The sword on Abram’s hip was heavy. For some time now, it had weighed on him. Heavier than the gun in his holster, heavier than the weight of his impossible charge, heavier than the crushing regrets of his past. He ran his hand to the hilt and gripped it firmly. The weight was reassuring. The weight was his righteous force to bear. He steeled himself to swing Evanor against his enemies one last time.
The streets of Gomorra had begun to empty a bit. People were either running, hiding, or already dead. The taste of panic still lit the air, and the Fourth Ring’s explosions had colored the sky with a looming miasma of red sand and dust. Down every street there were screams. Abram wanted to run to his people, to protect them from the horrors the circus had unleashed, but he gripped the hilt of Evanor tighter, and strode on. The remaining deputies had to be trusted to help the townspeople, but the head of the beast had to be severed before the jaws would stop snapping. Abram and the souls that strode at his side towards an otherwise empty clearing near the town center were coming for Ivor Hawley.
When Abram had come to Gomorra, he hadn’t pictured it like this. He’d seen a border town, terrors in the past. Renewing, rebuilding. Not walking through streets lit with Hell, with men and women, crazy and criminal alike, to face the forces of darkness that gripped Gomorra in a chokehold.
At his side were the good ones, the ones who’d stepped up to take Gomorra back. Wendy had been here since the start, rifle in her steady hands and determination on her face. Old Prescott Utter, looking like something that blew in with the tumbleweeds, but still here, and still fighting. Pancho and Kingsford, a wanted outlaw and a stranger wanted outlaw. The irony almost made Abram want to smile. He didn’t know if they were doing this for the town, or just hoping for some kind of pardon. Abram liked to think he saw the best in people. Muttering to herself and wringing her hands furthest from Abram was Valeria Batten, a previous servant of the Fourth Ring and their conduit for information. It was this scholarly woman, one lens in her fine spectacles shattered, who had given them what they needed to move on Ivor … a move that had cost them dearly.
Behind them all, frantically twisting a screw in a tiny little weapon that looked more like a child’s toy, was the Frenchman. When Abram had met Pasteur, he’d seemed normal enough compared to the others who worked for Morgan’s science. Now that Abram was relying on that science for salvation, he seemed mad as any of them. Abram’s arm still ached from where Louis had injected the cocktail that would, if promises held, protect them all from Ivor’s apocalyptic contagion.
Louis was cursing at himself in French as he fussed with the little weapon and the even smaller vial within that held their hopes. No bullets, no sword had cut through the monster that Ivor had become, but Pasteur claimed he could undo the ringmaster with bottles and chemicals.
Abram felt the ugly truth rising again. To face the monster with untested science? Took a lot of faith. “Please Lord, let him be right,” he whispered to himself as they walked. “Please let us be right.” His grip firm upon the hilt of his heavy sword, Abram began another prayer as they walked. “Because he is my right hand, I shall not be shaken …”
* * *
Drew held a hand out and frantically motioned for Tyler and Jack to quiet down. He leaned to peer out of the horse paddock they had been setting up all night.
“It’s here,” he whispered to the others. “The goblin’s here, I swear it.”
There was a crash up ahead, something big. Jack and Tyler looked at each other warily, their faces ruddy with the smoke in the air.
“That ain’t no goblin, Drew. That sounds like a monster. We gotta get outta here!” Tyler was wringing his little hands like he’d seen Ms. Jenks do when she examined his homework.
Drew turned on them, a child, his tiny slingshot gripped tightly in his hand. “And go where? Back to the orphanage? Or the church bell, where the others are hidin’? No, we chased this thing down, we’re gonna trap it and get it. This is our goblin. Then they’ll see what the Jackalope gang can do.”
“Way better than a kung-fu gang,” Jack said between coughs.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Now let’s go over the plan!” Drew stepped back into the paddock. He gestured at the net they’d strung up between the rickety doors facing the town. “So when Jack runs in here, he’ll jump over the net and lead the goblin right into it. And then …”
Jack raised a hand. “Why’s it gotta be me as the bait?”
“ ‘Cause you’re the fastest, Jack.”
“Nuh uh, you’re the fastest, Drew. You always telling that story about outrunnin’ that dust devil coming back from the general store. So why’s it gotta be me?”
“ ‘Cause I’m the leader and I say so, that’s why. So after you jump the net, and the goblin gets all stuck up in it, Tyler up there.” He pointed to a canvas sack, hanging precariously from the rafters, bulging with shapes. “He lets loose the big bag, it lands on the goblin’s head and wham! We got ourselves a goblin!”
Tyler examined the net and the bag suspiciously. “What if …,” he started. “I mean … you really think this is gonna work Drew?”
“You gotta have faith Ty. We’ve been plannin’ this for weeks now. What can go wrong?” Drew winked.
* * *
Abram drew his pistol and aimed up into the dusty haze before him. Shadows dwelt there, figures thrashing, fighting … grisly yells and cries, sounds of a clash. Wendy readied her rifle in stoic silence.
