By Ronnie Andrew Gouge
The following is based on the Twilight Protocol Series, a live action role-playing session performed by Saving Throw WildCards, as it has been transcribed to add to the Doomtown fiction archives. The original presentation can be found here.
The exterior of the humble building sitting on the outskirts of town most assuredly belied the inside of the Office of Ancestral Affairs in both the physical and metaphorical senses. Within the walls covered in the ceremonial and ritualistic trappings of native spiritualism, the air thick with heavily perfumed smoke, two men sat staring across a table at each other. One was dressed in black from hat to boots.
The other looked far more inconspicuous, but still overtly displayed the shiny silvered badge of his current profession, and the heavy, Confederate gray coat of his previous one. At the head of the table sat the old medicine woman, Laughing Crow, looking between the two of them, the silence growing ever more awkward.
She decided to speak, finally filling the air with some form of words. “So, are the two of you going to say anything to each other? Or just…”
“There’s nothing to say,” said Agent Byron Decker. He adjusted his coat to fit better over the oddly shaped bulk just under his left arm.
“Just gonna sit there, staring daggers, then.” Her gaze bounced between them.
Sergeant Elijah Clay cleared his throat, a small knife in hand cleaning dirt from under the nails of his sallow fingers. “I think we all know why we’re here. No need to prolong the sufferin’.”
“Well, we just want to make sure there aren’t going to be any problems between you gentlemen as we embark on this endeavor.” Laughing Crow turned to look at the shaman sitting just over her right shoulder, his eyes hidden behind some sort of veil.
“I take my job very seriously,” Decker pointed at the Ranger. “Everything will be fine as long as he doesn’t overstep his bounds.”
“I’m sure he has no plans to overstep his bounds! Do you have plans to overstep your bounds?”
Clay responded. “My plan is to follow the letter of the law.”
“Very well. Black Elk! What have you to say on this matter?”
The calm elder shaman sitting nearby spoke up. “The moon is a beast who has no friend.”
“Hmmm,” Laughing Crow said with a nod. “I understand. Yes, Yes. The moon, in the sky, above the earth, never the two shall meet, but always they circle.” She swung her walking stick around to mock the orbit of the planetary bodies. “Always they are there for one another, always the actions of one affect the other. Much like your two organizations. Black Elk, as always, your wisdom shines through.”
Laughing Crow leaned in to whisper. “I have to apologize, he has been spending more and more time in the Hunting Grounds as of late, so sometimes his words come through a bit, garbled.”
Her voice returned to a more audible volume. “But I think what he’s saying is this is a necessary arrangement. After all, there is a greater evil at work in the land. The Cackler is pulling more and more darkness to his side, and we have reason to believe the Fourth Ring circus, though they suffered setbacks in Gomorra, may still be strong enough to aid him, and may join his dark march. And THAT is something we had hoped the two of you could help us with.”
“That’s fine,” Decker said coldly. “That’s my job.”
“Alright. So, nothing such as one of you shooting the other in the back at the first opportunity?”
Clay objected almost immediately, casting a glance to the black-clad agent. His voice was intense, words pointed and forceful. “I don’t shoot people in the back.”
Laughing Crow nodded. “Well, I guess it would be worse if they got shot from the front, but either way, no shooting at all would be the preference. Do we agree?”
“Once all this is over, and we don’t HAVE to, then fair game,” Decker declared.
“Oh that’s right!” Laughing Crow pointing a finger at each of them. “There’s that…protocol between your two agencies. You are forced to work together.”
“Yes,” replied Decker. “Unfortunately. The Twilight Protocol.”
Laughing Crow sat back, arms crossed. “Right. Just so we’re one hundred percent clear on the ‘No Shooting’ rule, and the protocol…” Her head turned towards a nearby door. “Professor Duncan? Could you come in here for a moment, please?”
In walked a tall, gangly man, covered in dirt. He scratched at his stubble before slicking back the remaining hair of his balding head. Hearing his name, one could feel the emphasis put on the obviously honorific title of ‘Professor’.
“How can I help?” he asked with a nearly-obsequious enthusiasm.
“Our guest, the woman out in the front room, how is she?” Laughing Crow gestured towards that direction.
“Quiet! Good, good. I was just speaking two these very serious, very studious gentlemen about how we have a strict ‘No Shooting” policy in effect here. Have you spoken with the woman about tamping down hostilities?”
“Um,” he said, scratching. “A little.” His eyes looked to Laughing Crow with almost tangible apprehension.
“Okay…That’s enough for us to get started, at least.”
“Of course!” Duncan headed back into the room he emerged from before. “Come on in,” he signaled.
A young woman emerged, one with flowing ringlets of chestnut brown hair. Light glinted off the shiny brass frames of her spectacles. She was lithe, but moved as though mantled with some burden of sadness, which only seemed to amplify her obvious determination. Both Decker and Clay beheld Valeria Batten with the shock of recognition
Decker was almost on his feet. “You’re kidding!”
Laughing Crow’s walking stick rose to restrain him. “No shooting was the decision made before, remember?”
“You wouldn’t want to shoot me,” Valeria intoned, adjusting her glasses, a wry lie of a smirk cracking her lips.
“Look,” continued Decker. “I know you’re all sympathizers with the supernatural, but this is a new low. She has SO much blood on her hands, how do you know she won’t turn on you?” He looked to each of them for an answer.
Laughing Crow interrupted with the raise of a single finger. “I feel like I could answer that. Unless you have something to add, Ranger.”
Clay shook his head. “Feel free.”
“As you may well know, the situation in Gomorra with the Fourth Ring Circus would not have been able to be satisfactorily resolved without the aid of none other than Miss Batten. She came to the sheriff and the others in town in their hour of need with information we needed about the ringmaster and his plans. If not for her joining us when she did, Gomorra could have been lost entirely.”
Valeria interjected. “Well, what I will say is that I know the reputation of the Fourth Ring and I have indeed gotten a lot of exquisite information and research done by working with them, but I do not particularly like Ivor Hawley’s approach to things.”
“An unpleasant man, in general, I would say from my brief interactions with him,” Laughing Crow added.
“Quite unpleasant,” Valeria proclaimed. “But sometimes you have to work with the unpleasant to get good work done. THAT is why I am here now as well, because I do think this is the better side. For now.”
“For now?” inquired Decker.
“The rest of my life, maybe? We’ll find out, won’t we?”
“Yeah, well, you’re lucky that there’s something else worse out there than this rotten manitou over here.” Decker spun his gaze to rest on Clay. “I’m willing to help.”
Laughing Crow looked to the Agent and Ranger incredulously. “Oh! Cards on the table then? Yes, yes, Ranger Clay does have a little bit of a passenger riding along.”
Valeria leaned forward. “A manitou? Do you know which one? Maybe I’ve worked with it before.”
“Please,” Clay implored. “Take a step back from me, ma’am.” His face was stone, his eyes were ice.
Valeria reclined and crossed her arms, eyes never moving from Clay’s pallid face. “Alright.”
Laughing Crow forced her words in between them. “As far as we are aware, Ranger Clay, you are, in the present moment, in possession of your full faculties? Not feeling any sort of dark urges?”
Clay sighed. “None more than any other man.”
Valeria grumbled to herself. “A shame.” She looked the Ranger up and down, delivering an air of obvious disappointment.
Laughing Crow smiled. “What more could we hope for than that?”
Decker took the floor. “You know, we’re sittin’ around here arguing, we could be out there doing something.”
Laughing Crow looked to the agent with her typical smirk of mischief. “We’re not supposed to be arguing. We’re supposed to be discussing what it is that you all could do to further the cause. Just wanted to make sure this temporary alliance wasn’t going to be a problem.”
