The man in the ragged cloak stumbled out of the saloon and into the street. Around him, the bustling mining town continued with its day, taking no notice of the shabby vagrant in its midst. It wasn’t the first; it wouldn’t be the last. But for now, it was where he found himself. He sighed as his bleary eyes took it all in. The faces looked normal. Human. Devoid of the countless sins and failures that they doubtless hid beneath their facades. It was right that they should look that way. He knew that. He also knew that the drinking helped when… when things were different.
He wobbled his way through the bustling crowd, working hard not to bump into anyone. The task proved impossible, thanks to his shuffling steps and the sheer number of people in the streets. Wherever he was, the town was doing well for itself, which meant he might be able to stay here for a while. Even better, he didn’t feel the all too familiar soul sickness in those moments when a duster brushed against him, or someone’s shoulder gently collided off of his side.
He wasn’t damned. He was sure of that. Whatever had happened to him in the past – so many towns ago – it had freed him from… something. But that something kept following him. It was infused into his being. It gnawed at his eyelids when he slept, and if he let it out, it transformed this already miserable world into a hellish wasteland, visible only to him and containing all of the torments he had vowed to leave behind.
The drinking helped … lot. And frankly speaking, he no longer held any desire to do anything else.
He staggered around a corner and into a trash-strewn alleyway. The crowds vanished and the harsh Western sun was eclipsed by the cool shadows of a nearby wall. Good. He could rest here, maybe get a few hours of sleep. Then he could find another saloon and start again. The last one seemed rather perturbed at his behavior… or was it the one before that? He couldn’t remember and that was probably a good thing. The more he remembered, the more it hurt.
He moved further into the recesses of the alleyway, seeking a niche or a sandy spot to lie down. So consumed was he with the task that he didn’t notice the men behind him until their leader spoke up.
“You!” the voiced dripped with shallow cruelty. “Come here, little man.”
The drunk slowly raised his hands and turned around, a pleading look on his face. There were perhaps six of them crowded into the alley, blocking his escape. They all held the same look of contempt as their leader. The same weapons sat idly on their hips, worn with use and all too familiar to their calloused hands.
“Please,” the drunk raised his hands. “I have no money. Nothing you want. You need to just move along.”
The leader grinned, his yellowed teeth stinking of tobacco. “Did you just give me an order, rummy? I don’t like that. And who said we wanted money?” The knife flashed in his hands, waving slowly back and forth in front of him. The other men in the gang snickered like children at the sight.
“It’s a mistake,” the drunk slurred, his eyes widening with fear. “All just a stupid mistake.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” the man cackled, drawing closer. “You sassed me in that bar, so now you get to pay the price. We haven’t killed anyone in days. And ain’t no one gonna miss a little worm like you.” He moved forward, the knife cutting slow jabs in front of him.
Suddenly the drunk changed. His gait straightened, his eyes blazed with unholy fire. He threw off his ragged cloak to reveal the remains of a Confederate uniform lying beneath. A cavalry saber dangled at his belt and he drew it with the slow deliberation of a snail crawling across a razor. As it emerged, a series of runes along its length began to glow softly.
The men stopped in place, their grins falling away like the knife that fell from their leader’s nerveless grip.
“What the hell?” he gasped.
“You should have let me be,” the Confederate rumbled, an aristocratic Georgia accent rolling from his lips. “YOU SHOULD HAVE LET ME BE!!!”
And then he fell among them, and the blood and the haze overwhelmed his senses. He could see their sins feeding on them. He felt the demons capering and cackling as he sliced their bodies to ribbons. One or two of them tried to run, but they were slow and his sword was hungry.
The crowd out in the street saw nothing, heard nothing. Within a few seconds, it was all over. The former drunk sheathed his sword and stepped back out into the thoroughfare. His cloak lay discarded behind him, as did the reek of alcohol. The sword was sheathed and of the carnage behind him, only a few tiny drops of red blemished his form.
He looked around with hardened eyes and surveyed the throng before him. Now the demons were everywhere: fiendish faces, ephemeral as shadows, latching onto every face and body. Capering back and forth, chewing on everything good and decent about the people in front of him until there was nothing left. The crowd swelled and contracted through the streets, oblivious to the inhuman faces that only he could see, the parasitic wounds that only he could feel.
“Not again… goddamn it not again!” he growled to no one in particular.
“Did you think you salvation came without a price?” a voice echoed in his head. “Did you think you could escape the fires of hell without bringing at least some of that torment with you?”
“I earned my freedom! I did everything right!”
“That you did. And for your pains, your immortal soul has been restored to you. No one ever said it would be returned undamaged.”
The man’s snarl turned inward, acknowledging the truth with silent defeat. “There are other towns. Towns with better men. Somewhere… somewhere that this nightmare won’t keep following me.”
“Perhaps there are, Austin Stoker,” the voice agreed. “And even if there aren’t, there are other saloons, other bottles, other ways to forget. And perhaps, if you are good and refrain from indulging what it is in your nature to do, I will allow you to forget it all for a little longer next time. Just a little longer…”
Sheathing his saber, the man grimaced in consent and walked silently towards the edge of town.