Social Icons


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Whimsical Harpy

I'm hoping to finish this before Dec. 4th. I'd like to have this for the Artist Reception at the Chester Library. This is my first art show ever. I'm super excited. Hope it gets a nice turn-out. The painting above is done in watercolor, prismacolor markers, mirco pens, and white acrylic paint. Still a lot to get done.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Partner in Crime

Part One
Copyright © 2010 Bonnie Watson

Up before first crow; rode out to meet the sun cresting the tops of Mount Glory. I tilted my wide-brimmed hat to block out most of the rays, then turned my horse to face town. The grass tip I'd stuck between my teeth early on was beginning to taste bitter. I slid it over. Wasn't tobacco, but it would do - now that I was on patrol.

I could feel the heat building into the morning, and I cracked a grin only a passing Horned lizard could see. A few moments more and my Duster would activate. Not the most complicated defense, but useful when scouring the desert in pursuit of possible outlaws. Supposing I was thankful to have been given the chance to redeem myself. All those years of criminal acts – the Guild must have known. They wouldn't have accepted me, let alone granted such a fine coat to display my Weapon Caster skills. Mighty thankful, if not a bit haughty.

Tilley must have read my thoughts, for she nickered, a reminder to adjust the Duster along her rump so she too could enjoy its cooling charms. I eased her out along a narrow ridge. From where I was, folk passed along the main road without a clue to who was watching them from above. I'd been successful catching several gunslingers this way. Find something to draw their guns on, and it was all point and click. I could feel the forty-four caliber resting in its holster along my left side. My trigger finger itched to take action. Instead, I gripped the reins tighter and concentrated on the road coming into town.

Peony was its name. Dinky, run-down, it was last on the list of fifty-some other towns chosen by the Guild. It was also the last place anyone would ever care to visit - anyone of decency. Probably why the Guild chose this life for me. More criminal low-life slunk around these parts than anywhere else. The town was full of it! Another reason to put me here. As much as I wanted to charge in and take everyone out in a single blast, I knew I couldn't. The rule of the West - if they ain't caught stealing, don't arrest 'em.

Self control. It was hard, but I managed. Back before the Guild caught up with me, I'd shoot any sucker that wandered within my line of sight. Well, sucker as in those who tried to stop me. I never touched innocents. Wasn't that bad.

Tilley picked up the distant sound of hoof beats before I did and let out a nicker. I patted her neck, feeling her muscles tense and ready at the slightest nudge to get going.

"Easy, girl." Matillda was my proudest accomplishment. I'd found and raised her from a frail filly to the noblest of steeds. Hell, I'd even had offers to breed her for some extra copper. Would've been worth it, but as I was stubborn, I liked the good stuff all to myself. "Ready?"

My fingers slipped around the gun and eased it out of its holster. The soft creak of leather was a beautiful sound. That was another accomplishment. Being a Weapons Caster meant creating things, mostly mechanical in nature that went boom. The louder, the better. I'd seen some pretty incredible stuff come from other Casters, but what interested me was the polished look and feel of a gun that was easy to recognize, easy to handle, and did the job first time around. None of this boisterous bulk that covered most of the arm and sounded like it could split the Grand Canyon. Ain't me. That was another Guild. Mine only had to deal with people who slipped Add-ons to their coats. Illegal, improper, and got a Caster either expelled or executed. Tempted though I was with Ad-ons, I tried to always do the right thing.

Ahem. Tried.

"Let's go," I whispered, and Tilly didn't hesitate.

She knew the drill. Down and around the large rock formation until the traveler was close enough to step out and cut his route from town. Gun drawn. If he pulled first, it was over. All I needed. Another to my list of fugitives.

"Azri?" Unless he knew me.

"Sam?" And I knew him. "Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in."

"Been years, partner. Looks like you've finally claimed your title. Couldn't have stolen that fine coat."

I had to tip my hat down at that. Samuelamus, my old partner in crime. We shared good times and great spoils. Made a muck everywhere we went. I was very surprised he even lasted this long. No criminal did unless they had a Caster with them.

