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JD knew they had to stop before the horses collapsed, but he felt an air of danger and the need to hasten their journey. He didn't want to be the one to cause their delay, but there was no choice as he saw Josiah's hardy steed stumble for the third time. He rode up beside the bigger man and waited for the ex-preacher to acknowledge his presence. The man's eyes were directed straight ahead, as if entranced by something only he could see.
"Josiah, we gotta stop," Dunne said sharply, hoping to get through whatever thoughts the man seemed to be harboring. "Did you hear me, Josiah?"
"I hear you and I know you're right, JD," Sanchez said, wearily pulling the horse to a stop. His shoulders slumped as he eyed the darkening horizon and he wished there was some way they could ride through the night.
"Nothing you can do about this, Josiah," Jackson said as he joined the two men. "The horses need to rest and so do we."
Sanchez spotted the darker outline of the bird sailing high overhead and his body trembled with determination.
"We won't let you take them!" he vowed, before dismounting and leaning heavily against his horse. He watched as the bird spiraled ever higher and disappeared into the night. His faith was no longer in question as he realized the upcoming fight was a tempest between heaven and hell, good and evil, and the soul of one man stood between light and dark. He felt a soft touch on his arm and turned to see wise hazel eyes set in an innocent face, yet he knew JD Dunne was not as innocent as it sometimes seemed. The young Bostonian had learned many things before he'd joined them to protect the Seminole village, yet none of them would prepare him for the upcoming battle. Taking a deep breath he placed his hand on the young man's shoulder and nodded towards a clump of boulders that could protect them from the wind that seemed to be picking up force.
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Vin's eyes grew wide as he felt himself losing his grip on the bigger man. Wilmington continued to stare at something only he was seeing and Vin knew the apparition was influencing his mind. The pain that had been dormant in his back came to life with renewed vigor as he fought to keep from losing his grip on the other man. Grunting from the exertion he again felt something grab at his arm and another thin stream of blood ran from a shallow wound there. He lifted his head, his eyes meeting the darkly glistening orbs set in the hideous face and renewed his grip as he felt the rogue being pulled away. He knew he could not let her win and cursed through tightly clenched teeth.
"HE IS NO LONGER YOURS!" the demoness shrieked as she twisted around to face him
"Vin!" Standish called as he raced towards the room, sliding to a stop as a scream of rage echoed off the walls. Ezra stood framed in the door, much the same way Tanner had done earlier. Shocked the gambler could only stare as he watched Vin struggle to hold onto their friend as a shadowy specter with crow colored hair and sharp talons reached for them. He saw blood on the tracker's arm and watched as a single drop landed on the floor only to disappear as if something thirsty for blood eagerly swallowed it up. The ghostly figure turned towards him, screaming inside his skull as the mouth opened to reveal rows of dagger like teeth embedded in bloodied gums. Sweat soaked through his shirt as he tried to move on trembling legs, soft sounds emanating from his suddenly arid throat.
Vin heard the soft mewling sounds and caught sight of the frozen gambler. He knew he could not hold on much longer, but could not find the strength to call to him. Their eyes met and he sent a silent plea that finally got the other man moving.
Ezra moved as if in slow motion, but soon added his strength to the sharpshooter's and pulled with as much strength as he could find. Finally, as if in slow motion the two men gained ground on the otherworldly creature and heard her scream in rage. The sound emanated from everywhere, drilling into their minds as she fought to hold onto the semi enthralled man. In a last ditch attempt the two men cried out for help!
"Please God!" The words left both men at the exact same time and they were rewarded when their plea seemed to be answered. The creature's hold loosened momentarily and an angered cry of pain emanated from her as she shrank back into the canvas she'd emerged from.
A wind, one not of this world blew strongly against the three men, sending their bodies crashing into the wall to the left of the bed Wilmington had resided in.
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Chris tried desperately to climb out of the bed as a howling scream thrummed from the walls surrounding him. Shadowy figures closed in on him and he knew he had to escape. More movement appeared just outside his door and his fear intensified as Lilith and Galla Shedim entered his room. The female was no longer the beauty he'd first seen, but was covered in sores that oozed a pestilence that wreaked of decay.
Lilith moved to the bed as the spectral creatures formed a wall of resistance that would keep the others at bay. She looked down at the chosen one and smiled as her fingers traced along the strong jaw, stopping at the right cheek as she heard the soft moan escape his pasty mouth. She felt the house shifting, changing and watched as the offering in Larabee's body moved with it. She smiled as he cried out and his hands sought out the source of his misery. The room began to grow dark as the door slowly became solid, the window darkened, and the wishbone mirror grew to encompass the opposite wall. The time was almost at hand. A time when hell would roam the earth in the form of a legion of demons that had never before been heard of. She looked at the wound once more and reached for the gunslinger's wrists. She smiled as the eyes opened and looked at her.
"Be still, Chris Larabee, you are about to see the light....the dark light...the one that owns you, body and soul!"
'NO!' he screamed, his voice filled with desperation and fear as he struggled to escape the nightmarish vision that stood over him. His own cry seemed to be taken up by others and he finally understood where the voices he'd been hearing came from.
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Vin opened his eyes and forced his way to shaky legs, glad to see the other two doing the same. He watched Wilmington for several seconds, but before he could speak a new sound reached their ears. A plea so mournful it set his nerves on end.
"Jesus, was that..." Buck groaned.
"Chris!" The three friends screamed as one.
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"Chris!" Sanchez, Jackson, and Dunne's cry echoed through the desolate landscape. They'd eaten the small dinner the young Bostonian had prepared, but only because they knew they'd need the strength. The trio had been sitting within the circle of boulders, watching the shadows dancing around them as a bitter wind sometimes blew through the narrow opening. Each man had been unaware of the trance each of them seemed to be in, but when the name was cried out, they knew time was running out. Without a word they doused the fire and readied the horses for the journey ahead. A journey that could end in darkness for not only themselves, but for the world around them as well.
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The three frantic men raced to the door, doing a macabre dance as they tried to go through it at the same time.
"What the hell's that?" the scoundrel asked as a skull piercing scream reached their ears. It echoed through the Inn, bringing with it the sound of more screams from ravaged throats and sending each man racing towards room 17.
"Sonofabitch! Vin hissed, slamming his hands on the wall, now solid where a door should be.
"Where is it?" Standish swore as his hands traveled over the space where a door had stood earlier in the day.
"It's gone!" the tracker snapped, his hands flying expertly over the smooth wood.
A cry of pain reached their ears and an equally painful moaning keened through the walls, echoing through their skulls as the house seemed to taunt them with the life they needed to save. Their efforts to find the door became desperate as Larabee's life seemed to hang in the balance.
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Chris cried out as the splinter in his side seemed to mirror the movement of the house. Each breath he took sent shockwaves through his nerves, and nausea churning through his stomach.
