Live To Fight On

by mmrrph

Ezra felt the tight band around his chest release and he finally allowed himself to take in a breath. It had been like reliving the memory from the saloon, only with the urgency of reality instead of just being a vision. He shook a little in reaction, fear and relief mixing in his suddenly relaxed frame. A strong hand closed over his shoulder and he was being turned from his fixed position staring into the canyon.

“C´mon Pard. We gotta get going. Looks like they´re gonna make it and we´ve gotta get ta that breach thing so you can close it. Only got so much time, and last thing either of us wants is ta be in the wrong place when our cue comes. Hate ta miss it.” Buck´s eyes were warm and concerned, but Ezra could see the fear and distress from what they had witnessed the lanky man was trying to conceal. Ezra wrapped his hand around the outstretched arm holding his shoulder.

“There is no doubt the outcome of their struggle was advantageous for both of us,” he intoned seriously. Buck nodded and looked to be trying to contain a greater emotion.

“Ya got that right Pard, right indeed.” They stood for a moment until Buck broke the reverie and started back into the hollows above the canyon, dragging Ezra with him. “Best ta make all that hard work worth it,” he called jovially over a shoulder. Ezra didn´t protest to the treatment but let himself be led along, and even allowed a smile at his partner´s words. After the arrow had killed the wight he had felt the barest of ripples along his mind, hearing Vin telling him to get moving, that nobody would come to harm with the sharpshooter keeping watch. The sensation warmed and reassured Ezra, so he answered back with a ripple of his own, amusing the tracker with his sharp retort. It was the first time Ezra had realized that since the beginning of the battle there had been a bare thread of connection between himself and Vin, one maintained within the void, without their being wholly aware. He reveled in the connection - it helped keep him resolved to the task for none of his energy was spent worrying about his blue- eyed friend. He sent a little wave Vin´s direction then focused his mind on getting to their destination.

They had watched Dovan's breathtaking descent into the canyon, felt the answering rage from Asmodeus at her presence. For a little while they stood, rapt, observing as she and Chris battled their way to the dark leader. Buck had finally suggested they take off.

"Lead on Pard," he said, blue eyes twinkling. He held up the Arren and gestured with it. "You're the one who knows where the breach is. I'm jus' here ta run interference." He grinned, drawing an answering smile onto Ezra's face. And run interference he did. The gambler led them, following an invisible path towards their goal, drawn unerringly by an unseen force. He hadn't hesitated once, taking Buck down into a series of small caves that riddled one side of the canyon wall. As they traveled they encountered pockets of orcs, most of which met a speedy end at the blade of the ladies man's weapon. Each time Buck would nod at Ezra to continue searching, telling the cardsharp with his eyes not to worry, he would be right with him again in a minute. So Ezra pressed on, at times needing to dispatch of a few of the ugly beasts himself, but mostly working his way to the source of that which led him. Each time Buck was true to his word, and would return to the gambler's side, weapon and clothing a little more soiled than before but still ready for the next fight. A shout behind him caused Ezra to turn around in time to see Buck's upper arm being cut into by one of the orc's polearms. Ezra started to run to the rogue's side, but Buck bellowed over a shoulder as he fought.

"Keep on, Ez. I got these guys. Ya just keep on a' going, do what ya came ta do. I'll be right there in a minute." A neat slice and two of the orcs in front of Buck were hewn in half, and then the ladies man was hurtling himself into the remaining cluster of the grunting beasts with a rebel yell. Ezra closed his eyes, paralyzed for the briefest moments by indecision. Another yell brought him from his standstill and he turned from the fray, continuing on down into the interlocking caves. See that you are, Buck, or breach be damned, I'm coming after you. He went up then down, through a series of winding channels, until eventually he found himself in a circular cave. Even the roof had hollowed out so the entire room was like standing within a stone sphere. Ezra dropped the Arren from his suddenly tingling fingers and closed his eyes. This was it.

