Authorial Note: A study on character arc. (conclusion, this one didn’t quite catch… but maybe you’ll enjoy the main-character’s opponent)
The orange sun poured out its heat on the tired leather long-coat. It heated the iron spurs and made the black leather gloves glisten. The stained hat tipped down to keep the beating rays off a face covered in razor stubble. Old razor stubble.
The man stood up from the dusty ground, cursed the sun, and swung into the saddle. His sweaty hands gripped the reins as he took one last glance at the wagon trail set in the ground, heading west.
His dark brown eyes followed the trail as far as possible before getting lost on the horizon of waving grass. Something was out there, and it had tried to stop him. He hoped he wouldn’t run into it again.
For a moment the man scanned the golden horizon, searching for a sign. He saw nothing. So he kicked the sides of his black horse. The rusty iron spurs dug in, and the creature moved forward into the warmth of the sun. The sun that seemed to stand in his way, glaring down, shining in his eyes.
The man grimaced and glared back. But even in your fiery hate, you warm my bones. You quicken my draw. His grimace smiled and he pushed aside the leather coat, baring the brown wooden handle of a roughed up revolver. And you show me the tracks of my quarry.
“Yes, my quarry, I’ll hunt you down. We’re not done.” His jaw relaxed, and his shoulders settled back. “The natives still need their sacrifice.” He reminded himself and chuckled. Oh the natives, satisfied by the blood of a little girl. So easily appeased, they pay with silver. And all for their god.
“Superstitions.” The word came out, spat out, and landed on the ground. The horse trampled them and moved past. But the word left a shadow behind. A story. Something that reminded him the night was rising, the sun dipping ever lower. It left him scanning the grass, glancing over his shoulder.
The man’s jaw set. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, letting the sun shine right down on his face. No. I’m the monster tonight. The light reflected off his scars, making them sweat even harder. He smiled and his eyes opened, golden, staring into the orange light. The night would welcome this monster tonight, and he would welcome it. The man turned his eyes from the ball of fire and looked west once more.
Earth was his domain, and he would enjoy it. Not as an outlaw. No, a hunter who owns the night. Silver coins clinked in his heavy saddlebag. The natives had paid him well to bag this one.
The west night came in quiet servitude, whispering as the man rode through oceans of grass. His hat tipped low again, deepening the shadow over his face, and he sat tall on his black horse.
The stems of rye rustled against each other, as their heads of grain bowed to him. They spoke to each other in hushed voices as he approached, then fell silent as he passed. Though his eyes hid, he watched them. He felt the wind chill and hide from him. He was the monster of the night.
Then all changed. For a moment the wind picked up and blew from the western sky, it pulled down low, rustling through stalk and stem. And from beneath the golden ocean came a wall of sand opposing the man, the monster.
The dust storm soon wore down. It seemed tired to the man. But hardship didn’t leave with the wind. The ground softened as the horse’s hooves fell and the creature plodded on, straining every muscle to keep going. But sweat stuck to the velvet black coat, and even with the soft ground, the man could feel his horse faltering. So he dug his spurs in hard, ever rubbing the raw spots on its side, and the horse moved on.
They passed long into the night, and the man’s mind stayed sharp, his eyes cutting the darkness, watching the wagon trails, glancing to the side here, into the distance there, searching the night. He saw when the horse pulling the little wooden cart slowed down, weary, but still pushed on. He saw as the ruts deepened, and the ground softened. One of the horse’s hooves slid, and the man pressed hard with his spurs. The creature’s footing became firm, and they continued on.
After a short while longer the ground softened again and began to bog down. And after rounding a small hill they saw the white canvas, its wooden frame stuck in deep grey mud, the large round wheels too deep to see.
The grasses stilled, and the wind didn’t move. All bowed in homage to the solemn image. The man felt his own horse quiet beneath him. He swung off his saddle, rough leather coat sweeping behind him, and he landed in the mud, sinking down.
“The monster has come,” the man announced to the night. He stepped away from his horse, a hand trailing down. The revolvers at his sides were listening, tense, waiting for the hand to call them out. But another voice spoke, one quieter, softer, almost nothing.
“Master is here,” it whispered. “The monster of the night.”
The man froze. A breeze had picked up, rustling the grass, like a soft voice. The man replied.
“Yes,” he said. “I am here.”
“We are at the master’s command.” The grass stilled once more. It waited.
“I call you to worship me.”
No reply came. I can’t be going mad.
