The thief of power pushed the plate away from his prodigious waistline, belched softly and smiled. The food at Helgas Wafflehaus was crude by his East Coast standards but there as plenty of it. Besides, it surely beat eating fried chops of dubious origin down the street at the Fat Chance. Taking to his feet, he lit a fat cigar and puffed contentedly. After a moments contemplation, he produced a small pack of playing cards and began to shuffle. His skilled fingers danced the cards in an eye-twisting pattern to form a hand of three eights and a pair of jacks. He smiled around his foul exhalations, and in the kitchen the plate in the serving girls hand shattered with a loud snap and gashed open her right wrist. Blood rained into the wash water, the girl began to howl; Crawford Talmadge slipped his deck away. What a wonderful morning.
Leaving Helgas and maneuvering his bulk from awning to awning to stay dry, Crawford made a slow course for the comforting embrace of the Sweetrock Smoking Lounge. Across the square, Shouting Tom and John the Doomsayer tried to see who could proselytize the loudest over the sheeting rain and occasional blast of thunder. Gordo Andrade sought refuge under the porch out front of the Green Eye Saloon while one of the Collegium members swore and kicked at a pipe-swaddled mechanism with three wheels stuck fast in the mud. Inside the Sweetrock Lounge, protected from the scathing elements, Crawford pondered his latest purchase and wondered what he would do with the whole of Gomorra at his fingertips. There in his gentle grasp was a vintage copy of Hoyles Book of Games, printed in 1769. Within the slim tome lay the proper workings of the arcane arts, the true rites in tongues that had been old when Columbus first found the colonies.
For nine years he had spent every waking hour within various copies of Hoyles, decoding the ciphers hidden within. They had the keys to true power and had paved the way for him to become a huckster. His family fortune was almost gone, frittered away during his long trek across the country to discover more knowledge of the arcane. It was here, in a town not on any map, in a store run by a Spaniard called Ignacio with one sour eye, he had found the oldest edition of Hoyles that he had ever thought existed. The last of his funds had vanished in that dank hovel. But now the path to immense power was finally beginning to open.
A simple illusion gave his clothing a fine expensive sheen that gained him entrance to this very exclusive establishment. A quick spin of the cards and the cadaverous barman was quite amiable to Crawfords request to a letter of credit. And now he had a place at the fine brass and cherry wood bar to admire the key to his ascension. All manner of tricks and workings lay within the covers of Hoyles but editors over the centuries had rewritten parts and moved text out of its original formations. It took months to glean fractions of the knowledge, but in an edition of suitably advanced age, the flaws were non-existent, layered within was the most potent trick of all.
Juno the barkeep quietly produced a whisky and a hand-rolled Cuban monstrosity that Crawford wafted under his nose before accepting the proffered match. Crawford inhaled deeply and added to the already murky haze. He pondered the studious barman and decided that he would have to be spared once Crawford took his place as the most skilled huckster in the world. Fine help was not found on trees. He placed one foot on the rail and considered his competition in Gomorra.
The swindling billiard hustler was beneath his contempt, the man lacked practice and vision. The newly arrived practitioner from the swamps of the Louisiana territory had skill but squandered it in service to the mining concern. The gypsy woman had power and knowledge to burn but Crawford doubted that she had the ambitions needed to make the sacrifices for security. That left the creeping owners of the delightful manse on the outskirts of town. The Matriarch and her red-haired spawn would surely see the benefits in their proper place in his hierarchy. But the others in that in-bred collective would need to fuel the workings of the greater rites. The elder brother would see it true but the Grandmother might regret the loss. What a pity. Her power would simply have to be preserved before she was escorted out of this world and into the next.
He took his whisky and turned to the glass picture window to the street, dividing his attention between the tome in his hands and the doings of Gomorra in the throes of the storm. Tom and John began to exchange blows and were escorted away none to gently by the deputies, Templeton and Lukas Owens.
Carry the two and add the number of cards in the hand. Take the sum and divide by the number of chapters. Inverse the result.
