Magnus was not a pioneer. And he hated horses. But he was a decent tracker, so he barely needed the map in order to follow the pilgrimage of prospectors to this so-called “Nowhere.”
He clucked at his horse to follow the left fork when the trail split. Both paths had equally-heavy foot and hoof traffic, but the rightmost path had tracks that doubled back. The left path didn’t.
It had been three days since he left Avernus. He almost lost his horse–a piebald nag he rented from an aging hostler he once saved from a knifeman (he couldn’t remember the name of the horse, and he didn’t care)–five times since then. He whistled, clucked, lowered his voice when he spoke, but the beast only followed Mag’s directions with indifference at best, reluctance at worst. Especially when the Bluerock Hills grew more and more steep, and more and more cold with each hour spent trudging through the pines.
“Nowhere.” A place no one returned from. A place everyone wanted to get to. Nero, the saloon owner, refused to say where the original map came from, but it had been copied dozens of times over since the first prospector got hold of it. Now citizens were disappearing left and right.
And Magnus, as the self-proclaimed lawman, had to do something about it.
He slipped the map from his back pocket and gave it a close examination. He recognized a U-shaped rock some ways back, which meant he was nearing “Nowhere.” He glanced around. Just more pines, more hints at snow. Squirrels chirping, birds chirping. The sky was dark from the trees and the hills throwing shadows everywhere, but otherwise the place was unremarkable. Nowhere, indeed.
Magnus heard the click between the chirps of the forest, and swung himself to hang sideways off his horse as the gunshot blared. A sharp crack as a bullet struck one of the pines, and Mag’s nameless horse screamed. It only kept from bolting because Magnus was all but hanging from the reins, pulling the nag’s head to the side.
The horse blocked his view from the shooter so he didn’t see a muzzle flash, but the location of the cracking pine gave him an inkling. Still awkwardly hanging from his horse, he thumbed his cylinder upward once, twice, till he knew what shot he had in the chamber.
But before he could fire, another gunshot rang out, and judging from the horse’s shriek, it had been struck. Mag let go of the reins and managed to kick his boot off so he wouldn’t get his ankle caught in the stirrup, and he rolled behind a pine, hoping to the fates the horse wouldn’t land a hoof on his head on the way. It didn’t, but the poor nag didn’t stick around either, bolting into the hills with Mag’s supplies.
A third shot, crack, into the front of Mag’s cover. Shards of bark exploded past his face. He whirled around the opposite side of the tree and fired his chambered round in the direction the shots were coming from.
The shot streaked into the air with a high whistle before popping like a firework, lighting up the forest in a blinding flash. Mag had covered his eyes with his arm, still back behind the tree, but he knew his spell had an effect when he heard the panicked cries and curses of the would-be assassin. He sprung from cover and used the fading brightness to spot any other shooters, but saw none. The gunman was working alone, it seemed.
It took Mag a moment to spot him, but eventually he did, when the man fell from the branch he had been sitting on, to land with a sickening snap among the needles of the pines. He then slid down the hill toward the path Magnus was on. Mag flicked his cylinder back a round and waited. The man’s rifle was still in the tree.
“My legs!” he wailed. Magnus recognized him–lanky limbs, wispy pale beard.
“How’s it going, Gus?”
Augustus squinted up at Magnus. He swore.
“Thought you’d’ve known better than to try and take me down,” Magnus said, pointing his blackgun at Augustus’s forehead. The runes on the barrel flared as Mag thumbed back the hammer. “You got five seconds. Why you out here? Why’re you playin’ commando in the hills?”
“I ain’t mean it, Mag,” Augustus blubbered, spitting pine needles into his beard. “Fates damn, my damn legs!”
“I-I-I’m a guardian. A-a-a–you know–”
“A guard,” said Augustus.
Magnus fired. Augustus squealed and rolled up like a slug as the dirt to the left of his head hardened into stone.
“A statue would make a better guard,” said Mag. “What are you guarding? Tell me.”
Mag thumbed back the hammer again.
“I mean it!” Augustus pleaded. “Nowhere. The place the map leads. I’m protecting it.”
“Thought you said you were guarding it?”
“I-I-I’m–” Augustus sputtered, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks. “I have to stop you, Mag, I gotta keep you from going in. You can’t go in, Mag. Don’t go! Please!”
The hobbled prospector seized Magnus’s trousers, weeping openly. “I’m try’na save you, Mag!” he kept yowling. Magnus was pretty sure he was at the right chamber. He fired into Augustus’s face. A puff of blue smoke smacked him and he fell back from the shock, though it was physically harmless. Then his eyes fluttered shut and he slumped back into the pine needles, snoring echoes across the hills.
“Sorry, Gus,” said Magnus. He peered in the direction his horse bolted. The trees grew thicker, bending inwards, almost forming a steeple. It was dark that way. He figured it must be the place.
And so Magnus reloaded his weapon and followed the path to Nowhere.
Okay! One more. Just one more. A three parter. That’s it. I promise. Then I promise to try to write something other than cowboy wizards for a while. Really!