I quickly ruled out that the Woman in White was a stranded motorist when I realized that I hadn't passed any broken-down vehicles on the way out here and I couldn't see any on the arrow-straight section of the Ranch to Market road that went west from 85 Rock.
”Holy shit- wouldn't that be hilarious if this was Dolores' Woman in White?" I chuckled as I drew closer and closer to the roadside figure. Despite the supernatural discussion earlier at the bar earlier, I initially assumed I was looking at a stranded or disoriented motorist. However, the closer I got the less whimsical the situation appeared. For starters, she was walking away from town and seemingly towards the distant wildfire.
Instead of hitting the brakes hard and coming to a screeching halt in the middle of the road, my tractor-trailer driving habits kicked in and I opted to decelerate gradually and come to a stop on the shoulder ahead of her to see if I could render assistance. A sense of foreboding came over me the closer I got to the figure in white, although at the time I assumed that was because she might've been in some sort of trouble instead of actually being the source of trouble herself.
Her face was partially obscured by a large white summer hat ringed with what looks like roses along the brim- the pattern broken up by something dark above each temple. For some reason, the pale figure reminded me of some of the pictures I've seen of the beautiful and photogenic women who show up at the Kentucky Derby on race day. There was something on her back- from a distance I thought it might have been an oddly shaped rucksack with a bedroll, but as I decelerated past her it almost looked as though it was wings. I dismiss the appearance of the wings as a byproduct of an overactive imagination fuelled by beer and stories of the paranormal at the Whet Whistle earlier.
That's just dumb..... I tell myself. If she had wings, couldn't she just fly around instead of walking along the side of the road?
I also see that the almost bleached white figure is barefoot- something nobody should be while walking alongside a road in the blistering west Texas heat.
Drifting across the two lane backroad, I bring the truck to a stop about 100 feet away from where I had seen the Woman in White, almost certain I caught a glimpse of her in the rearview mirror. However, when I got out of the truck and turned around, there was no sign of the mysterious figure.
Shit....don't tell me she collapsed I muttered as I reached back into the Ram's cab for a flashlight. I don't know that much first aid and it will be awhile before an ambulance shows up if that's the case. Technically it's still daylight, but the shadows along the culvert by the side of the road are getting longer. It's mostly wide open countryside and there wouldn't be too many places for her to hide.
"Hello?" I call out. "Hey....anyone there?" I scan the road before me as I start walking along the shoulder away from the truck. As I cautiously progress further up the road, a sense of unease washes over me. With the flashlight in my left hand, my right hand reaches for the holstered .357.
I'm left to wonder why my first instinct was to reach for my revolver when I was simply attempting to help what I assumed was a stranded motorist. However, the more I search for this mystery woman, the more it appears that I have this stretch of the Ranch to Market road to myself.
You went for your gun because you saw one too many of those cheesy monster movies where the first one to die a horrible, excruciatingly agonizing, blood-spattered death was some redneck trucker on a lonely backroad a voice inside my head mocks me. And now you're gettin' ready to live the dream, pardner!
Approaching where I was confident that I last saw the woman in white, I start looking for footprints or anything to indicate someone had been walking there not too long ago.
I checked the little culverts by the side of the road. Still nothing.
Might as well head back to the truck- those groceries aren't getting any less spoiled I sigh. I debate whether or not I should tell anyone at the Whet Whistle about this encounter, but decide not to after figuring I'd get no end of shit for my tale.
As I begin to make my way back to the idling truck, I'm convinced I had seen something out of the ordinary. Drinking to the point where I'm seeing imaginary women along the side of the road would not only endanger my commercial driver's license but also the ATF Federal Explosives License- both of which were rather important if I had any intention of resuming the quarry's operations anytime soon. But the thing is, two beers and a shot of Jameson's and a couple of waters over the span of nearly two hours isn't enough to get me to start slurring my speech, let alone hallucinate that I'm seeing ghostly female hitchhikers on the drive home.
About halfway back to the truck, I'm aware of some movement behind me and....lights? Turning around, I see a fire truck rounding the corner by 85 Rock- no siren, but the flashing red lights are on. It looks like one of those high-clearance truck best suited for fighting brushfires, too. As it gets closer, I debate whether or not to flag it down and tell the firemen about the mystery woman I'm convinced I had just seen.
However, I quickly decide against it after I'm convinced one of them would ask "Sir- have you been drinking tonight?"- assuming I did successfully flag them down. Instead, I simply wave as they drive past.
As I watch the flashing red and white lights shoot further down the asphalt and eventually disappear over the horizon, I realize that between the alcohol, ginger ale and water, I consumed alot of liquids at the Whet Whistle. Reasonably confident there are no stranded motorists or firefighters around to see what I'm going to do next, I turn my back to the road, unzip my fly and relieve myself. However, as I trudge back to the idling pickup, I occasionally stop to check my surroundings because.....because....well, I have this unshakeable feeling that I'm being watched.
At least nobody got into the cab and drove off while I was away I chuckle. I had fallen into the bad habit of letting the truck idle while I would run short errands in town like picking up a to-go burrito from La Espiga- that mom and pop Mexican off of Gate St or grabbing a bottle of Coke from the gas station. Often times, Tazzie was in the back and I trusted him to make a commotion if someone was attempting to abscond with my truck. It seemed as though nothing short of someone driving off in my idling truck was going to break me of that particular bad habit.