Decker spoke first, raising his right hand. “I won’t touch her ’til after this is over.”
“So you keep promising.”
Valeria pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “I’m here to work with everyone. I’m happy to be here, and work against the Fourth Ring for once.” She was cut off by the sudden clamor of Laughing Crow clearing her throat.
“We called you all together because we have a lead on a very promising development. I believe you are familiar with the previous sheriff of Gomorra, Mr. Abram Grothe?”
“Yes,” replied Valeria.
“And I believe you worked with him directly, Miss Batten?”
“He thinks, according to this letter, there is a lead on a person he is personally searching for in Denver.” Laughing Crow turned to Decker, producing a piece of paper littered with hasty writing. “He believes your agency, their field office there in Denver might have some information on one Austin Stoker. Is this a name familiar to any of you?”
Valeria searched her memory. “Not one I’ve heard.”
Laughing Crow went on. “Not one we are completely familiar with, either. But, Mr. Grothe believes he might have some knowledge or some sort of…power in connection with Gomorra’s history and that he could be a valuable person to get information from regarding the Fourth Ring’s recent activities. I believe you yourself have information on that, Miss Batten. Are you inclined to share?”
Valeria repositioned her glasses with both hands, now peering over the frames. “The most important piece of information is that a one Mason Adler is their new ringleader.”
“Are either of you familiar with this individual? We, honestly, have never heard of this Adler.”
“This information came straight from Kevin Wainwright,” Valeria emphasized. Laughing Crow screwed up her nose at the mention of his name.
“Odious little creature.”
“Oh, yes,” agreed Valeria. “Knowing it came from him, you can probably trust that it’s true.”
Laughing Crow stirred the smoke in the air with her medicine stick. “From our reports, Adler is quite different from Hawley. Barn door of a man, with some sort of strange weapon he carried about on his person, no doubt for some dark purpose. However, with the Fourth Ring already gaining a new leader so quickly, it’s very important that Grothe is successful in his research into their history and potential future.”
Her look became more stern. “However, it’s been some time since he set out for Denver, and we have heard nothing from him, and neither have any of our agents in the area. We thought it might now be time to dispatch a group to meet with Grothe, find out what he has learned.”
Valeria nodded intently. “Of course.”
The old woman pointed a finger in the direction of the railroad station. “We’ve secured rail passage for you. At no small expense, I might add.”
Decker tipped his hat. “Right kind of you.”
Valeria agreed. “That seems quite practical in this situation. We need to get there as fast as possible.”
Laughing Crow glanced around the group. “You would, though, all be in one train car…”
The pensive silence that followed was broken by Valeria’s sudden smiling assent. “Alright, that’s fine.”
Decker pointed at Valeria. “She needs to stay on the other side.”
“Yes,” Laughing Crow drew a line in the air. “Maybe we could take some chalk and draw a line down the middle of the train car, if that would help.” she mocked.
“No,” disagreed Decker. “We can pretend.”
Clay butted in. “I’m just throwing this out there, but maybe for the moment we act like adults, and just live with it?”
Valeria grinned. “Oh, I quite agree. I would love to have a longer conversation with you, though. Learn a bit about your past.”
Clay wasn’t amused.
“Duncan!” Laughing Crow turned to the wild-looking man. “We’ll be dispatching you on this as well.”
The ‘Professor’ looked at the elder woman in shock. “What?”
“I will not be able to go. I have to remain here. Black Elk will accompany them, and you will accompany him.”
“Okay, but I thought I could still learn a few things from you…”
“There’s no greater teacher than Black Elk, provided you can understand the meaning of his words.” Duncan waved a hand in front of the shaman. Nothing happened. “I’ve prepared a bag for you with everything you should need.
Black Elk’s voice filled the room. “Wish for something and you shall receive…something.”
“I agree,” nodded Laughing Crow. “I do hope this is a fruitful endeavor you set out upon. Once you do meet with Grothe, his information will lead you further. Any questions?”
Decker answered through nearly gritted teeth. “No, ma’am.”
“Good. Your train leaves this evening. Good luck on finding Sheriff Grothe. No, he’s not the sheriff anymore, is he? There is a new sheriff now, isn’t there?”
“Sheriff Jackson, I believe.” Valeria once again pushed her glasses up her nose, remembering the image of a tall, bald man, and the mismatched grips of his guns, the ivory one carved with the word “GOOD” sitting in the left holster, the ebony one carved with the word “EVIL” nestled in the right.
“I wish him the best of luck. They come and go so quickly. Anyway. Off you go.” She waved them toward the door, shooing them away as if they were children late for school.
Duncan took Black Elk by the arm. They all rose together, watching each other closely, and made way to the streets of Tombstone to set out on their mission.
“May I stay with my horse? I’d like to stay with my horse.” Decker looked the Denver Pacific attendant dead in the eye and never cracked a smile.
The man’s eyes widened and looked around. “Are you askin’ me? I just work for the train line. I mean, you can…”
Clay cut in between the two of them. “Listen, if this fella is stayin’ with his horse, I’m stayin’ with mine. I can’t have him or his horse near mine.”
The attendant’s hand reached behind his head to scratch it furiously as his brow furrowed. “I feel I might have to talk to somebody in charge if everybody’s gonna want to stay with their horses. Didn’t y’all purchase tickets?”
Duncan shook with a jolt as he remembered the tickets were in the bag Laughing Crow had given them. “Oh!” he shouted, pulling them out and handing them to the other three.
The attendant nodded, “Then I assume y’all can ride in your train car, unless you’d rather stay with your horses.”
Valeria raised a hand as she surveyed the hay-covered floor of the stable car. “It sounds like that train car is going to be very hostile, but I guess if you’re not there then I can be there.” She looked at Decker with crossed arms and a grin.
The poor attendant looked utterly lost. “Hold on, I’m confused. Are you talkin’ about the horses being hostile? I like to think I’m pretty good with the beasts, I can keep them all calm and sedate on these long train travels.”
Decker stepped up to the attendant immediately. “You’re going to sedate my horse?”
“No, no, no,” sputtered the attendant as both of his hands flew up to defuse the situation. “I would never dream of puttin’ ether to anyone’s animal. I think we’re gettin’ off on the wrong foot here. I just take care of the horses! Perhaps you should speak to someone who could answer your questions more directly…” The attendant began to search furiously for a source of rescue.
Another ear-splitting silence as Clay, Decker, and Valeria glanced around each other warily. “I think we’ll just get on the train,” Valeria intoned calmly.
The attendant nodded furtively. “I think that would be best.”
In the train car, so cramped that the word ‘privacy’ was the punchline to a terrible joke, Decker put away the extra supplies that he had bought from the Gage Export Company. Duncan took stock of his own supplies. Valeria sat peering out the window at the passing countryside until, overtaken by ennui, turned to Clay who sat wordlessly cleaning the badge that rested on his bib shirt.
“So, how did you die?”
Duncan’s head snapped up in shock, gawking at her. “Woah! Okay! Goin’ straight for that!” His head quickly spun to look at air, or perhaps cobwebs in the corner.
Valeria animatedly continued. “I think it’s the most interesting topic of conversation. I’m just fascinated by how all this works.”
“Well,” Clay began, pinning the badge back onto his chest. “Some coward shot me in the back.”
Valeria’s fingertips positioned her glasses as she leaned forward. “Oh! And that’s why you don’t shoot anyone in the back, then?”
Clay leaned forward to meet her. “No, I don’t shoot anyone in the back because I’m a man of honor.”