Then the wind rustled the grass and bowed it toward him.
He stood in quiet wonder as the wind blew, and the grass all bowed lower. I am going mad, he thought. But a light sparkled in his eyes. Let’s see if the tales are true, Granny. “Let me walk on solid ground.”
The wind turned to a gale, blowing on a strip of mud. Mud hardened, as a wet mist drew out, forming a dry grey path to the little wagon.
The man chuckled. “Lift the wagon from your bowels.” The man grinned at the clever use of the word bowels. Granny would be impressed that he’d remembered it from the tales as a child.
“It can’t do that, idiot.” The voice jumped from the grasses behind him, then disappeared into the wind. “The laws of physics still apply.”
The man’s neck straightened. He turned, slow, elbows bent at the slightest angle, hands open and tense. The revolvers readied to jump out of their holsters. They liked to strike.
“Well, well.” The man stared out into the wavering rye. “Who do have we here?”
“I don’t appreciate you.” The voice was thin and light, almost an echo in the air. “You see, you crossed a line.”
“God, come to stop the monster?” A joke.
“Superstitious after all, are we? But no. A monster.” The voice hardened. “The monster of the night. I am master of the wind, grass, and ground. And you, friend, stepped on my toes, by chasing this poor little girl onto my turf. And by dropping her parents on my dirt. I don’t want their blood on my dirt.”
A chill crawled up the man’s spine. “You blew that dust into my face?”
“No. Again, you are an idiot. The wind blew dust into your face, and it would have done more had I not been so far away that it ran out of strength. I have been running for quite some time to catch up with you. And the girl. And the horse pulling the wagon, who, wow, was magnificent before he died of exhaustion. Only, I don’t see his body over there, so it must have been sucked into the mud. Again, your fault.”
“Stay out of my business.” The man said.
“Oh, but this is my business. You call yourself a monster, and I cannot have that. Not on my turf.”
“Oh, but I am a monster,” the man snarled.
The voice perked up. “Okay! If you say so let’s start with this. Have you ever killed anyone? Like really killed them. While looking into their eyes.”
The man glared. Don’t get caught up in this. “Allow me to move on, and I’ll be sure to stay off your turf.”
“How about… no. First I tell you a story and then we decide who’s the monster.”
“Fine,” said the man. He took a step back and crossed his arms, eyes flicking back and forth for the source of the voice.
“Well,” said the voice, “I’ve killed people. Really killed them. And oh, it hurts. Or it did, to see their lives slip away, running down the blade of my sword. It was pain. But I blocked it out, that pain of killing. And guess what. It’s no longer so horrendous! It’s just… killing. The seas did that for me. Pirates.
“I became the best. Dueling with pistol and rapier. Sea battles with cannons–oh! I love cannons. All the flare!” There was a sigh.
The voice jumped to the left, quieting to a mysterious hush. “But in the early moonlight of the Virginian Sea, with fiddles play’n their tune, the Lady Wales stepped aboard my vessel, The Hare. She, the lady, was beautiful, pale as the moon and with eyes of midnight.”
The voice hardened, though from a different direction. “Little did my crew know what would happen if the lady failed to step back on her native soil.
“That night, when the moon reached its peak, we set sail into the dark waters.
“Then, all went dark. Our bright silver light in the sky closed its eyes as the clouds approached with wind pulling a fleet of sails. Triangle sails. Sails carrying ships fast and light. Faster than I’d ever seen. I wanted to take ‘em on. To go offensive, to test the limits. But the graceful lady climbed from below, and I knew I could not.”
The voice strengthened again, pulling from many directions. “So we turned about and made for land.
“They overtook us. They pushed through our cannon fire, leaving behind sunken ship after sunken ship. They climbed up the sides of The Hare, into our musket fire, and they boarded us in swarms, clawing their way through our swords. They killed that night. Many. And within minutes only four of us remained to protect our charge.
“Me and my crew were forced back, killing with every step. The pirates broke into the cabins below and met two flintlocks. The lady. They carried her out, above decks and stepped to the edge of my ship. They prepared to throw the lady down into more greedy hands. Into their own vessel.
“Now remember… I was the greatest. But though many fell before me, and my vessel groaned under the weight of the bodies, there were too many to fight through. Still, I was not done. I had learned to kill. To push away the pain, to look in the eyes, to make the blow. And that time had come.
