Online Exclusive: “In the Empty Places” by Josh Steiner

The two men sat in a small cave that sheltered them from most of the wind and blowing snow. One sat close to the fire and flexed his fingers at the small flame, while the other sat warily in the shadows against the cave wall beneath his poncho and a saddle blanket. The man at the fire lifted the last of the boiled yucca root on a blackened spoon to the other, but he declined with a slight shake of his head. These two had traveled many silent miles together, and neither time nor distance blunted their mutual hatred and mistrust.

The man called Lucius shrugged and ate the last bites of the pitiful dinner. It was a rather tasteless thing, this yucca, and pulped in his mouth like a potato, but it was hot and, for the moment, satisfied him. He sipped at the gritty, steaming water in the small pot and crawled to the cave’s mouth to watch the snow scream across the flatlands. It came heavier and faster by the minute, constricting sky and plains alike in a maddening white blur, and it was beginning to spill into their cave.

The cold stung his ears and pulled at the warmth in his stomach while he scratched his beard, concerned at the prospect of travel in the morning. He looked over his shoulder to the still figure at the back of the cave and squinted, watching the firelight sparkle against his eyes. Lucius nodded out to the storm. “We’re gonna need some rock to cover the entrance here. Some deeper back in this ravine, maybe. Don’t wanna wake up froze under a pile o’ snow.”

The quiet one stared back and listened to the howls beyond before nodding, once. He slid his ugly hat down his face and shut his eyes.

Lucius grabbed at his boots and overcoat in disgust and set to muttering to himself. “Damn worthless fool … half a mind to sort the mess out myself. Leave you here to be froze all by yer lonesome.”

For the first time in several days, the grim companion spoke. “Careful you don’t go walkin’ in circles. Lookin’ ugly out.” He resumed his quest for sleep, and Lucius grumbled out into the snow and wind.

Whatever gray light remained behind the clouds was failing and Lucius knew that to avoid losing his place in the dark he would have to move quickly. He loped along the riverbed some distance into the chalky canyon walls, gathering what rock he could fit in his arms before hurrying back to the cave to pile them.

The winds hacked a paste of frozen snot and tears along his face, and if he moved his mouth he could feel his lips split and bleed. The storm hissed between the canyon walls, dragging his living warmth away and up into a starless sky; it cut through leather and wool and skin in moments, always seeking the blood and bone. The weight of the snow that soaked his clothes bent his back, braking what little pace he had, and twice pulled him to his knees to plead for warmth, sleep and an end to the cold. Yet he continued to plod on, telling his muscles that they weren’t finished, that, goddammit, they had to keep on going. Steps became shuffles became crawling, and yet, as always, Lucius finished the work he began. He dragged himself into the cave, peeled off his frozen outer layers and curled up beside the fire beneath the saddle blanket to shiver in the tangled red worlds of his dreaming.

 

Later, Lucius awoke to the clatter of stone and couldn’t feel his feet. The fire had been stamped out and the quiet one was shoving the rock from the cave mouth in a hurry.

“The hell time is it? And you couldn’t even keep a damn fire going?” Lucius’ thoughts had the dull amber hue of the abruptly-woken and he sat and blinked at the sky beyond the cave. For those first few seconds, the world didn’t make sense. The aches in his body told him he’d been asleep for days, but the sky was still very black and the snow was still blowing. He ground a knuckle in his eyes. “S’goin on?”

The other man held his hand up. “Hush.” He stared at the darkness and pulled the guns from his holster, whispered back to Lucius, “Somethin’ out there. Reckon it smelled the smoke. Or us.”

The two sat in silence and listened to the wind. Lucius watched the hunter closely, for it was rare to see him uncomfortable. Then, out in the frozen dark a stone clacked among its fellows, and the gunfighter burst from their cave.

Lucius watched his feet churn through the snow and vanish around the corner towards the ravine. Half-dressed and huddled near the mouth of their cave, Lucius could hear his companion shout the voidspeak into the storm. He was answered by a yowling laughter that grated on Lucius’ teeth like a blunted dagger grinding across a piece of slate. Twisted, unearthly sounds hummed within the amusement, and Lucius could hear the stones grating beneath the thing’s feet as it moved forward.

