A Badlands Love Story
...you killed her...
'I LOVED HER!'
...you cannot love...
...demons cannot love...
'She... she never loved me, I know.
'But I loved her.'
The damned do not love.
'...no, no, please...'
'Tell me,' the Sheriff says.
Townsend looks up, looks into his face.
She reads nothing of him.
She begins, nonetheless. Because it's better than keeping the silence.
'Mondas has... The Barony of Mondas has...' Townsend's gut twists. She doesn't want to say this, not here, not to /this/ man.
But she has to. That was the price.
She closes her eyes.
'Mondas has fallen.'
'To the Covenant? To a new Lord?'
'No... I don't know what it was. A creature of shadow, living shadow... it corrupted a man's shadow, tore it from him, used it to form its flesh in this world... It calls itself the Grandfather.'
Townsend nods. 'Bullets don't hurt it, explosions don't hurt it... 'Bout the only thing I /did/ see that stopped it was /sound/.'
'Only for a while...' Townsend says. 'Only for a while... Then it came back.
'And it has Mondas. The people there... Their shadows... he can take their shadows.... can play with them, can play with the people. There are shadows everywhere.'
The Sheriff's face darkens.
'The Covenant will hear of this soon enough.'
'And they will strike soon.'
Townsend nods again. 'The... the Hag, I think. She always desired Mondas, so I heard tell. And with this... this Grandfather in place, I think she will find it ready for her taking.'
'The Hag,' the Sheriff mutters. 'The Hag, the Serpent, the Lady... the Covenant's Lords are beginning to move. Mondas fallen, the Lady's Champion seen abroad...'
'Her... the Lady found a Champion...' Townsend mouths, almost in disbelief.
The Sheriff nods. 'Calls himself "Coyote". Has some nasty gifts... if the bodies they found were anything to go by.'
'By...' Townsend starts.
'Things are moving...' the Sheriff mutters again. 'Dangerous...'
'Everywhere is dangerous,' Townsend says, partly to herself.
'Why wouldn't it be...?' The Sheriff shakes his head. 'Would you want me to call a hunt?'
'/No!/' Townsend whispers. 'No. Please.'
The Sheriff's eyes close for a minute. 'And so. Leighton was a bastard, but he was one of us. Our bastard. He aided us... when it suited his purpose. And he was strong enough to hold the Covenant off, if only because he knew what he was dealing with. And how to deal with it...'
He shakes his head again. 'Now he's gone. To something that doesn't want to be dealt with...'
'It wants Mondas.' Townsend feels the gut twist again. 'It wants the people.'
'How soon until it reaches out beyond Mondas?'
'I couldn't say.' Townsend says. 'It... it wants to play with Mondas first. Days, sevendays... I just don't know.'
How soon. Not will it, but how soon. Knowing that /that/ is the way of things, that the worst is not only expected, but anticipated... Writing off a Lord as lost, even though no body was seen; a creature rising, a creature seemingly unstoppable, and we think the Lord lost, on my word alone...
I have sentenced him to death, with my words alone.
Townsend shudders, but the Sheriff does not notice.
'I will need to speak...' the Sheriff murmurs. 'The next Fair-Day, perhaps.'
Again he shakes his head. 'And they'll dance, and riddle, and sing. Fight and lust and drink - for every last man-jack of them believes that tomorrow may be their last day. The Covenant move in around us, the Hellgates open closer and closer to Terminus... why shouldn't they?'
For a moment, he seems old far beyond his years, weighed down by a burden heavy beyond what any man should carry, and oh so weary, and oh so *tired*...
Then the eyes harden, are unreadable once more.
'Go,' the Sheriff says, never looking up. 'There are more than enough rooms, should you wish to stay.'
Townsend wishes she could say yes, that she could accept, and stay in this place, 'till the darkness rose.
But it would be a lie, and she knows it better than any other.
'Thank you,' she tells him.
Then she leaves the room.
'How did it go?'
'Well and enough.' Townsend says. 'Well and enough...'
'Mm.' Sade says, almost to herself. 'Well, we won't be staying long enough to cause trouble...'
'No?' Townsend says, raising an eyebrow.
'Not /this/ time...' Sade amends.
'I'd ask, but I would have to go back in there,' Townsend comments. 'And... not at the moment.'
