The Hunter's Instinct, Chapter 7: The Horde
Disclaimer: this is a mature story with violence, moderately gory details, and adult themes and language interspersed throughout the story. Read at your own discretion.
"Wake up, kid, we've got a problem. There's a large group of grunts outside chasing someone, whole town's in danger."
"Fuckin' shit..." Turner exclaims, checking to ensure he didn't leave his pistols while swept up in the arms and legs of the working gal he'd so thoroughly enjoyed earlier. Withdrawing them from their holsters, he checks them to ensure both cylinders are fully loaded and gives them a reassuring spin until the familiar click click click of the rotating cylinders come to rest in alignment with the firing pins. "Okay, what's the plan?"
You pause to quickly form a plan of action. There's someone in the street who is in dire need of assistance, but the woman can't be left unattended - neither because of her vulnerability nor her unknown intentions. You're left with a choice:
(A.) Leave Turner in the room with the woman to guard her and shoot into the crowd of grunts from the bedroom window while you meet the man in the street to help him fight off the undead.
(B.) Have Turner meet the man in the street to help him fight off the undead while you maintain position in the bedroom to guard the woman and shoot at the grunts in the street yourself.
Y'all were quite literally divided on this one! Right down the middle, 50/50! I have to roll to see what Fate decides...
Chapter 7: The Horde
Image Artist: @anikekirsten
Sheriff Billings glances behind him in his headlong sprint in reaction to a scream. Apparently, a woman awoken by his gunshots peeked her head out of her home to see what the fuss was about at the exact moment a grunt was stumbling across the stoop at her front door... In horror, he watches as the monstrosity drags her clear of the doorway by her hair, and sinks its teeth deep into her neck - eliciting yet another gargling scream of terror and agony from the poor woman. Her eyes, wide as saucers, roll back into her head and her outstretched hand, once writhing and grasping for help, falls limp to her side.
A few other grunts join the first and begin to tear at her clothing, exposing her torso to the moonlight. Her porcelain skin shines pale in the moonlight for a brief moment - soft and smooth - untouched by the ravages of age or abuse. Her breasts proudly stand like two defiant hilltops, finally free of their confines and the societal shamefulness that demands their imprisonment. Then, a deep crimson washes over it all like paint spilled on a canvas as the searching fingers of the grunts rip open her stomach and begin to tear out her insides.
Jesus Christ... it's over for her...
The horrific scene unfolding before the good sheriff gives home only a moment's pause before he snaps back to attention, realizing that his fate could easily be the same if he doesn't keep moving!
"FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STAY IN YOUR HOMES AND GET YOUR GUNS! A HORDE IS UPON US!"
As he shouts these words, a figure bursts out of the saloon's front doors...
A quick breath of air carries both the crisp scent of the night and the foul odor of decaying flesh. It isn't pleasant, but it's enough to shake off a good portion of the whiskey imbibed earlier.
Alright, Turner, it's showtime. Clear yer head, and shoot better'n you ever shot before!
The Kid raises his pistols akimbo, and squeezes the trigger in a swift, but methodical rhythm. One, two, three, four...
The Sheriff crouches down but continues his headlong pace towards the saloon, understanding that he's likely to lose his head if he continues running upright at his full height. A quick glance back reveals the falling bodies of the four nearest shuffling monsters, heads blown wide open by hot lead, spewing bone fragments and brain matter on the street where they lay.
Damn, they're a hell of a shot usin' those pistols the way they are...
Thankful for the assistance, however, Wyatt is not one to ask questions or criticize the effectiveness of the mystery shooter and their gun handling. He's just glad that he's not the only one facing these things down in the street now.
The gunshots outside signal the arrival of the Jenkins boy on the street, but before taking your position at the window, you check on the woman laying on the bed. She is still sound asleep. Either this whole fiasco sapped her energy more than we thought, or that was one helluva does of morphine the doc gave her. I hope that she can be roused if we had to run... You cross the room in two quick strides, and using the butt of your rifle, you smash open the dirty glass window to give you a clear shooting solution. If we make it out of this alive, I'm sure the owner of the establishment will forgive the abuse of property.
A quick glance out the broken window shows that there is a lazily sloping overhang directly beneath you that should be easily accessible. It also provides a decent view of the street leading up to the front door of the saloon. Likely a better perch for shooting than here in the room where the blast is likely to deafen everyone inside... You deftly vault the windowsill, feet landing squarely on the wooden shingles of the overhang beneath you with a dull thud. Four more gunshots ring out from somewhere beneath you, and four more grunts drop from the oncoming group that seems to have grown in number since first sighting. If Turner is doing the shooting, he's going to have to reload after the next salvo. I had better be in position and ready to provide supporting fire when that happens.
