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The holy man had no idea how long the others slept, but he felt their dreams were filled with nightmarish images that fought for control of their souls. He knew what had to be done as he looked towards Vin Tanner. The Texan was bathed in a fine sheen of perspiration and the blue eyes flickered open suddenly. Sanchez moved quickly and knelt beside the younger man.
"Easy, Son, try to be still," the ex-preacher advised.
"...h...hot, J'siah," the injured man said, his body trembling as if he suffered from deep chills.
"I know it is, but there's nothing we can do about that until we get out of here," Sanchez explained.
"Long story, Vin," he soothed, "You just concentrate on restin'."
"Thirsty," Tanner whispered and Sanchez helped him drink a small amount of the precious liquid.
"Vin, do you remember finding a room filled with bones?"
"B...bones?" the Texan asked, frowning as he sought the illusive memories.
"Yes, Anahita said you knew where the well of lost souls was."
"Yes, I believe you may have seen her at some point too. She is rather breathtaking," the older man explained.
"...can't recall," Tanner said and shifted until he saw the others. His eyes turned cold as he spotted Larabee bound and lying on his own in the far corner. The man's back was to him and his anger raged as he turned back to Sanchez. "Why?"
Sanchez turned in the direction Tanner was looking and realized the Texan had not been awake or aware of the fight that had gone on earlier. Somehow, the older man also understood that the injured man was having trouble focusing.
"Chris is not himself right now, Vin, and that's why we need to find the well of souls. Do you remember where it is?"
"Well...maybe..." the injured man struggled as images came back. "...bl...ack...sh...shit...smother..."
"Can you tell me where it is?"
"...no..." Vin's voice died out in defeat. "...sor...ry...'siah..."
"That's alright, Vin..."
The tracker's words died slowly and Sanchez sat back against the wall in defeat. Anahita had been sure the Texan knew where the well of lost souls was, but Vin's injury and fever made it hard for him to think. Josiah looked at the three injured men and knew there had to be a way out of this for all of them. His gaze came to rest on the Texan once more. He watched as the young man seemed to fight for every breath, his chest heaving, hands clenched tightly as blue eyes opened and fought for focus. It surprised him even more when the sharpshooter's weak voice answered his earlier question.
"...dark and l...long...s...s...start at s...stairs. There's a...a...chi...child... t...there." Tanner thought he'd dreamed the tunnel and the child, but now he understood that it was the path to the well and he needed Sanchez to understand him before he lost consciousness again. "H...have t'follow to...end. T...the well's... d...deep....full o'bones...cryin'...s...souls."
"That's what we're going to do, Vin. We're going to get the bones outside the Inn and bury them properly."
"...good." The Texan sighed hard as relief left his battered body. "...need t'save 'em. Them lost souls," the Texan said as his eyes closed and he slipped into a deep sleep.
"Rest, Vin, and just maybe we'll all escape this unholy den," Sanchez said and moved to check on Chris Larabee. He stood over the blond and watched as the man's head slowly turned towards him. He could see the evil in the glowing red eyes and blessed himself as he spoke. "You will not win!"
"We already have!"
It was Larabee's voice, but the damning words were from the entity that controlled the lean body. Josiah watched in horror as the demon twisted and contorted and finally lay still before it turned away from the preacher.
'God help us!' Sanchez prayed.
'Your God cannot help you, PREACHER, he has forsaken all of you!'
The words seemed to come from his own mind, but Josiah knew the vile creature was speaking through his mind and answered in the same manner. 'You know nothing of God's power, but you will when he casts you from Chris Larabee's body. Do not begin to think Columber will win, for he has yet to see the true meaning of God's love!'
Sanchez heard the screeching wail and held his hands to his ears as he realized this time the sound was echoing off the walls of the haven. He heard the others cry out and watched as they too placed their hands over their ears in an effort to block out the cacophony surrounding them.
"You will not win!" Sanchez vowed and reached for the bible once more. He quickly began the Lord's Prayer and with the words came a feeling of power as the demon quieted and turned to face them.
"They are but words," the demon spat.
"They are powerful words and bring with them a belief that God is and always will be with us. Mark my words, Demon, you may have Chris Larabee right now, but God has not forsaken him and neither have we!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the words spoken strongly by Josiah Sanchez and lifted his head to face the creature that seemed to have been cast out of his body once more. He knew it was only temporary and tried to summon up he strength he needed to speak. He was slowly losing the battle with evil, but as long as his friends fought for him he would not give up. A small part of him still existed in the world outside this hell, and he clung to that lifeline with everything he had.
"They are underestimating my power!"
"No, you underestimate theirs!" Chris said of his friend's strength and their beliefs. He had no time to react as the creature's talons reached out and picked him up. His body was lifted high in the air and thrown across the misted landscape he resided in. He cried out as again and again the creature attacked him, but refused to give in to its keening wail.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had no idea what his words had cost their friend, but was relieved when the noise stopped and Larabee's body lay still once more. He turned to see Wilmington being helped into a seated position by JD Dunne. The only two that were unaware of their surroundings were Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner and he knew the two men were out of the equation for now.
"What was that?" Dunne asked as he wiped the sleep from his eyes.
"I believe that was the creature inhabiting Chris Larabee's body," Standish said wearily.
"Josiah, has Vin been awake at all?" the healer asked.
"Yes, Nathan, but only long enough to tell me where the well of lost souls is," the older man told them.
"The what?" Wilmington asked, wincing as Jackson examined his leg.
"It's a place buried somewhere inside the inn. From what Anahita told me it contains the bones of God's creatures that were killed within the unholy grounds surrounding this place. We need to find it."
"And do what?" Dunne asked.
"Remove the bones and bury them away from the circle of corruption. Once we do that the souls within the walls should be freed to finish their journey to everlasting life," Sanchez explained.
