A dozen plague-ridden figures stumbled forward toward Abram Grothe and his posse from the back of the circus tent. “I need someone to handle them!” Abram shouted, pointing his sword, Evanor, toward the creatures.
“I’m on it,” Lucy Clover said from his side.
As for himself, he desperately wanted to rescue his deputy, Gang Yi, seizing on the ground following Ivor’s spell, but a gigantic monster threatened them all. Sharp teeth dripped slobber, while piercing eyes glowed a devilish green.
“A good show deserves a twist, doesn’t it?” The demonic visage of Ivor Hawley said. The beast roared at them, forcing Abram to step away from Gang, allowing Ivor to move closer to the body.
Drew Beauman stepped forward to fire rounds from his auto-revolver, but the bullets ricocheted off of the thing’s thick hide. He did irritate the creature, though, as it roared again, turning its beady eyes right toward Drew.
“We’re gonna need a bigger gun,” he muttered, backpedalling to avoid a claw swipe before turning to run back to the entrance. The monster chased after him, but Drew had an ace-in-the-hole on the way.
* * *
Xiong “Wendy” Cheng looked down the sight of her shotgun at the ringmaster, who now looked like the plague incarnate.
While that sight would make many tremble, the Gomorran veteran didn’t flinch. However before she could fire, her focus was drawn behind him, where a dozen creatures now moved to the middle of the ring. Even without the ringmaster and his massive abomination, there were too many of them, signalling the need for a retreat.
Lucy apparently didn’t have the same thought, as Wendy watched the young girl charge toward them, blasting with her pair of six-shooters.
“Dammit,” Wendy muttered under her breath, as she followed after.
* * *
To Abram’s left, Wendy and Lucy charged forward, circling around Ivor’s display. To his right, the Tyx creature trudged after Drew Beauman.
The ringmaster looked down at Gang Yi in front of him, giving the deputy’s body a soft prod with his boot. He waved his hand over the young man ominously. “I’m actually glad you’re here to witness this, Sheriff. Up until now, you’ve only seen the slow-acting version of my pestilence, taking weeks, sometimes months, to reach its final stage. But there’s no need for such restraint any longer.”
Gang Yi’s muscles suddenly went taut. He pushed off the floor and turned around.
What Abram saw was no longer his deputy, his friend. Gang had no life in his eyes, no sign of thought or soul within him. He drooled and grumbled like other of the town’s sick who’d reached the point of madness.
“Why, Hawley? Why would you do this?” Sheriff Gothe asked.
Ivor’s demeanor shifted to disgust as he continued. “Humanity is the true blight, Abram. And the Fourth Ring would see it eradicated, starting with this festering cesspool of a town!”
The plague-ridden Gang Yi looked Abram in the eyes as rage filled his own and he charged forward.
* * *
Wendy fired to the chest of one assailant, blasting it backward. Lucy may have been reckless, but they were doing pretty well, having dropped five enemies between the two of them. A shotgun wasn’t the best weapon for this situation in terms of getting rounds off in a hurry, but it certainly made every shot count.
Ivor walked past both women as if they weren’t there. His coattails flapped behind him as he cackled, the laughter echoing throughout the empty seats. “Let it never be said that the Fourth Ring fails to deliver on a performance. My children, show our guests an evening they won’t forget!” he called.
From the back of the tent, things moved in the shadows. A clown carriage putt-putted into the ring to sickening calliope music, revealing several horrors from inside. One in large, squeaking shoes backpedaled, then pushed the back flap of the tent open to allow even more of the deranged sick inside.
* * *
Gang Yi lunged for Abram’s throat.
Abram ducked to the side, jabbing the sword hilt into Gang Yi’s back, and watching him fall to the ground. When he turned, he saw his deputies spreading out, engaged in their own battles.
He dodged another attack from Gang Yi, this time kicking his former deputy to the side so he could scramble back himself. Hawley was getting away, but he couldn’t risk his life by turning his back on the monstrosity he had created. “Gang?” Abram pleaded. “Are you still in there? Come on.”