Each one of them stood with caught breath, waiting for the enemy to emerge from the dust. A clown, blood spattered down the front of his motley, stumbled into view, a fire poker held in one hand. He tripped, fell, and landed splayed out in the dirt, a tomahawk buried in his back.
The figures that emerged from the dust were no Fourth Ring. Abram motioned for his allies to lower their weapons.
“Who goes there?!” he called out.
The first figures were unremarkable men, a bearded soldier reloading a shotgun, a grim set to his eyes, and a Indian woman in plains dress who seemed to be wrapped in a gentle breeze despite the dust around them. The man who walked between them, however, stood so tall it seemed for a moment a trick of the eye.
“Abram,” Wendy said, shock in her voice. “It’s the Chief. That’s Stephen Seven-Eagles.”
“Why do they call him that?” Maria asked.
“Maybe he eats that many for breakfast,” snorted Pancho.
Abram hushed them and stepped forward.
“Chief Seven-Eagles?” he said, warily. The Chief continued to approach until he stood a mere foot from Abram, his massive chest bare and crossed with war paint and spilled blood. From around his head, a corona of feathers stood tall, each one decorated with words for ferocity, for power, for blood.
“Sheriff Grothe?” Stephen replied, a voice like rumbling thunder. “You still live.”
“For the moment.”
Stephen looked left, then right, then back to Abram. “Your town is broken.”
“It’s my town now, huh?” Abram raised an eyebrow.
“Your responsibility to fix it, man of God. That is your burden.” Stephen pointed at the hilt of Evanor.
“It is that. Just so happens my friends and I here are on our way to crush Ivor Hawley into the dirt.”
Stephen nodded gravely. “The Crooked Grin. They say he can’t be killed.”
Abram opened his mouth to speak, when he was interrupted by a rush of enthusiasm from Pasteur. “He can most certainly be killed, Monsieur Oiseau. Here, here is his downfall.” Pasteur produced the pistol, a large glass syringe loaded mounted onto its back containing a strange, green liquid. Stephen didn’t look convinced.
“It’s true,” said Valeria, her quiet voice scratchy with smoke. “His power is in his blood, in the infection. This counter-pathogen fights back.”
“Your science cannot bring down a devil,” Stephen said, looking at the little weapon. Pasteur positively beamed.
“Science can do anything,” he said as he pointed to the sharp point of the needle at the muzzle of his device. “This science will unmake his magic. I stake my life on it.”
Stephen’s face was devoid of emotion. He looked to Abram, and to the sword on his hip again. “And you, man of God?”
Abram nodded, “I don’t have a lot of choices these days.”
“If this little dart can unwork the Crooked Grin, then I will see it pierces his black heart myself.”
“Thought it was my town.” Abram smiled.
“Your town is a part of the land, and my people protect the land, Sheriff. The wolf walks one step at a time.” He extended a hand, and Abram gladly took it.
* * *
Ivor Hawley peered deep into the eyes of Shizeng Lu. The young Chinese man was grasping futilely at his throat while one of Ivor’s clawed hands slowly crushed the life from him, breath by choking breath. The smell of burning wafted past Ivor’s nostrils; his yellow eyes glimmered at the euphoric sensation it brought him.
“Nothing to say?” Hawley said. “How disappointing.” With a crunch, he snapped the labor organizer’s neck and tossed him aside in a heap, flicking blood from the tips of his claws. He raised his foot off the chest of T’ou Chi Chow, and he gave a heaving gasp. In the other wicked hand, Ivor still gripped his cane, bringing it down hard on the ground next to the outlaw’s head. Half of his face was covered in blood, stemming from a deep wound hidden in his hairline. He was gripping his chest where Ivor had been standing and grimacing in pain.
“Your turn then, you happy fool. Answer honestly, and I’ll let you go.” Ivor leaned in, his rictus grin splitting his already monstrous face in half like a leering puppet. A mouth filled with needle sharp teeth yawned down at him. He extended a claw and touched it tenderly to Chow’s lips. “You claim to stand for the poor, the dirty, huddled masses brought low by men of privilege. And here I am, razing it all for the sake of my family of dirty, huddled masses, and you dare to stand in my way. Why fight me? You could take your family and leave, enjoying the light of the flames from a distance.”
Chow wrenched his face away, spitting blood and dirt to the side before staring back at the ringmaster. No fear in his eyes, he smirked back at the demonic visage and strained out the words, “Where’s the fun in that?”
Ivor’s grin grew a bit smaller at the defiant words, and yet he seemed to find a thrill in them at the same time. “Indeed. I daresay I haven’t had this much fun in years.” He reached his claws around Chow’s throat and prepared to lift.
“Hawley!” The call echoed across the clearing.
Ivor looked up, eyes shining. “Sheriff?” Ivor muttered to himself, curious. He forgot about Chow for the moment and rose to his full height, positioning both hands atop the cane in front of him.