“Dragged by men, the woman was struggling. Whenever her foot slipped free it kicked a face or stomach. But we both know men will only suffer that so long. Two pirates jumped forward, lifting her off the ground, poised to throw her.
“The lady’s midnight eyes closed as she tensed, and then opened, staring into mine.
“‘Save me,’ they whispered. ‘Don’t let their dirty hands take my body.’
“I ducked a saber and thrust my rapier between two ribs. The pirate collapsed, leaving a gap in time and space. My flintlock pistol leaped from my boot, and my thumb pulled back the hammer. All the way. I raised the weapon and saw two options. Shoot the pirate on the right. He would fall and leave her to the others. I could fire and kill the one on her left, and alas the same would be…”
The voice paused. It inhaled and enjoyed the anticipation in the man’s squinting eyes. It held a moment more, and then said:
“But I chose the third option. I looked into her eyes, and I pulled the trigger.
“It was painless for me, it was painless for the lady. But the pirates… they suffered death. My crew saw her sag in the enemy’s arms, blood dripping from her face, and retribution spoke in their limbs.
“Not a single pirate lived that night. We four killed them all. We sank their ships and drowned them.
“Covered in blood, I stepped to the helm of my vessel and turned it about, leaving them in my wake. I had won the battle, and my crew had no idea I’d killed the lady… but I forgot something.
“The clouds. The clouds that covered the moon. They witnessed the night. They saw the lady fall, and they saw the hand that felled her. They poured out their wrath in judgment. And the lightning… it spoke, cracking down on the water.”
A shiver slipped through the voice.
“A wave rippling with the energy of God smashed my ship, pulling us under. Everything splintered, and my men thrashed about, groping.
“As the water sucked me down I clamped onto the figurehead of my ship… the hare that stood, ears tall, guiding our ways, cutting the waters. My first mate was caught in the sail, and it pulled him toward shore. The cook found a crate of rye and floated there. The last man, our carpenter washed to shore with nothing to hang to.
“Thus why he lives as the ground, having landed on bare sand. The cook awoke to find himself in the grass–as the grass. My first mate, he came to shore with the sail. But he came as the wind. And I pulled myself to the dry land on paws, furry, with ears tall, and living as a small beast of creation.”
The wind was silent, as went the grass. The ground held still, and the voice stopped talking. And then came a whisper, steel cutting the air.
The man spun. His revolvers jumped awake and leaped to his hands. They were grinning into the steel blue eyes of a black coated hare, whose paw held a rapier between them. The tip of the sword hung under the man’s nose.
“So,” said the hare, narrowing its steely blue eyes. “Who is the monster?”
The man leaned over, breathing hard. No. I did not just kill a talking hare. His mind wouldn’t let him believe it, but his leather coat testified otherwise, hanging about him in shreds. His hat was missing, and new cuts among old scars traced his moonlit face. He held one revolver loose in his hand. He shook his head, looking off into the grass where his kick had sent the creature. Every single shot had missed, but when his boot caught the thing in the head, it all ended. With metal cobbled boots. But the man was not thinking about his cobbled boots.
The monster of the night is a hare. He straightened, then sniffed, and wiped his forehead, smearing the blood with more that came from his arm. Stupid sword. He spat into the waving ocean of green and turned toward the little wagon. Three holes sat in the ripped and waving canvas.
The man pulled three more bullets from his belt and reloaded the revolver before shoving it into its seat. The other he reloaded all the way. This one he kept in his hand and walked toward the place in the grass where the body of a hare would be lying in a pool of blood. Dying.
A tremor ran through the man, excitement. Excitement to end the creature that stood in his way, and get the girl. But when he reached the very spot where the creature had landed, only a dark stain spread across the ground accompanied the rumpled grass. No hare was to be seen.
The man cursed. He turned in a circle, letting his revolver hang in a relaxed hand. His senses listened and watched, but found nothing. So he turned to the wagon, setting his sights on the girl, and escape.
The man walked forward. He stepped from the tall grass, setting his hand against the wagon’s splintered corner, walking around to the other side. He rounded the corner and saw a little form curled in a ball, tucked against the wagon. She couldn’t have been more than seven years old, with hair that looked silver in the moonlight.
So vulnerable. Like the lady. But he pushed the thought away, remembering the silver in his saddlebag. The man knelt down, and reached toward the little shaking form, caressing the brilliant hair. It was beautiful in the light from above.
“It’s alright,” he said. Something rustled in the grass behind the man. He cursed under his breath and twisted his torso, firing several times, then turned back to the whimpering figure, holstering the weapon.
