Reaper, p.1
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       Reaper, p.1

         Part #1 of End of Days series by Mina Carter
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Chapter One


  "They say she roams the old roads, looking for her victims. Human, paranormal. . . she don't care. She'll kill anything. "

  The raspy voice echoed around the half-empty bar. Like a chill wind it reached into the corners of the candle-lit room, found all those who were listening and pulled a shiver from the very depths of their souls. Forget the bogeyman, since the war people had learnt there were far more dangerous things than the pretend monster under the bed.

  Those in the room listened anyway. Chair legs scuffed on the worn wooden floor, disturbing the sawdust scattered over its battered surface. Shadows crowded against the steel-grilled windows that showed evidence of the bars use as a last line of defense.

  At the back of the bar, Mason snorted into his whiskey. Good old Fred. He sure did like his ghost stories, even if they did scare the crap out of the customers. Not that they had many. Normally the place was filled with locals. It had been that way since the world went to shit in a storm of fire and brimstone.

  Mason rolled a mouthful of the amber fluid around his mouth, before letting it burn its way down to his stomach. Stuff would rot your gut, but hell did it have a kick, exactly what a man needed at times. He leaned back against the wall and swirled the rich colored liquid around in his glass as he watched the bar as a whole. After wandering in here six years ago, badly busted up from an altercation with a couple of Lycans, he'd gone from recovering patient to self-appointed town protector.

  Right now his attention was on a group of youngsters at the other end of the bar who'd waltzed into town earlier. After scoring refills on their water bottles and a pack-load of supplies, they were living it up in the bar, full of bravado, and crazy-ass stories of escaping a nest of Vamps.

  Mason had been up close and personal with a couple of Vamps, and they were tough bastards. It'd be hard, not impossible to escape a whole nest of the bloodsuckers, but you'd have to be a combination of Bruce Lee, Rambo and the terminator.

  Two girls, three boys. Way too young to have survived on the roads. He pursed his lips, feeling the scar at the corner pull slightly. He remembered his days as a wanderer. It was a tough life. Practically everything out there wanted to screw you over, and eat you. Or screw you, and eat you. Or screw you whilst eating you. . . there were some kinky-ass critters out there.

  He lifted his glass to his lips again. He never sat at one of the middle tables, preferring to keep his back to the wall with his gun free and easy by his side. Even in the supposed safety of the town Mason carried, locked and loaded. The light from the candle on his table caught the rim of his glass, twinkling in the corner of his eye.

  He looked at the group again and caught his breath. Between the light spots from the candle and the flickering shadows cast by the other candles in the room, the group of visitors looked different. Changed.

  It was a spilt-second, as though their masks had slipped a little and allowed him a glimpse at the creatures beneath. The one Mason had tagged as the leader turned around, looking around the bar with an assessing eye. Too assessing, and way too hungry.

  Mason took another drink as though nothing had changed. But this time he didn't savor the drink as it went down. Before the war Mason had been a soldier. A damn good one. In that life he'd seen lots of corpses, but he'd never seen one walk and talk until ten years ago. Like the one scanning the bar as if it was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

  Ghouls. How the fuck had they gotten past the defenses? They had everything from warding sigils carved into the plaster of the walls under the hangings to a demon-trap painted on the underside of the floorboards by the door. The first drink of water visitors to the town were given contained a dash of holy water, and the cutlery they got was silver-plated. With all their precautions, the town was loaded for everything but bear.

  His gaze flicked around the room. Just his luck, most of the locals were in tonight. A heavy sigh escaped his chest as he drained his glass. He fucking hated Ghouls.

  Getting rid of them was always messy.

  His lips compressed as he placed his glass on the table in front of him. Seeing an empty, Valerie, the bar-owner, headed over. Her hips swayed as she walked, and there was a smile of invitation on her lips as she approached.

  "All done there, sugar-bun? Want me to get you another?"

  "No, thank you, I'm good. Listen, V, I need you to start moving people out. " His voice was low and firm - completely at odds with the brilliant smile he flashed her. Anyone looking their way would assume the two were flirting, which was exactly what he wanted.