With that thought, you rush to the edge of the overhang with a clear view of the street. Crouching down, you raise the rifle to your cheek, the wooden stock of the rifle butted up snugly against your shoulder. You take a quick breath to calm the adrenaline response in your system, level the sights of your rifle on the head of the nearest grunt and pull the trigger. The familiar kick of the weapon pushes back into your shoulder, your body effortlessly absorbing the shock and returning to a state of complete balance and control almost instantly. As the head of the grunt explodes in a rain of flesh and bone, you pump the lever of the rifle - listening to the familiar sound of the loading mechanism kicking the empty cartridge out of the firing chamber and pushing another back into its place. Without hesitating, you acquire your next target and squeeze the trigger.
Cold and calculated. Breathe in between shots, and out through every trigger pull. Remember, when you hold the gun, you are Death's right hand.
The words of your father float in and out of your mind once more as you lever round after round into the small horde of decaying flesh.
Sheriff Billings collapses next to the front door of the saloon for a brief moment to catch his breath. He is panting too heavily to be of any use right now, and he knows this. Better to spare a moment to quickly get my breathing and nerves under control than to immediately throw myself back into this fight. Won't do any good putting haphazard shots down range... He glances up at what he now can see is a young man wielding two pistols with an ease and efficiency that exceeds his age, the tattered poncho thrown across his shoulders to give him quick and easy access to the ammunition at his gun belt. A window shatters above and the sound of footsteps thudding across the overhanging roof carries to just over where the sheriff now sits, followed swiftly by more gunshots.
The young man seems to notice the additional support, fires off four more rounds into the crowd of animated corpses, then immediately knocks both pistol cylinders to the side and spins them - ejecting all the empty cartridges in a rain of smoking brass. Clutching both guns in his right hand, the young man grabs two bullets at a time out of his belt jamming them into the cylinders with surprising speed and dexterity before closing both cylinders with a quick flick of the wrist and spinning them into place with a swipe of his left hand. The whole process took only a matter of seconds.
Boy that age shouldn't be that comfortable and quick with his guns, that takes YEARS to become that familiar and efficient! Who is this kid?
The question left unanswered lingers for a moment in his mind until he notices the shaking in his hand has gone and his breathing has more or less normalized. Time to fight.
You eject another cartridge with a quick pump of the lever, the rotting flesh and ichor of your latest target splattering across the mud and steps of another house across the street. "All out, Turner, save your shots if possible! I'm reloading!"
"A'right, mister! We've got you covered!" he shouts out as the reports of a third gun join the din.
At this point, you notice doors of the houses further down the street in the direction from which the horde came begin to fly open, producing men and women brandishing guns and other assorted weapons. Good, the townspeople have awoken. This fight is more evenly matched now. The night air fills with the sound of gunshots, growls, screams, and the sound of thudding bodies. Hot lead tears through rotten flesh, splattering congealed blood, brain matter, bone, and muscle across the street - mixing with the mud in a grotesque, yet poetic way. Ash to ash, dust to dust. Then, as suddenly as it began, the ruckus fades away into an eerie silence. Not a sound to be heard, with the exception of a few heavy sighs from the ranks of the town's inhabitants.
You straighten up from your crouched position, gun barrel smoking. You lever another empty cartridge from the firing chamber and ram a few more rounds into the loading tube as you begin to carefully walk back to the window of the bedroom to peer inside. You are greeted by the face of the woman from the bed, right next to yours. Startled, you back away from the window to bring your gun around, but she holds her hands up, attempting to nonverbally diffuse the situation by communicating "I'm no danger to you."
You re-enter the room with another effortless vaulting jump. She backs up closer to the bed, quivering a little. You allow the rifle to drop so that it hangs nonthreateningly from its forestock clutched in your left hand, right hand extended with the palm out.
"It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. Went through enough trouble to get you back here after you shot at us, it'd be a shame to put all that to waste..." A look of realization shoots across her face, then confusion. She tries to speak, but the pain of doing so is evident in the furrowed brow and squinted eyes in reaction to that effort.
"You don't have to say anything, take the time to rest and allow your wound to heal. You're safe for now, the boy and I will make sure of that."
She makes a motion with her hands that clearly signifies a shooting gun then points out the window inquisitively.
"Small horde of grunts wandered into town somehow. Never seen 'em out this far, or in numbers quite like that... was strange, to say the least." A momentary expression of fear crossed her face, which soon subsided. You wouldn't be in here talking with her if they were still out there. "Anyhow, I wanted to check in on ya, make sure you was okay. So... you okay?" She nodded gently, careful not to irritate her already injured neck by doing so. "Good. I need to speak with the kid, stay here. Get some rest." With that, you exit the room by way of the door, leaving the mystery woman to return to her bedrest.
Outside, the crowd of townsfolk have already gathered around the front doors of the saloon. Turner is standing with a man who seems to be addressing the crowd.
