By Jeff Bailey
May 29, 1882
Abram Grothe stared at the outskirts of Tombstone, Arizona. “It has been a long journey, a long chase. My quarry will be brought to justice for the many murders he has committed, and the crimes of his allies as well.”
“Right fine words there, Sheriff,” said the man in the rumpled grey duster walking towards him on the same road Abram had followed. “I’d wager other folks have chased down Mason Adler and said much the same before.” Sergeant Elijah Clay spat on a rock at his feet, and kicked it down the road. “Until he lies dead at your feet, best to put your mind to what is happening, instead of what will.”
Abram turned slowly, and his eyes ran over the newcomer, lingering on a pair of bars clipped to the man’s collar.
“The front is a thousand miles away, last I heard, sir. Looking to rally some recruits for your lost cause?”
Clay smiled. “It’s been 17 years since those bars made anyone salute, Sheriff. I wear them to keep in mind a few men who died under my command, not because I have a loyalty to the spineless slackdaws who wanted to earn their keep on the backs of others.” Clay walked up to join Abram, and the two men continued surveying the town. “I was picked by Ol’ One Eye. He knew he wouldn’t be around forever, and he wanted to make sure towns could be safe from things like what you’re chasin’ after he was gone.”
Abram’s eyebrow raised. “Hank Ketchum? Good man, gone too soon no matter how old he was. His reputation vouches for you. But what do you know of the Fourth Ring?”
Clay looked over the townscape. “I know that even if Adler is their erstwhile leader, he stays on the move, so he won’t be here long. If you got a posse, they don’t have long to get here.”
Abram nodded. “They’re getting supplies, and will be here soon. But I agree, we assault the base tomorrow. They’re holed up in the Bird Cage Theater, and I believe there are tunnels underneath it that let them come and go.”
Clay looked down at the hardscrabble dirt road. “Trouble. Mason and his dogs have ways to run, and his cohort isn’t as blood-eyed as he is. If your posse is all together, you might get Mason at the cost of everyone else taking wind.”
Abram nodded. “I know. We’ll need to split up – both to hunt him down, and then to lure him out.” Abram lifted up the hilt cinched to his belt, letting the burnished metal of his trusted blade Evanor glint in the late morning sun.
Clay’s eyebrow raised. “I’ve heard tell of that blade. A man can’t take down a plot to storm the mortal world without pulling some notice from the corners of the world I live in.”
Abram moved his coat back over his belt. “Adler knows me well enough – and we’ve fought before. I believe this weapon’s arrival is preordained – its destiny carries it towards Tombstone.”
Tombstone Epitaph, May 30 1882, Evening Edition
Race for Marshal Heats Up
In the wake of the Marshal’s recent death, the name of Maurice Croker has been advanced by railroad business interests as a candidate for the job. And up until yesterday, his name was the only one being mentioned. But the Earp family has carried the cause of justice in Tombstone for many years, and Virginia Ann Earp has asked the town council to consider her as the best person to take up the badge. Mr. Croker says his connection to the railroad permits him to better control who can come to Tombstone, and he can ensure only the right sort can come here. Virginia’s speech to the council, however, drew a dark comparison. “A fortress is also a prison. If Mr. Croker controls who comes and goes, as well as who is prosecuted here in Tombstone, the job he is applying for has far more power than a Marshal. The job he’s applying for is a tyrant.”
Several local business people, who declined to be identified here, said in confidence that their business would find it difficult to continue without the support of the railroad, and so they were considering the town’s economic security as well as its safety. They announced that the meeting to formally select the Marshal would be delayed for a few days to permit both candidates to present a fuller picture of their intent.
Abram Grothe and Elijah Clay had just crossed Tough Nut Street when they heard a train whistle as it arrived at the Bayou Vermilion station on the east side of town. Clay looked down the street and then back to Abram.
“I think my ride may be here in a few moments. Let’s go check it out, but keep a low profile. The folks on that train have a job to do, but it’s not the job you’re here to do. Best way to say no is to not have the conversation to start with.” Abram’s eyebrow raised, but he slowed his stride and moved closer to the porches on the south side of the street as they advanced.
Even from s distance, it was apparent that the train was fully loaded. An enormous ghost rock powered engine pulled a cavalcade of massive train cars, which swayed slowly as their great weights found all the irregularities in the dusty Arizona valleys. Clay pointed to the back of a man they both knew.
“I’m going with the Padre now. De Diaz needs all the troops he can get. Meanwhile you and your folks need a slimmer profile to catch the wolf in his lair.”
Abram nodded,but then his eye moved to a well-dressed man with a fedora and silver-handled cane standing next to the Padre. Abram whistled. “Abdar Rafi ibn Mecid ibn Mahmud al-Hamid.” Abram’s voice tripped over the syllables not often spoken this side of the Atlantic. “It’s a blessing he’s here to help, but not one I expected. Last I heard, Rafi was not among the living.”
Clay snickered quietly, then folded open his duster. There was an ugly ridged scar across part of his neck, and it draped down behind his shirt. “For some of us, the good work is too important for us to take that great furlough.”
Abram looked at the wound, then met Clay’s eyes. “I’m sorry. The devil’s talons claw unceasingly at those who are hauled up from their terrible fate. That you hold to your purpose is testament to your will. Come find me if the strain grows great, and we will come to a solution together.”
Clay held his hand up against the rays of the morning sun. For a moment, Abram closed his own eyes and turned to go. “My folks are coming up just now. You get on your way, Sergeant Clay. May the good Lord go with you on your mission.”
Clay briefly looked back, and his voice caught for a second. “And yours as well. Let’s hope He can keep mind of two battles at once.”
Abram nodded. “His eyes are everywhere, and his love is boundless. We shall overcome.”
Abram walked off to join his own posse, and Clay moved to join the Padre as the train came closer to the station.
Abram walked back west on Tough Nut Street. Then, as he saw the dust and heard the slam of bodies against clapboard, he broke into a run.
Fifteen Minutes Ago
Maria Kingsford’s ragged duster deflected some of the morning Tombstone sun as she stood at the west end of Fourth Street, spinning an eight of spades in her hand. It kept turning upside down, and would occasionally blink in and out of existence as it flipped. She stared at it and smiled. Her attention only slipped away as the horse she’d been listening to for the last five minutes approached close enough where she could talk to its rider.
“Doing all right, Byron?”
Byron Decker waved and nodded to Maria. “Visiting a few friends I have in Boot Hill is a debt paid, not a punch in the face.”
Maria nodded. “Hitch up the horse – we’ll go from here on foot.”
Byron pulled the foal up to Wilmot’s Goods, slid off the saddle, and hitched close. “So,we look for Croker, who leads us to the one we want?”
They both knew they were talking about Mason Adler, but they also knew how not to mention their target’s name out loud in the open streets of the town with his den. But they could still talk shop.
“So, I’m happy to see you, but a hair surprised. Some news coming out of Roswell didn’t sound good.”
Byron smiled, and pulled aside the edge of his lapel, showing the gleam of metal underneath. “A few ounces of protection is worth a few pounds of sweat wearing this thing all the time.”
Maria laughed, but also took a flask from her satchel. “Survival is thirsty work. Have some tea.” Byron raised a brow, which in no way interfered with his immediately twisting the cap off and taking a swig. “Got the idea from John “Aces” Radcliffe. Travels well and doesn’t throw off your aim.”
Byron pointed. “And speaking of aim…”
At the corner of Tough Nut and Fourth Street, Maurice Croker addressed a small crowd of locals. Maria’s eyes immediately spied two men standing nearby, leaning from behind porch posts. They wore frayed red bandanas, and their gaze kept moving over the folks in the audience. Their narrowed eyes spoke just like the truncheons in their hands, a clear signal that Croker’s speech was not to be interrupted.
Maria interrupted the speech. “Maurice, your words sound good. Certainly the new Marshal will need to know what’s going on with the local railroads, including Vermilion. But you seem to be quite comfortable making friends with the gang that so recently killed Wyatt Earp. You may want order, but you’re not much friends with the law.”
Mister Croker’s eyes focused on Maria even as the two men moved out from behind cover and towards the crowd. Maria tapped Byron’s hand and gestured to them. Croker paused a moment, then continued. “And here we have the inevitable foe of progress. A protestor who would intercede in the happy marriage of government and industry and put jobs at risk for their own unknowable reasons. Yes, I’ve retained some security, precisely for moments like these.” The men raised their clubs as they approached. Byron stepped backwards to avoid the first swing, which clipped the head of a grocer who’d been among the listeners. The thug turned and found his path blocked by a man adorned with various necklaces and wearing threadbare buckskin clothing. Once again the thug raised his club.
“You should go now.” And while the crowd saw the thug stumble backwards and fall, only Duncan saw the ghostly figure of a rabbit jump up against the back of the thug’s knees and kick.
Croker reached into his pocket for a small revolver, but before he could draw on Maria, the surprisingly strong hand of an older woman pulled it away and flung it down the street. “In my younger days,” Willa Mae MacGowan said to Maurice, “I’d have corrected you on the grammatical mistakes you just made. I’m older and wiser, so I listened to your thoughts rather than your words. And you, sir, have put so many words in front of you to hide your naked interest in selling this town to Vermilion.” She dropped a small brass ball in front of Croker’s feet. With the harsh blare of a train whistle, vents on the ball opened and a fierce gust of air both knocked Croker off his feet and disrupted the crowd. Croker’s listeners quickly moved off the street – but just as quickly, some more roughnecks with clubs and knives poured out of the nearby Taff’s Distillery.
Byron smiled as he started forming a battle line with Maria, Duncan, and Willa Mae. “Ma’am, you show excellent judgment in using our resources to best effect.”