"You changed," I said. "No more women and money, huh?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah. Figured I'd settle down, start myself a little ranching business. Worked out for a while until some bandits took everything while I was out herding cattle. Never found my wife yet. Been looking ever since."

"You married?" That came as a shock. Sam never seemed the kind to just settle down with any one woman. "I'm real sorry, Sam. Must have been tough trying not to return to old habits." That got to him.

"I heard this was a place to start looking."

I grinned and returned the gun at my side.

"You're more than welcome to snoop around. Careful, though. Scum everywhere you step."

"Appreciate it. By the way, nice gun. You make that?"

"You know I did."

"Took you long enough."

"Don't start with me." Back to old times again.

Katalina was the best hostess in town, the best dressed in town, and the best lover in town. She ran a saloon where men could fill their fancy of her and others like her, drink to their heart's content, and pass out later on. It was heaven, and when I was sometimes tuckered out from the day's events, I often times found myself here.

"Who's your friend?" she asked with that raised eyebrow of admiration at Sam. She passed him a drink. "On the house, handsome. A friend of Azri's is a friend anywhere."

"Kat knows people," I told Sam. "She might be able to help find who you're looking for."

"Got a request, huh?" Her smile was a real turn-on. She had those type of lips that men wanted to touch, and be touched with. Her hair was a mass of curly blond ringlets pulled back to show off her rosy cheeks. Whenever she approached a man, she purposely puckered up her breasts, an appetizer to what was to come when she knew she could get money. When she turned to grab a drink for me, my eyes couldn't stop trailing up her leg to the revealing slit in that frilly skirt. "Don't I recognize you from somewhere?" she asked, peering over her shoulder at Sam.

"Well, he was with me at one point," I said.

"Helping a fugitive?" Kat leaned across the countertop so her breasts squashed up in front of me. "Risky." She ran her tongue across the top of the glass before sliding it toward me. "I like."

Beside me, I could hear Sam chuckle. "Now I know how you pay back favors."

"That'd be a trick." Kat pulled back and made herself a drink. She gulped it down in one swallow. Impressive. "You couldn't catch Azri without his coat if life depended on it. He's stuck to it. Believe me," she winked, "I've tried."

"She's just saving my reputation," I replied. "But for the most part, she's right. Spell Caster's don't part very easily with their coats. It's too valuable."

"Only to their wearer," Sam said. "Heard a guy tried stealing one to see what he could get. You know, weapons and such. But when he dug around, all the pockets were empty."

I nodded. "Everything's build on, so you can't lose anything. But everything is also comprised of charms. If the coat leaves the Caster, the charms fade. The weapons are still there, but no one without magic can access it."

"No one without," Kat said. "That means another Caster could."

"I thought the Guilds prohibited that kind of theft," Sam said.

"They do," I replied. "If you're with a Guild. If not..." I shrugged. "I've run into a couple who do their own thing."

"Add-ons." Sam hadn't forgotten what I'd told him long ago, and for good reason. Add-ons were dangerous. They could kill a lot of people, even Caster's themselves. For that very reason, Guilds had each of their members bind themselves to whichever Guild they chose, so in case someone was struck, even once by an Add-on, they would immediately find themselves at the Guild's Healing Center. Of course, it had its drawbacks. Even someone slightly wounded could disappear, leaving behind friends or family members in need of help.

"Gonna' be around for a bit?" Kat asked while sliding drinks to other customers. "I've a practice session with some of the girls for our dance bit, but after that I'm all yours." A customer tossed out a few extra coins in response to a glass juggling and tongue licking act, which Kat performed as smooth as the curves on her body. The woman knew her stuff.

"Don't see why not." Sam nodded. "Got nothin' better to do but watch perty girls." He grinned.

I rolled my eyes. Sam hadn't changed all that much.

"How 'bout a place to stay?" I suggested. "You're more than welcome to stay with me. I'll be out on assignment anyway."