Many nights had passed since Lucius learned of his partner’s purpose on this trek. He spoke little, but communicated with an efficient and strangely beautiful violence that possessed an empty calm. The quiet man was emotionless and cold, completely at ease with the vile spirit that festered beneath his skin. Lucius decided some time ago that it wasn’t the killing that he detested as much as it was the fellow’s manner, his certainty. Well, that and acting like a goddamn mute. He’d ride weeks without a word, leaving Lucius precious little company other than the sound of wind, the creak of leather, or the humor of his own bizarre thoughts. And, whenever thought strayed to his associate, he wondered if that man’s unpredictable, black mood would ever erupt at him. If so, Lucius knew he would just be the latest in a line of corpses strewn across the empty land.

Gunshots hammered in the glacial air. He felt them in his chest, could see shots flare and play lanky shadows along the brown and gray boulders lining the ravine. Two more sharp cracks from the revolver, then quiet. The dark man’s face appeared suddenly around the corner. He slid to the entrance, and rushed into the cave for his bag, the shotgun, and his book. “We’re leavin’. Get the horse.” He ran a finger along a passage in the cracked volume, slapped it shut and tossed it into the bag before sprinting off into the shrieking white. Lucius cursed and fumbled for his pack, gathered the few things he had, struggled into his damp coat and frozen trousers, gripped the saddle, and wriggled from the cave.

The wind whipped the storm into his face when he emerged, the savage cold and blowing snow punishing his fragments of uncovered skin and tightening his throat. Lucius staggered, desperate to speak the old words that summoned the horse from the winds, but the ferocity of the blizzard rendered him momentarily speechless. He drew what little air he could into his lungs and choked on what felt like a frozen hand against his windpipe, coughing and hacking the breaths into the a command. Then he lifted the saddle to block the maelstrom of ice and snow from his face and struggled forward.

As for his companion, there was little sign of his passing. Lucius ducked his face deeper into his coat and staggered in circles, blinking eyes seeking anything to track, but the gusts blasting along the crusted earth smothered his own footprints in seconds. Hunting a trail in these conditions was hopeless, Lucius knew, for there was no vegetation to trample or break, and the limitless echoes of the flatlands twisted sound in every direction.

But he had little choice. His initial wandering had taken him out and away from the small cave, and had he been searching for it, the snowfall would have made returning impossibile. Furthermore, Lucius knew he needed to find his partner, and if that meant wandering in this frigid nothingness until the sun rose, so be it. He would search.

Already Lucius was losing sensation in his fingers and toes. He knew the town lay many miles to the south, and hoped his associate dogged enough to maintain that line of travel. He pulled the compass from his trouser pocket, wiped the moisture from the face, and stumbled in what he hoped was a southerly direction.

And, despite the burden of being lost and alone in such a storm, in a matter of minutes a blessed sound found his ears: hooves sounding through the wind. Decisive. Beautiful.

The gray mare appeared from ahead, approached casually and shook the snow from her mane. She looked into her rider’s eyes with what he guessed was disappointment. “Nope,” he barked. “Nope. Not my fault, girl. Let’s go find him.” He lifted the soggy blanket and saddle to her back, tightened the straps, and hurried south.

Periodically, Lucius looked back to ensure the hoof prints weren’t bending in one direction or the other; that, hopefully, they were moving along a somewhat straight line. But soon, the burrowing cold grew teeth, trapping his thoughts and shutting them down. Everything was slowing. His fingertips were turning white, the right side of his face was numb, and he was periodically gripped by such a fit of shivering he worried his bones might just snap. He didn’t care where they moved, as long as it was somewhere. His eyes closed and he slumped forward in the saddle to doze for a minute, or eternity, whichever came first, when a thunderclap of gunfire cracked behind him.

Lucius jerked awake and nearly fell from the saddle as the mare spun against the wind. The echoes of the shots spiraled into the snowstorm, and Lucius, trembling and fighting his instincts, spurred the great horse into the gale towards the sound. They charged briefly through the gusts and swelling dunes of snow before another shot flared in the chaos. Before he could react, his horse turned and coursed towards it.

A dark figure lay in a small drift ahead of them, face up, clutching a smoking pistol against his chest. Lucius slowed the horse and called down to him. “Hoods?” The other nodded, struggled to his feet and limped to the horse. Whatever forms his partner had faced, and however many there were, they’d damn near killed him.

His right hand was gone; the skin was ripped ragged around a naked shard of bone, thin lines of blood trailing a ribbon into the wind. An eye had been torn free. His scalp was torn like fabric, and Lucius could see more crusted blood than skin on the man’s face and neck. Lucius gaped and, finding nothing to say, offering a stirrup as he stared.