"Where is this well?" Standish inquired.
"Vin says we find it by starting at the main stairs." The ex-preacher walked over to the injured tracker and placed his hand on the young man's forehead. The Texan had a quiet strength about him that could not be denied. Josiah hoped and prayed he would see those sky blue eyes filled with a wondrous awe when this was all over with.
"When do we do this?" Wilmington asked.
"Buck, as much as we might need your strength I don't think you're meant to go on this journey," the older man said, raising his hands as the ladies' man made to protest.
"Josiah's right, Buck, you can't go anywhere with your leg like that!" Dunne said.
"Hell, I can walk!" the rogue said.
"Buck, you're going to have to stay here and make sure Chris and Vin are protected from outside influence. I know this is supposed to be a safe haven, but there are forces at work here that could tear down these walls if given the chance," Sanchez explained.
"All right, so who goes?" the reluctant rogue asked.
"Me, Josiah, JD, and Nathan," Standish said with certainty.
"What's gonna keep the Inn from going after you?" Wilmington asked, giving voice to his fears that the Inn was truly a living entity in itself.
"God will provide us with the light we need," Sanchez assured him.
"When do we leave?" Jackson asked as he finished checking Wilmington's leg.
"As soon as you're finished checking your patients," the holy man answered.
"Give me a few minutes," Jackson told him and turned his attention to Vin Tanner.
Josiah looked at each man and picked up the dog-eared bible once more. He looked at the young Bostonian and was taken aback by the sudden urge to protect the youth. He knew the words inside the bible by heart and took the time to silently pray for the strength they would need to destroy the evil within the walls of the Inn.
+ + + + + + +
The structure continued to writhe under the strain of trying to reach within the small room that denied access to the living creatures it sought. The need to feed was growing and with it came a grim determination as it felt Columber's servants trying to regain their fire. It felt the small splinter buried deep within the living flesh of The Chosen One and craved the force that dwelt within. These creatures were stronger than any that had come before them, but The Inn would feed on them as they breathed their final breath. The walls bled freely now, thick, noxious sludge that covered the floor making it a slick writhing surface that glistened in darkness. Screams from former victims once more rose up to shake the foundation as lost souls twisted in torment. The Inn was growing, the light was dying, and new victims would soon become a part of the evil that would soon encompass the earth.
+ + + + + + +
The five men felt the change in the air around them and knew the time had come for them to undertake the journey through the Inn. Josiah took a deep breath and reached out to take JD's hand in his own.
"Son, I am placing this in your hands for safekeeping," Sanchez stated as the familiar holy book slid into JD's hand.
"Josiah...I..." The Bostonian knew in his heart what was needed of him, but his eyes shone with his own fears. How could these men look to him when he wasn't sure of himself? His own faith had been tested to the limits with the loss of his mother and was one of the reasons he'd left Boston. Could he do this? Was he strong enough? Did he have what it took to help defeat the evil surrounding them? He looked up into the deep blue eyes of the holy man and was taken aback by what he saw there. Faith, they had faith in him and he began to understand how much that meant to him.
"Take it, Son, because the strength you have glows with a holy fire and I believe God has chosen you to lead us," the ex-preacher said.
"But..." Again Dunne stopped, swallowing hard as he accepted the words and honor the holy man bestowed on him. The mantle had been placed on his shoulders as he looked at the others and knew they believed in him, even if he doubted his own abilities.
"JD, never doubt yourself because that doubt can be fed upon and could lead to defeat. Believe in yourself...as we believe in you...as God believes in you," Sanchez said.
"Trust, Kid," Wilmington said as he stood and placed his hand on the bible. His hand was topped by Jackson's and in turn Standish covered his.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death: I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over..."
+ + + + + + +
Their voices rose in strength and permeated the walls and spread throughout the Inn. The walls shook with rage, sores split along seams as brackish liquids squelched free and dropped to the floor to ignite in red flames. The holy words, spoken with deep devotion wreaked havoc on the evil, but Columber flew high above, lending his own enormous evil to the writhing structure below.
+ + + + + + +
"God keep you," Wilmington said to the others as JD held the bible in his right hand.
"Watch over them, Buck, and don't under any circumstance, leave this room!" Sanchez warned.
"I won't," the gentle rogue assured him.
"Remember how easy it is to be tricked by Columber's evil, Buck," Standish said, shuddering as he remembered how easily he'd been duped.
"I won't, Ezra," Wilmington said and walked the four men to the door. He held it open as they stepped into the maelstrom that had once been a corridor.
"We'll be back!" Sanchez shouted above the thunderous roar.
Buck stood framed on the doorway, untouched by the twisting vortex of shimmering dust that enshrouded the four peacekeepers and left him unable to see his friends. He stood transfixed as ghostly images formed and dissipated before him. Some were so beautiful it blinded him, while others were grotesque and disjointed visions of creatures borne of hell. He shook himself and quickly shut the door on the creatures that had no right to be on earth. Leaning wearily against the door, Buck looked at the two men he now shared the room with.
Vin Tanner looked anemic, as if there was very little blood left inside him. Buck knew this was very dangerous for the Texan. The younger man had trusted Chris from the very beginning and Buck knew that was something the sharpshooter seldom did. He knew Larabee and Tanner had spoken of their pasts and revealed more to each other than to anyone else. This was a sign of friendship that ran so deep it could transcend conscientiousness, and he prayed that the two men could find a way to help each other through the hell they were trapped in.
"Listen Lord, I ain't much of a prayin' man and I know I probably done some things ya frown on, but I need ya to listen to me now. Give us the strength to do your work and send this Inn and the evil that lives here back to hell where it belongs..."
"Vin?" Buck's heart leapt in his throat as he realized the Texan had indeed spoken the word. Relief washed over him as realized the tracker was still with them.