"No good." Kat finished fetching a round of empty glasses and set them down for a refill. "Remember, you're supposed to be disposing criminals, not housing them. If he gets caught..."

I waved the comment aside. "It's fine. He's here for his wife, nothing more. I doubt the Guild would start prying. They know I ain't going back." I held out the front of my Duster. "Not with this prize at stake."

Kat drew those thick lips into a pout. "And here I thought I was your only pride and joy." She picked up a tray of drinks, blew a kiss, then stepped around the bar to serve the many customers piling at tables for the next show.

I turned to Sam. "I gotta' tend to my girl for the evening. Should be back in time for the good stuff." When his eyebrows rose in question, I merely laughed. "Matilda, my horse."

Sam just smiled and went back to watching Kat pass out drinks.

A chill wind whisked through town as I stepped outside the saloon. It got dark quick in Peony, with only the oil lamps hanging alongside shop doorways and inside windows to light the way. Holding the brim of my hat down with one hand, I started for the town stables just down the road.

"Azriandrathorn," a voice came from behind. It wasn't very often someone used my full name, nor was it ever pronounced in a manner that called a Caster to duel. This one had, but not by a mere townsman.

"Jaemason." I turned, following the sound of his voice to a lone Caster leaning against one of the saloon's wooden beams. "Long time."

Jaemason had been a fellow student at the same Guild I attended. We were among the highest ranking chosen for the status of Master. Not an easy title to achieve. So the Guild conducted a test that set us against one another in a duel. The prize? The Duster I now wore, capable of allowing its wearer up to three hits before transporting that person to a designated Healer Center. I had always been slightly faster than Jaemason, and for that reason he had left for another Guild, one that supported heavier weaponry. At least it suited his tastes, if not speed.

"You actually brought a live one today," he said. "Don't you normally spill their guts on sight?"

"I didn't think Guilds assigned other Casters to an already assigned town," I changed the subject.

"Who said I was on assignment?" he returned.

That bothered me. Masters were not allowed to leave their assigned towns. If Jaemason wasn't working, then he wasn't with a Guild. Not good.

"So? What, you rode in with the cattle? Is that how I missed you? Why are you here?" I fired back. My finger was already on the trigger, and he knew it.

"Manners, manners, Azri." He straightened and strode to the saloon's entrance. "You ain't tipped your hat to me yet." He pushed through one side of the swinging doors and was gone.

I debated going in to see if he went over to Sam, but even a renegade Caster dared not try something in public, if renegade was what he had become. I decided to stay my course. I fetched Tilly some fresh water and made sure she had plenty to eat before heading back to the saloon. I didn't see Sam or Jaemason when I entered. It wasn't until Kat motioned to me from behind the stage curtain that I realized where everyone had gone. I stayed close to the wall, out of the way from hooting and hollowing cowboys over the girls dancing on stage. I quickly ducked behind the curtain to see Sam sitting near the dressing room. Lipstick smeared across his left cheek, and I had to grin. Good ol' Sam.

I stood before him with arms crossed. "Not the work of one set of lips, I'll wager."

Sam laughed and held up his hands in defense. "I swear I just came back here to chat. Didn't know nothin'!"

"Looks it," I replied. "Tell Kat your story?"

"He didn't get faces." Kat sauntered over to her room and began dressing her part for the show. She didn't bother closing the door and made sure to flash most, if not all, her well ripened breasts while slipping into a corset. "Would one of you handsome boys mind tying the back for me?"

Of course, we both jumped at the opportunity.

"Got enough of the backside of 'em to describe their clothing and horses." Sam grinned. He pulled the cord tight, and I noticed his eyes travel down her back to a plump mound of a bottom. Of course, I couldn't help but look too.

Kat glanced over one bare shoulder to flash us a wide smile. If she'd been a puppet master, we'd been helpless against our strings - and would love every minute of it! A final tug caused a soft moan to escape her lips. The corset was on.

So were we.