The outlaw grins. 'As you wish, Sheriff.'
'Could have stayed...' Townsend mutters.
'But you haven't.' the Kapoor interjects. She looks over at the other member of their party. 'And neither has Miss Tobin, unless I miss my guess.'
The redheaded girl flinches.
'She has her reasons.' Sade observes. 'But yours, Sheriff... yours I /don't/ know.'
'No,' Townsend says. 'You don't.'
They're getting looks from the townsfolk - the Kapoor's exotic rainment enough to draw their attention, standing out as from outside, but Laura's clothes, even worn as they are by a sevenday of travel, still showing their finery. Both a sharp contrast to Townsend's well-worn leather and Sade's simple, all-covering black.
Not /many/ looks - Terminus is the City at the Centre, and many pass through its gates, from lands far more distant and strange - but still, one or two.
'Supplies...' Sade mutters. 'Mn. Eight people. Supplies for eight. It /can/ be done...'
'What 'bout the apothecary?' Laura asks, her voice nervous.
'That too. Just thinking... ' Sade's hands are crossed behind her back.
'About the others?' the Kapoor asks.
'Charlotte will be as safe as anywhere,' Sade murmurs. 'The tainted, the mad, the crippled... all of them the Badlands' children. And Terminus is rarely kind to them...'
We're all the Badlands' children, Townsend thinks but does not say.
From birth to death, it surrounds us all - and we are proud enough to say that because you cannot see the mark, it leaves no mark.
We are fools.
'Somethin' on your mind, Godman?' Angeline asks, her voice dark and teasing.
The Father doesn't speak for a long while. 'Perhaps.'
He looks at the distant city. 'I could never have gone there, even before the Grandfather came.'
'Why? You Tainted? /That's/ a turn up fo' the Cross Chirch...'
The Father laughs hollowly. 'Hardly. Hardly. This-' he gestures with his good arm towards his withered arm. 'It didn't take Taint for /this/ to happen.'
'Though... they said he was. A crippled, twisted arm - surely a mark of Taint.' Isabelle murmurs. 'But then... I was Tainted too. Not so obviously - but my hair, my hair was a sign of it...'
'If I had been Tainted...' the Father continues. 'they would never have- No. They would have - if the Taint were hidden, concealed in some way. For some reason, the congregation don't like being preached to by a man with horns...'
'Oh, don' know about *that*...' Angeline murmurs.
'But this... this is too obvious to conceal. And I wasn't about to risk the loss of an arm, just to join...' The Father's smile is dark. '/Fortunately/... my predecessor discovered it was no sign of Taint. A crippling injury - that's all it had been, in the end.'
His smile stays dark. 'But now... now, I am truly Tainted. One does not deal with the devil and come away untouched...'
'But that wasn't your demon...' Isabelle whispers.
'It exacted its due, though...' The Father looks to his side.
Overhead, the Sun shines high in the sky.
But the Father casts no shadow, even the smallest.
'Some of us pay the devil's due - and did nothin' to earn it.' Angeline says.
The Father catches her glance towards Charlotte.
He nods, slowly. 'Powers Touched, most would have called her. Touched by Hell, possessed by a demon - or exalted by God's Touch, given the Sight.'
Angeline half-smiles at that. 'It ain' everythin' they say it is. But what woul' /you/ call her?'
'One like me...' the Father says. 'Scarred in mind, not in body... hounded by demons she should never have had.'
Isabelle looks at him then, but says nothing.
'Her father told me - confessed to me, rather - about her.'
'He didn't want to, though. Father never wanted that...'
Charlotte doesn't look up.
'No.' the Father acknowledges. 'But my predecessor knew - about you, and his dirty secrets. Your father thought it best to pre-empt whatever Father Kode had to say.'
'Don' seem like a man wit' much respect for the Church,' Angeline observes. 'No' tha' /I'd/ know...'
'He didn't.' Isabelle says quietly.
'No. He didn't.' The Father laughs again. 'And the fine townsfolk of Mondas - they saw him, and what he did, saw God o' the Cross not striking him down, remembered who it was who had truly kept the demons from their door...'
'He didn't.' Charlotte says.
