Karen was a woman who did not like being crossed. She spat fire like a cobra spits venom, and much like said snake, she aimed for the eyes—always the eyes. Of she was not actually capable of this particular ability, but she might as well have been, the way she'd throw words at you, stinging words that dug into your flesh like a knife. Somehow she always knew what to say and how to say it, so that no matter how tough you were, you'd always feel that sting.
She could tell when that sting hit you, too. Maybe it was the way your face contorted as those shiny daggering words of hers dug into you? Maybe it was the way you'd start to sweat a bit when she'd given you an especially embarrassing comment? Truth is, no one knew but her. No one saw the signs and symptoms of a particularly deep burn but her, and boy, when she saw that, you were as good as done. Might as well have just pissed yourself in front of everyone, because there was no point in you ever coming back into the Pink Pony.
That was where she spent most of her time. A drinking fiend, she'd been kicked out of her house at the age of fifteen for kicking the ever-living crap out of her mother after a night of drinking a few too many shots of tequila, but she managed, somehow. Where she got her money from was just as much a mystery as she was—excluding the aforementioned fact, though it's status as a fact has come under debate before, but the general consensus finds it to be accurate, so we'll refer to it as such from this point onward—but there was rumor that she was some kind of mercenary, a rumor which few believed since she spent such a considerable amount of her day inside the walls of Pink Pony.
Some people said that she was gambler, and that what little time she spent outside of the famous bar was in the little Injun casino just across the street. Regardless, this particular story isn't about Karen's gambling habits, if they even exist, or her income. It's about something that's a little bit deeper. Some folk would be mighty surprised to learn that there's actually a deep side to Ms. Karen Dean, the fiercest bitch in the Barony of Alistair, but she's also a secretive woman who keeps her personal life separate from her drinking "career", or whatever job she actually works. This story is about a decision that Karen Dean makes.
Karen Dean strolled across the road, her own personal mug gripped tightly in those rough hands of hers. Her long brown hair did not flow in the wind as it would for a pretty woman, because Karen was not a pretty woman. That's not to say that she's unattractive, but she lacked that obvious beauty that those younger women seem to possess, those who've gone without much, if any, hardship in their lives. Hardship is good at stealing beauty. Her face was white, but a little bit sunburned on this day. It was not completely red, but there was a slight glaze of it that's spread over her nose and onto both cheeks.
The bat-wing doors of the Pink Pony swung open as she stepped in, her cowgirl boots clicking against the wooden floor, giving the planks a good creak every once in a while. She took a seat at the bar, her usual seat which is always left vacant for her, lest the taker is willing to let her give 'em a good tongue lashing, and if that doesn't work, an ass kicking. No one would even want the first of those.
"Clean it out with water, then fill it up with ale," she said as she slid the mug across the bar towards Bill, the tender of the establishment. Bill nods and rubs his moustache a bit before taking the mug and cleaning it out. Just walking across the street was enough to get it dirty, but then again the town of Reverence was always a windy one, so it was not all that surprising to either of them.
"Can I get thee anything for supper, m'dear Karen, or would y'just be drinkin' the ale tonight?" Bill asked as he filled her mug, first with water and then with ale.
"I s'pose that depends on what the specials are tonight," she said, taking the mug back, throwing some of the alcohol down her throat. The burning sensation that traveled down her esophagus was something she always relished, and though she'd been drinking for a good twenty-three years now, since she was twelve, it always felt fresh, new. It was this that made her realize she enjoyed drinking too much, but hell, was there such a thing as too much good? The idea of it made her grin a bit, showing off an impressive set of chompers, perhaps the best set in all of Reverence, and perhaps the entire Barony of Alistair. That was a smile that could have lit up a room, given the correct circumstances. Unfortunately, those circumstances had never arisen, and that smile usually indicated that she was plotting something prankish.
"Tonight we've something very special on the special menu. I think you'll love it. T'is quite exotic, in my mind at least," he began, leaning against the side of the bar, opposite of Karen.
"Well, go on and spit it out, will you?"
"Dragon meat, m'dear lady, and not just any kind of dragon—I know the icy ones are a bit more common to be imported up here—but a fire dragon. Oh lordy, this is some treat, so t'is," Bill chuckled as he gave his mustache a few more strokes. "Even eaten fire dragon meat?"
"Can't say I've eaten any kind of dragon meat," Karen replied.
"The icy ones are plentiful down south, and they important up into the neighboring baronies more than Alistair, but we get some occasionally. Fire dragons, however, originated from these parts, but were hunted to the verge of extinction nearly one millennia ago, but they'll occasionally find one and kill 'im for his meat. I just so happened to have purchased some of said meat, and good God woman, this is some tasty stuff. I recommend it to you because I know you like it spicy, and this is 'bout as spicy as they can get."
