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Two days later, just after sunrise, O'Malley sat on the chair and shook his head at the difference in Chris Larabee's arm. The wound that had festered the day before now showed no such problems. He looked at the gunslinger and smiled.

"Looks like your arm'll be as good as new in a day or two. No pain?"

"Feels fine," Larabee answered as he rolled down the sleeve of his shirt.

"Good," the physician turned to the second patient and waited for the younger man to lie down. He gently prodded the lower back, glad to see the swelling was gone, yet he knew the tracker would have residual pain.

Vin felt the hands pressing against his skin and although tender, the pain was nowhere near what it had been. He felt the doctor finish up and turned over in the bed.

"How is he, Doc?" Larabee asked.

"He's much better than I expected," the doctor answered.

"So we can leave today?" Tanner asked, knowing Larabee would not be willing to leave unless the physician cleared them both.

"As long as you take it easy, Vin. You boys have a long ride ahead of you. Make sure you get out of that saddle if you need to. Don't wait until your back is giving you fits," O'Malley explained, closing up his bag and standing up.

"Thanks, Doc," the tracker said, shaking the man's arm before reaching for his shirt.

"You're both welcome," the doctor said as the gunslinger made the same gesture. "Take care, boys, and have a safe trip home."

Chris watched the older man leave and turned back to his friend. He knew they were both anxious to leave Farmington and put as much distance as they could between the evil they'd sensed around them. Somehow he knew the evil was not in Farmington itself. He didn't want to tempt fate by staying in a town that seemed to be the cause of his nightmares. His hand rubbed across his chest as if he felt something heavy weighing down on it.

"Chris?" the tracker had been watching his friend and noted the grimace of distaste on the older man's face.

Larabee shook himself and looked at his friend. "Sorry, ya ready?"

"Yeah, let's go," the tracker agreed.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later four men stood outside the livery stable checking to make sure they had everything for the journey back through the Bisti Badlands. Several members of the town were also present, including O'Malley, Molly Richmond and Hank Thompson. The boarding house owner moved towards the gunslinger, a package in her hand.

"Here, Chris, you boys might need something for your trip," she said.

"Molly, you shouldn't have..."

"It's not much, Chris. Just a few biscuits and a little bacon left over from breakfast," the woman said.

"Thank you," Larabee said, knowing she'd made extra on purpose that morning.

"You're all welcome. Now Vin you take it easy with that back of yours and make sure you stop in to see me if you come back this way. That goes for you and Ezra as well, Buck." The woman moved back as they mounted up for the long ride ahead of them.

"You boys take care," O'Malley said as they rode away. The small crowd turned away from the departing men and moved on with their lives, except for the woman who understood that what she saw could not be spoken of to anyone.

Molly stood in the center of the street, watching as the four men rode out of Farmington. She shuddered in spite of the heat, knowing the trial had only just begun for these men, and the verdict didn't look good for Chris Larabee. She said a silent prayer for their safety, knowing what was ahead would be a battle for one man's soul. She understood there was nothing she could do to save them from the evil that lay ahead, but her heart went out to them. She felt the tears in her eyes and turned away as the men finally disappeared from site.

"God go with you and help you through this trial," she whispered as the sharp caw of a crow sounded from the south.

+ + + + + + +

The four men rode side by side as they left town, each one knowing the heat would just grow worse as they made their way deeper into the Badlands.

"Well, it'll be good to get back to Four Corners. There were a few things Farmington was lacking in," Wilmington stated, hoping to draw his friends into a lighter mood now that the trial and town were in the past.

"Ah, Mr. Wilmington, you're just upset because of the lack of female companionship," Ezra Standish said

"He's right, Buck," Tanner laughed. "The problem wasn't the lack of ladies though, problem was they didn't go fer yer animal maggotism."

"Ladies, Vin? I didn't see any ladies..."

"At least not the kind of ladies who'd give ya a second look, Buck," the soft-spoken tracker drawled.

"I do believe you're right, Mr. Tanner. The ladies of Farmington have class and we both know Mr. Wilmington is lacking in that department," Standish said as they waited for their forth travelling companion.

Buck knew his friends were teasing him and he leaned towards the gambler. "Ezra, I may be lacking in class department, but I make up for it in the..."

"...ass department," Tanner interrupted with a mischievous grin.

"The ladies like my ass...and my..."

"Forget it, Buck, no one believes that line anymore," Larabee said, smiling as the pain and fears of the last few days seemed to dissolve the further they rode from the town. They rode for two hours, the silence broken only by their own voices, as the sun reached its zenith.

"Got yer extra canteens?" the tracker asked and was glad to hear the others had filled theirs.

The area they were about to cross was known as the Bisti Badlands and Vin knew it was a dangerous trek. He knew where the watering holes were, but at this time of year they could be dried up and useless. The shimmering heat of the sun undulated across the multi-colored hills. Shallow ravines and strange rock formations spread out as far as the eye could see. The land harbored a multitude of colors that included red, gray, orange, and brown, stretching from horizon to horizon. The tracker knew from experience that the beauty of this land could easily enthral a man in its charms. He knew the bones of many an unfortunate soul lay scattered along the trail. A trail they'd made over a week ago, but this time they were taking a more direct route. One that would see them home faster than the one they'd originally made, bypassing the area where the murder took place. It would not be until much later that he realized his decision had been influenced by outside forces, ones that would not be denied.


Tanner kept his eyes straight ahead, unaware that he'd pulled Peso to a stop. His eyes swung back and forth as a chill ran down his spine.


The sharpshooter's sapphire blue eyes blinked rapidly and he realized he must have been day dreaming as Larabee's voice cut through his thoughts. He lifted his canteen and took a quick sip before replacing it on Peso's saddle. He saw Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish riding a few feet ahead of them and smiled at the bickering between the two men. 'Some things never change,' he thought as Wilmington's laughter echoed across the trail.

"Are you all right?" Larabee asked.

"Yeah, just thinking we got a hell of a ride ahead of us."

"You're not kidding. Between the heat and Buck and Ezra it's gonna be a long noisy one." Larabee waited for Tanner to start moving again and frowned as he noted the faraway look in his friend's eyes. "You sure it's just the ride that's bothering you?"

Tanner unconsciously reached behind and rubbed the dull ache in his lower back. "Yeah, I'm fine." He said and then looked at the gunslinger, a serious look on his face. "This place doesn't forgive mistakes, Chris."

"We better not, Cowboy, cause I got a feelin' things ain't over."

Larabee simply nodded as he flicked the reins and the two men followed the gambler and the scoundrel into the Bisti Badlands. The start of a journey that would see them all fighting for their lives.

+ + + + + + +

The crow flew high overhead, its wings spread wide, its shadow moving over the epicenter of the circle of destruction. It understood that its mark on Chris Larabee had been defiled and would need to be renewed. The means would come from a new source, and this time it would not be so easily removed. It felt a ripple flow through its body as the sands began a dance that would end with the Inn standing erect once more. Its fetid breath added to the evil that permeated the area as an ancient evil was about to be reborn, an evil that was never human, yet inhabited the walls of this dwelling, allowing it to live, to breathe, to capture and hold the souls he craved. A loud caw broke the silence as the sands shifted and began to form the living, breathing Inn of Lost Souls.

The sand whipped around the dilapidated structure, striking against the shattered windows, making little sound as the howling wind funneled it into a cloud. It rose high over the once tranquil home, rebuilding the tattered remnants of a life long since gone to dust. Cries of fear and rage mingled with the building tempest, and echoed through the harsh landscape, searching, seeking those who dared venture within their domain.