The occultist scoffed. “Ah, yes. Mhmm. I’ve heard men speak that way before.”
Black Elk chimed in. “One who may act righteous can still be damned for all eternity.”
Professor Duncan looked to the shaman, scratching his stubble in ponderance to the wise man’s words. His eyes darted around the train car in search of some hidden explanation or meaning. “He’s right. I mean, actin’ righteous and bein’ righteous are two different things, and just because you act one way doesn’t mean you actually are…that….way?”
Clay was unimpressed. “Professor, what exactly are you a professor of?”
Duncan ran a hand through his diminishing hair. “Oh lots of things! What, in the wide world of everything, do you think I would be a professor of? I’ve even studied abroad!”
Decker looked up from his seat. “Abroad, or a broad? Meaning a woman?”
Duncan laughed, slapping his knee. “That’s clever, Agent! No, like out of town!. I’ve studied the sky, the sky at night, the sky at morning. I’ve examined dead people, a little bit, to see how they worked.”
Valeria’s interest grew. “You’ve dissected corpses, then?”
Duncan shrugged. “Well, if you count bashing their skulls open with a club…”
Clay put away one weapon, producing another and began to clean it as well. “I think what you mean is desecrating corpses.”
Valeria agreed. “While it may have been necessary at the time, you’ve completely ruined the specimen at that point.”
Duncan waved her comments away. “You say ruined, I say potato. Two different things!”
Decker couldn’t help but interrupt. “How does a man with no formal education get called a professor?”
“I don’t call myself a professor, other people do.” Duncan drank from his canteen.
The rest could only look at each other, then return to their own personal silences. So was the first day of their travel, offering no excitement beyond the occasional cryptic message spoken by Black Elk at random times. Duncan attempted to translate the shaman’s missive to the best of his abilities, but all had barely any interaction among them beyond that.
It was around sunset that the lead conductor, an older man with a white moustache and quite a deep voice came to their car, gently rapping on the door. Clay slid it open.
The man stuck his head inside. “Pardon me, ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to let you know that we’re going to need to make a little bit of a stop here in a bit. Just to get some water loaded up on the train, and other sundry things from an outpost. Gonna be about an hour or so, if you wanna get out, stretch your legs.”
He looked out the window of their car. “I wouldn’t stray too far from the train, lookin’ like it’ll be a bit of a cloudy night, so it might get a bit dark. We don’t wanna journey back on without anyone not found their way back to the train. But if you want to be able to get out and walk around, you surely can do so. Well, if you’ll pardon me, I have to deliver this message to the rest of the passengers,” he nodded.
“Have fun with that,” Decker quipped.
“Oh, I definitely will.” The conductor could not hide his sarcasm. “Good evenin’ to ya.” With that, he disappeared down the car.
Decker sniffed the air. “I’m gonna get some fresh air. Stinks in here.” His eyes locked squarely with Clay’s.
Valeria hummed in agreement, yet more out of sincerity than vehemence. “It does, actually.”
Duncan happily concurred. “Yeah, and it’s not me for once!” His face beamed with a smile.
Out of the way could be the only perfect definition of the place the train was slowly pulling into. Once fully stopped, passengers hopped down, walking and strutting in awkward strides to stretch the muscles of their legs that had grown tired and stiff during the day’s trip across the countryside, careful not to stray too far from the warm glow of the light shining from the inside of the singular building that had it not been for the massive sign reading “STATION”, none would have known.
The four of them disembarked as well, noting the dark, cloudy skies above the stalks of corn that seemed to grow endlessly in all directions. Professor Duncan gazed across the fields until something caught his eye. It was a figure, standing there completely still, its presence suddenly alarming him. He turned to the nearest of his companions, Valeria, tapping her on the arm.
“Did you see that?” Duncan pointed into the field.
Valeria turned to search the night for Duncan’s sighting. “What?”
“There’s a gentleman or some such standin’ out there in the field.”
Valeria did see him, noting that he must be either ridiculously tall to be seen standing over the tall stalks of corn, or something far more logical. “I think you might have found this field’s local scarecrow.”
Duncan pondered her words. “Well, it’s good I found him, before someone else did.” He shook a pointed finger towards the effigy, calling loudly to it. “I got my eye on you!”
Valeria began in exasperation. “It is an inanimate object, normally.” Excitement filled her voice. “Though you know, it would be interesting to see if you could animate such an object.”
“I don’t think that would be interestin’ at all.” Clay grumbled behind her. His steely eyes met hers as she turned to respond.
“Mercy, you all got some imaginations,” Decker exasperated as he walked past.
“It’s somebody’s old shirt stuffed with hay!” agreed Clay.
Valeria grinned. “Can you imagine, though,” she relished, “Having a scarecrow in a place like that, all the things it sees and hears. You could utilize that to your benefit!”
Clay looked on incredulously. “What can you see and hear in a cornfield?”
“You never know,” answered Valeria.
“Corn!” Duncan could only nod in self-approval of his wise words.
Clay kept up the humor. “Local young’uns? Sneakin’ in there for hanky-panky?”
Valeria continued to argue. “Even so, there’s still a certain benefit to it when people would not expect being listened to.” And in the blink of an eye, she fell silent, Decker and Clay looking out among the sea of stalks to notice the same change that she herself acknowledged. The scarecrow was gone.
“You had to bring it up, didn’t ya?” Clay’s eyes scanned the darkness filled horizon. He listened to the rustling of the corn stalks all around the train as the wind picked up, feeling the bite of the cold as the breeze blew past them. The chill cut right through their clothing into their bones.
“Here we go,” Decker tensed.
Not too far up from them, a woman called her husband. “I think there’s someone out there in the corn! I think it might be a child? Hello?” She inched closer. “Are you hiding in the corn? Gerald, I think there’s a young boy in the corn!”
Decker shouted up to her. “Ma’am!” Clay repeated the call.
“Come on out, don’t be shy,” she continued at the edge of the corn. “I’ve got som-” Too late. They watched as the long, bladelike leaves of the corn reached out and wrenched her inwards.
“Lucinda!” screamed Gerald. “Where did you go?” He looked around in panic. “Someone’s got my wife! Help! Help!”
Neither Clay nor Decker hesitated, both rushing into the corn headlong. Duncan and Valeria followed closely behind, crashing noisily through the tall stalks. Even in the low light, they could see the corn bent and broken into the path along which the woman was being taken.
Behind them they heard the shouts of the other passengers, but ahead of them Clay took notice of the corn. He remarked at how odd the trail seemed. There were the marks of the woman’s body being hastily dragged over the ground, but that was it. His head turned once he heard the striking of a match and the ignition of fuel-soaked cloth beginning to blaze.
Duncan held in one hand the lit torch above their heads, and the spent match in the other. Clay looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just happen to have that on you?”
“Yeah,” was Duncan’s only response.
They carried on, the trail suddenly ending. Clay peered around them. Something was still…wrong about the corn. In silence, they stood there, watching the corn wave around in the wind, only to realize there was none. No wind. No sound.
In the eerie, torchlit spot where they came to stop they watched as the grinning faces of carved jack-o-lanterns rose from the ground, pumpkin heads attached to cornstalk bodies, gazing at them with devilish, glowing eyes and smiles. The silence gave way to the sound of purposeful tromping, then from the corn emerged the imposing figure of the scarecrow they saw before, it’s burlap mask twisted into an angry, sorrowful scowl, crashing through with its massive scythe in hand. From its mouth came a sickly, gurgling scream that tore through the air.
From Clay came the echoing blast of gunfire. Gouts of flame erupted from the barrels of his two long Peacemakers, bullets tearing into the grinning orange heads of the monsters surrounding them, splattering pumpkin and pulp onto the corn behind them. Their bodies fell limp as the otherworldly source of light within their heads flickered into darkness.