The quiet one slid a boot into the stirrup and gripped the saddle with his remaining hand, and the nearness of death snapped Lucius out of his daze.

He spun and looked about. “We’d better git. Any you missed out there?” The other shook his head. He stepped up, and tried to swing a foot around to mount, but lost his purchase and slammed back to the frozen earth.

Anxious to be elsewhere, Lucius offered the man a hand up. The other scowled at the gesture and spat a thick, bloody wad of phlegm into Lucius’ palm. Lucius dismounted and closed on his companion with his remaining rage smoking in his eyes, eager to throttle him. But in a blink, the barrel of the man’s pistol was inches from his face. The winds moaned between them. Snow clotted in their eyelashes as they faced one another.

When Lucius spoke his mouth remained still, but the words crackled through the storm nonetheless and thudded against the walls of his companion’s mind. “Nah … You know better’n that. You was told same thang I was. Yer gonna need me before we’re done with all this. Get on the damn horse.”

The gun stayed aimed at the bridge of his nose, but he felt the killer’s hesitation, and at that, Lucius smiled. He turned and mounted the horse once more and waited as the other slipped his weapon into his holster and scrabbled up behind him.

The two enemies rode south through the night.

 

It was very, very late. Or early. The wind was dead and the snow made it look like time was slowing in the flatlands.

“Stop,” the quiet one said, his voice barely a whisper. Lucius slowed the mare he called Magdalene and looked over his shoulder.

“We need to git. Town’s gonna be close.”

The man raised his head. The crude hole where his eye used to be was still oozing, and his face was covered in a brown crust from his battered skull.

Stop.” He slid from the back of the horse and shuffled towards a pile of adobe, some dwelling long ago abandoned and forgotten. Cradling the ruin of his right arm with his left hand, he tucked the black book under his arm.

Something about that book felt wrong. It made his guts feel rotten. Some nights Lucius dreamt it was whispering.

He called after the slumping figure. “We haveta keep movin. I’ll slow up some, but you find us when ya can.”

The other one said nothing.

 

Sometime later, Lucius stopped to stretch his legs and work the knot from his back.

“Atta girl. There now. Thinkin’ it’s just a bit more. Just hold tight.”

She snorted at the horizon.

The other man was walking some distance off. His limp was gone and both arms swung in even rhythm. And Lucius knew he was seeing the land with two eyes again.

 

It was late morning when the travelers needed to stop again. The horse was steady and surefooted during the crossing of the plains the night before, but was in sore need of water and a substantial rest. Lucius dismounted sometime near daybreak when the snow stopped and went afoot like his partner, but even now Lucius reckoned they’d been moving for nearly eight hours. He walked beside Magdalene and spoke to her as they walked, running his hand along her neck and shoulder, convincing her that everything would be okay, that water was close.

The gunman stopped ahead. He looked back at Lucius and nodded in the direction of a tattered gray bird floating in a circle above a cluster of Joshua Trees to the southeast. Lucius clicked at the mare and turned her at the growth.

A meager pond lay within a ring of trees and frost-coated scrub, and the gunfighter stamped at the frozen edges with his boot heel. Lucius could hear the ice crack along the surface as he and Magdalene approached. They crested the small basin and saw the dark man filling a canteen and running the icy water over his face and hands. The horse tugged forward and Lucius let her trot to the pond and drink. She favored her left foreleg as she went, and Lucius knew that she was done. Recovery would take time they didn’t have.

Lucius followed and ran his hands along her withers. “You’ve been a good ‘un, girl. Still owed you one from the scrape you pulled us out of in them dark hills. And the bog. Hell, even them ruins. That was a damn fine mess, too.” Her ears perked as she drank. “Hate to see you off, but him and me gotta walk now. Just us.” Magdalene lifted her head and watched Lucius. Her eyes were glassy and her sides heaved. When he put his ear to her side, there was a rattle that shouldn’t have been there. He whispered to her, ran his hands along her and slowly, she lowered. After a considerable effort, she was lying on her side when Lucius began wrapping the hobble around her legs, front and back. He patted her gently and walked over to his companion who was on his back, staring at the sky.

“Need to borrow yer knife,” Lucius said. The other watched him, curiousity on his face. Lucius nodded over at Magdalene. “For her.” The quiet man looked over at the sweaty horse and slid the blade from the sheath at his leg and handed it to Lucius before resuming his searching the skies.