Bricks, mortar and petrified wood came together to rebuild the Inn, and bring life into the long dead walls. Columns reformed to surround the remnants of the porch and grew to encompass the front of the building, giving wake to the walls that would soon resemble how they'd looked in the dawn of their birth. Shattered windows reformed as rich tapestries were picked up by the funnel and hung where they belonged. Paintings and frames came together and were placed over the faded area's they'd once occupied. Marble and tiled floors were swept clear of dust and debris, their polished shine mirroring everything that hung above them. Crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceilings as the spiral staircase reclaimed the center of the Inn's stately lobby. The funnel rose to the second floor where the restoration began anew until the once vibrant Inn was again the picture of beauty and perfection it once was. A single splinter of wood broke away from the second floor next to a window that still didn't admit light into the room it adorned. The piece of wood was picked up with the other debris as the funnel of sand quickly dissipated and all was calm and serene.

The serenity lasted less than a minute as once more the wind howled and the cloud of sand flew out over the Badlands, carrying the slender missile in its wake. The landscape surrounding the hotel became lush with life once more as the inhabitants of the Inn reached out for the warmth of the living flesh.

+ + + + + + +

They traveled steadily south, stopping once to enjoy the biscuits and bacon Molly Richmond supplied them with. It also gave Vin Tanner a chance to stretch the stiffness from his back and for that he was grateful. He felt Larabee watching him and turned to the gunslinger.

"I'm fine," he assured the worried man.

Larabee simply nodded and let it go. He knew the tracker well enough to see things weren't as bad as he thought, but he'd make sure he kept an eye on him.

"You boys, ready?" the gunslinger asked.

"Yeah, let's get moving," the scoundrel said. After clearing away their campsite they mounted the horses and began the slow journey back home.

The oppressive heat had succeeded in doing something nothing else could, it rendered the gambler and the scoundrel silent. The four men kept the horses to a slow but steady pace, making sure they gave the animals water as the sand kicked up around their hooves.

Vin watched the sky to the east as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Something moved on the horizon and he knew whatever it was would be upon them before long.

"Something wrong, Vin?" Larabee asked as the younger man slowed his pace and waited for the others to catch up with him.

"Storm's coming," the tracker answered.

"How bad?" the gunslinger asked, trusting the younger man's instincts.

"Don't come no worse... we need ta find shelter," Tanner told them, unnerved by the speed of the force headed their way.

"Which way?" Wilmington asked as the horses grew skittish.

"Over there!" the tracker shouted, pointing to an outcropping of rock that might offer some shelter from the swiftly moving dust devil headed their way. He knew the storm was bigger than a simple dust devil, yet the word seemed to fit. He spurred Peso into a run and heard the others do the same.

+ + + + + + +

The sand shifted and undulated, picking up speed as if it felt the nearness of its prey. The missile stayed at the same height from the ground, its pointed tip aimed in the direction of the four men. This part of the Inn sought out the soul, ready to bring him home, to where he belonged.

+ + + + + + +

There was no time to speak, even if they could find the air to do so. The four horses raced across the hard packed sand, digging the hooves in and making the ground disappear underneath. The rocks seemed no closer than before, but they continued to ride.

Vin glanced over his shoulder and knew there was no way they'd make it to shelter. The shifting sandstorm continued on an intercept course with them and gained momentum. The hot wind beat against their skins as the first grains of sand bit into their skin.

+ + + + + + +

Buck held his breath as he watched the oncoming storm, knowing in his heart they'd be caught in the violent maelstrom. He continued to race just to the right of the tracker, gritting his teeth against the hot air forced ahead of the sand.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra felt the first grains of sand hit him and huddled closer to his horse. His body was being bombarded by the small grains and he briefly wondered how something so tiny could hurt so much. He followed the tracker, hoping the young man would be able to bring them to safety.

+ + + + + + +

Chris rode slightly behind the other, the pelting sand and wind making it hard to see anything now. He prayed they'd all make it through, that they only be caught in the outer fringes of the storm. He knew that was not to be as he watched the sands surround and engulf his friends, leaving him alone in the heat and violence. He continued to ride, his body rigid as the pelting grains attacked his exposed skin.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt the storm reach him, cutting him off from the men he rode with. He no longer heard the sounds of Peso's hooves beating against the ground as the sharp siren like scream sounded from the storm. He felt the animal beneath him falter, but quickly right himself as the sand and other debris continued to strike him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and Buck continued to ride as the tempest caught up and swallowed them whole. The air burned into their lungs, searing their throat as the tiny grains were forced into their mouths.

+ + + + + + +

After losing sight of the others, Chris Larabee began to feel as if there was something different about this storm. The speed with which it gained on them seemed beyond anything he'd ever known. He felt lost in the sands of time, as if he'd been cut off from the others. A new sound had begun as soon as the others were engulfed in the storm and he prayed they'd be okay. The sound grew in intensity and violence, drowning out everything else around him. He wanted to cover his ears but to do so would mean releasing his grip on Pony's reins.

+ + + + + + +

Vin, Buck and Ezra broke through the storm at almost the same instant, yet they continued to ride as if the hounds of hell were hot no their trail. The tracker was the first to pull up, realizing they'd broken out of the storm, yet he knew they were not safe here.

"Where's Chris?" Wilmington choked through the sand surrounding his throat.

"He was right behind me!" Standish shouted above the cacophony that continued around them.

"There he is!" the sharpshooter said as he watched Pony erupt from the wall of sand.

+ + + + + + +

Chris realized they were through as Pony leapt from the gripping winds. He spotted his three friends, but didn't have the chance to acknowledge them as he tried to make it completely out of the hellish storm.

"Chris!" the cry erupted from three mouths as they watched in horror. A small arm like strand of the storm seemed to reach out and grab at the gunslinger.

Larabee felt something grip at his duster just as a fiery pain ignited in his right side. He couldn't stop the scream that erupted from his throat as his body was catapulted backwards to land heavily against the ground. He grabbed at his side, writhing in agony as whatever stabbed him seemed to be borrowing deeper into his body. He heard the others hurrying towards him, but couldn't find the energy to answer them.

"Chris, let me see!" Tanner hissed, kneeling beside the gunslinger as an unholy howl thundered around them. He pulled the gunslinger's hand away from the blood soaked duster and was shocked by what he saw.

"Jesus, Vin, it's moving!" Wilmington swore as he watched in disbelief as a piece of wood seemed to be sucked into Larabee's body.

"What is that?" Standish asked, holding tightly to the reins of the four horses.

"I don't know!" the tracker shouted above the winds.

"!" Larabee moaned as he felt the thing move deeper into his flesh.

"Hang on, Chris!" Tanner hissed as he tried to grip the undulating object.

+ + + + + + +

The crow landed on the ground in front of the stately Inn, its body shifting until he stood on two legs. He watched the window that would soon house the man who's soul would be his to conquer and devour. He watched a tremor run through the newly restored structure as the ground under his feet rippled with movement. He turned to see James Clark beside him and spoke softly.

"They will be here shortly. Make sure all is in readiness!"

"Yes, master," Clark said, hurrying to do his master's bidding.

+ + + + + + +

Vin tried to grab onto the object protruding from Larabee's side, but each time his fingers slipped in the sticky crimson fluid oozing from the gunman's body.

"Jesus!" the blond swore through grated teeth as tears filled his eyes. The pain became his world as the piece of debris crawled through his flesh, becoming part of his body in spite of the tracker's efforts.