Decker leveled his Gatling pistol toward the scarecrow’s head and pulled the trigger. The weapon reported twice, the first shot ripping into the cloth of the fiend’s shoulder as it quickly twisted away, hay flying out its back. The second bullet flew wide. Decker cursed under his breath.
Fire flickered around them as Duncan began swinging the torch at more of the pumpkin-headed imps. The blazing head of the torch struck one’s body, and with nearly no effort, it burst into flame. It sizzled and burned, hissing and screeching as it ran wildly in circles, the others of its kind desperately trying to dodge it before, finally, it crumpled into a heap of ash.
Valeria stepped back, watching for the best opportunity to strike all while allowing her companions to take the brunt of the punishment. Phantasmal cards blinked into her hand, glowing with sparkling purple light. She flung two of them toward the scarecrow, one vanishing into the corn behind it. The other connected solidly, blowing a massive hole in its chest, the smell of mildew and rotten hay filling the space around them.
A third sailed toward one of the pumpkin men, Cornstalkers, she had heard them called in some sundry text she most likely read long ago, unfortunately missing. It watched the attack float by harmlessly, its glowing grin turning back to her to mock and gloat. It readied itself along with its friends.
The scarecrow shook himself back into the fight, bobbing unsteadily as it pressed upon them. The scythe gleamed in the light as the blade cut toward Decker. The Agent shifted awkwardly to avoid, the only contact made slicing the buttons of his vest clean off of the garment. Decker froze at the close call.
The Cornstalkers swarmed, three of them diving towards Clay. Their feathery, cork husk claws tore into the ranger’s duster, leading him to seize in the moment, driven back by the ferocity of their attacks. Still, no lasting damage was done.
Another ducked under Duncan’s torch as it whipped through the air, leaping in for a strike. Claws tore into the Professor’s flesh, raking up his midsection. Blood soaked his shirt as he flailed the torch around wildly to force the creature off of him. One rushed up to Valeria, capitalizing on her focus toward the scarecrow. One claw sliced down her back. She gasped at the searing pain as blood flowed down the back of her dress.
They barely had any time to regather their senses. Duncan winced at the wound on his torso, looking over to Valeria’s bloody back. He murmured a chant in some Native American language to close the gashes up. Nothing happened, other than the professor’s disappointment.
Clay’s mind refocused, the barrel of each of his guns sticking straight into the jagged smiles of two of his attackers, their heads exploding in two thunderous booms. Their bodies thumped onto the ground. The third fell back, and even with no emotion visible on its face, Clay could tell it was scared. He didn’t see two more charging from behind.
Decker pulled a knife, gauging the abomination to be too close for gunplay. Ready to strike, he leaned back for a quick slash, unprepared for the scythe to swing back towards him. The blade began to bury into the Agent’s chest, his “bulletproof vest”, some newly-invented Agency gizmo, turning the point of the wicked weapon away without danger. The impact was still enough to leave him unsteady. With gritted teeth the agent spun back around, slicing towards the hay-filled body. The blade didn’t even leave the least of marks.
Valeria recovered, looking around to check their situation. Within the space of a thought, she slipped into the darkness of a smoky gambling room, locked in a terrifyingly long game of Faro with a nightmarish opponent for arcane power, playing to win. Back in the real world, more ghostly cards appeared in her hands. They shot toward the scarecrow, but all disappeared into nothingness before even connecting. She began to ponder what just happened, grating laughter filling her ears as her vision blurred and head began to pound. “Damn you,” she whispered to herself.
Decker struck out with his knife again, grabbing under the row of buttons of the monstrosity’s ragged shirt. He gladly returned the creature’s favor, pulled the knife upwards, one button after another flying off in random directions. The thing fell to the ground as nothing but a pile of moldy straw, and an expressionless burlap mask.
Clay spun on his heels, thumbs clicking back the hammers of his pistols until they locked. As they fell, the guns once again roared with fire, and once again the creatures fell with gaping holes in their orange heads. Smoke rose from the revolvers’ heated barrels, their resounding blasts trailing off into the remaining night and leaving them once again in silence.
“Lucinda?” called Duncan, his voice swallowed by the unending swath of corn around them.
“Ma’am?” Decker approached the edge of the spot where they were fighting. Clay took the moment to reload as the others began to search for the missing woman, until one of them looked up to see a new figure hanging from the scarecrow’s post. Decker sighed. “Oh, no.”
He and Valeria exchanged looks. Together they approached the post, spotting the slight rustle of a petticoat in the breeze. A few hesitant steps more and they had found her, or rather what remained. All that was left was a husk, the woman’s empty shell of a body now stuffed to overflowing with straw, some of it spilling out of her open mouth, her face cemented in a look of pain and fear.
“Gruesome, but fascinating that something could work that fast,” observed Valeria. She studied the scene intensely, ever staying within her clinical attitude.
“How about instead we get her down from there so she can get the good Christian burial she deserves?” Decker draped the woman’s body with his coat.
Clay disagreed. “Sometimes it’s best that the family don’t see the body. No, I think what we should do is cut her down and burn this field to the ground.”
Only Decker seemed to understand Clay’s suggestion. “You know what, Duncan, you have a torch. Let’s do that.”
Duncan looked over at them wide eyed. “This is someone’s property! It’s THEIR corn!”
“Did you see what came out of this corn?”
“So get rid of it!”
“If you burn this field,” Valeria protested, “you’re just going to create more.”
“Miss,” Decker turned to stare her down. “I don’t trust you. I think you want these things to come out.”
“Why would I want that?” Valeria couldn’t believe her ears. “I would love to study them, yes, but I merely warn you that your actions to destroy these things may actually create more! You might think that I want that, but I assure you I do not!”
Duncan was already setting things alight, trailing fire through the field on his way back. “Uh, we should go back to the train now…” They realized they honestly didn’t have the time to argue about it. Valeria shrugged and began her walk back to the train, pulling her glasses free to clean them.
They snapped in half right in her hands. “Lovely,” she frowned.
“Did you find her? Did you find my wife?” Gerald was standing there, waiting for them, wringing his hands.
Decker hung his head and approached. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.” Clay cut him off.
“She’s in a better place now.”
Gerald didn’t seem to understand. “You…just left her out there?”
Clay pressed on. “It’s not fit for your good, Christian eyes to see.”
Gerald refused to accept the answer. “What? I don’t understand, what happened out there?”
The conductor shouted at them all, eyeing the fire that began to burn brighter and brighter in the corn, the smoke and flame approaching closer with the passing of every second. “I’m gonna have to ask politely that everyone come back onto the train, please. Everybody, back on the train. There’s a fire comin’!”
Valeria quickly pulled the grieving husband aside. “Wolves. Wolves unfortunately got to her, and tore her apart.”
Decker came to the huckster’s defense surprisingly fast. “Yes, exactly. Wolves, and most likely diseased, at that.”
“Wolves! How could it be wolves?” He ran back to the edge of the cornfield, looking for his wife. The conductor urged them more emphatically than before. It was time to go.
Clay grabbed Gerald by the shoulder. He tried to speak but Gerald suddenly jerked his arm free. “Don’t you touch me! You went out there to help her, and now she’s probably burnin’ to a cinder!”
Clay’s stony eyes met his. “There ain’t nothing left to bury, and nothing you want to see. Did you fight in the war?”
Gerald sunk. “No sir, I did not.”
Clay continued. “Well, seein’ stuff like that changes a man.”
