Nathan Shane and Warren Graves were stocking up on supplies at the general store when all hell broke lose.
It started with a series of vibrations, followed by a deep boom from outside. While Nathan was sliding over coins to the cashier, Warren glanced through the store’s open door just in time to see a woman streak by, screaming. Two more townspeople raced past a second later.
Being in the protection business, Warren was used to keeping calm in strange situations but something about their unabashed terror made his blood run cold.
“Nathan,” Warren hissed, one hand hovering near his holstered Colt. “Something’s going down.”
Nathan turned his ever-gruff gaze toward Warren and scratched his goatee. “Something’s always going down in Gomorra.” He heaved their purchase, a box brimming with tobacco and dried meat, under an arm.
“No, really,” Warren insisted before the sound of gunfire shredded the air along with another boom.
They had worked together long enough to know what the other was going to do without talking. They left their purchase on the counter and ran outside.
The air was eerily still as dust floated through the late afternoon light. It was too quiet. Warren whirled around to see both their Appaloosas missing. Nathan aired his lungs with a string of curses. Around the corner appeared four townsfolk, nearing in an odd but rapid lumber. One man with a bowler hat darted forward—faster than natural—and grabbed Warren by the shirt collar.
“Better watch yourself, partner,” Warren said, shifting into a stance to throw the man off. He didn’t have to look to know that Nathan would have his six shooter pointed at the offender in an instant.
The man was about as stout and wide as Nathan, but his face—there was something wrong with it—scales and boils crusted over heavy jowls and the smell emanating off of him was worse than a decaying wolf. This wasn’t a drunkard or thief, Warren realized. The man snarled and his eyes were utterly uncomprehending except for one emotion: rage … a mindless, senseless rage.
But then, the man did something Warren had never seen in all his years of work; he opened his mouth and tried to bite Warren in the face. Nathan shouted and clicked off his safety as Warren wrenched away. Another townsfolk, a frail-looking older woman, moved with that same unnatural speed to smash a brick into Nathan’s shooting arm.
“Holy hell!” Nathan spat and gave the old woman a solid kick as she slurred barely comprehensible obscenities.
Warren drew his revolver faster than lightning and was about to fire off a warning when a shot blasted through the air, but it wasn’t from him. Their attackers scurried away as both men turned to see the source of the shot.
A gigantic machine in the shape of a horse rumbled as bullets fired from brass cylinders on either of its side. Blazing eyes and steam pouring from its artificial nostrils would have made the beast a forbidding sight, but they knew the mechanical horse’s rider, a woman with short cropped hair whom they had had previous dealings with around town. “Jen,” he murmured, and gave a wave of thanks as she passed. She waved back, her brow furrowed in concentration, before firing down the street. One of the townsfolk screeched in pain.
Behind the mechanical horse, a boy ran fast as his chubby legs would carry him, hauling a sack of strange-looking guns.
“Luke! What in all tarnation was that?” Warren pushed his black leather hat to peer at the kid.
“Better get out or get ready,” Luke puffed as he ran by. “Everyone’s crazier than rabid raccoons. No good’ll come of it.” Just as quickly, he, Jen and the mechanical horse vanished around the corner. Clouds piled in, sending a chill through the air and blocking what was left of the sunlight.
“Gomorra’s been an offbeat place, but this is outright bizarre,” Nathan said as the two began to hustle in the direction of their digs. Whatever they were dealing with they would need more ammo.
Nathan sighed, the type of sigh that meant he was more distressed than he let on. “Undead?” They had heard stories, from an old town in the middle of nowhere years ago.
“No, not dead. Infected,” Warren mused. “Biblically, from the looks of it. Blighted even. They’re worse n’a feverish drunk. We can’t kill em if they don’t know what they’re doin.”
“We can’t get infected neither,” Nathan said, pushing up his checkered sleeves to examine a large welt. “Let’s arm up and figure out what to do.”
They turned the corner to cut across town square when Warren heard the noise from beside him. It was a raspy, wicked sound. A sound that shouldn’t exist on this earth.