Before I get back in the cab, I pull myself up on the Ram's stepsides. I still haven't completely shaken the sensation that somebody's watching me, but that doesn't stop me from admiring the view around 85 Rock as the sun- now a fiery orange orb- is dangling tantalizingly close to the western horizon.
Damn it! I love it out here I sigh wistfully as I inhale an invigorating mix of mesquite and smoke before getting back into the driver's seat, slamming the door shut and putting the Ram in gear.
Things weren't looking much better for the Rangers as the Ram made its way down the undulating dirt and gravel road leading into the quarry. Minnesota had jumped out to a pretty commanding 11-0 lead and I figured I might as well give up the ghost on that particular ballgame and began scrolling through the different satellite channels on the truck's radio.
As always, Tazzy was there, diligently waiting for me as the Ram pulled up to my 'swingin bachelor pad'. He seemed a little more excitable than usual and let out three sharp barks as I killed the engine and got out of the truck. Before I my boots even hit the ground, Tazzy took off and ran one full revolution around the vehicle before jumping up on me a few times.
"Whoa there Tazzy- calm down!" I say, chalking such behavior up to the fact that he's finally realized that he's a cattle dog with no cattle to herd. He suddenly loses interest and begins running back and forth next to the truck, let out a few short, excited barks.
"What's gotten into you, boy?" I ask as the now supremely high strung cattle dog is trying to jump into the bed of the truck. I brought the dog food home in the back of the truck, but I had never seen Tazzy this excited over dry dog food....or any of the other groceries I'd ever brought back, for that matter.
"No no no, Tazzy...." I scold the dog. "It's too late to go for a ride tonight."
Instead of continuing his attempts to jump into the back of the Ram, Tazzy took off like a shot, disappearing around the back of the quarry's office. I was wondering if there was such a thing as dognip that the Cattle Dog could've gotten into when I detected movement from the bed of the Ram.
Climbing up from the bed of the truck to the top of the tailgate is a little black creature. As it turns around to look at me , I can see that it's a black cat.
"Hey there, little stowaway...." I call out. "How'd you get in there?" I ask, genuinely perplexed. My best guess was that it was a stray cat that managed to climb into the bed while I was shopping at the market. I certainly took long enough for the critter to have hopped into the bed of the truck, but I was sure I would've noticed my feline hitchhiker when I was loading the bulkier items into the back.
The cat's eyes widened as it turned and took off from the truck with an impossible speed. Looks like I scared the thing off. As I was wondering what I should do if Tazzy and the cat ended up crossing paths, I heard a distinct rustling coming from the bed of the truck.
Come on- what is it NOW? It's a friggin' Ram 2500, not Noah's Ark. All I want is a little peace and quiet. Is that too much to-? My train of thought was stopped mid-sentence.
As I turned, a figure was now standing quietly and looking down at me from her elevated position. It's none other than the Woman in White- the pale figure I saw walking barefoot along the Ranch to Market road, only this is my first good look at her up close and I can now see that she's clearly something other than human. While I was out searching for a distressed motorist, she had somehow clandestinely hid herself in the bed of the Ram under the tarp completely undetected by me. After looking at me for what seemed like an eternal moment, she spoke up.
"Soss nasz shehi-zu?”
Her voice actually sounded warm and kind, but I had no idea what she was trying to ask or what language she was even using.
"Wh-what?" were my first words to the mysterious intruder.
“Soss Nasz shehi-zu? Nneno klai urtsiaa!?” Her voice a little more terse now as she repeats her indecipherable question and asks what must be a follow up.
She didn't seem to jump out of the back of the truck so much as float down before my own disbelieving eyes, her flowing silvery hair and white dress rippling in a flurry of tiny breezes. That was not some odd-looking backpack behind her- I could now see that those were pale bat-like wings. Eyes like the darkest obsidian with irises the same hue as blood and fire looked upon me with bemusement. Despite the rather inelegant conveyance that was the back of my truck, my unannounced visitor seemed to have a calm and regal manner to her. Perhaps the only reason I didn't cower or plead for my life or piss myself was because I was too paralyzed by fear.
Oh God...it's the Reaper! a voice inside me wails. I cheated her out of my soul that day in Ramadi and she's PISSED! This can't be happening! I never got to say goodbye to mom and dad. I don't know who will take care of Tazzy....I never found true love. I dodged any serious decisions on the family business for so long. I let so many people down and now I'm dead before I even have a chance to apologize or make things right. I die alone and unloved in this pit right here and now....
Even as I was frantically doing a mental inventory of my accumulated regrets in what I thought were my dying moments, there was something about the 'Reaper' before me that I couldn't overlook.
Simply put, Miss Reaper was gorgeous. Almost as if she read my thoughts, she moved in close and in the blink of an eye kissed me ever-so-softly on the lips. It was surprisingly warm and almost tasted like wintergreen as her tongue quickly flicked in and out of my agape mouth. Before she broke the kiss, my life was literally flashing before my eyes- every seemingly unimportant detail from years ago now bubbling to the surface. In a rare moment of clarity, I realized this wasn't just my fear of dying that was responsible. The white-clad reaper before me was somehow drawing my memories out, making them reveal themselves to her- and she was looking for something specific. By the time it had entered my mind to try and return the kiss, Miss Reaper had pulled away.
