Charlie Landers shook his head softly as he looked around the ruined Town Hall. So much had changed. One thing was clear: he had to do this.
He walked to the sheriff’s office and rapped gently on the door with his good hand, his claw hand shoved down into the pocket of his trousers. “C’mon in,” shouted a voice from inside. Charlie pushed the door open and entered.
Dave Montreal was a different man than Charlie remembered from even a month ago. He had fallen for the wrong girl, who turned out to be the right girl. Nonetheless, the Storm took her from him. The Storm took almost everyone. Dave, once a scraggly man with long hair, had cleaned up a lot. His face was now clean-shaven, but he had let his hair start to grow out again.
After the Storm, Dave had briefly turned to drink. When people started turning to Xiong “Wendy” Cheng for leadership, Wendy made it clear she wasn’t interested in leading.. She had lost so much, as much as Dave. He watched the pressure weigh on her as the office remained empty and the streets began to fill with refugees from the surrounding valley and it lit a spark in him. That fire turned out to be enough to wake Dave from his stupor. He put down the bottle and picked up the badge. The sober man sitting proudly behind the sheriff’s desk was a testament to Dave’s true character, protecting his friends and this town above all else.
“What can I do for ya, Charlie?” Dave asked.
“Well, I was hopin’ Wendy would be here. I need ta talk ta her.”
”Ah, well she’s … Today was T.C.’s birthday.”
“Oh,” There was a twinge of sadness and regret in Charlie’s voice, “well thanks, Dave.” Charlie walked out the door and leaned gently against it as he fought back the wave of loss that hit him. This town had given him so much, but it had taken even more.
* * *
“I hear there are talks back east about a ceasefire.” Katie Karl said, to her “enemy,” who happened to be the only friend she had left.
“Yeah, I’ve heard the same rumblings. Just think next time we meet, it might be as allies.” Cort Williams smiled.
“Assuming that bite on your shoulder doesn’t force me to pump you full of silver.” Katie was a handsome woman. She had been accused of being beautiful when she was younger, but she preferred pistols to parasols and it showed in every aspect of her. Cort on the other hand was a little better looking than an Agent should be in Katie’s opinion. “So, the North is really done with Gomorra?”
“Well we claim it, officially, ‘though, we’d like to put all of this behind us. ‘Windows’ and I have been recalled. The Massacre, the Storm, seems like Gomorra is a cursed place. A US Marshal will be put in place for the Valley, mostly to just keep an eye on the place. Is the South really done as well?”
“Well we claim it, officially. My escort has shown up to take me back to headquarters. He seems to be a bit enamored of me. His name is John or something. I will have plenty of time to learn it on the trip.”
“If you ever tell anyone I said this, I will deny it – vehemently. Katie, you are one of the strongest people I have ever known. I told The Ghost that after the first couple time we worked together last year. I had been against the coalition initially, but you proved yourself to me. I have since wished we were on the same same side.”
“Don’t wish too hard,” Katie signaled to his shoulder, “You know the policy. Shoot it or recruit it.”
Cort gave an easy smile. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” He stood extending his hand to the woman. Katie took his hand and shook it.
“Until we meet again, Cort Williams.”
* * *
“Gordo” Andrade wondered if this had been a good idea. But he said nothing as he steered the small ship. There was still a bounty for him, but the information he had should be enough to get him back into Santa Anna’s good graces.
He maneuvered the small ship through the Maze and wondered silently if the men he met in the Storm had been telling him the truth.
* * *
“Killer” Kerry regretted parting ways with Arizona Jane and Montana Holland. She had enjoyed their company. To make it worse, she had the sinking feeling that something bad had happened since they split up.
Kerry rode across the arid plain, dust kicking up in her wake. She saw something in the distance, and curious, she angled her horse toward it. As she got closer, it appeared to be a large group of people. Only she realized too late, that they were not people, not any more.
Kerry swore softly as she saw too late the herd of walking dead. The zombies got her horse as she leapt clear, rolling in the dirt and coming up, with her shotgun held out.