"God!" he cried out and screamed as a winged creature with the serpent's tongue floated above him.
"There is no God here, Chris Larabee. God cannot help you...you have been chosen to begin the feast of the new harvest. There will be a new order on your world. An order that will reign for a thousand years, longer if we continue to grow strong and you bring the gifts with you when you become the sentinel. The chosen one...The cherished one..."
"Yes, Chris, you will, for you there has never been a choice. You were born to see darkness reach up and devour the light. Look into your heart and you will see the evidence there! But first! Look, Chris Larabee, look at your friends and know they will soon be given the test to see if they are as worthy as you."
Chris couldn't tear his eyes from the mirror in front of him. Three men, three friends, worked their hands along the wall as if seeking out something. He could tell they were worried and he knew they were searching for him. He tried to sit up, but his hands were suddenly wrapped by the white bed sheet and pulled up to the headboard where he watched silently as the sheet became knotted to the heavy wooden post. He struggled to pull free, his legs bending with the effort to push his body up in the bed. He watched in shock as the lower half of the bed sheet took on a life of its own and began to slither towards his ankles. His body trembled as his gaze remained locked on the surreal scene before him as the corners of the sheets wrapped around his ankles. The sheets knotted tightly before the end trailed away towards the lower post and his legs were pulled straight out from his body.
Chris heard the creature above him cackling as she watched his weak fight. She floated around him and finally landed on the floor beside his bed.
"We must make sure you can see what is happening to your friends, for they will be given several trials to overcome. Those trials will grow worse until you decide to relinquish your soul and take your rightful place. Our master will be here soon and you will be ready for him."
Chris watched silently as she lifted him and placed several dark pillows beneath his blond head. A strip of material appeared in her hands and she placed it across his forehead. Chris tried to turn his head, but was stopped as she brought the ends to the edge of the posts and secured them there. He realized he could no longer move and was forced to watch the scene in the hallway behind his room. A scene that showed just how much his three friends were willing to sacrifice to get to him.
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"Where the hell is it?" Wilmington shouted as he moved along the wall. They'd been searching the area for five minutes with no luck. The other doors were where they should be but there was no sign of room 17 or its occupant.
"CHRIS! Shit!" Tanner cursed as no answer was forthcoming. His hands slid along the wall, seeking out any crack that would reveal the door that had been there a short time ago.
"I'm going to get someone and find out where the damn room is!" Standish told them, heading for the stairs.
"Alright, Ez, just watch your back!" the rogue warned as he moved back and searched the walls from a short distance away.
"Knew somethin' was wrong with this place..."
"Yeah, I think we all did, but right now's not the time. We gotta get to him!"
"Fuckin' door can't just disappear!" Tanner cursed in frustration.
"Well, this one's gone somewhere!" The older man began pounding on the solid wall and calling for their missing friend.
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"He is coming!" Galla smiled, revealing row upon of blackened incisors as spittle dripped from his thin lips.
"The Lord of Darkness is coming!" the demons hissed as they circled Larabee's bed. The mirror on the wall continued to show Larabee's friends in their desperate search for an entrance. The images blurred momentarily as a shadow formed at the foot of the bed, rising as smoke from a fire as it grew to encompass the wall.
Chris swallowed painfully as he watched the grotesque fiends writhe as they began to chant. Without realizing what was happening his lips moved and the words spewed forth even as the newcomer solidified into a familiar form.
"OMNI INSI RASHANDO SOMNI!" The screeching voice rose above the others and Chris screamed as a taloned hand reached out to touch his bare chest.
"NO! GOD NO!"
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"CHRIS!" Wilmington and Tanner screamed as the cry of pain echoed off the walls. The frantic search revealed nothing and both men were becoming desperate.
"We've got to do something!" the rogue raged.
"We need something to tear down the fuckin' wall!" Tanner cursed as he turned towards the stairs.
"Where the hell're ya going?" Wilmington snapped.
"Saw an axe in the stable. Bust through the wall with it."
"Great! See if Ezra's found the damn owners and send him up here!" The ladies man heard Tanner's retreating footsteps and turned back to the task of getting to his friend.
"Chris! We're coming! Just hold on!"
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Chris heard the muffled cries from his friend, but he could answer. A soft whimper of pain hissed through clenched teeth as the demon before him glowed darkly against the flickering light of the candles. An elongated finger rested against the blond's heaving chest as he stared into crimson colored orbs that set his body on fire. The demon didn't speak, yet Chris knew it was watching him, searching for some weakness in order to control his mind in the same way it now controlled his body. His gaze dropped down as he felt the biting puncture wound and he cried out. He watched entranced as a thin trail of blood crept to the top of his skin as the newcomer pressed the nail along the center of his chest. The creature continued downwards for six inches before lifting his nail and placing it almost at the bottom of the wound. He made a second shallow slash that crossed the first and Chris realized he was looking at a cross only this one was wrong. It was upside down and burned even as the demon lifted his hand.
"You now bare the mark that signifies your new position..."
"F...fuck you, C...Co...lum...ber!" the blond ground out through his teeth as he tried to draw strength from within himself.
"Do not speak to your Master in such manner, Christopher. Others have found out what happens when you try to fight my powers." The words were soft, but the threat was undeniable as Columber fisted his hand and a scream of pain reached Larabee's ears. The mirror showed the hallway, where Buck Wilmington twisted in agony on the floor his hand clutching at his chest as the demon squeezed tighter and tighter.
"L...leave h...him a...alone!" the blond cried as Wilmington's cries of pain continued.
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Ezra searched the house, his heart in his throat as he moved through the rapidly decaying structure. The main foyer that once seemed so inviting now showed its true setting. The walls were bare, except for several spider webs. The floors and whatever furniture remained was covered in a layer of dust, so thick he could pick it up in handfuls. He trudged through the empty corridor until he found the door that would lead him into the kitchen. He pushed the creaking barrier and entered the room, his stomach churning as the stench of age and decay met his sensitive nostrils. He waved at the silken strands that covered his face as he entered the room. Darkness surrounded him and he panicked momentarily until he heard Tanner's voice calling him.
"Jesus, what the hell's goin' on?" Tanner cursed as he made his way towards the other man's voice. The darkness made even walking dangerous, but he stumbled along, needing to know he was not alone in the things he was seeing. Something scurried across the floor in front of him and he shivered as a huge rat crossed his path.
"I have no idea, but conditions here are definitely deplorable," Standish said, falling back on his use of vocabulary to hide his nervousness. He jumped as something moved beside him, breathing a sigh of relief when Tanner's hand touched his shoulder.
"Ya find 'em?"
"I haven't found anyone. Vin, something tells me we need to get to Chris and get him and us the hell out of here! I think I'd rather brave that hellacious storm rather than stay here in this den of evil a minute longer!"
"Ya feel it too?"