"Much better..." she said in English as she quickly flicked the corner of her lips with her right thumb before cupping her cheek with her right hand and tilting her head slightly as she looked at me. Her expression was one of bemusement.
"You....." I finally manage to stammer. "You were supposed to come for me in Ramadi, weren't you?"
"I know not what you're referring to, human..." she says in a bewildered and slightly haughty tone. "I have inquiries of my own that I require your assistance with..."
Her expression darkens slightly as she starts to take in her surroundings and the next thing I know, the whole world starts to dim. No- it's not the world....it's just this particular piece of real-estate I'm standing on. Although she's not touching me, she now has her bat-wings outstretched around the two of us, almost like a cocoon. They seem impossibly huge now that they're outstretched and they're attached to someone who's less than 6 inches shorter than me in height.
And I take back what she said about not touching me, since she now has the scruff of my t-shirt clenched in one of her balled-up fists.
"Where!?" she asked tersely, almost as if she was taking the English language out for a test drive. It belatedly occurs to me that was the whole point of the kiss she initiated with me. "I want to know. “Where is she? You MUST have seen her? Where is-"
That was as far as she got before black lightning arced around her. With an almost animalistic and agonized shriek, Miss Reaper's bat wings shot straight out to their fullest extension before she staggered two steps backwards, suddenly crumpling to the ground as the lightning continued to flicker around her body.
"H-Holy shit..." I cry out as I back away. Just as the idea that I may have somehow cheated death begins to sink in, the rear part of my left heel catches on a rock and I begin tumbling backwards before the back of my head hits the ground.
Then it went dark, although I wasn't sure for how long.
Miss Reaper got taken down with some kind of badass looking black magic lightning while I apparently managed to take myself out via slapstick.
I wasn't sure how long I was out for- just that I apparently came to before my pale, winged visitor did. The keys were still in the truck's ignition and a song was playing on the radio as I cautiously sat up after blacking out for Lord knows how long. The fact that it was Chris Issak's Down in Flames didn't do much to assuage my fears that the Grim Reaper was paying me a visit.
Add up all my misbehavin'
And I'm past the point of saving
How can wrong feel so right?
Some things you just can't change
What's it to ya? Hallelujah!
I'm going down in flames
"That's enough out of you..." I sighed to myself as I yanked the keys out of the ignition, silencing the radio after Lord knows how long it had been draining the battery.
I could see the still motionless form of my uninvited guest a few feet away. For a moment, I consider dialling 9-1-1 until the following exchange plays out in my mind.
Nine one one: What's your emergency?
Yes- I need you to come out to the quarry off of RM 3565, there's an intruder
Sir- can you describe the intruder?
She's about five foot seven, long white hair, white dress, white hat, black eyes, demon's horns, a long tail and a set of giant bat wings sprouting out of her back. Oh- and she has a tattoo on her leg that shoots out black lightning.
Sir- have you been drinking tonight?
Maybe. A little. Why? What's that got to do with anything?
As I contemplate what's happening to me, let alone whether or not I should get help, I hear something padding up to me on the dirt. I turn my head and see the cattle dog casually sauntering up to me.
"Jesus, Tazzy.....you have gotta be the worst guard dog ever."
The blue merle cattle dog seemed to be taking my criticism in stride. On the other hand, I'm so badly shaken that I need to grab on to the side of the truck to help myself up and then steady myself once I'm standing.
"For fuck's sake- Lassie would've ran off to the Wilson farm to get help....you just stood there hoping I'd drop the steaks while I'm getting molested by Miss Reaper there. Thanks alot, dipshit."
I sigh as I realize I might as well be yelling at my .357- the one that I carried with me on the off chance that some mysterious intruder decided to show up at the quarry and take my life for whatever reason. And remained in its holster while an inhuman visitor who may or may not be the Grim Reaper gets up close and personal with me.
"That concludes this after-action-review. Next briefing will be at 0900 hours." I tell the uncomprehending canine as I'm finally able to stand on my own. "Dismissed."
Tazzy simply sits before me, his tail lightly thumping against the earth.
"You're not gonna help me bring in the groceries, are you?"
The Australian cattle dog's only response was to get up and walk away.
I glance at the still form of the beautiful reaper once again. She looks as though she isn't going anywhere for awhile, and thus is in no shape to help me with the groceries, either.
For some reason, I was inordinately concerned with things like groceries spoiling or the battery life of the truck for someone who's supposedly looking down the barrel of imminent death as I got to work bringing in the groceries and fed Tazzy.
"Here you go, boy...." I say as more kibble pours into his metal dish. "This should tide you over until........" I stop myself. Next time? For all I know, this is my last night on earth.... My heart sinks when I realize how many regrets and baggage I have with me at this final hour. I head back out, hoping that some fresh air can help clear my head. Instead, I'm once again drawn to Miss Reaper's motionless body.
Trying to make sense of what just happened, I looked upon the pale, unconscious figure splayed out before me. If she was the Grim Reaper, why did something like this happen to her now of all times? Was she the only one of her kind? What was the deal with the black lightning?
Hesitantly, I stooped down for a closer look, brushing a lock of platinum hair away from her serene-looking face. Her body was nearly flawless and the white summer dress she had on clung to her figure, admirably highlighting every curve. As far as I could see, the only thing that broke up her beautiful and fearful symmetry was some sort of rune or tattoo that seemed to wrap itself around her right calf. Was this the source of the black lightning that took her out of commission? The beautiful creature who may or may not have been a harbinger of death looked as though she was simply taking a power nap.