The conductor called out again, all but shouting. “We’re gonna need to go, and we’re gonna have to leave you behind if you don’t get back on board! I got everyone’s safety to think about!”
A beat, and Gerald turned to answer Clay. “No, I don’t accept this. I’m gonna find her. I’m gonna find her and I’m gonna bury her like she deserves!” And into the field he ran.
“Well, he made his choice.” Clay shook his head. They all watched as the man was swallowed by the burning cornfield, knowing there was no stopping him now, and hopped back aboard the train as the engine began to build back up its speed, leaving behind the inferno the field had become, their only recourse being to retire to their car.
Once in, Duncan rummaged through his pack, removing a bundle of what looked like grass, and a fan made of feathers. He lit the grass with a match, filling the car with a woodsy aroma. He began to chant, moving his arms and legs in a fashion that none of the others had seen before, nor could accurately describe in the moment, apart from that it made the ‘Professor’ look like a fool.
“What are you doin’?” Clay asked.
Duncan either didn’t hear, or chose not to respond, murmuring to himself in disappointment. “Well, it ain’t workin’ here. Guess I’ll try you.” He turned to face Valeria, who by now had slumped forward, wincing from the long bloodied marks down her back. She looked up at him, looking so different now without her glasses.
Duncan repeated his display, fanning the smoke over her while once again chanting, sounding almost like a song. Again, there was no effect.
“It doesn’t seem to be working,” she pointed out.
“Well,” he cried. “It’s not an easy thing to do! You try healin’ out of thin air!”
“I do…other things out of thin air.” Valeria’s glance shot to the two lawmen.
Black Elk waved a hand around. “He’s new.”
Valeria turned to the shaman. “Can you heal?” The answer was a heavy sigh.
“I suppose I can attempt it.”
Black Elk began to chant, his hands waving around the lingering smoke left behind by Duncan’s burning sage. His voice deepened with a thrum that seemed to tap into the ages and vibrate the entire train car. As Valeria approached, she was met with a singular wave over her person from the shaman’s hand. She barely noticed she had even been healed. Duncan came forward as well. Black Elk turned to him, simply shrugged, and returned to sit in the corner.
Valeria went back to her seat, pulling the wreckage of her glasses to assess their state. Duncan saw the damage, held up a finger, and began to rummage through his pack, pulling out a single circular lens.
“I highly doubt that some random lens you likely found in some heap of garbage will fit in these-“. The lens slotted in perfectly. She handed the frames to him. He finished by wrapping a small piece of wire around just the right spot to fasten things back together, handing the completed work back to its rightful owner.
Clay eased the burden on his mind. “You know, I find it weird that the one place we stopped was the one place we got attacked…”
Duncan agreed. “I can’t help but feel now that we’re being beset upon by otherworldly forces. Trying to keep us from our mission. As Black Elk said one time, something about normal knees only bending one way, or maybe it was about sitting down without bending your knees…”
Decker cleared his throat. “Are you hurtin’? Seems like you’re thinkin’ too hard about this. Let’s be honest, those things were probably after us, and whoever’s behind it wants to find Grothe before we do.”
Black Elk muttered something unintelligible. Duncan couldn’t help but agree.
“Is he here for a reason?” Valeria pointed to the aging native.
“Black Elk can see things we can’t see,” Duncan responded. “He’s partly in the hunting grounds, so if we need guidance, he can offer it.”
Clay huffed as he pulled his hat over his eyes to rest. “I think we’re gonna need it.”
From the train they emerged into what had become to be called the Jewel City of the West. Denver was a bustling place to anyone who had never set foot in her, and Duncan had never been here before. Neither had Clay, but the Ranger was not as awestruck as his companion. He, instead, was looking for a place to get supplies.
Duncan leaned in. “Sergeant, not to be a nuisance, but you kind of stink. I mean a little bit more than me and Black Elk.”
Valeria turned her head away with a jerk. “Oh, yes, quite. You know, in my studies I have found that those in your particular…situation can consume a good bit of alcohol to help mask the scent. Better to smell like a drunk than smell like a corpse, I would think.”
Clay stood there, looking particularly insulted. “You don’t think I ain’t washed myself before? You think a quick step in the crick can solve this? I know what I smell like, Miss Batten. And I know what I can do to cover it up. But coverin’ up is all I’d be doin’.”
Decker spun around. “I don’t have a manual for dead people, but…”
“Your body is decomposing,” Valeria interjected. “Which is what’s so fascinating, able to hold a conversation while you’re still dying. But drinking a bit, a good bit, would help deal with the smell.”
Clay looked on emotionlessly. He already knew these things, but hearing it from them was annoying to no end. “I don’t care what you, or anyone else, thinks about me. Now, let’s go.” The Ranger stomped up the street.
The farrier looked up as he saw two men enter the stables, one dressed in rags, the other dressed in a long gray coat. “Oh, uh, greetings gentlemen, do you have any animals you need boarded? I’m more than happy to do so.”
Clay strode forward. “I might take you up on that, but I was first wonderin’,” he began, pulling the duster aside to reveal the silvered star and circle pinned to his chest. “Territorial Ranger, I’m lookin’ for a man.”
The stable keep froze. “Huh.”
Clay was prepared for any level of resistance, his eyes narrowing, but ultimately relaxing as the man continued.
“A Ranger? Well, well, don’t seem too many of your kind out here unless there’s trouble brewin’. Is there anything I should know about, Mister Ranger, sir? Should I get out o’ town for the time bein’?”
Clay smiled and shook his head. “Naw, the trouble we’re after ain’t in town, but someone who knows about it might be.”
“Ah you’re wantin’ information, well I tell you, ordinarily, I’m fairly tight-lipped about the affairs of my customers. Don’t want a reputation for runnin’ one’s mouth, but I suppose for a Ranger, dependin’ on what you’re wantin’ to know, I could maybe let slip a bit or two.”
Clay shrugged. “We’re just talking horses.”
The man nodded. “That’s right! So, what information about horses can I provide you?”
“Well, there’s a man in town, Abram Grothe. I heard he’s got a nice horse. Have you boarded any of his horses?”
Duncan, well-intended, jumped in. “Yeah, this here Ranger. You can be a great help by answerin’ his questions. Yep. Yessiree.” What continued could only be described as babble.
“Duncan, calm down!” Clay was none too pleased by the sudden interruption. He could see the stableman was now quite put-off.
Despite it, the man felt swayed to answer. “You say Abram Grothe?” Clay described Grothe the best he could. The man nodded along.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Real dignified sort of man. Had the bearin’ of a king. I do recall seeing a gentleman like that. Can’t say he boarded his horse with me, but someone like that I think rode through not long ago. A few days. Or maybe a month? Can’t recall when exactly.”
Clay nodded back. “Thank you for your time.”
“You’re welcome, glad to be of service. And if you need your horses tended to, you know where to drop ’em. I’ll give you a good rate!”
Duncan shouted. “But I don’t have a horse!”
The stableman just stared. “Right…” Turning back to Clay, he wiped his hands on his apron. “Will that be all?”
“That’ll be all.” Clay pushed Duncan out the doors, and returned to the busy streets.
Valeria entered the local newspaper office, greeted by a bespectacled woman with a heavy drawl, seated at a desk near the forefront. “Good afternoon, how may I help you?”
Valeria shifted her own glasses. “Yes, I need to look at the newspapers you’ve put out over the last-“
The woman gestured to Valeria’s face. “I love your glasses, by the way.”
Valeria, taken aback, barely knew how to respond. “Thank you. Yours are quite lov-“
“They look very flattering on your face. You’ve got very…nicely framed cheekbones.”
