Farlan stopped about an hour’s walk shy of the Shaw Gang’s stalking grounds and dismounted his shaggy horse, Proof, gentle clinking noises issuing from beneath his oiled coat. He tied a loose tether for Proof, who whickered at him noisily before nosing into the lush grass of the secluded gully, and then adjusted his kilt, making it a little tighter around his protruding waist. Putting on a few too many pounds, old man, he thought to himself, and chuckled, one hand reaching up to pat the left side of his coat, another muffled clink of glass softly sounding.
The trail ahead promised action, possibly a little running about, and Farlan didn’t really want his kilt falling down around his ankles in the middle of a fight. Not that he was ashamed of baring the good gifts the Lord had seen fit to provide him, but shootouts were notoriously difficult affairs to begin with, much less shootouts conducted while hopping about off-balance with one’s sossie and spuds dangling in the breeze. Like any honest Scotsman, he spurned the prissy English habit of constricting underpants. Probably why they’re such uptight little nonces to begin with – not near enough blood flowing to the important bits.
The truly important business taken care of, Farlan readjusted his gun-belt with a grunt of exertion, making sure the grips of his twin Colt Dragoons faced forward and rested high. Low slung holsters might be all the rage amongst the preening saloon badboys of the American frontier, but this was New Zealand where ‘low slung’ meant ‘snagged in scrub and undergrowth’. An experienced Falconer knew the difference between life and death might be the quarter-second it took to draw and fire, and Farlan hadn’t grown to be an old Falconer by being careless. Training himself to crossdraw, cavalry style, had been a right pain in the nether regions, but the advantage it provided once he mastered it had proven lifesaving on more than one occasion.
And you’re going to need all the advantages you can get if the rumors are true, boyo.
Farlan readjusted the large leather satchel slung over his shoulder to a more comfortable position and continued walking down the trail, the soft swish of his kilt buried beneath the sounds of wind and leaves. In an abandoned outpost up ahead, if his informant was correct, lay the remnants of the Shaw Gang. Several days ago they’d numbered in the dozens, but after a botched gold coach heist that left close to a score dead and as many wounded, only the core of the gang remained.
That core consisted of Paddy Shaw, his brother Connor, their two top lieutenants, and the true enemy that Farlan had come to dispatch. A Culler, hiding within one of the four.
Farlan still wasn’t sure how, or why the Cullers kept appearing, or why they were so intent on wiping out humanity. The Order of the Falcon wasn’t all that forthcoming with the ‘why’ of things. But then again, it wasn’t his job to know. His job was to rid the world of their presence, by any means necessary, and it was a job he had taken up over twenty years earlier, when he stared into the raging flames of his brewery and heard the screams of his family slowly fade into silence. It was a job he had dedicated his life to, and if sometimes that meant he needed a drink or two to settle the nerves, well, who wouldn’t after seeing what he had seen?
A brief rustle from the side of the trail caused Farlan to freeze and aim his Boss double-barreled shotgun at a patch of tangled briar, and it wasn’t until the white-tailed rabbit poked its twitching nose out that he let himself relax. Cullers had been known to imitate animals before, but always dangerous predators, something capable of killing a man. A rabbit posed no threat, unless it got into his beer stash.
Farlan let the shotgun swing back down to a neutral position and continued down the torturous game path that shadowed the Pig Route, that muddled, wagon-rutted trail that carried gold miners and traders back and forth from the Golden Ranges to Fort Eden. Traveling along the Pig Route itself would have undoubtedly been easier, but it also would have revealed his presence to anyone watching from the overlying hills, and with a potential Culler in the area, that was most assuredly something Farlan wanted to avoid.
The sun rose higher in the sky, heat beating down from the blazing orb, amplified by the smoky haze thrown up by the countless sluicing operations dotting the Golden Ranges, and Farlan wiped sweat from his brow with a gnarled hand. Why cannae these damned things ever take place in nicer weather? He pushed another scrubby tree branch aside, then paused, his nerves jangling. Up ahead lay the abandoned outpost, a tumbled down heap of grey stone and half charred beams surrounded by a field of knee high grass, but something seemed… off.
Farlan thought back to his training on the rugged landscape of the Isle of Skye, the Falconer instructors beating lesson after lesson into his thick Scottish skull. You know the Cullers are cunning, vicious, and never, ever, unprepared. They feed off our pain, our suffering, or so it seems. What’s the worst imaginable outcome in this scenario, and how can you avoid it?
Slowly, oh so slowly, Farlan let his senses drink in the surrounding area. The muted buzz of insects and bird cries indicated nobody lying in ambush, and nothing moved within the outpost itself. Think, you daft apeth. There’s no sight of any guards. Why?
As his eyes gradually traveled downward, the glint of steel wire at his feet provided Farlan the answer. Barely three inches from his right boot lay a taut strand, no doubt connected to something irritatingly lethal.
So it’s to be one of those, eh?
Farlan smiled. Traps he could deal with. Kneeling down, he let his fingers gently brush the wire, gauging its tension. Slightly more give to the right side, which meant the firing mechanism was likely in that direction. Farlan gently duckwalked through the grass, feeling the stalks tickle the inside of his bare legs, his finger tracing the wire’s extended length, until it finally ended at a small rod, the slender thread wrapped around a counterweighted hammer poised to shatter a large glass vial. Continuing in the same deliberate movements, Farlan grasped the hammer in one hand, to prevent it from breaking the vial, then lifted the vial itself from the hook connecting it to the rod. A quick glance revealed several white chunks floating in cloudy liquid.
Hmmm, white phosphorus most-like. Which means an accelerant coating the field, or even under it. Clever bastards.