A couple of quick shots dropped some of the creatures, but there were too many. Kerry wasn’t going down without a fight. Bowie knife in one hand and her shotgun in the other, she fought defiantly as the zombies descended upon her.
* * *
Black Jack Jackson stood at the mouth of the mine. William Rose stood behind him.
“So this was your mine?” William asked.
“Before Sweetrock stole it,” Black Jack said, in a measured tone. He wasn’t angry anymore. He had won in that he had outlasted all of Sweetrock. The only exception was Max Baine, and Baine was no longer with Sweetrock. Scott Pierce and Baine had had it out when they had been recalled back east and Baine chose not to go. Pierce was a loyal company man, and he was leading what was left of the Ghost Creek branch, but they had not been able to find anything in any of their mines.
“Aren’t you worried it’s dried up like the other mines?”
Black Jack smiled, “Nah. I think by now Gomorra owes me a favor or two.”
William wasn’t sure what to say, so he changed the subject. “Any news from Seldon?”
“Yep, he found Jung. Seems he’d headed out to Deadwood and got caught up in some trouble,” Jackson paused. “You know you don’t have to do this, William. I always wanted to be a miner. I know it’s not your dream.”
“Jackson, I would and have followed you into the mouth of Hell. If the next adventure is to spend some time chipping rocks out of walls, I can do that.”
* * *
Dave set down the letter. It was from a former deputy, a man he hadn’t known terribly well, but he had worked with, Carson Gage. Just after the Storm, a sheriff from up north by the name of Meyer and his deputy, David something, had come with news of Carson’s sister. The three had ridden out an hour later.
Carson never even looked back. He was well and had recently met a nice woman he was spending time with. Dave wished him well. Sometimes he wished he would have just ridden away himself.
The door of Dave’s office flung open. It was Carter, no doubt with another bounty in tow.
The bounty hunter grinned widely. “Afternoon, sheriff. I have two pieces of news for you.”
“Well don’t go leavin’ me in suspense, Richardson.”
“First, I have bad news. There’s some hubbub in Soddum. Seems that a couple of well known bandits are hiding out there. Rumor is they are part of Sloane’s gang.”
Dave scowled. Sloane was a big bad who had been rumored to be in California. The man was allegedly so ruthless he sometimes killed his own gang members for disagreeing with him. Carter Richardson was right, that was bad news.
“The good news is you won’t have to face the threat alone! I’ll be setting up a bounty tent to coordinate the slew of hunters I expect to see coming through town looking for ‘Sloaners’.”
“Taking your percentage I’m sure.”
“Of course! I am in this for profit, not like that sword wielding goodie-two-shoes you got working for you now.”
“Abram is without a doubt the best deputy I have. I’d take one of him over twenty of you. I heard about your deal to get Professor Crowe out of the valley. Anything for the right price, eh Carter?”
* * *
The being, suspended before the man, seems to consider him for a moment before speaking. “Like you, Nash Bilton, I am a guardian, a protector … rejected by my inferiors who failed to understand my worth. Like you, I believe in strength above all else, that the mighty were meant for power and weakness has no place in any world. Yes, we are very similar, my friend. It is a shame you are dying … you would have made a mighty ally.”
“Then save me! Save me and you’ll have your ally!”
The being considered Nash for another moment before responding. “It’s not that simple, Nash. There is a price for such a favor.”
“Name it! I’ll do anything.”
If the being had anything like a discernible face, a slight smile would have crept onto it. “You will live again, Nash Bilton, but serve me in death. I will heal you and lend you my strength … “
“Strength?” Bilton asked.
The being paused. “Yes. I have power to rule this world. You and I will become one, and so that power will become yours as long as you live. But in the end, your soul will be forfeit … and your body will become mine.”
“Fine … whatever.” Reality slowly came back into focus, as Nash could begin to feel the cold rock beneath him and the bullet lodged in his stomach. The light moved toward Bilton, enveloping him completely as the pain in his gut disappeared. He could feel the power coursing through his body, strengthening him to rise. The light faded, being absorbed into Nash’s being. Just before it disappeared completely, Nash spoke once more, asking, “Wait … who are you?”