Miss Reaper didn't look like she was going anywhere anytime soon. Instead of continuing to take in the sight of her vulnerable and luscious figure, I absently walked over to the truck. Satisfied the bed was empty, I grabbed my smartphone out of the cab and meticulously folded up the tarp , before dropping the back gate and turning my attention back to the otherworldly visitor.
"Hope I don't regret this...." I mutter as I get down on my haunches next to Miss Reaper. I slide one arm under the back of her knees and the other beneath her waist as I gingerly scoop her up. Her right bat wing is poking at me like an umbrella somebody forgot to fold up, but she's surprisingly light. I'm too distracted by the feel of her warmth against my body to contemplate the irony of how this horned, winged demoness is being toted around by me like I'm some sort of 1950's horror movie monster. Carrying her like she was my bride who needed to be brought across the threshold, I gently set her down in the bed of the truck with the folded up tarp now serving as her pillow.
As an afterthought, I go back to where Miss Reaper had been sprawled out and pick up her white Kentucky Derby hat before coming back to the truck and setting it down next to her. There's also the matter of her large satchel, which was pretty hefty. As I set it down next to her in the bed of the Ram, something fell to the ground.
It was a book- about the size of a school textbook, albeit a little thicker than most and with a lock and ornate engravings on the front cover. Even if this was an unannounced visitor, I figured rifling through her things was still poor form. But as I picked the book up, I couldn't help but thumb through it.
As I flipped through the first few pages, I could see that it was a sketch book and I had to assume the white-haired demihuman was the artist.
The first few pages were an intriguing landscape of mountains, sheer cliffs and what looked like islands floating through the sky. Further into the book there was what looked like a portrait of another horned, pale-haired demihuman with bat wings with writing in an indecipherable language underneath.
As I turned the page, there was another portrait- this time of a striking, dark-haired woman with some sort of cloth strip over one of her eyes. At first, I thought she sat astride a giant, tarantula-like spider before a closer look showed that it was actually her lower body. With one of her large, arachnid legs, she appeared to have a man pinned beneath her. But instead of killing or devouring him, the spider-like creature seemed to have a look of lust in her eye.
Another page- this one showed an attractive and mostly-human appearing woman with feline features lounging in a tree. Her arms tapered off into paws and a pair of cat's ears sprang from the top of her head. She was wearing some sort of bodice and leggings with a two-tone argyle design and a lewd, mischievous grin was on her face. She appeared to be beckoning to a male traveller passing by below her.
I turned the page again and was greeted with a rendering of an attractive, but stern looking woman with pointed canine ears clad in what I could describe as almost a Ancient Egyptian/bellydancer themed outfit. Her smooth and taut belly was adorned with what looked like a pair of exclamation points and like the creature in the previous drawing, her arms and legs tapered off into a set of paws. In this rendering, her paws held firmly onto an ornate metal staff that had a set of scales towards the top.
Awaiting me on the next page was a detailed drawing of an attractive, auburn-haired buxom woman with the lower body of a giant serpent. Wrapped in the snake's coils was a man whose face was being pressed into the snake lady's considerable chest- her hands were keeping his head in place just in case the serpentine coils weren't enough as the woman wore a look of sheer ecstasy on her face.
By the time I got to the portrait of the humanoid creature whose bust and hips would make Christina Hendricks feel inadequate, I couldn't help but notice that my left hand was making it's way down to the raging, throbbing, granite-hard erection that was now tenting my jeans. The beast-woman's bat wings, feline ears and paws and a nasty-looking spiky tail that protruded from behind the creature depicted in the portrait like a scorpion did little to diminish my enthusiasm- in fact, some of those features may have added to it.
Whoa there- bad form to whack off to Miss Reaper's artbook there, pardner I admonished myself. Let's say she's willing to give you a reprieve. Before she goes, she asks By the way, have you seen may artbook laying around? I seemed to have misplaced it in all this commotion. What exactly are you going to tell her after you jizzed all over it?
After doing unconscious-Grim-Reaper-girl Feng Shui, I figured if I was going to die tonight, I might as well get a last meal in. I set the book down, figuring cooking up some steaks from the store would take my mind off of rubbing one out at what has to be the most inopportune time in my life. I got to work bringing in the last of the groceries. Once inside, I began cautiously measuring cups of beer, brown sugar, tobasco, worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, lime juice and a pinch of salt before mixing it all together in a metal bowl and letting the steaks marinade in it. Even though he failed me- badly- as a guard dog, I slipped Tazzy some of the steak fat I trimmed off.
After pouring in some charcoal briquettes and dousing lighter fluid on the grill, I light it up. As I'm watching the flames leap and dance, I absently reach for my phone.
Hey- if something comes up, can one of you stop by and check on Tazzy? I write on the keypad before sending the text to Teddy, Steve and Oswaldo. In theory, one less thing I had to worry about once Miss Reaper woke up.
As I let the steaks soak in the marinade for several minutes and gaze skyward for these elusive meteors I told everyone at the Whet Whistle about, my phone buzzes. It was Teddy.
Since I was still having a hard time believing what happened to me tonight, I figure I might as well tell a little white lie for the sake of expediency.