Buck came into the cavern soon after to find the gambler lost in concentration, eyes closed and hands out in front of him. He surveyed the confines and was glad to see the entrance he had used was the only way in or out. Good. Makes defendin' Ez that much easier. With how out of it he is now, looks like he'll need it. Buck made a slow circle around the perimeter of the room, feeling for traps or any possibility of the enemy being concealed somewhere within. One of the walls fell away and opened to look out over the canyon itself, like a huge window had been cut in the room. Buck leaned out and peered down, satisfied nothing could get to them from below. Least wise not easily...probably have time ta prepare for 'em coming if that's how they decide ta do it. He returned to the entrance and backed into the room a few paces, Arren raised, his body taut and senses ready. Do your thing, Ez, and doncha worry. I've got your back. Now c'mon ya ugly little bastards...ya jus' try and get by ole' Bucklin T Wilmington. I'm ready. He gritted his teeth and prepared for the onslaught that would surely come.

Vin couldn´t help but smile a little at the trace wave he felt from Ezra. He was relieved to have been able to maintain contact with the gambler this way, for he had no tangible method of verifying the conman was surviving. He narrowed his eyes and surveyed the scene. He had been tracking Chris and Dovan´s progress through the canyon, an arrow at the ready at all times. His arms were just starting to ache from the continued exertion, but it was easily ignored. He had been particularly selective about using the heavy silver projectiles, and the quiver he´d strapped on his back was still mostly full. Vin´s blood was still boiling and he was working to keep his anger in check and himself hidden. He could hardly play savior sniper if his emotions got the better of him and revealed his position within the rock wall. He let his breathing even out, focusing on the traveling forms of his friends as they fought towards the leader of this army from hell, their ability to do so a reassuring comfort to him. At the sight of the wights abusing them and nearly killing Dovan he´d barely been able to maintain control, but his steely determination took over and kept his energy still so he was able to fire the arrow that pierced the wight´s head, killing it almost instantly. That´ll teach ya ta fuck with what´s mine, ya damned son of a bitch.

He focused for a moment to the opposite side of the canyon to where Josiah and Nathan were working, each man holding position on either side of the narrow mouth that formed the only ground entrance to the canyon. Nathan had made some interesting discoveries about his herbs and had concocted some potions that were proving most effective against the orc horde, while Josiah fought with the ferocity of an avenging angel, working together to prevent any of the dark creatures from escaping. Vin´s instincts prickled and he drew his gaze in tighter, making himself closer to the men through the void. Two barrow wights were scaling the rock wall, making their way to the ledge Josiah and Nathan were on. Vin closed his eyes and took aim, letting the arrow fire itself, his thoughts a mere guide for the weapon. He heard the whistle of it as it left the bow and traveled through the murky air, then opened his eyes again and watched with satisfaction as the silver implement pinned one of the wights to the rock wall, leaving the lifeless body dangling by its impaled head. The other wight turned and screamed, its screeching wail carrying all the way to Vin and his position opposite the canyon. Don´t ya worry none, ain´t gonna forget ta include ya in the fun. Another arrow was already braced and ready for firing, and Vin drew back a bit further then let fly with his weapon. It too whistled through the air until it was buried to its silver feathers in the wight´s chest. It was an action neither Josiah nor Nathan had noticed, but Vin was more than satisfied. Fight on Pards, I got yer back. Vin sat back and continued his alert observation, one part of him focused on the vibrating energy that was Ezra, the rest of him ready to strike again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Dovan had made their way closer and closer to the goal of the dark leader, but as they approached Chris became a little confused. The orcs had dropped back, grinning toothily and grunting their sibilant language at them. Chris thought the grunts sounded suspiciously like taunting laughs. He still had his Arren poised and ready for striking, as did Dovan, but it was proving unnecessary as they pressed on.

"What's going on? Ain't they interested in seeing us dead anymore?" he asked.

"I believe they still are interested, Chris. But I have the distinct feeling that they," she pointed up ahead of them, "can take care of the job while the orcs enjoy the show." He looked to where she indicated and fought against recoiling. There was a ring of beasts surrounding Asmodeus' position, taller than the orcs but not quite such as the wights. Their skin was a sickly greenish gray, darker near their muzzles, with a reddish gray mane flaring out behind their heads, their features animalian. The eyes were dull and completely black. Long, curved amber colored claws tipped hands that gripped polearms and shields. Their bodies were upright as a man, but their heads were as a hyena, the chests canine in appearance, their feet as the hands, clawed and pawlike. Their armor was dirty and constructed of leather. Chris asked from the side of his mouth, never taking his gaze from the hideous creatures,

"What are they?"