Warren spun in what felt like slow motion, lifting up his gun before it snapped out of his hand with a hiss. His Colt skidded across the dust and he looked up to see the perpetrator. A clown, if that’s what she was, grinned at him, perched from the awning of the General Store. A red stain marked her mouth and eyes, bright against powder white cheeks. The snake that had nipped Warren spiraled back up her wrist.
“Hello boys.” Several snakes wrapping around her hissed as she spoke. One snake shifted around her neck, where a gaping wound burned as coal-red as her eyes.
And on the street, dozens upon dozens of the infected moved on the street beyond, coalescing like a swarm of hornets.
The two men looked at each other without a word to convey their thoughts. Run.
They darted down the opposite road. Any cowboy worth a lick knew that sometimes you had to back up and regroup rather than waste ammo when the odds were stacked too high.
Warren glanced back—it wasn’t dozens now but maybe near a hundred of the moaning, angry infected townsfolk that followed.
“Nate, this ain’t good, we gotta bar up somewhere!” Warren scanned for an entrance they could duck into and barricade while they figured out what the hell to do. He sidestepped one of the infected who popped out of an alleyway, her scaled hands reaching for him.
Nathan shouted, “Ten o’clock!”
In unison they cut hard to the left, toward the looming Town Hall, where the clock had just struck, ringing over the snarls of the townsfolk rising up behind them.
Three figures clustered at a side door to Town Hall and Warren thought for a moment that they were infected until he saw the familiar face of Mayor Nicodemus Whateley, snapping at his right-hand man, “Get this door open now, Rafi.” Next to him, a face vaguely similar to the Mayor’s, though younger, glared at them.
“Heck of a day, isn’t it?” the Mayor drawled as they approached and the infected descended.
* * *
Nicodemus had been having a fine day in fact, until late that afternoon at some silly ribbon-cutting ceremony when an explosion had knocked him clear off his feet. Once the dust settled, he saw something curious: scarred and boiled hands, arms, and bodies, climbing out of a hole where the blast had originated.
From there, the evening had descended into general chaos as these “Blighted,” barely human, attacked the uninfected. Nicodemus loved a bit of chaos as much as anyone could, but he preferred his own particular brand. This was an unexpected and destructive problem, and it didn’t take long for him to recognize the Blighted as no ordinary infection. These must have been Hawley’s doing … or something else.
Nicodemus had grabbed his newly arrived cousin, Theo, and Rafi and headed immediately to the Town Hall. They’d be safe there until they figured out what to do.
But now here they were, doors locked and the fool Rafi fumbling with the keys when two of Morgan’s regulators stumbled upon them, Shane and Graves … or Graves and Shane, Nicodemus never cared enough to bother figuring it out. They both looked clear-eyed and focused and could potentially help hold off the horde. “We’ll be safe in my office,” Nicodemus said to them over the howls of the Blighted.
“It’s jammed,” Rafi said in frustration. The two cowboys set to smashing their shoulders against the enormous wooden door, but to no avail.
“What do you think they want, Nic?” Theo asked as the crowd quickly approached. Nicodemus scanned their faces: they were drooling, gasping and coughing, but unnaturally fast and full of fury.
“Who cares,” one of the cowboys—Warren—said. A woman’s manic, echoing laughs from far off seemed to summon even more of the Blighted.
Theo looked nervous as he turned back to the building. “The door’s no good. Can we get through the window?” He wiped matted black hair from his forehead before a crusted arm closed around his shoulder. One of the infected must have been nearby and beaten the pack to them. Nicodemus reached for his magical deck of cards but Warren was faster, pulling a derringer from his back belt and firing the small but potent gun into the man’s head, sending the Blighted crashing to the ground.
The clown woman hollered with a voice that sounded like a hundred snakes hissing at once. “Freddy! Get the mayor!”
Freddy, a lumbering monstrosity with one red eye and one white beneath a flop of bile-colored hair, made his way through the sea of infected. In one hand Freddy held a 6-foot long, colorful hammer, like the kind used to “test your strength” in the circus’s games.
“What in holy hell is that?” Nathan yelped.
Nicodemus quickly summoned up the power in him, preparing to use his cards to sway and bade back the Blighted and potentially even turn them onto the demonic clown Freddy, when something jolted him from the side. The monster had tossed out a device that looked like an enlarged replica of Freddy’s own deformed head. The detached head nipped at Nicodemus, forcing him to loosen his grip. His magical cards, flashing in the waning sunlight, went flying into the dirt.