Valeria sighed. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry what can I help you with?”
“I need to take a look at your newspapers, from the last month, possibly two.”
“Sure! I think our organizational system’s been a bit kaput lately, the gentleman who typically keeps those filed and in order done run off. But, that doorway, right there to the right,” she pointed. “That’s our recent archive. The rest is just kind of piled up further back. You’re welcome to look through the papers from the last couple of weeks. I think we’ve got copies on hand.”
“Well, if you need help lookin’ for anything else, let me know.”
Valeria turned and marched through the door. “Okay, mm-hmm.”
As the door closed behind her, wafts of dust danced in the afternoon sun that beamed through the window. On a large table sat stacks of issues from weeks past, and Valeria began to tear into them. She scanned over the opinion pieces that only after a few words were deemed ignorant and uninteresting, the various announcements of births and deaths, advertisements for the most recent of Smith and Robard’s fantastic concoctions, finding much of nothing.
She was barely sure what she was looking for in the first place, until she found something mildly interesting in the fact that the news was the most out of place from the rest of the drivel. The article was a mere handful of sentences.
“It has been reported that no small number of loud explosions were heard in and around the vicinity of the Land Management Office that sits only a short distance outside of Denver proper. While law enforcement has made every effort to identify the source of this unsettling and cacophonous din, the origination of the sounds still remain a confounding mystery as upon inspection, the building of the Land Management Office was intact, and appeared to be, in fact, abandoned.”
From the outside, the building looked abandoned. Decker knew better. It was supposed to look abandoned. The last thing the Agency needed was for someone, anyone, to learn the truth of what was actually inside.
Or beneath. The SRF. The Supernatural Research Facility.
Decker acknowledged the quiet that surrounded the place at first, only to realize that things here were a little too quiet. There was supposed to be some activity as to not draw suspicion, agents available at all hours to guard this, the front entrance. But today, the doors were shut and the windows were shuttered, and not even so much as a stir from the wind.
Decker approached the door cautiously. A scan of it revealed no sign of forced entry, and with a gentle twist of the doorknob, it swung open. Inside was dark, the only light at play streaming in through the windows. Nobody was here, and that troubled Decker significantly.
Decker slipped inside, stepping without a sound. Looking around, he noted the blaring breach of protocol. This place apparently was abandoned. No overturned tables, strewn papers, or broken chairs, so therefore no struggle. Moving to a desk nearest to the shadows, the agent spotted a paper tucked underneath the corner of a blotter, and pulled it free.
To the untrained eye, the note would have been as good as Greek. Decker, though, was not untrained. He deciphered the code as quickly as he read, swallowing hard as he took in the message.
“Agent Theodore Sandel ambushed down below. Heard screams to activate the containment protocol. Proceeded with lockdown. Haven’t investigated further. Have left to find Agency reinforcements. Should any agent find this, SRF has been locked down. Should you require assistance to reclaim the facility, locate the loose board under my desk.” -Hattie Lawton
Decker made no hesitation. Flinging the chair out of the way, he pried the board loose, and tucked neatly in the space, laid a bundle of purple velvet. Pulling back the folds of fabric, he curled an eyebrow at the find.
It was a gun, most antiquated and macabre in appearance. Its foundation was, realistically, a blunderbuss, similar to those found in the times of the colonies, but beyond that, all other similarities ended. A small glass chamber was affixed opposite the flintlock-style hammer, inside which was a greasy, reddish-black fluid.
The barrel snugly sat inside the skull of some animal, which had been decorated with red-inked scrawling of runes and mystic circles. From the hollow socket of the eye, Decker swore he could see wisps of green mist or smoke, and as he lifted it up, he could only describe what he held in his hands as exactly what it presented itself as.
A great work of darkness. Magnum Opus Tenebri.
The sun was now sinking behind the mountains, and outside, Decker watched as the others approached the building, wishing to not risk some foolhardy attempt to clear the research base that dwelt below them alone. Valeria and Duncan eyed the place quizzically, wondering what a Land Basin Office had to do with Decker. Clay just cracked a dry smile.
Decker sprung from the side of the wall, taking a few steps to meet them. “Anything?”
Valeria went first. “Something about loud noises. Nobody could find a cause. That’s the best I could find from the local newspaper. They have no idea what they’re doing in that office.”
“Well,” Clay added. “I found out that Duncan puts on a rather fancy dancin’ act. Quite entertaining.” He didn’t sound very sincere.
Valeria peered over her glasses. “What on Earth for?”
Duncan waved a hand. “I will tell you in good time, but for now, I think Ranger Clay should tell you what he found out.”
“Grothe’s been here, sometime in the last three months. Maybe recently, I dunno.”
“Well, that’s not very useful.”
Decker oozed confidence. “Well, I found something that’s going to help us reclaim the SRF.” He slung the maleficent-looking weapon over his shoulder. Valeria sped over to him.
“Oh! What is THAT?”
To her, it looked like a gadget. A very useful one. It was certainly the kind of thing to get her attention and keep it. She looked it over carefully.
Decker pulled it away from her prying eyes. “Apparently, there was an ambush down below.”
Her gaze rose from the gun to meet Decker’s eyes. “At the…Land…Management Office? You found that here?”
Duncan peered over her shoulder. “I’ve found stranger things in even stranger places, but…I…whatever.” He wandered off, distracted.
Valeria went back to the gun. “Well should anyone feel they can’t fully utilize this thing, I believe I can.”
Clay scoffed. “It looks like a gun. I can shoot a gun.”
Valeria shot him a look. “It’s more than that…”
Decker brought the gun down, cradling it as he weighed the options of whether to tell these people the entire story. He looked to the group, from the Ranger to the out-for-herself huckster he could barely trust. And then Duncan. A knot formed in his stomach. “Alright, here’s the short version.”
A few minutes was not enough to convey the true depth of the problem, but in this case of a need-to-know briefing, he told them what they needed to know. “And,” concluded Decker, “should any of you tell anyone of this place, I will be authorized to hunt you down and silence you. Permanently.”
Clay smiled at his counterpart. “I’ve died before. It ain’t so bad.”
Decker sighed. “Well, since we have to work together, I can’t really keep this stuff from you. Besides, a containment protocol was initiated. That’s bad news. Really bad.”
Valeria’s interest in the place was quickly replaced with a scowl. “Do you think it’s connected to what we’re already looking for?”
Decker turned to face the building. “Probably. All this stuff happening at once? Highly unusual.”
Valeria joined him at his side. “Is there a way to access the locked-down facility?”
“Yes, there is.”
“How do you know that?” Duncan looked up from his pack, each hand filled with oddly shaped sticks.
Decker held up a piece of paper in his left hand. “This message told me.”
Valeria pushed her glasses up. “Do we have everything we need?”
Clay checked his belt and guns. “I need a few bullets.”
Valeria turned to glare. “You couldn’t just buy those?”
“Wait, hold on!” Duncan exclaimed as he went back to the satchel, plunging a hand inside. “What caliber?”
Clay cocked an eyebrow. “Forty-five. Long.”
Duncan shut his eyes and rummaged around. His face scrunched in thought, the onlookers watching as they could tell his hand would grab onto something, reject it, and find something else. A few moments later, his hand emerged with exactly five brassy cartridges. “Here ya go.”
Clay took them, looking at Duncan as though he had been told a tall tale. He flipped open the loading gate of his Colt, checking the fit of the rounds with doubt. The first slipped in perfectly, followed by the rest. “I’ll be damned. Again.”
All inside, Decker walked over to an ill-used and dusty desk over in the back corner, hidden from the windows. He reached out with a hand, opening and closing a pencil case sixteen times in total is a strange rhythm. There was a click, a panel in the back wall sliding open. Instead of revealing the landscape that should have been behind them, there was a chamber.