Abram Grothe, sword gripped in his fist, approached the ringmaster.
“Jackson, Sue,” Stephen Seven-Eagles said to his fellow tribesmen, gesturing toward Pasteur, the vial gun gripped tightly to his chest. “Whatever it takes, you get this man close as he needs.”
A silence seemed to blow over the town square. Ivor running his sickly yellow eyes over the assembled posse … lawmen and outlaws, Natives and foreigners, traitors and muckety-mucks. “Is this it?” Ivor snorted, mockingly. “The ragged few too stupid to run? You underestimated me once, Abram.”
Chow, seeing the ringmaster’s attention diverted, reached out to his side to grab his revolver from the dust, firing up into Hawley’s back in a flash. The Ringmaster made to reach for him, but the outlaw was up on his feet and running, gripping his chest as he did.
“Ooh,” Hawley sneered. “Shooting people in the back? That’s unbecoming even for an outlaw, wouldn’t you say, Abram?”
Abram stepped forward, raising the blade of Evanor and pointing it at Hawley’s grotesque figure. “I think it’s you who’ve underestimated us, Ivor. Win or lose, this ends here tonight.”
“It seems perhaps I have underestimated you. You are an entertainer after all. By all means then, Sheriff.” Ivor spread his hands wide, and flicked his cane in a perfect overarm arc, his coattails flapping. “It’s SHOWTIME!”
* * *
Tyxarglenak smelled blood. The screams pushed him to higher and higher heights of rage and glee as he stormed through the high street, knocking a carriage into a storefront with a smash. He felt an impact in his back, and turned to see a goggled man in a leather apron holding a smoking pistol with rotating barrels extended before him. Specks fired again, a bullet taking off a chunk of the demon’s ear. Tyx lashed out, claws shredding the air. The orb embedded in his chest surged with energy. Tyx came forward like a storm so fast that Specks lost his footing, and stumbled. Claws gripped at the inventor’s leg before he had time to hit the ground, and with one smooth motion Tyx flung the man full force into the wall of the nearest building, his crumpled body hanging through the splintered boards.
Smash. Tyx liked it. Turning, Tyx saw another little creature for him to smash, standing in the road up ahead. The tiny figure was staring, mouth agape, before turning to sprint away towards the open doors of a large building. Tyx grinned with joy, and followed.
“It’snotagoblinit’snotagoblin!” screamed Jack as he sprinted into the paddock and promptly tripped over the net, sending him sprawling headfirst into a pile of hay.
Drew peered out from behind his spot at the back and stood in shock as he saw the monstrosity chasing Jack smash through the paddock doors like they were paper.
A few shreds of its tiny outfit still hung from the scales on its back, and a green ball the size of his head was pulsing and glowing in its chest. Jaws that looked wider than Drew was tall were spitting and lashing. It stepped through the net and the trap tore from the wall immediately.
Drew steeled himself. No matter how big it was, it was still the same little goblin that had been lurking around Gomorra and eating up all the lemonheads. “Tyler now!” he yelled, pointing with his most dramatic finger.
Tyler was balanced precariously above, and reached to pull the drawstring supporting the bag. It flopped onto Tyx with a sound like a bird flying into the orphanage window and fell to the ground in a heap. Tyx looked up and swatted, smashing away a chunk of timber and sending Tyler swinging loose over the paddock, hanging desperately to a rafter. Tyx reached out and tugged Jack from the hay bale, squirming and squealing in Tyx’s massive deformed grasp. At the same time, both boys let out a screech for help.
Drew was biting his lip so hard he could taste blood. He dug in the little ammo pouch for anything and fumbled to load it up in his slingshot. It was the little chunk of ghost rock he’d found in the ruins of that creepy old manor on the edge of town … the luckiest thing he owned. He pulled back the string and took aim.
* * *
Ivor moved like lightning, nearly impossible to hit and practically impervious on the rare occasion that his foes could connect. Whatever evil force fueled him had made him stronger than anything Gomorra had seen in a long time. He was just as adept with his twisted body as he was with spellcraft, leaving the heroic lot at a loss.
A dark blast from Maria Kingsford’s pistol slammed into Hawley’s shoulder just as he dodged a swipe from Abram’s sword. In an effort to right himself, the ringmaster lashed out with a fist, connecting with Abram’s jaw and sending the sheriff to the ground for a moment. “You have power, girl,” he laughed at Maria. “But any good entertainer knows that it’s all about the effect.”
Ivor struck the tip of his cane in the dirt at his feet, causing a dark trail of shadow to wind its way through the dust toward her then through her legs. She turned to follow it, only to see it rise up before her in the form of a pale man wrapped in the same shadow like tendrils, materializing as snake-shaped tattoos on his arm. His face was void of feature or expression as he raised his arms toward her. The ink peeled up from his arms, taking the shape of snake-like whips that reached out to hold her fast. She screamed as one wrenched her wrist back, causing her to drop her pistol.
Across the square, Pancho Castillo was battling a pair of blighted citizens when he heard the scream. He turned to see her struggling in the tattooed man’s grip, maintaining just enough distance to keep the two inky snake heads before her away as they repeatedly snapped at her face. Pancho clocked one of the rabid attackers, a man, across the temple with his pistol grip, hoping he could reach Maria in time. But when he turned, the other, a woman covered in scaly boils and pus, moved in between them, lunging forward at the Mexican outlaw with an unholy fury.
But before he could even think of a counter, a shot rang out, Pancho feeling the force of the bullet cut the air in front of him as the woman fell to one side in a heap. Pancho looked quickly to the source, only to see the smiling face of T’ou Chi Chow, smoking barrel in one hand, the other holding him upright against a sidewalk’s awning post.
Pancho communicated his gratitude with a quick nod as he tore off at a run toward Maria.
* * *
Abram swung Evanor up wildly just as Ivor was turning his attention back to the fallen sheriff, catching him off-guard and pushing him back. He fought with renewed fervor as the sword in his hand seemed to hunger for his battle even more than he did. It gave Abram strength beyond his own mortal frame, filled him with a light that could only come from above. And through it all, Abram had the strange sensation that he’d been here before.
But Ivor was faster still. The ringmaster swung his cane down toward Abram with incredible force as Abram instinctively raised his blade to block it. He braced himself for the impact that he was sure would push him back down once more, leaving him open for another blow. But as the cane struck his sword, he remained firm, hearing instead the sound of splitting wood as the dark shaft splintered and shattered instead. Abram looked up to see Ivor’s face. For a brief moment, surprise marred the ringmaster’s demonic visage before an angry sneer replaced it. He kicked up into Abram’s wrist, causing the sheriff to cry out in pain and release Evanor to the dirt. Then with equal speed, he reached down to snatch the sheriff by the throat and lifted him up into the air, the dark boots kicking a few inches off the ground as the sheriff tried to pull Ivor’s hand away with his own.
“This back and forth bores me, Abram,” Ivor said, his yellow eyes flaring. “I think we’d all enjoy this a lot more if you would join the rest of us on the stage.” He began to laugh as he drew his strength, focusing his dark energy into the hand that gripped Abram’s throat. Black veins became visible on Abram’s skin, and he began to choke and gag in contrast to Ivor’s twisted giggling. However, he burning sensation on his skin and the dark veins began to subside just as quickly as it had come, and Abram found himself able to breathe clearly once more.
Ivor stopped laughing abruptly as he realized his spell was having no effect, a look of mild panic emerging within his yellow eyes. “What?!” he screeched.
“Sorry, Ivor,” Abram choked. “Looks like laughter isn’t the best medicine after all.”
“That’s not possible!” Suddenly Ivor was sent reeling as he was hammered with the blast of a shotgun from one side, forcing him to release Abram once more, coughing and spitting. The ringmaster staggered a bit, before yet another fiery blast impacted him, shredding the front of his overcoat and sending him back a few more steps. He looked up briefly to see the grizzled form of Prescott Utter, advancing steadily. The old man tossed the empty shotgun to the ground and drew his sidearm, quickly fanning to hammer twice to hit Hawley again, pressing him back a bit more. Three more quick movements across the top of the firearm sent three more bullets to keep Ivor on the defensive.
“You’d better believe it, Hawley,” he growled. “Your plague ain’t welcome in Gomorra anymore.” He raised his pistol and aimed to fire his last shot right between Ivor’s eyes, but the bullet never made it. Ivor threw his hand out toward it with incredible speed, deflecting it back at Prescott as it slammed into his leg, causing him to crumple to the ground.
Ivor regained his composure amid the chaos surrounding him. The Mexican and the tempest were still wrestling with his tattooed servant. The deputy, the scientist, and the burly fellow stood on an overturned stagecoach, desperately warding off a group of his blighted children trying to reach them. The Indian was nowhere to be seen, but Ivor knew he was nearby, occupied by another of his creations. The body of the plainswoman lay in a pool of her own blood, a deep slash splitting her abdomen.
“That bullet was meant for the heart,” Ivor mused, clicking his tongue. “I sense a power more my style. Come out, come out, wherever you are … Ms. Batten.”
* * *
“Damn it,” Wendy growled, swinging her rifle once more to swipe away the outreached hand of one of Hawley’s patients. “We’ve got to get off this stage!”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Jackson said as he kicked another square in the jaw. He could see that the bone was broken from the blow, but it didn’t seem to slow the attacker down one bit.
One of the blighted, in their frenzy, managed to get a foothold on one of the ropes secured to the roof, giving her just enough height to snatch the back of Pasteur’s jacket. He let out a gasp in surprise as he lost his balance and began to topple backwards. Wendy turned in shock, watching and reaching out helplessly in slow motion as their great hope vanished over the edge.
As she moved toward to edge to follow after him, Wendy jumped back just in time to see the diseased interloper miss her as she flew over the stage with enough force to propel her onto the awning over the General Store sidewalk. She clamored back to her feet to see another of the blighted thrown by the neck of his soiled gown across the street by a large mechanical hand.
Michael “The Badger” Dodge had once been the surest bet in Salt Lake’s underground pit fights. He’d come a long way since then, but being here in the town square now sure came close to bringing him back there. He was a man possessed, swinging and punching through the crowd of blighted townspeople like the dogs they used to sic on him in the ring. Within moments, the pack intent on ripping the three atop the stagecoach apart had been cleared, the final one wrestling against his grip. “It’s safe,” he called to them. “Get down while you can!”
The three shuffled down, taking a moment to reload once safely on the ground again.
“Thanks,” Wendy breathed. “If you’re not busy, we could use your help.”
“If it means putting an end to whatever this is,” he said, motioning to the captive man held at the end of his hissing arm. “I’m in.” He offered one final twist of his massive arm, silencing the blighted once and for all.
* * *
The darkness in the alley was overwhelming, darker than it seemed it should be, even in the late hours. Sections of the town were burning, casting reddish light all around, but not there. So Stephen Seven-Eagles moved cautiously through the darkness, tomahawk in one hand, dagger in the other. The creature that claimed Sue’s life was here somewhere, and he couldn’t allow it to jeopardize their mission any further.
There was movement in the shadow to his right, causing him to spin and strike out with his blade, hitting nothing. Another movement behind him drove him around again, with a downward stroke of his tomahawk, connecting once more with only shadow. A raspy hiss, not completely unlike laughter swirled around him in the darkness. He swirled once more toward the sound.
“Whoa!” T’ou Chi Chow called out, hands raised before him, one holding a pistol with the side proclaiming “Property is Theft” clearly facing the Stephen. “I come in peace!”
“Chow!” the chief spat. “I could guess what brings the God of Bandits to a dark alley at night –”
“You’d be wrong,” the bandit said, turning his gun hand back to a raised position, ready for action. His empty hand returned to his chest as he winced in pain. “Seems fair to say we’ve all got business with Hawley tonight.”
“No smirk? Perhaps pain is the path to maturity for you?”
“No, I wanted to. It’s just that something in this alley smells awful. It’s not you, is it?”
The chief groaned. “No, I’m afraid that is our prey. Yet I’m starting to suspect that by coming into this place, that may be our role.” He resumed the hunt, stepping lightly and turning as he progress through the alley.
The laughing rasp echoed around them again, causing them to spin momentarily toward each other. Suddenly Chow reached out his pistol, pointing it straight at the chief. Stephen stood frozen, grimacing at himself for trusting the bandit, even for a moment. However, what he did not see was the clawed hand reaching out of the shadows behind him. But Chow did. He stared intently into the darkness, waiting for a better target than a single hand, when he found it. The darkness split to reveal a mouthful of gleaming white teeth, reminiscent of Ivor Hawley’s signature grin. With but a minor twitch, the bandit shifted his aim and fired, sending the chief reeling to his side. There was a shriek of pain in the darkness as the grin and clawed hand quickly evaporated into the shadows once more.
“You could have killed me!” Stephen yelled. He stuck his dagger in a nearby crate, then lifted a finger up to his left ear and brought it back down to reveal a drop of crimson blood.
“Bah!” Chow scoffed. “There’s no fun in the easy shots. Besides, if I waited for you to move, it would have disappeared again. Chow walked toward their would-be attacker, only to find his bullet lodged in the wall, covered in black ichor. “I think it’s moving through the shadows.”
Stephen rose to his feet once more. “Then we shall take them away.” He reached to his belt and yanked on an item held there, breaking the tether securing it to him. It appeared to be a rattle by the sound, made from a pair of dried turtle shells. He held it up to his lips as he closed his eyes and began to let out a low drone from deep in his chest. He started to shake the rattle, its crackle merging with the drone. Slowly, the sound seemed to become visible as a bright white mist emerging from the small opening between the two shells. The mist began to swirl and twist, coalescing into the form of a silvery-white owl fluttering its wings to hover in front of the chief. “Great owl, join us in our hunt. Seek out our prey that it may hide no more.”
The spirit blinked for a brief moment, before turning and flying to the top of the alleyway. Suddenly the alley was bathed in light, eliminating any trace of darkness within the space. Chow shielded his eyes from the light at first. After the initial shock wore off, he lowered his arm to see the creature that stalked them standing opposite them. It looked like a man, completely enveloped in shadow, the only darkness left to be seen. Its hands were fashioned into scaly claws, yellow eyes and toothy grin the only contrast to the darkness that formed it. Chow raised his pistol in a flash, firing straight at the grin that mocked them. Even without the shadows to traverse, the creature moved through the alley with inhuman speed toward them, leaping from wall to wall, over barrels and refuse piles. T’ou Chi Chow had proven himself to be one of the better gun hands in Gomorra on more than one occasion, and yet every shot he fired seemed a hair too late until the barrels clicked dry, just before the creature was on them, leaping toward him with extended claws, forcing him to the ground and causing the pain in his chest from Ivor’s wound to rise up in him once more.
But the creature didn’t stay for a killing blow, turning instead on the chief, who was ready. Stephen blocked the first swipe with the handle of his tomahawk, fury raging in his eyes as he brought his other fist across to connect with the thing’s jaw. After the initial recoil, the thing’s head turned back toward him, the same grin fixed securely across its face. Before it could strike again, Chow had leapt on its back, wrapping his arms around its throat and pulling the thing backward away from Stephen.
“You won’t get a better view, Chief,” he managed to get out amidst the creature’s struggles.
Taking the opportunity, Chief Stephen Seven-Eagles raised his tomahawk high with both hands. As he reached the apex of his swing, the glowing owl spirit landed on the axe’s head, bursting and enveloping it with its light as Stephen buried into the thing’s chest. The light seemed to permeate it’s body, erupting from various points as it roared in final defiance. In another breath, the light and the creature of shadow had dissolved as the night recaptured the alley.
Chow slunk back against the wall, wincing in pain once more.
“Sue’s spirit thanks you,” Stephen said, retrieving his blade from the crate. “It’s Hawley’s turn now.”
“Knock yourself out,” Chow breathed. “You don’t need me stealing any more of your thunder tonight.”
Stephen looked once more at the bandit’s face. “Then I thank you as well.” With that, he turned back toward the town square and the sounds of battle.
* * *
Pancho scrambled backward, barely moving out of range of the inky viper’s fangs as they snapped toward his face. Maria continued to wrestle with the snakes that held her fast, and the tattooed man stood between then, surrounded by a black mist filled with the serpents that wound their way off of his arms.
Pancho looked over to see Maria’s pistol lying in the dust of the street. As he pondered a move, the snakes seemed to anticipate his plan, swaying to the side to block him. He took a deep breath and took a few steps back, steeling himself toward this new idea. He sprinted the short distance before dropping into a slide, scraping through the dirt to grab the pistol. He felt a sharp sting across his arm as he moved, rising on the other side, pointing it straight at the tattooed man’s face from over Maria’s shoulder.
“Duck, amiga!” Pancho yelled. He pulled the trigger … but nothing happened. He swore as he lowered it to examine it. “How do you work this thing?”
Maria shrieked as another snake snapped at her, grazing her cheek. “It’s not the weapon, Pancho,” she cried. “I am!” The darkness around them seem to thicken suddenly, drawn toward Maria’s eyes. She strained to control the energy while keeping her attacker at bay as it began to course down her arms to her hands. Her grunts and groans suddenly became a scream that cut the night as her hands began to pulse with black force. Pancho looked on as faint traces of smoke appeared above them and the smell of burning flesh filled his senses. She continued to scream in an effort to contain the energy, wrestling to move her hands closer together as she did. The expression on the tattooed man’s serpentine face shifted to reveal the worry as her hands grew closer still. In a flash, her hands slammed together as the energy shot forward from her and into the chest of her assailant, driving him backward. The black lightning continued to pour from her hands and into the tattooed man as her screams continued to pour from her mouth. The power seemed to intensify for one final moment before the tattooed man collapsed in front of her in a charred heap and she fell to the ground, staring at her hands.
Pancho ran to catch her as her knees gave out on her, looking on in horror at her hands, which rested in her lap covered with smoldering burns and blisters.
“Querida,” he gasped.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said in between sobs, clearly in a great deal of pain. “I’ll survive this; I have before. But not if we don’t stop Hawley.”
Pancho shook his head in silent admiration of her strength. Then he rose to his feet once more, dusted off his clothes, redrew his own pistol, and ran to rejoin the fight.
* * *
Remembering Willa Mae’s story about David and that giant fellow, Drew raised the slingshot, aimed carefully at a spot between the beast’s eyes. Tyxarglenak stared back for a moment before drawing in breath to unleash a massive roar in Drew’s direction in defiance. The sudden wall of sound took the young boy by surprise, causing him to take a step backward unconsciously. He heel caught on a rope at his feet, as he tumbled backward, sending the black stone wildly high of its target.
The chunk of ghost rock flew from Drew’s slingshot into the rafters, ricocheting off a beam and angling back down to strike the green orb in Tyxarglenak’s chest with a sound not unlike the dinner bell at the orphanage and leaving a shining crack across its marble-like sheen. The monster’s roar was cut short, causing him to release Jack, who fell to the ground. Tyler swung himself down into the hay bales and ducked for cover.
There was a rumble, quiet at first, but only at first. It grew to a deep thunder that seemed to move through the spaces between the air. The demon twitched, squinting and frowning with a pained expression on his massive face. The orb began to shudder and crack. The boys looked on, stunned with disbelief, as it bulged outward.
“Look out!” Tyler yelled. He’d just hit the dirt as the orb burst, not into shards, but into light. The blazing green fire brought with it a creature unlike anything they’d ever seen. If Tyxarglenak had scared them before, it looked like a puppy compared to winged horror that emerged from the orb, beetle black and gleaming with eerie green light. Clawed hands reached for Tyxarglenak’s throat, causing him to let out a screech of terror as the creature from within the orb roared in triumph.
The boys clamped hands over their ears, and squeezed their eyes shut, still seeing the blazing green light that was consuming their foe. There was a sound, a great whoosh like a dam bursting, a blaze of light, and then silence.
Drew cracked open an eye to see if the world had ended, but there was nothing but the remains of the barn, quiet and still. The ground was scorched black where Tyxarglenak had stood, their failed sack of stones lying motionless beside it.
Then he saw it.
Drew shuffled over to blow on the steaming orb as it lay in the dirt. The cracks had gone, its smooth surface whole once more. He leaned in a little closer, peering into the swirling mists within. Just for a moment, he swore he could see the goblin again, tiny face yelling in mute rage, before the green mists swirled again.
Jack and Tyler came up behind him.
“You think it’s gone?” Jack asked.
“It’s gotta be,” Tyler said. “You saw that thing that was after ‘im. No way the little guy got away from that.” Tyler slapped a hand on Drew’s back. “You did it! You nailed ‘im good. That’s gotta be the most amazing shot I ever seen! Wait’ll the others hear about this!”
“They’re not gonna believe us.”
“Well then we’ll just have to prove it to ‘em,” said Drew as he leaned down to pick up the glowing sphere, and the trio headed home.
* * *
Valeria emerged from a nearby doorway and into the middle of the street, holding an old book before her, her open hand, surrounded by a soft purple glow, raised as a shield before her.
“Ah, the traitor,” Ivor drawled.
“At least I’m not a murderer,” she spat back at him.
“You must be talking about Dr. Slavin. I’m afraid he brought that upon himself, my dear. His lust for power far outweighed his capacity for it. You and he were rightly partnered it seems, what with your propensity for it as well. It’s only fitting you share his fate.” A single ghostly playing card materialized in his hand for a moment before a quick wave sent it flying forward in a bolt of light toward her. It splashed against the purple glow, as Valeria stood her ground.
“That’s borrowed power, girly. It won’t hold against me forever.” He repeated the movement, this time with a hand of five cards, whipping them forward, one after another with increasing intensity. Each one shattered against Valeria’s barrier, but each one also pushed her back more and more, visibly weakening her.
“It doesn’t have to,” she said, a look of defiant triumph on her face.
Ivor turned just in time to see Stephen Seven-Eagles spin his tomahawk overhead in a frenzied blur, just barely missing his shoulder. Ivor backstepped only to find Abram up and on him again as well, swinging his sword with renewed purpose. The three men swirled around each other, striking and blocking in a whirlwind of blades and magical bursts. Suddenly, Ivor threw his arm out with concussive force, catching the chief squarely in the chest and sending him tumbling backward, falling unconscious in the dirt. Abram attempted to gain the advantage, but without the need to deal with an additional attacker, the ringmaster ducked and dodged with inhuman speed, laughing and mocking the sheriff with each attempt.
Suddenly, a large mechanical hand managed to snatch hold of the back of Ivor’s coat, raising him up into the air. The demonic entertainer began looking around him frantically, wondering for a moment what was going on as he kicked his feet under him. The Badger held him fast, pulling his pistol with his other hand, to take the final shot. But before he could get the chance, Ivor raised his arms and dropped out of his coat to the ground, turning immediately to face Michael Dodge.
“No!” Abram cried as he watched Ivor thrust his hand up and grab the Badger’s throat, the black tendrils snaking up through his veins as he coughed and sputtered, reeling back away from the ringmaster. Abram renewed his attack with increased fervor, hoping that if Ivor could be defeated, perhaps there would still be hope for Michael, even though deep in his soul, he was convinced otherwise.
Wendy, Louis, and Jackson ran to Dodge, who was now writhing on the ground. Louis could see the telltale symptoms of Ivor’s plague rapidly taking over, as what had taken weeks to develop before now accelerated to mere moments.
Wendy and Jackson kneeled next to him, trying to hold him still. “Do something!” Wendy cried, looking up at Pasteur in anger and desperation.
“I – I cannot,” the scientist said. “I used all of my supply to protect us. This vial …” he clutched the injection gun in his hands. “ … is all that’s left and we need it for Hawley. I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do for him.”
Wendy thought for a moment, realizing what she must do as she reached for the rifle that lay in the ground by her side. Suddenly, a series of angry hisses erupted from Michael’s arm just before it flung toward the sky, throwing Wendy back off of him. He reached over to swipe at Jackson, who pulled himself back, scrambling for his own weapon as Michael hurried to his feet. The man who had rescued them was gone, replaced with a slavering madman, covered head to toe with scaly boils, some of them already bursting with pus and blood.
Jackson Trouble squared his body off against The Badger, ready for the inevitable attack. Michael swung with his fist erratically, Jackson easily ducking and dodging each swipe. Michael lunged forward, giving Jackson an opening to move in close, burying his bowie knife deep into Michael’s thigh. Under normal circumstances, it would have dropped him instantly. However, Michael was now fueled by a rage that was without end, as he instead pulled back his arm to grab Jackson by the back of the head and lift him into the air, his mechanical fist wrapped around a mass of red hair. Before even Jackson could see what was coming, Michael slammed down hard on the ground, the steam-driven appendage burying Jackson’s head under six inches of dirt. His body lay limp as Michael withdrew the bloody hand and turned in a mad rage toward Wendy.
Wendy made a move for her rifle, skittering toward it as fast as she could. But Michael moved with a thunderous downward strike of his arm, smashing the weapon just as Wendy pulled her hand back away from it. She looked up and threw herself backward just as Michael brought the hand down once more, right where she had been a moment before. Wendy scrambled backward again, barely dodging the arm as Michael began to scream in anger and frustration, which seemed to spur him on even more.
Dodge lifted the arm to drop it on Wendy once more when a shot rang out in the night air. The head of the once great fighter now a blighted madman snapped to the side, as his body followed with it, slamming to the ground. As Wendy stared at the fallen body in shock, Pancho strode up alongside her, extending a hand to her as a wisp of smoke drifted from the barrel of the pistol raised in his other one.
“It’s done,” the outlaw said to Wendy. “Get up, it’s Ivor’s turn.”
The two of them ran to Pasteur, standing at the edge of the battle, hoping an opportunity would present itself.
“We’ve got to get to him,” Wendy said. “Now or this will all have been for nothing!”
Pasteur nodded slowly, as he took his first step into the square where Abram and Ivor were continuing their duel. The three slowly gained speed as they walked closer and closer; soon they were all in a silent charge, ready to throw everything they had at the ringmaster.
But Ivor was too fast. Abram was sent reeling with a heavy blow. Hawley spun quickly, lashing out with a pair of magic blasts, throwing Wendy and Pancho to the dirt. With only the aged scientist coming toward him, Ivor straightened quickly and swung across with his black fist, catching Louis fully in the face. The frenchman fell back, blood spraying from his nose. He instinctively pulled his hands to his face to catch the blood, dropping the injection weapon to the ground.
Valeria came forward next, a blast of energy from her outstretched hand knocking the ringmaster in the gut and doubling him over.
“Children’s tricks!” Ivor snarled, opening one of his clawed hand and shooting out a screaming blast of dark energy back at her. This time, it was Abram’s turn to be faster as he threw himself between Hawley and Valeria, swinging Evanor mightily and deflecting the blast into the building behind them. The building erupted in an explosion, pushing the two of them to the ground.
Without warning, Ivor was sent reeling too, a piece of shrapnel from the blast having embedded itself in his left eye. He stumbled through the disorientation, a mixture of pain-filled cries and mad laughter flowing from his mouth.
Abram looked around him as he strained to his feet, at the fallen dead, at the desperate fight barely holding in his allies, and then at Evanor. Ivor was regaining his footing, blood pouring down his face from the wound.
Abram rushed forward with a full battle cry, thrusting Evanor’s point through the stomach of the ringmaster and up into his heart.
The lawman pastor and the demonic ringmaster came face to face for a moment, Ivor’s yellow teeth bared into Abram’s face.
“What now, Sheriff?” he choked out, laughing. “You can’t defeat me … and your precious town is already lost. What can you possibly have left?” Ivor’s claws were scrambling toward Abram’s body, grabbing at his throat.
Abram stared back, keeping his grip on Evanor tight. “Faith, Ivor,” Abram whispered, and smiled, his gaze sweeping over the ringmaster’s shoulder as Stephen Seven-Eagles leapt forward, bringing the gleaming needle of Pasteur’s syringe gun down with all his might. The weapon pierced the ringmaster’s flesh at the apex of his bony spine.
Ivor screeched, lurching back from Abram, twisting his arms to try and reach the weapon that protruded from his back emptying its contents into him. His jaw snapped irregularly, a coarse barking noise coughing from between his teeth. Eerie green veins were throbbing up his throat, a map of the seeking, surging counter-pathogen that was undoing the ringmaster. He reached forward, snatching for Abram’s throat, but his claw closed on nothing. He tried again, and realized his vision was blurring, seeing double as the six of them came to stand around him in these final moments.
He gave a laugh, a horrid barking giggle that squelched in the back of his throat. “You think this is over, Abram?” he choked out. “Even if Gomorra can … somehow limp away from what I’ve done … the Fourth Ring will not rest until it is a wasteland. This was but an opening act … after all … the show … must … go … on.”
Hawley slid off of Evanor’s blade and crashed to the ground, his face locked in a bloody rictus grin, leering at the assembled men and women of Gomorra who had undone him.