"Yes!" Standish replied softly as if to acknowledge his fears would bring them crashing down on their heads.
The two turned back the way they'd come as a scream rumbled through the now dilapidated structure. Without a word they raced along the corridor and back to the foyer. Ignoring the decrepit stairs the duo started up them, hearts racing in their chest. Oblivious of everything except the cries of pain from the man writhing on the floor.
"Buck!" Tanner called, kneeling beside the rogue.
"V...Vin..." Wilmington stammered as he wrapped his arms tightly across his chest.
"What's wrong, Buck?" the gambler asked, kneeling on the opposite side.
"Don't know...heard Chris cry o...out...feel l...like c...chest ex...plodded..."
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"See your friends, Christopher. They've forgotten all about you," Columber told him, smiling as he continued to clench his fist.
"N...no! bas...tard...leave them alone!"
"I'm afraid that is out of the question! They have a part to perform!"
"Its m...me y...you want...let th...them go and I'll do anything you want!" Larabee insisted.
"If it were only that easy, Christopher, but alas it is not. They have to face their own trials and only when they have been deemed as worthy as you will the ceremony come to its proper conclusion."
Larabee watched, entranced as Vin and Ezra joined Buck beyond the mirror and wished there was some way he could help them. He swallowed painfully as the structure shifted once more, the splinter moved with it and he cried out in pain.
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Vin tried to see what was causing the problem with his friend, yet Buck couldn't seem to stand his touch as he screamed each time the tracker's fingers lit on part of his body. His gaze locked with the gambler's and together they reached for their friend.
"Buck, we need to see what's going on," Standish explained.
"...no...don't...Je...sus..." Wilmington rocked back and forth as he tried to control the burning sensation racing through him.
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Columber's red eyes glowed as the flickering candle light mirrored the movement of his legion of demons. The time was drawing close and his black heart beat a staccato rhythm at the thought of the coming feast and what it meant to them. He released his clenched fist and placed his elongated fingers on Larabee's forehead.
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As suddenly as the pain struck it stopped and Wilmington drew his first real breath of air since the agony burst through his chest.
"Jesus..." the rogue cried as he staggered to his feet.
"Are you okay?" Standish asked.
"Yeah...don't know what that was." He turned towards the two men and studied their faces before asking. "Did you find anything?"
"We found that this place is not what it first appeared to be," the gambler explained.
"What the hell are you talking about?" the ladies man asked.
"Look 'round, Buck," Tanner ordered softly.
Wilmington's eyes widened as he gazed around the upper floor of the Inn. The walls reeked of decay and decomposed flesh. Nausea roiled through him as the vile air entered his lungs. The walls were covered in crimson colored stains and as they watched tiny slits opened and a viscous fluid oozed from them to slowly drip down the walls.
"What the hell's going on?" The scoundrel cried as more and more openings appeared.
"I believe hell is the correct word here," Standish said, unconsciously stepping back from the wall.
"Vin, did you get that damn axe?" the older man snapped.
"Why the fuck not?" Wilmington asked.
"Couldn't find a way out outta the house!"
"What?" Standish asked in disbelief.
"The door ain't there no more."
"Alright, we need to come up with a plan to get to Chris and get outta here!" Wilmington said, his hand rubbing at his chest as he remembered the unbearable sense of having his heart crushed.
"You sure you're alright?" Standish asked.
"Yeah...think so. Look, Vin had the right idea. We need to tear this wall down."
"I agree, but without an axe...wait a minute!" Buck cried searching the landing they stood on.
"What's wrong?" The gambler asked, as blue eyes darted left and right.
"Where the hell is Vin?"
"He's right..." the conman grew quiet as he took in the now empty space behind him. "Where would he have gone?"
"I don't know!" Wilmington spat angrily as he began searching for the second missing man.
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"Watch, Christopher! See what is happening to Vin Tanner and know that it is only the first of many trials he is to endure!" Columber ordered.
Chris wanted to close his eyes, but he watched as the mirror shimmered and the images of Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish disappeared. The mirror quivered until a new image solidified and Chris cried out as he watched the scene being played out somewhere within the four walls.
"...n...no..." he whispered, wishing he could help the tracker, as the young man opened his eyes to a new horror.
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Vin opened his eyes and blinked at the unnatural brightness surrounding him. He tried to remember where he was, but his mind was not cooperating. Forcing his numbed legs under him he managed to climb to his feet and look around the cone shaped room he was in. He examined the structure, using his hands and fingers to touch the sides, but finding nothing that signalled a way out. He looked up, squinting against the harsh light beating down on him from the narrow opening twenty feet above his head. Voices reached his ears, but the words were unintelligible as he shook his head to clear it.
The tracker had no idea how long he stood there, trying to remember where he was and why he was in such a strange place. A sharp trilling screech reached his ears and he moaned softly as the murky depths of his mind cleared and memory returned. The last thing he remembered was being with Buck and Ezra and trying to find Chris. Buck had been talking and he'd turned away, looking into the most beautiful set of azure blue eyes. The child's strawberry blond hair hung down past her shoulders, as her hands enticed him to follow her. He'd been so entranced by the apparition that everything around him disappeared and he'd followed the blue eyed girl to the top of the stairs. That was the last he recalled before waking up here. For all he knew the others were dead and he was imprisoned here for all eternity.
"CHRIS! Buck! Ezra!" he screamed as he beat his fists against the close walls in frustration. Realizing he wasn't doing anyone any good he sank to the ground and surveyed the area above him. The cone was narrow, with just enough room for him to sit with his legs slightly bent. Vin knew there was only one way out and as he realized this the walls seemed to come to life with a dark putrid liquid. It leached from the wall and pooled around him, a sickening sludge that began to rise.
"Fuck!" The sharpshooter cursed as he stood to his full height and tried to lift his left leg out of the thick sucking mire he was trapped in. The muck had a horrid odor that reminded him of the bloodied carcasses of slaughtered buffalo left in the sun too long . Pain ripped through his gut and he doubled over. He turned his head to the side as a stream of noxious vomit erupted leaving him weak and trembling. He forced his fuzzy head to clear, trying to find an answer before the rising stream of bile overtook him.
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Chris tried to move, but was held tight to the bed as he watched the tracker being slowly enveloped in the dark fluid oozing from the wall. He watched as the younger man turned to the side and vomited into the stuff. Chris began to pray, but the hand on his forehead began to burn his skin even as the muck reached the tracker's waist.
"VIN!" he cried out as the level rose even higher, engulfing the sharpshooter's abdomen as it continued to seep from the walls.
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The Texan knew he had to do something and he leaned against the cone shape, lifting his left leg from the sludge and placing it against the oozing wall. The stench was overpowering now as more and more of it surrounded him, but he would not give up. No way in Hell this place would be his grave. He tried to lift his right leg from the gelatinous fluid, but it felt as if it was frozen in place. He fought with everything he had as the unholy tide of brackish muck reached his neck.