Croker got to his feet as his men advanced toward the line. “Quite the army you have, with troops both elderly and indigent. I think you will find my own reserves more robust.” Croker took a small wooden whistle from under his vest and blew hard. Duncan cupped his hand over his ears. And while the assembled onlookers heard no sound from Croker’s whistle, Maria and Willa Mae recalled Ranger trainers’ words about how sounds higher than the human ear can hear could be used to summon beasts and abominations.
“I’m disappointed that the crowd needed to flee for their safety.”
The woman who spoke, breaking the silence, also appeared unprepared for a fight, let alone the impending brawl. That is, until the eye traveled down and noted the slight green glow coming out of the holster at her own hip. And her voice rang out true as one accustomed to shadows that went bump in the night. “I’m glad they’ll be safe, but this means they’ll only get to read about how you and the monsters who own you were chased off the streets and back into the darkness.” Valeria Batten met Maurice Croker’s stare evenly, and Croker’s breath into the whistle slowed to a sigh.
Croker wiped his brow, now both beaded with sweat and spotted with dust. He opened his mouth to speak, but drew in a breath as a loud crash of wood broke the silence first. He exhaled in a slow laugh. “Now then, ma’am, you were talking about monsters and darkness?”
A huge man-like shape burst from a side alley down the street, leaping at a height few humans could achieve. It wore a burly and ragged coat, partially covering bulging arms that ended in the menacing glint of sharp talons. Byron fired off a round that hit the shoulder, and the monstrosity didn’t even flinch. Valeria drew her own weapon, but this time it was Croker slapping the weapon out of her hands. Duncan and Willa Mae immediately alternated their focus between the thugs and cowering townsfolk. Maria moved towards the abomination in the coat, her own gun drawn. Her eyes flicked with red sparks and she spoke a few words in an ancient language that made Valeria blush. The man beast locked eyes with Maria as it loosed an enraged bellow and advanced towards her.
Byron looked first at Maria, then at Valeria. Valeria was scrambling to pick up her gun, even as Croker sheltered behind a porch rail. She called out to Byron. “Is it him? Out here in the open?”
Byron sneered at Croker as he replied. “There’s no way in Hell our quarry has a personal stake in keeping that trash alive. But he’d loan out his childe to soften us up before we reach him.”
“Professor” Duncan smoothly flung a Red Sash over his shoulder while Willa Mae shooed the last of the civilians away from the street. “I’m confident this won’t be the last time we hear the roar of a beast today.”
Willa Mae nodded. “We have to stand together to push back against the darkness, no matter what lurks inside.” She passed a glance at the beast as it charged up the street. “Or who might be swallowed inside.”
Byron and Maria braced and took aim as the beast thundered towards them. Maria fired off two shots, taking it directly in the shoulder and the arm, and watched in dismay as the bullets sank into the flesh and were seen no more. Byron, however, had quickly fitted a contraption to his hand, something like an armored glove. He swiped left, and a flash of blue-white lit up the air and slammed against the beast as it almost reached the pair. It flew backwards and smashed into an awning support, bringing several wooden beams down upon itself. Byron smiled, and turned to Valeria. “Sergeant Elijah Clay gave this to me. Said it takes a half hour to recharge. Any way you can accelerate that, just let me know.” Valeria, having finally reached her weapon, rose and shook her head.
“Somewhat outside my purview, unfortunately. The items I work with are,” and she looked down at the green vapor seeping out of the cylinder of her own gun, “more untidy.”
Maria Kingsford had kept her eyes fixed on the beast, while her left hand flipped some playing cards. She’d holstered her pistol, and calmly walked towards the beast as it pushed aside wooden rubble.
“Silver to wound it, yes. But the deepest of slumbers come in many forms.” Lavender tinged vapors wisped over her hand as she reached forward. The monstrous brute finally flung the last beam off its head, just as Maria took a grip between the eyebrows. The lavender film flowed into the beast’s eyes. It howled in pain and tried to break free, but Maria held it firm. And even as Byron and Valeria watched, the beast’s face seemed to deflate as ragged valleys sunk into its flesh. Maria’s brow beaded with sweat as she struggled to keep her grip as the beast’s cries turned from guttural howls to crackled wails and finally became silent. In the matter of ten more seconds, it ceased its struggles and noises, settling into the pile of debris with a series of shallow breaths.
“Is he…,” Byron asked?
“No, alas, lethal hexes are much harder for me to control, and I can’t risk them in the middle of a town. But that abomination will not trouble us for the duration we need. Or as the old officer who inducted me into the Rangers liked to say, ‘good enough for government work’.”
Back to Now
Abram ran up, sword in hand, as the debris pile exhaled a last rattling moan of defeat. He quickly sheathed, then smiled at all assembled.
“What’s under all that?”
Maria smiled sharply. “Up until a moment ago, that pile of lumber was far more threatening. Specifically, our quarry sent an emissary from his own bloodline.”
Abram’s eyes registered concern, even as the rest of his face remained calm. “I am both reassured and concerned about that, then. I am concerned that I thought we’d accounted for those tainted directly by Mason’s evil, but if you bested it, our mutual foe may be desperately looking for tools to defend himself.”
Byron pointed to an unoccupied porch a few doors down. “Maybe we should speak more after moving off the street and away from this conversation piece we just made?”
Abram nodded, and the group assembled under the awning. Abram took the moment to shake the hand of everyone present. He then took a facing position from in front of the railing. As he began to speak, many of them noted the similarity to the delivery of a sermon.
“Friends all. I have chased our foe all the way from Gomorra to here in Tombstone, and there is a moment coming where I can finally confront him. However, this is a commitment that I made to myself back in Gomorra. But more importantly, this is a commitment I cannot ask of any of you directly. On Mason’s home ground, the peril is at its highest. And Mason is one foe among many. A separate alliance is gathering to meet what may be a darker foe yet. If anyone here wishes to join that fight, or believes that this struggle here is doomed, I cannot disagree. The Lord knows I might feel that myself in the dark hours before sleep. I can only ask each of you to weigh this moment in your heart.”
The group stepped forward in unison, each putting hands on the rail.
Byron spoke first. “I have sworn a duty to fight. While I did not swear it to you directly, I hold myself to it.”
Valeria nodded. “I bear a slight responsibility for aiding Dr. Slavin before the intent of his purported benefactors became clear. There are gravestones on the opposite side of the scale from my childish desire to remain in libraries and laboratories.”
Maria nodded. “That’s close enough to my own answer, for different reasons. I spent too long running from wolves in shepherds’ clothes for me to run now.”
The Professor raised his chin with pride. “The wound carved into the Earth is grievous. Without people to cleanse it with fire, it will fester in the dark.”
Willa Mae spoke last. “Sheriff, I’ve been fighting ever since I found the buried body of that young boy murdered by the Whateley abomination in child form. I’m not yet ready to lay in my bed to die.”
Abram let each of them testify in turn, nodding as each affirmed their fealty to the quest at hand. “I thank all of you. The light gets stronger as we all stand together with it.” Abram then drew in a creaked breath. “And that’s why today is especially hard. Once we enter the lair, we cannot stand together.” Everyone listened quietly. “Mason, for all his talk of strength and hunting, is a cowardly foe. I have chased him for months and months, and this is the first time on that road I’ve felt like I have an opportunity to grapple with the foe directly. If the six of us walk hand in hand into his den, he will put anything in our way and start running again. What he calls ‘hunting’ is actually a fondness for stalking and overpowering prey. Therefore, we must offer him that.”
Maria snorted. “Abram, I can take on a lot of boogaboos out there. But even I can get surrounded.”
Abram nodded. “I know.” He pointed at the rubble across the way. “That actually offered me some reassurance in this quest. If Mason is throwing a youngling at us, I do believe that means he has few allies on his side to fling in our path. If this strategy meant certain death, even I wouldn’t go. But Mason has proved he will not offer us combat on any of our own terms.”
Valeria nodded. “One mark of a great soldier is that he fights on his own terms or fights not at all.” The cohort briefly broke from Abram’s sermon to stare at her. She sighed. “The rest of you could spend some time in libraries, you know.”
Byron took the moment to speak up. “Abram, keep in mind that there are any number of stragglers from Ivor’s midway that might still have their wagons hitched to Mason’s. Quite a few stories in our files of ghouls and circus terrors from Gomorra end with ‘Justice awaits.’”
Valeria nodded vigorously. “Especially Avie Cline, that snake in woman’s clothes.” Willa Mae didn’t speak, but she sucked in her breath at the name.
Abram waited until all was still again. “Yes, these are all true. But this is still the moment the Lord has offered, full of trial and tribulation. And I believe Mason will circle around anyone who comes with me first – both to tear away at my supports, and to tear away at my heart. So only come with me as you know my intent remains to move forward into the lair, towards Mason, and will not stop until I have dealt with him.” He let his hand rest on his sword hilt. “I feel certain you will all know when that moment comes. Once you do, whether it has gone for good or for ill, withdraw back to the surface and the Town Hall. We will regroup there, and celebrate both victory and memory.”
Abram stepped away from the rail, and the others followed. “And while I enter the cage of the beast, I do not have the advantage of Daniel that I only need to pass unseen. I must find the largest and most dangerous denizen, and bring him to task for his crimes.”
The posse approached the Bird Cage Theater. The shortened shadows on the street read the time as well as any clock. High Noon had come.