Lucius had nothing to say when he returned to Magdalene. He opened his canteen, set it aside and drove the blade deep into her neck and through the artery. The blood that sprayed from the wound steamed and melted tiny, russet craters into the snow. She didn’t have the strength to scream for long, and the ropes kept Lucius from getting his head stoved in. Eventually, when she slowed, Lucius moved forward with his canteen and filled it with the warm fluid pulsing from her neck. He wiped the blade on his pants and returned it to his companion. “Best be movin.”

The two continued their trek south afoot, and with each hour the snow thinned until it was gone entirely and the ugly hardpan was all that remained.

 

They arrived at midday. The town was unremarkable and empty as the travelers walked its length, stopping occasionally to look through shattered windows and bare doorways. In the saloon, rays of gray sunlight burst against the glass of the dry and broken bottles; across the street the bricks of the hotel were blackened from fire and the entire building sagged. In one home the dinner table was set with fine white china, and a layer of brown and gray dust settled upon it. Lucius ran his finger through it and squinted out the window at the remains of the general store near the town’s edge, broken and exposed like the ribcage of some great beast picked clean by scavengers. They shuffled on and wandered for several more minutes through the empty spaces before they moved towards the bloodied church at the end of the avenue.

The white paint on the clapboard was peeling, the wood beneath bloated and rotten. Dried blood was scribbled along the doorframe, walkway, and the front steps. A rectangular stone altar stood at the end of the walkway and the black runes these people used were painted on it. Lucius looked at his partner, who was across the street, leaning in the doorway of the bank. He sifted through the remaining bullets in his satchel and pockets. Lucius could feel the man’s excitement at the prospect of approaching violence like bile that was blistering the back of his throat. He watched the church for another minute before turning back and telling the gunfighter it was time to go.

From a bluff above the town, they sat and waited. Lucius set to building a small fire, irritating of his partner. He filled the pot with the last of the murky pond water and rubbed his hands at the flames. When the water hissed he pulled the remaining coffee from his bag. The quiet one sat some distance off.

“Shit. Little fire and coffee won’t hurt nuthin’. They already know we’re here. Figure they got more important things to worry ‘bout down there than us two.” Minutes later, the coffee was done and Lucius filled two small cups and lifted one to the other, who scowled across the flames. “Go on. Might be some time before another.” Lucius set it on a warm stone that girded the fire and sipped at his, plenty thankful for these final swallows.

Soon, at the farthest end of town, there was a rattle and scrape of the church doors opening. A man emerged holding a lantern. “Well, I’ll be. There he is now,” Lucius muttered. They both stood and watched the man hook the lantern to a pole near the altar. “Silly that such a runt be causin’ all this damn trouble. The hell they come from anyway?”

His partner didn’t reply.

“Well,” Lucius began, “I know you’ll do whatever you damn well please, but it’d help if you gave me some time. I ain’t talkin’ hours. Just … some time.” Lucius poked through his bag, took what he needed and stuck it in his pants pocket. Slinging the canteen of horse blood over his shoulder, he ambled down the slope towards the town.

The hunter walked to the fire and lifted the cup. The coffee was thick like syrup, gritty against his teeth and tasted better than any he’d ever had. He sat down beside the flames to count his remaining rounds for the seventh time that day and watched Lucius stroll along the empty road towards the churchyard.

He was not surprised in the least to see Lucius take a long pull from the blood-filled canteen and vanish in a blink.

 

A girl of no more than eight years with hair like raven feathers lay bound on the altar, and the white nightgown she wore was soaked through with sweat and tears and terror. Her captor’s blond hair was tucked neatly behind his ears, and his skin looked taut and thin, like it had been stretched too far to cover those sharp, ugly bones. Foreign words were tattooed along his neck and arms in black ink. His eyes were the blue as a vein.

In his homeland, he was the Blood Prophet— Hjald, the Storm Caller. He ran his thin fingers through the girl’s hair, cold eyes on the hunter in the distance.

“These parts is accounted for,” the child suddenly whispered. “People got things figgered out just fine. Go on and git.”

The foreigner lowered his eyes to the altar to see the bindings empty and the child gone, giggles trailing in her passing. She was the most important thing in his world right now, the final piece needed to raze this barbaric land. But Hjald wouldn’t panic. He had been alive for a very long time, had seen many strange things in this world, and knew to trust his instinct. He paced around the yard, into the church and down the aisle, weaved through his hooded followers, peered beneath the dusty pews, and finally returned to the altar. “I know you’re here,” he began. His voice was a great monotone purr, the accent thick. “Where did you put her … ?”