'Perhaps so,' the Father says. 'But they /saw/ no demons, and that was what mattered. And every Sun's Day, fewer and fewer of them would show themselves, even make the pretence of listening.' The dark smile touches his face again. 'I wonder... how many would have shown themselves /last/ Sun's Day? Save us once more, Godman! they would call out. And I would go out there, I would face the Grandfather. And I would die.
'And so would they.'
'Better you than no priest at all...' Isabelle says.
'A' least, tha's wha they /thought/. Better a small evil than the evil they thin' they face...' Angeline's features are schooled. 'Tha's why they come to me.'
'They go to the witch, rather than the priest - for what townsman of Mondas would be seen with the priest? The world turns upside down...'
'The world does turn upside down...' Charlotte whispers. 'Fire and brimstone and ashes...'
Angeline pauses, taking the world in. 'There's been a burnin'.'
'We're not going to get much conversation outta anyone,' Sade observes.
'We wanted to talk to someone?'
Sade shrugs. 'Information's always useful. Casual gossip especially. But not today. All the talk's going to be of small things, little things. Or about demons, and Hell, and Hellfire. Still... would have been useful. Ah well...'
The town bells ring one o' the clock.
'Better get this over and done with.' Townsend says.
Laura lingers behind, her eyes on the town gibbet.
'Come on, girl. We haven't-'
Townsend looks at the gibbet.
'A demon,' the Kapoor whispers. 'They gibbeted a demon.'
'They /lynched/ a demon.' Sade says. '/Why?/ You kill the demons, you destroy their bodies. Why hang it up for the world to see?'
The crowd hushes.
Then starts again.
'They're /hunting/ demons,' the Kapoor breathes. 'They're hunting the demons.'
'Not good...' Sade mutters. 'God o' the Cross' church is /strong/ here. The demons, then those with the Taint... any with an inch of sense will have run as far and as fast-'
'The others,' Laura whispers. 'They'll be hunting the others...'
'Then we'd better get through this as far and as fast as /we/ can.' Sade says. 'This isn't-'
The body ain' fresh. Nothin' could smell like that, not even a demon, and stay fresh. This ain' recent. A sevenday ago, perhaps more.
But, wit' this in recent memory... how easy is it going to be to start again?
'They /won't/ be after the others,' Townsend says. 'Not yet. But, by the next Fair Day...'
The others catch her meaning.
'Then it /is/ best to move...' Sade says.
The Kapoor looks back, wondering.
Sometimes, she knows full well, the spark that starts the fire can be something small.
She wonders what spark ignited this fire.
'Ashes to ashes...' the Father murmurs. 'Ashes. Bones. That's what it comes down to...'
'What animal would scavenge a demon's corpse?' Isabelle asks.
'Another demon,' Angeline says. 'But it ain' been scavenged - none o' /tha'/ sorta demon around.'
'Purification by fire.' the Father says. 'Sometimes, fire is the only way you can be sure it's truly dead.'
'They live in fire...'
'We live with water,' Isabelle muses. 'But too much... and we die. Same for them, too.'
The Father frowns. 'Not just a demon /here/, I think...'
He pulls something out of one of the burned out pyres.
A scrap of demon hide, bound over board.
On the hide, a sigil. A red-rimmed eye.
'They burned somethin' with it,' Angeline whispers. 'One o' the Books o' Hell...'
'/That/ one...' The Father grimaces. 'So and so... A demon with one of the Books. The Covenant watches...'
'More ashes...' Angeline observes.
'A mass burning,' Isabelle says. 'This was a mass burning. The smell's still strong... a day ago? No, two... one maybe a day ago, another earlier...'
'Drag them out, string them high, burn the bodies.'
'This had nothing to do with bounty.' Isabelle says. 'This was about punishment.'
'Then... we should not be here,' the Father says.
'Yeah. Hate t' thin' they'd decide t' punish us...'
Angeline hesitates. Looks around.
'C'mon. The others'll be out by sundown...'
The Kapoor lists her requirements - the powders, oils and salves that, together, can calm the worst of Charlotte's madness. She considers for a moment, then asks for certain things that enable the restoration of the body - from what she can tell, Isabelle's body is on the brink of collapse, from a combination of disuse and exhaustion.
The apothecary nods, and begins going through his shelves.
'You're sure he's no snake oil man?' Townsend asks.