"Good people, please, return to your homes now. Bar the doors, board up the windows. We should be safe now, but we should prepare in case this is the first of more events like this! No one goes alone from now on - please travel at least in pairs, with one or both of you being armed. However, it is also not a time to lose our heads. We can't have reports of any of our neighbors being shot by a jumpy triggerman. Be smart, be safe, and look out for each other. Everyone is dismissed!"
The man speaks with an authority that matches his stature, a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man standing about 6 feet tall with a handlebar mustache. As he turns around to face you and Turner, the proof of his authority shines bright and clear in the moonlight reflecting off the Sheriff's badge on his chest.
"Well, I had intended to make your acquaintance when I saw y'all roll in on that carriage. Didn't think it'd be made this way, though. The name's Wyatt Billings. Damn, am I glad you boys showed up when you did, I likely owe my life to you!"
"Think nothin' of it. Where'd those things come from, you think? Never seen anything like that this far inland..." You reply, brushing off the weight of a life-debt. Father always said that it was better to avoid being indebted AND holding a debt over someone.
"Me neither. They've always stuck to the swamps for some reason... either the food is too good to leave, or the terrain too rough for them to navigate. Was thinking about catching a trail at first light and findin' out where the sonsabitches came from, wouldn't mind if y'all tagged along. Already proved yourselves useful with firearms, and by the looks of ya, seems like you're pretty familiar with these things too." He pauses to assess the two of you for a moment. "Yeah, I've seen your type roll through before. You folks are from the Hunter's Collective, I presume. I know you boys probably have contracts that need fillin', but your help would sure be appreciated 'round here if you're up to it."
You glance at Turner, who has just left your side and is crossing the street. What the hell is he up to? Observing him for a moment reveals that he has made his way over to a group of corpses next to the stoop of a house across the street. Pausing for a moment over the heap, he kicks away some of the corpses to reveal one with pale white skin - body ravaged and insides strewn about - its perfectly shaped breasts still intact and exposed for the world to see. He throws the poncho from his shoulders and covers the corpse over as if tucking it in with a blanket, restoring her modesty once more. Then he unsheathes the knife from its sheath on his waist, and shoves it through the temple of the her head. Dunno what's gotten into him, but he's a smart boy - gotta kill the brain to keep 'em dead. He's consistently full of surprises... He begins making his way back across the street towards you.
Turning your attention back to the Sheriff, you respond, "We'll give it some thought. Check in with us in the morning and we'll let you know."
"Alright, sounds fair. You boys get some rest... or as much as you can, that is..." he says, noticing that the sky is already turning colors, heralding a new dawn. "I'll check in with you first thing in the morning."
Nodding in agreement, you motion to Turner and the two of you return to the room you rented in the saloon. The woman has already fallen back into a morphine-influenced sleep.
"Shit... did she sleep through all that?!" Turner exclaims quietly.
"No, she was awake when I came back in through the window. She seems to be fine, though, if that's what you're askin'."
With a flush of mild embarrassment, he retorts, "I weren't askin' nothin', where'd you get that stupid idea?" He quickly stomps across the room back to the chair and plops down into it with the grace of a sack of potatoes. "So, what's you thinkin' about the Sheriff's perposal?"
"I was about to ask you the same question, actually."
"Fuck if I know, mister. Lot's happened today, and I still dunno yer fuckin' name, so I'm not real sure's to what I'm thinkin' right about now... I just gotta good feelin' about ya, so I don't mind hitchin' my horse to yer cart fer a while longer."
The boy's devil-may-care attitude is astounding, given he quite literally faced down death and hardly even flinched. May get him killed someday. Don't know what it is about him, but I agree with that "good feeling" he was talking about...
"My name, it's Gunnar. Gunnar Lockheed."
At this, the boy's eyes grew wide. The name Lockheed was known far and wide as one of the most prolific bounty-hunting-turned-HC-Hunter family names in this region of the continent... perhaps the whole continent! The gulp from his swallow is almost audible from where you stand as he opens his mouth to speak again.
"Well, well... a Lockheed, huh? Shit... welp, it's a good thing I agreed to work with ya instead of tryin' to shoot ya out there, then, ain't it?! Haha!" The wonder gave way to that devil-may-care grin once more. "Shiiiit... Gunnar, huh? Well, Gunnar, I'd like to get a little shut-eye, if'n you don't mind. You make up yer mind about tomorrow, I'm along fer the ride now! Heh, heh..." And with that, he tips his hat over his eyes and quickly drifts off into a sleep littered with light snores.
You sit yourself down on the floor with your back propped against the door, just in case, and ponder the decision that you've been presented...
(A.) Join the Sheriff tomorrow morning to investigate the origin of the horde.
(B.) Return to the swamp with Turner to complete your contracts.
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As always, take care of yourselves and each other, and stay thoughtful!
Your friendly neighborhood dork,
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