The voice spoke once more, this time unable to completely hide a dark tension concealed before, as it responded, “I am Sabtabiel.”
* * *
Nicodemus watched the new deputy. He had to be careful. He glanced down at the squirming child’s toy in his hands. “Clovis” was Lucifer’s favorite plaything and security blanket. Now it was inhabited by Knicknevin himself. It had taken time to figure out exactly what the stuffed rabbit had become, but now that he knew, he knew it had to be destroyed.
The deputy, seemingly lost in thought, carefully pinned the star back on his jacket.
Nicodemus walked up to the man, and spoke, “Excuse me, Deputy?” The deputy regarded Nicodemus with a glance and Nicodemus held out the stuffed Rabbit. “Ever perform an exorcism before?”
* * *
The last thing Ashlar Mayfair remembered was the soul blast coming towards him and the ghost of his grandfather taking the blast for him. Ever since then, he had been here. Wherever here was. It was like earth, kind of. But not at all. The landscapes were as familiar as they were foreign.
Occasionally spirits of some kind would float or spiral around. The only thing he could use to explain it was that somehow he was trapped in the spirit world, the Hunting Grounds.
And as far as he could determine, he had no way out.
* * *
Charlie found Wendy right where he expected to. She was sitting next to her father’s grave, her back leaned against the headstone.
“He was one of the best men I ever knew.” Charlie said in a quiet voice. Wendy looked up at him with a weak smile. Her eyes portrayed she had been crying, but that the tears had dried up a while ago. “Which is why I am so sorry I won’t be able to keep my promise any more.”
“I figured you’d be moving on soon, Charlie. Neither my father, nor I, could have ever expected you to stay here forever.”
“Well, with Charity running the upstairs and a couple of good bartenders on the floor, Charlie’s Place runs itself. I thought about staying, even after the business with Old Scratch, even after the Storm. But to be honest, I’m spooked. That circus setting up over behind the Whateley Manor, something bugs me there.”
“Oh Charlie, after what you went through, I can see why.”
“It’s not just that Wendy. There was something T.C. said, ‘The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain’. It may seem like Gomorra has seen it all – but, I get the feeling there is something new coming, a danger that none of us can see yet. And that Circus, I don’t trust it. And, you shouldn’t either. ‘Specially not the clowns.”
Wendy stood and walked to Charlie. She embraced him for a second. “Thank you. You have been a kind friend to me and my father. I will miss you, but I hope you find a place to have peace.”
“Thank you. Your father would be so proud of all you have done.”
* * *
“Power, he seeks power my sisters, I can tell it, the ability to control and command the darkness–”
“No my sister, you are wrong. He craves strength! The strength to crush those who would cross him–”
“Oh my foolish sisters, this one desires vengeance. There is a being he wishes to kill, someone he wants to give worse too then he received. Isn’t that right?”
Jebediah Whateley struggled to speak, his throat was dry and filled with smoke. He couldn’t smell or see anything. He wasn’t sure who the three women were but he knew they had been discussing him. He tried to answer, but it was just a croak. Then suddenly the word he was trying to speak, came out clear and in his normal voice: “Vengeance.”
The three women began cackling.
* * *
Max Baine looked again at the meager wallet he had. He was basically out of money. Sweetrock hadn’t given him much towards the end, and now it was gone. With all the refugees from Ghost Creek, jobs were hard to come by.
He desperately wanted to move along, but he couldn’t even buy a decent horse with what he had left. For what wasn’t the first time, he almost wished he had been claimed by the Storm. A death that lasted a moment would be better than dying destitute and starving in a town where the mines were dry and no work was to be had.
He was pulled out of his self pity by a loud knock on the door.
Max crossed the room to the door and opened it. A short Native man dressed in a suit with a feather sticking out of the band of his bowler was standing in the doorway. He had brushed himself down, but Max saw the evidence of trail dust on him.
“Mr. Baine?” the man asked.
“Yessir.” Max acknowledged with a nod.
“My boss, Mrs. Lillian Morgan, has sent me to deliver a missive to you. It seems that she would like to offer you a job.”