  Valerie's face dropped. "Aww, no. . . Those kids? You gotta be kidding me, Mason. They're barely old enough to be out on their own. "

  "Exactly. They aren't old enough, or anywhere near tough enough. They're not human, V. Don't be fooled by the cute mask they're wearing. Otherwise next week it might be your Suzie's. "

  Valerie's face went stony. The only thing that made her madder than a bunch of wet hens was a threat to her daughter. Mason had no idea what had happened to the kid's father. He'd never asked. Out here, no one did. Everyone had a past they would rather forget, things they'd had to do to survive. Most of the time those things didn't make for a good night's sleep.

  "Give me five minutes, I'll get it cleared. " She started to turn, and then paused to look back at him. "Make it quick and clean, would ya? The girls look scared, like they don't want to be here. Plus, it took me weeks to get the bloodstains out of the floor last time, and I'm all out of sawdust. "

  Mason nodded, pitching his voice a little louder. "Sure thing, sweets. Leave it to me. "

  His tone was friendly and flirtatious. For good measure he leaned over and swatted Val on the ass as she passed him. She squealed in delight, wagging her finger at him as she headed back to the bar.

  Throughout the room the locals carried on drinking, or talking, but he knew they'd caught the signal. The last time he'd flirted with a woman and meant it, mankind had a future, not this squalid mess they were trying to survive in.

  The evacuation didn't take long. As soon as Valerie had dropped another glass off at his table with a wink, there was a slow, but determined exodus. The non-combatants left as the rest found reasons to go talk to friends on the edge of the room.

  Except old Fred, who sat on the table next to the Ghouls. It was his favorite spot. The table never moved. It couldn't, it was riveted to the floor. Even now Mason knew that Fred's finger was on the trigger of the shotgun rigged underneath it.

  "Lady of Death? Ohhhh purlease, old man, that's just a kid's tale. Like the bogeyman," one of the Ghouls scoffed. Mason had already tagged him as the leader. Loud and obnoxious he was the sort Mason would want to waste even if he was human.

  "You wanna be careful, sonny," Fred warned. He was an odd choice for a front man, but he was one of Mason's best. A crack-shot with that gun, he looked like everyone's favorite grandfather. No one suspected Fred, even if his life depended on it.

  "Oh yeah, Pops. Why's that?"

  The Ghoul spun his chair around to face Fred and straddled it. The skin between Mason's spine itched. He'd seen what Ghouls could do. They could rip a man apart with their bare hands without breaking a sweat. The instant the kid looked like he was even thinking of making a move towards Fred, Mason would put a bullet between his eyes.

  "They say the lady sees all, and knows all. There's no way to escape her. Don't matter if you don't believe in her, as long as she believes in you. "

  Mason watched Valerie busying herself at the bar out the corner of his eye. She was wiping glasses, her attention seeming to be half on the conversation going on and half on her work. He knew better. By her left knee, next to the defunct cash register there was a fully loaded rifle. When the shit hit the fan, she wo
uld have it in her hands and firing within a heartbeat.

  He almost felt sorry for the Ghouls. Almost.

  He looked back. The mask had slipped completely now. Confident that the dumb humans they'd found themselves in the middle of couldn't tell what they were, they'd let their cover slip.

  Mason could see through their human disguises, and right down to the foulness beneath. They had the same matted hair and rotten flesh of every other corpse he'd seen. Added to that were blackened, claw-like fingers, and the guy on the left had a bad drool problem. Looked like he'd gotten a busted jaw before he'd become what he was now.

  "Don't be fucking stupid, old man. " The Ghoul started to stand. Fred didn't move an inch, still smiling even though Mason knew he had to have the trigger down to first pressure. Interesting that, when they had their balls to the wall, humanity could rock it against creatures of darkness in the bloody violence stakes.

  "No, Johnny, don't. They've been nice to us. " The girl at his side caught his arm, stopping Johnny's headlong rush into certain suicide. Do us all a favor, lass, and let Fred blow his head off. Might be something human in you left to save.

  The kid turned on her like a Rottweiler, a low snarl in his throat. "Shut it, bitch. You're here to look pretty, not question me. "

  He had had enough. Even though she was a Ghoul, if the kid hit her, Mason was taking his hand off at the wrist. "What do you believe in, Johnny?"

  "What's it got to do with you?" The Ghoul's head whipped around, isolating the new voice in the conversation with the instinct of a predator.