The Bird Cage Theater
Avie Cline sat on a lush sedan chair in the Manager’s Office on the second floor of the Bird Cage Theater. Her left hand swirled a mint julep, while her right hand gently petted the long indigo snake coiled on the arm of the chair. The chair faced the large window overlooking the street, and Avie’s eyes tracked the approaching posse. On the other side of the polished oak desk, two young boys sat on simple wooden chairs. They had split a poker deck between them, and cards flitted back and forth in the air as they shuffled and twirled. Their eyes focused on the cards, and their hands grasped and redirected the passed cards in perfect rhythm.
Avie smiled, eyebrows arched, as she watched the group get closer. But finally, she turned languidly towards the boys.
“Evan? Lucas? I think we can put a hold on your lessons for today. We must put forth our best efforts for our guests.”
The boys nodded, and the cards immediately slipped back into an open box that slightly protruded from Evan’s vest pocket. Evan spoke and a slight echo followed his surprisingly gruff voice. It could have been from the high walls of the room, but it wasn’t. “What can we do for you?”
Avie watched as the man posing as the theater manager rushed out to intercept the posse. “Oh, we’re in no real hurry. Besides, I’ve never liked that man.”
There was shouting, a short scuffle, and then Maria easily tossed the man into a rain barrel, where he spluttered while the posse moved towards the door. Avie snickered, set down her drink, and let the serpent slither up her arm.
“I’ve grown a little tired of waiting, over the last few years. First it was Ivor, endlessly plotting and planning his diseased effort to destroy a small town. He was fun, absolutely,and over dramatic and theatrical to his end.” Avie waved towards the drama masks on the wall. “Mason is capable, perhaps.” She landed on the word with deliberate emphasis. “And his travels throughout the desert wilderness have also been interesting. I don’t walk with him, though, and I didn’t walk with Ivor. It’s more a convenience to be near them to embrace… opportunity. And while Ivor was fun to joke with, Mason is sadly more the direct object. Not that he knows it.”
Evan and Lucas nodded. Again, Evan spoke. “So what are we to do?”
Avie smiled, pulling the snake behind her neck and supported it across both shoulders so her hands were free. “Enjoy the moment. Let’s play with our food. Go let them know what’s coming, but we should stay in the shadows, for the most part.” Avie rose from the chair, and plucked her own deck from the desk. “After all this time, it would be a dreadful faux pas to interrupt his final dance. He’s worked hard for it, and sacrificed so much. And today, he’ll finally get his wish. And pay the price.”
Evan looked towards Avie, eyebrow raised. “Are you talking about Mason? Or about Abram?”
But Avie had already moved through the doorway, and the snake’s tail languidly swished as it beckoned the boys forward. They followed obediently, their feet clicking on the wood floorboards in exact tempo.
The Tunnels Underneath the Bird Cage Theater
Willa Mae MacGowan walked down the dusty and rough-hewn corridor, lantern in one hand and a crucifix in the other. “Professor” Duncan walked alongside, revolver pointed a little shakily into the darkness. The tonsure cut into his hair fluttered a little, as if hosting a local breeze.
“Well, this ought to be at least an interesting afternoon’s walk,” Willa muttered as they continued.
“Apt choice of words, ma’am. We’ll meet whatever comes our way… together.” Duncan smiled.
They both reflected on the strategy Abram laid out for the expedition – a quest to defeat a monster known for preying on the old and infirm. They’d each ridden with Abram on part of his travels around the West, and everywhere they went, it was the same – a spinster taken in her living room, or an old miner found slashed to ribbons on the road between saloon and home. But here, at what promised to be the end of his crusade, Abram couldn’t protect them. If they traveled in a group, the beast Mason was just as likely to curl away from the posse and run for the hills as he always did. Abram needed to walk alone, and they needed to fan out and cover as much ground as possible inside the warren-like tunnels under the otherwise respectable theater. But Willa traveling alone was needlessly risky. Mason might not stalk her personally, but he had minions at his command. Duncan had volunteered to keep her company. He’d openly said it was his honor – but both of them saw the trepidation in his eyes. The concern that if someone like Byron or Maria walked guard, one of the group’s heaviest hitters could be held in check by taking Willa hostage. Willa had nodded, and that had been that.
“My friend,” Duncan said, gesturing vaguely above his head, “he suggests nothing nasty is around us now.”
Willa snorted. “Then we’re not doing our job, Professor. We are charged with finding the fiend that’s taken over these depths. If we don’t have anything nearby to investigate, then we should by all means pick up the pace.”
Duncan nodded. “Oh, agreed, agreed. More a reminder that we aren’t precisely alone here, and that we will have some protection against wickedness.”
So in the end, they both walked step by step, with the reasonable expectation they’d never see the sun again. A relatively common expectation among all their group, to be sure, but each small clatter of stone and rustle of earth whispered threats of horrors, looking just for them.
Byron Decker walked slowly into the tunnels. He didn’t carry a lantern, but instead a small bright lamp hung from his lapel. The lamp produced a wide arc of light, and emitted a softly keening whistle. Double-armed with a pistol in left hand and hunting knife in right hand, he squinted to peer through the gloom even as he walked at a fast clip.
“No sense in waiting for y’all to come get me. We have business to deal with.” And though both Byron and his lamp announced his presence to the darkness, there was no response. He put his hand into his coat pocket and carefully thumbed through the three sticks of dynamite he’d picked up earlier that morning. He touched the tips of each – short fuse, medium fuse, long fuse. “Never can tell what you need.” He pressed on.
After a minute, Byron emerged into a much wider area with strangely soft earth in the center. He got down on his haunches and picked through the soil with his knife.
“Not sure there’s any good reason to bring a bunch of dirt inside a mine. Whoever the gardener is, they aren’t growing corn down here.” He took a moment to inhale through his nose – something he’d been consciously avoiding since entering the maze. His sudden visage of disgust reflected his immediate regret. “Everything here is dead, and has been for some time.”
Byron stood up again and moved along, a bit more hustle in his pace. He briefly looked back along the passage, wishing to put some distance between himself and his ominous words.
Valeria Batten crept down the tunnel passage, and the gun in her right hand cast flickering green shadows across the craggy rock walls. Her left hand held a lantern high, but even with its steady golden glare, the shadows played and danced at the edge of vision. A small drop of sweat ran off her hand and over the obsidian-inlaid handle of her six-shooter. Her fingers tensed with the impulse to wipe it away – but she’d already had her weapon knocked away from her once today. Not again, she once more swore silently in the gloom.
As she moved down the passage, slowly but surely descending from the basement below the Bird Cage, she found herself relying on the unnerving shadows to distract herself from the echoes in her mind of many excursions beneath the earth to recover lost artifacts and knowledge. The archeologist in her busied herself mapping search grids, tagging potential metal objects to recover, and noting the tool marks on the wall. They were all recent, and some were curved in ways normal pickaxes didn’t bend. Her eyes lingered for a moment, and she shuddered a brief moment before moving on. She could hear the voice of her former partner, from investigations long past in lands far away.
Valeria, I need the map.
Valeria, bring me the brush.
Valeria, bring the canteen.
Valeria, catalog this find.
It had taken so long for Valeria to fully notice he never asked her for her thoughts on a find, nor discussed his own theories with her. By then, their bonds of deep interest in hidden lore had already frayed.
Valeria, please help me.
She snorted. That’d be the day, when he said he couldn’t do something alone.
Valeria, please help me.
She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand. For something that hadn’t happened, her imagination was strangely persistent.
“Valeria, please help me.”
The voice, soft as a whisper, came from the passageway ahead of her. And her mind could find no way to refute the voice’s testimony that the death of Richard Slavin might be greatly exaggerated.
Maria walked down a maze of twisty passageways, all alike. It’d only been a minute since she separated from the posse, but their lantern light had faded after only three turns. Sometimes she could walk on loose boards, sometimes on rough rock. She bent low for a moment to examine one of the rock floors. Most pickaxes left straight lines, and blasting left sheer surfaces too. The rocks here just looked torn. She stood back up and kept walking.
“These passages must spread out like a web from under the Bird Cage. I guess birds spin webs too.” Her eyes scanned the dim edges of lantern light, rapidly moving from glint to glint as her lamplight bounced off trace metals in the walls or nails in the wood beams.
She cautiously moved down the hewn passageway. Her right arm swiveled before her mind fully recognized the sound of pebbles rolling down a rock face. Her left hand’s fingers itched to flip through her deck of cards, even as they held up the lamp to reveal … a small mole’s snout poking through the dirt. She exhaled slowly as she lowered the hammer on her gun slowly. “At this particular point in time, you’re not worth a bullet.” The mole retreated unmolested. Maria quickly looped the lantern handle through her belt to free her hexslingin’ hand, and pulled the deck from her pocket.
“Just what I like to see, darlin’. I could tell from the moment I first saw you we’d have a few things in common.”
The voice, husky and sultry, came from just down the tunnel. A bolt of blue lightning from her gun shot back the way it came – and revealed bright flashes of a tunnel with no occupants. But even as the light faded, Maria felt a small thin tap on her neck.
“See? We both hear voices from time to time.”
Abram moved down the rock hewn passageway with purpose, his footfalls deliberate and unsubtle. The air of the tunnels carried the scents of darkness – blood, dust, and the sweat of fear. But for Abram, there was no fear left in him. For months and years, his eyes and heart burned with the righteous anger of his quest for justice. So many times he’d reached the victims too late. So many times he’d warned people who refused to listen. So many times he’d reached an empty lair, his quarry fresh on the wind once more.
Abram always chose the widest passages as he moved forward. Dozens of abandoned lairs demonstrated Mason’s tendency towards dramatic environments. He inhaled each breath carefully, both checking for the musk of his prey and for whether he might be moving into an area with less fresh air. Mason wouldn’t want him to die from asphyxiation in a deep mine shaft, but Abram knew Mason liked to weaken an opponent before striking.