Yellow crooked teeth flashed as Freddy grinned and raised his hammer. He laughed, a screeching, high-pitched cackle that seemed to split Nicodemus’s eardrums.
“A little help,” Nicodemus yelled. Rafi stirred out of his shocked stupor and fired off his pistol at the abomination with a shout.
Freddy leapt away and more Blighted piled in. Nathan and Warren broke through one of the tall, arched Town Hall windows a few feet away and quickly hoisted Theo through, followed by Nicodemus.
“Watch out!” Warren yelled. Nicodemus turned to see Freddy jump back into the fray and smash his hammer across Rafi’s hand, sending the pistol soaring. Two Blighted sank their teeth into Rafi, who screamed and struggled violently before slumping to the ground.
“Grab him,” Nic commanded. He didn’t have any heartfelt love for Rafi but the man had proven useful at times, and may still. Nathan and Warren kicked away the biting Blighted and dragged Rafi, half-unconscious, through the window.
“Avi!” Freddy shouted from outside, his voice like rusted nails scraping against iron. “Your prey is escaping.”
Nicodemus bristled—he was no one’s prey—but didn’t have time to get offended. The Blighted were stomping over each other to pile in through the window.
“Upstairs,” Nicodemus yelled as the four of them dragged Rafi along and ran up the spiral staircase and to the end of the hall, some of the more spirited Blighted hot on their trail.
They piled into the office, Nathan and Warren dropping Rafi to the ground and slamming the door shut. The door strained, near ready to burst with the pressure from the other side. The two men slid Nicodemus’s enormous wooden desk to reinforce the entrance.
“It ain’t gonna hold long,” Warren said. “We’re as good as curd-chewin’ cows waiting for the slaughterhouse in here.”
Theo propped Rafi against the wall. Rafi’s eyes were shut, his face was pale and his lips quivered, while his face took on a shade of green. “He’s infected,” Theo said, his voice nearly pitched to a panic.
“It reeks in here,” Rafi whispered. Nicodemus and Theo exchanged looks. His office might have been dusty but there was nothing pungent as far as Nicodemus could tell. Still Rafi frowned, rubbing his nose. “Smells disgusting.” A blind, mindless fury crept into Rafi’s eyes before he blinked it away to look blearily at them.
“Damn it,” Nathan said. “He’ll be like one o’ them before long!” Behind them, the desk screeched against the wood floor an inch or two and Nathan and Warren threw themselves against it, digging in their heels to push it back into place.
Nicodemus wracked his mind. He had to do something, and fast. “I have an idea.” His eyes fell on the iron box on his shelf, which housed some of his most prized, though mysterious, possessions. He had been trying to decipher the magic of Tlaloc’s Furies, the elusive obsidian daggers that had recently come into his hands for the last few weeks. He ran to them now, pulling down the box.
As he did so, something caught his eye at the window. A figure, walking down the street. It was the circus ringleader, Ivor Hawley, but not the man in his normal form. Rather, he had the same purplish, hellish glow as did Avi and Freddy. As Ivor turned to look up at the window, Nicodemus saw something far more demonic than human in his face. At first, it reminded him of a distant relation, but hatred stole that memory away.
Ivor smiled a wide grin but with a gaze as chilling and calculating as any Nicodemus had seen. Ivor locked eyes with Nicodemus and slowly took off his hat, bowed in greeting, or perhaps, a kind of checkmate, before continuing down the street.
Nicodemus clenched his hands on the box in anger, furious at the idea that two-bit showman would claim his town from under him. “Can’t worry about him now,” Nicodemus muttered, turning back to the box. If he could figure out these daggers, and quickly, he might be able to get out of this predicament and turn the tide.
He threw open the box, and looked at the four stone daggers, their power singing to his very blood. He flattened the accompanying ancient scroll and scanned its depictions of blood sacrifices with the daggers. The knives thirsted for blood, that much was clear. Maybe they could thirst for something else as well. It was a crazy idea, but it might work.