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Chris felt as if his heart was being torn from his chest as he watched Vin's body rapidly disappearing. The sludge was over his chin, now, and the blond felt tears in his eyes for another life he could not save.
"Say goodbye to your friend, Larabee!" Columber smiled as the chant began once more and even Larabee's lips moved with the familiar sound.
"It won't be long now. It seems Vin Tanner was unworthy..."
Chris didn't dignify the ridiculous statement with a reply. His eyes were trained on the anxious blue eyes, just before the horrid mess from Hell swallowed him up.
"...sorry...cow...boy..." he whispered in a broken voice.
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The sharpshooter knew there were only two choices. To give in and drown in the repulsive sludge, or keep fighting. The decision was made before the choices were completed and again he tried to lift his right leg. He choked and spat out the invading substance, groaning through grated teeth. Something touched against the bottom of his foot, yet he could not take the time to think about what it meant. Finally his leg came off the floor and stretched out with his left. He fought with everything he had and slowly began to make his way towards the top of the chimney shaped prison. Hands and feet did the work, shoring his back against the sticky wall as he lifted his head and sucked in the noxious air. Fighting his stiffening muscles and exhaustion he began to raise his body above the gooey mire.
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Chris watched, smiling weakly as the tracker persevered once more and climbed out of the sludge he'd been trapped in. His heart leapt with joy at seeing his best friend roll his body out of the grotesque prison and onto the floor above it.
"Fuck you, Columber!" Larabee laughed as the chant grew louder. He screamed in agonizing torment as the taloned fingers gripped his blond hair and pulled sharply until their eyes met.
"Your friend may have won this battle, but the war for darkness has only just begun. Give your soul freely and without regret and I will end their lives easily..."
"...or I will make you take their lives..."
"With your own hands!" Columber hissed anger evident in the glowing red eyes.
Chris felt the air leave his lungs as Columber changed into the black crow once more and perched on his chest. The eyes blazed with a malevolence such as the gunslinger had never seen. Evil resided in this Inn, but the creature before him was truly a vision from hell. The beak moved, but the words were spoken in his mind and he cried out as the chant was taken up by the demons surrounding him. Something was placed to his lips and he drank without realizing it. He tried to spit the thick fluid out, but a hand clamped over his mouth and nose until he was forced to swallow it. Chris felt the helplessness reach out for him as consciousness left him once more.
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The Inn was alive with the newfound energy of the legion of demons slowly undulating within the confines of the four walls. At one point in time, back when the wooden beams, floors, walls and basement were new, The Inn was a place where weary travelers could relax and rest. Unfortunately, evil had slithered into the wood, rotting inside the same beams and infrastructure. It created a vortex that allowed hell to creep into the world of light, demons to snatch innocent souls, and Satan to give the Inn a life of its own. Blood ran from the wooden structure as it trapped its bounty, but now it was starving and finding it hard to keep its form. It needed to feed if it was to survive. It craved the bloodlust caused by the demonic forces living within and the lives the demons took. Those souls that were trapped quickly became part of The Inn, and fed its frenzied need for living flesh. Now it waited, knowing a major hurdle was the mortal man lying trapped in the bed within the walls of room 17. The room where it all started, a child's life taken while her parents were forced to watch and eventually take part in. The walls shuddered and bled as The Inn contemplated its roll in the upheavals to come. Time was running out for the trio still loose within its walls.
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Vin lay on his back, his lungs an unwilling recipient of the brackish odor seeping up from the well of decay he'd just escaped. The sludge clung to his body like a second skin, one which made his stomach roil and empty before he forced his legs to support his body. Leaning heavily against the wall he looked into the shiny surface just inches below the lip of the well. The black mire rolled and shimmered with an evil putrescence that made his vision blur. He gave the well a wide birth, slipping with each step he took, and knowing the truth about the Inn they were trapped in. If evil were real, it resided within these walls, and had dug its talons into Chris Larabee. He would find the others and between them they would save their friend and leader, for Vin now understood Chris really was the target of the Satanic presence he felt within the Inn.
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Buck and Ezra searched frantically for the missing sharpshooter. Neither man voiced their worries once Larabee's screams had died down and finally stopped. They'd done all they could to get to the gunslinger, but relented once the cries died down. Vin Tanner was missing now, and they needed to find him and decide what they needed to do next. The rooms on the upper floor were in the same position as they always had, except for room 17, which seemed to have disappeared.
The two men looked at each other as a bloodcurdling scream rent the air, rattling the Inn with the force of the cries. They knew who it was, and terror flooded their minds as the screams continued, chilling them to their inner core.
"VIN!" Wilmington shouted, but held his hands to his ears as the cacophony continued to reverberate off the walls. He could see the gambler doing the same thing as the screams died down and silence once more took over, but the silence wasn't absolute as Tanner's voice came to them once more.
"...plea...s..s..s...eee....God...he...help...ME!" The voice seemed to be coming closer and the two worried men glanced at each other.
"That came from somewhere below us!" Standish said, eyeing the dimly lit stairwell stretching out before them. Without a word they descended to the lower level, eyes searching the now seeping walls. Whatever it was, neither man asked, but they knew, in their hearts, they knew what they were seeing. The walls were bleeding, the smell of blood nauseating, but they could not let it stop them. Ezra took the lead, coming down the stairs slowly, clutching the rail, even as his feet slipped out from under him and he landed with a resounding thump at the bottom of the staircase.
"Ezra!" Wilmington shouted worriedly as he heard the soft expletive from the gambler's mouth. He raced down the stairs, oblivious of slippery steps under his feet. He made it to the bottom without mishap and knelt beside the moaning man. He placed his hand on Standish' chest, stopping him from moving too quickly.
"Easy...where are you hurt?"
"Ev...everywhere...I believe I've bruised every inch of my body," the gambler said, wincing as he tried to sit up once more.
"Probably, feel like anything's broken?" the older man asked as he ran his hands down the conman's body.
"I don't believe so...just bruises. Help me up, Buck!"
"Just lie there for a couple of minutes..."
"No! We need to find Vin and get to Chris."
"We will, Ezra, but not until you're ready."
"I'm ready, just help me up!"
Buck reached for the conman's arms and helped him to stand. He watched as the face remained passive and allowed himself to relax a little.
"I told you I..." the words were cut off as the gambler took a tentative step, only to cry out as pain lanced through his left ankle. He felt the rogue catch him and ease him down on the slick floor once more.
"How bad?" Wilmington asked.
"I do not believe it is broken, but I believe it may be sprained."
"Damn...okay, just sit there and I'll find something you can use as a crutch," the ladies' man ordered.
"Don't go far," the gambler muttered softly, not wanting the other man to see the concern on his face. The Inn was fast becoming a prison, one that didn't seem ready to offer them the slightest avenue of escape.