"Gnolls. They are rapacious creatures whose only goal in life is to war. They are Asmodeus' personal guard. I fear assassinating him will require our getting through them first." Chris gritted his teeth. Figures. He watched as one of the gnolls stepped forward. It was taller than the rest and dressed differently, wielding a three chained flail with spiked balls at each end. Instead of the dull black this one's eyes were large and amber colored and sparked with a modicum of intelligence. It looked down at them and hissed through its canine teeth,

"My generosity is great today. Surrender now and have the benefit of a quick and painless death. Take another step and you will seal your fate." Chris felt his lips curling as he bared his own teeth. A growl emanated from his center and he hissed back,

"Yeenoghu, I should have killed you last time. Don't think I'll make that mistake twice." Chris was startled by his use of the gnoll's name, and faint pictures flashed before him, the two of them locked in combat on a grassy hillside. He narrowed his eyes when the creature laughed.

"So, you remember. I am touched. But don't you think sentiment will get in the way of my destroying you." The leader of the gnolls raised his arm and let out a howl, his troops coming to attention and joining in the cry. Chris crouched and gripped the Arren, and glanced at Dovan. She had both blades out and ready, her body low as his was, prepared to strike. A roar filled his ears and Chris realized he was yelling. Without hesitating he ran head-long into the attacking guard. He went right for Yeenoghu, cutting through any of the gnolls that got in his way. He was peripherally aware of Dovan, dispatching the man-dogs with a terrible precision and efficiency. He could sense she was leaving the leader to him. They approached one another, snarling at each other as they circled.

The beast raised the flail and twirled it in the air then lashed out at Chris, spiked balls whizzing by the blonde's head as they barely missed their target.

"Ya haven't gotten any better with that thing after all this time?" he asked, voice taunting. Yeenoghu growled in response. While the deadly flail was still at his side Chris attacked, springing forward, Arren raised to strike. He surged ahead and gained on the gnoll's position, forcing the beast to take a few stumbling steps backwards, slicing into the flank with a satisfying blow. The flail was again twirling at the creature's side and Chris made to evade it, but one of the balls struck him in the back and he grunted, pain shooting through him at the impact. Huge yellowed teeth appeared as the gnoll's face split into a grin. The gunslinger crouched and prepared to strike again.

He waited this time for Yeenoghu to be busy with the flail before attacking, noticing the motion left the gnoll's side vulnerable. Jus' have ta slip in under those damn flying stickers, and then one good knock oughta do it. He raised the Arren again and let loose a cry, running forward and taking the gnoll by surprise. He ducked under the whirling flail and brought the sword down with all his strength. The blade caught Yeenoghu under his raised arm and sunk in, and Chris continued applying pressure to the grip of the weapon. The gnoll threw his head back and roared, the flail dropping from its taloned grip. It lashed out with the other arm, landing a blow against the side of Chris' face, but he was too determined to be overcome by the hit. With another yell he used his last remaining burst of energy and pulled at the Arren, its long curved blade slicing cleanly through the middle of the gnoll until it exited the body just over the opposite hip. He watched with gruesome satisfaction as the top half of the guard leader fell back off the legs and landed in the dust with a thud. He reeled a little and struggled to keep balance.

Chris looked up from the fallen body of Yeenoghu, panting to regain breath and leaning on his Arren for support. There were so many gnolls left, still fighting despite the loss of their leader. He glanced about in dismay, wondering how he would ever have the strength to conquer them and then achieve his goal of killing Asmodeus. There was no further time to reflect when a charging gnoll came for him and he raised his blade, ready to defend and fight. As he clashed weapons with the beast, he became aware of movement behind the dark lord and fought to focus on it despite being in the middle of fighting the gnoll. He squinted, then his breath caught in his throat. Dear God no...JD.

The young sheriff had appeared out of nowhere it seemed, and was creeping behind the looming figure of the arch-devil, a crooked dagger held in his teeth. He used his free hands to climb up one of the boulders behind Asmodeus, making the youth almost as tall as the object of his attention. He transferred the blade from his mouth to his hand and lifted his arms.