His former deputy cocked his head at the name.
“That’s right. You don’t want to hurt me. We need to bring Hawley to justice.”
Gang Yi stood for a second, as if considering while still seething in fevered rage, and then launched toward Abram again. This time he caught ahold of Abram’s duster and lashed out with his teeth.
“Gah!” Abram said, trying to push the former deputy off of him, without much success. He didn’t want to hurt Gang Yi. There were scientists working on a cure, and perhaps there was still hope for him.
Abram steadied himself, muttering a prayer as a shield expanded outward from him in an invisible wave of energy. The shield knocked Gang Yi backward once more, but his mutated friend pushed forward mindlessly anyway.
From the other side of the ring, Abram saw a familiar shimmer come from behind the clown carriage in the room. “Watch out everyone! Knives!” he shouted to his deputies.
The knives flew in his direction, pinging against his shield and dropping. But the last one sparked in front of him, causing the defense to fade.
Gang Yi pressed forward to attack once more.
* * *
Drew Beauman stood with his back to the tent to catch his breath. That monster would be outside in a moment, and would probably take the tent with him as well, which wouldn’t be good for anyone. He’d predicted some problems, and so he prepared back up in advance, for which he now waited desperately. A part of him now wished he could be a fly in the wall back in Louis Pasteur’s lab, studying this contagion, but that wasn’t his expertise. Mechanical construct was what he loved.
The monster inside the tent roared again, pulling him from his thoughts.
“Hoo boy,” Drew said to himself. “Where are ya, pal?” He narrowed his eyes to peer down the street.
* * *
“Cover me,” Wendy said, reloading her shotgun.
Deborah West and Lucy flanked her on either side. Lucy fired once more, downing another attacker before her weapon too was empty. Before she could finish swearing, Deborah leapt to the front, pushing Lucy to the ground behind her and letting out a flurry of shots with lightning speed that dropped six of the nearest enemies cold.
“What I wouldn’t give to see how you do, Deb,” Wendy said, as she finished reloading, and aimed for some of the retreating creatures.
“All you need are the eyes of faith,” the blind deputy calmly replied, beginning to reload her own pistol.
“I’m heading for the carriage,” Lucy said, as she stood back up, having filled her chambers once more. “Let’s take out their cover and push them back!”
Wendy peered ahead. The area around the carriage wasn’t well lit, though several clowns and other horrors loomed around it. “We should be thinking about our own retreat, Lucy,” Wendy warned, but the girl was already too far away to hear her.
* * *
Abram dove to the side, evading Gang Yi’s clutches once again. The Tyx creature had passed him to reach the tent entrance, howling at Drew Beauman beyond. Abram hoped he could handle it. He had problems of his own.
He scrambled to his feet, turning to face Gang Yi, who simply wouldn’t relent. Foaming at the mouth, he leaped toward Abram again.
Abram used Evanor to shield himself. “I don’t want to hurt you. Gang Yi, if you’re in there, anywhere, please! Fight this!”
From further inside the ring, Deborah West turned away from the oncoming hordes to move toward Abram slowly, using her cane to guide her. “Brother Grothe, we need your help!” she shouted.
The distraction was enough for Gang Yi to strike a blow across Abram’s face. “I can’t, Deborah! We have to save him.”
Deborah leveled her pistol toward Gang Yi. “Your hope is what drew me to Gomorra, Abram. But here it is misplaced. Let him go to the Lord.”
Abram hopped backward, trying not to leave his body open for any further swipes. His cheek stung. He stepped on a circus prop horn that gave beneath his foot, letting out a loud honk that was anything but amusing. But Gang Yi stayed with him through every move. He dropped to a knee rather than fall over completely, bracing Evanor up flat again, both arms extended, pressing against Gang Yi’s chest to hold him back. Even as the sword cut into his flesh, he did not relent, seemingly unable to feel pain. His eyes were overflowed with frenzy and rage.