'I've used him before,' Sade replies. 'In my line of work, he /has/ to be reliable, otherwise we - and he - would be dead very quickly. And I suspect the Kapoor would be able to tell truth from false - the same goes for her.'
Laura's eyes follow the shelves - the many jars, pots and flasks that contain the apothecary's stock in trade.
She wonders how much of it is known, and how much forgotten, disused because no-one can remember the ailment that it might have eased.
Which, if any, might have eased her family.
'We've been lucky,' the apothecary says, setting a few things on the counter. 'Mm. People have been a little ...on edge... of late.'
'We'd noticed,' Sade says wryly.
The apothecary pauses. 'Ah. The demons.'
'Active demon hunting,' Sade says. 'A new twist, certainly.'
'Nothing new,' the Kapoor says as an aside.
'True, true...' the apothecary says. 'It /is/ nothing new. In Terminus, though...'
'Mm. Not the last time I came 'round this way,' Sade says. 'Bounty hunting, demon-killing. All well and good. A little more tense this time, though.'
'Mmm. The Covenant moving, the Lords' Champions showing themselves, Hellgates all over the place... a little tension to be expected. And then...' The apothecary shakes his head. 'That silly girl gets herself killed, and Terminus nearly tears itself apart.'
'Girl?' Laura asks.
'Lady Elizabeth. Oh, the girl was a silly rich thing-'
Laura raises an eyebrow.
'-fair enough, harmless in her own way... Romantic dreams in her head, what girl didn't have them? A tall, handsome soldier she practically swooned over, a rich family - love and money, what more could she want?'
Laura briefly wonders, but says nothing.
'Then she had to be rescued from a demon, something in the tunnels beneath. Brave hero, gets the girl, the happy ever after to follow. Well, that's what she expected. But her soldier cuckolded her. Didn't even /care/ for her. Only saved her because her family asked.'
Laura reckons the chance /her/ family would ask /anyone/ to save her. It only takes a matter of moments.
'Said she was nothing compared to the lady he loved. Well... after that, being the romantic chit she was, she decided to kill herself. Couldn't bear to live without him.'
Laura involuntarily gasps.
'So she goes up to the church...'
And she's slipping-
-please, no, I didn't mean-
-Elizabeth, take my hand-
-falling, out into space-
-not like this-
-please, not like this-
-betrayer, you betrayed me-
-no, that wasn't me-
Her body hits the cobblestones.
They look up, the people in the churchyard.
See him there.
The demon. The monster.
And the blame in their faces is /nothing/, *nothing*, as to the blame he saw in *hers*-
'-and they tore the city up looking for the thing.' the apothecary says. 'Never mind she'd decided to jump of her own accord, no. But it had been the one who caught her, the one who was thwarted - how utterly appropriate it comes back to kill her. And then steal her body.'
'Jehovah...' Townsend whispers. 'Jehovah's balls!'
'And when they'd cleared every demon they could find, every last hidey hole, and still hadn't found it - well, they had to do something.'
'We saw.' the Kapoor said.
'And after that... well, they said it must have cleared out. Ran for Hell as fast as it could to escape their righteous wrath. Thing is... righteous wrath looked a hell of a lot like demonic vengeance, where I was sitting...'
The apothecary sets down the final powders.
'And that's the whole of it.'
Sade places the coins on the table.
The apothecary nods.
'For services rendered.' Sade says.
The coins disappear behind the counter.
'My thanks,' the apothecary says.
He pulls out a leather bag, and places their order inside.
'My thanks.' Sade replies.
'Good luck.' he tells her.
'Nearly there,' Angeline says.
'The Dale Road.' Isabelle comments. '...Anyone been there?'
'Not that I've heard...' the Father says.
'Demon Seeker,' Charlotte says. 'Something's on their tail...on our tail...'
'Close...' Angeline says. 'You ain' a very good follower, gel.
'An' I'd put tha' shooter down, if I were y'all. Take yer hand off, near as not...'
A bullet whistles off a nearby rock.
'I /said/, put the shooter down. And come out.'
'I'd rather not...'
'Since the mass burning?' the Father asks.
'Some time, the Sight ain' all it's cracked up ta be. An' some time, it is. ...Careful now, Angeline don' bite.
