An instant later, I hit the ground, the violent blow knocking the air from my lungs and splaying out my limbs. My brain was already racing, however, and I scrabbled like a spider to get up.
Once back on my feet, however, my hand dropped away from my side, away from where it had rested on the butt of my revolver.
The house that had stood before me only seconds previously was gone. Only a few charred beams remained, canted at crazy angles, blown out by the force of the blast. Most of the cabin was little more than rubble.
I shook my head, my brain not yet comprehending. I was still in fight or flight mode, not able to reason or think logically. I ran forward, ignoring the heat radiating up even through my boots or the little guttering flames that curled up around my footprints.
A half dozen steps closer to the house, I heard a groan off to one side. This time, my gun did come sliding out of its holster, but as soon as my eyes fell upon the man, I knew that it wouldn’t be needed.
He lay up against a tree – what remained of him, at least. Ash already fell across him and hid the full extent of his injury, but where his legs should have been, only a dark stain persisted. He coughed, however, and I saw his eyes flicker sluggishly.
I stepped forward, my gun coming up beneath his chin. “What happened?” I demanded, trembling with energy coursing through me.
He coughed again, and I saw the little dribble of red from one corner of his lips. “She’s smart,” he rasped, his voice unsteady.
“What did she do?”
He just shook his head. I could see his energy ebbing quickly. “Didn’t know that she could draw that fast,” he wheezed. “Should’ve hit her first before trying.”
But then, the man’s lips quirked up into a smile, revealing bloodstained teeth. “But she didn’t know ’bout the gunpowder behind me,” he spat with vicious enjoyment.
My eyes tracked down the man’s chest. Sure enough, I could see the hole where Danni’s bullet punched in through his ribs, clear even despite the other damage of the explosion. Glancing past the man, I realized that the tree against which he lay was likely the only thing still holding him together.
I stood back up, looking down at the man for a moment longer. He let his head sag back to look up at me, still grinning and showing the red droplets staining his lips and teeth. “Can’t get away, Priest,” he hissed. “Can’t ever get away from us.”
I didn’t respond. But my leg swung around in scything kick, knocking what remained of the monster in front of me sideways. He hit the ground with a grunt of pain as his shattered spine tore away from the tree, but I was already turning away, towards the house.
The man in black paused here, and with a start, Jenny realized that the storyteller was shaking in his seat.
She didn’t even think. She leaned forward and threw her arms around the man in black, pulling him in up against her. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear as she hugged him fiercely. At the corners of her eyes, Jenny could feel tears of her own welling up.
For several seconds, she hugged the man, feeling him shiver. Beside both of them, Old Hillpaw looked more awkward than ever, although even he reached out and uncomfortably patted the man in black on the back. “Sorry,” he murmured as well, knowing that the words brought no comfort.
A good minute passed before the man in black was finally able to suck in a shuddering breath and speak once again. “I can go on,” he finally said, reaching out blindly for his sheaf of typewritten pages.
“It’s okay.” Jenny surprised even herself with the strength of her voice. She let go of the man in black, but kept her hands on his upper arms, trying to somehow draw off and lessen his grief. “You don’t have to keep going.”
But the man in black, even through the little drops of liquid shimmering on his cheek, managed to look determined. “Yes, I do,” he stated, with gentle finality.
Old Hillpaw touched Jenny on the shoulder. “It’s good for him to finish, to get it out,” he suggested.
Reluctantly, Jenny let go of the man. But she looked more watchful now, like a mother anxious about her young offspring playing outside for the first time. For the first time he could remember, Old Hillpaw didn’t think of her as childishly young, as he watched her expression set itself.
The man in black picked up his notes once again, although he had to set them down once or twice and wipe his eyes clear so that he could read the carefully typed words. He opened his mouth, but the words didn’t come, even after several attempts.
Finally, Old Hillpaw decided to give their speaker a break. “Maybe jump ahead to the next chapter,” he offered with uncharacteristic kindness.
Their storyteller didn’t argue. He shuffled through the papers, setting the rest of that chapter aside. Neither Jenny nor Old Hillpaw had any inclination to pick it up and read the rest for themselves. Whatever tragedy lay in those pages could remain unseen.