Down the lane, the gunman was done waiting. Enduring the calm as long as he had was the last favor he’d grant Lucius, and he’d given the time he could. Any more would waste his purpose. He started forward.

The monsters gathered within saw his movement and began to pour through the doorway onto the yard and steps. The human face Hjald had stitched together for his time here appeared perpetually disinterested, though the god was anything but. This filthy creature’s temerity was unexpected. He cocked his head and scratched at the tattoos, shifted his weight. He was … curious? No. Confused.

Beneath the brim of his hat, the hunter smiled. Confusion was good.

With a word, Hjald ordered his beasts make a stain of the human and bring him whatever was left of the skull for decoration.

Only they didn’t move.

The girl was suddenly among them, maneuvering and whispering. Her pale nightgown swirled and heads turned to find her, but she was always elsewhere, laughing in another’s ear. In the distance the hunter placed his thumbs on the hammers of his Colts and could taste the sorcery in the air like sour milk. Hjald picked his way through the crowd to seize the child, but she remained ever out of his reach. Once, the dirty cotton of her nightgown slid just between his fingertips before she was off again, flitting to another pack, her honeyed voice  spilling madness into their ears. Growls began to hum in the courtyard as the child weaved her spells amongst them like so much spider silk, clotting the air with tension and hatred.

Then, all it took from her was a simple tug of the threads for chaos to erupt.

The creatures fell upon one another indiscriminately, rending flesh, snapping bone, and devouring viscera in wanton hysteria. Their ferocity was like that of caged beasts, long contained for their master’s entertainment. Talons wrenched limbs free; misshapen skulls split and oozed as easily as ripe pumpkins; shadow blades squelched through hide and tissue and innards. Above it all was their yowling, the lustful wailing of satisfaction at their sudden freedom. Now some distance off, the girl knelt behind a fencepost and watched the bedlam swirl with a gluttonous eye.

Along the road, the hunter went to work.

He moved at the fray with his Colts blazing, and wherever his gaze fell the beasts were blown apart in thick, bloody tatters. The bellow of his weapons echoed throughout that empty place in furious rhythm; the bullets punched holes through skin and bone alike, sent pieces of hood and creature  flying against the walls of the church in streaks of brown and black. The man, steadying his breath, stopped to reload, holstering one to slide round home in the other.

One spotted him through the furor, slid from the horde, and charged. Talons clicked and paws pounded, its chest heaving and black eyes predatory.

Behind, Hjald climbed atop his altar and began to chant to the skies, heedless of the gunfire winnowing his disfigured flock.

Last round into the chamber. Cylinder slammed, weapon brought to bear. The demon skidded, scrabbled against the dirt to lunge aside, but was far too slow. Its face erupted in a shower of bone, cartilage, and ichor.

 

 

Slate-colored clouds spilled like oil across the sky and blue lightning crackled within. The winds arrived in a fury, sending dirt and wreckage aloft in a blizzard of splinter and grit, scouring anything still standing. Then a roar of pressure descended, and the mania within the churchyard began to ebb as the pulse of raw electricity and thick, heavy air encircled them all. A single peal of thunder cut across the land, and the skies were shredded with lightning.

It burst everywhere, shattering rocks , tendrils of blue flame curling into the dry grasses and broken homes. The little girl flinched at the sudden ferocity and darted into to the church and ducked behind a pew to watch.

The demigod swayed from side to side on the altar, speaking with the storm and, somehow, it was listened. Bolts stabbed along the road, obliterating houses and searing dirt, and yet the man in the dark coat was undeterred as he advanced. There was a just a hiss when a bolt slammed to his right and threw him off his feet, tossing him through a fence into the side of a barn.

The world tottered in his vision. A pounding in his ear made him sick. His leg was broken, and his hat tumbled down the lane, lanky brown hair pasted to his scalp with sweat as he crawled back to the road. The sight of the man being thrown like a doll by the storm kindled a new excitement within the remaining creatures, and as one they cackled and crawled over their dead and surged down the road. The man hobbled to his feet and wiped the blood and dirt from his eyes. They churned at him from rooftops and shadows, clawed out from beneath the burning timber, ravenous for his blood.

As they came, through the winds they heard the laughter of the child. She was with them again at the edges of their sight, giggling. They slowed at her reappearance and froze completely when pointed along the road to the source of her amusement.

