the ironhorse sanctuary: chapter 8
Rusted Hill seemed like a ghost town to Kelpie, as she made her way down the solitary paved street. She’d seen a lot of cities and towns, but this one was, without a doubt, the deadest. It wasn’t even midnight and the whole town was as still as the grave. Well, the whole town except for the town bar, imaginatively titled The Saloon. It even had those cheesy batwing doors like in old west movies.
Two horses were tied to a hitching post outside The Saloon. They began whickering and stamping as Kelpie approached, innately able to sense that she was more than she appeared. Her pure black eyes narrowed at the beasts, behind her mask, and as though they sensed her annoyance, they began fretting even more, tugging at their reigns, and trying to break free.
Then, as luck would have it, one of the men from inside the bar chose that moment to walk outside.
“Whoa, steady girl,” he said, immediately moving to one of the horses, which Kelpie surmised was his.
She walked through the shadows, calling up just enough glamour to shroud herself in the darkness. She wasn’t invisible – she wasn’t that good yet, and might never be – but a human’s dim eyes would be hard pressed to spot her, at least until she did something to make herself known.
“There, there, girl. There’s a good girl. You ready to go home? I sure am.”
“I’m afraid you won’t make it,” Kelpie said, right at his elbow.
The man jumped almost a full foot in the air and yelped comically as he spun toward her. For a second he just gaped. Then, fool that he was, started laughing. “Damn, girl. You about scared the crap out of me.”
Kelpie didn’t bother letting him know that was what she’d intended – or that the other thing she intended was to kill him. She let her actions speak for her, grabbed him by his collar, and shoved his head into the horses’ watering trough before he realized what had happened. When he did, he predictably began to struggle, but Kelpie had a good grip on him, and was stronger. She marveled how easy it was for her to keep a full grown man under control. At one time, such a thing had been impossible for her.
“Hey! What the hell are you doing?”
Kelpie grimaced at the sight of another human standing in front of the doors, but didn’t answer – and she didn’t release the man she was in the process of drowning.
The newcomer hurried down toward her angrily. “Get your hands off him, you masked little freak!”
Kelpie obeyed him – halfway at least. She kept the first man’s head pinned to the bottom of the water trough with one hand and reached out to grab the newcomer with the other.
“What are you –glurgh!” His voice cut off as he too was dunked under the water.
The first man’s struggles had begun to cease. Convulsions wracked his body as he moved into the final phase of drowning. Kelpie kept his head under until those convulsions had stopped and he went completely still, and then a minute or two longer, just to make sure he was dead. By that time the second man had gone still as well.
Kelpie stiffened when the light inside the bar went off, then grimaced and cloaked herself in darkness again, realizing that should have been the first thing she did when she realized that she might soon have more company. She strained her ears, and heard noises near the back of the building, then the sound of a car door slamming. Whoever worked here seemed to have left through another door, without bothering to lock up – or perhaps they’d locked away their money and merchandise inside, since batwing doors couldn’t be considered secure by any stretch of the imagination. Kelpie heard a car start and extended her glamour to surround the entire water trough, to hide the bodies, but she needn’t have worried. The bar’s parking lot opened onto the street a good thirty feet from where Kelpie was standing, and when the car pulled out, it drove in the other direction.
The voice came from above. Kelpie jumped then spun, searching for it.
“Right here.” A shape emerged from the darkness – not out of a shadow glamour, just out of the natural camouflage that the night provided. Kelpie’s eyes were well adjusted to the gloom and she was surprised she had not seen him earlier, now that she was looking. Dark, mischievous eyes peered down at her, from a face framed by wavy black locks and large, pointed ears.
“Acrobat. What are you doing here?”
A smile that promised trouble flashed across the other Eldritch’s fair features, then he jumped down off the roof. His arms doubled as wings, and the leathery membranes beneath them caught the air, slowing his descent and letting him glide down to land on top of the hitching post, which made the horses freak out even more. Acrobat ignored them and hopped down. “I was going to ask you the same question.”