Decker walked into it. “Well, come on!”
The others climbed in, cramped and uncomfortable. The wall slid shut, leaving them in complete darkness. Clay’s decaying stench seemed to fill every corner. Suddenly, the small room they filled shuddered and shook with a loud, heavy-sounding thud followed by a mechanical whir. They could feel their feet begin to sink beneath them as the car began to descend.
Duncan looked around pointlessly. “What’s going on? Where’s this thing taking us?”
Decker whispered in the dark. “I’m taking you to hell…”
“What?” Duncan shrieked.
Decker laughed. “Just funnin’! We’re going down to the basement.”
Clay coughed. “I’ve been to hell. It ain’t so bad.” Anyone could tell he was bluffing.
Valeria sighed. “It’s clearly some mechanical device. You can hear it!”
Duncan panted, hands reaching out to brace against the walls of the car. “Well, don’t ya have any stairs or something? A way to get off?”
“Listen, just stop talkin’. It’ll be over before you know it.” Decker grinned at his lie.
Several minutes later, the platform lurched to a rest with the hiss of steam. The wall, one made of reinforced, riveted steel, slid open into a darkened chamber where sat a small desk. Across from them, another large portal, encased in thick metal shielding.
Duncan stumbled out of the elevator, finally feeling able to breathe. He fumbled in the dim light for anything to give him his bearings. He praised the spirits that he was back on solid ground.
His hand slipped right onto a panel set in the wall. It gave under his weight, and with it, a dull hum. Lights above them began to flicker to life. He blinked furiously against their unnatural glow.
Valeria looked around in awe. “Quite fascinating!” She clomped to the center of the room to gauge all of her surroundings, watching as Duncan lowered the goggles on his head over his eyes.
Decker strode over to the desk. “It’s called ‘science’. It’s for scientists. We don’t need people like you in here.” No one sat at the desk, a fact that gave Decker no small amount of concern. His concern was only compounded by the deathly silence around them save for their own voices.
Valeria ignored the insult. “When you connect the supernatural and science together you can jump ahead much faster. To me, it’s all about progress.” She analyzed their situation. “So what do we do now? Somehow cut through these…doors?”
Decker scratched the back of his neck. “Good question.”
“I can keep looking around.” Duncan continued to clumsily interact with the wall where he found the panel for the lights. Decker suddenly remembered the button under the desk. It clicked with a simple press, the massive steel doors quivering for a moment, then nothing.
“Damn. Stand clear.” Decker positioned himself in front of the doors, leveling the frightening gun he carried towards them and prepared to take aim.
“Wait!” Clay shouted. “You’re gonna shoot reinforced steel with that voodoo stick of yours?”
Decker slowly turned his head to speak. “Uh…yeah?”
Clay stood in silence. “Okay,” he said, ducking behind the desk. “Go ahead, then.”
Decker pulled back the hammer, squeezing the trigger. Bilious green smoke spewed from the muzzle. The recoil was tremendous. The blast was deafening. As the smoke cleared, Decker inspected the damage. No effect, save for the black stain of gunpowder and the buckshot somehow embedded in the doors’ steel belts.
Duncan had been about to speak before the crack of the gunshot left his ears ringing. Now he had to shout just to hear himself. “Is this the thing, maybe?” He pointed to an off-colored panel of the metal walls. Pressing it, disengaging whatever had it latched, it swung open, revealing all manner of slow-moving gears and pistons.
The Professor peered inside, scratching his stubble. “Well, not sure if this’ll go against my oath but…” He paused to reflect on something, staring up into space, ear bent to an unheard voice. “Well, he did have a good point.” His hands plunged into the machine.
Decker approached. “Think you could hurry up with that?”
Duncan responded by yelping in pain as a gear took a bite of his finger, pulling back a now bruised and bloody hand. “Don’t know if I can work on this directly, but I might cobble together something that could at least help me work on it.” He dove into his pack.
The others watched as his hands fervently began to stick random odds and ends together. It made little sense to them, but making sense didn’t have to matter if it meant results. A bundle of wires and tubes later, and Duncan held up some nonsensical, cross-shaped stick, jamming the makeshift ‘spreader’ into the works. For some odd reason, it helped.
He only had a moment, but in that moment, he was able to pull loose what was causing the trouble. Holding the teardrop-shaped latch in his hand, he watched as the gears then spun in reverse, crushing the device he had made. The blast doors slowly clanked open.
Satisfied, Decker pressed the button under the desk once more, the actual door to the SRF swirling open like an iris, leaving the giant black open circle leading deeper into the Agency’s most well-kept secrets. Duncan reached around the edge of the circular door, fiddling in the darkness to perhaps find another way to turn on more lights. As the others scrutinized Duncan’s attempts, Decker’s eyes caught something in the darkness ahead of them.
There in the dark hovered two tiny pin-pricks of red light, like embers from a fire near burning out, spaced neatly apart. Decker saw them move, changing in angle as to seemingly focus on the Professor as he floundered about for illumination. A warning rose to his throat, the two red lights streaking towards the quirky spiritualist before a single word could escape.
“Professor, duck!” Decker’s voice returned just soon enough. Duncan dropped to the floor, hearing the crash of something slamming into the metal wall where he had just been standing. They all looked to the noise, seeing in the low glow of the lamps a bald, emaciated looking body, ears ending in points, claws gracing the tips of its fingers. Its nose sunk nearly all the way into its face, a mouthful of sharp fangs dripped with red.
Valeria searched her mind for the name of this creature. Nosferatu, that was it. Feral and vampiric, where there was one, there was always more.
The twisted, scientific weapon in Decker’s hand began to almost quiver with a hum at the simple appearance of the nightmarish thing in the doorway, bestowing a sense of need and yearning to be pointed and fired at this abomination. Decker was happy to oblige.
His hand pulled back the hammer, his torso twisting slightly to swing the barrel toward the vampire that now bore down on Duncan’s prone form on the floor. He dropped his aim an inch, going straight for the thing’s chest, and pulled the trigger once more, feeling the satisfying wave of recoil again, the shot now glowing green as it sailed through the air.
Instead of a spread, the shot seemed to coalesce into a singular drilling force that struck the feral monster right in the heart, remains of the organ splattering out of the abberation’s back. The creature staggered back, glow leaving its eyes, falling into bits of crumbling dust and ash. Decker braced the gun on his hip, looking at it proudly.
“This…is my FAVORITE gun.”
Silence returned. Duncan lifted his head to check that the threat had been dispatched, and, appeased, returned to his feet. He patted the dust off his ragged clothes, looking down the dark corridor to watch for anything else.
Decker spun around, a confident grin upon his lips. “Now, since we’re all here, and I have the biggest gun of us all,” he pointed to Clay and Valeria. “You and you, you’re gonna take a nice little visit to what we call the Star Chamber.”
“What’re you sayin?” Clay’s hands slowly inched towards the butts of his pistols. Decker leveled the blunderbuss at him. The ranger’s hands backed off.
“It’s a room where we take dead men and black magicians like you two to be interrogated. I want to know you’re on the up and up. And you’re gonna stay in there until I’m sure.”
“Uh, Decker?” Duncan whimpered.
Valeria’s expression dulled into seething animosity. “You’re going to lock us up forever?”
Decker nodded. “Only if you’re bad. I suspect you both are, though.”
“Um, Agent?” Duncan retreated from the doors.
“I thought we were supposed to be working together.” Clay fumed.
Decker finally responded. “What do you want, Professor?”
