A Weird Western Saga
week in Serenity... Marshal Boxer returns to town, and big city reporter Nolan Paige realizes his freedom -- and his life -- may very well be at the mercy of the Marshal's whim. Then local reporter, Raven Clark, suggests they make a secret, nocturnal trip to the forbidden Outskirts around town, where the Marshal keeps a secret. On learning Raven and Nolan are missing, Marshal Boxer saddles up and rides out of town...
His arms wrapped around Raven’s waist in as proper a manner as he could manage, Nolan Paige leaned forward and spoke into her ear. “Would it be possible to go a little slower? I fear my spine is only moments away from shattering the top of my skull.”
Raven shook her head. “We have to make it as far as we can before we camp. I want to be there by sun-up.”
Nolan resigned himself to continued spinal trauma and leaned forward again. “Won’t you at least tell me where we’re headed?”
“That’s all you’re going to tell me?”
They were huddled around a meager campfire in the middle of the desert night. Nearby, Apollo gnawed at a bit of scrub. Nolan pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Why can’t you tell me more than that?”
“Because this is something you have to see.” Raven lay on her side, her head propped up on one hand. She fixed Nolan with a sidelong grin. “Don’t you trust me?”
Paige returned the smirk. “I’m here, aren’t I?” Raven smiled and rolled onto her back, hands piled under her head. Nolan pondered the fire for a moment, then looked through it at Raven. “So, why aren’t you like them?”
“Like who?” She kept her gaze fixed on the stars.
“Like the rest of Serenity. Why are you the only one who doesn’t view the marshal as though he’s the second coming?” Nolan looked at the ground. “Why are you so different?”
Raven inhaled through her nose and blew the deep breath out through her lips. “I’m not from here. I came to Serenity a year ago and found the town just as you have; full of people who neither ask questions nor truly answer them.”
“I see.” Paige picked at a small rock embedded in the dirt.
Raven focused on the North Star. “It wasn’t long before I realized two things; everyone thinks Boxer is the greatest man alive, and any mention of The Outskirts is met with a change of subject. The marshal won’t allow anyone out there, not even his deputies.”
Nolan’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve noticed the former, but do you know why the latter is true?”
“I have my ideas.” She looked at him through the fire. “Soon you will, too.”
“I see.” Nolan couldn’t lift his gaze from the dust. “So where are you from originally?”
Raven closed her eyes. “Doesn’t matter.” She found the North Star again. “Anyway, the Serenity Star office was abandoned, so I moved in there, fixed it up, and restarted the paper to educate the people about what’s going on around them.” She giggled pathetically. “Doesn’t seem to be working.”
Nolan glanced up at the stars, wondering which one she was looking at. “So, are you from back east, or? . . .”
“We’d better get a little sleep, sun’ll be up before you know it.” Raven rolled to her side, her back to Nolan, and pulled the blanket up over her shoulder.
The next morning, a lone rider astride a powerful black horse thundered past the Serenity town limits and into the desert. The rider spurred the horse to full speed and charged for The Outskirts.
A short time later, Raven pulled Apollo to a stop. She and Nolan Paige dismounted, and the writer from New York scanned the structure before them. “It looks like an old mine shaft.”
“That’s exactly what it is . . . out here.” Raven stepped to Nolan’s shoulder. “But things are very different inside.”
Paige looked at her and gulped. “You’re not going to murder me or anything once we’re in there, are you?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Let’s go.”
The black horse skidded to a halt. The rider swung from the saddle and examined the ground. It was the remains of small campsite, abandoned only hours ago. Seconds later, the rider was back astride the black horse, rushing through the dust.
“It’s smells like century-old breath in here.”
Nolan felt as though they hadn’t made any progress. By the dim light of Raven’s lantern, they picked a path through the collapsed wooden beams and hanging dust of what seemed like the same tangle of passages for hours. Nolan was about to say as much when, a yard ahead, Raven stopped. She looked at the two passages open to them, then turned to Paige. “Ok, I’m pretty sure this is it. It’s through the left passage up ahead.”
“You’re pretty sure?” Nolan waved at the suspended dust in front of his face, which held its ground, mocking him. “Tell me you know how to get back to the surface once we see this . . . whatever it is.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Let’s go.”
The black horse crested the last rise and the rider could see the mine. A brown horse was hitched to a post near the mouth of the shaft. The rider scanned the surrounding area, found an outcropping of red rock that overlooked the mine a few hundred yards away, and rode for it.
Raven led Nolan to a bend in the left passage and brought him up short. She motioned him against the wall and then peered around the corner. After a moment, she jerked her head back. For the first time since they’d met, Nolan saw fear in Raven’s emerald eyes. “All right, this is it. Are you ready?”
Nolan swallowed hard. “As ready as I can be for something I know nothing about.”
He was sure Raven would give him the cocked eyebrow for the third time, but instead she spun to face him and put both hands on his chest. “Nolan, once we turn this corner, you’re going to be involved in Serenity. As involved as I am. That’s a choice I’ve made, but I don’t want you to see what I have to show you unless you’re aware of the decision you’re making.”
He didn’t realize it, but Nolan’s hands had curled around hers. Through the haze of dust between them, Paige looked into Raven’s eyes. “I want this.”
The chamber was immense, and not a speck of dust hung in the air. Nolan couldn’t see the ceiling as his eyes traced up one wall and down the other. The great cavity looked as though it had been hollowed out from a sphere of black marble. A large altar was situated at the chamber’s center, ringed by four severe thrones. On the walls, perfectly aligned with the thrones, were four ornate, base relief angels, each a different likeness.