"W...where o...others?" Tanner's words were drawn out as if the need to breathe had become a chore that sapped his dwindling strength.
"Not far. They went to see if they could find that well of lost souls."
"Chris?" The Texan asked, eyelids fluttering as his hands clenched into tight fists and pain speared through his chest.
"He's still with us," Wilmington said and looked towards the gunslinger, even as he reached out to take the Texan's hand in his own. He felt the fingers gripping his and looked back in time to see the Texan's washed out features explode in pain. He lost track of time, speaking softly in soothing tones and praying the younger man would be all right until they got him the help he needed. He thought Tanner had lost consciousness again, but the familiar voice sounded once more in the quiet room.
"Chris n...needs help."
"Yes, he does, and so do you, but right now you need to be still. How do you feel?"
"Probably has something to do with being stabbed." The ladies' man eased down until he was sitting beside the Texan.
"Had a fight with a tree," Wilmington replied and saw a flicker of worry on the waxen features. "Don't you go worryin' on Old Buck, son. This leg's got a lot of dancin' yet to do." He gave the troubled man's shoulder a gentle tug and felt the fevered man's warm breath dance across his hand as the blue eyes slid shut. "Go on and sleep, Vin, I got your back."
+ + + + + + +
JD felt the bible in his hand and the warmth spread throughout his body and mind. The book itself seemed to hold the power of God's light as they struggled towards the main entrance to the Inn. The swirling edifice seemed even more alive, but it only hindered their forward momentum. They fought through the decaying structure, ignoring the banshee like screams that shook the foundations and threatened to leave them deaf if they ever escaped the Inn. When they'd entered the maelstrom he'd felt Sanchez's hand on his shoulder and knew instinctively the others were doing the same. A sort of human chain that was held together by God's will and he smiled inwardly as he felt the power within the book in his hand.
Dunne stumbled and would have fallen, but for Sanchez's quick reaction and he turned his head slightly and shouted above the clamor.
"Anytime!" Sanchez said and put his hand on JD's shoulder once more. His grip tightened as the winds howled and kicked up debris around them. A piece of wood jabbed into his sleeve, but didn't touch the skin underneath as he kept his touch on Dunne's shoulder. He felt Standish behind him and glanced over his left shoulder to make sure they were still together in spite of the attempts being made to tear them apart.
Ezra had seen the rather large piece of wood that came from nowhere and nearly embedded in the older man's arm. His own hand had been placed on Sanchez's shoulder and it seemed right that they keep their touch strong. He felt Jackson' hand on his right shoulder as they moved deeper into the Inn. He knew the journey ahead would be a hard one and that they needed to free those trapped within the walls and found himself praying for the strength they would need.
Nathan kept glancing behind them as he tried to hold onto Standish. He knew they were no longer alone and heard the shuffling of unsteady feet behind him, but could see nothing in the swirling torment they left in their wake. His hold tightened on Standish and he swallowed painfully as a screeching wail arose above their heads and shook the floor underfoot.
"Hang on!" Sanchez cried as he felt hands reaching for him.
"Don't let go!" Standish shouted as something snagged his pant leg.
"JD, keep going!" the older man ordered as he renewed his grip.
"I'm trying!" Dunne answered. His legs felt weighed down in thick muck that sucked at his feet and tried to pull him down. He knew if he lost his footing it would be the end for all of them, for the evil was here and it was fighting them every step of the way.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had no idea how much time had passed when a soft keening sound rose inside the room. He frowned and looked at the sharpshooter, but Tanner was unaware of the strange sound. Wilmington stood up, winced as he tried to put weight on his left leg and moved to check on the blond. The closer he got to the bound man the louder the noise became until he had to clasp his hands over his ears.
"I'll kill that fucking Texan and make sure Chris Larabee knows its his own hands that are betraying him!"
"I won't let you hurt either of them!"
"What can you do about it?" the demon asked in a voice so scratchy it sounded like stones were grating together inside the blond's throat.
"I can protect them from you!" Wilmington vowed.
"Can you? I can hurt your friend simply because I wish it to be so."
"You can't hurt Vin...not while you're tied up like that!"
"Who said I was talking about him?" the demon ground out and began to laugh. "Would you like to speak with Chris Larabee? I could let him...for a price..." The red eyes glowed maliciously and Buck knew he was being bated and anger welled up inside at the thought of his long time friend at the mercy of the creature before him.
"Bastard!" Buck cried out and fought the urge to strike out at the being inside Larabee's body.
"I guess that would be a no then? Perhaps I should tell your friend of your decision and show him how your decision affects him?"
"Chris knows we're here for him. That we haven't deserted him! Like your master has deserted you!" Wilmington said forcefully and smiled inwardly at the first sign of fear in the eyes.
"My master has not deserted me!" the demon said, his words slightly hesitant as if he was unsure of his own statement.
"God will not allow you to win!"
"God is not here to stop me!" the creature spat.
"Are you so sure? God is in here," Wilmington's right hand went over his heart and he moved to the Texan and touched his hand to the sleeping man's chest. "And here..."
"God is dead!" the demon shrieked and fought the ropes that bound his arms and legs.
"No! God is in all of us and he's especially in the heart of that man. Chris Larabee has suffered enough in his lifetime and God will not let him suffer an eternity in hell!"
"Chris Larabee is The Chosen One and he is already lost to your God!"
"If that was true then I would not be here talking with you."
"Because this Inn would have taken him and set him at the gates Columber told us about, but he's not. I know you have control right now, but Chris is stronger than you think! This room really is a sanctuary from the evil that's part of this place!"
"For now, but that will end soon and you will all suffer as Chris Larabee does!"
Wilmington watched as the red eyes changed and he looked into the green eyes he knew so well. "Chris, hang on!"