'Must have been simple...' Isabelle thinks. 'Come back, the first few days after the burning, see if any demons turn up to see what happened - say, a sevenday or so? That would be long enough... Then take them, too.'
'Hmm. A remarkably naive view,' the Father says. 'Follow them, see if they can lead you where you wish... be careful to make sure others aren't following from behind, that this isn't a trap - the plan was good, the execution was clumsy...'
'Ac'ual... no' jus' demons, I miss my guess. People, too.' Angeline observes.
'I had to make sure!'
'Make sure of what?'
'That he'd burned the body! That he'd come back-'
'Why did you want him to come back?
'BECAUSE HE WANTED TO DIE!'
'/Who/ wanted to die?'
The voice is silent.
'Whose body did he burn?' the Father asks, more gently. 'I think I can guess why... but who did he burn?'
Then there is a quiet sob.
'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy One, I give you my blessing, and a place of sanctuary.' the Father chants, almost formally. 'No harm shall come upon you while thou art here. None shall raise a hand against you, and any who come with you, so long as thou doth likewise. And justice will be done.'
She steps forward - a young girl, younger than any of them, even Charlotte. Long brown hair, almost reaching her waist, braided behind her. A high forehead, changing the look of her round face. Brown eyes, red-rimmed and puffy. The clothes are practical - good quality, but practical.
'Is, gel, I need a word...' Angeline says in a low voice.
'Who are you?' the Father asks.
'Somethin's comin'.' Angeline says. 'Somethin'... It watchin' her, waitin...'
'Aurora...' the girl says nervously. 'My name's Aurora.'
'What is it?' Isabelle asks.
'I am Father Michael Kreiner.' the Father says. 'This is Isabelle, Angeline, and Charlotte.' His face curves in what might once have been a smile. 'We are... pilgrims, of a sort.'
'Don' know. Don' know. It watchin' her, don' see why... Ain' human. Maybe once, but it ain' now... got a human face, eyes burnin' red...'
'What-' The girl gathers herself. 'What are you doing here?'
'Demon?' Isabelle says.
'Awaiting the rest of our group. They're currently passing through Terminus.' the Father replies.
'Far worse thin's than demons out there...' Angeline tells her.
'Where are you headed?'
'I know.' Isabelle murmurs. 'I know.'
'Ha'olam. It lies.. to the west of Terminus, a long ways. ...Aurora, here in this sanctuary, no-one may raise their hand against another - including themselves. If you so wish, I will wait here for your friend.'
'Wonder if /she/ knows... Mebbe a little reading for her wouldn't go amiss.'
Isabelle raises an eyebrow at Aurora's scream. 'Might be a good idea.'
'Because you worry about him. Because you fear he might kill himself. And because concern for another... is what the Church seeks in this world.'
'Are we going to Ha'olam?' Charlotte asks.
Aurora opens her mouth-
'Clumsy,' Sade observes. 'Wherever they learned shadowing, the teachers should be shot.'
'Losing them was ...almost disturbingly easy,' the Kapoor agrees.
'Come on, boy.' Laura coaxes, leading two pack mules weighed down with leather sacks and bags. 'That's it. Nearly...'
'The Sheriff... ' Townsend shakes her head. 'I think... he is almost at breaking point. A little more, and...' She leaves the sentence unfinished.
'We're out of there.' Sade says, almost to herself. 'That is a relief.'
'I would not care to be here next Fair Day...' Townsend says. 'If what happened after that young girl's death was any indication...'
One last duty to Elizabeth.
One last thing.
Then it's over.
It's all over.
One last duty.
Even a /demon/ can be damned.
I'm sorry, love.
But it has to end.
The Kapoor looks around.
Just a hunchbacked man trailing down the street as it clears.
Heading, like them, out past the homesteads.
She wonders, then, which shack he calls his own.
But her sense, her awareness...
And for a moment, for a single moment, she remembers a voice carried on the wind, long ago when she was a babe in arms.
/The dead love/ it had said. /The damned love. But the monsters do not./
What of the demons, she wonders now. Could a demon love?
Love a human?
/You imprisoned it, and you ask why. /
/It loves you./
And she begins to get a glimpse of it, that terrible idea, desire and passion woven together...
