned almost a dark red. Wondering why the beads kept changing color, Thomas watched the sun set in agitated hues of scarlet, rust, and copper. Lethargy crept upon him by inches as his mind worried with his thoughts. What was he going to do when he did finally find Peccant? Lynnette told him to do what he did best which was break the rules and blow stuff up. Blowing stuff up he understood. Breaking the rules though was a bit more complex when he wasn’t sure what the rules were in the first place. What was the one thing that pissed his aunt off the most? When he didn’t do what she expected him to do. What did she expect him to do here exactly?
He hadn’t realized he had drifted off to sleep until the tittering permeated the cave from outside. Thick fog banked the desert horizon and dark shadows swam through it. The fuzzy moon glowed in the thick clouds. Rhae placed her hand on his shoulder and thumbed to the back of the cave. Quietly, Thomas sealed the cave entrance with a filigree rune screen and followed her to the back recess. They could still see the entrance but at least it gave them some cover. She draped his coat over his shoulders to let him know it was his turn for sleep but he doubted that sleep with come now. Resting his head in her lap, he kept his eyes on the screen. The beads tingled on his wrist and gently warmth spread over his body. Worries and fear drifted away and sleep returned once more.
“Thomas,” Rhae said, nudging him awake.
He searched the shadows and saw that just outside the fading filigree screen the brood sniffing around at the ground. They sought their location and when the runes drop, the cave entrance would be exposed. Thomas slipped his trench coat on and readied his gun. He crept to the entrance of the cave and counted the brood stalking outside. There were at least six of them in the low moon light and there could be more beyond. Rhae took a position across from him and nodded.
Dropping the runes, he took two shots at the brood nearest to the entrance. The other four came charging at the cave as expected, their keening filling the night air. More would surely come to the call. Thomas exited the cave, keeping the wall to his back. Rhae strafed the other side of the entrance and blasted two more of the brood. He picked off two more before Rhae shot down the last. Reloading their guns, they heard tittering in the distance. They needed to move and keep moving.
Staying off the road but keeping it in sight, Thomas and Rhae made their way for town. It had taken them half the day in good conditions last time they were here to get there. The conditions were far from good and it felt like even the stray blades of grass were out to kill them. The unnatural fog remained as the sun rose, creating a sticky sauna as the rocks and hard packed dirt heated up.
Keening ripped through the fog as another pack of brood found them and charged in. Thomas barely had time to shoot the first one leaping towards his head before Rhae shot another lunging at his calf. Keeping their backs to each other they watched the fog. Two bolted in from both Thomas’ flanks as a third pounced Rhae from head on. Rhae dropped down to her knees as she fired at her assailant. Thomas managed to shoot one but was tackled by the other. He blocked its dripping fangs with his magnum before Rhae shot it off him. Thomas almost didn’t see the sixth one behind her in time to kill it. Not bothering to stand up first, he just shot it while still laying on his side. Rhae helped him to his feet. They listened for more as they reloaded their guns before moving on.
Heat from the afternoon sun converted the fog to steam. The hot damp glued their muggy clothes to their skin. They reached the town and found it lifeless. Not a single person walked the streets or peered from the windows. Darkness cloaked the buildings and streets here despite the sun. Fog ebbed, flowed, banked, and crested like the tide here in the town. Shadows loomed long and hard, shifting with the rippling fog. Silence weighed the air down with expectation.
Thomas knew there was a good chance he would find Peccant at the church. He also knew that the church wasn’t on the main street of town. With this fog, they could end up walking in circles if they weren’t careful. They followed the main street until something on the porch of the saloon caught Thomas’ eye.
The doors were partially open and something dark fluttered listlessly at the floor. On closer inspection from the bottom step of the porch, Thomas saw that it was the tattered hem of a pant leg. A shoe propped the door. Rhae stepped softly up the steps to nudge the door wider. The grim set of his jaw prompted him to follow. He saw that the body at the door belonged to the bar keep. His flesh had become translucent with his face frozen into an eternal scream. Looking up into the saloon he saw that the fates of the patrons inside had been the same. They were about to leave until quiet movement and weeping in the far back corner caught their attention.