So when a whiff of animal scent came to Abram, he immediately scanned the rough-hewn ground ahead. A small flicker of motion caught his eye, and he looked down at the form of what might have been mistaken for a medium-sized house dog, but what Abram knew to be a wolf pup. He rested his hand on Evanor’s hilt.
“You might want to make yourself scarce, son. I’m here for your father, and I’m ill inclined to permit you to loiter.”
The wolf pup coughed out a chunk of meat – then spoke English in a low growl.
“Abram. It’s about time you showed up. You may be dogged, but you have the speed of an old swamp alligator.”
Abram drew Evanor half an inch. He’d only heard that voice once or twice, but it had already etched itself into his nightmares.
“Mason Adler. Even here in your lair, you don’t show yourself. How typical of you to send your childe to do your work.”
The wolf laughed – but strangely, the eyes met Abram’s with a pained look. “I have no need of a mate to share my power with. I have enough fools who seek me out to taste the power of wolfblood. Those who demonstrate loyalty, I permit to ascend to a full form. Those who betray me in search of greater power, I hold those down in a form as challenging as their will.” The wolf seemed to lean forward, its best attempt at kneeling. “So if this poor fool displeases you, you may kill it with my blessing. I have capable pack warriors and more of his foolish ilk to spend as I see fit.”
Abram looked at the wolf carefully. “Anyone who chases your power has left the way of light. And to my eyes, he is suffering enough beneath your heel. Keep your toy.”
The wolf pup stood up again – and Abram could have sworn he saw a tear in its eye. Then the wolf backed up slightly. “I offer you passage to my chambers, so we may complete our business with speed.” The wolf turned, starting to trot further into the mine. “After all, your friends will be much more open to the fear and the darkness if I have your head to tease them with.”
Abram followed. “I suppose you wouldn’t go out of your way to say whether a passage were safe or unsafe. But I agree that you’re an impatient fool, so I’ll walk your path for a while. And you will find all of my friends are well capable of defending themselves from your lupine brood. We carry a resolve within us that your dark heart could never best.” He widened the window of the bullseye lantern tied to his belt, never letting his sword hilt nor pistol grip out of his hands.
The wolf moved at an assured pace, and Abram’s eyes darted from shadow to shadow as he kept up. The wolf turned left and right, but kept to the wider passages as Abram had estimated.
“Mason – know now that when we meet, it will be for the only time. And righteous justice will carry the day. For someone I’ve chased through three states and as many territories, you seem more interested now in this resolution than ever before. I find myself wondering if you are starting to see the shadows that surround you. Rest assured that even if you were to carry the day, you long ago pledged your soul to the shopkeeper who never gets the short end of the stick.”
The wolf pup snorted, wagging its muzzle in irritation. “You are not that foolish, Abram. You know the beast will only play with food so long before the hunger for victory brooks no further delay. And you are the fool, who chose to walk into the mouth of danger to pursue your quest for revenge. You spend your so-called friends in pursuit of your vaunted goal of revenge dressed like justice. Your arrogance is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Abram nodded. “I agree. I have questioned whether a righteous cause can command too high a cost, and whether a human’s spiritual love for another can carry them all over the edge. I asked each one to join me, but I do not know if they felt able to decline.” He briefly moved his hand from sword hilt to the outline of the crucifix in his pocket – his first crucifix, given to him by his own father. “But there’s a difference you choose not to see. I long ago swore myself to the Lord’s service, and committed my soul not only to His duties, but to His judgment. You and your ilk spend your lives in futile attempts to live outside His eyes. You burrow under the earth like this to hide from the light, but in vain. I offer great thanks that I can bring light into this dark den – and I will gladly pay the cost to bring His judgment to you.”
The wolf pup snarled, and barked forth a contemptuous laugh. “I’m ever so glad to hear your approach. I hope to hear you scream such platitudes while I string your innards over your torn and broken limbs.”
And true to Mason’s word, the small sparkles of fixed torches gave notice of their approach towards a large hall. Abram spun the cylinder of his pistol, ensuring a full load of blessed lead was ready for use. Then, Abram heard a booming voice distantly in front of him.
“I have no use for you now, whelp. Get ye gone.”
The wolf pup immediately darted away past Abram, and bounded off back the way they came. Abram gave it no mind – for at last, the lights in the cavern framed the shape of a man. He breathed a silent prayer as he took his first steps into Mason Adler’s lair.
Byron continued along, his pace still confident and quick. “If you find yourself lost, keep going – find yourself somewhere else, at least.” He’d been talking to himself for quite some time now. The lamp still shone brightly, and Byron took a moment to look at his pocket watch. “Should be good for a while longer. But Abram, if you wanted to get done with this now, I’d be much obliged.”
A dagger buzzed by his ear and clanged against the rock passage wall.
“We agree – let’s get this done with.” A harshly deep voice rasped the challenge from behind him.
Byron swung around on his heel and looked down the passageway. A swash of black hair receded into the gloom. He held his gun next to his belly, aimed down the passage, and walked forward. “I’d be glad to make your acquaintance, sir.” The light glinted red against specks on the floor, catching Byron’s eye. “I do hope that’s your blood, sir – perhaps you’ve already learned we Agents aren’t to be trifled with.”
The deep voice came from a side passage Byron had passed a minute ago. “The blood sharpens my senses. I am present in this moment. The smell flares through my heart, waking my spirit.”
Byron paused, mentally flipping through notes from briefings and flickers of rumors across state lines. “Only one local I know of runnin’ with Adler’s dog pack.” Byron spoke the word local with emphasis. “Black Owl, looking for approval from his new daddy.”
Two daggers sailed towards him from the darkness. Byron dodged sideways to save his own eye – and the other knife clanged into his gun, jerking it out of his hands and a few yards back down the tunnel.
“I hope you brought an extra gun, invader. You’ll find two knives in your back if you go looking for that one.” The deep voice chuckled, even as the words held a quiver of anger.
Duncan and Willa Mae walked quietly along passageway after passageway. Every time they reached an intersection, the “Professor” scratched behind his ear, and the powdery dust on the ground momentarily tickled to life in front of one of the paths, and they moved on.
“I don’t have a sense of an overall goal, but I can feel the flow of the air and earth, and I’m looking for well-trodden paths.” Duncan looked down the barrel of his revolver into the dimly-lit tunnel. “While I don’t think this will take us anywhere particularly safe, it should be an informative journey.”
Willa Mae waved her cross back and forth in a slow rhythm, looking to anyone who could see through the murk that she was trying to clean the air. “Kurt, you choose your words so well. You keep back the darkness just about as much as this lantern.” But even as she said the words, “Professor” Kurt Duncan reached over and pulled the metal cover over the lamp’s bullseye lens. He put his hand to his nose, and the two intrepid explorers paused in silence, breathing.
The musky thread of wolf spoor faintly permeated the passageway. And further down the corridor, they heard the faint sound of guttural breathing.
Duncan took one step back, but Willa Mae took hold of the wrist holding the gun and pulled it forward. Her touch was directive, but also gentle and reassuring. In the sliver of light that remained to them, she held up her steel crucifix. Threads of lamplight glittered off the corners, and Duncan raised his free hand. Briefly, they held the cross together.
Duncan led the way forward, and it didn’t take long for the scent to intensify into an overpowering stench. The breathing remained quiet, almost soothing. After another tense minute of soft footsteps forward, they realized why.
They stood next to the wall of the passage that opened into a large chamber hewn out of the rock. Wilted hay and leaves covered the jagged ground. Over a dozen wolves slept in the near darkness, each one half the size of a horse.
They stared at the collection of dire beasts for several brief seconds. Willa Mae tugged briefly at Duncan’s arm, pointing at the chamber of his revolver. Then she waved her cross over the beasts, making her intent clear without words.
We are here to use these silver bullets against our adversary. While these are dangerous, they are not our quarry.
They surveyed what they could of the layout of the chamber in the faint light they permitted to escape the lantern. They spied out two more exits, and judged which one they could reach without treading on a paw or a tail. As one, they identified the best route forward, and began their silent procession forward.
The walk was agonizingly slow, with each step a gamble to avoid the crack of a pebble or the flutter of a leaf. A breeze moved softly in front of the pair, and carefully rolled larger debris out of their way. Minute by minute went by. Slowly but surely, they made their way along the side of the wall towards the closest passage out of the den. Willa Mae moved in front and pointed the lantern directly forwards, using Duncan’s form to prevent any light from bouncing back into the den. The passage curved away to the right, and was otherwise unoccupied. Their companionable wind twisted forward along the floor. Willa Mae shifted the cross into her hand holding the lantern so she could clasp Duncan’s hand tightly in relief. Her chest shivered trying to hold back five minutes’ worth of constricted breath.
After Willa Mae took yet another step forward, a yard-square wooden panel underneath an inch of prepared pebbles and dust gave way to a sloped shaft underneath. Duncan fell with her immediately, having not even a moment to leap away. They rolled and bounced down the steeply-angled trap chute further into the depths of the lair.
Abram Grothe stared directly at Mason Adler. Both held their weapons at the ready. Abram, his Peacemaker, and Mason, his barbed harpoon. For a brief moment, neither spoke. And then Abram let his weapon speak his mind. But in a blur, Mason leapt more than fifteen feet straight into the air. Abram was an experienced gunfighter for opponents who moved left or right – but up was rarer, so his shots went under Mason’s feet. Or, as Abram noted while his arms and legs scrambled forward so that Mason wouldn’t land on him, entaloned paws. Those talons spiked into the rock where Abram had been standing half a second ago, and the worn floor of the cavern spiderwebbed with cracks as the talons punctured it.