The gunman was everywhere. Seven versions of him, each looking as grim as the other stepped around corners, over smoldering fences, across the debris and encircled the last of them. The first one who tried to break from the pack had a hole blasted through its chest. There was nowhere for them to escape, no rock for them to crawl beneath. When the shooting began the creatures were mown down, robes and innards and blood tangled in a sodden pile. The men holstered their weapons, wiped their foreheads with dirty forearms, and surveyed the smoking cluster of bodies. The hint of a grin tugged the corner of their lips as they limped forward towards Hjald.

She shouted from deep within the church. “Doggone, fella, that was purdy!” She scurried from her spot and stepped to the door, smoothing her ebony hair. She laughed, clapping her hands at six of the scowling faces and they vanished in a sharp flash of light. Looking out at the fresh ruin from the doorway, she couldn’t help but be impressed with the scene wrought by his wrath. Every time they traveled she thought she’d finally seen it all from him. Naught to do but shake her head and chuckle as her skin began to darken and stretch, bones lengthening, muscles swelling back into form. Her hair fell away and Lucius remained, scratching at his patchy black beard.

Both men were steps from Hjald when the storm eased. The demigod slumped to his knees, exhausted, wheezing laughter in the gaps of a violent coughing fit.

Lucius looked up.

The clouds were no longer circling, the lightning and wind were dispersed. But there was a hole torn in their sky.

It was black and filled with alien stars, and in the middle of it lay a long road. At the far edge of that road, Lucius could see something approaching.

“Take care of him,” he shouted to his companion. “Little shit’s brought somethin’ I don’t think we wanna deal with just yet!”

“Can’t,” he answered. “Already tried. Somethin’s still here.” There was a sudden rustle of motion to his side, near the remains of the bank.

He stared at the shadowed entrance of the building. His forefinger tapped at the worn grip of his weapon and he could feel the gaze of something staring back. He took one long, deep breath when he heard the hissing within and nodded towards the shadows.

The demon ducked beneath the doorway and lumbered into the light. Its robe was gone, ripped off in the fray, and blood trickled like sap from countless gashes, tears and punctures along what remained of its leathered hide. The creature’s skin had been peeled away long ago as though from fire; where there weren’t scabs or scarring was simply bone. Its eyes were milky and unseeing, its snout lifted to gather scents from the air. It stood across the road, expectant.

A sudden spasm twisted down its face and it turned slowly to Lucius, who winked at his partner and grinned back at the fiend. It barked in pain and swiped at the air in front of its eyes, momentarily staggering backward at whatever Lucius was making it see. Both men could see the muscles tensing, could hear the growl bubbling.

Lucius dashed for the church.

The other cocked both hammers and the abomination was upon him immediately.

It blazed through the bullets that slammed into its torso and speared the gunfighter into the ground. Yellowed teeth snapped at his throat repeatedly as the two rolled and pounded at one another within a cloud of dirt. The massive, bony paws hammered into his face and neck, ripping great furrows from his chest and side. The man wrenched one shoulder free and his hand flew to his side; silver blazed in a whisper of movement and the demon shrieked. A crimson froth bubbled from its maw as the man drove his blade deep, rolled free and tugged the blade with him, splitting its abdomen open. The creature lurched and a mass of tangled entrails slapped onto the earth. The knife slid from his fingers as he grabbed the gun closest to the mess and crawled towards the church.

“Hey, goddammit! Hurry!” Lucius loped over and helped him to his feet.

Stormcalling and maintaining the link with his creatures had taken a toll on Hjald’s body. He lay draped across the altar and the breaths he drew behind his mask crackled in through his chest. He looked thin, used up. A string of saliva ran from the edge of his mouth and pooled on the stone. Lucius watched his partner rip him from the crude structure and cast him to the ground in a choke of dirt.

The question bumbled about in Lucius’ head only for the briefest of moments before it fell out.

“The hell couldn’t ya just shoot him? Woulda fixed everthing faster.”

“Couldn’t, he panted. “Wasn’t all here just yet.”

“Huh?”

“Still had all them ugly connections to his home,” he waved a gun at the hoods, “out wherever that is.”

“Oh.” Lucius paused for a moment, mostly for effect. Surveyed the piles of bodies. “Huh?”