JD raised his arms above his head and brought them down in a single, forceful arc towards his target. When the blade met what he´d been aiming at, it felt as if tremendous thorns were stabbing up into his hands one after the other, but he held determinedly on. His arms tingled in the same way when he chopped firewood and the handle of the axe hit the wood instead of the sharp head, causing what his mother had called ‘buzzing bees´ to travel up and down the appendages. He gritted his teeth and bore down on the weapon, shutting his mind to the vengeful shrieking was threatening to drive him mad. The world felt like it was all closing in on a single point around him, each moment of time stacking up and then falling into an ever-growing chasm he feared would pull him down as well. His arms were burning now and the tingles had spread through his chest and it was all JD could do to remember to breathe. The chasm yawned ever and ever wider, calling to him in a seductive whisper to follow, but he doggedly held to the blade, his body now in agony with the tension and the burning. A release sighed in the back of his awareness, the barest tremor telling him he had succeeded and could at last let go. JD succumbed and slipped into the calling darkness surrounding him.

A tremendous noise cracked the air, shaking the entire canyon, and Chris fought to stay on his feet. Then he was knocked flat by a force that cut across his middle, and he could hear a strange screaming wail out in all directions away from them. He fought to get his breath back, staggering to his feet. Chris stood before the crumpled form of Asmodeus, exhausted and filled with the sense of utter stupefaction. Dovan had already run over the corpse to JD´s side and was holding his unconscious form close, murmuring something in the young man´s ear. The orcan army had indeed turned upon itself, and those who had survived the death of their leader were now engaged in ferocious battle with one another. Among the clashing orcs were the wights, their long limbed bodies plucking orcs from the dusty floor and raising them so their curved teeth could tear at the gray flesh. He looked over to the mouth of the canyon to where Josiah and Nathan were positioned. Orcs and wights alike were all struggling to escape the gorge, but the two men were preventing any from fleeing the rocky confines. Bright, multicolored explosions and flying sliver arrows peppered the melee below their position on the rocky ledge. For a long moment Chris stood in shock, holding the sword loosely in one hand while the rest of him tried to come to figure out what to do next.

Chris snapped back into awareness and raised the Arren, backing into position to protect the fallen sheriff and woman attending to him. There was nothing left standing, no beasts remained alive to attack them. The shock wave that emanated from Asmodeus at his killing seemed to have taken out everything in its path. Glad we seemed ta be immune ta it. Just what was JD doing? Chris pursed his lips as a thought came to him. Decoy…we were a damn decoy. He couldn´t help the wry grin that stole over his countenance, or the welling of pride he felt at JD´s actions. JD doing that was perfect. Hell, even I forgot he was here. Little bastard just slipped right in and waited ta do what I´ve fought across this whole fuckin´ canyon ta get to. He wanted to be angry for having to go through so much hell just to provide diversion, but he couldn´t. The innate logic didn´t escape him, and if totally honest he could admit to being quite impressed with the tactic. He backed closer to their huddled forms and arrived in time to see JD´s eyes flicker open. The young man was about to question his performance but Chris cut him short.

“Ya did good JD,” the blonde said, his voice warm and surprisingly gentle, “real good.” He looked at Dovan and shook his head, a bare prickle of annoyance at her smile. Damn…knows I liked the idea…and knows I wanna be pissed off about being used as bait but jus´ can´t be. Little bitch. Her smile grew to almost a grin and Chris shook his head, the glare making a concerted effort to overcome his own smile. She turned from him and wrapped an arm around JD and hauled them up to stand. JD still looked a little stunned but was recovering quickly, and he looked down at the still form of the demon he had just slain. It surprised both Chris and Dovan when he kicked out at the body and said,

“Little surprised there weren´t you? Got what you deserved bastard.” His brown eyes looked up to meet Chris´ and he shrugged a little but was unapologetic for his demonstration. Chris came to his other side and together the trio stumbled towards the narrow passage leading from the canyon.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra felt the great disturbance that he knew signaled Asmodeus was dead. He could sense the coming of night, could feel the sun as it sunk inexorably below the horizon, shuttering its warmth from the earth. It is time. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the medallion, glowing and throbbing with an energy all its own. He had felt its presence in his pocket getting stronger and stronger as they neared the breach, and it was all he could do to keep it hidden while he and Buck ran through the maze of passages in the canyon wall. He clutched the emblem tightly in one hand and closed his eyes, relaxing his person and slowing the energies of his being, seeking the void. The tingling began and Ezra steeled himself to remain still. He could sense the breach was in front of him but could not see it, knowing it would be revealed when he´d crossed to the within.