"I know, Buck!" the sharpshooter hissed as he tried once more to grab onto the offending item. The scream that erupted from the gunslinger made him cringe and he could only watch as the large splinter of wood disappeared beneath Larabee's swollen flesh.

"...Jesus..." the blond groaned, feeling his stomach churn as the object seemed to shift, before finally lying still within his body.

"What the hell was that?" The ladies' man asked, fear evident in his voice.

"I have never witnessed anything like this before," the gambler answered.

"...Vin..." Larabee's voice was low, but they could all hear the pain.

"Easy, Chris," the tracker soothed, opening Larabee's shirt to get a better look at what they were facing. He touched the puckered wound and heard a gasp from the gunman as something alive seemed to move beneath the skin.

Buck was reminded of the time he'd helped his friend deliver Adam Larabee into the world. Adam's movements had pressed against Sarah's belly, much the same as whatever had attacked Chris Larabee was doing now. Only this time there was none of the awe and excitement he'd had at seeing the life move inside Sarah.

"...d...don't" the blond hissed as he felt the younger man carefully probe the area.

"I can't get ta it," the sharpshooter told them as Larabee tried to turn onto his side.

"Can he ride, Vin?" Standish asked, knowing how important it was to get the injured man out of the path of the storm that continued around them.

"Rather not, but we don't have a choice. He ain't gonna be able ta ride by hisself," the younger man said and looked at the scoundrel.

" I'll take him," the ladies man said.

"Alright, Ez, pass me somethin' ta wrap this up with," the tracker ordered.

Chris heard them talking, but there was nothing he could do, but lie on the ground. If he moved so did the object in his side, and when that happened his body felt the fiery pain that came with it. He felt it shift again as Tanner eased him onto his back once more and pressed something against the wound. He hissed through clenched teeth as his upper body was lifted and the bandage secured in place.

"Think he'll be able to make the ride to Four Corners?" Wilmington asked.

"I don't know, but we can't stay here," the younger man answered honestly.

"" the gunman rasped.

"We will, Chris. Alright, Buck, mount up and me and Ez'll pass him up ta ya."

The ladies man nodded and hurried to his horse. He watched as Standish ground tied the other three and moved to help the tracker with the injured man.

"Chris, me and Ez are gonna help ya..."

"...okay...Vin..." Larabee gritted his teeth as the two men gripped his arms and eased him up. The pain exploded in his side and he cried out, yet the strong arms held him tight.

"I'll do most of the work," the conman warned the tracker, wary of the injured back. The shaggy head nodded once as they lifted the lean gunslinger up to the ladies man.

Buck settled the blond in front of him, worried about the trembling he felt just beneath the surface. He pulled the man against him, hoping to make the ride a little easier.

"Buck, storm's getting worse, gonna need ta tie 'im ta ya!" the tracker warned, moving to Peso and grabbing the rope hanging from the saddle.

"Ez, ya git onna them fancy rags ya tote and cover yer face up!" He ordered and the southerner quickly took the veteran's advice.

The winds began to pick up once more bringing with it the pelting sands and other debris with it. The small circle of calm withered as Tanner and Standish worked to tie Larabee to the ladies' man and then to the saddle itself. Vin reached into Buck's saddlebag and retrieved a shirt. He ripped it in half, handing one part to the strong rogue, who covered the lower half of his face. Then he quickly wrapped the other around most of the gunslinger's face, the loose drape at the bottom allowing air flow from underneath, not directly. For a second their eyes met, and a silent message passed between the two men. Vin saw the fear in the sea green eyes and tried to send a message with his own. He tugged the black hat low covering the tell-tale eyes and patted Larabee's leg. Then he glanced at the ladies man and moved to mount up. He lifted his kerchief from his neck and tied it securely so only his eyes remained unprotected. He tugged his slouch hat low, protecting his eyes. With a final glance over his shoulder he signaled for them to move out. The tracker took the lead, heading them southward once more in hopes of leaving the storm behind them.

+ + + + + + +

Columber felt the change in the air around him and his lips curled up around a row of uneven yellow teeth. His eyes flashed quickly from black to brown to red to black once more as the Inn undulated and settled on its newly formed foundations. He knew exactly when the missile entered Chris Larabee's body as the Inn itself came to life with a sound that some would construe as a sigh. He took a deep breath as the putrid scent of death and decay came to life, as if Larabee's soul was already in its grasp. He knew there was still a battle ahead, but when that battle ended the gunslinger would be by his side, a sentinel to the gates of hell. Here, in this unholy place, Columber's legion of demons would find their path to the world unchallenged. He smiled and looked to the west, feeling the soul, so strong, so pure, and moving once more toward him. A shudder ran through his frame and his skin quickly covered in feathers as arms became wings, and a crow once more stood on the ground. Unable to contain his excitement, the vile creature flew into the air seeking out the four men heading in his direction.

+ + + + + + +

Vin silently cursed the changing winds and shifting sands that seemed to be herding them away from Four Corners. If he tried to turn west, the maelstrom grew even more violent as if something wanted them to move in one direction. He glanced over his shoulder and watched as Wilmington tried to shield his precious cargo from the tendrils of the storm that attacked them. Without warning the storm shifted once more and the four men were engulfed by the deadly force of nature. Pelting granules of sand and small stones slammed into them with more force than they thought possible. He'd long since given up trying to protect his own face as he sought the safest route out of the fury ravaging the landscape.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rode as close to Peso as possible, trying to offer what little protection he could to the two men bringing up the rear. He held tightly to Pony's reins as he protected his neck and face as best he could. He'd long since given up trying to keep his hat on, the winds and sand simply didn't believe he should do so. Visibility was almost nil as they continued through the howling tempest. The air was think with silt, clay and other debris and he fought to bring oxygen through his soft kerchief and into his lungs. He kept his eyes on his companions, praying they would not get separated in the twisting fury surrounding them.

+ + + + + + +

Buck's arms felt like lead as he fought to keep his hold on the reins, his effort made worse by the wilting body tied to his own. Despite the cloth over his face, somehow sand and dust still managed to get into his mouth and nostrils. His eyes burned as he fought the stinging slap of sand, but he could make out his two companions directly in front of him. That they were fighting for their lives was obvious, yet who or what they were fighting remained to be seen. He wanted to soothe the trembling man in his arms, but there was no time or energy to do so. Everything he was, everything he had was needed to keep them both in the saddle in spite of the ropes binding them to the horse.

+ + + + + + +

Unlike the other three, Chris Larabee was unaware of the storm growing in force around him. His mind was on the storm being waged inside his body as each step made by Wilmington's horse wedged the splinter deeper into his side. The sand striking against his face and neck didn't register as he felt the evil presence coming closer. He wanted to scream a warning to the others, but there was no energy to do so. His head sagged to his chest, and his eyes closed as he tried to fight the incoming entity.

+ + + + + + +

The crow flew through the storm, cawing as the wall of sand parted to allow him an easy journey. It soared high overhead until its eyes bored down on the one he sought. The beak opened wide, blood dripping from the crimson eyes as it swooped down towards the four riders. It knew Larabee was being carried by one of his friends, the missile nearly incapacitating the man with a pulsating life of its own. It flew by several times before turning northeast towards the Inn, knowing its prey would soon arrive. As it soared over the horse carrying the two riders a drop of crimson fluid dripped from its mouth and it heard Chris Larabee moan as the blood landed on his forehead.