Abram had to admit that Gang was gone. Hawley had taken the man’s soul, and so Abram would lay his body to rest. “Do it!”
The sound of pistol fire cracked in the air. Gang Yi snarled even as the hatred fell out of his eyes. They rolled upward, and his body went limp over Abram’s sword.
Abram pushed Gang Yi’s body aside as Deborah came over to help him up.
“Trust in the Lord and you’ll see clearly, always,” Deborah reminded him. Lord knows Abram was trying.
* * *
Drew Beauman shielded his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun. “Where is he?”
— Whir-whir-whir-whir —
The glint of shining metal caught Drew’s eye. He lit up with a smile, as he tended to do when he saw what he considered his greatest creation. “There he is! Must’ve gotten lost. QUATERMAN! It’s time for action!”
Drew pointed his auto-revolver forward and stepped back inside.
He saw the sheriff frowning, looking more shaken than Drew had ever seen before. Then Drew saw the body of Gang Yi before him.
Before Drew could say anything, he received a painful reminder that the Tyx creature was still there. The creature slammed him to the side with a swipe of its enormous hand. Drew tumbled to the ground, struggling to keep his wind.
As he scrambled to his feet, more of the creatures poured in from the back of the tent, directed by a single abomination. This creature had sharp teeth and claws, but more humanlike than this Tyx creature. That leader smiled, but otherwise blended in with the shadows under the tent, seeming to disappear into a haze of smoke.
— Whir-whir-whir-whir —
Drew’s metallic construct entered the chaos.
“Okey dokey, QUATERMAN!” Drew gasped. “Just in the knick of time! Show this giant creep what you can do!” Drew said, pointing at Tyx.
The monstrous creature looked confused, as if unsure whether it should continue pursuing Drew or not. It saw QUATERMAN, heard the noise of its gears turning, and roared another time.
QUATERMAN pressed forward as only a machine fueled by ghost rock could. Some scientists spent hours contemplating exactly what made ghost rock so potent, but Drew devoted his time to the application … and it was beautiful to watch.
The Tyx creature stepped back, unsure about this construct in front of him. Then QUATERMAN tried to apprehend the creature like it would any other criminal.
“No, QUATERMAN!” Drew shouted.
QUATERMAN wrapped its arms around Tyx’s leg, as if to haul the creature to jail. The creature let out an enraged howl, far angrier and more frightening than before, then brought down its giant palm onto QUATERMAN.
The automaton crumpled like a tin can.
“QUATERMAN!” Drew shouted, firing a barrage of bullets from his auto-revolver at the giant creature before him.
With the robotic lawman gone, Tyx readied his claws for another assault on Drew, but Abram stepped in front of him, deflecting the blow with a mighty swing of his sword. With his off hand, he grabbed the silver cross around his neck and thrust it upward into Tyx’s face, sending the creature reeling, as if blinded by an otherwise unseen light.
“Get out of here, now!” Abram shouted, grabbing the back of Beauman’s collar and dragging him toward the entrance. “Fall back!”
Wendy and Deborah complied, firing their weapons as they retreated. Abram remained in place, holding the Tyx monster at bay. Eventually, it roared and lurched backwards, giving Abram space to retreat and join his deputies. He stepped outside where they’d gathered to provide him cover. “Where’s Lucy?”
“I …,” Wendy frowned, leveling her shotgun again toward into the monsters inside. “I lost her in the fight. No wait … that’s her, on the other side of the ring!”
* * *
Lucy was surrounded. She’d heard Abram’s call to retreat, but she couldn’t cut through the horde to rejoin them. Stupid. The others had chided her aggressiveness, warned that she’d end up like Phillip, and now she just might.
Suddenly, she saw a clear path further to the left.