Abram continued to barrel forwards, and tumbled into a roll. Mason swiveled to face him just as the Peacemaker came level, and plunged the harpoon forward into the rock floor. An explosive shower of pebbles and jagged shards erupted towards Abram, who put his arm in front of his face even as he fell away sideways. He grunted as a rock shard bit into his forearm, drawing blood before it fell away. Mason vaulted forwards, using the harpoon as a lever point. Abram continued to fall back, and pulled a small red cylinder from his jacket. He twisted it, and a pair of sparks illuminated the gloom of the cavern. Abram rolled the cylinder toward Mason, and both of them dived away from it. It hadn’t gone a yard before it burst into a bright white fireball that brought a moment of sunshine to the caves along with a short concussive blast. They came to rest yards away from each other, and Mason smiled wickedly.
‘You think you’re the only one who can change the odds with a trick or two? You have no idea what you are fighting, really.” Mason reached into his own pants pocket and pulled out a small crystal that shone with a bright argent light. Like the moon.
Mason shattered the crystal, and the room filled with the soft wash of moonlight that would fill the landscape yards and yards above them some six hours from now. Mason’s skin immediately erupted with thick coarse hair, as his laugh segued into a snarl.
‘I’ve been prepared for you to finally summon the courage to face me for quite some time. This charm was expensive, as diamonds always are. But it’s worth it for me to enjoy this moment fully.”
Abram had to strain to understand that last sentence from Mason, as the words were gurgled through a throat in transformation. Abram fired two rounds directly into the center of the growing mass of fur and muscle. Mason dodged the first shot, then let the second plunge into his thigh. There was blood for a moment, and then it was covered in a sea of fur and a foam of emerging muscle over bone. Abram pulled back, taking stock of his enemy’s newer form. He realized the cavern wasn’t all that big after all.
Maria Kingsford looked down the barrel of her weapon towards the languid eyes of Avie Cline. Avie bore no weapon, and her smile was easy and relaxed. Avie clicked her tongue at Maria and chuckled. “Be a shame if a gunshot got something nasty running this way. Besides, darlin’, I just want to talk. Get acquainted.”
Maria pulled back the hammer and let it click into place. “The way I see it, having something nasty come this way puts his yellow backside into play.” Her thumb slid through her deck, stopping on the eight of hearts. “But if you’re here, you’re not there either. Better odds, I reckon.” Maria in no way lowered her weapon nor let the hammer back. “What’s on your mind? And not in your mind – I see plenty of evidence you’ve got an easy rider in there.”
Avie gently stroked the snake on her neck – which, now as always, served to cover some scars. “Why now, you and I both have plenty of handshake deals with the folks from not around here.” Avie pointed to her own deck of cards sticking up from the top of her bodice. Maria noticed a two of spades facing her. “But to your point, I’m just getting to know you as a particularly interesting chess piece on the board. The two kings are finding each other right now.” Avie’s head shook side to side in mild exasperation. “And at this point, I don’t rightly care who wins. If Abram comes to a point,” and with this pun her grin sharpened wickedly, “then it’s business as usual for me and my friends. But, if Mason decides to finally face his enemy for once, he may find that he’s been on the run for a better reason than ‘luring our foe into a fight of our choosing’.” Avie’s acrid delivery suggested to Maria that the words had been uttered more than once. “And in that case, it may be beneficial to know one of the other queens on the board.”
Maria sighed. “I truck with spirits to take down greater evils. Evils like you.”
Avie put her hand to her chest in mock embarrassment. “Oh, I do declare! You unduly tar me with association to criminals. I am a lady of opportunity in a world where women must forge their own. If I am informed correctly, you too didn’t have an easy childhood.”
Maria closed one eye for a moment, recalling the charred remains of a burnt church behind her. “Abram’s been one of the few men who didn’t ever think I’d be better off making dinner for him.”
Avie nodded. “Good men these days are few and far between. That’s why women of means and determination need to keep an eye out for each other.” Avie ran her eyes up and down Maria’s shadowy form in the tunnel. “We can help each other if circumstances permit. Also,” and she looked at Maria’s deck in her hand, “a woman who knows what she’s worth is just good company.” Avie reached out an inviting hand.
Byron drew another six-shooter from inside his duster. “When you dance with those who palaver with the beyond, there ain’t no such thing as ‘too many guns’.” He fired two shots down the passage, and heard only rustles of cloth on rock. He caught a flicker of motion moving sideways, and tried to remember the way he’d come. “Damned maze is so dark, there could be ten ways out of a hallway.”
“And you’re the young calf here, Decker.” A voice called out from somewhere… either to the front or side, he couldn’t quite tell. “I will bring Mason back your scalp and sidearm to mark my first kill against the pursuers. With your tokens, I will trade for full admittance to the pack. Mason speaks the law of the wild. For as I seize strength and power, I take up the authority and respect I am due.”
Keep talkin’, Byron whispered under his breath. “Fella, you got a world of hurt coming if you think Adler is gonna share his morning coffee with you, let alone respect. Sure, he’ll be all smiles while you do his dirty work. But the moment he thinks you’re the competition and not just the help, you’re on the menu.”
Black Owl laughed. Byron’s ears picked up a rough direction, and he carefully retreated a few steps while masking his face with confusion. Then Black Owl spoke again, confirming his bearing. “Mason makes no secret that each and every packmate must be prepared to defend themselves. In the law of the wild, no one has more authority than their strength and prowess can command. Only humans sleep on their laurels so long it becomes their deathbed.”
Byron kept moving backwards, and saw the flickers of a wide opening through the light of the torch he bore in his off-hand. He pushed off the wooden frame of the passage with one foot, rolling backwards on the ground. He dropped a small black rock, and put the torch to it while crouched. The rock burst into a white flame, illuminating a wide range of the cavern in which Byron crouched. “All right, beast man. Let’s see if you can do the one thing Mason hasn’t done in years. Let’s see if you can come out of the shadows to get me.”
Black Owl chuckled darkly. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”
And then Byron saw a hand grip the wooden beam that bordered the entrance. A hand covered in black fur, with shining red talons.
Valeria desperately extended her hand with the lantern, hoping to push back the gloomy darkness just enough to illuminate the voice from the dark. It seemed to move backwards just enough to remain shrouded in darkness. As she took each step forward, the voice held its mysterious distance.
“Whoever you are, I don’t believe you are Richard Slavin. He’s been dead for quite a long time.”
The darkness snorted a laugh, the voice gnarled through what seemed to be a throat laden with scars. “Valeria, you know very well that we don’t know all the effects and properties of all the relics we found. Is it so inconceivable that there is more than one way back from beyond? I don’t pretend to understand why I can still hear you and speak to you. But I think, so I am.”
Valeria’s right hand fingers trembled as they kept hold of her weapon – but now they wrapped over the trigger guard, not inside it. She kept advancing down the tunnel. “A hollow philosophy, from a hollow man. But I will not turn you away immediately, for there is some doubt.”
The voice snapped a loud rejoinder. “You turned me away when I was about to die, Valeria. I know you did not save me from the fiends who corrupted our work.”
The former assistant’s breath caught for a moment. “We couldn’t have known what would happen! I couldn’t have known you were in peril before it was too late! I was as taken in as you!” Valeria accused the darkness with a wave of her weapon. “The only reason it’s you in there and not me is that you chose to keep me from your secret dealings with the enemy. Does the darkness blind you to your responsibility for your fate?”
“We are all responsible for our fates, together. Do you spread flowers over each grave in Gomorra to whom we owe a debt of justice?”
Valeria stopped in mid-step. “I cannot simply say I am sorry for what I fostered in your company. It is only through action I can offer some amends to the unjustly dead. And you, Richard, how are you making amends?”
Suddenly Valeria’s next step slid down a rough downward slope. She fell into a sitting position, hands still clenched on weapon and light, and as she slid downwards as the tunnel opened into a wider area with a bowled floor and a domed roof. And then, for the first time, her light caught the form in front of her. Shadows swirled around a black Stetson, and dark light twinkled in wet black eyes in a narrow pink visage.
Valeria’s voice steeled. “I know of you, beast. I have seen reports of a thing that takes a human form to lure a victim.”
The Angler’s thin pink tongue emerged from within an unsavory and self-satisfied grin. “Always a pleasure to be recognized for one’s work, I know you agree. After all, that’s why you’re here in the darkness with me.” The Angler reached a taloned hand out from the darkness towards Valeria’s leg.
“Well, at least now I know you’re not *only* an insufferably dramatic grandstander. The room isn’t gigantic just so you can hear the echoes of your own voice.” Abram watched as the form of Mason Adler continued to twitch and grotesquely blossom under an increasing blur of coarse black hair. “Big dogs like you should have a wide open space to run and play.”
Then Abram was forced to clap his hands fiercely over his ears as Mason let forth a deafening bellow of rage – part howl, part roar. The rock of the cavern walls shook, dust flew into the air, and the diminishing sounds of the roar mixed with a rain of pebbles. Abram steadied Evanor in his hand and kept his eyes fixed on Mason. “You might want to lower your voice, dog. It’d be a right shame if we both died in a mine collapse. I think my friends would have to spend months trying to find your body to burn it.”
Mason still spoke with a voice, clotted with saliva and pulled loose from a throat not quite built for words. “Oh, I think some of your friends will realize quite soon the earth holds much more for them to fear than us.” Mason took a step forward, standing on hind legs, and the paw struck exactly like any other foot-wide hammer head on the rock floor. Abram leaned forward slightly to resist the motion – knowing his only hope lay in outmaneuvering the beast. But as he assessed the threat, he saw a sparkle of metal in the midst of the fur-covered monolith. Mason chuckled.