+ + + + + + +

Chris felt something wet hit his skin and reached up to wipe it away as searing pain flared through the point of contact. His mind and body silently screamed as the piece of debris in his side moved with a violent fury, that only he registered.

Vin heard the sound, but from inside his head instead of with his ears and he looked once more towards Larabee. The storm continued to hack at him and any exposed skin tingled with pain as if scalded. Ignoring the pain, he moved to Larabee and Wilmington, stopping beside his friends. Sensing the evil at work around them he reached out and gently touched the crimson spot on Larabee's forehead. He closed his eyes and sent a message to whoever or whatever was shadowing them.

'Ya cain't 'ave 'im. He's not yours...Ain't ever gonna be! Hear me ya bastard! Ya ain't gettin' 'im!'

+ + + + + + +

The crow shuddered in mid-flight as the warning sounded inside its tiny skull. It knew the voice, and it felt the foreign fear the words imparted. The surety with which they were spoken left little doubt that the man who spoke them would need to be dealt with.

'Ya cain't 'ave 'im. He's not yours...Ain't ever gonna be! Hear me ya bastard! Ya ain't gettin' 'im!'

The vow continued to throb through the black mind, carving away at its objective, and planting niggling seeds of doubt where none had ever been. It shook so hard black feathers flew from its body before it turned back to the four men. It had to make sure the soul did not escape again.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt the change as the storm picked up momentum, driving sands swirled around them in a dark stinging rain. It bit into their exposed skin, slashing across them and getting under their clothes. Vin removed his hand, knowing he had to get them out before whatever evil resided in the wall of violence caught up to them once more. He knew Larabee needed help and he began to pray for some of Josiah's Devine intervention. He motioned for the others to follow him once more and turned Peso into the thickest part of the barrier.

+ + + + + + +

The satanic bird drew closer to the small group of men struggling against its malevolence. It dipped and swirled as the ocean of sand parted under its power. It spotted the four horses, fighting through the thickening curtain, cawing as it realized they were nearly in reach of the Inn. It was just a matter of keeping them on the path of least resistance.

'He will be it was always meant to be! All I have to do is touch him and he knows I am near!' he sent so only one man could hear.

+ + + + + + +

'He will be it was always meant to be! All I have to do is touch him and he knows I am near!'

Vin shuddered as he felt the ripple of words inside his skull and vowed not to let anything get close to Chris Larabee. He'd protect the man with his own life if that's what it came to. Something made him look up, and despite the blinding fury he could see the shadowy outline of a huge bird. He knew what this thing wanted and he moved to join Buck Wilmington. His hands reached for the reins as darkness threatened to shut them off from each other. Words were impossible, gestures could barely be seen, yet he knew the ladies man understood the need to move. He turned them into the worst of the tempest, feeling as if he was leading them away from the evil.

+ + + + + + +

It screeched as it felt the strength in the young man whose defiance grew stronger each time he vowed to protect the gunslinger. Tanner continued to taint him by turning away from the direction he wanted them to go. Somehow he needed to stop this man, otherwise all was lost and things would remain as they were. He would not allow that to happen, this world was ripe for the taking and death would come to anyone who stood in his way.

+ + + + + + +

Buck could no longer see the man he held, but the tremors running through the lean form told him the blond was still with him. He knew Tanner held the reins of all the horses as he continued to lead them. There was no doubt in his mind that the tracker would get them through, but where they ended up was another question. He knew they'd gotten turned around in the squall and where they ended up was a wild guess. One he wasn't sure he was ready to make. He held the blond close, feeling the heart beating in his chest, at the same time something moved beneath the ravaged skin on his side.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had never seen such a storm. He remembered his mother telling him of such a thing during one of her trips. Some people had called it a dust devil, and the gambler thought it an apt name. He knew people died during the storm she told him of, smothered by the sand and dust being blown down their throats and cutting off their air supply. His chin was buried in the collar of his red coat in an effort to keep from breathing in too much of the sickening maelstrom. Onwards he road, unaware of the danger that lay ahead.

+ + + + + + +

Chris let his head drop down to his chest as the ride through hell continued. His body seemed to have gained weight, and he understood the sand was now embedded inside his clothe, grating between his clothes and his bare skin. It felt like he was being rubbed raw as he shifted in the saddle. He realized his mistake as the dormant missile in his side shifted with him, sending shockwaves through his body. He felt consciousness leaving him as a shadow formed above his head.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rode steadily into the storm, knowing it had to end somewhere. He felt Peso fighting against the winds and debris and tried to pull his buckskin jackets closer around his body. He had no idea how long they trekked through the maelstrom, His head tucked down to his chest in an effort to keep the sand from cutting anymore skin from his face.

+ + + + + + +

"NO!" the cry ripped from the crow's throat, no longer a caw, but a human voice, impossibly loud in the screaming gale. It could not happen...they would not escape. It raced through the storm, seeing the light that signaled they would soon reach safety. He could not let Tanner lead them away form the Inn. It swooped low, its claws touching the back of the sharpshooter's head, tangling in the long hair. As horse and rider raced out of the storm, the bird yanked with malevolent strength.

+ + + + + + +

Vin didn't have time to register that they'd made it out of the shifting wall of sand, as his body toppled backwards out of the saddle. Pain stabbed through his skull as he impacted with the ground. His vision blurred as the world around him wavered and threatened to send him back into the tempest.

"Vin!" Standish cried as he leapt from his horse and moved to the fallen man.

Wilmington pulled the material from his face and looked down at the younger men. His worry escalated as he watched the gambler pull the kerchief from the tracker's face.

"EZ?" He screamed over the gale, frowning as the banshee wail of the storm began to escalate once more.

"I don't know yet!" the concerned conman shouted , grabbing his canteen and kneeling beside the down man once more. He turned his body, shielding the downed man as best he could from the violent wind.

"Vin..." Larabee's voice was weak and both men understood the danger both men were in.

"Vin?" Standish hollered , lightly slapping at the younger man's cheek in an effort to rouse him .

Two blue slits appeared, confused and riddled with pain. The jaw opened and the sand-encrusted lips tried to part. Ezra acted quickly, dabbing the gritty lips with water first and allowing them to open. He lifted Vin's head and tipped the water vessel.

"Drink this!" the southerner ordered, holding the canteen to the slack lips. He watched as the sharpshooter fought to control the pain and finally sat up.

"You okay, Vin?" Wilmington yelled over the severe wind. The shaggy head nodded once and the eyes blinked. Buck wasn't convinced and sent the southerner a silent message when he saw the tracker try to stand.

"Lie still!" the conman warned, as the Texan tried to get up.

"Chris?" Tanner muttered as his eyes began to focus and sought Wilmington.

"He's okay..." Buck shouted, guarding the body with his own.

"Dammit, need ta get outta here!" Tanner said, sensing the evil building around them once more.

Buck and Ezra exchanged a worried look when the shaggy head dropped and the buckskinned shoulders dropped in defeat. Tanner wore his guilt all too readable.

"Get your head up!" the conman shouted, noting the wind dying down a bit. "If not for your diligent efforts, we would have perished!"

"You done good, son!" Buck boomed, lending his support. "You saved all our hides.".

"Did I?" the tracker asked, worried as a new sound joined the others and a screeching wail grew to encompass them. The pounding in his skull escalated and his body swayed sickeningly. His knees buckled under the pain and if not for the conman grabbing him, he'd have fallen.

"Shit...damn storm's shifting back this way! Ez, Get 'im on his horse!" Wilmington shouted as the cacophony began again.