Nicodemus cast his hand over the ancient weapons, letting their magic course through his blood in its familiar darkness. He grabbed the ashtray from a nearby sitting table and slammed it on the table in front of him, emptying it on the floor. “Just a taste,” he whispered, drawing one of the blades across his open palm and letting it drink of his Whateley blood. Across the room Theo’s head snapped up, eyes round as saucers, his own blood sensing the magic too. The blades seemed to speak to Nicodemus, waking up fully from their long slumber. “Know your master,” Nicodemus said. He waved his net of magic around the daggers, instructing them to seek a new target.
The barred door shifted again as Shane and Graves threw themselves against it once more. “Whatever blasphemy you’re committin’ over there, commit it faster!” Warren called over his shoulder. “This door won’t hold for long.”
“Now my pets, see if this will do,” Nicodemus whispered to them and picked up one of the knives. It seemed to tremble in its hand, taut and excited, thirsty.
Not blood, Nicodemus told it. The sickness. I will show you.
Nicodemus knelt down to Rafi, whose eyes fluttered opened. His skin was already pocked with boils. He was almost gone, the fast-moving infection filling up every pore.
“Help me,” Rafi breathed.
“Sorry Rafi. I only have one final need of your services.” Nicodemus held his servant by the shoulder and stuck the dagger squarely into Rafi’s heart.
The others shouted around him but Nicodemus ignored them, focusing through his magical haze to nudge the Fury to grasp onto the infection, drinking up the green haze.
Rafi’s eyes widened, slowly comprehending through the film of sickness. He tried to speak and coughed blood instead. His eyes turned clear for a moment, before growing dull as his life drained out of him.
The others gaped around Nicodemus but he was distracted by the sensation of the Fury in his hand. It neatly sapped up Rafi’s infection in a clear green glow, satiated for a moment but ready for more. His spell had worked.
“Have you gone mad?” Warren shouted from the doorway. “He hadn’t turned yet!”
“An unfortunate but necessary casualty,” Nicodemus said, yanking the dagger out of Rafi’s corpse. “These blades hunger for blood, but now they will drink up the infection. It is our only defense.”
In the box behind him, the other three Furies hummed, ready and eager. Nicodemus passed one to his cousin and the other two to the cowboys, who stared at them reluctantly in their hands.
Nicodemus stepped over Rafi’s body, blinking the green haze out of his vision. “Open the door. We don’t have to hide anymore.”
* * *
The horde burst inward to meet the four of them as they opened the door’s latch. Warren and Nathan led the charge.
Warren experimented with the first Blighted he encountered, a young man with burst boils dripping along his forehead. Warren stabbed the dagger into the boy’s leg. The weapon flared and vibrated like it wanted to burst out of his hand. The boy yelled, not the snarl of mindless fury, but a shout of pain, and fell to the ground. As the others pressed forth, stabbing at the horde, Warren peered at the kid’s face, which wasn’t contorted in rage anymore. Rather, he stared blankly at the ceiling, gripping his wounded leg, even when Warren snapped his fingers. The boy’s skin and face were clear, the infection gone, but his mind seemed to go with it.
“Try not to kill ‘em,” Warren said, sidling up alongside of Nathan. “All you gotta do is draw blood.”
“I’m trying, but that ain’t easy,” Nathan said as he jabbed his Fury into a shrieking man’s arm. On the other side of him, Nicodemus and Theo were slicing and dicing without the same restraint, but effective nonetheless. The magic of the Furies carried them forward in a blur of green.
The four of them carved their way through the horde until they burst outside. Where the bullets barely fazed the Blighted, the Furies worked like a hot knife through butter, taking them down left and right. The clowns had vanished just as quickly as they had appeared.
“Quite a thing, ain’t it,” Nathan said, catching his breath as they had a small respite standing among the fallen townsfolk, a mix of stunned wounded and the dead. Nicodemus and Theo picked their way toward the two, gesturing to the south where the sounds of screams seemed loudest amidst the glow of flames.
“Something I’ll remember as long as I live,” Warren said, glancing down at the dagger in his hand. He would never forget the strange smile on Nicodemus face when he had plunged the knife into Rafi. Warren didn’t trust him, but he didn’t want him on his bad side either. Something about the man indicated he’d be a powerful ally. Or enemy.
But for now, they had a town to save.