“Yes, Abram. While my limbs could smash you against the rock, and my talons could tear you to mouthwatering morsels, you will fall to my weapon.” Mason held the harpoon like a punch dagger, jutting out from his right forepaw in a gleaming prophecy of pain to come. “For this is Askopi Elpida, an ancient and powerful implement. I call it the Hopeless Point. It has a way of feeding on the spirit, and it craves the transformation of hope to despair that comes with defeat.” Mason lowered his snout to look directly at Abram. “And you, Lawman Grothe, you have built up two years of hope of finding and besting me. I’ve cultivated this dream of yours just so my weapon might savor the meal all the more sweetly.”
Abram spoke courage as his mind frosted with doubt. “Oh, a fine thing to tell yourself with your tail between your legs – you were drawing me in for your spear’s benefit. It makes better campfire conversation with the whelps you’ve been dragging around the country for months and months than confessing your dread of righteous justice, for certain.”
Mason bounded forward in a leap, crossing yards in an instant. Abram dived to the right, rolling head over, and waited a split-second for Mason’s massive bulk to land. He leapt himself in time with the shockwave, buying a critical boost of distance at the cost of nearly losing a leg underneath literal tons of muscle. Abram looked at his weapons – Evanor, his Colt Peacemaker, and his own muscles already straining to match Mason move for move.
Mason turned to face Abram, and wiped the froth from his snout with his off-hand paw. “You utter fool. You’ve seen werewolves before. You’ve fought my kin and children. Are you really willing to say you’ve seen my like?”
Abram rolled back in a squat onto the balls of his feet, ready to move again. “Can’t say I have. Though you do make a point that I’ve defeated so many wolf-fiends before that I could have a set of pointed dentures now if I were in need. Why would you think being so massive gives you an edge?” He pointed a thumb back up the passage. “If I felt the need to put some distance between us, you can’t exactly follow along without losing some of that paunch.”
Mason Adler rose up again, letting his full height exalt his power. “I share power with the Askopi, and it shares its feed with me. I make sure to announce my presence, to you and to those I took before you. They think they can prepare, and can resist with the right tools or the right rituals or whatever pipe dreams their craven minds latch onto.” He guffawed out from a grin of wicked teeth. “And the feastings on their newbirthed despair have been glorious. We both have grown powerful, full to bursting with energy. And you,” Mason shook his head. “You come to me after years of toil, into my very lair, and felt it so necessary to win you’ve given your friends over to my minions. You bring the hope of your Lord Almighty with you, a sweet fairy tale to swaddle yourself to sleep.” Mason’s eyes flared with dark red energy, casting a somber light in the chamber. “We only weep that once we eat our fill of your broken spirit, we will need years to lead another poor fool down the tortured path to prepare another such bounteous feast.”
Mason moved cautiously away from the wall, and Abram sidled in kind to maintain a distance. But he studied the foe’s weapon as much as the foe’s movements. It jutted out in Mason’s hand, a shaft of glistening metal darker than steel. But at the tip, the sheen faded. The very apex wasn’t metal – it was a singular thing held in place by a flush collar of metal. As the red light from Mason’s eyes competed with the lamplight of the hall, the reflection on the tip wavered, revealing a slight pitting and irregular lines.
It was a tooth. Perhaps shaped and sharpened, but Abram was certain – it was the tooth of some beast from long ago, fixed as a spearpoint.
Abram moved his eyes quickly to Mason’s muzzle. “You know, for someone looking forward to a meal, you sure seem like you’re waiting for someone to come cut your steak for you.” And Abram once again quickly rolled back to the left as Mason thrust forward his paw to swipe at him. As Abram hadn’t stepped too far into the hall, it was easy to roll back through the narrow doorway. Mason’s paw slammed into the corner side of the doorway, showing Abram with debris.
You didn’t swipe with your weapon, Mason. You knew it was too close to the wall, didn’t you. You have… a concern. Caution.
Mason roared. “Look at the proud warrior, huddling behind a rock.” Mason turned and walked back towards the center of the chamber, turning his head to keep an eye on Abram. “If you don’t think you can defeat me, you spent your friends’ lives in vain.” Mason chuckled. “At long last, have you found that your God wasn’t interested in staying by your side?” He waved a paw backhandedly towards the passage outward. “Maybe he realized you cared more about me than you did your allies?”
Abram stood in the doorway, breathing shallowly while sweat dripped over the crucifix he wore under his shirt. “I cannot speak to the Lord’s will. And I confess my shame for taking the strategy you offered. It will be a cost I bear for the rest of my life.” Mason took his first step forward. “But you haven’t driven the faith from me, nor can you. My friends will carry their share, and will see the sun set today.” Abram strode forward, weapons in hand, and his eyes firmly met Mason’s. “I have seen the way to best you, and know it was put before me by a power you long since abandoned. I don’t know what happened in your life that you cast aside goodness and charity for your own ends.” Mason rose again, arms raising in preparation to strike, but Abram did not falter. “But rest assured you long ago ensured your own damnation. Whatever the Lord wishes for me, I know I earned it through my choices and my faith. I accept it.” He raised his revolver. “Can you accept the Lord’s judgment?”
Mason closed the distance between them. “Let’s trade. First, you accept my judgment. Then, I might just accept yours.” He pulled his paw back, ready to strike.
“Not mine, you abomination. The Lord’s. Matthew 19:24.”
Mason didn’t even bother responding. He struck at Abram with lightning speed, the sharp point of the weapon coming at him in a heartbeat.
And Evanor’s edge was there to meet it. Abram saw the sword edge meet the tip head-on. He saw the tiniest fracture form in the tip – and from it spilled a blinding shockwave of thunderous light. As he flew backwards towards the doorway…
… Rocks coming off the walls and ceiling in massive clusters and columns …
… The form of Mason Adler shriveling amidst the light, shrieking as the thick coat of hair burst into flame …
… Tendrils of white fire springing from the shattered point of Askopi Elpida, spearing through Mason’s limbs …
… His own mind washed through not with fear or triumph – but a ceaseless wave of gratitude …
And then Abram slammed against the rock wall of the corridor, and all went dark for him.
Byron Decker quietly observed the black-furred form that slowly emerged into the firelight. He maintained his distance with a few steps backwards – but chuckled as he did so. “Did Daddy Adler deputize you as a Junior Werewolf for his mangy posse? I’ve seen a few folks dumb enough to take that curse, and they were a sight more impressive than you.”
Black Owl’s skin was lightly furred, and his fingernails long and cruel – but his head was still a human head, his legs human legs. “You do not listen. I told you Mason has yet to entrust me with his power. What you see before you is the spirit of the proud wolves you have chased into the mountains. This is a gift of my own people.”
Byron patted his pockets, taking inventory of his defenses and attacks. “Then you’re just fooling yourself. I’ve had the privilege of standing with your people against the darkness. And the gifts they unleashed to defend life and light were nothing like this dime store costume. You’re fooling yourself if you think the Great Fathers have anything to do with you.”
And in an instant, Black Owl bounded into the air and covered nearly all the distance between them. Byron pulled off his left glove to reveal a coppery gauntlet laced with wires. He raised his palm just as Black Owl landed in a crouch, and clenched his fist as the wolf-form swiveled forward and pushed up towards him, fangs bared and claws extended. The gauntlet flared into piercingly blue light, and Black Owl slammed into a shimmering disc surrounding the gauntlet. Byron staggered back and nearly lost his footing, but Black Owl did not have the benefit of contact with the ground to resist. He flew backwards, howling in pain, and rolled to a stop nearly where he started. He snarled at Byron, his voice husky and rough.
“I’ve seen those shields before, prey. You need more fuel for it to work again, and this mine has no ghost rock.”
Byron’s right hand reached into his duster and pulled out an oversized pistol with a rapidly spinning cylinder. “This gun has ten bullets, so I’ll have four left after I put you down.” Byron fired three shots, faster than fanning the hammer, and Black Owl jumped back into the shadows. “You’re all the same. You have no courage that doesn’t come from steel or wood. You consume the gifts of the Earth with abandon, but you don’t know its ways. Such as the labyrinth of passages that lace your doomed campfire.” And the room filled with the soft whispering of claws against pebbles. Byron jumped forward to put himself between the kicked rubble and his guardian flame. He paid for the light with a myriad of pelting rocks that left scratches and welts on his face and hand.
As the dust settled, Byron listened intently as an agonized scream issued from the passage which led him here. His eyes widened, and he strode towards the exit. In a smooth motion, he swung his arm to point behind him and fired off three more rounds from the gatling pistol. One shot rang off a rock wall and the other two found their marks in the center of Black Owl’s hungering mouth. His leap of attack ended with thick flesh slumped against cold stone.
Byron turned to look down at the shriveling form of his opponent. “Nice to think you could trick me into thinking I needed to rescue someone.” He holstered the revolver and unsheathed a bowie knife. “Pity you weren’t at the council we took at the door. We swore an oath you didn’t know you were breaking.”
Byron was busily ensuring the form of Black Owl would be useless to demon or coroner alike when the dull roar of a distant explosion rolled into the room. “Yep. Abram said we’d know, and that sounds like the end of somethin.” He wiped his knife on a clean patch of fur, put it back into his boot sheath, and started the walk back to daylight.
Not able to clamber back on the ridge with just her feet, and reluctant to surrender her lantern’s light, Valeria quickly holstered her gun and used her right arm to pull herself back up the slope, or at least, put enough distance between her and the monster as she launched a stiff kick to its outstretched hand. The creature yelped in pain and recoiled.