Might end up taking a load up to Carlsbad in a day or two. Tazzy would have to sit this one out.
The steaks continued marinating in the blend of beer, brown sugar and spices, which gave me time to contemplate. The more I thought about it, the more I considered the possibility that Tazzy didn't fail me as a guard dog. He was certainly excited and worked up over something in the bed of the truck when I pulled in tonight. The cattle dog was also a pretty good judge of character- at least better than me. He seemed to get along just fine with both of my parents before they moved and with Teddy, Oswaldo, Steve, Dottie and Dolores when I brought him into town, but kept his distance from Kayla when we were together.
So perhaps he was a better judge of character than I was. Still, that was setting the bar pretty low.
But despite the intimidating aura and physically aggressive nature of my unwelcome guest, was it possible that Miss Reaper actually meant me no harm?
I heard something stirring in the bed of the truck. It was Miss Reaper- it as though like I would have a chance to ask her myself.
On a rock-strew hillside some 20 miles west of Bachelorsville, more than half a dozen figures gathered around a glowing circle etched into the dirt under the moonless night sky.
"What can you tell us, priestess Suutrana?" one of them asked a woman clad in austere-looking vestments as she crouched over the circle.
"She....she's on the move again. Much faster than I anticipated, Lady Liselia." the woman said. She bore some similarities in appearance to the Woman in White at the quarry, but lacked horns and had feathery black wings emerging from her back instead of the larger bat-like wings. Her tail appeared to be wrapped in a heavy chain as well.
Her observation triggered disconcerted murmurs among the others.
"Have the runes we applied worn off already?" asked a stoic, dark haired woman with pale skin, horns, a wicked-looking tail and a mask that concealed the lower part of her face.
"Not likely...if they did, she could easily return to Vamore or Royal Makai at any time" replied a statuesque woman with almost pale blue skin and white hair peeking out from underneath gaps in some sort of ceremonial-looking armor she wore on her head. Like the Priestess Suutrana, she had dark feathery wings sprouting from her back.
"Perhaps she and the vixen were separated." a beautiful but sad looking woman observed. Her torso and upper body was covered in dark markings while she had the lower body of a centipede.
"If that's true, then she's trapped here as long as the runes we applied remain in place. I'm not sure the kitsune is even strong enough to be able to send the both of them back" One of two women with only one horn and a solitary wing remarked. These went with markings on each of their bodies that tapered off into arrows.
"That bratty fox girl should be of no consequence- if we encounter her again, I'll deal with her personally." a tall, pale, voluptuous woman with a reptilian tail, reptilian claws and massive wings boasted. Lady Lisellia- what are your orders?
All of them turned to a woman with the face and torso of a beautiful and pale-bluish complexioned woman, but with the lower body of a green serpent complete with shimmering scales.
Before she could provide her answer, a set of lights washed over the group. A police truck and a much larger transport truck had been steadily approaching the group on a rutted dirt road that was climbing the hillside before rounding a bend. The gathering of otherworldly woman collectively shielded their eyes as the vehicles came to a stop. The lights seemed to illuminate the Dark Priests while rest of the group was mostly obscured by the shadows.
"I smell......prey...." one of the Amazonesses said quietly as the trucks were idling.
A door on the police truck opened up. The headlights dimmed, but as one of the vehicle's occupants got out of the driver's side he was shining a flashlight over the two Dark Priests.
"I'm not sure what you ladies are doing out here, but we're going to need you to clear the area. We have a brush-clearing crew coming in and....." he trailed off as he was getting a better look at the rest of the group for the first time and realizing he was dealing with something other than humans.
With the flashlight still in his left hand, the deputy was reaching for his sidearm with his right.
"Hands where I can see 'em!" the deputy commanded before the kunoichi suddenly broke from the group and sprinted forward towards the lawman. From a distance of about ten feet, she deftly produced a pair of demon-silver shuriken that lodged themselves in the deputy's neck. The first lawman collapsed unconscious before he could even undo the strap on the holster containing his sidearm.
However, the passenger door opened up and an ominous metallic racking sound was heard as the second lawman emerged.
"NONE OF YOU MOVE! STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE!!" the other deputy commanded as he drew a bead on the kunoichi with the department-issue Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun that was kept in the vehicle.
The albino dragon paid no heed to his commands, stepping between him and the Kunoichi. As she did so, a shotgun blast tore through the night and the statuesque reptilian woman bore the brunt of a round of 00 buckshot at near point-blank range.
However, this hardly even slowed down the dragon woman since her flesh was more durable than most body armor. The second lawman racked another shell into the Mossberg's chamber as the albino dragon woman leapt over the police truck's hood in one fluid motion. A quick sweep of her tail harshly connected with the deputy's head before it bounced off against the side of the cruiser. He relinquished his grip on the Mossberg before staggering a few paces, collapsing and slipping into unconsciousness.
"Oh dear...." Priestess Suutrana said as she checked the vital signs of the first deputy. The succubus kunoichi has already retrieved her demon silver weapons.
"They're not dead, are they?" the centipede woman called out.
"No....but I fear both of them are married...We really can't bring them back to Pandemonium." the second Dark Priest sighed as she examined the deputy KO-ed by the pale dragon woman. "You really went kind of overboard, Kaarmerys." Priestess Vonnelyn admonished the reptilian beauty.