"Any idea where we are?" Standish asked, helping the tracker to his gelding.

"Ain't su...sure...can't tell...which...way...!" the sharpshooter mumbled as Standish helped him mount up.

"See anything?" Wilmington asked as a painful shudder raced through the lean form in his arms.

"Nothing," the gambler said, moving in closer to the tracker. "Vin, can you ride?"

"No ch...choice...t...try k...keep ou...outta storm" the Texan said as they began to move once more.

They rode onward, keeping the storm on the right, but a sudden shift in the wind brought them back into the midst of the violence. The four men moved forward, two of them unaware of the direction they were taking. Ezra kept his body as close to the sharpshooter as he could, his body taut in case he needed to move quickly. He turned as he heard Buck riding up beside him.

"Somethin' ahead!" the ladies man shouted as the sand forced its way down his throat.

"What is it?"

"Don't know...maybe heaven!" the scoundrel shouted in order to be heard.

+ + + + + + +

The crow took on human form once more as it landed at the door to the Inn. Columber smiled as he looked towards the southwest, knowing the four men were set on the course he'd laid out for them. It worked, better than he hoped as the riders continued on an intercept course with the circle of darkness. He entered the house, watching as his legion of demons continued to move within the Inn. He looked up the spiral staircase, knowing room 17 was waiting for its new resident. For here was where Chris Larabee would reside for all eternity. A sentinel who would keep the gates open, allowing evil free reign over the world of light.

+ + + + + + +

"What is that place?" Wilmington asked, his arms still wrapped around the injured gunslinger.

"Perhaps it's a haven from darkness," Standish said.

"Don't matter what it is. It's the only place 'round and we need ta get Chris and Vin inside," the ladies man shouted, feeling the man he held move in the saddle.

"How're ya doin', Chris?" the scoundrel asked worriedly.

"T...tired...w...where are...we?" the blond asked, searching the darkness as if something was closing in on him.

"Not sure, but there's a place up ahead. We're gonna head that way...maybe get some help," Wilmington explained.

"...okay..." the blond wilted back against the ladies' man, his eyes closing as nausea rolled through him once more.

"Let's ride," Standish said and led them forward once more. He felt the animals grow skittish the closer they got to the large structure, but kept them moving forward.

+ + + + + + +

Chris began to struggle against the man holding him as his body seemed to burn from inside out. He heard Wilmington speaking to him, but couldn't acknowledge him. Again and again the foreign object inside him sent shards of agony pulsating through his body.

+ + + + + + +

The Inn undulated in the exact center of the circle of corruption. With each shift of the splinter in the victim's body, the structure mirrored the move. If the animal Larabee rode miss-stepped, the missile surged deeper into his side, sealing the man to the Inn that had born it. Things were about to come full circle and the inhabitants of the Inn, both good and evil, were ready for the fight to come. A fight that would mean the difference between light and dark and the freedom of the souls that were lost within the walls.

+ + + + + + +

The hallway seemed to go on forever, his long legs unable to cut the distance as he ran towards the figures crumpled on the floor. The screams followed him, even as elongated, taloned fingers clutched at his bare skin, leaving a trail of fire wherever they came in contact with him. Demonic manifestations surrounded him, but he couldn't let them stop him. He heard the anguished screams from souls trapped within the structure, but could not help them until he helped release the chosen one. The faith of that one soul...the faith of the world...the fight between good and evil, light and dark, depended on their success.. Something loomed ahead, something big, monstrous, overshadowing all else in the netherworld, where reality became fantasy, life and death were a matter of opinion, and evil sought its hold on mankind.

"NO!" he thought his scream was echoed by two others and turned to see JD Dunne and Nathan Jackson joining him at the threshold of evil. Cackling laughter reached their ears as the altar on which Chris Larabee lay began to bleed. Three bodies surrounded the gunslinger, men who'd been friends in life, but he could not help them now. Blood, vomit, and feces were strewn across the dripping walls. Sightless eyes stared at them from the three dead warriors, but nothing compared to the desolate stare from the once vibrant greens orbs set in the pale, ruined face of the gunman.

He could tell Larabee still lived, but the monstrosity with fangs dripping bloodied pieces of flesh would soon tear the soul from the still body. The talons reached for Larabee's chest, digging into the soft tissue, breaking bones as it sought the beating organ within the dazed man.

"NO!" he screamed and again heard the word echoed by his two companions. He knew this was a dream, yet there was a sense of reality in it.

Larabee screamed, his body arching off the altar as with a final jerk the beast pulled the pumping heart from his body, squeezing the organ, and sucking at the blood that ran from the ravaged life force.



Josiah woke with a start, his trembling body covered in sweat, even as the word left his mouth. He knew there were two others in this town who'd suffered the same nightmare, but wasn't quite ready to face them yet. Taking a deep breath he sat up on the edge of the simple bed in the back room of the small church he was restoring. He'd never been a man prone to nightmares, but when he did have them they were usually a warning of things to come. This dream was among the worst he'd ever had and he knew his friends were in trouble. He scrubbed at tired eyes and placed his elbows on his knees as the nightmarish images ran in vivid, living colors behind his closed lids.

Memories of the anguished screams for help from souls tortured beyond humanities imagination cried out to him. They pleaded for help, they cried for redemption, they begged forgiveness for any slight they might have made in life. In death their fears had grown until it shrouded them in darkness, one so complete their souls were trapped in an evil place, where light could not penetrate. The pain and horror they felt would be with them until someone stopped the torrent of evil manifesting itself once more on the earth. There was a fight coming, and for Josiah Sanchez, that fight was now his. It became his when the evil that now corrupted part of the world had taken something of his. The family of brothers he'd grown to care for, four men now trapped in a fight that could end with three dead, and one trapped in a role he did not want...did not deserve.

Josiah stood and swayed precariously as nausea overwhelmed him. There was a fight coming, one that he needed to help his friends through, yet something was trying to stop him from getting to them. He stood in the doorway for several seconds, waiting for his body to gain strength from his determination. He made it into the main part of the church and looked to the cross on the wall over the pulpit.

"Lord, give us the strength to help our brother fight the evil that has marked him. Give Vin, Ezra and Buck the strength to keep him safe until we can join them in this war against darkness..."


Sanchez turned at the sound of the healer's voice spoken from the open door of the church. JD Dunne stood beside him and he felt some of the chill leave his body.

"The time is at hand," the older man told his visitors.

"You had the dream too?" Dunne asked.

"Nightmare would be more like it, Son," Sanchez answered softly.

"We need to find them," Jackson told them both.

"How? All I could see was the shifting wall of sand when it swallowed them up, how do we find that place where they were?" Dunne said, sinking onto the pew at the back.

"JD, just as the evil is guiding the others on this dark path, there will be light to guide us to them. We have to keep faith and be strong," Sanchez sat beside the youth, pulling him close as he realized JD Dunne was going to find out what true evil really was.

"I have faith, Josiah, I just don't know if it's strong enough. Vin, Ezra, and B...Buck were d...dead," the young easterner said softly.

"Only in that dream world, JD. They are still alive, but they will need our help. We're stronger when we're together. Look into your heart, Son, you'll find there's more faith there than you know," the older man touched his chest before standing up and looking at the healer. A simple nod of the head told him Nathan was okay, and understood what they were going up against. But Josiah Sanchez knew none of them were really prepared for what lay ahead. Tonight they would pray for guidance, tomorrow they would take whatever answers they received and set out on a journey that could mean the end for not only them, but the world as they knew it.