  Mason leaned forwards. "If you don't believe in the Lady of Death, what do you believe in? Vamps? Lycans? The Abominable Snowman? Santa Claus? Ghouls? How about Ghouls?"

  Johnny's face went blank, his eyes wary and flat. Mason levered himself from the bench in one lithe movement, his rifle held loosely in his hands. Even though he was armed, in this day and age that wasn't a threat. Everyone carried, if you didn't, you were dead.

  "You believe in Ghouls, Johnny boy?"

  Johnny shrugged. "Lots of weird shit out there. Could be Ghouls too. "

  Mason made it to the end of the bar. If Johnny had been anything close to clever, he'd have realized by now all the locals were quiet. More to the point, he'd have twigged that all the friendly locals of earlier weren't looking half so friendly now.

  "Oh, I know there are Ghouls. Now, because I'm a fair man I'm going to give you and your dream team one chance. Get up, get your stuff and walk out of my town. "

  Johnny looked around the room. Mason watched as the penny dropped.

  "Come on, man," he wheedled, injecting a pathetic note into his voice. That was what disgusted Mason about these creatures. Ghouls were tricksters, playing up the sympathy vote to get into a town, and get a free meal. "It's after nightfall. You can't turn us out onto the road at night. God knows what's out there. "

  Mason shrugged. "We got a simple rule in this town, kid. You ain't human, you ain't staying. Now walk, before we perform a little. . . vermin control. "

  "Johnny, they're onto us. We should go. . . "

  "No. " Johnny shook her arm off with a snarl as he glared at Mason. "I'm not being told what to do by a fucking human. We're the top of the food chain man, and no one can stop us. We're gonna eat your heart and laugh while we chow down. "

  Mason didn't bother with any more dialogue. His dad had always said, when you face down a man with a gun you'd better hope that man is a bad man. A bad man will keep you talking before he shoots you so, if you're smart, you can find a way to escape. A good man though. . . he won't bother chatting you up, he'll just shoot you without a word. He wasn't sure his dad had gotten those definitions the right way around, because he sure as hell wasn't a good man.

  His rifle was on his shoulder, and the Ghoul in his sights within a heartbeat. The next a blackened rose spread over the kid's forehead as Mason's double tap blew out what was left of his rotten brain.

  The bar erupted into gunfire. Bullets and shotgun slugs tore into the small group of Ghouls without mercy, making them dance like marionettes. It wasn't a shooting. It was an execution.

  "Cease fire," Mason yelled over the noise. The Ghouls were done for. The guys had all received double taps to the head courtesy of Mason, and Johnny had pretty much gotten shredded.

  His footsteps were light as he approached, to check if the Ghouls were dead. Of course, with their kind, dead was a relative term. He needed to make sure they weren't the snacking-on-your-guts kind of dead.

  "Fucking hell, just the stink'd put you off. "

  Fred was right by Mason's side as he reached what remained of the lead Ghoul, Johnny. Just as he suspected, the thing was old and rotten to the core. Rifle trained on the mass of torn flesh and rags, he kicked the leg nearest to him.

  "That's Ghouls for you. Corpses too dumb to die. "

  There was no resistance. If the thing was playing possum it was good at it. He took one last look at the sightless eyes and moved his attention. The other two males were just as bad. From the sheer amount of damage, Mason figured they'd copped at least half the payload from the townsfolk. The girls, by comparison, looked almost untouched.

  He scooted around one side of the bodies on the floor as Fred went the other way. They both saw movement at the same time. An arm twitched and then one of the girls, the one who had spoken earlier, groaned.

  "We got a live one. " Mason barely heard the end of his own sentence over the sound of rifles and pistols being cocked.

  His world shrank to what he could see through his sights. Gaze firmly fixed on the girl's face, he watched as her eyes fluttered open and she slowly turned her head to look at him. Black blood covered one side of her face, and he didn't want to think about the thicker fluid oozing out from behind her ear.

  "Please. . . " she begged, her pale eyes fixed on him. "I didn't want this. Make it quick. . . please. "

  She held his gaze, the moment stretching out. In that instant she ceased to be a monster, and became just a young girl wanting the nightmare to go away. Throat thick, he didn't trust himself to speak so he just nodded.

  "Thank you," she whispered. He pulled the trigger and sent her into the afterlife.

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