"There are others.....many others." one of the Amazonesses said eagerly as she and her twin made their way to the second vehicle.
"Retrieving the Lilim comes first- not using kid gloves on some human weaklings who interfere!" the boastful dragon almost snarled at the Dark Priest.
There was a growing commotion from behind them as the dark valkyrie and Amazonesses were now pulling occupants from the transport truck. Behind the wheel was a firefighter who was frantically trying to radio for help after seeing what happened to the two deputies, but there was no signal in this remote location. The Dark Valkyrie was in the process of none-too-gently removing him from behind the wheel of the trapped vehicle.
"Hey there, pretty mama! Whatchya doin' all the way out here!" one of the inmates called out. The amazoness' only reply was to look over the van before ripping one of the doors off of its hinges. Being ushered from the back were nine men in orange jumpsuits with some protective gear on- these were inmates serving time for low-level offenses who had volunteered for duty to help clear brush and build firebreaks to assist in combating wildfires in exchange for additional time off of their sentences.
"Who the hell are you?" one of them asked.
"Ahhhh.....lalalalalala" Dark Priestess Suutrana cooed sensually, ignoring his query. "Good news, ladies! All but one of the men in Orange are single!"
"Priestess Vonelynn?" the snake woman asked, eyeing both the deputies' truck and the transport truck. "Is it possible the Lilim was able to cover such great distances due to one of these carriages rather than regaining her power?"
"I...ah....it's more than likely if these methods of conveyance are indeed commonplace." the second Dark Priest said distractedly. That was her honest assessment of the situation, but her attention was increasingly focused on the remaining women in the group who were beginning to avail themselves of the inmates.
"That's good- that means it's more than likely that our runes are still intact." the echidna Lieslia observed.
"Something the matter, Priestess Vonnelyn?" the albino dragon taunted as the dark priestess' hands were now roaming over her body.
"L-Lady Lieslia...I know th-that you have a husband waiting for you back home..." the priestess began to say.
"A husband who wants a son more than anything else in the world." the echidna said.
"I-I understand....however, I remain unmarried and...ah....was wondering if-"
"Priestess Vonelynn- that isn't why we came here!" she playfully admonished the dark priest, who was looking at her with unease in her eyes.
The echidna continued. "However, I won't hold it against you if you want to take this opportunity to avail yourself of some spirit energy."
"Th-thank you, Lady Liselia..." the priestess curtsied before making her way over to the fray.
"Aren't you going to join them, Kaarmerys?" the serpent woman asked.
"My...tastes....vary slightly from the others, M'lady." The albino dragon replied. "But are you sure this is wise?"
"You and the others are risking so much just by being here, Lady Kaarmerys. Such risks entitle them to greater rewards, wouldn't you say?"
Kaarmerys let out a curt, monosyllabic grunt to show concurrence with the echidna. Although she was certain the lilim couldn't have gotten very far, the dragoness wanted to resume the hunt immediately.
Unlike when she first revealed herself, I was a little better prepared to greet my uninvited guest this time around. I hadn't been singing or humming to myself, but I imagine that the Woman in White knew I was out and about since I wasn't exactly stealthily moving around.
"Yoo-hoo.... Miss Reaper?" I ask cautiously as I creep forward, one hand clutching the .357 behind my back.
"Who's there? Wh-where am I?" the demihuman in white asked as she groggily started to sit up.
"You're in El Portal County, Texas, miss...." I say, not certain how familiar Miss Reaper might be with Lone Star state geography. "More specifically, you're in my quarry."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Jacob...." I say as she fixes me in her gaze. The black sclera and fiery red pupils- while not unattractive- take some getting used to.
"Very well, Jacob....I ask that you stay your hand...."
"Wh-what?" I ask nervously.
"You have some sort of weapon in your hand." she says as she points to the hand behind my back.
Without even thinking, I bring my gun-hand out from behind my back. However, instead of pointing at her, I remove my finger from the trigger and hold it up as though I'm displaying it to her.
"Ah...this? Smith & Wesson Model 60 J-frame .357 magnum in stainless steel with two and a quarter inch barrel and a 5-shot cylinder. Not the biggest one out there, but still packs a punch."
She seems to glower disapprovingly as I re-holster the revolver.
"So....who are you and what are you doing here, Miss Reaper?" I continue after an awkward silence.
"I'm looking for a friend of mine....we became separated and I'm afraid I can't return home without her." she said, ignoring the first part of my question.
"You mean....you're not here for me?" I ask.
"We only just met- I'm not certain who you are."
"Oh...thank God..." I heave a sigh of relief. I'm not sure why I said what I said next- perhaps it was borne out of relief that she wasn't here to kill me. "It's not much, but if you need a place to stay while you're looking for your friend...." I point my hand towards the trailer in a sweeping motion.
"Why do you want me to stay? Clearly you're still frightened of me."
"Well....I thought you might have been someone else, and I don't get alot of company out here. The last beautiful woman who came out here firebombed our trucks, so I gotta figure there's no place to go but up after that, Miss Reaper..."
"C...could you not call me that?" she said quietly as she looked away.
"You have me mistaken for an emissary of death." my unannounced guest sounded genuinely hurt as she got out of the bed of the truck. "If anything, I'm the exact opposite."
"What do you mean?"