“Steel soled boots! Helps a lot when you’re walking on sharp ground, or when your foe moves within kicking range!”
But as Valeria’s legs scrabbled for purchase, the broken hand swiped again. The broken fingers couldn’t grip the barrel of her gun, but they quite effectively batted the weapon out of her hand. She afforded it enough attention to track where it might have gone, then returned to a standing position. She surveyed the field even as she backed away from the abomination’s wild arm swipes. The dome of the ceiling was only visible at the very edges, as it ascended up out of view. And the floor…
Blood. Bloodstains and bones dotted the rocky landscape. Some were sprawled in ungainly poses on the floor, and others jutted up with gnawed points. Whether this was the Angler’s territory or not, this was a killing ground. Many victims met their grisly demise here, and she doubted any of them had enjoyed the comfort of lamplight for long. She took a utility knife from a belt pouch and readied it in defense. “I did not survive the jungles, the ruins, and the fall of Gomorra only to fail before a cheap trickster.”
And still the Angler advanced, using its broken hand as its own knife while its good hand reared back to strike. Valeria took another step back, and her foot shifted on a loose patch of gravel. She kept her balance, and smoothly slipped the toe of her boot into the rubble. She then wrenched it forward, showering her assailant with debris and dust. The Angler covered its face with its broken hand and briefly retreated. Valeria still kept increasing the distance between them, grateful for the slight gain.
“So – you breathe, and you see. Noted and cataloged.”
The beast snarled. “Before too much longer, I will have sole claim to those faculties here. Your tricks are not armor nor weapon. You will exhaust them, and then you will die.”
Valeria held silent, but her mind raced through the things she had with her. So many things required more time to prepare than the monster would permit. The power of ritual is tremendous, but the price is strict adherence to the rules of beyond. There were ways to get what you needed quickly, of course. Monsters were born in the West every day. And then, her mind seized on a tiny hope. She fished in her jacket, and traded her knife for a small bundle wrapped in cloth. She slipped the cloth away and felt the warm rubbery texture within.
The monster saw the weapon go away and smiled. “I don’t respond to images and tokens, dear. Whatever you’re planning, neither of us believe in it enough for it to work.” A blood-red thread of drool slipped out of the corner of its mouth, and its tongue snaked out and took it back in. Its lips glinted with slickness in the lamplight.
And then Valeria spoke words she’d seen carved into obsidian in a temple deep in the Guatemalan jungles. The rough translation was Tezcatlipoca, I return the gift I was given. I release the sunlight from my heart. The effect was immediate, as the dried heart she bore exploded into bright sunlight. Valeria blinked, as she’d been inside the tunnel for some time.
The monster had been here for quite longer, however. And its wail proved its vulnerability. It doubled over to protect its eyes, and Valeria smoothly kicked it onto its side.
“You’ve been down here too long, thing. In feeding on darkness, you only made yourself more vulnerable to the light.” She strode around the beast’s side as it roiled in agony. “And more importantly, the light shows us what we need.” She stooped down and recovered her firearm, shining brightly in the light of the jungle sun. A pulse of green light followed the bullet that thudded into the Angler’s head. It dropped back to the floor with a whimper.
“You copied too much from him, took on too much of his spirit. For, just like him, you just didn’t see clearly. You were selfishly obtuse.”
Valeria looked around for another exit from the room and crouched for balance as a thunderclap explosion and a cloud of dust and debris came from the only other opening to the charnel pit. “Abram said we’d know when his fight was done.” She looked around one more time before going back the way she came.
Duncan shook dust from his eyebrows as he came back to the world of the awakened. He tried to shift and his eyes bulged in shock. A touch to his arm, and a voice in his ear, calmed him down.
“We’re safe for now, Kurt.” Willa Mae breathed softly. “But you’ve clearly broken a leg on the way down. I can’t even make the climb up the well, let alone you. Just relax.”
Duncan blinked away the residue of the rolling fall and looked around. His left leg was bent askew. Not so much as to require amputation, but enough that he’d be in a bed for months. He couldn’t quite work out how he could see, until he saw their sentinel lantern, still only half-open, resting sideways on a ledge fifteen feet away. He sighed.
“It’s too far to reach, and any way we could knock it down would risk losing it altogether.” He looked beneath him,rubble and dirt close around, with talon-cut walls going up out of sight. Several ledges dotted the ascent, all frustratingly far away. Their immediate surroundings spanned barely enough room for arms outstretched.
“Speaking of good news, the wolves didn’t follow. But you don’t chase your prey down into the trap.” Willa Mae sat cross-legged next to Duncan, breathing shallowly.
Duncan gestured up towards the light. There was a light glimmer of dust in the air, forming a ragged circle. After they studied it for a clear moment, it drifted away. Duncan nodded. “It was a trap all the way around. The reason we saw two exits was the circular path. If we’d dodged the pit snare, we’d have just looped around back into the den.”
Willa Mae nodded. “Right now, our best hope is with Abram. If he defeats Mason, he’ll clean out these warrens and find us.”
Duncan shrugged. “I agree, but until we get some sign of his success, we are bound by our oath.”
Willa Mae again nodded gravely. “‘The surest way to alert each other in these tunnels will be by voice. Therefore, it’s the surest way we can be deceived or tempted to stray. No matter what. NO MATTER WHAT. We cannot raise a cry before we know our work is done.’”
And it was only because the two of them exhaled softly at the same moment that they heard it as soon as they did. The soft tumbling of pebbles clicking against each other as they fell.
Willa Mae looked up into the dimly-lit shaft, and raised her hand to cover eyes against the small cloud rolling through the beam of the lantern. “Is it…”
Duncan pushed a hand downward, indicating quiet. With his other hand, he made the motion of a swiping paw. They held their breath for a moment.
They did not hear the growl of a hungry wolf, nor the scrabble of claws on rock. Only the soft clatter of pebbles and earth. But it continued on, unrelenting.
Duncan squinted and looked up from his backwards position, trying to discern detail through an increasing cloud of dust. “That’s not wolves. But it’s not our friends, either.” And with that, a gust of air pushed upwards and momentarily drew the clouds back. After a moment, the breeze blew back into their midst, and a few lines formed in the dust. A wide and short oval, with a rounder shape on top. Duncan’s eyes closed a moment, then he focused on Willa Mae.
“It’s a gopher. Perhaps overly large, but not a predator.”
Willa Mae squinted upwards. “That makes little sense. This is far too deep underground.”
Duncan agreed. “It may be an agent of aid, however. I will attempt to commune with it.” He closed his eyes again, and stilled his breathing to a shallow flow. Willa Mae felt a shiver in the air, but did not react.
She did not react until Duncan’s eyes snapped open, his mouth opened as if to scream, but a small burst of fire rolled out. It lit the bottom of the shaft for a moment before dying out, and Duncan coughed terribly, his eyes wet with tears and his hands apparently trying to claw the pain from his throat. He could only gurgle.
And from the top of the shaft there came a high-pitched guttural call, atonal and thick with phlegm.
And now. Now Duncan and Willa Mae heard a rumbling. Dozens of tiny claws clicked against rock, and scratched into the earth. And the relatively small drizzle of dirt and pebbles immediately swelled to a torrent of stifling rubble. Duncan tried to push himself upwards, and immediately pushed down a shriek of pain into his throat.
Willa Mae looked up, shielding her eyes against the dusty tide, and whispered. “Abram was right. This is not the enemy he came here to fight. As much as we might need help at this moment, the others should continue their search.” She knelt beside Duncan, taking his hand as he took ragged breaths. “It’s time for us to rest.”
The flood of earth continued, and a thick layer of earth and rocks flowed over Duncan’s legs and onto the back of Willa’s shoes. Their hands tightened against each other, and they looked into each other’s eyes. From above, they heard a clang – and the light of their lantern shone no more. The bottom of the shaft choked with swirling storms of dust. A breeze struck up and circled the pair, and even in the darkness, Willa Mae and Professor Kurt Duncan kept locked in each other’s eyes. But after a moment, the latter spoke.
“It’s all right. You don’t need to watch this. Go back into the sunlight and back to the clouds.” His hand clenched Willa Mae’s tenderly. “We’ll be with you soon enough.”
The breeze that had been their constant companion fluttered between their hands, and then whispered away upwards. The earth flew downwards even faster now, and their hands still clasped together as the rising tide of dust covered their arms. Willa Mae and Duncan kept their faces downward to offer some protection for their remaining breaths. And in another few seconds, the world settled in a hushed and coarse shroud around the two warriors.
Evan, a young boy of about six, held a lantern in his hand and stood in the dusty passageway leading back to the wolf den. His twelve year old brother Lucas carried a bucket, full to spilling over with spoiled and feculent organ meat, smashed into small remnants. Clustered at their feet were dozens of small rodent-like beasts. Lucas set the bucket down onto the ground, but quickly snatched the largest hunk of meat before the crowd of animals tipped it over and greedily devoured the contents.
The boy took the prize of the meal and tossed it over the breadth of the rough-turned earth piled on top of the trap shaft. From the far side emerged a much larger beast,a gopher perhaps in name, but the eyes were wet with blood, the teeth a mass of oversized jagged grey shards, and the fur torn away from a large gash running down its left and sinister side. It scooped up the meat with a shiver of delight, and immediately pushed it alongside the gash running from its throat to hind leg. Small pink tendrils reached out and pulled the meat within in one swift motion. The beast gurgled with satisfaction.
“Yes, Barry. Once again, you’ve done good work. There have been so many loose ends in managing our business in Tombstone, and you’ve always done your part.” Lucas picked up the bucket. The beast Barry chittered in self-satisfied glee. And at once, a small shuddering tremor washed through the area. The other animals scattered, but the boys and Barry stood indifferent. Lucas’ eyes turned back towards the labyrinth of tunnels, while Evan continued to stolidly hold the lantern.