With a quick motion, Farlan swung the satchel off his back and flipped the cover open. Inside lay multiple vials, each carefully labeled in his own precise shorthand, secured by several straps, along with additional empty areas for other vials. A neat set of movements secured the white phosphorus vial in the pack, and Farlan swung it back onto his shoulder.
One down. Let’s see how many others the buggers planted.
A long thirty minutes later, Farlan leaned back against the crumbling wall of the outpost, somewhat disappointed. Aye, they were clever with the one trap, but not clever enough to set more than one. Might not even be a Culler here if that’s the case. Well, cleaning out a nest of bandits is its own right reward, and who knows? Might be some beer at the end of it if you’re lucky.
Farlan looked around at the tussock-clad wilderness, taking it in just in case it happened to be the last time he saw it, then stood and kicked open the rotting wooden door in a splintering crash. A jolt of pain radiated up his leg, and grimacing, he limped through, the Boss shotgun snugged up to his shoulder.
Inside, rays of sunlight pierced through small holes in the building’s high wooden roof, giving the dim interior an almost church-like quality, and revealing a large common area cluttered with the remnants of splintered chairs and tables. Several doorways were visible through the gloom, their rotting frames gaping like a skull’s eye sockets in the dark stone walls, but the only movement was that of dust motes, stirred into the air by the sudden draft of air. Farlan took a deep breath.
“Allright, you sodding buggers, we can do this the easy way, or-“
The crack of a rifle sounded nearly simultaneously with Farlan’s dive behind a low stone ledge, a bloodstain blossoming on his upper arm.
“So it’s to be the hard way, then,” Farlan muttered, opening the satchel. “They always choose the hard way.”
He pulled out two vials, and unstoppered one, pouring a few drops of the pungent green liquid into his still bleeding shoulder. The sudden sting brought forth a few choice swear words, but several seconds later, both the blood and the pain started to fade. Farlan placed that vial back into his pack, then hefted the other one, staring at it thoughtfully.
“Tell me, boyos,” he called, his rich Scottish burr jocular, “have you ever heard the words ‘fulminate of mercury?’”
“What the hell is wrong you, you old coot?” came the shouted response, and Farlan grinned, showing his teeth. One of the Shaw Gang had just made a fatal error.
A quick pivot and Farlan rose to his knees, briefly rising above the counter. Several bullets whizzed by, hitting the wall behind him with splintering impacts, but Farlan ignored them, his eyes on the doorway the voice had come from. With a grunt, he flung the vial end over end at the shadowed arch, then ducked back down, covering his ears and opening his mouth.
The explosion when the vial burst wasn’t the largest Farlan had ever caused, but in the enclosed space it still rattled him like a dried bean in a can, and he didn’t want to think too hard about what had happened in the room beyond. The two brief screams had been more than enough.
His ears still ringing, Farlan rolled to his feet, slinging the alchemist’s satchel back over his shoulder once more, and charged the other doorway. Stumbling movement within its depths brought a thunderous roar from the Boss, both barrels discharging as one, and the figure dropped like a stone, half its side flayed away from the deadly clouds of buckshot.
Beyond it, another figure sprang forward in a scuttling run, its limbs jerking like some sort of demonic marionette. Farlan’s eyes widened, and he threw the shotgun forward, trying to buy some time to draw one of his pistols with their precious gold-coated bullets, but then the thing was upon him in a whirl of flashing teeth and claws.
The eyes of what had once been a man, Connor Shaw, now a compound of ebony mirrors bulging grotesquely in their sockets.
Farlan blocked the first swing with a meaty forearm, taking care not to let the jagged shards of chitin that had replaced Connor’s fingernails scratch him, and drove his other fist into the Culler’s abdomen, but he might as well have been punching the wall for all the good it did. The creature merely hissed, an alien sound that seemed to pierce directly into Farlan’s mind, and tried to bite his face off with snapping mandibles. Farlan leaned away, his back muscles giving a warning twinge, and the jaws crashed shut mere centimetres from his ruddy nose, flecks of spittle pattering against his cheeks. Farlan slammed his forehead into the Culler’s face, driving it back a step, but then had to leap backward yet again as another swiping claw from the other side nearly disemboweled him. Instinctually, he reached for his pistols, only to turn the movement into an elbow block, the Culler pursuing relentlessly forward. The two exchanged another series of blows, and then suddenly, the Culler’s open hand slipped through Farlan’s guard and impacted his side, producing a sharp pain and the sound of shattering glass. Roaring, Farlan kicked the creature full in the chest, sending it flying across the room in a tangle of limbs.
“THAT WAS MY BEER, YOU COCKROACH-FOOKEN BASTARD!”
His own eyes red with rage, Farlan drew both his pistols and fired shot after shot into the thrashing form, inky black blood spurting forth in great jets as bullets struck home – coated in the one substance inimical to Culler life. Gold.
The creature screeched, its scrabbling motions now more like those of a spider on a frying pan, and Farlan staggered over to stand in front of it, his side aching, knee throbbing, and him just generally feeling about done for the day. Wearily, clinging to the last bits of anger still coursing through his veins, he reached into his alchemist’s satchel one last time.
“Here, you great bloody gobshite. You forgot to bring this in from outside.”
The vial of white phosphorus burst open in a roar of heat, engulfing the Culler in flames, and Farlan watched it burn down to ash, his expression stony as he made sure nothing escaped. As the last embers smouldered out, he turned with a sigh, reaching into his coat, his now trembling fingers closing on cool, smooth glass.
“At least the bugger didn’t get all the beer…”