"I think I have enough details to check around." Kat pulled part of her her hair up, letting a few tendrils dangle around either side of her cheeks. She slipped on a blue and white frilly dress and adjusted her bosom so it looked like two melons ready for picking. All the while she played that smile across her lips, knowing full well how this was affecting us. Then again, she had this affect on all men. Kat knew how to play, and played to win. She ran a finger under both our chins as she passed. "Stick around, boys. There's a private show at my place afterwards. Then maybe we'll see if that coat really can come off."

She trailed a hand up her skirt so that it pulled aside to reveal more leg. An invitation like this was hard to pass. Sam and I never said a word and just watched her vanish behind the curtain. We could hear heavy applauds and whistling on the other side. Kat had stolen the show, and both our hearts with it.

Morning came slower than usual. Somehow, in all the confusion of legs and breasts, I'd managed to misplace my coat. Warm memories of Kat's fingers caressing my flesh was enough to get me started all over again as I found my Duster and adjusted the multiple pouches containing various items I'd created over the years, one being my gun. I kept a second handy in case I needed it. A strap of bullets looped from one shoulder across my chest and down to my left side. I'd gotten the idea from another outlaw. Only he ran out of bullets. Casters never run out. Took awhile to get approval from the Guild. Without it, the extra bullets would have been deemed an Add-on. I'd have thought it would've only applied to weapons in general, but I didn't make the rules. I just played by them.

As I saddled up Tilly for the day's assignment, I couldn't help but wonder if Sam had heard me leave - being preoccupied at the moment. Tilly must have known something was amiss, for she nuzzled the backside of my coat as I finished adjusting the stirrup.

"Don't worry." I scratched the soft patch of white just between her eyes. "You're the only girl for me." Once we'd left the stable, I swung into the saddle. Reining her around, I paused a final time to check my packs.

We'd yet to clear the side of the building when I noticed movement heading out from the other side. I eased closer to the main road while still covered by the building. Hoofbeats, then a passing rider. There was no mistaking the coat worn by Weapons Casters.

Jaemason. I plucked a piece of hay off my coat and stuck it between my teeth. The day already looked interesting.

"What do you say, girl?" I patted Tilly on the neck. "Let's see how far he rides." A quick nicker confirmed my course of action. When dust was just settling, we pulled out to the main gate to see Jaemason already fading into the distance.

I never missed the dust kicked up from other horses while on patrol. It always confirmed I was on the right path when my nose starting clogging. This was one of those times. Jaemason had gone past my usual lookout point. Yet instead of keeping directly to the road, he veered off to the left. I followed his trail of dust to a similar lookout point not too far from town. To minimize my own dust cloud, I found patches of vegetation for Tilly to walk on versus open dirt. It hadn't rained in months, so stepping on the right ones still healthy enough to settle the dirt could be tricky.

I finally dismounted behind several cacti while Jaemeson approached a large rock formation. He hadn't bothered tethering his horse, letting it roam free while he stood in the shadow of a naturally arched set of stone. Rough winds were known to cut into rock around these parts over time. This must have been one such sculpture, for the formation was as round and smooth as a bare man's head. I squinted in the warm glow of building sunlight. The other Caster rested a hand against the stone surface. I saw his lips move, though I could not make out his words. There came a low groan. Beneath my feet the ground vibrated. Then all was still. I stared at the now vacant location where Jaemason had once stood. A rectangular opening in the stone structure revealed where he must have gone. Several minutes passed before I ventured closer to peer inside.

The way was dark. Against my better judgment, I pulled a piece of flint from one of my pouches and a small vial of oil-soaked cloth. There were always plenty of dry things to burn in a desert, and after finding a suitable branch for a torch I wrapped the tip and struck the flint against the rock. Its first spark instantly ignited the damp cloth. I raised it high and stepped into the dark.

Slanting down, the tunnel contoured the circular structure until opening into a hollowed out room. There were no other levels to the inside, with the path continuing up the side wall. An opening at the top was the room's only light source. What drove the light down was a variety of mirrors. Each mirror had been angled along the wall to beam any rays to a single device in the middle of the room. A charge of light fading in and out on top of the device suggested the sun rays triggered a power source, but for what I wasn't sure.

It didn't look like any weapon I'd ever come across. I wasn't even sure it was an Add-on either.To me, the whole thing resembled a make-shift cross between a cobweb and a tabletop, rounded at the corners with hooks and hinges that might've closed upon command.

"How do you like my new invention?" the voice of Jamaeson drew my gaze to the opening at the top. He continued to speak, slowly descending the stairs to where I stood gawking at the strange contraption.

"And your Guild allows you to build something like this? Near my town?" I was furious, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Some Casters were allowed to create things, so long as they didn't test them out on innocent bystanders. "You need to notify your Guild to send someone to move this immediately."

Jamaeson just gave me that look that read, "And what gives you the authority over me?" But as I was classified as Master, I actually did have authority. Jamaeson was just plain ol' hard-headed. Always was.

"Actually, I was thinking this would replace the coat you took from me." He gestured to the device.

I rolled my eyes. "You still on that? Look, I drew first. End of story."

"You pulled before the signal, ya little cheat!" Jamaeson suddenly roared. "And the Guild knew it! Knew it! They gave you something you ain't deserved to have. It should've been me! Not you!" He waved a hand over the device. "Now I ask you again, how do you like my new invention? Because you'll be giving me that coat whether you like it or not!"

My gun was already drawn. What happened next was beyond any foresight. A slight tingle from my gun drew my attention to it. Then a strong pull yanked my arm toward the top of the device. Next thing I knew I was dangling in midair with my gun stuck, and me with it.

Snap! The sides of the device closed around me. I'd been too dang proud of the gun to just let it loose. Now I probably looked like a fly wrapped in a cocoon of metal!
"Fast on the draw, but not on the thinking, eh, Azri?"

I forced the confusion from my mind and focused on Jamaeson standing in front of me. He'd retrieved my gun, admiring it, turning it over to follow the detail of wood-carved roses along its sides. Years of perfecting shape and design, and one mistake to lose it. I wanted to string him up!

"You remember the game we used to play when we were little?"

Hangman's Bluff. I swallowed. Never occurred I'd get strung up first.

His hand turned so that the gun's handle pointed my way instead of the barrel. That's what hit me the moment I averted my gaze. A yellow haze cast all vision aside, along with feeling. When I came to, I was overlooking the side of the rock formation at the top where the light shone down inside, with a noose around my neck and my hands bound behind me.

The side of my mouth stung from the blow, but considering my current position, that was the least of my concerns. My feet were firmly planted on rock still, so it wasn't over yet. I tried loosening the knots around my wrists, but something felt...missing.

I glanced down.

Shirt. Pants. No coat.

"I'm going to enjoy the spoils of that coat."

"You need to reconsider, Jamaeson." I adjusted my weight so I could make eye contact without slipping. "Guilds don't take well to theft or murder."

"I appreciate the warning." He pointed the gun at me. My gun. "But they're far from intervening, and by the time they do you'll be nothing more than scavenged carcass left by the vultures."

The distinct click readied the gun for fire.

"Don't think this will be a quick death," he continued. "A couple of bullets for the legs, then you hang yourself."

A whinny below drew both our attentions.

"Your horse, I presume?" Jamaeson smirked and aimed for Matillda as she came trotting in full view of his shot. Yet the sound of gunfire did not come from my weapon. Neither did it hit anything living. The rope holding me up collapsed around my shoulder, and I spun to find Sam take aim for Jamaeson from inside the stone doorway.

A spark ricocheted off the weapon. Jamaeson cursed and jerked his hand back, dropping the gun. He ran for cover around the side while I ducked into the opening beside Sam. Wasn't long before returning fire hit the doorway. Sam pulled out his knife to cut me free.

"Lucky find." I rubbed my wrists, thankful to be free.

"Think you might need this." Sam handed me my coat. I quickly pulled it on. The feel of the coat's protective power and weapons urged my desire to rush the fallen gun outside. "Heard ya leave this morning. Decided to follow."

He returned fire, then slipped back inside.

I grinned. "Couldn't wait to test your skills again, could you?" I charged for the gun with Sam covering me, rolled to the side with Jamaeson's rapid fire streaking around me. I grazed his shoulder without even looking, then dived for the opening to reload.

Sam dipped his head. "Rope was perfect target practice."

More shots against the opening.

"Should've introduced me to your friend earlier, Azri!" Jamaeson shouted from around the side. He fired again.

"I'm pretty sure you wouldn't like him." I returned fire, though the jagged ridge protruding from the side made a perfect cover.

"Probably right. Not like that pretty little wife of his."

Sam's face turned white.

"I don't think I heard you right!" he returned.

"I'll be sure to say hello for you!" Jamaeson said.

"Where is she!" and he bolted outside.

"Sam, wait!" I thrust myself in front of him as Jamaeson took aim. The power behind the two shots threw me back a few steps, but not before I brought mine up and burried a bullet in his chest. He went down the same as I. I knew he'd vanished, the coat's power aiding in transporting him to a nearby Healing Center.

Ain't no trip graceful. I heard Sam shouting something as I stumbled to the ledge. I reached out to grab the remains of rope but wasn't strong enough to hold. My vision hazed again and Sam slipped from my sight as rock swirled past me in a blur of wind whipping through my coat, and I knew I was falling.

I would have preferred dirt to stone flooring when my body hit. Feet stampeded toward me, though my vision was still unclear as to who did the healing. At least I was at the Guild. Sam would be all right with Jamaeson gone for the time being.

The feel of fresh water washing over me startled me back to existence. The bullets had been removed, dressed, with company waiting next to my bed.

"You've a fine horse, my friend," Sam said beside me. "Led me right to you."
A healer left to tend to me nodded across from Sam.

"Yes," he said. "If she's been around you long enough, the pull of the coat will keep her close."

I grinned wearily. "That's my girl," then glanced over at Sam. "Jamaeson mentioned your wife. Now I'm wondering if he had something to do with her disappearance."

"We've checked all records," the healer replied. "He never appeared at any of the Guilds, which indicates he went to a rogue Healing Center instead."

"Rogue?" Sam questioned. "Ain't heard none of them before."

A nod. "They're relatively new, but spreading quickly. We don't have enough scouts to keep track."

"How do they work?" I asked.

"From what we've heard, you simply exchange something in return for later use, and it doesn't always have to be money."

I inhaled sharply. Jamaeson knew he'd lost, so it made sense for him to say he'd see Sam's wife again, because that's where he was going.

"I've spoken with the council," the healer continued. "We feel there may be more of Jamaeson's type who've refused to register back with the Guild. And we do need more scouts. With your past and present reputation, the Guild would like to offer you a new position - as Bounty Hunter. You no longer need to stay at Peony, if you so desire. You may now access other towns, and your Healing Center privileges has extended to various locations as necessary."

I couldn't believe my ears. Bounty Hunter? Katalina would have to get one more night with me before she'd see me off, and I knew she make it an all-nighter. Worth the title, that's for sure.

Doesn't take long with a Weapons Caster to heal. I joined Sam on the ridge overlooking the Guild down in the valley. Tilly nickered softly, and I patted her neck, glad to be out in the desert with my old partner in crime.

"You going after Jamaeson first or a rogue Healing Center?" Sam asked.

"Both," I answered, bringing Tilly around to face the sunset. "We're getting your wife back first. We find her, we find a rogue Healing Center." I placed a hand upon his shoulder. "We'll get her back. Don't worry."

We rode into Peony together. Kat would be waiting for us. The tension of tonight's fiesta outweighed that of my new status as Master Weapons Caster, Bounty Hunter.

Tonight, we feast.

Tomorrow, we hunt.