"BUCK!" the words came out laced with agony as Chris Larabee tried to twist away from the knifing pain tearing through his side.
"Jesus, Chris!" Wilmington said as the eyes clouded towards red once more and cackling laughter escaped the ravaged throat.
"How easy it is to hurt this one!"
"Our Father who art in heaven..." Buck's voice was never stronger or more profound.
"Prayers won't help him!'
"Hallowed be thy name..." His eyes shone with the light of truth.
"I warn you they don't work!"
"Thy Kingdon come..." He vowed, his heart pounding.
"Thy will be done..." He felt a warmth in his chest and felt the power within him.
"On earth as it is in Heaven..." His voice proclaimed triumphantly.
"Kill you all!" the demon's screams could not drown out the words spoken so softly by Buck Wilmington, nor could the darkness reveal the true pain flowing through the ladies man's heart as he realized this vile creature could easily kill his long time friend.
+ + + + + + +
"There's a doorway up ahead but it's got something covering it!" Dunne shouted above the continuous roar.
"Just be careful, Son!" Standish warned as he blinked away the burning sensation from his eyes. He knew whatever the black sludge was it was affecting not only their eyes but their lungs as well as they fought for air in the decaying mass of wood and stone.
"Is everything all right up there?" Jackson shouted.
"There's a door...JD's about to go through!" Standish yelled and watched the young easterner disappear through the opening.
+ + + + + + +
JD spotted the staircase leading up to the second floor and knew they'd reached the place where Vin told them they could find the Well of Lost Souls. He turned to see Sanchez dive through the doorway, quickly followed by Standish and Jackson.
Ezra could not believe the difference in the room since the last time he'd been there with Buck and Vin. The stairs were covered in a shimmering substance that gave off an eerie luminescence and provided at least a small source of light. The rails oozed a noxious fluid that turned his stomach.
"Josiah, do you see her?" Dunne asked.
Sanchez stared at the waif standing at the top of the stairs. There was a shimmering radiance as if a light shone from within the child's body. The dark hair seemed to move as if a soft breeze kissed the long tendrils. The eyes were the darkest of blue and filled with a depth of despair and desolation that it ripped at his heart and threatened to send him to his knees. Tears flowed freely from the eyes and formed gossamer threads that fell to the floor and splashed noiselessly into the quagmire like substance that covered the floor. The small, nearly skeletal hand rose and seemed to point towards the darker reaches of the Inn and Josiah finally found the will to answer the younger man.
"I see her, JD," Sanchez said softly.
"What do we do?" Standish asked.
"Follow her," the ex-preacher answered and began to pick his way along the edge of the staircase. The others followed in his footsteps. The child motioned to them, but spoke not a word as she reached out to touch each of them and darkness surrounding the four men before consciousness left them.
+ + + + + + +
Buck sensed the change within the walls and took a deep breath as he watched the brackish sludge ooze through cracks along the door. The demon had grown quiet in the corner, but Wilmington knew it was still there. He felt a tremor through his own body and knew something had happened to the four men who were outside the haven.
"God help us!" he prayed and settled down to wait his friends' return.
+ + + + + + +
The youngest of the seven peacekeepers gasped and sputtered as he fought to breathe through the thick sludge that seemed to mire him to the spot. He clawed at the slippery surface and finally managed to get his feet under him.
"JD, where are you?"
The Bostonian used his hands to wipe away the burning ooze that seemed to surround his eyes and fought to answer the familiar baritone voice that called to him. He spat out the black substance that seemed to fill his mouth and finally found his voice.
"I'm here, Josiah! I can't see a damn thing!" Dunne answered.
"Give your eyes a chance to adjust, JD, the walls are luminescent!" Standish offered and reached out for the younger man.
"Jesus, Ezra! Ya scared the hell outta me!" the easterner swore.
"My abject apologies!" Standish said, his voice shaky with emotion.
"Anyone see Nathan?" Sanchez asked as he joined the two men. He looked above his head at the shimmering black viscous fluid that seemed to permeate the very walls of the hole they seemed to be trapped in.
"He was behind me!" The gambler explained and heard movement below him. He reached down into the sludge and grasped something firm. Pulling and tugging at the item he refused to give up as JD and Josiah reached down to help him. Slipping and sliding the trio refused to give up the fight and were soon rewarded with a thick sucking sound as the sludge gave up the unconscious form of the healer.
"He's not breathing!" Dunne said, his body trembling with a combination of fear and fatigue.
"We need to get this shit out of his mouth!" Sanchez said and used his fingers to force Jackson's mouth open. Again and again he reached into the healer's mouth until he'd cleared an airway. Without thinking about what he was doing, Josiah leaned down and breathed deeply into his friend's mouth. Again and again he repeated the process until at last Jackson heaved a deep breath and coughed up the brackish liquid.
"Thank God!" Standish said softly.
"I just did," Sanchez assured him and held onto the gasping figure. "Easy, Brother."
"What the hell happened?" the former stretcher-bearer asked as he continued to spit out the black crud that made his stomach churn.
"I think our young spirit brought us here," Sanchez answered. "Vin said we should follow, but I think the idea was that the spirit would somehow transport us here."
"That still leaves us with another question," Standish said. "Exactly where is here?"
"The well of lost souls!" Dunne told him as he caught movement in the black sludge that was now up to his knees.
"JD's right," Sanchez explained as more and more bones seemed to churn in the mire they were trapped in.
"Do you hear that?" Standish asked and the four men grew silent as the sound grew louder and seemed to reverberate off the luminescent walls surrounding them.
"What the hell is that?" JD cried as he held his hands over his ears as the cacophony intensified.