A blinding light exploded in his head and Ezra staggered a little but kept pressing forward, seeking to find the tear. The further he pushed the brighter the light became, until it was a vibrant blue that seemed alive. A flicker to his left alerted him, and Ezra spun. There! He could see the breach, an eerie dark gash that hovered in space, shifting slowly in an undulating manner, as a sail does in a light breeze. It pulsated, getting so dark it was black, then lightening to a gray color. Ezra knew at its lightest it was closest to him, its blackest when it had drawn back nearer the ether world. He breathed deeply, allowing his breath to relax him, mind and body, until whatever action he needed to take would whisper to him what to do.

A fierce burning sensation built at his middle, then traveled up his torso and washed down his arms and legs. Through it all Ezra kept breathing, steadily and with a determined rhythm, working to allow the necessary forces within to come to life so he could act. The burning became almost unbearable, an inferno inside that he thought would render him a standing pillar of ash, but still it escalated. He raised his left hand unconsciously, and held up the amulet between two fingers, the points of the star biting into them from the force of his grip. Ezra opened his eyes and looked through the cutout in his talisman, and felt a rush of energy flow through him, channeling into the relic until it was a tightly focused beam of the intense heat and light he had been experiencing. It flashed out in front of him, and he used the amulet almost as a welding device, directing the condensed energy so it traveled up and down the length of the breach. He watched as the blackness was slowly imbued with light, its interior growing steadily bluer until only the very edges were black. Ezra pressed on, using the last bit of will he had to maintain the force on the disappearing tear, until there was nothing left but blue. He felt his head would explode with pressure, while conversely his body and limbs were relaxing, having expelled the burning energies built up inside. Then all went dark and Ezra felt himself slipping from the void.

Buck staggered to Ezra´s side, breathing heavily and clutching the wound on his left arm with his right hand. His face was so dirty the moustache blended in, his eyes making shocking white slashes across the countenance. He dropped the Arren and knelt at Ezra's side, cradling the gambler into his arms.

"Ez? Ya okay Ez?" He shook the gambler slightly, worry creasing his brow and darkening his blue eyes. He had felt a great heat emanating from behind him but had been unable to turn around. He had been pretty busy with the orcs who now seemed just as intent on killing each other as him, which somehow made fighting them more difficult. The heat grew and Buck began to wonder what exactly was going on, but with a single-minded determination he fought on, resolute to allow the gambler time to complete his mission. There was a great shudder through the earth that Buck felt at his core, then all was silent, the room dark from the coming of night, all signs of the orcan army vanished. He had turned to congratulate Ezra and was alarmed at the sight that greeted him.

The gambler was a crumpled heap on the floor of the cave, his body folded over itself so he was lying in a compact pile. Buck shook him again. "C'mon Ez. Open yer eyes and tell 'ole Buck here he did a good job." Buck was working at prying Ezra's fingers from around the black star the gambler was holding. His hand was an angry red color, having been seared by whatever heat it was the ladies man had felt earlier. There were also two puncture wounds, one in his thumb and the other on the index finger. Buck shook his head and clucked a tongue. Nathan ain't gonna be happy ta see that...and poor Ez'll be outta commission fer gambling fer awhile. Ezra moaned and shifted so the rogue spoke to him again in soft tones, encouraging the green eyes to open. "That's right, Ez. Wake up and c'mon back. Nothin' here ta worry about anymore." He smiled in relief when eyes opened and blinked a few times. He could just barely see the gambler's face in the darkened interior, but Buck was convinced all the same it was one of the best things he'd seen in a dog's age. A grin suddenly appeared, bright teeth flashing and he laughed aloud.

