Etta had just gotten back in bed after a midnight pee where she'd tried to stay sleepy when the screaming cows brought her wide awake. The sound of the cows had her attention, but more, the distant but recognizable sound underneath reminded her she was in Texas at her dead aunt's ranch and let her know the goddamned demons were back already.
She jumped from bed, pulled on her jeans and boots, and grabbed her bullwhip and pistol as she ran out the front door of the small house her aunt's neighbors had raised when Uncle Benton passed suddenly. If only they'd cleared the land first and warded it, Aunt Teddy might have lasted longer than she had. But they were working on it now, Etta doing what she could on her own. Nobody in the territory -- or probably the whole continent -- had successfully warded a plot of land this large, but Etta was born and raised a Texan, carried its soil and its spirit in her, and always defaulted to the biggest option. She wouldn't fail, even if Moore, her foreman, thought she was smoking poppy, or else too stupid to know better.
Though it was dark, Etta could see well enough as she dashed around the main house and toward the fields. The air promised to be more humid than an armpit in Louisiana by morning, and it smelled of the dying bluebonnets that had cropped up on the west side of the house a week ago. Such a shame. She'd only seen them bloom twice in the four years she'd been here, and they only stuck around a handful of weeks each time. Goddamned demons couldn't even let flowers be beautiful.
When Etta rounded the barn and looked out to the field, she didn't have to wonder about what fence they might have breached. It was a ground demon, so it had avoided the fence line altogether and tunneled up, straight into the middle of the herd. She knew this by the way the cows ran, lowing like they'd gone mad, from a point dead center in the field before her.
"Moore, demon!" she yelled toward the bunkhouse as she ran past it.
Etta dug her hand into her pocket and with relief found the small bag of salt snug against her hip. She dropped the pistol in the dirt and vaulted the fence, deftly avoiding the ineffective burrs on the top rail, and once on the other side, she loosened her grip on the whip and spun it widdershins around her until it whistled. She chanted in time and in tune with the undulating hum of the whip's thong, and she advanced toward the thing that had scattered the cattle.
Only because the sky was clear and the moon was full overhead, she got a good view of the beast once enough of the cows had run -- all but, it looked like, three unlucky creatures clutched in barbed tentacles.
The demon rotated until milky eyes, about twenty of them, stared straight at her. It spoke in its own tongue, garbled, a growl, but Etta knew that it had stated its intention to eat the herd and her, too. Not because it was that hungry. Because it could.
Etta's head squeezed with the words, and her nose bled. Just a drop. Always, just a drop. She let it slide to her upper lip and smiled at the bastard.
The bastard released the cow corpses, screeched, and came at her, trenching the ground between them. It was massive, bigger than any demon she saw the few months she spent riding up to Colorado and back.
Behind the whip, Etta kicked a clot of grass loose, dug the toe of her boot into the earth, and when the demon was close enough, flung the dirt into the rotating blur around her. She shouted a sound that felt jagged and wild on her tongue. Though she couldn't see the bits of dirt become sharp projectiles, she saw the demon rear back as black spots bloomed across its shit-brown skin, and a glassy green dagger like an icy blade of grass stuck from one of its eyes. Its face split in a scream, the multiple flaps making up its beaked mouth peeled back to reveal needle teeth in swollen, red tissue.
From somewhere behind her, a man screamed. Probably the new hire.
The demon huffed and focused hard on Etta. She knew it would try to burrow now. Time to bait it. She backed away quickly, and though her whip continued to rotate, it slowed, and the popper sagged.
The demon sank into the ground, leaving a deceptively small mound behind, and the earth shook.
She pulled out the bag of salt, dumped its contents in a quick circle around her, and clutched the thong of the whip against the handle.
Behind her again, another man shouted, and Moore barked out commands she could hear but not understand. Not now, not when she was listening for the demon as it came toward her, as its language squeezed down on her.
Its words were unsurprising: anger, outrage, spurned entitlement. It intended to eat her whole. She intended to let it. Another bead of blood dripped from her nose.
Again, a shout behind her, and she knew the damned thing had tried to get fancy, coming up from behind to launch itself at her. They liked to do that sometimes. She dropped to her knees, forcing it to take another angle mid-air, throwing it off.
It took a chunk of ground in its mouth when it came over the top of her, and she whispered the final sound, this one feeling like acid and justice. The salt sang a loud, high pitch as darkness enveloped her inside the demon's mouth and the needle teeth began to close in.
And then the beast exploded outward.
Her ears rang, and dizziness overwhelmed her. She took a few breaths and opened her eyes. Part of its head sat ten feet away, some of its milky eyes staring balefully at her. When she turned around, every hired hand on the ranch stood at the fence line, quiet. It had taken training for them not to vault into the field, to wait for an opportunity to distract a demon if it got too close, or if there were more than one.
She stood slowly and strode away from the mess, intent on boiling up some water and taking a late-night bath in that fancy draining tub Aunt Teddy had insisted on. "Good job, boys," she said as she carefully climbed over the fence. "Get that cleaned up? Gonna have to put it with the other salted ones. Moore, give the clean-up volunteers a day off tomorrow, will you? I can take a couple into town. We need more salt."
"Ma'am." He dipped his head at her. "Will you call on the Witch while you're there?"
She'd taken a step to return to the house, but she stopped and turned to look straight at him. "Might as well."
He turned to survey the mess in the field and flicked a red and black gibbet off the fence. "Might go with you, then."
She smiled and patted his shoulder. In his own way, he'd just told her maybe she wasn't smoking poppy. "I'd appreciate your help." They had a hell of a lot of work ahead of them, especially if the only way to finish those wards was by killing the Witch.
Humming a tune that tasted like freshly blooming bluebonnets, she strode back toward the house and the bath that waited inside.
<<< Return to Horror