"They're crying for our help," Sanchez said, refusing to place his hands over his ears as the others had done. He let the cries of pain and sorrow give him strength as he sought an avenue of escape from the well.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington looked towards Chris Larabee as the unearthly screams penetrated their haven. The blond had been quiet since the others left, but now he seemed to cackle with malicious glee as the sounds increased in pitch and agony. His own hands went to his ears, not so much to drown out the screams, but to keep out the unholy laughter escaping from the blond's throat. He rocked back and forth on his legs as he continued to pray that God would help them through this.
+ + + + + + +
High above the Inn a lone crow continued its flight and oversaw the developments inside the structure. The well of lost souls seemed to be alive with energy and it knew four of the seven inhabitants had found the source of the power that held the Inn in place. The twisting, writhing bodies that had been thrown into the pestilence so many years ago seemed to have found salvation, and he would let them have this small insignificant victory. His prize lay within the haven, and he would soon breach the walls and take the Chosen Prince. He would stand over the two men and use Chris Larabee as he was meant to be used. The darkness within the blond would prove overpowering and he would be forced to kill Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner. The red eyes glowed as Columber continued its spiralling journey over the circle of corruption.
"I will defeat you this time and watch you weep for the souls you have lost!" Columber vowed as he felt the advancing purity that signalled his foe was nearby. The fight between good and evil was an ongoing battle, but this time he would be the victor.
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis, Gloria Potter, Inez Recillos and the other inhabitants of Four Corners watched as the sky above them swirled in a kaleidoscope of frightening images. The clouds had come from nowhere and now dominated the landscape as far as the eye could see. They rolled into each other, setting forth jagged streaks of lightning and turbulent thunder that shook the buildings and threatened to tear open the ground underfoot. A storm of such magnitude was unheard of, but the people of Four Corners sought shelter from whatever was wreaking havoc around them. Without a word they moved to the church Josiah Sanchez was rebuilding and sought shelter in the promise of prayer.
+ + + + + + +
Somewhere in the distance a similar sight was beheld by the people of Farmington and other towns near the Bisti Badlands. No one understood where the storm was coming from or the frightening power that seemed to be feeding it. Hail, big enough to break windows and damage crops pelted the ground and anything that moved. The storm was a harbinger of things to come and the people of the town hurried towards the church and began to pray.
+ + + + + + +
"Josiah, how do we do this?" Jackson screamed above the howling voices.
"We need to get the bones outside. Away from the evil pestilence," Sanchez said.
"How do we do that?" Dunne asked.
"A little at a time, Son," Sanchez answered.
"There's one thing we need to figure out first," Standish told them as he lifted his head and looked up. "How do we get out of here?"
"JD, come here!" the holy man ordered as he stood at the side of the well.
"What's wrong, Josiah?"
"Nothing, Son, but how would you feel about climbing onto my shoulders and maybe you can grab onto the ledge and pull yourself out! Think you could do that?" Sanchez asked.
"I can try!" Dunne answered and watched as the ex-preacher bent low enough for him to climb onto his back and finally his shoulders.
"Hang on, JD," Jackson said as he moved to support Sanchez and Standish helped the Bostonian get his feet on Sanchez's shoulders.
Josiah grunted as he tried to straighten up with the added burden of a grown man on his shoulders. Although JD was smaller than the rest, he was still heavy enough to cause the bigger man's muscles to strain and Sanchez fought to stay on his feet.
"I c...can't quite r...reach it!" Dunne grunted as he reached for the edge. There didn't seem to be any way he could reach the edge and he heard the strain in Sanchez's voice as the older man continued to hold him.
"Is there anything you can grab hold of?" Jackson asked above the tumultuous cries echoing off the walls.
"T...trying...I g...got. Just a little more!" the Bostonian shouted and was relieved when his hand grabbed onto something that did not give way beneath his touch. He tested it several times before pushing his feet against the ex-preacher's shoulder and pulling his body upward.
Josiah used his arms to help give the younger man some support and smiled as Standish and Jackson did the same. Between them they managed to keep Dunne from falling and breathed a sigh of relief as he reached for the edge and began to pull himself over.
JD felt the strong hands pushing him upwards and could not believe it when he pulled his body over the ledge and lay still until he was able to catch his breath. He heard the others calling his name and turned onto his side to stare into the well he'd just escaped.
"JD, are you okay?" Jackson shouted above the pain filled screams.
"Yeah, just needed to catch my breath," Dunne assured them.
"What do you see?" Sanchez asked.
"Hold on," Dunne said as he stood and looked around. Shadowy figures moved around him, but he didn't feel any of the evil he'd felt in other areas of the house. The child who'd beckoned to them stood between a man and a woman and JD knew instinctively that they were his parents.
"JD!" Sanchez called, as time seemed to be slipping away from them.
"You should see this," Dunne said, as the figures surrounding him seemed to sense that he was there to help them. The blue-eyed child pointed moved forward but its spectral mother and father held him in place, but the child was not to be stopped.
"You must hurry! The Inn grows stronger and soon you will be unable to leave!"
"JD, what's going on?" Jackson called his voice barely audible above the shrieking voices.
"I think I see the lost souls," Dunne said, his voice filled with awe as he moved to the edge of the well.
"Do you see anything that can aid us in escaping this well?" Standish asked.
"There's not much here..."
"The room," the child whispered, but his voice reached Dunne's ears.
"What room?" JD asked.
"The sacrificial chamber. There are ropes there. It is not far! I will show you!"
"Josiah, I'll be back!" Dunne shouted.
"Where are you going?" Jackson asked.
"The kid says there are ropes in the sacrificial chamber!" Dunne said and hurried after the retreating specter.
"Did he say he was going to the sacrificial chamber?" Standish asked worriedly.
"That's what he said. I just hope he doesn't become a sacrifice," Jackson said as Josiah began to pray once more.