“Whoo-wee Ez! Glad ta see ya, had me a mite worried there. Now that is what I call a fight!” he said through the chuckle. Ezra struggled to stand up, wondering exactly how he had come to be lying on the floor. He made it to sitting but got no further, not having realized the depth of fatigue that had assailed him from his efforts of sealing the wound in the barrier. He let his full weight rest against the willing body holding him, unconcerned about propriety, looking vulnerable, or becoming even more mussed in appearance from the filthy condition his friend was in. The unconscious tension in him uncoiled and slipped away. Ezra´s voice was muffled by Buck´s broad chest when he said,

“You must have been hit in the head as well as the other various injuries I can readily ascertain to be so exuberant for being able to participate in that madness,” he said dryly. Buck turned him so they were facing each other and said in a warm voice,

“Shucks Pard, anytime I can kick bad guy ass with my brothers and save humanity in the process I´m a pretty happy guy.” He shrugged, blue eyes sparkling and added, “Easily amused I guess.” Ezra tisked a little but Buck could feel the gambler's own amusement. He reached out a hand and Buck helped them to their feet. Ezra smiled his thanks, Buck´s easy nod coming in reply. Ezra turned on his heel and walked to the opening so he could look out across the canyon. His breath caught in his throat and for a moment he feared he had simply stopped existing. It was as if the canyon wall pitched, sending him reeling down to the rock bed below, while at the same time the dusty floor came flying up to meet him. His unbalance was so great he had to shift in place just to remain standing. The sight below him was beyond all conception. While the cave they were in was now completely dark, the last remaining bits of light from the sun combined with the growing moon allowed the gorge to be easily visible. The canyon was a stain of red and black, the lifeless bodies of the orcs and wights creating an artificial topography in the usually empty rift. The fight had left them without specific form - severed limbs here and there clustered with whole bodies to create macabre tableaus erased all reality of the way they had originally appeared. He could see the downed figure of Asmodeus, the body disintegrating into puddles that were eating away at the very rock it laid upon, forming a smaller crater the remains were beginning to sink into. Bodies lay strewn as if thrown back in an ever-widening ripple, the dark lord´s body the epicenter. The violence of the demon´s death was evident in the number of causalities it caused. A choking stench was beginning to rise as a thick, cloying cloud, which was snaking up and enveloping all in its path. Ezra shuddered, remembering Dovan´s words and thinking her correct. The bodies would indeed need to be burned, and quickly.

“Merciful heaven,” he murmured, “what have we wrought?” Buck stepped up behind him and whistled, impressed by the sight spreading out at their feet. He put a light arm around Ezra and said,

“Not so bad for us, wouldn´t ya say there Ez?” his head swiveled and blue eyes met green. Ezra´s moment of malaise vanished at the words, for however flippantly spoken they were the truth. Not bad for us; not bad for mankind I´d say.

“Indeed Buck, certainly not as much disorder as we have sometimes left in our wake.” Buck grinned at the use of his name and tightened his grip on Ezra, hauling the smaller man back into the cave.

“C´mon Pard. Let´s get the hell outta here and find the others.” Ezra fell into easy step behind him. The bare vibration that was Vin hummed slightly and Ezra smiled in return, reassured at least one of the others had survived. Out of the small caves they clamored and made their way along the ridge to reunite with their comrades.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra tried to stifle a curse but knew he had failed when he heard Nathan's admonishing tones reach him.

"I told ya ta be mindful of that hand, Ez. Ya can't be picking things up or using it for awhile more, okay? Not even cards, like I told ya." Ezra could almost see the healer shaking his head.

"Of course, Mr. Jackson. I will endeavor to be more mindful in the future." He raised the mug of tea with his other hand, saluting the still clucking man. Vin turned and they shared a grin. They were all back at the campsite, sprawled around a fire and drinking some of Dovan's tea. She had suggested it would be good for them, bring back some balance and restore energy. At this point it seemed better to listen to her than argue, so several pots were made and they were all enjoying its mellow taste and effects. There was a contented lassitude about them, an air of satisfied purpose that had them all relaxed, enjoying the cool night air and savoring the victory they had achieved together.

After the battle had finished, they had all made their way to the mouth in the canyon to regroup. Dovan had gone off almost immediately, and with Josiah's help they had emptied the great vessels of accelerant which had been procured and placed around the mouth of the canyon before the fighting had begun, setting everything ablaze to rid the earth of the foul debris. An eerie glow could be seen even from here as the remains of dark army continued to burn.