“Hello?” Thomas said.
Silence answered them. Holding his gun ready, Thomas made his way to the back. He carefully stepped over the bodies. Walking around overturned chairs and tables, he reached the small stage and saw to the right a hunched over, hooded robed figure. Hesitantly he approached the figure.
“Hello?” Thomas said, “Can we help you?”
The figure twisted around with a start, tipping over a few jars at its feet. By standing up, the figure revealed the body of what had been a saloon girl. With delicate precision, her face had been removed. The eyes and tongue had been carved out too. Her bodice was ripped aside with her chest cavity cracked wide open. Dripping from its long twisted hand, her heart filled its palm. It gripped a sharp blade in its other hand. Through the hood Thomas saw a despondent face equally gnarled as its hands but the eyes were clearly human.
“You can’t help me,” it said. Its papery hollow voice rasped with pain. “I can’t help you.”
Before Thomas could question the figure, keening filled the air.
“Run,” the figure said, collecting its jars, and scurried away.
Four of the brood broke in through the windows as two more plodded in through the doors. Rhae spun around and began firing. Her first shot went wide but her second shot got its mark. Thomas took down the one she missed and turned down on his knee for the two at the door. She swung her shotgun over his head to get the remaining two coming in from the windows. They fired in sync to take them down. The keening hadn’t stopped so they quickly reloaded and ran out to the street. Keeping close to the buildings, they went down a side lane, hoping to find the church quickly. A herd of six brood barreled down at them from the street.
“The fuckwits are coming from behind too,” Rhae said.
Thomas looked over his shoulder to see six more coming in at high speed. Charging up and readying his runes, he nodded to Rhae. “Don’t die.”
He shot three and heard two shotgun rounds go off before the brood were upon them. Thomas fired off his runes. It didn’t kill them but they flew back, wounded. Quickly they picked them off with their guns, reloaded and moved on. There was no time to rest for the keening didn’t relent.
As they came to an intersection, a rage filled shriek cut through the keening. On the street to the left towered a wretched, contorted beast like creature. The mangled monster reminded Thomas of Lynnette’s current form. Twelve brood surrounded it. Twelve more crouched at the ready on the street to their left. A brief glance back told him another twelve loped up behind.
“Fucking maggots,” Rhae said.
“Don’t look. Just run.”
The giant beast screamed, blowing fetid breath and spittle on them.
“I fucking looked.”
“Run damn it.”
The tittering and keening crowded out his thoughts as he willed his legs to keep going. Every muscle burned with a fire. Fuck this noise. Fuck this shit. Fuck all this running. They needed a better plan. Thomas saw some slanted metal cellar doors at the side of a house, grabbed Rhae, and ran for them. He prayed they opened. Able to wrench one of them open, they stumbled down the steps and slammed the door shut just barely in time.
“It’s not going to buy is much time,” he said as they went down the rest of the way.
The brood pounded and clawed at the doors as shrieks, keening, and tittering wove in the air. Judging by the tremors of the house above them, the giant beast was attacking the building.
“Worst plan ever.”
“We can fight better from cover than out in the open.”
“We can’t fight them if we’re buried alive Thomas.”
Dust and dirt fell from the cellar ceiling as the house above them groaned and shook. Thomas pointed to a large sturdy bin filled with tubers.
“Let’s dump it and push it to the corner there,” he said. “We’ll hide in it.”
They tipped it on its side and pushed it to the corner as they heard the tearing metal of the doors. Thomas just pushed Rhae into the bin as the house collapsed into the cellar with a bellowing groan. Somehow he survived being buried by the beams but he was pinned under them. Their weight made it hard to breathe. He could barely see through the spaces between them. The giant beast fished Rhae out of the bin with its wicked talons. It glared at the piles of beams with fiery red eyes and sniffed around. Shrieking, it lumbered away with the brood in tow. Thomas listened to the tittering and keening fading with them. Stuck there under the beams, rage and panic swelled and then blossomed into resolve.
They had Rhae. They had his everything. Now he understood his aunt and why she was willing to do anything to get it back.