+ + + + + + +
Buck stood and limped to the door as Larabee's animated body seemed to jerk against the ropes that were wrapped around his arms. Vin Tanner remained unaware of the vile words being uttered by the blond and for that Wilmington was grateful. He knew Chris was not behind the words he screamed or the laughter that escaped his throat, but that didn't make it any easier.
'Please, God, help us!' he prayed as he watched in horror the advancing sludge.
"It won't be long now and you and that bastard will know the true meaning of evil," the demon dominating Larabee's body and mind laughed.
"I know what evil is. I've seen it and lived with it all my life," Wilmington said and thought about the many deaths he'd seen through the years. He thought about the death of Larabee's wife and child and how hard it had been for him to come to terms with that loss.
"Ella Gaines is but a child compared to me. She only plays at evil, but someday she will be rewarded for the murders that brought Chris Larabee to us."
"Chris doesn't belong to you or Columber because we won't let you win!" Wilmington vowed and ignored the raging demon as he moved back towards the unconscious Texan.
+ + + + + + +
JD's heart beat too fast as he moved into the familiar chamber. The altar was before him and he blinked away the memory of having seen Chris Larabee raising a dagger over the Texan's heart. He swallowed back the bile rising in his throat and moved to collect the lengths of rope that had fallen away when they released Tanner, Wilmington, and Standish. When he thought he had enough, the Bostonian quickly averted his eyes from the bloodstains on the altar and moved through the door once more. He hurried along the hallway, ignoring the cries of rage that now covered the pain filled screams of the tormented souls. He could feel the evil settling around him and knew he had to help the others before it was too late for them all.
"Josiah, I got some rope!" Dunne called as he sank down at the edge of the well of lost souls.
"JD, hurry, Son!" Sanchez called as he tried to keep from slipping on the slick surface. The sludge was now up to his hips and continued to deepen, as time seemed to move faster. He reached for the length of hemp as it dropped down to them.
"Something's happening to the Inn!" Dunne called.
"It's growing stronger, Son. We need to hurry, Ezra, grab hold and we'll give you a hand up!" Sanchez ordered and was glad when the gambler didn't protest. It took longer than expected to get the conman out of the well as the thick sludge seemed resentful of losing one of its victims. The rope was dropped over the edge once more and Nathan soon left the well.
"Josiah, you're next," Jackson called.
"No, I'm going to use my serape to hold the bones and I need you to pull it up. I don't know how many bones are here, but it's going to take us working together to do this," Sanchez said as he pulled the item over his head and placed it on the roiling surface.
"Josiah. That shit is rising!" Jackson called.
"I know, but if we don't get the bones of the innocent the Inn will continue to strengthen and we'll die anyway! We need to do this, Nathan!" Sanchez shouted.
"He's right, Nathan," Dunne said.
"Damn it! I know he is!" Jackson said. "All right, Josiah, You put them in the serape and send them up. JD and Ezra can begin taking them outside!"
"How do we manage that?" Standish asked as he looked around. He'd expected to see images of spirits like Dunne had described seeing, but there was only darkness beyond the perimeter.
"We follow the kid," Dunne said.
"What kid?" Jackson asked.
"Don't you see him?" the easterner asked.
"I don't see anyone!" the healer said.
"That doesn't mean he isn't there!" Sanchez shouted from below. "Listen to your instincts, JD! If you trust the kid than do as he says!"
"I will, Josiah!" Dunne vowed.
"All right, JD, you haven't let us down so far," Standish said as he saw the bible tucked into the younger man's pocket.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah bent to the holy task he'd undertaken and began slowly pulling at the first bone as it was revealed in the rolling sludge. It wouldn't budge at first, but finally he heard the thick suctioning sound as it gave up its prize. Again and again he reached into the deepening mire and pulled the bones free of the imprisoning liquid. The rope dangled before him and he finally had no choice, but to send up the heavy load as he tied the edges of the serape together.
"Pull it up!" Sanchez shouted and slipped below the surface. He fought for purchase and finally managed to get his feet under him once more. He heard the concerned voices from above and finally told them he was okay.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan breathed a sigh of relief as he heard the ex-preacher's voice and the serape was released and fell open, revealing over two dozen bones, some deformed and bent while others glistened as if polished to a gleaming shine.
JD swallowed again and again until his stomach calmed and he removed his jacket. He began transferring the bones from the serape onto his jacket and watched as Standish did the same. Between them they managed to lift the precious burden and Dunne saw the child motioning to him once more. The other specters seemed to have vanished, but he could hear them crying out even as he followed the ghostly apparition.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan lowered the serape once more and noticed the walls of the well seemed to ooze more and more with each passing moment. The older man worked diligently at pulling the bones from the sludge and placing them on the garment. Jackson heard him saying the Lord's Prayer as each one came free with a sickening squelch. As he pulled the serape from the well once more he caught sight of the tears that streamed down the older man's cheeks. Josiah Sanchez may have lost his faith at one time, but Nathan Jackson had never seen a man more worthy of the mantle of holiness. He pulled off his coat and emptied the serape into it before lowering the rope once more into the well of Lost Souls. So many lives, so much pain, and now, just maybe they were finally going to have the proper burial they deserved.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee felt the changes and understood that the demon inhabiting his body was growing agitated. Although he could no longer speak or touch his friends he knew they were battling the evil invading their world. His own body was weakening and he was no longer able to fight the creature, but he would not give up. Somehow he would save his dwindling strength and help the others if and when the time came.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah lost count of the times he sank his hands into the liquid and wondered if the monumental task they'd undertaken would ever come to an end. The liquid was now at his elbows and showed no signs of slowing as the shrieking renewed itself and threatened to deafen them all. The walls themselves seemed to breathe with an unholy fire as sweat beaded on his brow.
"God grant us the strength we need to see your work done and to give these poor souls the peace they deserve!"