"I won't!" Wilmington said, moving deeper into the foyer in search of something they could use.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah felt a chill run through his body that had little to do with the howling wind around them. The current of air had picked up quickly as they exited the relative safety of the circle of boulders, bringing with it a feeling of fear. Nothing else moved on the barren landscape as they rode further northeast into the Bisti Badlands. The very air surrounding them seemed thick and alive as if it had a mind of its own, and the very essence of its existence was to stop them. He turned to his right and watched as the youngest member of the seven burrowed his chin into the collar of his jacket in hopes of stopping the stench from entering his nostrils. On his left Nathan Jackson did the same, but his eyes were turned towards the ex-preacher and Josiah understood the worry he saw there. Something was trying to stop them from reaching their goal, and this was only the beginning. Whatever evil walked the earth tonight was reaching out for them, sending the message that they should turn tail and run.
'Give them the strength they need to hold on, Lord and us the strength to get to them!' Josiah thought as the horses continued to shy away from the heading they traveled.
Nathan knew the older man was worried, for that matter they all were. The fact they were dealing with the unknown sent shivers down his spine. He'd seen things growing up on the plantation, but none had sent his nerves on end like whatever was going on around them now. The faster they got to the missing peacekeepers the better, but something told him they may already be too late.
JD knew his two companions were worried about him, but he wasn't going to let them see just how nervous this place made him. The Bisti Badlands was proving to be a dangerous place, one that seemed to have swallowed up the four men they searched for. JD was certain they were making little or no progress, and wondered if something was holding them back, keeping them from their destination. Tucking his chin further down into his collar, JD let his mind wander over the time he'd spent with the six men he rode with, vowing he wouldn't let anything take his new family away from him.
+ + + + + + +
"Ez...ra...B...b...uck...are ya....God...w...where a...are ya...pa...pain...h...hurts..."
Since leaving the gambler, Buck had been walking down the narrow corridor, wondering where the dim light was coming from. The screaming pleas from the missing Texan made him hurry his pace and he called for the younger man.
"Vin! I'm coming! Just keep talking, pard and I'll find you!"
"Sweet Jesus help us!" Wilmington cried as the single elongated name rattled off the surrounding walls. He hurried forward, unconsciously registering the pale light that glowed around him. The candles had long since gone out and by rights they should be enshrouded in darkness, but he could see enough to make his way around. Buck had no idea how long he ran down the impossibly long corridor, but he had to keep moving. So far his search for a crutch for Ezra had come up empty, and he would soon have to return to the stairs and help the younger man as best he could. He'd also been searching the rooms, hoping he'd find Vin Tanner, but coming up empty each time. The screams and call for help had vanished and wherever the sharpshooter was, Buck prayed he was alright. Turning a corner, one he didn't remember being there earlier he came up against a dead end. Frowning he reached for the solid wall, grimacing in disgust at the fetid slime covered barrier. Holding his breath against the cloying scent he turned back the way he'd come only to find the walls had shifted once more. He cursed as he realized he was trapped in a small four foot by four foot prison, with the overpowering stench of feces and decay surrounding him. He used his hands, searching for an opening, yet finding nothing but solid wood. Buck had no idea how long he searched, but panic began to rear its ugly head as he struggled to breathe in the fetid air.
"Nooooooo!" He shouted, pounding the walls in frustration. "What do you want!" He pleaded, only to have his words echo around him, reverberating off the walls as if searching for their own means of escape from the hellish tomb.
+ + + + + + +
Vin moved slowly along the corridor, wondering when he'd come to the end. The tunnel like trail seemed impossibly long for the structure of the Inn itself and he frowned as he realized he might not be in the same place. Sounds welled up around him, reminding him of rats scurrying from a sinking ship, and still he moved. Several times he stepped on something soft and giving underfoot, but would not allow himself to think about what it was. Once leaving the room that housed the well he'd been able to breathe a little easier, but was soon enveloped in darkness. He used his hands and pressed against the wall as a guide until he realized their was light once more.
The second thing to strike him was the moisture laden heat, so hot it felt as if the skin on his body would melt from his bones. He wiped his hand across his brow and felt the sweat dripping from his chin. Still, he wouldn't stop, he needed to find the others before it was too late. He moved his left foot forward and heard something click. Too late he realized he'd triggered something in the floor and the walls closed in on him. He cursed as he tried to find a way out, but there was no escape from the four foot by four foot prison entrapping him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra grimaced in distaste as he looked down at his ruined clothing. The once immaculate red coat was now covered in whatever sludge oozed from the walls. Disgusted with himself for being so clumsy and injuring his foot, the gambler slid across the floor and grabbed at the slippery railing. He managed to get his uninjured foot under him and struggled until he was standing.
"Courage, Ezra, courage," he whispered softly as he placed his left foot on the floor and eased his weight down on it.
Pain shot through the injured limb, but not as severely as his first attempt. Limping he turned and explored the area around the staircase and foyer. The once stately Inn was in total disrepair, the walls now covered with a some kind of growth he'd never seen before. Blue-green fungus sprouted from floor to ceiling cracks, death and decay seeped from every corner and he held his nose to keep from smelling the putrid odor. Searching the area once more he wondered if he should stay where he was or go in search of the others. He looked towards the top of the staircase, wondering if Chris larabee was still with them, or had been swallowed up by the evil within the once sedate structure. Turning away from the impossible obstacle of stairs he looked from one end of the foyer to the other. In the few minutes it had taken him to stand and look around the Inn had changed again. The foyer was replaced with a long hallway stretching out on either side of him.
The fungus glowed with an eerie light, casting devilish shadows across the walls and over the floor. Swallowing the bitter bile that rose in his throat, Ezra Standish felt a new emotion clouding his mind. Fear! There was no doubt about it, he was afraid of the unknown, yet Chris' words came back to him, giving him a newfound strength to battle his own insecurities. These men were his family and he would not let them down. The words came again and he smiled as he heard the softly spoken warning.
'Don't ever run out on me again!'
'I won't Chris, you have my word!' he silently vowed, taking his first tentative step in the direction he thought Wilmington had gone.
"Buck!" he shouted, moving cautiously and ignoring the dull throb of his ankle. He had to find Wilmington and Tanner before it was too late.
+ + + + + + +
Chris moaned softly as his eyes opened to a room devoid of warmth. He tasted blood in his mouth and prayed he'd bitten his tongue, but somehow he knew that wasn't the case. He remembered the brackish taste of the thick substance he'd been forced to drink and tried to turn his head as his stomach rebelled at the though.
"...no..." he moaned softly, as his eyes focused on the large mirror in front of him. He heard movement on his right and turned to see Galla Shedim standing there.
"Good, you are awake. The master will return momentarily. He has much for you to see, but now you must drink!"
"N...NO!" the blond forced through grated teeth, amazed as he actually managed to put some strength in the words.