“I was given instructions to develop my powers and discover what I can do,” Kelpie said.
“And so . . . you’ve learned how to drown men in a water barrel thing?”
“It’s called a trough.”
“Is it? I wouldn’t know. Never spent much time around livestock.” Acrobat looked supremely unconcerned. “You know, I think they were expecting us to test out our powers somewhere less conspicuous.”
“My powers mainly involve different ways of drowning people. Not really any way to be inconspicuous about that,” Kelpie told him.
“Yeah, but there’s a difference between people drowning on the banks of some big river and people drowning in an oversized water bowl. They did stress that we should never call too much attention to ourselves. But I like to think I know you well enough to be able to tell when you’re up to something. The question now is . . . what?”
“You remember the last time we were here?” Kelpie asked.
“When Morgrei sent us to collect that kid – Stray, he said his name was?”
“Yes,” Kelpie said. “And you remember what happened?”
“We kidnapped him and drug him back to the main mound.”
“But before we got him away, those hunters gave us some problems,” Kelpie reminded him.
“Not too big of problems.”
Kelpie gave him a wry look.
“All right, fine, they gave us some problems, but we got the kid in the end.”
“And then?” Kelpie prompted.
“While I was watching him,” Kelpie growled. “And he stole my face! Again!”
“He stole your old mask, yes, but you knew then that you were already getting a new one,” Acrobat said.
“I don’t care. He’s going to pay for what he’s done,” Kelpie snapped.
“So how does drowning people in a water bowl play into that?”Acrobat wanted to know.
“I think those hunters Stray was with live around here,” Kelpie said. “This was where they stopped him from jumping that train.”
Acrobat’s eyes widened. “You’re trying to stir up trouble with people whose main goal in life is to kill us?”
“I’m trying to lure them in,” Kelpie said coldly. “Then I’ll kill them all.”
“That seems really, really reckless,” Acrobat said.
“What are you going to do? Report me?”
Acrobat looked incredulous. “Like I’d snitch on you,” he said in a stung voice. He put a finger to his throat and tapped on a distinctive scar on his throat.
Instinctively, Kelpie clenched her right fist so that her fingers touched an identical scar on her palm.
“Besides,” Acrobat continued before Kelpie could say apologize, “who would I report you to? I’d call the Eldritch system of government, or social structure, or whatever it’s supposed to be organized chaos, except there’s nothing organized about it.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Kelpie said, looking ironically at Acrobat’s shirt.
He followed her gaze and smirked at the anarchy sign on the faded black T-shirt. He was one of the few Eldritch who preferred human clothing to the finely tailored garments of the Eldritch realms. Kelpie had no idea why, but figured it was Acrobat’s own business. Besides, it wasn’t like he looked bad wearing them.
“That aside, you should be careful.”
“I know,” Kelpie said. “You don’t have to tell me that.”
“It bears saying when the people you aim to mess with intend to kill you on sight,” Acrobat said stubbornly.
“All I want to do is kill Stray. I’ll avoid the others if I can.”
“Is it really worth it? Risking your life to avenge your stolen mask?” Acrobat demanded. “A mask that you wouldn’t be wearing anymore anyway?”
“You know what it meant to me!”
“I’d still think that your life would be worth more!” Acrobat said angrily. “Especially now that things are finally good for us!”
“I’m not planning on dying or anything,” Kelpie snapped. “I just want to kill Stray!”
“A street kid,” Acrobat said, his tone growing cold.
“A street kid who steals to get by.”
“Which would be fine so long as he didn’t steal my face!”
Acrobat shook his head in disgust. “Whatever. Just . . . do whatever you want.”
The disappointment in his gaze hurt, and Kelpie opened her mouth to say something – maybe not to apologize, but to at least try to justify her anger – but it she was too late. Acrobat hopped nimbly back up onto the roof in one gravity defying bound, then leapt into the open air. He’d disappeared into the night before Kelpie could say a word.