The sodden scientist leaped on his machine in a fury. There was a momentary pause and then it roared into motion. The conveyance made a rough circumference of the town square, slewing mud across storefront and passer-by alike. When it erratically grazed an inconvenient water trough, its pilot swore loud enough to be heard beneath the rain.
Divide by the sum of Orions belt and take the remainder to the third octave. Nine fingers in alignment will open the proper pathways. The last must be at the seventh sigil or all will be for naught.The first draw will be the last to show.
Five Indians wrapped in blankets that barely hid the tomahawks underneath, stalked silently towards Ignacios storefront. The muted sound of breaking glass echoed over the street. The Spaniard could scream quite well for one his age.
The King in Red will shunt the eye to the Page in Black. The pair of Jesters will seal the fate of the unlucky. The sum of all will draw the Burning Words to your soul.
Shrouded by the sheeting rain and darkness, in the depths of the Elephant Hill graveyard, something began to stir.
Crawford closed the volume, his new power burning in his mind. He had mastered the final hex.
On the outskirts of Gommora, just beyond the railway station was a long gaudy colored tent. Inside a man and a woman knelt around a small low table on a beaten rug. The man was burly and squat, dressed in rough spun clothes with mud on his boots and a feather tipped Stetson that he slowly turned in his hands. The hat had seen better days.
The woman was in her autumn years and her summer ones had be none too kind. Wrinkles traced gullies across her face but her eyes were all sparks and flint. Her robes were patched in various spots with squares of random cloth. She slowly dealt outsized cards with all the reverence of a priest at High Mass.
Overhead, thunder blasted from horizon to horizon as Sir Whitmore drew a calming breath and fanned five cards from one hand to another. One by one they resolved themselves to three aces and the leering deaths head of a Joker followed by a four. He gently tapped the joker on each of the cards that still laid face down on the table. Whispering a quick supplication to whatever benevolence was listening, he turned his gaze to the gypsy. She met his eyes with a gaze of steel and the cards were slowly turned over.
"The storm is a curtain, the play is still to begin." Her gaze swept the spread and her brow furrowed. "A Traitor King and a fallen knight have stolen each others souls. The Kings bridge has been shattered. But it is too late, his shadow now falls on this world." She pondered the fringes of the spread, her fingers beginning to fritter at the hem of her robe. "The knight in gray seeks to grasp two hands covered in blood." She raised one palm in warning, "Whose hands I cannot see, the smoke and shadows have hidden much from me this night. We, all of us here, are in grave danger. The moon has hidden herself in fear and when the great eye opens, Gomorra will shatter."
The gypsy laid her palms on the table, almost obscuring the final card yet unturned. Sir Whitmore slowly placed the beaten Stetson on his head and tugged at the brim. "Perhaps some of us can get the innocents out from under the invaders tread." The only answer was a short nod from the old woman. "The orphanage will be safe. On the oath of my skill and name, no more children will come to harm"
He stood and donned a ratty duster. Just outside of the tent, he called back over his shoulder." Be safe, my Wallachian Princess." She almost asked him back but before she could speak, he was lost from sight in the driving rain. "Walk proud, my Englishman," she whispered. Unbidden, her hand crept to the last card and a tear wound its way down her aged face. Sir Whitmores card revealed the face of the Hanged Man.
Crawford slid the tome into an inner pocket as he watched the sparse traffic on the street come to a halt. He beamed in perverse pride. Some of the others in the Lounge had crept to the window. Drawn by some unseen presence. Patting his pockets contentedly, Crawford felt his power dance in his mind. And then the feeling of something else intruded. He too, turned to face the street. It felt as though the town of Gomorra had held its breath, waiting for the next tick of the clock tower. Plucking out his deck, he sent the cards shuffling again, drawing a pair of bloody red Jacks with a seven, a five and a deuce behind. His senses spilled out from his body seeking that which had disturbed his pompous mood. Farther, farther and farther still his perceptions swooped left then right to fall upon Lord Grimleys manor. He pressed his vision inward, past the walls of aged mortar and fouled stone to the basements far below. And there all of Crawfords dreams of rulership were torn to shreds in an instant.
The rain pattered to standstill on the muddy, sodden streets of Gomorra. The heavy clouds above had stopped roiling at some unseen command. Every man, woman, and child on the streets turned their eyes heavenward.
Over the town square, a tiny aperture had broken through the low cloud cover. Slowly at first, then with gathering speed the surrounding clouds began to spin. Wider and wider, like some gargantuan whirlpool of air, the hole spread itself across the town. In the middle, like the pupil of a furious god, lay a full and copper stained moon. And then the town of Gomorra was called to account for its sins.
In the middle of the square the fountain began to pour out streams of crimson that sloshed over the lip and seeped across the ground. Across from the Lounge, St. Martins steeple was rendered into kindling by a brilliant blast of blue-white lightning. Debris rained across the commons and Crawford felt his jaw go slack.
It was all being taken away, all of his dreams. His hopes and visions of power had been stolen from his grasp by that thing in Grimleys basement. Anger began to fill him and his pulse thundered in his ears. It will not end like this.
Townsfolk had begun to scream as they bolted for cover. Dodging the falling remnants of the steeple they milled like cattle unsure of which direction to stampede. Crawford got a firm grip on the collar and belt of the Sweetrock accountant Phillip Blackmoor standing to his left and bodily threw him through the glass. Stepping quickly through the hole, he began to shout as his deck danced between his fingers like pasteboard moths dancing before a lamp. "This town is mine!" he shouted at the confused throngs, "My dominion, mine alone! It will not be taken from me now!" He was about to continue but was rudely interrupted by the sight of crowds of shambling dead creeping into the square. Corpse after rotting corpse stalked from the alleys and cast burning gazes onto the stunned crowds. More and more appeared, filling out rank after rank of the horde of monstrosities. They appeared from behind buildings and tumbled out of doors. Every last person buried in the cemetery since Gomorras founding was now filling its streets in a great unholy mass. There was a time for one heartbeat and they roared and charged. The crowd fell to pieces like wheat before the scythe.
Mayhem exploded into the town square as one and then many guns began to fire from the crowd. Bullets ripped through the charging dead with little effect and people bolted in every direction at once. Horses cried in pain as they were ripped limb from limb, as within the depths of the General Store something caught fire with a muffled Whump. Flames started to dance and caper in the windows. The shouts of panic and screams for mercy went on and on.
Crawford sent his rage thundering down his arm and into his deck. Four queens and a King that dripped blood unfolded in his hand. He cupped his left palm towards the oncoming mob of dead and a pale stream of ghostly light swirled into his hand and exploded outwards. Zombies were blown off of moldering feet and had arms torn from their sockets. He scythed the stream of searing power back and forth and within moments the hungry dead found less troublesome meals to chase. He spun on his heel to take in the whole panorama of chaos that had descended.
Barely dressed soiled doves and their screeching clientele poured out in a panic from the opulent arched entryway to Mrs. Greenes casino while the roof of the Gomorra Gazette collapsed in avalanche of timber and shingle. Crawford stared in furious anger as a stagecoach thundered around the corner and across the square, heading for the outskirts of town at an insane panicked gallop. Lizzie King stood on the drivers bench, reins clenched in her teeth and her hair streaming out from her head like a banner. Her hands worked furiously to load a huge scattergun. The team of six horses, all frantic eyed with foam flecking their mouths, ruthlessly trampled townsfolk and undead alike beneath their thundering hooves.
Crawford bellowed in incoherent anger at the fleeing coach and another casting began to form in his hand. Suddenly, from within the livery stables at the corner, there came a wild echoing howl. He turned to this new tableau as the great doors to the barn thundered down to slam in the mud. Racing out into the noise and conflagration was a titanic stallion as black as the bottom of a coal mine. Perched on its back was a tall, hulking figure in dark tattered rags clutching a scythe the size of a free-range fencepost. Crawford found it mildly entertaining that the specter could still summon forth such a chilling howl with no head. The Horseman steered his nightmarish mount after the departing stage, whipping the scythe in a wide, lazy arc over its empty shoulders. It passed him by, the rotted cloak streaming and snapping out behind like the devils own hunting flag. A wry smile cracked Crawfords face and he wished it good hunting.
Over the din, a smell of sulphurous vapors and smoked meat assaulted his nostrils. The sound of cracking masonry and tumbling walls reached his ears and Crawford turned to find the source of the din that had obscured the tumult around him. There, on the far reaches of Gomorra, amid the shifting ruins that were all that was left of Lord Grimleys manor was a sight that caused the cards to fall from Crawfords senseless fingers.
Dwarfing every other structure in Gomorra with its sixty foot height was the awesome figure of a creature straight from the Infernal Pit. Its hide looked like a skin of roast that had been left to cook for far too long and its eyes burned like great bonfires in autumn. Multiple racks of blackened horns crowned its angular head and talons the length of a full-grown man sliced through the smoke. Steam bellowed from its mouth of misshapen fangs and Crawford Talmadge finally knew fear. With all that was left of his shriveled soul, he knew that Gomorras true ruler had arrived.
"Power," he though frantically, "There is enough power here for me to re-take my rightful throne. Even from one the likes of that." He quickly slunk back into the now empty Lounge and a pair of nines standing on a deuce, a six and a five flashed into being. His perceptions rippled and he was above the building, looking down upon the blazing town. The people seemed to be shadows of themselves, pale copies that darted from shadow to shadow. He shifted his view and found was he was looking for. Out front of the orphanage, two figures were surrounded by bright golden auras. Crawford dropped his senses back to the mundane and smiled. Those two would be the first to become part of his ascension.
Skulking back through the alleys, he dodged fleeing citizens and the slavering forms of the haunts that pursued them. A simple hex of silence got him past an animated scarecrow feasting on the body of some unfortunate deputy and within minutes the orphanage was within view.
Roughly twenty paces ahead on the front lawn, Sir Whitmore stood with his legs apart. A truly gargantuan revolver was in one hand and a dozen shifting cards in the other. The six-guns target stood calmly shuffling large outsized cards from one hand to the other in a lazy practiced arc. A dozen yards away, Nicodemus, the patriarch of the Whateley family, smiled like a starving shark as his flitting cards began to glow a fitful, ghoulish green.
The younger mans pace was slow and easy as Crawford watched. The cards that he could see clutched in the Whateleys hand were shifting now, their pictures transforming into things that defied description. Whitmore took no notice of the tinhorn watching from the shadows, his only movement was to cock the hammer on the revolver as Nicodemus leisurely closed the distance.
"You should have been more timely, Nicodemus. There are no children left for Malrog to dine on. Ms. Singleton has already covered their departure." Sir Whitmores lips barely moved, his eyes never leaving the cards in Nicodemus hand.
"A poor bluff, Sir Whitmore." Nicodemus spat and cocked his head to the wind, looking like some bizarre Irish setter taking in the breeze. " I can smell the good womans fluids from here. My niece will bloat herself tonight."
Whitmores answer has lost in the thunder of the pistol. Crawford watched the dandys clothes sprout ragged holes at hip and shoulder. Nicodemus slowly righted himself back to facing Sir Whitmore. The Englishmans eyes grew wide and the cards in both mens hands began to flutter. Crawford pulled his own deck from the inner pocket of his coat and began shuffling faster and faster. The last hex he had ever read burned its way across his mind. In his hand was a nine of hearts, the ten of hearts and the Jack, Queen and King all followed suit. Crawford Talmadge grinned the grimace of the damned as the hex went off.
Sir Whitmore began to shake uncontrollably as his skills at the witchy arts were ripped from his mind. Every hex, every trick that he had learned for the last seven years leapt from his head and Crawfords heart began to pound. It was all that he had foreseen and more. The hex had merged all of Sir Whitmores personal power with his own. His skill had doubled and he felt more energy than he had ever tapped before crawling just under his skin. Whitmore fell to his knees, his face a horrid rictus of loss. He focused on Crawford for the first time and the pistol dropped from his fist. Whitmores cards had vanished.
Nicodemus Whateley gave a practiced snap of his wrists and his deck split in to an even stack in each gloved hand. The firelight of Gomorra burning gleamed off his spectacles as he smoothly merged the two halves and gave a quick, almost insolent, snap of his right thumb. The topmost card spun off in to the air and angled in towards the Englishman in a lazy arc. Three feet from the kneeling figure, the card burst into green-black flames. Sir Whitmore had time for the beginnings of a scream, and then he was lost in a small, garish inferno.
Nicodemus turned slowly back towards town, walking a card idly across the back of one hand. He took in the maniacal gleam in Crawfords eye and gave a slight smiling nod. He opened his mouth to speak, but looked over Crawfords shoulder and his mouth snapped shut. Giving his derby a jaunty doff, he stepped back into the shadows dancing across the orphanage and vanished from view.
The remaining huckster massaged the whirlwind of power in his mind as he turned back towards the blazing pyre that Gomorra had become. Standing just within arms reach was a tall commanding figure that pulled at Crawfords memory. Broad shouldered, clothed in simple robes that looked as if the man had crawled through a smokehouse. The remnants of a substantial beard and length of hair were patchy at best and most had smoldered down to char that drifted off in the nighttime air.
It took only a moment for the truth to arrive. The eyes of the figure had once been piercing and fierce. Now they had gone someplace Beyond. There was nothing human left in those eyes, they had seen something limitless. In its left hand, covered in black flaking gore was a tall scorched shepherds crook.
"Elijah." Crawford said with arrogance creeping into his voice, "After so many nights of screeching about the Rapture, did you finally get left behind?"
"CRAWFORD TALMADGE!" the prophet thundered, his voice drowning the cacophony that echoed around them, "Thou hast transgressed against the Almighty, Talmadge. Thou hast forgotten the greatest rules of all. Thou art now under righteous censure. An eye for an eye, transgressor. For the crime of violating the tenth commandment, thou shalt be rent asunder!" Shapes in the chaos began to separate themselves from the burning buildings and race towards the pontificating holy man. They were moving too fast for him to make them out, but they ran in packs. And the packs were growing into mobs.
Crawford split his face in a grin fit for the Pit. The energy from Whitmore spun and bled into his own. His heartbeat was thunder in his ears as his power surged forth to his hands.
Elijah slowly began to raise his crook.
"THOU" The huckster raised his right hand and saw a king with one eye and a King on the gallows.
"SHALT" One powerful, soot-smeared hand clenched tighter on the shaft of the crook. In Crawfords draw, he saw another king sitting on a throne of blood. The prophets eyes went wide and deep inside, something flickered.
"NOT" Crawford opened his fingers wider and another king appeared in his hand, laying on a bier and draped in a shroud of shadow. His teeth dug into cheek and he sent every scrap of power he could scour from within, down into the cards. The fifth card shaped into being. A pale background framed a single skull with a cheroot dangling over the ragged teeth. A jesters cap sat at a jaunty angle on its head. Five of a kind. Crawford felt triumph burn into the remains of his soul.
"COVET!" Both syllables hit the huckster like a pair of thunderbolts from Olympus. The motes in Elijahs eyes winked out and with them went all nine years of practice that Crawford had in the art of hexslinging. Countless hours of wisdom, knowledge and practice fell away like leaves on the wind. Nothing was spared. Every bit of arcane comprehension was gone. He fell to his knees before Elijah like Whitmore had fallen before him. Crawford Talmadges last sight of this world was one of the prophet Elijah passing judgement on him with his great crook as the stampede of Gomorras citizens overtook him.