"You have no choice but to obey...it is the Master's wish that you partake of the lifeblood," Shedim ordered, motioning for one of the others to help him.
Chris turned his eyes as a cold hand touched his chin and another pressed his nostrils together. He remembered Jackson doing this when one of them refused to take the obnoxious 'horse piss'. He knew sooner or later his body would automatically force his mouth open when the need for oxygen became too great. Still, his own instincts kicked in and he fought with everything he had, but the ropes kept him immobilized as Lillith's grotesque form overpowered him.
"It would be easier on you to just give the master what he wants!" Lilith hissed through decaying lips.
"...f...fuck...you..." the blond ground out, but knew he'd lost the fight as the cup was placed to his lips and he was forced to drink the crimson fluid. His stomach heaved, but a hand clamped down over his mouth, successfully sealing his lips and making it impossible to rid his body of the odious offering. He felt tears come to his eyes as his body did what it had to do and the liquid made a return trip down his throat.
"I see you still have some fight left in you, Christopher. That is good...it will make you a stronger sentinel for my legion."
Larabee couldn't find the air to answer, but his eyes glared green daggers at the satanic form now standing above him. He knew who it was, whether he called it Columber, the devil or Satan, didn't matter. This was the dark angel, the leader of the demons surrounding him and the one causing the torment to his friends.
"...stop...y...you..." the gunslinger moaned as Columber changed shape and finally sat beside him on the bed.
"I don't think so, Mister Larabee," Columber grinned, his face filled with malevolence as he looked deep into the sea green eyes. He understood what this man represented and knew he would have to use every trick in his arsenal to make him turn to the dark side. He waved his hand and the mirror shimmered and finally solidified once more showing the back of a lone, limping figure struggling through the semi-darkness.
"Ezra," the blond whispered, shocked as he watched the younger man turn around and he saw the fear in the face.
"Tell me, is he a strong man? Does he have pure morals? Will he turn to the darkness once the light has been extinguished?"
"No...none of us will!"
"I believe you're wrong. Mortal man has many weaknesses and one of them is the undeniable need to be with friends. People who understand and care for them. If I am correct, Ezra Standish grew up lacking friends and true family. What would happen if he thought you betrayed him...ran out on him and left him to face his horrors alone? Would he revert to the man he once was, the gambler who lived only to fleece his next victim of his winnings? Better yet, how much do you know about your friend? Is he even worse than you first surmised? Does he have skeletons in his closet that he would rather not reveal?"
"...we all have..." Larabee spat.
"Maybe, it's time you saw Ezra Standish for the man he truly is. Watch as he relives a point in his life I'm sure he'd rather forget."
"...no..." the injured man said, trying unsuccessfully to shut out the scene playing in front of him. The scene had shimmered and finally settled on a new room where Ezra Standish seemed to be sleeping peacefully. He knew this was only an illusion, yet he watched in stunned horror as the younger man woke up and cursed before turning towards a mirrored wall. He couldn't tear his eyes from the scene being played out in the mirrored room.
+ + + + + + +
"What the hell?" Standish cursed softly as he turned his head from side to side. One minute he'd been moving cautiously along the corridor, searching for an avenue of escape or signs of his friends. The next he was lying on a feather mattress, comfortable and warm. He sat up and looked around him, wondering how he'd gotten there. Frowning, the gambler stood up and rubbed his eyes, wincing as pain shot from ankle to knee and back again. He waited for the pain to recede to a more bearable level before turning to survey his newest dwelling. His eyes came to rest on a large mirror that covered on wall, from corner to corner and floor to ceiling. He gasped as he realized there was something else about the mirror that made it different. This one did not reflect his surroundings, at least not the ones he was now in. Shaking in fear, his gaze was glued to the scene before him. It was a scene he'd lived and relived before, yet was one he wanted to forget above all else. He watched as the mirror image of his younger self slowly awoke and sat on the edge of the bed.
"No...no...no..." he mumbled, his voice filled with horror.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched in awe as a younger version of the man he knew sat up, confusion written on the handsome features. The gunslinger knew the warmth of the gambler's surroundings was not what it appeared and he understood he was truly catching a glimpse of a vulnerable and not so worldly Ezra Standish. He licked his lips, tasting the concoction he'd been fed earlier and wishing he could rid himself of the taste. His eyes were glued on the mirror as the past and present mixed in a show of horror for both him and the conman.
+ + + + + + +
'No..." the gambler whispered, recognizing the room he was in. His coat lay across a chair and he moved towards it, even as he fought to change direction. He caught a glimpse of himself, fully clothed, in the mirror and knew he was really going to relive this all over again. He picked up the cream colored coat and turned to the door, waiting expectantly for the knock he knew was to come. When the soft sound met his ears he barely managed to keep from jumping out of his skin.
'Don't answer it!' he thought, even as his hand reached for the door knob and pulled it open. Standing before him was the most beguilingly, beautiful woman he'd ever had the pleasure to meet. Five feet ten inches of physical perfect, topped by a head of luscious blond curls that hung halfway down her back. Blue eyes so sensuous he felt he could easily drown in their depths, skin so soft and supple he knew he was looking into the face of an angel. A long gown of green hung delicately down her body, but did little to cover the feminine curves that made up her body.
"Ezra, Darling, are you ready?" the young woman asked, her voice soft and sensuous as she reached for her hand.
+ + + + + + +
Chris tried not to look, but found himself drawn into the life being displayed before him. He knew it wasn't real, at least not now, but at some point in time this had really taken place and he wondered again at the fear in the younger man's eyes.
+ + + + + + +
"Yes, Marguerite, may I say you look even more wonderful than you did last night?"
"Oh, Ezra, you're such a gentlemen."
"Mothah made sure she instilled that trait in me, and at time such as this I am grateful to her." He stepped out of the room, locking the door behind him, before linking his left arm in her right. He knew the young woman beside him was there because of him. Her beauty would come in handy tonight as he gambled for perhaps the biggest prize ever heard of. The final pot would be upwards of fifty thousand dollars, and Marguerite Delacroix would be the means to the end. After finding her working in a restaurant in a small town west of St. Louis he convinced her she could have a better life. He worked for weeks, readying her for tonight's game of chance, knowing she was the perfect diversion to at least two of the top gamblers. He would use her talents tonight and make off with the riches he so deserved.
"Ezra, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Marguerite. Do you remember what you're to do?"
"But of course. I am to pretend an interest in Mr. Davenport or Mr. Chambers depending on who seems to be winning more."
"Do you remember our signals?"
"Of course. I fold my arms if I think you have the winning hand. I sneeze if I think one of your opponents has a better one and allow you to bow out before you bet more than you should. If I see someone cheating I reach into my bag and I distract the others when you need to enhance your own hand. Oh, and before the game begins I am to pout and become angry at you for ignoring me and making me watch the game."