“All these damn things we been huntin’, they ain’t flesh and bone here till all the roots of their own place is cut away.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

The gunman lifted the limp northerner by his collar and held him just off the earth and watched him stir. For a brief moment he wondered what was happening behind those blue eyes, then brought the barrel around to his forehead and blasted the demigod’s brains through the back of his skull. Gunsmoke drifted off as the grayish pink wads pattered into the dirt.

Lucius whistled and jerked a thumb at the sky. “Lookit.”

The sky-within-the-sky was fading. The clouds around it billowed, then smoothed themselves as the opening dissipated out into the calm nothing of limitless afternoon.

“Huh. Guess we’re square, old boy. Girl went and scrambled on outta here when them bolts came flying down. Figger she’ll find somewhere to go.” He hooked his thumbs into his belt loops and started back towards the hill. “Headin up for my stuff. Comin?”

His companion stepped over the corpse and followed silently.

 

“Seems like that fella was a bit softer than the last ones,” Lucius mused as he walked. He nodded to himself, “Saw a face up there in them clouds he was bringin’ down on us, though. Damn ugly lookin’ thing tryin’ to crawl outta there. Least I think it was a face. Coulda been the ass end of whatever it was and I wouldn’t know.”

When they reached the crest of the hill, Lucius turned and looked back down at the small little town one last time. “That was some damn good fun. Nice change a scenery; not near as complicated as them snake folk down south. That was a rough go. Gettin’ outta here with a scratch or two and some burnt hair ain’t too bad a deal.”

Lucius needed to talk to hear noise, and part of him hoped the quiet one would speak up or take some kind of action to spur them both into something other than just standing around. But his partner just stared far out over the plains, heedless of Lucius and his prattle, of the throbbing along his skull, of the already-infected gashes across his arms and chest. He watched the world, waiting for something to happen.

Gently, he removed his hat. Unfastened his belt and holsters, he slid off his overcoat and laid it softly on the hardpan. Lucius sat and nudged the embers of the fire back to life and watched the strange man continue to undress himself. He unbuttoned his shirt, pulled off his boots, tugged off his underpants and soon was completely naked. Lastly, he took the black book from within the fold of his coat and ran his fingers along the cover. Tracing the symbols and embossed letters, he set it carefully on top. He looked over once more at Lucius, who was scooting off while scowling at the volume, and nodded a begrudging farewell.

He limped to the edge of hill near the path, eased himself to his knees and looked into the sky.

“Thy will be done,” he whispered.

There was a shudder in the town below, and Lucius stood.

A wind rose and churned the grasses and debris and bloodstained cloth, churning over the wrecked corners of the town. Suddenly it turned and whipped like a serpent along the street and through the empty buildings, scattering red earth as it thundered along the path and up their hill towards the scarred, naked man who waited on his knees. Tired, he was. So very tired.

The wind barreled into him and began his ending.

The hunter was seized with pain, every last muscle straining, his back bowing against the agony. He clawed at his throat as the breath was torn from his lungs then, suddenly pummeled to the earth by the gale, writhed against the iron pressure that pinned him. Blood spurted from his nose and ears, and Lucius could hear ribs snap. He watched tears fall from the man’s eyes, mildly irritated that his partner was so swiftly broken. And then, as suddenly as it began, the presence was gone and it was over.

Lucius shook his head at the scene and walked out into the plains, moving across the emptiness and quiet with just his thoughts for company. He thought about his time out here, or in the mountains; the scattered bands of humans they found there, hard and fearless as ever. Lucius remembered the steam of the roasted pig twirling from his mouth in the bayou, the comforting smell of cordite and lead, and the blare of his companion’s pistols. Mostly, though, Lucius wondered when he’d be asked to return, and if he’d be accompanied by another.

Sometime near daybreak, he pulled the small stone from his pocket and cast it on the ground. The brimstone hissed and bubbled until the ground split before him like a wound. Lucius took one last look across the beautiful calm, chuckled to himself, and descended the black staircase into a realm of flame.

 

Many miles away, the girl did find a place to go. The humans there were barely subsisting, doing all they could to keep hidden. Naturally they shied from her as she was not one of them, but when she recounted what she’d seen, their caution fell away for they needed to hear it all.

The foreigners and their magic and strange words.

The quiet man with the guns who brought death and hope.

The man who changed his shape. The man who, once, in a flash of sunlight, wasn’t really a man. The two horns. The screams and darkness that followed him.

In time, her tale would spread from tribe to tribe and they would remember. Remember, and believe.

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