Travers made certain the bottles were packed carefully into the saddle bags as he secured them on Gipsum. He gave the horse’s neck a gentle pat before he stepped back and looked to the elf that sat in the saddle. Shani tipped her hat in thanks and offered him a friendly grin. “Much ‘bliged, Travers. The whiskey’s ‘ppreciated, an’ thet wine’s gonna be a taste o’ home fer sure.”
“Le’s ‘ope the whiskey lasts longer ‘n the wine,” Pania snickered as she steered her horse to stand beside Shani’s. Shani looked over at the elven bard and smirked. “Thanks ‘gain fer all the supplies. An’ the time spent ‘ere. Be ‘ard ta ferget ye kindness.”
“It was a pleasure to have you ladies,” Travers said with a smile. A few of the townsfolk gathered around as the pair of elves prepared themselves for the next leg of their journey. A few of the poker players seemed to breath a sigh of relief knowing they wouldn’t have to lose their money to Shani anymore, as the ladies from the tavern gave Pania pleading eyes to stay and join their performances. “Where’s your next stop?”
Shani looked over to Pania for that answer. “’Eadin’ ta Shreveport,” she replied. “Plan on cuttin’ through Miss’ippi first. Coupla towns there I’ve ‘eard ‘ave some contacts with the railroad.” Pania didn’t have to say the full name, as the townsfolk knew what she meant. Fortunately, these people seemed to sympathize with the plight of the slaves, and hoped the North would somehow come out victorious even if they abhorred the war.
“Be careful on the roads,” the deep voice of Marshal Derringer called out. He walked up to stand beside Pania’s horse, and the elven bard smile gently as he ran his large hand through her horse’s mane. “You will be missed around here. But you will also be remembered.” Pania nodded as she smiled to him. She looked back to Shani as the elven gunslinger tipped her hat to Derringer. It was like a signal to move. Both elves coaxed their mounts forward and the horses began a slow trot down the street and out of town.
No need to rush, they had all the time in the world.
Eight horse and riders stopped as they neared the town. Captain Samuel Williams glared as he saw the group blocking him, twelve men, all on horse back. All wearing badges. He looked to the one wearing the familiar badge of a United States Marshal. “Marshal, might I ask why this meeting?”
“Captain Williams,” Marshal Martin Derringer called out, surprising the army captain. “Your reputation precedes you. Word has come down from Harrisburg that you are relentless in your chase of two fugitives.”
“Yes it is, Marshal,” he said with a sigh. “Am I to believe that this meeting is to assist us in such a capture?” As if in answer, the eleven men that flanked the Marshal drew pistols and rifles, aiming at the soldiers. Captain Williams shifted uneasily in the saddle as he scowled. He did not need this right now.
“No, Captain,” Derringer replied, his hand still resting in his lap as he leaned back in his saddle. “In fact we will not be assisting you in their capture. I have met them, and I am now convinced of what I suspected.”
“And just what is that?” Williams asked, his eyes locked onto the Marshal.
“More than likely three quarters of what has been printed on those wanted posters is fabricated,” Derringer replied quickly. “I’ve come to know the two you seek, and have seen them in a different light. You would be wise to return to Washington and tell the President that chasing them is not worth the trouble. Captain Williams remained in his saddle as he glared at Derringer. His men looked to him every once and a while, waiting for their orders.
“If that is the case, Marshal,” he finally replied in a slow, even tone. “I believe that our business here is done. We’ll meet again, I am certain.” His men began to move as he did, looking to the trail that circled the town.
“No Captain,” Derringer muttered to himself. “No we most certainly won’t.”
Just outside Oxford, Mississippi, September 5, 1863
The two horses walked slowly along the trail as the sun rose. Shani and Pania had only broken camp half an hour earlier, and felt better about traveling during the early morning hours. It was cooler, and easier to see any opposition on the road. So far, they hadn’t seen much, just a couple of ranchers herding cattle and a few Confederate soldiers passing by. No one really paid either one of them much mind save to wave hello. At least they received a bit of a welcome when Pania tended to the wounds of some of the soldiers.
They were only a few miles outside of Oxford, Mississippi when they first heard the gunfire. Pania sighed heavily as Shani tightened her grip on her reins. “When it rains, it pours, don’t it?” she stated as she looked to Pania. The smaller elf nodded and coaxed her horse forward as Shani did the same. As they rode faster, they could see smoke start to billow over the crest of a hill.
They weren’t going to have a leisurely ride to Shreveport.
She looked up and saw the large man standing over her bed. Marshal Martin Derringer, Thadius Maximus. Whichever name, it didn’t matter. Because she knew what he was. Pania slowly looked up, and her body started to shake. It took everything she had to push herself back, forcing herself into the corner and grabbing the pillow, as though that alone would protect her from the creature. “Jus’… jus’ stay back!” she screamed in terror. He was a werewolf, they weren’t known for their congeniality. Her free hand searched for her guns, but her eyes saw them, hanging in the holsters of the gun belt as it rested on the far table.
“I have no wish to hurt you, Miss Alow,” he said in a quiet voice. “You should realize now that you are important.” He removed his stetson as he watched her actions before continuing. “As for my … condition. I have control over it.”