+ + + + + + +

They rode towards the structure, unaware of the evil watching them, seeking out their weaknesses in an effort to find the thing that made them vulnerable.

Chris continued to struggle against the man holding him. The pain in his side no longer the source of his discomfort. Each step the horses made towards the Victorian Manor lent a new fear to his mind and body. Each time he tried to speak, his mind seemed bogged down in thick mire and he was unable to put words to those fears. He sagged against Buck Wilmington, his eyes staring at the white outer walls of the two-story frame structure

There were intersecting gables with scalloped shingles. A full front porch extended to north elevation and featured turned posts, elaborate brackets and interlaced with wooden trellises, several flowers of unknown varieties were laced through the terrace. The second story porch ran the length of the building and around both sides and had the same details as the front porch. The entrance was two double oak doors framed by two large bay style windows, covered in lacy cream colored curtains. The three visible windows on the second floor featured rectangular sash windows with numerous glass panes. The shutters stood open, framing the windows and blocking the view to the inside. A small tower stood out on the eastern corner of the Manor, devoid of windows it was a stark contrast to the rest of the Inn.

Chris's eyes were drawn to the second floor, to the middle window, something moved beyond the dark panes. His vision blurred as they stopped in front of the main doors. He didn't want to go in there, but there was no way he could tell the others he wanted to leave. He tore his gaze away from the window and looked at the tracker. The younger man didn't seem to be awake and his desperation escalated as Chris tried to speak of his fears. He knew if Vin Tanner had been awake he would also feel the undeniable sense of evil that seemed to ooze from the structure. Chris could not have explained how he felt to the two men who held him and Tanner, they were too intent on getting both him and Vin out of the storm.

'The storm,' the blond thought fearfully. Something about the way it stayed away from the Manor bothered him. They were completely surrounded by the wall of shifting sand, yet there was none of the noise or intensity that had been with them before spotting this place. He knew Standish and Wilmington were worried about him and Vin, and that worry was making them blind to what was happening around them.

"Easy, there, Chris, you're safe now. We're just gonna get you and Vin inside and get ya both some help," Wilmington explained as he felt the lean man fighting his hold.

"" Larabee managed, screaming as the object embedded in his side burned with red hot intensity. He bucked against the intrusion, nearly dislodging himself and Wilmington from the saddle.

"Jesus, hang on Chris!" the scoundrel hissed, watching as Standish dismounted and reached for the tracker.

"I'll be right back to help you!" the gambler said, wrapping his arms around the semi conscious Texan and guiding him up the steps leading to the heavy oak doors. He lifted the iron door knocker, oblivious to everything around him in his haste to get help.

The door opened easily, revealing a middle aged man dressed in a black tuxedo style suit and frilly lace shirt. His silver hair was slicked back, revealing a face that had weathered many a storm. Ezra instinctively placed his age between fifty and sixty and prayed the man would help them.

"My name is Ezra friends are injured. We need a place..."

" weather the storm. I am Judge Galla Shedim. Please, bring them in and my staff will gladly take care of their needs."

"Thank you," Standish said gratefully, and turned back to the ladies man. "Buck, I'm going to get Vin inside and then come back to help you with Chris."

"Hurry, Ez!" Wilmington snapped, as Larabee continued to struggle in his grasp. He held tightly to his friend, fighting to keep him from falling.


"Sh, Chris, Ez'll be right back," he said, frowning as he felt the tremble in the man's body. Something about the way Larabee was struggling sent niggling doubts through his mind, but the sound of the storm growing close once more drove them back.

"P...please..." the gunslinger cried out as the wailing banshee like screams sent throbbing pain through his skull. He knew the sound was not from the storm, but from something inside the haven before him.

"Hang on Chris," the scoundrel soothed, anxiously watching the door for Standish' return.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra continued to take the tracker's weight as he followed the tall, gangly man deeper into the house. They bypassed several closed doors, until they stepped into a large ballroom style room. The dominant feature was an ornately decorated spiral staircase leading to the second floor landing. His expertise in the society world told him the furnishings were expensive antiques. He shook his head and brought his attention back to the injured man beside him.

"You may put him there for now," the man said, pointing to an exquisite rosewood settee, surrounded by several matching chairs and a cherry wood table.

"Come on, Vin, let's get you comfortable," Standish said, easing the younger man onto the soft cushions.

"Ez...Chris okay?"

"He's fine. I'm going to help Buck bring him in. You just sit here until we come back," Standish ordered, worried about the ashen complexion that had overtaken the normally tanned Texan.

"We do not usually have visitors, but I will have rooms readied for all of you. How many are there?" the host asked, his voice deceptively calm as he watched Standish move away from the settee.


"I will see to it immediately," the silver haired man said. His eyes changed to red as he looked at the nearly unconscious man seated before him. 'You and your friends will not keep him from me, Mr. Tanner. I will deliver him to my Lord,' he thought as he looked at the room at the top of the stairs. The door opened and James Clark looked down at him. A simple nod told him all was in readiness for their guests. He turned away from the tracker and took the stairs two at a time in his excitement to see that preparations were carried out to his specifications.

As soon as he left a wisp of white mist entered through the closed door leading into the basement. A scent of roses soon permeated the area, bringing with it a sense of peace that mocked all that happened within the walls of the Inn. An ethereal figure formed in front of the settee and soft fingers reached out to stroke the long hair that had fallen in front of the man's face. "You have to fight for your brother, Vin Tanner, for you and he are part of one soul."

" soul..." the Texan whispered.

She placed her hand on the tracker's chest, healing the injury to the young man's back, while sending him into a deep sleep. He had a fight coming and the entity knew the evil presence would block his every move, but at least now he would have a fighting chance.

"Sleep well, Vin Tanner, the time of darkness is almost at hand and it will take all of your strength to see light restored to this world you hold dear."

+ + + + + + +

"Chris, I'm going to hand you down to Ezra. We'll have you feelin' better in no time."

Larabee tried to fight them, but there was nothing left to call on. His reserves of energy were gone, his body and mind surrendering control as the projectile burned within him. His eyes were clenched tight as his long time friend eased him down to the other man. There was nothing he could do to stop what was going to happen, but the evil that gripped his body would not invade his mind.

"I got him, Buck," Standish said, wrapping his arms around the trembling man as Wilmington dismounted and threw the reins over the hitching post.

"Here, Ez, let me take him," the scoundrel said, picking the gunslinger up in his arms as Standish hurried to open the door. Larabee wasn't a big man, but Wilmington realized he wouldn't be able to carry him very far. As soon as the gambler opened the door he returned to help with the gunslinger. Without a word the two men carried their injured friend between them, and unwittingly entered hell on earth.

"Where's Vin?" the scoundrel asked.

"On a settee in the ball room," Standish answered breathlessly as they entered the main room on the first floor.

"He okay?"

"Think so..."

"You may bring him up here. His room is ready," their host called from the top of the spiral staircase.

Buck and Ezra moved to the wide staircase, glad to see there was plenty of room for them to maneuver easily.

Chris heard the voice and forced his eyes open as they began to climb to the second floor. He shivered as the unmistakable red eyes glared down at them. He knew the face, and felt the black heart inside the body. He tried to speak, but cried out as the red eyed man smiled and pain erupted from his side once more.

"Easy, Chris, won't be much longer," Wilmington assure his friend. He looked at Standish and saw the same worry on his face as they stepped onto the second floor landing.

"In here," the Inn's owner called.