"I strive to further the blessed union of my kind with human males. If anything, I represent life."
"Your kind? I get that you're not from around these parts, but...."
"Lilim. You may not be aware of it, but I'm an extremely powerful arch-succubus and daughter of the Demon Lord." As the two of us make our way from the Ram's tailgate to the grill, I couldn't help but notice that she sounded like a dopey kid way too into Dungeons and Dragons. However, the wings, obsidian eyes and tail with the spade-shaped tip served as a reminder that this wasn't a game.
"That's not ringing a bell..."
"A bell?" she seemed bewildered by the phrase.
"It....it doesn't sound familiar. None of what you just said." I explain. "I don't recognize any of those names."
"Then allow me to formally introduce myself. I am Princess Mari, the tenth daughter of the Demon Lord and de-facto governess of Vamore." she said as she demurely curtsied.
"Pleasure to meet you." I lied blatantly as I extended my hand. "I'm Jacob- most people call me 'Jake' and I'm the property manager and part owner of this here quarry."
My uninvited guest looked uncertain over what to do with my hand.
"Shaking hands is a common way to greet one another around here." I explain.
"I see..." she said as she gently clasped my hand. "So you are the keeper of this realm?"
"That's one way of putting it." I chuckle as she now has my hand in a surprisingly strong grip.
"What is this realm like?" she asked, looking up at me earnestly. "So far it's been dreadfully hot and it reeks of soot."
"It doesn't always smell like this." I reassure her. "It may look harsh and intimidating at first, but it's so amazing and beautiful once you take the time to appreciate your surroundings, Princess."
"You can call me Mari." she said in a disarming tone.
"Mari it is, then..." I said. "So....Mari- are you hungry?"
Her stomach answered for her by letting out a growl.
"Perhaps a little...." the verbose and affable demon princess said sheepishly.
"Do you like steak?" I ask.
"I....I'm not sure I've had it before....."
"Well then.....I guess you're in for a treat." I say as I use a barbecue fork to turn over the hissing steaks.
Within moments, I brought out a pair of plates, a little salad with lettuce and bell pepper, some oil and vinegar, silverware, a salt shaker and pepper mill as well as a beer for me and a glass of coke for Mari and set everything down on the picnic table adjacent to the trailer.
"You shouldn't have, Jacob....this isn't typically how a Lilim obtains nourishment." Mari said as she started cutting into the steak. After hesitantly nibbling at the seasoned meat, her eyes widened and she quickly cut off another piece.
"My....you prepared this yourself, Jacob?"
"Y-yeah..." I said, now a little flustered. "It's a marinade that consists of beer, brown sugar and some spices that gives it both that sweet and savory flavor."
"It's quite good!" she exclaimed after another forkful. "With such culinary skills, I imagine you would make a most excellent and desirable husband."
"Th-thanks for the vote of confidence...." I nervously chuckle. "But I don't think I'm really ready for a huge commitment like that."
"Most single men usually say something like that- at least before they find the one that's meant for them." the Lilim princess says with a sly grin.
"Once upon a time, I thought I found the one that was meant for me, but...." I sigh. "Hell- You went through my head, didn't you? So you probably have some idea of how it turned out."
The lilim demurely chewed and swallowed the little dice-sized cube of steak impaled on the tines of her fork before speaking.
"I do apologize for my intrusiveness, Jacob. Since you were unable to understand me nor was I able to communicate with you, I used a technique that allowed me to learn your native tongue in a matter of moments."
Native tongue. I wished she used a slightly different figure of speech.
"Well.....who was it you said you were looking for, though?"
"A friend of mine. You'd probably recognize her if you had seen her."
"Is she another Lilim?" I ask.
"No. The two of us became separated shortly after our arrival at this realm-"
"Yeah.....about that. Where did you come from and where is Vamore, exactly?" I interrupt.
Mari says nothing but continues chewing on her steak.
"Did I mention how good this steak is...?" she asks coyly, deliberately evading my question. She seems quietly entertained by my disapproval.
"OK then..." I sigh. "How did you get here?"
"In all honesty, Jacob, I'm not sure." the lilim said as she nibbled at some of the salad. "The sooner I figure out how I ended up in this realm, the quicker I should be able to return to Vamore. Unfortunately, that's someting I can't do at my leisure at present...."
"So what was the deal with that black lightning and those markings on your leg, then?"
"I'm uncertain about that as well- I can only venture and educated guess and tell you that it's playing a key role in preventing from immediately returning home."
"You mean you weren't controlling that? You didn't-" I start to ask.
"Jacob." she says abruptly. "I sincerely appreciate the hospitality and kindness you have shown towards me tonight under no doubt strenuous circumstances for you, and I can sense you're unsatisfied with the answers I have provided."
Mari paused to wipe the corner of her mouth with a red and white checkered paper napkin.
"As am I...." she continued. "I do not intend to be rude, Jacob, but I would be in much better shape to answer your queries after a good night's sleep."
"I guess you're right..." I sighed. I have no idea how far away this Vamore is from Texas, but I imagine that the succubus princess I broke bread with presently had much more to worry about than jet lag.
I start to clear the dishes from the picnic table before I realize something. I offered her a place to stay without thinking through the sleeping arrangements. There was an extra cot that I could probably scare up on short notice and set up in the office for myself.
"Hey.....uh.....Mari?" I ask nervously.