"Then give me a plate," she said. Bill gave a few nods and a salute, and then disappeared to the kitchen. It took just a few minutes before he returned with a hot plate of brown meat, crisp and brown with a smell she could not recognize. It bore no resemblance to anything she'd eaten before, but then again, dragons were reptiles, not mammals as cows and pigs were, so she shouldn't have expected something like beef or pork. Without hesitance she dug her fork into the meat, feeling no resistance from it; it was quite tender.
For a while she kept to herself. Bill walked up and down the bar, cleaning his dishes and setting himself up for the night. The sun had not set yet, by the sky was turning red like the sands, and he knew that the nightly crew would be arriving soon enough. There was always Buck and Telly, the two brothers, George O'Keefe, the oldest man in town, and Sheriff Edward Achtziger. He had a beef with 'ol Karen. She was a troublemaker alright, but no lawbreaker. She got on his nerves, though, and he was just itching to catch her with something, to put her away for as long as the courts would allow.
They all piled in eventually, but of course by then Karen had been there for an hour or so, and had finished her meal. She was on her second glass of ale when the Sheriff arrived. It was easy to tell by the look on his face that he was having a bad day, but then again those old creases in his skin were always there, and those crow's feet beneath his eyes disappeared only when he had a good night's rest, which was rare; maybe it was just the light.
His boots rattled as he stomped across the floor, the batwing doors jostling ever so slightly behind him until the came to a halt. Always he walked with slow steps, slow and heavy steps. There was a certain menacing air about him, but it was one that they all respected, all but Karen Dean, of course. The cold hand of the law did not shiver her spine, not even a little bit.
Today the sheriff decided to sit next to Karen. This did not bother her, of course. What did she care? The man could sit wherever he damn well pleased. If he wanted to start trouble with her, and she assumed he did, then he would get what was coming to him. Right now, however, if he just wanted to have himself a beer, then so be it. Hopefully he'd manage to keep his head cool, though she figured once a few pints had gone down his gullet he'd be more than willing to pick a fight.
Good, she thought; she'd been itching to knock him in that thick head of his for a few years now. Sure, if he didn't start anything with her she'd be okay with him, but he was about as catty as a housewife when she wasn't looking, and what had originally been mere annoyance at him was turning into something much redder. It was much more like anger now, and if he didn't shut his mouth soon… Oh boy, that man had better head for the good hills of Jeremiah City, because there was no way he'd ever be coming back to Reverence, once she was done with him. She could only hope that he would start the fight. Then, perhaps, she would be able to hold up her argument in court.
"T'was but self-defense, your honor! I do say, this looney of a man came right out and attacked me, just a poor, helpless lady! I'm a frail woman, your honor!" she'd say, the back of her hand raised to her forehead, fanning herself furiously with her other hand as she stared down her attacker, some dark eyes beneath the shadow of her arm. He'd know then that he'd gone and messed with the wrong lady.
The night did go on, and without much bustle at that. Ed seemed more intent on keeping to himself tonight, but perhaps he was waiting for Karen to slip up, just as she was waiting him to slip up. They eyed each other for a bit, keeping to themselves, then went back to their drinks. Karen was consuming her ale at a much slower pace than normal. She didn't want to get shit faced tonight, not when there was work to be done tomorrow.
"You seem awfully quiet tonight, Miss Dean," Ed said, finally breaking the silence between the two of them. "Not having as much drink either, I see. Finally deciding to cut back on the old habits, p'haps?"
"Hardly," Karen said coldly as she took another sip of her ale. "Dragon's meat gone and filled me up, I s'pose."
Ed nodded and finished off his beer, pushing the mug to the side. "Done for t'night, Bill. Thanks again," he said and stood up. "Karen, I'm quite drunk right now. If you wanna go and fight me, then now would be the time, y'hateful bitch."
"I never make the first move," Karen chuckled.
"Neither do I," Ed replied with a firm grunt. He tapped the butt of his gun ever so slightly wit the tips of his middle and index fingers. It might have been an unconscious gesture, but to Karen he was signaling that he wanted to get something done, and he wanted to get it done now.
"If you want something to happen then I suggest you draw. Go ahead and draw thy weapon," she snarled.
Ed seemed happy to oblige, but she knew that he would not fire. He went for the gun, but Bill, his arms considerably long, managed to reach from across the bar, past Karen's head, and held Ed's wrist still. "There'll be no gun fighting in this bar, nor any fighting of any kind. Take thy business outside, yon heathens." Ed was a kind man, but when it came to chaos in the Pink Pony, he was just about as cold as any lawman. Karen respected that, so did Ed.