Buck and Ezra carried Larabee into the room and over to the large, high back poster bed. The blankets had been pulled back and a young crow haired woman stood beside it, fluffing the pillows, before standing back and allowing them to ease their burden onto the soft feather mattress.


"Sh, Chris, it's okay. We're going to get Vin and make sure he's settled in a room too. You just hang on a minute, okay?"


"We're just gonna leave you for a minute, Chris," Standish assured him as he pulled the blankets up over the injured man.

"Ma'am, can you watch him for a minute?" Wilmington asked.

"Of course. I am Lillith, my husband and I will make you most welcome here. You go tend to your other friend," the woman said, her voice deceptively soft as she watched them leave.

"Is this the one?" she asked, long talons emerging from twisted fingers.

"Yes, this is the soul that will bring the darkness to this world. Our lord has seen to deliver him into our hands in order to complete the transformation," Galla smiled as the demon raked her talons along Larabee's cheek.

"He is strong!"

"That's what makes him so special."

"What about his friends?" she asked, watching the green eyes fight to focus on her.

"They are of little consequence, but until Chris Larabee's soul belongs to the darkness surrounding him, they may prove useful. We need to make sure he does not interfere."

"You know she's placed her mark on him and he is now under her protection."

The red eyes flashed with anger at the thought of the woman who's soul was still locked in the building. The woman would not be able to help this man or his friends, yet he sensed that she'd used the last of her power to heal the tracker. Her sacrifice would be in vain as the sharpshooter's soul would belong in hell once Larabee killed him.

"She cannot protect him from his friend. Once Chris Larabee is mine, the others will follow suit. I will make sure they place Tanner in the proper room. Take care of our guest, he must be prepared for what is to come."

"Yes, Master," the demon said, her voice echoing silently through Larabee's mind.

+ + + + + + +

Galla watched as the two men lifted the unconscious tracker into their arms and carried him towards the stairs. He knew the young man was under the guardianship of the female soul who was lost within the walls of the Inn. He stood back, sensing a power from the buckskin clad form, something that was within his own soul. A strength seldom seen, yet it could be harvested when the time was right. That time would not come until Chris Larabee resided at the gates of hell. Then, not only this man, but the other two would also be under the evil that would sustain power over the world.

"Where to?" Wilmington asked.

"This way," Galla answered and proceeded up the stairs once more. At the top he turned away from room 17 and followed a narrow hallway to the very last door. He opened the door to reveal a very large, spacious room with a high backed canopy bed. The windows were covered in heavy brocade drapes that were closed until only a tiny slit of light entered the room, casting everything in lazy shadows. On one side of the window stood a highly polished six drawer dresser with an embellished wishbone mirror. A lamp was quickly lit, but the room still seemed unusually dark, but the two men didn't seem to notice as they gently deposited the tracker on top of the bed.

"Ez..." Wilmington started.

"Buck, I can take care of Vin. You go ahead and check on Chris."

"Lilith is with your friend and will assist you in any way she can. I will stay here and help Mr. Standish care for this man," Galla explained.

"Thank you," Standish said simply

"I will help you care for him. what is it you need," Galla said as the mustached man left the room. He watched as the conman eased the buckskin jacket from the unconscious man. He wanted to go to the other room, to the other man, but knew Lilith would be able to care for the chosen one. He looked at the picture on the wall opposite the bed and smiled as the eyes shifted. Clark was there, watching for their master, knowing these men could be dangerous, if not disastrous to their plans.

"Excuse me, Mr. Shedim, did you hear me?"

"I am sorry, I did not hear what you asked," Galla said impatiently.

"I asked if there was someone who could bring me some water and a washcloth and towels," the gambler told him.

"Of course. I shall see to it immediately."

Standish heard the retreating footsteps and sighed in relief. Something about this place made him nervous, but there were more pressing problems at hand. He needed to forget his own insecurities and look after the injured man. He continued to remove the restrictive clothing, smiling at how many layers the tracker seemed to be wearing.

"You always have had a problem with the cold, haven't you?" he asked softly, before pulling the thick blankets up over the lean body. He sat on the edge of the bed, wondering how long they'd have to stay in this place. Something about the beauty and richness of the place unnerved him, but he couldn't figure out why. He walked over to the window and pulled back the drapes, shocked to see the wall of shifting sand was still there. It rose and fell with the breeze, sometimes standing as high as fifty feet, while dropping occasionally to ten. There was something ominous in the way it stayed in a perfect pattern around the Inn and he wondered if it did encompass the entire area. Somehow, he had little doubt as to the force of the storm and he wondered if there was something unnatural about the way it moved.

Ezra shook off his own fears and turned away from the window. He knew some of his nervousness stemmed from a time in his youth when he was alone in an incredible mansion. The similarities were amazing and brought back some of the nightmares, but he fought to keep them at bay as he moved back to the tracker's bed.

+ + + + + + +

Lilith studied the man lying on the bed, wondering if the dark clothing was a hint that this man really did have a dark soul. She knew he'd been marked by her master...but briefly wondered if this was another mistake. She could not voice this question...not to Columber...for as strong as she was...she was no match for the high lord of the netherworld. She looked up as a dark crow landed on the windowsill and stared at her with crimson eyes. She shivered, but nodded as a soft moan issued from the chosen one.

'Care for him, Lilith, he will bring us a rich harvest. It will be ripe in blood and lead us to our rightful place in this world.'

The voice was in her mind and she sent her answer in the same manner. 'I will care for him, Master. With your strength I will keep him here until the time is right.'

'His friend comes...make sure he does not get suspicious.'

"Excuse, me, Ma'am, how is he?" Wilmington asked as he entered the room.


"Hey, Chris, how are you doing?"

"...s...side h...hurts..."

"Yeah, I know." The ladies man placed a hand on Larabee's shoulder and turned to the crow haired woman standing behind him. "Ma'am, is there a doctor..."

"I'm sorry, but right now you are the only guests in our home. This Inn has been around many years, sometimes the rooms are full, but recently we have fallen on hard times."

"Damn...sorry," Wilmington apologized. "Can you help me get his coat and shirt off?"

"Certainly, What would you like me to do?"

"I'll lift him up and you see if you can ease it off of him." He released the buttons from the confining holes wincing at the blood on the makeshift bandage covering the ground in his friend's side. He knew the next move would cause more pain, but there was no other way. He lifted the trembling body forward, watching as Lilith Shedim eased the clothing from the blond.

Chris groaned softly as his long time friend held him against his chest. The burning pain in his side was almost his undoing, but he clenched his teeth and fisted his hands as he waited for the nausea to pass. His body was soon lying against the soft pillows once more and he opened his eyes when Wilmington touched his bare shoulder.

"Sorry, Pard, gotta see what's going on with your side."

"...okay..." Larabee sucked in a breath of air as the mustached man's fingers touched against the heated flesh surrounding the wound. He couldn't stop the sharp cry as the other man tried to remove the bandage.

"'s stuck..."the ladies' man swore.

"Is there anything I can do?" Lilith asked.

"Can you bring me some water and clothes?" Wilmington asked.

"Maria should already be on the way with them, but I will check to see what is taking so long." Lilith knew Maria Rodriguez would do as she was told. The young Mexican was one of the early victims of the Inn, who was now an integral part of her own personal legion of demons. Her soul was young and easily influenced with the promise of rewards of the flesh. Her brother Raul was also living at the inn, helping ready the tortured souls for the next part of the ritual which would see them residing in darkness forever. Slaves to the new power corrupting the world.

"Thank you," the scoundrel said, wincing as a set of glazed green eyes looked at him.