One of those nasty plague-ridden … things … bit at her. Lucy smashed its face with her pistol butt, delivering a resounding crack. It fell to the ground, giving Lucy an opportunity to dodge the group that would have overwhelmed her otherwise. She unloaded both of her pistols at an onrushing clown. It fell lifeless before him. A plague victim charged, backing her up against the ring’s rail. He thrashed at her. Lucy whirled aside, but another came at her from the opposite direction.
Lucy had nowhere to go but up and over. She scurried over the ring’s pony wall, head first. One of the creatures grabbed her ankle, scratching at her leg as she went over. She twisted her ankle to get free, kicking as hard as she could. She didn’t waste any time and ran toward the stands. She slipped into an opening between two of the sections, her small frame squeezing between the wooden struts. Tent material gathered at the back, where wooden pegs and ropes secured it to the ground.
A pair of trapeze artists leapt over the stands, perching atop it and speaking in turn. “Little girl, you can’t leave yet! The final days are coming. You have the honor to bear witness to it all!” One of them hurled a rope in her direction.
Lucy narrowly dodged the attempt to wrangle her, but what looked like a playing card dropped from the woman’s hand. Suddenly, Lucy couldn’t move.
The trapeze artist jumped to a rope above, holding her hand toward Lucy. Whatever happened, it kept her paralyzed, only her eyes darting back and forth. She was stuck … she was going to die.
A resounding crack filled the tent, as Lucy recognized the sound of Wendy’s shotgun.
The woman fell from her rope. The second one lost interest in Lucy almost immediately. “Etilka, no! No! This can’t be!” she shouted, crouching beside the body of her partner.
“Thank you, Wendy,” Lucy thought. Free once more, she wasted no time and dove for the bottom of the tent, barely squeezing under. Covered with dirt and sawdust, she emerged outside. Her ankle throbbed, but if that was the worst to come of this, she considered herself lucky.
Lucy looked around to gain her bearings. This was the east side of the tent, away from the main entrance. Without looking to see if the others had made it out as well, Lucy broke into a run.
The sunlight started to fade a bit as she circled back around toward town, hoping to reunite with the others. Her ankle hurt like the dickens, but nothing could stop her from running now.
* * *
“Lucy’s strong,” Deborah said, listening closely to the tent entrance. “And going back in would be suicide.”
Abram hated leaving one of his own. But the Lord had clearly spoken when he faced Gang Yi. “Do what you must. You can’t save everyone.”
“Agreed. We can’t do anything for her now. We have a town to protect. If those things get out here …” Abram frowned.
Tyx howled again from inside, no doubt celebrating his victory over QUATERMAN. Abram pointed toward two large ropes, thick as his fist, securing the tent to the ground. “Cut the ropes. It’ll trap them like a net.”
“Maybe the small ones,” Wendy said. “But that monster will tear through soon enough and they’ll all be free.”
“Then we’ll ask for some help. It doesn’t have to hold forever.” Abram ran over to one of the ropes, bringing Evanor down with all his might to slice the rope. The rope went slack, caving in part of the entrance.
Drew leveled his gun point blank at the one on the other side and fired, splitting it to fully collapse the opening. The material ripped immediately, as one of the monster’s horns pierced through.
Bowing his head, Abram prayed. “Lord, send your blessing to those who do your work. Protect us. Ward this ground from evil. Hold these spawns of hell from doing their work.”
The wind from the Maze picked up, the tent material flapping violently on the ground. Abram pushed his hair out of his face, staring ahead. There were never any guarantees that his prayers would work, but his hope remained strong as ever.
Just as suddenly as the wind had risen, the heavy tent fabric stopped flapping, pulled down tight by an unseen force as the shapes beneath it struggled against it. For the moment, protection had been granted.
Abram turned to his deputies. “Let’s get going. We need to regroup.”
“Regroup with who?” Wendy said. “Our list of friends is pretty short these days.”
“Anyone who can hold fight. This town needs to come together … or we’ll all be destroyed.” Abram held Evanor off to the side, one boot falling in front of the other as he moved back toward Main Street, his deputies flanking him on either side.