He shifted forward and scooped the form up, his sickly leather sticking to her fair skin. The girl’s eyes jerked open and she and tried to pull away, but the man’s arms were strong.
“Oh no, you don’t. I rode through dust and wind to get you, don’t think I’ll let you run off only to have the natives after me.” His muscles tensed as he stood. Anger rimmed his eyes.
The man walked to his horse and the girl continued to push, tears falling until a breeze swept past them and whispered.
She calmed, her breathing slowed, and her eyes closed as the wind spoke in a quiet voice. And all went still before the world around them churned.
First came the howling, the rustling. It caused the man to stop in his tracks, pulling the body tighter. She whimpered but didn’t resist, having fallen into a deep sleep.
“Oh,” said the voice from behind him. “But you thought we were done. No, idiot. Not yet. You haven’t set the child free, and I am still the monster.”
The man turned around and saw nothing. A blast of wind hit him in the back, and he stumbled forward. The mud loosened and his boots sucked down, then the ground hardened. The whistling air shot down, hitting the ground and blowing out. It sent waves through the grass and boomed against the wagon canvas. The man’s horse jumped. It neighed and reared, and then bolted. The voice spoke again:
“See… you may think you’re a monster.” A heavy foot slammed into the back of his knee and he crumpled to the ground. “But I am a terror.” The same foot slammed into the back of his head, sending him into the mud, cradling the body in his arms. “I know what it means to suffer.” The foot rested against his head and started pressing down. “And I can teach you that meaning.”
The man strained his back, his neck, muscles he didn’t know he had. Or muscles he wished he had. He could feel the pads of the hare’s rear foot pressing into his skull as the mud reached for his face. “I killed the Lady Wales, I can kill a little girl. How ‘bout you watch her suffer, smothered under your body in the putrid bog. Feel her breath end as her heart stop beating. Here’s the deal. You don’t make it out alive if she doesn’t. And if for some strange reason, you escape after she dies, I have no doubt the Indians will stop at nothing to get the man who stole their silver.”
The man felt the girl slipping down into the murk, and so his life with it. And he pushed. With his legs.
His face went into the mud, and it crawled up his nose, into his eyes. It pressed all around him. But his legs pushed off, raising his back. He twisted and spun, pulling his feet from the boots that remained stuck. The man whipped around lashing out at the black furry creature.
The hare leaped back, unscathed, flying through the bellowing air, and landing in a crouch. Its feet landed and the wetness shifted so it landed on dry ground. The hare smiled, no sign of blood on it. The old monster, it was enjoying itself.
“Ah! Protecting the girl are we now? Of course! If she dies so do you.” It paused, and drew its rapier, letting the man stand. “Just think what it must be like tied to a stake, flames of the natives licking your toes.” The creature shot forward, flicking the thin weapon here and there. It shot in and out finding leather, weathered skin, and hardened muscle. But never the pale soft flesh of a little girl.
The man’s eyes were wide, bloodshot. His pulse shot blood through his veins that he might save his life. And the life of the girl. He twisted and fought. His skin bled, but he pushed forward, and an opening presented itself. The rapier leaped at him–no the girl.
He dropped to his knees and ducked his head. The sword point struck his skull, and the blade bent. The man lifted his head, and the sword flickered off above him.
Then, a bang.
The hare paused, staring at the smoking barrel of a revolver. The revolver held steady.
“Don’t you touch my girl, my silver. It’s my life, not yours,” said the man. His eyes were hard, his teeth gritting.
The hare stumbled back, looking down at the blood seeping from the wound in its chest.
“You’re a dirty slaver,” it said. The creature coughed and blood trickled down its obsidian fur. “And I’m a monster.” A chuckle rose from its throat. “We make quite a pair.” The hare’s eyes lifted and glared into the gaze of the man. “But I still win. Pirate.”
A quick black paw flickered and the flintlock raised in its hand. The trigger pulled. The hammer fell, and slammed down, sending up a volcano of sparks.
The man jerked down his shoulder, covering the face and body of the girl. His teeth gritted, and a grunt pushed up as the metal ball shot through his flesh. He squeezed his eyes shut, bent over, kneeling on the ground. Breaths wheezed through his bared teeth, and his eyes opened when he heard the voice of the hare, but not the words.
He uncurled, letting the sleeping body slip to the ground, unscathed. His muscles spasmed around the splintered shoulder blade, and blood ran down his back. He saw the hare kneeling as well, breathing hard, paw in a fist, pressed against the ground. Words rasped from the creature’s throat.
