A quick piece of Fan-Fiction for the miniatures adventure game, Shadows of Brimstone, by Flying Frog Productions.
The stranger arrived at Barkerville with the unique honor of being the only person riding into the town, against the tide of travelers fleeing in the opposite direction as fast as their horse or carriage could carry them.
Along his journey, he had passed many of the town’s former residents, each in turn giving out a warning to pass it by, or better yet, to turn back and save his soul from “that accursed hellhole”. Even now as he rode into the town proper, the stranger could see that those few people still out and about their business were hurriedly packing what they could onto wagons and carts in preparation for leaving Barkerville for good.
Regardless of their haste, one by one, the townspeople stopped what they were doing as he passed them by, and cautiously watched the stranger guide his horse down the middle of the dusty hard-packed street and up to the local saloon. Whether he didn’t notice, or just didn’t care, he paid no attention to the stares of the gathering crowd as he dismounted from his horse, tied its reigns to the nearby hitching post, and calmly walked up the steps and through the bar’s swinging doors.
The saloon was one of the nicer drinking holes the stranger had visited in some time, and a quick glance around the room told him that in better days the town probably tested the limits of the establishment’s capacity on a nightly basis. Now, however, instead of the jangling tunes of the piano that sat abandoned in the corner, the air was filled with the silent murk of despair. The place was practically empty, housing the only three people in town not gripped by mindless panic; a sullen bartender, a drunk asleep at the end of the bar, and an elderly woman at a far table dressed in a shabby threadbare mourning gown; whether she was pining over the loss of friend or family, or the loss of the town itself the stranger couldn’t tell.
The bartender acknowledged the stranger with a sigh, as he bellied up to the bar. “What’ll it be?” he mumbled.
“Looking for the Mayor”, the stranger replied.
The bartender shook his head, walked over to the drunk at the end of the bar, and slapped his palm down hard and loud on the countertop beside the wino’s head. The man popped up with a shock at the rude awakening.
“Mayor!” the bartender shouted at him, “Got someone here who wants to see you! Mayor, wake up!”
The drunken Mayor sputtered and coughed while he tried to make sense of where he was.
“Mayor…Mayor of what? No town left…just that damned thing, driving everyone off. All that dark stone they been digging up…bringin’ out all kinds of…unnatural things. If that rock was supposed to be buried deep in the ground, who’re we to be pulling it back up into the world? It ain’t right, and now there’s nothin’ left. Nothin’ left to do but drink and go down with the ship, as my pappy used to say.”
He fixed the stranger with a bleary stare. “Who’re you?” he slurred. The Mayor stank of a week-long whiskey bender, and the stranger had to step back from the Mayor’s toxic breath as he spoke.
“Heard about your town’s situation,” the stranger said plainly. “It’s one of those worms, if I’m not mistaken - what the locals call a Burrower?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” the Mayor answered, his interest in the stranger sobering him up for the first time in days. “Big one, started attacking some of the livestock out in the surrounding farms a few weeks ago, and been getting bolder every day since. Getting closer to the town with every new sighting. Got people spooked that it’s just a matter of time before the thing takes one of the townsfolk, so everyone’s clearin’ out.”
“I’m here to take care of your problem,” the stranger said with grit and determination in his voice.
The Mayor looked the stranger up and down as best as his boozy vision would allow. He has confidence, the Mayor noted - something he had found wanting in himself quite often these days - but could this confident stranger do the job, he wondered? Many others had come, and tried, and failed, costing them either their sanity or their lives, but could this would-be gunslinger be the answer to the town’s prayers, or just another cowboy to bury in the cemetery on the hill?
“I certainly hope so,” the Mayor said honestly. “I certainly hope so.”
As if on cue, the glasses and bottles of liquor behind the bar began to jostle and chime against one another as a tremor began to shake the barroom’s floorboards. A rumble like rolling thunder rose from somewhere deep beneath their feet, getting louder and louder until finally, the sound of a great explosion erupted from out in the street, followed by the commotion of screaming townspeople. The stranger and Mayor, both ran through the saloon’s swinging doors and out into the street.