"Yes, Jacob?" she asks as she's getting up from the table.
"I....I know it's late, but do you want to stay up a little longer and watch the meteor shower?"
I meant to ask her about the sleeping arrangements but naturally, I get sidetracked.
"Yeah...this time of year, the earth moves through a debris field from a passing comet and....the debris it leaves behind can get caught up in the earth's atmosphere and burn up..."
The beautiful succubus princess looks uncertain.
"So.....if we catch it at just the right time, it will look like it's raining stars...." I continue.
"Really?" the self professed demon princess was making her way back to the truck, which was where I had stowed most of her gear.
"Yes...." although I had to admit 'raining stars' was overselling it a bit. "It's close to a new moon and there's no light pollution out here, so we should be able to see everything clearly."
"I suppose I could postpone my rest to take in such a sight." she said as she moved her tail out of the way before sitting on the tailgate.
After a moment, she patted the empty portion of the tailgate next to her.
"Will you be joining me, Jacob?" she asked.
"Of course...." I say as I hesitantly sit down next to her. . Several quiet moments pass by with no sign of any shooting stars, although the glittering night sky held it's own subdued allure for me.
"Jacob?" Mari asks.
"What do the people do for entertainment around here?"
I give her inquiry careful consideration. For each question that I had for her, I realized that she probably had twenty more for me- even if they were about the mundane day-to-day things in my life. Assuming she didn't have any ulterior motives, that was probably one of the biggest reasons behind her wanting to hold off most of the questions until the following day.
"Honestly- you're pretty much looking at it. Cookout and beer with friends, listening to the ballgame, stargazing....sometimes there's the rodeo or football on Friday nights depending on the time of year." Truth be told, it seemed like more and more people were becoming bored with such activities and yearning for something more exciting. I begin to explain "It's not for everyone-"
"That sounds almost....." she interrupted, pausing for a moment. "...idyllic."
"Mm-hmm" she says drowsily.
Several quiet moments pass by with nary a shooting star to be seen. I was beginning to think that Mari had drifted off to sleep next to me until she spoke up again.
"What does it mean that you were trapped in a metal Buffalo?"
I paused. I hadn't really told anyone- not even my father about that day in Ramadi, nor was it one of those things I let slip after getting my lips loosened with beer and whiskey at the Whet Whistle. Yet she picked up on it right away.
"I-I apologize.....I didn't mean to pry, especially since you still don't know so much about myself." she said nervously when I didn't answer right away. "It was something I sensed in your mind when we-"
"No...it's OK." I cut her off. "Buffalo's the name for an MRAP- a kind of vehicle we used when I was in the Army."
"Like this one?" Mari asks.
"Sort of- it's much bigger- about the size of one of the dump trucks over there and covered in thicker metal."
"Why is that?"
"Makes it more resistant to bombs, explosives and IEDs...it was a couple of years ago, but sometimes if feels like it was yesterday. The one I was in was hit by a roadside bomb outside of Ramadi." I sighed. "The blast ripped off the front axle and flipped it on its side. Aside from a concussion and lingering tinnitus, I survived. But...." I hesitated. "but it took awhile for help to arrive- and there's no way I was getting out of the vehicle when the place was crawling with insurgents. So I pretty much had all day to reflect on my mortality....just baking inside this overturned vehicle in the desert sun wondering if I was already dead."
"I'm sorry, Jacob...you didn't have to tell me that and I had no business prying like that."
"I-it's OK....." I said- a white lie. I wasn't really okay with her probing around my head and my memories like that, but at least she seemed apologetic and tactful about it. "But you have me at a disadvantage, Princess...you seem to know so much about me, but I don't know very much about you."
"Well...I'm the tenth daughter of the demon lord and the de-facto ruler of a Subordinate realm called Vamore. I enjoy spending time with my friends, travel, drawing, writing as well as magic and I'm always willing to try new experiences or learn new things."
I chuckle- perhaps a bit too late, I realize how rude that must've sounded.
"What?" Mari asks defensively.
"Oh....nothing. It sounds kind of like you're filling out an online dating profile."
"It's....it's ah.....you see, it's a fairly new method aided by technology that men and women use to try and meet each other."
"Sounds wondrous..." she said dreamily.
"It isn't. People are fucking liars and psychos...."
"Oh look! There's one!" She interrupts excitedly as she gently elbows me. I look up and catch a fleeting glimpse of a shooting star as it burns itself out over the western horizon. Suddenly I'm very glad for the change of topic.
"The stars in your heavens shimmer like sliverdust on fine black velvet!" she marvels. "One cannot put a price on joyous moments such as these, can they?"
"No....of course not..." I say absently. "For someone who just learned the English language earlier tonight, you really seem to have a way with words- are you going to write that down in your-?"
"Another one!" Mari excitedly shouts as she points up straight over our heads, elbowing me much more enthusiastically this time. A much brighter meteorite seems to slow down and sputter out as it streaks across the blackened sky.
"I know...I saw it..." I smile. The Perseids meteor shower had begun in earnest. My otherworldly guest genuinely seems to be enjoying herself while doing nothing more than looking up at the celestial light show from the bed of the Ram.
I don't know why, but hearing her excitement brought a smile to my lips. I drifted off to sleep next to Mari, occasionally hearing her joyfully point out another shooting star as I slipped further into my slumber.