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and JD struggled through the once stately Inn until they reached the main door. Once there they shoved it open and raced out into the front yard. The landscape remained unchanged as the swirling shifting sands once more dominated everything around them. JD raced toward the barn and heard Ezra behind him as he shoved open the door. Once inside he heard the animals and thanked God that they were safe.
"JD, whoever it is you're following please tell them they have my utmost gratitude."
"They already know," Dunne answered as he placed his burden on the floor and searched the barn for anything they could use. He quickly spotted an old wagon covered in debris against one side of the barn and knew this would do to carry the bones to their new burial site.
"What did you find?"
"I think it may be our salvation. Or should I say the salvation of the souls lost here," Dunne said as he tugged off the debris. It didn't take them long to uncover the aged wagon and although it was in need of repair both men knew it carried the salvation of many souls in its future.
+ + + + + + +
The crow watched as the two men crossed the yard and entered the barn. It cawed loudly as it realized what they carried and what it would mean to the future should the bones be taken from the well of lost souls. Its feathers ruffled as if a strong wind blew across the surface, but nothing else moved except the wall of unholy sand that surrounded the structure. Turning around it slowly flew back inside the open door of the Inn and shifted into the human form as it landed on two legs. These humans knew him as Columber, but they would also know him as Satan, for his was the darkness that devoured the innocent and took the souls of the damned whether they were destined for hell or not. This was his home, his unholy ground, and he would take those who dared defy him and turn them into slaves of the legion that waited for the gates to open completely. Only one thing stopped that from happening and the time had come for him to take the chosen one, the dark prince and place him at the gates to hell for all eternity.
"CHRIS LARABEE'S BLACK HEART IS MINE!"
+ + + + + + +
"NEVER!" Sanchez screamed as he pulled the final bone from its prison and placed it in the serape. The black substance was now up to his chin and he knew he had to climb out of the well before it was too late for him. He watched as the healer pulled the final load from the well and stood on his toes to keep the quagmire from entering his mouth.
+ + + + + + +
"Josiah, grab the rope!" Jackson yelled as he dropped it over the edge. JD and Ezra had made several trips to and from the barn, each one carrying the remnants of the victims of the Inn. He heard them returning and turned towards them. "Help me get him out!"
Ezra dropped to Jackson's right at the same time JD dropped to his left and the trio began pulling on the rope.
"Josiah, hold on!" Dunne called as the thick sludge seemed to encompass the big man's body.
"Damn it, Josiah, don't you go givin' up now!" Jackson screamed and slapped at the murky substance lining the Well of Lost Souls.
"JOSIAH!" Standish screamed and nearly slid into the well in his effort to get to the older man. There was silence from the trio as they lost sight of the holy man, but they renewed their efforts as an arm came up and latched onto the rope.
"PULL!" Jackson cried as relief washed over him. Sanchez's other arm soon joined the one already latched onto the rope and the trio began pulling with every ounce of strength they could muster. Muscles pulled taut as arms and legs braced against the enemy that came in the form of black sewage and threatened to take one of their own. With a force born of desperation and fed by the faith of men who were facing evil beyond anything they'd ever known, Josiah Sanchez was drawn from the arms of hell and deposited amongst the men he called family.
Josiah rolled onto his back and crossed himself as he breathed in the air that had been denied him for what seemed an eternity. He heard the others breathing just as raggedly as he was and knew he owed them his life. Finally finding the strength he needed he sat up and brushed the sludge off his face as he looked from Standish to Jackson to Dunne and smiled.
"Thanks," the ex-preacher finally managed and looked at the hole he'd just escaped. The rim seemed to be closing over and the brackish fluid was crusting over even as they stood up.
"What's happening?" Dunne asked.
"A piece of hell is withdrawing," Sanchez said and looked at the pile of bones they'd rescued from the well. "I believe it's time these poor souls were given a proper burial."
"JD found a wagon in the barn and we've been placing the bones there," Standish said.
"Well done, Son," Sanchez said and turned his attention to the task at hand. With the four of them carrying the remaining victims it would still take several trips to get them to the barn and transport them outside the circle of corruption.
"We need to figure out how to get past the sandstorm," Standish said.
"The lord will provide a way," the older man said and bent to retrieve the bundle wrapped in his serape. He watched as the others did the same and followed JD Dunne along the darkened corridor.
+ + + + + + +
Buck leaned his head against the wall and closed his weary eyes. His leg throbbed in cadence with each heartbeat and he tried to find a comfortable position. He felt his mind drifting and moved his leg, crying out as the pain jolted through his body and forced his mind to concentrate. His gaze went from Tanner to Larabee and finally stopped on the door. Whatever filth was trying to gain entrance was slowly gaining ground as thick ropey tendrils began to creep through the cracks around the door.
"God, I ain't much of a praying man, and I know I've done some things I shouldn't have, but right now I...we need your help. Chris and Vin are good men and they been doing good work in Four Corners, we all have, and if this is a test I sure hope you got some way we can get through it," Wilmington whispered and heard cackling laughter from the corner where Larabee lay.
"Do you really think your God gives a damn about seven gunslingers?" the demon asked, lips curled upward in a leering grin that added cruelty to the glowing red eyes.
Buck didn't bother to answer as his attention returned to the Texan as the young man shivered and the feverish blue eyes fought to open. Buck shifted until his back was to his long time friend and he looked directly at Tanner. His right hand touched the tracker's shoulder and he could feel the heat emanating from the younger man.
"Easy, Vin, just lie still."
"B...Buck?" the tracker's eyes were wild and glazed as he tried to focus on the man beside him. "Hot...too hot."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Wilmington said as he realized the room really did seem hotter than before.
"No, we're not in hell," the gentle rogue vowed.
"Not yet!" Larabee's voice was hoarse and Buck knew it wasn't his friend speaking.
"C...Chris?" the sharpshooter tried to sit up, but did not have the strength to do so.