Why did the demon come for Elizabeth? Why /then/, when she chose death?
If it had watched her... why not on the street? A simple alleyway killing.
If it had been at church... surely it would have let her jump. Seeing her intent.
Not death. Elizabeth had sought death.
But what had the demon sought? Why did it not kill her before her love showed up? Why had it taken her?
Why did it come back?
The body must be burned.
Her earliest lesson.
Burn the body. Prevent a demon from taking hold.
From rising as one of the Restless Dead.
Why take a dead body?
What do you do with a dead body?
You burn it.
/Why/ burn it?
So that... a demon will not take it for its own.
A terrible, tangled tale.
She begins to see, to understand.
They are on the Dale Path now, out past the homesteads.
The others are waiting, 'fore the path reaches into the woods. Talking.
And the brown-haired girl talking with them, her eyes widen, the words she would have spoken cut off.
'It is done.'
A frozen, terrible minute.
'It is done,' the Kapoor says. 'Your duty is now ended, your burden at an end. She has not risen; her soul was not lost. None have come to claim her as theirs; her fate decided by her own soul's choice. Pay your regards, and so let this be done.'
The demon - the hunchbacked demon - red-eyed, a mouth of fangs, a brief glimpse - then a human face again.
A face tracked over with tears.
'It is done,' she tells him. 'For love of her, you burned her body. For love of her, you sought to save her. For love of her, you did not leave - until you were certain she was safe. And she was - from everything but herself.'
'How-' the brown-haired girl whispers.
'The Father shall speak for her soul, and then shall all this be ended.'
'Ashes to ashes... dust to dust.'
The Father's words hang in the air over the pyre, and are gone.
The demon is silent then, lost to himself.
' 'Bye, love.'
Aurora's eyes are puffy and red, tears trickling down.
She stops. Closes her eyes.
Words and years unspoken, never to be shared.
That can never be said.
She reaches out, makes a mark in the ashes.
'Sister...' she whispers.
And it is done.
'Tangled...' the Father murmurs. 'Tangled beyond any hope of resolving.'
'Ne'er 'bout revenge...' Angeline says quietly. 'This was 'bout love, twisted a' it were...'
'William loved her the moment he saw her. Wanted her to be his. And took her, to be his own.' Sade's voice carries a gentle tone.
'But that wasn't love.' The Kapoor's words are soft. 'Obsession, but never love. But he could not mar what had drawn him to her.'
'I imagine she threw it in his face. Her love would come for her, would strike him down. Having her would not make her his.' Laura's own quiet addition. 'And he took it to heart.'
'He didn't stand against her soldier when she came, waited in the shadows, let her soldier return her where he thought she belonged.' Charlotte pauses.
'And then her soldier rejected her. Took her love, and broke it - as she had broken what he felt.' Townsend's face is soft in the light of the fire.
'He was there, at the last. Reaching out his hand - to one he loved, but might never love him. And he failed. He did not save her.' Isabelle's features are lost in shadow.
'Where better to hide than in her own house?' the Father wonders. 'Who would seek a demon in the house of one he slew?'
'He spoke to her sister, convinced her of his words. And when the body was taken there... he took it, and watched to make sure that she would not rise again. A sevenday it takes, to be sure of that.'
'And then, together, they burned the body where no-one would seek it, amongst demonic pyres.'
'And then...' Isabelle says. 'The finale. The demon kills himself on his love's pyre, together in death, but not in life... and her sister watches.'
'Until we arrived.' Laura completes.
'Until you arrived.' Aurora whispers.
'The demon thwarted, his love laid to rest, her sister says farewell.' William mutters. 'Fate averted, the finale denied.'
'I never liked romances,' Sade says. 'Everyone dies.'
'Everyone does die.'
'Not all at once.' Sade replies.
'What happens now?'
'In the end...' the Kapoor says. 'That's up to you.'
'Go back, and be caught in the oncoming chaos.'
'Leave for who knows where, perhaps never meeting this side of the Gates.'
'Leave together, searching for a place of safety.'
'Die bravely, in the battles to come.'
'The choice is yours to make. The romance is over. What happens next?'
Over the small fire, Aurora's eyes meet the demon's.
The others are quiet, watching, waiting, in the depths of the night.
And the choice is made.
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat