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Galla and Lilith stood before the high priest of the underworld. Columber's eyes were open and focused on something they did not see. The irises were an intense shade of crimson, a turbulent sea of molten lava inside a circle of white. Streaks of blood ran through the whites of the eyes until the deadly storm was turned on the two demons he'd enlisted to help him take power over the world above them.
"She has left!" Columber snapped, his elongated legs traveling the fiery path though the lakes of hell.
"Do you wish us to stop her?" Galla asked.
"Do you think you could? Do you have more power than I?" Columber spat at the creature standing next to him.
"No, Highness, I was but offering to do your bidding," Galla moved back slightly, understanding this was the most powerful of all demons. Lord and master over the darkness of hell, a demon whose power far surpassed his own.
Columber rose above them, towering over the two minions, thriving on the fear his presence had over those around him. He was the high priest of hell, the demon who sat on a throne of darkness, taking souls whenever and wherever he sensed weakness. The chosen one was far from weak, but he would beat down his defenses, take away his friends, and tear down his confidence, until he had what he wanted. He let his body return to the shape he'd chosen and still he knew he was larger in stature than the two standing before him.
"You are to make sure the three companions do not interfere with my plans for Chris Larabee."
"Yes, Highness," Lilith hissed.
"That does not give you free rein to do as you wish. I do not want them maimed or destroyed, for that would only fuel the chosen's fire. He must not be given the opportunity to gain strength from their pain. You will give them what they need to keep them here, but you will not allow them to remove the mark I have placed within him. As long as that remains within his flesh he is tied to this Inn and will take his rightful place here. Go now and see to the comfort of our guests!" Columber told them, raising a hand and waving it in front of a wall. The red stone shimmered, revealing room 17 and the men who now resided there. Larabee lay in the bed, eyes open and staring at the long haired man standing over him. Again he got the sense that these two could be a force to reckon with if given the chance, and he was briefly tempted to see just how powerful they could be together. His gaze was drawn to the two other men in the room and he realized they held a power of their own. A power that would be his as soon as the chosen one gave his soul to the dark powers of hell. He smiled, revealing blackened teeth inside bloodless lips, and watched as Larabee writhed under his unseen touch.
+ + + + + + +
"Easy, Chris, Vin's just gonna take a look at you," Wilmington said, worried about the pain he saw in his friend's eyes.
Chris Larabee was beyond words now as he tried to turn his body away from his friends. The burning pain increased to an inferno of agony as he twisted away from the other's touch. He knew they offered help, but his mind and body could not comprehend why their touch seemed to increase the pain instead of lessening it. As suddenly as the deep fire ignited it was doused, but Chris could not face his friends, could not show them how much this was taking out of him. Could not show them his own weakness.
"Come on, Chris, let Vin take a look," Wilmington told him, placing a hand on Larabee's shoulder and easing him back over.
"...okay..." the blond wheezed as he struggled to remain still.
Tanner placed his hands on the heated skin surrounding the puckered, red rimmed wound in his friend's side. He ignored Larabee's sharp cry of pain as he probed the site, knowing this needed to be done in order to make the blond comfortable. He looked up from the wound and again met the green eyes so filled with misery.
"Sorry, Chris, just need ta see if'n we can take it out," the sharpshooter explained, pressing against the swollen area.
Larabee held his breath as Tanner's hands explored the wound. His stomach churned as nausea mounted and the pain intensified once more.
"Can you see anything, Vin?" Standish asked, passing the younger man a wet cloth. He could see something moving inside Larabee's side and was sickened by the way it pressed against the man's flesh until he was sure it would break through the skin.
"It's buried deep," the tracker explained.
"...c...can y...you take it o...out?" the gunslinger asked, hating the pleading quality of his own voice.
"Ain't sure...gonna try...Buck, Ez, gonna need ya ta hold 'im down."
"What will you use to take it out?" Wilmington asked.
"Gonna need ta see if'n Maria can find..."
"Gentlemen, how is he doing?" Galla asked as he entered the room, Lilith directly behind him.
"He'll be better if we can get that thing out of him," Wilmington answered angrily.
"Is there anything Galla and I can do to help?" Lilith asked softly.
"Ya got anything I can use as a probe...somethin' I can grab onto it with?" Tanner asked.
"I will check for you," Lilith told him and hurried from the room.
Chris heard the others talking, but was unable to speak as the darkness threatened to send him into a deep pit of darkness and pain. He closed his eyes, ignoring everything around him, except Vin Tanner's hand on his side, anchoring him to the world around him. The twisting moving object in his side bothered him, making him feel as if something alive was eating him from the inside out. He moaned softly and again felt Tanner's soothing touch.
+ + + + + + +
The solemn trio rode side by side, their journey would take them north...how far or for how long they didn't know. Something was leading them, taking them to where they were needed. Josiah continued to pray for divine intervention on behalf of their friends, yet he knew this was a battle for more than just the missing peacekeepers. This battle was for the future of the world they lived in. A holy battle that could end with the world bathed in darkness, and the inhabitants writhing in pain beyond normal imagination. A deep shudder ran through his frame as they continued on towards a fight they had to win.
"Josiah, are you okay?" Jackson asked, knowing the older man was sensitive to things they only dreamed about.
"It's not me you need to worry about, Nathan. Not yet anyway...Vin, Buck, Ezra...and especially Chris. We need to pray for them...to send them our strength. The battle is only beginning...the outcome is still unknown, but it is going to take all of us, together to beat this."
"What is it we got to beat, Josiah?" Dunne asked.
"Hell, JD, we have to beat hell and all the demons who reside there in order to save Chris Larabee," the ex-preacher answered as they continued northwards.
+ + + + + + +
Anahita's soul was anchored to the Inn, but she could sometimes escape the boundaries for short periods of time. She could travel great distances in the wink of an eye, but she could not help these men in the fight ahead of them. She would make sure they arrived for the final battle, but that would signal the end for her. Her mortal life was over long ago, but she'd chosen to stay in the hellish inn in order to be present when the man came back. The fact that he was at the inn was evidence that the great battle between light and dark would soon begin. She saw the three riders and made sure they were heading towards their destiny, smiling as she felt the older man's strength and faith. He would go far in the fight to keep the world as it was. She would follow them now, protect them from the creatures of hell in order to let them complete their journey.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had no idea how much time passed since Maria and Lilith went in search of pain medication and the instruments he'd need. Larabee remained lying on his back, the pain evident on his face as they talked to him. The tracker looked up when he heard the two women returning.
"This is all we could find," Lilith explained as she placed several probes on the table. "I'm sorry I took so long, but I wanted to sterilize them and make some tea...not regular tea. A special blend my mother used to make when we were hurt and feverish."
"Thank ya, Ma'am," the tracker said, as Wilmington took the cup from Maria's hands.
"You're welcome, Mr. Tanner. Is there anything else we can help with?" Galla asked.
"No...we can handle it from here," Tanner told him as he watched Standish lift Larabee's head and feed him the warm liquid. He saw the grimace of distaste on the older man's face as he drank the offering, and hoped it would take away the pain he saw there.
"Alright, Maria and Lilith are seeing to making something for you to eat and also making a broth for your friend. We will check back with you shortly...but send for us if you need anything else," Galla Shedim told them, before leading the others from the room.
"Chris, we'll let ya rest fer a minute," the sharpshooter told him, hoping that the herbs would help ease the pain.
"...okay..." Larabee whispered as Standish eased his head back on the pillow.
+ + + + + + +
"What did you put in the tea?" Galla asked as they walked down the stairs.
"It was the bark of the willow tree?" Lilith answered, smiling at the evil surrounding them. Wisps of spectral energy floated over them, tasting of the living souls within the walls, drawing strength from their essence. Weakening them without their knowledge, readying them for what was to come.
"There were several other ingredients that will help ensure the chosen one remains in constant pain, weakening him to the point where he can no longer fight us. We must make sure it is administered at the proper times to ensure he does not see what's happening until the time is at hand. Come, I must see to the meals and the broth for the chosen one."
+ + + + + + +
"Chris, just hold on to me and Ez, okay?" Wilmington asked, worried about the pain and fear he saw on Larabee's face.
"Chris, I wish Nathan was here," the tracker said as he lifted the probe and knelt beside his friend.
"T...trust you...do...it...do...it...God! Do it n...now, Vin..." the blond bucked on the bed as pain became his only sense.
"Do it, Vin, I don't know how long Buck and I can hold him!" the gambler hissed.
Tanner took a deep breath and cleared his mind of the pain he knew he was about to inflict on his best friend. 'I'm sorry, Chris...so sorry,' he thought as he eased the probe into the wound.
"GOD!!!" Larabee screamed as the living thing inside him retreated from the probing instrument held securely in the tracker's hand. For a minute he thought the splinter would drill straight through his gut and out through his back, but it simply moved away from the metal, just out of reach of the sharpshooter's touch.
"Vin, hurry!" Wilmington snapped as Larabee continued to fight him.
"I'm tryin'...damn thing seems ta be movin'!" Tanner spat, once more pushing the probe inside.
"I think it is moving!" Standish observed as Tanner's gentle hand tried to reach the intruding object.
"...stop...please...stop..." Larabee grunted as again and again the embedded piece of wood evaded the probe.
"Vin, he can't take anymore...look!" the rogue cried out as the blond nearly tore away from his hold.
"The damn thing is moving!" the conman was awed by the site of the alien thing moving within Larabee's abdomen. Each thrust of the tracker's hand made the splinter move either left or right, up or down, sending violent shuddering pain through the blond.
"It has ta come out of 'im!" The sharpshooter understood he was dealing with something alive, something that far exceeded his beliefs, yet it was there. Moving under the skin, sapping Larabee's strength and his own resolve to help him. He watched as his friend's hands fisted in the other man's jacket and knew he couldn't take anymore. Realizing he couldn't do anything else he pulled the probe from Larabee's side and watched as the blond gave up the fight to stay conscious. He looked away from the sleeping face, his gaze falling once more on the wound. Very little blood was evident, yet it was rimmed with red streaks. The splinter seemed to move once more, pushing against the ravaged flesh before lying dormant in the blond's body once more.
Vin reached for the cloth in the basin of water and cleaned away the crimson fluid on Larabee's abdomen. He looked at the gunslinger's face and wondered why, even unconscious, the man seemed to be in pain. Deep lines were in evidence on his forehead, and he seemed to be biting his lip in an effort to ease his own discomfort. His gaze dropped once more to the ravaged side and he knew they'd have to wait for Jackson to get them object out. His shoulders slumped tiredly, but he would not give in to his own exhaustion.
"Vin, you did everything you could," Standish told him.
"Not enough," the tracker said softly, as he watched Larabee's hands fist in the blanket underneath him.
"What the hell is that thing?" Wilmington asked, hoping one of them had the answer, yet knowing they were as much in the dark as he was.
"I've never seen anything like it. Whatever it is seemed to be trying to get away from Vin's ministrations," the conman explained.
"That's not possible," the rogue said, shaking his head as he looked at the wound. There was nothing ominous about it now, but he knew in his heart if they tried to remove the object it would come to life once more.
"Ya saw it, Buck, we all did," Tanner said.
"Yeah, I saw it, still can't say I believe it. How do we get it out of him if the damn thing is alive?" Wilmington asked.
"I don't know. Maybe one of us could ride fer Nathan," the tracker answered.
"Vin, I don't think either of us is going anywhere until that sandstorm passes," Standish informed them as he looked out the window.
Vin turned an anxious gaze his way, before standing and joining the conman at the window. He swore softly as he saw the wall of sand, twisting as if with a life of its own just beyond the well kept landscape. There was something about the storm the way the storm seemed anchored in place, seemingly keeping them prisoner. Wilmington joined his two friends, three sets of eyes studying the writhing storm beyond the safety zone.
"There's something strange about the way it's just setting out there," the mustached man whispered.
"It's exuding qualities I've never seen before in such a storm," Standish blustered, using big words to hide his fears.
"Ain't seen one like it b'fore," the tracker agreed, studying the way the sand seemed to roll from top to bottom and side to side, yet stayed in exactly the same position. He turned back to the bed and stood straight, testing his back and amazed the pain was no longer there. Briefly he wondered if he could leave Buck and Ezra to care for Chris while he rode through the storm to bring help back.
"What are you thinking about, Vin?" Wilmington asked, seeing a new determination in the younger man's eyes.
"Ridin' ta the nearest town for a sawbones..."
"Thirty miles in the desert in a sandstorm...yeah that makes sense," was Wilmington's slightly sarcastic reply.
- Vin frowned, frustrated by their inability to find a way to help their friend. Finally he looked away form the injured man and drawled softly. "Fort's close by...I can ride there. they got a doc..."
"Vin, I don't think that would be advisable. The storm seems to be growing stronger with each passing minute!" Standish exclaimed.
"Chris needs help, Ez. Ain't nothin' more ta do but get a doctor an' bring 'im 'ere," Tanner hissed, watching the gunslinger's pain streaked face.
"There's gotta be another way, Vin!" the ladies' man said, his eyes returning to the devil storm beyond the windows.
"I'm listenin' if'n ya got a better idea!" the tracker exclaimed.
"Maybe we could all ride out," the rogue said, wondering why he suddenly felt the need to escape the Inn.
"Chris can't travel, Buck," Standish supplied.
"I could hold him like before," Wilmington assured them.
"I don't know, Buck. He's lost a lot of blood and we move 'im 'round anymore he's gonna bleed out!" Tanner snapped.
"Well, if you leave for town things ain't gonna be much better. You could be stuck in that storm and killed...what happens then?"
+ + + + + + +
Lilith stood outside room 17, listening anxiously to the conversation taking place inside. She knew she had to stop them from taking Chris Larabee from the Inn. She felt the Inn shift around her and realized the souls trapped within were trying to get through to the newcomers. Columber would not allow that to happen and she heard their anguished screams as they felt his presence in their midst. Some of the souls within the walls were strong, but they were no match for the evil that permeated the living structure. She closed off the cries of pain and returned her attention to the people in the room. She needed to take their minds off leaving and she knew the Chosen one would be the means to doing that. Closing her eyes she concentrated on sending her thoughts and projecting her image into Chris Larabee's mind.
"You must not allow them to take you away from me, Chris. Look at me...don't let them take you away. I need you! I can ease your pain...make you feel well and strong again. You want that, don't you, Chris?"
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the soft lilting voice inside his head and felt her presence as he slowly opened his eyes. There were voices in the room, ones he should know, but all he wanted was the soft voice that took the pain from his body. He saw her in the corner of the room, her beauty far beyond anything he'd ever seen before. Her jet black hair cascaded over her shoulder, framing her face and enhancing the softness he saw there. Her eyes were as dark as ebony, yet there was so much life in them, so much softness, that he felt lost in their depths. He didn't know her name, but he knew that he needed her, wanted her, and craved her. He struggled up in the bed, oblivious of the twisting object in his side, and the blood pooling under him. His hands reached for the vision before him.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was the first to notice the movement on the bed and he brushed past Standish and Wilmington in his haste to stop Larabee from further harm. The distance to the bed was small and he covered it just in time to catch the blond before he tumbled to the floor.
"What the hell'd ya think yer doin'?" he snapped as Larabee struggled in his grasp.
"Ya need ta stay still!" Tanner snapped.
"Listen to Vin, Chris! Lie down and let us take care of you!" Wilmington's voice was laced with worry and fear.
"He's bleeding pretty bad again, Vin!" Standish exclaimed, reaching for the towel on the dresser.
"Put pressure on it, Ez!" the rogue ordered, frowning as Larabee continued to reach for something only he could see.
"Lie him back, Vin!" the conman ordered.
"Chris, ya need ta listen ta me!" the sharpshooter told the injured man.
+ + + + + + +
Lilith looked towards the stairs and watched as Maria and Galla climbed the stairs towards her. She knew she'd distracted the three men from the wall erected by Columber and hoped that the meal supplied by her husband and the lower demon would be enough to keep them here until the high Priest was ready to show Larabee what was expected of him. She began pulling back her powers, knowing she'd need to renew them before long. She smiled as her husband handed her the thin broth that would be fed to the chosen one. She would make sure he drank all of the liquid, knowing it would enhance his emotions and pain, giving Columber a stronger hold over his soul.
+ + + + + + +
Chris saw the heavenly vision fading before his eyes and renewed his efforts to get to her. His strength left him and he flopped back against the pillows, crying out as the embedded object stabbed against him before lying dormant once more.
"Vin!" Standish and Wilmington cried as they watched their friend and leader drop back on the bed.
Vin took a deep breath, finding the strength he needed to reach out and touch the gunslinger's neck. Relief washed over him as he felt the steady rhythm just below the surface.
"He's okay," Tanner said, smiling weakly as Larabee's eyelids flickered and finally opened. He waited for the glazed orbs to focus on him and wished he could take away the pain he saw in them.
"Right here, Cowboy. How're ya feelin'?"
"Yeah, ya got some fever there," the tracker said, looking up as he heard movement outside the door.
"Not sure...some Inn in the middle o' nowhere," the tracker answered as Vin and Buck went to help the Inn's owners with the meal they were carrying.
"Hello, my name is Lilith and I have some broth for you," the demoness said as she moved to the bed.
Chris was startled by the beautiful vision come to life before his eyes. He couldn't tear his gaze from her eyes as she moved in beside the bed. Something about her warmed him inside, yet his mind tried to grasp why it also chilled him to the bone. He wanted to touch her, but he didn't have the strength as he continued to stare as if hypnotized. His heart beat faster in his chest as she settled on the bed beside him and her hands reached out to touch his cheeks.
"You feel quite warm."
"...g...got a fever..." Larabee mumbled tiredly.
"That you do. Maria made some wonderful broth for you. Would you like to try some?" Lilith asked softly, her words as hypnotic as her gaze.
"You need to keep up your strength," the woman told him.
"She's right, Chris, you need to eat," Wilmington told him. He'd been studying the woman since she entered the room, wondering why something so beautiful lived so far from civilization.
"That's good, Chris. Now you three need to eat as well. I'll make sure Chris is taken care of," Lilith ordered.
"I can take..."
"Eat, V...Vin...n...need to e...eat...."
"Alright, Chris," the tracker answered, moving towards the small table where Galla and Maria set up the food and three chairs.
Chris frowned as he looked towards the younger man. Something was wrong, but he couldn't quite place what it was. The sound of the soft lilting voice made him forget his thoughts as he looked back at the woman seated beside him.
"Vin's fine, Chris. He just needs to eat and sleep," Lilith told him as she began spooning the broth into the blond's mouth.
Chris rested against the pillows, accepting the warm, savory broth. Something tasted different, but he put it down to whatever herbs they used here. He had no idea how long it took her to feed him, but instead of growing stronger with the nourishment, his body seemed to be weaker. He wanted to pull away from the offering, but accepted spoonful after spoonful as her eyes drilled into his.
+ + + + + + +
Vin watched as the woman cared for his friend, eating the food before him without conscious thought. He could hear Ezra and Buck eating the meal that was placed before them, wondering why he suddenly felt so tired. His gaze flicked to the window, watching the storm that remained at the periphery of his vision.
"Vin, you okay?" Wilmington asked.
"Yeah...jest tired..." the tracker answered, yawning widely.
"You and me both," Standish said, sipping at the strong black coffee. He'd been watching the woman tending to Larabee and couldn't help but wonder at how easily Chris accepted her help. He wouldn't have been surprised to find the same thoughts running through Wilmington and Tanner's minds as well. He yawned tiredly as he picked up a biscuit and nibbled at it.
"If you gentlemen would like to take advantage of our rooms I will see that they are readied for you," Galla suggested.
"Think we'll jest stay here with Chris," the tracker told him.
"Our beds are comfortable," the demon tried. He smiled inwardly as the sleeping draught they'd laced the drinks with began to take affect and Standish dropped the half eaten biscuit onto the table.
"Looks like Ez was even more tired than he knew," Wilmington observed.
"...yeah...guess so..." the sharpshooter agreed, watching as the rogue soon joined his friend in sleep. Vin knew something was wrong as his own eyes began to close and he heard a sharp cry from the injured man.
"...Chris...' he drawled, before sinking into oblivion.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee felt he could breathe again as Lilith turned her gaze from him, releasing the hypnotic hold she had on him. He watched as his friends began to fall asleep over their meals and cried out as pain wracked his body once more. The splinter of wood began to pulsate as Galla and Maria joined Lilith at his bedside. He cried out as their eyes changed and flecks of a crimson tide raced through their pupils, until it obliterated the cornea and whites as well. He tried to move away, but their hands reached for him, touching him, filling his body and mind with a pain beyond mortal imagination.
"G...God..." he cried, and was jolted as if struck by lightning.
"Your God cannot help you here, Chris Larabee. You are the Chosen One and you will soon meet your Lord and Master. The high priest of hell will show you who you really are," Galla hissed, his fingers tracing the wound in Larabee's side, feeling the strength of the mark placed upon the lean gunslinger.
"...no..." Larabee gasped as Lilith and Maria stood on either side of Galla Shedim. The trio smiled at him, gaining strength from his misery, and he tried to turn away.
"Yes, you have come home and you have brought three wonderful sacrifices with you!" Galla continued to manipulate the embedded object, smiling as he caused the gunslinger to moan loudly as he writhed on the bed.
Chris tried to control his breathing, to supply his body with air, but the oxygen that entered his lungs burned a trail of fire down his throat. He felt consciousness slipping away as Lillith's soft voice replaced the harsh one that held nothing but pain.
"Sleep now, Chris Larabee, and when you awaken you will have no memory of this. You will not allow the others to leave or to take you out of here. You are the Chosen One and you must fulfil your destiny!"
"....chosen one..." Larabee mumbled as he slipped away.
"Well done, Lilith," Galla smiled as he released his hold on the injured side. Fresh blood rimmed the wound and he watched as his wife cleaned the area and placed a white bandage with an inverted cross embroidered on it over the wound. The cross faced inward to keep its presence away from prying eyes.
"He will sleep now, but only until Columber sends his visions to torment him. We must move the others out of the room."
"I will call upon our legions to help move them," the demon told her.
"Very well. Maria, see to their rooms."
"Yes, Mistress." The younger demoness smiled as she left the room.
"Lilith, you must replenish yourself," Galla told his wife.
"Yes, I am in need of energy. I will seek out a soul and take from it what I need."
"Why not seek what you need from one of the three at the table?"
"I would, but we both know Columber wants them left alone until the time is at hand. The Chosen One must be the one to decide their faith."
"I had forgotten," Shedim told her, his eyes darting around the room as if he feared being heard.
"You'd do well not to forget, Husband," she told him. Galla was a strong demon, stronger than most, but oft times he needed to be reminded of his rightful place. She turned her gaze from the man on the bed and walked out of the room. Her mortal body was weak and she would need to take what she needed before things grew worse. She knew the day would come when she would be so strong as to make this part unnecessary, but she would do it anyway. She enjoyed the feeling of power that came with draining a soul, and smiled as she walked towards the spiral staircase. The place she sought was below ground, off the wine cellar. There she would find what she sought. She smiled as she heard the screams and cries of those imprisoned within the walls, drawing from the pain she knew their troubled spirits felt.
+ + + + + + +
"We need to stop for the night," Sanchez said, reining his animal to a halt.
"But you said it's important that we get there!" Dunne stated, stopping beside the older man.
"It is, Son, but it's also important that we rest and cleanse our own souls," Sanchez said, feeling a presence near them and understanding that it meant them no harm.
"Cleanse our souls? How?" the young Bostonian asked, as Jackson and Sanchez dismounted.
"There are many ways to cleanse your soul, JD. Some folks think you can only do so by speaking with a preacher or a nun or someone else involved in ministry, but that's not the case. I've been on my own a lot of years and most times there wasn't anywhere or anyone I could go to and pray. I learned a lot over the years, and one of those things was that God heard you no matter where you were. If you're willing to talk to him, he's more than willing to listen. Sometimes his answer may not always be clear, but rest assured he's heard you and is watching over you," the ex-preacher smiled as he spotted a wisp of white flickering light hovering over a circle of stones not far from where they stood. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and darkness would soon be upon them.
"JD, take care of the horses while I get a fire going," Jackson said, watching as Sanchez walked into the twilight of early evening.
"Sure, Nate," the kid said, taking the reins and ground tying them where they could reach the water and dry grass. He frowned, wondering how Sanchez had managed to lead them to this place without even trying. The older man just rode through the day, stopping briefly to eat and read from the dog-eared bible he always carried.
"No point in questioning it, JD," Jackson explained as he watched the emotions flit across the younger man's face.
"I don't get it, Nate. How did Josiah know this was here?"
"I don't think he did, JD. Remember our dreams?"
"Yeah." Dunne answered, shivering as the images flashed through his mind.
"Do you question what you saw in them or that we have to get to the others?"
"N...no...it's just that I've never been one to pray much. Not since Mama died. I just didn't think God cared about me anymore."
"He does, JD. He cares for all of us. I think we were all brought together in Four Corners for a reason. Not just for the Seminole village, but because this day was coming. I think God took Chris' family from him so they wouldn't have to see him face the tests to come. I'm not sure, but I think whatever evil is after Chris would've used his family as a means to that end."
"Can we win against the evil, Nathan?"
"We can if we keep faith, Son, believe in what's in your heart and it'll go far to winning the battle ahead," the healer explained.
"I'll try, Nathan, just wish we knew what we're supposed to do."
"So do I, JD, so do I." Jackson turned back to watch as the older man continued further out into the desert, wondering what the ex-preacher would find out there.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah Sanchez closed his eyes and let his mind wander. He knew something was leading them, knew they'd have to follow if they wanted to help their friends. He felt someone touch him, but not with flesh. The touch was more of a whispery hand sliding through him, touching against his heart, melding with his soul. Step after step he felt the heat of the day retreating with the chill of the night. He continued onwards, unaware of his two companions watching him from the campsite.
His legs refused to move any further and he opened his eyes. Darkness surrounded him, absolute in every way. No star shone in the sky overhead, no round moon looked down on him. Nothing seemed to be alive around him. Nothing moved, not even the breath of a wind, yet there seemed to be a chill in the air. His gaze came to rest on the whispery white puff of light ahead of him and he smiled as a woman's soft features came through and a voice whispered inside his mind.
"You must hurry, Josiah, for the time will soon be at hand. They have chosen him to be the sentinel and you must stop him before he pledges his soul and the souls of every living thing to the dark demon. Stay on the path you see in your heart and you will get there when you are needed. Keep Nathan Jackson from harm, he will be needed when this journey ends."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Anahita, and I am here to help you...all of you, but only a mortal can save Chris Larabee. My journey will end once the three of you arrive at he Inn of Lost Souls."
"Inn of Lost Souls?" Sanchez asked, knowing in his heart what the place was.
"Yes, it is an evil place and must be defeated completely this time or you and your friends, and everyone else will be doomed to live out eternity in the bowels of hell."
"What happens to Chris if we cannot help him?"
"He will live as a mortal...a sentinel at the gates of hell. He will watch as the six of you are devoured by the demon legions...but your fate would not end there...and neither would his. Chris would be forced to make each of you a follower of the darkness. To watch as you, JD Dunne, Nathan Jackson, Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, and Vin Tanner become like puppets to the high priest of Hell."
"Chris Larabee has a heavy load to bear..."
"You all do, for it will be the six of you who save him...and it will be then and only then that he can face his own fight."
"We'll do what must be done," Sanchez assured her.
"I know you will, Josiah. You have a pure heart and it will go a long ways in convincing the others that what they see is real. That what you seek is through a false storm and the answers await you on the other side. I will remain with you until you reach the final leg of your journey. Rest, eat, and be strong, for the fight for mankind is very near."
"We will, Anahita," he whispered as she disappeared. He turned back to the camp, knowing sleep would be a long time in coming for all of them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris knew it was a dream, knew it as sure as he knew his name was Chris Larabee, yet this dream was no less real. He watched as his hand reached for one of the long slender blades on the altar. Vin Tanner lay on the stone table, his wrists and ankles bound so tightly that blood pooled around them. The crimson fluid shone in the light from a thousand candles burning brightly in the chamber. He heard a voice chanting, and realized the nonsense words and phrases were issuing from his own arid mouth.
"Omni...insi...rashando...somni..." he shook his head, feeling the blood dripping from the mark that was placed on his forehead as he closed his eyes and tried once more to fight the power cast over him.
"You must continue...you are The Chosen One and must give us what we need. Cut out his heart so that we all will feast on his power."
Chris recognized the voice, yet could not place it. He felt the shadows moving all around him, just out of his sight, yet their power was unmistakable. Darkness began to obliterate the light and he knew he was losing the battle to remain within it. He felt his stomach churn and knew he had no choice but to obey. He lifted the knife high overhead and began the chant once more.
+ + + + + + +
Vin knew it had to be a dream, yet he could not seem to wake from it. His eyes were open and he could see Chris Larabee standing over him. He lifted his head and looked down at his body, wincing as pain erupted from his ankles and wrists. An inverted cross had been drawn over his heart and Larabee held a knife over the center of the bloody image. The tracker watched with fascination as a droplet of blood dripped from the end of Larabee's nose to land on the tip of the blade and begin to elongate until it was ready to drop onto his own bare skin. He gasped as Larabee lifted the knife high overhead and chanted in an unfamiliar tongue.
"Chris, don't do this!" he gasped as the blade began its decent towards his own body. he heard twin screams of rage and pain and his eyes drifted to the two men chained to posts on either side of the altar. They were naked, except for a strip of dark cloth wrapped loosely around the groin area. The sound of Larabee's voice brought his gaze back to the blond and he knew his life was about to be taken by his best friend, his blood brother.
"CHRIS!" he screamed.
+ + + + + + +
Buck could only watch as his long time friend raised the knife over his head and began to make a descending arc towards Vin Tanner's body. He had no idea whether he was dreaming or whether this was real, but the smell of blood and flames assaulting his nostrils, spinning his senses in a sickening spiral of despair. He heard Standish fighting the restrains holding his to the two crossed stakes and knew there was nothing either of them could do to save the two men.
"CHRIS!" he screamed.
+ + + + + + +
Standish shivered as he heard the hypnotic chant form Larabee, and his eyes caught on the tip of the blade as it began its journey towards the prone man on the altar. 'This can't be real!' he thought shivering as the a drop of blood appeared on the tip of the blade. He fought against his restraints, knowing it was hopeless yet there was nothing else he could do. As if in slow motion the drop left the blade and splattered against Tanner's pale skin.
"CHRIS!" he screamed.
+ + + + + + +
The evil watched from within as four men struggled through the dreams and nightmares wrought by the Inn itself and the demons living who resided there. Screams of pain could be heard, but not by the four men who laid in the exact same position on their beds. Arms spread wide, legs straight, sweat glistening on their chests and forehead.
Columber stood at the foot of Larabee's bed, the evil surrounding him as he chanted softly, filling the Inn with new energy as he waited for the time to be at hand.
He smiled as three men screamed out the name of the Chosen One and Larabee showed signs of waking. His own body began to shrink until a black crow flew onto Larabee's chest and glowing red eyes invaded the blond's dreams. He continued to torment the sleeping man until Larabee's eyelids flickered and began to open.
"I have chosen well, Chris Larabee. The time is almost at hand. With those words the crow flew from the bed and out the open window. A path in the swirling, twisting sand formed and he flew through it, wanting to see if the trio were coming. They would be needed to fulfil the prophecy and defeat the power of seven.
+ + + + + + +
The nightmares faded as the injured man shifted on the bed. For just a few seconds the evil was pushed back and pure white light spread across room seventeen. Words formed in ravaged throats as the voices cried out in unison.
The lost souls watched as the words were repeated by the gunslinger and prayed that he could free them. That he truly was the Chosen One, but not the one the evil thought he was.
+ + + + + + +
Chris opened his eyes, wondering at the strange room he was in. He felt tired beyond belief, but could not remember why. He moved on the bed, moaning softly as he was reminded of the source of the almost constant pain he was in. He closed his eyes and tried to ride out the rising tide of nausea churning through his stomach. A soft voice from the door caught his attention and he found himself lost in the dark, almost hypnotic orbs looking at him.
"Who are you?" he asked, surprised by the weak, raspy quality of his own voice.
"Hello, Chris. My name is Lilith Shedim and you are in my home. We met last night, but it is understandable that you do not remember. How are you feeling this morning?" She walked towards the bed, a tray held between her hands as she crossed the dark floor. She knew of the nightmares visited on him by Columber's power and relished the weakened spirit she felt inside him.
"Again, understandable. You and your friends were caught in a storm of some magnitude yesterday and you were injured." She placed the tray on the table and removed the lid from the bowl.
"I...injured?" Larabee asked, moaning as the aroma from the broth caused his stomach to rebel even more.
"That's right, your friends were very worried about you," Lilith explained.
"Where are they?" the blond searched the area, knowing something must've happened or at least one of his friends would be there when he woke up. He saw the woman smile as she placed a cloth over his chest and began feeding him whatever was in the bowl. He ate automatically, not understanding why he gave in so easily when he felt this lousy.
"They are still sleeping. As I said, yesterday was exhausting to all of you. They stayed with you until they fell asleep, Galla and I moved them to their own rooms so they could be more comfortable. Would you like me to wake them?"
"N...no...not if they're t...tired," Larabee said, as she continued to feed him the liquid from the bowl. He felt something moving inside him, and was again reminded of the wound in his side.
"Would you like me to take a look at it?" Lilith asked, placing her hand on the white bandage.
"...no...Vin will do it..." the blond moaned softly. The instant her hand touched the wound, his body began to burn. He cried out as beads of sweat formed on his brow, and Lillith's hands swept across his forehead.
"I know you're in pain, Chris..."
"...don't..." he hissed as her touch continued to cause him discomfort. He squirmed under her hands as darkness rose up to surround him and he was sent back into the nightmare realm from which he'd only just escaped.
"Sleep well, Chris, and feel the darkness where you belong," Lilith told him as she pulled the blanket over him once more.
+ + + + + + +
They'd been riding since dawn brightened the sky, yet the three men knew the journey was only just beginning. Each man woke to the soft cry of 'CHRIS' on the lips of the others and knew they must hurry.
Josiah led them and made sure they did not deviate from the course they were given. His eyes wondered over the stark landscape. The heat emanating from the ravaged dustbowl, with little or no life to be seen or heard. He patted the animal he rode and kept the steady pace, knowing Jackson and Dunne were following close behind. He turned slightly to the right and spotted the youngest member of the group. JD had changed since joining the family, his strength and weaknesses making him a better man than most. He turned to the left and realized Jackson also had strengths and weakness....all of them did, and it was those strengths and weaknesses that would see them through the hell that lay ahead of them.
"You okay, Josiah?" Jackson asked as he felt the older man watching him.
"I'm fine, Brother, just thinking on the journey we've undertaken."
"It's gonna be a hard one," the healer said.
"Yes, it is," Sanchez agreed turning towards the northeast once more. His eyes easily picked out a black spot high over his right shoulder. An object that seemed to be keeping pace with them, shadowing their every move.
"Josiah, is that one of your crows?" Dunne asked as he caught up to the older man.
"It's a crow, Son, but it's not just a harbinger of death. This one is death itself...a promise of hell. We won't let you have any of them...You hear me? Chris Larabee will not become a puppet to your evil!" Sanchez snarled, his voice soft, yet holding a strength the others had never heard before.
JD watched as the black bird with crimson eyes dipped towards them before flying high overhead. A loud squawk reached their ears before the bird disappeared ahead of them.
"We're on the right track," Sanchez said, taking a deep breath as he realized who had been watching them. They'd need to call upon all of their faith in order to win this battle.
"How much further?" Jackson asked.
"Unknown. I don't think we're dealing with normal times here, Nathan," Sanchez told him.
"Then how will we know we're in the right place?" the Bostonian asked.
"We'll know, Son, believe me, we'll know," the older man said, his gaze once more on the path that lay ahead of them.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked around the room and tried to figure out where he was. His mind slowly backtracked until he remembered the flight through the hellish storm. He rubbed at his temples as more memories returned. He sat up quickly, throwing back the blankets in his haste to check on Chris Larabee.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know you were awake."
Tanner looked at the young woman who entered his room and recognized her from the night before.
"That's right, Senor. I was just coming to see if you were awake and would like to join your friends for breakfast."
"Good morning, Vin," Wilmington said, leaning in through the door.
"Buck, where's Chris and Ezra?"
"Ezra's just gone to check on Chris. I thought I'd come get you and we'd go see if anything's changed. Maria and Lilith have brought breakfast to Chris' room."
"Let's go," Tanner stated, worried about why he couldn't remember leaving Larabee's room the night before. He stepped out the door into the hallway and realized he was at the far end of the Inn, and he knew he was under the tower. He shivered as he felt someone watching him, but when he turned towards his room he saw no one.
"You okay, Vin?" the ladies man asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Buck," he said as they reached Larabee's room. He stepped through the door and spotted the pale sleeping man in the bed. Standish was seated beside him placing a cloth over the sweat soaked forehead.
"How is he, Ez?" Wilmington asked.
"His fever's up more than yesterday," the conman told them. "Mrs. Shedim is bringing some willow bark tea and some ice."
"Ice?" Tanner asked in disbelief.
"That's correct. I was surprised as well, but then I realized nothing about this place should surprise me anymore," Standish told them as Lilith returned with the tea.
"You gentlemen need to eat and keep up your strength. I have the tea here and will get him to drink it while you partake of Maria's wonderful meal," the demoness told them.
"No, that's okay. I'll take care of 'im," Tanner told her, reaching for the cup and sitting in the chair vacated by the gambler.
"Very well. If there is anything else we can get you, don't hesitate to ask," Lilith Shedim told them before leaving the room.
Tanner reached out and touched Larabee's bare shoulder and watched as the blond showed signs of waking up. Without realizing he was doing so, the tracker slowly massaged the older man's neck in an effort to wake him. He hoped his touch would ease the blond's torment, but a soft moan told him it wasn't working.
"Ya gonna sleep the day away, Lar'bee?" He smiled as the gunslinger moved until he was facing him.
"Right here. Got somethin' fer ya ta drink."
"Horse piss." The tracker grinned as he placed the cup before the slack lips. He watched the look of distaste form on the pale face as the older man fought to drink the bitter brew. Larabee drank half the cup before turning away.
"...'nough..." the blond said and shifted on the bed. The blankets slid down his chest and revealed the bandage covering the wound.
"Gonna need ta check that," the tracker warned.
"Leave it...until we g...get home."
"I don't think that's a good idea, Chris," Wilmington said from the opposite side of the bed.
"N...Nathan'll do...do it..."
"Chris, the storm is still raging outside and we don't know how long it will last. That thing in your side needs to come out post haste," Standish said, from his position at the foot of the bed.
"...it w...won't let y...you..." Larabee mumbled tiredly.
"What won't let us, Chris?" Wilmington asked.
"...a...alive...mov..ing...won't...Oh GOD!" he screamed as his body felt the shifting splinter in his side. It seemed to shift deeper and higher as if it wanted to take over every organ in is body. He felt Tanner's hand on his shoulder and anchored himself to the Texan's strength. 'Help me, Vin,' he thought as he lost the fight to stay awake.
"Vin, any idea how to proceed?" the conman asked.
Tanner narrowed his eyes as he looked around the room. Something about this place didn't feel right, yet there was nothing he could pin down. The storm outside kept them prisoners within the walls, keeping them from seeking the help the gunslinger needed. For now they were stuck here, and he vowed to make sure nothing else happened. Shaking his head he dropped his gaze back to the injured man, unable to think beyond the pain etched on the handsome face.
"Wish I knew. Ain't sure it's a good idea ta go diggin 'round in his gut again. Least the bleedin' seems ta have stopped," the tracker explained, touching the edge of the pristine white bandage.
"Least that's somethin'," the rogue said, walking to the table and pouring three cups of coffee. He watched as Maria, and a man walked into the room.
"The Senora said you wished to have some ice," the young demoness told them.
"Yes...please..." Wilmington told her.
"Roberto, put it on the table," Maria explained. "Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank ya," the tracker said, wondering why he felt the need to get the two newcomers out of the room.
"Do not hesitate to send for me if you need something more," she said, following Roberto from the room.
"Vin, Chris is sleeping. Why don't you come eat," Wilmington suggested.
The tracker took one last look at the sleeping gunslinger and finally stood up. He walked across the room and sat at the table. Lifting the fork he began picking at the Mexican omelette, but the spicy aroma soon enticed his appetite until he'd devoured the meal.
+ + + + + + +
Columber gazed out over his legion of demons. The fires of hell burnt all around them, yet they provided little or no heat. Male and female creatures were unidentifiable here in their rightful forms. Some measured less than two feet, while others measured well over ten feet tall. Some had glistening pustules covering their bodies, while others had skin as smooth as a newborn babe. There were vile creatures whose breath alone could kill the strongest of God's creatures. All were naked, as clothing was not needed to cover their flesh. His eyes came to rest on Galla and Lilith Shedim. They were two of his strongest followers and he smiled at them, a smile that held no warmth.
"The Chosen One has arrived!" His elongated hands rose above his head twisting and knotting as he opened a portal to room 17 at he top of the staircase. He heard the demonic roars of approval and smelled the lust for blood and human flesh. He watched as heads swivelled on imperfect bodies, red eyes glued to the scene in the room.
"Has he been prepared?" Columber asked, again looking at Gall and Lilith.
"He drank the potion, his body rests, but his mind is open for you, Highness!" Galla answered.
Columber panned room 17, watching as the three men seemed ensconced in the meals set before them. He knew they would remain blissfully unaware of his movements as he turned back to the man chosen as the next sentinel. His eyes their darkness, filling with liquid fire as he sent his mind in search of the weakened one so far above this chamber. He heard the hissing chant as he left the room, and the words remained with him as his demonic essence traveled freely without the weight of a body.
+ + + + + + +
Chris felt something invading his mind and fought against it. He heard the silken voice chanting, soon joined by others inside his head, and still he fought the exotic pull.
'No!' he whispered, his dreams more real than he'd ever known them to be. He opened his eyes, to find himself trapped in a nightmare realm. The landscape was littered with dead wildlife, unrecognizable in their death throes. Twisted trees, with blackened roots and red veined leaves, dropped red liquid onto the ground. The smell of death and decay followed him everywhere he turned. He knew he had to find his way out of the hell surrounding him, but no matter where he turned everything looked the same. Heat bled from the dead earth, sapping whatever moisture might be hidden within the soil or roots. He bean shifting on his feet as the heat penetrated his boots and burned into his skin. The desolate landscape promised nothing and delivered less. He turned left to right, back to front as sounds finally penetrated his mind. Something was here with him, something big, something evil, something that scared him far beyond anything he'd ever known.
His feet seemed leaden as he tried to move, and he cried out as something snagged in his duster, tearing it from his body. Something warm ran down his back and he knew the sharp talons had touched not only the black material, but his skin as well. His feet seemed mired in mud as he continued to try and escape whatever was chasing him. As if in slow motion he ran ahead...stepping over the bodies where he could, but crying out when he couldn't make the leap and landing in a squelchy unrecognizable mass.