"We'll soon have ya fixed up, Chris," the rogue told him, wishing, not for the first time that Nathan Jackson was there.

"...okay...w...where's Vin?" Larabee asked, breathing shallowly as he fought to remain conscious.

"He's just down the hall...Ez is with him?"

"...he okay?"

"He's fine, Chris, just plum wore out."

"H...hurt his b...back a...gain," the blond stated.

"Yeah...he did, but don't you go worryin' about that right now. We need to get you fixed up so we can all go home. Now why don't you close your eyes and try to sleep?"

"...okay... " he sighed painfully. "...let me know about...Vin..."

"Sure, Pard." The ladies man said, grateful when the pale lids dropped over the sea green eyes. He touched the blond's forehead, sighing as he felt the slight heat there. A shiver ran down his spine and he looked around the room, wondering why he suddenly felt cold.

+ + + + + + +

The eyes watched from the portrait of a woman with dark hair...this was the chosen one and several minor demons fought to see what made him special. Why their master thought he would be the one to release the darkness over the earth. They did not question his choice, to do so would mean fiery hell beyond anything the mortal world had ever dreamed possible. The eyes in the picture changed from blue to green to brown to red as the demons fought for purchase beyond the room.

+ + + + + + +

Lilith hurried down the stairs, a quickness in her step that hadn't been there in a long time. She felt the others, just at the edge of the threshold, waiting hungrily for their chance at new life. She looked up as Galla came out of the kitchen, Maria and Raul flanking him, each one holding a basin and several clean strips of material.

"Ah, there you are," Lilith said as she reached her husband.

"Is something wrong, Lilith? Has something happened to..."

"No, he is fine, but his friend is asking for the water...Maria you know where he is?"

"Yes," the smaller specter said, her body solidifying and changing as she spoke.

"Raul, you are to go to the other men. Make sure they do not interfere with our plans. They must be unaware of their fate until our time arrives," Galla warned. He stood with Lilith and watched as the twin demons, one male, and one female made their way up the spiral staircase.

"The master has chosen wisely," Galla said.

"How do you know?" Lilith asked, knowing her husband was privileged in the ways of their lord.

"Larabee has many things in his past, things that would've easily turned a normal man from the light. The fact that he was able to fight the dark influence tells of a strong that the master will defeat and make cower before him. He will not be able to resist once his defenses are worn down. The pain in his own body is just a start. He must be tested...and readied for what is to come."

"The true test will come from his friends. If we can defeat them, he will be strong. Stronger than any who have come before him."

"Yes, and that strength will help us harvest this world. Come, the master is calling us."

"What about the chosen one?"

"His friends will care for him. We must see what he wants."


"Do you dare to question him, Lilith?"

"N...No. I would not do that."

"Then lets go and prepare things for his arrival." They walked towards a solid wall, where a shimmering gold wall sconce did little to hold back the darkness. Galla's eyes glowed with demonic evil, crimson flecks darting through the dark irises. The wall shimmered and seemed to melt in on itself revealing a steep set of stairs that seemed to go on forever. The two demons stood side by side and began to descend towards the fiery blaze below.

+ + + + + + +

Vin became aware of a hand touching against his forehead and slowly turned towards the source of the contact. Blue eyes met green and he frowned as he looked at the conman.

"E...Ez..." he whispered softly, his throat dry.

"Vin, I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you awake," the gambler said, reaching for a cloth from the basin supplied by the owner of the Inn. He placed it across the pale forehead and smiled as the blue eyes began to clear.

"Where are we?"

"A haven in the Inn of sorts."


"I cannot explain it, My friend. All I know is it appeared in front of us as the unholy sand storm intensified," the conman used the big words he sometimes hid behind to cover his own nervous tension.


"That's correct," the conman said, watching as the younger man fought to bring his memories to the front of his mind. He saw the eyes grow cold with worry and fear and sought to allay them.

"It's okay, Vin..."

"What the hell...Chris...Ez. Chris was hurt!" He tried to sit up, but a pair of strong hands forced him back no the bed.

"Yes, he is, Vin. Buck is in with him."


"A room just down the hall."

"I need to see him," the tracker said, forcing his upper body to move.

" can't!"

"Like hell I can't..."

"Your back..."

"What about it?" Tanner asked, frowning at the worry on the other man's face.

"You hurt it."

"Feels fine now," the tracker assured him, frowning as he realized how true those words were.

"Are you certain?" the gambler asked as he moved to help Tanner sit on the edge of the bed.

"Ain't lyin', Ez. Back feels better'n ever. Where's Chris' room?"

"Since you do seem incredibly recovered, I shall bring you to him," Standish said. He stood beside the tracker, amazed at how lithely he stood up and moved away from the bed.

+ + + + + + +

Buck looked up at the sound of movement just outside the door. He breathed a sigh of relief at the two men who entered the room, but frowned as he realized Tanner should not be up.

"What the hell are you doing, Vin? You shouldn't be here...Ez, I thought you were watching him!"

"I assure you I was, but our scruffy tracker seems to have made a complete recovery. Perhaps there is something sacred in these walls," Standish said, moving to the opposite side of the door as a young woman entered the room.

"I am Maria, the senora said you are in need of water and bandages ?" she inquired.

"Thank you, Maria. Put them on the table," Wilmington ordered.

Vin stood beside the bed staring down at Chris. Somehow the pale, drawn features gave the usual imposing figure a fragile cast. The shirt had been removed, and he could see the nasty wound in his side. He remembered the cry of pain from Larabee when he splinter entered his body and shivered sympathetically as he knelt beside the bed.

"Ya git it out?"

"No, damn thing is embedded in there. Was just about to see if I could get to it," the rogue answered.

"...Vin..." Larabee whispered, forcing heavy eyelids to open.

"Right here, Chris."

"You okay?" the blond asked, his gaze wondering over his friend's body.

"Leastwise I'm sittin' up," he teased, his eyes crinkled in warmth.

"Your back?"

"Ain't hurtin'." The sharpshooter held the blond's gaze for a few seconds longer, knowing the older man would see the truth in his eyes.

"...good..." Larabee said weakly.

"Chris, I'm gonna take a look at ya. Think ya can stand me touchin' yer side?"

"Think so...get it out...okay?" He knew his voice sounded pleading, yet the constant burning pain in his body sapped his strength.

"Gonna try." Vin turned to see the young Mexican woman standing in the doorway. "Ya got anythin' I can give him ta help with the pain?"

"I will check with the Senora," Maria told him and hurried out of the room.

+ + + + + + +

Anahita remembered her time with Chris Larabee, and how the short form of her name had sounded on his lips. 'Ana' he'd whispered that fateful night and she so longed to hear it again. She knew now there was nothing she could do to help this man who'd come to mean so much to her. She remembered the dance in the big hall on the night of her own agonizing death, the feel of her body being ripped in two by the demon who haunted this Inn. The man escaped that night, but would faith and light be enough to help him this time? Would his friends be the added strength needed to defeat the evil within these walls for good? Tears shimmered in her eyes, slipping from the corners to slide down her angelic face. This man...such a tortured soul, yet one that was still filled with an eternal light held the power of dark and light inside him. The time would come when he had to choose which path he would travel. She knew there were three other men in the circle of seven, and it would be up to her to guide them to the Inn. She knew she would not be around to see how this all ended, for her strength was waning and her power almost nil. This final leg of her journey would come to an end once the seven were whole again. She turned from the room, a shadowy wisp of light in the evil permeating throughout the circle of corruption.