“Con… control?” Pania replied with a nervous laugh. “Nev’r in the ‘ist’ry o’ werewolves ‘ave I ‘eard tha’ someone ‘ad control o’ it. Tha’s impossible.”
Maximus leaned back in his chair as he began to explain to the pale elf a bit more of his history. “I was just sixteen, on a scouting mission near the Persian borders when we were attacked. I was the only survivor. I used my… newfound power to an advantage on the battlefield, and the generals saw this, and promoted me quickly.” He sighed as he thought back to these distant memories. “In a battle against the Prussians, that became the first time I realized that this curse was consuming me. When I rose to the rank of general, I always devised a plan of attack that would see the biggest push on the night of the full moon. Only this time was fatal to everyone save one man. After the battle, I realized I had killed over ten thousand men. On both sides. I ordered the lone survivor to return to Rome, tell them everyone was lost. Meanwhile, I escaped to Tibet, where I found myself in the hands of monks.” He leaned forward in his chair, hands held together as he continued. “They taught me not to just control the beast, but accept it, and to teach the beast to accept me as well.”
Pania could only listen to this tale that seemed so filled with fancy. Her mind wandered back to the dream for a moment. There were many people that she had seen, but she drifted back to one in particular. Morgan le Fay. “Ye… ye b’lieve tha’ the fey folk is the key?” she asked in a timid voice. “B’lieve tha’ I’m the key?” Maximus looked up with a gentle smile and nodded his reply. “I cannu tap inta magic ‘ere. It’s dead.”
“You have to believe that there is, Miss Alow,” Maximus said in an encouraging voice. “You have to realize, you can tap into this world’s magic.” Pania shook her head slowly, pushing Maximus to prove his point. “Look at what you’ve seen in the past week. The vampire, the Huntsman, this town. It’s all around, Miss Alow. You just have to believe.”
Pania thought on his words, just as she thought on all the things she’d seen in the past week. It had all been so different since she first arrived. She’d always believed that this world was dead of magic. That it had given in so fully to it’s technology, that no one would dare think of doing anything more than mere illusions, card tricks and hand magic. But this last week had changed some of that. She looked directly at Thadius as she spoke with greater confidence. “So. Wha’ do we ‘aveta do ta ge’ Shani back.” Thadius Maximus smiled a broad smile for the first time since the pale elf laid eyes upon him. It was time to take the fight back to the Huntsman.
Shani looked around the dimly lit area as best she could. The Huntsman was there, but he had treated her more as a piece of furniture than someone to talk to. She stopped struggling against the invisible bonds that held her down long ago, knowing that it was fruitless to try and escape. But there was other things she could do to make her captivity worthwhile. “What’re ya doin’?” she called out to the Huntsman. He didn’t turn to acknowledge her, and Shani only rolled her eyes with a huff. “Figger I know why ya got me all trussed up like this.” Her eyes watched the Huntsman’s reactions carefully. She took note of his attitude and found that he had many similar qualities to that of many of the humans on this world she had met. Maybe he once was human. “Ya scared.”
This one comment quickly got the Huntsman’s attention. He whirled quickly, standing over Shani as his eyes glared down at her from the shadows of his hood. She saw the soft glow of green that seemed to escape from his tattered robes every so often. And she grinned up at him. “What did you say?” he hissed at her.
“I said, ya keep me all tied up b’cause ya yella,” she repeated, her grin broadening. “Figger yer too scared ta take up a fair fight, so ya gotta do this. Give ya some kinda power, holdin’ a person hostage.”
The Huntsman laughed at the suggestion that came from the elf. “Brave words, for one who will soon cease to exist. Once I have your little friend, it will all be over. The hunt will be complete.”
“Oh, when y’all try ta git Panny, ya mean,” she said with a snicker. “I figger ya gonna be in a s’prise there. See, yer kinda slow, an’ Panny’s got a purty good gun hand. She ain’t near ‘sfast as me, but I reckon she could take ya down a peg ‘r two.” She chuckled with her new found confidence. “An’ thet don’t even include the magic she kin wield.” She put on her best poker face, having had years of practice already, she hoped that this apparition would not figure it out.
“You are a fool, elf,” he spat at her in a voice filled with venom. “If you think for a moment that you and that whelp of a friend of yours are any better than I am.” His voice echoed as he laughed a low, gurgling laugh. One that would have left most men quivering in their boots.
But Shani had nothing to lose. “Y’all still need me ‘live, I wager,” she continued as her grin stayed in place. “Need me fer bait. Try an’ tempt Panny thet way. Smart, ’cause if ya did cut me lose right now, with the intent on fightin’ me…” she seemed to sneer as she lowered her voice all the while looking straight up into the apparition’s hood. “I’d kick yer sorry yella ass.”
The Huntsman seemed to move close to Shani, his cloak billowed around her. He was perplexed why this mere elf would feel no fear from him. In the shadows of his hood, his eyes narrowed. She was right, he did need her alive after all. But her time would come. Eventually.