The sound returned, bringing with it more terror, more hopelessness as again the talons reached for him. This time his body stopped abruptly and he felt himself being turned. He closed his eyes, breathing in the nauseating odor that went with whatever held him captive. The words were familiar to him and he began to repeat them without realizing what he was doing.
His eyes opened and he looked into a dark maw, filled with razor sharp teeth and glistening with blood and bile. He tried not to breathe as his body was lifted from the ground until he was face to face with the vilest creature he'd ever seen.
"You are The Chosen One and you will soon take your rightful place!"
"Yes!" The taloned hand reached up and wrapped around his throat and Chris felt as if he would never breathe again.
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis walked along the dusty street, the fresh edition of The Clarion news clutched tightly in one hand. The story on the front page was one she was proud of, yet she knew some of the people in Four Corners would not appreciate seeing the heroism displayed before them. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were heroes in her eyes.
"Good morning, Gloria," she said as she stepped into Potter's store.
"Good morning, Mary. Anything interesting in this morning edition?" the older woman asked, reaching for the newspaper.
"Actually, yes," the blond answered, smiling as she passed the copy across the counter.
"HOME TOWN HEROES!!!" the woman read the bold black headline. She looked up at the beaming newspaper woman an equal smile plastered on her own face.
"Chris and Vin saved that little girl and helped with Clark's trial. The child has now gone home with her grandparents," Mary explained.
"Oh, this is really gonna rile Mr. Conklin. It's gonna ruffle his feathers for sure. Have the others seen this?"
"N...no. Josiah came to me earlier saying they had to meet Chris and the others. Yosemite and a few others will be keeping an eye on things until hey get back."
"Did he tell you how long they'd be gone?"
"No. Josiah just told me they needed to leave right away," Mary explained, looking towards the doors as a strong wind gusted outside.
"Something's in the air," Gloria Potter said, shivering as if someone had walked over her grave.
"Yes, there is," was all Mary said. She moved towards the door, her eyes drawn to the bright orb overhead. The sun seemed to have a reddish caste to it this morning and she prayed it wasn't a harbinger of things to come.
'Where are they now?' she wondered as she bid good day to the storekeeper and moved quickly down the street.
+ + + + + + +
Vin continued to use the ice to cool the gunslinger's body, but nothing seemed to work. He swore Larabee was hot enough to warm up the coldest room. The blond hadn't moved since he'd woken earlier that day, adding to their worries and fears. He looked up as Wilmington and Standish moved towards him.
"Vin, me and Ezra are gonna go see if there's a way through that thing out there!" the rogue explained.
"Ya'd best not get close ta it!" Tanner warned.
"Am I to assume you think there's something ominous with this tempest?" Standish asked, trusting the tracker's instincts.
"Somethin...jest don't know what," the Texan drawled. He looked out the window once more. His fears were well grounded as he watched the swirling maelstrom of twisting sand. It moved like nothing he'd ever seen before, the sand twisting and collapsing in onto itself only to be lifted more violently and sent even higher into the air. It spiralled left to right as if shifting of its own volition. He knew if his two friends got too close they'd be picked up and lost inside forever.
"Yeah, that's what me and Ezra think too," the ladies' man whispered in awe of the wall of sand.
"Jest watch yer backs," the tracker ordered.
"We shall endeavor to do so," Standish assured the younger man before following the rogue through the door.
Vin turned back to the job of cooling down the gunslinger. The blond's face was pale, almost bloodless in its sickly appearance and he cursed in frustration at the heat emanating from the lean body. He watched as Larabee's eyes began to move behind the closed lids and held his breath, hoping the older man was waking up. He was rewarded when a sharp cry left the slack lips and the eyes shot open.
+ + + + + + +
Columber felt Larabee's returning consciousness and knew it was time to leave his mind. He repeated the chant once more, smiling as The Chosen One continued to fight him. He fled the room, smiling as he entered his body and looked out over his minions.
"He is strong and will bring us many years on this earth."
"What about the others? Is it wise to allow them to stay? Would it not be better to destroy them now?" came a hoarse hiss from a demon standing under the portal
"YOU DARE QUESTION MY PLANS?" Columber raged, fisting his left hand and sending a shock of stark red light hurtling towards the demon who'd spoken. The creature writhed under the power as the red light pulsated and grew to engulf the twisting figure until it exploded in a spray of flesh, bone and cartilage. The screams dying with the demon as its blood sizzled in the cold flames surrounding it.
"Would anyone else like to question my plans?"
"No, Highness!" issued from the writhing creatures that dominated the area.
Columber's eyes sparkled with the red light that had engulfed he lower demon and he knew there would be none who defied him. These creatures were his, they belonged in hell, and there they would remain for eternity. He felt the lost souls residing inside the Inn and knew once The Chosen One gave over his soul, they would also be doomed to life in the fires of Hades.
"The time is almost upon us! Chris Larabee will soon make the choice between light and dark! Nothing can stop us once we dominate the world above!"
The chant began anew as Chris Larabee struggled to awaken from the nightmares that plagued him.
+ + + + + + +
"Easy, Pard, ain't nothin' 'ere!" the Texan said, hoping to sooth the fear he saw on his friend's face.
"...s...something...Vin...chasing..." the blond's breathing was labored as he fought to remember what had filled his dreams.
"Ain't nothin' 'ere now..." he tried, but Larabee's green eyes darted left to right, searching the shadows for something only he could sense.
"Yeah, I got yer back, Chris, ain't gonna let nothin' near ya!" the tracker vowed, rinsing the cloth in the ice water and placing it across the perspiration soaked brow.
Chris knew the younger man would try his damndest to keep that vow no matter what. But he also understood there was something here that even Tanner couldn't save him from. He glanced around the room, this time searching for two men he knew were real. Frowning he turned back to the Texan.
"Ezra and Buck?"
"Went ta check out the storm."
"No point...no way through," Larabee whispered. His eyes closed and he sank back into the nightmares once more, unaware of the worried man watching over him.
+ + + + + + +
"This way, Ezra," Wilmington said as they exited the Inn via the main doors.
"Wouldn't it be more prudent if we split up?"
"Might be more prudent, but I don't think it's a good idea. I think we need to stick together."
"Perhaps you're right," the conman agreed, his eyes slowly taking in the extent of the storm.
"Did you say something, Buck?"
"Yeah, just saying it's strange how the damn thing just sits there."
"It is bizarre how it doesn't seem to come any closer, staying just outside the perimeter of the Inn itself," Standish agreed, his voice low, as if he feared being overheard by the swirling, dizzying barrier.
"It does seem to be getting higher though!" Wilmington said, walking slowly around the side of the house. He felt someone watching him and looked up at the second floor windows. The curtains were drawn, the windows closed, and he could see nothing inside.
"Are you alright?" Standish asked when the rogue came to a sudden stop.
"Yeah...just thought we were being watched."
"That does not surprise me!"
"No. I've felt that way since our arrival," the conman told him, moving in front of the ladies man. Silence reined as the two men continued around the house, stopping several times to watch the raging wall of sand.
"The damn thing seems alive," the ladies man said, when they'd completed the circuit.
"Yes, it certainly has a malevolent quality to it."
"Oh...yeah...it does seem to be all of those. I just hope it ends soon. We need to get help for Chris."
"Yes, we do. Shall we check on the horses?"
"Might as well. Knowing Pony and Peso they're giving the stable hands a hard time."
The two men walked side by side towards the large stable and pulled open the door. The interior was dark with the only light coming from the loft at the back of the structure. Several sharp blades hung on one wall, halters and branding irons on another. Half a dozen stalls ran along the left side, and the men smiled as they heard the animals whinny softly.
"Looks like someone's missed us," Wilmington said, moving into the stall holding his big gray. He watched Standish move into the one next to him and begin running his hands through the horse's mane. He reached for some fresh hay and held it to the gray's mouth.
"At least they have good feed here," Standish observed as he moved to check on Peso.
"Probably eating better than they do in Four Corners," Wilmington agree, stepping into the stall that held Pony. He knew Yosemite provided well for the animals under his care, but he'd never seen feed so fine in his years of riding.
"Perhaps we should return to our comrades," Standish said, when they'd finished checking the horses.
"Yeah., wish there was something more we could do."
"Until this hellish gale dies there is nothing for us but to remain within the walls of the Inn." Standish led the way out of the stable as the daylight dwindled around them. This were several things that bothered him about the wall of sand. The sky above was clear blue, not a cloud in sight, yet the sun didn't seem to have passed anywhere overhead. The howling wind could barely be heard, yet the strength of the storm hadn't dissipated. Finally the thing that bothered him the most was the way the sand remained in place...not a granule seemed to have entered the Inn's domain. They made it to the door and entered the foyer once more.