"It ain't Chris, Vin, not yet anyway," the ladies' man said softly as the demon hissed and laughed at the two men.
+ + + + + + +
The demon possessing Chris Larabee's body smiled as the voice of his master reached him and he closed his eyes to listen and see. The chief justice of hell and his legion were waiting outside the door and it would not be long before he broke through the holy barrier.
'I am here. Soon it will be time for the Prince to take his rightful place.'
'What about these men?'
'They are inconsequential, but perhaps when you are free I will allow you some time to play with them before I take their souls. It would be justice to have you toy with them using Chris Larabee's own body.'
+ + + + + + +
Buck placed a hand on Tanner's shoulder and turned to see Chris Larabee's head turn in his direction. The red eyes burned with a malevolent glow that sent a shiver of dread down his spine. He continued to stare into the eyes and slowly began to drown in the fire as he struggled to get away. His head throbbed and his heart pounded in his chest and he knew he had to break eye contact, but the air was suddenly alive with screams.
One voice rose above the banshee like wails and Buck fought to regain control as a hand touched against his arm. The force behind the eyes was far beyond anything he'd ever known, yet it could not match the heartfelt plea whispered from the mouth of the Texan.
"Buck," Vin whispered weakly. "please...help...hurts..."
"Sweet Jesus help us!" Wilmington cried as he dropped to his knees. He heard the sickening laughter and held his hands to his ears as he tried to block out the painful screeching.
+ + + + + + +
The four men struggled with their burden toward the entrance to the Inn. The evil was slowly gaining strength and the sudden screams hurt their ears, but neither man stopped to cover them. The souls of the dead were their only concern because their release would weaken the Inn and close the gates to hell.
"Be careful, JD!" Sanchez called above the howling cries. The younger man was in the lead and they followed in his footsteps. The ex-preacher knew how hard this was on the Easterner, but JD Dunne seemed bigger than life as he took the initiative and led them through the living structure.
"It's just ahead!" the Bostonian shouted as he pulled his foot from the sickening mud. The air around them seemed heated as if the very oxygen they breathed was on fire, yet they continued their torturous journey in a bid for freedom.
They made it to the main door and fell out into the yard where they dragged in the cooler air. Nathan was the first to regain his footing and he hurried to help the others to their feet. They gathered the remains of the victims and carried them to barn where the horses whinnied and stomped their hooves. Once inside Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra used their combined strength to force the doors closed, while JD hurried to calm the spooked horses.
Dunne gave the animals a pat and spoke softly to them in much the same way he'd seen Vin do on countless times. Pony and Peso were in the last two stalls and seemed to be hell bent on breaking through the wooden barrier that enclosed them. He moved to the rugged wagon and wondered if it would hold up for the burden it would carry through the storm of shifting sands surrounding them.
"JD, we need to get moving!" Sanchez called. They lifted the remaining bones into the back of the wagon and stood in silent prayer as they realized how many innocent lives had succumbed to the evil in this area of the Bisti Badlands. Josiah blessed himself and the others before saying a prayer for the safe journey of the souls they were trying to free. It took some time for them to secure the remnants of lives lost in the back of the wagon, but it was finally done. They hooked Josiah and Nathan's horses to the front and took a few minutes to say a prayer for those they were leaving within the walls of the damned building.
Josiah and Nathan would ride in the wagon, while Ezra and JD rode their horses and made sure they didn't lose any of the precious cargo they carried. They'd found several lengths of hemp and used Josiah's serape and their own coats to cover the wagon. Now, with nothing left to be done JD and Ezra moved to open the door on the tempest that waited for them. They'd all torn strips of material to cover their mouth and nose and keep the grains from choking them.
Josiah held tight to the reins as he watched the younger men fight the howling winds. Sand swept in through the door and the startled horses shied away from the malevolent force that would soon bombard them. The ex-preacher held the reins tight as JD and Ezra mounted up and led the way into the hellacious storm that tugged at their clothes and it felt as if invisible hands pulled at the cloth that covered their faces.
Nathan looked toward Josiah as Ezra and JD led them out of the barn. No words were needed as the small entourage moved out of the shelter. Dunne, clasping the bible close to his heart, led them into the nightmare world of hot, stifling sands.
+ + + + + + +
Satan stood before the door of the room he'd never been able to enter and smiled with demonic glee. He'd touched upon the mind of the demon that possessed Chris Larabee's body and had seen through its eyes the interior of the room. It would not be long before his power was strong enough to push through the holy barrier and attack the two men sheltered within. The walls around him shimmered with an unholy hue that leant strength to the structure and the living legion that awaited his return. No longer would he be cast out! No longer would he have to bow before the power of good! No more would he have to acquiesce to a God he had no loyalty to and soon these puny mortals would feel the wrath of hell.
"I WILL RULE THE WORLD!" The words shook the walls, shaking the structure to its very foundations and the Inn seemed to breathe with the unholy vow.
+ + + + + + +
Chris knew time was running out. His strength was nearly depleted, yet he continued to fight the demon. As the screams echoed and re-echoed his body jerked like a helpless puppet on a broken string. He had to help...had to keep his friends safe, but the harder he fought, the weaker he became and he was forced to watch as Hell slowly took a stranglehold of the world he lived in.
+ + + + + + +
Vin shivered as the words reverberated off the walls and reached out for Buck once more. That this was hell was his first thought as even the air he breathed seemed to burn into his lungs. Wilmington's face was turned away from him and he tried to see what horrified the rogue. The wall around the doors seemed alive with some kind of thickening tendrils that sought entrance into the room. It was from there that the heat emanated and Vin heard the sickening sounds of wood being stretched to the limits. He tried to sit forward, but there seemed to be a weight on his chest and the pain was too much. His eyes closed and the world around him disappeared once more.