The horses moved into a clearing, just west of Franklin, as the storm rumbled in the distance. Pania took a deep breath as she dismounted the horse and looked to Thadius Maximus. She’d grown used to this new name, being allowed to look in on the secret of this man’s past. Maximus dismounted the Clydesdale with ease, then turned his attention to Pania.
“Can you feel it?” he ask as he guided her further into the clearing. Pania took a deep breath and stepped forward, gazing at her surroundings. There was definitely something here. She looked to Maximus and nodded slowly, a slightly surprised look on her face. “Unfortunately, we have to use you as bait,” Maximus said with some regret.
“I know,” she replied softly. “It’s the only way ‘e’s gonna come ta us. Only way we ‘ave ta free Shani.” As if on cue, the sky rumbled with the mention of the lithe elf’s name. The clouds seemed to swirl overhead, as though a tornado were about to touch down. But they both knew what was coming. Neither one was very surprised when the Huntsman made his dramatic appearance.
He laughed aloud as he looked to Pania first and then Maximus. “This is too easy,” he said with a voice filled with twisted glee. “It’s almost like you’re just giving her to me, Maximus.” His laugh trailed off as if like thunder rumbling in the distance as he looked to Pania again. “And you. The elf tells me you’re pretty fast. Care to prove it?”
“I’m no’ as good a gunslinger as she,” Pania admitted in a small voice. “Bu’ I’ll no’ back down either.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, muttering softly to herself.
“Really,” the Huntsman replied as he began to move closer to the elven bard. Maximus had already begun to circle around the Huntsman, getting himself into position if he needed to. “Shani told me that,” the Huntsman stated, the first time he used the elven gunslinger’s name. He watched for a moment, as Pania continued to whisper soundlessly. “Just what is it you are doing, little elf?”
Pania opened her eyes, knowing the Huntsman was so close to her. Her eyes glowed a brilliant white and the wind began to grow, tossing the leaves from nearby trees off their branches. “Gotcha,” she said with a small sneer. Her hands had been clenched tightly as she chanted the incantation, but now, she opened them fully, having completed it. Power of the arcane surged from her fingertips, as white tendrils reached first into the ground, then began to flow up, surrounding the Huntsman as they grappled him back down to earth. He struggled, having realized now he’d been tricked. There was no escape for him, this elf he had underestimated. She had power.
“Let ‘er go!” Pania demanded as another surge of magical energy flowed from her being. The Huntsman struggled as he growled at Pania, reaching out to strike her down, but the pale elf was quick, blocking the blow easily with a shield made from the arcane. Again and again he would try, but each time her found his attacks blocked or pushed aside. Pania muttered again and let loose with another spell, this one forcing the Huntsman to feel pain. She took the chance, not knowing if Shani would feel what he felt or not. “I said, let! Her! Go!”
The Huntsman yielded to her demand, thinking if he released the elf, then he could counter attack and destroy them both. His cloak billowed outward, the rags of his robes becoming streams of nothing as the heart of this hunter was releaved. Before Pania could react, Shani was thrown to the side like so much discarded garbage. Maximus was quick to her side to make sure she was fine. She was groggy, but well enough.
The Huntsman growled and focused his attention on Pania fully now. He had more energy now that he had released the elf. He would destroy this spell caster first, and then the gunslinger. He pushed himself forward, struggling against the tendrils that seemed to hold him back, but he did inch forward. His mind was so focused on Pania, that he had now forgotten completely about Shani.
Pain coursed through his body. He glared at Pania again, but then he realized that she was not responsible. He heard the report of the pistol again, and now knew that he was not hearing thunder. He turned and looked to Shani as she fired again, the bullet grazing the emerald crystal that seemed to give him life.
“I knew thet were yer secret,” she shouted as she fired again, this time the bullet hit the shard dead center and shattered it. The Huntsman screamed in agony, a deafening cry as the three tried to ignore the slight pain that invaded their ears. Pania concentrated more as the Huntsman rushed toward her. She muttered again and let the power flow through her. This time, the very earth opened up underneath the Huntsman, as black tendrils reached up and ensnared the apparition. He screamed in protest, knowing now that he had been tricked, knowing now that he had underestimated both elves.
His screams continued, but slowly faded as he disappeared into the abyss and the earth closed itself once again.
Pania seemed to let go of a breath she’d been holding since she cast her second spell. With all the energy she had used, she could not help but fall over onto the ground, exhausted. Shani limped over to Pania and fell to her knees beside the bard. Both elves had been spent, they’d both need a good long rest. Shani wrapped her arms around the elven bard in a warm hug, and Pania laughed lightly. “This mean a change o’ ‘eart?”
“Hell no,” Shani replied with a weak smirk. “But at least it puts ya square in my books.” She slowly sat up again and smiled to Pania as she lay on the ground. “I owe ya big time, girly girl.” Pania laughed again as Shani slumped to the ground. The elven gunslinger was more than just a little stiff.
The clouds above them seemed to slowly push back, as the sky began to fill with stars. Thadius Maximus stood next to the elves as they rested for the moment. He would watch over them both until they were ready to move. But at least now, the one thing he had hoped for, had prayed for, had happened.
The madness finally came to an end.