“I don’t think you’re going to get the chance.” The shaman’s trembling hand pointed back into the darkness of the corridor. The rest peered inside. Inside they saw the crowd of many, many pairs of glowing red eyes. They all swore under their breath.
Clay’s pistols sprayed hot lead into the tunnel as he ducked back around the side, trying with all his might to shove one side of the blast doors closed. Duncan pushed from the other end. They wouldn’t budge. Decker fired another blast of shot into the gang of horrors that stampeded toward them.
One up front burned to nothingness, but more than a dozen took its place. Decker looked at Clay, almost apologetically, his eyes asking for what they could do now. Clay’s clenched jaw had no answer to say. His eyes flitted to Valeria. She could only shrug to hide her panic. Then came the boom of thunder.
The flash of light was almost blinding despite the light cast by the electric lamps of the facility. Black Elk’s form, glowing an ethereal blue, burst into existence before them. In native language he began to shout and chant. The air rippled around his figure, his body slowly turning more corporeal as others began to take shape in his wake.
Another older man, clothed in a mix of American style and native accoutrement stepped out, waving his hands as the power of nature surrounded him. A young woman joined them, surrounded by wildlife as her eyes glowed a faint green. The wolf that appearned with her snarled and growled, baring teeth. The horde of nosferatu ahead of them responded in kind.
The swarm charged as more of Black Elk’s allies appeared, stepping into sight as the undulating portal from the hunting grounds closed. As they drew closer, a loud sound echoed behind them. Everyone paused in anticipation, until a unit of black-clad gunmen emerged into their field of vision.
Front and center was a snowy-beared individual brandishing a pair of revolvers. To one side of him, a man in an eyepatch, to the other a young woman gripping a gatling pistol tightly in her two-hand grip. Behind them hurried men and women draped in black dusters, rifles and pistols at the ready.
The battle was on.
More lights blinked to life above them in the corridors as systems began to power on. Agency riflemen formed a gun line across the tunnel’s breadth, the ones ahead taking a knee as others lined up above and behind. Winchesters clicked and clacked to feed fresh rounds into the chambers, and hail of bullets sailed into the division of the feral blood-drinkers that turned to rush their position.
“Aim for the heart!” John ‘Aces’ Radcliffe barked. A single smooth action of hammer-to-trigger gunplay sent a bullet tearing right into the vital spot of one of the skittering horrors that nearly got too close. Since his time in Gomorra, the old man seemed back in his element, and the Agency pay didn’t hurt. Despite the volume of fire, the creatures managed to break the line, and quickly beset on them all.
Back in the foyer, wolves tore one vamp into shreds, only to be ripped into by the claws of another. Three-Eyed Hawk impaled it with her spear, watching as it fell into a pile of ash. She grinned as she watched the horrible thing burn away.
Danny Wilde leapt over the woman and her wolves, pointing a pistol toward a group coming to bolster the ranks. He fired quickly, dropping two more before a third closed in, raking a clawed hand across his throat. His pistol clattered to the floor as his hand grabbed for the wound, falling to his knees.
A blistering bolt of purplish energy looking uncannily like a playing card burned into the vampire’s chest, exploding in a flash, the creature’s remains scattering into the air. Duncan rushed to the young native man’s side, trying to administer help. Decker and Clay stepped in.
The antique scattergun, this Magnum Opus Tenebri roared as it belched green-glowing buckshot into another beast, reducing it to a cloud of smoke. Clay’s two Colts fired relentlessly, their crisp pop-pop pattern reflecting his unerring accuracy they had witnessed before. One after another more nosferatu disappeared into dust. But then they both had to reload.
Before either of them could fumble around for extra rounds, another of the foul-fanged creatures pounced, leaping into the air to come down directly on top of Decker’s form. “Look out!” Decker was suddenly shoved aside. Clay rolled right, springing up to put a round through the monster’s chest. It crumbled to fragments, revealing to him Butch Deuces, mortally wounded, a large fist-sized hole in his chest. The old shaman looked to Decker, then to Clay. He smiled, and with a wink and a singular nod, fell to the metal floor with a lifeless thump.
“John!” hollered Clint Ramsey, eyeing the fuzzy faced old man with his one good eye. “This is the last time I let you talk me into something like this!” His long-barreled Peacemaker popped with the discharge of a bullet that sent another of the creatures back to hell. “You owe me more than a drink for this one.”
Radcliffe fired again, freeing Hattie of the nosferatu that had her pinned. “Now you see why I wanted to forget all this mess!” He fired again, falling on empty. He cursed as he ducked, picking up the Winchester dropped by one of the more unfortunate. He swung it like a club, cracking the thing’s jaw. In a whirlwind, he spun the rifle around, worked the lever, and shot.
The bullet ripped apart the thing’s arm, and dropping the rifle butt to his hip, Radcliffe worked the lever again and again. Bullet after bullet pierced the creature’s flesh, until finally finding the mark to end the thing’s existence. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He didn’t see the one behind him. Thankfully, Ramsey did. One shot, and the varmint was ash.
Duncan was unaccustomed to the eerie silence that comes at the end of a battle. Part of him kept expecting the discord of gunfire and screaming to go on forever, and in a small way, it seemed preferable to the total absence of sound he experienced now. He really needed to get back out to the wilderness.
Three-eyed Hawk came to him, looking down pleadingly at the body of Danny Wilde. Duncan’s eyes met hers. He shook his head. Her gaze fell to the ground. Beside her, her wolf whimpered and whined.
Decker shook Radcliffe’s hand. “You are a sight for sore eyes. I thought you were dead.”
Radcliffe returned the handshake. “I guess I was, in a way. Still a little foggy for the most part. Now, let’s talk about what happened here.” He moved up to meet with Hattie, waving for Decker to come along. They rounded the corner at a tee, and vanished down a corridor.
Clay took the time to reload, looking around at the bloodshed. “I wonder, Miss Batten, you think the Fourth Ring could be behind this?”
Ramsey answered in her place. “This, and likely much worse.”
Clay slid his guns back into their holsters. “How would you know this?”
Ramsey struck a match against his coat button, the flame lighting the rolled cigar pinched in his teeth. “Because I used to ride with ‘em.”
Valeria’s eyes widened, pushing her glasses back up. “I’ve traveled with them as well. Rather, Richard and I did some work for them, but I don’t seem to remember you.”
Ramsey spat to the side. “We parted ways back in Oregon, before Hawley’s plague. I could’ve let’em go, but…just didn’t sit right with me, partly knowin’ what they were up to. I followed ‘em to Gomorra, and after what happened there, I ran into Abram Grothe. I’m thankful I did. It didn’t take him long to convince me that I needed to do what I could to stop the darkness they were capable of. That’s why I decided to help John out here.”
“So,” Valeria asked. “You know about Adler?”
Ramsey took a puff of his cigar. “Some, I reckon.”
“Here!” Decker’s voice echoed down the tunnel. “I think I know where Grothe was headed!”
The three talking joined the fuss. Clay turned to the Professor. “You comin’?” Duncan shook his head, helping a wounded warrior out of the facility. Clay gave him a salute. Duncan returned it, awkwardly, in kind.
Decker rounded the corner again. “I found this telegram. It’s from Lane.”
“Lane?” Valeria was curious.
“Andrew Lane. Leader of the Western Branch.” He presented to them a small slip of paper.
‘WE SEEK THOSE WITH THE FATH TO SAVE US STOP TWILIGHT PROTOCOL IS IN EFFECT STOP GO SOUTH TO THE HOUSE OF MANY FAITHS’ -AL
Clay sighed and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “South?”
Decker looked up and nodded.