The two stepped outside into the setting sun. It was too classic to not happen. The setting was perfect. The setting sun in the middle of an old town made of wood and simple folk, and in the center of it all were two people: the outlaw and the lawman. Except Karen wasn't an outlaw, but she figured that once this was done she would be. If neither of them were going to make the first move, then they would have to make it in unison. It was like one of the old tales, back before the baronies had even been established.
"We both draw at the same time," Ed said as he reached for his other gun, tossing it over to Karen. She snatched it out of the air, spun it around her index finger, and then held it at her side. A large grin was strewn across her face.
"Just what I was thinking, fancy that," she said.
Ed removed the gun from his holster. Since Karen didn't have one, she wouldn't have to waste her time pulling it out, giving her an extra quarter of a second to shoot. He figured that he might be able to nail her anyway, seeing as he was well trained with his gun and Karen was not, if she had any training at all, though he suspected that she did. It was the only way to make it fair.
The two stood exactly twenty feet away from each other. Neither of them would move—they didn't dare. A gust of wind passed between them, kicking up the sand. It was red, red like blood. As the sun set behind the mountains in the west, it cast a hellish tone over them. This was a spectacle that occurred only in Reverence, the town of the red sands. Some called it a symbol of the town, whose past had been covered with the blood of innocents, and whose cornerstone had been forged by a murderer. Karen's grin was now greater than ever. The queen bitch of Reverence was going to have herself a gunfight, and she was going to do it the way the ancestors would have wanted her to.
A small crowd had gathered near them. Stunned faces looked to them, the whites of their eyes growing dim as the shadow began to spread. It was not upon them yet, though. No, there was still time for the blood light to have its way. Once night fell everything would be different. The heat of the moment would be gone, and the killing wouldn't be as exciting.
The crowd drew closer to them.
"On the count of three," Ed said, his raspy voice reverberating through the town. Karen only nodded. "One… Two… Th—"
There was a shot. No, it was two shots. Two shots fired off at the same time, their sound so thundering that it shook the ground beneath the two of them. Then, there were four more shots, but by this time a great cloud of dust had kicked up around them, and no one could see who had taken them. It was from one gun; that was for sure. The way they sounded off was too symmetrical for alternating bullets. They'd have come much quicker had it been the both of them shooting. It had been: bang, bang, bang, bang, instead of bang-bang, bang-bang. That must have meant that whomever had not been hit had chosen to finish the job, had chosen to end it with absolute certainty.
The dust settled, revealing one silhouette against the bloody sky, and above the bloody sand.
Karen held the gun up high, the gun that had once belonged to Edward Achtziger. Now it belonged to her. Edward lay against the ground, a pool of blood surrounding his motionless body. There were three bullets in his chest, one in his leg, and one in his neck. He had died before hitting the ground.
Yes, it had been classic, exactly as Karen had wanted it. She had expected to die, though, but had been pleasantly surprised when her hand came up just a hair of a second before Ed's did. It was at that point she knew she was going to win, just as Ed knew he was going to lose. In the end, they were both cheaters. Both had drawn before Ed had finished counting to three, but it had in fact been skill that won the day.
The crowd was silent now, and the blood light faded. The shadow came over the town, leaving them in silent darkness.
Karen returned to her apartment, without her favorite mug. She figured that times were going to be changing for her, and changing fast. If they came for her in the middle of the night—the lawmen—she would use that last bullet in the gun's chamber, and she wouldn't use it in self-defense.
They did come in the middle of the night, but she had forgotten that she was drunk, and she had no time to reach for her gun and put it in her mouth as she had planned to. No, her fate was going to be much worse than that.
The court had been scheduled already. They must have known that the day was inevitable, the day when stupid Sheriff Ed ran his mouth off at her, or challenged her to a fight. Of course, the court knew that she would win, because they knew what she did. They knew everything about her, and because of that they had never threatened her. This was not a threat though. She had committed murder. She had chosen to engage in that gunfight with the sheriff, and now she was to pay for it.
"You are hereby sentenced to a life of exile, Karen Dean, for the murder of an officer of the law. Consider your punishment a merciful one, woman, for most who murder officers of the law are sentenced to death by firing squad. Sheriff Achtiziger, however, was a corrupt man who was known for being a rapist, so in some ways you've done us justice. Still, vigilantism—though you undoubtedly had no intention of considering yourself as such—is against the law, and it resulted in murder, therefore I have sentenced you to the second strongest punishment that I am allowed to bestow upon a mortal soul. God, Fate, or whatever you so chose to believe in, if anything at all, have mercy on your soul, Karen Dean. This court is adjourned."
And that was the last time the town of Reverence and the Barony of Alistair saw Karen Dean, but that was not the last adventure of her life. No, she saw many things while wandering the skirts of the outer continents.