“What?” asked the man. He stood, and took a limping step forward. His knees shook, and he sank to the ground in front of the hare.
“I said, you got forced into checkmate, eh?” The hare’s breathing became more ragged, the dark red liquid pooling from the wound. Its head slumped and hit the ground. The creature collapsed and rolled over, looking up into the face of the man. “Why protect the girl? Just let her die next time. But then you’d be a fugitive. And that doesn’t work for the hunter who owns the night.”
A laugh crackled from the hare’s throat. The man slumped to the ground beside the hare and rolled to his back, staring up at the night sky, quiet and beautiful. He hated it but could do nothing. For this time the night was his master. And the hare its servant.
“Monster,” the man said.
A breeze swished around them, and the quiet song of sleep sang in their ears. It was so peaceful and too much to fight.
Pain. Stiff pain. Splitting pain. And every other kind. The ground dug into the man’s shoulder blade. The one with an iron ball rammed inside by gunpowder. But that wasn’t what woke him. Just what made him realize he was far from dead, and more alive than he wanted to be. It was the foot pressing down on his shoulder that woke him. The hare’s foot on his bad shoulder.
“They’ve seen us,” said the voice.
“Get your foot off me!” the man grunted.
“More importantly, they’ve seen her,” the hare ignored. “Which is why we need you standing up.”
The man opened his eyes and stared up into the morning sky. A hill in the distance kept the sun from shining into his eyes. Mounted figures crested it. “Who’s seen us?” he asked. The hare removed its foot and came into view.
“The Indians. They seem to have noticed the promised was not delivered and decided they’re okay with finishing the dirty work themselves.”
“Savages. We need to get outa here.”
“Speak for yourself. Actually, I’m gonna speak for you. You’re hired. And we are going making sure the girl makes it out alive. It’s funny how protecting her is once more the only way we have a chance to come out on top. But hey, at least we get to do it with flare.”
“I hate you.”
The hare reached out a paw, and the man glared but took it, pulling himself to a seated position.
“Everything’s loaded, guns and belt.”
The man nodded as he stood up. Slow, grunting, and methodical.
The small creature then turned to the wind. A long velvety snout, pushed against the man’s face, snickering it his ear. It pushed past him and joined the hare. And the girl was on top of the man’s horse. He scoffed and spit into the ground. Stupid horse. Never was loyal.
After a few quiet words between the two black creatures, the horse nodded and turned away, girl on top, leaving.
The wind whispered but stayed behind. It blew through the worn coat of the hare, who then turned to the man. “You ready to fight?”
“I see you found my horse,” the man scoffed.
“I have my ways”
“Like how you’re unscathed?”
“Maybe. Are you ready?”
If the man were watching the hare instead of the natives who rode down the hill, he would have seen a tight smile on the little creature’s face. Instead, the man grimaced.
Tears flecked his eyes. He drew both revolvers, spinning them. His shoulders relaxed, and his stance settled. He stepped up beside the hare, the wind blowing through his shredded leather coat, the grass whispering encouragement, and the ground giving firm footing. He hated it for that. “I always fight. You made me fight.”
“Ah, but you still made that choice. Are you ready to die?” The voice was chipper.
The man sighed, eyes tired. “Ruin my moment.” But in the blink of an eye, he saw those who’d opposed him now standing around him. And he felt tired, because they were holding him up.
“But this time we both get to be the heroes. Isn’t it fun?” The hare said, and started bouncing on its toes. The rapier hung low, relaxed. And then the creature looked up at the man’s face. “Hey, if we live through this–”
“I thought we were gonna die.”
The hare paused its bouncing. “I didn’t plan on you dying.”
“Then if only to spite you, I am ready to die.” A smile stood on the man’s face. “Maybe not though. This isn’t too bad, it has a thrill.”
“I knew you’d like it. It’s far better than selling life.” The air around the little creature dropped, it was sullen. “My crew likes it too. And this time, the lady won’t die.” Tears flecked its steel blue eyes.
“But we still have to fight to the death, our death, to keep her alive.”
The hare nodded. Then lifted its head, and stared at the nearing enemy. The pounding hooves shook loose no courage in either of their hearts. And then the wind blasted past them, pushing a wall of dust.
The two guardians stood still. Ready.
“Monsters,” one chuckled. To which the other replied, “fighting savages.”