+ + + + + + +
The house seemed to breathe as if its hunger was sated, but the souls within understood that the feeding had not even begun. The walls continued to undulate as darkness overtook the light of day, leaving the living structure to bathe in the absolute darkness. The land that was lush and fertile in the light of day became blackened and lifeless with the advent of night. The lost souls cried out their terror and pain as another night would be spent in the horror that permeated the interior. Millions of tiny red eyes flickered open, sighing their contentment at not having their orbs burnt by the white light of day.
+ + + + + + +
In the shelter of the barn, four horses fought against the ropes holding them in their stalls. They felt the change in the air, the shifting from light to dark and the smell of fear surrounded them. Pony beat against the stall, Peso tugged on the ropes as their stable mates joined their struggles. A screeching sound penetrated the barn, the shrill whistle carried with it a soothing quality that affected the horses, lulling them into a sense of calm.
+ + + + + + +
Vin looked up from bathing the heated body of the gunslinger as muffled footsteps sounded just outside the door. He didn't understand why he was so tense, but he didn't question his instincts. His hand rested against his weapon, but relaxed as Standish and Wilmington entered the room.
"How's he doin', Vin?" the rogue asked, making his way to the opposite side of the bed.
"He's hot...can't seem ta cool 'im down none," the tracker answered.
"The ice is not helping?" Standish asked.
"Nothin's helpin'. We need ta get help fer 'im!" Tanner snapped tiredly.
"Well, there ain't no way out until that damn storm ends. Me and Ez walked 'round the place. Ain't no break in it anywhere. Just seems ta sit there as if it's..."
"Waiting for something," the conman finished.
"Y...yeah," the ladies' man stammered.
"Dammit!" Tanner hissed, leaning tiredly back in the chair. His back may have felt better, but hours of sitting in this chair had done him no good. He winced and unconsciously rubbed at his lower back before looking once more at the man lying no the bed.
"Vin, you need to get some rest," Standish suggested, knowing the younger man would remain ignore his own discomfort if it meant he was helping Larabee.
"...gonna go lie down and let me look after Chris," Wilmington finished with Larabeesque authority
"Buck, I don't want him left alone," Tanner gazed at the two men and knew they understood how worried he was. He could see the same fear in their eyes.
"Look, Vin, he ain't gonna be alone. You can't sit up all the time. Me and Ez can sit with him for a spell too. Now you go on and get some rest. Ezra, I'll take the first shift."
"Alright, Buck, you call me in four hours." Standish agreed
"I will," the rogue said, turning a steady gaze on the tracker. "Go on, Vin. Get some sleep. He'll need us all rested before we can figure out what to do."
"Alright, Buck, jest don't leave 'im alone," Tanner warned, standing up and moving away from the bed. He took one last look at the injured gunslinger before turning towards the door.
"I won't," the ladies man whispered as his two friends left him alone in the room. He picked up the cloth the sharpshooter had been using to wipe down the gunslinger and began talking softly to him as Larabee moaned and slowly opened his eyes.
"Hey, Chris, how're ya feelin'?"
"Buck?" the blond whispered, his voice weak and raspy.
"Right here, Pard. How're ya feelin'?" he repeated.
"I can see that. You just go ahead and rest. Ol' Buck's here ta look after you." He glanced over his shoulder when he heard footsteps outside the door. He relaxed when he saw the owners standing framed in the candle light, the woman held a tray in her hands as she entered the room.
"Good evening, Mr. Wilmington, I thought maybe Mr. Larabee could use a little broth and tea."
"Thank ya, Ma'am," the rogue said, turning back to the injured man as Larabee's right hand grasped his own tightly.
"D...don't want a...any..."
"Chris, ya need to keep drinkin'. Ya lost a lot of blood and Nathan always tells us ta drink as much as we can."
"Na...Nathan h...here?" the blond asked hopefully.
"Wish he was, but he ain't. Now, I know you're not feelin' very well right now, but Mrs. Shedim has brought you some broth and tea. I'm gonna help you drink it all. Okay?"
"...guess..." Larabee said, catching sight of something out of the corner of his eye. He turned slightly, but not in time to see the shadowy figure completely. He sensed rather than saw the grotesque disfigurement at the same time Buck lifted his head and helped him sip the tea. The strong odor made him nauseous, but he continued to drink as Lillith's eyes caught and held his own. He tried to tear his gaze away, but the hypnotic flow of colors through her dark orbs kept him enthralled as he drank more and more of the offensive tea.
Buck was surprised at how easily he managed to get the liquid down Larabee's throat. Once the cup was empty he reached for the broth and began ladling spoonful after spoonful into the blond. Once the bowl was empty he placed it back on the tray and turned to his hosts.
"Thank you for your help," he told them.
"You're welcome, Mr. Wilmington. If there is anything we or our staff can do for you, please don't hesitate to let us know," Galla Shedim told him.
"You've done so much already," the rogue assured them.
"We have only done what was needed. Where are your other friends?" Lilith asked, knowing the two missing men were already in their rooms.
"Taking a break," Wilmington told her, yawning and stretching tiredly.
"You look like you could do with some sleep yourself," the demoness whispered, her soft, seductive tone holding the younger man in a hypnotic trance.
"Am kinda tired..."
"Why don't you go to your room and sleep?"
"...no...Buck...stay..." Larabee pleaded weakly, fear entering his voice as he Wilmington didn't respond to his voice.
"You need to sleep, Mr. Wilmington...close your eyes and let your body relax..."
"...relax..." the mustached man's eyebrows furrowed as he tried to regain control of his own thoughts. "...no...can't...promised Vin I'd stay..."
"You can stay, but you must sleep," Lilith warned, placing her hands against both sides of his head and watching as the lids dropped over the blue eyes.
Chris tried to help his friend as the dark haired woman placed her hands on Wilmington. He saw her smile, yet there was no warmth in it as she continued to talk in a seductive tone to the rogue. He watched as the younger man seemed to fall asleep at her touch, grateful to see his friend's face relax in sleep. He lifted his gaze from the softly snoring ladies' man and was soon entranced with the crimson ones set in the beautiful face standing above him.
"You are The Chosen One, Chris Larabee. You will take your rightful place amongst the spawn of hell," the demoness smiled, revealing a mouth filled with death and decay.
Chris winced, a soft whimper escaping his throat as the woman's breath felt like fire in his lungs. He twisted and tried to move away, but the shadowy figure he'd caught sight of earlier, strengthened and formed into a familiar figure.
"...c...columber..." he managed, crying out as the object in his side began to twist and stab at his innards.
"We meet again, Chris Larabee..."
"You want to leave?" Columber asked, moving closer to the bed.
"I'm afraid that is impossible. You have been chosen, marked..." He lifted his hand and squeezed it into a fist, smiling as his victim's body arched upwards on the bed.
Chris screamed, but no sound escaped his throat. His body no longer belonged to him, but the pain was his own as Columber's fist squeezed tightly, cutting off his air supply as he did so. The splinter embedded in his body pushed against the pristine white bandage, before moving deeper into his body and lying dormant once more.
Columber continued for several more seconds before releasing his hold on the injured man's body. He smiled as Larabee dropped onto the bed, a tiny streak of red showing through the bandage. He knew the inverted cross would burn against the wound, helping to seal the damage done by the attack.
Chris dropped weakly back to the bed, gasping for air as the three figures in the room moved closer. He watched as Lillith's hand touched his side and removed the material from the wound. He lifted his head and managed to catch sight of the injury . The flesh around it was ragged and surrounded by a circle of red, yet what held his attention and sent fear through his mind was the upside down figure of a cross. He knew this was what had caused the burning sensation and closed his eyes.
"God cannot help you here, Chris Larabee. This is my domain. You will remain here until the time comes for you to take your proper place at the gates to hell. Until that time you and your friends will remain within the eye of the storm. You will sleep now, and when you awaken you will have no memory of what you saw. You will only remember your friend changing your bandages and helping you drink. There are many things you will need to see before the time of feasting is at hand."
Chris watched, entranced as Columber's body shrank in size, until once more he was in the form of a large black crow. The ominous bird flew up from the floor and landed on his chest, the crimson eyes bored into his own, and Larabee could not pull his gaze away.
"Sleep, Chris Larabee, for the time is not yet at hand and I must see to the men who think to rescue you."
"...no..." the blond whispered, his eyes began to close, but not before he saw Lillith's hands touch the ladies' man once more. He tried to fight Columber's hypnotic touch, but his eyelids closed as Wilmington's began to open.
"...need to get out of here...Buck," he whispered before surrendering to the nightmares wrought by the drugged tea and the all too real visions before him.