“God help me. What? What is this?”
Raven took a few steps toward the altar. “I noticed the marshal kept leaving for days at a time on what he always called ‘town business.’ That set perfectly with everyone in Serenity, but no one ever knew what this town business was. So, one night, I trailed Boxer out of town at a distance; he led me up here.”
“I couldn’t just follow him into the mine, so I had to explore it once he’d gone.” Raven motioned to the vast space around her. “I didn’t find this chamber until my fourth trip up here.”
Paige looked at her for the first time since they’d entered the chamber. “Does the marshal know you know about this place?”
“He might. He seems to know everything that goes on in town.”
Raven took another few steps toward the altar, and Nolan detected a low hum in the air. “Do you hear that?”
“Yes.” Raven moved closer to the altar, and the hum grew louder. “Nolan, there’s something else you need to see.”
She advanced toward the center of the chamber, Paige noticed a dull red orb forming over the center of the altar. The hum became a buzz. “Raven, what’re you doing?”
Raven put up her hand. “Stay where you are, Nolan!” Before he could react, she broke into a run for the altar.
The orb above the stone platform quickly swelled to a crimson ball of energy and the buzz exploded into a crippling din. Paige covered his ears and fell to his knees. Raven was within five yards of the altar when a crimson bolt arced from the sphere and struck her squarely in the chest. Raven was lifted off her feet and thrust hard into the wall behind Nolan, where she crumpled into a heap. As quickly as it had all started, the buzzing stopped, and the red globe above the altar fizzled into nothing.
Nolan clambered across the black marble to Raven’s side, certain she was dead. Instead, he found her clutching her chest and wheezing. “M’all right . . . doesn’t pierce . . . just force.”
Paige grabbed Raven’s shoulders and pulled her to a seated position. “You knew this would happen?”
She coughed violently and blood trickled down her chin. “Had to . . . show you. Wouldn’t believe unless . . you saw.”
There was a lump in his throat. “Why would you think that?”
Raven managed a weak smile between wheezes. “’Cause you’re like . . me.”
With much struggle, Paige managed to negotiate the dusty, decrepit passages with Raven leaning on him, providing directions. They made it to daylight and collapsed to the ground in a cloud of dust. A moment later, a shadow fell across their fallen forms.
“Well. Well. Well.”
Arms crossed over his chest and the sun glinting off his silver star, Marshal Boxer grinned down at Raven and Paige. “This is all very familiar.”
Startled, they scrambled to their feet. Nearby, Apollo and Boxer’s white horse exchanged heated snorts.
Nolan stepped in front of his female companion. Paige’s eyes settled on the marshal’s right hand, which was resting on the butt of his gun. “Just out for a ride in the desert, Marshal. What brings you up this way?”
“You do, Quill.” The marshal stepped close to Paige and glanced over the writer’s shoulder. Raven’s still smoldering chest told him all he needed to know. Boxer turned his attention back to Nolan. “It’s not safe on The Outskirts. Miss Clark should have told you that.”
“We were just headed back.” Raven labored to Apollo, who broke his standoff with the marshal’s steed and nudged her as she untied his reins. Raven struggled into the saddle after three attempts and several harsh coughs. “Come along, Mr. Paige. You should have enough information about the desert for your article now.”
Nolan backed away from the marshal slowly, but their eyes remained locked. After a moment, Boxer broke into a wide grin and favored Paige with a wave. “Have a good ride back.”
Nolan clenched his jaw and crossed to Apollo. He pulled himself up behind Raven, and they started slowly back the way they came. When they were out of sight of Marshal Boxer, Nolan leaned close to Raven’s ear. “He certainly knows you know about the chamber now.”
She kept her gaze pointed straight ahead. “He knew before.”
A moment passed before Nolan leaned in again. “I noticed something strange about the mine.”
This time Raven looked over her shoulder. “What’s that?”
“There were no cart tracks leading into the shaft. Nor were there the ruins of tracks in the interior passages.” Paige met her look of realization with raised eyebrows. “There were no tracks at all.”
On the rocky outcropping that overlooked the mine, Grimm watched the brown horse carry the woman and the slight man out of sight. The dusty rider’s eyes narrowed beneath the wide brim of his hat as Marshal Boxer waited until the others were over the horizon before entering the mine. Grimm spurred his powerful black horse back down the red rock formation and rode for Serenity.
In the black chamber, Aloysius Boxer climbed atop the altar and kneeled. Around him, the base relief angels twisted and contorted into four wizened, demonic visages. Boxer bowed to each of them in turn, then listened.
“Yes, I know they were here.”
The marshal looked to his left.
“I realized they were coming too late to stop them. You have my apologies.”
Boxer looked to his right.
“He says he is a newspaper man from New York City, but I have my doubts. I will discover the truth about him, Great One, be assured.”
“Yes, as always you are correct. But as you know, I cannot affect her directly. What?”
“I know your time is approaching, but I beg of you, have no fear. I believe I have found a way to get to the girl. In time, it will matter not that she knows of this place.”
The marshal looked all around him with a gleeful smile.
“Yes, my masters. Rejoice. Everything is proceeding as you have planned.”
Next - Chapter 4: Riders
Previous - Chapter 2: Questions
Serenity is copyright by Jason Chirevas. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)