"Well done, My deah. I have every confidence that you can pull this off. Shall we?" Standish asked as he placed his hand on the door and entered the hotel room.
+ + + + + + +
"Watch closely, Christopher. You will soon see who this gambler of yours really is," Columber said, his voice brimming with excitement as he saw the door open on the smoky room.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra moved into the room and immediately his face took on a serious caste as his mother's lessons kicked in. No emotions showed on the handsome face as he took his place amongst the final players for the high stakes games. Without a word his winnings from the night before were placed in front of him and he counted to make sure the total was correct.
"Marguerite, bring me a glass of the finest brandy!" he ordered, knowing this was the signal for the young woman to go into her act.
"I did not come here to wait on you hand and foot, Ezra!" the beauty spat, moving to the opposite side of the room.
"Sounds like trouble in paradise, Standish?" Davenport said with a grin.
"Paradise seems like a cold, bleak place right now," Chambers laughed.
"There are other pleasures in Paradise, gentlemen. Such as holding the winning hand at the end of this night!" the gambler said. Ezra said the familiar words spoken so long ago, yet it was happening for him all over again. He was in St. Louis, at the Casino Hotel, in a private poker game with more money than he'd ever seen in his life. A night that would end the same way it did twelve years before, and cost him a part of his soul.
"Alright, Davenport, seems to me it was your deal," Chambers said, sliding a new deck towards the other man.
"That's correct, Chambers. Alright gentlemen, fifty dollars to see your first card...five card stud...bet after each face card and please, nothing under fifty dollars and raise as high as you like. Just make damn sure you have the funds to cover what you bet!" Davenport said, smiling as he dealt the cards and set the deck on the table in front of younger man. "Would you like to cut the cards, Standish?"
Ezra smiled as he reached for the deck and smoothly cut the deck in half before Davenport reached for them once more. He slid fifty dollars into the pot and briefly caught and held Marguerite's gaze. She was perfectly positioned to catch a glimpse of the two hands, yet remain unobtrusive to the others.
"Marguerite, that drink."
"I'm not a maid, Ezra," the woman said.
"It seems to me you certainly were a maid when I found you in that bordello!"
"Your bet, Standish!" Chambers said, smiling at the fury in the young gambler's eyes. He knew that anger would be his downfall, as it would keep him from concentrating on his own hand.
Ezra looked at the card in front of him and lifted his down card. Without a word he counted out the fifty dollars and placed it in the pot and waited for the others to ante up or throw in their cards.
"Seems like you have to get your own drink or suffer from dry throat, Standish!" Davenport said, dealing out the second up card to each player.
"Marguerite, perhaps it's time you found out the benefits of knowing an older man," Chambers suggested.
"Marguerite is quite content where she is!" Standish said, fury evident in his eyes.
"Is she?" Davenport asked. "By the way, it's your bet!"
"Two hundred dollars!" the younger man spat as Marguerite moved towards the man closest to her.
"Oh, I believe you're getting a little overenthusiastic, Standish. Are you sure about that wager?"
"Put your money where your mouth is, Chambers!" the gambler blustered and watched as the two older men laughed.
"Call!" Davenport answered.
"Call and raise one hundred," Chambers said. "Marguerite, would you please pass me a brandy?"
"Of course, Mr. Chambers..."
"Roy," she said sweetly, moving to the bar and pouring the amber colored liquid into a goblet.
Ezra smiled inwardly as he plan began to take effect and Marguerite Delacroix sauntered around the room, using her feminine wiles to dupe the two men. All he had to do was watch for the subtle signals they'd worked out.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched as the night wore on and the young woman continued to flirt with the two men. He could tell she was giving Standish signals and understood the subtle changes as she shifted from one man to the other. Ezra continued to win, but he made sure he lost several extravagant pots in order to keep the other men from suspecting he was cheating. He'd seen Standish work before, and admired the younger man's uncanny ability to cover himself.
"Now, this is where it gets interesting. Watch closely and you'll understand why Ezra Standish does not deserve your friendship, or loyalty. He is a man who would stoop to anything to get what he wants. Look at the greed in his eyes. This is it....this is the pot that will make or break him."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat as Davenport slid his last five hundred dollars across the table and into the pot. Chambers had done the same a few moments earlier and now it was up to him to call or fold. Marguerite assured him that he had the winning hand, but he kept his face neutral as he lifted his down cards. Releasing them once more he added his own five hundred, and calculated the final pot, including the ante was eleven thousand two hundred fifty dollars. This was it, the difference between a pauper and a rich man.
"Well, Standish?" Davenport asked.
"Call," the gambler said simply. "What have you got, Gentlemen?"
'Two pair, ladies over jacks!" Chambers said with a grin.
"No good, three little deuces!" Davenport said, revealing his hole cards and reaching for the pot, only to find Standish' hand stopping him.
"Sorry, gentlemen, but it appears I am the big winner today. Three sixes..."
"Three sixes...the devil's hand!" Chambers said, eyes widening as he looked towards Davenport.
"You cheated!" Davenport hissed.
"I assure you I did no such thing!" Standish said, pulling the money towards him.
"Don't touch that!" Chambers warned.
"Gentlemen, I won this pot fair and square and I would not have guessed you two would be such spoiled sports when it comes to losing. I will take my winning s and lea..."
"You're not going anywhere with my money!" Davenport warned.
"Your money? I'm afraid you have that wrong, gentlemen. I will take my winning sand leave now," the young gambler said, flipping his arm and letting the small deadly derringer pop into his hand. "Please move away from the table while I collect my money."
"You cheated, Standish! I don't know how...but you did...."
+ + + + + + +
"See what type of man you befriended?" Columber asked.
"Knew Ezra w...was a cheat...doesn't mean he's not trust...worthy!" Larabee tried.
"Ah, but what if he was also a murderer?"
"He isn't...judge checked us all out."
"Perhaps your friend managed to cover it up! Look at what's happened!"
+ + + + + + +
Ezra held the gun in front of him and moved it between the two men. He could see Marguerite out of the corner of his eyes and knew she would follow him later. Davenport's face was cold with rage as he moved away from the table and grabbed for the girl. The gun he kept hidden in his jacket, at the last minute he shoved her towards the younger man.
The gambler did not understand what was happening as the gun in his hand went off and a cry of pain escaped the young woman's throat. He dropped the weapon, holding onto the woman as she began to slide towards the floor.
"Marguerite...I didn't mean...oh God...why?" he held her in his arms, oblivious of the two men raking the money off the table.
"...it...hurts...please...Ezra...make it...stop...make it go a...away..."
"Davenport...get the doctor!"
"Sorry, Standish, we're getting out of here and I'd advise you to do the same. Murder is against the law!"
"I didn't murder anyone..."
"Maybe not, but you shot her!" Chambers told him.
"It was an accident..."
"Don't matter none if she's dead," Davenport said, hurrying towards the door.
"Marguerite, no...please...I'm sorry," Standish said, holding the woman's body close to his own. He could feel the blood running from the wound in her chest and knew she was dying.
"...Ezra...no...sorry...not your f...fault...hurts...dying...go...don't get caught...hang..."
Standish knew she was right and moved out from under his burden. He kissed her forehead and heard her soft moan as he stood up and hurried to the window. He watched the slight rise and fall of her chest as the crimson color darkened on her body.
"I'm sorry, Marguerite," he whispered as he slid the window open and ducked out on the stairs as he heard someone at the door.
+ + + + + + +
"See, Christopher, he murdered her," Columber said, watching the blond's face as the mirror shimmered and Standish was once more within the confines of the Inn.
"Maybe the shooting was, but he left her there to die on her own. Should I show him how much she suffered? It took her two days to die and she could have been saved!"
"No...lost too much blood..."
"Did she? How can you be sure? Is this the type of man you can trust?"
"Trust him...trust them a...all!" Larabee watched as Standish slid down the seeping wall and wrapped his arms around his knees. The gunfighter knew the gambler was reliving the scene once more and knew from the way the green eyes blinked he was trying to ward off the tears. Standish would forever wear the robe of guilt over the death of Marguerite Delacroix, but it was not his to wear.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra stood in front of the mirror and watched as his younger self escaped through the window. He knew the scene should end there, but it didn't. It continued to show the body of Marguerite Delacroix, but suddenly everything else disappeared except the bloodied form that caused such pain in his heart. Ezra had no idea how long he stood watching, but it seemed to go on indefinitely. His eyes widened in shock as the woman he thought had no chance to live suddenly screamed out his name.
"EZRA!...help me...d...don't let me d...die l...like this...please it h...hurts...pain....EZRA!"
"No...please, God, No!" He cried as the door finally opened and two men and a woman entered the room. He couldn't tear his eyes away as one man knelt beside the injured woman.
"How is she, Doc?"
"She's dying...ain't no way I can save her now." The doctor's hand touched against the woman's neck as her eyes closed. "She's gone. I could've saved her if I'd gotten to her sooner! Lost too much blood, Sheriff!"
"Wish the hell I had my hands on the miserable low life sonofabitch that left her to die like this. Ain't a man deserves to live for letting another person, 'specially a woman die like this. Bastard deserves to hang!"
"I couldn't...I didn't know...please..." Standish begged as a vision of the lovely young woman flashed before his eyes. He closed his eyes and willed the vision away, but the soft whoosh of skirts sent a shudder through him.
The word came out as a strangled sound, yet he recognized the voice and lifted terror stricken eyes. Marguerite Delacroix stood before him in the gown she'd worn that fateful night, the green gown was stained red with her own lifeblood. Empty black sockets stared out where wondrous blue eyes had once been. Her face was whiter than new fallen snow, except for the crimson lips that opened to reveal diseased gums.
"Nnnnnnoooooo!" the gambler cried softly as decaying hands reached for him. The cold, dead fingers touched his chin and a scream of terror issued from the conman's throat as he slowly backed away. Dropping to his knees as tears welled up in his eyes and sobs quaked through his body.
"You did this to me! You left me to die alone...EZRA!"
+ + + + + + +
"It's not real Ezra!" Larabee cried weakly as he watched the other man's terror stricken face.
"Isn't it, Mister Larabee? Look at his face and you'll see it is all the truth. Ezra Standish murdered that woman and deserted her just as he did in the Indian village..."
"But did he come back for you or was there something else that drew him back? Perhaps he found gold in that mine and wanted to keep it for himself. Was he really there to save all of you from Anderson's ghosts or was he hoping you'd all kill each other?"
"No...he came back to h...help..."
"Ah, but are you sure of that? Perhaps he changed his mind once he saw that you were already free. That you would spoil his plans..."
"No...won't be...lieve you..." Larabee moaned as Columber touched his forehead and he felt the growing agony in his side.
"I see it is time for us to see what Buck Wilmington is up to. Perhaps you would like something to drink first?"
"No!" the blond cried, clenching his teeth as he watched Galla Shedim coming towards him once more, a steaming cup in his hands as the chant began anew.
Chris could see hooded creatures surrounding his bed, shuffling closer as Shedim held the cup high over his head and Columber smiled down at him. Chris tried to turn away from the hypnotic red eyes, but was held fast by the restraints.
"Drink of the lifeblood, Christopher. Feel its strength as it enters your body."
"No..." The taloned hand clamped down on his side and he screamed as searing shards of pain shot through him.
The chant increased in both volume and intensity and Chris found himself hypnotized by the swaying mass of bodies crowded around him. The cup was placed at his mouth and he drank, his eyes widening as the thick burning liquid slipped though his lips. He felt himself losing touch with reality even as his gaze went back to the mirror and the weeping man huddled on the floor of an unknown room.
+ + + + + + +
The three riders continued on through the long night, desperate to reach their friends before it was too late. The harder they rode, the less distance they seemed to travel. To the peacekeepers it felt like the horses were mire in quicksand and each step seemed labored.
Josiah knew that Nathan and JD were flanking him, and he realized the silence between them said everything. They were worried, bordering on scared, yet there was only a tangible hint that something was terribly wrong with the world. He turned to see the kid from Boston at the same time Dunne turned his way.
"Something on your mind, Son?" the ex-preacher asked.
"I...well...see, Josiah, I don't understand any of this. I mean I know we have to ride out here and I know Chris, Vin, Buck and Ezra are in trouble, but I just don't understand how I know it."
"Sometimes we just have to do what we know, even if it does not seem real. There are things in this world that are unexplainable, yet they are there and right now evil abounds. I can feel it with each step we take into this godforsaken land. There is something here that does not belong, and if we don't keep on this path it will reach out and distinguish the light in this world."
"But why does it want Chris and the others?" Dunne asked.
"That's something I can't really answer, JD. IT might be because of Chris' past. The dark times he lived through after Sarah and Adam's death. Chris had a black soul during that times and some of the things he did may have attracted the evil..."
"But Chris ain't evil..."
"We both know that, Son, but he walked the path between good and evil and from some of the things he told me he may have crossed the line a few times, but something always brought him back. We need to be there to help him this time. To make sure he doesn't do the one thing that will send his soul to hell for all eternity," the ex-preacher explained as the sky took on a reddish cast, signaling the onset of a new day.
"Josiah, we need to rest the horses," Jackson said from the opposite side. He saw the older man nod as they drew abreast of each other once more. Neither man wanted to stop as an unholy fire seemed to stretch across the horizon. A crimson tide that warned of a bloody battle to be fought and won by good or evil. The outcome was unknown, but the trio knew they would give their lives to dispatch the evil and send it back to hell where it belonged.