At first, the stranger couldn’t understand what he was seeing, and it was only by looking at the scene piece by piece that he was able to make sense of it all.
A crater wide enough and deep enough to hide a full-grown steer had blown open in the middle of the street, dirt and debris littering the road from one end to the other and most of the surrounding buildings to boot - it seemed to the stranger that someone had buried a keg of gunpowder in the middle of town and set it alight, the damage was so great. Those townsfolk the stranger had passed coming into the town had stopped their furious preparations to leave, and were now running away from the crater with just as much fervor, their precious belongings now forgotten and left behind.
The shrill whinny of a horse in distress pierced the air, and as the stranger looked across to the far side of the crater, he saw the animal in question, still harnessed to an overturned wagon half-smashed to kindling wood and splinters. But there was something else there too, something the stranger couldn’t quite make out.
A large grey form was hunched over the wagon and the ailing horse; lumped and coiled, it’s bulk undulating over itself and the panicked pack animal who kicked its hooves out at the thing in an attempt at escape. The grey shape looped itself around the body of the protesting horse, and with a sickening crunch it squeezed with one great tensing motion, crushing the poor animal into silence.
A scream rang out at the stranger’s side. Looking over his shoulder, the stranger saw that the Mayor had fallen to his knees, his eyes big as saucers glued to the thing out in the street. “Mother of mercy,” the Mayor stammered out in shock. “That’s it…that’s the Burrower.”
He’s still drunk, the stranger thought to himself as he looked back at the thing. There’s no way a worm could get that-
But the rest of that thought froze in the back of the stranger’s head as he saw the thing rise up and turn towards him, dropping the broken and twisted horse at the side of the crater as if it was a rag doll. It rose up to a full two-story height, making the stranger weak in the knees.
In his time, the stranger had seen plenty of these dark stone worms, or “Burrowers” as the Mayor had called them. Any traveling circus or sideshow that was worth its salt these days carried some kind of monster from the lands around that famous (and now famously destroyed) town of Brimstone, where the Dark Stone was first discovered. The freakish creatures that roamed those lands were too big a draw for the eager citizens out East to pass up, and the stranger had paid his penny gladly to see the unnamable things in the carnival’s curiosity tents and taxidermy shops, but this…the Burrowers the stranger had seen would be considered mere pups (or whatever their young would be called ) compared to this behemoth.
From a mouth buried somewhere deep within it’s tentacled head, the Burrower let out a guttural roar as it towered over the stranger and the whimpering Mayor at his feet. The stranger’s body turned to jelly, and it was all he could do to fumble his pistol from its holster at his hip, nearly dropping the gun twice before he could actually get a grip on the weapon. As if sensing the stranger’s motives, the great worm lashed out, swinging its head and body wide at the stranger, sending him flipping up into the air to land with a thud in the middle of the street.
Every bit of air had been knocked from the stranger’s lungs, and his vision swam with spinning lights as his body tried to remember how to take a breath. From head to toe, he was lit up with pain from the creature’s body-blow, and from the way his arm was folded up underneath him, he was was pretty sure that one of his shoulders had been smashed to pieces from the landing. The stranger rolled himself over onto his back, the fresh jolt of pain that shot through is shoulder enough to shock his burning lungs into taking a welcome gasp of air. Looking up to the sky, his vision cleared just enough to see the Burrower block out the sun as it looked down at his bruised and broken body.
The stranger was done. Come to Barkerville to save its people and become a hero, he had simply been unprepared for what awaited him. Spurred on by drunken cowboy tales of dark stone riches and the welcome thanks of damsels saved from (what he now understood to be greatly understated) pit-born monsters, he had spent the last of his meager accounting clerk’s wages to kit up and make the journey West to find fortune and glory as a gen-u-ine gunslinger, though truth be told, he hadn’t ever touched a gun in his life until just a week before. And now his plans were as broken as the bones in his aching body. All that was left to do was shut his eyes and wait for the final tentacled embrace that loomed over him, even now.