“I daresay one way or the other, our personal business in Tombstone just came to an end,” said Lucas. He looked down at Barry with fondness. “Now it’s time for you to run on your own.” Lucas bent and scritched behind his companion’s ratted ear. “Just remember to play with your food. Life’s an adventure, unlife doubly so.” Barry leaned into Lucas’ hand, and quietly whimpered as Lucas rose and turned away. He smiled, blood oozing from his distended mouth, and he plunged headfirst into the rock wall, burrowing with his monstrous teeth into the rock wall. In only a moment, the grave was silent and dark.
Maria looked down the gun barrel at Avie’s eyes and her hand outstretched in invitation. She looked for a long time, and the hallway was silent. One pair of lungs didn’t need air to work, and the other pair held still. After another second, Maria slowly hissed it out and lowered the hammer on her gun – slowly.
“Avie, I’ve made plenty of rash decisions in my life. Most of them I’ve ended up regretting. So I don’t think I should make this one right now.” Avie lowered her outstretched hand gently, but her smile remained. “I can understand that a woman can be driven to extremes by a bad situation, or bad company. So I may have more to say to you later. If you were free of your leader’s influence, your actions afterward would tell me if our roads might meet up.”
Avie nodded. “I understand, and I’ve learned all of you I need to at the moment. And I think the moment of truth will come soon enough.” Avie started walking backwards into the darkness, and soon was no more than a silhouette. But still her voice reached Maria’s ears. “For both of us.” And then she was gone.
Maria looked towards the way she had been traveling – and rolled backwards as a thunderclap explosion and a cloud of dust and debris came from a few lengths shead. “Abram said we’d know when his fight was done.” She looked around. “It’s not worth getting picked off by a straggler if the battle is over, won or lost.” As she moved back towards the entrance, her eyes snapped to a speck of light on the floor. She brought the lantern close, and found an earring on the ground. A serpent of gold curled around a blood red ruby.
Maria picked it up and pocketed it. “Might be worth something someday.” She walked back towards the surface, her eyes sharp but her mind lost in thought.
The carriage stood in an alley on Tombstone’s south side, facing towards the road down towards Bisbee and then the Mexican border. The somber vehicle was nearly funereal, built of mahogany with ebony paneling. The eye of the beholder would inevitably draw towards the door panels, inlaid with a bas-relief of vipers with rubies for eyes.
A pair of young boys emerged from the back door of a saloon that emptied into the alley. Shadowy figures moved behind them, shuffling towards the coach. The green drapery in the coach window pulled aside, and the voice from within was steady and low.
“That seems too few, Lucas. I had at least hoped we’d use the second carriage.”
Evan gave a polite nod as Lucas spoke in a raspy edge that cut through the evening air.
“We brought any who would come. But the Leader has fallen, and many carried their loyalty to him into dusty darkness.”
Avie leaned out of the coach enough to show her face to the boy. She rolled her eyes over a dark smile. “Mason was a fine warrior, but in the warrens we built under the Cage, the words ‘bull in a china shop’ never seemed to occur to him. I have a hope he took a number of his pursuers with him, but I also relish the possibility of ruining them myself.”
Lucas grinned as Evan once again nodded affirmation. “Yes, ma’am.”
Avie smirked. “And while Mason’s plan of ‘running from Abram’ didn’t quite work out for him, I have plans of my own. Plans for Tombstone, plans for Arizona, plans for Darkness.” She chuckled. “But we have far to go, and errands to perform. I am glad for this side trip. I seek to make the acquaintance of some fer-de-lances.” She swung upon the door to admit the pair, as the others moved to a more pedestrian carriage behind for those who followed. “I think it’s high time Abram and his friends once again felt the sting of fear without the reassurance of knowing wherein lies the danger.”
The carriage pulled away from the Bird Cage Theater and onto Allen Street and the dusty path out of Tombstone. On the backboard of the vehicle, four nails held a skin taut to dry in the desert heat. The space was not large, but adequately held the pelt of a small wolf pup.
The desert north of Tombstone was pockmarked with crags, ridges, and small canyons. A dusty sirocco dragged pebbles over the land like the foam of an ocean. The world breathed raspy sighs as night began to fall.
A hand burst forth from a pile of rocks at the bottom of a canyon. The hand swung around, knocking rocks loose as it scrabbled for purchase. It took only a few moments for the hole to widen enough to discharge the prisoner within to the world once more.
Abram let himself roll out of the hole onto the canyon floor. His shirt was rent into two portions. One held his right arm in a sling, an ugly mass of purple and red from above the elbow to the wrist. The major portion of his shirt was tied off on his belt, and the dried bloodstains at the bottom gave testimony that the enemy he had chased for so long was fallen, never to rise again.
“Out of darkness, into the light once more.”
Abram brought himself to a sitting position, and his good hand went across his belt to the strap tied to Evanor. He felt the warmth of the hilt, still humming with purpose and energy.
“My Lord has seen fit to reward my quest with success, and also sent the clearest sign that this gift must be passed to another. That its destiny lay not in Tombstone, but through it. The light of life is always moving, always flowing, and where it goes – I will follow.”
After a few minutes of rest, Abram heaved himself onto his feet for the first time in a day. “Genesis 12:9.” He smiled.
“This isn’t right and you know it! People have a right to talk to each other!” Maurice Croker spluttered and pointed once again to the small tables set up in the middle of the corral. The small crowd of people listening to his rant were not moved much by it.
Byron Decker smiled thinly and took another bite of an apple he’d brought with him. “People can talk to each other, absolutely. But your thugs will not have loomed over the voters of Tombstone as they voted to elect their new Marshal. Neither your folks nor ours have any purpose in hanging out next to the ballot box. Each person who walked out there and put their slip in could write whatever they wanted on it without fear of repercussion.”
Valeria Batten nodded. “If the voters of Tombstone choose to elect a worthless snake, then that will be their choice. But I expect that once it was made clear they could have their say without the prying eyes and threatening guns of your allies, they might just choose to tell you to get out of town.”
Croker wagged a finger. “I maintain proper ties to the local business community. I will not have you impugn-”
Maria Kingsford cut him off with a wave of her sidearm – she’d already made it clear she wasn’t going to holster it while he was around. “You’re too late, Maurice. When we came back through the Bird Cage Theater, we searched the basement meeting room where Mason’s beasts came and went. We found a number of envelopes with cash, and handwritten instructions. Names of people who’d spoken out against you, and their home addresses.” She grinned wickedly. “You know, next time you try to organize a campaign of terror against voters, maybe don’t sign your intimidation contracts. And don’t pay with Vermilion scrip, either.”
Maurice raised a hand in angry protest. “The material you brought out of that shadowy room is inadmissible. Nobody knows what happened in there, so your evidence has no provenance.”
Abram Grothe had been standing nearby, talking with Deborah West, but at this he finally turned to the heated conversation. “Everyone knows what happened in there. Evil was defeated and chased from our midst. There’s plenty of evidence of how monsters from those tunnels terrorized the folk of Tombstone, and no evidence you did a thing to stop it.” He almost tried to swing his arm out of his sling to point, and winced in sudden pain. He paused for a breath. “Now whether there’s credible evidence that you aided such evil – that’s a deeper matter. If you want to wait here for the votes to be counted, we can see whether it’ll be Virginia Earp or yourself who’ll be in charge of that investigation. I will support the will of the people, as will those that walk with me.” He turned briefly to Deborah. Maria noted Deborah’s gunbelt had a curious new spacing to it. Just about enough for a scabbard, I’d reckon. Maria smiled.
Croker, meanwhile, was turning redder and redder. “I won’t just stand here and be maligned. I know the people will make the choice that’s the best for the Tombstone economy, and for their long-term economic future. I’ll come back for my victory speech when this farce is finally exhausted.” He waved dismissively at the vote counting tables and turned in a huff, walking away.
It was absolutely a coincidence that he walked in a near-straight line towards the stagecoach station. It was also a coincidence that a fully-loaded coach waited there, a driver watching with bored interest as Croker approached.
Abram watched him walk away, and he neither smiled nor scowled. “The folks at the Bayou are none too tolerant of failure. Wherever he’s going – it won’t be anywhere near here, or near his old paymasters.” He breathed a weary sigh. “I wish Willa Mae and the Professor were here to thank.”
Valeria stepped towards Abram, putting a hand on his good shoulder. “We still may find them, Abram.” Her voice didn’t sound convincing at that part, but grew in strength as she spoke. “But all of us went into the Bird Cage knowing full well we might not come out. But wherever they are, they are proud of all of us for what we achieved. If you must carry anything with you, Abram, carry their trust in you. They walked with you, come what may, because the defeat of evil requires a commitment of the heart. That commitment cannot be broken, even by the veil.”
Abram nodded – but in the back of his mind, he heard a faint whisper.
“You spend your so-called friends in pursuit of your vaunted goal…”
He closed his eyes briefly, rubbing his nose with his good hand. He breathed quietly, whispering to himself under his breath. “A lie can take a long time to die.” And then he looked down to his belt, which held neither head nor hilt. He’d been glad to commit each to its best use.
Byron called to the group. “Looks like they’re done in there. Let’s hear the will of the people.” The woman heading back towards the entrance of the corral carried a heavy satchel – and a warm smile.
June 1, 1882
VIRGINIA EARP ELECTED IN MASSIVE LANDSLIDE.
DEMOLITION OF THE BIRDCAGE THEATER HER FIRST OFFICIAL ORDER.