He was glad they had the foresight to bring enough supplies to camp for several days, and knew everyone else felt the same. They were all too exhausted to return to Four Corners that night, and perhaps even tomorrow. And beside that they were enjoying being just the eight of them, able to freely converse about the day's events and share in the elation and relief the outcome had provided. Nathan had been busy, seeing to the various wounds and injuries, doing more poking and prodding than had been necessary in a long time. Everyone tolerated it with much better humor than was usual, until finally the healer had pronounced they all would live and settled down with his own mug of tea. Buck had gotten conversation going, first asking a blushing JD how it felt to be responsible for taking out an arch- devil. The young sheriff had shrugged and said it made sense for him to have done it, as he was the least likely.

"Besides, think Chris looks real good as a red-herring, don't you all think?" Everyone had laughed at this, even Chris despite himself. They all congratulated him on his bravery and teased him about being able to keep the secret of his mission to himself for a whole two days. He had made noises of being insulted but no one believed the ruse. Buck knocked his hat off for the last time and grinned, then began detailing his and Ezra's exploits, embellishing a little here and there, but mostly telling the story straight. On through the group the conversation passed, until each man had shared his experience with the others. The last story had been told about an hour ago. Now they were sitting together, a companionable and silent group, reveling in their victory, bodies heavy from complete physical exhaustion. Vin yawned deeply and it spread, causing Ezra and JD to yawn in turn. Dovan's voice cut across the fire.

"It is time for us to get to bed. It is nearly dawn already, but that is no reason not to get a little rest. Come." She stood and made for her bedroll and the others followed, each dropping into their chosen spots bonelessly and falling to sleep in moments. Dawn came and went and still the men slept on, until finally hunger roused them enough to pull themselves from sleep. Ezra sat up and rubbed his eyes, stretching and allowing himself to indulge in a shuddering yawn. He looked around sleepily, talking in the forms of his waking comrades. Vin was already up and crouching over the fire. He was putting a kettle of coffee on. That makes coffee for this morning's refreshment out. I wonder if there is any tea left...I shall have to ask Dovan. At that thought the gambler stood and went in search of her, but it turned out to be a fruitless effort. He looked about him again, making certain neither she or Dragon were anywhere to be seen. Everyone was up by now and assembled at the fire, grumbling about having to drink the tar that Vin would have to spoon up for them instead of coffee. Ezra broke the easy banter.

"Has anyone see Dovan this morning? I seem to be able to locate her." At his words each man stood and searched the camp, Vin going so far as to seek within to see if he could sense her. He looked at Ezra and shook his head.

"Gone," the tracker said simply. Ezra sighed and sat again, staring at his hands where they rested in his lap. The others returned, JD being the last. He had something clutched in a hand and was smiling excitedly.

"She left this for us. Found it tucked into the tree she was sleeping under." He grinned and unfolded the object he was holding. It was a flag, about one and a half feet high and three feet wide. It was made from a shiny black fabric, and sewn to the center of the flag was a blue seven-point star. A flash of black thread shimmered in the sun, revealing a circle ringing the star completely, but it was only visible when reflecting light. "There was also this," JD said, passing around a piece of blue paper. Each man read it and smiled, comforted by the words and reassured she would not have left without saying goodbye. Ezra was last around the circle to get the note and he read it over a few times. The writing was precise and lovely, just as its author.

Gentleman, to say it has been my honor would be inadequate at best, though the sentiment remains.

It is my privilege to thank you on behalf of all who would struggle for good.

Until our tomorrows, my seven.

Live to fight on.

He smiled and tucked the letter into his inner pocket, motioning to the group he would keep it safe at least until their return to town. Vin grinned.

"Don't worry, Ez. You hold onta it. We'll know where it is if we wanna see it." The others smiled and nodded. Ezra closed his eyes briefly, sending a tremor out to find her, wherever she may be. Until our tomorrows, Dovan. He opened his eyes again and smiled, the warmth of her presence still there, and he knew it was the same for them all. He worked at hiding a grin and said in his most even and lazy of tones,

"Well, gentleman, seeing as my hand is injured so, I am wondering who it will be to take on the duties of making our luncheon repast. I certainly have a few suggestions to get us going..."

There was a few moans and Vin rolled his eyes, but made to the stream to get the fish he had caught earlier and left on a line. Conversation took over the silence, and their usual banter and chattering filled the sunny bank nestled along the lazy river. Ezra looked about him in complete contentment, raising his mug in silent salute to his comrades, his Brothers.

Live to fight on, gentlemen. Live to fight on.


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