Hunter watched as Jacksons guns blazed once again. He shook his head in amazement at the sheer speed of the man. No matter how many times he saw it, he still couldnt believe anyone could shoot like that.
The current target of the outlaws ire danced like a puppet as the bullets slammed through him. Wrath, he had called himself. One of Elijahs flock. He skidded to the ground, sending countless weapons spilling into the dirt around him. The fanatic joined a pile of bodies on the ground around him: men and women he had gunned down as they attempted to reach Lord Grimelys. No one, it seemed could get past the well-armed Sin.
"No one except Black Jack," he spoke quietly. If Stoker wanted to reach Knicknevin, he had certainly picked the right people for the job.
A shadow wriggled, and Hunter fired almost instinctively. The shape yelped and fell back. He didnt have time to ponder what it was. Turning his head, he tried to gauge how many of his people were left. It was impossible to tell. The light from the burning Whateley mansion threw strange shadows across the landscape, transforming faces into masks of light and darkness. Besides Black Jack and Stoker himself, Hunter couldnt identify a single friendly face.
Ahead of them, the battle raged on. Gunslingers, pirates, and Indians surrounded the Stygian figure in front of the mansion, fighting tooth and claws to bring the creature down. Gunfire echoed through the air, joined by an occasional burst of shaman magic and something that could have been a hucksters cards. They may as well have been toys. Knicknevin towered high above them, swiping aside those who got too close. Bullets and magic glanced harmlessly off its hide. Beside it, members of Elijahs flock cackled and howled, striking targets of opportunity as they saw them. The struggle teetered on the verge of a massacre.
"What do we do now?" he shouted at Stoker. The Confederate turned.
"We wait for a distraction."
"And if on doesnt come?" he returned.
"Oh ye of little faith," Stoker almost laughed. "Watch."
The great red vehicle came thundering across the plain - a monstrosity almost worthy of the manitou it rumbled towards. It rolled on strange treaded tracks, moving quickly despite its great size. Guns of every variety jutted out from its armored carapace, while a pair of huge mechanical claws flanked the drivers seat. It thundered through the carnage, launching fire, bullets and a strange green beam of some sort against any creature which approached.
"The Collegium," Hunter whispered.
Knicknevins alien eyes narrowed as the vehicle rolled toward it. It opened its claws in a hideous embrace, almost daring the mad scientists to do their best. The arcs of fire spraying from the guns narrow in its direction. Knicknevin never flinched.
The bus struck the creature head on, at a clip of almost forty-five miles an hour. The mechanical claws dug into the monsters flesh as wave after wave of withering fire engulfed its features. Knicknevin staggered from the blow, struggling to stay on its feet even as the front of the contraption crumpled like paper. After a paralyzed instant of hanging in space, it lost the battle with gravity. The front of Lord Grimelys collapsed under its weight as it fell with an earthshattering thud. The Collegium tank continued to push forward, drawn by its own momentum and by the huge digits which grasped at its hull. The whole mess vanished in a cloud of timber and dust.
"Did they get it?" Hunter heard Jackson ask.
"Not likely," Stoker replied.
With a wrench of metal, Knicknevin rose to its feet. It not longer looked gleeful. Now it looked mad. Grasping the Collegiums machine like an oversized toy, it tore the vehicle in half. Armored rivets shredded like newspaper, a gout of fuel caught fire as it sprayed into the air, and Hunter could hear screams coming from within. Scientists bailed out of turrets and compartments like rats as Knicknevin lifted the shattered remains above its head. Something exploded within, sending shards of metal flying into the night. The few remaining combatants dove for whatever cover they could find.
"Sweet mother of mercy," Hunter breathed.
With a shout, Knicknevin launched itself into the air. Gigantic wings spread from its back as it leapt across the moon, soaring high above Hunters head and back towards town. Its target soon became clear. The soft *whump* of an explosion rose behind him, coming from Gomorras north end. The Collegium compound. Arcs of electricity rose into the air and a strange green fire engulfed the marble structure as Knicknevin crashed down through the roof.
"Come on," Stoker grabbed the sheriffs arm. "We havent much time."
The band trotted onto the plain before Lord Grimelys and spread out amid the carnage. Knots of survivors huddled amid corpses and flaming wreckage; most were trying to look brave in the face of what they had just seen. The sheriffs rifle sought out any readily available foes, but could find none. No Flock members could be seen, and the Whateley family seemed to have dispersed; small blessings smiled upon them.
Just before Lord Grimelys stood an ashen circle, surrounded by bodies and pieces of the Collegiums machine. Knicknevins perch, where he had defended his newborn "kingdom" from all comers. The corpses around him spoke to the creatures success. Mostly Sioux and Rangers; good men and women helpless before its power. The lucky ones were intact; most had been torn apart, arms and legs shredded like so much meat. Hunters eyes widened as he recognized the closest body.
Andrew Lane lay sprawled on the edge of the blasted circle. His bearded face was smeared with ash, while his hands clutched a useless pair of pistols. In another setting, he might have been sleeping; as it was, his motionless body spoke to the futile fight he had put up. Stoker knelt by the Ghosts form, trying to see if some life yet remained...
"Psst! Law Man!" a sharp whisper came to his right. "Over here!"
A small knot of men, dressed in sashes and kerchiefs, crouched near an earthen mound. Their leader gestured at Hunter while his companions looked nervously back at the town.
"Maze Rats," Hunter spat at the site. "I thought the Collegium sank you."
"A minor concern in light our present situation," Captian Sim spoke softly. Please take cover sheriff. Our adversary will be back soon, and theres someone here who needs to speak with you."
Hunter considered for a moment, then nodded. The Maze Rats werent stupid enough to pick a fight now, and even if they were, Black Jack stood right behind him. With the outlaw at his back, he followed the errant pirates.
A shallow crater lay behind the mound, forming an impromptu foxhole. Sitting cross-legged in the center of it was woman wearing the star of the Texas Rangers. Her face was as blackened as the Ghosts, but fire still gleamed in her eyes and her white hat remained firmly atop her head. She smiled ruefully as Jackson and Hunter approached.
"Glad you could join us," Katie Karl said morosely.
It took a moment for Hunters eyes to adjust to the dark. As they did, he saw a second figure lying in the foxhole, its head resting on Katies lap. The old Indians wrinkled features were streaked with blood, and Hunter could see him struggling to sit up
"We found him at the Whateley estate, beside that old woman," Sim explained. "We were going to leave him, but he asked to be brought here - to wait for you and the outlaw."
"What a kind man you are to be so thoughtful," Hunters voice was incredulous.
"My orders are to stop that creature, no matter what the cost. Joseph was the first to warn us of it, and he might have enough power to do what we - and those thrice-cursed scientists - could not."
"What happened to the woman?" Jackson asked.
"Based on what we saw, I am no longer worry about her," Sim stared in fascination at the Indian. "This is not a man you should anger."
Joseph Eyes-Like-Rain sat up suddenly. The intensity on his face took Hunter aback.
"You have come," he looked past Hunter to the black-clad outlaw behind him. "And have buried the hatchet with your enemy. Would that that had come sooner."
"Im sorry Joseph," Hunter returned. "Im sorry about everything. But weve only got a short amount of time before that thing comes back and..."
"I know of our foe," Joseph returned. "And I know that you cannot stop it, Nathan Hunter. Nor you, Jackson Jackson. It takes more than mortal weapons to slay such a beast."
"So that you may learn from what you have seen. So that the sacrifices we have made here will not be in vain. All of you..." He held his hands out to the pirates and to the Ranger supporting him. "...must tell others what happened here. Tell them that our hatred caused it, that our blindness fed it. Tell them we could not stand together until the threat had engulfed us. They must know this--so that Gomorras fate doesnt befall the entire world..."
Concern crossed Hunters faced as he gazed at the old man.
"So its over? Theres nothin we can do?"
Joseph shook his head. "Nothing."
"What about you? Cant you do somethin?"
Again, Joseph shook his head. "The spirits had given me what I needed to face our enemy, but the Whateley woman found me first. She paid the price, at the cost of draining me. My life grows faint..."
His body shuddered with coughs and he hunched over as blood leaked from his open mouth.
A shadow fell across the assemblage, dressed in Confederate gray. Austin Stoker looked down at the assemblage as chuckled softly to himself.
"Wont be long now," he drawled.
"You!" Joseph whispered at him. "You are an evil spirit, as bad as the one we fight. You killed my son. You took the lives of those who could help us. Hell burns within your eyes and taints your soul."
Stoker smiled, the sardonic grin of a corpse. "That may be, but Im the best hope you people have." His voice rose. "Joseph aint the only one with power here, and thanks to the two o you -" here he gestured at Black Jack and the sheriff. "- I didnt have to spend it fightin Knicknevins toadies. I didnt come here alone, old man. I brought the best gunfighters in Gomorra to cut me a path."
Katie looked upon at him as anger and fear flashed across her face.
"So you have enough to stop it?" she asked.
"No," he said simply. "But I know someone who does."
A roar rose from town and an ebony shape rose from the still-burning compound. Knicknevin seemed to cross the distance in one fell leap. One moment, it stood amid the ghost-rock flames of the Collegiums folly, the next it had arced across the sky to land at its former location. Its knees bent as it touched down, and sulphur fumes belched from its grinning mouth.
"STOKER!!!" it bellowed. "YOUR TIME IS NIGH STOKER!!!"
Austin Stoker winked at the assemblage below him, then turned to face the nightmare.
"Hello, Knicknievin," he said quietly. "Long time."
"I SEE YOUVE ENJOYED MY STOLEN GIFTS."
"They had their uses," he returned. "But Im done with them now." His eyes hardened. "You have something that belongs to me, and I mean to cut it out of your unholy hide."
"OH? AND HOW WILL YOU DO THAT WHEN I REND YOUR BODY TO THE WINDS?"
In response, Stoker drew a large, oddly-shaped pistol from its holster. The Right Hand of God was etched along its barrel. Knicknevin bellowed inhuman laughter.
"WEAPONS!!! EVEN NOW, YOU THINK AS A MORTAL DOES!!!"
The gun went off, sending a streak of light into the creatures shoulder. The bullet penetrated the inky flesh, eliciting a cry of surprise and pain from the monster it struck.
"Hurts, dont it?" Stoker smiled.
"YOU...STRUCK ME!!!" Knicknevin howled.
"The Collegium whipped this up. Its supposed to stop creatures like you an me. Does a pretty good job from what Ive seen." He looked up as Knicknevins face twisted with hate and rage. "New rules out here in the world, hellspawn. It doesnt matter how tough you are, you can still bleed."
"DO YOU TRULY THINK YOU CAN SLAY ME WITH THAT...TRINKET?"
"No," Stoker countered. "But I didnt bring it to use on you."
He pivoted the weapon and fired down at the creatures feet, where it struck the body lying prone on the ground.
The body of Andrew Lane.
"The Harrowed, Knicknevin," Stoker smiled. "The first way you manitous had of getting here. Revive a corpse, take control of its soul, and use it to wreak havoc however you can. Its a game you didnt want to play, Knicknevin. You remember why?"
The Ghosts eyes fluttered open. Something burned in their pits, something dark and infernal, and very, very mad.
"Take the Ghost here," he continued. "Strong-willed man, lots of good in his heart. He fought the manitou when it claimed his body. Didnt let it take control. In time, he completely mastered it, using its powers without surrendering any control to it. Its a risk you run every time you take over one of us. In this case, the manitou lost big time."
The Ghost leapt to his feet, an infernal grin creeping across his face. His fingers twisted into angry claws and his eyes began to glow with hellish strength.
"That didnt mean it was dead, though. No, it just waited deep inside. Waited and slept until something came along to wake it up. Something like a bullet from a mystical gun."
The thing behind Andrew Lanes face looked up at its ebon companion.
"Didnt tell your buddies you were plannin to come here, did you?" Stoker teeth flashed. "Didnt tell them about your secret gate. Big mistake. Theyre awful upset at you...and now they got a weapon to do somethin about it."
With a howl, the Ghost leapt up at Knicknevin, rage and glee playing across his features. His clawed hand imbedded in Knicknevins side, drawing maggot-ridden blood from the wound. Knicknevin screamed and brought its own claws down upon the possessed agent, but the blow passed right through him like...like a ghost. Lane plunged his hands into the creatures stomach, rending and tearing like a wildcat
"STOKER!!!" Knicknevin rumbled. "KILL YOU STOKER!!!"
"Im not the one you should worry about," Stoker returned. There was a slow rasp as he drew his saber from its scabbard. "But I dont see why Mr. Lane should have all the fun."
He struck the haft of Knicknevins knee. The blade ate into the flesh and bone, and Knicknevin screamed again. It staggered for a moment, then toppled over as the knee gave out. Lane fell with it, sending gobbets of flesh flying in all directions. The wounded manitou tried to strike the Ghost, again to no avail.
Behind them, Hunter and Jackson rose to watch. They were joined by Katie Karl, whose face bore testament to the horror of the scene. On the floor of the foxhole, Joseph Eyes-Like-Rain had stopped moving.
A huge clawed hand caught Stoker across the face. He grunted as the blood flew, feeling the searing pain cut to his soul. There was something else inside as well; a burning in his chest that seemed to grow as Knicknevins pain increased. Stoker smiled and swung again at his nemesis, this time plunging the blade into its open wound. As its rage turned to agony, Knicknevin swiped again at Stokers form. Its nails grasped the Confederates coat and dug deep into the flesh beneath. It pulled him close as the Ghost shattered its ribs with another inhuman blow.
"IF I DIE, YOU DIE WITH ME!!!" it whispered.
Stoker spat in its face. "Better be sure..."
Lane smashed through Knicknevins gore-soaked chest until his fingers grasped the black and beating organ beneath. With a triumphant cry - a cry that no human throat had ever uttered - he pulled the heart free of its owner...
And was engulfed in light. The manitous horribly injured body exploded, washing attacker and onlooker alike. Lane was hurled backwards by a blast of energy, intermingled with Knicknevins dying howl. Hunter gave a panicked shout and yanked Black Jack behind the rampart by his collar. Katie Karl flattened herself on top of the two of them as a blast of energy dispersed above their heads. Night became day as hurricane winds screamed across the plain. Nate clenched his eyes shut and held on. Slowly, the screams grew quieter, the light dimmed until only darkened silence remained.
"Its over," he heard Katie whisper. "I think its finally over." He shook the dust off
his hat and slowly rose out of the pit.
A crater stood where Knicknevin had been, dark earth baked rock-hard by the light
and heat. The blast had removed the detritus from the area; the wreckage from Lord Grimelys was gone and no bodies could be seen. The Ghost lay some fifty feet away; his limbs twisted slowly, but he did not rise. Here and there, a few faces poked out of the plains. Survivors of various factions with enough good sense to keep their heads down. In the center of the crater, seared white by the blast, was a gigantic, inhuman skull. Knicknevins teeth grinned up beneath empty sockets, eliciting a shudder from Hunters spine. As he watched, the skull sunk slowly into the earth, drawn by some unseen force to vanish beneath the soil.
Of Austin Stoker, there was no sign.
Hunter stood at the edge of the crater; how long, he could not say. He watched the petrified earth and waited for the thing the rise again. He watched the brightening horizon and waited for Wilhelmina Whateleys clan to come looking for vengeance. He watched the sky above and waited for fire to drop from the heavens. Something else was coming, some new horror that would destroy them all.
A hand touched his shoulder softly. He turned to see Jackson in the pre-dawn light. Relief flooded the outlaws face, and Hunter thought he could see tears in the mans eyes.
"Its over," his voice cracked. "Its going to be okay."
The sheriff of Gomorra listened to the words, then nodded shudderingly. Together, they turned away from the crater and walked slowly back to town.
Charlie Landers poured his sheriff a drink. The Fat Chance wasnt open yet, but the diminutive bartender was making an exception. Nate Hunter nodded gratefully and downed the whisky in a single gulp.
"That bad, was it?" Charlie asked.
"You have no idea," Hunter returned. "I cant close my eyes without seeing it."
"Well for what its worth, you folks won a lot for us. In case you havent noticed, we still got a town here. The Flocks gone and the Whateleys are runnin scared with their grandma gone. You may have nightmares, sheriff, but you brokered a good bargain fer em."
"Wendys burying her father tomorrow. Ive got three more deputies without families Ive gotta put in the ground and two hundred others who werent quite fast enough. That doesnt count the Rangers, the Sioux, the Agents..."
"It could have been worse," Charlie spoke matter-of-factly. "A lot worse."
"I know," Hunter returned. "Im just gettin tired of payin the price."
The doors swung open and a third man entered the saloon: Cort Williams, the
Ghosts second-in-command. He pulled off his gloves and gestured for the whiskey bottle.
"Whats the news?" Hunter asked as the Agent wiped his lips.
"Its hard to say. Im not exactly overflowing with men these days. But wherever hes gone, hes not going out of the way to advertise."
"You Union boys never do," Charlie commented.
"So youll be going after him?" Hunter offered.
"But hes got an angry manitou in him. God knows what hell do!"
"I know, but right now only a small handful of people know about his condition. And if we can keep it quiet, it could buy us some time."
"Yeah, time to hunt him down an make things right," Hunter barked.
Cort turned and looked him straight in the eye. "My orders came from President Grant himself: we are to maintain a Union presence in Gomorra. Knicknevin may be gone, but youre still sitting on the biggest lode of ghost rock in the world. Kangs making noises about bringing the Iron Dragon through here, and words come down that Reverend Grimme wants a slice of this territory." He took another belt of whiskey. "We didnt go just go through Hell on earth to turn this town over the likes of them."
Hunter sighed. "Jesus."
"If it makes you feel any better, the Rangers are sticking around too. And for now, neither of us has anywhere near the manpower to squabble at each other."
The sheriff nodded. "Findleys in the nuthouse, so Sweetrock will be off our backs, and the Collegium will be rebuildin fer months."
"Your bank robbers are gone, too. The priest is still around, but the others all lit out sometime before dawn."
Hunter barked laughter. "I figured as much."
"I could send Gus out to look for them if you -"
"No. Let them go," he thought back to Jacksons hand on his shoulder. "Killin them aint gonna bring Corky back, and Im tired of all the blood. We gotta start livin in the present. If they come back...well, if they come back, then well see."
Cort nodded. "Probably for the best." He took another shot of whiskey then put his gloves back on.
"Silence is the watchword, gentlemen," his voice was low and authoritative. "Nobody finds out what happened that night, and nobody finds out about the Ghosts...condition. Can you handle that?"
Hunter slowly stirred his drink.
"I suppose so. We dont need people getting any edgier than they already are."
"How about you barkeep?" Williams turned to Charlie, who glared back at him.
"Contrary to popular opinion," the tiny man barked. "I can keep my mouth shut when I hafta."
"Good. Then I wont trouble you any further," he turned and walked back to the door. "Take care, sheriff. You wont see much of me anymore, but Ill be around." He stepped out into the noonday sun.
"Was that supposed to make me feel good or bad?" Hunter asked.
"Little o both I think."
"Yeah," Hunter sighed and stirred his drink again. The Agency was still here. The Iron Dragon, moving in. Religious fanatics from the south, Union and Confederate forces from up north. And a mother lode of ghost rock, now freed from Knicknevins clutches.
"I wonder," he spoke aloud. "I wonder if itll ever really end."
"That isnt the point," Charlie returned. "The point is how much we do along the way."
The bartender smiled, a gap-toothed smile few had ever seen before. "As far as Im concerned, weve all done enough."