HOLD FAST Part 7: The Sound of Pursuit
Looking up at the ceiling, Imran counted the cracks for the 23rd time that night.
He hadn’t wielded the spark in quite some time, but as soon as he did the motions and thought the commands, it was like walking off a sleeping leg. The way the invisible force dictated direction or even movements, he could feel it all as an extension of himself. He’d forgotten the hold it had on him…and he’d forgotten how much he enjoyed it.
After that donnybrook on the saloon steps, Bouda had invited him inside Topper’s place for some food and drink. He’d declined any spirits or liquors – he had come into town for some water, after all – but he certainly took plate after plate of some of the best food he’d had in years: roasted root vegetables with a mustard vinaigrette, char-broiled asparagus, grilled bok choi, and by god the tomatoes were larger than a fist and tasted like heaven.
Imran hadn’t questioned how all these wonderful veggies had grown in the desert, nor did they offer, but they fed him, gave his mount as much water as it could lap up, and offered him shelter and a bath. He didn’t know if they were grateful for chasing away the filthy bully or for showing them his abilities, but he didn’t care – free was free.
His back objected at first to how soft the bed was, but soon he relaxed a tension that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and tried to get some shut-eye.
But he couldn’t. He just lay there and counted.
The horse’s footsteps kicked up rocks and sand as the dirty man high-tailed it into the desert outside of town. It’d been quite some time since last he saw an outsider wield the spark. Hell, he’d forgotten what it felt like to have a spark-user turn against them, to have the laws of nature pitted against his own might. It was unseemly.
A few miles outside of town the man had to stop and clean his wounds. Even a low-down dirty bastard like him knew that to traverse the desert with the scent of blood wafting off you was asking for trouble. There were things out here, between the cracks of the hard-packed sand or circling under the shadow of night, that could taste the trace iron of blood in the air for miles away. Things he’d rather not encounter.
Yet as he raced against the setting sun, he knew that there was still one thing lurking out of sight that was deadlier than all other sunbaked critters of the desert. He felt a building tension in his mount, too – it knew what came out in the dark.
He cursed himself for stopping, but what could he do? The man needed a rest, and he couldn’t very well tell Ernst what he’d saw if he looked a fright or fell off and knocked out or some other shit damned excuse.
Ernst! That’s it, he thought.
He held the reigns tightly in his right hand as his left found the thick leather pouch on his saddle. Ernst had made sure to give him the trinket before he set out to collect the taxes, just in case he found himself in such a predicament.
As his hand fumbled around, the last bit of orange faded from the sky, and he heard it: not quite a howl, and not quite a scream, but a chilling sound that echoed in between. The dirty man gripped the reins and kicked his steed. The horse, also hearing the noise, sped up, its frothy spit flying off like steam from a locomotive. Its eyes were wild with fear, but then again, so were the dirty man’s.
In a matter of moments, he heard the scratching of heavy claws finding purchase in the dust behind them. Fifty yards, he’d reckon, and getting closer. He shifted his left hand to the reigns and dug his right hand into the opposite leather pouch, his fingers shaking as he moved it around furiously. The horse began to whine, giving voice to what the dirty man was feeling.
Next, he heard the breath hissing from the thing behind them, ever closer. He ground his teeth together, wondering why the hell he’d stuffed so many snacks into the damn pouch, with so much wax paper getting in the way of his eager digits.
He dared not look back, for fear of losing his balance and his life.
Finally, his hand felt on the trinket: an amulet of some fashion, an emerald-like rock in the center of a strange mechanical frame, like a pocket watch powered by a diamond. He ripped it out of the bag and held it aloft, a dull green light pulsing palely at first, but brighter with every beat.
To his left he saw the light reflected off of slitted yellow eyes, narrowed with hate and bloodlust. The thing made the noise again – not quite a howl and not quite a scream – and veered off hard into the blackness of the wide desert.
The dirty man pulled up on the reigns and listened to the footsteps of the thing grow fainter, its claws maiming the ground below as it retreated to whatever godforsaken cave it called home. He was breathing heavily, sweat creasing the thick film of dust on his face and neck. He placed the trinket in his breast pocket and took a pull from his canteen. His hand, still shaking, spilled water on his saddle.
He had to get out of this cursed paradise of nightmares. He had to tell Ernst. Tell him everything.