Saloondrian Short Stories, by Blake Propach
The Mysterious Beast of the Plagued Lands by Michael Kuroda
We had been the ones who stalked. The ones feared by the bandits of the wastes. When our green sails peaked over the horizon, they knew to scatter. Because the fleet of Admiral Vanessa Dredge was not plundered. Was not pillaged. Was not stalked. Admiral Dredge was the one who stalked. No one dared to enter our airspace. Any campfires were long burnt out before our arrival. Those that were not, well…
We have a reputation for violence. This, I do not believe is entirely fair. The Admiral, she has a way of doing things, sure, but violence is never necessary. Violence is a path chosen by those foolish enough to disobey. In these cases, rarer than they were at first, mind you, yes, it becomes bloody, for the short time that it lasts. Admiral Dredge’s justice is swift, and she takes no pleasure in your eradication.
In recent weeks, her temper has grown short. Because in recent weeks, well, we are stalked. Our scout reports would suggest we are not alone. Many lesser fleets, merchant ships, any ground dwellers we have been in contact with, they add to the rumors the same as we. A rolling mist, twenty stories high, carrying with it an unfathomable darkness. And contained within that darkness, somewhere, a thing which stalks. A creature, or a ship, or something yet undescribed. Something gigantic, which floats as a whale would in the water, buoyant in the mist, at home in the fog.
And it’s hungry. The Plague Lands are littered with ruins, and if these ruins are corpses, then the wastes left behind the trail of fog are fossils, buried again beneath a film of dew and mud. Our ships are equipped with advanced devices to detect the magical pulses emanating from cursed artifacts buried beneath the sands. Upon our return to any area consumed by the thing’s domain, all traces of any meaningful object have gone to nothing. The fog itself pulses like nothing we have ever found hidden beneath the ground, emanating a magical aura five, ten times more powerful than what could be achieved by a talented sorcerer.
And it stalks us. Large portions of what should be our territory have been lost to it, some of our captains refusing orders if they would bring them closer to a recent sighting. And the Admiral is angry. She wants the creature’s head, but none are brave enough to take the contract. A quarter million gold pieces, she has offered, but the bounty hunters are wary. Jagmar laughed at her when she called upon him. The Knucklering ignored her beacon. Even the Rolling Barrel, the largest scavenger guild with a reputation for morally questionable hits, produced no champion, and the Admiral grew angrier.
Some of us among the crew have started calling it the Bullet, not for its speed, but for its shape. I haven’t seen it myself, which I am grateful for, but some claim that within the fog they see its eyes, glowing red like lanterns, attached to a black metallic cylinder that resembles that which is fired from a gun. An ironic sense of humor its creator must have had, to make a magical beast into such a form. In a land where guns have little use if not imbued by or formed from magic. Or perhaps it is cyclical in that way, that gunslingers of old should fear the mystic, and the mystic should fear the Bullet.
I myself do not fear it so much as marvel at it. There is so much to fear in this harsh landscape, so many monsters and sorcerers that wish us ill. I am grateful to the position that I have managed for myself, and the safety it offers me. And I think it just that even those untouched by the horrors below should have reason not to meddle in them. That even here, safe in the clouds, our merchant lords and admirals should fear a thing without a form, a Bullet which stalks them.
I may change my mind when there comes a point where the Admiral’s anger turns to me, but for now I simply marvel at it. Marvel at all great beasts and empires which I live to experience from my vantage point among the stars. The characters at play that squabble and destroy and build and conquer. And I, their giddy one-person audience, content to watch and to enjoy.