+ + + + + + +
Lilith easily maneuvered the unconscious body to his feet and helped him back to the bed where she let him drop back to the floor. She knelt beside him, speaking softly into his right ear.
"You will remember nothing of what happened except that you changed the bandage on his wound and gave him something to drink. You will feel very relaxed and refreshed when you wake up."
Galla watched as Columber lifted his wings and flew through the open window. He moved to the bed and smiled as he placed a new strip of material over the wound. Larabee moaned and tried to move away as the inverted cross touched his ravaged flesh, but was held fast by Galla's touch on his arm. The demon secured the cloth in place before moving out of the way once more.
+ + + + + + +
Buck shook his head and smiled at the woman who stood over him. He couldn't quite grasp where he was, and struggled to find the elusive memories. He rotated his shoulders, wondering why his body hurt so much. It wasn't something tangible, yet he felt like he'd gone a couple of rounds with one of the prize fighters he'd seen the last time he'd gone to Eagle Bend.
"What happened?" he finally asked, unable to shake the lethargy from his body and mind.
"You're in need of rest, Mr. Wilmington. You must have fallen asleep. You were lying on the floor when Galla and I came in. Perhaps you would like me to call one of your friends to sit with Mr. Larabee?" Lilith asked, helping the rogue into the chair beside Larabee's bed.
"N...no...that's okay...I'm fine now."
"Are you sure?" Galla asked, watching Lilith as she smiled sympathetically at the ladies' man.
"Yeah...feel fine now." He turned to the figure lying quietly on the bed and was relieved to see the features devoid of pain as he slept.
"Would you like something to eat?" the demoness asked softly.
""No...but I'd appreciate a coffee if that's possible."
"I shall see that there is fresh coffee available for you," Lilith told him.
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"You're welcome. Would you like me to bring you some new bandages for your friend's wound?"
"No, thanks, I already changed it," the ladies' man said, missing the smile on the woman's face as she took her husband's arm and left the room. He settled into the chair to watch over his friend, shivering as he felt a chill wind on his body. He looked towards the open window and hurried to close it. He stood momentarily, watching the shifting sands, before turning back to his vigil over Chris Larabee.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish was not sure of what woke him at such an ungodly hour. He remained on the bed, enjoying the luxurious feeling of soft sheets and down filled pillows. He knew he was not in Four Corners and that this was not his usual bed. He turned on his side, hoping to return to sleep, but found himself unable to do so in spite of the comfort. Sighing heavily he slid his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, running his hands threw his disheveled hair before standing and walking to the small vanity which held a mirror and a basin of clean water. He placed one hand on either side of the washstand, and blinked his eyes in rapid succession before staring at his own reflection.
"Maude would be appalled," he mumbled, snapping around as something in the mirror seemed out of place. His eyes swept the room, wondering what his mind had been unable to register as a chill swept through his body. Taking a deep breath he turned his attention back to the mirror and splashed water on his face in an effort to clear his mind.
"Must've been a remnant of my dreams," he mused softly, reaching for the soft towel beside the basin. He wiped the material over his face, unaware of the change that came over the water in the basin. A mist rose slowly from the now frigid liquid as Standish completed his task and turned away, missing the horrid image that formed in the vapor before it dissipated and was lost to the warmer air.
Ezra pulled on his boots and hurried from the room. He planned on going straight to Larabee's room, but turned instead towards the room at the end of the hall.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and knew he'd slept longer than expected. He licked at dry lips, before sitting up and sliding his legs over the edge of the bed. He rubbed at his eyes, pushing away the last remnants of sleep that lingered there. He sat for a few minutes, letting his mind grasp at the memories of the last week. From the time him and Chris returned to Four Corners and decided to go to Jasper, things had gone wrong. The only good thing to come of it was that Mindy Lawrence had found some happiness at the end of her terrible ordeal.
"Vin, can I come in?"
Tanner looked towards the door and nodded to the conman, as he rubbed at his lower back once more.
"Is your back bothering you again?" Standish asked worriedly.
"No...just slept the wrong way. You checked on Chris yet?"
"I was just about to check on him, but wanted to see if you were okay first."
"I'm fine. Jest a little tired." Tanner said, reaching for his buckskin jacket on the chair beside his bed.
"What's this?" Standish asked, picking up a small card that fell from the tracker's pocket.
"What?" the tracker asked curiously.
"This fell from your pocket. Do you have any idea what it is?"
"Never saw it b'fore. What's it say?"
"My Latin is not the best, but roughly translated it means something about hell and justice, but Vin..."
"What is it, Ez?" Tanner asked, hearing something new in the gambler's voice.
"The name on the card!"
"Caligo Furia Columber..."
"Yes, you don't suppose..."
"I don't know, Ez, but somethin' wasn't right with that lawyer."
"I agree. Vin do you mind if I keep this. Perhaps I can decipher the exact meaning of the Latin words."
"I sure as hell got no use fer it," Tanner said told him, watching as Standish put the card in his own pocket.
+ + + + + + +
Buck shivered as if cold fingers danced on his spine. Shuddering, he quickly turned away from the bed. Nothing moved in the room as his gaze swept over the pictures on the wall. He stood up and slowly walked towards them, wondering why it felt as if the eyes followed him wherever he moved in the room. It set his nerves on end, yet he knew it had to be a trick of the artist. Or perhaps it was the way the light danced off the canvas itself that caused the illusion. He ran his fingers across several of the paintings, but found nothing that could explain why they made him nervous. He turned back towards the bed, but stopped as footsteps sounded outside the room. His hand instinctively went to his gun, even as a relieved smile was born on his face as Tanner and Standish entered the room.
"Morning," the ladies man greeted.
"Good morning, Buck. How is Chris?" Standish asked.
"He's been sleepin' most of the night. Woke up long enough for me to change his bandage and get him to drink a little. How'd you boys sleep?"
"Actually, I slept rather well," the conman said, realizing he felt as if he'd slept better than he had in a long time.
"Slep' fine, Buck. Think ya need ta do the same," the sharpshooter said, walking towards the bed and taking a seat in the chair. Larabee's face had a washed out quality to it that didn't set well with the younger man. He wanted to touch the blond to make sure he was still with them, but he couldn't do it with the two men looking on.
"Guess I could use a little shut eye. You boys'll come get me if...well you know?"
"I'll see to it personally, Buck," the gambler assured him.
"Alright...he's still got a fever and I've been using the water to try and cool im down, but it ain't working very well," the ladies man explained.
"What about the sand storm?" Tanner asked, realizing he hadn't looked outside to check on the progress of the wall of debris.
"Still there. Kept checking it through the night, but the Goddamned thing is sittin' there as if it's waitin' for something!" Wilmington answered, as he moved to the window and looked at the offending storm.
"Go, Buck, get some sleep," Standish ordered.
"I'm gone...oh, Lilith and Galla said to holler if you need anything. She's been real good about bringin' things for Chris to drink. That pot on the table holds willow bark tea with a little cane sugar in it to make it taste a little better for him," the ladies man explained before leaving he room.
"Vin, are you okay?" the conman asked softly.
"Yeah...ain't me hurtin'," Tanner answered, his hand finding its way to Larabee's forehead.
'I wouldn't say that, my friend. I'd say you're hurting just as badly as our illustrious leader is right now, and I wish there was something I could do to help,' Standish thought, reading the pain in the tracker's blue eyes. He understood more about the relationship between these two men than most people. Theirs was a unique friendship, one bonded by a simple look, or a single word spoken. The kind that came once in a lifetime if a man was lucky enough to recognize it for what it was. The two men worked well together and he was glad he'd taken the chance to work with them. He watched as tanner picked up the cloth and with a gentleness not often displayed washed the perspiration from Larabee's forehead.
+ + + + + + +
Buck made his way to his room to the right of Larabee's and slipped inside the door. He closed it behind him as a wave of weariness washed over him and he sank down on the soft mattress. His body and mind were exhausted, yet he wondered if he could sleep, knowing his long time friend was in so much pain. He stood and pulled the blankets down before lying on the bed and closing his eyes. His body relaxed as his mind drifted towards sleep and he missed the changes in the room as the walls and furnishings rippled violently until the room became still once more.
Wilmington slept on, oblivious to the horror in which he slept. The mattress and bedding offered none of the promised comfort, the ladies' man wanted. The smell of putrefying flesh now permeated from the bed as spectral tendrils drifted up from below the rotted floorboards and hovered over the sleeping man. Taloned fingers formed and gently stroked the handsome face, touching the dreaming man in an effort to take some of the warmth from him. The body shivered, but did not awaken as the breath from his mouth turned cold and visible in the meager light admitted through the tattered curtains hanging haphazardly in the window.
"....ccc...cold..." the rogue mumbled through clenched teeth, but his eyes remained closed and his mind continued to be caught in dreams only he could see.