The creature lunged forward at the stranger, ready to snatch up its next meal, but its momentum was halted suddenly by the unlikely sound of a high-pitched war cry. Sensing the pause in his demise, the stranger cracked an eyelid and peeked out in time to see a dark blur race past him towards the monster. He watched as a phantom in black silk and lace jumped high into the air, landing firmly on the Burrower’s back. The stranger wasn’t sure what he was more stunned by; the fact that he had been spared from the maw of the great worm, or the idea that his savior came in the form of the elderly mourning widow from the saloon who now straddled the neck of the creature as a trick-rider might ride a horse bareback.
The Burrower writhed and shook trying to rid himself of his passenger, but the old lady held fast, unmoved - and if you were to ask the stranger after all was said and done, he would swear he saw her laughing through it all.
As the worm thrashed about, the stranger watched as the old lady loosed what appeared to be a prospector’s pickaxe from a strap across her back, and deciding that she had had enough of the game, brought the pick up high over her head and swung it down in a hard arc, burying the pick’s sharpened point deep into the head of the Burrower.
The Burrower roared its pain into the sky, its toughened hide rippling as the muscle beneath shuddered and spasmed one final time before falling down with a crash, limp and dead in the dust.
The old woman gingerly dismounted from the Burrower’s back, dusted off her widow’s weeds, and stood looking down at the beast, a satisfied smile on her lips, looking every bit the picture of sweetness and civility. Anyone still near enough to watch the drama unfold stood dumbfounded at what they had just seen. It was the gentle cough of the Mayor as he approached the woman that broke the silence.
“Ma’m,” the Mayor said tentatively, “I’m not sure what it was exactly that I just witnessed, but on behalf of the people of Barkerville, I would like to thank you for ridding our town of this nightmare.” The woman didn’t answer. She just continued to stare down at the body of the Burrower, lost in her own thoughts. The moment stretched out into uncomfortable silence, and the ever-tactful Mayor called out nervously, “Ma’m, are you all right?” Finally, the woman spoke.
“Three years. I’ve been tracking this thing for three years, but I finally caught up with the bastard…this is the monster that killed my poor Julius in the mine - in his very own mine, for goodness sake! Three years gone and in the ground, but you can finally rest easy now, Julius…I finished it for you.”
The woman suddenly turned on her heel, and with a smile offered her hand to the bewildered Mayor.
“Beatrice Pepperwood, pleased to meet ya!”
Unnerved, the Mayor reached out to shake the Beatrice’s hand but pulled his arm back sharply when he saw the dark stone ring adorning the granny’s outstretched hand. In the depths of the gem, a dark light pulsed in time with Beatrice’s breathing - the thought of it making the Mayor break out in a cold sweat. Beatrice saw the panic on the Mayor’s face as he stared down at the ring, and smiled.
“Oh, don’t mind the ring, deary,” she chided, “That was the first stone Julius pulled out of his claim, and his last gift to me before this monster took my poor husband all those years ago.” She leaned close to the Mayor and whispered as if they were sharing a secret. “They say that dark stone is bad magic, but this stone’s nothing to worry about - just big enough to give me a little extra gumption, but not strong enough to send me to the madhouse.” She tapped the side of her head with a bony finger as if to demonstrate.
The Mayor smiled and nodded, but the crooked tilt of her grin, and the unsettling look in her eyes made him wonder if the ring on her hand hadn’t touched her mind a long time ago.
Sensing his hesitation, Beatrice just shrugged, turned back to the beast, and pulled her pick axe free from its head before strapping it back across her back. With nothing left to say, she calmly walked over to a stray horse, hopped up into the saddle, and with a courtly wave goodbye, rode off down the street out of town.
The stranger, wearily, painfully picked himself up, and joining the flabbergasted Mayor, the two watched as Beatrice Pepperwood rode off into the sunset, the spell of silence unbroken until she disappeared over the horizon.
Shadows of Brimstone is © Flying Frog Productions. No copyright infringement intended - this is a work of fan fiction.